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More on Existential Philosophy and Modern Psychotherapy

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 43 - August 1999

In an earlier issue of Positive Health (Issue 40, May 1999) the influence of existentialism on modern psychology was discussed. Here we will continue this discussion, looking at both the theory and practice of psychotherapy.

The existentialists aroused psychologists to read a few more philosophers, taking them briefly away from their consulting couches and research laboratories. The pre-existentialist writers Dostoyevsky (especially Notes from the Underground) and Kierkegaard became important reference points – these were an antidote to the rather sterile and simple-minded view of human life propounded by the behaviourists. Other writers, especially Sartre, criticised the Freudian deterministic outlook based on the unconscious.

As one observer noted: both psychologists and behaviourists whisper that man is not free and that he cannot change himself. Sartre devoted a major section of his magnum opus Being and Nothingness to what he calls "Existential Psychoanalysis". He rejects the traditional Freudian Suppositions, pointing out that they imply a set of assumptions regarding the nature of man inimical to an existential view of life. Sartre, for instance, differs from Freud in that he insists that consciousness is never duped by its own lies. We know what we are up to. Thus, he rejects the Freudian unconscious, which he sees as tantamount to accepting a "blank cheque" that enables man to blame everything on others in his past, instead of taking responsibility for his choices and behaviour.

One existentialist thinker put it this way: "The unconscious of the patient is, more often than not, the conscious theory of the therapist."

Existentialists oppose the narrow view of man as a machine reacting to external or internal stimuli, a mere set of conditioned reflexes or complexes. In denying that man is merely an animal, they refuse to base their psychological theory exclusively on biology, as many psychologists including Freud have done. Instead, existentialism presents a new vision of man as a free and growing agent. Man is not simply driven blindly by his instincts or impulses. As Sartre succinctly put it, man is the only creature who can say No to his motives.

Another facet of the existential critique of modern psychology is the attack on the naïve symbolism found in psychoanalysis. In classical Freudian theory, for example, any pointed object stands for the penis and every concavity is a symbol for the womb. But as Sartre demonstrates, the child digs holes, not because he wants to return to the womb (though it may mean this, too) but because he wants to dig holes.

Of course, Sigmund Freud recognised the truth of this reality when he stated, in one of his more lucid moments, "Sometimes a good cigar is just a cigar." His more rigid followers, however, have not usually demonstrated the same reality-based common sense, but have tended to be more doctrinaire, i.e., more Freudian than Freud himself.

In attacking the old traumatic causation hypothesis, existentialists hold that a neurotic is not just a victim of his past, but he is often the victim of a mythification of his past. A person may build up a fantasy about his past in order to justify some present situation.

Existentialists do not accept the orthodox notion that the past completely determines one's present and future. Instead, one may say that the present can equally influence one's past, i.e. the way a man commits himself to his existence at a given moment may decide what he remembers of his past and how he shapes this memory. Thus, on days when I am feeling lousy, I can select events from my childhood that bolster my negative feelings about my parents; on days when I feel good, I gloss over the bad times from the past and focus on the "good old days".

For existentialists, anxiety is considered to be a basic ontological condition rooted in man's existence. It is common to all who have lived an authentic life. This of course contradicts the traditional psychological doctrine that anxiety is an outgrowth of a neurotic conflict and is therefore something to be avoided or eliminated, or anaesthetised by taking a pill. As Kierkegaard would have it – all of us face the decision to choose Either/Or, but anxiety is the human condition underlying both poles. (In other words, there is no escape from insecurity or anxiety in this living world; the futile search for a false sense of security is a meaningless marker of an inauthentic life).

In the actual therapy situation itself, the influence of the existentialists can be seen in many areas. The focus on the here and now signifies a break with the traditional analytic ritual of digging up the past, and gives a fresh, startling look at the immediate situation, i.e., the interaction of verbal and emotional exchange between therapist and patient.

No longer does the therapist turn his back on the patient; now the stress is placed on the face-to-face encounter between two active, responding human beings. The therapist does not hide behind the automatic shield of the cold, impartial Expert. Rather, to use Martin Buber's terminology, the psychotherapeutic hour is an example of a true "I-thou" dialogue, a meeting between two people. This implies a total commitment on the part of both the therapist and the patient, and may well contain surprises. The existential psychotherapist tries to assist the patient to reach a "moment of truth" – an encounter which can lead to a significant decision about one's life. (Fritz Perls expressed it this way: the therapeutic session at its best creates a "safe emergency", in which a person, and even the therapist, rises to a new occasion, bringing forth resources which he perhaps never knew he had within himself.

In summary, the existentialists teach us that man is restless and anxious; desiring both security and freedom, he can never be wholly satisfied. The rat in the Skinner box is not a paradigm for human existence.


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email:

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