Psychotherapy’s Ontic–Ontological Divide: Going Beyond the Hyphen
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Psychotherapy’s Ontic–Ontological Divide:
Going Beyond the Hyphen
Keywords

ontology, psychotherapy, Adolph Meyer, William James, Martin Heidegger

Something about the Western mind loves a dichotomy. Descartes’s distinction between res cogitans and res extensa shaped natural science and modern analytical philosophy. The existentialists could not escape this inclination, either. Sartre dichotomized the world, beginning his philosophical inquiry by distinguishing being from nothingness, the in-itself from the for-itself (Sartre 1943/1956).

It is, ultimately, the consequences of the Cartesian wounding of both thought and self that Erik Craig recognizes in his penetrating essay. He argues persuasively that, in working therapeutically with patients, we need to go beyond the description of a pathological ontic state to its ontological structure. This amounts to going beyond the hyphen in the ontic–ontological divide and identifying what he calls the ontological characteristics of these pathological structures.

Broadly defined, ontology is the structure of being, human and otherwise. “To be ontological,” according to Craig, “a characteristic must obtain for every human being in every moment of every human being’s existing.” (Craig 2015, 84, original emphasis). He points to Heidegger’s “existentialia” as the best foundation we have for grasping the ontological nature of any person (Heidegger 1927/1962, 70). Churchill (2013) maintains that Heidegger identified only twenty-or-so existentialia in Being and Time—no surprise because these characteristics must apply to all people at all times.

What follows is a partial list of Heidegger’s existentialia, as cited by Craig, but rendered here in colloquial English:

We are all alive, not dead, or never-born; we all have the capacity to understand something about our lives and the lives of others; we live our lives in time and space; we are always in a mood, even if we don’t realize it; we all have bodies, which are our interface with others and the world; we all show some degree of care about ourselves and the world we live in and through, though the kind and degree of this caring varies greatly from person to person; all our lives are co-constructed with others; these lives are finite, and our birth is the first step toward an inevitable death.

To this list we should add our inclination to avoid becoming our authentic selves, but instead to give ourselves over to what Heidegger calls the [End Page 99] influence of the “they”—what others expect us to be—a path that is often less arduous than taking a more self-determined, authentic tack. And we should not forget that we are always “ahead of ourselves,” which is to say on the way, never the same person from moment to moment, always in the process of becoming ourselves, rather than simply being ourselves.

As we ply our freedom, making choices that weave the fabric of our lives, the way we seize our ontological possibilities and deal with our ontological limitations is parsed under the conjugate term ontic. Craig (2015, 83) describes the ontic condition as “how we and all other particular beings show up in our lives, right here, right now.” The ontic is personal, individual, specific. “Such everyday particular being is the human context wherein we all live and breathe and have our very own once and once only existence.”

For us existentialists, ontology ‘bleeds through’ to inform and guide our lives and our therapeutic efforts. The question Craig addresses is, how explicitly and to what degree should the ontological dimension enter into our work with patients? Calling Rollo May and Irving Yalom to task for their neglect of the ontological dimension in their clinical work and theoretical writing, Craig challenges us to go further into, and harder at, the Heideggerian existentialia. At the same time, he acknowledges that the self-absorption of our everyday lives “leaves us inherently susceptible to conflating ontic and ontological assertions” (2015, 85).

We must admit that a good deal of the original Continental writing on ontology, in English translation anyway, is at best formidable, and often unreadable. Jacques Barzun, the French-born though nonetheless pragmatic American professor of history at Columbia University, and polymath of the...