What is Binswanger’s existential analysis? This is a summary of this psychological proposal.
Psychology is a science that, in the mid-19th century, embraced positivism as the only reference for the development of its body of knowledge. That is, it adopted as its own the model of natural and exact disciplines, as well as its high claim to rigor.
However, with the passing of time, there were many authors who considered that the object of study of Psychology had a particularity that differentiated it from such subjects: whoever observes is, at the same time, what is observed (subject and object fusion) . Thus, the study of the human being is carried out by another human being; so it is very difficult to remove it from its basic experiential dimension and understand it as an alien, immutable, predictable, categorizable and objective object.
This consideration gave rise to constructivist and phenomenological thinking, which emphasized the relevance of Psychiatry and Psychology as instruments to access being “in oneself”. In this context , Binswanger’s existential analysis would be born .
Binswanger’s existential analysis
Binswanger’s existential analysis arises from the Psychiatry of the 19th and 20th centuries, in a historical parenthesis during which multiple theoretical models coexisted both for this branch of knowledge and for Psychology itself (from Wilhelm Wundt’s introspection to the behavioral models or the incipient renaissance of cognition and emotion as dimensions of human experience susceptible of analysis), and part of a phenomenological vision of knowledge.
Phenomenology makes a direct allusion to experience, as it is lived by the subject who observes it and who is part of it. It is based on constructive consciousness, which transforms the objects in which it is deposited to give them a unique content for each individual, which supposes the confluence of being and existing in a whole that is postulated as the highest source of knowledge about the human fact (holism).
In the following pages we expose some of the most important elements that emerge from the very extensive work of Ludwig Binswanger, dwelling on his theoretical influences and his proposals, often reactive to the biologicist and empirical rigor that the science of his time monopolized.
1. Openness to philosophy
Binswanger was a close friend of Sigmund Freud and together with Carl Jung he wrote his doctoral thesis. In this sense, he was a psychiatrist whose academic training followed a traditional line, based on the elementary precepts of psychoanalysis. Therefore, he had a broad knowledge of this theoretical framework, being also a pioneer in transferring such teachings to Switzerland in the first half of the 20th century.
However, he ended up feeling disappointed by the excessively biologic and pansexual orientation of Psychoanalysis itself, and would seek refuge in the Philosophy of his time. In this way he would know the phenomenological paradigm of the human being, which he would adopt as his own, founding an existentialist current that tried to reconcile Psychiatry with a deeper vision of living (to the detriment of the biomedical and psychopathological categories).
2. The historicity of the human being
The understanding of the human, from the existentialist vision, would be indivisibly linked to its historical and cultural reality. Each person would be made up of a wide accumulation of lived experiences, which would provide them with a characteristic perception of the world and life, without which the pathology that they may be suffering at a moment of it could not be understood. This phenomenon would transcend the concept of “learning”, immersing itself in a temporal and narrative dimension of being.
Thus, the disease would be integrated within the experience of the subject who lives it, and would arise as a manifestation congruent with his intimate experiential discourse. Pathology could not be understood as a crack in the construction of the reality that the human being forges for herself, but would be linked to the naturalness of other events and could not be caught without active listening to the path traveled.
3. Experience as the key to knowledge
In Binswanger’s time, Psychiatry relied on the clinical method to draw up its theoretical and practical postulates. In this way, the diagnostic judgment was limited to a categorical assessment of the sick subject, whose suffering would fall within the general (and not very descriptive) categories of neurosis or psychosis (reducing the individuality that would inexorably be linked to their way of being in the world).
In order to confront this orientation, and inspired by an emerging phenomenology, Binswanger decided to advocate the holistic perspective. As a result of this, he conceived a very sensitive approach to integration and uniqueness, which would definitely depart from generality and allow a faithful approach to the pathology of those who lived with mental disorders.
4. Existing is not only “being”, but “being in the world with others”
For Binswanger, the concept “dasein” (which comes from the Germanic language and translates literally as “being there” or “being in the world”) had to be complemented to achieve a true existential meaning. While it is true that every person would be an active agent of the place and time in which they live, and would feel an inescapable interest in expressing their individuality, it could not be understood without the infinite ways in which they relate to others.
For Binswanger, every human being would be an isolated reality that could only transcend to the extent that it was discovered in front of the other, which gave deep meaning to the therapeutic context that was established between therapist and patient. From the connection between two worlds, the purest expression of being would emerge, as a shared reality that would enjoy more meaning when recounted in the space on which it is deployed (and with respect to it).
Thus, being part of the world in which he lives, the person could not be understood apart from it. There would be a fusion between the object and the subject, between the observed and the observer, cracking their duality under the heading of the term “existence”. Thus, the mundane and the feasible (through what the person shapes her own individuality) would be the foundation of what she is, beyond the abstractions with which the psychoanalysis of that time based its theoretical postulates.
5. The human being as a project
According to Binswanger, each person has being as a fundamental vital project. That is, every individual would aspire to this ultimate end and would come to satisfy it through the fact of existing. For the author, what is relevant about the therapeutic encounter would be the natural emergence, in the dyadic relationship, of the individual’s experiences; because in them all that could be apprehended in a certain way would be found, ignoring prejudices or doctrines that were guiding understanding.
In this same context, the author defended the term “epojé”, with a deep philosophical tradition and which was recovered by his contemporary Edmund Husserl (since its origin lies in the thought of ancient Greece). The “epojé” is a skeptical practice that defends the suspension of the judgment and even the concept of reality that the observer holds, so that the fact that is observed can be expressed as it is (without conditions of any kind).
6. The therapeutic relationship as a horizon of encounter
The meeting horizon refers to the context that arises from the confluence between the universes of the listener and the listener, which requires a phenomenological perspective. With this, it is intended that the approach to the patient always respects their history and the reconstruction of the facts that could emerge from it in each case, showing as many ways of existing as individuals inhabit the world.
This would confront the generalist vision of psychiatry; which sought to reduce with the greatest parsimony possible the complexity of individuals to operational terms in which to establish regular, identifiable and predictable patterns. From this perspective, a more horizontal relationship would be traced between the patient and the therapist, the latter aspiring to a total understanding of the experiences that make up all that he is in its entirety.
For Binswanger, the relationship between people would be the purest way of being, since it would reflect a duality that would extract the subject from isolation and existential isolation. His claim was to facilitate, through therapy, a relationship in which the corresponding individualities were shown in total freedom on the stage of a transformative and phenomenological bond.
7. The existential types
Throughout the years of clinical experience, Binswanger came to trace a series of existential types through which he described the concrete ways of being in the world (relationship of a being with other beings or of the “dasein” with otherness), and from which a first attempt could be inferred to explain patterns of feeling and action from an existential perspective. Without pretending to create a formal category of personality, he differentiated four types: singular, dual, plural and anonymous.
The singular would describe the relationship of a subject with himself (isolated from his own reality). The dual pattern would define relationships between two individuals that make up an inalienable pair (such as that which occurs in true friendship, in love as a couple or in the relationship between the mother and her child), while the plural would describe coexistence with others in within the social community (work, for example). The anonymous, finally, would reflect a state of deindividuation as a consequence of the dissolution of being in a mass, through which it would be deprived of its identity.
All people would be capable of flowing between one type or another throughout the course of their existence.
The industrial bustle of Binswanger’s historical moment emphasized individuality as the spur of personal development, which was in direct opposition to his perspective of being as reality that reached its maximum expression when shared. In this sense, he proposed as an alternative to loneliness the idea of love (or “liebe”) from which a healthy concern for the other arose that was built on the will to provide care and protection.
In any case, this love should in no way imply a denial of one’s own needs as an individual subject, but rather it would complement one’s own being through the communication of the inner world in a constructive bond. In the process, it would be implicit that concern for others would give the being a transcendent meaning, allowing the transmission of experiences beyond their own finiteness. Thus, the other would balance the gap between loneliness and alienation from the crowd.
9. The sense
From the phenomenological perspective of Binswanger, the meaning of life would be none other than being oneself in the constant flow of history, and making otherness a healthy complement to loneliness. Being would suppose the consistent relationship of the narrative of life itself and the expression of the phenomenon of existence, understood as the unrepeatable result of a world that gravitates in the constant evolution of events and relationships.
The disease should be understood as one more part of one’s existence, integrated into it as one more event, and never as something isolated from the rest of experiences. Her rejection of traditionalist perspectives was a remarkable attempt, in the history of mental health, to achieve a paradigm of consciousness that confronted the biomedical models that dominated the scientific landscape of the s. XIX.
- Ferro, J. (2001). Philosophy and Psychology in Existential Analysis by Ludwig Binswanger. Psychology from the Caribbean, 7, 47-59.
- Montesó, J. (2017). Existential Analysis of Binswanger and Ortega Anthropology, Meeting Points. EODOX: Philosophical Series, 39, 285-303.