Afterword on Thomas Szasz’s 2007 Inner Circle Seminar ‘Addressing Your Questions’ (December 2008)

Thomas Szasz
‘Addressing Your Questions’
(Inner Circle Seminar No. 117)
16 September 2007

Anthony Stadlen

Copyright © Anthony Stadlen 2008, 2020
[Hermeneutic Circular, December 2008, 19-20]

Thomas Szasz has conducted two Inner Circle Seminars [in Herringham Hall, Regent’s College, London]: ‘On Psychotherapy’ (7 December 2003) and ‘Addressing Your Questions’ (16 September 2007).
He will conduct a third for his 90th birthday (15 April 2010). We are devoting a seminar to each in turn of the ten or more books he will have published between the millennium and his 90th birthday, and aim to catch him up by then.
I was delighted when Jay Beichman sent me his account of Szasz’s second Inner Circle Seminar [published immediately preceding this Afterword].
I was especially pleased, because the account by Christine Martin in the Hermeneutic Circular (October 2007) does not, to put it mildly, do justice to what Szasz said.
She writes, for example, that Szasz said that ‘the only two things a therapist gets from therapy is the money and dependency’.
She would indeed be performing a valuable service for readers of Hermeneutic Circular by reporting that he had said such a bizarre and shocking thing, if he had said it. But did he say it? Of course he did not, and I am astonished that the editors did not question this before publishing it and so allowing their readers to be misinformed.
What did he say? Martin misses the heart of it. He said, in response to the very first question, from Angela Buxton, that psychotherapy was ‘one of the most worthwhile things in the world’. He said it was ‘ineffable’. Answering another question, he said he liked the old idea that a rabbi or other religious teacher should make an honest living in another profession, for example as a tailor, and practise the ‘cure of souls’ without being paid. But, given that we have professional psychotherapists who are paid by their clients, both parties should honour their contract. In response to yet another question, hours later, he contrasted, on the one hand, the therapist who honours the contract with the client by doing a decent day’s work in return for payment with, on the other hand, the therapist who derives gratification from infantilising clients, for instance by starting a ‘school’ and encouraging clients to become dependent. The therapist can choose: honestly earned ‘money’ or (not ‘and’ as Martin misrepresents it) dishonestly earned ‘dependency’.
Martin also writes that Szasz said that ‘we have a responsibility to have children and look after them’ and that ‘if we do not succeed … we are failures’. She says this is ‘narrow-minded and harsh at best’. But Szasz did not say this, and again it should have been obvious that he could not have said this. His libertarian insistence on the right to one’s own life-style provided it does not harm others, and his fight against the stigmatising of homosexuals, including his successful fight against the American Psychiatric Association’s classification of homosexuality as a disease, are well known, and should certainly be part of the general knowledge of existential therapists. It should have been obvious that he supports the right not to have children.
What, then, did he say? He spoke of the responsibilities one takes on as an adult, for example if one chooses to have children.
The above two examples show how Martin presents Szasz’s words in a selective way that distorts their meaning and ignores their context.
The context was that this was a seminar of questions. Szasz did not say a single word that was not in response to a specific question from a specific person. This was the seminar’s strength.
Martin jokes that, ‘settling into listening mode’, she was ‘disgruntled’ at the idea of being ‘proactive’: at being expected to ‘think’ on a Sunday, rather than ‘receive wise words’.
But, as common sense and the existential tradition from Heraclitus to Heidegger teach, true listening is thinking. Otherwise, one may register some words divorced from their context, but one will not hear what the other is saying.  
This is why I am grateful to Jay Beichman and the ITA News for their consent to reprint his more balanced account of Thomas Szasz’s seminar.

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