It is quite characteristic of Bion to introduce a discussion of some difficulty facing a practising psychoanalyst by bringing in material from a psychotic patient. It is as though he is saying, “the problems we face when we try to do psychoanalysis are not very different from those of someone who is simply trying to become sane. It is our own tendency toward insanity that presents us with the greatest difficulties in our work.”

So he introduces this illustration not simply to give an interesting example of a thought disorder, but also to suggest that when the psychoanalyst is doing psychoanalysis properly, he is doing the same as the patient in his example: he is exploring the meaning (if any) of his own psychoanalytic theories by juxtaposing with them his observations of the patient, which expands the diameter of their admittedly circular argument. An interpretation based only on his theories does not expand them, and does not help the patient. But to the degree that he allows his theories to be brought together with observations that differ from them, the analyst experiences a sense of insecurity (some anxiety in the direction of “going mad”). To come up with a way of looking that does not rest entirely on preconceptions constituted by his theories, the psychoanalyst needs to dislodge himself from his psychoanalytic theories. To the degree that he is successful, he will be able to observe with fresh eyes. This dislodging, however, invites a theoretical vacuum and its accompanying horror vacui. The degree to which the analyst may dislodge himself from his preconceptions is limited by this horror, and so therefore is the diameter of the circle he is able to inhabit.

An interpretation contributes to psychoanalytic growth to the degree that it allows one to set one’s preconception into context and to learn what was implicit but unrecognized in the terms (i.e. unconscious premises) one began with.

Bion’s ideas suggest that an interpretation does no more than illuminate the meaning of our premises; that the patient’s theory, the analyst’s theories and perhaps all theories, are circular; and that it is the analyst’s job to determine what circles they travel in.

We determine the meaning of emotional experiences not by identifying how they fit into our pre-existing theories of the mind, but by locating the context into to which these experiences do fit, regardless of our pre-existing theories: the network of their emotional connections in one’s mind. And we illuminate the structure of this network by imagining how the same thing would look from a different view, then juxtaposing the two. This approach constitutes finding the context within which a given point of view is valid.

A working hypothesis

To put it more specifically, psychoanalysis is not interested in the empirical validity of the patient’s beliefs—their relationship to external reality—but is instead interested their meaning—their relationship to internal reality. The unconscious premises that make the patient’s beliefs make sense are an important part of this internal reality.

It is useful as a working hypothesis to assume that whatever the patient says must make sense, no matter how bizarre it may seem on first acquaintance, and that if it does not appear to do so, it is due to the analyst’s failure to understand the context from which the patient is speaking. This “finding the context” is a function of Bion’s K, curiosity about the world, and leads to a way of scrutinizing the mind that is the opposite of the “sitting in judgement”. It constitutes integrating the patient’s ideas into the context of human activity by finding the reason for them, the opposite of condemning them as beyond the pale (“pathological”).

Bion was able to accomplish this by sympathetically entering far enough into the patient’s world to grasp where he was coming from—what convictions or beliefs underlying the patient’s experience must be in force—in other words, by winkling out the context in which the patient’s communications and behaviour make sense. Identifying this context makes it possible to put it into words, and to speak of it from the inside and the outside at the same time, as it were. This gives the patient the opportunity to see the same thing simultaneously from the inside (via his own experience) and from the outside, and to develop from the tension between the two. Bion calls this juxtaposition of two different things giving rise to potential new developments an “intercourse” between two points of view. We must take this word seriously, lest we fall into the error of regarding this juxtaposition as a mere metaphysical or logical exercise (like a Hegelian dialectic). While the manifestation of this event may be simply logical or cognitive in the more superficial layers of the mind, in the deeper layer of unconscious psychic reality, it is quite concretely parental intercourse, and the ability to develop psychologically from the experience depends on accepting the reality of these internal parents having intercourse and producing new babies.


  • 1 “The Grid”, published posthumously in Taming Wild Thoughts (1997). This is not to be confused with Bion's later paper, also entitled “The Grid”, published in 1977.
  • 2 The patient seems to have believed unconsciously that he was insubstantial—pure spirit. The unconscious fantasy underlying this theory was something along the lines of having created himself out of his own anus as a non-corporeal being; he had idealized his farts and identified himself with them. This may strike some readers as odd, but we have to remember that this is an unconscious fantasy and that the unconscious is another world; they do things differently there.
  • 3 This is an example of what Bion called “binocular vision”.


W. R. Bion. Taming Wild Thoughts. Karnac, London, 1997.

Willard van Orman Quine. Two dogmas of empiricism. In From a Logical Point of View, 20-46. Harper and Row, New York, 1961.

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