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  • Whither Existential Psychotherapy?
  • James Phillips (bio)

existential psychotherapy, Heidegger, Zollikon, Medard Boss, Jaspers

Eric Craig invites us to participate in a conversation about existential psychotherapy, which I am pleased to join, and I am able to articulate my questions and disagreements only because he has provided such a clear presentation of the relevant issues (Craig 2015).

Craig argues two major points: 1) that existential psychotherapy, at least in the United States, has lost its grounding in ontology, and that it must recover that grounding; and 2) that the only adequate ontology for grounding existential psychotherapy is that of Martin Heidegger. In this commentary, I question both of these assumptions. Before proceeding to that discussion, however, we need two clarifications.

The first involves Karl Jaspers’ role in the discussion. The author (Craig 2015, 80) writes that “the German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers may arguably be considered the first existential psychotherapist, for as early as 1913, he wrote...” The quotation is taken from the English translation of Jaspers’ General Psychopathology (GP) published in 1963 (Jaspers 1963). The English volume is a translation of fifth edition of the GP, published in 1946, and that in turn is based on Jaspers’ major revision of the GP in the fourth edition in 1942. For the 1942 revision, Jaspers added Part Six, where the author’s citation first appears. The strongly existential statements of Part Six thus do not appear in the first edition in 1913 (Jaspers 1913), and in fact represent the philosophical position developed by Jaspers in the 1920s and 1930s. (The final seventh edition of the GP appeared in 1959 and essentially follows the revision of 1942.) In 1913, Jaspers’ primary concern was in developing a methodology for the study of psychopathology, and in that effort he invoked descriptive phenomenology, as developed by Edmund Husserl in his early Logical Investigations (1970/1900), the psychology of meaningful connections, as developed by Wilhelm Dilthey (2010/1894) and the concept of Understanding (Verstehen), as developed by Dilthey and Max Weber (1975). At the time of adding Part Six in 1942, it had been more than two decades since Jaspers had had contact with a psychiatric patient.

The point of the first clarification is, in addition to withdrawing Jaspers from his role as the “first existential psychotherapist,” to highlight his focus in 1913 on phenomenology. This then leads us into the second clarification: the distinction between phenomenology and existentialism. Later writers such as Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Binswanger, and Boss blended the two, but Jaspers kept them rather distinct. Phenomenology was critical from the beginning of the GP in 1913, but existential concerns appeared in the later editions—and in different sections from the chapter on phenomenology. [End Page 93]

The Necessity Of Ontology

Craig argues strongly for the role of ontology in existential psychotherapy. This might be a modest or strong requirement. A modest version would require of the psychotherapist that he be cognizant of the philosophical assumptions underlying the psychotherapy. For instance, at this time many therapists might identify themselves philosophically as naturalists. Such an assumption could fit the work of the psychopharmacologist, who sees his patients as biological organisms, but fits less comfortably the work of the talking therapist.

Craig seems to take a stronger perspective on the need of otology, placing it front and center in the practice of existential psychotherapy. In questioning this position, it might be helpful to take another look at Jaspers’ GP. Jaspers certainly espouses the modest position, that there are always philosophical assumptions and that any psychiatrist should be aware of her own. Jaspers writes that

the exclusion of philosophy would nevertheless be disastrous for psychiatry: firstly, if we are not clearly conscious of our philosophy we shall mix it up with our scientific thinking unawares and bring about a scientific and philosophic confusion….The fundamental error of scientific knowledge is the conversion of philosophical thought into a supposedly objective knowledge about something.

(1963, 769–71)

In this discussion, Jaspers adds a further distinction, writing that, “What is of decisive importance for theory and practice in relation to Man is that there should be a basic philosophic attitude and no...


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