Phenomenology, Existential Therapy and Social Work

To date, Anglophile social work has not given suffi attention to the existential therapies that draw on phenomenological ideas. These approaches are committed to helping distressed individuals cope with problematic meanings in relation to themselves, others and the social world. Below, I review two of these applications – Daseinanalysis and Logo-therapy – and make the point later that social work should attend to their insights as they fit within interventions designed to address human meaning in the context of the 'lifeworld'. To reiterate,
social work has lost confidence and competence in the phenomenological and 'lifeworld' spheres due mainly to the primacy of the 'system' shaping professional interventions according to a rapacious, instrumental rationality.

Daseinanalysis is a form of helping that draws on Heidegger's later philosophical work as well as Husserl's phenomenological method. Its founders, Ludwig Bingswager (1963) and Medard Boss (1979), departed from Freud as they felt psychoanalysis had reduced people to a set of causal mechanisms inherently shaped by deep, libidinal drives. For Bingswager and Boss, therapeutic work needed to focus on a more holistic sense of the person in their environment, her 'being-in-the-world'. Daseinanalysis was deemed to be a phenomenological anthropology investigating lived experience. The self, in this approach, was not seen as an isolated entity. Instead, it amounted to one's 'inter-being' with others. With this foundation in place, human suffering was not viewed in terms of conflicts between warring, intra-psychic ego-states: it was seen as a product of a person being closed off to their lived experience in the 'lifeworld'. When openly grasped in all its richness, the 'lifeworld' offered possibilities for existential growth but when blocked or constricted it truncated our lived experience and undermined our developmental potential.

Mistrust in others, as an over-arching life-position, was a form of existential constriction that could jeopardize positive mental states. Being existentially open, enriching our range of encounters and so on, was seen as stimulating mental well-being. Mistrusting people could cut oneself off from the possibilities of learning from them and from receiving their care and concern. Anything in life that made a positive claim on Dasein's being should be responded to in all its richness and potentiality.

To expand, there are certain aspects of everyone's being that we tend to cover over or keep in the darkness and aspects which we illuminate. In a depressed person, the disordered and harmful aspects of life may be illuminated leaving the more productive, life-generating areas occluded. In Daseinanalysis, the person is encouraged to attend to the latter aspect of existence. The issue of illuminating aspects of our positive existence is structured around connections with the natural world of environment and ecology, the social world including relationships in our 'lifeworlds', the personal world or the types of thinking dispositions shaping our consciousness and the spiritual world involving the values we hold. Human depression might be interpreted in this schema as being closed off to any one or more of these dimensions of experience. For example, a person might be removed from the experience of aesthetic beauty in the world or the experience of the natural environment: mountains, sea, forests and lakes may have rarely been seen as an individual lives her life out in a deprived, inner city area. The aim, in all of this, is to help the person experience a trial world beyond daily horizons, to encounter different world-disclosing possibilities for growth. These important dimensions of helping can be imported into – and add vitality to – ecological social work as they underscore the nexus between the person and their social and natural environment. The second approach I wish to summarize was developed by Victor Frankl (2004). He termed it 'logo-therapy'. It can be summed up as 'healing through meaning' and therefore adds to humanistic counselling approaches in social work. Indebted to the phenomenologist, Max Scheler, logo-therapy's core premise is that the human subject is fundamentally motivated to discover meaning: some kind of cause, raison d'etre, ideal, purpose or fundamental, existential orientation in life. Failing to find meaning could lead to an existential vacuum and further result in a more serious existential neurosis typified by self-destructive conditions such as the abuse of substances or severe depression. But more than that, Frankl contended discovering meaning could help a person cope with the most adverse of human experiences. Notably, Frankl himself had survived three concentration camps during the Second World War and lost several family members during the holocaust yet sustained his resilience by believing in his destiny to help others.

In looking more closely at logo-therapy the contention is, that for each individual, there is one unique, indelible meaning for every situation encountered and furthermore, the individual is responsible for finding it. This is not, therefore, an open lottery or potential set of choices as to which meaning orientation one will choose as part of a Sartrean act of good faith. It is not a matter of asking 'what can I make of this challenging situation but rather, what does this situation demand from me?'This is the call of life's narrative or destiny in the moment. However, for Frankl, there were three spheres in which life's meaning might respond. The first was in the context of work or artistic activity; what was produced from one's own efforts could create meaning and buttress one in the most demanding of circumstances. The second referred to one's engagement with the 'lifeworld' and other people particularly through loving relationships. Living to meet the needs of another was a powerful way of sustaining meaning through a period of crisis and was congruent with Daseinanalysis in this respect. Thirdly, meaning could develop by changing one's attitude to a debilitating, external situation or to an inner condition (such as illness) that could not be changed. Put simply, we may not possess the capacity to change the situation but we can change our attitude to it. This notion was reflected in the philosopher, Friederic Neitzsche's, famous dictum (quoted often by Frankl) that by 'having a “why”, we can face any “how”'. A person may suffer from acute, endogenous depression which may, in part, be explained by biological factors. Nevertheless, this person can adjust his attitude to such inner suffering by 'letting go' of the resulting shame it produces. Throughout this process the role of the logotherapist is to act as a phenomenological midwife: to help the person give birth to meaning in one or more of these three areas through various techniques aimed at helping the person to view her world in a particular way.

Daseinanalysis and logotherapy should have a central importance for social workers whose daily role is to encounter fractured meaning in the guise of loss, crisis, trauma and change. They indicate that therapeutic social work should, first and foremost, be a philosophical outlook which then proceeds to draw on relevant techniques – as opposed to the other way around. This necessitates that social workers have a deep understanding of the human condition and centre
their approach on 'meaning' and 'subjectivity' rather than inner psychodynamic impulses or behavioural conditioning through social reinforcement. Both meaning and subjectivity are created and sustained in therapeutic relationship where personal responsibility for change is encouraged. This is about answering the cry from deep within the human personality. Daseinanalysis and logo-therapy privilege therapeutic responses, in social work and other disciplines, that are constructivist, ecological, existential, psycho-biographical, relational and humanistic.

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