Sunday 1 January 2023

1920s-born existential therapists. 3. Aaron Esterson. The Dialectics of Madness. Anthony Stadlen conducts Inner Circle Seminar 286 with William Hopkins (1 October 2023)


Existential therapists born in the 1920s

Centenary seminars

3. Aaron Esterson

25 September 1923 – 15 April 1999

The Dialectics of Madness

Anthony Stadlen

conducts by Zoom

Inner Circle Seminar No. 286

with the help of William Hopkins

Sunday 1 October 2023

10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Aaron Esterson
Aaron Esterson

Aaron Esterson (25 September 1923 – 15 April 1999) was one of the world’s greatest existential analysts. See obituaries by Anthony Stadlen in The Daily Telegraph and Existential Analysis:
  • Aaron Esterson. Obituary. Existential Analysis (January 2000)
  • Esterson’s father Julius emigrated in 1916 to Glasgow from the Jewish community of Horodyshche, in the Cerkassy region of Ukraine. At that time there were about 3500 Jews in Horodyshche. A hundred years later, in 2016, there were 10. There had been horrific pogroms in 1919, 1920, and 1941, the former perpetrated by Ukrainians, the latter by Nazi occupiers and Ukrainian police in collaboration.
    Rogovoy, a member of the Boguslav self-defense unit, describes the pogrom in Horodyshche in September 1920 in terrible detail. It was organized by ataman Golyi. “As a result of bandits’ efforts, there are up to 500 killed, 250 wounded, and several women raped. The wild fury of the roaring crowd didn’t spare even babies. There are mutilated dead bodies in town because the victims were not shot but slaughtered with knives and cudgels. All local hospitals are filled with women raped, many of them fatally.
    [NB (13 November 2023). A remarkably similar pogrom, but on more than twice the scale, and with even greater ferocity and efficiency, was conducted by Hamas in Israel on 7 October 2023, six days after this seminar.]    
    Julius died when Aaron was fourteen months old. Aaron, as a child, experienced great poverty, sometimes warming himself from the air currents through gratings of shops.
    This family history undoubtedly sensitised Esterson from an early age to what human beings can do to other human beings.

Esterson reported his pioneering research interviews with families of ‘schizophrenic’ women in his books Sanity, Madness and the Family: Families of Schizophrenics (1964, with R. D. Laing) and The Leaves of Spring: A Study in the Dialectics of Madness (1970). He also developed a dialectical method of existential psychotherapy and family therapy.

Nearly all readers bring to these books unexamined scientistic, medicalistic, psychologistic presuppositions. Existentially, most readers, including ‘existential’ readers, are misreaders: in effect, non-readers. They assume that the books claim that family interactions contribute to the ‘aetiology’ of the supposed ‘illness’, ‘schizophrenia’. Laing and Esterson repeatedly explicitly insist that this is not what they are saying. They emphasise that they disbelieve in ‘schizophrenia’. But this is not noticed. Or, if it is, it is disbelieved. For how could Laing and Esterson mean something so mad?

In earlier cycles of Inner Circle Seminars devoted to the families in Sanity, Madness and the Family, as in our seminars on the work of Thomas Szasz, many participants attending for the first time have found it difficult to grasp the simple point that some people seriously disbelieve in ‘schizophrenia’. It serves as a ‘sacred symbol of psychiatry’, as Szasz pointed out in his book Schizophrenia: The Sacred Symbol of Psychiatry (1976): something in which, for example, that overwhelming majority of psychotherapists who regard themselves as ‘mental health professionals’ can hardly dare to disbelieve if they are to keep their identities and jobs.

Nobody seems to notice that the preface to the second edition of Sanity, Madness and the Family (1970) begins:
There have been many studies of mental illness and the family. This book is not of them, at least in our opinion. But it has been taken to be so by many people.
Nobody seems to notice that the first reference to another book in the first edition of the book (1964) is to Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness (1961), and to Szasz’s argument that a person should be presumed healthy unless proven sick, as in law they should be presumed innocent unless proven guilty.

Nobody seems to notice that, when Laing and Esterson write of social intelligibility, they are referring to the social intelligibility, not of the fact of illness, but of the presumption of illness.

That a person should be presumed healthy unless proven sick does not imply nobody is sick, any more than that a person should be presumed innocent unless proven guilty implies nobody is guilty.

Esterson wrote, at the conclusion of his case study of Rosie in his posthumously published paper, The Affirmation of Experience (2014):

What has happened, you might ask, to all those signs of madness, all those so-called clinical features of schizophrenia? In my view, Rosie was never mad. She was being driven frantic with despair. Psychiatry cannot discriminate between being mad and being frantic as if one is mad. I am not saying there is no such occurrence as madness. I am not claiming all behaviour deemed mad is a rational or socially intelligible response to how others are acting towards one. In my experience, some people are mad by any test I know. But, what has this to do with a disease of the mind, in the psychiatric sense, if there is no demonstrable, relevant tissue damage or dysfunction? In far more cases than is generally recognised, if these people are studied in their relevant, current social and interpersonal contexts by a phenomenologically appropriate method, it will be found that they are being invalidated and driven mad, albeit unwittingly, or driven frantic as if they are mad, by others including, I regret to say, psychiatrists themselves.

In my view, psychiatry as a branch of medicine is a snare and a delusion. I believe its methods, based on this delusion, are completely misconceived. In my opinion, we need to start afresh, and look again at the people who come within the purview of psychiatrists. We need a new science, a science of persons and social situations. And we need a new profession of existential analysts, counsellors and guides that subsumes and depasses psychiatry. This profession should systematically study and seek to understand the structure of human experience, the nature of misexperience and the intricacies of human relationships. And it should espouse appropriate principles and develop appropriate methods.

See The Affirmation of Experience. By Aaron Esterson (January 2014)

This makes clear that, also, a person should be presumed sane unless proven mad. And a person who is mad should not be presumed to be ill. The philosopher Martin Heidegger emphasised this when, in 1953, he asked Is the madman mentally ill?’ and answered with a decisive No’. This was seven years before Szasz’s paper The Myth of Mental Illness (1960) and eleven years before Laing and Esterson’s book Sanity, Madness and the Family (1964). We shall discuss this in Inner Circle Seminar No. 293 on 14 July.

Mental illness, as Szasz demonstrates, is a myth, a metaphor, a mistake. And if some schizophrenics’ should turn out to have an actual illness, a brain disease, then that – not a ‘mental illness – is what they would have: the province of neurologists, not psychiatrists.   

Today, as always, we shall read Estersons writings from this perspective. We shall also watch the 1972 BBC television film The Space Between Words: Family, directed by Roger Graef. It reveals how Esterson’s work with the different subsets of the family of a young teenage boy elicits and makes sense of the history of family interactions that has led to his despairing petty stealing which risks his being formally diagnosed as a ‘juvenile delinquent’.


The writings and the film give some idea of Estersonhighly original practice and thinking, which exemplify and embody what, as in the passage quoted above, he called a new profession, radically different from clinical, coercive psychiatry and the confused psychotherapy that is its handmaiden.

Esterson regarded his work as complementary to that of Szasz, who was his friend and colleague. But he thought his erstwhile colleagues R. D. Laing and David Cooper had frivolously betrayed and romanticised the serious work that needed to be done.

Esterson also inspired, discussed in depth, and supervised the early stages of Anthony Stadlen’s historical research on the paradigm case studies of FreudBoss, and other psychoanalysts and psychotherapists; and, with Mini Gelbard (now Kopilov), on the psychological techniques by which the Nazis mystified their victims in the Holocaust.

Todays seminar will also serve as an introduction to our third subseries, starting in April, of twelve Inner Circle Seminars over a few years devoted to a systematic investigation of each in turn of the eleven families in Sanity, Madness and the Family and to Stadlens twenty-first-century historical follow-up research on the supposedly ‘schizophrenic women and their families.

This time, the novelist Dame Hilary Mantel, who died last year, will no longer be able (as in our second subseries a decade ago) to introduce each family in her inimitable way. But the New York film director Yaara Sumeruk, who will participate today, is directing in consultation with Stadlen an extraordinary film-in-progress based closely on the eleven families, will be making her own unique contribution to our new subseries. (All identifying features of families have, of course, been removed.)

Dr William Hopkins, a consultant psychiatrist and existential psychotherapist who was trained by and worked with Esterson, will also discuss Estersons contribution in depth in todays seminar.

In the Inner Circle Seminars we have repeatedly explored how to integrate Estersonwork with the best of Daseinsanalysis. Daseinsanalysis, psychotherapy, and the dialectics of sanity and madness might thereby become diahermeneutics (an early, but abandoned, term of Martin Heideggers)We shall continue to develop this idea today and in the coming seminars. Your contribution will be warmly welcomed.

This will be an online seminar, using Zoom.

Cost: Psychotherapy trainees £140, others £175, some bursaries; payable in advance; no refunds or transfers unless seminar cancelled
Apply to: Anthony Stadlen, ‘Oakleigh’, 2A Alexandra AvenueLondon N22 7XE
Tel: +44 (0) 7809 433250

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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