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(p. 33) The Use of an Object in the Context of Moses and Monotheism 

(p. 33) The Use of an Object in the Context of Moses and Monotheism
(p. 33) The Use of an Object in the Context of Moses and Monotheism

Donald W. Winnicott

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Subscriber: null; date: 16 October 2018

Originally published in C. Winnicott, R. Shepherd, & M. Davis (Eds.), Psycho-analytic explorations (pp. 240–246, in the chapter ‘On “The use of an object” ’). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.
This paper, dated 16 January 1969, is published virtually unedited. Winnicott links his concept of the use of an object to Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, bringing the father into the foreground of the infant’s life in a way that is rarely found elsewhere in his theoretical work. See also ‘The Use of an Object and Relating Through Identifications’ [CW 8:2:28] and the two clinical illustrations of that paper [CW 8:2:29 and CW 8:2:30], ‘The Use of the Word “Use” [CW 8:2:5], and ‘Comments on My Paper “The Use of an Object” ’ [CW 8:2:38]. Earlier references to the use of an object can be found in ‘Notes Made in the Train’ [CW 7:2:6] and ‘D. W. W.’s Dream Related to Reviewing Jung’ [CW 6:4:15].

In Analysis Terminable and Interminable, a late masterpiece of clear and undogmatic statement, Freud seems to me to be struggling to use what he knows to be true, because of his analytic experiences, to cover what he does not know. I almost wrote, what he does not yet know, since it is so difficult for us to believe that he has left us to carry on with the researches that his invention of psycho-analysis makes possible, and yet he cannot participate when we make a step forward.

The first part of Moses and Monotheism is a beautiful example of an idea put forward with strength, clarity and conviction, yet without propaganda and indeed with humility. In the last part, Freud can be seen to be reaffirming the belief in repression and (as it would seem to me) overreaching himself in his formulation of monotheism as important because of the universal truth of the loved father and the repression of this in its original and stark (id) form. But the reader knows that the argument does not bear close examination. It is not that Freud is wrong about the father and the libidinal tie that becomes (p. 34) repressed. But it has to be noted that a proportion of persons in the world do not reach to the Oedipus complex. They never get so far in their emotional development, and therefore for them repression of the libidinised father figure has but little relevance. If one looks at religious people it is certainly not true to say that monotheistic tenets only belong to those who reached the Oedipus complex. A great deal of religion is tied up with near-psychosis and with the personal problems that stem from the big area of baby life that is important before the attainment of a three-body relationship as between whole persons.1

Freud was labouring under a disadvantage. He could only use psycho-analysis as far as it had gone at the time when he was writing. No-one would blame him for this especially as Freud was always prepared to let a poet or a philosopher or his own intuition open up the way for phenomena that had not been covered by the metapsychology of the time.

Freud came to an expression of his own dissatisfactions near the end of ‘Analysis Terminable and Interminable’ while expressing satisfaction in a generous way with the writings of Empedocles. This remarkable man (born ca. 495 B.C.) of a remarkable period in the birth and growth of science in Greece formulated a ‘love-strife’ state both for man and for the universe, and this is as near as may be to Freud’s life-death instinct formulation. Freud is pleased.

It is my purpose to put forward the idea that Empedocles the Greek may have got just one step ahead of Freud, at least in one important respect. (To warn the reader I should say that I have never been in love with the death instinct and it would give me happiness if I could relieve Freud of the burden of carrying it forever on his Atlas shoulders. To start with, the development of the theory from a statement of the fact that organic matter tends to return to the inorganic carries very small weight in terms of logic. There is no clear relationship between the two sets of ideas. Also, biology has never been happy about this part of metapsychology while on the whole there is room for mutuality between biology and psycho-analysis all along the line, up to the point of the death instinct.)

It is always possible that the death instinct formulation was one of the places where Freud was near to a comprehensive statement but could not make it because, while he knew all we know about human psychology back to repression of the id in relation to cathected objects, he did not know what borderline cases and schizophrenics were going to teach us in the three decades after his death. Psycho-analysis was to learn that a great deal happens in babies associated with need, and apart from wish, and apart from (pregenital) id-representatives clamouring for satisfaction.

In other words, Freud did not know in the framework of his own well-disciplined mental functioning that we now have to deal with such a problem as this: what is there in the actual presence of the father, and the part he plays in the experience of the relationship between him and the child and between (p. 35) the child and him? What does this do for the baby? For there is a difference according to whether the father is there or not, is able to make a relationship or not, is sane or insane, is free or rigid in personality.

If the father dies this is significant, and when exactly in the baby’s life he dies, and there is a great deal too to be taken into account that has to do with the imago of the father in the mother’s inner reality and its fate there. We now find all these matters coming along for revival and correction in the transference relationship, matters which are not so much for interpretation as for experiencing.

Now, one thing in all this has very special relevance. This has to do with the immature ego—rendered strong by the mother’s adapting well enough to the baby’s needs. (This is not to be lost in the concept of her satisfaction of the baby’s instinctual drives.)

As the baby moves from ego strengthening due to its being reinforced by mother’s ego to having an identity of his or her own—that is, as the inherited tendency to integration carries the baby forward in the good-enough or average expectable environment—the third person plays or seems to me to play a big part. The father may or may not have been a mother-substitute, but at some time he begins to be felt to be there in a different role, and it is here I suggest that the baby is likely to make use of the father as a blue-print for his or her own integration when just becoming at times a unit. If the father is not there the baby must make the same development but more arduously, or using some other fairly stable relationship to a whole person.

In this way one can see that the father can be the first glimpse for the child of integration and of personal wholeness. It is easy to go from this interplay between introjection and projection to the important concept in the world’s history of a one god, a monotheism, not a one god for me and another one god for you.2

It is easy to make the assumption that because the mother starts as a part object or as a conglomeration of part objects the father comes into ego-grasp in the same way. But I suggest that in a favourable case the father starts off whole (i.e. as father, not as mother surrogate) and later becomes endowed with a significant part object, that he starts off as an integrate in the ego’s organisation and in the mental conceptualisation of the baby.

Could it not be said that ‘poetically’ Freud was ready for this idea, not that monotheism had its root in the repressed idea of the father but that the two ideas of having a father and of monotheism represented the world’s first attempts to recognise the individuality of man, of woman, of every individual? (Remember, the Greeks had slaves, which diminishes our regard for the amazing insights of their great thinkers, especially of the centuries around the birth date of Empedocles. Science had to wait some centuries before restarting on the basis of the universal right to be a free or an integrated autonomous individual.)3

(p. 36) I can support my thesis by quoting from Freud who wrote that, according to Empedocles, the love power ‘strives to agglomerate the primal particles of the elements’ (of universe and man), ‘of the four elements into a single unity’; while the strife power ‘seeks to undo, etc. etc.’ Here then is the idea of the ego activity agglomerating, which is not object-relating. Presently I shall try to carry my argument further by a contribution that I feel needs to be made in regard to this dualism, philia (love) and neikos (strife).4 I believe a step further could now be made.

Before I describe this new detail I wish to refer to a footnote of Freud’s. I am somewhat addicted to his footnotes and quotations which he perhaps allows to go further than he can go in terms of theory as it obtains at the time of his writing.

I refer to: ‘Breasted (1906) calls him (Amenophis) ‘the first individual in human history’.’5 Here, for me, is Freud stating the thesis that I am striving to present in my own laboured way. Freud was not, one feels, able to bring this up into the text because he could not deal with it in terms of repression and the mechanisms of defence and of the interplay of id, ego and superego. I feel Freud would welcome new work that makes sense of Breasted’s comment in terms of a universal in the emotional development of the individual, namely, the integrative tendency that can bring the individual to unit status.

I am now free to make the contribution that I feel does possibly go in advance of Freud’s position. This that I wish to put forward is a culmination of a trend in my thinking, and I can now see evidence of this trend in my papers of a decade ago. (See, for instance, ‘Roots of Aggression’ [CW 7:1:18] in The Child, the Family and the Outside World. This is the only new chapter in the book. It is also implied in the cumbersome title of my book The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment.)

I have recently tried to give my ideas life in a paper read to the New York Psychoanalytic Society (12 November 1968), but from the papers of the discussants (Jacobsen, Ritvo and Fine) I learned that I had by no means made myself clear, so that the idea as presented there and then was unacceptable at the time. I have revised this paper.6 I gave the paper the name ‘The Use of an Object’ [CW 8:2:28], and I wanted to state that in the emotional development of any baby there is a time of dependence when the behaviour of the environment is part and parcel of the child’s development, and that this cannot be omitted. That is to say, there is no statement of the development of a baby, dependent on ego support from a mother figure or parent figure, that leaves out of account the environmental factors. This is simply saying that it is true that at the beginning the baby has not himself or herself achieved a perception, recognition and repudiation of the not-me. This is something I must believe because of my clinical work.

To illustrate my meaning I looked at the early stage of drives in the individual baby. I drew a sharp distinction between the fate (in terms of personality (p. 37) pattern) of a baby whose first strivings were accepted and of a baby whose first strivings were reacted to. This is a statement reminiscent of Klein’s paranoid position, but with this difference, that it is given in terms of environment running pari passu with individual life pulses. Retaliation takes the place of talion fears.

It is necessary here to rethink something that we have come to accept (to accept because in analysis of ‘analysable’ cases it is so true), namely that one of the integrating phenomena in development is the fusion of what I will here allow myself to call life and death instincts (love and strife: Empedocles). The crux of my argument is that the first drive is itself one thing, something that I call ‘destruction’, but I could have called it a combined love-strife drive. This unity is primary. This is what turns up in the baby by natural maturational process.

The fate of this unity of drive cannot be stated without reference to the environment. The drive is potentially ‘destructive’ but whether it is destructive or not depends on what the object is like; does the object survive, that is, does it retain its character, or does it react? If the former, then there is no destruction, or not much, and there is a next moment when the baby can become and does gradually become aware of a cathected object plus the fantasy of having destroyed, hurt, damaged, or provoked the object. The baby in this extreme of environmental provision goes on in a pattern of developing personal aggressiveness that provides the backcloth of a continuous (unconscious) fantasy of destruction. Here we may use Klein’s reparation concept, which links constructive play and work with this (unconscious) fantasy backcloth of destruction or provocation (perhaps the right word has not been found). But destruction of an object that survives, has not reacted or disappeared, leads on to use.

The baby at the other extreme that meets a pattern of environmental reaction or retaliation goes forward in quite a different way. This baby finds the reaction from the environment to be the reality of what should be his or her own provocative (or aggressive or destructive) impulse. This kind of baby can never experience or own or be moved by this personal root for aggression or destructive fantasy, and can therefore never convert it into the unconscious fantasy destruction of the libidinised object.

It will be seen that I am trying to rewrite one limited part of our theory. This

  • provocative

  • destructive

  • aggressive

  • envious (Klein)

urge is not a pleasure-pain principle phenomenon. It has nothing to do with anger at the inevitable frustrations associated with the reality principle. It (p. 38) precedes this set of phenomena that are true of neurotics but that are not true of psychotics.7

To make progress towards a workable theory of psychosis, analysts must abandon the whole idea of schizophrenia and paranoia as seen in terms of regression from the Oedipus Complex. The aetiology of these disorders takes us inevitably to stages that precede the three-body relationship. The strange corollary is that there is at the root of psychosis an external factor. 8 It is difficult for psycho-analysts to admit this after all the work they have done drawing attention to the internal factors in examining the aetiology of psycho-neurosis.


1. Melanie Klein tried to get round this difficulty by using the whole Oedipus complex terminology in description of internal struggles for power, as between elements that have not acquired human form. This helped but did not come as we must do when considering these matters to a statement that Freud was labouring under a disadvantage.

2. See Moses and Monotheism, Standard Edition, vol. 22, p. 128.

3. Farrington, Greek Science. [Editorial Note: Winnicott had been reading this in Lenox Hill Hospital, New York. See Letter to Joyce Coles, 1 December 1968; CW 8:2:36].

4. See ‘Analysis Terminable and Interminable’, Standard Edition, vol. 23, p. 246.

5. Moses and Monotheism, p. 21.

6. See ‘The Use of an Object’ [CW 8:2:28].

7. Here I can turn to Bettelheim for support. I find him difficult to read simply because he says everything and there is nothing to be said that one could be certain has not been said by him. But one must read him because he can be exactly right, or more nearly right than other writers. This applies especially to his opening chapters in The Empty Fortress (New York: Free Press, 1967; London: Collier-Macmillan Ltd., 1967).

8. See Winnicott, ‘Psychoses and Child Care’ [CW 4:1:5].