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by Robert M. Young

Suggested Reading:

Bion, W. R. (1961) Experiences in Groups. Tavistock.

Armstrong, David (1992) ‘Names, Thoughts and Lies: The Relevance of Bion’s Later Writings to the Understanding of Experiences in Groups’, Free Associations. (no. 26) 3: 261-82 on-line at http://human-nature.com/hraj/lies.html

______ (2003) ‘The Work Group Revisited: Reflections on the

Practice of Group Relations’, Free Associations (no. 53) 10: 1-13; on-line at http://human-nature.com/hraj/work.html

Wilfred Ruprecht Bion (1897-1979) is arguably the most original and the most intriguing psychoanalyst after Freud and Klein. He is also by far the most difficult of access. No one, except perhaps his close friend and disciple, Donald Meltzer (1978, 1986), writes about him without expressing profound diffidence about how far they have grasped his meaning. I am no exception. As his writing progressed he became much more opaque, even oracular, at least on the surface. I am not implying that he was deliberately inaccessible. I think he wrote in the way he thought could best convey what he had to say. When one reads him one comes away with something which is difficult to write down, much less summarize. However, one is also left with a mind-altering sense that he has somehow written about the unconscious and primitive mental processes and conveyed their strangeness, frighteningness and quality in a way and to a degree that is unique. Freud wrote best about the structure of the mind. Melanie Klein wrote best about the content of primitive anxieties. One could say that Bion integrated the structure of primitive processes with their contents, however odd and bizarre. Klein showed how crazy we are; Bion charted the geographies of our psychotic unconscious processes and how they are always at work and sometimes take charge of individual lives, groups and institutions. His style was sometimes very formal, even to the point of employing algebraic symbols in an effort to get away from familiar, clichéd use of words and concepts. Increasingly, however, he wrote from as near as he could get to a voice coming from inside the unconscious. The styles of James Joyce in Ulysses and Samuel Becket (who was Bion’s analytic patient; see Anzieu, 1989) come to mind. In his last phase he was preoccupied with the role and the concept of the mystic. 

Here is a factual biography taken from the jacket of one of his books. 

Born in India in 1897, W. R. Bion first came to England at the age of eight to receive his schooling. During the First World War he served in France as a tank commander and was awarded the DSO and the Legion of Honour. After reading history at Queen's College, Oxford, he studied medicine at University College, London, before a growing interest in psychoanalysis led him to undergo training analyses with John Rickman and, later, Melanie Klein. During the 1940s his attention was directed to the study of group processes, his researches culminating in the publication of a series of influential papers later produced in book-form as Experiences in Groups. Abandoning his work in this field in favour of psychoanalytic practice, he subsequently rose to the position of Director of the London Clinic of Psycho-Analysis (1956-1962) and President of the British Psycho-Analytical Society (1962-1965). From 1968 he worked in Los Angeles, returning to England two months before his death in 1979.

(From the back cover of Cogitations, edited by Francesca Bion, Karnac Books, London-New York, 1992.) 

Every phrase of that account can be opened out to illuminate an aspect of what was remarkable about Bion and his life. (His biographer is Bleandonu, 1994.) The autobiography of his early life, The Long Week-End (1982), is a classic of its genre, and I commend it to you. His father was English but, like many of his forbears, lived and worked in India, in his case as a civil engineer concerned with irrigation. As was traditional in his parents’ class and, in particular, in the expatriate way of life, Bion saw little of his parents and was mostly in the care of an Indian aya. His recollections of childhood were painful. He regarded himself as a suffering, unworthy sinner. He was particularly wracked by guilt feelings about masturbation, which he called ‘wiggling’. When taken on a tiger hunt by his father he was overwhelmed by distress at the carnage. When he was eight he was sent away to be privately educated in England, and he never saw India again. His recollection of his mother sending him off is particularly poignant. There was so much that happened to him, then and later, that simply bewildered him, e.g., the meaning of The Lord’s Prayer, which he heard as ‘Arf Arfur Oo Arf in Mphm’ (Bion, 1982, p. 9). The world into which he was born and others into which he was prematurely relocated were both too much for him and a source of his remarkable insight into the recesses of human nature.

Bion went to an English public school and remained n England during the holidays. When the war came he joined up and ended up in the new form of cavalry, the tanks. In their early days tanks were death traps from which few survived. On one occasion an attack was called. Bion, by now in charge of a group of tanks, objected that it was a suicidal attack. He was overruled. Only his tank and crew survived, and he was dubbed a hero. The description of the fear and unreality of battle in The Long Week-End is very moving. He said his life ended then. Sent to the War Office to discuss his decoration he said he was able to utter every swear word in one (about how the war was being conducted), and the medal to be awarded to him was reduced from the Victoria Cross to the lesser Distinguished Serice Order (DSO). which he wore with some chagrin but never repudiated. One of the concepts of his later life was that the therapist has to be able to ‘think under fire’, something he had done quite literally, though the event, the carnage and his survival made no sense to him at a deeper level (see Harris Williams, 1985 and Waddell, 1984).

He went to Oxford after the war and excelled in sports -- swimming and rugby. He became engaged, but she broke it off. He then studied medicine in London and wooed and wed a beautiful actress. Then came the Second World War, in which he was a psychiatric medical officer. In this period he had two stunning ideas. The first was to devise a method for selecting officers. It involved placing candidates in groups and posing them a daunting task. Those who were deemed to have succeeded were the ones who could work in a way involving teamwork and ingenuity. His methods are still I used by government selection boards world-wide.

His second invention was a response to being placed in a hospital for officers who had been sent home for cracking up. He devised a way of working with groups of them that gave them back their self-esteem and willingness to fight. Some of his colleagues at Northfield Hospital where this experimental programme was conducted became the leading figures in group psychotherapy and therapeutic communities, S. H. Foulkes, Tom Main, John Rickman. There is a full account of this project in Bion, Rickman, Foulkes and the Northfield Experiments by Tom Harrison (2000) and some reminiscences by his colleagues in Bion and Group Psychotherapy (Pines, 1985). The army shut the scheme down after six weeks, it was never pursued and Bion never got any recognition. At the end of the war he had he same rank he had when he entered; he was never promoted beyond major. People close to the events say that a senior officer had been fiddling the mess funds, Bion was going to report it, so they got rid of him.

During the war his wife gave birth to a daughter and died. Bion was released from service to look after the child. Her upbringing was difficult. She became estranged from him and went to Italy at seventeen. They were eventually reconciled, and she became a highly-regarded psychoanalyst, only to die prematurely in a car crash in 1998. Bion fell in love with Francesca, who became his second wife. We have a volume of his ardent love letters to her which were published in a second volume of his autobiography, All My Sins Remembered (1985).

Bion moved to London and underwent psychoanalysis with John Rickman. He worked at the Tavistock Clinic, where he did his best-known work with groups and wrote a series of articles (1948-51) which were later collected as Experiences in Groups (1961). He was then in analysis with Melanie Klein for eight years. He gave up working with or writing about groups and practiced as a psychoanalyst with individuals. He wrote in a very refreshing and original way about psychotic processes in schizophrenics, arguing that the same processes were active in the primitive processes of us all. Freud drew attention to such processes, Klein pointed out their ubiquity, intensity and ongoing role and Bion, building on Freud and Klein, drove home just how much of the mind they routinely control and how bizarre are the psychotic processes at work in us as individuals and in groups. We all have psychotic and non-psychotic parts of our personalities all the time.

I commend the works in his middle period to you. All are short but dense. They repay reading and re-reading and pondering, without asking oneself to make summaries or expositions: Learning from Experience (1962), Elements of Psycho-analysis (1963), Transformations (1965), Attention and Interpretation (1967) Second Thoughts (1967), Brazilian Lectures (1973, 1974). It is not the purpose of this unit to go into Bion’s contributions to he psychoanalysis of individuals, but I will just give a hint by listing some of the original ideas and topics he pursued in this period: the distinction between the psychotic and the non-psychotic parts of the personality, attacks on linking, alpha (capable of being used) and beta (unusable) elements of thought; love, hate and knowledge and minus L, H and K; the role of truth and lies in mental functioning; a grid for classifying mental elements (later abandoned); the injunction to abandon memory and desire in analytic work; the rapid oscillation between the paranoid-schizoid position and the depressive position; caesura, black holes in the mind, nameless dread, catastrophic change, the role of establishments. Finally, he elaborated a whole theory of mental functioning around the concepts of ‘the container and the contained’ (see Nutkevitch, n.d.). There are brief discussions of all these ideas in R. D. Hinshelwood’s Dictionary of Kleinian Thought (1991) as well as in Lopez-Carva’s Dictionary of the Work of W. R. Bion (2003). David Armstrong has argued against making too sharp a distinction between his work on groups and his later thinking, and I find his arguments persuasive (Armstring, 1992).

In the1960s Bion became famous and was head of the Clinic of the Institute of Psychoanalysis in London and then the President of the British Psycho-Analytic Society. He remarked that when you want to get rid of an innovator you shower him with honours, and he will sink without trace. Bion tried to avert this by accepting an invitation from Bernard Brandschaft (who eventually became a follower of Heinz Kohut) and some others in the Los Angeles area to move to California. He did so in 1968. He had a tough time there at first. His wife told me that, having invited him, they were slow to refer patients to him. Moreover, Kleinian ideas were at the centre of a major row in the L A Psychoanalytic Institute. This controversy split the society and almost led to its expulsion from the American Psychoanalytic Association. The Freudian orthodoxy in American psychoanalysis was opposed to the teaching of unorthodox ideas. Douglas Kirsner has given a full and vivid account of this split. (Kirsner, 2000, ch. 4). Bion took no direct part in this political and doctrinal upheaval, but his presence in the area is likely to have had an indirect influence on the controversy, and the upheaval cannot have made for a serene environment. In 1979 he decided to return to Oxford where he and Donald Meltzer (seen as a maverick by many in the British Psychoanalytic Society) hoped they would set up a psychoanalytic training of their own. Alas, Bion died of within two months of returning to Britain. Not an easy life from start to finish.

His first book is a tough read, those in the middle period are more so, but in my opinion his last two major works defy exposition. He is writing from deep inside himself. Some people very close to him feel at home with them. I find them impenetrable. One is a conversation between different parts of himself. I will not try to characterize the other. They are as long as his other writings are short: A Memoir of the Future, Book One (1975), Book Two (1977), Book Three (1979); Cogitations (1992). People who are devoted to his ideas and legacy are very devoted, indeed.

I turn now to Experiences in Groups. Bion on groups was my first serious contact with Kleinian ideas, and the door through which I entered was quite explicitly critical of Freudian ideas. Indeed, this is the main theme of the last thirty or so pages of the book. where he is talking about primitive Oedipal conflicts, part-object relations and psychotic anxieties. By the time he gets to his concluding summary, he is quite blunt: 'Freud's view of the dynamics of the group seems to me to require supplementing rather than correction' (Bion, 1955, p. 475). He accepts Freud's claim that the family group is the basis for all groups but adds that 

this view does not go far enough... I think that the central position in group dynamics is occupied by the more primitive mechanisms which Melanie Klein has described as peculiar to the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions. In other words, I feel... that it is not simply a matter of the incompleteness of the illumination provided by Freud's discovery of the family group as the prototype of all groups, but the fact that this incompleteness leaves out the source of the main emotional drives of the group (ibid.). 

Further investigation shows that each basic assumption contains features that correspond so closely with extremely primitive part objects that sooner or later psychotic anxiety, appertaining to these primitive relationships, is released. These anxieties, and the mechanisms peculiar to them, have already been displayed in psychoanalysis by Melanie Klein, and her descriptions tally well with the emotional states 

of the basic assumption group [see below]. Such groups have aims 

far different either from the overt task of the group or even from the tasks that would appear to be appropriate to Freud's view of the group as based on the family group. But approached from the angle of psychotic anxiety, associated with phantasies of primitive part object relationships... the basic assumption phenomena appear far more to have the characteristics of defensive reactions to psychotic anxiety, and to be not so much at variance with Freud's views as supplementary to them. In my view, it is necessary to work through both the stresses that appertain to family patterns and the still more primitive anxieties of part object relationships. In fact I consider the latter to contain the ultimate sources of all group behaviour (p. 476). 

In Bion's view, then, what matters in individual and group behaviour is more primitive than the Freudian level of explanation. The ultimate sources of our distress are psychotic anxieties, and much of what happens in individuals and groups is a result of defences erected against psychotic anxieties, so that we do not have to endure them consciously. Bion says of the group, 

My impression is that the group approximates too closely, in the minds of the individuals composing it, to very primitive phantasies about the contents of the mother's body. The attempt to make a rational investigation of the dynamics of the group is therefore perturbed by fears, and mechanisms for dealing with them, which are characteristic of the paranoid-schizoid position. The investigation cannot be carried out without the stimulation and activation of those levels... the elements of the emotional situation are so closely allied to phantasies of the earliest anxieties that the group is compelled, whenever the pressure of anxiety becomes too great, to take defensive action (Bion, 1955, p. 456). 

The psychotic anxieties in question involve splitting and projective identification and are characteristic of the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions, now as group processes (p. 457). According to Bion, the move from the individual to the group does not raise new issues about explanation. He says a little further on, 'The apparent difference between group psychology and individual psychology is an illusion produced by the fact that the group brings into prominence phenomena which appear alien to an observer unaccustomed to using the group' (p. 461).

At the heart of his ideas about groups is the observation that although groups are normally set up to pursue sensible and realistic goals -- he calls this the ‘work group’ -- they inevitably from time to time fall into madness, which he calls ‘basic assumption’ functioning. Bion specified three types of basic assumption functioning - dependency, pairing and fight-flight. You can read about these in the book, and you can ponder others’ bids for being a highly-regarded disciple in the writings of those who profess to have discovered a fourth (Hopper, 1997, 2003) basic assumption and a fifth (Lawrence et al., 1996). I am rather regretful that these forms of psychotic functioning have been spelled out and enumerated. In conferences and discussions about group functioning there is a tendency to become giddy about noticing which of these modes the group is in. I think this can too easily occur at the expense of pondering the texture and meaning of the group process without too quick a resort to ‘Aha!’ and labels. Each group, in my opinion, is entitled to its own narrative, vocabulary and rhetoric.

I have worked a lot in groups. Indeed, for a period I did so as a mater of political faith. My experience was that, sure enough, from time to time each group would fall into a species of madness and start arguing and forming factions over matters which, on later reflection, would not seem to justify so much passion and distress. More often than not, the row would end up in a split or in the departure or expulsion of one or more scapegoats. This happened all over the place -- in high school, college dormitories and societies, university departments, teams making tv documentaries, collectives editing periodicals, communes, psychotherapy training organizations. Every time this happened to groups of which I was a member I thought it was either my fault or that I had once again fallen among thieves, scoundrels, zealots, dim-wits or some combination of the above. When I read Bion I finally had a theoretical perspective on these processes. Moreover, he said that such debacles were inevitable, and they inevitably rope in the leader or facilitator. The trick is to be able to think under fire, to keep some part of your mind able to reflect on experience while having experience. If the group -- or at least some of its members -- can learn from experience and apply that learning to new situations, they can, just about, keep some semblance of the peace. In my opinion, Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, has this ability, as does Nelson Mandela. As the case of Mandela shows, one does not have to be a career diplomat to keep one’s head. Gandhi was a passionate campaigner but was renowned for his equanimity. What one has to do is avoid the pit of paranoid-schizoid functioning and strive to remain as much as can be managed in the depressive position.

According to Klein, our minds are always in one or the other of two positions. One involves extreme splits, brittle guilt, blaming, hating, scapegoating, paranoia and the tendency to aggression and fighting, whether verbal or physical. The other involves granting that life is not just extremes but consists of things all mixed up, some good, some bad: the middle ground. In this frame of mind guilt is not punitive but reparative. One is not in a manic state but a rather subdued, depressive (not to say depressed) one. Miracles don’t happen. Hard graft is one’s lot. You have to sit on your extreme feelings and live and let live.

I offer here John Steiner’s brief characterisations of the two positions which have come to be seen as the basic modes of feeling between which people oscillate: 

As a brief summary: in the paranoid-schizoid position anxieties of a primitive nature threaten the immature ego and lead to a mobilisation of primitive defences. Splitting, idealisation and projective identification operate to create rudimentary structures made up of idealised good objects kept far apart from persecuting bad ones. The individual’s own impulses are similarly split and he directs all his love towards the good object and all his hatred against the bad one. As a consequence of the projection, the leading anxiety is paranoid, and the preoccupation is with survival of the self. Thinking is concrete because of the confusion between self and object which is one of the consequences of projective identification (Segal, 1957).

The depressive position represents an important developmental advance in which whole objects begin to be recognised and ambivalent impulses become directed towards the primary object. These changes result from an increased capacity to integrate experiences and lead to a shift in primary concern from the survival of the self to a concern for the object upon which the individual depends. Destructive impulses lead to feelings of loss and guilt which can be more fully experienced and which consequently enable mourning to take place. The consequences include a development of symbolic function and the emergence of reparative capacities which become possible when thinking no longer has to remain concrete’ (Steiner, 1987, pp. 69-70; see also Steiner, 1993, pp. 26-34). 

Quite a lot of what happens in a Bionian group is strange, quite a lot (for the outside observer) is funny. It may begin with a long silence. Something is expected of the leader or of someone. This finally gets said, and the leader may say, ‘It appears that something is expected of me’ and revert to a silence which sorely tries the patience of the group members. A member may offer a hypothesis about what is supposed to happen, and this is likely to be contradicted by another. People who have not spoken are challenged and do or don’t speak. Some speak too soon and too often. There is often a search for something, something believed to be hidden and meant to be discovered. Members seek the approval of the leader, others seek alliances, some have strong feelings of love or hate or comradeship; others get cross or cry. Occasionally someone leaves, usually to return, sometimes not. Someone bids for the role of leader and gets sniped at. And so it goes: anxieties expressed, a process with no definitive end point, reflecting upon and hopefully learning from experience. In particular, one is invited to notice how much of what one feels and concludes comes from the inside, from projection. What one projects often has an external target, and the target usually responds and displays some degree of what he or she is accused of. This is the psychological mechanism called projective identification (See Young, 1994, ch. 7). The projector is vindicated. In the group, however, there is an opportunity to notice this process, reflect upon it and take back the projection. Learning to take responsibility for one’s projections and take them back is the essence of successful psychotherapy and of the experiential learning that occurs in Bionian groups. People have often marvelled at Bion’s apparently gnomic or off-the-wall utterances in groups. My guess is that he was simply declining projections by not taking up whatever the projecting person was trying to put into him. He would thereby be inviting them to think about their projection and perhaps take it back into themselves and stop casting him in a role that he was unwilling to play.

I have sketched some of the sorts of dynamics which Bion explored in his work with groups. There are two other units devoted to issues which have been influenced by and which follow on from Bion’s work. There is also an efflorescence of writings about his ideas. In particular, see Building on Bion (2 vols.): Roots and Branches (Lipgar and Pines, 2003). A good way to keep up with the rapidly-developing discussion of his ideas and their influence is to join the Bion discussion egroup on the internet. To join, send an email message to: majordomo@inrete.it In the body of the message write: subscribe bion97.

This is a unit for the Distance Learning MA in Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Sheffield (2003). 


(Place of publication is London unless otherwise specified.) 

Anderson, R., ed. (1992) Clinical Lectures on Klein and Bion. Routledge.

Anzieu, Didier (1989) ‘Beckett and Bion’, Internat. J. Psycho-Anal. 16: 163-198.

Armstrong, David (1992) ‘Names, Thoughts and Lies: The Relevance of Bion’s Later Writings to the Understanding of Experiences in Groups’, Free Associations (no. 26) 3: 261-82; on-line at http://human-nature.com/hraj/lies.html

______ (1995) ‘Making Absences Present: The Contribution of W. R. Bion to the Understanding of Unconscious Social Phenomena’; on-line at http://human-nature.com/hraj/armstrong.html

______ (2003) ‘The Work Group Revisited: Reflections on the Practice of Group Relations’, Free Associations (no. 53) 10: 1-13; on-line at http://human-nature.com/hraj/work.html

Bell, David L. (1995) ‘Knowledge and Its Pretenders: Bion’s Contribution to Knowledge and Thought’, in Jane Ellwood, ed., Psychosis: Understanding and Treatment. Jessica Kingsley, pp. 70-82.

Bion, W. R. (1952). ‘Group Dynamics: A Re-view. Internat. J. Psycho-Anal. vol.33, reprinted in M. Klein, P. Heimann & R. Money-Kyrle, eds., New Directions in Psychoanalysis. Tavistock, 1955, pp. 440-77; reprinted in Bion, 1961, pp. 141-91.

______ (1961)Experiences in Groups. Tavistock.

______ (1962) Learning from Experience. Heinemann; reprinted Karnac.

______ (1963), Elements of Psycho-analysis. Heinemann; reprinted Karnac.

______ (1965)Transformations. Heinemann; reprinted Karnac, 1984.

______ (1967) Attention and Interpretation. Tavistock; reprinted Karnac, 1984.

______ (1967) Second Thoughts. Heinemann; reprinted Karnac, 1984.

______ (1973, 1974) Brazilian Lectures, 2 vols. Rio de Janeiro: Imago Editora; reprinted in one volume Karnac, 1990.

______ (1975). A Memoir of the Future, Book 1 The Dream. Rio de Janeiro: Imago Editora; reprinted in one volume with Books 2 and 3 and A Key… Karnac,1991.

______ (1977). A Memoir of the Future, Book 2 The Past Presented. Rio de Janeiro: Imago Editora. reprinted in one volume with Books 1 and 3 and A Key… Karnac,1991.

______ (1979). A Memoir of the Future, Book 3 The Dawn of Oblivion. Rio de Janeiro: Imago Editora; reprinted in one volume with Books 1 and 2 and A Key… Karnac,1991.

______ (1981). A Key to A Memoir of the Future. Strath Tay: Clunie; reprinted in one volume with Books 1, 2 and 3 and A Key… Karnac,1991.

______ (1982).). The Long Weekend: 1897-1919. Part of a Life. Abingdon: Fleetwood Press; reprinted Free Association Books, 1986.

______ (1985). All My Sins Remembered: Another Part of a Life and The Other Side of Genius: Family Letters. Abingdon: Fleetwood Press.

______ (1992) Cogitations. Karnac.

Bleandonu, Gerard (1994) Wilfred Bion: His Life and Works 1897-1979 . Free Association Books.

Boris, Harold N. (1986) ‘Bion Re-Visited’, Contemp. Psychoanal. 22: 159-184.

Dartington, Anna (1980) ‘W. R. Bion and T. S. Eliot’, Tavistock Gazette; on-line at http://www.psychoanalysis.org.uk/paper1.htm

Emery, Edward (1992) ‘The Envious Eye: Concerning some Aspects of Envy from Wilfred Bion to Harold Boris’, Melanie Klein and Object Relations 10 (no.1): 19-29.

Gould, Laurence (1997) ‘Correspondence between Bion’s Basic Assumption Theory and Klein’s Developmental Positions: An Outline’ Free Associations (no. 41) 7:15-30.

Grinberg, Leon et al. (1975) Introduction to the Work of Bion: Groups, Knowledge, Psychosis, Thought, Transformations, Psychoanalytic Practice . Strath Tay: Clunie Press; revised and enlarged edition, New Introduction to the Work of Bion. N. Y.: Aronson, 1993.

Grotstein, James, ed. (1981) Do I Dare Disturb the Universe? A Memorial to Wilfred R. Bion. Caesura Press; reprinted Maresfield, 1983. This is a good collection of essays about Bion’s life and work.

______ (1981) ‘Wilfred R. Bion: - The Man, the Psychoanalyst, the Mystic a Perspective on his Life and Work’, Contemp. Psychoanal. 17: 601-36.

______ (1987) ‘Making the Best of a Bad Deal - On Harold Boris' "Bion Revisited"’, Contemp. Psychoanal. 23: 60-76.

Harris Williams, Meg (1985) ‘The Tiger and “O”: A Reading of Bion’s Memoir and Autobiography’, Free Associations no. 1: 33-56; on-line at http://human-nature.com/free-associations/MegH-WTiger&O.html

Harrison, Tom (2000) Bion, Rickman, Foulkes and the

Northfield Experiments. Jessica Kingsley.

Hinshelwood, R. D. (1989) A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought Free Association Books, revised ed., 1991. Esp. entries on Bion, Alpha-function, Beta-elements, Basic Assumptions, Containing, Epistemophilia, Grid, Innate Knowledge, Linking, Memory and Desire, Nameless Dread, Thinking. Hinshelwood’s entries are succinct and clear.

Hopper, Earl (1997) ‘The Fourth Basic Assumption’, Group Analysis 30: 439-70.

______ (2003) Traumatic Experience in the Unconscious Life of Groups: The Fourth Basic Assumption: Incohesion: Aggregation/Massification or (ba) I:A/M. Jessica Kingsley.

Kirsner, Douglas (2000) Unfree Associations: Inside Psychoanalytic Institutes. Process Press.

Lawrence, W. G., Bain, Alastair and Gould, Laurence (1996) ‘The Fifth Basic Assumption’, Free Associations (no. 37) 6: 28-55; reprinted in Tongued with Fire: Groups in Experience. Karnac, 2000, pp. 92-119.

Lipgar, Robert M. and Pines, Malcolm, eds. (2003) Building on Bion: Roots, Origins and Context of Bion’s Contributions to Theory and Practice. Jessica Kingsley.

_______ (2003) Building on Bion: Branches. Contemporary Developments and Applications of Bion’s Contributions to Theory and Practice. Jessica Kingsley.

Lopez-Carva, Rafael (2003) The Dictionary of the Work of W. R. Bion. Karnac.

Lyth, Isabel Menzies (1980) ‘Bion’s Contribution to Thinking about Groups’, read at memorial service for Bion; reprinted in The Dynamics of the Social: Selected Essays. Free Association Books, 1989, pp. 19-25.

Lyth, Oliver (1980) ‘Wilfred Ruprecht Bion (1897-1979)’, Internat. J. Psychoanal. 61: 269-73.

Meltzer, Donald (1978) The Kleinian Development Part I: Freud’s Clinical Development; Part II: Richard Week-by-Week; Part III: The Clinical Significance of the Work of Bion. Strath Tay: Clunie.

______ et al. (1986) Studies in Exended Metapsychology: Clinical Applications of Bion’s Ideas. Strath Tay: Clunie.

Pines, Malcolm, ed. (1985) Bion and Group Psychotherapy. Routledge; reprinted Jessica Kingsley, 2000.

Segal, Hanna (1957) ‘Notes on Symbol Formation’, Internat. J. Psycho-Anal. 38: 391-97.

Spillius, Elizabeth (1988) Melanie Klein Today, 2 vols. Routledge.

Steiner, John (1987) ‘The Interplay between Pathological Organizations and the Paranoid-Schizoid and Depressive Positions’, Internat. J. Psycho-Anal. 68: 69-80; reprinted in Spillius, ed. (1988), vol. 1, pp. 324-42.

______ (1993) Psychic Retreats: Pathological Organizations in Psychotic, Neurotic and Borderline Patients. Routledge.

Trist, E. (1985) ‘Working with Bion in the 1940s: The Group Decade’, in Pines, 1992, pp. 1-46. See also essays by Sutherland and Bridger. These essays give a good picture of what it was like to work with Bion.

Vaquer, Frederick (1987) ‘Bion’s Concept of the Psychotic Aspects of the Personality’, J. Melanie Klein Soc. 5 (no. 2): 86-100.

Waddell, Margot (1984) ‘The Long Weekend’, Free Associations. Pilot Issue: 72-84; on-line at http://human-nature.com/free-associations/longweekend.html

______ (1998) Inside Lives: Psychoanalysis and the Development of the Personality. Karnac. This is an accessible overview of personality development written from a Bionian point of view.

Weininger, Otto (1991) ‘A Note on Bion’s Alpha and Beta Elements’, Melanie Klein and Object Relations 9 (no1): 73-76.

Young, Robert M. (1994) Mental Space. Process Press, esp. chs 5, 7, 8; on-line at

Important papers by Bion:

______ (1957) ‘Differentiation of the Psychotic from the Non-Psychotic Personalities’, Internat. J. Psycho-Anal. 38: 266-75; reprinted in Second Thoughts: Selected Papers on Psycho-Analysis. Heinemann, 1967, pp. 93-109.

______ (1959) 'Attacks on linking' Internat J. Psycho-Anal. 40:308-15; reprinted in Second Thoughts, op. cit., pp.43-64.

______ (1967) 'Notes on Memory and Desire', Psychoanalytic Forum; reprinted in Spillius (1988), vol. 2, pp. 17-21. 

Memorial Meeting for Dr Wilfred Bion - tributes from Segal, Meltzer, Mrs. Bion, Internat. Rev. Psychoanal. 8: 3-14, 1981.

W. R. Bion Centennial Issue (1897-1997), J. Melanie Klein and Object Relations 15 (no.2), June 1997. See esp. Parthenope Bion Talamo on ‘The Clinical Relevance of A Memoir of the Future’, pp. 235-42.

There was a Bion conference in London, the papers of which were printed in British Journal of Psychotherapy 14 no. 1, 1997.

A number of essays centring on Bion’s work are available at the web site of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations (ISPSO):

French, Robert and Simpson, Peter, ‘Our Best Work Happens When We Don't Know What We're Doing’,

Gould, Laurence J., ‘Holding the Center: Leadership, Depressive Position Values, and the Moral Order’,

Lawrence, W. Gordon, ‘Centring of the Sphinx for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organisations’,

______ , ‘Thinking Refracted in Organisations: the Finite and the Infinite/ the Conscious and the Unconscious’

Bion is a theme in many of Gordon Lawrence’s writings.

Nutkevitch, Avi. ‘The Container and its Containment: A Meeting Space for Psychoanalytic and Open Systems Theories’,  

Schonberg, Andre, ‘Two Basic Assumptions in the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations’, http://www.sba.oakland.edu/ispso/html/1998Schonberg.htm

There is a Bion web site with updates at http://www.sicap.it/~merciai/bion97.htm

There is a large collection of draft papers, most in English, some in Italian, for the 1997 Torino Bion conference at http://www.multimania.com/arrigo/bion/papers.htm and http://www.sicap.it/~merciai/bion/papers.htm

John Stone’s Bion Web Page http://www.mindstone.com/bioncollective.htm

Two of Paulo Sandler's papers have been posted to the Psyche Matters web site: http://www.psychematters.com

'Binocular Vision' and the Practice of Psychoanalysis’ http://www.psychematters.com/papers/psandler.htm

‘Bion's War Memoirs: A Psycho-Analytical Commentary’ http://www.psychematters.com/papers/psandler2.htm

The writings of Bion’s eldest daughter, Parthenope, are listed at




Most are in Italian, but some are in English, e.g.,

Bion Talamo, Parthenope (1997). ‘Bion: A Freudian Innovator’, British Journal of Psychotherapy, 14: 47-59.

______ (1997a). ‘Sleep as a Way of (Mental) Life’, in

Primitive Mental States (Eds. Shelley Alhanati, Katina Kostoulas), Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1997, v.1°: Across the Lifespan, pp. 91-104.

______ (1997b). ‘The Clinical Relevance of A Memoir of the Future.’, Journal of Melanie Klein and Object Relations, 15: 235-241 [Paper given at the XXXIX I.P.A. Congress, San Francisco, 1995, July 31st, Panel: Bion's Contributions to Psychoanalytic Theory and Technique, reported in Int. J. Psycho-Anal, 77, 1996, p. 575].

______ (1997c). Foreword to W. R. Bion, Taming Wild Thoughts, edited by Francesca Bion. Karnac Books, London.

Michael Eigen’s writings on Bion include the following:

The Psychotic Core,

Chapter 2 "Mindlessness";

The Electrified Tightrope,

Chapter 11, "The Area of Faith in Winnicott,

Lacan, and Bion";

Chapter 17 "Towards Bion’s Starting Point: Between

Catastrophe and Faith";

Chapter 19 "Mindlessness-Selflessness";

Chapter 20 Omniscience";


Psychic Deadness

Chapter 4 "Bion’s No-thing";

Chapter 5 "Moral Violence";

Chapter 6 "Two Kinds of No-thing".

The Psychoanalytic Mystic

Chapter 3 "Infinite Surfaces, Explosiveness, Faith";

Chapter 4 "Musings on O";

Chapter 5 "Mystical Precocity and Psychic Short-circuits";

Chapter 12 "Pecking Away".

Toxic Nourishment

Chapter 8 "Empty and Violent Nourishment"

Writings of Bion published by 1997 (most not listed above) drawn from Bion email forum web site:

Bion, W.R. (1940). The war of nerves. In Miller and Crichton-Miller (Eds.), The Neuroses in War (pp.180 - 200). London: Macmillan, 1940.

Bion, W.R. (1943). Intra-group tensions in therapy, Lancet 2: 678/781 - Nov.27, 1943, in Experiences in Groups (1961).

Bion, W. R.(1946). Leaderless group project, Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 10: 77-81.

Bion, W. R. (1948a). Psychiatry in a time of crisis, British Journal of Medical Psychology, vol.XXI.

Bion, W. R. (1948b). Experiences in groups, Human Relations, vols. I-IV, 1948-1951, Reprinted in Experiences in Groups (1961).

Bion, W. R. (1950). The imaginary twin, read to the British Psychoanalytical Society, Nov.1,1950. In Second Thoughts (1967).

Bion, W. R. (1952). Group dynamics: a review. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, vol.33, Reprinted in M. Klein, P. Heimann & R. Money-Kyrle (editors). New Directions in Psychoanalysis (pp.440-477). Tavistock Publications, London, 1955. Reprinted in Experiences in Groups (1961).

Bion, W. R. (1954). Notes on the theory of schizophrenia. Read in the Symposium "The Psychology of Schizophrenia" at the 18th International psycho-analytical congress, London, 1953, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, vol.35: . Reprinted in Second Thoughts (1967).

Bion, W. R. (1955a) The Development of Schizophrenic Thought, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, vol.37: . Reprinted in Second Thoughts (1967).

Bion, W. R. (1955b) Language and the schizophrenic, in M. Klein, P. Heimann and R. Money-Kyrle (editors). New Directions in Psychoanalysis (pp.220 - 239).Tavistock Publications, London, 1955.

Bion, W. R. (1957a). The differentiation of the psychotic from the non-psychotic personalities, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, vol.38: . Reprinted in Second Thoughts (1967).

Bion, W. R. (1957b). On Arrogance, 20th International Congress of Psycho-Analysis, Paris, in Second Thoughts (1967).

Bion, W. R. (1958). On Hallucination, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis,vol.39, part 5: . Reprinted in Second Thoughts (1967).

Bion, W. R. (1959). Attacks on linking, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, vol.40: . Reprinted in Second Thoughts (1967).

Bion, W. R. (1961). Experiences in Groups, London: Tavistock.

Bion, W. R. (1962a). A theory of thinking, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, vol.43: . Reprinted in Second Thoughts (1967).

Bion, W. R. (1962b). Learning from Experience London: William Heinemann. [Reprinted London: Karnac Books,]. Reprinted in Seven Servants (1977e).

Bion, W. R. (1963). Elements of Psycho-Analysis, London: William Heinemann. [Reprinted London: Karnac Books]. Reprinted in Seven Servants (1977e).

Bion, W. R. (1965). Transformations. London: William Heinemann [Reprinted London: Karnac Books 1984]. Reprinted in Seven Servants (1977e).

Bion, W. R. (1966). Catastrophic change, Bulletin of The British Psychoanalytical Society, 1966, N°5.

Bion, W. R. (1967a). Second Thoughts, London: William Heinemann. [Reprinted London: Karnac Books 1984].

Bion, W. R. (1967b). Notes on memory and desire, Psycho-analytic Forum, vol. II n° 3 (pp.271 - 280). [reprinted in E. Bott Spillius (Ed.). Melanie Klein Today Vol. 2 Mainly Practice (pp. 17-21) London: Routledge 1988].

Bion, W. R.(1970). Attention and Interpretation. London: Tavistock Publications. [Reprinted London: Karnac Books 1984]. Reprinted in Seven Servants (1977e).

Bion, W.R. (1973). Bion's Brazilian Lectures 1. Rio de Janeiro: Imago Editora. [Reprinted in one volume London: Karnac Books 1990].

Bion, W. R. (1974). Bion's Brazilian Lectures 2. Rio de Janeiro: Imago Editora. [Reprinted in one volume London: Karnac Books 1990].

Bion, W.R. (1975). A Memoir of the Future, Book 1 The Dream. Rio de Janeiro: Imago Editora. [Reprinted in one volume with Books 2 and 3 and ‘The Key’ London: Karnac Books 1991].

Bion, W. R. (1976a). Evidence. Bulletin British Psycho-Analytical Society N° 8, 1976. Reprinted in Clinical Seminars and Four Papers (1987).

Bion, W.R. (1976b). Interview, with A. G. Banet Jr., Group and Organisation Studies, vol.1 No.3 (pp.268 - 285). September 1976.

Bion, W.R. (1977a). A Memoir of the Future, Book 2 The Past Presented. Rio de Janeiro: Imago Editora. [Reprinted in one volume with Books 1 and 3 and ‘The Key’ London: Karnac Books 1991].

Bion, W.R. (1977b). Two Papers: The Grid and Caesura. Rio de Janeiro: Imago Editora. [Reprinted London: Karnac Books 1989].

Bion, W. R. (1977c). On a Quotation from Freud, in Borderline Personality Disorders, New York: International University Press. Reprinted in Clinical Seminars and Four Papers(1987). [Reprinted in Clinical Seminars and Other Works. London: Karnac Books, 1994].

Bion, W. R. (1977d). Emotional Turbulence, in Borderline Personality Disorders, New York: International University Press. Reprinted in Clinical Seminars and Four Papers(1987). [Reprinted in Clinical Seminars and Other Works. London: Karnac Books, 1994].

Bion, W. R. (1977e). Seven Servants. New York: Jason Aronson inc. (includes Elements of Psychoanalysis, Learning from Experience, Transformations, Attention and Interpretation).

Bion, W.R. (1978). Four Discussions with W.R. Bion. Perthshire: Clunie Press. [Reprinted in Clinical Seminars and Other Works. London: Karnac Books, 1994].

Bion, W.R. (1979a). Making the best of a Bad Job. Bulletin British Psycho-Analytical Society, February 1979. Reprinted in Clinical Seminars and Four Papers(1987). [Reprinted in Clinical Seminars and Other Works. London: Karnac Books, 1994].

Bion, W.R. (1979b). A Memoir of the Future, Book 3 The Dawn of Oblivion. Rio de Janeiro: Imago Editora. [Reprinted in one volume with Books 1 and 2 and ‘The Key’ London: Karnac Books 1991].

Bion, W.R. (1980). Bion in New York and Sào Paolo. (Edited by F.Bion). Perthshire: Clunie Press.

Bion, W.R. (1981). A Key to A Memoir of the Future. (Edited by F.Bion). Perthshire: Clunie Press. [Reprinted in one volume London: Karnac Books 1991].

Bion, W.R. (1982).). The Long Weekend: 1897-1919 (Part of a Life). (Edited by F. Bion Abingdon: The Fleetwood Press; reprinted Free Association Books, 1986.

Bion, W.R. (1985). All My Sins Remembered (Another part of a Life) and The Other Side of Genius: Family Letters. (Edited by F. Bion). Abingdon: The Fleetwood Press.

Bion, W.R. (1985). Seminari Italiani. (Edited by F. Bion). Roma: Borla.

Bion, W.R. (1987). Clinical Seminars and Four Papers, (Edited by F. Bion). Abingdon: Fleetwood Press. [Reprinted in Clinical Seminars and Other Works. London: Karnac Books, 1994].

Bion, W.R. (1992). Cogitations. (Edited by F. Bion). London: Karnac Books.

Bion, W.R. (1997a). Taming Wild Thoughts. (Edited by F. Bion). London: Karnac Books.

Bion, W.R. (1997b). War Memoirs 1917 - 1919. (Edited by F. Bion). London: Karnac Books.

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