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Colloquia Topics Index [link]Politics of Diagnosis

The Critical Psychology of R.D. Laing1


The works of R. D. Laing and his colleagues must be experienced in order to be comprehended. No description can capture their depiction of the horror and forlornness of what it means for so many to be alive in western culture. Nor is it possible to convey the sense of overwhelming terror that one feels upon reading any of these volumes. One can only wonder how a man like Laing can function in daily life with his extraordinary sensitivity to the profound madness which is in and around the most normal of people. Laing writes about what most of us protect ourselves from seeing: the relationship between normalcy and madness. The link is so close that if he did not clarify it for us, it would be nearly impossible to know which of these he was discussing at any given time.

Perhaps it is because Laing feels so absorbed in the insanity of normal life that he has formulated an approach to psychology which makes the discipline into an instrument. for further understanding the situation and for pointing a way out of it. For Laing's phenomenological psychology does what no other psychology ideas -- it questions the social context in which the individual acts and has experiences. Laing argues that disorientation for people (both 'normal' and insane) is a mystery without an understanding of what they are reacting to, and their confusion will persist if the circumstances of their lives remain unaltered.

Laing maintains throughout his works that if we look to the individual for the explanation of his disorientation, we will necessarily come up with some incapacity on his part, which, from a psychiatric point of view, would be a disease. Given a diseased or maladjusted person, the solution is to cure his incapacity and return him to being a healthy, i.e., adjusted member of society. Some investigators seek the source of the incapacity to adjust in the person's genes; some look at his physio-chemical make-up; some look at (for) unconscious mechanisms which work on childhood experiences that occurred some twenty or thirty years away; and some psychologists attend to the inappropriateness of response and inaccurate stimulus differentiation. All these individualistic notions take the social context for granted and place the locus of personal failure in the person. From this perspective, one can cure people but never society, which remains outside the bounds of inquiry. The individual is regarded as inferior to, and powerless in the face of, the society at large which looms over him and controls his fate. It is never explained how, if we are all dominated by 'society', society is established and directed. The implication is that society runs according to some kind of natural law and that nobody is responsible for what happens.1 And it is to this inert mass that the misguided individual is to be adjusted! Furthermore, he is to be adjusted by psychologists animated by the purpose of adjusting him to a world in which individual purposiveness is ruled out.2

Laing and his colleagues have the view that men very definitely can step outside the stream of history and alter their own actions. History is made by people; it is not an inert abstraction standing over them. Accordingly, it can be evaluated and changed. In Reason and Violence,3 which is an examination of Sartre's works between 1950 and 1960 (including his monumental Critique of Dialectical Reason),Laing and Cooper reiterate Sartre's notion of a project, which is an individual's choosing what he wants to accomplish from among the possibilities that exist under present conditions. The situation one finds oneself in is amenable to modifications in certain directions, and within this context the individual has the freedom to realize those potentialities which are important to him. The subject's project depasses the given conditions, which means that although the subject may restructure the original situation to meet his needs and desires, he continues to be influenced by the original that he is changing. The old is simultaneously surpassed and retained in the new, "The project is both negation and realization: it retains and unveils the depassed which it has negated in its very movement of depassment." (p. 52). Thus man finds himself circumscribed by various conditions, however he can act on these to change them. The human world is indeed matter and yet has a dimension which is more-than-matter. "Man is characterized above all else by the depassment of a situation because he is able to do or undo what has been done to him….We find this depassment at the root of what is human." (p. 51).

At certain times man does not attempt to mold the world to suit him but rather accepts the given and seeks to live within it even though it has not been made by him and does not express his interests. Here the dialectic between self and world appears to be broken, and the status quo dominates. The two-way relationship seems to have become one-dimensionalized. According to Laing, this is the state of western culture, and this is the nature of 'normal', everyday life. This is what Laing explores in his writings, and he relates it to what is called insanity, and to what is called sanity.


The above discussion points to the fact that inattention to the purposiveness of individuals is associated with taking the larger social context for granted, and that, conversely, recognition of the individual's initiative in making his life is associated with examining the conditions which he is depassing. For the individual and the social structure to be taken seriously, they must be seen in terms of each other. Thus, those in control of a social system -- be it the family or the larger society -- find it in their interest to de-individualize and de-humanize the other members, since the more depersonalized one is, the more impotent his projects will be and the less he will attempt to depass the status quo. This leaves the social structure intact and its control unchallenged, which the weakened members seek some sort of protection for their shrunken souls. If the 'system' is strong enough and the members weak enough, the latter will seek protection in the system itself since it is the only strength available. The system can perpetuate its control over people only if it generates so much anxiety that they come to it for relief. Laing illustrates this as follows: "A boy of three is held by his mother out of a six-story window by his neck. His mother says: 'See how much I love you.' The demonstration being that if she did not love him she would drop him." "This is an example of extreme normality. The normal way parents get their children to love them is to terrorize them, to say to them in effect: 'Because I am not dropping you, because I am not killing you, this shows that I love you, and therefore you should come for the assuagement of your terror to the person who is generating the terror that you are seeking to have assuaged.' The above mother is rather hyper-normal."4

According to Laing, the normal family is dominated by parents who, in western culture, are themselves terrorized, confused, insecure, bored, lonely, and hostile as a result of the kinds of experiences they had with their parents, their bosses, their bankers, their realtors, their teachers, their politicians, their sergeants, their merchants, their friends, etc. The normal parents are motivated to keep a tight reign on their children due to a need for security and stability, something they can be sure of and hold on to. Private life is the only area of security since interactions with the outside world are so strained. The parents' goal, consequently, is to have their children validate them in the sense of providing the strength, encouragement, and certainty that is missing in the extra-family experiences. In other terms, the parents desire the children to be just like them, to be extensions of them. Furthermore, if the children are just like them, the adults' uncertainty, anxiety and hostility will remain hidden since there will exist no foreign perspective which might conflict with theirs and call it into doubt.

The parents' need to have agreement with their definition of reality points up the fact that their conception is valid for them only to the extent that it is valid for others as well. And repudiation of the conceptualization in anyone shatters it in the parents as well. "That is to say, for each member of the family, the family is a shared group presence that exists in so far as each member of the family has it inside themselves. This helps to each member of the family requires the other members of the family to keep the same image (image, introject, internalized group structure) inside themselves, since each person's identity as a member of a family rests on a shared 'family' inside the others, who by that token, are otherwise spoken of as being in the same family. To be in the same family, means having the same 'family' inside oneself."

"The 'family' is then a structure that a parent cannot allow a child to break down within the child's own self, without feeling his own structure threatened; in other words, without feeling that he or she is being destroyed."

"This means that the preservation of the 'family' cannot be a purely private affair. The 'family' has to be felt to be preserved by all its members. Failure or refusal of one member of the family to preserve the 'family' in himself has immediate repercussions on the others whose internal family is immediately threatened, by any dissolution of damage to the internal family of someone else 'in' that 'family'. Conversely, a new aspirant for membership of the family may present an equally serious threat."5

Thus, "in actual families and in real life generally, persons attempt to act on the experience of other persons, in order to preserve their own inner worlds, just as we know that obsessionals for instance frequently arrange and rearrange the external world of objects in order to preserve their own inner worlds."6 It is the techniques used by the parents to act on the experience of their children, as well as the child's reactions to these, that Laing explores so brilliantly.

Because the parents of the normal family are confused about themselves, they frequently issue contradictory commands to the child. The problem is not only that the parents are unaware of the confusion they are generating, but also that they prevent the child from becoming aware of it. They accomplish this by subtly cancelling out one of the injunctions, which leaves the child in a position of being able to deal with only one command, and incapable of dealing with the total situation. This occurred in the case of the mother who simultaneously generated terror in her child, and assuaged it. Not admitting the first aspect, there could be communication only about the second, which meant the child was forced to ignore part of his perception. Such a situation is termed a 'double bind' because repressing a portion of one's perception leads to confusion about the nature of reality, while challenging the parents and bringing up forbidden topics of conversation (and reality) results in rejection and punishment. Thus, there is no acceptable solution. The individual is forced into blind acceptance of a paradoxical situation with no possibility of understanding it, resolving it, or escaping it. Confusion becomes the norm, and an unrecognized one at that.7

A technique that has much in common with double-binding consists of one person instructing another (non-verbally) that reality is a certain way, rather than it should be that certain way. For instance, desiring the child to see himself the way they do, the parents could order him (in various subtle ways) to view himself in that light. However, "the best is... not to tell him what to be, but to tell him what he is. Such attributions, in context, are many times more powerful than orders (or other forms of coercion or persuasion)."8 The value of this form of communication is that "if one is (this or that), it is not necessary to be told to be what one has already been 'given to understand' one is."9 If the child asks, "Why do you want me to be like that," the parents reply sweetly, "We never asked you to do that, darling." The child's perception is denied, what he sees doesn't exist. And, importantly, he is not permitted to discuss what he 'thought' he said. The victim cannot get an overview of the scene and resolve the differing notions of reality. Rather, his experience is ruled invalid and he is pressured into accepting his parents' conception as the only valid definition of reality.

It should be evident that the techniques employed to alter someone's experience are extremely well disguised. In fact, one of the rules by which experience is ruled invalid is that there are no rules. Laing describes the model for this interaction as follows. "Rule A: Don't. Rule A.1.: Rule A does not exist. Rule A.2.: Do not discuss the existence of non-existence of Rules A., A.1., or A.2."10 The parent communicates injunctions in an extraordinarily delicate manner, and then overlays this communication with an injunction that there was no injunction, and that this second injunction does not exist either.

It is almost impossible for the child to discover the rules by which he's living since these rules are the kind that "one cannot talk about without breaking the rule that one should not talk about them."11 Laing says that, "The product arrived at is the outcome of many rules. without which it would not be generated or maintained, but to admit the rules would be to admit what the rules and operations are attempting to render non-existent."12 Performing operations on our experiences in order to make them come out the way we (or they) want them to, and then denying these operations, is a common feature of normal life. Laing describes this in a blistering statement. "The 'normal' product requires that these operations are themselves denied. We like the food served up elegantly before us: we do not want to know about the animal factories, the slaughter houses and what goes on in the kitchen. Our own cities are our animal factories; families, schools, churches are the slaughter-houses of our children; colleges and other places are the kitchens. As adults in marriages and business, we eat the product."13

Breaking these rules, and the rules against seeing the rules, is met by deterrents and punishments, "But neither deterrence nor punishment can be defined as such in words since such a definition would itself be a breach of the rules against seeing the rules."

"Talking about talking about the rules about the rules about the rules about the rules, as I am doing, is just possible, if I do not push it too far, or be too direct. If I push it further, to be safe, I must become more abstract."14

One insane consequence of this deadly game is that, "In order to comply with the rules, rules have to be broken"15 since, in complying with the rules (that say there are no rules) one violates the notion that there are no rules. Furthermore, the more one obeys the rules, the less he will know what he is doing, since one of the rules he is obeying is that there are no rules. "By obeying a rule not to realize he is obeying a rule, he will deny that there is any rule he is obeying."16 Therefore, one can know about these rules only in violating them. As Laing says, "Unless we can 'see through' the rules, we can only see through them."17

In accepting the rules, the child must perform 'operations' on his experiences in order to make them congruent with the parents'; any expression of liberty or autonomy must be repressed if the parents' world-view is to be maintained. The repression takes the following form: "(a) we forget X; (b) we are unaware that there is an X that we have forgotten; (c) we are unaware that we have forgotten X; (d) and unaware that we are unaware that we have forgotten we have forgotten X. Repression is the annihilation not only from memory of, but of memory of, a part of E (experience), together with, the annihilation of the experience of the operation. It is a product of at least three operations."

"We forget something. And forget that we have forgotten it. So far as we are subsequently concerned, there is nothing we have forgotten. It is very effective."18

Repression entails annihilating that part of experience which is at odds with how oneself or another would like the experience to be. Consequently, it involves giving up what is personal, or one's own. It is renouncing one's self.19 Now, since everybody constitutes himself as the reference point around which events take place, the individual who abdicates his self (this is a continuing process which is never completely successful, as we shall see later) is losing his orientation in the world. In seeking to stabilize himself he adopts various attitudes and actions, one of which is to look to the parents for support and guidance. To the extent that this occurs, the person becomes a full and valuable member of the family; someone who has a stake in maintaining it, and who will resist its break-up. He accepts the parents' view of things, incorporates it into himself, but localizes its origin and the responsibility for its existence in them. He denies the responsibility for holding the views which he now professes. Because the parents are weak, self-less, confused individuals who have unwittingly looked to some authority for ideology, they too deny responsibility for their views and actions, frequently blaming the child for 'forcing' them to behave in certain ways. A situation obtains where everybody looks to another ('Them') in order to account for themselves.

"Now the peculiar thing about Them is that They are created only by each of us repudiating his own identity. When we have installed Them in our hearts, we are only a plurality of solitudes in which what each person has in common is his allocation to the other of the necessity for his own actions. Each person, however, as other to the other, is the other's necessity. Each denies any internal bond with the others; each person claims his own inessentiality: 'I just carried out my orders. If I had not done so, someone else would have.' …In this collection of reciprocal indifference, or reciprocal inessentiality and solitude, there appears to exist no freedom. There is conformity to a presence that is everywhere elsewhere. "20 (Emphasis added to first sentence.)

Laing related this description of the family to ethnocentric groups in general, groups which use 'the Reds', 'The Blacks', 'The Jews' as excuses for their own actions. Here, as with the family, "The invention of Them creates Us, and We may need to invent Them to reinvent Ourselves."21 Furthermore, "In the social cohesion of scandal, gossip, unavowed racial discrimination, the Other is everywhere and nowhere. The Other that governs everyone is everyone in his position, not of self, but as other. Every self, however, disavows being himself that other that he is for the Other. The Other is everyone's experience. Each person can do nothing because of the other. The other is everywhere elsewhere."22 (Emphasis added.)

It should be clear that the participants to these groups are oblivious to what is actually transpiring. Although the group is created and maintained by each one of us, we all disclaim responsibility. Because I need the group to validate me I will strive to perpetuate the manoeuvres which tie the members together rather than admit that in my position of other to other I can effect some change in him and thereby shatter the falseness of our beliefs. I will induce the others to become indebted to me as to ensure their loyalty, and I will accept the most inhuman behavior of the other members as a token of some kind of solidarity. I myself also promise to avoid penetrating beneath the myth of what is going on. Now in the midst of all this activity I am losing myself since every act is a giving up of my experience in favor of the validity of another's. However, it is an active abdication, not a passive one. This induces an entire mentality of looking to and longing for what one does not have, and despising what belongs to oneself (advertisers make great use of this psychology, as well as adding to it), while all of this passes under the guise of stabilizing myself.

In giving up part of himself to join the family (or other group), the individual is pretending that he is different from what he actually is, since he is pretending to be an extension of his parents when, in fact, he is a person in his own right.23 At some point it becomes uncomfortable to pretend this any longer, since it greatly limits one's freedom and closes one off to a variety of interesting possibilities. The typical resolution of this discomfort entails putting oneself deeper into the pretension and making it seem even more real. The child forgets "that he is pretending and becomes what he was pretending to be. He pretends he is not pretending to be pretending. Pretending that on's original pretence is real is elusion, and it consists in mistaking reality for a double pretence. "A double pretence simulates no pretence."24

After several years' practice, withdrawing (further) into imagination becomes the standard mode of coping with an alienated and mystified life. To illustrate: "Jill is married to Jack. She does not want to be married to Jack. She is frightened to leave Jack. So she stays with Jack but imagines she is not married to him. Eventually she does not feel married to Jack. So she has to imagine she is. 'I have to remind myself that he is my husband'."25

"Jill is not entirely gratified by her private phantom relationships and yet is unable sufficiently to forgo the phantom relationships to make way for the naked actual one. No 'real' relationship can be trusted not to disappoint by turning out to be false like everything else. One knows where one is with one's imagination. It does not let one down."26

To an individual striving to stabilize a floundering self, phantasy is more satisfying than reality because phantasy at least is one's own, one can be sure of it. The person who is in the process of losing himself searches for security above all I else, and because reality places demands on him, the less he confronts reality the more secure he will be. "Jill feels real sexual excitement in imaginary anticipation of real intercourse, but when it comes to the real thing she experiences once again no desire and no fulfillment." "It is an attempt to live outside time by living in a part of time, to live timelessly in the past, or in the future. The present is never realized."27

Although this retreating from reality is undertaken as a solution to confusion, it has rather the opposite effect. "The dilution of what is with what is not, in this elusive confusion, has the effect not of potentiating either but of diluting each, and entails some degree of depersonalization and derealization, only partly recognized. In this case one lives in a peculiar limbo."28 The more one withdraws from reality the less one knows what's real. Confusion cannot be attenuated through the means ordinarily employed. "In the search for something outside time, there is an enervating sense of pointlessness and hopelessness."29 Speaking about a woman who lived in phantasy, Laing writes, "Perhaps she eluded the experience of unequivocal frustration, but the price she paid was that unequivocal gratification eluded her."30

Retreating from reality includes isolating oneself from other people. Complete withdrawal, however, would leave the insecure individual extremely lonely, so he covers up his separation from others with sham contracts. This can be seen in the general culture, largely in the form of competition. Laing contends that competition is a tenuous coming together which masks the underlying estrangement of the competitors. People involved in the routine of competing with each other may feel sustained by the interaction with human beings while the personal contact is almost non-existent. "One of the most tentative forms of solidarity between us exists when we each want the same thing, but want nothing from each other. We are united, say by a common desire to get the last seat on the train, or to get the best bargain at the sale. We might gladly cut each other's throats; we may nevertheless feel a certain bond between us, a negative unity so to speak, in that each perceives the other redundant, and each person's metaperspective shows him that he is redundant for the other. Each as other-for-the-other is one-too-many. In this case, we share a desire to appropriate the same common object or objects: food, land, a social position, real or imagined, but share nothing between ourselves and do not wish to. Two men both love the same woman, two people both want the same house, two applicants both want the same job. This common object can thus both separate and unite at the same time. A key question is whether it can give itself to all, or not. How scarce is it?"31

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1 B. F. Skinner is particularly blunt about this, stating that "Behavior is not a function of a person 'stepping outside the stream of history and altering' his own actions but a function of differential reinforcement from the culture." Quoted in T. W. Wann, ed., Behaviorism and Phenomenology, Chicago, p. 102-103.
2 Laing, R. D., "The Obvious", in D. Cooper, To Free a Generation. Collier, p. 27.
3 Laing, and Cooper, D. G., Reason and Violence. London, Tavistock, 1964.
4 Laing, R. D., "Family and Individual Structure" in P. Lomas, ed.. The Predicament of the Family. International Universities Press, pp. 119-120.
5 Ibid., p. 119.
6 Laing, R. D., Self and Others. Pantheon, N.Y. 1969, pp. 125-131.
7 Laing, R. D., Politics of the Family. Toronto, CBC, 1969, p.ll.
8 Ibid., p. 11.
9 Ibid., p.4I.
10 Ibid., p. 41.
11 Ibid., p. 30.
12 Ibid., pp. 30-31.
13 Ibid., p. 35.
14 Ibid., p. 43.
15 Ibid., p. 42.
16 Ibid., p. 34.
17 Ibid., p. 28.
18 Ibid., p. 28.
19 Laing describes the family context surrounding this as follows: "We indicate to them (the children) how it is: they take up their positions in the space we define. They may then choose to become a fragment of their possibilities we indicate they are." Ibid., p. 12.
20 Laing, R. D., Politics of Experience. Pantheon, N.Y., 1967, pp. 55-56. 21. Ibid., p. 61. 22. Ibid., p. 62.
23 Sartre explores this in the section on "Bad Faith" in Being and Nothingness, and shows that one must be a subject in order to relinquish one's subjectivity to another. One must have subjectivity in order to give it up. So the very attempt to make oneself into an object is self-defeating - one is actively trying to do it.
24 Laing, R. D. Self and Others, Pantheon, N. Y., 1969, p. 30.
25 Ibid., p. 32.
26 Ibid., p. 33.
27 Ibid., p. 33.
28 Ibid., p. 34.
29 Ibid., p. 33.
30 Ibid., p. 35.
31 Laing, R. D., Politics of Experience, Pantheon, N. Y., 1967, pp. 61-62.

"The Critical Psychology of R.D. Laing"
Carl Ratner
Telos, vol. 5, 1970.

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