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What is Existential Psychoanalysis?1

By Michael Guy Thompson, PhD


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 manner with which analysts are treating their patients and the theoretical underpinning with which their techniques are justified. Admittedly, I have been less than successful over the course of my professional career — going back some thirty 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. The distinctions currently employed between, for example, drive theory and the relational perspective, or one-person versus two-person psychology, or the nuance that is said to distinguish even further the relational perspective from the interpersonal one, or even the plea for a three-element psychology that advocates the presence of an analytic third, have left me skeptical as to how necessary or even relevant these matters are to the treatment experience in which every analyst dwells.

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 analysts (or psychotherapists) actually do. Moreover, their tendency to generalize from the particular assumes a universality that is 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. In other words, a principle has priority over theory 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.

One 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. Further, a theory 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. Finally, it is the fundamental assumption forming the basis of a chain of reasoning. 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 analyst (or practitioner) may be.

1From The Ethic of Honesty: The Fundamental Rule of Psychoanalysis. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi.

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