Thought-Thinking Apparatus

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The term thought-thinking apparatus, used by Wilfred R. Bion, emphasizes, from a psychoanalytic standpoint, the distinction between representational aspects (elements of thought such as conceptions and concepts) and operational aspects (discharge and elaboration of thoughts). It is to this latter aspect that Bion refers when he speaks of the "thinking apparatus" (or "thought-thinking apparatus") that develops for manipulating thoughts.

In his 1962 article "A Theory of Thinking," where he first articulated the theory he was to further develop in four volumes published from 1962 to 1967, Bion draws a distinction between the creation of thoughts and their use for reducing tensions and deferring action (both functions that Freud had already attributed to thought). Bion posits that thoughts are anterior in origin to the work of thinking (produced by the thought-thinking apparatus). This approach can be contrasted to the truism of nineteenth-century materialist and physiological psychology that held that the brain secretes thoughts, just as the liver secretes bile.

According to Bion, the infant's first sensory or affective data correspond to a state of frustration, a sensation of the absence of the breast, a sensation of a "hole." To get out of this state, the baby must eject or modify this sensation, which corresponds to a primitive thought or protothought. At this stage, according to Bion, there is no clear distinction between mental representation and emotional or sensory experience.

In a second stage the capacity for thinking appears, dependent upon the infant's ability to withstand frustration, endure delay, and transform the emptiness left by the absence of the breast into a thought. In Bion's view, in the course of development the "non-thing" or "non-object" becomes a thought. The breast that is present is not a thought, but will finally become the thing-in-itself (which is not "phenomenal" because it is seemingly "known").

This theory of the origins of thought is slightly different from that of Sigmund Freud. Thought is no longer considered as a "hallucinatory substitute for desire." (SE 22, p. 221) It is not the absent breast that is "thought" in order to appease hunger, but rather the "non-breast," which is the first thought and which can then be the object of "thinking." In Bion's theory, thought is partly objectified instead of being deobjectified, as in the theory of the autonomous ego.

Bion's model is close to Freud's model of the fort-da game involving the wooden reel: The experience of frustration leads to the creation of other possibilities (fantasies, symbols, actions) that provide a new means to achieve satisfaction in reality. Once the earliest thoughts relating to the "non-object" have been established, the psyche must develop a thinking apparatus to rid itself of thoughts linked to frustration. This development necessarily occurs through contact with the mother, by means of projective identification mechanisms that take the form of a satisfying container-contained relationship, and through a dynamic interplay between paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions.

In the earliest case of a container-contained relation (symbolized ), the mother's repeated positive experiences with the child, along with the points of contact between the child's projections and the "reverie" of the mother, produce the model that the child can then introject as part of the thinking apparatus.

The interplay between paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions (symbolized PS D) develops the thinking apparatus. The earliest splitting operations in the structuring of the psyche, the necessary separation between "good object" and "bad object," and the choices made in what Henri Poincaré conceptualized as "selection of facts" (but which Bion prefers to call "selected facts") are dependent upon the paranoid-schizoid position. The depressive position plays a role in the acceptance of the loss that is implicit in all thought, and is also fundamental to progressive integration at the level of thought; that integration process is also dependent upon the container-contained mechanism.

One might also wonder: What can one do with thoughts, besides thinking them? Bion describes several types of thought disturbances linked to the difficulty of maintaining disciplined and cohesive thought. These disturbances are the result of a collapse either at the level of the representational elements of thought (in schizophrenia) or at the level of the activity of thinking, or the thinking apparatus itself (in hysteria or obsessional neurosis).

Pedro Luzes

See also: Attention; Bion, Wilfred Ruprecht; Container-Contained; Maternal reverie, capacity for; Proto-thoughts; Thought.


Bion, Wilfred Ruprecht. (1962). Learning from experience. London: Heinemann; New York: Basic Books.

. (1962). A theory of thinking. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 43, 4-5; reprinted in Second thoughts. London: Heinemann, 1967.

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

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

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