Existential psychoanalysis

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A mode of analysis outlined by Sartre in his classic essay on phenomenological ontology.[1]

Its principles are derived from Sartre's existentialism and it supplies the basic methodology for his biographical studies of Baudelaire, Genet and Flaubert for his essay in autobiography.

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Existential psychoanalysis differs from the [psychoanalysis]] elaborated by Freud in a number of important respects.

It has no therapeutic goals as such, even though elements of the theory do feed into the practices of anti-psychiatry, but is intended to provide a means of understanding individuals.

Given the fundamental Sartean contention that it is death alone that transforms a life into a destiny or something that can be full understood, biography is its main field of application.

Sartre explicitly rejects the postulate of the unconscious, arguing that all mental phenomena are coextensive with consciousness even though the mechanisms of 'bad faith' mean that the subject is not lucidly aware of them.

Other aspects of Freud's metapsychology are criticized for their abstraction.

Desire for an object is not, for example, a symbolization of some more fundamental sexual desire but a mode of consciousness expressing a desire to be or, ultimately, to achieve the impossible unity of being-in-oneself and being-for-oneself.

The psychoanalytic reliance of symbolic equations, such as the unconscious equation between faeces and gold, is criticized for its failure to grasp the meaning of such equations for specific individuals in specific 'situations' by establishing a much more general and abstractedly universal symbolism.

Similarly, Sartre holds that the concept of libido is meaningless unless it is referrd to the experience of the individual; libido does not exist outside its concrete fixations.

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In the opening pages of his monumental but unfinished study of Flaubert, Sartre defines the goals of his existential psychoanalysis by asking: "What can we know of a man today?"

Arriving at an understanding of what an individual is implies a reconstruction of a family and social situation, but also of the project that defines how the individual will live that situation.

The basic thesis is that the individual is a totality or 'singular universal' and not merely a collection of disparate phenomena and incidents.

It follows that the most 'insignificant' details of behavior express that totality and form part of the individual project in which the individual chooses his existence and life within the limits imposed by his or her situation.

The genius of a Falubert or a Genet is not a gift, but the way the writer chooses to escape from an impossible situation, the way in which he chooses his life and the meaning of his universe.

Thus the ten-year-old Jean Genet is caught stealing and is told: "You are a theif."

Defined by the Other and shamed by the other, he assumes that definition with the defiant "I will be a thief," and the inversion of values implied in that assumption will define his aesthetics and ethics of betrayal and criminality because it signals the choice of a world and a mode of being in the world.

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The term 'existential psychoanalysis' is also applied to the clinical theory of the Swiss psychiatrist, Ludwig Binswanger (1881-1966), though it is more properly described as Daseinanalyse.

According to Binswanger, Heidegger's concept of Dasein provides the therapist with a tool that frees him from the prejudices of scientific theory and allows him to describe the clinical phenomena he encounters in all their phenomenological depth.

Mental illness is viewed not simply as a pathological disorder, but as a modified mode of being-in-the-world; what is lost in illness is Dasein's freedom to organize the world, and the goal of therapy is to restore that freedom.

One of Foucault's first publications (1954) was a lucid introduction to a French translation of Binswanger's Traum und Existenz (Dream and existence, 1930).

  1. Sartre 1943a