Published in Ipnosis, 15 (Autumn), 2004, pp. 23-5, 29

Ipnosis, c/o The Alexander Group

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Review Article: Therapy and Postmodernist Thought

Part I: Martin Heidegger’s Relevance to Therapy and Traumatic Experience

Reviewed by Richard House


Patrick Bracken, Trauma: Culture, Meaning and Philosophy, Whurr Publishers, London, 2002, ISBN 1 86156 280 2, 258+xi pp, price (paperback) £21.00

Hans W. Cohn, Heidegger and the Roots of Existential Therapy, Continuum, London, 2002, ISBN 0 8264 5573 5 (hardback), 0 8264 5509 3 (paperback), 138+xxii pp, price £16.99 (paperback)


‘No event can be objectively described as traumatic.’

Patrick Bracken

…‘[In Heidegger’a analysis], stress is not seen… as the physical response to a mental injury, but as the existential response to a demand of Being… It is not a pathological event as such.’

Hans W. Cohn


Seldom if ever in the history of philosophy has a philosopher attracted such extreme assessments as has Martin Heidegger – from, on the one hand, being regarded by some commentators (e.g. Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty) as perhaps the greatest philosopher of the last century to, at the other extreme, Oxford philosopher A.J. Ayer’s (in)famously contemptuous dismissal of Heidegger as ‘a charlatan’. Heidegger is certainly widely regarded as ‘the most complex and obscure of all philosophers’ (Watts, 2001: xi); and this, added to his potentially revolutionary challenges to the very foundations of ‘modernity’ and conventional Western thought, perhaps explains why his work has not, to date, had nearly the influence upon the therapy world that it undoubtedly merits.

For this reason alone, these two recently published books by Hans Cohn and Patrick Bracken are especially welcome. Not that Heidegger was completely untouched by the world of psychoanalysis and psychiatry – for in the post-war years, later on in his academic career, he became involved as a tutor and consultant to a project directed by Swiss psychiatrist Medard Boss, which led to the establishment of one of the first schools of existential psychotherapy, Daseinanalysis – being the first attempt, according to Cohn (p. xviii), to develop a form of therapy with existential foundations. Much of this path-breaking work emerged in the vital but, until recently, little considered Zollikon Seminars (lasting from 1959-69), in which Heidegger lectured to trainee and professional psychotherapists on the implications of his own philosophy for therapy practice.

These key seminars had not been published in English translation before Cohn’s and Bracken’s books were written, though both authors do helpfully manage to quote the seminars in their respective books, and at some length. As well as being of direct relevance to the concerns of (existential) psychotherapy, these seminars are especially useful in rendering the sometimes near-impenetrable arguments of Heidegger’s earlier magnum opus, Being and Time (1927), far more understandable and transparent to fellow philosopher and lay reader alike. The recent and greatly welcome publication (Heidegger, 2001) of an English translation of Heidegger’s Zollikon Seminars is of considerable importance in bringing Heidegger’s therapy-relevant thinking to the attention of an English-speaking readership.

Heidegger and the Roots of Existential Therapy (Cohn)

Hans Cohn explores the role of Heidegger’s thought in providing an alternative, existential-phenomenological basis to the dominant psychodynamic, humanistic and cognitive approaches to therapy. In his Introduction, Cohn refers to how Heidegger’s ideas have been ‘strangely neglected’ by the psychotherapy world – a lacuna which he aims to rectify with his book. In Chapter 1, Cohn is at pains to emphasise just how divergent Heidegger’s philosophy is from mainstream Western thinking, just how easy it is to underestimate the extent of that divergence, and how his thinking has the potential to revolutionise therapy practice. Chapter 2, ‘Heidegger’s way to psychotherapy’, usefully describes how Heidegger’s central philosophical concepts (Being, Dasein, existence and ‘existentials’) have relevance for psychotherapy praxis, with some interesting biographical details about his differences with Ludwig Binswanger, and the way in which Medard Boss approached him prior to the historic Zollikon Seminars. The seminars covered a wide range of themes, including the body/mind question, Descartes and natural science, and the subject/object question (p. 15). We also read about Heidegger’s highly controversial involvement with Nazism – his public silence about which, though ‘very nearly intolerable’ to such an intellectual luminary as George Steiner, is lightened somewhat by the revelation that Heidegger expressed profound shame about his Nazi involvement in private letters written to Karl Jaspers in 1950 (p. 21).

Each of the following ten chapters focuses on a central theme from Heidegger’s oeuvre – namely, Being-in-the-World, Being-with, language, body-mind, ‘attunement’, temporality, the priority of phenomena, Being and beings, authenticity, and thrownness and choice; and at the end of each of these thematic chapters, Cohn has a very useful ‘Therapeutic Relevance’ section in which the practical therapeutic implications of Heidegger’s ideas vis-à-vis the theme under consideration are clearly set out.

I will highlight just a few of the more interesting features that impressed this reviewer. First, some of the more striking implications of Heidegger’s therapy-relevant ideas are described as follows:

Ten ‘aspects of existential practice’, as they ‘flow from a Heideggerian view of the human experience of Being’ (p. 115), are also usefully summarised on pages 116-24.

This stimulating list gives a really good flavour of the wealth of therapeutic wisdom that Cohn derives from Heidegger’s ideas. We also read, inter alia, about the formidable difficulty involved in translating Heidegger’s terms into English (pp. 59, 85-6; see below); Cohn’s convincing problematising of the Winnicottian ‘true/false self’ dichotomy (pp. 91-2); the key importance of context, and of maintaining a careful, subtle balance between person and world (pp. 110, 127); and about Cohn’s principled reluctance to offer case-history material for fear of misleadingly wrenching the client’s story from its unique living context (p. 126).

All in all, the radicalism and revolutionising potential of Heidegger’s thought for therapy practice comes through loud and clear in Cohn’s book – indeed, it can hardly be exaggerated: for as Howard has dramatically put it elsewhere, ‘If Heidegger is right, then the most basic common-sense assumptions within counselling – about self, world, interaction and communication – must be abandoned’ (Howard, 2000: 327, emphasis added) – and the relevance of Heidegger’s thought to therapy is ‘overwhelming’ (ibid.: 331). Cohn has certainly performed a vitally important service in beginning to articulate with admirable clarity and insight the nature of these revolutionising effects for the practice of therapy, and just what is at stake if we seriously and consistently dare to embrace Heideggerian thought.

Trauma: Culture, Meaning and Philosophy (Bracken)

In the other book under consideration, Trauma, Patrick Bracken offers us a wonderfully impressive Heideggerian critique of conventional thinking about traumatic experience (which every- and anyone involved in its ‘treatment’ would greatly benefit from reading) – together with a healing alternative that posits a new socio-cultural framework for helping traumatised communities and individuals that is centred on, and deeply respectful of, local communities and their cultural specificity, as opposed to an approach which uncritically assumes the universality of what is a limited and limiting Eurocentric ‘individualised’ form of ‘treatment’.

It is heartening indeed to find thinking such as this coming out of psychiatry (Bracken is a Foucault-influenced Consultant Psychiatrist based at Bradford University, who has established an inner-city home treatment service for the severely mentally disturbed and has pioneered new approaches to user/provider partnerships, as well as working with Ugandan victims of violence). For Bracken, Heidegger’s thought affords a framework for a viable, more appropriate approach to trauma treatment, privileging as it does an interpersonal and socio-cultural rather than an intra-psychic and individual orientation. Along with colleague Phil Thomas, Bracken has pioneered an exciting ‘Postpsychiatry’ which ‘de-centres the tools of traditional psychiatry and instead foregrounds questions of values, social contexts and… personal meanings’ (p. viii; see also pp. 223-7).

With specific regard to trauma, Bracken’s own concerns are well summed up in a quotation from Kirby Farrell (cited on p. 3), who sees ‘trauma’ as ‘a strategic fiction that a complex, stressful society is using to account for a world that seems threateningly out of control’. In other words, Bracken is concerned not only with individual experiences of traumatic experience and their explanation and treatment, but with the rapid growth of the notion of ‘trauma’ within modern culture, its historical specificity and the function it serves within that culture, and the way in which the cultural legitimacy of the concept itself feeds into contemporary subjectivity. Unsurprisingly, Bracken is highly sceptical about an approach which simplistically medicalises and objectifies traumatic experience, and wants instead to strive for a far more subtle socio-cultural understanding which questions the uncritical assumption of the universal, trans-cultural validity of trauma discourse. This entails an explicit and humble recognition that different cultures have very different approaches to, and subjective experiences of, these phenomena. More specifically, in his work in Uganda Bracken ‘became increasingly dissatisfied with Western psychiatric models of distress and suffering…, being too individualistic and "mentalistic"…, [and paying] little attention to the importance of social context, economics and culture’ (p. 5). Bracken’s central target, then, is the Cartesianism and crass positivism of modernity (referred to elsewhere in this review) in so far as they dominate the culturally ascendant ‘trauma discourse’ pervading Western clinical consciousness (and which many Western professionals have quite inappropriately attempted to export wholesale into non-Western cultural contexts).

It is quite impossible to do justice to this wonderful book in this brief review. Quite apart from the (to this reviewer) refreshing critical perspectives on modern conventional psychiatry and its associated ‘medicalisation’ of distress, there are a number of major chapters which explicitly embrace Heideggerian thinking in a way that seamlessly complements Cohn’s more general text, showing as it does the rich potential that exists for applying Heidegger’s world-view to a specific clinical issue – namely, trauma discourse. Along the way, we see information-processing and cognitive understandings of trauma, along with the clinical category of so-called ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ (PTSD), subjected to a quite withering and, to me, wholly convincing critique of their manifold shortcomings (e.g. pp. 63-81).

Section II of the book consists of four ‘Heideggerian’ chapters under the collective title ‘A phenomenological approach to meaning and loss’ (80pp in all), with chapters on Heidegger’s account of human reality; a Heideggerian approach to psychology and psychotherapy; meaning, anxiety and ontology; and authenticity. Most if not all of the themes discussed in Cohn’s book are also addressed by Bracken, but in an applied context which is quite invaluable both in terms of opening up the issue of ‘trauma’ to a deeper understanding, and also in illustrating how, in principle, Heidegger’s insights into Being and existence have a profound practical relevance that are easily translated into clinical-practice contexts in general.

A central aspect of Bracken’s discussion is the thorough and insightful way in which he systematically lays bare the erroneous assumptions of modernity and its cultural handmaidens, positivistic scientism and technologism (not least within conventional psychiatry). For example, he revealingly deconstructs the uncritically assumed causal mechanisms of ‘PTSD’, showing that far from traumatic events necessarily causing resultant symptoms, it is at least as plausible to reverse the causality and see the focus on the traumatic event in question as being the result, and not the cause of, other psychiatric symptoms like depression and anxiety (p. 205). The book brims over with thought-provoking deconstructive moves like this, making it a refreshingly invigorating read for this reviewer.

Bracken’s lucid discussion of postmodern ethics is worth dwelling on for a moment (pp. 196-202 passim) – both to give the reader a flavour of Bracken’s text, and also because his discussion has profound implications for the therapy industry’s institutional pursuit of ethical behaviour via centralised (modernist) ethical codes. For as he points out (following Zygmunt Bauman), ‘the modernist search for codification, universality and foundations in the area of ethics was actually destructive of the moral impulse’ (p. 197, emphasis added), with modernity being animated by the misguidedly naïve belief that non-contradictory, non-ambivalent ethical codes were not only possible but desirable. Indeed, Bracken maintains, ‘the modernist and rationalist attempt to render our moral issues in simple dichotomies of good and bad, right and wrong has had disastrous consequences…, [and] the search for ever more efficient therapies and codes of behaviour is part of the problem and can be expected to generate new forms of oppression and suffering’ (p. 202). Modernist ethics, then, is driven by the ‘impulse to order and control the world, to make it – and us – function more efficiently and predictably’ (ibid.). Yet as Howard elsewhere so eloquently puts it (following Heidegger), ‘The idea that we get more control over out affairs by consciously revisiting, discussing and analysing everything we do is absurd’ (Howard, 2000: 333) – control-freaks everywhere, please note!…

A rationalist modernity, then, simply cannot neatly legislate away ‘the immense ambivalence at the heart of our ethical situation as human beings’ (pp. 202-3), however hard it might try to do so. Postmodern ethics, on the other hand, does not prematurely shut down possibility or negate difference; and it creates a space wherein doing nothing, or holding back, can be the most morally appropriate of responses – an example of ‘morality without ethics’, as Bauman calls it. Postmodern ethics also involves, inter alia, ‘facing the world without easy recourse to guiding codes or principles’, and ‘an acceptance of ambivalence and disorder [that] are here to stay, not just temporary difficulties that need to be overcome by further analysis, or the application of ever more structured ethical systems'’(p. 203). Steven White’s notion of ‘responsibility to otherness’ is also usefully invoked by Bracken here – involving ‘a concern not to impose order on the world but instead to allow the emergence of other voices and visions even when this involves increasing complexity and ambivalence’ (p. 199). The relevance of such a perspective in helping to illuminate the nature of ‘best moral practice’ in relation to engaging with trauma in non-Western cultures should be clear (and would that this kind of thinking were having some purchase on the calamitous unfolding of events in Iraq).

To my mind Bracken has made a wholly convincing case for the profound relevance of Heideggerian hermeneutics to everything therapeutic – including his own chosen theme, the ‘trauma industry’; and, taken together, these two books by Bracken and Cohn make a compelling case for a root-and-branch re-conceptualisation of the very nature of therapy praxis, which any progressively minded practitioner would be ill-advised to ignore.

Commentary: Heidegger and the Evolution of Human Consciousness

To this reviewer, what is of overriding importance in all this is the relevance of Heidegger’s thinking to the evolution of human consciousness. It is surely very revealing that the thinking of a number of key therapist-writers has tended to move increasingly towards a quasi-mystical, spiritual world-view in their later years – W.R Bion, Carl Jung, Ronnie Laing and Carl Rogers immediately come to mind. Certainly, Heidegger and other ‘postmodern’ thinkers have demonstrated - to my mind quite conclusively - the fundamental incoherence of the Cartesian dualism that still dominates Western ‘modernity’ (with its mind/body, reason/emotion, subject/object splitting), and the crass positivism of vast swathes of the modern scientific enterprise and its one-sidedly materialistic world-view.

As a number of commentators, including Heidegger, have pointed out, the Cartesian ontology has thorough-goingly infiltrated our everyday awareness, language and very ways of thinking about ourselves (which infiltration needs itself to be accounted for, of course). Commonly, for example, we often unwittingly still think and talk in a Cartesian way at the very moment when we are attempting to argue for post-Cartesianism! Here is Hans Cohn, for example: ‘The very moment we ask a question about the relation between body and mind, we have already entered the dualistic trap’ (p. 51). On this view, then, we must begin by raising to conscious awareness just how thoroughly immersed we all are in dualistic Cartesianism, before we can begin to know how to transcend it. What is surely required, then, is a decisive evolutionary shift in Being such that we, as a species, can transcend the limiting straight-jacket of Cartesianism and materialism and all that accompanies the world-view of modernity.

These are, of course, grand(iose) themes that, nonetheless, must needs be addressed if humankind is to mature through and beyond its current dire predicaments. A new post-Cartesian, post-materialistic way of experiencing and, therefore, thinking about human Being is arguably essential, therefore, and Heidegger’s work makes a crucial, specifically philosophical contribution to preparing the ground for this urgent evolutionary shift to occur. As von Eckartsberg (1998: 11) has put it, we can begin to avoid the trap of Cartesian dualism ‘if we conceive of our existence completely in relational and field theoretical terms as a field of openness into which things and the world appear and reveal themselves in a dynamic way…. Persons are not selves separated from [the world]…; rather, they are personal involvements in a complex totality network of interdependent ongoing relationships that demand… participation’.

Heidegger’s own philosophical style is actually designed to help break the pattern of thinking that leads us to take Being for granted, and to help us question the meaning of Being – which he did by constructing a new way of thinking about Being, not least because, for him, existing language was shorn of meaning and quite incapable of addressing existence in an adequate way (Watts, 2001: 13). Heidegger also recognised that Being’s essence is never fully sayable in language – and for him, poetry was the deepest revelation of what is, in its disclosing of the essence of ordinary things that usually go unnoticed. He therefore went on to develop a language of metaphor unique to him, attaching new meanings to simple everyday words (ibid.: 71-2). It is no surprise, then, that Heidegger is commonly regarded as having engaged more deeply than any other philosopher with the influence that language exerts on human thought.

A further possibility is provided by Heidegger’s own Zen-like recommendation (cf. Watts, 2001: Chapter 7) of a shift from what he calls the control and domination-oriented ‘calculative reasoning’ mode of modernity and technologism, to a more meditative, reflective thinking mode, sometimes rendered as ‘Gelassenheit’ – a ‘letting-be’, ‘without why’ kind of thinking which allows things to ‘rise up out of concealment’ (Caputo, 1998: 229). Heidegger was deeply concerned that humankind is becoming so totally captivated and beguiled by technologism and means/ends rationality that, ultimately, calculative thinking ‘will come to be accepted and practised as the only way of thinking’ – and that meditative thinking can serve to rescue our loss of the sense of Being’s mystery and enchantedness.

Such a movement away from control-fixated calculative thinking depends, in turn, on a resolute preparedness to face basic existential-ontological questions, not least anxiety in the face of our own mortality; and it necessitates a maturing beyond ‘victimhood consciousness’ and towards a full acknowledgement of one’s self as illuminator and creator of one’s world. Certainly, it is no coincidence that, through his anti-technologism, Heidegger ‘demonstrated a remarkable ecological awareness’ (Watts, 2001: x) many years ahead of his time, which led him strongly to challenge the abuse of planetary resources and to prophesy the coming planetary-ecological crisis.

Any practitioner looking for a conducive, manageable way into the profound challenges of Heidegger’s thought could do no better than to read these two excellent books. The celebrated philosopher of deconstruction and student of Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, wrote that ‘Heidegger’s texts harbour a future of meaning which will ensure that they are read and reread for centuries.’ And in the specific context of counselling, we find Howard writing that ‘Much of what he said deserves to be taken forward. He is not widely enough known. He will, I hope, reach way beyond the time of many brighter celebrities who will, much sooner, be forgotten.’ Cohn and Bracken certainly make a major contribution to taking Heidegger’s potent counter-cultural ideas out into a therapy world that is arguably in desperate need of new, radicalising thinking lest it be overtaken by a kind of self-satisfied complacency. And these texts also open up the possibility that therapy itself could conceivably begin to take a key role in contributing towards, rather than being just one more Cartesian fetter upon, the urgently needed evolution of human consciousness.


References and Further Reading

Caputo, J.D. (1998) ‘Heidegger’, in S. Critchley & W.R. Schroeder (eds), A Companion to Continental Philosophy, Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 223-33

Guignon, C. (2000) ‘Authenticity and integrity: a Heideggerian perspective’, in P. Young-Eisendrath & M.E. Miller (eds), The Psychology of Mature Spirituality: Integrity, Wisdom, Transcendence, Routledge, London, pp. 62-74

Heidegger, M. (2001) Zollikow Seminars: Protocols, Conversations, Letters, ed. M. Boss (trans. F. Mayr & R. Askay), Northwestern University Press, Illinois (German original, 1987)

Howard, A. (2000) ‘Martin Heidegger’, in his Philosophy for Counselling and Psychotherapy: Pythagoras to Postmodernism, Macmillan, London, pp. 327-40

Mills, J. (2003) ‘A phenomenology of becoming: reflections on authenticity’, in R. Frie (ed.),Understanding Experience: Psychotherapy and Postmodernism, Routledge, London, pp. 116-36

Sass, L. A. (1988) ‘Humanism, hermeneutics, and the concept of the human subject’, in S.B. Messer, L.A. Sass & R.L. Woolfolk (eds), Hermeneutics and Psychological Theory, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, pp. 222-71

von Eckartsberg, R. (1998) ‘Introducing existential-phenomenological psychology’, in R. Valle (ed.), Phenomenological Inquiry in Psychology: Existential and Transpersonal Dimensions, Plenum Press, New York, pp. 1-20

Watts, M. (2001) Heidegger: A Beginner’s Guide, Hodder and Stoughton, London


Part II of this review article will consider the books: Levinas, the Frankfurt School and Psychoanalysis by C. Fred Alford; Understanding Experience: Psychotherapy and Postmodernism, edited by Roger Frie; Post-modernism for Psychotherapists: A Critical Reader by Del Lowenthal and Robert Snell; and Slavoj Zizek: A Critical Introduction by Ian Parker.