Saturday, June 19, 2010

Amazing May 14

Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche is a profound philosopher whom it is initially difficult to get one’s head around, but as with all philosophers, or indeed any author of any discipline worth reading, he is worth struggling with. I have been struggling with his writings for years and still find the struggle worth it. When I come across the likes of Rollo May who has a particular take on Nietzsche I am delighted because I will get more insights into one of my favourite philosophers.

Be aware of Detractors and Despisers:

Oftentimes I hear such phrases as, “sure Nietzsche was mad - a raving lunatic,” etc. Such comments are not worthy wasting our time with them even. However, for several sentences I now wish to reply to such dismissive, superficial and essentially ignorant comments. Firstly, any of you who are readers of these posts will know that sanity and insanity are indeed hard to define. Who is drawing the demarcation lines? Who indeed is telling the truth? Who is lying? Who defines madness anyway? Philosophers and indeed scientists cannot agree even to what the mind is essentially? If we cannot decide what the human mind is, how can we decide the real nature of sanity and insanity? History is written by the victors. Sanity is defined by those in power. So you see, things are not really as they appear.

That is why R.D.Laing and other brave psychiatrists who questioned and who continue to question accepted truths are always to be thanked, and indeed trusted as they want us, their readers and their patients to question these truths with them. Nietzsche, like Kierkegaard before him was a leader, indeed a pioneer of questioning truths that were too easily accepted. Likewise, many great scholars have suffered from depression, either uni-polar or bi-polar and even from schizophrenia. The phrase “great minds and madness” is very close to the truth of things really. It is beyond my purposes here to follow up this thread of thought, but anyone who wishes could follow it up on Google. Now back to Nietzsche.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Nietzsche died on the cusp of the twentieth century, the very year Freud published his great Interpretation of dreams. The following are the seminal points May mentions:

(i) Like Kierkegaard before him, Nietzsche was a human being in crisis. Once again both were anti-conformist, and wrote from the deepest agonies of anxiety, despair and isolation. They could speak from an immediate personal knowledge of ultimate psychological crises.

(ii) Like Kierkegaard again he accurately divined the psychological and spiritual state of Western society at his particular time.

(iii) Again neither of these great thinkers was anti-rational. Nietzsche attacked what he called “mere reason.” He wanted to find the ground that supported reason and unreason, the rational and the irrational.

(iv) Nietzsche believed he had to be a good psychologist to be a good philosopher. He used himself as his guinea pig and engaged in a deep exploration of his own self. In Beyond Good and Evil he argued “that psychology should be recognised again as the queen of the sciences, for whose service and preparation the other sciences exist. For psychology is now again the path to the fundamental problems.” (Quoted ibid., p. 75)

(v) Nietzsche was no nihilist or the enemy of religion or morality, or indeed the enemy of anything else for that matter. It is just that he wanted humanity to go below the superficial and sterile cultural values it then promoted as ultimate ones. So his concepts are designed to wake slumbering society up, to become more self-aware and more self-conscious. His concepts of “superman” and “the will to power”, May argues, are endeavours to rediscover some fibre and some strength in the soul of contemporary humankind.

(vi) Nietzsche held that one should experiment on all truth not just in the laboratory, but in one’s own experience. He believed strongly that every truth should be faced with the question, “Can one live it?” As a colleague of mine used to put it, “in the end it’s all about whether you can live with yourself or not.” There’s a lot of truth in that, if you pardon the obviously awkward pun. This explains, May rightly argues, “error is cowardice.”

(vii) Nietzsche, like Kierkegaard, had no desire to begin any movement. All they wanted was to make people question, to look deeper into their own lives, and to question superficial values. If Nietzsche severely questioned religion, it was with this in mind. The corruption we have witnessed among Roman Catholic Church leaders, the big bankers, the entrepreneurs and the market speculators all witness to a lack of concern for what the truth is. These people did not ask the hard Nietzschean questions of themselves. They went along with the systems in place and did not question the prevailing culture. In the end, what Nietzsche wanted was neatly summed up in his own statement, “Follow not me, but you!” (Quoted ibid., p. 76)

(viii) Indeed Nietzsche did proclaim that “God is dead!” But when one struggles with his writings one begins to realise that he was protesting vigorously against all forms of institutional religion which had emasculated God, and indeed emasculated humanity. According to May, he denounced “the softened, vapid and anaemic trends in Christianity; by Nietzsche’s time the deteriorated forms of theism and emotionally dishonest religious practices had become part of the illness and had to die.” (Ibid., p. 76) May advances the considered opinion that Kierkegaard was speaking out of a time when God was dying, while Nietzsche was speaking from one where God was decidedly dead.

(ix) Both were concerned with humankind’s essential nobility, dignity and humanity. In a word both were committed to humankind’s authenticity.

(x) Nietzsche always uses psychological terms with ontological meaning. Depression, despair, anxiety, guilt and loneliness are no mere psychological conditions. They are in fact states of being, that’s what we mean by his terms being ontological as well as psychological. For Nietzsche, as for Kierkegaard, humankind’s contemporary illness ran deep and deeper still into his very being. They were not mere psychological conditions which could be easily lifted as it were. Anxiety, like all the above mentioned “conditions” are not something we “have,” but rather something we existentially “are.”

(xi) Humankind must “will” his “being” in all his encounters with others. Nietzsche takes those superficial humans to task who would wish to live like nature, which is, as he correctly assesses it, wasteful beyond limit and completely indifferent. No, no, no. Humans must learn to will their being in their encounters, sharpen their moral edge and follow their own truth in the laboratory of their own soul.

(xii) May goes on to point out that at periods of great transition in the history of humanity, when values are being questioned, psychological terms begin to be used with ontological meaning. (See ibid., p. 78)

(xiii) Now we turn to Nietzsche’s understanding of the word “power” and “will to power.” May makes the interesting point that all notion of power is repressed in psychology per se. He also makes the point that sometimes the concept of power is subsumed under the term “will,” but also that this last category has largely been ignored since the time of William James himself. Again, sometimes authors use the weaker term “control,” but this is somewhat underhanded. May goes on to state that for Nietzsche the phrase “will to power” really means “self-actualization.” If one really thinks about this it makes great sense. When I manage to actualize myself as much as I can I then have considerably more control or more power over my own self, more self-control, and I will not really have to use power or control over others then at all. In this regard, a phrase I heard the Irish clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Tony Humphreys use makes considerable sense: “All control is self-control.” (I often wonder if we can ever get to a state of full self-actualization – I very much doubt it, as we are always very much a work in progress.)

(xiv) This “will to power” is also an ontological category or state of being. It does not refer to aggression or competitive striving at all. In the words of our man, May: “It is the individual affirming his existence and his potentialities as a being in his own right; it is the ‘the courage to be an individual’ as Paul Tillich remarks in his discussion of Nietzsche.” (Ibid., p. 79)

(xv) The blocking of the above drive or will to power leads to blockages in our psyche, that is, neuroses of all kinds.

(xvi) Happiness for Nietzsche, interestingly, is not the absence of pain, but rather, “the most alive feeling of power.” Joy is “a plus-feeling of power,” and good health is also a by-product. (Quoted p. 80) This makes sense in the light of what I have said above.

(xvii) “Being,” Nietzsche writes, is “a generalization of the concept of life, of willing, acting and becoming,” and he goes on to declare that “no one can build the bridge on which you in particular will have to cross the river of life – no one but yourself.” (Quoted ibid. p. 80)

(xviii) Affirming one’s own being, Nietzsche argues creates the values we hold dear in life. “Individuality, worth and dignity are not gegeben, i.e., given to us as data by nature, but aufgegeben – i.e., given or assigned to us as a task which we ourselves must solve.”(Quoted ibid., p. 81) This is again exactly what Paul Tillich suggests. Courage or “the courage to be” opens the way to being; otherwise you will lose it or squander it in a cowardly fashion. This is also near enough to what Sartre said of all humankind – that, in the final analysis, we are our choices.

(xix) Unlike the Darwinians, Nietzsche and the existentialists argue that survival is not the highest of values in life, expression of self is! Is this not brilliant? That is what I mean that when I discover a commentator on Nietzsche who has brilliant insights into this complex genius, I delight in these wonderful insights.

(xx) Then May learnedly opines that Nietzsche had prefigured Freud’s repression in 1887 when he wrote that “All instincts that are not allowed free play turn inward. This is what I call man’s interiorization.” (Quoted ibid., p. 82)

(xxi) Nietzsche is all about facing the truth in ourselves and about unmasking all our deceptions. That is why he, May argues, is “the therapist for the therapists of our time.”(Ibid., p. 83)

Amazing May 13

Kierkegaard continued.

May goes to considerable lengths, repetition and forceful language, to point out that truth-as-relationship principle does not in the slightest way reduce the importance of objective truth. This simply is not the point. Our Man, Kierkegaard, is not a subjectivist or an idealist. He is rather, someone who managed to get below the subject-object split, and in doing so opened up the subjective world without losing objectivity. In fact Kierkegaard and Nietzsche took the natural, objective world very seriously indeed. May gives a good example of where the subject-object relationship or, if you like, where truth is relational is operative very clearly. I will quote his words to catch the full clarity involved:

An objective discussion of sex, for example, may be interesting and instructive, but once one is concerned with a given person, the objective truth depends for its meaning upon the relationship between the person and the sexual partner, and to omit this factor not only constitutes an evasion but cuts us off from seeing reality. (Ibid., 71)

May also points out that Kierkegaard’s insights into the truth as relational is also a forerunner of theories advanced by other psychological and psychiatric experts, viz., the concept of “participant observation” of Sullivan. “The fact that the therapist participates in a real way in the relationship and is a inseparable part of ‘the field’ does not, thus, impair the soundness of his scientific observations.” (Ibid., p. 72)

Another important contribution of our pioneer, Kierkegaard, to depth psychology or dynamic psychology lies in his emphasis upon the necessity of commitment. We cannot even see a truth unless we have some commitment to it. It is a well known fact in therapy that patients can talk till doomsday, or as we Irish often put it “until the cows come home,” about their problems, and not be affected, and certainly never improve unless they have some commitment to solving their problems themselves. This is what Kierkegaard means by “passion” or “commitment.”

Amazing May 12

Rollo May 10

May on Kierkegaard

After reading May, we should all search out books by Soren Kierkegaard and read them. With our learned commentator we should all be surprised at the level of insight he had into the human condition. His book on anxiety alone, May declares, would alone secure him a position among the psychological greats of all time. However, Kierkegaard did much more – he delved into the significance of self-consciousness, analysed inner conflicts, and the loss of a sense of self and even described psychosomatic problems. All these insights antedated Nietzsche by some forty years and Freud by fifty.

It is also amazing that Kierkegaard had managed to write some two dozen books in the space of fifteen years before he died at the young age of 44. Another important point to note is that he saw himself as no professional philosopher, but rather as an author who reflected on the nature of man as he found it in himself. He also realized that he should be entirely ignored during his lifetime as his insights were far too radical, and far too near the bone for most of his contemporaries. However, luckily he was rediscovered in the 1920s and studies of his work added greatly to the insights of the young depth psychology which was then tentatively taking off. Ludwig Binswanger credits him in his paper on Ellen West with the accurate description of what he termed “Sickness Unto Death” which described almost exactly what Ms West was suffering from. He also states that Kierkegaard gave the nearest description ever of schizophrenia long before Bleuler had come up with the term for that mental disorder. Once one cuts out the religious interpretations given by Kierkegaard, Binswanger opines, one is left with pure psychology.

May points out that there is a considerable common ground between the three geniuses Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Freud, that “all three of them based their knowledge chiefly on the analysis of one case – namely themselves.” (Ibid.,p. 69)

The Importance of being an Individual

This is the one question that Soren Kierkegaard pursued relentlessly for most of his short life, that is: How can you become an individual? It seemed to this lonely Dane that the individual was being swallowed up on all sides. On the rational side he was been swallowed up by Hegel’s vast “absolute Whole.” On the economic side the individual person was fast becoming increasingly objectified and religion itself had become soft and vapid, lacking all moral edge. For Kierkegaard, Europe was ill and lacked passion and commitment. These latter two words were often in his writings because he wanted writers and artists to embrace “reality” not just ideas and speculation. He wrote, “Away from Speculation, away from System, and back to reality!” (Quoted ibid., p. 69.) For him the individual was being forgotten, objectified out of existence and being turned into nothing less than a robot. Kierkegaard saw the future of such a person as that of emptiness, and worse self-destructive despair.

Truth as Relationship

This is one of Kierkegaard’s most radical contributions to later dynamic psychology. Truth is not a collection of ideas or some abstract formula, but rather something very dynamic indeed, namely relationship. This solitary lonely Dane was the first person ever to express the idea that truth is essentially relational. This is at the very heart of existentialism. Truth has nothing to do with an objective set of principles out there as it were, cut off from relationship with thinking subjects. Rather, it is now something to do with inwardness, or as Heidegger puts it, truth is freedom.

In the Copernican world truth was out there, objectified, ready to be discovered in all the various pieces of knowledge ready to be revealed to the investigating eye. In this Copernican view of science the objective truth was dissociated completely from the observer. However, Kierkegaard’s view that the truth is relational foreshadows, and indeed existentially supports, the viewpoint of modern physicists like Bohr, Heisenberg and indeed Einstein that nature cannot be objectively separated out from man at all. Heisenberg wrote succinctly that “the ideal of science which is completely independent of man [that is, completely objective] is an illusion.” (Quoted ibid., p. 70) In other words the scientist is always part of the equation. I remember learning in physics that at the atomic and subatomic levels the observer using say an electron microscope always changes or disturbs what he is observing.

Kierkegaard in his perspicacious observation that truth is relational, that the subject is always involved with the object, is prefiguring and giving philosophical support to the theory of relativity. Let us finish this post with the insightful words of Rollo May:

Here is, in Kierkegaard’s paragraph [which he quotes in full], the forerunner of relativity and the other viewpoints which affirm that the human being who is engaged in studying the natural phenomena is in a particular and significant relationship to the objects studied and he must make himself part of his equation. That is to say, the subject, man, can never be separated from the object which he observes. It is clear that the cancer of Western thought, the subject-object split, received a decisive attack in this analysis of Kierkegaard’s. (Op.cit., p. 70)

Amazing May 11

The cultural situation of the nineteenth century was one of fragmentation and inner breakdown. As humankind had progressed over the preceding several hundred years science itself began to fragment into smaller constituent areas while in the very psyche of the human being there began a compartmentalization which would end up driving him crazy.

Onto this scene came the great Sigmund Freud who described the neurotic personality of the late nineteenth century as one suffering from fragmentation – that is, from the repression of instinctual drives, blocking off his awareness. Before Freud, both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were especially awake to this inner fragmentation and to the blocked nature of humankind’s psyche.

Kierkegaard had written a whole book of the human being’s anxiety in the world, and had written not alone about this angst as he called it, but also about the deep depression and despair which resulted from his self-estrangement.

Somewhat later Nietzsche, and ten years before Freud’s first book at that, had diagnosed the condition of mankind as the fact that “his soul had gone stale.” Nietzsche maintained, foreshadowing the work of Freud that blocked instinctual powers within the individual turn into resentment, self-hatred, hostility and aggression.

Interestingly, Freud did not know of Kierkegaard’s work, but he was well read in Nietzsche’s thought and regarded him as one of the most authentic men of all time. The learned founder of psychoanalysis was to develop his theories and therapy to counteract the blockages to instincts and the fragmentation of the human soul as outlined in Nietzsche and in Kierkegaard.

Victorian man, according to May, represents the ultimate in repression of instincts, denial of the irrational, and certainly the non-rational in man at the very expense of his overall mental health. One remembers here what the English of my childhood and before it called “the stiff upper lip” in dealing with emotions of any kind. Indeed, such was Victorian repression that childhood itself was denied and children were depicted as little adults, and even dressed in miniature adult clothing.

Growing industrialism strengthened this hardening of compartmentalization. A man was taught to keep the different sections of his life separated and to train himself to clock on and off like a machine. Indeed such a predictable man is a very successful one indeed. He is untroubled, or so the Victorians thought, by irrational drives or urges. He is likewise untormented by poetic or romantic visions. Let me return to May’s words here:

As Marx and Nietzsche pointed out, the corollary is likewise true: the very success of the industrial system, with its accumulation of money as a validation of personal worth entirely separate from the actual product of man’s hands, had a reciprocal depersonalising and dehumanizing effect upon man in his relation to others and himself. It was against these dehumanising tendencies to make man into a machine, to make him over into the image of the industrial system for which he labored (sic), that the early existentialists fought so strongly. (Ibid., p. 63)

May points out that even his contemporary scientists were not aware of the compartmentalization of sciences which had happened during the nineteenth century. Ernest Cassirer had called that century the era of “autonomous sciences.” May quotes another scholar, Max Scheler who also declared that today that “we have a scientific, a philosophical and a theological anthropology that know nothing of each other.” (Quoted ibid., p. 64)

In short , then, we can say that the cultural compartmentalization was mirrored at a psychological level in the human psyche in which there was also a fragmentation of self and a radical repression of instincts within the individual personality.

Kierkegaard painted with wonderful colours pictures in words of the results and effects of this fragmentation: endemic anxiety, loneliness, and estrangement not alone from one another but from oneself, an estrangement which would lead to ultimate despair.

Then Nietzsche was to foreshadow the rise of nation states in the pursuit of some collective identity:

“We live,” he said, “in a period of atoms, of atomic chaos,” and out of this chaos he foresaw, in a vivid prediction of collectivism in the twentieth century, “the terrible apparition... the Nation State... and the hunt for happiness ...” (Ibid., p. 65)

What made Freud unique was that he saw the fragmentation of personality, as described both in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and he set about discovering techniques to remedy this fragmentation and restore some wholeness to the psyche. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were good diagnosticians of the soul, if I may put it that way. Their task as they saw it was to describe the sickness of the modern soul, rather than prescribe a cure. Something was radically wrong with man, both at a social and cultural level as well as at the level of his individual psyche.

“This is Europe’s true predicament,” declared Nietzsche, “together with the fear of man we have lost the love of man, confidence in man, indeed the will to man.” (Quoted ibid., p.66)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Amazing May 10

Existentialism Continued

To continue from where we left off yesterday we may affirm that the existentialists are centrally concerned with rediscovering the living person amid the compartmentalization and dehumanization of modern culture, and in order to do so they engage in depth psychological analysis. We also adverted to the fact that May praises his friend Paul Tillich’s book The Courage to Be as showing brilliantly the existential approach to life.

May mentions many other contemporary and not so contemporary existential writers, all of whom he has obviously read and digested. The novels of Kafka show a despairing and dehumanized humanity. These novels portray protagonists who are accused of unknown crimes and one of his short stories depicts a man who has turned into a beetle. Camus’ The Stranger and The Plague illustrate existentialist themes, even though its author refused to be categorized as such.

Existentialist Art

May asserts, and I’m inclined to agree with him that the most potent and vivid portrayal of the meaning of existentialism occurs in the world of art. Art is very much a symbolic articulation of themes, many of which happen to be existential. As symbolic expression art manages to get below conscious thought and it reveals with a special clarity the underlying spiritual and emotional condition of a given culture. Unfortunately, I am not a huge art buff, but I have a deep appreciation of it. The artists whom May mentions are Cézanne, Van Gogh and Picasso. I would add Edvard Munch, whose famous Scream I added to a recent post by way of illustration, to this short list. May, then returns to his good friend and existential theologian Paul Tillich by way of quoting the latter’s insights into art. Tillich, according to May, held that Picasso’s painting Guernica gives the most gripping and revealing portrayal of the atomistic, fragmentized condition of European society which preceded World War II and “shows what is now in the souls of many Americans as disruptiveness, existential doubt, emptiness and meaninglessness.” (Quoted ibid., p.56)

Existentialism and Crisis

Existentialism is born out of crisis. This is quite axiomatic really. It was born from the ashes of a modernism which started at the beginning of the nineteenth century and which heralded a myth of continual progress, a lie which was put to bed after the First World War brought such superficial ideas to an end. It is continually being born anew as individuals in the world grapple once again with still more crises. Humankind, unfortunately and sadly, has to learn from its repeated mistakes as each human being can only learn from his or her own faults and not from those of their fathers or mothers. That again is simply the nature of being human. Today, in the wake or even in the midst of the international economic depression, modern culture is at a crisis point. I have mentioned here before Mr. Patrick Cox’s (our former Irish President of the European Parliament, scholar and wonderful diplomat) comment that the world was in the grip of “a tsunami of greed.” How right he is. All people of any calibre and moral standing see this as glaringly obvious. What we need is ethics and morality in high places not naked and base greed. We the ordinary citizens of planet Earth are paying for the greed of the few with higher unemployment figures, savage cut backs and a terribly debilitating lack of hope. This is our modern crisis. And in all this, I have not mentioned the plight of the starving millions in the underdeveloped and developing worlds. With us, it seems to be out of sight out of mind. This is another sign of our crisis – the fact that we ourselves are becoming morally bankrupt. Today the crises are many, and the ecological one even greater. How can we as human beings look on at the devastation we have wrought on our own Mother Earth – Great Gaia? We are indeed a crisis-ridden people.

Crisis, Existentialism and Depth Psychology

Let me begin this section with an apt quotation once again from our wise guide, Rollo May:

This is one of the most important affinities of the existential movement with psychotherapy – both are concerned with individuals who are in crisis. And far from saying that the insights of a crisis period are “simply the product of anxiety and despair,” we are more likely to find, as we do time and again in psychoanalysis, that a crisis is exactly what is required to shock people out of unaware dependence upon external dogma and to force them to unravel layers of pretence to reveal naked truth about themselves, which, however unpleasant, will at least be solid. (ibid., p. 57)

In short, existentialism is an attitude or an insight into humankind which sees that it is always becoming, and since it is always becoming it is always in a state of crisis. I remember some lecturer back at college in the late 1970s saying that a crisis was essentially an opportunity to grow and to change, and if I remember correctly that is the etymology of the word back in the Greek root. However, this also means that humankind need not be despairing as it is like the throes of pain in childbirth as a new generation is being born from the ashes of the old – if the reader will forgive the rather gauche mixed metaphors here.

Existentialism is also about honesty, integrity and authenticity as the homeless mind of the searcher finds some place of rest for his weary and still questioning mind. It is, then, also in virtue of these personal struggles the birth of a new awareness and of a totally new and renewed self-consciousness. It is a self-consciousness that holds the subject and object link within the thinking self-conscious being. It holds Being and Non-Being in a wonderful equilibrium which sees Life and Death as part of a totality and not one the obliteration of the other. (This is the study of being called Ontology and it is central to existentialism as it is to Eastern thought, Buddhism and the like.) In this sense, existentialism finds a comfortable bedfellow with Eastern thought which unlike its counterpart in the West never experienced a wrenching apart of subject and object within the one perceiving being.

I cannot finish these few musings without quoting the wonderful passage from Blaise Pascal which May praises for being the best description he had yet come across for the meaning of existentialism. It is like a passage of Buddhist philosophy:

“When I consider the brief span of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and behind it, the small space that I fill, or even see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces which I know not. And which know not me, I am afraid, and wonder to see myself here rather than there; for there is no reason why I should be here rather than there, now rather than then.” (Quoted ibid., p. 58)

This is the existential state lived by every human being. It is, in short, a good description of “Dasein” or “throwness,” as the enigmatic Heidegger described it. (Sometimes Heidegger gets me bothered as I often wonder how such a good philosopher and existentialist at that could have had significant Nazi tendencies. How he could square that with existentialism I don’t know! However, maybe there is a study on that topic somewhere. I’ll find it if my interest in him continues!)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Amazing May 9

The First Movement in Existentialism

The birth of the existentialist movement may be traced back to Berlin, Germany, 1841. In the winter of that year Schelling gave his famous series of lectures in the University of that City. His audience included many notable philosophers Kierkegaard, Engels and Bakunin among many others. His intention was to question the great rationalist structure thrown onto philosophy by Hegel. Many were disappointed that he had not done so to their satisfaction. However, whatever their misgivings, that was the turning point which gave birth to existentialism. Kierkegaard went back to Denmark and published his Philosophical Fragments in 1844, the first of many books from his pen. Karl Marx also wrote several books between 1844 and 1845 wherein he castigated “abstract truth” for being an “ideology,” and again he also used Rene Descartes as a whipping boy.

The Second Movement

However, the existential movement then went into a period of slumber for some 40 or so years and woke up in the 1880s with the work of Dilthey, and most especially with Friedrich Nietzsche, the “philosophy of life” movement and also with the work of Bergson.

The Third Movement

After the shattering shock of World War 1 the writings of Kierkegaard and the early Marx were rediscovered. Also the serious challenges to modern culture outlined in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche could no longer be covered over. Then the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl added much backbone to this third wave of the existential movement. It was his ideas that gave Heidegger, Jaspers and others the relevant tools they needed to undercut the subject-object cleavage which had been a stumbling block in science as well as philosophy. It is also interesting to note as May points out that there is an obvious similarity between existentialism with the process philosophies of Whitehead and in the works on pragmatism by William James in the USA.

Finally, Martin Heidegger is generally taken as the fountainhead of present day existential thought with his seminal book being and Time at the forefront of this drive. Other notable scholars that May mentions are Jean-Paul Sartre and Gabriel Marcel in France, Nicolas Berdyaev, Ortega y Gasset and Unamuno in Spain. Then he mentions his great friend, the theologian and scholar, Paul Tillich who wrote the famous book, “The Courage to Be” which May reckons to be the best and most cogent presentation in English of existentialism as an approach to actual living.

Amazing May 8

May on Existentialism

Our author Rollo May gives an excellent introduction to existentialism which I have discussed before in these pages. Like most other commentators he mentions the utter confusion surrounding this term. Like the term “love,” it has been bandied about to mean anything the user of the term wishes it to mean. If anything, existentialism is a pervasive and profound sensitivity at the very heart of our culture. May puts it thus: an expression of profound dimensions of the modern emotional and spiritual temper and is shown in all aspects of our culture. It is found not only in psychology and philosophy but in art – vide Van Gogh, Cézanne and Picasso – and in literature – vide Dostoevski (sic), Baudelaire, Kafka, and Rilke. (Op. cit., p. 48)

May’s distinct angle on existentialism that I love is his belief that it is a process that endeavours to forge links between the subject and the object in the person of the real being in question. For example, I am now the subject and object of these words that I am typing insofar as they are an attempt to understand what it is that I, Tim Quinlan, am about as a human being at this very moment in time. Existentially, I am both subject and object of my own thoughts here and now. Once again, it is that good old whipping boy called René Descartes who separated out the subject from the object some four hundred years ago and we have been suffering the consequences of his Cartesian dualism ever since. Again in May’s own words:

Existentialism, in short, is the endeavour to understand man by cutting below the cleavage between subject and object which has bedevilled Western thought and science since shortly after the Renaissance. This cleavage, Binswanger calls ‘the cancer of psychology up to now... the cancer of the doctrine of subject-object cleavage of the world.’ (ibid, p. 49)

I also agree with May where he points out that there were existential themes in all literatures ab initio, e.g., in Socrates, in Augustine and in Pascal, not to mention many others. One could also argue that there are existential themes in Wisdom Literature and in the Psalms in the Bible, e.g., the Book of Job and Qoheleth, both of which deal with the weighty themes of how to live life in the face of innocent suffering.

However, existentialism rose to prominence as a particular way of approaching human existence in this world with Soren Kierkegaard who protested vehemently in his writings against the reigning rationalist of his day, namely Hegel. The French Catholic existentialist Jacques Maritain accused the smug Hegel of promoting “a totalitarianism of reason.” Soren Kierkegaard argued that Hegel’s identification of abstract truth with reality as an illusion which amounted to trickery. It’s hard to disagree with Kierkegaard from an experience-centred or holistic approach to life.

“Truth exists,” wrote Kierkegaard, “only as the individual himself produces it in action.” (Quoted ibid., p. 49)

In short, then idealists or rationalists could see man only as a subject – in the tradition of the “I think therefore I am” of poor old Descartes. Likewise, existentialists fought hard against philosophies which tried to reify man or reduce him solely to a material entity – that is, man as an object to be calculated and controlled. For the existentialists one needed to be subject and object, not one or the other. Both/and must always supersede either/or. May quotes some lovely words from Ludwig Feuerbach, an early sociological existentialist who said: “Do not wish to be a philosopher in contrast to being a not think as a thinker... think as a living real being. Think in Existence.” (Quoted ibid., p. 50)

Humanity as constantly Emerging

May gives us loads of interesting ideas, and wonderful little throw away remarks which are themselves quite profound. One example of this is his etymological analysis of the word “existence” which he tells us comes from the root “ex-istere” and which means literally “to stand out, to emerge.” This is exactly what existentialists sought to do, to portray man in the totality of his being as an emerging or becoming reality. In short, the existentialist approach is always dynamic. Existence always refers to coming into being, that is, to becoming.


This is a very important word in existentialism and in existential therapy. This word can never be used in a static or noun or substantive sense. Rather, it must always be used in its verb form, the present participle of the verb “to be.” Then May introduces his readers to the philosophical term “ontology” which is really a sophisticated word for the science or knowledge of being and comes from the Greek word “ontos” which is Greek for "being." For existentialists existence always precedes essences. Essence is the very heart of something, or the central point or essential law that something can be boiled down to, and so all sciences seek to get to the essential truths that can be stated as provable laws. And so, ironically behind all sciences, as it were, lurks “essentialist metaphysics.”

Three apples plus three make six apples, and this will always be an essential truth, but when eaten, and a starving human being has no more apples, the probability of starvation and death loom large as existential concerns. Returning once again to May’s own words:

.. that all men must die is a truth; and to say that such and such a percentage die at such and such ages gives a statistical accuracy to the proposition. But neither of these statements says anything which really matters to each of us namely, that you and I must alone face the fact that at some unknown moment in the future we shall die. In contrast to the essentialist propositions, these latter are existential facts. (Ibid., p. 51)

In short, then, a proposition can be true without being real. Existentialism is all about making truths real or lived if you like. One hears many young people today say “keep it real, man, keep it real!” They are really existentialists in this! Of course, there is often a large gap between what is abstractly true and what is existentially real. As a practising teacher who has recently finished a postgraduate diploma in special education I had to learn and assimilate all the theory. However, I also was trained to put it into practice by making out class, weekly and termly notes and objectives and all of this was monitored by supervisors. Now, it was difficult making the theory meet the reality of practice. This, I believe, is a good if simple example of an existential approach to things.

Far from being anti-rational or anti-intellectual the early existentialists and their counterparts today seek to forge a new alliance between man as subject and object of his own life. Kierkegaard and the existential thinkers of his day and ours appeal to a reality underlying both subjectivity and objectivity.

In other words, existentialists, like the theorists and practitioners of depth psychology, start with the human being in his/her totality. They argue that it is not so much Reality or Being that is the object of cognitive experience but “existence” itself in this or that human being. In the light of these comments, May can say:

It is by no means accidental that ... Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, happen also to be among the most remarkable psychologists (in the dynamic sense) of all time, and that one of the contemporary leaders of this school, Karl Jaspers, was originally a psychiatrist and wrote a notable text on psychopathology. (Ibid., p. 53)

The whole drift of existentialism as of depth psychology today is to rediscover the living person in his/her totality under all that compartmentalization and dehumanization of modern culture.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Amazing May 7

May reminds his readers that every scientific method rests upon certain philosophical presuppositions. Hence, it is important for any therapist, no matter what type of therapy he/she is offering, to realize this salient point, as techniques of themselves are only tools which are based on deeper grounds. When the philosophical underpinnings of particular therapies have been ignored the inevitable result is that “science gets identified with methods of isolating factors and observing them from an allegedly detached base – a particular method which arose out of the split between the subject and object made in the seventeenth century in Western culture and then developed into its special compartmentalized form in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” (The Discovery of Being, p. 46) (This May calls “methodolatry,” ibid., p.46)

Our erudite author advances the theory that the USA has long been preoccupied with techniques and methods because of its frontier history, that is, its desire to be more the pragmatic and practical doer than the reflective be-er. (Again, my terms as interpretive of May’s ideas.) Consequently, Americans, May opines, always had an optimistic, atavistic concern for helping and changing people.

He, then, quotes an interesting observation made by the psychologist Gordon Allport. This latter scholar suggested that both American and British psychology (as well as the general intellectual climate) had been Lockean, that is pragmatic – a tradition fitting behaviourism, stimulus and response systems, and animal psychology. The Lockean tradition, Allport points out, consists of an emphasis on the mind as tabula rasa on which experience writes all that is later to exist therein, whereas the Leibnitzian tradition views the mind as having a potentially active core of its own. The continental tradition in contrast has been Leibnitzian.
In short, America has tended to be a nation of practitioners, rather than a nation of theorists. Hence it’s practical and pragmatic bias and its easy acceptance of techniques over theories.

To be continued.

Amazing May 6

The Inexactness of Diagnosis

One of the aspects of mental illness in its many various incarnations that has both alarmed and intrigued me is its “fuzziness” with respect to diagnosis. As a sufferer from endogenous depression, it took some ten years for an accurate diagnosis to be made. I have also met several others whose experience has been the same. This is not surprising as it is very easy to examine physical lumps and lesions and other physical effects of very visible diseases. Now the invisible world of the mind is a quagmire. As to what the mind is no one is too sure. It more than likely “exists” somewhere in the brain, though it most certainly is not synonymous with it. Then, what is a healthy mind has to be defined, as well as an ill one. How does one decide what is “normal” and what is not with respect to some “entity” we are not 100% sure as to what it even is?

I have written the foregoing paragraph as a result of reading the brief case history of Ellen West who sadly went on to take her own life. This lady had attended two psychiatrists and several psychoanalysts in an effort to get to the root of her problem. Her case was one reviewed by Dr Ludwig Binswanger long after she had died. It interests me because of the different diagnoses and methods given and used by the medical and helping professions. Kraepelin, one of the first great psychiatrists diagnosed her with melancholia, while Bleuler, the inventor of the term, diagnosed schizophrenia. Then the two psychoanalysts she attended attempted to help her on the level of instincts and drives only. Now, obviously both psychiatry and psychoanalysis were in their infancy in the early twentieth century, and we cannot find fault with their valiant attempts to help this deeply disturbed woman. In 1983, with the 20-20 vision of hindsight, and with the advances in psychiatric and psychotherapeutic interventions, Rollo May can diagnose that Ellen West in all probability suffered from anorexia nervosa.

However, while important, the accuracy of diagnosis is not at issue here, I believe, and I also believe this to be Rollo May’s suggestion. What is important is the absence of treating Ellen West as a whole entity or being or reality in herself, not just as a collocation of symptoms or as a target for various techniques of psychoanalysis. This again links in with my reading of Dr Ronnie Laing who questioned way back in the early sixties the overuse of diagnoses of schizophrenia to categorise one whole amorphous area of mental health, without ever treating the patient as a real whole human being in the existential sense. His Sanity, Madness and the Family written with colleague Dr Aaron Esterson, which dates back to 1963/4 was a study of families of schizophrenics, a work which showed that mental health was a family rather than an individual issue. It also threw doubts on the view of schizophrenia then current and suggested that many of the symptoms shown by those poor diagnosed souls might have been no more than the tortured ruses of people struggling to live in unliveable situations. I mention all of this just to give the reader a flavour of what a quagmire the whole mental health area is in itself.

The Tortured Mind of Ellen West

I return now to the case of Ellen West. This poor lady was indeed tortured in her own mind. I am reminded here of a comment made by one of the Special Needs Assistants on one of her charges whom I was later to teach that he was a “tortured soul.” She was a sensitive human being who picked up the tortured nature of this poor child. This kid has been diagnosed as Asperger’s with ADHD. He only ceased being as tortured as that outlined above when a recent medical intervention was made. As a person diagnosed with endogenous depression and who has successfully been on medical treatment for some twelve years now, I am certainly not anti-psychiatric in my thoughts on this whole area of mental health. I believe that mental health to maintain its balance needs both medical and psychotherapeutic interventions. Some patients will need either one of these interventions and many will need both. The question is the judicious and monitored use of either or both. As an existentialist myself, my concerns like those of the radical Ronnie Laing and those of the more measured Rollo May is that the patient be taken as a whole entity, as a being in his/her entirety as a thinking, feeling and willing unity. If the “tortured soul” is to be treated it must first be met with complete compassion. That is essentially what Ellen West needed and what those who suffer from mental illness most need today also.

The compassion of Existentialism

Existentialism strikes this writer as being the quintessence of compassion because it takes the suffering “tortured soul” of the patient seriously. Nothing less is needed. Binswanger, a great existentialist psychiatrist, following in firm existentialist footsteps saw Ellen West as “a vivid example of Kierkegaard’s description of despair in Sickness unto Death.” (Op. cit., p. 42) Kierkegaard, long a “tortured soul” himself would deeply understand Ellen West’s predicament. With May, I can only marvel at Binswanger’s brave wrestling to make some sense of West’s predicament. This is the very compassion of existentialism, I firmly believe.

I was also much taken with Rollo May’s contention that the existential movement in psychiatry and psychology arose precisely out of a passion to be nor less but more empirical. In this regard I wish to finish this post with a longer quotation from May:

Binswanger and others were convinced that the traditional scientific methods not only did not do justice to the data but actually tended to hide rather than reveal what was going on in the patient. The existential analysis movement is a protest against the tendency to see the patient in forms tailored to our own preconceptions or to make him over into the image of our predilections. In this respect existential psychology stands squarely within the scientific tradition in its widest sense. But it broadens its knowledge of man by historical perspective and scholarly depth, by accepting the facts that human beings reveal themselves in art and literature and philosophy, and by profiting from the insights of the particular cultural movements which express the anxiety and conflicts of contemporary man.” (Ibid., p. 45)

Above and to the right a cartoon like copy of Edvard Munch's famous painting, The Scream.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Amazing May 5

In chapters one and two of The Discovery of Being we have dealt with what Rollo May calls the principles of psychotherapy. Now he moves on to discuss the cultural background of existentialism and psychoanalysis in part two of the book. Chapter three called “Origins and Significance of Existential Psychology” is the first chapter of this section. What follows is not quite a summary, but rather my assimilation of what I believe Rollo May to be saying in this chapter. You will also find here my own ideas on the subject.

Sheer Reality of Suffering Humanity

The above is my title and my terms, yet it sums up, if you like, the starting point for both existentialism and psychoanalysis. What is unquestionable is that much reality (in the sense of suffering in virtue of the human condition in itself and what T.S Eliot was decades later to describe as being that which humanity cannot bear too much of) was repressed, swept under the Victorian carpet as it were, denied, ignored, choose whatever appropriate word you will here. The nineteenth century seemed on the surface to be a century of definites and certainties and of linear advancement in all areas – that is, it was the quintessential century of the myth of indefinite progress. The shallower cultural commentators applied the apparent and obvious progress in the technical areas of life to all other areas and they swallowed whole the myth of indefinite progress, rather like the way we Irish swallowed whole the myth of the Celtic Tiger. Yes indeed, we had a few wise “prophets of doom” like Eddie Hobbs and  David MacWilliams who cried halt. Likewise in the nineteenth century there were also prophets who could see the shallowness of the prevailing myth of indefinite progress in all areas of life. The two major “prophets of doom,” if you like, were the philosophers Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche who prophesied the end of the then all too tidy culture of shallow optimism and second-rate and superficial values. It was an era when manners were more important than morals. For Kierkegaard and Nietzsche this could never be the case if humanity was to be true to itself, or authentic, because to be so demanded a new and deeper morality that went far beyond superficial manners and etiquette.

The Growth of Existentialism and Existential Psychotherapy

Against the backdrop of the opening paragraph we witness the growth of these two phenomena in the late nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, events or happenings like wars were to interrupt humankind’s relaxed and conceited slumbers, most notably World War 1 which once and for all put paid to the idea or myth of indefinite progress when soldiers in their millions were sacrificed on the altars of various nationalisms, where technology was used to kill and slaughter and tear asunder, rather than to build up or help or cure. Human beings were not just automatons who could willingly and unconsciously be used as cogs in great machines or as pawns before an insatiable god of war. History through the inevitability of events has taught humankind that he is more than an automaton. Pass a number of years and the growing professions of psychiatry and psychotherapy (which had to pick up the pieces of humankind’s repression of its own frailties and feelings) had to meet in their consulting rooms “the sheer reality of persons in crisis whose anxieties will not be quieted by theoretical formulas.” (Op. cit., p. 38).

Hence the big drive in existentialism and in the type of psychotherapy to which it lent many of its insights is to see the client/patient as he really is, striving to get to know him in his own reality as a thinking, feeling and willing unity (my terms). Also part of this inward drive, if I may call it that, is to avoid seeing the patient merely as a projection of our own theories about him. Also, to take two words from the above short quotation from May, that is, “crisis” and “anxiety” we get two very central words in the existentialist vocabulary. People are in crisis and anxious in virtue of their own reality and in virtue of their own being as humans. Again, we must point out that both these words, too, “reality” and “being” belong to the existentialist lexicon, and have a well merited place there.

The existential psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger has underscored this point where he states that

(Quoted ibid., p. 38)
“Psychology and psychotherapy as sciences are admittedly concerned with ‘man,’ but not at all primarily with mentally ill man, but with man as such. The new analysis of man which we owe to Heidegger’s analysis of existence, has its basis in the new conception that man is no longer to be understood in terms of some theory – be it mechanistic, a biologic or a psychological one.”

To complete this short post I will repeat that the therapist must take seriously the crisis, the anxiety, the reality and the being of the person who sits before him/her in the consulting room. In short he/she must take the whole human condition of the client or patient into account. This whole movement became known Daseinsanalyse or existential-analytic movement in Europe from the 1940s onward.

To be continued.

Above on the right a picture of Ludwig Binswanger (April 13, 1881 – February 5, 1966)  who was a Swiss psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of existential psychology, and often quoted by Rollo May