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Family, Phenomenology and Schizophrenia in R.D. Laing1

Abstract ·

This paper 1) examines Laing's critique of the neuro-biological model of schizophrenia, and 2) explicates the roots and ramifications of his "social phenomenology" as a method for the study of schizophrenia in Sanity, Madness and the Family. It attempts to show some of the inherent strengths, limitations and ambiguities in Laing's methodology as regards organicist metaphors of "family pathology" and the status of psychoanalytic theory in phenomenological research. Finally, it poses the question: why has Laing's work on families and schizophrenia been so neglected of late?

Family therapy is a relatively new specialization in the mental health field. Though it has attracted some philosophically educated minds over the years, none achieved more fame or notoriety than R.D. Laing. Yet oddly enough, Laing never wrote a single word about the actual practice of family therapy. And when Richard Simon drew attention to this fact in an interview for The Family Therapy Networker, Laing said he did not want other therapists making their careers and reputations pedaling diluted and distorted versions of his ideas -- particularly in socialist or social democratic countries, where family therapy might be compulsory, and where failure to follow a therapist's directives could lead to state enforced sanctions of various kinds (Laing, in Simon, 1983).

Laing needn't have worried, because family therapy never really caught on in Europe. But the reason he was so vehement on this point was that in 1983, when this interview occurred, Laing's work was still frequently associated with Leftist critiques of the family. For example, in 1980, in Critical Theory of the Family, Mark Poster commended Laing for offering an alternative to the psychoanalytic theories of Nathan Ackerman, Theodor Lidz and the more recent (and more popular) structural and systemic approaches. Poster said that despite their disparate methods, these approaches all foster conformity and support of the status quo. Though too mystical for his taste of late, said Poster, Laing's early work offered a viable way out of the family straitjacket (Poster, 1980, chapter 5).

Poster's appraisal was fairly representative for that particular period of history. Though Laing never mentioned Poster by name, he probably would have, eventually, had Poster not linked Laing's work with that of his erstwhile colleague, David Cooper. In the fall of 1967, Laing became deeply disenchanted with Cooper's handling of The Dialectics of Liberation Conference, and he deplored Cooper's second book, The Death of the Family, published in 1971. By his own admission, Laing never dissociated himself from Cooper in an open or vigorous fashion, and because of the extensive collaboration between them spanning the years 1963 to 1967, when Laing vaulted to fame, the lines of cleavage between Cooper and he, while crystal clear to Laing, were murky to outsiders. And with good reason, too. Look at The Politics of The Experience, published in the spring of1967. Laing talked about families in two sections of this book. Chapter three, entitled "The Mystification of Experience", was the chief source of difficulty. There he characterized the average family to a "mutual protection racket", whose function is

to repress Eros; to induce a false consciousness of security; to deny death by avoiding life; to cut off promote respect, conformity, obedience...(and) respect for "respectability" (p. 55).

While he rattled on against the family, Laing also attacked Theodor Lidz, who saw the primary function of the family as facilitating the process of adaptation. "Adaptation to what?" asked Laing indignantly. "To society? To a world gone mad?"

Despite his shrill tone, Laing was making a valid point. You cannot be for adaptation to prevailing social norms and be value-neutral at the same time, as Theodor Lidz claimed to be. Granted, the spurious notion that you can be both "value neutral" and supportive of the status quo was a commonplace delusion among social scientists in the 1960's. Lidz was certainly not alone. Even so, the fact remains that disavowing one's bias is not real science, but pseudo-objectivity masquerading as the real thing. That said, Laing's antinomian view of adaptation, in which we trade security and pseudo-sanity for authenticity, while less disingenuous, is also problematic, and does not always hold up under deeper scrutiny. From a Darwinian standpoint, adaptation per se is neither good nor bad. It is a purely neutral and a-moral process. It is not "progressive" or "positive". It just is what it is. From an ethical or psychological standpoint, adaptation is actually an ambiguous notion, denoting transformations which may enhance or diminish our humanity, depending on circumstances. Before we reach any conclusions on this score, we must always specify what we are adapting to, and how we are adapting to it, before we can determine whether "adaptation" is good or bad for our mental health. Absent these clear specifications, debates about adaptation in the abstract rapidly degenerate into ideological rants of one sort or another.

Unfortunately, chapter 3 of The Politics of Experience lacked this kind of clarity and specificity, by linking his denunciation of "adaptation" to a jeremiad against the family, Laing won momentary acclaim, while contributing greatly to his posthumous neglect. Fortunately, chapter five of The Politics of Experience was less polemical, and a lot more pertinent to our purposes. Here Laing gave a brief overview of research on the families of schizophrenics, which emphasized his affinities with Erving Goffman (Goffman, 1961) and Gregory Bateson (Bateson et al., 1968). The key similarity , he noted, is a strategic shift from traditional attempts to pinpoint the locus of "pathology" within the brain -- or the unconscious -- of the identified patient, and to see the patient's psychological disturbance (and its neurophysiological correlates) as symptomatic of disturbances within the family -- disturbances which place the identified patient in an unlivable or "checkmate" situation s/he cannot understand, tolerate or change. When the raw, disturbing truth of their situation begins to dawn on patient's, said Laing, their desperate attempts to formulate or act on their intuitions disturb others profoundly, eliciting gestures of invalidation to silence them.

One of the challenges in psychotherapy research has been finding ways to investigate not just the outcomes of therapy but the process whereby those outcomes are achieved. This challenge is becoming increasingly pressing as the need to demonstrate the effectiveness of therapeutic approaches has increased with the growth, and what some see as the encroachment, of managed care. This special issue of Methods contains a set of papers that, both individually and collectively, illustrate one approach to the study of therapeutic process. It is a hermeneutic approach, employing an interpretive methodology. This approach focuses on what people do: on the phenomena of human action and interaction. Such action is, we presume, situated in its character, practical before it is theoretical, organized by ongoing tacit concerns rather than reflective plans, negotiated and improvisatory, and open to historical and cultural contingencies.

In broad terms our hermeneutic approach seeks to uncover and elucidate the ontological work that people accomplish in their everyday practical activity, including the interchange that takes place in therapy. This work includes the ongoing construction and reconstruction of social reality, and especially the production and reproduction of persons. Much of this work is done by means of (through the medium of) language, and so our interpretive methodology incorporates the analysis of language pragmatics: the conversational actions that make up discourse.

Page 1.. 2.. 3.. 4.

"Families, Phenomenology & Schizophrenia in
R.D.Laing", Nov. 3, 1998.
Center for the Philosophy of Science
817 Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh

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