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The Personal Dimension to Ontology
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The Personal Dimension to Ontology

ontology, phenomenology, existential, Heidegger, Sartre

Hersch’s objective in his paper was to “illustrate how an existential ontology has a great deal to offer psychotherapists” (Hersch 2015, 107). The first of three sections addresses existential themes such as guilt and anxiety and explores the notion of bad faith; the second focuses on why existential ontology provides a more suitable grounding for psychotherapy than traditional models; and the third offers the author’s invention of a mental status examination that is derived from existential ontology.

To illustrate how existential ontology may be useful to psychotherapists, Hersch directs our attention to those existential themes that are crucial to understanding the role ontology plays, existential guilt and anxiety specifically. Whereas the term ontology connotes the study of being in philosophy, existential ontology is typically associated with Heidegger (1962) and to a lesser extent Sartre (1956). It was Heidegger who based his entire philosophy on the study of being, which he argued has been neglected by philosophers since the pre-Socratics. Everything hangs on how Heidegger defines what he takes ‘being’ to mean and how it informs existential ontology. The reason that this is important is because traditionally philosophers have associated being with something hidden behind appearances, something that we cannot get at directly and so requires us to interpret what is hidden instead. Heidegger blamed Plato for getting this kind of thinking started, and claims that we have been stuck with it ever since. Plato (1977) famously argued that, for every entity in the world, whether a tree, flower, farm, or what have you, there is hidden somewhere in the heavens a ‘form’ called tree, flower, or stable from which its derivative originates. This set the stage for Western philosophers to argue that the truth about things is hidden from us and requires a special kind of intelligence to fathom its meaning.

Heidegger (1962/2001) argues that being is not hidden, but is present for all to see, if only we look at it from the right perspective. This is what is both novel and radical about Heidegger’s conception of ontology. We bump into it all the time and could not function if it were not for the fact that we each have an originary and immediate relationship with being. So what does being mean? No one is entirely sure just how Heidegger conceives being and what his point of departure is. Is he saying that being is simply what it means to me, or you, or whoever, and is embedded in language? Or is he saying that we cannot ‘understand’ being intellectually, because it is more primary than what we can ever know about it, intellectually? [End Page 125]

I take this to mean that what we understand by ontology is profoundly personal and immediate, and not the least bit abstract or theoretical. The thing, for example, that is most lacking in psychoanalysis or cognitive therapy is the inherently personal dimension to every therapist–patient relationship. It is this personal engagement that is the hallmark of the existential therapy tradition. The author teases this out by explaining how existential guilt and anxiety are different from ordinary guilt and anxiety. Whereas guilt and anxiety in the clinical setting are perceived as evidence of pathology, their existential editions are not specifically ‘pathological,’ but rather universal, which is to say normal. All of us struggle with the existential guilt of grappling with the consequences of our choices in life and the regrets we harbor about them. Similarly with existential anxiety, we are all anxious about the fact that we are mortal and one day will die. This is all well and good, but how is this related to the guilt feelings and anxieties that our patients bring to us? Is the author saying that there is no such thing as neurotic guilt and anxiety, only its existential editions? Or is he saying that the one is the cause of the other so that, at bottom, all of our anxieties derive from our fear of death and all of our guilt feelings are derived from our fear of freedom? The author does not...