R. D. Laing Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.