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4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars

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on 22 October 2007
Yalom follows Rollo May in making Existentialism accessible to American psychotherapists. The introduction clearly explains the need for doing so. Freudian-based therapy, Behavioral therapy, and the anti-intellectual forms of humanistic therapy, all have limitations in the areas that existential psychotherapy may shine at.

As he states in the Epilogue, Yalom regards "this existential paradigm as an early formulation..." that will "not only be useful to clinicians in its present form, but will stimulate the discourse necessary to modify and enrich it." What Yalom has done is to select four significant existentialist concerns (death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness) and discuss them in the context of his experiences with clients, the writings of major Existentialists, and other therapies. In doing so, it may become clear what Existentialism has to offer to psychotherapy. Although this introductory work may be rich enough to, by itself, benefit clinicians, the interested reader can also then turn to the rich literature in Existentialism and existential psychotherapy, guided by Yalom's focus on death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness.

As a work of introduction, it seems understandable that, although he quotes Sarte, Yalom doesn't present Sartre's existential psychoanalysis, not even (it seems) Sartre's analysis of "bad faith" or Sartre's existential analysis of Jean Genet. Yalom said in the introduction that he did not intend to discuss existentialist philosophy much, but rather focus on what would be helpful for clinicians. Although Sartre's work in the area of existential psychoanalysis is ignored, as well as British psychiatrist R.D. Laing's work (heavily influenced by existentialism), Yalom does discuss Frankl's logotherapy, perhaps because its clinical application had been worked out more.

It would have seemed helpful, however, since he acknowledged this work as an "early formulation", if he had provided an explicit selection of existentialist works, whether relevent philosophy or psychotherapy for further reading. However, the reader can hopefully find many such works based on names and works mentioned within the text. Although challenging, I'd certainly recommend Sartre's sections from "Being and Nothingness" on "Existential Psychoanalysis" and "Bad Faith", and, for the brave reader, Sartre's application of that philosophy in "Saint Genet".

As to just why "death" gets about 190 pages, "freedom" about 140 pages, "isolation" only about 70 pages, and "meaninglessness" only about 65 pages: I didn't see where Yalom explains this weighting. There are not hard boundaries between these concerns, however, so, in addressing the earlier concerns, some of the later concerns may be addressed.

Understood as an introductory work that may lead you to further study on your own of existential psychotherapy, this book may serve you well, especially if you are a therapist or studying to be. Lay readers, such as myself, less interested in discussion targetted to clinicians, may find Sartre, although difficult, or Rollo May (e.g. "The Meaning of Anxiety") more suitable
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on 27 October 2016
Although it looks like a textbook, Yalom's usual accessible tone flows throughout and it's surprisingly readable. It doesn't flow like Love's Executioner but I wasn't bored while reading it.

There are lots of gems throughout although it may get a bit repetitive at times.

I haven't read any other texts on existential psychotherapy but, for me, this was a great introduction and I now want to sink my teeth into more.
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on 18 October 2016
I have not finished reading this yet, it is 544 pages! So far so good although I am not in agreement with all that he propounds.
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on 3 June 2016
A magnificent book but I do not have time to review it properly just now
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on 4 February 2010
A book in which there is a story for everyone. The death part was rather scary but such is death, ain't it? I needed a bit more on the meaning side but overall this book is a must read and a must comprehend.
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on 19 February 2016
Happy with the purchase
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on 18 March 2015
Avant-Garde Politician: Leaders for a New Epoch

Reading this book from the perspective of worries about the future of humanity, as discussed in my recent book, I found most of the book inspiring. But I think it suffers from a fatal flow: it ignores the realities of "evil" and may even, inadvertently, lead to "evil" when helping a patient to reach his authentic selfhood -- when it is evil and released by existential psychotherapy from inauthenticity which kept it in chains.

Given the seriousness of this indictment I leave aside lesser points which deserve criticism, such as misunderstanding of the very nature of decision making (pp. 314ff.) as "fuzzy gambling" because of uncertainty - with implications for psychotherapy to overcome consequent psychopathologies.

The fundamental error of the paradigm on which the book is based is inherent in the philosophy of existentialism, as well demonstrated by the Nazi episode of Heidegger. Existentialism encourages autonomous existential choices by human beings, with which I agree. But it does not confront the real and dangerous possibility that human beings may authentically choose an "evil" existence, in terms of overall humanistic Western value. Main founders of existentialism (but not Heidegger) recognized this danger and tried to cope with it by adding to existentialism the need for a "leap into faith" and various moral codes - but this is not an integral part of existentialism itself.

Yalom recognizes instances of evil, such as the Jonestown case, and mentions sadism (p. 381). But the many and widespread phenomena of evil are not confronted and the term "evil" is not even mentioned (see index). Even lesser moral issues, such as the desirability of guiding self-realization towards social utility, are not considered. This is all the more dangerous an omission in a teaching book for a profession which exerts influence on human behavior.

To illustrate my point, as if the realities of evil are not sufficient, let me pose the possibility of a patient dying of cancer who, thanks to psychotherapy (p. 432), reaches the conclusion to give meaning to her death and retroactively her life by volunteering to become a suicide bomber mass-killing non-believers who deserve death, and thus "leaving the world a better place" (p. 432).

I think the book's paradigmatic error has an additional basis to pure existentialism, namely a deep belief that what humans "really want" is highly moral in terms of contemporary humanistic values. This is at the core of Maslow's "self-realization" and Frankl's logotherapy. Otherwise Horney would not have replied "When patients told her that they did not know what they wanted... Have you ever thought of asking yourself?" (p. 280).

Yalom rightly takes up the critical issue of secular personal meaning (pp. 426ff.), and the need for a "set of guidelines about how one should live life" (p. 426), all the more so with increasing secularization. But then he refers to evolutionary morality, altruism (p. 431), dedication to a cause (pp. 434-5), creativity (p. 435), hedonism (pp. 436-437), self-actualization, "will to meaning" etc. -- all in a mood of optimism on the "real nature" or will of human beings. This unavoidably leads to the completely unwarranted conclusion "When the activity has no intrinsic `goodness' or `rightness', then it sooner or later will fail the individual" (p. 452).

Given human history on one hand and the increasingly lethal tools becoming more easily available thanks to science and technology, such as viruses mutated in kitchen laboratories, I think that adding a humanistic version of pastoral counselling must be added to existential and related psychotherapy, with an added duty to take responsible action when running into patients who are likely to engage in massive evil. Otherwise the many potential benefits of existential psychotherapy, as well presented in this book, may be accompanied, and perhaps outweighed by massive evil "released" by it.

Professor Yehezkel Dror
The Hebrew University
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on 1 December 2014
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