Concept representation in the Child: What did Little Hans mean by "Widdler"?

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In support of his Oedipal theory of Little Hans's horse phobia, Freud argues that Hans's assertion that his younger sister Hanna has a penis is a defense against castration anxiety, revealing a key Oedipal component. Freud's argument presupposes that by Hans's term "widdler" (Wiwimacher in German), Hans means "penis," a structural/functional concept. Challenging Freud's interpretation on Wittgensteinian grounds, Jonathan Lear argues that Hans lacks rationally structured concepts and instead applies category terms associatively according to perceived family resemblance similarities. Recent discoveries in child cognitive-developmental psychology, especially regarding young children's essentialist and teleological conceptual understanding, suggest that Hans was conceptually more sophisticated than either Freud or Lear allow. Both developmental research and a close examination of the case evidence suggest that Hans used "widdler" to express a functional/essentialist concept referring not to penises but to "organs for urinating," irrespective of perceived structural form. Knowing that Hanna urinates, Hans's attribution of a widdler to Hanna is logical and does not require hypothesizing castration anxiety. In his reaction to his sister's genitals, rather than a "little Oedipus" or little Wittgensteinian, Hans is best understood as a little essentialist theoretician. Freud's misinterpretation of Hans's assertions about Hanna's widdler holds lessons for all analysts about the need to take into account the full complexity of child and adult conceptualization before attributing dynamic or fantasy derivatives in interpretations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)352-360
Number of pages9
JournalPsychoanalytic Psychology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2017


  • Castration anxiety
  • Cognitive development
  • Concepts
  • History of psychoanalysis
  • Little Hans
  • Oedipus complex
  • Psychological essentialism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology


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