by Denis MELLIER, Psychologist, Lecturer of University of LYON 2.


(This text might be a little different from the communication to be given at the congress and the case will be developed.)


W.R. Bion created a new model for observing situations from a psychoanalytical point of view, his elaboration comes from his own experiences, D. Meltzer pointed it out (1978). I have tried to analyse the evolution of his work because it was a great help when elaborating my practice with babies and in different care institutions. In this communication I will develop hypothesis that in Bion's works THE PROCESS OF SYMBOLIZATION BECOMES MORE AND MORE DEPENDANT ON INTERSUBJECTIVITY. I have highlighted three steps as regards the way in which the relation of symbolisation and intersubjectivity can be considered, three circles of a spiral which converge to a point where one term presupposes the existence of second one, to a point where the view of a practitioner can be included. For my demonstration I will present a short clinical case that I will interpret each time from the perspective of the particular relation between symbolisation and intersubjectivity.

The first time I read Bion, it was not in a chronological manner, and for a long time I bore in mind different perceptions of his work, just bit by bit, without making explicit connections. Quite amazing for this author ! Not at all if we consider that links start growing gradually without being noticed. Two years ago in our research center at the University of Lyon (the Centre de Recherche en Psychologie et Psychopathologie Clinique), I tried to make what I felt explicit. Since that time, I have picked this idea up again, it is this very experience that I would like to share with you.

Beyond different concepts or subjects I find a constant : a regular preoccupation with the clinical material of observation. His observation of group situations and of psychoanaytical treatement are quite precise and clear. He tries later to build a theorie which safeguards of his method. During my psychanalytical training in observing the baby in his family, according to the Esther Bick method, I came across the same attention.

Grinberg's book (1972) is a good way to have an synthetic point of view on Bion's works. In my communication I will choose another particular viewpoint. With the two references of symbolisation and intersubjectivity I have to analyse his works in regard to its evoltution.


Before going further I have to explain what I mean by "symbolization" and "intersubjectivity" :

"SYMBOLIZATION" means in my communication the process the aim of which is to symbolize, even if there is not as yet a symbol used or created. It has a wider meaning than the way it is currently used.

In a restrictive meaning, "symbol" is a sign which represents another sign or thing by correspondence. Their relation can be conventional or based on an equivalent characteristic as the symbolism of a dream, of an act, etc. However, historically we know that a "sumbolon" was a piece of pottery which was broken into two parts : the person who takes one part could later justify his property, by just gitting it to the second part. "Symbol" is a sign of recognition. With symbol a thing which is not here can be present in another form, a word for example. In this way we can say that our langage has a symbolic function, Jacques Lacan has developed this conception. I define symbolisation as a process to elaborate on and, furthermore, to put into verbal thought. As practitioner we have to facilitate, to maintain or to create the capacity of a person to speak, to symbolize what for him is outside of langage, outside meaning. It corresponds to the rôle of "thinking" for Bion.

INTERSUBJECTIVITY means we have to consider a problem for a subject as a problem for more than one subject. It is a perspective with which we can approach psychic phenomena. Generally it is an implicit point of view, a drive presuppose an object, etc.. But a "one-body psychology" is not adapted for many pathologies or situation. The concepts which especially characterize intrapsychic processes (internal or external, as repression or projection) are not sufficient when the psychic apparatus is not yet constructed or too damaged. Winnicott had before introduced this perspective with his conception of the environment and the mother care, Lacan had developed it with his conception of the langage and Subject. Presently, René Kaës developes an intersubjective metapsychology from psychoanalytic approach of groups.


My hypothesis is that there is a SUCESSION OF THREE RELATIONS between symbolisation and intersubjectivity in Bion's work :

- First symbolisation has a classical form, such as the first freudien topic. But intersubjectivity becomes the field of this process. It corresponds to a period when Bion was working as psychiatrist, then as a group therapist.

- Secondly Bion discovers a new way of symbolizing, a way which islocated in intersubjectivity. He introduces new concepts (function alpha, container-contained relation). The model of a mother-baby dyade gives form to this perspective. He was working with psychotics.

- Thirdly symbolisation and intersubjectivity are more closely articulated. So in the field of intersubjectivity we can think about the position of the practitioner with the new concept of transformation and the new definition of attention. The model of this last perspective is groupal and institutional.

Three books mark this evolution : Experiences in groups and others papers, 1961, Learning from experience, 1962, and Attention and Interpretation, 1970. Each one is a stage in the evoltuion of his work.


A clincal case.

a pairing in nursery

* *




I will highlight the first relation between symbolisation and intersubjectivity out from his book "Experiences in groups" published in 1961, but written before this date. Bion presents a theory to explain groups, even institution mechanisms, from an psychoanaytic approach. During this period he was undergoing second analysis with M. Klein.


Characteristics of this first relation

The process of symbolisation appears in the difference between work group and basic group. The first one is in contact with reality. It uses the secondary process in its task. The second one avoids reality. It is dominated by the primary process, as a psychotic level of the group. I reduce his conception here but it is the main configuration of symbolisation especially from the second part of the book published in 1952 for an issue in honour to M. Klein. He has transposed the intrapsychic mechanism used with the individual psychic appartus onto the group. This bi-partition repeats the difference between conscious / unconscious like the first Freudian topography. "TO SYMBOLIZE" IS TO USE THE SECONDARY PROCESS, the rational level of personality. The difficulty comes from the existence of the non-rational level which is subject to the principle of pleasure.

However this conception is more complicated, it takes place in groups, it is based on Bion's experience. He doesn't note Lewin theory but he has here the same conception of a group as Lewin. Totality is not the equivalent of the summer of its members. For him, the human being is a "political animal", an "horde animal", that Freud had questioned. So many notions such as valency, group mentality or culture, basic assumption or group, work group, introduce the field of intersubjectivity.

Special attention will be given to the new concept of "BASIC ASSUMPTION" which can be considered as the formulation of his experience. It is qualified as a protomental system, (especially in his first paper) : motions tend to lead to "acting out" or psychosomatic problem. It is the way he explores later with psychotics. The dynamic is not a bipartition : when one assumption emerges, the other two are ready to succeed, and so is a new movement to explain psychic processes. Pairing assumption has a particular place because it can announce the possibility of change. In the same way the Messiah, the mystic or the new idea will later announce the change .


His theory is based on classical bipartition which explains symbolisation, but in detail we can note that many different mechanisms are developed to explain a resistance to symbolize. From this particular dynamic many authors had continued to explain institution processes (for example Eliott Jaques at the Tavistock Clinic, Jose Bleger in Argentina and Fornari in Italy), and to explain group process (in France, Didier Anzieu, René Kaës, Ophelia Avron and Jean-Claude Rouchy, in Italy Claudio Neri, etc.). From this intuition Bion will go ahead to discover another symbolisation and after an another links with intersubjectivity.


First interpretation of the case

(work group and basic group, the "climate" of the institutional group)

* *


"Learning from experience", a link between symbolisation and intersubjectivity


"Learning from experience", published in 1962 is a good title to characterize the second relation between symbolisation and intersubjectivity. Experiences come from intersubjectivity, learning presupposes the presence of others. Experience becomes the foundation of a process of symbolisation, it is a link between symbolisation and intersubjectivity.

A new definition of symbolisation appears. It results from a period when Bion worked with schizophrenics. He used Kleinian concepts but he needed to create a new concept to explain a special process namely the ALPHA FUNCTION. This type of symbolisation is taking place before secondary symbolisation, before the bipartition of the two processes of primary and secondary. It is also an intrapsychic process but it depends more directly on intersubjectivity. An object, with alpha function, has to symbolize what the subject will thus symbolize after. Alpha elements belong to the intrapsychic system but they come from a function which is working in intersubjectivity links. Classical symbolisation was created from neurosis problems. This type of symbolisation occurs when subject is not yet differentiated from object. It is quite important for modern clinical situations.


Origins of this perspective

It is interesting to see how this new concept emerges. Bion studies the role of verbal thought with psychotics.

Normaly langage is used to communicate and also to be conscious of internal and external realities. But sometimes it is an acted language. Bion noticed that it occurs particularly when a schozophrenic arrives at depressive position after a period of hard work. Thus he is affraid to be conscious of his madness and he regresses to schizo-paranoid position and to acting out.

According to S. Freud who has written that thought was originally unconscious (1911), Bion infers that it must be primitive thinking. He describes ideograms, a matrice which makes links between senses or sensorial impressions. It is in contradiction with the idea that there is no psychic organisation with the principle of pleasure into the primary process.

In the same way he points out that the "psychotic part" of personality does not make a difference between conscious and unconscious, between woken state and dream. With his paper "On hallucination", he observes that the senses organs can expulse perception instead of receive it. The mechanism of splitting that M. Klein has studied concerning objects can also concern a part of the psychic apparatus.

It is important to notice that this hypothesis of alpha function results from a confused intersubjective situation. A membrane defective between the patient and the psychoanalyst, and between the conscious and the unconscious. It constitutes a double differentiation both simultanously intra and inter psychic. In France, André Green has advanced the concept of "double limit" (1982) .


Some characteristics of this second perspective

Everyone knows the role of the alpha function to metabolize non-psychic elements, namely beta elements. Bion draws up the metaphor of a mother-baby couple or dyade. Baby expulses beta elements into mother who has to "digest" them. Mother has to contain them in her mind in order to give meaning in return, she had to transform insane into psychic elements. In this way the baby is able to think and to have dreams. In this perspective "TO SYMBOLIZE IS TO CREATE ALPHA ELEMENTS".

For this perspective Bion has distinguished between the link of knowledge (K) from the drive bonds (A and H). However, primitive symbolisation always has to be approached with this drive back-ground. He observed the oscillation Sp - D. The origin of K link is the mechanism of projective identification, it is called the relation container-contained. When M. Klein insists on the splitting to project outside the mind, Bion considers a more normal way used to communicate, like mother with her baby. In my opinion when Esther Bick speaks about "containing function", she refers to the same clinical mechanism.

These characteristics of this relation between symbolisation and intersubjectivity are became further usual. In France, with also the influence of D.W. Winnicott, different authors try to theorize in this way as Didier Anzieu with concepts of "skin-ego" and psychic envelop, as René Roussillon who presently developes the conception of a symbolization preceeding the secondary one.


Finally, I would like to point out a difference which will became more and more important in his theorization. In 1962 Bion distinguishes between the thought and the thinking apparatus. He observed that a new thought calls for a new apparatus to be thought. It is a revolution in the conception of knowledge. It will be at the heart of the third model I will develop.


Second interpretation of the case :

(the alpha function and the "double limit" both into the couple and into the couple and the group)




The third model of relation between symbolisation and intersubjectivity is an integration of the two preceeding models. Symbolization has the same definition as in the second model and it is localised in a group as in the first one, but it is more than a simple addition. Intersubjectivity is not only the condition of a primitive symbolisation but also the way of symbolize with the psychic position of the practitioner. The concept of "transformation" is the link between symbolisation and intersubjectivity.

Bion creates this new concept of "TRANSFORMATION". It is a concept for the practise, like the alpha function. It is a sort of an extension of the transference concept because for transformation the movement of transference is located in his framework and around the type of symbolisation to be carried out. Bion is keeping with the problem of observation and his conception opens out onto the disciplin of attention. Now, attention is not only define by the link of the capacity of reverie, it is rather an "intuit" to catch the container-contained link. Attention is not only a factor of mind but a frame of mind. It is not only a function to symbolize, but above all a precept for a practitioner. This third model of relation between symbolization and intersubjectivity has both an intra and an inter psychic problematics, but it has also a transpsychic dimension.

We can find this model in "Attention and Interpretation", Bion's book published in 1970. It is for me the ultimate point of his theory. Afterwards he used a poetical way, or discussions, to develop it. As for his private life, we know he decided to let his responsibility in the Psychanaytical Society and to leave London for a new country.


Origins of this perspective

After "Learning from experience", Bion reverses his preceeding perspective in his next book, "Elements of Psycho-analysis" which is composed on a theorical base. But "Attention and Interpretation" takes up again the same approach which is closed to practise. Theory emerges from practice and observations are the foundations of theory. Meanwhile he envisaged a negative alpha function and characterized the psychic space of psychotics. This model is different from the second one because Bion tries to go beyond experiences.

Experiences can be indeed limiting. Bion discovers they are resistances to approaching unknown elements from patients. Experiences are formed in models which constitute a focus for attention. They are infiltrated by satisfactions of senses. Bion has thus made a re-view, a "second-thougts" of his first papers, to comment his observations. In order to rectify this flaw of experiences, he promotes a discipline to be without desire, neither memory, nor understanding. I think it is an ethical point of view. It indicates in which direction we have to work in order to facilitate symbolization.


Some characteristics of this third perspective

The third model is based on a new consideration of charateristics of the container. "Symbol" as container depends on perceptions and on common sense of a communauty. The rôle of senses or perceptions in symbolisation is due to the difference between physical perception and psychic perception. The problem of psychic perception can be a resistance to primitive symbolisation, such as alpha elements, or to secondary symbolisation, such as words. I would like to develop this three points : the rôle of perception for primitive symbolisation, its rôle for secondary symbolisation and finally the importance of the group to define symbolisation.


1) Primitive thinking is particularly impossible in the event of hallucination. Bion has already studied psychotics processes. In the model before, I spoke about the patient confusing the practitioner by projecting in him some part of himself. Observation of hallucination does not work according to this model. When a patient staves at point in space (with his eyes) or fixed on a noise (with his ears) the practitioner does not see and does not hear this. Bion use the concept of "transformation by hallucinose" : the origin and the aim of transformation remain unperceptible and unknown for practitioner. To notice it, attention has to be developed as "intuit", to find a point where the practitioner can meet the patient, where they can be in a container-contained relation.

In the model before, container-contained relation was supposed to exist. In this model the practitioner has to find it himself. It always occurs with catastrophic anxiety. At this point suffering is so intense that it can't first be perceived and thus be thought. It is due to the omnipotence of the patient, it is due to the traumatic origin. When this point is approached there is a risk of terror and of acting out or somatisations.

The case of hallucination is a good representation of the new problem to symbolize. Experiences are limiting because of the rôle of senses.


2) For verbal thought Bion continues to distinguish between langage for communication, that he calls "langage of achievement" and langage which is a substitut for action. He goes further to explain this.

Words are containers and so they could be faulty. They can be destroyed if the contained is too explosive. He gives the example of stammering, the satifaction of the act of speaking is so excessive that the word does not survive this emotional impact. Words can be annihilated in their function to contain and to symbolize. They are too full of contained because they are satured with satisfactions of perceptions. It is a typical use of symbol by psychotics. "They use symbol but they are not able to symbolize" (1970). Searle calls it "concrete thought". The word is not open to association. It is closed as if it is a private langage. Bion says that psychotics (more precisely the "psychotic parts of personnality") are in relation with god. There is not any connections with common people or with anybody. The word has definite meaning due to investment as perception.

This conception which differentiates between perception and meaning can explain the paradox of a symbol which does not symbolize.


3) Symbol depends on a group, more precisely of that is established in this group, through the members of the group. It is an original contribution of Bion.

As a container, "symbol" is an "establishement". It is a sort of "normal" meaning which results from common perceptions in a culture. The dictionary gives us details of this convention. Do not forget Bion learnt History at Universty, firstly he had introduced different basic assumption in the model of different civilisations, he continues to point out the importance of this characteristic of human being. It is a transsubjective point of view, perceptions and meanings of symbol are shared by a group. They "run" from one person to another, they "travel" accross society (in time and in space), according to certain rules.

It sometimes happens that a symbol meets a contained which transforms it. The new idea has to make its place in establishment, in the shared mind of a society, of a group or of a person. This new perception requires the creation of appartus to receive it. This new vertex is not compatible with the other ones. Thought does not belong to anyone and each change is a risk of a catastrophe. It destabilizes the establishment.


Symbolisation and intersubjectivity are closely articulated in this third relation. The model of the institution in a group takes the place of the model of mother-baby dyade. It looks like modern physics in comparison with classical physics, Grostein developes this metaphor.


The dynamic of change is near the first one described from group experience. We think of S. Freud when he explores mass-psychology : "primitive-mass" is like an origin which makes movements under every organized-mass, namely institution. It can destroy it but also, as Bion shows, the change presupposes to have contact with this primive part. S. Freud tells the "scientific myth" of the "Primitive Horde", Bion tells this myth again, according to his works :

- at the origin there would be no difference between god and man. It corresponds to the first Freudian stage : the father is omnipotent, he possesses all females.

- after, a separation between god and man is established. The difference between omnipotence and reality is established, a work group can exist. It corresponds to the brothers convention after the murder of the Father.

- the third stage, a mystic is in "communication" with god, with the origin of the group. His new idea destabilizes what was established. It corresponds to the Freudian period where a poet relates to his group a story of a father killed by his sons (1921). Freud demonstrated paternal transference, Bion more archaic transference.

Bion developes a psychotic version of this Freudian tale. He had already made this suggestion when he was working in group, twenty five years ago. When Freud explains symbolisation in the secondary problematic, we can say Bion explain symbolisation in more primitive way. When Freud discovers transference between persons, Bion highlights more intersubjective view point to approach relations.

Some of these characteristics of the articulation between symbolisation and intersubjectivity are developed by René Kaës. From the associative process of each individual suject within group, he pointes out unconscious alliances in groups or institutions. In Italy this third perspective have been used for the group. Claudio Neri (1995) developes a very transpersonal viewpoint. The concept of transformation is quite used to thinking, to symbolizing in groups.


Third interpretation of the case

(the position of the practitioner and the transpsychic defenses in institutional group - the denial level and the origin of the institution)


In this worhsop I would propose to discuss my hypothesis and each of this three propositions. Bion's works is so important than we have to form bonds into differents part of his heritage and in relation with other theories and practices.



Université Lyon 2,

Institut de psychologie, CRPPC,

C.P. 11, F-69676 BRON cedex France.


E-mail :




I propose to analyse Bion's works evolution in regard to the relation between symbolization and intersubjectivity. My studies have focused on the hypothesis that we can find successively three different ways to consider this relation in his theorizing. Symbolization theory evolves in the same time the increasing rôle of intersujectivity. Il turns out that each time his practice develops as in a spiral, in stage. Three books mark this evolution : Experiences in groups and others papers, Learning from experience, 1962, and Attention and Interpretation, 1970. A case is each time interpretated from this three viewpoints.


bibliographY :



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1962 Learning from experience, tr. fr., Aux sources de l'expérience, Paris, PUF, 1979.

1963 Eléments de psychanalyse, tr. fr., Paris, PUF, 1979.

1965 Transformations, tr. fr., Paris, PUF, 1982.

1967 Second thaught, tr. fr., Réflexion faite,. 1983

1970 Attention and Interprétation, tr. fr., Paris, Payot, 1974.


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