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My Way to Existential Psychoanalysis

By Michael Guy Thompson


There has been considerable attention paid to the formulation of theory throughout the history of psychoanalysis and many of the arguments waged pertain to the presumed correctness of one theory over the other. Perhaps this is why there is an uncommon proliferation of theoretical formulations that seem so convoluted that they remind one of the age-old argument as to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin! The most prevalent arguments today concern advances that are said to have been made in the way that analysts are treating their patients and the theoretical underpinning that justify their techniques. Admittedly, I have been less than successful over the course of my professional career — going back some thirty-five years or so, first in London and more recently in San Francisco — with couching my views in such a fashion as to fit into one psychoanalytic school or other.

Though one’s penchant for theory can be gratifying as an end in itself, it has been my observation that theories have never played a significant role in the formulation of what psychoanalysts or psychotherapists actually do. Moreover, their tendency to generalize from the particular assumes a universality that strikes me as fundamentally foreign to the clinical situation. Practitioners learn from experience, and what they in turn derive from their experience are principles that guide them in their clinical activity. This means that principles have priority over theories because theories are derived from the experiences that principles presuppose. How are the two interrelated?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary a theory is a conception or mental scheme of something to be done, or of the method of doing it. It is also a systematic statement of rules or principles to be followed, or a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed, as distinct from the practice of it. Finally, a theory is a hypothesis that is proposed as an explanation, a mere hypothesis, speculation, conjecture. You can see from this list of definitions that theories derive from principles that, in turn, serve as the source from which a theory may be formulated. Moreover, a theory, strictly speaking, is “merely conjecture, speculation, hypothesis,” it is neither the data (in this case, one’s experience) on which one’s views are founded nor is it the basis on which one’s knowledge is conceived. If an analyst doesn’t derive his theory from experience then he is obliged to borrow from the experiences of others. His clinical formulations are like castles in the air, pretty to look at but without a foundation. In contrast, a principle is depicted as a beginning, source, and foundation, that from which something originates or derives, or the ultimate basis for the existence of something. It can also be understood as a fundamental truth or proposition on which other propositions depend. In other words, principles are fundamental to what may ultimately become theoretical formulations, or they may serve as ends in themselves, depending on how wedded to theory the practitioner happens to be.

Put another way, a principle is the origin of what we know. In the context of psychoanalysis, principles and technique are necessarily interdependent because the one relies on the other for the development and articulation of each. A hundred years ago Freud’s experience as a clinician gave rise to principles of technique from which his theoretical formulations were derived. Yet there is no necessary relationship between the theories Freud formulated and the principles upon which they are founded. This is what is both maddening and unique about psychoanalysis. It does not especially lend itself to theory because it pertains to experiences, both those of analysts and their patients, that are unpredictable, unrepeatable, and where the unconscious is concerned, unfathomable. Freud had no theories when he began his career and he was tinkering with them until the day he died.

What he never wavered from, however, were the principles upon which his clinical work and the theories he derived from them were based. These principles have changed little in the century that has followed since their conception. The history of psychoanalysis may be characterized as a Babel of tongues (theories) that have endeavored (to a considerable degree, unsuccessfully) to make sense of what experience tells us. What are these principles and what is the source of their power?

Let’s begin with the fundamental rule of psychoanalysis, the pledge to be honest as articulated by Freud and, with modifications, remains so today. My method is to examine these technical principles and their tributaries phenomenologically, which is to say, from the analyst’s lived experience, by exploring their internal consistency as they emerge from a clinical context. This is the basis of my conception of an existentially based approach to psychoanalysis. Let me explain what I take phenomenology to mean and how I employ this term in my work.

Whereas the term, phenomenology, is invoked in a common sense sort of way with increasing frequency in the psychoanalytic literature, the way I conceive it is rooted in the philosophical discipline that was initiated by Edmund Husserl and subsequently modified by Martin Heidegger. Typically taken to mean that which pertains to the person’s experience, phenomenology is a discipline that arose around the same time Freud was formulating his treatment philosophy. Its method is devoted to subverting the over-conceptualization of human existence with which the modern era is identified by bracketing theoretical explanations and returning us, in our naiveté, to the ground of our native experience. According to Edie (1962),

Phenomenology is neither a science of objects nor a science of the subject; it is a science of experience. It does not concentrate exclusively on either the objects of experience or on the subject of experience, but on the point of contact where being and consciousness meet. It is, therefore, a study of consciousness as intentional, as directed towards objects, as living in an intentionally constituted world [i.e., one founded on intersubjectivity]. (p. 19) 

Phenomenological inquiry differs from conventional scientific investigation in that science is not concerned with nor is it able to study experience; its manner of investigation is directed instead to objects of perception, the nature of which is said to exist independently of the person who conducts the investigation and whose reality is presumed to exist independently of the investigator. This is why science is unable to account for the experience of the person who engages in research because the person’s experience is (alleged to be) separated from and, consequently, inaccessible to the object of scientific investigation, no matter what the object may be, whether material, conceptual, imaginary, or interpersonal.

Diametrically opposed to this standard of investigation, phenomenology seeks to examine the nature of the world as experienced, whatever the object of inquiry may be, including one’s self, one’s thoughts, and one’s experience of others. In other words, instead of applying a theory that presumes to account for what is happening “in” the patient one is treating, the phenomenologist goes directly to the person himself, by examining his experience of his relationship with this person. This is not a matter of speculation but of determining the ground of experience at the moment it is transformed through the interhuman bond shared with others.

Following Husserl’s call to return to “the things themselves,” a generation of phenomenologists, including Martin Heidegger, Max Scheler, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricoeur, and Immanuel Levinas set out to investigate their experience of the world in a radically different manner than the one to which scientists or philosophers were accustomed. According to Safranski (1998), Husserl and his followers

[W]ere on the lookout for a new way of letting the things approach them, without covering them up with what they already knew. Reality should be given an opportunity to “show” itself. That which showed itself, and the way it showed itself, was called “the phenomenon” by the phenomenologists. (p. 72)

Ironically, phenomenology resists definition because, like experience itself, its method is antithetical to theoretical and causal explanation. Its point of departure is its rejection of the conceptualizing tendencies of the hard, human, and even social sciences. In the preface to his Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty (1964) suggested that phenomenology is necessarily difficult to define because it,

[R]emains faithful to its nature by never knowing where it is going. The unfinished nature of phenomenology and the inchoative atmosphere that has surrounded it are not to be taken as a sign of failure; they were inevitable because phenomenology’s task was to reveal the mystery of the world and of reason. (p. xxi)

Phenomenology shares with psychoanalysis the view that explanation is inadequate to the task of understanding what is given to experience and shares with psychoanalytic treatment the task of determining the nature of suffering in a manner that does not objectify or categorize the sufferer. In other words, instead of posing the scientific question of what causes one to be this way or that, the phenomenologist asks, “What does it mean that I experience the world this way or that?” Once the meaning-question is substituted for that of causation one enters the realm of phenomenology, because in raising this question one accepts the inherent mystery of our existence, the puzzle of which has never been solved and is not likely to be. This feature of phenomenology (that the object of experience can never be decisively separated from the subject who experiences it) is both intentional and intersubjective, because my experience of the other person must remain unremittingly mine, with all its attendant ambiguity and baggage.

In recent years a so-called paradigm-shift is said to have shaken the foundations of psychoanalysis and altered its course. I refer to the emergence in the American psychoanalytic community of the relational and intersubjective perspectives that posture their views as advances over Freud’s technical formulations. It is claimed that a two-person psychology is distinct from a one-person paradigm and a relational perspective can be distinguished from a biological one. I perceive these developments as essentially theoretical in nature and so offer nothing novel or original in the way of technical innovation, despite claims to the contrary. In as much as this model is depicted as a departure from the classical drive perspective, I perceive in Freud’s technical formulations a sensibility that faithfully approximates a phenomenological orientation, even when his theories contradict his clinical intuition.

Approached from this angle, psychoanalysis is already phenomenological — which is to say, personal — in its latency because it has always favored interpretation over explanation, and because it relies on the experience of the patient to guide the treatment, not what the psychoanalyst presumes to know. Yet despite the phenomenological nature of psychoanalytic inquiry, there has always been a tendency among analysts — beginning with Freud — to extrapolate theories from experience (or from the theoretical constructs of others) that presume to explain what we are unable to see with our eyes. Whereas the phenomenologist resists engaging in speculation as a matter of course, psychoanalysts often thrive on it, in effect wanting it both ways: to offer, in one breath, interpretations that try to deepen the patient’s experience, while in the next offering explanations for what is supposed to have “caused” the patient to be the way that he is. In contrast, the phenomenologist admits from the beginning of his inquiries that he does not know where he is going and does not need to. This is why the phenomenologist’s perspective is skeptical instead of theoretical, because it is rooted in a philosophy of perpetual inquiry, one that is surprisingly compatible with Freud’s technical principles. I would even argue that Freud’s principles of technique make little sense outside of a phenomenological context. 

It is my thesis that the fundamental pivot around which the psychoanalytic experience revolves is the self-disclosure that each patient affects through the act of free association. It may be surprising to note that after a century of debate and discussion, there is still no universal agreement as to what free association is, and whether it is indispensable to the therapeutic experience or superfluous. I believe that free association is not only ubiquitous to therapy (even for those practitioners who reject this principle), but that our understanding of what it entails turns on a fundamental premise that has been systematically omitted from the psychoanalytic literature since Freud introduced it: the explicit (or implicit) promise to conceal nothing from one’s therapist. I am referring to the pledge to be as honest or candid as one is capable of being throughout the duration of therapy. In a word, the pledge to be as authentic as one can be. 

If the therapeutic experience may be characterized as one of lifting the veil from what we typically conceal, even from ourselves, then the practice of psychoanalysis is an inherently dangerous proposition. If we are to place ourselves at risk with what we are about to discover about ourselves — the analyst as well as the patient — then it behooves us to proceed with a measure of caution. It is one thing to say this and another to put it in effect, to be wedded to it. Since the inception of psychoanalysis Freud took pains to harness the potential for inflicting harm on one’s patients by formalizing a set of constraints that were conceived as rules, or recommendations, to follow. Between 1905 and 1915 he crafted a series of technical recommendations that were paradoxically intended to restrain psychoanalysts from the temptation of doing too much (therapeutic ambition) for their patients, while protecting themselves and their patients from the risks unavoidably encountered in this enigmatic treatment method. Instead of providing instructions about the do’s and don’t’s of the analytic experience, Freud offered nothing more palpable than a set of first principles that merely assigned the respective roles that analyst and patient should play. Although some have complained about the paucity of instructions Freud offered, most therapists today have come to appreciate from their clinical experience the limits of what practitioners can be told what to do, no matter how many years of instruction or supervision they accrue. If anything, therapy students today are over-trained. Their work is scrutinized, supervised, and evaluated by others who, try as they may, cannot possibly know what it is like to be in the room with the person the student is treating. Freud did not write a manual on how to conduct therapy because he concluded that everything of a positive (i.e., active) nature should be left to tact and the analyst’s own judgment, whereas the principles themselves should remain, like a moral fable, of a cautionary nature. In this sense, Freud’s technical recommendations are nothing less than ethical precepts, because their purpose was to formulate a working terminology with which the analyst’s experience could be articulated and communicated to colleagues. This is why the Hippocratic counsel, “do no harm,” remains the paramount consideration, not the utilitarian goal of success by any measure.

Ultimately, therapists must come to terms with these principles in their own way and interpret them to the best of their ability. Yet, a typical, contemporary study of psychoanalytic technique leaves little to chance and less to the imagination, written as though it should be obvious what should — indeed, must — be done, when, and to what degree. The principles themselves are now so diluted that analysts no longer know what to make of them, let alone how to adapt them to their necessarily idiosyncratic situation. This account, however, is not an historical nature but a practical one, for my purpose is to show that psychoanalysis has not, as some insist, “progressed” over the course of the last century but, on the contrary, has lost something in the interim: I am referring to its edge.

It is my impression that psychoanalysis, like an old codger, is dying, and analysts have no one to blame but themselves. I know I am not alone in this, though I suspect this assessment will shock those who do not appreciate the gravity of the situation. American culture has turned against it, and who can blame them? In parts of Europe and South America psychoanalysis is on the cutting edge, because it still has an edge that cuts. This was always its intention, Freud’s intention, to cut, wound, elicit bleeding, if not blood then call it passion, suffering, angst. The best patient was the one whose back is against the wall, ready to take a leap over the precipice, given the chance to become who he is. Only a fool could be expected to endure what would follow. It was no, as Frieda Fromm-Reichmann suggested, bed of roses. The dreadful, as Heidegger observed, has already happened. Like Freud, I believe you must swallow the poison and pay the price if you seriously expect to change. 

Yet there was a time when psychoanalysis flourished in this country when elsewhere it just managed to hang on. In Europe psychoanalysis was the pet of the intelligentsia, where it became existentialized, while in America it became medicalized and its doctors got fat with grand promises and unrealistic expectations. In America psychoanalysis has rarely been concerned, as it is in Europe, with the problem of human existence — la condition humain — that speaks to the enduring fact of our suffering and the elusive promise of liberation. Instead, its goal has become one of relieving that old saw, mental illness, diagnosable, to be sure, whose anticipated cure holds the hope that one eventually will recover, if you wait long enough. Following this model, debates have accrued around the collective myth that one can separate the good analysts from the bad, the well trained from the incompetent, the well suited from the incorrigible. By what criteria are we expected to distinguish the one from the other? Who is to serve as the judge?

It seems to me, I know this is heresy, that all the progress psychotherapy has made since Freud’s death has amounted to little, if any, improvement in our understanding of the human condition. In the last half-century or so, we have cultivated, developed, and perfected the life out of it. Its edge has dulled, a consequence of what is left of a social acceptance that fuels what remains of its diminishing popularity. There is an irony here, an anomaly between talk about its “improved” methods on the one hand and the repression of its edge on the other. Many seem to have forgot that it was Freud, in symmetry with the existentialists, who introduced us to our dark side, which is just as authentic as the face we perceive in the mirror. Is it more ethical to conceal our dark side and, thus, “protect” others from ourselves, or to be what we authentically are and go to bed with a clear conscience? This is a fundamentally ethical question, not a psychological one. It was Freud who introduced the principles of morality, character, ethics, into the fabric of psychoanalysis and inaugurated in its wake a novel conception of honesty, becoming the greatest moral essayist since Montaigne (Harold Bloom). 

Psychoanalysis has always been and is even today about truth, about disclosing what we dare about ourselves to another person. In fact, it is concerned with no other question. Not the truth of science or jurisprudence, but the truth (even the law) of the jungle, and of the price we invariably pay when we suppress it. This is why psychoanalysis was always supposed to be radical from the start, because it championed the act of lifting the veil and giving voice to what lurks beneath our protestations to the contrary. Despite all the talk about the parameters of effective treatment methodology, or the emergence of cutting edge theories into practice, we are still, a century after trying, more or less at sea with the patients we encounter each day. We are still, no matter how much we protest to the contrary, no matter how many years of experience we have accrued, flying by the seat of our pants. There is nothing wrong with this because that was always as it should be, as in looking through a glass darkly. How effective, skilled, or adept any of us are or may eventually become as practitioners is just as difficult or impossible to assess today as it was a century ago, no matter how much supervision, oversight, or scrutiny we are subjected to. All that we have to go on, as a beacon in the darkness ahead, are what we had in our discipline’s infancy: a set of first principles that, if sufficiently elastic, guide us in that necessarily isolated, unremittingly lonely, universe of the treatment situation.  

My work over the past thirty-five years has been devoted to showing how the essential, albeit unpopular, features of psychoanalysis are in danger of being forgotten, overlooked, and suppressed by successive generations of therapists who, ironically, have the most invested in its survival. In this endeavor I hope to counter the common wisdom that characterizes psychoanalysis as the epitome of what is erroneously depicted as aloof and disengaged, whose real purpose bears little, if any, relation to so-called analytic orthodoxy. 

The context of therapeutic work and its objectives are and always will be the problem of what a human being suffers and what, if anything, the relationship between two people can do about it. With these observations in mind, I hope I have succeeded in depicting what existential psychoanalysis is by speaking to its essential latency. By returning to the thing of psychotherapy itself, the what and wherefore from whence it came, I hope you are able to take a small step toward reclaiming the possibility of enjoying your own experience with it, as it moves around, within, and potentially between us.

March 22, 2014



Edie J. (1962) Introduction. In Thevanaz, P., What is phenomenology? And other essays. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1962.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964) Phenomenology of perception. (trans. Colin Smith) London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Safranski (1998) Martin Heidegger: Between good and evil. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.