Friday, 1 January 2021

The Myth of ‘Mental Health’ and ‘Psychopathology’ in Existential Analysis and Daseinsanalysis. Keith Hoeller, Albert Pacheco, Anthony Stadlen conduct Inner Circle Seminar 267 (9 May 2021)

The Myth of ‘Mental Health’ and Psychopathology
in Existential Analysis and Daseinsanalysis

Keith Hoeller   Albert Pacheco   Anthony Stadlen
(with assistance from Miles Groth)
Inner Circle Seminar No. 267
Sunday 9 May 2021
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Martin Heidegger

Thomas Szasz

Aaron Esterson

Medard Boss


Heidegger was interested in psychiatry, especially with schizophrenics, with whom he sought contact and conversations when this was possible for him. On walks he regularly remained standing lost in thought for a while before the villa of the Freiburg psychiatrist Ruffin [...]. Once he said forthrightly that he was not convinced of the correctness of the solely medical interpretation of schizophrenia as illness. Could it not even simply be a question of an ‘other’ kind of thinking?

Wiesenhütter, E. Die Begegnung zwischen Philosophie und Tiefenpsychologie.

(1979: 158, translation by A. Stadlen)

In our Covid-oriented time, when everyone is talking about so-called mental health’, this seminar offers an urgently needed perspective, one which might actually help people come to terms with this unprecedented existential, emotional, psychological, interpersonal, spiritual, religious challenge better than the confused perspective of mental health’. This does not mean that people offering ‘talking therapy’ within the mental health’ system are doing no good; some may do much good; but this seminar asks: might they not do better, and perhaps even much better, if their thinking and practice were not muddled and muddied by the mystifying discourse of mental health’? Does not this pseudo-medical approach besmirch even the most sophisticated daseinsanalytic or existential therapy? The seminar will be an opportunity to examine the evidence without which answers to these questions can only be dogmatic or speculative. 

What did Martin Heidegger mean? What Eckart Wiesenhütter says he said (above), three years after Heideggers death, is ambiguous. The words solely’ (allein’) and ‘simply’ (einfach’) in the last two sentences suggest two possible ways of understanding schizophrenia, the second more radical than the first.

The first sentence says Heidegger doubted the ‘solely medical interpretation of schizophrenia as illness’, implying ‘schizophrenia’ might be both an ‘illness’ and ‘an “other” kind of thinking’. But the second sentence says he wondered if it was ‘simply a question of an “other” kind of thinking’, implying not an ‘illness’ at all.

Even if Heidegger did have the temerity to suggest the second, more radical, possibility on that one occasion, he was usually careful to explain that what he endorsed was the first possibility. He did revere the maddest’ writings of HölderlinNietzscheTraklCelan as an “other” kind of thinking’, but he emphasised that the medical interpretation that they were ill’ was correct.

Of course, when Heidegger used the word ‘correcthe usually meant wrong, in the light of his more profound understanding. But he still meant ‘correct! How, though, did he know that the medical diagnosis was correct? He was not a doctor. But he deferred as a layman to the medical expertise of such psychiatrists as Ludwig Binswanger and, especially, his friend Medard Boss.

With Boss he founded a form of psychotherapy, Daseinsanalysis, grounded in his own philosophy. In Boss’s home from 1959 to 1969 he conducted the Zollikon seminars for psychiatrists and doctors. Both men opposed reductive natural-scientism. They insisted on a holistic approach to illness. But they assumed, in relation to ‘schizophrenics’, neurotics, and others who sought daseinsanalytic therapy, that it was illness that they were holistically approaching.

In the 1960s, the decade of the Zollikon seminars, the psychiatrists Thomas Szasz in the United States and R. D. Laing and Aaron Esterson in the United Kingdom, were also seriously questioning the foundations of their discipline, if it could be called a discipline. Laing and Esterson endorsed much of Bosss work while deploring Bossrecklessness’ (Laing) and lack of clarity’ (Esterson). The crucial difference was that Szasz, Laing and Esterson questioned the presumption of illness.

Szasz compared the presumption of illness to the presumption of guilt in inquisitorial legal systems. He held, on both scientific and ethical grounds, that people should be presumed healthy until proven ill, just as they are presumed innocent until proven guilty in accusatorial legal systems. He argued that both the presumption of illness and the presumption of guilt invalidate people.

However, the presumption of illness differs from the presumption of guilt in a fundamental way. The presumption of guilt at least attributes agency and responsibility; indeed, it insists on it. But the presumption of illness, and especially mental illness’, attributes lack of agency and responsibility: it literally invalidates by treating the person as an invalid.

Szasz was as committed as Heidegger and Boss were to holistic medicine. He was no dualist. His first papers and first book Pain and Pleasure were on psychosomatic medicine, and he stood by them at the end of his life more than half a century later, seeing this as an important field for research. But he pointed out that illness (disease) still has first to be established by a natural-scientific criterion such as Virchows, of cellular pathology or pathophysiology. A holistic approach to illness makes no sense if there is no illness to approach. Holistic (or any other kind of) medicine should not degenerate into making the presumption of illness.

Laing and Esterson, in Sanity, Madness and the Family (1964), and Esterson, in The Leaves of Spring (1970), demonstrated in concrete detail how, in each of eleven families in which a daughter had been medically diagnosed as schizophrenic, the presumption by the other family members that this young woman was ‘ill served to mystify her and invalidate her experience. Some of the diagnosed women fluctuated between accepting and challenging the familys and the psychiatrists’ (not, of course, Laings or Estersons) definition of them as ill. Others simply accepted, in a defeated and demoralised way, that they were ill’.

Laing and Esterson emphasised in the preface to the second edition of their book that readers had ignored their question, namely (1970 [1964]: viii):

Are the experience and behaviour that psychiatrists take as [boldface added] signs and symptoms of schizophrenia more socially intelligible than has come to be supposed?

They were questioning the existence of schizophrenia. But for more than half a century they have been misread as if they had left out the words here in boldface.

This is not an obscure detail. It is the heart of their argument. But it is so simple that almost all readers manage not to see it.

‘Readers’ (misreaders or non-readers) wrongly assume Laing and Esterson claimed families cause’ (contribute to the ‘aetiology’ of) a (hypothetical) mental illness’, ‘schizophrenia’. That is to say, readers mistakenly assume it was this presumed illness’, not the presumption of such an ‘illness, that these authors claimed was socially intelligible.

Among those who have misread in this way are Emmy van Deurzen and Raymond Kenward who assert in their influential Dictionary of Existential Psychotherapy and Counselling (2005: 118): 

Laing […] believed schizophrenia was the result of the alienating power of the schizophrenogenic family.

This is what almost all of the few existential therapists and Daseinsanalysts who even claim to have read the book say Laing and Esterson were saying.

In two series of Inner Circle Seminars on the eleven families, for the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the book, we have seen how difficult it is for existential therapists whose careers depend on it to examine their belief in mental healthmental illness’, and schizophrenia. Daseinsanalysts have expressed similar puzzlement. But for the laywoman Dame Hilary Mantel, the great writer who introduced our second series of seminars, the phenomenological point was obvious. [See: 

Of course, as Szasz pointed out, it is possible that some persons now diagnosed as schizophrenic are indeed ill: they may have an undiscovered brain abnormality. If such an abnormality were discovered then it would constitute a bona fide disease with mental symptoms: the province of neurologists.

But often, as Esterson says in Families, Breakdown and Psychiatry (1976: 296),

Such was the hypnotic effect of the prior assumption of illness, that one had constantly to remind oneself that there was no evidence to substantiate this assumption.

And (302):
[…] study the designated schizophrenic directly in his relevant social context in a phenomenologically and dialectically valid manner, and to a significant extent the apparent signs and symptoms of the presumed illness disappear like morning mist before the sun […]

Boss says (Grundriss der Medizin, 1971: 506, translation by A. Stadlen):
[…] with no single patient can one speak of his being schizophrenic per se. Rather, one must always ask: schizophrenic under the excessive demands of what pattern of human relationships?
But Boss’s language still begs the question of what ‘schizophrenic’ means. And he has defined Daseinsanalysis, in the title of his book and elsewhere, as part of medicine. He and Heidegger constantly refer to ‘patients’ as ‘ill’. [See:
by A. Stadlen.]
Non-medical psychotherapists were not invited to the 1960s Zollikon seminars. Boss thought Daseinsanalysts should be medical doctors. But Freud had argued in the 1920s that ‘doctors form a preponderating contingent of quacks in psychoanalysis’, which he insisted was not part of medicine but ‘weltliche Seelsorge’ (‘secular [worldly] soul-care’). Boss, starting with a modest claim that, as a student, he had visited Freud for some sessions in 1925, eventually claimed to have had psychoanalysis with him six times a week for six months, though Boss’s deputy and successor Gion Condrau and Stadlen proved that he cannot have been in Vienna for at least half that time. If he did visit Freud, he seems not to have grasped that Freud did not regard their analytic or therapeutic meetings as medicalHeidegger appears to have accepted Boss’s view that psychotherapy was a medical treatment without question.
Today we shall ask whether this is an unnecessary limitation of Daseinsanalysis and existential analysis or whether Heidegger’s and Boss’s conception of illness’ is more daseinappropriate’ after all. Your contribution to the discussion will be warmly welcome.

Professor Keith Hoeller, translator of Heidegger’s Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry (2001), will again join us from Seattle, where he was Professor of Philosophy for many years. He has edited the Review of Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy from 1978, as well as books of key papers on Binswanger, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Boss, Sartre, Szasz, Foucault, May. He is one of the very few authorities on both Heidegger and Szasz. He edited Thomas Szasz: Moral Philosopher of Psychiatry (1997). He contributed a chapter on Szasz to Existential Therapy (ed. Barnett, L. and Madison, G., 2012). He received the Thomas S. Szasz Award for Outstanding Services to the Cause of Civil Liberties (professional category) from the Center for Independent Thought, New York City.

Professor Hoeller co-conducted (by Zoom from Seattle, heroically through the night) Inner Circle Seminars No. 258 (The Myth of Thomas Szasz) on 14 June 2020 and No. 259 (Heidegger and Levinas on the ‘Holy’) on 2 August 2020.

Dr Albert Pacheco is Director of Behavioral Health Services for South Central Family Health Services in Los Angeles, CA. He has over 20 years of clinical experience. His doctoral dissertation, based on the work of Medard Boss, was reviewed and approved by Boss himself, and he has discussed with both Boss and Szasz their positions on mental illness. He has published articles on Boss and existential psychology and is an editorial board member of the Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, which published (!) his important paper The Myth of Existential PsychiatryHe is completing a book,  An Introduction to the Existential Psychology of Medard Boss.

Professor Miles Groth will join us for the afternoon. He is an existential therapist since 1975; Professor Emeritus in Psychology at Wagner College, Staten Island, New York City; translator of Heidegger; author of books and papers on Heidegger and Boss, including Medard Boss and the Promise of Therapy (2020); collaborator with Todd DuBose in The Soul of Existential Therapy (2020) and a Society for Existential Analysis symposium in November 2020.

This will be an online seminar, using Zoom.

Cost: Psychotherapy trainees £132, others £165, some bursaries; payable in advance by bank transfer or PayPal; no refunds or transfers unless seminar cancelled
Apply to: Anthony Stadlen, ‘Oakleigh’, 2A Alexandra Avenue, London N22 7XE
Tel: +44 (0) 7809 433250    E-mail:
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 universities.

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