Text of public lecture 25 October 2011
by Paul Schimmel
Patients come to psychoanalysis and psychotherapy because they cannot learn from experience, to use one of Bions phrases. If they could do so they would avail themselves of their experiences and relationships in such a way as to grow and develop.
The psychotherapy patient is not simply a hungry person who can make use of food when it becomes available. The situation is more analogous to the person who has been starving for so long that their digestive system has shut down, and can no longer make immediate use of food. The real problem is the psychic structure, or psychic way of functioning, that has become established in response to the period of starvation. In the case of the psychotherapy patient, rather than a lack of actual food, we are probably dealing with a developmental experience where there was felt to be a starvation of thoughtful attention from another mind. A lack of actual food can, of course, also occur.
Bion speculated about a certain kind of patient who, out of frustration in early development, turns against emotional experience with hatred and attacks it. Emotional realities such as pain and rage are felt to be so intolerable that they must be evacuated or obliterated, and this includes obliteration of any awareness of the hatred itself. Fear, hate and envy are so feared that steps are taken to destroy awareness of all feelings, although this is indistinguishable from taking life itself. (Bion 1962, p 10) Therapeutic progress with such a patient will depend upon the extent to which the forces against the experience of emotional reality can be transformed, and become less potent.
How a person, any one of us, deals with feelings of hatred and rage has a great impact upon our mind and how we are able to use it. The splitting off of such feelings from consciousness is often linked to a state of psychic impoverishment. Bion suggests, such an individual may have survived in life, but without really living, so is confused between life and death, and unsure what either would really mean. On the other hand, the emergence of such powerful emotional experience and anxiety directly into consciousness, as a result of the containment offered in a psychotherapeutic experience, can facilitate a process of transformation and mark the beginning of new life.
Not infrequently this emergence and experience of primitive anxieties and hatred in consciousness, has the quality of an eruption. The eruption is explained by the strength, even violence, of the forces themselves, and the resistance to their emergence; just as the crust of the earth provides resistance to the emergence of the magma beneath, which may then breakthrough in the form of an eruption. In the context of a therapeutic relationship, such an eruption of rage may sometimes be precipitated by an interpretation or action on the part of the therapist which pierces the patients narcissism; that is which pierces some protective but isolating emotional barrier. The patient may then feel overwhelmed with a violent conscious hatred and anger, a wish to smash up everything and everybody, including of course the therapist, who will not be thanked for helping bring about this state of affairs. Nevertheless such a development is potentially a step towards integration.
In this paper I will only be able to cover part of what Bion had to say about human destructiveness, and will consider in particular his thinking about the origins of destructiveness. The first section of the paper deals with the impact of Bions experiences in the First World War, as these were personally formative, and also formative in terms of his theoretical thinking. Alongside this I will consider the impact of the First World War on Sigmund Freud, and Freuds subsequent formulation of the theory of a death instinct. The second part of the paper, The Kleinian influence, will consider Bions initial attempts to conceptualize the origins of human destructiveness employing the Kleinian version of the death instinct. The third part of the paper, Beginnings of a new theory, will consider Bions development of his theory of thinking, and the new conceptualization of the origins of human destructiveness inherent in his emerging understanding of the mind.
World War I
When the First World War broke out Sigmund Freud was aged 58, and Wilfred Bion was 18. There were 40 years between them and they were on opposite sides of the conflict. Freuds had several sons involved in the fighting, although miraculously all were to survive. Bion joined the Tank Corps, and he also would, miraculously, survive. Their very different experiences of the war were to prove profoundly disillusioning for both, although the word disillusionment would hardly seem to do justice to the horror of Bions experience.
Until the First War Freud had managed to maintain something of the militaristic frame of mind that was reflected in his childhood idealizations of various military adventurers, particularly Hannibal and Napoleon. At the outbreak of the war Freud was optimistic for a swift victory by Austria and her allies, All my libido is given to Austro-Hungary, he said (Jones 1953, vol II, p 192). Freuds fantasy was a passage of arms conducted in an essentially chivalrous manner, and it is clear that the man who had prided himself on his knowledge of what was primitive within the human mind, was simply not prepared for what was to come. But by 1915, in _Thoughts for the times on war and death he wrote, the war in which we had refused to believe broke out, and it brought disillusionment. We welcome illusions because they spare us unpleasurable feelings, and enable us to enjoy satisfactions instead. We must not complain, then, if now and again they come into collision with some portion of reality, and are shattered against it. (Freud 1915_b, p 280)
This experience of disillusion clearly had a profound impact upon Freuds mind; it forced him to, and also freed him up to, confront the need to understand more about the nature of human destructiveness, although the nature of the explanatory formulation that he came to, that is the death instinct, has remained one of the most contentious of his theoretical ideas. I doubt that it can be regarded as a psychoanalytic theory at all ... but that is another question. Nevertheless, it seems clear that up until this point Freud had been under the influence of an illusion.
My impression is that the young Wilfred Bion was to be disillusioned before he really had time to recognize he had any illusions in the first place. He was thrown into something beyond his comprehension, and like Freud his experience of the war would compel him to contemplate the problem of human destructiveness.
The first part of Bions autobiography is titled The long week-end: 1897-1919 (Bion 1982). It is an account of his childhood and life up until the end of the First World War, and although Bion links these in a continuous narrative, it is the account of the war that comes to dominate the book. Clearly Bion felt it was something he had to get out and down on paper before he died. Towards the end of the book, as he writes, he is pursued by the memory of being with a dying soldier Sweeting:
Mother, Mother You will write to my mother sir, wont you?
No, blast you, I shant! Shut up! Cant you see I dont want to be disturbed? These old ghosts, they never die. They dont even fade away; they preserve their youth wonderfully. Why, you can even see the beads of sweat, still fresh, still distinct, against the pallor of their brows. How is it done? (ibid p 264)
These are ghosts that pursued him throughout his life.
Bions account of the war is an extraordinarily honest document; we have a sense of being both inside his mind and in some way in the experience.
Bion was 19 or 20 when he saw action as a tank commander. During a particular action Sweeting is accompanying Bion at the front in thick fog, as Bion tries to reconnoiter for the tanks. The men are on foot, the Germans begin an artillery barrage and running desperately trying to find shelter, they stumble into a shell crater. Bion is trying to ascertain their location in the fog:
Sweeting was trying to say something. He looked horribly anxious, almost ill. What? I shouted, putting my ear to his mouth to catch his reply.
Sir! Sir, why cant I cough?
What a question! What a timeI looked at his chest. His tunic was torn. No, it was not his tunic; the left side of his chest was missing. He tried to look. I stopped him. I found his field dressing and pretended to fix it across the gap. And then he saw, under his left arm He sank back as if relieved, then started on a new tack.
Mother, Mother, Mother Well, thank God for his damned mother. Now at least I could have some peace and pay attention to the shell-fire.
Bion continues his mental attempts to try and figure out what he needs to do.
Sweeting was trying to sit up. For Christs saketry not to be a damned fool man! Lie down blast you! My anger must have impressed him even if he couldnt hear. I couldnt hear either but I could see his lips moving.
MotherMotherMother Then he saw me looking. Why cant I cough sir?
I couldnt stand it .I began to whimper.
Sweeting, please Sweeting please, please shut up. He shut up. I knew he would start again. I caught a glimpse of the poplars, waving. There must be a strong wind. Why did it not blow the fog away?
Why cant I cough sir?
Why cant you cough it away? Why cant I began to vomit but I had nothing to vomit.
The account continues: the shelling stops, the fog clears, Bion is able to get his bearings, and Sweeting is dying:
His eyes were glazed over. Enough life flickered into them at my words for him to say, You will write to my mother? You will write sir, wont you? He was alive now and urgent. Sir! You will write to my mother? Wont you?
Yes, of course.
And then I think he died. Or perhaps it was only me. (Bion 1982, p 247)
Death is the constant companion. The tanks are death traps, and the tank commanders job was to direct the tanks from outside, on foot. In a late action of the war Bions tanks are advancing but the supporting infantry attack does not materialize. Bion rushes back, Terrified at what would happen to the tanks without infantry support to keep enemy gunners immobilized, which was, he comments, a very slender hope at the best of times. The infantry does not attack. Bion is now in a trench but too far away to get back to the tanks. He watches helplessly:
The tanks rolled up a gentle grassy slope. There was a soft muffled explosion. Robertsons tank opened up as a flower in a nature film might unfold. Another thud; then two, almost simultaneous, followed. The whole four flowered. Hard, bright flames, as if cut out of tinfoil, flickered and died, extinguished by the bright sun.
Like a boy learning a task set out for detention I repeated mentally, I must remember these four officers and all their men are dead. I do not remember the slightest suspicion of mourning or regret. (ibid p 254)
The tanks had been ordered to attack at 10-30 am, a suicidal gesture. There were night attacks, dawn attacks, feint attacks; but not a 10-30 attack surely not 10-30? (ibid p 256)
Assignment to the tanks was in effect a death sentence. The tank commanders were the only ones with any real chance of survival in the longer term. At the end of the war, of the battalion that Bion had begun with, only two combat officers, other than himself, remained, but, of the men there was none. Even of those who had seen more than six months fighting there was a mere handful. (_ibid _p286) As Bion suggests, he is not sure whether he has survived the carnage and is still in the world. I am reminded of the anecdote of the patient brought to Bion in supervision; a man, who switched on the light at night to see if he was still in bed. As Bion commented, Well, everyone is entitled to a second opinion. I imagine Bion could well identify with the mans dilemma.
The impact of Bions war experience seems present in many of his subsequent conceptual formulations. The tanks themselves could be seen as a realization of his concept of the rigid crushing container. In another action, Bion, who is sick with a fever, finds himself having had to take over the command of a tank, so is inside and directing the driver. He notices German observation balloons in the air. He had also noticed some artillery fire. He doesnt put two and two together immediately, until his driver says:
Its those balloons sir.
Of course it had not occurred to me! We were under direct observation; they must be concentrating on us .
Get out! I shouted. All of you! Walk close behind. They tumbled out. I took over driving the tank, meaning to drive a zig-zag course with the escape hatch over me open. Then I realized that with no crew I could not steer the tank and could not drive anywhere but straight ahead. I had no sense of fear. I opened the throttle so the tank was at full speed.
Before I knew what I was doing I had left the drivers seat and joined the crew behind. It was difficult to keep up with the fast- moving driverless tank. Then, only then, panic overwhelmed me. Suppose they were not firing at us? Suppose they did not hit us? A fully equipped tank in complete working order would have been handed over to the enemy, abandoned on my orders by its crew.
I could not catch up with it; as I stumbled and tried to run to the door I fell. Then mercifully the shell hit, pierced and burst. The tank stopped, flames spurting everywhere. In a moment it was a total wreck.
I felt bemused, unable to grasp what had happened. I only knew that I had failed in my desperate resolve to get back to the tank. Had I succeeded I could not possibly have survived. (ibid p 262)
Bion does not point out the obvious, that if he had not ordered his crew out of the tank probably no-one would have survived. It is hard not to imagine that the hard rigid physical reality of the tanks themselves, and of the authoritarian command mentality that sent tanks into action at 10-30 in the morning, did not shape Bions concept of the hard, rigid or crushing container; the container that destroys the life of its contents.
My interpretation is that at the moment Bion abandoned the tank, he was escaping from the rigid container we call authority, which is inimical to thinking. Bion writes he left the tank before he knew what he was doing. This episode is, I think, also a realization of his notion of thinking under fire. Such a process might take place outside of the self that thinks it knows what it is doing; in this case, Bion would seem to have been following a process of primitive commonsense thinking, which placed collective survival above other considerations. It is important to note, it is not a self-centered concern for survival. The Symingtons, in their book on Bion, make the point that Bions connection with the group was through thought, as opposed to the unthinking identification with the group. (Symington, 1996 p 19) The connection through thinking, that is real thinking, includes concern for the group. I think it is valid to interpret his instructions to the crew to leave the tank as both a manifestation of concern, and as suggested, a breaking out of the unthinking identification with the group, by means of thinking.
It is also important to understand that Bions concept of thinking does not refer to a purely cognitive process. In his theoretical work Bion took the innovative step of placing emotional experience at the centre of his conception of thinking.
Bion was haunted by the old ghosts of the First War, and had experienced for himself the separation of thought from emotional experience that so often is a feature of trauma: I must remember these four officers and all their men are dead. I do not remember the slightest suspicion of mourning or regret. His experience of the war drew his attention to the problems of the destruction of the thinking mind.
After demobilization he went on to train in medicine and psychiatry, become an army psychiatrist, and during the Second World War was involved with units dedicated to the rehabilitation of soldiers suffering war neuroses; probably a reflection of an on-going attempt to understand his own lingering state of shell shock.
The Kleinian influence
Before the Second World War Bion had an experience of analysis with John Rickman, and after the Second War he sought a second analysis. It is perhaps not surprising that he chose Melanie Klein as his analyst; not only was it clear that she was at the cutting edge, of new thinking, but in the clinical encounter she would be concerned to understand the nature of the destructive forces within the mind.
Bion would qualify as a member of the British Society and, initially at least, was to some extent identified with the Kleinian group. According to Grosskurth, going into analysis with Klein, Bion had felt the need to emphasise that he would remain his own person (Grosskurth 1985, p 427). This he was able to do, but it would take him some time.
In_ Beyond the pleasure principle_ (Freud 1920g) Freud had proposed the death instinct or death drive, a fundamental and innate disposition within the organism, in opposition to the life instinct or life drive, as accounting for the phenomena of human destructiveness. Despite Beyond the pleasure principle possessing passages of imaginative and intuitive genius, Freuds argument seems, at times, to slip into conceptual incoherence, and his concept of the death instinct remains difficult to grasp.
Klein emphasized the innate aggressive and destructive elements of the death instinct. She juxtaposed the libidinal manifestations of the infants emotional life, which she conceptualized as arising from the life instinct, to the aggressive and sadistic manifestations of the infants emotional life, which she conceptualized as arising from the death instinct (Klein 1952). In this way, she seems to have regarded her death instinct as possessing an innate drive component, in an opposite, but equivalent, sense to the way the manifestations of libido reflect the drive component of the life instinct. I understand Kleins death instinct to constitute a dispositional state within the infant which contains drive elements. I will call this the Klein version of the death instinct. However, it is interesting to note that her specific statements about this remain somewhat ambiguous, and she repeatedly refers to aggressive or sadistic impulses, rather than drives.
Later Klein would hypothesize an innate and primitive envy present from birth, which seems to have been conceptualized either as a modified form of, or particular manifestation of, the death instinct. (Klein 1957)
The death instinct tends to divide people into camps. The Kleinians of course, accepted it, and it seems that Wilfred Bion in his early writings, accepted the idea. In the 1950s Bion published a series of individual papers, which would later be collected together and republished in 1967 as Second thoughts. In a number of these papers he discusses his attempts to pursue clinical psychoanalytic work with a number of very disturbed schizophrenic and psychotic patients. Herbert Rosenfeld and Hanna Segal were also attempting to undertake such work with psychotic patients. All of them employed Kleins theory of the failure to achieve the psychic integration characteristic of what she called the depressive position. As a consequence, such patients were thought to remain in the so-called paranoid-schizoid position, or mode of functioning. All were in agreement that one of the factors behind this failure of psychic integration was, as Bion puts it, a preponderance of destructive impulses. In the schizophrenic, says Bion, there is a preponderance of destructive impulses so great that even the impulses to love are suffused by them and turned to sadism. (Bion 1967,_ _ p 37)
Bion had seen enough to be under no illusions about the possibility of a human mind coming under the sway of a preponderance of destructive impulses. He was also in analysis with Melanie Klein, and we might guess, attempting to form some awareness of destructive processes within himself.
At this time, Bion conceptualized the process of psychic integration, that leads out of the unintegrated paranoid schizoid position and into the depressive position, as dependent on a process of linking together of elements within the mind. However, excessive destructiveness leads to attacks on linking (Bion 1967, p 93), and prevents this process of integration. A realistic appraisal of both external reality and intrapsychic reality cannot then be achieved. The concept of attacks on linking was central to Bions early thinking about destructive forces within the mind, and was to remain so, appearing in different transformations over time; for example -K and reversal of a function.
Bion wrote of the process of divergence of the psychotic personality from the non-psychotic personality, and in so doing was referring both to the possible difference between two separate persons, and also to the possibility of there being two such personalities within the one person. He suggested that the potentially psychotic personality is burdened by the preponderance of destructive impulses, and this leads to a hatred of reality which, as Freud pointed out, is extended to all aspects of the psyche that make for awareness of it. Bion adds that there is also a hatred of internal reality and all that makes for awareness of it. (Bion 1967, p 37)
Because the functions of perception are necessary for the apprehension of reality, whether internal or external, Bion suggested that the functions of the perceptual organs themselves can come under attack from the psychotic personality. This he understood to be the origin of the hallucinatory disturbances which occur in psychotic states. Reality is hated and obliterated along with the perceptual functions which could potentially allow a greater apprehension of reality (Bion 1967, p 38).
Likewise, the capacity for verbal thought, which is intimately linked with conceptual and self-awareness, also comes under attack. This is seen as linked to the disorganization of conceptual thought and the delusions which occur in psychotic states (Bion 1967, p 48).
In Notes on a theory of schizophrenia Bion commented:
From the patients point of view the achievement of verbal thought has been a most unhappy event. Verbal thought is, says Bion, so interwoven with catastrophe and the painful emotion of depression, that the patient attempts to undermine or evacuate this capacity within himself. The results are again unhappy for the patient; lack of this capacity is now felt by him to be the same thing as being insane. On the other hand, resumption of this capacity seems to him to be inseparable from depression and awareness, on a reality level this time, that he is insane. (Bion 1967, p 32)
The question I want to focus on here is why; why the personality, or particularly the psychotic part of the personality, should come to possess this preponderance of destructive impulses in the first place. The evolution of Bions thinking is, I think, particularly helpful in that it offers us a coherent way out of the death instinct debate. We might say Bion took the argument beyond the death instinct, and back to the pleasure principle. I hope I am able to make clear why this is so.
Bions initial position was more or less in line with the conception of an innate and constitutional factor as hypothesized by Klein in her version of the death instinct. In his paper The development of schizophrenic thought he wrote: Melanie Klein believes that this conflict [between life and death instincts] persists throughout life, and this view I believe to be of great importance to an understanding of the schizophrenic. (Bion 1967, p 36) While Bions early statements seem to put the emphasis on constitutional endowment rather than the environment in the genesis of schizophrenia, for the most part he left room for ambiguity, and he was also often ambiguous as to how he conceptualized the nature of the constitutional endowment.
In Attacks on linking, one of the later papers published in the series in Second thoughts, Bion paid greater attention to the environmental factor. He speculated about the maternal failure to be receptive to the infants means of communication and the deleterious effect for the infant. However, having introduced this environmental factor, he adds the following qualification:
I do not put forward this experience as the cause of the patients disturbance; that finds its main source in the inborn disposition of the infant . Bion continued by making reference, to the inborn characteristics and the part that they play in producing attacks by the infant on all that links him to the breast, namely, primary aggression and envy. (Bion 1967, p 105) So at this point it would seem Bion is specifying the nature of the inborn characteristics he is referring to; namely primary aggression and envy.
This is the one statement I have come across in Bions writings which seems fairly unambiguously supportive of what I have called the Klein version of the death instinct. For Bion, with his philosophical background, I think the adoption of the Klein version is surprising, and I will say more about why. It was however, a position that he gradually moved away from, and I am not aware of any similar passages placing such emphasis on the innate and primary aspects of aggression and envy in his writings subsequent to Attacks on linking.
Beginnings of a new theory
I will now turn to the final paper in _Second thoughts _called, A theory of thinking, and Bions early book, Learning from experience. In these works he hypothesizes the essential elements of his theory of mind, and how he conceptualizes that the development of thinking comes about, or fails to come about, as the case may be.
In _Learning from experience _Bion refers to Freuds two principles of mental functioning, the pleasure principle and the reality principle. Freuds hypothesis was that the pleasure principle is fundamental and acts in an immediate way to seek out what is felt to be pleasurable and avoid what is felt to be painful. The reality principle however, is that capacity, which Freud suggests develops over time, by which the organism can defer immediate gratification in order to accommodate to the demands of reality and thereby achieve a more satisfactory adaptation to reality in the longer term. The reality principle presumes an inhibition of motor discharge and a capacity to wait. Bion quotes Freud:
Restraint of motor discharge (of action) had now become necessary and was provided by means of thought, which was developed from ideation. Thought was endowed with qualities which made it possible for the mental apparatus to support increased tension during a delay in the process of discharge. It is essentially an experimental way of acting...
Bion points out that it is implicit in Freuds statement that this restraint of motor action, the delay in discharge as Freud puts it, is dependent upon the organisms capacity to tolerate frustration. The link between intolerance of frustration and the development of thought is central to an understanding of thought and its disturbances. (Bion 1962, p 28)
We might characterise the difference as between a reaction to something which is automatic and born of the pleasure principle, and a response to something which involves thinking and is born of the reality principle.
Bion speculates about the situation of the newborn infant which he uses to build a model for the processes of mental development. The first experiences at the breast were also, of course, where Melanie Kleins speculations took her in trying to understand the development of the mind, but we see Bions conceptual speculation is more complex.
The newborn infant, he suggests, requires the breast/mother to supply both milk and love. The breast is an object the infant needs to supply it with milk and good internal objects. I do not attribute to the infant an awareness of this need; but I do attribute to the infant an awareness of a need not satisfied. We can say the infant feels frustrated if we assume the existence of some apparatus with which frustration can be experienced. Freuds concept of consciousness as that of a sense-organ for the perception of psychical qualities, provides such an apparatus. (Bion 1962, p 34)
Here Bion initiated a crucial conceptual move: he distinguished between a need, and a need not satisfied; it is the need not satisfied that leads to awareness. He further develops his train of thought by making the logical point that if, at the very beginning, no conception of a good breast has yet developed, the awareness in question cannot be awareness of the need for a good breast missing, but rather will be experienced as a persecutory awareness of a bad breast present; a so-called bad object. the infant does not feel it wants a good breast but it does feel it wants to evacuate a bad one. (_ibid _p 34)
So, as Bion points out, the so-called bad breast experience must precede the good breast experience; in the beginning the taking in of milk will be experienced as indistinguishable from evacuating a bad breast. It will take the infant some time to establish the idea of a breast missing and not as a bad breast present. (ibid p 34) Satisfactory experiences of feeding and love will be necessary in order to establish in the mind the idea of a good breast that can provide for the infants needs and can also then be felt to be missing. The infants initial experience of hunger will be weighted to that of a persecutory bad breast or bad object. There will be an urgent pressure or need to get rid of, or evacuate, this bad breast. Optimally this is accomplished in a satisfactory feeding experience. The same argument can be extended to any unmet physical and /or emotional need of the infant; such a need would presumably become increasingly persecutory the longer it remains unmet.
We know that a newborn infant seeks out the mothers breast, and clearly therefore has some sort of template in the mind representing the breast experience. Bion calls this template of a breast that can provide, a preconception. (Bion 1963, p 23) We cannot know exactly what constitutes this preconception, but it is innate. In Bions view, it seems not to constitute a form of awareness. Bion suggests such a preconception can develop, if matched with an appropriate realization, into a conception of a breast. That is, experiences of the breast lead to development, from the preconception to the conception breast, and it will take repeated good enough experiences of the breast for the conception of a good breast to evolve.
In his paper _A theory of thinking _Bion first introduced his crucial idea of the capacity to tolerate frustration. He posed the question as to what might happen for an infant whose expectation of a breast is matched, or mated, as he puts it, with an experience of no breast available. In the face of this bad breast experience what happens will depend on the infants capacity to tolerate frustration. If the capacity to tolerate frustration is sufficient, suggests Bion, the no breast experience becomes what he calls a thought. Again Bion refers to Freuds Two principles of mental functioning: if the capacity to tolerate frustration is sufficient, This initiates the state, described by Freud, in which dominance by the reality principle is synchronous with the development of an ability to think and so to bridge the gulf of frustration between the moment when a want is felt and the moment when action appropriate to satisfying the want culminates in its satisfaction. (Bion, 1967 p 112) We can see from this idea that experiences of frustration which can be tolerated by the developing mind, are a potent force in the development of thoughts, and also of consciousness.
On the other hand, incapacity to tolerate frustration tips the balance in favour of the evasion of reality. So when frustration cannot be tolerated, and the preconception breast is met with an absence, then the experience of the bad object is felt to be intolerable. It then has to be evaded through some means of evacuation. Instead of the absent breast becoming a negative realization leading to a thought, this situation fosters the development of a mind which has to substitute the evacuation of a bad breast for the sought for good breast experience. Bion suggested that, The end result is that all thoughts are treated as if they were indistinguishable from bad internal objects; the appropriate machinery is felt to be, not an apparatus for thinking thoughts, but an apparatus for ridding the psyche of accumulations of bad internal objects. (Bion 1967, p 112)
Things are not always so black and white, and Bion also suggested an in-between possibility: If intolerance of frustration is not so great as to activate the mechanisms of evasion and yet is too great to bear the dominance of the reality principle, the personality develops omnipotence as a substitute and, This involves the assumption of omniscience as a substitute for learning from experience by aid of thoughts and thinking. (Bion 1967, p 114)
At this point therefore, Bion was proposing a model for the development of the mind dependent both upon the quality of the environment, and the constitutional disposition of the infant. The environmental factors will depend, in particular, on the quality of care provided by the mother, or her surrogate. A crucial dimension of this environment will be the level of deprivation or the trauma the infant is exposed to. The constitutional factor is now conceptualized in terms of the capacity of the infant to tolerate frustration of its needs. This innate capacity, or lack of capacity, to deal with frustration will be a crucial factor, just as the mothers capacity to help her infant manage its frustrations will prove a crucial factor. We can see that the two factors in the equation will in fact be intimately related to each other, and interacting, right from birth. For example, even an infant with considerable capacity to tolerate frustration is likely to come to grief, if the mother is neglectful or is unable to communicate to her baby her concern and love; or, conversely, an infant with a very limited capacity to tolerate frustration, may be helped by a sensitive mother to manage its emotional experience, and achieve a satisfactory psychic integration.
Bions new formulation replaces the innate factor as conceptualized in terms of the death instinct with an innate factor conceptualized in terms of the capacity to tolerate frustration.
As I have suggested, I think it is somewhat surprising that Bion, with his philosophical gift, should have, for a time, adopted the Klein version of the death instinct; that is the concept of a death instinct as including the idea of primary and innate aggression and envy. Attribution of the constitutional component in human destructiveness, in whole or in part, to such a death instinct would seem to be an extremely weak scientific theory. If we consider the Klein version, it would seem logically impossible to accrue unequivocal evidence in support of the theory. An instinctual force is known indirectly through its manifestations, so while any and all evidence of the human propensity for destructiveness is compatible with the death instinct theory of causality, it is hard to see how any such evidence can favour this theory as against a plausible formulation of another hypothetical constitutional factor. We may even entertain a doubt as to whether any such evidence necessarily points to the presence of a constitutional factor at all.
However, newborns do have differing constitutions. If we accept the likelihood that there is a constitutional factor contributing to the manifestations of human destructiveness, Bion has offered an alternative formulation of this constitutional factor in terms of the capacity to tolerate frustration. The lack of such a capacity would predispose to excessive frustration, which would in turn potentially generate experiences of anger and impulses of hatred. Clearly, Bions hypothesis is conceptually distinct from the idea of an aggressive or destructive drive generated de novo from within the organism. Bions new formulation does not rely on the introduction of the additional hypothetical factor of an independent inner drive that is the death instinct. As such it has an economy and plausibility which the drive version of the death instinct lacks. In science, a simple theory, so long as it has explanatory power equal to, or better than, another more complex theory, is clearly to be preferred.
However, to my mind, the greatest problem with the theory of the death instinct is not the difficulty of identifying supportive evidence, but rather the fact that the theory seems untestable, and therefore unfalsifiable. In _The logic of scientific discovery _Karl Popper has proposed the test of falsifiability as the crucial demarcation criterion for any theory to be considered scientific (Popper 1959). To simplify Poppers position, he suggested that if a theory is to be judged to be a scientific theory at all, it must be possible to conceptualise ways in which the theory may be put to the test and potentially shown to be false.
Popper, in fact has suggested that all psychoanalytic theory is unfalsifiable, however Poppers challenge to psychoanalysis is not of the essence in relation to the death instinct, as the death instinct appears to be a biological, rather than psychoanalytic, theory. But whatever kind of theory it is, how would one disprove it?
The problem seems to be that within the theoretical framework of the Klein version, the operation of the death instinct is proved by the presence of its manifestations, such as those of human destructiveness and envy. No matter what evidence might be adduced to support an alternative formulation of the origin of these manifestations, the advocate of the death instinct can simply assert that none of this contradicts the operation of the death instinct as a contributing and necessary factor. Within the theory, the death instinct is a given, true by definition, and in this context it is difficult to see how it could be disproved.
I would suggest that a theory for which we have no unequivocal supportive evidence on the one hand and, which does not to admit of tests of falsifiability on the other, is no theory at all; it is an empty idea, in the omniscient sense that Bion describes, and he should have known this. We dont know why, for a while, Bion embraced the idea of the death instinct. The obvious conjecture is that he was under the emotional sway of his analytic experience and relationship with Melanie Klein, and it would take him time to reach a more independent position. His commenting that he would remain his own person in analysis with Klein perhaps suggests he was aware of his vulnerability in this regard. I also dont know if he ever outright refuted the idea of the Kleinian death instinct, but it is clear that he went beyond it, as I suggested earlier, returning to the so-called pleasure principle and the organisms inability to tolerate frustration, in order to formulate a more plausible account of the innate factors which shape the development of the mind.
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