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In Elements of Psycho-Analysis (1963), W. R. Bion writes that psychoanalytic theories contain a twofold defect: "on the one hand, description of empirical data is unsatisfactory as it is manifestly what is described in conversational English as a 'theory' about what took place rather than a factual account of it and, on the other, the theory of what took place cannot satisfy the criteria applied to a theory as that term is employed to describe the systems used in rigorous scientific investigation" (p. 1).

It is therefore necessary to "formulate an abstraction, to represent the realization that existing theories purport to describe" (pp. 1-2). As elements in psychoanalysis, these abstractions operate like alphabetical letters in the formation of words: through many different combinations, they offer the analyst an infinite number of possible adaptations and interpretations for understanding the vicissitudes of the transference through thought and, of course, through words.

By contrast, the classical model of psychoanalytic theory, like the ideogram in relation to the word, ultimately allows of only one possible form of thought.

Insofar as the analytic situation establishes the conditions for a new realization in the transference, the elements of psychoanalysis need to be capable of representing the realization that they were originally used to describe and of being articulated like letters with other similar elements and, having been articulated, to be capable of forming a scientific deductive system.

Bion's first element, represented as , can be defined as a dynamic relationship between the container and the contained, deriving from Klein's concept of projective identification. To become a psychic object, the projected element has to encounter a container, or a thinking function. The intrusive projected element is thereby associated with a masculine symbolism, and the containing receptive element with a feminine symbolism. This therefore establishes a model that represents the transference-countertransference dynamics between patient and analyst, without any starting assumptions as to the qualities that may emerge there.

Wilfred Bion thus returns to his original hypothesis, which relates to finding an element that can simultaneously define a realization in the treatment and the original realization relating to the patient's psychic life, past memories and the intense, even pathological, mechanisms of projective identification that can be associated with these. For him, the element also represents the apparatus of thought in which certain aspects can carry out an (or ) function for other (or ) aspects. Psychic growth therefore results from the integration of this mechanism when projective identification is operating normally. In the treatment of psychotic patients, the violence of the projective mechanisms hinders the "interlocking," which then creates a sense of dislocation.

W. R. Bion locates the container/contained dimension in the vertical axis of his grid. It represents the positive growth of thought; this element operates through its F part that is equivalent to the preconception, which is immersed in the M part that corresponds to realization and gives access to meaning. It only finally becomes operative if, through the integration of the container-contained element, the subject tolerates a primary bisexuality, with the beginnings of triangulation that accompany it.

Jean-Claude Guillaume

See also: Alpha function; Arrogance; Concept; Hallucinosis; Internal object; Psychic envelope; Psychotic panic; Realization; Relations (commensalism, symbiosis, parasitism); Psychoanalytic setting; Selected fact; Skin; Thought-thinking apparatus.


Bion, Wilfred R. (1963). Elements of psycho-analysis. London: Heinemann.

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