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Negative Capability


Wilfred Bion, having discovered the importance of the mother's (and by association, the analyst's) capacity to tolerate the infant's (and patient's) projective identifications, sought a source for this tolerance. He reasoned that in analysis, the analyst must possess the capacity for patience and be able to have faith that in time he will be able to find the "selected fact" (Henri Poincaré) which unites the apparent randomness of the analysand's associations. Negative capability is the capacity to tolerate frustration because of the faith that meaning can ultimately be found.

Bion associates it with the capacity of the "Man of Achievement," following a passage in Keats which Bion often cited: "I had not a dispute but a disquisition with John Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously. I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason" (Bion, 1970).

Negative capability and the man of achievement were concepts that prefigured Bion's later idea of transformations in "O," by which he meant a domain that is beyond sensing, imagining, or knowing. One just becomes "O." In order to achieve a resonance with this unknowable domain either within oneself and/or in relationship to the other as subject, one must have patience that clarity will ultimately arrive with the destined selected fact and that coherence will emerge.

Bion was thus suggesting, in his anticipation of post-modern non-determinism, that the analytic field bears more resemblance to chaos, beta elements, "thoughts without a thinker," "things-in-themselves," noumena, than they do to deterministic concepts such as drives, or instincts, or the like. Consequently, the analyst who is to become an "analyst of achievement" must be able foreswear knowing or having to know, so that he can be free to intuit and ultimately to realize.

Bion later seemed to link negative capability with reverie, which means the acceptance of and surrender to a state of ultimate timeless receptiveness without desire, memory (preconceptions), or the need to understandjust to be there with the analysand. This state of mind and of the receptivity associated with it allows the analyst to be all the more open to his own psychic reality (internal world), where his intuition about the analysand's experiences with him and of him are directly felt.

James S. Grotstein

See also: Alpha function; Attention; Non-verbal communication; Lack of differentiation; Maternal reverie, capacity for; Primary object.


Bion, Wilfred R. (1970). Attention and interpretation. London, Tavistock Publications.

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