Bion, Wilfred Ruprecht (1897-1979)

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Wilfred Ruprecht Bion was born at Mattra (United Provinces, India) on September 8, 1897, and died in Oxford (Great Britain) on November 8, 1979.

The first eight years of Bion's life were spent in India, where his father was a civil engineer. In 1905 Bion was sent to school in England, where he remained for ten years before taking up military service. While he read history at Queen's College, Oxford, (1919-1921) he became curious about Freud's writings and later furthered his interest in psychology by reading medicine at University College Hospital, London (1924-1930), where he won the Gold Medal for Surgery and the Silver Medal for Diagnostics. He entered analysis with John Rickman in 1938, being forced to terminate by the outbreak of World War II. During the war, as a military psychiatrist, he initiated a new approach to group therapy. He entered analysis with Melanie Klein in 1945, and qualified as an associate member of the British Psychoanalytical Society in 1950.

Bion came from a Protestant missionary family, Swiss Calvinist of Huguenot origin on his father's side and Anglo-Indian on his mother's. This religious background, combined with the fact that the family was isolated from other Europeans for extended periods, meant that the small boy was in close contact with two very different cultures. Experiences of contrast and opposition, but also of mediation and love between two worlds formed a background to, and a basis for, Bion's later theories regarding what it may mean for an individual to be both a member of his group and in contrast or opposition to it at the same time.

This experience was reinforced by the carnage of World War I: he joined the Royal Tank Regiment (1916-1918) where he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the Legion d'Honneur (chevalier) and was mentioned in dispatches. Although distant from psychoanalysis, these experiences nurtured his understanding of terror, awe, dependence, love, hatred, and hatred of understanding and knowledge; this latter helped in his deep contact with psychotic patients.

He held several appointments in public positions: Secretary (1933-1939) and then Chairman (1946) of the Medical Section of the British Psychological Society (BPS); Chairman of the Executive Committee, Tavistock Clinic, London (1945); Director of the London Clinic of Psychoanalysis (1956-1962) and President of the British Psychoanalytical Society (1962-1965). He continued as an active member of the Executive of the BPS, and as Chairman of The Melanie Klein Trust, until he left for California in January 1968. He taught a great deal in Latin America during the last decade of his life before his return to England in 1979 a few months before his death. In 1978 he became an honorary member of the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Society and in 1979 an Honorary Fellow of the A. K. Rice Institute.

Bion's main contributions to psychoanalysis belong to the fields of psychoanalytical technique and epistemology, with particular reference to the process of thinking. He approached this latter subject from different viewpoints (vertices): that of the group; of the psychotic, schizophrenic or borderline patient; and that of the individual thinker, "genius" or not, who has to deal with the pressure of attacks, from within and without, due to hostility towards both the thinking process and the resulting thoughts. The principal concepts he developed are those of "reverie based on free-floating attention", "alpha-function," which Bion himself felt could replace the Freudian theory of primary and secondary processes, alpha- and beta-elements, container and contained, and "reversed perspective." His writing is commonly considered challenging, particularly the trilogy A Memoir of the Future (1975, 1977, 1979/1991). His other most important publications are Experiences in Groups (1961), Four Servants (1977) and Attention and Interpretation (1970).

Bion's influence in the field of group psychotherapy and the development of more or less closely related group techniques was both very rapid and widespread. In the field of psychoanalysis, despite the fact that his thinking is firmly rooted in that of Freud and Klein, his innovative ideas and theories engendered a great deal of controversy, and were hardly accepted until the 1970s.

Parthenope Bion Talamo

Work discussed: Learning from Experience.

Notions developed: Alpha function; Arrogance; Attention; Basic assumption; Beta-elements; Beta-screen; Bizarre object; Catastrophic change; Concept; Contact-barrier; Container-Contained; Dream-like memory; Grid; Group phenomenon; Hallucinosis; Invariant; Linking, attacks on; Love-Hate-Knowledge (L/H/K links); Maternal reverie, capacity for; Memoirs of the future; Negative capacity; Preconception; Protothoughts; Psychotic panic; Psychotic part of the personality; Realization; Relations (commensalism, symbiosis, parasitism); Selected fact; Thought-thinking apparatus; Transformations; Vertex.

See also: Autobiography; Birth; Emotion; Fusion/defusion; Great Britain; Group analysis; Group psychotherapies; Infant development; Internal object; Infans; Negative, work of the; Non-verbal communication; Primary object; Primal, the; Protective shield; Reverie; Second World War: The effect on the development of psychoanalysis; Self-analysis; Splitting; Symbolic equation; Tavistock Clinic.


Bion, Wilfred R. (1961). Experiences in groups. London: Tavistock Publications.

. (1962). Learning from experience. London: Heinemann; New York: Basic Books.

. (1963). Elements of psycho-analysis. London: Heinemann.

. (1965). Transformations: Change from learning to growth. London: Heinemann.

. (1967). Second thoughts. London: Heinemann.

. (1970). Attention and interpretation. London: Tavistock Publications.

. (1991). A memoir of the future, Vol. I, the dream. London: Karnak Books.

. (1991). A memoir of the future, Vol. II, The past presented. London: Karnak Books.

. (1991). A memoir of the future, Vol. III, The dawn of oblivion. London: Karnak Books.

Grinberg, León, Sor, Dario, Tabak de Bianchedi, Elizabeth. (1977). Introduction to the work of Bion: Groups, knowledge, psychosis, thought, transformations, psychoanalytic practice. (Alberto Hahn, Trans.). New York: Jason Aronson.

. (1993). New introduction to the work of Bion. North-vale, NJ; London: Jason Aronson.

Grotstein, James S. (1981). Do I dare disturb the universe?. Beverly Hills, CA: Caesura Press.

Pines, Malcolm, (Ed.). (1985). Bion and group psychotherapy. London: Routledge.

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Bion, Wilfred Ruprecht (1897-1979)

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