Comments by Jack Foehl

Civitarese’s Method: A Short Discourse on “Names of O: Is Bion a Mystic?”

Jack Foehl


I would like to begin with a playful paraphrase of a paragraph toward the middle of Civitarese’s exposition on O (p. 11) that touches on what I see as Civitarese’s method:


In the end it does not much matter if Civitarese is correctly reading Bion, Hegel, Kant, Descartes, Plato, etc. He follows in the footsteps of these thinkers and uses their methods for his own ends, not simply in the service of abstract speculation (although these speculations provide a sedimented ground of context, reference and allusion). He offers aporia in the service of weaving the different threads of O, and this as a means of opening a discourse on the fundamental investments of psychoanalysis which concern the nature of transformation.  His method loosens the reins of the classical, the academy, in the service of disturbing the universe with “wild” thoughts on the mystical, always oriented toward the clinical moment, the ground of truth-as-lived. Civitarese’s method includes what I experience as a bit of alchemy. He transforms one set of ideas into a new context for others, in the service of explicating the Bionian subject. But this is a new Bion, one suited to a contemporary vision, ethos and aesthetic. As described by Bloom (1973), Civitarese offers a creative misreading or “misprision” (p. 95) of Bion and his muses in the service of new ends. While he is a serious apologist for Bion’s vision, like Ogden, he moves beyond it to new transformations. In this article, Civitarese offers a useful guide through the labyrinth of Bion’s language on O, providing a set of categories that offer points of reference in the penumbra. O is ‘by definition’ a mystery, and it is no small feat to crack its code, to provide an elucidation that renders the concept more practical and graspable for theorist and clinician alike. In this short discourse, I will address a number of transitions in Civitarese’s thinking that are fertile moments of creative synthesis. Let’s see where he takes us.


Copernican Revolution and the Transcendental

In parsing O, Civitarese begins with Bion’s appreciation of Kant. O is “thing-in-itself” (ding an sich), something that cannot be known directly through experience, noumenon rather than phenomenon. In his search for a true ground for metaphysics, Kant turned conventional understanding on its head. Rather than cognition or intuition conforming to and being informed by the objects of our senses, these very objects conform to our intuitions, the very forms characteristic of cognition. Kant calls this a Copernican Revolution. In his famous text, “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres”, Copernicus upended Ptolemy’s age-old geocentric system for explaining and predicting the position of planets with a heliocentric system. Earth, as center of the solar system (and universe) was de-centered by Copernicus, making the spectator revolve and the stars remain at rest. This decentered revolution (orbit) became a revolution (radical overthrow, fundamental change) in perspective. For Kant, the revolution is one of unseating the source of certain knowledge from the experience of the world through the senses to the nature of the forms of experience itself. Space and time are categories of experience, and reality outside of experience is left a mystery. Civitarese refers to Kant’s transcendentalism (p. 3) as the turn from the material world as the ground of knowing and being to the processes through which the world is known. For Civitarese, this is one feature of a Bionian revolution. While Freud offered his own Copernican overturn by decentering subjectivity from conscious awareness to the contents of the unconscious. Bion further decentered experience from the pursuit of unconscious contents to, in Civitarese’s words, “developing the psychic container” (p. 3). The emphasis here is on developing.

Here we see Civitarese’s creativity at work. Kant’s transcendental turn becomes a profound psychoanalytic turn. The postulation that we can never know the unmediated real (thing in itself) apart from appearances becomes in the work of Bion/Civitarese a systematic rejection of naïve reality and an exploration of experience (phenomena), which Civitarese suggests is addressed by Bion as one of the many framings of transformations. Civitarese refers to “…a similar principle of systematic doubt” in the work of Bion and Kant (p. 3). In a brilliant move of linking, Civitarese implies here a commonality of method between Bion, Kant, and Descartes (and we should add Husserl)! Each uses systematic doubt, not as an end in itself, but as a method of arriving at truth, a doubt that draws each from a material metaphysics of their respective ages to the processes of thought and experience itself. For psychoanalysis, this entails a fundamental Kuhnian revolution, a paradigm shift that Civitarese (2008) summarizes in this formula: “from contents to relations; from the past to the processes of mental growth; and from traces to differences and to the functioning of the apparatus for thinking thoughts” (p. 1124). Civitarese rallies the long history of tradition toward experience, something that will culminate in the philosophy of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty and sees this as a central transformation of psychoanalysis. Civitarese’s method distills this movement toward his own ends in elucidating a contemporary Bionian vision, one that situates both theory and process beyond the subject-object dualism of earlier theory. But what about O? In this framing, O is comparable to Lacan’s real, the unknown/unknowable alterity that will always be beyond experiencing but is a mystery towards which we are always turned. Civitarese reminds us that we are exploring “transformations in O”, resituating psychoanalysis on the level of the ontological rather than the empirical (O rather than K), and this is characteristic of Bion/Civitarese’s transformation of psychoanalysis.

It’s interesting to note that Laplanche (1999) sees Kant as offering a Ptolemaic recentering rather than a Copernican decentering, given how the transcendental ego sits center stage as the source from which all percepts are gauged (p. 57). Likewise, Husserl (1934/1981) rejects the Copernican turn, asserting that the apodictic ego is the constitutive center, the earth as “primal Arc does not move” (p. 230). Laplanche moves in a different direction from Bion and Civitarese, seeing the Copernican as characterized by the dual decentering of the unconscious as “other thing” (foreign body) and as maintained in its “radical alterity” by the “other person” through seduction (p. 70). It would be interesting at some other time to follow the function of the other in Laplanche as compared with Bion/Civitarese since each finds the constitution of the subject framed in the central role of the other, although through different forms: Bion as a function of containment; Laplanche as a consequence of enigmatic seduction.


At-One-Ment as Consensuality (Perception)

One difficulty with an emphasis on the constituting role of the subject is that it renders problematic the possibility of knowing and experiencing anything beyond one’s constitution. This is not so much a problem within Kant’s transcendental idealism, interested as it is in fundamental certainty (the search for truth) of a metaphysical grounding, but becomes a more immediate problem when considering the question of how we know ourselves and others on the level of experience. Civitarese notes the separate path of Bion and of all psychoanalysis in finding a ground for truth that is personal. This is the intersection of the ontological and the ontic, the ways in which the ground of Being finds expression in our individual being. Civitarese asks how our individual personal “transformations in O” intersect with the transformations of others? How can we come to know and experience another? Given that we would seem to have direct access to only our own mind, how is it possible to experience what another person experiences, thinks and feels? This touches on the aporia of alterity, the central dilemma left us by the Western influence of both Descartes and Idealism. The great empirical thinkers of Vienna and London (the early Wittgenstein, Carnap, Hume, Mill, & Russel) solved this through a rational solution called by Mill and Russell the “argument from analogy”. Given that I see your body as similar to my own, and your behavior as like mine, I infer through analogous reasoning that your thoughts and feelings are like mine, based on my experience of what I think and feel. This is a separate-subject argument, one that neglects or argues away the possibility of common experience. From this perspective, intersubjective experience is reduced to the interaction between subjects, separate processes that must be bridged.

In contrast to this, Winnicott, Green, Ogden and Bion/Civitarese frame the very constitution of subjectivity as part of an intersubjective process. Transitional phenomena, the third, the analytic field, and at-one-ment are all concepts of a radical intersubjectivity. Presubjective (proto-mental; proto-emotional) experience is undifferentiated and intercorporeal, not simply mutual or shared, a deeply interwoven fabric of experience. Subjectivity and the creation of mind takes shape only in the context of another mind (container/contained), but even prior to the subjective we find a foundational field which in this article Civitarese articulates through the concept of consensuality.

We see the subtlety of Civitarese’s method as he transforms the meaning of Bion’s invariant from a preconception to the ground of at-one-ment, the consensual. I believe Meltzer (1975) first used the term “consensuality” in relation to a child’s play: “we are envisioning attention as the strings which hold the senses together in consensuality” (p. 12-13). It is taken up further by Anzieu in The Skin Ego (1995/2016), where the consensual holds the double meaning of “the mutual agreement of the senses” (p 112), and sense as “signification”, the work of articulating ‘sense’ with ‘senses’. Anzieu holds that “words have value and bear meaning through their weight of flesh. The unconscious is not language; it is the body, […] the intelligence of the body” (quoted in Segal, 2009, p. 6). Civitarese adds a third meaning drawing from Bion’s use of common sense, a meaning that further addresses the aporia of alterity. Beyond the integration of an individual’s multiple senses, consensuality refers to our shared ground in sensation, something Goldberg (2012), referring to Merleau-Ponty, understands as sensory symbiosis. In our immediate sensate experience, we are not isolated subjects. Sensation is always experienced as a sense-in-common undergirding our separate perspectives on that commonality. Our unique first-person view (vertices) implies a shared context within which our individual sensibility has meaning. Consensuality refers to that inseparable union of our shared sense with a consensus of our shared meanings and experience on the level of the social in language (as semantics and sign).

As a phenomenologist, I would prefer to emphasize the perceptual rather than the sensual, given that perception conveys much better the inherent organization of sensing in a non-dualistic mutually implicated union of subject-object-other-world. Sensations are raw “qualia” lacking an intentional structure, lacking the contextualization of meaning characteristic of embodied perception The structure of perception is inherently field dependent: “The perceptual  ‘something’ is always in the ‘milieu’ of something else, it always forms a part of a field” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/2012, p. 4). Figures never exist in isolation without a field. This figure-ground quality of experience is inherently found in a shared context. Although beyond a Bionian framing, the perceptual provides a non-dualistic integration with Bion’s intuitive, given that perception is a form of prereflective understanding that integrates presubjectively with other and world. Nonetheless, Civitarese offers an invaluable service in elucidating the nature of at-one-ment in common sense, framing this as one of the movements in the symphony of O.


Shared Meaning and the Central Role of Emotion (Feeling)

Civitarese takes us further into the specific processes entailed in the workings of the field, or as framed in this article, in the transformations in O. We have seen that at-one-ment is expressed in the consensuality of experience, a “sense-horizon” (p. 12) that allows for the possibility of shared experience and meaning. Implicit in this concept is the significance of embodied experience and with the carnal it offers a further essential intersection of emotion and truth. Shared sense is more deeply understood as shared emotion. It is crucial to the clinical ethos of Bion and Civitarese that “emotion [is] at the center of the process” (p. 4). An emotional at-one-ment is the common foundation, an experience that is always beyond expression or articulation. This is the O of shared meaning, and as it embodies the realization (transformation) of the shared emotion of the moment, we find in it an aesthetic path to truth as understood in the clinical setting. “O as the emotional experience shared by mother and child (or by analyst and patient)” (p. 4). ‘Emotion as truth’ because the transformation of sense-emotion offers the unique unfolding of the moment as expressed in what is felt. This is something beyond knowing (K), offering an expression of being and becoming that characterizes the way experience unfolds.

As Civitarese intersects with my own philosophical/psychoanalytic interests, I hold a perspective very compatible but somewhat different. When Civitarese says “emotion”, I read/think/experience “feeling”. This is not simply a difference of terms but comes from a different foundation of meaning regarding ‘emotions.’ Feeling offers the doubling of felt experience as embodied touch and the mode of embodied meaning expressed in how one finds oneself, one’s basic moodedness, the way in which one is situated, expressed in the subtle nuance of what is felt. Heidegger (1926/1962) calls this befindlichkeit (p. 172-179), the mood in which we find ourselves that expresses our situatedness with another/others in the world. For Merleau-Ponty, this feeling is a modality of perception, a bodily envelopment with world and other that conveys the prereflective significance (shared meaning) of a situation. Feelings are perceptual and thus intercorporeal/intersubjective expressions of meaning never completely grasped, lived but only partially known. In feeling, as in all perception, there is a figure-ground structure. Our first-person mood is encountered, found (this is a passive process where we come upon what we feel like we come upon a dream) in the context of a mooded atmosphere, a shared felt-sensual field or third that frames shared significance. There is always a surfeit of meaning in felt sense, an ineffable depth that cannot be plumbed. But depth here has the meaning of a perceptual phenomenon, a tensioned relationship between what appears and its context or surround where the gap between figure and ground (Merleau-Ponty calls this productive gap, écart) opens the possibility of negation and transformation, a shifting medium as figure becomes ground for another figure and figure for another ground, on and on, one variation on the phenomenological versions of O.

Given that I do not intend a complete summary of Civitarese’s transitions, but simply an exploration that offers a few comments on his method, I will stop here. It’s hard to stop, given that his conjuring of the Bionian O of Godhead as language (langue) is masterful, creative and compelling, situating the mystic not in any specific myth, but in our common ground of myth making, the fertile, inexhaustible groundswell of signification that makes us human. I will say in closing that Civitarese is an incredible synthesizer, someone who finds/creates syncretic overweavings of concept across different traditions, ages and genres, all in the service of offering something that speaks to the specificity of our contemporary concerns. He offers a compelling vision of psychoanalysis elucidated in a detailed exegesis of his muse…Bion…who he continually recreates, revisions, in the service of something that at once captures the soul of Bion while transcending him through a ‘misprision’ that offers more.



Anzieu, D. (2016). The Skin Ego. London: Karnac. (original work published 1995)

Bloom, H. (1973). The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. London: Oxford University Press.

Civitarese, G. (2008). “Caesura” as Bion’s discourse on method, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 89(6): 1123-1143.

Goldberg, P. (2012). Active perception and the search for sensory symbiosis. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 60(4): 791-812.

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and Time. (J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans.): New York: Harper & Row. (original work published

Husserl, E. (1981). Foundational investigations of the phenomenological origin of the spatiality of nature. In: Husserl: Shorter Works. (P. McCormick and F. A. Elliston, Eds.) Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. (original work published 1934)

Laplanche, J. P. (1999). The unfinished Copernican revolution. In: Essays on Otherness. London: Routledge. (pp. 52-83).

Meltzer, D. (1975). Explorations in Autism. Strath Tay: Clunie.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (2012). The Phenomenology of Perception (D. A. Landis, Trans.). London: Routledge.

Segal, N. (2009). Consensuality: Didier Anzieu, Gender and the Sense of Touch. New York: Genus.


Jack Foehl is Supervising and Training Analyst at The Boston Psychoanalytic Society & Institute, where he is President-Elect and is Supervisor and Faculty Member at the Massachusetts Institute for Psychoanalysis. He is an Instructor at Harvard Medical School and is a Clinical Associate Professor at the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. He is an Executive Editor at Psychoanalytic Dialogues, an Editorial Board Member of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, The Journal of Phenomenological Psychology and American Imago and is a Board Member of the Boston Group for Psychoanalytic Studies. Jack teaches, writes and works at the intersection of psychoanalysis and existential phenomenology, completing a book titled: Psychoanalytic Process and the Phenomenal Field: Merleau-Ponty and the Transformation of Experience. Jack works in private practice in Cambridge, MA.