Tuesday 1 January 2013

Existential Pioneers. 14. Jean-Paul Sartre. Being and Nothingness, 70 years on. Inner Circle Seminar 192 (16 June 2013)

Jean-Paul Sartre

 Existential Pioneers

14. Jean-Paul Sartre
(21 June 1905 15 April 1980)
Being and Nothingness
70 years on – a reappraisal

Anthony Stadlen
Inner Circle Seminar No. 192
16 June 2013
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s book Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology was published in June 1943 during the Nazi occupation of Paris. It is the primary treatise of ‘existentialism’: indeed, in effect the only one, as Sartre was virtually the only philosopher to accept this label. Yet very few ‘existential psychotherapists’ dare take seriously Sartre’s radical insistence on utter personal responsibility.

Moreover, many of them suppose that ‘existential’ thinking is not concerned with ‘the past’. But, in the book’s crucial section, Existential Psychoanalysis, Sartre criticises Freud for not being interested enough in childhood. Sartre demands that each so-called ‘psychotherapy’ shall be a piece of original, unrepeatable research to reveal the unique ‘original project’ by which the person defines himself in response to his unique familial and social situation.

Also of fundamental importance for psychotherapists of every school is, or should be, Sartre’s account of what he calls ‘bad faith’: self-deception. It includes a radical critique of Freud’s division of ‘the mind’ into ‘agencies’, including the so-called ‘censorship’, and of psychoanalysis for envisaging ‘a lie without a liar’. As Laing pointed out, there is some phenomenological validity in the psychoanalytic idea of ‘mental mechanisms’, since some people do experience themselves as ‘patients’, whose ‘minds’ have a ‘mechanical’ quality. But Sartre shows therapists how not to stop there and settle for this, but to facilitate the person’s discovering the so-called ‘mechanism’ as his own action in bad faith on his own experience, so that, as Laing said, the ‘patient’ becomes an agent: the profound meaning of Freud’s ‘Where It was, shall I come to be.’

Therapists should also know of Sartre’s concept of ‘pure reflection’, where consciousness transcends its habitual, ‘impure’ reflection on itself as a kind of thing, a ‘psyche’ or ‘congealed’ consciousness, and becomes aware of itself as utter translucidity, the primal source of freedom and responsibility. This gives a philosophical foundation for certain transcendental experiences (described in the literature as the Inner Light, the Clear Light of the Void, etc.), which Sartre himself was, according to David Cooper, who knew him personally, inhibited about exploring, but psychotherapists should not be.

Thus, Sartre’s in places (but by no means all the way through) difficult, apparently abstruse book can be enormously helpful to the working psychotherapist in his or her daily practice. However, very few therapists have read it, even though they call themselves ‘existential’. The leading Daseinsanalyst Alice Holzhey considers that those who limit their ‘existential’ reading to Heidegger and ignore Sartre are missing something of great importance for psychotherapists. Thomas Szasz, while deploring the shabby (personal and political) side of Sartre, greatly admired his insistence on personal freedom and responsibility (not to mention his refusal of the Nobel Prize).

In 2014, we shall explore the applications of Sartre’s thinking by Laing, Esterson and Cooper in Sanity, Madness and the Family (1964) and Reason and Violence (1964), both published 50 years ago. Carole Seymour-Jones will conduct a seminar based on her book A Dangerous Liaison: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (2008). We shall also start a new subseries of eleven Inner Circle Seminars devoted to each in turn of the eleven families in Sanity, Madness and the Family, linked with seminars on Shakespeare and ‘madness’.

The present seminar, while self-contained, will lay the foundations for these subsequent seminars. You are invited to contribute to the discussion.
Venue: Durrants Hotel, 26–32 George Street, Marylebone, London W1H 5BJ (http://www.durrantshotel.co.uk/)

Cost: Psychotherapy trainees £116, others £145, some bursaries; coffee, tea, biscuits, mineral water and liquorice allsorts included; payable in advance; no refunds or transfers unless seminar cancelled

Apply to: Anthony Stadlen, ‘Oakleigh’, 2A Alexandra Avenue, London N22 7XE
Tel: +44 (0) 20 8888 6857 E-mail: stadlen@aol.com

For further information on seminars, visit:

The Inner Circle Seminars were founded by Anthony Stadlen in 1996 as an ethical, existential, phenomenological search for truth in psychotherapy. They have been kindly described by Thomas Szasz as ‘Institute for Advanced Studies in the Moral Foundations of Human Decency and Helpfulness’. But they are independent of all institutes, schools and colleges.


peter j. swales said...

I would like simply to draw attention, in advance, to the fact that, denied the benefits of then future historical scholarship, Sartre bought completely uncritically into Freud's version of the origins of psa as reported, in real time, in the STUDIES ON HYSTERIA -- this as attested by Sartre's collaboration in the writing of a film-script on the early Freud which featured a dramatized version of his treatment of the patient designated Frau Caecilie M.. For example, had Sartre's script featured her morphine-dependency, omitted by Freud in his published fragments of case history, then everything about the woman would have remained up-for-grabs. Also perhaps her suitably mannered compliance with the Breuer/Freud/Zeitgeist concept of "catharsis". It is not to Sartre's credit that he ever pandered to Hollywood -- but that's just my opinion.-/- Peter J. Swales

Anthony Stadlen said...

After nearly a decade, I should point out in response to Peter, which I did not while he was still alive (he died this year), that the patient Caecilie in Sartre's screenplay and Huston's film was hardly a dramatised version of Freud's Frau Caecilie M. She was, rather, a fictional patient intended to illustrate Freud's advocacy and subsequent retraction of his "seduction theory". Sartre had to invent such a patient, because, though Freud loved giving detailed case histories when he had them, he did not publish a single case study to illustrate his claim to have discovered to his initial chagrin but subsequent triumph that some patients, who had alleged or acknowledged having been sexually abused in chilhdood, were in due course proved, "in definitely ascertainable circumstances" (unspecified), not to have been. Sartre was indeed naive in accepting Freud's self-serving and self-excusing account which contradicts not just his interpretation of his earlier "data" but the "data" themselves, as Frank Cioffi first pointed out in his BBC radio talk "Was Freud a Liar?" (1973) - see Inner Circle Seminar No. 196 (http://anthonystadlen.blogspot.com/2012/01/frank-cioffis-was-freud-liar-inner.html).

Anthony Stadlen