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21 of 44 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Very compassionate, but seems not very therapeutic, 25 Oct 2007
This review is from: The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness (Penguin Psychology) (Paperback)
Laing's compassion for those currently mentally ill (and others), as found in this book and others by him, is powerful. It's very fortunate that he raised his voice (and wrote so well) about the coldness and at time inhumanity that can be found within psychiatry.

Existentialism may, in some hands, support healthy therapy but it seems it may also serve, as it seems to in this book, as:

a) a largely empty explanatory system, i.e. a rich set of concepts that enable one to create a great story about what is going on with someone, but a story that leads nowhere outside of itself. Satre's "Saint Genet" seems such an application, an interesting framework perhaps for a "biography" but layered in fictitious play.

b) a false comfort system that might lead troubled people to see themselves as an important part of some global battle against alienation ... instead of facing real immediate needs.

Getting a job may be more important than ecstasy. Taking a pill may be wiser than considering one's "false self" or going further on some great voyage toward transcendence. True, Laing has acknowledged the value of pills and the possibility of genetic/biochemical causes, but, as seen in this book, that was a very tiny part of his concern. What he wanted, this overcoming of the false self, this ending of violence seemed to have turned out to be largely orthogonal to the needs of many of the psychotic, for many of whom the right medication and daily routine has enabled them to enter the mainstream of society productively. Whether existence precedes existence was of no consequence to these people in getting well; now that they are, they can decide to what extent existentialism and Laing's vision counts. My impression is that, except for the great contribution he has made in encouraging compassion to them, his analyses matter very little and rightly so. It seems unfortunate that his great compassion (and writings on) got mixed in with his attempts to apply his existentialist notions, which tend to be very complicated.

Kingsley Hall, as described by Laing himself in interviews, was a compassionate start at providing humane mental health treatment, but seems to have been therapeutically a mess. Sartre seems vastly less effective than some of the growing number of anti-psychotic medications and it seems a great disservice to the many of the mentally ill to suggest otherwise. Despite some disclaimers, Laing, as in "The Divided Self" and "The Politics of Experience", seems to have done just that. He witnessed some terrible medical practices and he recognized they were so and called attention to that, but then he opted for mind games like existentialism and knots instead of providing practical guidance. "The Divided Self" is great in some ways and, for a young man of 28, forgiveable.

Nonetheless, "The Divided Self" seems a bad book for most anyone who is mentally troubled and it seems a bad book for most anyone who will be dealing with anyone mentally troubled. Boring practical choices made day to day seem infinitely more useful than such existentialist analysis and fantasies of transcendence.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 1 Aug 2011 22:12:12 BDT
giles_y says:
Rather than saying this review is "unhelpful" I would prefer to say that is wrong-headed, incoherent and poorly argued. "Existence precedes existence"!! Well of course Laing will sound like an idiot if you attribute such thoughts to him. But even I know that the existentialist truism is that "existence precedes ESSENCE". There are a number of other silly bits of nonsense. I only mention this just in case anyone is in danger of believing this drivel and letting it put them off giving Laing a try. A "bad book", indeed!

Posted on 16 Dec 2011 22:23:07 GMT
[Deleted by the author on 7 Aug 2012 12:08:54 BDT]

Posted on 18 May 2013 13:00:46 BDT
M says:
I really should read this book before I comment, as well as better understand the issues in their wider context. Nevertheless, I couldn't help noting your criticisms were quite misguided.

Firstly I don't understand the kind of claim you're making in (a). In fact you seem to be making several claims, neither of which follows from the other, and none of which have reasons supporting them (the latter problem applies for every point you make in the review in fact). Are you claiming that existential therapy is an inadequate explanatory system in reference to mental help? If so, why? You follow this up by saying it provides a 'rich' set of concepts, which is somewhat confusing. You then compare its concepts to a work of fiction, suggesting they are engaging, but not altogether true, but then fail to give a reason as to why this is the case.

Secondly, whether or not it can serve to prop up 'some global battle against alienation' (whatever that means) is beside the point. For exactly the same could be said of any psychotherapy, psychodynamic, cognitive behavioural or otherwise. This is not a problem with the theory per se, so much as some particular person's interpretation and application of it. You also fail to give any examples of when this has actually happened.

As for whether the patient cares about the rather abstract proposition, as the above reviewer rightfully corrected you, that 'existence precedes essence', you once again miss the point, setting up a straw man in the process. This is of course a fundamental principle in existentialism, and therefore presumably existential therapy. Nevertheless, it is not as if it ever rears its head in this form in therapy. Rather one would take issue with the way in which a particular patient believed they were necessitated to adopt a certain attitude, action, or even form of life, without feeling the possibility of changing it. In fact, one could make exactly the same point about the pill - what does it matter to the patient if such-and-such chemical imbalance occurs in such-and-such part of the brain. What matters is what this means in their day to life (e.g. that they feel depressed), and how the pill can help them (e.g. make them feel happier).

You also seem to cash out transcendence as some sort of religious journey. I suspect its meaning is far more mundane than that, in keeping with its philosophical background. Presumably it means overcoming perceived necessities or something of the like. And I fail to see why this cannot be consistent with an everyday approach to life.

Nor do I see why existential therapy cannot be consistent with medication. That he suggests such an approach you yourself admit, and although he does not develop this in the 'Divided Self', presumably that is because this book is focused on describing the general features of existential therapy, and not its relation with medication.

I also take point with your organization of the review. It doesn't follow point from point, and structurally, quite frankly it is a confused mess.

Laing I'm sure has a great many problems, but I'm afraid to say you clearly state none of them.
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