existential philosophy in a nutshell
approach and philosophy
Existential philosophy is interested in how human beings live and make sense of
their lives given the limitations of what it is to be human.
Existential psychotherapy is underpinned by existential thinking.
Existential philosophy or existentialism, unlike more
intellectual philosophies, is a practical philosophy and is best
understood by the experience of living it. It follows on, therefore,
that existential psychotherapy cannot be a systematised model of working,
because it prizes individual experience which is different for each of us; so the therapy is better called an “existential
‘dimension’ in therapy” (Kovel, 1991).
has existential philosophy got to do with psychotherapy?
The way we live our lives inevitably reflects
our response to the conditions of life .
Some of these conditions befall
us seemingly by chance, such as being born in a
particular place, era, social setting, race, culture, into a
language, in a body, with or without family or siblings, into a wealthy or poor
family and so on. And life itself is so fragile:
we have only to pick up a newspaper or turn on the television to be reminded of
illness, violent acts of nature, extraordinary accidents, warfare and famine.
Chance events could suddenly affect our lives and those of people around us
And from the time we are born,
we have a
limited life span to make meanings and values and find some purpose for
ourselves in our lives. The choices each of us makes, no matter what our
circumstances, reflect our philosophy: we all live according to a
philosophy. You could even say that saying you have no philosophy is a
philosophical statement of sorts.
One of the principal
existential questions and one which is addressed in the therapy is "How can I understand and make something meaningful of my life
that reflects a truth for me knowing that ultimately I cannot control the world
around me, and in the awareness that time is always ticking away?" While this question is unlikely to be asked
explicitly, it is always implicit in the attitude of of our explorations so that
you can understand better and appraise your lived philosophy.
what is phenomenology?
In broad terms, the interest of phenomenology is to get to "the things
themselves", to look at how things actually appear to or are experienced by us.
In therapy, this
means we try to get to how you really experience, see and make sense of
the world. That is why you are the expert of your life, because only you can
know what it's like to be you in the world. In therapy, working with
this assumption, you are invited to open up and look at your lived experience afresh.
In our conversations, it is likely that you will identify some assumptions and biases
whose impact you were not fully aware of. And when we look carefully, you
might find that some assumptions you hold do not actually stand up to your own scrutiny,
might even be unhelpful to you; to counterbalance that, and equally important in
our explorations, you may also surface some central values that do reveal rich
seams of meaning in your life.
An example of a
value that might not be helpful to you in a day-to-day life could be that you think it is
very important to be clever and to be seen to be clever; you might even
feel bad or worthless, when you make a mistake. Another example is that you
think the only correct and good way to be is to have nice thoughts about
other people, so when you feel angry or less generous towards others, you
feel guilty and bad about yourself. As with any dilemmas or concerns you bring,
the focus in the explorations would be the truth of these values for you.
Our conversations might
reveal some strong influences that you have adopted and taken for granted and we
might discover that when you question the validity of these judgments and
are more generous to yourself, you feel freer and are able to respond much more openly and creatively
in life. Gaining more perspective might allow you to see how these values have
aspects which can and, perhaps already do, influence your life in a positive way
phenomenology is simply to try to see everything for what it is. I think of it
as trying to get a 360° and inside-out and back-to-front view of things.
It can be very interesting and sometimes surprising work.
isn't existentialism all about being
selfish and talking about death?
Absolutely not. This is a(n unfair?) stereotype of students in Paris in the 60s,
where Jean Paul Sartre was a great hero. In actual fact, existentialism is
concerned with human existence, and the fact that we were born at
all and will die is an implicit part of life itself.
For existentialism to be considered part of a ME, ME, ME culture, is a
lamentable misunderstanding. We each experience ourselves and make sense of the
world within a shared realm of being human, we live a a with-world. The theme of
sharing humanity with others (and, paradoxically, being utterly unique) is bound with another equally important theme of responsibility.
doesn't everything human have an existential
I think so.
does this mean you spout philosophy all the
Not at all.
In the belief that it is a lived philosophy, there is a great ordinariness about
this way of working which celebrates the non-intellectual and the
I have described how I work on the home page and elaborated on it on my
page about counselling and psychotherapy. For more information, please get it
touch. I am always happy to answer your questions.
who are the key existential thinkers?
is often called the father of existentialism. And later, Friedrich
Nietzsche, also challenged some fundamental questions about truth and
existence. Their ideas synthesised with some of the phenomenological
writings of Edmund Husserl influenced some central existential thinkers such as
Martin Heidegger, Jean Paul Sartre, Merleau-Ponty. Many other philosophers
and philosophical therapeutic workers are considered to be existential or have
strong existential leanings: Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, Karl Jaspers, Medard
Boss, Ludwig Binswanger, R D Laing, Emmy van Deurzen, Ernesto Spinelli are names
you might recognise.
where can I find out more about this
"what in the world is existential psychotherapy?" by
George Boering's Website
Cohn, H (1997) Existential Thought and Therapeutic Practice
van Deurzen, E (1997) Everyday Mysteries, London (Routledge)
Kovel, J (1991) A Complete Guide to Therapy.
Warnock, M (1970) Existentialism. Oxford University