‘Quintessential Phenomenology’: On Aaron Esterson’s ‘The Affirmation of Experience’ (January 2014)

‘Quintessential Phenomenology’
On Aaron Esterson’s ‘The Affirmation of Experience’

Anthony Stadlen

Copyright © Anthony Stadlen 2014, 2020
[Existential Analysis 25.1 (January 2014): 116-117]

Aaron Esterson died on 15 April 1999. Among his papers was the typescript ‘The Affirmation of Experience’ (see the preceding article [Existential Analysis 25.1 (January 2014): 103-115]) and associated correspondence. On 9 July 1985 he was invited to read a paper at the Simon Silverman Phenomenology Symposium of 6–7 March 1986. On 3 December he posted the typescript, well before the deadline, 1 January. But on 16 December he withdrew it.
His paper was far more radical than most papers on phenomenology and psychiatry. Most offer ‘phenomenology’ as a ‘technique’ within the medical ‘discipline’ ‘psychiatry’.
But Esterson contrasts phenomenology with psychiatry. Phenomenology, he says, studies experience, but psychiatry ‘negates’ experience. Psychiatry is ‘a snare and a delusion’. Its methods are ‘completely misconceived’. We need ‘a new science, a science of persons and social situations’ and ‘a new profession of existential analysts, counsellors and guides’.
Few psychiatrists or even phenomenologists could see his point. Many people called this great existential phenomenologist ‘not existential’, ‘not phenomenological’. Even though he was used to being patronised or dismissed, he intended to go to the symposium.
But then he received a letter dated 9 December from Dr Richard Rojcewicz, co-director of the Phenomenology Center. It began:
‘Thank you for your letters of Nov. 17 and Dec. 3 and for the copy of your paper. I daresay your talk will be well received, having read it.’
Esterson replied on 16 December:
‘I have received your letter of the 9th December. In view of the extraordinary attitude of your opening lines I think it would be best if I withdrew from your Symposium.’
Rojecwicz’s second sentence did seem gauche and backhanded. But did Esterson, or I, understand American English?
In 2000 I telephoned the Phenomenology Center. Its then Chair, Fr. David L. Smith, remembered the Esterson episode well. They had concluded he was mad.
I telephoned Rojcewicz. He remembered Esterson, with feeling. He was mystified by his withdrawal. His paper had been really interesting, a fine case study. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but …’ – and I read his ‘I daresay’ sentence back to him. ‘Exactly,’ said Rojcewicz.
‘In English English that sounds backhanded,’ I said. ‘But I’m an anglophile,’ he said. ‘I love Shakespeare, Keats, Sherlock Holmes, P. G. Wodehouse. I was expressing myself in an English way. Understated.’ ‘I see,’ I said. I rang off. How could he think…?
The minute I put the phone down I saw it. I rang back. ‘When you said P. G. Wodehouse – were you being … Jeeves?’ ‘That’s it,’ he said. ‘I see,’ I said.
Rojcewicz is a superb translator of Heidegger. His book The Gods and Technology: A Reading of Heidegger is outstanding.
Esterson, by some miracle, had found his ideal reader, had he only known. This was a mis-meeting between two of the world’s finest phenomenologists. A simple question from either to the other could have made it a meeting.
In October 2013, I questioned Rojcewicz again. Did he still recall the paper? ‘Yes. It showed how what looks like disturbance in one person can make sense if it’s studied in its social context.’ Did he keep a copy? ‘No.’ So he had understood the heart of it, and remembered it, having had it in his hands for only a few days twenty-eight years ago. Had anyone else read it? ‘No.’ Had anyone else ever withdrawn? ‘No.’ Had he read all papers submitted for all thirty-one annual symposia – one hundred and twenty-four papers plus Esterson’s? ‘Yes, except for a couple which came in late. But I heard them all.’ How did he rate Esterson’s paper? ‘Quintessential phenomenology.’

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