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Biography & Critique Index

R.D. Laing

Gavin Miller.
Edinburgh University Press, 2004


· Introduction ·

The psychiatrist Ronald David Laing, born in 1927, was possibly Scotland’s most important public intellectual of the twentieth century. When he died, aged 61, on 23 August 1989, memorial services were held in London, New York, and other cities across the world. During the twentieth century in Scotland, perhaps only the educationalist A.S. Neill (1893–1973) comes close in fame and influence. Currently, Laing’s work and ideas (like those of Neill) are neglected in his home country, and the Scottish intellectual culture which preceded and surrounded him is largely forgotten. There is no Laing Institute of Human Relations; no university holds a chair of psychiatry in his name; no plaques mark the places he was born and educated.

In the course of his life, R.D. Laing moved from the forefront of humane, and humanist, psychiatry to a position of notoriety. Latterly, he was alcoholic, professionally unlicensed, and as disturbed, at times, as anyone he had ever treated. His work also descended into near-madness – he implied, for example, that his problems could be traced to the hostility of his mother’s uterus, eight days after he was conceived. It is hard to forget such a figure; but it is easy to overlook the radical challenge to psychiatry of his earlier work and ideas.

Much attention could, instead, be paid to the psycho-biographical aspects of Laing’s life. He seems to have been raised in the kind of family he would later come to regard as conducive to schizophrenia. However, though this upbringing gave Laing a motive and material for his theories, it did not give him the intellectual skills to analyse his own experience. For those, we must turn to his education, his training, and his dialogue with his peers. The aim of this book is therefore to explore the depth, validity, and context (both national and international) of Laing’s work.

For some, this effort will seem misplaced. Laing, they will say, was a charlatan and a self-publicist, and if his name is no longer familiar to us, then it is deservedly so. Such instant dismissal, indeed, is a threat which faces all thinkers who oppose conventional psychiatric practice. There is a stigma of irrationality which is frequently attached to anyone who seems to criticise the authority of psychiatric science – as if medical investigation were, indeed, the only way to reasonably apprehend the world. This book will show, though, that there are many good reasons why conventional psychiatric diagnosis, care, and treatment may be challenged.

Laing, furthermore, is doubly disadvantaged. Not only does he criticise a complacent scientific establishment, he also comes out of a nation which has, of late, shown little interest in its culture. Indeed, to many Scots, there may even be little sense of an ongoing intellectual life in their country. I first encountered Laing’s ideas as a teenager interested in natural sciences and planning to study astrophysics. I read an interview with him in a (now-defunct) US popular-science magazine. Here was something even more extraordinary than artificial intelligence and black holes: here was a public intellectual who was clearly taken seriously, was certainly Scottish … and whom I had never heard of before in my life.

A decade and a half after my first encounter with Laing’s work, as a postdoctoral academic in literary studies, I attempted to fund a conference on it, to be held in an old and renowned Scottish university on the seventy-fifth anniversary of his birth. The plan was stymied: according to a senior academic at the prospective host university, Laing ‘warts and all’ was ‘too warty.’ Laing, in his later years, published some bad books, drank too much, lost his professional reputation, and had a tendency to violent outbursts. This much may be said, I suspect, about less well known scholars and academics, and is small beer compared to the quirks of other, more celebrated intellectuals: the German existentialist Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) professed his faith in the Nazi Party, and the French philosopher Louis Althusser (1918–1990) throttled his own wife to death. Yet, Laing’s latter decline is taken as reason enough to neglect what is valuable in his work. The French and the Germans would never be so uncharitable towards one of their own thinkers, but then they are not small countries dominated by a state centred in a larger and indifferent neighbour.

Surely, though, one should not link national and intellectual life in this way? A culture of ideas which is narrowly national is not a genuine intellectual culture; great ideas arise in international contexts. Nor should a nation dictate to its thinkers what their thoughts should be. Ideas are important because they are thoughtful, well-argued, and profound – not because they are Scottish or English or Danish or Estonian.

Yet, though nations are primarily defined by the boundaries of a certain level of governmental power (the state, usually), they also have secondary functions. Intellectual life can receive a national dimension because nations allow investment (in the broadest sense) in programmes of research; and where these programmes are typical we may speak of a national movement (British empiricism, American pragmatism – perhaps, even, Scottish psychiatry). In an ‘ideal world,’ these intellectual tribes would never need to appear. Ideas, though, are formed not in an ideal world, but in a reality where original research may appear at first glance to be nonsense, and where hypotheses are proven after years of argument, not accepted before the first article is published. Universal rational consensus is an ideal, and an indispensable one, but hardly ever a reality; nations may allow space for new ideas to develop and grow, rather than to be weeded-out because no one has yet seen these strange plants mature.

Perhaps, then, we have the second reason for Laing’s marginal intellectual status: there is little institutional support or sympathy for his ideas in Scotland. To note the absence of such support is not to call for an unthinking worship of Laing in the spirit of ‘my country, right or wrong;’ it is, though, to ask for a more charitable recognition of his work than has hitherto been provided in his homeland.

A begrudging attitude to Laing’s achievements is perhaps particularly Scottish, is probably recent, and is, I hope, reversible. It is, though, quite real, and it is also a sign of a more general complacency and forgetfulness. When I first encountered Laing’s work, I was a school student living in Burntisland, a small Fife town, to which I had moved with my parents after earlier living in Forfar, a town just north of Dundee. I attended a high school in Kirkcaldy which took in pupils from the smaller towns in the area. For each of the three towns – Kirkcaldy, Forfar, Burntisland – there was a locally neglected intellectual. Adam Smith (1723-1790) is world famous as the founder of modern economics, yet there were few signs of his relation to Kirkcaldy, where he wrote The Wealth of Nations. It may be that Forfar in some way recorded the birth of A.S. Neill, the anti-authoritarian educationalist who did so much to liberate education in Europe and the US from Victorian repressiveness. As I recall, though, his teachings seemed largely to have bypassed the local schools. Burntisland also had its own neglected figure: the nineteenth-century astronomer and mathematician Mary Somerville (1780-1872), who was famous in her own day, and to whom Somerville College, Oxford, owes its name.

In the square where Mary Somerville’s house still stands in Burntisland, there is an architectural metaphor for the recent condition of Scottish intellectual life. Across from the idiosyncratic, yet traditional, form of Somerville’s house are a series of functional concrete flats and houses built over the rubble of houses much like Somerville’s during a period of post-War civic ‘regeneration.’ In the name of improvement and progress, the architectural past was largely erased; perhaps only because of the Somerville connection, were a few of the old houses preserved.

Such architectural destruction hints at the need for an archaeology of Scotland’s intellectual heritage. Laing is an obvious case of this neglected history. Too much basic work on his ideas has remained undone within Scotland. Laing’s papers are preserved in Glasgow University Library, and his autobiography Wisdom, Madness and Folly was republished by Canongate Classics in 1998, but there is little direct scholarship being conducted on his work in his home country. Furthermore, the context that he arose from, one of Scottish philosophers and psychiatrists, needs still to be clarified and examined.

Yet, athough Laing’s ideas are not particularly celebrated in Scotland, his thought has undergone something of a revival in North America. Two scholarly books on Laing by Daniel Burston – The Wing of Madness and The Crucible of Experience – were published in 1996 and 2000 to significant acclaim and interest. Also, in 2003, The Society for Laingian Studies was formed by a group of interested individuals in order to promote and sustain interest in Laing’s work. It may be that enough time has lapsed so that one may take from Laing’s ideas what is valuable, discarding what is less useful.

This book, then, tries to reconstruct the meaning of Laing’s ideas as they arose in his time, and to put them into the scattered fragments that remain of the cultural context from which he emerged.

The first chapter concisely outlines Laing’s remarkable life. Though my focus is on his ideas, the events of Laing’s life cannot be neglected. Laing rose from a lower middle-class household in Glasgow in the 1930s to a position of international intellectual celebrity, from which he then declined into notoriety and drunkenness during the 1970s and 1980s

Laing, though he may have had few obvious Scottish peers, was not alone in his criticisms of conventional psychiatry. Across the world during the 1960s, intellectuals and writers were beginning to regard sceptically the value of institutionalisation, the reality of mental illness, and the validity of therapy. This field of ideas, which came to be known as ‘anti-psychiatry,’ is the subject of my second chapter. ‘Anti-psychiatry’ was generated by thinkers such as Erving Goffman, Thomas Scheff, Thomas Szasz, and David Cooper, and by writers such as Valeriy Tarsis and Ken Kesey.

In the third chapter, I discuss Laing’s contribution to this movement. Laing was not a systematic thinker, but his work shows a continuity in ideas, and frequently revolves around the problem of a life lived without feeling. From his central concerns, radiate various approaches, some dwelling on the interior intelligibility of madness, others on the role of social relations, and some on the way experience is stifled by social constructions.

Laing rarely referred with any gratitude or respect to his education in Scotland. Yet, before and beside Laing’s ideas is a rich context of Scottish philosophy which shows striking affinities to his work – especially to his analysis of the ‘divided self.’ My fourth chapter discusses in particular the ideas of the twentieth-century philosopher John Macmurray, who is perhaps the only Scottish philosopher Laing explicitly mentions in his published work. Macmurray’s ideas resonate with those of Laing both as an influence, and as a parallel, philosophical theory.

Macmurray’s ideas harmonise not only with those of Laing, but also with those of two twentieth-century Scottish psychotherapists, Ian Suttie and W.R.D. Fairbairn. The fifth chapter discusses the work of these two thinkers. During the 1930s, Suttie (to whom Macmurray refers) criticises the premises of traditional Freudian psychoanalysis and challenges the reality of mental illness. Fairbairn advances similar arguments, and is explicitly acknowledged as an influence by the US anti-psychiatrist, Thomas Szasz.

I conclude with a chapter which examines the continuing challenge to mainstream psychiatry by the movement today known as ‘critical psychiatry.’ On the one hand, critical psychiatry challenges the medical tendency to scientifically explain and categorise supposed ‘mentally ill’ behaviour. On the other, it demands recognition and understanding of those who are stigmatised by a psychiatric diagnosis because, for example, they hear voices, or engage in some other behaviour incomprehensible to medical specialists. In many ways, critical psychiatry continues the project to which Laing contributed so much.

2002 marked the 75th anniversary of Laing’s birth. It is a peculiar fact that, had Laing been a more successful human being, he would probably now be an even more neglected figure. Such is the complacency of Scots towards their own intellectual heritage, that the work of quietly respectable thinkers is readily forgotten. Laing’s later life of notoriety, though, cannot be smothered by the usual cultural amnesia. Those who care to look into Laing’s ideas will find insight and candour; and beyond that, an unfamiliar context of psychiatric and philosophical ideas developed by Dr Jekylls who had no Mr Hydes to ensure their lasting memory.

This Introduction to the book is available as a pdf download here
Review by Ron Roberts


· Contents ·

Chapter One: Life
Chapter Two: Anti-Psychiatry
Chapter Three: Work and Ideas
Chapter Four: John Macmurray and the Divided Self
Chapter Five: Scottish Psychoanalysis
Chapter Six: Critical Psychiatry
Index of Names

R.D. Laing, by Gavin Miller
Edinburgh University Press,
22 George Square, Edinburgh EH8 9LF
Tel. 0131 650 4220
In North America: Columbia University Press

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