Laing, Ronald David

views updated May 08 2018

Ronald David Laing

Scottish existential psychiatrist who argued that insanity could be a creative and adaptive response to the world.

Ronald David Laing, or R.D., as he was invariably known, developed the theory that mental illness was an escape mechanism that allowed individuals to free themselves from intolerable circumstances. As a revolutionary thinker, he questioned the controls that were imposed on the individual by family , state, and society. Rejecting a physiological basis for diseases such as schizophrenia , Laing argued that madness was a response to insanity in the environment . A very prolific writer, during the 1960s and 1970s Laing became a hero of the counter-culture and the "New Left."

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1927, Laing was the only child of a working-class Lowland couple, D. P. M. and Amelia Laing. A precocious boy, he was physically abused by his father and he rebelled against his mother's fascist anti-Semitic outlook. Musically talented, Laing might have become a professional pianist had his father allowed it. Instead, he read his way alphabetically through his local public library. Interested in the human mind since childhood , after grammar school Laing entered Glasgow University to study medicine and psychiatry.

After earning his M.D. degree in 1951 and serving a six-month internship in neurology and neurosurgery, Laing was drafted into the British army as a psychiatrist. There he made friends among his patients rather than among his fellow servicemen. It was during this period that he began to view psychosis as a potentially positive and justifiable state. After his two years of service, Laing began working at the Gartnaval Royal Mental Hospital and teaching in the Department of Psychological Medicine at Glasgow University. There he began working on his first book, The Divided Self: A Study of Sanity and Madness, completed in 1957 but not published until 1960. In 1956, he moved to the Tavistock Clinic and the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in London, to study Freudian psychoanalysis and continue his clinical research.

Develops a radical view of schizophrenia

Laing's view of schizophrenia as an alternative way of perceiving the world created a storm of controversy. Traditional psychotherapists objected to his existentialism; but for many readers, The Divided Self expressed their own alienation from modern society. In The Self and Others: Further Studies in Sanity and Madness (1961), which he revised in 1969 as Self and Others, and in Sanity, Madness, and the Family: Families of Schizophrenics with Aaron Esterson (1964), Laing continued his examination of the origins of schizophrenia. In Inter-personal Perception (1966), with Herbert Phillipson and A. Russell Lee, Laing described his theories and research methodologies. With David G. Cooper, he coauthored a study of the untranslated work of the existentialist

Jean-Paul Sartre, Reason and Violence: A Decade of Sartre's Philosophy, 1950-1960 (1964).

Founds communities for patients and therapists

At the Langham Clinic for Psychotherapy in London, Laing practiced Jungian psychoanalysis from 1962 until 1965, when his use of psychedelic drugs, both personally and as treatments for his patients, caused controversy. "The Bird of Paradise," an extended prose poem included in his 1967 work, The Politics of Experience, was his description of a hallucinogenic experience. The book became a bestseller on college campuses. In 1965, he co-founded an egalitarian community of patients and physicians at Kingsley Hall in London's East End. Although the clinic was closed after five years, amidst rumors of outrageous behavior, offshoots continued to flourish in the London area. Laing's dream was that these communities could provide a safe haven for individuals to experience their madness and heal themselves. To this end, he founded the Philadelphia Association to support such communities. At the least, he believed that his methods were superior to the chemical and electrical shock treatments and lobotomies, which were commonly used on schizophrenics. In 1967, while continuing his private psychoanalytical practice, Laing founded the Institute of Phenomenological Studies in London.

In The Politics of the Family (1969), Laing began to apply the theory of sets and mapping used in other social sciences to the social and psychological structure of families. The work was revised in 1971. In Knots (1970), a book of poetry, he examined interpersonal relationships and communication. Following a year of meditation studies with Hindu and Buddhist masters in Ceylon and India, Laing undertook a lecture tour of U. S. colleges, raising funds for the Philadelphia Association.

Laing practiced various forms of yoga and was a vegetarian who preferred to go barefoot. He published The Facts of Life: An Essay in Feelings, Facts, and Fantasy in 1976. Laing had five children with his first wife who remained in Glasgow, and two children with his second wife, Jutta, in London. Conversations with Children, published in 1978, was a transcription of conversations between his two youngest children. He published The Voice of Experience in 1982, followed by his autobiography in 1985.

In all, Laing was the author of fifteen books, including several works of poetry. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and was on the editorial boards of the journals Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry and Existential Psychiatry. Laing died of a heart attack in St. Tropez, France, in 1989.

See also Existential psychology

Margaret Alic

Further Reading

Burston, Daniel. The Wing of Madness: The Life and Work of R. D. Laing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Cohen, David. Psychologists on Psychology. New York: Taplinger, 1977.

Collier, Andrew. R. D. Laing: The Philosophy and Politics of Psychotherapy. New York: Pantheon, 1977.

Evans, Richard I. R. D. Laing: The Man and His Ideas. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1976.

Laing, Adrian C. R. D. Laing: A Biography. Chester Springs, PA:P. Owen, 1994.

Laing, R. D. Wisdom, Madness, and Folly: The Making of a Psychiatrist. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985.

Laing, Ronald David (1927-1989)

views updated May 11 2018


Ronald David Laing, a British psychiatrist, was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on October 7, 1927. He died in St. Tropez, France, on August 23, 1989.

The only child of strictly Presbyterian Scottish parents of modest means, Laing studied classics at Hutchison's Boy's Grammar School and medicine at university. To his medical peer group in Glasgow, Laing showed himself to be an extraordinarily gifted musician, scholar, and discussant. He introduced them to Freud. In a population still heavily influenced by puritan values and respectable civic expectations, his behavioral example and the range of his mind were exhilarating. As a final year student Laing opted to become an assistant on psychiatric wards. This, together with his immediate postgraduate training for six months, led to his being graded a psychiatrist throughout two years compulsory military service. At Netley Hospital he spent hours sitting with very disturbed patients and thus found himself researching psychotic states.

Returning to Glasgow, he sought and was given facilities at Garthavel Royal Mental Hospital to set up a special nursing care unit for chronic schizophrenic women. The impressive results he obtained there were published in The Lance (Cameron, McGhie and Laing, 1955). In Glasgow he continued the original clinical observations which would underpin his book, The Divided Self. Meanwhile he read very widely in philosophy and in phenomenological and existential psychiatry. Identified by J. D. Sutherland and John Bowlby as a candidate of outstanding originality and promise, Laing was offered a full-time salaried post at the Tavistock Clinic and a training analysis in conjunction with this at no cost to himself. His analyst was Charles Rycroft, his supervisors Marion Milner and Donald Winnicott. Although his qualification as an analyst was opposed by some teachers and administrators, it was strongly supported by those training analysts just mentioned.

The publication of The Divided Self in 1960 marked an important turning point in British psychiatry largely because Laing was able to collate, digest, synthesize, and crystallize ideas that were already current or latent in continental Europe and North America. It gave a voice to madness. Laing's originality lay in his power to complete the task and in his capacity to present the ideas, which had by then become his, with clinical illustrations, in such a way that a very large number of people were persuaded (and continue to be persuaded) that he was right.

The Divided Self, subtitled An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness, was Laing's first book and is widely regarded as his finest. Along with The Politics ofExperience (1967), it brought him worldwide fame. In time, Laing's importance in the United States waned, and he never completely recovered from the public versus private identity crisis of his late thirties.

James R. Hood

See also: Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia ; Great Britain; Schizophrenia; Tavistock Clinic.


Laing, Ronald. (1960). The divided self. London: Tavistock Publications.

. (1967). The politics of experience. London: Tavistock Publications.

. (1985). Wisdom, madness, and folly. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Laing, Ronald, and Esterson, Aaron. (1964). Sanity, madness and the family. London, Tavistock Publications.