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Ogden, T.H. (2008). Bion's Four Principles of Mental Functioning. Fort Da, 14(2):11-35.

(2008). Fort Da, 14(2):11-35

Bion's Four Principles of Mental Functioning

Thomas H. Ogden, M.D.

Bion's lifework as a psychoanalytic theorist was the formulation of a theory of thinking. Over a span of four decades, virtually every one of Bion's papers, books, lectures, clinical seminars, notes to himself (his “cogitations”) involves an effort to develop one aspect or another of that theory of thinking. Bion experimented with a variety of metaphors (models) in his effort to capture the nature of thinking and its consequences. The major metaphors with which he experimented include the idea of the interplay of the work group and the basic assumption groups; an intersubjective conception of projective identification; the theory of alpha-function; the concept of the container-contained; the theory of L, H, and K linkages and of attacks on linking; the concept of binocular vision; the grid; psychic transformations; and the concept of “O.”

With a body of work as extensive as Bion's, I find it useful to state in as few words as possible what I discern to be the fundamental tenets running through that work. Bion (1962/1975c), in the same spirit, commented, “Psycho-analytic virtue lies not in the number of theories an analyst can command but the minimum number with which he can meet any contingency he is likely to meet” (p. 88). Accordingly, I will begin by stating in a highly condensed fashion what I think of as “the four principles of mental functioning” that I believe constitute the core of Bion's theory of thinking. My ideas are offered as points of departure for thoughts about Bion's theory of thinking, not as end points.

After presenting, in the space of a single paragraph, my conception of Bion's four principles of mental functioning, I will go on to discuss at greater length each of the principles that I have proposed. Finally, I will look closely at one of Bion's clinical seminars in an effort to demonstrate something of the way in which his clinical thinking is informed by his theory of thinking.

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