In the strict sense, the term "preconception" in the work of Wilfred R. Bion refers to a necessary antecedent to all forms of thought (be it a conception, concept, or deductive system). When a preconception is "realized," that is, comes into contact with sensory data close to it, it becomes a conception and a concept. Bion later greatly expanded and generalized this notion.
In Bion's theory, preconception functions like the categories in Emmanuel Kant's epistemological theory, that is, as an innate predisposition to receive certain information, as the form of thought. The term designates a state of expectancy.
This formulation theoretically grounds the innate character of preconception. The example of preconception that Bion repeatedly gives, the nursling's expectation of the breast that provides nourishment, suggests Freud's notion of primal fantasies. From this perspective, the infant need not receive, for example, a threat of castration to be subject to the castration complex, because the infant can have primal fantasies of sexual mutilation.
Later, in his Elements of Psycho-Analysis (1963), Bion readjusted the term and eliminated references to the innate and phylogenetic aspects of preconception. With regard to his grid, Bion explained that each element along the vertical axis functions as a preconception relative to the terms that follow on the same line, with the exception of the saturated beta elements. In addition, the grid as a whole functions as a preconception. The analyst's free-floating attention is also like preconception, in that it involves a state of expectation induced in the analyst by the analyst's personality and training.
With the aim of producing a more abstract and expanded formulation, Bion proposed representing preconception by means of a function (preconception) and an unknown variable (realization). Once a realization becomes known (agitation, curiosity, castration, etc.), it becomes a constant.
Bion developed the term "preconception" by generalizing and concretizing it, yet such development does not fully comport with the genetic importance that Bion attributed to it in the formation of thoughts or with its epistemological role in resolving certain conundrums of psychoanalysis (empiricism versus innatism).
See also: Concept; Container-contained; Grid; Memoirs of the future; Realization; Reverie.
Bion, Wilfred R. (1962a). Learning from experience. London: Heinemann.
——. (1962b). A theory of thinking. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 43, 306-310.
——. (1963). Elements of psycho-analysis. London: Heinemann.