There is a sharp distinction between what might be called “philosophical existentialism” on the one hand, and “existential psychoanalysis” or “therapeutic existentialism” on the other. The former is a surprisingly specific and narrow reaction to the German idealism of the 18th century. The latter is a method of psychological analysis.
A. Philosophical Existentialism
1. Absolute Idealism
The philosopher Hegel postulated the existence of an “absolute mind” or “spirit” (“Geist”). It is difficult to say exactly what Geist is, or what the relationship is between Geist and individual minds. It lacks any discernible referent, so I have trouble defining it properly, much less say whether it’s convincing. Here are some analogies I’ve thought up, as an attempt:
(1) It is like a transcendent God, i.e. one beyond the purview of immediate sensory experience. This isn’t quite right, however, because it evolves during the course of history as a result of purposeful interactions between humans. Although teleological, it isn’t divinely interposed.
(2) It is the Greek concept of “Logos,” or the principle of a systematic and well-ordered universe, which perfuses human knowledge.
(3) It expresses itself in nature and reveals itself in everything that is, gradually becoming apparent or manifesting itself, as it undergoes these developmental changes. Think the James Cameron movie “Avatar.” If this is so, then it is a form of pantheism (the reverse of #1).
(4) It is like Jung’s concept of the “collective unconscious,” which somehow is an aspect of each individual’s personal unconscious, as well.
(5) It is an innate idea, somewhat akin to the common syntactical structures Chomsky hypothesizes are essential to language formation.
(6) It is like a cultural “meme” (Richard Dawkins) that transmits from one person’s mind to another, eventually finding its way into culture.
(7) It is like Robert Stolorow’s concept of “intersubjectivity,” where isolated subjects interact to create a world of shared experience.
(8) It is like John Searle’s concept of the “background” and “collective intentionality,” which results in the creation of shared conventions and social structures.
(9) It is like Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of “habitus,” which is how one situates oneself in society.
(10) Since Geist reveals itself in everything that exists, it is a form of pure “Being,” rather than the “being” of specific individuals. According to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, “Being” is what it is for any particular thing “to be,” all the way from rocks (which have an impaired and relatively disinteresting form of being), to people. Yet, because only they are conscious, only people can take a stance about the nature of Being, and their relationship to it.
(11) It is like functionalism, a 20th century view initially espoused by Hilary Putnam, to the effect that mind consists solely of stimulus inputs, an apparatus for processing them, and behavioral outputs. In principle the apparatus could be any binary system, for example, a subset of the entire population of China raising their hands at a given time, as a simulation of a synapse reaching threshold potential and firing to create neural activity; it then might be said that the entire population of China comprises a type of conscious organism.
2. Reaction against Absolute Idealism
Difficulties like these (though primarily #1) led philosophers (initially, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard) to reject Hegel’s formulation of Geist (and, in particular, the interpretation of Geist as a transcendental God). An idealist perspective doesn’t take into account the subjective experience of individuals, or the dynamics and exigencies of their personal lives. A coherent concept of “self” or “personal identity” can’t be defined in relationship to some trans-spatial, trans-temporal construct. Rather, it comprises individual acts of meaning-conferring activity, which are irreducibly subjective. These occur in a kind of closed-loop system. One is born into a certain set of real-world circumstances (race, gender, SES, etc.). Culture and society impose roles and conventions. Because one is mortal, one inevitably will demise. These and other factors constrain the scope of one’s possibilities. Existentialism therefore is a reaction against idealism and, specifically, Christianity. For Kierkegaard, this leads to a facture point between contingency and necessity. In order to give one’s life structure, and for it to be meaningful, one must pretend that contingent things (e.g. one’s love for another person) are necessary and will endure, even though they clearly aren’t, and won’t.
The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre adopted Kierkegaard’s perspective in the 20th century. For Sartre, even as it is constrained by circumstance, human action occurs within a zone of freedom. Given this, the most important qualitative feature of how one acts is “authenticity,” which is being true to ones’ self, recognizing the boundary conditions, and maximizing possibilities within them. Failure to do so is to capitulate to social roles, what others think, and to abdicate one’s freedom of choice – what Sartre called mauvaise foi, or bad faith. Even so, one cannot help but fail to be impressed by the impassible gulf between the seemingly-trivial project of human existence and the vastness of the world, and everything beyond it. This leads to the feeling of what Sartre called angst. Angst can be a form of alienation that results when contemplating all of these possibilities, or a form of insecurity that results when confronting them and not knowing which (or how) to choose.
B. Existential Psychoanalysis
It is not hard to see how Sartre in particular would lead to a method of psychological analysis. Somehow the following questions (among others) must be addressed: (1) As a practical matter, what are the circumstances that constrain one’s freedom of choice? (2) What is the nature of the “self” one must try to “be true” to? (3) What are the criteria for “authentic” actions, and how can one go about performing them? (4) How can one avoid falling into bad faith? (5) What is the nature of existence, and what does it mean for one “to exist” in one’s particular milieu?
These types of issues resulted in the existential psychoanalysis movement and, on a broader scale, the “human potential” movement of the 1960s – 1970s. Personally speaking, I am a connoisseur of the human potential movement and its colorful history, with places like Esalen, be-ins and love-ins, and characters like Fritz Perls, William Schutz, Paul Goodman, Erich Fromm and R.D. Laing. However, I think it now is outmoded and best understood as an almost-quaint residue of its time and place. It would be difficult and impractical to find somebody today who billed himself or herself as an “existential therapist.” As with “Jungian therapy,” what exactly does that mean, from an operational standpoint? Like psychoanalysis in general, existential therapy has outlived its useful life cycle, particularly with the explosion of pop culture, the media, and the advent of modern technology such as the Internet.
There is a scenario under which it still might be useful, particularly considering the issues it addresses haven’t gone away and aren’t likely to, anytime soon. However for some reason it has morphed into new-agey therapies such as “mindfulness,” espoused by Jon Kabat-Zinn, David Abram, Marsha Linehan, and any number of others. For a variety of reasons I am highly skeptical of these, but that’s another topic.