Existentialism: As a Philosophical Framework for Practicing Psychiatry
Philosophy has to be a Concern of Psychiatrist. Philosophy’s job is to simplify. Existentialism has not received
as much attention as it deserves. In this paper evolution of philosophy will be dealt with briefly. Phenomenology
as a context of existentialism will be elaborated upon. Concepts consummated by Jean-Paul Sartre, e.g.
absurdity of being, existence vs. essence, free choice, bad faith etc. will be dealt with in detail. De-mystification
of consciousness as dealt with in existentialism will be taken into account. Being truthful to oneself is a tough
job. In therapy, self actualization remains the top priority job for psychiatrist. Freedom from dogma is not easy,
need a lot of intellectual exercise and struggle with oneself. Once free, life is more forceful and fulfilling.
Existentialist equivalent in literature like Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Metamorphosis
by Franz Kafka, and The Outsider by Albert Camus will be touched upon.
Man does not have bird’s eye view. So, what? The world seems as beautiful and informative. The dog does not
know how to handle computer. But, life is as charming. Do not set standards, crossing which, man will be
happy. ‘Being’ itself should give happiness. Achieving may be essential for one’s identity in the society, but one
should learn to enjoy simple things related to being.
Existentialism need to be studied by psychiatrist more avidly. In my opinion Sartre’s assimilation in psychiatric
thinking is overdue.
Psychiatrists deal with illnesses of mind. Mind is manifestation of biology presenting
as psychology with all overlaps and interactions with Philosophy. So, Philosophy has
to be concern of psychiatrist. Psychiatrists, by training, are doctors and during their
course they have never been exposed to Philosophy. Those who deal with human
minds can not do without Philosophy. Many have an idea that Philosophy makes
things complicated. On the contrary, the whole concept of philosophy is to simplify.
Because it simplifies complicated issues, at times, it looks complicated.
To have any understanding of Philosophy one has to have some basic idea of
evolution of Philosophical thinking. If you look at Epistemology with each new
thinker from Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Nietzsche, Kant, Hegel,
Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Marx, Santayana, Russell to Sartre our understanding of life
got refined. And then there have been philosophers, like Socrates, Karl Marx and
Jean-Paul Sartre who brought down philosophy to commoner’s parlor.
Phenomenology acted as background on which Existentialism grew. We owe our
understanding of phenomenology to Immanuel Kant, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jasper.
The basic criteria of phenomenology is presuppositionlessness. Phenomenology is a
descriptive and not an explanatory undertaking. Phenomenology must keep itself
separate from genesis. Phenomenology is concerned with the forms of mental
experience, not the particular contents.
Study of phenomenology led towards analysis of life in new light giving rise to the
school of existentialism. Kierkegaard, Husserl, Jaspers, Marcel, Nietzsche, Heidegger,
Sartre, Merleu-Ponty, Martin Buber, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Miguel de
Unamuno, and Berdyaev they all enriched Existentialism in their own style. Sartre
was the most forceful exponent of Existentialism. Sartre’s best-know work is Being
and Nothingness, published originally in 1943. In this he introduces his famous
distinction between ‘being in-itself’ (matter) and ‘being for-itself’ (mind). His basic
position is that Being is self-revealing and cannot be denied. Then he elaborates upon
absurdity of being. Absurdity is a feeling which arises from the confrontation of the
world, which is irrational, with the hopeless but profound human desire to make sense
of our condition. The appropriate response to his situation is to live in full
consciousness of it. The next important thing he talks about is that existence precedes
essence. We should live full bit of our existence and enjoy our being. Existence is
more important than essence. Man does not have bird’s eye view. So, what? The
world seems as beautiful and informative. The dog does not know how to handle
computer. But so what? Life is as charming. By adding qualities to his being, he
makes his identity in the society which adds to his self esteem. His satisfaction from
life should not be dependent upon achievements only, rather he should be able to
derive simple pleasures of life just from being, by mere biology of it. Then he talks of
freedom of choice and bad faith. The issue of freedom and choice is of crucial
importance in existentialism. Sartre thinks that authentic choices are completely
undetermined, if we make our decisions merely by reference to an external moral code
or set of procedures. Then we are, of course, not arriving at authentic choices. Simone
de Beauvoir, his girl friend and partner in Philosophy elaborates “We regarded any
situation as raw material for our joint efforts and not as a factor conditioning them: we
imagined ourselves to be wholly independent agents. We had no external limitations,
no overriding authority, no imposed pattern of existence, we created our own likes
with the world, and freedom was the very essence of our existence.” Then Sartre says
that being free is like being condemned to be free. Being truthful to oneself is a tough
job. When comes to therapy, self actualization remains the top priority job for
psychiatrist. Freedom from dogma is not easy, need a lot of intellectual exercise and
struggle with oneself. Once free, life is more forceful and fulfilling.
We find existentialist equivalents in literature. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from
Underground, first published in 1864, has been depicted as a founding work of
existentialism. For Dostoevsky, war is the rebellion of the people against the idea that
reason guides everything. And thus, reason is the ultimate principle of guidance for
neither history nor mankind. Two most quoted books where existentialism is put forth
in best possible manner are The Metamorphosis by Frank Kafka and The Outsider by
Albert Camus. Stark truth needs to be taken note of, whether we like or do not,
whether it helps or does not.
Summing up we can say, the general concern of existentialism is to give an account of
what it is like to exist as a human being in the world. Epistemologically, it is denied
that there can be an absolutely objective description of the world as it is, without the
intervention of human interests and actions. The world is ‘given’ and there is no
epistemological scepticism about its existence; it has to be described in relation to
ourselves. There is no fixed essence to which beings have to conform in order to
qualify as human beings; we are what we decide to be.
Whatever one feels about existentialism, there is no doubt that its influence in France
in the middle years of the twentieth century was enormous. By the time of his death
Sartre had become almost a cultural icon, his ideas inspiring a generation of
intellectuals, influencing moral and political thoughts, and also the expressive arts.
Finally, I don’t claim to be a pundit of Existentialism, but very little that I understand
of it, gives me an impression that psychiatrists need to learn a lot from existentialism.
In my opinion Sertre’s assimilation in psychiatric thinking is overdue.
1. T.Z. Lavine, From Socrates to Sartre: the Philosophic Quest, Bantam Books, 1984.
2. Jeremy Stangroom, Little book of big ideas: Philosophy, A&CIB, 2006.
3. Paul Strathern, The Essential Sartre, Virgin Books Ltd, 2002
4. Wade Baskin, The Wisdom of Sartre, Manjul Publishing House Pvt. Ltd., 2004.
5. Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, George Allen & Unwin Ltd,
6. Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, Pocket Books, a division of Simon &
Schuster, Inc. 1961.
Devashish Konar, MD, Consultant Psychiatrist,
Mental Health Care Centre,
Burdwan & Kolkata
M : 09434009113 / 09732221712
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