Aleksandra Vasilenko (Russia) Heidegger
It is often that I feel facing a paradox and a dead end when thinking about the future of psychology as a social institution and about the difficulty of finding an individual way out of this dead end. The problems with which Heidegger used to struggle are closely related to the problems of existential psychotherapy and psychotherapy in general.
For an organized society, the need to gain control over the essential features and behaviours of its constituent members is natural: it is necessary to ensure safety and to achieve the aims that the society puts forward. In the traditional culture, these tasks are performed by legal bodies, while on the individual level formation of an acceptable value system is performed by religious and moral systems.
In the 1900s, Freud described this interior controlling body as an integral part of each individual. The overseer is completely integrated in the person, and we can no longer say whether it has always been so and whether this state of affairs is inherent in human nature or results from a certain direction in the development of society, which was gradually accepted, creating as its by-products marginalisation and medicalisation of behaviours that were deemed undesirable at certain periods of time.
The set of notions of desirable and undesirable forms of human interaction with one’s experience is described using the notions of ethics and morality, but strengthening of ‘objective’ knowledge and science during the Enlightenment created the tendency to apply the new ‘scientific’ approach to the sphere of behavioural norms and consciousness in addition to the ethical approach. Already in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, first classifications of psychological deviations were developed. With the spread of the scientific worldview these classifications provided the basis for creating the theory of personality, providing premises for psychological theory as we know it nowadays.
When I turned to Heidegger, I viewed his initial position in the Being and Time as an invitation to abandon the quest of universal compulsory and concrete foundations for being, to abandon God and external meaning.
Heidegger seems to be asking what happens if we think of ourselves as just existing. What would happen if we separated variations of ‘primordial things’ from our lives and believed that existence itself is the beginning of everything. This premise opens up dizzying possibilities. If we apply Husserl’s mode of thinking to man, we could risk doing away with being that preceded existence. But will our existence become a new being then or not? Hopefully not.
Why is it so important for me to try doing without the being that precedes existence? The reason is that the initial being is a hard and unyielding substance, on which we can rely for meaning or for directions, yet it is inevitably endowed with certain quality by man. This being must be defined, for such is the nature of human language. When the foundation becomes draped in definitions, the person who associates himself or herself with it also gets decorated with multiple notions and definitions about himself or herself. My activity and reflection is defined by what I am. Now Heidegger says: what if I just am, and there is no primordial being? What should we do now?
Heidegger’s idea is to consider a person as the movement of Being that has no features apart from its ability to flow through a person and become defined through the person; this idea had an impact on psychiatry by putting forward the question whether it can be used to study human behaviour, without checking it against external ethics and concepts of personality and health.
Existentialists followed Heidegger in making an attempt at going from the classification of beings to the classification of existence; on the whole, they succeeded.
As it grew, the system of psychology and psychotherapy, just as any developing system, became increasingly bureaucratic and made progressive efforts at defending itself against intruders by raising the level of investments and trials necessary to become part of it. The operating systems become increasingly more complicated and ‘advanced’. Although the primary task, in theory, remains the attainment of Dasein and of the individual human being, it seems that the way to this end becomes more and more complicated, requiring ever new skills.
Psychological theories are often described as different projections highlighting different aspects of man. They are kind of philtres distilling certain features or facts about the person that are relevant to the theory in question. The task of the theory, which seeks to distinguish between the desirable and the undesirable forms of behaviour and to single out reasons for the latter, is not only to allow this behaviour to exist after it is studied but to become the property of specialists working within different social systems (science, medicine, education, politics, etc.).
However, the more different theories cataloguing isolated aspects of human life are promoted as scientific knowledge to the general audience, the more a person living among these theories faces problems in his or her life experience.
Modern psychology is a social institution, and so, striving for the quality of human life, it facilitates progressive extension of the scope of problems in individual experience. Just existence, just life is not enough, they are to be studied, standardized and compared, otherwise man and his or her individual being kind of hangs in the air without support. How can an ordinary person stand where Heidegger himself failed?
Observing how Being, created by Heidegger’s mind to counter gods, itself became a god (or engendered a god), I find it hard to decide whether this development was entirely inevitable. Is it the quality of human nature that man cannot leave without this crust, the external ethical or ‘objective’ view, or turning to this upper layer comes in response to certain challenges, which make it imperative to hold on to something, providing a kind of conditional response, akin to the biological one.
The desire to reach out to Being or to pure experience of man highlights the need to use something as a foundation for this contact.
Those who consider the practice of medicalisation and problematisation of individual experience as annihilating the idea for which the practice was applied in the first place, go against the very same ‘progress’ against which Heidegger had to fight. He fought before becoming the head of the movement he defeated and the prophet of his own new God.
This dead end does not really interfere with our practice, yet I hope it might be possible to find a way out without being resigned to the inevitability of this development.