Many years ago, when I was in final year of my undergraduate studies, I wrote a dissertation on humanistic psychotherapy, within which I strongly criticised its concept of the ‘self’ or ‘ego’ and, linked to this, the notion of ‘psychosalvation’. By this I mean the idea that therapy can, in some way, provide the basis for either some form of ‘self-actualisation’ (Maslow, Rogers, et al) or, at the very least, provide a way to prevent a descent into madness or psychosis. Of course, some might well argue that these two different conceptions of ‘salvation’ are contradictory in the sense that ‘self actualisation’, as some psychologised version of the Hegelian realisation of the spirit, is itself a form of delusion.
Leaving this argument to one side, since completing that dissertation I have come to the conclusion that not only do the more ‘humanistic’ and ‘person centred’ approaches to therapy promise some form of psychosalvation, but so do other approaches, including the various forms of cognitive behavioural therapies and, dare I say it, many psychoanalytic approaches too. In fact, I would even go as far to suggest that Lacanian psychoanalysis itself has a tendency in this direction, especially in its more idealistic reading of Lacan and Freud.
Ironically, perhaps, Freud himself seemed far more sceptical about psychoanalysis as being able to provide any form of ‘salvation’, at least in terms of offering the possibility of ‘self-actualisation’. At best he saw it as offering a way to help people cope less pathologically with their everyday lives and with their conflicting thoughts, emotions, fantasies and relationships.
However, this didn’t stop many generations of therapists, intellectuals and fellow-travellers latching onto the idea that psychoanalysis and its various psychotherapeutic derivatives might provide an (or even THE) answer to the ills of civilisation and its discontents. And I would argue that this idea of psychosalvation is still very much alive today, particularly as an ideology that now permeates our culture, and especially amongst what might best be defined as the ‘liberal establishment’ and its many hangers-on.
Of course, such an ideology has not been without its critics. Frank Furedi, for example, has been particularly scathing about what he describes as ‘therapy culture’ and how it deliberately cultivates psychological vulnerability amongst individuals, who can then, of course, be ‘saved’ by an army of mental health professionals. Others have explored the wider ramifications of such a ‘therapy culture’, and particularly how it has permeated virtually all aspects of human life, including the work place. Howard Schwartz, for example, has written a number of critiques that explore how therapeutic values have colonised the workplace, and has linked this to a critique of political correctness and the idea of the ‘hysterical organisation’.
Be that as it may, therapy culture and its ideology of psychosalvation still appears to be maintaining a strong grip, at least at the moment. But perhaps this might be the moment to take a step back and ask a more fundamental question: salvation of what and from what? Five hundred years ago, on the eve of the Protestant reformation, the question of salvation was as central to human life as it is today, albeit in a very different form. Then it was the question of how one’s soul could be assured of a place in heaven rather than going straight to hell. The resulting catastrophe of the wars of religion, the Thirty Years war, and all the other blood soaked conflicts which tore Europe apart and, ironically paved the way for the decline of Christianity amongst vast sections of the population, were, in essence, a battle over how best to achieve salvation.
But what does ‘salvation’ mean in its modern, secular form? I would argue that it still very much revolves around the idea of salvation of the soul. However, this is a psychologised version of salvation and a psychologised concept of the human soul. In psychotherapy and analysis, the ‘soul’ is either viewed in terms of a ‘core self’ or ‘ego’ or, if you are a Lacanian, an effect of the Symbolic order. ‘Salvation’, as I mentioned earlier, tends to be seen as either some form of ‘self-actualisation’ or self-realisation’ or, following Freud perhaps, finding a way to cope and doing one’s best to avoid a descent into madness, which would be the psychologised version of damnation.
What’s critical here, I would argue, is that such a conception of salvation rejects the idea of the supernatural, of a transcendental God or a transcendental reality in general. Instead, salvation can only take place in this life. If this were not the case, if credence were given to the idea of the supernatural, of God, of a transcendental reality, than the whole concept of psychosalvation would be rendered null and void. This is not to say that psychotherapy and psychoanalysis themselves would be rendered null and void; rather, these practices would be placed in a wider context, instead of providing the foundational basis for any ‘project’ of salvation.