Existential Therapy and Daseinsanalysis (Athens 2015)


Existential Therapy and Daseinsanalysis

(Athens 2015)


Anthony Stadlen 

[From Hermeneutic Circular November 2016: 19-20]

Copyright © Anthony Stadlen 2016

On 25 September 2015 at the 9th Forum of the International Federation of Daseinsanalysis, Athens, I was asked to answer in five minutes:

(a) What makes “existential” a therapy? [sic]

(b) What could be the specificities of Daseinsanalysis? [sic]

This was my response:

The word ‘existential’ has been so corrupted as to be almost meaningless. So have the words ‘therapy’ and ‘psychotherapy’. But I use them all, and I will explain what I mean by them.

‘Therapy’ means attending. ‘Psyche’ means soul. ‘Psyche’, or soul, means, according to Heidegger’s interpretation of Aristotle, ‘the ground and manner of the relation to beings’. ‘Psychotherapy’ means attending to another person’s soul, which means to the ground and manner of his or her relation to beings.

How does one do this? People have aspired to do as Socrates did, with his maieutic questioning. But Socrates usually sought people out with whom to practise elenchos, dialectic. And he did not charge for it, though in his trial he said the state should support him.

By contrast, I offer my psychotherapeutic services only to those who ask and – usually – who are prepared to pay an agreed fee. It is a contract between consenting adults. No third parties or institutions are involved. The other asks, and I consent, but only if he or she understands roughly what service I am offering. I am offering to help with a quest in which the other is, at least implicitly, already engaged. In principle I may refuse. In practice, over forty-four years I have never done so.

This is radically different from psychiatry, and from much of what is called ‘psychotherapy’. Psychiatry was, and is, a coercive and at times compulsory practice whereby, typically, agents of the state called psychiatrists are authorised and required to incarcerate and forcibly ‘treat’ those whom others have accused of having a problem because they see them as being a problem.

Much confusion in what is called ‘psychotherapy’ stems from failure to separate psychotherapy as I have defined it from psychiatry, which seeks out others on whom to enforce its vision of ‘mental health’. Even apparently consensual psychotherapy between adults is pervaded by assumptions from the world of coercive and compulsory psychiatry.

The word ‘existential’ ought to clarify this confusion. In practice most so-called ‘existential therapists’ are as confused as anyone. They are the willing handmaidens of compulsory psychiatry and shining-eyed but dead-minded devotees of ‘mental health’. They love to call themselves ‘clinicians’.

As I understand the word, ‘existential’ emphasises how a true psychotherapist responds only to the quest and request of the other, rather than picking on him to interfere with him. ‘Existential’ is related to ‘ecstasy’. It indicates that the human being is, in the Biblical phrase, made in the ‘image’ of the Ineffable, which is expressed in Hebrew by the Tetragrammaton YHWH, composed of all the tenses of the verb ‘to be’. Since YHWH (the Name that must not be spoken) is ineffable, so is the human, the ‘image’ of the ineffable. No science or system is adequate to the human being. There can be no mechanics – no statics, kinematics or dynamics – of man, woman, or child; of ‘psyche’, family, or society: at most an ‘ec-statics’, a provisional poetry, a metaphor which it is idolatry to take as the literal reality.

‘Daseinsanalysis’ derives from Heidegger’s attempt to find words pointing to this ecstatic nature of the human being. The ‘Ereignis’, the mutual calling of Da-sein and Sein for each other, is very like the relation between the human being and what is called YHWH in the Bible. ‘Daseinsanalysis’ is a noble aspiration not to reify or do violence to the human. Whatever their differences and deficiencies, each of the proponents of ‘Daseinsanalysis’ – Binswanger, Boss, Holzhey, and others – has understood it as a ‘purification’ of Freud’s practice of psychoanalysis, discarding his speculative ‘metapsychology’. Those ‘existential therapists’ who think they can avoid the phenomenological insights of psychoanalysis are only half existential therapists, or less.

It is important to remember that there are also other profound philosophers of the interhuman: Buber, von Hildebrand, Levinas,...

And if we turn Daseinsanalysis into another totalising system we are betraying it, reifying it, practising another idolatry.

There can be no last word.

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