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Existential Psychology

History of the movement

A system in psychology focused on the belief that the essence of humans is their existence.

Existential psychology is an approach to psychology and psychotherapy that is based on several premises, including: understanding that a "whole" person is more than the sum of his or her parts; understanding people by examining their interpersonal relationships, understanding that people have many levels of self-awareness that can be neither ignored nor put into an abstract context, understanding that people have free will and are participants rather than observers in their own lives, and understanding that people's lives have purpose, values, and meaning. Therapists who practice existential psychology treat their clients by submerging themselves in the client's world. For the therapist, therapy is a process in which they, too, are participating. This is a process that seeks meaning within the whole of the person's existence, including the client's personal history.

An important distinction exists between the concept of existentialism and existential phenomenology, even if the two are often linked to one another. According to a leading existential psychologists, Swiss Psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger, "…while the existential therapist enters into the phenomena present before and with him or her, existentialism does not confine itself to states of withness. It includes the existence of the whole being." In other words, existential therapists are concerned with the whole of their clients as they can experience with them, whereas existential phenomenology studies the whole being—that which can be experienced as well as that which cannot. Binswanger formulated his belief around three different aspects of human existence. These included the Umwelt, or "world around," meaning the biological drive natural to humans; Mitselt, or "with world," the social and interpersonal human relationships; and the Eigenwelt, or "own world," the subjective, phenomenological world of the self.

History of the movement

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813–55) is commonly referred to as the "Father of Existentialism." Kiekegaard stated, "I exist, therefore I think," in contrast to philosopher Rene Descartes's famous words, "I think, therefore I am." This simple statement influenced an entire group of European philosophers and psychologists, changing their approach to treatment. Kiekegaard's philosophy was not as readily accepted in the United States. Rollo May (1909–94), the American psychologist who would become one of the existential movement's biggest proponents, attributed the introduction of the existentialist idea in the United States to the famed psychologist and philosopher, William James. James was an advocate of the principle of free will, a crucial component in existential thought. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, existentialism was being quietly introduced, primarily in university classrooms. May himself was introduced to the idea through Paul Tillich at the Union Theological Seminary in New York where he was studying to be a Congregationalist minister. Noted professionals such as Viktor Frankl (1905–97) were beginning to introduce existentialism to the world through their writings and lectures. Frankl had survived internment at the Nazi death camp Theresienstadt and wrote personally of the events that shaped his beliefs. It was not until May and fellow psychologists Abraham Maslow and Herman Feifel participated in the American Psychological Association (APA) Symposium on Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy on September 5, 1959, that the idea of existential psychology and its terms began to reach the forefront of psychological thought and practice.

After the symposium, the term existentialism had become one of the "buzz" words of psychology in the 1960s. May described the existential approach to psychotherapy by stating that the task of therapy was to understand the patient fully as that patient truly exists. Such therapy would require a commitment on the part of the patients to fully understand the lives they were living, or the lives in which they were existing.

In addition to its significance as a major system of psychological practice, existentialism represented an awareness that emerged following World War II, particularly with the Baby Boomer generation. No longer were such philosophical concepts as existentialism left to the private halls of universities. For example, May's book Love and Will remained on U.S. lists of bestsellers for over four months, indicating that a new age of people from various educational backgrounds were ready to look into themselves as only a few had done in the preceding decades. Self-help books also lined bookstore shelves, an indication of the willingness of people to explore deep into their own existence.

Jane Spear

Further Reading

Benner, David G., and Hill, Peter C., eds. Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology & Counseling Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999.

Frankl, Viktor. Man's Search for Meaning. (Original publication date: 1963) Harcover: Beacon Press, May 2000. Mass Market Paperback, 1990.

May, Rollo. Love and Will. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1969.

May, Rollo. The Discovery of Being: Writings in Existential Psychology. (Reprint) New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1994.

Further Information

Rollo May Center for Humanistic Studies, Saybrook Graduate School & Research Center. 450 Pacific, 3rd floor, San Francisco, California, USA. 94133, 800-825-4480.

Viktor Frankl Institut. Langwiesgasse 6, A-1140, Vienna, Austria. (+43-1) 914-2683.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaBranches of Psychology