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Distinguishing Apples From Trees
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Distinguishing Apples From Trees

existential psychotherapy, ontology, philosophy, Daseinsanalysis, Heidegger

The commentaries of professors René Muller and James Phillips exemplify the two most prevalent, contrasting attitudes regarding the role and relevance of ontology for existential psychotherapy. Whereas Muller embraces the need for foundational ontology, Phillips, following the psychiatrist turned philosopher Karl Jaspers, is steadfastly suspicious of it and committed to an ontical approach based on descriptions of the experience of particular individuals.

There is much in Muller’s commentary with which I find myself in substantial agreement, including his rejection of Cartesian dualism and commitment to an ontologically unitive understanding of ‘the structure of being human.’ Although Muller recognizes the problem of the ‘torturous’ language of continentally bred ontology, he also recognizes that its “technical terms allow us to think, speak and write in a rigorous and systematic way that extends our grasp and our reach” (Muller 2015, 100). It is precisely this absence of sophisticated systematic thought in contemporary existential psychotherapy that motivated me to write about the lost language of Being. Muller’s encouragement and suggestions for rendering the Continent’s daunting ontological terms in less formidable, more accessible language are most welcome. Even if it falls on deaf ears this side of the Atlantic, I agree with Muller’s courageous idea that, ideally speaking, we should master both the technological terms and their colloquial equivalents. Muller’s own straightforward but still ontologically sophisticated terms illustrate the kind of thought and language I hope existential psychotherapists will develop to facilitate compelling dialogue with one another as well with other scholars and practitioners in the field.

Muller culminates his commentary by demonstrating the applicability of foundational existential thought in psychopathology. He criticizes the “misdirection” of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders system of diagnosis and proposes “four existential domains” allowing “the phenomenon of each illness to be identified and characterized, and its structure…to be discerned” (2015, 101). Although I essentially concur with Muller’s critical perspective, I was puzzled by his reference to “the ontology of Karl Jaspers” (Muller 2015, 101) as Jaspers himself was deeply suspicious of ontology as a foundation for a “theory for the psychological structure of man” (Jaspers 1913/1963, 277). Early in his only 13-year-long psychiatric career, Jaspers developed a phenomenology of subjectivity as an “empirical method of enquiry aimed at understanding “patient’s communications,” their “own self-descriptions” (p. 55). Later abandoned by Jaspers, this method ironically yielded an ontical (existentiell) “seriatim of abnormal phenomena” that parallels several of Martin Heidegger’s ontological existentialia.1 [End Page 103] Nevertheless, Jaspers considered Heidegger’s “fundamental ontology...to be a philosophical error in principle” (p. 776) and described others’ efforts to “apply ontology to their psychopathology” as sometimes seeming to be “a short-winded attempt at theology and philosophy which misapprehends itself as some supposed piece of knowledge” (p. 777). Later in his philosophical career, Jaspers even declared that “Ontology must be dissolved in order that the individual may return to concrete authentic Existenz” (Jaspers 1956, 227). Given Jaspers’ disenchantment with ontological ambitions, I wonder to what “ontology of Karl Jaspers” Muller might be referring.

Finally, although I concur in Muller’s radical affirmation of the importance of ontology as a philosophical foundation for existential psychotherapy, I am reluctant to declare continental ontology “the definitive way to approach the truth about human beings” and to then “try to convert others to our point of view” (Muller 2015, 101, emphases mine). Instead, I prefer to join in collective dialogue, like the one to which the present issue is dedicated, wherein intellectual exchange and mutual influence lead us gradually along such ontological paths of thought as Tillich, May, Frankl, Boss, and others have tried to clear for us. Muller’s own philosophical eloquence and commitment to colloquially rendered ontology are already welcome contributions in our common search for an ontologically grounded shared linguistic repertoire.

The critical commentary offered by James Phillips could not offer a sharper contrast with René Muller’s ontological aspirations for existential psychotherapy. Phillips questions the need for ontology in psychotherapy and, if that need could be established, why Heidegger’s ontology should...