R. D. Laing Essay - Critical Essays

Laing, R. D.


R. D. Laing 1927–1989

(Full name Ronald David Laing) Scottish-born English psychiatrist, essayist, poet, and autobiographer.

The following entry presents an overview of Laing's life and career.

Laing was an internationally known Scottish psychiatrist best-known for his controversial interpretation and treatment of schizophrenia. In his first work on the subject, The Divided Self (1960), he maintains that schizophrenia is not a pathological disease, that the development of schizophrenic personalities is created and promoted by society and the family, and that present-day psychotherapeutic tactics fail to realistically address the needs of the schizophrenic. Since Laing's psychotherapeutic theories challenged the approach of mainstream psychotherapy, many of his colleagues condemned or ignored his insights.

Biographical Information

Born and raised in Glasgow, Scotland, Laing received his M. D. from the University of Glasgow in 1951 and entered the British Army as a psychiatrist. In 1953 he returned to the University of Glasgow as an instructor in psychological medicine, after which he worked as a psychiatrist at the Glasgow Royal Mental Hospital. Following the publication of The Divided Self, he became a family therapist at London's Tavistock Institute of Human Relations and the director of the Langham Clinic for Psychotherapy in 1962. In 1967, he opened a private psychotherapy practice in London, and founded Kingsley Hall, a psychotherapeutic community, while continuing to write and lecture. Laing died in St. Tropez, France, in 1989.

Major Works

Laing proposed a new psychotherapeutic approach to schizophrenia and analyzed the contributions of society and the family in the development of the human psyche. The Divided Self sets forth Laing's thesis that schizophrenia is not a pathological disease. He argues that schizophrenics, who use their own system of logic and understanding to deal with the exigencies of their lives, require an experientially-based psychotherapeutic approach in order to help them adjust to their social and familial environments. While The Self and Others (1961) focuses more on the role of fantasy and interpersonal relationships in the development of the schizophrenic personality, Sanity, Madness, and the Family (1964) examines the lives of eleven families in order to illustrate the ways in which collective insensitivities, pathological fantasies, and anxiety affect the psychological development of family members. In The Politics of Experience (1967) Laing details his "phe-nomenological" psychotherapeutic method, emphasizing the importance of personal experience and scientific training in the assessment of an individual's psychological makeup. The Politics of the Family, and Other Essays (1971), on the other hand, is a collection of radio talks and essays that focus on the intervention of the therapist in family crises. This work examines such themes as schizophrenia, victimization, and psychological liberation within the family setting. Among Laing's poetic works are Knots (1970) and Do You Love Me? (1976), which address such psychological themes as human communications and feelings, and interpersonal, familial, and societal relationships. In Conversations with Adam and Natasha (1977) and Conversations with Children (1978), Laing uses recordings of his own children as the basis for an examination of the values and ideas of all children. Laing's final work is his autobiography, entitled Wisdom, Madness and Folly (1985), which traces his personal, intellectual, and professional development from 1927 to 1957 and the publication of The Divided Self.

Critical Reception

Critical reception of Laing's works has generally been harsh. While most critics agree that his approach to the treatment of schizophrenia is intriguing and original, the majority reject and ignore his theories and his psychotherapeutic insights. Critics are also divided on the value of his poetry; some describe it as "dense and difficult" with "a surface brilliance," while others charge that it is "ugly" and full of "unbearable bathos." Regarding his prose style, many commentators admit that Laing can tell a good story, whether it is about his own life in Wisdom, Madness and Folly or about the case histories of schizophrenic patients. However, in the books about his children's conversations, several critics dismiss them as ordinary and unenlightened, but pleasant reading. Finally, several commentators note a significant change in Laing's writing style. Whereas his earlier works, such as The Divided Self, employed rigorous research, well-developed ideas, and a disciplined literary style, these elements appear to be lacking in his later works. Nevertheless, while many commentators are loathe to accept all of his ideas, they readily admit that his theories about schizophrenia, society, and the family remain a challenge to the thought and practice of contemporary psychiatry.

Principal Works

The Divided Self: A Study of Sanity and Madness (essays) 1960
The Self and Others: Further Studies in Sanity and Madness (essays) 1961
Reason and Violence: A Decade of Sartre's Philosophy, 1950–60 [with David G. Cooper] (essays) 1964
Sanity, Madness, and the Family [with A. Esterson] (essays) 1964; also published as The Families of Schizophrenics
Interpersonal Perception: A Theory and a Method of Research [with A. R. Lee and H. Phillipson] (essays) 1964
The Politics of Experience (essays, poetry) 1967
Knots (poetry) 1970
The Politics of the Family, and Other Essays (essays) 1971
Do you Love Me? An Entertainment in Conversation and Verse (poetry) 1976
The Facts of Life: An Essay in Feelings, Facts, and Fantasy (essay) 1976
Conversations with Adam and Natasha (nonfiction) 1977
Conversations with Children (nonfiction) 1978
Sonnets (poetry) 1980
The Voice of Experience (essays) 1982
Wisdom, Madness, and Folly: The Making of a Psychiatrist (autobiography) 1985


Forrest Williams (review date 6 January 1966)

SOURCE: A review of Reason and Violence, in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. LXIII, No. 1, January 6, 1966, pp. 26-8.

[In the following review of Reason and Violence, Williams maintains that, while Laing's summaries of Jean-Paul Sartre's Saint Genet: Comédien et martyr (Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr; 1952), Questions de méthode (Search for a Method; 1963), and Critique de la raison dialectique (Critique of Dialectical Reason; 1960) are accurate and succinct, the book fails to make Sartre's ideas accessible to the reader unfamiliar with his philosophical terminology.]

Reason and Violence is a résumé of the three major works written by Jean-Paul Sartre in the fifties. In a brief foreword, Sartre himself praises the book of R. D. Laing and D. G. Cooper as "a very clear and faithful exposition." There can be no question, indeed, of the economy and accuracy of their summaries of Saint Genet, Questions de méthode, and volume I of Critique de la raison dialeclique, "Théorie des ensembles pratiques." But precisely because these are entirely faithful condensations, one is hard put to conceive the Anglo-American reader to whom the book will be useful. Sartre's philosophic prose is among the most ungrateful in the twentieth century, and a faithfully miniaturized version in English can be of little help to the uninitiated. The two shorter sections,...

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Robert Coles (review date 13 May 1967)

SOURCE: "Life's Madness," in The New Republic, Vol. 156, No. 19, May 13, 1967, pp. 24-8, 30.

[Coles is an American psychiatrist, educator, nonfiction writer, essayist, and poet whose particular area of interest is the psychological development of children; he is the author of, among other works, The Spiritual Life of Children (1990). In the following review of The Politics of Experience, he praises Laing's literary skills and the ways in which he articulates his views regarding "the demonic and chaotic in man" and modern psychotherapy's approach to madness.]

One of the ways psychiatrists have sorted themselves out in recent years has to do with the...

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Rollo May (review date 20 May 1967)

SOURCE: "The Frontiers of Being Human," in Saturday Review, Vol. L, No. 20, May 20, 1967, pp. 37-9.

[May was an internationally known American psychiatrist, minister, and educator who wrote many books on psychology for lay readers. Regarded as the father of existential psychotherapy in the United States, May eschewed many of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic principals and focused on anxiety and its impact on human behavior. In the following favorable review of The Politics of Experience, he applauds Laing's challenge to conventional psychiatric theories and contends that, by emphasizing the importance of life experiences, Laing "humanizes" schizophrenia and takes "important steps...

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Marshall Berman (review date 22 February 1970)

SOURCE: A review of The Divided Self and The Self and Others, in The New York Times Book Review, February 22, 1970, p. 1-2, 44.

[Berman is an American professor of political science, nonfiction writer, and critic. In the following review of The Divided Self and The Self and Others, he favorably assesses the development of Laing's theory and method for the treatment of schizophrenia, contrasting it with "the prophetic, evangelical (some would say, messianic) tone" of The Politics of Experience.]

For a great many Americans, particularly young Americans, the 1960's were a time in which two of the deepest streams of...

(The entire section is 3679 words.)

James S. Gordon (review date 13 December 1970)

SOURCE: A review of Knots, in The New York Times Book Review, December 13, 1970, p. 6.

[In the following favorable review of Knots, Gordon discusses how Laing uses the themes of communication and interpersonal relationships as "patterns … of human bondage" in his poetry.]

At the beginning of his first book, The Divided Self, R. D. Laing quoted the French psychiatrist Minkowski: "This is a subjective work which tries with all its might to be objective."

For the last 12 years, in eight books and numerous articles, Laing has, to the dismay of much of orthodox psychiatry, pushed his own subjectivity to its limits. He has returned...

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Alan Tyson (review date 11 February 1971)

SOURCE: "Homage to Catatonia," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XVI, No. 2, February 11, 1971, pp. 3-4, 6.

[Tyson is a Scottish psychiatrist, musicologist, and author of several studies on Beethoven. In the following review, in which he examines seven of Laing's major works, he discusses such themes as the role of the family and society in the development of an individual's pathologies, the influence of fantasy and spirituality in the development of self-identity, and Laing's abiding effort "to make madness, and the process of going mad, comprehensible."]

In theory the publication of a substantially revised edition of R. D. Laing's The Self and Others, and...

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Richard Sennett (review date 3 October 1971)

SOURCE: A review of The Politics of the Family, and Other Essays, in The New York Times Book Review, October 3, 1971, pp. 2-3, 40-41

[Sennett is an American sociologist and educator. In the following unfavorable review of The Politics of the Family, he charges that Laing's "thought has disintegrated dramatically" and that he "has lost that capacity to dream which is necessary in any enduring radical vision."]

In a moment of anger in his new book, R. D. Laing writes, "Our own cities are our own animal factories; families, schools, churches, are the slaughterhouses of our children; colleges and other places are the kitchens. As adults in marriages and...

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David Martin (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "R. D. Laing," in The New Left, edited by Maurice Cranston, The Library Press, 1971, pp. 179-208.

[In the following excerpt, Martin summarizes Laing's views on society and the family and his theory and method for the treatment of schizophrenia. He also argues that Laing's work is characterized by generalities, exaggerations, and undeveloped ideas, stating: "(Laing is) on the fringes of the irrationalist Left which stigmatizes and condemns all aspects of socialization and civilization as injurious to truth and the individual's being."]

Ronald Laing must be accounted one of the main contributors to the theoretical and rhetorical armoury of the contemporary Left....

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David Martin (review date February 1972)

SOURCE: "Me Doctor, You Patient," in Encounter, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2, February, 1972, pp. 71-6.

[In the following review of The Politics of the Family, Martin argues that while Laing's subject matter is fascinating and his style is compelling, he is polemical and defensive regarding his theories about madness and the family/society relationship.]

This latest collection of Dr Laing's sermons will appeal to all those who follow the publications of the North London Pulpit. The rhetoric [in The Politics of the Family] is brilliant, the expository style persuasive, the content intriguing. Unlike Dr. Cooper, his fellow preacher, Ronald Laing is not so much a...

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Robert Boyers (essay date Winter 1974)

SOURCE: "The Laingian Family," in Partisan Review, Vol. XLI, No. 1, Winter, 1974, pp. 109-18.

[Boyers is an American psychologist and educator whose written works include Psychological Man: Approaches to an Emergent Social Type (1974). In the following excerpt, he discusses the influence of Wilhelm Reich on Laing's work and explores the development of Laing's notion that madness is comprehensible and that the family plays a pivotal role in the creation of a schizophrenic personality.]

The attack on the nuclear family will probably turn out to be the most important development of our period, a phenomenon beside which other militancies, of whatever character, will...

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Rosemary Dinnage (review date 5 August 1976)

SOURCE: "Over the Edge," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXIII, No. 13, August 5, 1976, pp. 38-9.

[In the following excerpt from a review of Laing's The Facts of Life and David Reed's Anna, Dinnage negatively compares the former book to The Divided Self.]

Laing's new book [The Facts of Life] is more about the factlessness of life than about its facts. It has a chill air of slackness and confusion. Laing begins with a short—too short—autobiographical sketch, which gives us a few devastating glimpses of his early life: the only child of estranged parents, his mother ill after his birth, his care at the hands of a "drunken slut"; he and his...

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H. J. Eysenck (review date October 1977)

SOURCE: "But Is It Art?," in Books and Bookmen, Vol. 23, No. 1, October, 1977, p. 41.

[Eysenck is a German psychologist, educator, and author of several books, including Personality and Individual Differences: A Natural Science Approach (1985). In the following negative review of Do You Love Me?, Eysenck charges that the poetry has the characteristics of an "undergraduate joke" and that Laing's "undisciplined verbal ability" has produced "ugly" poetry of "unbearable bathos."]

Laing's Autobiography, [Wisdom, Madness and Folly,] which I reviewed in these pages a few months ago, already departed considerably from his usual style of writing; this book...

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Anthony Storr (review date 12 February 1978)

SOURCE: "From the Mouths of Babes," in The New York Times Book Review, February 12, 1978, p. 8.

[Storr is an English psychiatrist and educator whose written works include The Dynamics of Creation (1972), C. G. Jung (1973), and The Art of Psychotherapy (1980). In the following review of Conversations with Adam and Natasha, Storr contends that, while the book's subject matter—transcriptions of conversations between Laing's young children—holds a certain fascination, the work is ultimately insubstantial.]

Admirers of R. D. Laing will enjoy this book. I liked it better than any book of his that I have read since his first two, The Divided...

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Rosemary Dinnage (review date 14 July 1978)

SOURCE: "Knuts," in New Statesman, Vol. 96, No. 2469, July 14, 1978, pp. 55-6.

[In the following review of Conversations with Children, Dinnage contends that, while the transcribed conversations between Laing's children are interesting at times, and may in fact raise serious "theoretical considerations." Laing is simply wrong to claim that this kind of material has never before been published.]

R. D. Laing has protested against being considered a gloomy fellow who sees no hope for the human race, and wants to show that he has another side; also he has a writing problem ('Natasha: why are you feeling sad?… Ronnie: I want to write things but I...

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David Ingleby (review date 3 September 1982)

SOURCE: "In Place of the Placenta," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4144, September 3, 1982, p. 939.

[In the following mixed review of The Voice of Experience, Ingleby examines Laing's theory of the mind and suggests that his thinking has undergone a change, even a "regression," taking up positions he had dismissed in earlier works.]

No merely human author could have lived up to the leg-end which R. D. Laing generated in the 1960s: yet this was not the only reason why his recent publications have come as a disappointment to many. One sometimes suspected that the promptings of the publisher had been louder than those of the muse. A burnt-out case? On the...

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Peter Sedgwick (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "R. D. Laing: The Radical Trip," in Psycho Politics: Laing, Foucault, Goffman, Szasz, and the Future of Mass Psychiatry, Harper & Row, 1982, pp. 66-101.

[Sedgwick was an English political scientist and translator best known for his socialist critiques of the treatment of the mentally ill. In the following essay, he outlines Laing's early career; the philosophical, psychological, and theological sources for some of his ideas; and the evolution of his theories about schizophrenia, the family, and society.]

The anti-psychiatry movement required a whole train of concurrent, convergent influences before it could gather force. Some of these factors lay in the...

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Maurice S. Friedman (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "The Politics of Dialogue: Ronald Laing," in Contemporary Psychology: Revealing and Obscuring the Human, Duquesne University Press, 1984, pp. 107-16.

[Friedman is an American educator who has written extensively on philosophy, religion, and psychology, including several books about the Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber. In the following excerpt, he examines Laing's views on the relation of the individual to the "other," comparing them with similar ideas found in the writings of Buber, Rollo May, and other psychologists, philosophers, and theologians.]

"More significant than the issue between atheist and theological existentialists," I have written...

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Peter Barham (review date 4 July 1985)

SOURCE: "Two Ronnies," in London Review of Books, Vol. 7, No. 12, July 4, 1985, p. 12.

[In the following review of Wisdom, Madness and Folly, Barham disputes many of Laing's assertions about his work and the state of modern psychiatry. He also negatively assesses the quality of the writing in this and much of Laing's later work.]

Schizophrenia is now held to be one of the major illnesses of mankind, but its recognition as a clinical syndrome is of relatively recent origin. There is something very odd about the sudden arrival of the chronic schizophrenic on the stage of history at the end of the 19th century. One hypothesis which has been canvassed recently is...

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Carol Tavris (review date 8 September 1985)

SOURCE: "Things We Don't Talk About," in The New York Times Book Review, September 8, 1985, p. 9.

[Tavris is an American psychologist. In the following review of Wisdom, Madness and Folly, she contends that the book is an appealing account of the first part of Laing's career.]

The second sweetest set of three words in English is "I don't known," and it is to R. D. Laing's credit that he uses it often. For psychiatry really does not know much about madness. It cannot explain why an American catatonic schizophrenic, crouched in apparently mindless rigidity in front of a television set for a month, can later recite every detail of the World Series he has seen. It...

(The entire section is 1292 words.)

David Ingleby (review date 11 October 1985)

SOURCE: "Precocious and Alone," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4306, October 11, 1985, p. 1130.

[In the following review of Wisdom, Madness and Folly, Ingleby contends that, while Laing's autobiography "is absorbing and enjoyable as a story," it fails as a document of his intellectual development because of its exclusive presentation of his own point of view: his life "is presented as a solitary journey, and we hear little … about the fellowship that must surely have sustained it."]

As everybody knows, R. D. Laing is a psychiatrist who sees things very differently from his colleagues, many of whom indeed believe him to be crazy. How did he get that way?...

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Further Reading


Bettelheim, Bruno. Review of The Facts of Life, by R. D. Laing. The New York Times Book Review (30 May 1976): 5, 12.

Compares the psychotherapeutic methodologies presented in Laing's The Facts of Life with those of Thomas Szasz in his book Heresies (1976).

Cioffi, Frank. "Honours for Craziness." London Review of Books (17-30 June 1982): 10-11.

Discusses The Voice of Experience and Peter Sedgwick's Psycho Politics (1982).

Raksin, Alex. Review of Wisdom, Madness and Folly: The Making of a...

(The entire section is 186 words.)