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Existentialism and Psychology

The links in the table on the left take you to sub-headings on this page.


Use of the term Psychology

When I use the word ‘psychology’, I mean dynamic psychology unless I specify otherwise. Dynamic psychology examines the way that subconscious and unconscious factors affect consciousness.

Other synonyms for dynamic psychology are psycho-analytical psychology, or psycho- dynamic psychology, or depth psychology. Two major writers who developed this kind of psychology were Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud.

Sub - Headings
Digression on Karma
Determinism and Freewill
Effects of Therapy

Two Axes of Consciousness

Consciousness is always changing ; sometimes the changes are slow and barely noticeable, and at other times they are rapid. Any realistic theory of consciousness has to incorporate the element of time. However, time is defined by its relation to that which does not appear to change. In my ideas on consciousness  I use two axes as the framework of theory. One axis is a dynamic (changing) perspective on reality, and the other one is a static (unchanging) perspective on reality.

Now I introduce the idea of the linguistic sign (see the previous article on Semiology ) as a means of expressing my ideas. When I look at an object there are three components to my awareness of it.

There is the idea in my mind of the object.
There is the name of the object that I use to identify it.
And there is an external object (the reference object) which gives rise to the idea of it in my mind.

These three components align themselves into two parts. The reference object is the perceptual object, and the idea plus the name form the conceptual object. The conceptual object is called a linguistic sign, or just a sign.

When any aspect of the linguistic sign is examined using a perspective of time, such as how the sign actually evolved in history, this examination is termed ‘diachronic’. When any aspect of the sign is examined in its present state, without regard to how it became the way it is, this examination is termed ‘synchronic’.

For example : if today I look up the present arrangement of teams in the football league, the way that they are grouped into a table, I see a synchronic comparison. Whereas if  I follow the teams every week then a diachronic comparison unfolds (because I see the way in which the teams continually change their order in the table).

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In my reading on semiology I came across the choice of functional versus causal views on reality. Now causes have a time factor and so are diachronic ; functions are synchronic (independent of time). In addition, causes are static (a cause produces the same effects whenever it is activated), whilst functions are dynamic. Now I could use these terms to define the difference between the existential and the psychological perspectives that I use.

The causal view is the psychological perspective.
The functional view is the existential perspective.

Existentialism takes the person as he is now,
ignoring how he came to be – this is the synchronic view. The states of mind that the person prefers to respond to are those of free will and choice.

Psychology takes the person as he has become,
since it is his own history that is important for determining how he is now – this is the diachronic view. The history of the person has helped to produce his present reality. So the state of mind that has the greatest effect on him is that of determinism (or karma).

In general, if we examine the main psychological factors – beliefs, attitudes, values, etc – operating on a person, then we can assign them into two categories. The factors that are flexible (that is, accepted by choice) can be assigned to his existential perspective. Whereas those that are fixed and inflexible can be assigned to his psychological perspective.

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A Digression on Karma

What does it mean ?
There are several forms of determinism : some are rigid (such as the social class that a person is born into), whilst others can be more variable (such as the effects of childhood conditioning). I need a general-purpose term which can incorporate any or all forms of determinism. The Indian term ‘karma’ is ideal for my purpose.  [¹]

Overall, karma is the effects of a person's behaviours, actions, and thinking. The most important way to understand the concept of karma is that it is the effects of the fixed ideas, beliefs and attitudes that the person carries with him through life (and lifetimes! ) : these aspects of character help to generate a person’s actions and behaviours.

The metaphysical connotation of reincarnation is why I prefer the term ‘karma’ to ‘determinism’. Karma implies influences that have shaped our character from past lives on Earth. If the reader dislikes such metaphysics, then he /she can simply use the term ‘determinism’ wherever I use the term ‘karma’.

However, my use of the term ‘karma’ is more inclusive, and therefore slightly different, from Indian use. The reason for this is that Indian spiritual and philosophical theories do not show much understanding of the subconscious mind - and the subconscious mind is home to a specific form of determinism, that of abreaction. [²]

Karma has two forms.
One form relates to the person's behaviour and fixed beliefs (that is, beliefs which have formed his character) ; whatever the person does produces an effect.
The other form relates to specific ways of thinking within the subconscious mind ; when this form is active, the person's mental states oscillate in a dialectical way. So I call this form dialectical karma.

Abreaction is a dialectical process, and so relates to the dialectical form of karma. The other form of karma is the one described in traditional theories, and includes everything that is not caused by abreaction.

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Now I return to the two axes of consciousness.
The static axis relates to the person's fixed beliefs and attitudes, or those aspects of himself that have become more or less rigid over the process of time. The person is usually unwilling to change these aspects, and so they indicate the influences of determinism from the subconscious mind. The dynamic axis relates to the ego, or personality, or that aspect of a person which uses the conscious mind.

The static and dynamic axes can be denoted as :

Psychological reality is that of determinism /karma.
- static and rigid

Existential reality is that of free will and the ego.
- dynamic and changeable

The person is the sum of his /her existential consciousness and psychological consciousness.
Another way to put this view is:  the person = ego + karma. [³]

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Determinism and Freewill

In order to place the traditional philosophical issue of determinism versus free will on a realistic footing, it is necessary to think of them as being on different axes of reality. So my theory of consciousness has two axes to it : one axis embraces all the issues associated with determinism, and the other axis all the issues associated with free will. I treat consciousness as being binary in its form.

By assuming that consciousness is binary in its form, I can solve problems that appear to be insoluble within a viewpoint based on the unity of consciousness. [4]

This binary nature of consciousness can be approached from several angles.
For example :

Normal consciousness versus hidden consciousness ( "hidden" means subconsciousness and unconsciousness).
Determinism versus free will.
Objectivity versus subjectivity.
Individual identity versus social identity. [5]
Mind versus matter.
Being versus Becoming.

My ideas on consciousness attempt to meld these differing angles into a coherent theory. This is only possible when the theorist is both a psychologist and a philosopher.

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In modern times there have been three major attempts to understand consciousness : these are existentialism, phenomenology, and psycho-analytical psychology. All have produced individually only a moderate understanding.

Phenomenology and existentialism are required for the synchronic view and practice.
Psycho-analysis is required for the diachronic view.

To penetrate the subconscious mind both a synchronic practice and a diachronic perspective are needed.

In the nineteenth century, Kierkegaard explored the synchronic view and Nietzsche the diachronic one (the evolution of morality). In the twentieth century several non-analytic psychologies have been developed, typically involving a focus on behaviour or on counselling. Because they are non-analytic they cannot penetrate very far into the subconscious mind, hence they cannot resolve any high levels of internal conflict and stress in the person. The basic difference is that dynamic psychologies help to change  the subconscious mind, whereas non-analytic psychologies help to manage and control  the subconscious mind.

I consider consciousness to be a binary arrangement. It consists of a static structure (karma, or fixed beliefs) plus a particular perspective on life (the ego). Meanings, values and choices arise from the interplay of perspective with static structure. Static structure relates to the social side of consciousness, in its social relationships. Perspective is individual and dynamic.

The dynamic perspective delimits what is conceivable.
The static structure delimits what is possible.

Determinism is either (a) diachronic, when it is produced over time (the traditional view of karma), or (b) dialectical, when it is the product of abreaction.[6].  Since the content of the dialectical process is the person's fixed beliefs and values, both forms of determinism interact with each other.

The full picture of determinism is that it is diachronic and dialectical.
Whereas free will is synchronic, an aspect of the ego.

The individual meshes together free will and determinism, the synchronic and the diachronic, under the dialectical influences of his/her social situations (the "ups and downs" of his/her relationships). The particular formulation arrived at is constrained by the individual's pattern of anxiety (or stress). The anxiety puts limits on what is conceivable and what is possible.

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Effects of Therapy

This characterisation of consciousness as ego (dynamic) and karma (static) is valid whilst the person is not interested in understanding his /her psychological and relationship problems. The person accepts or is resigned to his /her life, with all its difficulties.

If, however, he /she goes into psychological therapy (such as counselling and psycho- analysis), then the characterisation tends to reverse. To understand this, we need to recognise that psychological change unsettles us. In order to change our limitations and negative beliefs, we first of all have to learn to identify them, by bringing them into normal consciousness. This causes distress. We need a base of stability and familiarity in order to adjust to the unknown effects of change.

Normally the ego is dynamic and karma is static. When, however, we go into therapy and begin to change our fixed beliefs, values, interpretations of our past, etc, then the ego needs to have some stability in order to handle distressful psychological change. Whence we often find that the psychological perspective becomes dynamic and the existential perspective becomes static – the reverse of our normal disposition.

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The number in brackets at the end of each reference takes you back to the paragraph that featured it.
The addresses of my other websites are on the Links page.

[¹]. I have an article on Determinism on my website Discover Your Mind. [1]

[²]. See also article  The Flow of Thought for the interaction between abreaction and dialectics.
My theory of abreaction is presented in shortened form in the article Emotion and Abreaction.
The full theory, in 5 articles, is presented on all my psychology websites : The Strange World of Emotion, The Subconscious Mind, and Discover Your Mind. [2]

[³]. The idea that "a person = ego + karma" is introduced in the article Sexuality and Ethics, on my websites The Strange World of  Emotion, Discover Your Mind, and A Modern Thinker. [3]

[4]. When some aspect of reality is assumed to be a unitary phenomenon, and yet produces paradoxes in our understanding of it, then it is likely that the phenomenon is really a binary one. I use this assumption to solve some standard paradoxes in science and philosophy. See the article The Antimonies. [4]

[5]. In my psychological understanding of the person, he/she has two main identities. One identity centres on aspects of individuality, whilst the other one focuses on the social aspects of life. See the article Two Identities, on my website The Subconscious Mind. [5]

[6]. See the article Causality and Metaphysics, on my website A Modern Thinker. [6]

Home Emotion and Abreaction References and Links Note on Karma

The articles in this section are :

Existentialism and Psychology


Contrasting Meaning and Value

The Antinomies

Summary 2

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