Monday 1 January 2024

‘Is the madman mentally ill? No.’ (Heidegger, 1953). Did Heidegger anticipate Szasz? Anthony Stadlen conducts Inner Circle Seminar 293 (15 September 2024)


‘Is the madman mentally ill? No.

(Heidegger, 1953)

Did Martin Heidegger anticipate Thomas Szasz’s

‘The Myth of Mental Illness’ by seven years?

Anthony Stadlen

conducts by Zoom

Inner Circle Seminar No. 293

Sunday 15 September 2024

10 a.m. to 5 p.m

Anton Webern
3 December 1883 – 15 September 1945
Georg Trakl
3 February 1887 – 3 November 1914
Martin Heidegger
26 September 1889 – 26 May 1976
Thomas Szasz
15 April 1920 – 8 September 2012
at his 90th-birthday seminar
13 June 2010 (Inner Circle Seminar No. 153)
Photograph copyright
Not to be used without permission

On 7 October 1950 the philosopher Martin Heidegger gave a lecture, Die Sprache’ (‘Language’), in Bühlerhöhe (near Baden Baden). The lecture focussed on a single poem by Georg TraklEin Winterabend’ (‘A winter evening’).
In 1953 Heidegger published an essay, ‘Georg Trakl: Eine Erörterung seines Gedichtes’ (‘Georg Trakl: An Elucidation of his Poetry’), in the journal Merkur (No. 61: pp. 226-258).
In 1959 Heidegger republished his 1950 lecture and 1953 essay as the first two chapters of his book Unterwegs zur Sprache (On the Way to Language), with the titles, respectively, ‘Die Sprache’ (‘Language’) and ‘Die Sprache im Gedicht: Eine Erörterung von Georg Trakls Gedicht’ (‘Language in Poetry: An Elucidation of Georg Trakl’s Poetry’). 
Trakl in his poetry mentions ‘der Wahnsinnige’ (‘the madman’) many times.
Heidegger asks in his second chapter (1953: p. 237; 1959: p. 53):
[...] der Wahnsinnige. Meint dies einen Geisteskranken?  Nein. Wahnsinn bedeutet nicht [...]
‘[...] the madman. Does this mean a mentally ill man? No. Madness does not mean [...]
The translator Peter D. Hertzin On the Way to Language (1982 [1971]: p. 173), translates these words of Heidegger’s thus:
‘[...] the madman. Does the word mean someone who is mentally ill? Madness here does not mean [...]
Readers could not divine from this translation that Heidegger had written:
(1) Nein’ (No) – he did not leave his own question unanswered;
(2) dies’ (‘this’) – he did not write ‘das Wort’ (‘the word’);
(3) Wahnsinn’ (‘Madness’) – he did not write Wahnsinn hier’ (‘Madness here’).
The French translators of this book, Jean Beaufret and Wolfgang Brockmeier, in Acheminement vers la parole (1976: p. 56), translate this passage:
[...] Le FarsenéLe mot désigne-t-il un aliéné? Non. La démence n'ést pas [...]
This is a little more faithful to Heidegger: an unequivocal ‘Non’ (‘No’); and ‘La démence’ (‘madness’), rather than merely ‘La démence ici’ (‘madness here’). But it also insists, without evidence, that Heidegger is discussing the ‘mot’ (‘word’) ‘madman’ or ‘madness’ rather than the madman himself or madness itself.
Do these details matter? Yes, if one wants to know what Heidegger is doing here.
Is he making a very limited statement about a particular ‘madman’ in one of Trakl’s poems?
Or is he making a somewhat more general statement about ‘the figure of the madman’ in Trakl’s poems?
Or is he making a much more general statement: anticipating in 1953 the comprehensive proposition of Thomas Szasz, in his 1960 paper The Myth of Mental Illness and his 1961 book The Myth of Mental Illness, that there is no ‘mental illness’?
This proposition of Szasz’s has the corollary that, in particular, if there be such a phenomenon as ‘madness’, then, whatever ‘madness’ is, it cannot be ‘mental illness’, nor can the ‘madman’, or anybody else, be ‘mentally ill’ – for the simple reason that ‘mental illness’ is a myth.
It seems unlikely that either Hertz in 1971 or Beaufret and Brockmeier in 1976 supposed that Heidegger in 1953 meant something quite so radical. But might they have felt the need to play down even what he did seem to be saying, lest it make Heidegger himself seem a bit mad?
That Heidegger himself may have thought of himself as Trakl’s ‘madman’ is suggested by Jacques Derrida in what he calls a lengthy ‘parenthesis’ in Geschlecht III, the recently reconstituted and posthumously published (2018) third part of his sustained four-part meditation, Geschlecht, on Heidegger’s 1953 Trakl essay.
Derrida specifies as possible instances of Heidegger’s possible ‘madness’ his constant skipping between different and apparently unrelated instances of the same word in different poems. Certainly Heidegger has been criticised for this by other authorities on Trakl, for instance Michael Hamburger.
But at the same time as engaging in this criticised and, to some, ‘mad’ approach, Heidegger claims to have discovered a powerful, indeed dominating, unity in the poems. 
What is this supposed unifying factor? Is it demonstrable, or is it Heidegger’s defence against the ‘madness’ of Trakl’s and Heidegger’s own  polysemy?
Heidegger points out that Trakl appears to emphasise (by spaced lettering) only one word, only once, in his entire poetical oeuvre: the word Ein’ (one’) in E i n Geschlecht’, where the meaning of Geschlecht’ is highly ambiguous, as discussed by DerridaHeidegger claims this E i n’ is the Grundton’ (keynote’) of Trakl’s entire oeuvre. 
But what justifies Heidegger’s assumption that there is a keynote, even of a single poem of Trakl’s, let alone of his poetry as a whole?
The Konkordanz zu den Dichtungen Georg Trakls (Heinz Wetzel, 1971) shows that the word Grundton’ (keynote’) appears nowhere in Trakls poetry, although Ton’ (tone) and its cognates appear many times.   
Trakl is said to have been interested in Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal music, and – although in the 1910s and early 1920s highly original but still tonal great music was still being composed, such as Béla Bartók’s string quartets, Leoš Janáček’s operas, Jean Sibelius’s later symphonies, and in particular Paul Hindemith’s song cycle Opus 23 (1922), a remarkable tonal setting of Trakl’s Die Junge MagdAnton Webern’s Opus 13 (1926) and Opus 14 (1924) atonal (though not yet serial or dodecaphonic) settings of seven of Trakl’s poems for soprano and, respectively, orchestra and instrumental ensemble, appear quite extraordinarily ‘in tune’ with this poetry. (Webern wrote to his friend Josef Humplik that they were ‘just about the most difficult in this field’ to rehearse and perform.)
No fewer than five of these seven poems set by Webern were discussed by Heidegger in his two essays on Trakl. Moreover, both the composer and the philosopher separated one Trakl poem, Ein Winterabend’, from the others they selected. It is the only Trakl song in Weberns Opus 13, of which it is the culmination, while Heidegger’s first chapter is also devoted to just this one poem. Heidegger’s second chapter, however, discusses, among many other Trakl poems, four of the six set by Webern in his Opus 14.
There seems to be an astonishing affinity up to a point – between Weberns and Heidegger’s intensely sensitive responses to Trakl. But Webern responded atonally, Heidegger tonally.  
It is highly improbable that Heidegger knew Webern’s songs when, more than thirty years later, he wrote his essays on Trakl. François Fédier noticed, years still later, that Heidegger had the first recording of Webern’s complete published works (a boxed set of LPs conducted by Robert Craft in the 1950s, after Heidegger wrote his Trakl essays). Heidegger told Fédier that someone had given it to him but that he had got little from it; and he presumably gave it away (as he did many books and records), as it was not among the LPs inherited from Heidegger by his son Hermann and, subsequently, by his granddaughter Gertrud. (Personal communications from the late François Fédier and Hermann Heidegger, and from Gertrud Heidegger). 
We shall compare Weberns composing with Heideggers thinking; and we shall ask whether Heidegger opened up a polysemous approach to Trakl’s polysemy only to close it off – just as in the Zollikon seminars he encouraged or at least tolerated Medard Bosss developing a Daseinsanalysis’ that remained medicalised and retained psychiatric diagnosis: in this and other ways making, in the words of the existential psychotherapist Martti Siirala, the violent’ and absolutist’ claim to unmediated access to phenomena’.
With the help of Francisco J. Gonzalezs book Plato and Heidegger: A Question of Dialogue (2009), we shall continue to explore Heidegger’s decades-long disparagement of dialectics, from his earliest Freiburg lectures in 1919 to his last seminar in his home in 1973, and how this appears to limit his and Bosss teaching in the Zollikon seminars and elsewhere. Might this be remedied by developing, as Heidegger himself never did, his fleeting reference in a 1919 lecture, reported by his student (who was to become the philosopher of ‘mathematical existence’) Oskar Becker, to diahermeneutics’?

This will be an online seminar, using Zoom.

Cost: Psychotherapy trainees £140, others £175reductions for combinations of seminars; 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.

Heidegger’s Zollikon Seminars. A 60th-anniversary revaluation. 2. Seminars of January and July 1964. Inner Circle Seminar 292 (18 August 2024)

Mystification: Double Bind: Praxis and Process. The second seminar of the third (60th anniversary) subseries on Laing and Esterson’s Sanity, Madness and the Family: Families of Schizophrenics (1964). Anthony Stadlen and Yaara Sumeruk conduct Inner Circle Seminar 291 (21 July 2024)


R. D. Laing and Aaron Esterson

Sanity, Madness and the Family:

Families of Schizophrenics

(April 1964)

Sixtieth anniversary reflections

A third subseries (fifteen seminars) on Laing and Esterson’s eleven families

Historically researched by Anthony Stadlen

Explored in film by Yaara Sumeruk

In memoriam Hilary Mantel:

The simple words the people speak

2. Mystification: Double Bind: Praxis and Process

Further exploration of why this book is still not understood

Anthony Stadlen  Yaara Sumeruk

conduct by Zoom

Inner Circle Seminar No. 291

Sunday 21 July 2024

10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Karl Marx
5 May 1818 – 14 March 1883
Gregory Bateson
9 May 1904
 – 4 July 1980

Jean-Paul Sartre
21 June 1905
 – 15 April 1980

Thomas Szasz
15 April 1920
 – 8 September 2012

R. D. Laing
7 October 1927
 – 23 August 1989

Aaron Esterson
23 September 1923 – 15 April 1999  

Dame Hilary Mantel
6 July 1952
 – 22 September 2022

Yaara Sumeruk

This is the second in a new subseries of fifteen Inner Circle Seminars to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the publication in April 1964 of Sanity, Madness and the Family, Volume 1: Families of Schizophrenics by R. D. Laing and Aaron Esterson.

As in our two previous subseries devoted to this book and these families, starting respectively twenty and ten years ago, in 2004 and 2014, the heart of the subseries will be eleven seminars, each devoted to one of the eleven families in the book. Anthony Stadlen will again guide discussion in detail of the family conversations in the late 1950s and early 1960s reported in the book as well of his own interviews in the present century with members of the families and, when they were still alive, the daughters labelled schizophrenic. In the second of our two subseries, starting in 2014, all but one of the twelve seminars were introduced by the great novelist Dame Hilary Mantel, who shone the light of her genius on each family in turn. In the present subseries, we are honoured by the participation of the pioneering film director Yaara Sumeruk, who has developed a simple but profound way of bringing the family conversations in the book to life in a faithful and accurate cinema film that, as seminar members have confirmed, makes the predicament of the schizophrenic daughters more strikingly and dramatically intelligible.

But in the present, third, subseries we are devoting the first two seminars (of which todays is the second) not to individual families of the eleven but to the general question why for sixty years readers have so spectacularly failed to understand this book. It should be emphasised that this does not mean they think they fail to understand it. On the contrary, almost all readers seem to think there is no problem in understanding what the book is about: obviously, they explain, in this book Laing and Esterson are claiming that families cause schizophrenia. Such readers will usually go on to say that this claim has long been discredited by the advance of scientific biological psychiatry, though some will say the claim was correct. It seems to make no difference whether the readers are ordinary unprofessional people, psychotherapy students, or eminent psychiatrists. But the truth is that Laing and Esterson explicitly insisted that they were making no such claim.

For example, the British psychiatrist Julian Leff (1938-2021), internationally renowned and honoured as an authority on schizophrenia’, and his co-worker Christine Vaughn, wrote in their book Expressed Emotion in Families (1985, p. 1) that Laing and Esterson’s work was ‘supported by little or no scientific evidence’. Leff and Vaughn clearly supposed that what needed support by scientific evidence was, as they put it, a ‘theory of the family’s role in the origin of schizophrenia’. It is just such a supposed ‘theory of the family’s role in the origin of schizophrenia’ that Leff and Vaughn mistakenly supposed that  Laing and Esterson were advocating. But Laing and Esterson repeatedly emphasised they were not advocating any such theory. Indeed, they said they disbelieved in schizophrenia’.

Leff and Vaughn either failed to read what Laing and Esterson wrote; or, if they read it, they failed to understand it; or, if they understood it, they failed to believe it.

What did Laing and Esterson write? They reiterate in the Preface to the second edition (1970):

In our view it is an assumption, a theory, a hypothesis, but not a fact, that anyone suffers from a condition called schizophrenia’. No one can deny us the right to disbelieve in the fact of schizophrenia. We did not say, even, that we do not believe in schizophrenia.

This does not mean Laing and Esterson are not making any claim that can be tested and shown to be true or false. They are indeed making such a claim. But the claim they are making is not the claim Leff and Vaughn imagine they are making. The claim Laing and Esterson are making is not a medical or natural-scientific claim. It is what their colleague Peter Lomas, who participated in the research for some time, would have called an ordinarily human claim. It is by ordinarily human, common-sense means that it must be tested.

Leff and Vaughn, like almost all readers, before considering what claim Laing and Esterson might be making, themselves make an assumption which is itself an implicit claim: namely, that the eleven women in the book are ‘ill’; and that the disease’ from which they are suffering’ is schizophrenia’.

Leff and Vaughn assume, apparently unquestioningly, that Laing and Esterson are making the same assumption, the same implicit claim. They then make the further assumption that Laing and Esterson are making a further claim: namely, that the interactions in the womens families are causing, or at least contributing to, the womens supposed or alleged ‘illness’, schizophrenia’.

This claim, if Laing and Esterson had been making it, which they were not, could only have been tested, verified, confirmed, substantiated, or refuted by comparing a statistically significant number of families of supposed schizophrenics with a control group of the same number of families of supposed non-schizophrenics to test their supposed claim (which, of course, they were not making) of a supposed correlation between the family interactions and the supposed schizophrenia.

However, in reality, Laing and Esterson were claiming something much simpler, namely, that the way the eleven women related to their eleven respective families made ordinary social sense: that it was intelligible’ or comprehensible in Jean-Paul Sartreterms; or, as the authors cautiously phrased it in the Preface to the second edition of their book, more socially intelligible than has come to be supposed’. It was, they claimed, an ordinarily human response to how their families related to them. To establish this required no control group.

Laing and Esterson made no assumption that the eleven women had schizophrenia’. They made no assumption that the women were ill’. They made no assumption that the women were mad’. They made no assumption that the women had split minds They made no assumption that the women were of unsound mindThey made no assumption that the women had anything medically wrong with them. They made no assumption that the women had anything non-medically wrong with them. Nor, come to that, did they assume that the negative of any of these assumptions was the case.    

Nor did they make any assumption that the families, or society’, were, for example, schizophrenic’, ill’, sick’, mad’, split’, ‘dysfunctional’, ‘pathological’, etc.

The radical misunderstandings based on such false assumptions were the subject of the first seminar in the new subseries, Inner Circle Seminar No. 290, which took place on 16 June 2024. Such misunderstandings are primarily due to peoples failure to read what Laing and Esterson say, in plain English, they are doing in the book. We may suppose that readers do not expect the authors to say what they are in fact saying; and so, even if they begin to notice what the authors are in fact saying, they will dismiss the possibility that the authors might really be saying it; or that, if they are for some reason really saying it, they could actually mean it. See:

But in today’s second seminar in the subseries we shall consider some more ‘technical’ or ‘theoretical’ 
terms which some readers have found difficult to understand. We shall ask whether Laing and Esterson themselves may, despite their usual admirable clarity, have unwittingly contributed to these readers’ confusion.  

In March 1964, a month before the publication of Sanity, Madness and the Familythe book Reason and Violence: A Decade of Sartres Philosophy, 1950-1960, by Laing and David Cooper, was published. It expounded Sartre’s Question de Méthode and Saint Genet, and contained Laing’s translation-précis of Sartre’s recently published, as yet untranslated, Critique de la Raison Dialectique, Tome 1 (1960), of which Sartre in an enthusiastic Foreword to Reason and Violence praised Laings parfaite intelligence’. Sartre also commended Laings studies of the family as ‘series and group(technical terms for different kinds of human collectivity analysed in the Critique); presumably Laing had sent him his little known but important paper ‘Series and Nexus in the Family(New Left Review, May 1962: 1-15). Sartre wrote that he looked forward to a time when psychiatry would become humaine.

The next month, April 1964, saw the publication of Sanity, Madness and the Family. This book referred the reader to the theoretical background given in Laing’s The Self and Others (1961) and in Reason and Violence. In 1970 Esterson’s The Leaves of Spring: A Study in the Dialectics of Madness was published. It developed to book-length one of the eleven family studies (Chapter 4, The Danzigs) from Sanity, Madness and the Family; referred to the same theoretical background; and acknowledged indebtedness to the philosophic tradition of dialectical investigation, particularly as it is embodied in the work of HegelMarx, and Sartre, though it is not a direct application of any of these.

Key terms which Laing and Esterson use are mystification (from Karl Marx) and praxis and process (from Sartre). Laing also discusses the double bind (from Gregory Bateson), although Sanity, Madness and the Family gives only one alleged instance of it (p. 167). We shall briefly discuss these terms, and Laing and Esterson’s use of them, in what follows.

Just as Hilary Mantel illuminated with her literary genius the eleven families in our second subseries of seminars on the book a decade ago, Yaara Sumeruk, who is directing an extraordinary film elucidating Sanity, Madness and the Family, showed us in the first seminar in the present subseries last month an extract which startlingly clarified a sequence of family interactions recorded in the book. Today she will present further extracts to illustrate mystification, double bind, praxis and process as exemplified in other family interactions from the book.

1. Mystification

Because Marx by experiencing estrangement [Entfremdung, alienation] attains an essential dimension of history, the Marxist view of history is superior to that of other historical accounts. 

Martin Heidegger, Letter on Humanism’ (1949)  

Laing and Esterson, in these books and elsewhere, employ the term mystification’ and its cognates. The first instance appears to be in the first edition of LaingThe Self and Others (1961: 135-6) where he writes that a person placed in an untenable position is totally mystified and alienated. The association of mystification with alienation recalls Marxs linking these words, but Marx is not mentioned. The phrase is removed from the much revised second edition, Self and Others (1969), but a phrase the most intense conflicts (1961: 76) in the first edition is replaced in the second edition by the phrase mystification, confusion, and conflict (1969: 71): a clear allusion, though still without mention of Marx, to Laingpaper ‘Mystification, confusion, and conflict(1965), where he does explicitly acknowledge indebtedness to Marx. However, Laing explains Marxs concept of mystification as ‘representing forms of exploitation as forms of benevolence’, which states only vaguely what Marxs concept of mystification actually was.

On the other hand, Laing and Esterson’s first allusion to mystification in Sanity, Madness and the Family (1964: 8) is a good example, as we shall see below, of what Marx did mean by mystification, though they do not explain or mention this, or indeed mention Marx anywhere in their book:

Phenomenologically, a group can feel to its members to be an organism; to those outside it, it can appear to act like one. But to go beyond this, and to maintain that, ontologically, it is an organism, is to become completely mystified.

In Laings 1965 paper ‘Mystification, confusion, and conflict’ he applies the word mystification’ to the study of family interactions, comparing and contrasting it with Bateson’s (1956) concept of the double bind’. Laing gives, among other examples, some that do indeed correspond precisely to Marx’s concept of mystification, and some that do not, both in family interactions and in the theories of family researchers and therapists about family interactions; but he still does not explain which examples correspond to Marxconcept of mystification – or even to Laing’s concept of Marxconcept of mystification – and which do not.

Laing also has a chapter ‘The mystification of experience’ in The Politics of Experience (1967). He writes: Marx described mystification and showed its function in his day.’ But he still does not say what Marx actually said.

What did Marx mean by mystification? He meant, specifically, the misrepresentation of social relationships between human beings as relationships between things. Mystification in his sense, therefore, is always also reification and alienation. It may also be expressed in terms of praxisprocess, and intelligibilty (see below). 

What Marx meant by mystification may be seen in the following quotations from Marx’s Das Kapital.

(1 and 2 do not contain the word mystificationbut point to what Marx meant by it. In 34, and 5 he uses the word mystificationto refer to the mystifying misdescription of the relationship between capitalist and labourer, or landlord and tenant. In 6 he makes his famous accusation that Hegel alludes to the dialectical nature of human relationships but mystifies it by standing it on its head’ as a relationship of abstractions rather than human beings.)

1. ‘... das bestimmte gesellschaftliche Verhältnis der Menschen selbst, welches hier für sie die phantasmagorische Form eines Verhältnisses von Dingen annimmt
[‘... the specific social relationship of the human beings themselves, which here assumes for them the phantasmagoric form of a relationship between things (Dingen).]

Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Volume 1, Chapter 1

2. ‘... daB das Kapital nicht eine Sache ist, sondern ein durch Sachen vermitteltes gesellschaftliches Verhältnis zwischen Personen.
[‘... that capital is not a thing (Sache), but a societal relationship between persons mediated by things (Sachen).’]

   Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Volume 1, Chapter 33

3.Das gesellschaftliche Verhälltnis ist vollendet als Verhälltnis eines Dings, des Geldes, zu sich selbst. ... Es wird ganz so Eigenschaft des Geldes, Werth zu schaffen, Zins abzuwerfen, wie die eines Birnbaums Birnen zu tragen. ... die Kapitalmystifikation in der grellsten Form.
[‘The social relationship is consummated as relationship of a thing (Ding), of money, to itself. ... It becomes just as much a property of money to create value, to yield interest, as of a pear-tree to bear pears. ... capital-mystification in the most glaring form.’]

   Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Volume 3, Chapter 24

4. ‘Die Vorstellung vom Kapital als sich selbst reproduzierendem und in der Reproduktion vermehrendem Wert ... hat zu den fabelhaften Einfällen des Dr. Price geleitet, die bei weitem die Phantasien der Alchimisten hinter sich lassen ... Pitt nimmt die Mystifikation des Dr. Price ganz ernst.
[‘The conception of capital as self-reproducing and in the reproduction increasing value ... has led to the fabulous notions of Dr Price, which leave the fantasies of the alchemists far behind them; ... Pitt takes Dr Prices mystification in all earnest.’]

   Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Volume 3, Chapter 24

5.... die Mystifikation der kapitalistischen Produktionsweise, die Verdinglichung der gesellschaftlichen Verhältnisse ... die verzauberte, verkehrte und auf den Kopf gestellte Welt, wo Monsieur le Capital und Madame la Terre als soziale Charaktere und zugleich unmittelbar als bloße Dinge ihren Spuk treiben. 
[‘... the mystification of the capitalist mode of production, the reification of social relationships ... the enchanted, back-to-front and stood-on-its-head world where Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre are up to their spookery as social characters and at the same time directly as mere things (Dinge).]
Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Volume 3, Chapter 48
6. Die mystifizierende Seite der hegelschen Dialektik habe ich vor beinah 30 Jarhen, zu einer Zeit kritiziert, wo sie noch Tagesmode war. [...] Die Mystifikation, welche die Dialektik in Hegels Händen erleidet, verhindert in keiner Weise, daß er ihre allgemeinen Bewegungsformen zuerst in umfassender und bewußter Weise dargestellt hat. Sie steht bei ihm auf dem Kopf. Man muß sie umstülpen, um den rationellen Kern in der mystischen Hülle zu entdecken. [...] In ihrer mystifizierten Form war s die Dialektik deutsch Mode, weil sie das Bestehende zu verklären schien.
[‘The mystifying side of the Hegelian dialectic I criticised nearly thirty years ago, at a time when it was still the fashion of the day. [...] The mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegels hands in no way precludes him from being the first to represent its general forms of movement in a comprehensive and conscious way. With him it stands on its head. One must turn it the right way up, to discover the rational kernel in the mystical shell. [...] In its mystified form the dialectic became German fashion, because it seemed to transfigure what exists.]               
Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Afterword to second German edition
Translations by A. Stadlen

Sartre in his Critique implies that the theory of Marx and Friedrich Engels, and subsequent Marxism’, while indeed a demystification up to a point, was itself also a mystificationFor Marx writes, for example:

7.Die Gestalten von Kapitalist und Grundeigentümer zeichne ich keineswegs in rosigem Licht. Aber ... [w]eniger als jeder andere kann mein Standpunkt, der die Entwicklung der ökonomischen Gesellschaftsformation als einen naturgeschichtlichen Prozeß auffaßt, den einzelnen verantwortlichmach en für Verhältnisse, deren Geschöpf er sozial bleibt, sosehr er sich auch subjektiv über sie erheben mag.

[‘I draw the figures of the capitalist and landlord in no way in a rosy light. But ... my standpoint, which conceives the development of the economic formation of society as a natural-historical process [sic, emphasis added], can less than any other make the individual responsible for relationships whose creature he remains socially, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them.’]              
Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Preface to first German edition
Translation by A. Stadlen
Sartre seeks to show that what Marx here calls ‘natural-historical process’ [emphasis added] is itself a mystification and reification, ‘socially’ or ‘dialectically’ ‘intelligible’ as human-historical ‘praxis’ (see below, under 3. Praxis and Process).

Similarly, Sartre sees Heideggers praise (above) for Marxs account of history as itself a mystification and reification, because, in Sartreview, Heideggers philosophy is existential idealism’ which subordinates the human to Being other than man’, as Laing puts it in Reason and Violence (1964: 116).

Laing and Esterson give many specific occurrences of what they call mystification by family members in the family interviews in Sanity, Madness and the Family. But they appear to have missed an opportunity to state their central hypothesis specifically in terms of mystification
in Marx’s sense (or Sartre’s development of it). For their hypothesis is that the very concept of ‘schizophrenia’ is a mystification precisely in that sense, as that concept misrepresents a ‘human’ relation between persons (primarily in the family) as a ‘natural’ relation between things (the ‘illness’ of one daughter, the ‘imbalance’ between ‘things’ in her ‘mind’ or ‘brain’). Esterson is clearer about this in The Leaves of Spring.

The first reference in Sanity, Madness and the Family (1964: 4, n.1) is to Thomas Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness (1961), which was published very soon after Sartre’s Critique, too soon to take account of it. Szasz, like Sartre, criticised what the philosopher Karl Popper called Marx’s ‘historicism’, his reification of human history as ‘natural-historical process’ (see example 7 above). Szasz’s thesis was essentially that the ‘myth of mental illness’ is a mystification in the Sartre-Marx sense, though he did not put it in these terms.

2. Double Bind

Laing and Esterson could also have reasonably argued that the central mystification they studied in Sanity, Madness and the Family, that the ‘schizophrenic’ women were alleged to be ‘ill’, was, precisely, a ‘double bind’. It may be that the readers who do not understand the point of the book are caught in this mystification which is also a double bind.  

Laing discusses the double bind in The Self and Others (1961) and its (much revised) second edition Self and Others (1969). The double bind is mentioned on the dust covers of the two hard-back editions of Sanity, Madness and the Family (1964, 1970) but only once in the text (ibid., p. 167), although there are instances in the family interactions where it could have been applied with accuracy. It is often used erroneously (though not by Laing or Esterson) to mean any kind of mixed message or contradictory attribution or injunction; but it has a precise meaning defined by Bateson and his colleagues (1956), with six complex necessary ingredients, in terms of Bertrand Russells theory of Logical Types expounded in his and Alfred North Whiteheads Principia Mathematica, Volume 1, Chapter 2 (1910). The crux is that the contradictory communications are, as Bateson conceived them, of different logical type: a communication and a metacommunication about the primary communication.

Laing wrote in The Self and Others (1961: 141) and Self and Others (1969: 129) that the 1956 work of Bateson and his colleagues on the double bind had revolutionized the concept of what is meant by environment’. Laing did express doubt as to whether ‘the Logical Type theory, which arises in the course of the construction of a calculus of propositions, can be applied directly to communication’ (1969: 129). He also claimed that in real life there probably will be at least three persons involved’ (1969: 128); but a two-person double bind can surely arise, for instance, between a single mother and her only child.

The theory of the double bind prepared the ground for Laing and Estersons work. For this reason, and because it has been generally banalised and misunderstood, though not by them, we shall examine it today.

3. Praxis and Process

Both Laing and Esterson also place great stress on the terms praxis’ and process’. They claim they are using them as Sartre does in Critique de la Raison Dialectique. They define and use Sartres term praxis correctly, but they (jointly and separately) define and use the term process in two, contradictory, senses, only one of which correctly conveys Sartres term processus’.

Sartre in the Critique uses both praxis’ and ‘processus’ to refer to human (not natural) events. Praxis’ simply means human, freely chosen action. Processus’ is a human, usually group, happening or development or procedure that merely looks like a natural, supposedly mechanistically determined event or fact.

Sartre states explicitly (1960: 542; English translation 1976: 549) that neither praxis nor processus is deterministic. This is what one would expect, since both describe human rather than natural events. Laing made an excellent English précis of this section in Reason and Violence (1964: 153-4), of exemplary clarity; but he seems subsequently at least sometimes to have forgotten or ignored it.

Laing and Esterson (1964: 8) define the term ‘process’, misleadingly, to mean ‘a continuous series of operations that have no agent as their author’. In other words they wrongly define it as if it were really a natural, mechanistically determined event. But they use it, in practice, confusingly: sometimes incorrectly to mean simply natural events; and sometimes correctly to mean what Sartre actually does mean by ‘processus’, namely, as explained above, human (usually group) events which only appear to be natural events having no author, but which it is the purpose of his book to demonstrate can be revealed by dialectical reason to be not natural, not deterministic, but socially intelligible as deriving from human praxis.

Esterson in The Leaves of Spring (1970: xii) explicitly, but wrongly, defines ‘process’ as referring simply to natural events, even giving an allegedly defining example of ‘process’ which he asserts is deterministic’, clearly without realising that this contradicts Sartredefinition:

I am using the terms praxis and process after Sartre. Praxis refers to events that are the deeds of doers or groups of doers, or to the intended outcome of such deeds. It refers to the acts of an agent. Process refers to events or a pattern of events of which no doer or agent is the author. Thus, praxis expresses the intentions of a person or group of persons, while process does not. Process in a system may be initiated by praxis, e.g. a blow to the head,; but the pattern of events that follows the blow, the pattern of trauma or physiological change within the organism, is determined mechanistically. This pattern of change is one of process.
The ordinary medical concept of illness is a concept of process. It refers to the events occurring within the person, and affecting his organism according to the laws of natural science.  

This is a lucid definition, but it is simply wrong as a statement of what Sartre meant by ‘process’. It would have been simpler if Sartre had defined ‘process’ in this way, but he simply did not.

Laing similarly misdefines ‘process’ in this way in his paper ‘Mystification, confusion, and conflict’ (1965: 350) and in his much later confused presentation in 1985 to the first Evolution of Psychotherapy conference (1987: 203-4) when Szasz was a justifiably exasperated respondent on other grounds (1987: 210).

The whole purpose of Sartre’s Critique is to demonstrate that ‘processus’, while not a natural event, merely appears to be one, and is in fact socially intelligible by dialectical reason as the outcome of human praxis. Sartre’s project is to make history itself socially intelligible.

The error of Laing and Esterson is, on occasion, to treat Sartreprocess’ as if it actually referred to nature, rather than merely appearing to refer to nature but actually being socially intelligible as human praxis. In other words, their error is precisely to mystify, in the Marx-Sartre-Szasz sense, Sartres concept of process.

It might have been clearer if Sartre had defined processus’ as natural and deterministic, and coined another term, such as pseudo-processus’ or praxis-processus’, to mean what only looks natural and deterministic; but he did not. Sometimes, indeed, he does use praxis-processus’, but it appears to mean for him exactly the same as processus’, or rather, it appears to mean for him processus’ demystified by being shown as socially intelligible in terms of praxis, whereas it would not be intelligible in this way if he had defined processus’ as simply natural and deterministic.

Sartre sometimes refers to processus as inertia or the practico-inert. It is metaphorical inertia; just as mental illness is, as Szasz insisted, metaphorical illness. To confuse or identify Sartre’s ‘inertia’ with Isaac Newton’s ‘inertia’ is, in Laing and Esterson’s words (above), ‘to become completely mystified’.

Mystification itself, in Marx’s or Sartre’s sense, may be defined as the pretence that process (in Sartre’s sense) is unintelligible as praxis. This might also be put: mystification is the pretence that process in Sartre’s sense is process in Laing and Esterson’s (incorrect) sense.   

But it is difficult to see why Sartre would have required to use special terminology (praxis, processus), or why Laing would have needed to make and publish a difficult translation-précis of the entire, excruciatingly difficult Critique (though Laing in his 1965 paper calls Sartre’s drawing of the distinction between praxis and process, wrongly defined by Laing, ‘extremely lucid’), if it were merely a question of what are usually called human events (with reasons) and natural events (with causes). Heidegger and Szasz were content to use this ordinary language.

No mountain need have laboured to bring forth this pair of mice, the human and the natural, if they had been all that Sartre meant by praxis’ and ‘processus’, as Laing and Esterson at times misleadingly assert, although at other times they obviously understand what he meant.

It is also important to recognise that distinguishing between the human and the natural does not have to entail a cartesian dualism. Sartre insists in the Critique that his concept of the human and the natural is not dualistic. (And, since processus only appears to be naturally determined, the question of a dualism of praxis and processsus does not arise.)

Heidegger observes that tears cannot be understood by natural science although their physical properties can be. Szasz observes that a wedding ring cannot be understood by natural science although its physical properties can be. Heidegger and Szasz are making the same point, and Laing made it too.

It is not dualistic. The two ways of seeing tears or a wedding ring, the personal and the physical, are like the two ways of seeing a human being, as person or as organism, which Laing discusses in The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness (1960), published a few months before The Myth of Mental Illness. As Laing puts it, in the language of existential phenomenology, each of the two ways of seeing is a different ‘initial intentional act’. Laing writes:

There is no dualism in the sense of the co-existence of two different essences or substances there in the object, psyche and soma.

Moreover, the description of ‘nature’ as ‘mechanistically determined’ is itself unsatisfactory. It is human beings who make machines and try to determine the outcome of events.

Both Heidegger and Sartre emphasise the unescapable involvement of human Dasein in what is called ‘nature’.

Although the basic assumption of the present seminar is that it is important to understand the technical terms Laing and Esterson use, this does not imply that these terms are either necessary or sufficient to describe the phenomena to which they seek to draw our attention.

It is crucial not to lose sight of Laing and Estersons simple, unassuming question as they restate it in the Preface to the second edition of Sanity, Madness and the Family (1970: viii):

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

But most readers persist in misreading this simple question as if the seven words emphasised were simply not there.

The greatness of these books transcends these errors; but it may well be that the errors have contributed to the almost universal misunderstanding of Sanity, Madness and the Family and, on the rare occasions it is noticed, The Leaves of Spring. We shall try to remedy this a little today, with the help of extracts which Yaara Sumeruk will show us from her uniquely clarifying film-in-progress.

Then, in the next eleven seminars in this subseries, we shall focus on each of the eleven families in turn, in the hope that we shall understand better the words Laing and Esterson used to describe them, but perhaps also find our own.

Your questions and contributions will be warmly welcomed.

This will be a FREE online seminar, using Zoom.

Cost of subsequent seminars: Psychotherapy trainees £140, others £175; reductions for combinations of seminars, for example, the subseries of seminars on Sanity, Madness of the Family; some bursaries; no refunds or transfers unless seminar cancelled
Apply to: Anthony Stadlen, ‘Oakleigh’, 2A Alexandra AvenueLondon N22 7XE
Tel: +44 (0) 7809 433250  

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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.