Ignacio Matte Blanco

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Ignacio Matte Blanco (October 3, 1908 – January 11, 1995) was a Chilean psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who developed a rule-based structure for the unconscious which allows us to make sense of the non-logical aspects of thought. 'In applying the complexities and paradoxes of mathematical logic to psychoanalysis, Matte-Blanco has enriched it incredibly...in the clinical situation'.[1]

In particular, 'Matte Blanco shows us that (to the unconscious) "the part can represent the whole" and that "past, present, and future are all the same"'.[2]


Born in Santiago, Chile, Matte Blanco was educated in Chile, and before leaving Chile for London, 'was in analysis with Fernando Allende Navarro, Latin America's first qualified psychoanalyst. He trained [in psychiatry] at the Maudsley Hospital and in psychoanalysis at the London Institute, where he was in supervision with Anna Freud and James Strachey, becoming a member of the British Society in 1938'.[3] He subsequently worked in the United States, Chile, and Italy, where his family now lives. He died in Rome at the age of 86.


'Matte Blanco (1975) started by analyzing the five characteristics of the unconscious that Freud outlined: timelessness, displacement, condensation, replacement of external by internal reality, and absence of mutual contradiction'.[4] He deduced that if the unconscious has consistent characteristics it must have rules, or there would be chaos. However the nature of the characteristics indicate that the rules differ from conventional logic, and Matte Blanco was fruitfully to explore the nature of unconscious, as opposed to conscious, logic.

In The Unconscious as Infinite Sets Matte Blanco [5] proposes that the structure of the unconscious can be summarised by the principle of Generalisation and the principle of Symmetry, Matte Blanco's 'two principles: 1) The principle of Generalization: Unconscious logic does not take account individuals as such, it deals with them only as members of classes, and of classes of classes. 2) The principle of Symmetry: The Unconscious can treat the converse of any relation as identical to it; that is, it deals with relationships as symmetrical'.[6]

While the principle of Generalisation might be compatible with conventional logic, discontinuity is introduced by the principle of Symmetry under which relationships are treated as symmetrical, or reversible. Whereas 'asymmetrical thinking distinguishes individuals from one another by the relationship between them....reality testing, symmetrical thinking, by contrast, sees relations as holding indiscriminately across a field of individuals'.[7] For example an asymmetrical relationship, X is greater than Y, becomes reversible so that Y is simultaneously greater than X. Matte Blanco draws here on 'Klein's understanding that "I am angry (with a person or thing)" is very close to "Someone or something is very angry with me"';[8] and indeed he suggests that 'she [Klein] was the most creative and original of all those who have drawn inspiration from Freud', highlighting in particular 'her famous concept of projective identification'.[9]

For Matte Blanco, then, "unconsciousness" is marked by 'what he called symmetry, where there is a preferring of sameness and concomitantly an implicit aversion to difference, while the quality of ego-functioning is the registering and bearing of difference, which he called asymmetry '.[10]

The symmetrical and the asymmetrical[edit]

Matte-Blanco divided the unconscious into two modes of being: the symmetrical and the asymmetrical. Asymmetrical relations are relations that are not reversible. For example, “Jack reads the newspaper” cannot be reversed to the newspaper reading Jack. In this way, asymmetrical relations are logical relations and form everyday logic and common sense. They make up the conscious sphere of the human mind. Symmetrical relations, on the other hand, move in both directions simultaneously. For example, “Josephine is the spouse of Daniel” can be reversed without being untrue. Symmetrical relations, are part of the unconscious mind. Matte-Blanco states that the symmetrical, unconscious realm is the natural state of man and is a massive and infinite presence while the asymmetrical, conscious realm is a small product of it. This is why the principle of symmetry is all-encompassing and can dissolve all logic, making the asymmetrical relations perfectly symmetrical.[11]

To show the illogical nature of symmetry, Matte-Blanco said, "In the thought system of symmetry, time does not exist. An event that occurred yesterday can also occur today or tomorrow...traumatic events of the past are not only seen in the unconscious as ever present and permanently happening but also about to happen'.[12]

Matte Blanco points out that "We are always, in a given mental product, confronted by a mixture of the logic of the unconscious with that of the preconscious and consciousness".[13] Matte Blanco gives this mixture of two logics the name bi-logic and points out that our thinking is usually bi-logical, expressing the both types of logic to differing extents.


Matte Blanco saw a depth-analysis of the mind as falling into five broad strata: 'five strata in which there is a particular combination of symmetrical and asymmetrical logic'[14] unique to each one.

'In what he terms the first stratum, experience is characterized by the conscious awareness of separate objects....At this level thinking is mostly delimited and asymmetrical'[15] — closest to "normal", everyday life, to what W. R. Bion termed the mind of 'the "work group"...anchored to a sophisticated and rational level of behaviour'.[16]

'A second stratum can be defined by the appearance of a significant amount of symmetrization within otherwise asymmetrical thinking', so that for example a man in love will 'attribute to the beloved young woman...all the characteristics of the class of beloved woman' but (bi-logically) he 'will realize that his young woman also has limitations and defects'.[17]

'The next deeper, third stratum is one in which different classes are identified (thus containing a fair amount of asymmetrical thinking) but in which...parts of a class are always taken as the whole class'[18] — symmetrization (plus a degree of timelessness).

'The fourth stratum is defined by the fact that there is formation of wider classes which are also symmetrized',[19] while asymmetry becomes less and less. Thus because "being a man" is a wider class than ones men, women and children, being a man is also equivalent to being a woman and a child. 'In this fourth and rather deep startum, a number of the features of the Freudian unconscious are also characteristic. There is an absence of contradiction...also an identity of psychical and external reality'.[20]

Finally, 'the deepest, fifth stratum is that in which processes of symmetrization tend towards the mathematical limit of indivisibility...thinking, which requires asymmetrical relations, is greatly impaired',[21] and we are in the realm of psychotic functioning: 'without asymmetrical logic, play breaks down into delusion'.[22]

Normal development for Matte Blanco involved the gradual mastery of all five strata, including the capacity both to differentiate and to move between them all; 'in abnormal states, this continuity of differentiation between the strata becomes fractured or confused'.[23]

Thus, asymmetrical thoughts are at the surface while the symmetrical relations make up multiple lower strata that go deeper until an “invisible mode” or total symmetry is reached. In the deeper, completely unconscious levels, a statement such as “Jane is the mother of Jasmine” is equally valid as “Jasmine is the mother of Jane.” This statement reversal sounds preposterous to logical, asymmetrical, conscious thought, but the depth of the unconscious has its own rules. There, such a statement is true and incontestable. In this way, the principle of symmetry changes the asymmetrical to symmetrical or, put another way, the logical into the illogical.[24]


Matte Blanco hoped that his logical underpinning for the unconscious would contribute to the development of psychoanalytic and other areas of knowledge. His ideas have been used to illuminate thinking in psychotherapy,[25] and theology[26] as well as art and literature. A number of writers have explored parallels between Matte Blanco and Gregory Bateson including Margaret Arden[27] and Horacio Etchegoyen and Jorge L. Ahumada.[28][29]

An International Bi-logic Conference takes place every two years: in September 2012 it will be held in Dublin.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ James S. Grotstein
  2. ^ Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (London 1996), p. 76
  3. ^ "Matte-Blanco, Ignacio"
  4. ^ Marcus West, Feeling, Being and the Sense of Self (London 2007) p. 103
  5. ^ Matte Blanco, I. (1975) The Unconscious as Infinite Sets. London: Karmac
  6. ^ "Matte-Blanco, Ignacio"
  7. ^ Michael Parsons, The Dove that Returns, the Dove that Vanishes (London 2000) p. 49
  8. ^ Josephine Klein, Our Need for Others (London 1994) p. 141
  9. ^ Eric Raynor/David Tuckett, "An Introduction", Igancio Matte Blanco, Thinking, Feeling and Being (1988) p. 5
  10. ^ West, p. 103
  11. ^ Cooper, Paul. “Unconscious Process: Zen and Psychoanalytic Versions.” Journal of Religion and Health 39.1 (2000): 57-69.
  12. ^ Klaus Fink, in Casement, p. 180
  13. ^ Matte Blanco, I. (1988) Thinking, Feeling and Being London and New York: Routledge
  14. ^ Rayner/Tuckett, p. 23
  15. ^ Rayer/Tuckett, p. 23
  16. ^ W. R. Bion, Experiences in Groups (London 1980) p. 98 and p. 66
  17. ^ Rayner/Tuckett, p. 23-4
  18. ^ Rayner/Tuckett, p. 24
  19. ^ Rayner/Tuckett, p. 25
  20. ^ Rayner/Tuckett, p. 25
  21. ^ Rayner/Tuckett, p. 25
  22. ^ Rayner, in Parsons, p. 49
  23. ^ N. G. Rucker/K. L. Lombardi, Subject Relations (1998) p. 17
  24. ^ Cooper, Paul. “Unconscious Process: Zen and Psychoanalytic Versions.” Journal of Religion and Health 39.1 (2000): 60-61.
  25. ^ Rayner, E. (1995) Unconscious Logic: An Introduction to Matte Blanco's Bi-logic and Its Uses. London and New York: Routledge.
  26. ^ Bomford, R. (1999) The Symmetry of God. London: Free Association Books
  27. ^ Arden, Margaret (1984). "Infinite sets and double-binds". International Journal of Psychoanalysis 65: 443–52. 
  28. ^ Etchegoyen, Horacio; Ahumada, Jorge L. (1990). "Bateson and Matte-Blanco: Bio-Logic and Bi-Logic". International Journal of Psychoanalysis 17: 493–502. 
  29. ^ The papers by Arden and Etchegoyen and Ahumada are summarized in Eric Raynor, Unconscious Logic (1995) p. 144

Further reading[edit]

  • Klaus Fink, "From Symmetry to Asymmetry", International Journal of Psycho-Analysis (1989) 70:481–9

External links[edit]