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Existential Therapies

Mick Cooper
Sage Publications, 2003


Review by Steven Gans

Mick Cooper has done an impressive job in writing a much needed, current and user friendly survey of the field of existential therapies. If I were to teach this course, I would use his book.

Starting from an initial disclaimer on being able to define "what existential therapy is" since existential theories and practices are so diverse Cooper states: "The primary aim of this book is to introduce readers to the rich tapestry of existential therapeutic approaches. It aims to map out the different existential therapies, such that readers can learn to distinguish their Binswanger from their Bugental and are able to identify the key dimensions along which these existential approaches differ" (p2). And this is exactly what Cooper does in a comprehensive, accurate, clear and journalistic fashion.

A brief introductory chapter on existential philosophy with thumbnail sketches of major figures and some of their key terms is the springboard for chapters on each of the significant existential therapy schools. I only make one small caveat on one point in this chapter since existential philosophy is not Cooper’s focus. When Cooper introduces the term "existence" Heidegger’s term Dasein is cited: "Indeed, Heidegger uses the term Dasein – literally translated as ‘being there’ – to refer to the specifically human form of being;"(p18). It should be noted that Heidegger objected to this translation.

Heidegger "In French Dasein is translated by être- là [being there], for example by Sartre. But with this, everything that was gained as a new position in Being and Time is lost. Human beings are not present like tables and chairs." (Heraclitus Seminar, p126) Consciousness is grounded in the Da or clearing which enables things present to meet human beings. Setting out from this openness or ‘ek’-sistence is the major historical step that Heidegger takes to move thinking to a new level beyond traditional philosophies of presence.

In Chapter 3, "Daseinsanalysis: Foundations for an Existential Therapy," Cooper does capture something of the sense of Dasein as "a world-disclosing openness" (p37) in his detailed discussion of Medard Boss. Still, it is worth mentioning that we cannot properly speak of "human Dasein" since this gives the impression that Dasein is a property of the human, whereas for Heidegger, Dasein is an aspect of Sein, a part of the Being-process from which the possibility of the human being emerges. Heidegger is an Ontologist, not an Anthropologist.

Following Heidegger, Boss attempts to give Freudian Psychoanalysis an ontological foundation in order to overcome Freud’s psychologistic and constricted vocabulary as well as his phantasmagorical meta-psychological speculations. Cooper does well in rehearsing the Bossian catechism, Boss’ transposition of psychoanalytic concepts into a Daseinsanalytic framework and his translation of psychoanalytic terminology into Daseinsanalytic terms.

I take issue with only one term in Cooper’s exposition: his use of the term illumination rather then attunement in Box 3.1, "Illuminating your world." When Boss transposes Freudian projection into the register of Heideggarian attunement, we are able to see that a client’s supposed parental replays are much more constricted ways of "tuning in."

This means that we as therapists are seen as parental figures, not because we remind clients of their parents, but rather because such clients are only able to regard other adults as authoritarians. To speak of the "psychologically healthy individual" in terms of "a light that can shine across the full terrain of its world" and to offer the exercise "imagine that you are a light with the potential to illuminate all different aspects of your world" skews the notion of attunement (gestimmen) in the direction of projection. Perhaps the metaphor of imagining you are a radio receiver able to tune into all stations rather than being stuck on one would be a better illustration of Boss’ notion of full as opposed to constricted world relatedness?

Cooper goes on to characterize the aim of the Daseinsanalytic therapist, quoting Boss, as "to enable the patient to unfold all his world-disclosing possibilities of relating toward the particular beings which he encounters" (p41). A minor hesitation at this point: Does the therapist, as Cooper suggests, "create a ‘trial world’ in which clients can begin to experience a more open way of being" and must the therapist "create an atmosphere of permissiveness and openness"? I doubt that Boss regarded therapy as a sort of "dress rehearsal" or that he felt permissiveness and openness were always appropriate responses or that he thought it was up to the therapist to "create an atmosphere."

I pose one last question in regard to Cooper’s discussion of Daseinsanalytic dreamwork. Cooper writes, "A dream no more points to meanings in waking life than waking life points to meanings in dream: they are two forms of experiencing of equal validity and legitimacy" (p45). True, however in his It Dreamt Me Last Night, Boss does seem to suggest that dreams do give us priviledge access to our modes of attunement, hence, to our constricted ways of relating to the world and also that dreams are harbingers of our increasing world-openness and more healthy relating and as such are signposts of therapeutic progress.

Before moving on, I’ll make a suggestion that I think would enhance this chapter on Boss. I would propose that Cooper include (in the next edition) some exposition of the remarkable Zillikon Seminars given by Heidegger and Boss to Boss’ students. Mention is made of these seminars in connection with Hans Cohn.

Cooper moves into his stride with an excellent exposition of Frankl’s logotherapy in Chapter 4 and a fine review of the American Existential Humanistic movement, giving cameo appearances to May, Bugental, Yalom, and Schneider.

Chapter 6, "R.D. Laing: Meeting without Masks" is the chapter for which Cooper deserves the most credit and praise for his perceptive and balanced reading of Laing. No doubt this chapter will be of most interest to readers of this review and it is to a discussion of Cooper’s Laing that I now turn. Cooper reports that Laing’s disposition has been variously described as mercurial, enigmatic, arrogant, iconoclastic and brilliant (p91) and he not surprisingly finds in Laing’s writings a display of all these characteristics. Cooper then admits that "of all the existential therapies examined in this book, Laing’s approach is the most difficult to characterize." This of course is no accident. We’re well aware that Laing had a horror of institutions and that the last thing he wanted was to inaugurate a Laing Institute with a set of orthodox Laing created, inspired and approved theories and practices to be followed by a band of proselytes (although to his bemusement this sort of thing did develop around him). Hence, Laing did not attempt to construct a Laingian system of therapy nor did he give many examples of his practice in his writings. So Cooper concludes that "it is only through brief passages in his writings and the accounts of his clients that one can begin to build up a picture of [Laing’s] work" (p92).

In addition, following Mullan, Cooper remarks that Laing feared that writing about his approach would not only be misunderstood but would inevitably be unable to convey a sense of the spontaneity and rapport at the core of his therapeutic outlook. I could add a very long list of what Laing would have thought writing about therapeutic work must by its very nature leave out, but I won’t.

In a section titled "Influences" Cooper gives a brief account of the influences on Laing’s development (p92). He highlights readings in the existential philosophic tradition, European existential psychiatry, the British Psychoanalytic greats, Interpersonal psychiatry, Bateson and the Palo Alto group, Marx and the influences of his childhood, especially his relationship with his mystifying mother.

In the section "Finding meaning in madness" Cooper chronicles Laing’s perduring contribution to psychiatry. As he puts it, "For therapists, the Laingian edict is perhaps ‘assume intelligibility unless proved otherwise’ as opposed to standard psychiatrics ‘assume unintelligibility unless proved otherwise.’" He amplifies "in other words, therapists should try to engage with their clients holding a basic trust that the client’s behaviors and experiences are meaningful attempts to deal with their world, rather then pathological or irrational errors of functioning" (p95).

Sections on "Ontological insecurity" and "The social context of mental misery," follow and demonstrate a genuine appreciation of Laing’s canonical works. The most vivid and memorable moments in Cooper’s chapter on Laing come from vignettes of therapeutic work with Laing given by two clients Mina Semyon and Jan Resnick. For more wonderful firsthand accounts of meetings with Laing read R.D.Laing Creative Destroyer, edited by Bob Mullan, if you have not already done so.

In a short note on Post Laing, Cooper sees therapists developing from Laing’s work as falling into two overlapping camps, the existential and the psychoanalytic and some of the more psychoanalytic as moving toward the Post-Modern writings of Wittgenstein, Derrida, Lacan and Levinas. To quote Cooper, "In terms of therapeutic practice, this means that there is something of a move away from Laing’s attempts to establish a relationship of ‘pure presence’ (Oakley, 1989) – in which all masks, defenses and pretences have been stripped away – and instead an acknowledgment that all relationships are ultimately mediated through language, discourses and narratives." To read more on one such Post-Laingian movement, see Just Listening: Ethics and Therapy by Redler and Gans (Please excuse this shameless bit of self promotion).

I’ll pass on taking up Cooper’s last sections on Laing, "Critical perspectives" and "Conclusions" as this would require a more extended discussion then a review allows. Suffice to say that I could not agree more with Cooper’s sentiment that "Within Laing’s work, there are also a whole host of ideas whose therapeutic and psychological potential has yet to be tapped"(p106).

In Chapters 7 and 8, Cooper outlines the contributions of the so-called British School of Existential Analysis. He includes sections on van Deurzen, Spinelli, Cohn, and Strasser and Strasser. His account is fair and nuanced and gives a good comparison of the strengths and weaknesses of the major players within his own school of therapy.

Chapter 9 is an overview of the similarities and differences between the existential therapies summarized in this book. Cooper begins with a useful list of the shared characteristics of existential therapeutic practices and then he goes on to chart the polarities of their differences. His Chart 9.1 (p145) shows how schools agree and disagree on a variety of fundamental issues relating to therapy theory and practice, for instance, to be directive or non-directive, to pathologize or not to pathologize, to be spontaneous or to use techniques and so on. Cooper concludes that these polarities represent the pushes and pulls that are the constant dilemmas of therapeutic practice and of human experience in general. Hence polarities must be managed on a case by case basis in order for each therapist to respond appropriately to each client at each moment in the therapeutic process. Implicit in Coopers’ resolution of the conflicts that exist between schools and individuals within the existential field, his plea for polarity management is a tacit understanding that it is necessary to move beyond the phenomenological and existential language with its grid of fixed polarities of meanings toward a more dynamic and deconstructive understanding of the oppositional structures of language and the "meanings" language purports to convey. To pursue this "beyond" would take us back to the not yet existential, for example, to the interpenetration of opposites in the logos of Heraclitus or forward to the no longer existential, to our infinite responsibility for the Other or to Goodness in Levinas, if it were any longer possible to speak of back and forth at this point.

For Cooper, there are more than enough challenges within the orbit of the Existential Therapy Movement to address, especially in terms of its future direction. It is with this open question that he concludes his book and this review comes to a close.

It only remains for me to say that I applaud Mick Cooper for having admirably achieved the aims he set out to achieve, in his words: "The aims are fourfould, First, to introduce readers to the rich tapestry of existential therapies, Second, to provide readers with ideas and practices they can incorporate into their own work, Third, to help readers identify – and follow up – areas of existential therapy that are of particular interest to them, and Fourth, to contribute to the range of debate within the existential therapy field." All this makes Cooper’s book a must-read for anyone wishing to explore the topic of existential therapy.


· Contents ·

Introduction: The rich tapestry of existential therapies

1. Existential Philosophy: An introduction
2. Daseinsanalysis: Foundations for an existential therapy
3. Logotherapy: Healing through meaning
4. The American Existential-humanistic approach: overcoming a resistance to life
5. R. D. Laing: Meeting without masks
6. The British School of Existential Analysis: The new frontier
7. Brief existential therapies
8. Dimensions of existential therapeutic practice

Conclusion: The challenge of change

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