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Daseinsanalysis is a form of existential psychotherapy that draws on the philosophical insights of Martin Heidegger, especially his concept of Dasein, which means “being-there” or “existence” in German. Daseinsanalysis aims to understand the human being as a whole, in relation to the world and to oneself, rather than as a sum of psychological functions or symptoms. In this article we will explore daseinsanalysis, its development, practical uses, strengths and weaknesses.
History and development of daseinsanalysis
Daseinsanalysis was first developed by Ludwig Binswanger in the 1920s under the concept of “phenomenological anthropology”. After the publication of “Basic Forms and Perception of Human Dasein” (German: Grundformen und Erkenntnis menschlichen Daseins), Binswanger would refer to his approach as Daseinsanalysis (Wikipedia, 2021). Binswanger was influenced by Heidegger’s analysis of the existential structures of Dasein, such as being-in-the-world, being-with-others, being-towards-death, and being-in-time. He applied these concepts to the understanding of mental disorders, such as schizophrenia and depression, and to the therapeutic relationship. He wrote: “The aim of Daseinsanalysis is to make manifest the mode of being of the patient as it is revealed in his free or inhibited relating to the world, to himself and to others” (Binswanger, 1963, p. 20).
Binswanger’s work was later criticized by Heidegger himself and by another Swiss psychiatrist, Medard Boss, who developed his own version of Daseinsanalysis in the 1940s. Boss emphasized the importance of the ontological difference between being (Sein) and beings (Seiendes), and the role of language and interpretation in disclosing the meaning of existence. He also integrated insights from Eastern philosophy and psychoanalysis into his approach. He wrote: “Daseinsanalysis does not want to be a new school or method within psychotherapy but rather an attempt at a radical clarification and elucidation of what is always already going on whenever psychotherapy is practised in a genuine manner” (Boss, 1963, p. 11).
Themes and principles
Daseinsanalysis aims to help the client explore and understand these aspects of their existence, and to overcome the alienation and anxiety that result from losing touch with their authentic self and world. As Ludwig Binswanger, one of the founders of Daseinsanalysis, wrote: “The goal of Daseinsanalysis is not to ‘cure’ the patient but to help him find his way back to his own most possibilities” (Binswanger, 1963, p. 213).
Daseinsanalysis uses a phenomenological method that respects the client’s subjective experience and interpretation of reality, without imposing any preconceived categories or theories. As Medard Boss, another pioneer of Daseinsanalysis, explained: “The daseinsanalytic therapist does not try to explain or interpret anything; he tries only to understand what the patient says and does” (Boss, 1963, p. 16). Daseinsanalysis is not only a therapeutic approach, but also a way of living that fosters existential awareness and responsibility.
According to Heidegger, human existence (Dasein) is characterized by four fundamental aspects: being-in-the-world, being-with-others, being-towards-death, and being-in-time. These aspects are not separate entities, but interrelated dimensions of human experience.
Being-in-the-world means that human beings are always situated in a concrete and meaningful world that they encounter through their everyday activities and projects. The world is not a collection of objects, but a network of meanings and relations that constitute the human reality (Heidegger, 1962).
Being-with-others means that human beings are always in relation to other human beings, who share the same world and co-create its meanings. Human beings are not isolated individuals, but social and historical beings who communicate and interact with others in various ways. The other is not an object, but a subject who reveals the possibilities and limitations of human existence (Heidegger, 1962).
Being-towards-death means that human beings are always aware of their own finitude and mortality, which gives their existence a sense of urgency and authenticity. Death is not an event, but a possibility that shapes the human attitude towards life and its choices. Human beings are not immortal, but finite and temporal beings who have to face their own death and its implications (Heidegger, 1962).
Being-in-time means that human beings are always situated in a temporal dimension that connects their past, present, and future. Time is not a linear sequence, but a circular movement that constitutes the human identity and destiny. Human beings are not timeless, but historical and temporal beings who have to make sense of their own history and future (Heidegger, 1962).
Daseinsanalysis aims to explore these aspects of human existence in a phenomenological and hermeneutic way, without imposing any preconceived theories or categories. It seeks to understand the human being as a whole, in its unique and concrete situation, with its problems and potentials. It also seeks to facilitate the human being’s freedom and responsibility to create its own meaning and values in the face of its existential challenges (Binswanger, 1963; Boss, 1963).
Example therapeutic encounter
Daseinsanalysis focuses on the individual’s experience of being-in-the-world and the meaning they give to their existence and aims to help individuals become more authentic and free in their choices, by exploring the possibilities and limitations of their existence.
A hypothetical therapeutic scenario that illustrates how Daseinsanalysis helps individuals is the following:
Anna is a 35-year-old woman who feels dissatisfied with her life. She has a successful career as a lawyer, but she feels bored and unfulfilled by her work. She has a stable relationship with her partner, but she feels distant and disconnected from him. Anna has no close friends or hobbies, and she spends most of her time working or watching TV. She feels empty and meaningless, and she wonders what the point of her life is.
Anna decides to seek therapy, and she chooses a Daseinsanalyst as her therapist. In the first session, the therapist asks Anna to describe her current situation and how she feels about it. Anna says that she feels like she is living someone else’s life, and that she has no idea who she really is or what she wants. The therapist listens attentively and empathically, without judging or interpreting Anna’s words. The therapist then asks Anna to reflect on how she came to be in this situation, and what factors influenced her choices and actions.
Anna realizes that she has been following the expectations and norms of her family and society, without questioning them or considering her own preferences and values. She says that she became a lawyer because her parents wanted her to, and that she chose her partner because he was suitable and respectable, not because she loved him. She says that she has been avoiding any risks or challenges that might disrupt her comfortable but boring routine. Anna says that she has been ignoring her feelings and desires, and that she has been living unauthentically.
The therapist then asks Anna to imagine what it would be like to live authentically, and what changes she would need to make to do so. Anna says that she would like to quit her job and pursue a career in art, which has always been her passion. She says that she would like to end her relationship with her partner and find someone who shares her interests and values. She says that she would like to make new friends and explore new activities that would enrich her life. Anna says that she would like to feel alive and meaningful, and that she would like to take responsibility for her own existence.
The therapist supports Anna in exploring these possibilities, and helps her identify the obstacles and fears that might prevent her from pursuing them. The therapist also helps Anna recognize the potential benefits and consequences of living authentically, and encourages her to make informed and conscious decisions. The therapist does not tell Anna what to do or how to live, but rather facilitates her own discovery and understanding of herself and her world.
Through this process, Anna gradually becomes more aware of her being-in-the-world, and more able to express and actualize her authentic self. She develops a sense of agency and freedom in choosing how to live, as well as a sense of meaning and purpose in creating her own existence. She experiences more joy and satisfaction in her life, as well as more challenges and difficulties. Anna learns to cope with the uncertainty and complexity of being-in-the-world, and to embrace the possibilities and limitations of her existence.
This hypothetical scenario shows how Daseinsanalysis helps individuals by:
- Providing a safe and respectful space for them to share their experiences and feelings.
- Helping them uncover the hidden assumptions and influences that shape their existence.
- Helping them explore the possibilities and limitations of their being-in-the-world.
- Helping them develop a sense of authenticity and freedom in choosing how to live.
- Helping them create meaning and purpose in their own existence.
As Boss (1963) stated, “Daseinsanalysis does not want to change man into something different from what he is; it wants only to help him become himself” (p. 13).
Strengths and weaknesses
One of the strengths of daseinsanalysis is that it offers a holistic and humanistic approach to mental health, focusing on the individual’s authentic existence and potential. It also respects the uniqueness and diversity of each person, avoiding generalizations or classifications based on diagnostic labels or norms. Daseinsanalysis also emphasizes the importance of dialogue and understanding between the therapist and the client, rather than interpretation or manipulation. As Medard Boss, one of the founders of daseinsanalysis, wrote: “The daseinsanalytic therapist does not want to change his patient; he wants to help him to be what he is” (Boss, 1963, p. 13).
One of the weaknesses of daseinsanalysis is that it can be too abstract and vague for some clients, who may prefer more concrete and structured interventions. It can also be challenging to apply daseinsanalysis in a multicultural context, since it relies heavily on the concepts and terminology of Heidegger’s philosophy, which may not be easily translated or understood by people from different backgrounds or cultures. Daseinsanalysis also lacks empirical evidence and scientific validation, which may limit its credibility and acceptance in the mainstream mental health field.
Daseinsanalysis has been endorsed by some prominent figures in psychology and philosophy, such as Rollo May, Viktor Frankl, Ludwig Binswanger, and Jean-Paul Sartre. They have praised daseinsanalysis for its existential depth, its phenomenological rigour, and its ethical sensitivity. They have also applied daseinsanalysis to various topics and issues, such as anxiety, creativity, freedom, responsibility, death, and meaning.
Daseinsanalysis has also been criticized by some scholars and practitioners, such as Jacques Lacan, Herbert Marcuse, Paul Ricoeur, and Irvin Yalom. They have criticized daseinsanalysis for its lack of clarity, its inconsistency, its elitism, and its conservatism. They have also questioned the validity and relevance of Heidegger’s philosophy for psychotherapy, especially in light of his controversial political involvement with Nazism.
Binswanger, L. (1963). Being-in-the-world: Selected papers of Ludwig Binswanger. Basic Books.
Boss, M. (1963). Psychoanalysis and daseinsanalysis. Basic Books.
Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time. New York: Harper & Row.
Wikipedia. (2021). Daseinsanalysis. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daseinsanalysis