‘Laing’ in a Lexicon: Was R. D. Laing ‘deterministic’? (July 2007)


‘Laing’ in a Lexicon:
Was R. D. Laing ‘deterministic’?

Anthony Stadlen

Copyright © Anthony Stadlen 2007, 2020

[Existential Analysis 18.2 (July 2007): 341-347.
This is also the long n. 176 in The Madhouse of Being, on this blogsite:
The Madhouse of Being (January 2007).]

In the entry for ‘Laing’ in their Dictionary of Existential Psychotherapy and Counselling, Emmy van Deurzen and Raymond Kenward (2005: 118) write:

In practice, Laing’s ideas were dominated by a psychoanalytic thinking which limited the extent of his existential thought, for his overall conceptualisation of his patients was deterministic.

This is the opposite of the truth. Laing made a fundamental contribution to the non-deterministic theory and practice of psychoanalysis. His existential-phenomenological psychoanalytic thinking, far from ‘limit[ing] the extent of his existential thought’, served and extended his existential thought.
Laing rejected determinism, clinicism and ‘pseudo-irreducibles’. He sought help from Sartre’s anti-determinist philosophy (Sartre 1952; 1957 [1936–1937]; 1960; 1964 [1952]; 1966 [1943]; 1968 [1960]; 1976 [1960]; 2000 [1943]; Laing and Cooper 1964; Laing and Esterson 1964; Stadlen and Stadlen 2005: 134138; Scott and Thorpe 2006). His central project was to show that many human events which psychiatrists and others had seen as just happening, presumably the outcome of deterministic causality, were intelligible or comprehensible as the outcome of personal agency. In Sartrean terms, Laing’s project was to reveal process as the outcome of praxis.
The first reference in the first edition of Laing and Esterson’s book Sanity, Madness and the Family (1964: 4, n. 1) is to Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness (1961), written against determinism in psychoanalysis and psychiatry.
Moreover, in Sanity, Madness and the Family, Laing and Esterson (1964: 11) explicitly and deliberately refrain from psychoanalytic interpretation.
When Laing does draw on psychoanalysis, elsewhere, it is always in an existential-phenomenological way.
For example, he writes in The Politics of Experience (1967: 30) about so-called ‘defence mechanisms’ in psychoanalysis:

There is thus some phenomenological validity in referring to such ‘defences’ by the term ‘mechanism’. But we must not stop there. They have this mechanical quality, because the person as he experiences himself is dissociated from them. He appears to himself and to others to suffer from them. They seem to be processes he undergoes, and as such he experiences himself as a patient, with a particular psychopathology.
But this is so only from the perspective of his own alienated experience. As he becomes de[-]alienated he is able first of all to become aware of them, if he has not already done so, and then to take the second, even more crucial, step of progressively realizing that these are things he does or has done to himself. Process becomes converted back to praxis, the patient becomes an agent.
Ultimately it is possible to regain the ground that has been lost. These defence mechanisms are actions taken by the person on his own experience. On top of this he has dissociated himself from his own action. The end-product of this twofold violence is a person who no longer experiences himself fully as a person, but as a part of a person, invaded by destructive psychopathological ‘mechanisms’ in the face of which he is a relatively helpless victim.

Laing’s argument here is in accord with an observation of Sartre’s in Critique de la Raison Dialectique (1960: 117, n. 1; 1976 [1960]: 17, n. 6; my translation) that

The single fact that Anna Freud (after so many others) can define these functions as ‘mechanisms of defence’ stamps the work of the ego with an a priori inertia.

Laing writes in Interpersonal Perception (1966: 15):

Projection is a form of action directed at one’s own experience of the other. It is called a ‘mental mechanism’. This is a very misleading term, since it is neither mental nor mechanical. It is an action whose intentional object is one’s own experience of the other. It is to the credit of psychoanalysis that it has brought to light actions of this kind.

Laing’s account in The Politics of Experience (1967: 29) of what he calls transpersonal ‘defences’ is also explicitly non-deterministic:

How she behaves toward him influences (without by any means totally determining) how he experiences her. And his experience of her contributes to his way of behaving towards her which in turn…etc.

Laing continues to describe ‘defence mechanisms’ and transpersonal defences in terms of personal agency in The Politics of the Family (1969: 2631). He clarifies the issue of personal agency as follows (1969: 2728):

The operations on experience we are discussing, are commonly not experienced themselves. So seldom does one ever catch oneself in the act, that I would have been tempted to regard them as themselves, essentially not elements of experience, had I not occasionally been able to catch a glimpse of them in action myself, and had not others reported the same to me. It is comparatively easy to catch someone else in the act.

And (1969: 29):

The operations I have alluded to are operations on one’s own experience. They are done by one person to himself or herself. But they would be unnecessary unless the rules of the family required them: and ineffectual unless others cooperate.

Laing writes in The Politics of Experience (1967: 70) of a confused family situation:

Such processes seem to have a dynamism divorced from the individuals. But in this and every other case this process is a form of alienation, intelligible when, and only when, the steps in the vicissitudes of its alienation from each and every person can be retraced back to what at each and every moment is their only origin: the experience and actions of each and every single person.

Hence, as he writes in ‘Series and nexus in the family’ (Laing 1962: 13):

Family pathology is an even more corrupt concept than individual psycho-pathology. It simply extends the unintelligibility of individual behaviour to the unintelligibility of the group.

Laing and Esterson (1964: 9) repeat these sentences in modified form in Sanity, Madness and the Family, replacing ‘corrupt’ with ‘confused’.
Laing emphasises in Reason and Violence (Laing and Cooper 1964: 155; Laing’s translation and italics) Sartre’s remark in Critique de la Raison Dialectique (1960: 544) about theorists of ‘group process’:

[…] they have only chosen to see and study it on the level of its full unintelligibility.

Sartre’s original sentence (1960: 544) is:

[…] ils n’ont choisi de ne voir que lui et de l’étudier au niveau de son inintelligibilité plénière.

Laing’s enthusiasm for this sentence is such that he italicises his (correct) translation of it, while the (later) official English translation misconstrues Sartre’s strong negative as a double negative and so interpolates a ‘not’ which makes nonsense of the sentence by inverting its meaning (Sartre 1976 [1960]: 552):

[] they have not [sic] chosen to see only it and to study it at the level of its complete unintelligibility.

In a book, Mad to be Normal, of tape-recorded discussions during the last two years of his life, 19881989, Laing explains (Mullan 1995: 309):

[…] Adorno’s critique of existentialism made me very cautious about using a word like ‘authentic’ any more, or his critique of immediacy made me very chary about calling myself a phenomenologist in the Husserlian sense […]

But in these discussions Laing still (Mullan 1995: 365366) praises Sartre for ‘cover[ing] the ground that Freud covered’ but without ‘objectifying and translating the existalia [sic] of the person into a meta-psychology of energy dynamics’ or ‘us[ing] a meta-psychology to account for how you can lie to yourself and other people’.
And Laing still (Mullan 1995: 314), when asked for his ‘model’ of ‘man’, gives the existential definition:

We are creatures, as has been said, whose being is in question to ourselves. […] we are our own question mark.

He still (Mullan 1995: 379) insists:

I’m not talking about the aetiology of schizophrenia, I’ve always said that. I’m talking about the experience and behaviour that leads someone to be diagnosed as schizophrenic is more socially intelligible than has come to be supposed by most psychiatrists and most people. That is a very embarrassing statement and people can’t hear that, and so it means that it is translated into saying that families cause schizophrenia […]

Laing concludes (Mullan 1995: 380):

Anything you can’t put in a journal headline in a couple of sentences that a bird mind can grasp is completely lost and collapsed into one of these formulas; that it’s caused by genetics, or it’s caused by society. I mean how ridiculous […]

So much for Laing’s ‘determinism’. The above examples are typical. Many more could be given. The philosophy of personal agency and non-determinism informs all Laing’s work.
As the sociologists Susie Scott and Charles Thorpe write in their recent paper, ‘The sociological imagination of R. D. Laing’ (Scott and Thorpe 2006: 334):

Social determinism, like biological determinism, treats human behavior as a ‘process’, being driven by impersonal forces operating on a different level to or behind the backs of actors. Instead, Laing treats schizophrenic behavior as praxis, that is, in terms of what agents are doing.

There is a legitimate criticism to be made of Laing’s equivocation about ‘mental illness’ (Szasz 1976a; 1979 [1976b]: 45–83; 1984: 4245; 2004: 116117; 2005; Esterson 1976; Stadlen 1979). But van Deurzen and Kenward do not make it. Their comment that he was ‘deterministic’ is without foundation. This is a matter of fact, not of emphasis, opinion, or interpretation. (See also Stadlen 2007: 133–136).
It is important to realise that, despite their opening words, ‘In practice…’, van Deurzen and Kenward are claiming to describe Laing’s ‘conceptualisation’. The present paper has documented what Laing consistently, over many years, said his conceptualisation was. To substantiate their claim, van Deurzen and Kenward would have to show either that Laing was lying or that, in addition to his explicitly stated conceptualisation documented above, he had a radically opposed conceptualisation of which he was ‘unconscious’ but to which they had access.
Samuel Johnson in his great dictionary (1755) defined a ‘lexicographer’ as:

A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

Van Deurzen and Kenward do not appear to have busied themselves in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of Laing’s words. Yet reading his words is far from drudgery.
When lexicography distorts, it is not harmless. It may do great harm.
Laing introduced existential thinking to psychotherapy in the United Kingdom. It is regrettable that so few existential psychotherapists today, including those who write in this Journal, read what he wrote. It is to be hoped that van Deurzen and Kenward will revise their entry for the second edition of their Dictionary.

Anthony Stadlen has practised since 1970 as an existential-phenomenological psychotherapist. He is an Honorary Visiting Fellow of the School of Psychotherapy and Counselling, Regent’s College, London. He is a former Research Fellow of the Freud Museum, London. Since 1996, he has conducted the Inner Circle Seminars, an ethical, existential, phenomenological search for truth in psychotherapy. He received the 2003 Thomas S. Szasz award for outstanding services to the cause of civil liberties (professional category). Correspondence to: stadlen@aol.com.

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