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An Existential-Phenomenological Investigation of the Self in Schizoid and Psychotic Processes:
A Hypothetical Dialogue between Jean-Paul Sartre & R.D. Laing1

by Ian C. Edwards

Existential phenomenology began, primarily, as a response to Husserl's understanding of transcendental idealism. It rejects the transcendental Ego, and the Husserlian notion of the world as sense. Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, felt that it was impossible to bracket the objective world. This phenomenological epoche is a reductionist method that attempts to suspend the presuppositional biases inherent within every philosophical reflection. For Sartre, this phenomenological method was rather illuminating; however, taken to extremes, this type of procedure will inevitably result in a ponderous idealism that suggests a philosophical subject outside of its natural world. Sartre understood Husserl's conception of the objects of consciousness to be too dependent upon the subject, reducing the objects to their sense and ignoring their being (Hammond, Howarth, & Keat, 1991, p.100). Hence, existential phenomenologists, like Sartre, feel that phenomenological disclosure reveals a different subject-world relationship than Husserl had thought.

The existential aim is to characterize the experiences of human beings living in the world. Moreover, the primary objective is to elucidate the phenomenon of being inherent within a particular existent. For Sartre, the best way of focusing on what this means is by imagining a process of "stripping away" meaning or interpretation from normal experience (Hammond, Howarth, & Keat, 1991, p.110). Observe Roquentin's description of the being of phenomena in Sartre's Nausea:Things are divorced from there names. They are there, grotesque, headstrong, gigantic and it seems ridiculous to call them seats or say anything at all about them: I am in the midst of things, nameless things. Alone, without words, defenseless, they surround me, are beneath me, behind me, above me. They demand nothing, they don't impose themselves: they are there (1964, p.125).

Roquentin encounters a particular phenomenon as bare: he does not project any meaning upon the object of his consciousness. Hence, he discloses the nullity of the entity he is reflecting upon. Sartre differentiated three manners of being: being in-itself, being for-itself, and being-for others. Being it-itself, brute facticity, is a necessary precondition for being for-itself, or self-consciousness; but you cannot derive the latter from the former, because being for-itself is in a process of endless transcendence or becoming, endless self-authorship through choice and decision (Burston, 1997, Ch.9, p.12). Being for-others is when a person experiences oneself, in the face of another, as oneself. When a person experiences himself from the perception of another he becomes aware of himself as if an object that is in the presence of a condemning judge. As Sartre asserts in Being and Nothingness:By the mere appearance of the Other, I am put in the position of passing judgment on myself as on an object, for it is as an object that I appear to the Other (Sartre, 1958, p.221).

As an object of another's gaze, the person is placed in the uncanny position of avowing himself as a being whose contingency is entirely based upon the interpretation of the Other. He comes to the radical realization that he is not his own author. Subsequently, the person experiences shame:Now, shame is shame of self; it is the recognition of the fact that I am indeed that object which the Other is looking at and judging (Sartre, 1958, p.261).

In the face of shame a person attempts to turn the other into an object as a defense against one's being glared at. The threat-counter threat dynamic ensures that others exist. Moreover, the threatening nature of the gaze allows persons to affirm their being for-itself by perpetually confronting the annihilation at the heart of being objectified.

Sartre's existentialism has had a profound impact on the theory and practice of psychology as a human science. One of Sartre's most noteworthy enthusiasts is the controversial psychiatrist, R.D. Laing.

Laing, in his book, The Divided Self, gives an existential-phenomenological account of schizoid and schizophrenic persons. His task is to describe these persons within the horizon of their own-being. In order for the psychologist to comprehend what is meant by a schizophrenic's unique phraseology and behavior, he must first understand the schizophrenic's existential context. When Laing classifies a particular person as schizoid or schizophrenic he is using these classifications in reference to the person's existential and phenomenological horizon, and not as clinical diagnosis (Laing, 1965, p.17). Furthermore, it is important to understand that the current metapsychological and applied behavioral models fail to take into account this human dimension in which the schizoid and/or schizophrenic operates. Laing's existential-phenomenological psychology reintegrates what has been disintegrated by the more conventional models. The being that we encounter is understood as a person rather than a thing. When the psychologist treats his client as a person, as opposed to an organism, he reconstructs the patient's way of being himself in his world, and in the therapeutic relationship, focuses on the client's being-with (See Laing p.25). Therefore, the task of Laing's existential-phenomenological analysis is to disclose the client's being-in-the-world.

How are we to understand the schizoid's or schizophrenic's being-in-the-world? The categories that we use to judge our client serve as threats to further objectify his existence. Read Kraeplin's description of a catatonic schizophrenic (Laing, 1965, pp.29-31). This boy is merely responding to the feeling of being objectified by Kraeplin and his students. According to Laing, this functions to exacerbate the client's already depersonalized timbre. Instead, we must encounter him as an individual who has developed a radically detached being for-himself and being for-others. As Laing asserts:Comprehension as an effort to reach and grasp him, while remaining within our own world and judging him by our own categories whereby he inevitably falls short, is not what the schizophrenic either wants or requires. We have to recognize all the time his distinctiveness and differentness, his separateness and loneliness and despair (Laing,1965,p.38).We must disclose the existential truth by which the schizoid and/or schizophrenic lives or dies. This truth may or may not correspond to what we understand as real. Nevertheless, we must fully acknowledge his existential position in order to favorably uncover his being.

In my essay, I will construct a hypothetical dialogue between Jean-Paul Sartre and R.D. Laing. The dialogue will begin with a discussion on the essential differences between the ontologically secure and the ontologically insecure person. It will conclude with a discussion on the false self and its presence in the case of Peter. Overall, this query serves as a foundational basis for the establishment of an existential-phenomenological psycho-analysis.

The Dialogue

Laing: Monsieur Sartre, would you agree that an ontologically secure person will have the ability to encounter the difficulties of his life from a firm sense of his own and the reality and identity of the Other (See Laing, 1965, p.39)?

Sartre: It appears as though, when you use the term "ontological," you are not referring to any philosophical usage of the term.

Laing: That is correct, for when I say that a person is ontologically secure, I am asserting that he feels secure in his being.

Sartre: But to determine whether or not a particular person is ontologically secure it would be necessary to examine what appears in the unpredictability of a free action. However, since this is such a grand quest, we will have to limit ourselves to what is most fundamental. In addition, we have to understand that the inquiry itself and its results are, on principle, wholly outside the possibilities of an ontology (Sartre, 1953, p.71).

Laing: If we start with what is most fundamental, we have to begin with the event of a person's being born into a world. First, the infant begins as a biological organism. However, within a relatively short period of time, the infant develops into a baby with a very real set of experiences. In short, physical birth and biological aliveness are followed by the baby becoming existentially born as real and alive (Laing, 1965, p.41).

Sartre: Along with being biologically alive, the baby is also a being in-itself, a brute facticity, which soon develops into an ever expansive self-consciousness. But this self-consciousness is nothing more than self-awareness. It only exists to the degree that it appears. Moreover, consciousness is totally empty since the entire world is outside it (Sartre, 1957, p.32).

Laing: If consciousness is essentially empty then the individual child has the potentiality for a translucent understanding of his being. He will experience his own being as distinct from the rest of the world. Hence, he understands his identity to be continuous with time, spatially co-extensive with the body, and as having begun at birth and liable to extinction at death (Laing, 1965, pp.41-42).

Sartre: I can agree that a person's possession of this kind of understanding constitutes what you understand to be the firm core of ontological security; whereby, the ontological foundation for consciousness is being for-itself.

Laing: However, some individuals do not feel secure in their being. An ontologically insecure person feels that his own existence is discontinuous with time. He always questions his sense of identity. In addition, he feels himself to be tenuous.

Sartre: If this person experiences himself as divorced from the substance of his body, as opposed to a proficient relation, he feels in constant threat of being objectified by the Other. He constantly feels his for-itself being swallowed up by the in-itself (Sartre, 1953, p.195).

Laing: This person, who feels swallowed up, has to try and figure out ways to preserve his existence. He has to prevent himself from being devoured by the in-itself. The ontologically insecure person's experience of the world is significantly different from the secure person's. The world of his experience comes to be one he can no longer share with other people (Laing, 1965, p.43).

Sartre: Therefore, we have to rediscover how this person has chosen his being.

Laing: An ontologically insecure person often has a foreboding sense of engulfment. He feels his identity is threatened by his relationship with the Other.

Sartre: But this ominous feeling of being threatened is inevitable when humans confront one another. When one experiences another person he is experiencing a perspective which is not his own. The experience of being encountered by the Other demonstrates that his existence is more than just a conjecture. This perilous hazard of feeling engulfed indicates that the Other is in no way given as an object. The objectification of the Other would be the collapse of his being-encountered...In the phenomenon of being-encountered, the Other is on principle that which can not be an object (Sartre, 1958, p.268). Relations with others are always unstable, in the sense that there is a perpetual vacillation between one's being a subject to the other's object and one's being an object to the other's subject.

Laing: However, what distinguishes the ontologically insecure person from the secure person is that he has difficulty vacillating between being a subject and an object. There is the antithesis between complete loss of being by absorption into the other person (engulfment), and complete aloneness (isolation) (Laing, 1965, p.44). This person is not certain of his ground; hence, he can not authentically encounter the other. Furthermore, the ontologically insecure person often experiences himself as empty. Nevertheless, he desires to be sated, but at the same time, avoids this possibility. By experiencing the nothingness at the core of his existence he comes into contact with himself as a potential non-being.

Sartre: That was very well put. In the extreme process of annihilating the world, one also annihilates himself. Between the annihilated in-itself and the projected in-itself the for-itself is nothingness ,whereby, this nothingness is the core of being-in-the-world (Sartre, 1953, p.64). The dread that one encounters comes from the realization that nothing compels human action. We are forever condemned to be free.

Laing: Hence, any contact with reality is then in itself experienced as a dreadful threat because reality, as experienced from this position, is necessarily implosive and thus, as was relatedness in engulfment, in itself a threat to what identity the individual is able to suppose himself to have (Laing, 1965, p.46). Furthermore, the ontologically insecure person feels like he is perpetually being petrified.

Sartre: This is very similar to what I have said about "The Look" in Being and Nothingness. The look from the Other brings on a feeling of being judged. When this happens, one is no longer a being-for-itself but a being-for-the-other; therefore, he attempts to petrify the other before he himself is petrified.

Laing: I concur with this assertion. Moreover, by petrifying others he validates his own existence as a human being. While the petrified person is no longer seen as an autonomous agent, but as a thing.

Laing: For the ontologically secure person a partial depersonalization of others is considered commonplace. Most relationships are based on some partial depersonalizing tendency in so far as one treats the other not in terms of any awareness of who or what he might be in himself but as virtually an android robot playing a role or part in a large machine in which one too may be acting yet another part (Laing, 1965, p.47).

Sartre: Yet, perceiving other people only demonstrates a high probability that others have intentions similar to our own. We only experience the Other as an autonomous subject when we endure the burden of our own shame in response to being the object of a gaze. Being the object of another's gaze is not experienced in the same manner as gazing at someone as an object.

Laing: So being the object of an objectifying gaze is what brings about this foreboding dread. Moreover, the subject is interpreted as an independent agent with the potentiality of draining one's own subjectivity.

Laing: Another characteristic of the ontologically insecure person is his inability to sustain his own existence without the presence of another. This is a contradiction of what was said earlier about the other possessing the ability to annihilate a particular existent. But contradictory or absurd as it may be, these two attitudes are indeed entirely characteristic of this type of person (Laing, 1965, p.52).

Sartre: In an ontologically secure person, this contradictory behavior, as you put it, is not so pervasive. In the secure individual, the for-itself is identified with a lack of being. This can also be expressed in terms of freedom. The for-itself chooses because it is a deficiency; whereby, freedom is equivalent to the desire to have the deficiency sated. Ontologically then it amounts to the same thing to say that value and possibility exist as internal limits of being which can only exist as a lack of being-or that the upsurge of freedom determines its possibility and thereby limits its value (Sartre, 1953, pp.62-63). But the ontologically insecure person hides himself from the awareness of his own freedom. He perpetually vacillates from the fear of being annihilated to the fear of being alone. Every choice is understood as potentially cataclysmic. This is why he is so concerned with the consequences of his actions (Sartre, 1953, pp.104-105).

Laing: With this in mind, I am going to briefly surmise what has been said about ontological security/insecurity. A person who is ontologically secure lives in a world that he experiences as real and continuous. He is also able to confront the dangers of life without losing his identity or sense of self. On the other hand, the ontologically insecure person encounters non-being, in a preliminary form, as partial loss of the synthetic unity of self, concurrently with partial loss of relatedness with the other, and in an ultimate form, in the hypothetical end state or chaotic non-entity, total loss of relatedness with self and other (Laing, 1971, p.51). Monsieur Sartre, let us now explore the question of the false self and its presence in the case of Peter.

Sartre: Dr. Laing, tell me about Peter.

Laing: Peter was a large man of twenty-five, and he looked very healthy...He came to me complaining that there was a particular musty smell emanating from his body...He felt that it came from his genital region...He compared the smell to the slum housing district where he grew up...Peter felt that neither his mother or his father had wanted him...Moreover, he felt they resented him...His mother begrudged him for ruining her figure in being born...His father simply begrudged him for existing at all...Furthermore, his mother always told him, when she caught him playing with his penis, that it would not grow if he did that...However, he didn't begin masturbating until fourteen...The only early memories he told me to begin with were of these sexual incidents...In secondary school, he began to have a growing sense that he was being put by everyone in a false position...He felt that he had to spend all his energy being a credit to his parents, his uncle, and his teacher...However, he felt that he was a nobody, all his attempts to be somebody were a pretense...Once his teacher asked him to read from the Bible to his fellow classmates...He read it so well that everyone commented on the excellence of his "performance" ...To Peter this was a mere demonstration of his fine "acting" skills...Peter always felt himself to be a hypocrite and a sham...The more Peter tried to hide his "real" feelings the more he would attempt to figure out if other people could detect his true self...At the office, he used to have sexual fantasies about his female colleagues and then go into the bathroom and masturbate...At times, after he had finished, he would encounter the very woman he had just raped in his mind...He felt that this woman could look through him, and detect what he was secretly doing to her...From this point, Peter felt it increasingly difficult to hide his true self...Peter retained a facade of normalcy...However, this normalcy was the consequence of a deliberate intensification of his "inner" "true" self and "outer" "false" self. (Laing, 1965, pp.122-125).

Sartre: What you have understood as Peter's false self is equivalent to what I call bad faith (mauvaise foi). When a person shows signs of bad faith he is lying to himself. Peter, in actuality, is in possession of his true self; however, he covers it over by lying to himself.

Laing: I can agree with that. So when Peter became detached from the core of his true self he attached himself to his false self. His ability to carry on an apparently normal persona reflected the existential distance between his self and the world.

Sartre: But in order for him to carry out this existential distancing he must make the project of his lie entirely clear, and he must possess a complete comprehension of it. His consciousness of the lie affirms that it exists by nature as hidden from the other; it utilizes for its own profit the ontological duality of himself and himself in the eyes of others (Sartre, 1953, p.208).

Laing: Peter developed this ontological duality by constantly trying to comply with the demands that others had placed on him. This resulted in Peter hating both himself and others. However, when Peter's true self began to merge with his false self he felt as though other people could penetrate this persona and decipher his true intentions.

Sartre: Yet, up until this point, his lie was able to hide his intention from the other, it was sufficient that the other took the lie for the truth. However, Peter knew his original intention to be a project of bad faith; this project implies a comprehension of bad faith as such and a pre-reflective apprehension (of) consciousness as affecting itself with bad faith (Sartre, 1953, p.209).

Laing: Furthermore, if Peter's actions were to belong to any self they belonged to a false self, which had a will of its own. Peter could function without anxiety only when he was playing a role. He most often played a role in the midst of people whom he felt had the power to penetrate him. By disguising himself he severed the relationship between his true self and his repudiated false self (Laing, 1965, p.127).

Sartre: I understand Peter's bad faith as a flight from anxiety. His desire to play roles takes the responsibility off of himself and places it on the role that he is playing. In essence, he flees from his own freedom by identifying himself with a false self. Simultaneously, he aims to dissociate himself from what is existent, so that any future results will be attached to his repudiated self as opposed to the things he does.

Laing: His dissociation from his true self excludes him from real participation in the world. Therefore, he was precluded from having a direct relationship with real things and real people (Laing, 1965, p.82). Moreover, Peter experienced himself as disembodied. His smell of himself arose out of the fact that he needed some tangible proof of his bodily existence to ensure that he was objectively perceptible to others.

Sartre: But the very act of needing this tangible proof in order to become real proves that he is not being-in-itself, not identified with himself, and no body. If he ideally posits for himself the being of things, is this not to assert by the same stroke that this being does not belong to his reality and that the principle of his identity is only a synthetic principle enjoying a merely regional universality (Sartre, 1958, p.58)?

Laing: That is a very good question. Let's conclude this discussion with the following answer. Keep in mind that Peter could only have sexual relations when he was disguised, i.e., when he was in a different town or under a different name. In this instance, he could be an embodied person, and for a limited time, obtain some satisfaction. If, however, his true self was known, he had to revert to the disembodied position (Laing, 1965, p.128).

Sartre: I would like to add one more thing before we close. Your previous assertion reminds me, in a roundabout way, of the young woman I have described in Being and Nothingness (pp.55-56). As a matter of fact, it has gotten me to add a new interpretation to this material. This woman was able to enjoy the man's desire only by disengaging her body from her intellect. Hence, she became only her intellect. However, she could have become embodied by taking on some role or disguising her true self. However, if she felt as though her disguise was penetrated, she would have to return to her disembodied position; her false self would have been brought face to face with her true self.




Burston, D., An Historical Introduction to Existential-Phenomenology, lecture notes, 1997.

Hammond, M., Howarth, J., & Keat, R., Understanding Phenomenology, Basil Blackwell, Inc., Cambridge, 1991.

Laing, R.D., The Divided Self, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1965.

Laing, R.D., Self and Others, Pelican, Harmondsworth, 1971.

Sartre, J-P., Being and Nothingness, (tr.) Hazel Barnes, Methuen, London, 1958.

Sartre, J-P., Existential Psychoanalysis, (tr.) Hazel Barnes, Philosophical Library, New York, 1953.

Sartre, J-P., Nausea, (tr.) Lloyd Alexander, New Directions Books, New York, 1964.

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