Socioanalysis Extract

Centring of the Sphinx for the

Psychoanalytic Study of Organisations

Socio-Analysis 1,2: 1999 (99-126)

W. Gordon Lawrence

‘Sphinx’ was used by Wilfred Bion to describe the knowledge which came into consciousness from experience and originally from the infinite or unconscious. The twentieth century has witnessed the erosion of the limits of the domains of the finite and the infinite. It is this thinking that is the focus of psychoanalysis in organisations. This has to be contrasted with ‘Oedipus’, which focuses on the pair, parental and otherwise that is the concern of psychoanalysis in the therapeutic encounter. With the.development of information technolo­gy there is an acceleration of knowledge derived from the infinite. This means that the kind of thinking now essential to business belongs increasingly to the infinite or unconscious. Hence, there is a need to guard against psychotic thinking. A rudimentary guide is offered to distinguish non-psychotic from psychotic thinking. One consequence of the development of information technology thinking is that work now becomes increasingly the ‘container’, with the organisation as the ‘contained’. This is a reversal of the thinking that has formulated organisations to date.

Key Words: Sphinx and Oedipus; catastrophic change; psychosis; work as the container.


There is no greater mystery in the known universe, except the universe itself, than the human mind … The mind is the interface between what we are wont to call the world of matter and space and the world of the spirit.

The mind is our window to truth, beauty, charity and love, to existential mystery, the awareness of death, and the poignancy of the human condition. (de Duve, 1995, p. 245)

As the twentieth century draws to its close, a widespread sense of urgency is tangible on many levels, as if the end of an aeon is indeed approaching. It is a time of intense expectation, of striving, of hope and uncertainty. Many sense that the great determining force of our reality is the mysterious process of history itself, which in our century has appeared to be hurtling towards a massive disintegration of all structures and foundations, a triumph of the Heraclitean flux.(Tarnas, 1996, p. 411)

I address the subject of the ‘psychoanalytic study of organisations’ from the role perspective of an organisational consultant. My method is to offer a number of working hypotheses for examination. These have come out of my experiences with role-holders in organisations as diverse as mail-order companies and religious institutions. The hypotheses attempt to illumine the nature of the reality of being in organisations at this point in history. If the evidence does not support them, new working hypotheses can be substituted. These then might better approximate the truth of organisational realities.

The erosion of the limits of the finite hypothesis

The psychoanalytical study of organisations focuses on the function of mind in organisations primarily through identifying the conscious and unconscious mental processes present in organisations. Since Freud made us conscious of our unconscious, the twentieth century has exposed more and more for scrutiny of what was hitherto in the unconscious. Uncovering the inner truth of both consciousness and the unconscious has been the psychoanalytic project par excellence. With time, however, the term ‘unconscious’ has become banalised, i.e., a ready explanation offered to rationalise behaviour. Phrases such as: ‘it must have been my unconscious!’ or ‘take back your projections!’ are common. Certainly the unconscious is reified as if it had a physical presence (a kind of poubelle), as opposed to being a limitless mental space. Within the prac­tice of psychoanalysis the term ‘unconscious’ has undergone radical reformulation through the work of W.R. Bion. Joan and Neville Symington clarify this:

The most surprising Freudian concept which undergoes reformulation is the notion of the polarity conscious-unconscious. One of the most cherished beliefs is that psychoanalysis rests upon the unconscious and its relationship to conscious-ness, and yet Bion believes that this idea interferes with analytic understanding. Bion believes that the polarity conscious-unconscious needs to be replaced with finite-infinite. The infinite has no form, no categories, no number. He quotes Milton:

The rising world of waters dark and deep Won from the void and formless infinite (Bion, 1965, p. 151 )

to demonstrate the transforming process through which the infinite passes into finite (Symington & Symington, 1996, p. 8).

Bion’s reformulation is not idiosyncratic but finds strong echoes in the work of Matte-Blanco who argues that there is a link between unpre­dictability and infinity. For any event to be predictable the relation between present and future has to be known. The absence of such a relation produces unpredictability. As individuals experience unpredictability and uncertainty, there is a feeling of infinity present. This is because there is an absence of limit to the particular uncertainty, i.e., it has an unlimited or infinite element. Hence, uncertainty generates psychologically the experi­ence of infinity (Rayner, 1995, p. 161).

This insight is crucially relevant as we pass from the specific envi­ronments which industrialisation brought into being – and now past its apogee – to the non-specific environments which increasingly characterise the recently accessible phenomena of the information society – currently being brought into being through thinking. New challenges are being pre sented by a world in which complex factors interact in novel and surpris­ing ways. This complex interaction is partly brought into being and is certainly accelerated by the development of In.formation Technology (IT). We are on the edges of inventing new forms of organization that will exist increasingly in intangible cyberspace which has no dimensions (it exists in a space that is mental not physical) and not located in real, tangible space. There already exist ‘virtual factories’, a cyber-economy and virtual organi­sations. We live now in both optical and acoustic space. By ‘acoustic space’ I mean the space in which thinking and thought can be listened for. What is now beginning to be comprehensible is that the universe is pure mind asA.N. Whitehead wrote in his Science and the Modem World in 1925.

The upshot is that in our emerging uncertain and unpredictable world human beings are caught up in the experience of infinity or, perhaps more accurately, what is in the ‘void and formless infinite’ is more avail­able for experience than probably ever in the past. This, if you will, may well be the architectonic experience of the late twentieth century and a defining one for the future. As it is, more and more of what was in the domain of the infinite in previous centuries now rests in the domain of the finite. But the infinite is not just ‘out there’ because it exists inside each human being and is made conscious through insight. Through the method­ology and practice of psychoanalysis this inner infinity becomes more accessible. In addition, however, with the opening of acoustic space thoughts become more available through the internet, for instance, so pro­viding new portals to the infinite. Hence, human beings now have the opportunity to be centres for the exploration of the experiences of the finite and infinite in an enlarged sense. This is because ‘pure mind’ is increas­ingly accessible in acoustic space, through the resonance created by a syn­chronicity within the novel means provided by IT.

For these reasons I offer this working hypothesis:

We are living in a time when our experiencing minds are eroding the limits between what we have known as the finite and what we construe to be the infinite, not only in terms of public knowledge but also in terms of personal insight and thinking. And this process will continue if we make ourselves available for the necessary transformations invoked.

The proponents of the psychoanalytic study of organisations are now faced with a challenge. They have to ask themselves if their version of psychoanalysis can illuminate these new ‘socio-mental processes’, as I am to call them loosely, which (a) are being brought into being in the acoustic­infinite space of Information Societies; and (b) still have to be discovered and identified. My postulate is that in these emerging circumstances, the psychoanalytic study of organisations has never been more relevant because the methodology of psychoanalysis is the only one which allows for the confident exploration of mind; of what is not-known, i.e., starts from the position of not-knowing; of being in ‘negative capability’, in Keats’ celebrated phrase.

‘Oedipus’ and ‘Sphinx’ hypotheses

Wilfred Bion caused us to explore the limits of the finite and the infinite when he studied the social life of groups as a psychoanalyst. He well anticipated, in his own phrase, ‘the shadow the future casts before’ when he discovered through working with groups that there were two ways of construing group life. He wrote of his experience:

I am impressed, as a practising psycho-analyst, by the fact that the psycho-ana­lytic approach, through the individual, and the approach these papers [Experiences in Groups], describe, through the group, are dealing with different facets of the same phenomena. The two methods provide the practitioner with a rudimentary binocular vision. The observations tend to fall into two categories, whose affinity is shown by phenomenon which, when examined by one method, center on the Oedipal situation, related to the pairing group, and, when examined by the other, center on the sphinx, related to problems of knowledge and scientific method (Bion, 1961, p. 8).

Psychoanalysis is directed at the study of the mind which grows through exposure to truth by its focused concentration on understanding the nature of psychic reality both in the inner world of the individual, and as the individual believes it is construed in the minds of others in the external social context. The body of psychoanalytic thinking comes from the phenomenological experience of analysts working with analysands in the classic dyadic encounter. This use of psychoanalysis I will symbolise as ‘Oedipus’. Psychoanalysis as a vertex for understanding the nature of thinking in social configurations, of which Bion has been the leading proponent, I will refer to as ‘Sphinx’. This is not to say that one is better than the other. It is saying that, in one context, one is more relevant than the other.

Hitherto, in the main, the psychoanalytic study of organisations has tended towards the Oedipal interpretation. The metaphor of the organization as a ‘psychic prison’ (Morgan, 1986) suffuses contemporary understanding of a psychoanalytically informed perspective on organiza­tion. The eminently readable and popular texts of Kets de Vries would be a case in point. This illustrates in part the current dilemma in the psycho­analytic study of organisations. Because the substantial bulk of ‘knowledge’ about psychoanalysis comes from working with analysands there is an understandable tendency to ‘match’ the insights gained from this dyadic situation to all other social groupings. The result is that organ­isations come to be understood in terms of the psychopathology of the role­holders constituting them. This is to simplify the unique qualities of organ­isations that are, at best, collaborative ventures to bring into being, through thinking, goods and services whose production transcends individual efforts. In short, and to overstate the case of course, organisations exist more because of Sphinx than Oedipus.

What Bion points to in the quotation given above is the opportuni­ty to ‘make’ psychoanalytic thinking in the context of organisations. This is in the light of his new discoveries about human behaviour in groups. It took Bion, the participant observer, to recognise unconscious social processes that had hitherto been unknown to be present in groups. These mental systems, in which individuals in the group became caught up, he called the ‘basic assumption groups’ and showed their relation to the ‘work group’ that is directed at engaging with reality. When we participate in groups these processes are brought into existence and, possibly, conscious­ness. Basic assumption groups can be interpreted to be each demonstrating the characteristics of the Oedipal situation but Bion went on to ask if they were ‘not capable of resolution into something more fundamental’ (Bion, 1961, p. 160). His hypothesis is that present in all groups are primitive phantasies which are products of psychotic anxiety. So he discerned two facets of the same reality: not only was Oedipus present but so too was ‘Sphinx’. That is, the questioning attitude that identifies these primitive anxieties that bring the Oedipal dramas into existence. He named this the ‘binocular vision’. Some of his contemporaries were never able to make this conceptual leap and focused on the Oedipal dimensions through group analysis.

Sphinx symbolises self-knowledge, according to Bleandonu (1994, p.88-9). I extend this to include the processes of thinking which bring about awareness, consciousness, and the bringing of meaning into being in organisations and any other purposeful social configuration. Sphinx sym­bolises the questioning attitude that makes possible the differentiation of work group activity based on reality testing through the making of hypotheses, from basic assumption activity which is grounded in psychot-ic thinking. Sphinx is threatening because it symbolises the dread of the consequences of revelation of what reality might be in actuality. All basic assumption activities have their roots in non-thinking which itself brings about the acting-out, so to speak, of psychotic meaning into existence. Sphinx leads into questioning the nature of life in the group; leads into examining the fundamental psychotic anxieties. These are primordial fears of annihilation which have their roots in infancy and reappear throughout life.

I want, however, to shift from the term ‘psychotic anxieties’ in the context of organisations. Role-holders do not expect to be treated as analysands ( or patients) by organisational consultants, even though they are committed to the psychoanalytic study of organisations, because this not the nature of the contract. Role-holders in organisations are human beings who, for the most part, want to engage with the work of the organ­isation if only because it is the source of their income. As all human beings, of course, they have had their experiences of being fearful in infancy, and all the anxieties about survival which are integral to the mother-baby relationship.

My tentative working hypothesis is that these anxieties can be clustered together as the phantasies of tragedy formed in infancy. Through infantile and subsequent maturational experiences these phantasies are modified as life events are experienced and learned from. But they are never expunged and can be reactivated when tragic events are experienced in later life. These infantile phantasies of tragedy influence how real lived tragedy is interpreted in the mind. At worst, the phantasies are held on to in order to evade the experience of tragedy in reality, and to disregard the ‘poignancy of the human condition’ (de Duve, 1995, p. 245). By holding on to these phantasies of a private nature the chances are lessened of individ­uals learning from the experience of tragedy and of growing in maturity as a result.

Sphinx represents the capacity for learning from experience. In organisations, on occasion, there can be a resounding resonance between individual phantasies of tragedy and the potential tragic fate that any organisation has to face in a real, chaotic environment. If the former swamp the latter it is less possible for role-holders to learn from their experience of being in an environment that is continually changing and surprising because its realities are pre-construed by phantasy. Thinking prompted by issues of organisational survival always raises phantasies of tragedy, no matter how well disguised. Sphinx symbolises the capacity to question the presence and emotional content of thinking, of any kind, including that which has not been voiced and articulated but which is present in the minds of role-holders in the organisation, i.e., known but not thought (Bollas, 1989).

For these reasons, and more will follow, I offer the working hypothesis that:

The psychoanalytic study of organisations coheres around the centring of Sphinx, with Oedipus as a secondary, but linked, consideration. In short, Sphinx is ‘figure’ in the study of organisations and Oedipus is ‘ground’.

The corollary is that in the classic psychoanalytic dyad of analysand and analyst Oedipus is ‘figure’ and Sphinx is ‘ground’.

To illustrate my hypothesis I offer the following. Recently I was supervising two psychiatrists who are strongly committed to psycho­analysis . They work in a country that was formerly communist. They have a consultation project with the first bank established in their country to make loans to business ventures. They described their work and said that they had succeeded in persuading the President of the bank to go/ come into therapy. (I greatly admire these two psychiatrists for introducing psy­choanalysis to their country at considerable risk to their professional repu­tations.) I suggested that they had not really looked at the work of the bank and what its primary tasks might be. That is, that they had screened out the economic, political, social and cultural factors involved in establishing such a bank in a country which had no memory of private enterprise (except, possibly, criminal); that they had become caught up in interper­sonal issues without identifying the complexity of the context. They were surprised. At this point in the project Oedipus had triumphed over Sphinx.

‘the chaosmos of Alie ‘hypothesis

As I have briefly indicated, in undergoing the transformation to ‘information society’, industrial nations and their enterprises are experi­encing the biggest change in 200 years and it is happening in the space of less than a lifetime. Experiencing chaos and order, at one and the same time, is the core experience of contemporary living. We live within the new acoustic space made available by IT. We live in a world of software that flourishes through percepts but we are stuck in a hardware world where concepts define reality. We are living at a time in history when: ‘The pro­duction, processing and selling of information is the number one growth industry in the world’ (Barnet and Cavanagh, 1994, p. 534). Any new ser­vice or product generates invisible new environments by its action on the pre-existing grounds of the markets. But now the antecedent ‘labour processes’ which realise these goods and services take place more in acoustic-infinite space than in optical-finite space.

Hence, I offer the summarising hypothesis that:

A salient contemporary experience is of being in the eye, as in a storm, of ‘the chaosmos of Alie’.

The quoted phrase I take from James Joyce who, writing in the 1920’s and 1930’s, anticipated the metaphor of living at the end of the twentieth century when he wrote in Finnegans Wake:

… every person, place and thing in the chaosmos of Alie anyway connected with the gobblydumped turkery was moving and changing every part of the time; the travelling inkhom (possibly pot), the hare and turtle pen and paper, the contin­ually more and less intermisunderstanding minds of the anticollaborators, the as time went on as it will variously inflected, differently pronounced, otherwise spelled, changeably meaning vocable scriptsigns (Joyce, 1992 edn., p. 118 ).

IT is just that: ‘changeably meaning vocable scriptsigns’ contained in electronic pulses communicating thoughts and thinking; ‘the travelling inkorn (possibly pot)’ is that the PC?; ‘the hare and turtle pen and paper’ of snail-mail is now E-mail. They exist in the ‘as time’ which goes on ‘as it will’ and often are used by ‘intermisunderstanding minds’.

At present in organisations role-holders are integrating the new IT with the organisational structures inherited from the past. IT is used to replace inkhorn activities like accounting, stock control, customer records, and the like which makes for efficiency and smartness. But now IT is exploding through its own momentum to create global financial markets, global production processes, and, what has been called, a global cultural bazaar and global shopping mall. Irrespective of ultimately to be successful or not we are living with the spin-offs of these emerging innovations.

What I perceive as happening is that the taken-for-granted structures which, with modifications, have sustained us since the industrial revolution are now dissipating. We are witnessing the demise of the old structures of organisations. They are increasingly becoming redundant; falling into desuetude in the face of the new circumstances of information societies. What is most frightening of all is that we are now confronted with the realisation that the role-holders in national political institutions have less influence in their country’s destiny which is subject to fateful influ­ences from outside. Tragedy as a public issue is always present. Billions of pounds can be written off a country’s reserves with a ‘black’ Monday or Wednesday if a speculator like George Soros so organises it, for instance. Barings Bank in London can be ruined by a trader in futures in Singapore. And there is always the probability of another oil crisis! And when will the next world recession be? In short, we exist in transforming societies which are producing chaotising experiences that bring about the ‘abnihilisation’, to use a term of Joyce, of much that was cherished in the past.

It is, then, in truly turbulent environments that businesses have to trade in highly competitive national, international and pan-national markets. Hospitals and health systems have to provide care with scarcer resources from government funds and insurers. Educational institutions have to be economically viable or they close. Fred Emery and Eric Trist presciently predicted this in 1965 when they described organisational tur­bulence as brought about by the interconnectedness of elements in the environment which were dynamically ‘self-exciting’ (Emery and Trist, 1965, pp. 21-32).

In these new non-specific environments cause and effect are less ably identified, because complex factors interact with each other, and with hitherto unknown factors, in complex fashions in association rather than in sequences. Cause and effect can be imagined visually, belong to Euclidean space, can be mechanically linked, are apprehended consciously and belong to the domain of the finite. Causation may, on occasion, be fallacious – a product of particular historical ontological and epistemologi­cal assumptions – and more to do with keeping the mind free from whether these are disturbing thinking about chaos. Causation can be identified in discrete, specific contexts but is now wanting in non-specific environments. Cause and effect can be described through exposition and can be ‘packaged’ and so are sought after to relieve anxieties.

Causation has given way to ‘associations’ which are less easy to define but are essential bridges between areas of experience. Since Heisenberg, the only material bond in the universe is resonance. There are no connections among ‘particles of being’ except a wide range of resonat­ing intensities. So we find ourselves in a world where resonating associa­tions have more relevance than causation. The identification of the res­onating associations between events and phenomena come from mental associations, in and between minds. We are being pressed to recognise that these mental associations are less readily available for conscious awareness and have to be listened for in the domain of the infinite outside of con­sciousness. They are resonances that are more likely to be found through exploration than exposition.

Free, mental associations exist in acoustic space and also exist in the inner worlds of human beings. They bring into being new associations of phenomena in optical space. Mental associations give access to the pat­terns made in the unconscious and to its logic that is different from that of consciousness. The context in which business is conducted is composed of what is known to be in the finite but is always extending into what has been hitherto in the domain of the infinite. These are new circumstances never available before for human experience at one and the same time. This presents us with the immediate experiences of chaos.

Another way of trying to learn from the experience of ‘the chaos­mos of Alie’ of the information society is to discern the implicate order that has lain within the explicate order which human beings brought into being during the processes of industrialisation. David Bohm (1980) developed the concept that every thing in the universe can be perceived as being part of an unfolded or explicate order and seen as being separated and exter­nally related. At the same time everything is enfolded in the whole uni­verse, is internally related to the whole and therefore to everything else to constitute an implicate order, i.e., reality is a continuum, not a set of isolat­ed particles in space. Information societies come from the matrix of the implicate order of industrial societies. They thrive in a multi-verse of meaning and have left behind the comparatively certain universe of mean­ings that sustained industrial societies. Joyce’s neologism ‘chaosmos’ describes the cosmos implicate in chaos; he did not write ‘coschaos’! Whatever kind of societies will follow information ones, will be found in their implicate orders.

The ‘limits of comprehension’ hypothesis

In such environments it is becoming increasingly difficult to conduct business on the same terms that made industrial societies comparatively safe worlds. The same applies to all other institutions with which I am familiar. What is absolutely certain is that the new corporate environment is surprising. Hence, inherited management techniques, for example, MBO, SWOT analysis and the Managerial Grid, which were developed for a specific environment – encapsulated in the ethos of ‘Scientific Management’ – are of limited value in non-specific environ­ments. Managers, and indeed all role-holders, in organisations are having their capacities for managing stretched beyond their limits of tolerance. This can be expressed as a working hypothesis:

More frequently than ever in the past managers are pressed to their ‘limits of comprehension’ as to how their business relates to the non-specific environment.

To illustrate: one French manager put it to me that now business took place in a ‘casino des incertitudes’. He belonged to a mail order company which was in decline after a long history of success. Briefly, the principal causes were identified as increasing competition from new mail order companies together with the invention of a wider variety of retail outlets. Also present was the fact that the mass market to which they sold their products had become differentiated. Customers since the post-war years of scarcity have learned over the intervening decades to manage themselves in the role of consumer. Furthermore there had been a growth in vigilance on their parts as they became more aware of environmental issues. The company was losing money despite the fact that the technolo­gy was comparatively simple and the business has a clear ‘logic’. fu. mail order, goods are bought, very often from the Far East, and sold to customers in the Western countries through catalogues.

The managers were only able to start to think when they acknowl­edged, albeit implicitly, that they had come to the limits of their compre­hension of how the business could continue to relate to its customers. But . this was only after they had rescued strategies for survival from memory and found them wanting. And it was only when they had begun to see that their desire for a quick business solutions was unrealistic. They came to understand that the enterprise was in the midst of public tragedy. The thinking which took place over a number of months was that they had to work with the differentiated market which now existed, devise catalogues accordingly, and, altogether, have a different attitude to their customers. The resistance to this was enormous on the part of other role-holders, because to achieve this they had to ‘read’ the market differently than in the past, because now they had to ‘listen’ to customers of a breed that had never existed before. What was most traumatic was altering the form of organisation that had fitted the servicing of a mass market to a new form that could be much more pliant in fulfilling customers overt needs and covert fantasies/ dreams/ unconscious wishes. The acknowledgement of attaining the limits of comprehension was the critical point in the history of the enterprise. It involved the managers taking responsibility for their corporate destiny in the light of the fateful circumstances they were expe­riencing. Not all managers and other role-holders reached this position at the same point in time.

The recognition that one has reached the limits of comprehension is an achievement not only intellectually, but also emotionally. The intellectual and the emotional come together in terms of what Bion called ‘catastrophic change’ (Bion, 1970, pp. 92ff) and here I offer a contingent working hypothesis:

The acknowledgement of the limits of comprehension is shadowed by the fears and anxieties of ‘catastrophic change’.

Bion’s hypothesis about catastrophic change can be readily applied to organisations. In my brief example the key managers were working with an accepted conjunction of facts constructed in their minds and which had illumined the nature of their business for decades. Now new facts were bombarding them. These were disruptive of their taken-for-granted ‘logic’. The intuitive recognition of the disorganisation, pain and frustration that the accommodation of new facts would produce could only be faced with difficulty. Bion uses the terms ‘container’ and ‘contained’ to study these disruptions. The new idea is the contained, and the minds of the role-hold­ers in the group, organisation or society are the containers. The understanding of the dynamic between these is key to understanding the evolving life of contemporary organisations whilst their role-holders continue to bring reality into being.

The prospect of ‘catastrophic change’ inevitably raises existential anxieties if only because the political passage through its disruptions is truly emotionally demanding, as well as an achievement of thinking. There are political arrangements to be made to initiate organisational restructur­ing. These, in turn, evoke anxieties in those who feel themselves to be subject to changes. What seems to be becoming almost a way of life in organisations is that ‘catastrophic change’ is now the norm rather than the exception. The environmental circumstances are such, as I have sum­marised in the ‘chaosmos of Aile’ hypothesis, that what is now emerging is that role-holders are having to discover, what I have been calling, a new ‘mental disposition’ to understand the inner and outer realities of their organisations. What I perceive as happening is that role-holders are expe­riencing such a magnitude of transformations in the non-specific and non-selective environment that understanding their significance lies out­side the logic of managing as it has been inherited. Interpretations of envi­ronmental experiences now call for access to what was hitherto in the domain of the infinite. The new experiences, if they are experienced, are a new challenge to the human psyche. The objectivity on which principles of management have been postulated is ineffective in non-specific environ­ments.

This ‘mental disposition’ implies that the environment has to be experienced subjectively. This is only possible through discovering new ways of participating, in the sense I have been using this term, in the realities of the environment. The work of management is that of experi­encing, as directly as possible through participation, the ‘business’ as a series of events or happenings. This is in the context of a non-specific envi-rorunent, coming to know these events subjectively, and so, bringing realities into being that will enable the enterprise and its organisation to mutually relate to its environment.

An essential for this is cultivating the capacity to think. In David Armstrong’s (1991) terms this is to be aware of the different kinds of think­ing which he calls Thinking 1 and Thinking 2. In the former, thought or thoughts emerge from the process of thinking and owe their existence to a thinker. Such thoughts are capable of exegesis, justification, falsification. Epistemologically thinking is prior to thought. In Thinking 2, on the other hand, thought and thoughts are prior to thinking. Bion expresses this idea thus: ‘Thoughts exist without a thinker … The thoughts which have no thinker acquire or are acquired by a thinker.’ (Bion,1984, p. 165) A gloss on this insightful formulation of the two kinds of thinking is that Thinking 2 is to see thinking and thought as a ‘particle’ with Thinking 1 as the ‘wave function’. These are both present in organisations. How thinking is engaged is critical for differentiating that quality of thinking which enhances understanding of the complexity of reality and that which does not.

Thinking-to-be-in-touch-with-reality and its evasions hypotheses

Ultimate reality, as such, can never be known. It can be represented by O to mean: absolute truth, the godhead, the infinite, the thing-in-itself. 0 does not fall into the domain of knowledge, or learning, save incidentally; it can be ”become”, but it cannot be “known”. It is darkness and formlessness but it enters the domain of K (knowledge) when it is evolved to a point where it can be known, through knowledge gained by experience, and formulated in terms derived from sensuous experience; its existence is conjectured phenomenologically (Bion, 1970, p. 26).

Attaining the limits of comprehension through internalising the necessity for catastrophic change comes about through ‘thinking-to-be-in­touch-with reality’ even though being aware that it will never be known absolutely as 0.

Here, I offer a construct for discerning how far away or how near individuals may be in being in-touch-with-reality. To be sure, the mental apparatus they possess for this work will depend on their Oedipal preoc-cupations and history, i.e., whether or not their thinking is marked by psy­chosis. The connection between Oedipus and Sphinx is profoundly symbi­otic, but in organisational analysis Oedipal explanations have only to be held in mind for we are concerned with the public domain of Sphinx, i.e., that of communal thinking.

This ‘thinking-to-be-in-touch-with-reality’ I will denote as R+, for ease of exposition. This, to repeat, is an emotional achievement as much as an intellectual one. R+ is possible if there is a preparedness to experience and learn from tragedy as a public issue and not hold on to infantile phan­tasies of tragedy as a private trouble in order to avoid learning from expe­rience.

The tendency, however, is to evade R+ and whatever new meaning it will yield.

The evasions can first be clustered around ‘thinking-not-to-be-in­touch-with-reality’, which I will denote as -R. This -R process of evasion begins from a hatred of reality both internal and external. This is because reality is construed and felt as being a ‘catastrophic chaos of utter unpre­dictability’ (Rayner, 1995, p. 159). To entertain this experientially would threaten to burst asunder the psychic limits between what is safely under­stood to be finite and the infinite. There is a hatred of the capacity to think so any mental processes that would facilitate the attainment of R+ have to be denied. Emotionally this arises from the anxiety that if R+ were to be engaged, the resultant experience of reality would be so overpowering that it would be persecuting. It is felt that it would overwhelm and even anni­hilate the thinker who dares to see reality in all its complexity. So, it has to be destroyed or, more accurately, the human desire to make meaning is not just to be denied but sadistically obliterated. Meaning is to be expunged by concretisation and the evacuation of symbolism. Reality is simplified. Memory takes precedence over learning from experience because good experiences are held there. And so, reality is construed in fixed old terms of meaning.

Reality, if experienced, promises bad experiences. Hence the com­plexity of reality is reduced. It is ‘split’ into good and bad categories of ‘objects’ in the environment. (Technology and the organization are good; workers are a ‘cost’ so therefore bad, for example.) These objects are con-strued into existence in thought through being invested with good and bad qualities which they may not possess in actuality. The bad are invested with qualities that make them ‘bizarre’, and so kept at a distance and, so to speak, kept safely out of ken -not worth coming to know. To be sure, this is to be in a state of illusion, to be living in the lie.

The behaviour that is driven by -R occasionally will configure as the basic assumption groups which provide the participants with meaning to their existence. This meaning is unexamined and is ‘acted-out’. All the basic assumptions of Bion can be identified; and, sometimes the basic assumption of Oneness (Turquet, 1974). What can often be seen is the basic assumption of Me-ness (Lawrence, Bain and Gould, 1996) particularly when the individual’s wish to survive in the organisation takes over their capacity for managing themselves in the organisation. Their primitive phantasies of tragedy structure their thinking as role-holders in the organ­isation as a system.

The second set of evasions lie in the space between -R and R+ when there is a state of mind that cannot bear the frustration of learning from experience but which is not so intolerant as to deny, or evacuate, experience. This I am to call a hubristic reality. In individual terms (i.e., from the perspective of Oedipus) this is omniscience. In the context of organisation, or group, or social systems in which individuals have roles it is, I suggest, hubris because it connotes arrogance or being in the place of the gods and requires sanction from others to be sustained. So hubristic reality, denoted as HR, is evident when truth is asserted without learning­from-experience what the truth might be.

In other papers I have developed ideas about the rise of the totali­tarian-state-of-mind in organisations (Lawrence,1995a,1995b). There I argued that anxieties about the uncertain environment could escalate in organisations so that all the role-holders, or the majority at least, collude in excluding any thought which acknowledges uncertainty. They can only make themselves available for thoughts that support certainty. In such con­ditions the ‘leadership’ supported is hubristic. It is called upon to a) assert what the truth is and, b) offer clear decisions which will lead to executive action that is fantasised as being sure, certain and, most important of all, will rescue the organisation from its death through bankruptcy and dissipation. Preferably, these decisions have to be simple: such as ‘down­sizing’.

Arrogance in the face of death is called for in such leadership, i.e., hubris; -R is what the socio-mental processes of the organisa.tion support and HR is substituted for R+ and is used exclusively for survival in the face of the imminent dissipation of the organisation.

Thinking-to-be-in-touch-with-reality (R+) is only possible if -R, and probably HR, have been experienced. R+ is entered into through the experience of -R. Human beings need to have the experience of -R if they are to be in touch with their humanity. It is in the indulgence of -R that we recapture the earlier stages of our development that provides some of our roots for creativity. Here, I am stating that -R and R+ are linked and with­out the two we would be less than human. Essentially -R lies within the inner world of the thinker and is an attempt to control the outer world. The outer world is composed of, in the main, R+ thoughts which are available for thinking but are evaded; only the -R thinking is entertained because it supports the good memories.

To illustrate : currently I am consultant to a health system which belongs to a congregation of religious sisters. Because they could no longer service the work of the hospitals due to declining numbers they were advised to form a company for the hospitals. They did so. However there were a small minority of sisters and older medical consultants who were against this and some still have key roles in the hospitals as managers or matrons or consultants. At times their -R thinking could swamp R+ think­ing which is directed at continuing to bring into being the work of the health system which relies increasingly on lay staff. The -R thinking is based on their memory of what it was like before the formation of the company, their hatred of the new reality which is being brought into being through the formation of the company, their wish to control, their propen­sity for splitting and their selection of evidence from their always partial experience of the new system to support their position. The phantasies of tragedy held by -R thinkers combine to enable role-holders to avoid exam­ining the new emergent realities of the organisation which are directly related to the changing environment of health care.

The temptation is to read the situation in terms of Oedipus. But my consultant posture, so to speak, is that if I center on Sphinx, and use it as a heuristic perspective, I can enable all role-holders in the health system to take authority (that is, find their organisational sense of destiny). This enables them to think about the evolving meaning of the work of the system in the context of its environment which is fiercely competitive, ever changing, and risky in terms of funding, i.e., which is potentially tragic (fateful) in reality. The paradox is that -R, R+ and HR need to be represent­ed in the system so that meaning can be created from the different perspectives. They also need to be represented to be available for introjec­tion and projection by role-holders as part of the experience of learning to be in touch with organisational realities. What is being sought is that R+ be salient.

The mental disposition for R+ is strengthened by human beings’ ontological and epistemological assumptions. If O is imagined ontological­ly to be a whole, as a oneness, as everything being interconnected, then how we arrive at understanding is based on the epistemological assump­tion that all the evidence has to be included. -R is sustained by different ontological and epistemological assumptions. The ontological assumption of separateness was the basis of the science we inherited at the beginning of the twentieth century. Scientific advances were made through believing that the observer was separate from what was observed. Man was separate from nature. This under-girded the hubris of Man at that time in that he believed that all creatures and the Earth were for his benefit. He was a steward of God. Mind was construed as being separate from matter; the spiritual was in a different domain from science. Scientific knowledge could only increase if ‘fundamental particles’ were isolated and causally related. To understand how a system, of any kind, really worked the parts had to be separate. The associated epistemological assumption was that the only data available for constructing a science was that derived from human beings’ physical senses. From these two assumptions grew the metaphysi­cal assumptions that the Cosmos and all that it contained was an objective entity which the observer could hold at a distance from himself and so study it. This Objectivism was linked to Postivism -the assumption that only what exists and is real is what is physically measurable and, as already said, to Reductionism, i.e., that phenomena could only be studied by discovering its fundamental parts.

The new sciences of the twentieth century evolved different onto­logical and epistemological assumptions. The key characteristic of the lat­ter is that understanding is arrived at through participation of the observ­er; what is observed can only be so through identification by the observer. Participation,. in this sense,. means not only participating in,. but also par­taking of, the experience of reality. This subjective knowledge provides more complete understanding than objective knowledge that only brings partial understanding. Reality, if you will, can be encountered in two ways: through observing it using physical sense data, and,

…. being ourselves part of the oneness – through a deep intuitive “inner-knowing.” Our encountering of reality is not limited to being aware of, and giving meaning to, the messages from our physical senses (sometimes referred to as “objective”) but includes also a subjective aspect in an intuitive, aesthetic, spiritual, noetic and mystical sense (Harman, 1992, p.52).

In terms I am more familiar with, reality is experienced as an experience and is not just a happening or an event. It is thus brought into awareness or consciousness so that it can be thought about through transforming it into K (Knowledge). This is what Bion did when he ‘took’ groups and so came to the construct of ‘binocular vision’, i.e., saw the existence of both Oedipus and Sphinx.

In organisations we see the continual struggle between-Rand R+ with occasional lapses into HR fugues on the part of role-holders. This is not just intellectual but profoundly emotional for,. often, primitive feelings are involved. These kinds of thinking express the cross tensions between phantasies of tragedy and lived experiences of tragedy; the tolerance of fate and the mobilisation of destiny. What can enhance R+ thinking is the recognition of the changes in the epistemological and ontological assump­tions of this century which have brought IT into being and are in the process of bringing information societies into being.

I am aware that in presenting this construction, it comes out far more rigidly than I have in mind. A more complex argument would be that the mental disposition that reaches after,. or avoids thinking-to-be-in-touch­with-reality centres around narcissism. Narcissirn. is to be contrasted with social-ism (Bion, 1992,. pp. 105ff,. and pp.122ff). These are the terms Bion used to describe the two tendencies of ego-centricity and socio-centricity. The two tendencies are always present in a social configuration. Crudely, the socio-centric, social-ism, is always present when individuals are search­ing after compassion and truth. When they are concerned for the whole rather than the part, represented by themselves, they are in a state of concern, or ruth. This has to be contrasted with the narcissistic constella­tion, when individuals operate in an ego-centric manner. This is marked by being ruthless, which is to be seen as always being ‘correct’. The narcissist presents a front to the world, is essentially a hypocrite. To be sure, narcis­sists mobilise their false self. They give the impression of knowing what reality is. They will say, ‘take back your projections’ as an intervention to a client, forgetting that projection is a basic way in which we think. They believe they know what is ‘correct’. This simplificati9n of the complexity of reality is the method they use to present themselves to the world as sure, competent and skilled. This is to cover-up the real, parlous, shaky state of their inner world, which is founded on the avoidance of ever contemplat­ing the infinite as an emotional experience. Narcissism is fundamentally a refusal of the infinite. The narcissist is always operating on the belief that what comes from the outside is true. It is, if you will, a pattern of madness, to state it at its bluntest.

Work as the ‘container’ hypothesis

The emerging information society is in the process of subverting all thatw believed we knew about organisation which had its foundations in the experience of industrial society. Based on the experiences I have reported in part, this working hypothesis can be offered which David Armstrong and I have arrived at:

As information society continues to be brought into being we shall experience a transition from the taken-for-granted assumption that the organisation is the ‘container’, with work as the ‘contained’, which was the hallmark of organisa­tions in Industrial Society, to one where work is the ‘container’ and it is the organisation that is ‘contained’.

Industrial society evolved organisations that were postulated on the assumption that people had to be managed and motivated to execute work with all its related tasks and activities. And we have developed a substantial body of concepts and vocabulary to bring this about. Our expe-rience of organisation in industrial society has left us with the legacy of the idea that authority and leadership is centred at the ‘top’ of the organisa­tion. At the ‘top’ is located the responsibility for the management of the total enterprise through the setting of policies, the formulation of mission statements, the setting of goals and objectives to be attained and the exer­cise of delegation and accountability. Many of these principles are based on the experience of war and competition – mission, objective, perhaps ‘pri­mary task’, options, policy and planning come to mind. While these rou­tinised ideas have been modified over the years through the development of systems theories of organisation and the advancement of quality of life issues, the principles of ‘Scientific Management’ have remained remark­ably robust, if only subliminally. It is not surprising that organisation has come to be experienced as the ‘container’ with the work as ‘contained’.

When the organisation as container is threatened through reces­sion, for instance, the work of the organisation is rarely examined for its validity in the context of the environment. What seems to happen is that the ‘top’ management responds to the threat of the container being attacked by, for example, ‘down-sizing’. This is a clear example, for the most part, of-Rand, on occasion, of HR.

But, as I have been trying to adumbrate, much of this inheritance of managing is becoming redundant in the kind of environments which human beings are beginning to bring into being as information societies. Here the ‘production, processing and selling of information’, with its labour processes in acoustic-infinite space, is the greatest growth industry. This work is brought into being across the boundaries of organisations in the light of emerging realities. Mind engages with mind across the bound­aries and expands the content of work. The meaning of the ideas contained in the information transacted evoke catastrophic change in the accepted configuration of meaning. The risk factors are carried by those who take responsibility and authority to bring business into being. The chances are that ‘primary task’ will become protean to fit changing realities. And so work becomes the ‘container’ and the organisation is ‘contained’. I find this applies in hospitals where, because of the acceleration in the development of medical and related techniques, the responsibility and authority rests with those who treat and care for patients. Research now ‘contains’ universities because through communication on the Internet research is conducted globally. It is the work that is the ‘container’ that keeps the role­holders in touch with changing realities, i.e., mobilises R+. To be sure, there is always a dynamic interaction between container and contained, but Armstrong and I think there is sufficient evidence to support the trend the working hypothesis identifies.

Psychoanalysis and organisations

My postulate is that the psychoanalytic study of organisations has never been more relevant than at the present time as information societies are being brought into being. (To be sure, there is a great deal of ‘hype’ about Information Society but there is a substantiality.) This study is con­tingent, however, on holding to the idea that ‘psychoanalysis deals with an evolving process to do with the growth of the mind, that is, with develop­ing thoughts and thinking processes’ (Symington, 1996, p. 95). In organisa­tions the R+ thinking processes of the majority enable the work of the enterprise and its organisation to survive. To focus on pathological process is to avoid engagement with the puzzle or mystery which the mind’s life presents us in organisations.

Elliot Jaques (1995) dramatically made clear that from his viewpoint, psychoanalysis as a body of knowledge in the context of organ­isational study is questionable. Kenneth Eisold in a subtle and sophisticat­ed paper has well analysed what he identified as the gap between his clinical practice and his work in organisations. What is not at issue is the recognition that psychoanalysis stands on its own as a methodology for bringing reality into being in the mind from the infinite. This is because psychoanalysis ‘is about not knowing and not understanding; being able to recognise the gaps in what we think we know and tolerating ignorance and uncertainty’ (Eisold, 1997, p. 184). In the context of contemporary realities this mental disposition is critical.

Rina Bar-Lev Elieli’s (1994) view is that the psychoanalytic study of organisations is in the process of creating itself. In order to foster this creative process we may have to attain, even will, the limits of our comprehension periodically of how psychoanalysis relates to organisa­tions. To accept this would be an intellectually and emotionally demand-ing achievement. Demanding because we also can use our ‘theories’ to avoid the experience of changing realities. Psychoanalysis in relation to organisations is different from what it was, say, fifty years ago, as I have tried to show. Now psychoanalysis and the study of organisations has to take account of the new phenomena of the Information Society, having learned from the experiences of Industrial Society. My position is that we continue to bring the psychoanalytic study of organisation into being through the centring of Sphinx, leaving the work of Oedipus to the psychoanalytic consulting room. In this we may be led to re-work such pivotal concepts as transference and counter-transference in relation to the study of organisations. We may, in general, scrutinise the explicate order of accepted psychoanalytic theories which illumine the Oedipus project so as to discover the implicate order enfolded therein, which may inform the Sphinx project.

Through the centring of Sphinx we continue to revivify th experi­ential and related thinking processes that enable us to grasp the complexi­ty of emerging realities, chaotic a they may be in being experienced. As information society continues to be brought into being through thought and thinking of both an-Rand R+ nature, we have an obligation to be vigilantly mindful of both the creative and destructive potentialities of the kind of societies and organisations that are being evolved. Industrialisation failed to realise its implicit dream of modernism. We have learned from the experiences of industrial society that human beings still have to learn to create forms of organisation which fully endorse the authority of individuals to manage themselves in their work roles. Information society presents this challenge as the work it generates comes into being.


1.The working hypothesis is a sketch of the reality of a situation to be either elaborated or erased and replaced by another sketch. The working hypothesis is always an approximation. It is valid and reliable at a particular point in time of the relationship between the researcher and the subject. Reality is construed subjectively. Objectivity can be seen as what is inter-subjectively agreed to be the case. It is socially constructed. The working hypothesis is a way whereby the subjectivity of both researcher and respondent can be worked with to provide some test of objectivity. The use of the working hypothe­sis accepts that ultimate reality, which can be represented by such terms as ‘absolute truth, the god-head, the infinite, the thing in itself’ (Bion, 1970, p. 26) does not fall into the domain of knowledge. Ultimate reality can ‘become’ but it cannot be ‘known’ (Bion, 1970, p.27). The working hypothesis is a sketch in the sense that it furthers the process of the becoming of ultimate reality -which will never be known absolutely.

Commonly in research, the idea is that the researcher begins with hypotheses and sets out to prove or disprove them. The working hypothesis has illumination as its aim. The working hypothesis will often be in the form of a metaphor or of an analogy. Our view is that metaphor is neither unscientific nor meaningless, nor is it a separate kind of truth. Metaphor is the product of the search for the meaning of a situation in its terms, regarding the situation as holistically as possible. (adapted from Lawrence et alia, 1975, PP· xi-xii).

2.’I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormous­ly -I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’ -John Keats. (Quoted in Bion, 1970, p. 125).

3.As a result of psychoanalysis I understand the engagement between practi­tioner and analysand as a focused enquiry into the mind of the analysand (and the par­ticipating analyst) leading to growth through exposure to truth by overcoming resistance to that growth because of a hatred of reality, i.e., psychotic thinking. It is the work of rev­elation -the sine qua non of non-psychotic thinking -no matter where it may lead. To take refuge in the role of patient is to search for spurious hope in the belief in cure; the ‘rescue fantasy’; the primitive hope of salvation. Psychoanalysis is not a medical venture (diag­nosis and cure) but an existential one. It is not a therapeutic panacea but a methodology for engaging with the ‘business of living’ to echo Cesare Pavese, experiencing life’s tragic and comic possibilities. The great writers of tragedy have always struggled to make sense of the helplessness that human beings experience and how, through hubris, they are often agents of their own destruction. The experience of psychoanalysis involves learning from the personal, psychic participation in the internal struggle between the influences of fate and destiny. Christopher Ballas hypothesises that we come to terms with this struggle by discovering through our personal idiom that which is ‘known’ but has not yet been thought -the ‘unthought’ in his telling phrase.

He explicates:

A person who is fated, who is fundamentally inferred in a world of self and object representations that endlessly repeat the same scenarios, has very little sense of a future that is at all different from the internal environment they carry around with them. The sense of fate is a feeling of despair to influence the course of ones’ life. A sense of destiny, however, is a different state, when the person feels he is moving in a personality progression that gives him a sense of steering his course. (Bollas, 1989, p. 41).

In coming to this view I have been influenced by Neville Symington’s hypothesis that beyond the mental oscillations between the paranoid-schizoid and depressive position as defined by Melanie Klein there is a third position which is the tragic position (Symington, 1986, pp. 242-4). My current understanding is that it is the acknowledgement and tolerance of the experience of the tragic position which allows us to discriminate between what is experienced as fateful and what could be destiny and the function of the ‘unthought known’ in making a life between these forces.

Psychoanalysis is a phenomenological investigation that yields insights through the discovery of awareness and consciousness, which can be further elaborated through thinking and thought, in order to bring a future into being knowing all the while that the experience of tragedy will be part of that future. Psychoanalysis coheres around the Oedipus myth in the dyadic encounter. It does this through the resolution of transference and counter-transference issues in the relationship.


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Biographical Note:

W.Gordon Lawrence, M.A., Dr. rer. oec. is a managing partner of Symbiont Technologies LLC, New York and is a director of Symbiont Ventures Ltd., London. He is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Socio-Analysis and of the Bulgarian Institute of Human Relations. In 1981 he made for BBC Panorama the documentary film ‘Them and Us’; and with Allan King (producer) on behalf of CBC Television the film ‘Who’s in Charge?’ in 1983. He contributed to a series for Channel Four on Social Dreaming (1998). Among his publications are: Roots in a Northern Landscape. Edinburgh: Scottish Cultural Press (1996); Social Dreaming @ Work. London: Kamac Books (1998); and Exploring Individual and Organisational Boundaries. London: Kamac Books (1999), reprinting of John Wiley and Sons 1979 edition.

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