Psychology 214a: Adolescence
Doug Davis
Harry Stack Sullivan


Modes of experience


"All experience occurs in one or more of three 'modes'-the prototaxic, parataxic, and syntaxic. As the Greek roots of this horrendous term indicate, the prototaxic mode refers to the first kind of experience the infant has and the order or arrangement in which it occurs. . . . According to Sullivan's hypothesis all that the infant "knows" are momentary states, the distinction of before and after being a later acquirement. The infant vaguely feels or 'prehends' earlier and later states without realizing any serial connection between them. . . .He has no awareness of himself as an entity separate from the rest of the world. In other words, his felt experience is all of a piece, undifferentiated, without definite limits. It is as if his experiences were 'cosmic'. . . .


"As the infant develops and maturation proceeds, the original undifferentiated wholeness of experience is broken. However, the 'parts,' the diverse aspects, the various kinds of experience are not related or connected in a logical fashion. They 'just happen' together, or they do not, depending on circumstances. In other words, various experiences are felt as concomitant, not recognized as connected in an orderly way. The child cannot yet relate them to one another or make logical distinctions among them. What is experienced is assumed to be the 'natural' way of such occurrences, without reflection and comparison. Since no connections or relations are established, there is no logical movement of 'thought' from one idea to the next. The parataxic mode is not a step by step process. Experience is undergone as momentary, unconnected states of being.


". . . The child gradually learns the 'consensually validated' meaning of language - in the widest sense of language. These meanings have been acquired from group activities, interpersonal activities, social experience. Consensually validated symbol activity involves an appeal to principles which are accepted as true by the hearer. And when this happens, the youngster has acquired or learned the syntaxic mode of experience." (Mullahy, 1948, pp. 286-291)

Heuristic Stages in Development


extends from a few minutes after birth to the appearance of articulate speech, however uncommunicative or meaningless.


extends from the ability to utter articulate sounds of or pertaining to speech, to the appearance of the need for playmates -- that is, companions. cooperative beings of approximately one's own status in all sorts of respects. This ushers in the

Juvenile Era

which extends through most of the grammar-school years to the eruption, due to maturation, of a need for an intimate relation with another person of comparable status. This, in turn, ushers in the era that we call


an exceedingly important but chronologically rather brief period that ordinarily ends with the eruption of genital sexuality and puberty, but psychologically or psychiatrically ends with the movement of strong interest from a person of one's own sex to a person of the other sex. These phenomena mark the beginning of


which in this culture (it varies, however, from culture to culture) continues until one has patterned some type of performance which satisfies one's lust, one's genital drives. Such patterning ushers in

Late Adolescence

which in turn continues as an era of personality until any partially developed aspects of personality fall into their proper relationship to their time partition; and one is able, at


to establish relationships of love for some other person, in which relationship the other person is as significant, or nearly as significant, as one's self. This really highly developed intimacy with another person is not the principal business of life, but is, perhaps, the principal source of satisfaction in life; and one goes on developing in depth of interest or in scope of interest, or in both depth and scope, from that time until unhappy retrogressive changes in the organism lead to old age (Sullivan, 1953, pp. 34).

Beginnings of the Self-System

Successful training of the functional activity of the anal zone of interaction accentuates a new aspect of tenderness -- namely, the additive role of tenderness as a sequel to what the mothering one regards as good behavior. Now this is, in effect -- however it may be prehended by the infant -- a reward, which, once the approved social ritual connected with defecating has worked out well, is added to the satisfaction of the anal zone. Here is tenderness taking on the attribute of a reward for having learned something, or for behaving right.

Thus the mother, or the parent responsible for acculturation or socialization, now adds tenderness to her increasingly neutral behavior in a way that can be called rewarding. I think that very, very often the parent does this with no thought of rewarding the infant. Very often the rewarding tenderness merely arises from the pleasure of the mothering one in the skill which the infant has learned ... (Sullivan, 1953, p. 158).

Heterosexual Intimacy and Lust

Sullivan notes a problem of timing:

[W]omen undergo the puberty change somewhat in advance of men [and this] leads to a sort of stutter in developmental progress between the boys and the girls in an age community [like the school] so that by the time most of the boys have gotten really around to an interest in girls, most of the girls are already fairly wound up in their problems about boys. (Sullivan, 1953, p. 166)

In Chapter 17 (Early Adolescence) Sullivan begins a several-page discussion of "collisions between the intimacy need and lust."

A much more common evidence of the collision of these two powerful motivational systems is seen among adolescents in this culture as the segregation of object persons, which is in itself an extremely unfortunate way of growing up. By this I refer to the creating of distinctions between people toward whom lustful motivations can apply, and people who will be sought for the relief of loneliness -- that is, for collaborative intimacy, for friendship. The classical instance is the old one of the prostitute and the good girl. ... Nowadays, the far more prevalent distinction is between sexy girls and good girls, rather than this gross division into bad women and good women. But no matter how it comes about that the other sex is cut up into two groups -- one of which can satisfy a person's loneliness and spare him anxiety, while the other satisfies his lust -- the trouble with this is that lust is a part of personality, and no one can get very far at completing his personality in this way. Thus satisfying one's lust must be at considerable cost to one's self-esteem, since the bad girls are unworthy and not really people in the way that good girls are. So wherever you find a person who makes this sharp separation of members of the other sex into those who are, you might say, lustful and those who are nonlustful, you may assume that this person has quite a cleavage with respect to his genital behavior, so that he is not really capable of integrating it into his life, simply and with self-respect.

These sundry collisions that come along at this stage may be the principle motive for preadolescents or very early adolescents getting into "homosexual" play, with some remarkable variations. But a much more common outcome of these various collisions -- these difficulties in developing activity to suit one's needs -- is the breaking out of a great deal of autosexual behavior, in which one satisfies one's own lust as best one can; this behavior appears because of the various inhibitions which have been inculcated on the subject of freedom regarding the genitals. Now this activity, commonly called masturbation, has in general been rather severely condemned in every culture that generally imposes marked restrictions on freedom of sexual development. That's very neat, you see; it means that adolescence is going to be hell whatever you do, unless you have wonderful preparation for being different from everyone else -- in which case you may get into trouble for being different. (Sullivan, 1953, pp. 269-270)

Sullivan's Biography

Sullivan's longtime student and colleague, Helen Swick Perry, devoted many years to bringing his recorded and transcribed lectures to print as books. Her marvelous biography of Sullivan provides essential background for core aspects of his theorizing, as in the case of his mother's hospitalization for depression (Chapter 5: "The Disappearance of Harry's Mother") when he was small.

One can imagine the family explanation given to Harry when he was older: Your mother was very ill when you were two and a half, she wasn't well at all, so you went to live with your grandmother, and she took care of you. She used to put a spider at the top of the stairway going down to the cellar, and you were so deathly afraid of spiders you wouldn't go near the steps (Perry, 1982, p. 38).

Sullivan's own mysterious "schizophrenic" episode during college is recounted in Chapter 19, "The Disappearance of Harry," and Perry links this late adolescent exprience with Sullivan's remarkable gift for understanding schizophrenic psychosis in later life.


Mullahy, P. (1948). Oedipus, myth and complex. New York: Hermitage Press, Inc. , 1948; pp. 286-291.

Perry, Helen Swick. (1982). Psychiatrist of America: The life of Harry Stack Sullivan. Harvard: Belknap.

Sullivan, H.S. (1953). The interpersonal theory of psychiatry. New York: Norton.