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by Daniel Burston
Harvard University Press, 2000
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jun 25th 2003

The Crucible of Experience

Daniel Burston's previous book, The Wing of Madness: The Life and Work of R.D. Laing (Reviewed in Metapsychology October 2000), made a strong case that it is possible to understand Laing's collection of writings in the context of his life and that the themes of his well-known earlier writings persist in his more outlandish later work.  Burston's careful investigation showed the coherence of Laing's work as a whole, and made a strong case for ranking Laing with other major thinkers in psychology and psychiatry.  In The Crucible of Experience, Burston continues this project with a more thorough assessment of Laing's work in the context of the philosophical traditions of phenomenology and existentialism. 

Maybe the major challenge for Burston and defenders of Laing is to counter the impression that his work contains a wide range of disparate ideas which are collected together without regard for consistency or theoretical coherence.  It is often far from clear that the project of interpreting Laing's work is intrinsically worthwhile, and if one is to invest energy in creating a theoretical framework for a critical approach to psychiatry, it might be better to use Laing more as an inspiration rather than an authoritative source.  Simply put, Laing's ideas often seem so scattered and his usage of key terms so variable that an interpretive project aimed at discovering the core of this thought is in real danger of merely arriving at a number of vague suggestions. 

One reason that we still have for returning to Laing's ideas is that there are few thinkers who have carried on in his tradition of suspicion of the mainstream who match his theoretical complexity, his interest in philosophical insights, and his popular appeal.  Thomas Szasz has continued to repeat his old arguments from the 1950s with no sign of intellectual development or readiness to enter into genuine dialogue with other people who are sympathetic to some of his ideas, and besides, most with left and liberal leanings find Szasz's rigid political libertarianism very unattractive.  Some historians of psychiatry work in a critical tradition in line with Laing's ideas -- Andrew Scull is an excellent example -- but they tend to avoid any direct theorizing about the nature of mental disorder, and their work tends to be academic and rather inaccessible to a general readership.  Other academics also tend to be specialized and technical.  Psychiatric consumer and survivor movements tend to focus on particular issues and are less concerned with finding a broad theoretical background for their approach.  Thus, Laing remains one of the most important figures in the critical psychiatry literature, despite the shortcomings of his work. 

The Crucible of Experience is a relatively short book at 168 pages.  In six chapters, it outlines a number of central themes in Laing's work.  The first chapter briefly recaps Laing's life and achievements.  The second provides an outline of the philosophical tradition of existential phenomenology that influences Laing so powerfully, including Husserl, Dilthey, Jaspers, and Heidegger.  In the third chapter, Burston compares Laing's approach with those who formulated existential psychotherapy, and includes discussion of Carl Rogers, Erich Fromm, and Paul Tillich, as well as substantial discussion of Laing's own work and anecdotes concerning his practice.  The fourth chapter locates Laing's ideas in the context of different theories about the nature of schizophrenia and its treatment, including some comparison with Freud, Sartre, and Lacan.  One of the most interesting parts of the book is the investigation of Laing's views about normality in the fifth chapter, which shows how different his ideas are from that of a crude antipsychiatry that simply denies the existence of mental illness.  Laing was certainly suspicious of the distinction between normal and pathological, and he argued that normality is often a highly problematic condition.  Burston does a good job of elaborating the concept of alienation in the existentialist tradition and as it appears in Laing's theories, and especially the complex relation between his views and those of Heidegger.  The final chapter provides an overview and discussion of the implications of the ideas set out in earlier chapters, and an assessment of future of the study of Laing's work. 

Burston's book is rich and scholarly, and so it deserves careful study.  He resists any simplistic evaluation of the worth of Laing's contribution to psychiatric theory, and it is not an easy book to simply skim.  Its ultimate achievement is to make a strong case that Laing's writings are still relevant to the study of mental illness today, and one hopes that it will provoke new scholarship to carry on Laing's important projects. 



© 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.

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