ABSTRACT

Bion did not formally study philosophy, but his work is peppered with allusions to philosophers: amongst others, to the ancient Greeks; to Descartes; to Hume; and, most of all, to Kant. Bion makes explicit references to Kant’s notions of things-in-themselves, empty thoughts, and the primary and secondary qualities of phenomena. What I want to do here is look at both the use, and sometimes the misuse, of Kantian terms by Bion. I intend to show that care needs to be taken in drawing connections between Kant and Bion based on an assumption that Bion is using Kantian terms in a Kantian sense: for, despite Bion saying that he does, he sometimes does not. That said, I do not intend to criticise the use to which Bion put the Kantian terms he misappropriates. Bion’s departure from Kant is an excellent illustration of a fundamental difference between philosophy and psychoanalysis: Bion, like Kant, looks at how knowledge of the world is possible; but he goes much further to show, as had Freud before him, how different minds, psychotic and neurotic, can create different worlds. Bléandonu divides Bion’s work into four ‘seasons’ which separate his work on groups, psychosis, epistemology and literary art (Bléandonu, 1994, p. 2). My focus is largely, in Bléandonu’s categorisation, on the summer and autumn of Bion’s productive life, from the mid-1950s to 1970, the period during which Bion produced his most important works on psychosis and on

epistemology, including Learning from Experience (1962), Elements of PsychoAnalysis (1963), Transformations (1965), the collected papers and later commentary in Second Thoughts (1967) and Attention and Interpretation (1970). How much of Kant did Bion read? Mrs Bion has confirmed, in a personal communication for which I am grateful, that the following books by and about Kant remain in Bion’s library: two works by Kant: his Critique of Pure Reason and his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals; and two commentaries, both by H.J. Paton: one on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (Paton’s Kant’s Metaphysics of Experience); the other on Kant’s moral philosophy (Paton’s Kant’s Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kant’s Moral Philosophy). We do not know how critically Bion read the primary sources or how much he relied on Paton’s commentary and that of Copleston’s History of Philosophy which Sandler cites as a Kantian source in his paper, ‘The origins of Bion’s work’ (Sandler, 2006). Sandler summarises Bion’s sources in a table headed: Confirmed (writings of Bion and the personal library of Wilfred and Francesca Bion). It names philosophers, their references in Bion’s work and the use to which Bion put them. Sandler’s entry for Kant, which strangely does not include three of the four works which Mrs Bion confirmed remain in Bion’s library, refers only to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Copleston’s History of Philosophy. We know, also from Mrs Bion, that it was at Oxford where Bion first seems to have come into contact with Kantian philosophy.1 There, Bion met Paton, the academic referred to above, an authority on Kant who taught at Oxford from 1917 (just before Bion’s arrival) until 1922 (just after Bion left Oxford to begin work as a school teacher). In 1947, Paton produced The Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kant’s Moral Philosophy, a copy of which remains in Bion’s library. Francesca Bion’s foreword to The Long Week-End tells us that: ‘[Bion] always recalled with gratitude the talks he had with H.J. Paton,2 the philosopher’ (Bion, 2005, p. 6); and, in ‘The days of our years’, Mrs Bion says: ‘He also remembered with gratitude conversations with Paton, the philosopher, and regretted not having studied philosophy’.3