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Existential Psychoanalysis


"Existential psychoanalysis" is a trend in psychology and psychiatry best understood as a reaction against the theoretical and philosophical presuppositions of the psychologies based on natural science in general and of Freudian psychology in particular. The phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and the existentialism of Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Martin Buber, rather than the mechanistic worldview of natural science, are seen by existential psychoanalysts as providing the proper philosophical and methodological route to a more complete understanding of man. In its original form, therefore, existentialist psychoanalysis was not a countermovement to Freudian psychoanalysis, unlike Jungian or Adlerian psychoanalysis, for example. Its criticism always focused on the philosophical theory of man implicit in Sigmund Freud's work, and it offered itself as a philosophical complement to Freud. The main burden of its criticism is that a full understanding of the patient's experience and world is impeded if the patient is approached on terms derived from the hypotheses of natural science rather than on his own specifically human terms.

The pioneer of existential psychoanalysis, Ludwig Binswanger, sought to describe the experiential world of his patients with the help of the conceptual scheme of Heidegger's ontology of man's being. However, his work contained few major differences from Freud in therapeutic technique. Indeed, another existential analyst, Medard Boss, has claimed that existential analysis "enables psychotherapists to understand the meaning of Freud's recommendations for psychoanalytic treatment better than does his own theory" (Psychoanalysis and Daseinsanalysis, p. 237). The implication is, of course, that a fuller understanding of the patient will result in more efficacious treatment, but that the methods of treatment will not differ fundamentally from Freud's. The result is to separate Freud's dealings with his patients from the mechanistic scientific constructs by which he sought to explain psychic functioning.

However, those persons in the United States who call themselves or who are called existential psychoanalysts are a very heterogeneous group. Perhaps the most significant change in the United States is that existential psychoanalysis is seen by many practitioners as a substitute for Freudian psychoanalysis. The phenomenological method of describing and hence understanding the patient's world is looked upon as itself a therapeutic measure, something far from the minds of the movement's originators. Certain notions of Sartre or Buber concerning the existential encounter between human beings are taken as replacements for the classical analyst-patient relationship. On this point, Binswanger had simply argued that the full human meaning of the doctor-patient relationship be realized in therapy; he did not seek to eliminate the classical relationship. The result of these changes has been that almost any therapy that departs from the general Freudian mold is called existentialistparticularly those which place emphasis on unusual therapeutic intervention and those which reject the scientific element in psychoanalysis, for good and bad reasons. It is therefore essential to understand the philosophical core of the original movement.

The Subject-Object Split

The shortcomings attributed to psychoanalysis emanate from the scientific tradition in which psychology has sought to place itself. Natural science since Galileo Galilei can be understood as a mode of approaching the world in which one aspect of the phenomenal world, the aspect of pure corporeality, is given the privileged position of basic substance, of primitive, irreducible fact. The notion of pure corporeality as the reality to which all phenomena are to be reduced is the concomitant of a dictate that the perceiver remove himself as much as possible from the world in the attempt to gain knowledge of that which is perceived. The roots of this dictate lie in the philosophy of René Descartes, which isolates the realm of consciousness from that of the body and the perceived world. Thus, the concept of pure corporeality is the product of a methodological dictate: Keep the self out of its world as it investigates its world.

This famous Cartesian sundering of the world into two isolated regions, res cogitans (the thinking substance, the world of consciousness, purpose, telos, will, quality) and res extensa (the world of pure extended matter, undifferentiated, quantitative), has been attacked by phenomenologists and existentialists as the most disastrous event in four centuries of Western thought. Nevertheless, this subject-object split had the immeasurable value of disciplining a new kind of human self-awareness, in the air since the Renaissance: man's awareness of his self-sufficiency and his urge to master nature, or the universe, which had revealed itself as a radical other. The split furthered man's alienation from his world, but at the same time it gave him, in the methods and the objective attitude of natural science, the means to bridge the separation in action if not in philosophical comprehension.

But psychology, the most recent child of this attitude, is in a strained position. On the one hand it seeks to be objective, to take its place as one of the natural sciences along with biology, physics, and chemistry. On the other hand it seeks to study that which science since Descartes and Galileo has demanded be ruled out of the field of investigationthe soul, psyche, consciousness. Psychology is thus faced with the apparently self-contradictory task of investigating consciousness as part of the realm of the res extensa, although the res extensa is that which exists independently of consciousness. To investigate consciousness scientifically, psychology must eliminate from consciousness its essential element. Freud's doctrine of the unconscious can be conceived of as an attempt to overcome this contradiction by viewing the essence of consciousness as that which lies in the realm of res extensa. His success is due to the fact that his scientific psychology, unlike others, does not reduce the experienced meanings in the field of consciousness to a level below the level of meaning. In Freudian psychology, meanings are reduced not to physiology or to objectively perceptible spatiotemporal processes, but to another kind of meaning, instinctual meaning.

All explanation involves the reduction of that which is explained to something taken as more basic. The ever-present danger is that that to which the phenomena are reduced may become so alien to the phenomena that there is no returning to them without circularly invoking previous knowledge. Freudian psychoanalysis seems to avoid this danger by focusing on a basic reality, instinctual meaning, which is not totally alien to the phenomena to be explained.


Existential philosophy denies the subject-object split that defines the whole attitude of natural science. The mind, consciousness, is not a strange and unprecedented thing whose workings are somewhat more puzzling than those of its neighboring objects, the things of this world. Nor is it, as Descartes held, a distant spectator, alien and sufficient unto itself, moving like a ghost on Earth. For existential philosophy, the problem of how the mind reaches over to the object is a pseudo problem that results from the gratuitous and erroneous presupposition that consciousness can be understood independently, apart from that which it intends or is conscious of. Mind, or consciousness, is to be defined as simply this intentionality, this reference-to. Consciousness is not viewed as something that intends an object; consciousness is the intention.

Existentialist-phenomenological psychology maintains, therefore, that the phenomena with which psychoanalysis is concerned are intentional acts, conscious phenomena, not the nonintentional, nonreferring phenomena of the world of objects. Whereas other psychologies, in emulating science, stripped consciousness of that very quality that constitutes its essence, namely intentionality, the minimum level of reduction in psychoanalysis is an intentional actinstinct, a psychic act that intends pleasure.

However, the implications of the definition of consciousness as intentionality militate against the psychoanalytic notion of the unconscious. If consciousness is always consciousness of something, then what appears to consciousness is all of consciousness; there cannot, by definition, be an intentional act below the level of consciousness. To speak of "unconscious" acts is therefore a contradiction if the intentionality of these acts is to be preserved. If intentionality is not to be preserved, there is no contradiction; but then, of course, psychoanalysis would slip below the acceptable level of reduction. Thus Freud, according to existential philosophy, did not avoid the contradiction of placing the res cogitans in the res extensa, however brilliantly and extensively he refined his definitions of instinctual meaning.


The issue of intentionality springs directly from the work of Husserl, the founder of phenomenology. Husserl, as a pure phenomenologist, did not seek to discover anything about the natural world. He was concerned purely and simply with ascertaining the essence of phenomena as they appear to consciousness. The question whether these phenomena correspond to the natural and real world he left to the explanatory disciplines of philosophy and science. Relations to the real human self he left to psychology. His student Heidegger, however, was interested in that oldest of philosophical questions, the nature of Being. For Heidegger, the essential structure of human being turns out to be an extension of the concept of intentionality. Just as consciousness is defined as consciousness-of, human being is characterized by Heidegger as being-in-the-world. The hyphens are deliberate; they represent an effort to undercut the subject-object split. Just as consciousness is not a separate entity that subsequently relates to objects, so man is not a separate being who then encounters his world. Rather, he is essentially in-the-world, he is his disclosure of world.

One essential that differentiates this basically human mode of being from that of the objectively known world is, for Heidegger, the element of possibility. The essence of man is always his possibilities, which he "has" in a more inclusive sense than the way an object has properties. An account of the factual content of an object can never express the essence of man, because that essence has yet to be his being as his own. Human time and space differ from "objective" time and space in that they are essentially related to man's determination of himself and his world. The essence of man, for Heidegger, is his appropriation of his essence, his making it his own. Thus the categories that describe human being are not qualities, but matrices within which qualities are to be appropriated.

We have noted how psychoanalysis seeks to place the res cogitans, or intentionality, into the res extensa, or sphere of pure corporeality. Existentialists object to the way in which psychoanalytic theory attempts to give man an essence in the way that an object has an essence. For psychoanalysis instinct, or libido, constitutes a residue that is taken a priori as the irreducible limit of investigation. Man has instinct as an object has its essence. It is not to the credit of psychoanalysis that this instinct is an intentionality of a sort; the existentialists maintain that the whole notion of intentionality is perverted when one particular class of intentional acts is singled out a priori as the basis of all classes. The meaning of psychic acts, intentions, is to be arrived at on their own terms, phenomenologically; they are not to be given meaning, as are the objects of natural science. Since, for the existentialists, human existence precedes essence, the task of an existential psychoanalysis must be, in Sartre's words, to uncover in each individual "a veritable irreducible; that is, an irreducible which would not be presented as the postulate of the psychologist and the result of his refusal or his incapacity to go further. This demand is based on the refusal to consider man as capable of being analyzed and reduced to original givens, to determined desires (or 'drives'), supported by the subject as properties [are] by an object" (Being and Nothingness, pp. 560561). The task of existential psychoanalysis is to apprehend the essence of each individual's life and world. If existence precedes essence, the analyst must apprehend the matrix within which essence is yet to be determined in each individual. Sartre calls this matrix the original choice or original project; Binswanger calls it the transcendental category that is the individual's mode of being-in-the-world.

Thus the critique of Freudian theory offered by existential psychoanalysis differs from that of the various revisionists in that it questions the theoretical root of all major movements in contemporary psychology; the assumption that the study of man can be wholly a natural science, that the notion of homo natura (man as a creature of nature) most fully expresses the essence of human being. The practical implications for psychiatry involve, among other things, wresting the concepts of mental health and illness away from analogies with purely somatic medicine, and thereby redefining the overall goal of any psychotherapy.

See also Being; Binswanger, Ludwig; Buber, Martin; Cartesianism; Consciousness; Existentialism; Freud, Sigmund; Heidegger, Martin; Husserl, Edmund; Psychoanalysis; Psychoanalytic Theories, Logical Status of; Sartre, Jean-Paul.



Binswanger, Ludwig. Ausgewahlte Vorträge und Aufsätze. 2 vols. Bern: Francke, 19471955.

Binswanger, Ludwig. Ausgewählte Werke in vier Bänden. Heidelberg: R. Asanger Verlag, 2004.

Binswanger, Ludwig. Drei Formen missglückten Daseins. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1956.

Binswanger, Ludwig. Traum und Existenz (with an introduction by M. Foucault). Bern: Gachnang & Springer Verlag, 1992.

Binswanger, Ludwig. Grundformen und Erkenntnis menschlichen Daseins. Zürich: Niehans, 1942; 2nd ed., 1953.

Binswanger, Ludwig. Schizophrenie. Pfullingen, 1957.

Boss, Medard. The Analysis of Dreams. Translated by A. J. Pomerans. New York: Philosophical Library, 1958.

Boss, Medard. Existential Foundations of Medicine and Psychology. New York and London: Jason Aronson, 1979.

Boss, Medard. Grundriss der Medizin: Ansze zu einer phänomenologischen Physiologie, Psychologie, Pathologie, Therapie und zu einer daseinsgemässen Präventiv-Medizin in der modernen Industrie-Gesellschaft. Bern: Benteli, 1971.

Boss, Medard. Meaning and Content of Sexual Perversions. Translated by L. L. Abell. New York: Grune and Stratton, 1959.

Boss, Medard. Psychoanalyse und Daseinsanalytik. Bern: Huber, 1957. Translated by Ludwig B. Lefebre as Psychoanalysis and Daseinsanalysis. New York: Basic, 1963.

Cohn, I. Existential Thought and Therapeutic Practice. London: Sage, 1997.

Cohn, I. Heidegger and the Roots of Existential Theory. London: Continuum, 2002.

Fromm, Erich. The Art of Loving. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

Keen, E. A Primer in Phenomenological Psychology. New York: Holt, Reinhart & Winston, 1975.

May, Rollo. The Courage to Create. New York: Bantam, 1984.

May, Rollo. The Discovery of Being. New York: W. W. Norton, 1983.

May, Rollo, Ernest Angel, and Henri F. Ellenberger, eds. Existence. New York: Basic, 1958. Translations of important works by Binswanger, Erwin Straus, Minkowski, V. E. von Gebsattel, and Kuhn.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phénomenologie de la perception. Paris: Gallimard, 1945. Translated by Colin Smith as Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge, 1962.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Esquisse d'une théorie des émotions. Paris: Hermann, 1939. Translated by B. Frechtman as The Emotions. New York: Philosophical Library, 1948.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. L'être et le néant. Paris: Gallimard, 1943. Translated by Hazel Barnes as Being and Nothingness. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. L'imaginaire: Psychologic phénomenologique de l'imagination. Paris, 1940. Translated by B. Frechtman as The Psychology of the Imagination. New York, 1948.

Speigelberg, H. Phenomenology in Psychology and Psychiatry. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1992.

Straus, Erwin. The Primary World. Translated by Jacob Needleman. New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1963.

Valle R. J., and M. King, eds. Existential-phenomenological Alternatives for Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

van Deurzen, Emmy. Everyday MysteriesExistential Dimensions of Psychotherapy. London: Routledge 1997.

Yalom, I. Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books, 1980.

A helpful annotated bibliography is available at

critical studies

Lyons, Joseph. Psychological Reports, Monograph Supplement 5. 1959. Extensive bibliography of works in English.

Needleman, Jacob. Being-in-the-World. New York: Basic, 1963. The first half is a comparative and interpretive study of Binswanger and Freud.

Sonnemann, Ulrich. Existence and Therapy. New York: Grune and Stratton, 1954. A searching presentation, in a difficult prose style, of the issues and their relevance to the several schools of psychology. Bibliography.

Van den Berg, J. H. The Phenomenological Approach to Psychiatry. Springfield, IL: Thomas, 1955. A simple, clear, and quite elementary introduction.

Jacob Needleman (1967)

Bibliography updated by Thomas Nenon (2005)

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