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Existentialism as a philosophical framework for practicing psychiatry
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Existentialism as a philosophical framework for practicing psychiatry


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  • 1. Existentialism: As a Philosophical Framework for Practicing Psychiatry Abstract 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
  • 2. 2 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
  • 3. 3 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. Bibliography: 1. T.Z. Lavine, From Socrates to Sartre: the Philosophic Quest, Bantam Books, 1984.
  • 4. 4 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, 1993. 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 E-mail -