As editors, Barnett and Madison set themselves a historically important task; to offer, via essays by most of the big names in existential therapy, a review of 50 years of existential therapy (since the publication of `Existence') and a look at the implications for the future.
While it is not very successful on these two points (for me there is not enough critical engagement about the field, its conflicts and differences, and also little on the future challenges) it is a very interesting and important read. This is, after all, a pretty authoritative overview of what is presently known as existential therapy (van Deurzen, Spinelli, Cooper, Gendlin, and Schneider are some of the authors) and needs to be taken seriously by all of us who have more than a passing interest in existentialism and therapy.
Spinelli and Cooper's `dialogue about dialogue' (through correspondence) is excellent and strangely compelling, as they wrestle with the nature of dialogue and the therapeutic relationship. Whilst Cooper's openness should be acknowledged and valued he, like others in the book, emphasise a depth which seems to rest `within' a person which seems to be in opposition to some of the basics of existential philosophy (becoming, fluidity, action, consciousness, a questioning of `inner' and `outer'). Spinelli continues to be excellent on `demystifying therapy' (see his book of the same title) and his focus on "dialogue" in the therapeutic relationship, rather than an "immersion-into-the-other's-world", is refreshing and captures well an existential engagement.
Emmy van Deurzen's chapter is a good overview of her present position and is noticeable for its clarity and existential `spirit'. I've always liked her focus on values and beliefs, `paradox and passion' (see her excellent book), and the importance of living meaningfully in a way that is authentic for the individual concerned. Her way is rooted in a very classical view of philosophy as a search for the good life and, for me, her approach, while embracing many philosophers/writers that would not necessarily be included in the existential canon, is the most `existential' of all the authors here.
I really enjoyed the chapter on R. D. Laing, and the debate between the authors, Thompson and Heaton, opens up some important issues around authenticity. However, in my view, both Thompson and Heaton get existential authenticity wrong. Authenticity cannot be reduced to being honest and open, and Heidegger's view on authenticity does see it as entailing a positive movement for Dasein. Inauthenticity is, of course, not always a negative mode of existence as our everyday embededness in a shared practical world-with-others requires/necessitates, at times, our inauthenticity. I think that Heaton forgets that authenticity is not a static position or state of being. I think we can forget that existential authenticity is a complex term that involves many other aspects of our being: our attitude towards freedom and responsibility, time, death, being-towards-others (solicitude), etc. It is also the business of each individual to make their own call on authenticity, the therapist's (paradoxical role), is to facilitate this process in a co-creative dialogue.
I enjoyed Keith Hoeller's chapter on Szasz. For me existential philosophy naturally offers a critique to the medical model of mental health and its worrying that in some places in the book there is an unquestioned pathological view of mental health (as medical illness). I also like the fact that Hoeller challenges a view of a certain way of doing existential therapy, although I think his critique should be a little wider than those `existential therapists' who adhere to a "pseudomedical enterprise".
I find Eugene Gendlin an interesting figure and have always been curious as to his inclusion under the existential umbrella. His development of focusing and felt sense is interesting and, at times, useful, but some of the therapy behind it and its overuse and emphasis is questionable. Watching videos of Gendlin practicing this there is definitely, at times, a directiveness (and an implication of therapist as expert) which I think sometimes contradicts an existential approach. Ironically, the problem of the neglect of the body in therapy (including existential therapy) can lead to an emphasis on what the body is doing which ironically separates `it' out from the person. As such I get the impression that Gendlin's work could perpetuate mind and body dualism by its focus on the body; the body is doing things we are not always aware of and it is the therapist's role to help the client notice and interpret what `it' may be telling us. It's akin to making the unconscious conscious and the therapist's expert role in this interpretation.
However, done in the right way, and I'm sure Gendlin often carries out this `technique' in a positive way, this can lead to therapeutic benefits. For me though, there is too much emphasis on this way of working.
As for the other chapters we have subjects such as Daseinanalysis, Logotherapy (interesting on meaning but quite medical modelled), Laura Barnett's interesting chapter on boredom, Betty Canon's Sartre influenced (but also analytically influenced ("childhood origins of current difficulties - existential?!) experiential therapy, the question of research for existential therapists (which/whose existential therapy do you research comes to mind). There is also a chapter by Kurt Schneider on his ideas on widening the reach of existential therapy. He provides a good critique of society but I think he is quite naive on his own ideas that propose "awe" (awe-full?) based initiatives. There is a good, but overly generous, critique by Simon du Plock. The book ends on four very different (strangely disparate) responses to Yalom's book on death; Staring at the Sun. Best is Havi Carel's clear and useful reading of Heidegger and Epicurus (I recommend her excellent personal and philosophical book; `Illness').
There are a number of issues that the book throws up for me that the existential therapeutic world needs to debate;
1. Where is the place for authenticity in existential therapy? What do we mean by it and if there is a place for the concept in what we are doing/being what does this say about the role of therapist?
2. What is the nature of the therapeutic relationship in existential therapy? Should we be pursuing a relational depth with our clients? Is it not more important that our focus is on how our clients can relate more deeply with significant others in their lives outside therapy? If so what becomes of the relationship? I believe the therapeutic relationship is crucial but question that the deeper, the more honest, open, etc, that the therapy is the better this necessarily is for the client? And what does a relationship of equality mean when we are talking about a relationship between client and professional?
3. In their conclusion to the book the editors state a part of existential therapy is where the "client's meanings unfold within a therapeutic dialogue that encourages connection and intimacy." My question is; with who? It is no good having a connected and intimate therapeutic relationship if this is not helping our clients experience connection and intimacy in the world outside the therapeutic room (and importantly beyond into the future). Perhaps we should be asking our clients what kind of relationship they would like with us in therapy; `what sort of relationship would help you?'
4. What is left of existential philosophy when we integrate/combine with other theories and/or techniques? Throughout this book we have the direct involvement of psychodynamic, analytic, person centred, experiential, depth psychology, felt sense/embodied, and others. I'm not suggesting other ideas are necessarily incompatible with existential philosophy but there is very little questioning of the possible incompatibilities with these `add ons' to existential philosophy. How far can we stretch the term existential therapy until it becomes something else entirely? Perhaps existential therapy is not a stand alone therapy. If so we need to debate this more and be clear about this.
5. Unsurprisingly, with the lack of existential authenticity in the book, and the connected issue of the therapist's role (e.g. Heidegger's solicitude?) we have too much treatment of clients and therapy that implies an instrumental view. That is, therapy is focused too much on techniques or ideas outside the direct interests of the concrete individual we sit and talk (and `be') with. Whether this is felt sense, relational depth, a view of `psychopathology, the expertise of the therapist and the possibility of leading the client down particular avenues, it seems to go unquestioned. What this conjures up for me is a `heavy', less freeing, therapy, focused too much on the expertise of the therapist and, in one sense, the therapeutic relationship. One of the most powerful things about existential therapy should be its exploration of values and meaning with a focus on becoming (action) in the world-with-others, on the basis of our own freedom and responsibility . If we privilege the therapeutic environment over the client's individual world and life (beyond) we are more likely to encourage dependence and the over-privileging of our own status in our clients' mind. I still think of existential therapy as being a no guru (thinking for yourself) therapy; therefore the therapist is in a paradoxical and ironic (anti-prescriptive ) role. Connected with this, it is interesting that Madison and Barnett quote Nietzsche at the beginning of the book: "One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil. Read more ›