4. Conversation, memory and desire


“To conduct a conversation means to allow oneself to be conducted by the subject matter…”1
Hans-Georg Gadamer

Now, let’s imagine two chaps having a discussion. Umberto and Giovanni are sitting in Firenze’s finest Coranas Café, about a third of the way along Via dei Calzaiuoli and halfway between the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Ponte Vecchio on the river Arno. It’s a late afternoon in April and the two men are pretty much the only customers in the café. Although, there is an old lad wearing a black overcoat and suit at the next table, gently nursing a glass of water after finishing his espresso. Let’s call him Hans-Georg and let’s also imagine he is eavesdropping on Umberto and Giovanni, not for any malicious reason but purely to observe their discussion. There is an easy flow of dialogue between the two, interspersed with bouts of florid gesturing on Umberto’s part. Giovanni is calmer. He’s the cooler customer.

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For Hans-Georg, their conversation represents an idealised and pure moment. To him, neither Umberto nor Giovanni are trying to objectify the other, they both seem to give credit for the other’s ideas. They also don’t allow themselves to get trapped into the other’s way of presenting them. For example, when Umberto says “Listen Giovanni, you can’t say that about Wittgenstein,” Giovanni immediately interjects.

“No, wait Umberto, you misunderstand me. I don’t mean that Wittgenstein was wrong. I merely mean that the Tractatus was the experiment, per eccellenza, that pushed the envelope of logical positivism until the inevitable happened and it burst.”

“So, Wittgenstein was wrong, according to you,” Umberto excitedly jumps in.

Leaving a little space after Umberto’s pronouncement, Giovanni replies:

“No, Umberto. Let me finish. Wittgenstein was right because he could see that it would burst. Remember the ladder. Right at the end of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein said ‘throw away the ladder after you have climbed up theses propositions,’ or something like that.”

With some difficulty, Umberto reflects in silence, before saying, “OK, so what you are saying is that the Tractatus was really Wittgenstein’s philosophical dead-end.” Pausing briefly, with Giovanni allowing him space to formulate his thoughts, Umberto continues, “I guess that was why he seemed to shift so much later on when he wrote about ethics not adding to our knowledge, although he thought it captured ‘a tendency in the human mind,’ which he admitted to respecting deeply.”

Whilst Giovanni silently nods his head, Umberto sips his espresso, and then with a look of solemnness says “I guess you are right about the Tractatus, it was a doomed exercise, there was no room for ethics in its strict propositional logic.”

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“Yeah, you know, I never quite thought of it like that,” said Giovanni, “there is no room for ethics in the Tractatus. Gosh, it sounds so obvious now that you say it.”

At this point, Hans-Georg grabs his black fedora and heads for the door, after leaving payment in-between the cup and saucer for his espresso. Heading south on the Via dei Calzaiuoli, he strides towards the Arno. As he goes, he reflects that Umberto and Giovanni really seemed to listen and help each other go further in their understanding than they could have gone on their own. Now, if Hans-Georg was the very same Hans-Georg Gadamer he would have been delighted to witness the fluid movement of understanding between the two chaps. Who knows? Perhaps, in my little idealised Gadamerian vignette, he was?

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If we turn back to Gadamer proper, we find him examining the term conversation and reasoning that there are conditions of participation in a dialogue:

“To conduct a conversation means to allow oneself to be conducted by the subject matter to which the partners in the dialogue are oriented. It requires that one does not try to argue the other person down but that one really considers the weight of the other’s opinion.”2

Expanding, Gadamer articulated three conditions regarding conversation:

  • The first was that one must allow the subject matter of the conversation to dictate the flow of the conversation, and that one should not enter into a conversation with a pre-determined goal if one wants to have a genuine experience.
  • The second was that one must remain open to what the other actually gives within the conversation, and hence respond to those opinions and not just what arises in one’s own thoughts.
  • And, the final condition was that “every conversation presupposes a common language, or better, creates a common language.”3

With these three conditions in place, Gadamer believed a ‘successful conversation’ could take place where both participants “come under the influence of the truth of the object and are thus bound to one another in a new community.”4 There is much force here in Gadamer’s reference to community, because he tried to articulate that we should be open rather than stating that we should just be – the Heideggerian position.

Such ‘prescriptive’ thinking, though, often gets one into trouble within philosophic circles because philosophers like to pounce upon each other and slash at ideas with logical razors until any life contained within them has all but bled away.

This being true, I believe that Gadamer was both immensely audacious and ingenious to get his ideas accepted into the annals of philosophy. This is because he managed to breathe life once more into Heidegger’s enigmatic, but effectively beached leviathan, letting being be, when Heidegger himself could not. By forging ahead of Heideggerian notions, and daring to be explicit in how one should relate to an other, rather than remaining in the inscrutable realm of letting being be, Gadamer nailed his colours to the mast and declared that philosophy must be useful and not just high level pontificating. Now, throw your daggers, you Heideggerians.

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By establishing his three participatory conditions for a conversation, prioritising the subject matter over oneself, allowing the other to voice their opinion and the creation of a ‘common language’, Gadamer demonstrated his commitment to understanding and not to dated philosophical protocol. Being stuck on a beach with Heidegger and his whale was not useful for Gadamer. Exchanging pleasantries, sunning oneself, and endlessly chewing on a diet of phenomenology were not to be the pinnacles of Gadamer’s career. Instead, he wiped the sun cream off, pushed the whale back into its natural habitat, and bid Heidegger “Good day,” as he strode off the beach looking for an opportunity to meet someone with whom to engage openly and productively. However, before any such meeting could take place Gadamer wanted to be clearer about his ideas and so he continued to muse:

“Conversation is a process of coming to an understanding. Thus, it belongs to every true conversation that each person opens himself to the other, truly accepts his point of view as valid and transposes himself into the other to such an extent that he understands not the particular individual but what he says. What is to be grasped is the substantive rightness of his opinion, so that we can be at one with each other on the subject… Where a person is concerned with the other as individuality – e.g., in a therapeutic conversation or the interrogation of a man accused of a crime – this is really not a situation in which two people are trying to come to an understanding.”5

Understanding through conversation, therefore for Gadamer, requires that each person regard the other’s opinion and not just the other as an object. A stunningly obvious truth, but one that absolutely needs stating. A friendly Gadamerian, David E. Linge, repackages this idea so that we might dwell upon it further, in case we all too rashly dismiss it due to its simplicity and bumble blithely ever onwards:

“The dialogical character of interpretation is subverted when the interpreter concentrates on the other person as such rather than on the subject matter – when he looks at the other person, as it were, rather than with him at what the other attempts to communicate.”6

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The necessary realisation being that we need to stop looking at, and start looking with, if we want any actual understanding to emerge, because understanding comes through participation not observation as far as Gadamer is concerned. A bold move that will rub anyone’s inner Aristotelian up the wrong way. Something, which I, of course, thoroughly recommend, endorse and condone. Consequently, when one looks with someone else one can achieve a sense of community and, as Gadamer described, feel that an experience has occurred.

Such seemingly ‘soft’ results though, via sensing and feeling, craft a richer picture than their individual merely ‘pleasant’ and ‘vague’ sensations might suggest, because they help to create something philosophically much overlooked. They interlace together with other ‘soft’ elements, such as an open disposition and the desire to learn, to build an environment where self-consciousness can evolve and adapt. Perhaps, even bringing us closer to the much sought-after wisdom of which we yearn? Should our desire, therefore, be to weave a rich tapestry from these ‘soft’ threads?

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Such a proposition to cultivate ‘woolly-ness’ again assists in re-floating Heidegger’s whale, with its inscrutable yet essentially empty, lost, and overly neutral suggestion to ‘let being be’. This is because Gadamer started building from Heidegger’s end point, realising that the beach location was perfect, just not the article placed upon it. So, with the calm dignity of one who does not necessarily know the final design of what he has started to construct, Gadamer returned to Heidegger’s sunny haven. What he did know, however, was how and why he needed to build.

Gadamer’s project was not a building block approach whereby a rigid blueprint is planned, with construction around uniform and known materials. The step-by-step approach of starting with firm foundations and then setting down course after course of block-work in order that anyone might dwell within the result was not Gadamer’s intention. Instead, Gadamer desired to avoid all programmatic engineering by scientific communities, with their strict adherence to principles of logic and order, which many philosophers have attempted to mimic. He realised that something essential gets lost when one’s thinking is fashioned along such lines. For him, the prescription that truth can only be generated and found acceptable through such programmed methods was something to rebel against. The discovery of truths should not only lead to the development of conceptual knowledge, but to other types of knowledge and even, possibly, to wisdom.

Such thinking, though, is the very stuff of insurrection.

Undaunted, Gadamer leaps courageously, as the salmon, up the waterfall of thought, against the overwhelming pressure of surging philosophical currents aided ever downwards by gravity and the sheer volume of names, reputations and tomes of revered learning.

700 Salmon

Continuing on the counter current achieved by his thoughts on conversations, horizons and prejudices, which have broadened our understanding of ourselves in a world that is occupied by others, Gadamer now takes us to a quite unexpected destination. Maybe he realised that he ought not to present yet more fascinating and insightful perspectives but instead dive wholeheartedly into a different terrain altogether? Maybe he had squarely fixed his sights on this new target all along and was always aiming in that direction? Whatever the rationale, motivation, or luck that brought Gadamer to this new destination, though, is of no great importance for us. What is important is what he did next. And, by asking the following two questions, Gadamer appears to violently change tack and plunge into a completely different tradition of philosophy:

“Is it right to reserve the concept of truth for conceptual knowledge? Must we not also acknowledge that the work of art possesses truth?”7

To be continued… but only after we have spoken with Wilfred.

Wilfred Bion, was a psychoanalyst who created a gulf between himself and the prevailing tradition, at the time represented by Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein. He was born three years before Gadamer but died twenty-three years before him. As far as we know they never met, however their ideas do seem to overlap quite agreeably in the area of conversation. According to the wonderful Joan and Neville Symington, Bion encouraged leaving “psychological comfort” for the more exciting prospect of venturing “forth into the unknown” to “risk the terror.”8 Shades of Nietzsche’s distaste for comfort being evident and notwithstanding, Bion recognised the limitations of his chosen discipline and wanted to find a more genuine approach that connected the analyst to the patient. The push for Bion, after twenty years of working in the fields of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, came with the realisation that “certain people seem to understand and agree with the analyst’s interpretations, yet remain untouched by analysis.”9 One particular example of his was a patient who, after working with him for some time and giving outward signs of “apparent acceptability” to his “various interpretations,”10 committed suicide.

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Such an obvious divide between rational thought, expressed through communication, and the emotional response of choosing suicide crystallised in Bion the need to re-think the workings of psychoanalysis and begin afresh. Extrapolating from other instances, perhaps less dramatic than the example given, Bion understood that if patients remained “untouched by analysis” then he needed to suspend all previous psychoanalytic thinking, such as Freud’s and Klein’s, to allow for a clean start and a new model to be born.

To affect such a re-birth, change was needed. For Bion, that change commences with the recognition that within psychoanalytic sessions the therapist also brings their own emotional responses, feelings, and desires. The analyst is not a robotic being detached from the proceedings that enters, conducts, and then exits the session clean and unchanged. The reality of encountering the patient and the session is often a time to roll up one’s sleeves and get stuck in, personally wading through muck, grime, and mutual influence. The conception of the observer / critic / analyst suspended from the scene, like the eye of God, didn’t track for Bion. Rather, he knew that they were fully present as thinking, feeling and emotional beings. Such ideas were already present in psychoanalytic activity, with concepts like transference, countertransference and projective identification coming into the psychoanalytic arena. However, these were bit players, secondary themes, or backdrops to the main performance. Bion’s move was to place the emotional presence of the analyst front and centre when considering  what takes place in the psychoanalytic session. Setting out on this particular path, Bion confidently strode further down this previously hidden tree-lined boulevard, with stride after stride taking him away from the comfort of all prior psychoanalytic procedure or theory.

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Revolutions, after their first intoxicating breath of what one believes is fresh air, come beset with the same problems to solve that were, apparently, so mis-managed by the previous administration. In our case, upon realising the importance of the psychoanalyst’s emotions, Bion had to find a method of incorporating this realisation within a psychoanalytic structure that led to an interpretation of the patient’s ‘problem.’ As Joan and Neville strive to make plain, even when observing the phenomenal content of the session, the emotional atmosphere, and the analyst’s own emotional state, the analyst is still left with the problem of how to analyse such phenomena.

Borrowing from philosophy, mathematics and even psychoanalysis, Bion attempted to illustrate such phenomena, but found himself in a community of one when having to analyse and process the data according to principles. By his own hand, though, he had carved out the space to construct a completely new design and as such presented his fellow psychoanalysts with two governing principles for determining a patient’s progress: “the emergence of truth and mental growth.”11 Such a neat and velvet-covered result, however, contained within it an iron rod of integrity that meant his principles were not to be mere platitudes. For Bion, the discovery of truth as a purpose of psychoanalysis was a commitment to be seen through to the bitter end, no matter how terrifying the ride for both patient and analyst. The white-knuckle roller coaster that Bion wanted analysts and patients to hop on board in order to release them magisterially into the realm of truth, was a little different to the safe and comparatively sedate entertainment Freudian patients were asked to participate in.

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Prior to Bion, and the extreme sport of truth-searching, psychoanalysis was locked inside a Freudian bowling alley where one had to wear regulation footwear and adhere respectfully to the ‘pleasure-pain principle’. Under Freud’s company protocol, analysts were instructed to observe patients’ behaviour according to that which provided them pleasure and that which provided them pain. Bion, the revolutionary, however, did not dismiss Freud’s principles out of hand and burn the bowling alley down. Rather, he understood that that Freud only provided for certain sectors of the community and that other factions needed more facilities; from simple skateboard parks to black run ski slopes. So, as well as conceding that a patient might act according to the pleasure – pain principle even in a psychoanalytic session and avoid the pain of confrontation by nodding along with their analyst’s interpretation, that same patient might actually unlock themselves if they underwent the emotional equivalent of a ‘no-holds-barred’ cage fight. For Bion, the challenge would be to get to the truth of why the patient acted to minimise the pain of arguing in the first place and then, from that potentially bloody and bruised starting point, work to affect the healing process by encouraging ‘mental growth’ in the patient / analyst sessions.

Bion, the revolutionary, thus issued his edict that all analysts should free themselves from wilful behaviour and gorging:

“The first point is for the analyst to impose on himself a positive discipline of eschewing memory and desire. I do not mean that ‘forgetting’ is enough: what is required is a positive act of refraining from memory and desire.”12

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According to Bion, memory is dependent upon the senses and comes under “subordination to the pleasure-pain principle”13 because the governing senses are also so subordinated. Consequently, memory is seen as an unreliable source for the attainment of the analyst’s goal, due to its adherence to a different set of values, viz. the analyst’s own ‘pleasure-pain principle.’ Desire, obviously, can equally be seen to adhere to the ‘pleasure-pain principle’ Interestingly, Bion doesn’t make this explicit, rather he focuses his attention upon the connection between desire and thoughts, with the latter being “formulations” of the former. To make his point, Bion tells us that “thoughts are not verbal formulations merely [but can] be harboured almost unaware [as] reminiscences or anticipations.”14 Consequently, by association, thoughts come under the auspices of desire and as such are related to the ‘pleasure-pain principle,’ and therefore must also be eschewed.

Having taken away varying tools of the psychoanalytic trade, Bion then proceeds to explain why his confiscation must be so harsh:

“The ‘memories’ and ‘desires’ to which I wish to draw attention have the following elements in common: they are ready formulated and therefore require no formulation; they derive from experience gained through the senses; they are evocations of feelings containing pleasure or pain.”15

In very simple terms: because the analyst’s memories and desires are already “formulated” they leave no space for the patient to affect the analyst or the interpretation. If one analyses with memories and desires, then there is no real need for the patient because the ‘pleasure-pain principle’ of the analyst won’t allow the patient to affect the outcome that has already been accomplished by the analyst. So, Bion insisted that memories and desires be eliminated from the analyst’s connection to the patient: they are obstructions.

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Some further examples give a different dimension to these twin devils, memory and desire. Not only do they obstruct, they also disrupt. This is evident in the countless episodes of regular patients seeing their analyst twice a week over a period of months or years whereby maps are keenly built up by analysts and their patients based upon memory so that each remains static to the other, as they also do unto themselves. Patient A continues to be the same patient as yesterday, and the day before, etc. Such a “collusive relationship,” Bion states, prevents the “emergence of an unknown, incoherent, formless void.”16 So, memory is no longer innocently obstructing progress, but is now malevolently disrupting the relationship between analyst and patient by making it petrify.

Desire can also operate for Bion in the same detrimental vein:

 “A certain class of patient feels ‘possessed’ by or imprisoned ‘in’ the mind of the analyst if he considers the analyst desires something relative to him – his presence, or his cure, or his welfare.”17

The desire to cure, according to Bion, places restrictions around the patient, which, on “a certain class”, can disrupt the patient’s progress because they can become “dominated by the ‘feeling’ that [they are] possessed by and contained in the analyst’s state of mind.”18 Clearly, for Bion, this is disruptive to the care of the patient, due to the analyst actually instigating further mental regression through their desire to cure.

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Having successfully beaten his enemy to the ground, Bion stands astride his victim and with blood coursing through his veins moves in for the kill. Or, to put it slightly more mildly, having made the case for the elimination of memory and desire in the analyst, Bion moves on to consider how someone could achieve this effect. The difficulty is that Bion’s bloodlust and menacing threats, for all their bravado and show, waver at the end, not through any fault of their own, but because their adversary is not corporeal. There is no blood to spill, no head to remove and raise aloft triumphantly. Bion’s nemesis is not something to which one can readily neuter. There can be no carving off of memory and desire from the analyst’s brain. Instead, one is left with a far harder challenge than brute slashing and slicing.

Bion crafted an image of the human as one that has wrapped rationality, thought, and language, around a more primitive inner being that is sometimes censored, lost, or argued away. This, of course, is central to psychoanalysis in general. Bion’s difference, however, is his realisation that for the analyst to recover any understanding of what occurs at the patient’s level of the inner being, rationality, the analyst’s old friend – with its cohorts of memory and desire – does not necessarily help and is in fact more likely to obstruct and disrupt this form of understanding. Instead of pursuing the patient rationally the analyst needs to turn inwards on themselves as well.

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For Bion, it was obvious that the analyst cannot connect with the deepest recesses of the patient’s being without attempting to connect with their own. If the analyst pursues the ‘rational’ path, then there will be a clash of two different modes of functioning which will frustrate any potential connection. The experience that both are trying to share will be blocked by the analyst stepping outside of that experience all the time in order to interpret, value, or judge, according to remembered or desired criteria. Bion, therefore, asked analysts to stop being scientists, in the strict sense of the word, and become once more experiential beings that interact with the world and are capable of really communicating with others. To this extent a Gadamerian ‘common language’ can feasibly be created together in ‘the moment’ or session.

An epistemological standard in the field of analytic philosophy can help here: Mary is a young woman who has spent all her life in a black and white room, she has never seen or experienced any colour, but she has scientifically studied everything that there is to know about colours and what it would be like to experience them. The question about Mary, then, is does she really know what it is to experience colour? Can it really be stated that she knows what that experience will be like? Whilst the debate in epistemological circles will continue ever onwards, Bion’s answer would be that she couldn’t possibly really know without coming out of the black and white room. Bion’s ultimate lesson for his analysts then, is that only by coming out of their scientific rooms can they significantly connect to their patients, by experiencing with them, so as to allow the possibility of ‘truths’ evolving and emerging.

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Gérald Bléandonu in his biography and exposition of Bion’s work describes this mode of practice as “a kind of anti-thinking.”19

Fortunately, it is not within our scope to follow the shock waves set off by Bion within his discipline. Instead, the fortune we seek resides in the very unprofitable, modest, and completely disrespected arena of one person encountering another as they blunder about their business at home, in the office, when out for a walk, travelling on a bus, or even when shopping. Can we learn at these moments to eschew our memory and desires and share an experience with another person that can be seen as establishing a form of contact? Can we reach the point where we create a common language together? Can we be instructed by Bion, in order to get past own our obstacles and sit side by side with the analysts as they learn his lesson? Are we ready to put to one side our proudly nurtured epistemologies, built up throughout the course of our lives as coping mechanisms and ways that we understand and react to the world around us, in order to have a real dance with no safety net?

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Looking into the eyes of another is an enormous act, if it is done properly. More often than not there is a mountain to climb. Personal obstacles, detritus, and bizarrely formed theories swerve into position, as if to ‘protect’ us from the infinite array of potential experiences that might ensue if we open our eyes. Can we converse without memory or desire? Can we allow ourselves to be open to the terror of what might happen if we do? Is it unethical to not even try?

This last question I can answer. “Yes.”


  1. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 367.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 378.
  4. Ibid., 379.
  5. Ibid., 385.
  6. David E. Linge. ‘Editor’s Introduction’ included in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1977, xx.
  7. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 41-42.
  8. Symington, J. & N. The Clinical Thinking of Wilfred Bion, Routledge, 1996, 184.
  9. Ibid. 171.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., 2.
  12. Bion, W. Attention and Interpretation, Maresfield Library, 1993, 31.
  13. Ibid., 30.
  14. Ibid., 30-31.
  15. Ibid., 31.
  16. Ibid., 52.
  17. Ibid., 42.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Bléandonu, G. Wilfred Bion: His Life and Works 1897-1979. Translated by Claire Pajaczkowska, Free Association Books, 1994, 218.


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