On the Epistemology of Psychotherapy.


On the Epistemology of Psychotherapy.

[extra to text]

Marx understood the human individual as the “ensemble of social relations”.

Attempts to alter individual perceptions of these social relations does not, in itself, change their real existential character as stress-producing and illness-producing social relations. It merely acknowledges their real existence independently of the individual who is him/herself a product of these same social relations. This is why to alter the fundamental character of humanity it is the character of these social relations which must be revolutionised.

Herein lies the basic flaw and limitation – the Achilles Heel – of all forms of psychotherapy which may present in secular form but are essentially theological in their methods of approach. The different schools and branches of psychotherapy arise from the same epistemological stock and are fed and watered by the same concealed theological roots.

By flawed and limited, I mean epistemologically. And, of course, ‘flaws and limitations’ are dialectically related and not formalistically separable. If I am ‘flawed’ in a determinate way then this ‘limits’ me and this, in its turn, mediates the character of my flaws and tends to continuously re-posit them. The epistemology of psychotherapy – whilst not explicitly denying that the individual is the ensemble of social relations – implicitly recognises, in its psychological attempts to transcend these relations within the psychological domain, the primacy of their determination in the life of the individual. The use of the terms “flaw and limitation” here therefore refers to the relationship between the approach of psychotherapy and the ontology of social relations. One cannot illuminate the universe with a candle.

Of course, we find this in all the founders of the major religions where their “salvation within” conception very quickly becomes modified by and assimilated to the prevailing social relations. What is posited as “self-emancipatory” very quickly becomes subject to the dominating historical forces and is transformed accordingly in both content and social expression, articulation, etc, in order to come into a conformity with these forces of history.

Therefore by “flawed” I mean that in its root approach it is theological and by “limited” that it has definite boundaries drawn by the character of social relations and conditions and locates the individual in the “ideological form” (Marx). But the origins of its flaws (inadequacies) are intimately connected to their creation by these relations. Psychotherapy, as a general school of thought and practice, remains a product of these relations, a child of alienation and, as such, like the proletariat itself, carries its genetic material. And its “boundaries” are wholly coloured by the character of the social conditions and relations within which people live and struggle.

Of course, psychotherapeutic approaches can even be “therapeutic” within these social limits but only in the sense of an altered re-affirmation of these limits in the life of the individual. And this, of course, ties in with the psychotherapeutic concept of “expanding the range of responses and behaviours”. But psychotherapy here itself remains locked within or confined to its own self-created orbit and this manifests itself not only in the actual content of the relationship between “therapist” and “client” but also in the “therapeutic effects” in the life of the individual.

We can push the psychological boundaries of our lives but only within the limits circumscribed by the relations of bourgeois society. In my opinion, the root problem in psychotherapy remains the epistemological which, of course, characterises psychotherapy as a whole as epistemologically problematic, even historically invalid as a theory and practice.

Psychotherapy locates the individual in the ‘ideological form’ (Marx) and espouses and practices an alteration of thinking about self and others in order to transcend or modulate the psychological effects of social relations. This approach is, implicitly, a negative recognition of the real character of social relations rather than an effective attempt to actually transcend them in practice.

The collectively-practiced, psychotherapeutic precept acknowledges and asserts that it is possible for the suffering alienated human individual to transcend or, at least, resolve to the point of personal acceptance or ‘comfort’, the psychological effects of the prevailing socio-historical conditions of existence by means of shifts in consciousness or mental adjustment. It fails, in its self-preoccupation, to see the proverbial ‘wood for the trees’ in that any such shift or adjustment to a supposedly more ‘comforting’ or ‘enlightened’ state is, in this apparent negation, merely a reaffirmation of those historical conditions which form the individual and through which he or she actively lives life replete with problems and contradictions in the age of the reign of global capital.

All psychotherapy therefore, whatever its character, is both an expression and implicit acknowledgement that alienation and estrangement continues to prevail in social relations and that a psychotherapeutic sticking plaster is utterly and completely inadequate for patching up the wounds which these relations daily inflict in the lives of human individuals. The psychotherapist is, usually unconsciously, the latter-day priest of the secularised mind. The psychotherapist is a figure which we will not find in ‘deep communism’.

The real question to be addressed is the transformation of social relations and I think the related question of building agencies of revolution to proceed with this transformation is not essentially a psychological but rather a political one. The “neurotic” and “narcissist” – even the “visionary” – is not exempt from being just as creative in this regard. Robespierre and Trotsky are the perfect examples in this respect. In this sense, in my opinion, the “emancipatory role for psychotherapy” is peripheral to the point of being able to be disregarded. In fact, it could even be counter-productive or even destructive of creativity.

The revolutionary, like men in general, is the creation of that which he striving to overthrow. He can only operate within the “flaws and limitations” of the established social conditions in the very act of seeking to put them to the sword.

Shaun May


May 2014









Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s