New perspectives for Psychotherapy: Introducing Nikolai Berdyaev

Which theories may be important for the future development of psychotherapy and what role does Nikolai Berdyaev play in this development?

Georg Nicolaus PhD is a psychotherapist in private practice and teacher at the New School for Psychotherapy and Counselling. He originally studied philosophy and received his MA degree from the University of Munich.

Sometimes we are haunted by a terrible dream. We see the time of supermachines dawning with which man could govern the world… had he not disappeared…

N. Berdyaev

The Matrix is all around you

The Matrix (1999)

The psychological theories underpinning different modalities of psychotherapeutic practice are all shaped by a fundamental tension inherent in the discourse of psychology as a whole. Psychology is at one and the same time a scientific and a hermeneutic discipline. The nature of the theoretical framework underpinning therapeutic practices of different modalities will depend on its location along this spectrum. On one end of the spectrum cognitive-behavioural approaches veer towards a complete exclusion of the hermeneutic dimension, and on the other end for example developments within post-Jungian theorizing such as James Hillman’s archetypal psychology veer towards a complete exclusion of the scientific in favour of the hermeneutic. Moving further on this side of the spectrum the colourful variety of humanistic and transpersonal psychologies are seen by some as falling off the cliff into boundless subjectivism.

But, however much the proponents of a scientific psychology based on quantifiable, measurable research data may be inclined to scoff at the wooliness of those who favour hermeneutics, in the end psychotherapists will always have to deal with real persons. The total exclusion of the hermeneutic dimension arguably leads to an almost total incomprehension for this existential dimension, which is fundamental to the actual phenomenology of our experience. At the very least, as Martin, Sugarman and Thompson argue in their book, Psychology and the Question of Agency, we have to include some notion of agency in our theoretical models because, after all, “ those clients and communities who request the professional services of psychologists make their request for assistance mostly in agentic form” ( Martin, Sugerman, Thompson 2003: 5).

In view of current cultural dynamics, fresh attention to the concept of agency and of the person seems warranted to me: “Some envision a time when our languages and cultural practices will dissolve into a universal more sophisticated, and scientifically more correct way of speaking about experiences and actions in ways that have little place for agency or associated ideas” (4). A blatant example of this prevalent tendency is J. Pollock who argues in his book, How to build a Person, as follows: “My claim is that constructing a person is the same thing as constructing an accurate computer model of human rational architecture” ( Pollock 1989: 112).

Both scientifically minded theorists, and post-modern theorists who have had a significant impact on recent psychotherapeutic and psychoanalytic thought, dream of the final ‘death of the subject’. Post-modernism is supposed to offer us a critical toolkit to tackle scientism, logocentrism, racism, sexism, the marginalization of minorities and to sensitize us to the contexuality of our experience and the pluralist, multicultural universe out there. Some even believe that it might enable us “through re-examination or deconstruction of psychotherapy’s definitions and assumptions, to return to a notion of ‘soul’, as an alternative to a prevalent scientific or medical conception of the mind” (Loewenthal, Snell 2003: 73). These are positive achievements that I certainly don’t want to dismiss. Deconstruction of various forms of cultural myopia can only be healthy. But the post-modern procedure goes further, too far for my taste: operation successful, patient dead.

It may be time, therefore, to look beyond post-modernism, without thereby reversing its achievements. The psychoanalyst Don Fredrickson has perceptively pointed out the shortcomings of post-modernism: “Seen from a postmodern perspective, it would seem that we now have an inter-subjective psychoanalysis without a subject, an interpersonal psychoanalysis without a person, and even a psychotherapy without a psyche. In the process, postmodern theorists have substituted new forms of determinism for the psychic determinism of classical psychoanalysis that they so fundamentally reject. Indeed, postmodernism has called into question the entire project of self-knowledge. Yet if there is no subject, no person and no psyche, who are clinicians supposed to be analyzing?” (in Fire, 2003: 204) He proposes that we might profitably explore the ideas of a little known group of Russian personalist philosophers (for example, S. Bulgakov, P. Florensky, M. Bhaktin, V. Solovyev, Vysheslavtsev and N. Berdyaev) for some much-needed re-orientation.

I believe that amongst these thinkers it is specifically Berdyaev (1874-1948) who is of great relevance here. The theorist of culture, Mikhail Epstein, pointed out that Berdyaev is one of the ancestors of a specifically Russian mode of ‘post-atheist’ philosophy. He points out that: “ … three tendencies can be discerned in the misty dawn of Earth’s first post-atheist society. One is traditionalism… A second is neo-paganism…. The third is ‘poor’ or ‘minimal’ religion…The third, Modernist, tendency, inspired by Nikolai Berdyaev, issues from the apophatic conception of pure freedom, which posits itself as anterior to God and the act of creation. It presupposes an ecumenical unification of all religions…” (Epstein 1999).

Epstein, aligning himself with this third tendency inspired by Berdyaev, seeks to develop it further into a different form of post-modernism called ‘trans-culture’. ‘Trans-culture’ transgresses boundaries and divisions. It is open both to ecological awareness and to spirituality without reducing the cultural sphere of free human creativity naturalistically or spiritualistically. Very much in line with Berdyaev’s own efforts, it seeks to create a space for free human creativity. Such a ‘trans-cultural’ approach takes up the salient motives of post-modernism while resisting the temptation to ‘kill the patient’ by falling into the trap of furthering the cause of the progressive depersonalization rampant in our current virtual society. As Marshall McLuhan already pointed out, the present rise of violence for example may be profitably interpreted as a result of such depersonalisation. If I feel powerless and unreal, violence may be a bid to retrieve a sense of identity.

Epstein aspires towards a perspective that is integrative without being totalitarian, multicultural without drowning in a relativism that ultimately turns out to end in depersonalization and dehumanization. The cult film The Matrix offers a potent metaphor for this depersonalization that found much resonance for very good reason. If we listen attentively as therapists to our clients the pertinence of this metaphor will become evident.

So, who was this Nikolai Berdyaev that is supposed to have things to say well worth listening to at the present time? Berdyaev was a Russian émigré who started off as a marxist revolutionary and later, after realizing that both Marxism and capitalism were just two sides of the same coin, turned towards Christianity as the only true revolution possible. This revolution was, for Berdyaev, a ‘personalist revolution’ with the political implications of a ‘personalist socialism’. Berdyaev’s Christianity was a free, non-dogmatic, post-confessional Christianity which took much inspiration from Jacob Boehme’s theosophy. Boehme’s thought has had a broad, if often invisible influence on continental thought ranging from Hegel and romanticism to, it might be argued, central motifs in Jung’s form of depth-psychology. A recent book by Kathryn Wood Madden, Dark Light of the Soul, explores this kinship of Boehme and Jung in some detail. In a forthcoming book to be published in 2010, I seek to explore a reading of Jung’s psychology of individuation in the light of Berdyaev’s philosophy.

Berdyaev spent the second half of his life in the Paris of Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Mounier and gave shape to his own form of personalist existentialism. Thus Berdyaev’s thought presents us with a fascinating coniunctio oppositorum of the conservative (Christianity) and the progressive (Marxism, sociological criticism, existentialism). But, as already indicated, Berdyaev’s thought points further into the future and offers creative new perspectives on how to move beyond postmodernism.

His existential philosophy has much to offer for psychological theorizing. Yet, while many other existentially oriented philosophers like Buber, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger have been successfully introduced into the field of existential psychotherapy, Berdyaev has up until now hardly received any attention. Possibly one reason for this is that while many of the founding figures of the field of existential psychotherapy came from a predominantly Freudian background, Berdyaev’s thought is more compatible with Jung’s and that of transpersonal psychology in general than with Freud’s.
Long before Assagioli, the founder of psychosynthesis, Berdyaev argued for a psychosynthesis to replace psychoanalysis. He offered an analysis of the structure of the unconscious similar to Assagioli’s, talking of a super-conscious as well as a subconscious. Berdyaev’s thinking has earned some tacit academic respectability since being acknowledged by Ken Wilber, the leading theorist in this field, .as offering a contribution to the field of transpersonal psychology. Berdyaev was conversant with the psychological theories of Freud, Adler and Jung and with Gestaltpsychology, which latter he considers to be especially compatible with a theory of the person. He shared much in common with Martin Buber’s philosophy that has already found application in the dialogic approach in Gestalt psychology. Furthermore, like the other Russian personalist philosophers mentioned by Fredrickson in his paper, Berdyaev proposes an integral epistemology involving the whole person – not only the rational faculties – which “ marks a transition from the interpretation of knowledge as objectification, to understanding it as participation” (Berdyaev 1976: 61); this could offer significant contributions to a new epistemology for psychotherapeutic practice. Furthermore a survey of the entire body of his writings shows many striking resonances with Jung’s psychology that offer exciting new avenues for the exploration of Jung’s work.

What then, in short, is Berdyaev’s notion of the person? The person for Berdyaev is not a static entity, but a dynamic process. We are ‘egos’ to begin with and are called to become persons. The person cannot be objectified. The ego or as we might also call it the ‘Cartesian subject’ on the other hand, which is itself the result of objectification as much as its sustainer, is really only the subject as biological individual, the central actor in the modern turbo-capitalist drama of rampant individualism. The person is essentially an apophatic reality, which refers us ultimately to a trans-personal unitary reality as its root-ground. The term apophatic indicates that it cannot be known rationally, but can only be actively realized in a process of subjectification, a recovery of our latent, inherent spirituality. This recovery implies an opening out both towards the world and towards the transpersonal, spiritual ground of personhood.

Spirit for Berdyaev is concrete and personal, it has nothing to do with an abstract, rationalized notion of ‘mind’. It is dynamic, free and, above all, creative. Berdyaev gives shape to an ethics of creativeness that potentially elucidates the ethical dimension of what Jungian theorists would call the process of individuation. For Berdyaev we “ought to make moral inventions with regard to the problems life sets to ..[us]…For the ethics of creativeness, freedom means not the acceptance of the law but individual creation of values. Freedom is creative energy, the possibility of building up new realities…The ethics of creativeness is one of dynamics and energy” (Berdyaev 1945: 132f).

The task of introducing Berdyaev’s thought to the field of present psychological discourse is not an easy one. His thought is notoriously aphoristic in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Nietzsche. In fact his ethics of creativity owes much to his intense dialogue with Nietzsche’s thought, as much as maybe Jung’s psychology does and, many would say, depth psychology as a whole. This affinity and yet also disparity between Nietzsche and Berdyaev is another fact which commends him, in as much as Nietzsche more than any other philosopher is the ‘founding-father’ of post-modernism as much as of depth psychology.

I believe that an engagement with philosophers like Berdyaev is a useful exercise at the present time. Berdyaev’s notion of the personality that creatively builds up new realities is capable of accommodating the post-modern emphasis on difference (Derrida) without leading to potentially dehumanising disintegration precisely because it denotes more than an atomic individual. It denotes a differentiated microcosm, capable of accommodating otherness in its fluid, open, creative mode of being and yet is at the same time sustained in its fundamental integrity by its roots in transcendence: “The ideal of difference means to be different not only from others, but also from one’s own self, to outgrow one’s identity as a natural being and to become an integral personality that can include qualities and possibilities of other people’s experiences” ( Epstein 1995: 305).

Berdyaev, N. (1945) The Destiny of Man. London: Geoffrey Bles. -(1976) The Beginning and the End. Westport: Greenwood Press.
Epstein, M. (1995) After the Future. Amherst: The University of Massachussetts Press.
-Internet-Article:‘Post-Atheism: from Apophatic Theology to ‘Minimal Religion’ [from the book: Russian Postmodernism: New Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1999 pp.345-393]
Fire, R. (2003) Understanding Experience: Psychotherapy and Postmodernism. Hove: Routledge.
Loewenthal, D., Snell R. (2003) Postmodernism for Psychotherapists. Hove: Routledge
Martin,J., Sugarman,J., Thompson J. (2003)Psychology and the Question of Agency. New York: SUNY Press
Pollock, J.L. (1989) How to Build a Person: A Prolegomenon. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

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