Finding the context
In a paper delivered to the British Psychoanalytical society in 1963,' Bion discussed what he called “psychoanalytic statements”, defined quite broadly as “anything from an inarticulate grunt to quite elaborate constructions” that somehow communicate an emotional experience. The analyst’s first and most important task is to observe these emotional experiences in as much specific detail as he can:
The more nearly he is able to approximate to this ideal, the nearer he is to the first essential in psycho-analysis ... namely, correct observation. The complement of the first essential is the last essential—correct interpretation. By “first” essential I mean not only priority in time but priority in importance, because if an analyst can observe correctly there is always hope; it is of course a big “if’. Without the last essential he is not an analyst, but if he has the first essential he may become one in time; without it he can never become one, and no amount of theoretical knowledge will save him.
(Bion, 1997, p. 14)
Having placed observation of the patient’s emotional experiences at the centre of psychoanalytic technique, Bion orients the second part of the analyst’s work, determining the meaning of these experiences, around this kind of observation. The major pitfalls in this second part of the work are the analyst’s prejudices and pre-conceptions. These troublesome prejudices and pre-conceptions arise from the analyst’s hatred of the insecurity and uncertainty attendant on making an observation (that is, emotional contact with something) that is really new and unfamiliar, which drives him to reduce the new observation to something already known, understood and preconceived:
This brings me to reconsideration of the nature of interpretation ... if observation is sound, the conclusion that certain observed phenomena appear to approximate to a psycho-analytical theory will also be sound. But the soundness of the [observation] is impaired if the theory, which is always a pre-conception ... colours the selection of the facts to be observed ... For if the preconception is psycho-analytical, there is clearly a risk that the observations made under such a pre-conception appear to approximate to a psychoanalytical theory because they in fact derive from it. Such a condition amounts to circular argument.
(Bion, 1997, p. 14-15)
He is here reminding us once again that the analyst must not have psychoanalytic theories in mind when he observes the patient, because of the risk that such theories will foreclose observation and lead the analyst to “see” only what he brought to the session.