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224 pages, Paperback
First published January 1, 1960
The case studies showed a combination of empathy and rationality that I find rarely in any written works about people. His studies of Joan, and of Julie, which conclude the book, are tough for me to read without raising strong emotions.
Speaking as a student of philosophy, though, Laing's early work is best when he speculates, and phenomenological speculation may be one of the safer forms. In particular, how are we to answer this question: what is a perspective of experience which does not constitute the feeling of self-identity over time? Frankly, it reminds me of Sartre's claim that any ego, empirical or transcendental, must be constituted on the basis of an impersonal field of experience. Williams James seems to have come to the same conclusion in his later work. To read particular accounts of experience shifting from this impersonal field to one persona or another puts flesh on these philosophical bones, to say the least.
It may be intolerably crass to cite H.P. Lovecraft, the author of gothic fiction, in an attempt to appreciate psychiatric case studies of real human beings, but bear with me. HPL claimed that correlating the total contents of one human mind would be terrible enough to drive one mad. Perhaps that was true for him. It seems to me that it is far more terrifying repeatedly to move between a normal kind of correlation (a personal self), and the impersonal field.
As an introduction to this review, the actual process that R.D. Laing undertakes is one of empathically describing the lived experience of his patients that struggle with schizophrenia, in a relatable way. Moreover, Laing attempts to place the foundations of schizophrenic presentation within the family constellation. Notwithstanding this particular summation, my intent is to respect the specific nature of Laing’s endeavor while attempting to abstract his existential comportment and relatedness into a generalized overview towards the givens of existence.
The “problem,” according to Laing, begins with the terminology utilized in exploring the lived experience of others. How can language be used to accurately depict thought? How can the significance and relevance of a person’s situation be conceptualized and isolated for this particular person (client) in relation to another particular person (counselor/therapist)? Obviously, the answer is not to be found in the vocabulary of psychology; nor can it be found in an objective isolation of an individual from their inherently subjective positioning.
Words may have meaning; however, this meaning is lost in abstracta in such words as “mind and body, psyche and soma, psychological and physical, personality, the self, the organism” (Laing, 1969, p. 17). Instead of strengthening the relationship between two people, these words externally objectivize the lived experience of humanity. Further, attempts to fuse these words together, such as, “psycho-physical, psycho-somatic, psycho-biological, psychopathological, psycho-social, etc., etc.,” inappropriately internalize the lived experience of this individual; this person; this being-for-themselves.
Consequently, the concretum must come from the subjective existence of the individual; their being-in-the-world. From the existential perspective, this means relating to the person as being capable of making their own choices, being responsible for their actions, and being capable of experiencing autonomy. Hence, any theory that attempts to synthesize the individual as conditioned responses and learned behaviors, is just as preposterous as any person whose lived experience is envisaged as a robot, a computer, a mind only (with no body), or even as an inhuman animal; “Life, without feeling alive” (Laing, 1969, p.42). Therefore, Laing’s thesis contends that a theory of humanness, that is, what makes this individual human, will lose its importance if it looks at humanity as merely a machine or “an organismic system of it-processes”(Laing, 1969, p. 21).
Perhaps one of the more intriguing aspects of the text is Laing’s exposition of ontological insecurity. Laing presents, the term “ontology,” as “the best adverbial or adjectival derivative of ‘being’” as opposed to the way it is used by Martin Heidegger(1949), Jean-Paul Sartre(1956), and Paul Tillich(1952) (Laing, 1969, p. 40, ff.1). Hence, ontological insecurity is defined as an utter lack of the self-efficacy, and self-validating certainties that secure a personal encounter with the givens of existence. From this position, Laing describes three forms of anxiety encountered by the ontologically insecure person; viz., engulfment, implosion, and petrification.
Of particular interest, Laing describes the lived experience of an ontologically insecure person suffering from the anxiety of implosion as,
The individual feels that, like the vacuum, he is empty. But this emptiness is him. Although in other ways he longs for the emptiness to be filled, he dreads the possibility of this happening because he has come to feel that all he can be is the awful nothingness of just this very vacuum (Laing, 1969, p.47).
This presentation seems consistent with Viktor E. Frankl’s notion of the existential vacuum being “the mass neurosis of the present time” (Frankl, 2006, p. 129). Moreover, Laing suggests that in the petrification (and depersonalization) mode of ontological insecurity, the individual becomes “an it without subjectivity” (Laing, 1969, p. 48). As a result, Laing proposes that from the ontologically insecure position, the more an individual attempts to retain their identity and autonomy by dehumanizing other’s, the stronger the urge to continue the process. This dehumanization of others further results in the accompanying negation of one’s own humanity; thus, the ontological insecurity is increased. The representative culmination is characterized by a depersonalized individual that can be used, manipulated, and acted upon.
From an existential perspective, this means that feelings of frustration and hatred cannot be fully explained by the classical psychoanalytical mode of aggressive and libidinal drives through transference. Instead, these feelings must be considered as arising from an existential stance of allowing a person to choose the person they are; to become the person they want; and, to accept the responsibility of self-definition. Therefore, an environment in which the person can take responsibility and an appeal and comportment toward autonomy is exposed by Laing to be an important condition in the process of becoming.
Moving to the second part of the text, Laing provides insightful definitions of the embodied and unembodied self. Whereas the embodied person feels their body as real, alive, and substantial, the unembodied feeling is characterized by a sense of separation between their mind and body. Laing interprets the embodied and unembodied self as “basic existential settings” (Lang, 1969, p. 69). Hence, the position of the person as an unembodied self is characterized by the feeling that one is more of an object in a world of objects rather than their own individual being.
Contrariwise, the embodied self recognizes their position as a duality of mind and body that culminates in the understanding that they had a beginning and will have an end. In this respect, one’s self is revealed in and through the actions one takes. This is also consistent with the Sartrean (1956) existential stance that existence precedes essence. Moreover, the participation of the embodied self is characterized by active participation in life in spite of the existential anxiety inherent in existence.
This presentation is not to suggest that there is an autotelic end-point or teleological perfection. Indeed, this is why the process of being is seen from the existential perspective of becoming. As Laing suggests,
'A man without a mask’ is indeed very rare. One even doubts the possibility of such a man. Everyone in some measure wears a mask, and there are many things we do not put ourselves into fully. In ‘ordinary life’ it seems hardly possible for it to be otherwise (Laing, 1969, p. 101).
As a final reminder, Laing explains that ultimately, “Personal unity is a prerequisite of reflective awareness, that is, the ability to be aware of one’s own self acting relatively unself-consciously, or with a simple primary non-reflective awareness” (Laing, 1969, p. 214).
Frankl, V.E. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Heidegger, M. (1949). Existence and being. London, England: Vision Press.
Laing, R.D. (1969). The divided self. New York, New York: Pantheon Books.
Sartre, J.-P. (1956). Being and nothingness. Trans. Barnes, H. London, England: Rider.
Tillich, P. (1952). The courage to be. London, England: Nisbet.