Ludwig Binswanger And Existential Psychology

Ludwig Binswanger was the first existentialist psychiatrist. It was thanks to him that attention shifted to the patient’s personal reality and context.
Ludwig Binswanger and existential psychology

Ludwig Binswanger was a Swiss psychiatrist and writer and introduced the term Deseinsanalyse into the field of psychoanalysis. Thanks to this concept, we have understood that the human being is open to any experience. The patient’s psyche, therefore, is not an entity in itself, reduced merely to individual processes. The context in which it is immersed and the way in which it interprets it also defines its orientation.

Few figures in the psychoanalytic school were as united as Biswanger and Sigmund Freud. Although their theoretical approaches differed greatly, they always admired each other. They always maintained a vivid correspondence and Freud offered refuge to Binswanger during the Second World War. Together, each with their own point of view, they enriched the foundations of this current of psychotherapy.

Ludwig Binswanger was the first existentialist psychiatrist. His thinking was rooted in works by authors such as Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. This allowed him to approach the patient’s reality differently. That limited approach, which took into account only the pathological aspects of the person, was already outdated. For the first time, the reality surrounding the human being was taken into consideration, as well as the circumstances and context of origin.

In 1956 he received the Kraepelin Medal, the highest honor in the field of psychiatry. He could always count on the admiration of the cultural society of the time; artists, musicians, poets, writers and philosophers such as Ortega y Gasset, Martin Buber or Heidegger himself became friends with this key figure in the history of psychology.

Ludwig Binswanger figures with a voice of his own in the world of psychoanalysis

Black and white photo by Ludwig Binswanger.

Ludwig Binswanger was born in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland, in 1881. We cannot ignore the importance that this European city assumed as the cradle of psychoanalysis. At the beginning of the 20th century, the University of Zurich brought together figures of the caliber of Carl Jung and Eugen Bleuer.

Both were fellow students of Binswanger himself, even if, as he himself would later affirm, it was Sigmund Freud who marked his personal and professional life. Their friendship lasted a lifetime and was instrumental, especially when Binswanger was diagnosed with cancer in 1912. He received support and encouragement from Freud.

It didn’t take long for him to join the club of philosophers called the “Freud Group”, which Carl Jung himself headed in Switzerland. Despite his friendship and sheer admiration for Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Binswanger had different ideas about clinical psychiatry. His point of view was very different from the more classical psychoanalysis.

A pioneer of existential psychology

Ludwig Binswanger was director of the Bellevue nursing home in Kreuzlingen from 1911 to 1956. This international clinic was founded by his grandfather and new therapeutic principles were born in it. Binswanger, in fact, was the first physician to merge psychotherapy with existentialist and phenomenological philosophy.

In 1942 he wrote a book entitled Being in the world. With this study he introduced the term Daseinsanalyse in order to existential analysis as an empirical science. Its purpose was among the most innovative in the field of psychoanalysis, and is based on the following premises:

  • Apply an anthropological approach to understanding patient behavior.
  • Make use of Husserl’s theory of the life world to understand the patient’s subjective experiences.
  • Mental illness is therefore not an entity in itself. It does not always respond to an individual and limited process of the psyche. It is also necessary to take into account the structural links that the individual has made with the world.
  • To understand the pathologies it is necessary to have understood many other aspects. For example, the way the individual experiences their reality, understanding how they feel physically and emotionally. It is equally important to grasp the nature of his social relationships.
Human silhouettes holding hands and Ludwig Binswanger's theory.

Theoretical contributions

Ludwig Binswanger was a pioneer of the school of existential psychology. Thanks to him, today we are aware of the complexity of human existence and the importance it could have in the clinical field.

He wrote nearly a hundred articles, books, documents and methodological critiques of psychoanalysis, such as Die drei Grundelemente des wissenschaftlichen Denkens bei Freud (The three fundamental elements of Freud’s scientific ideas, 1921).

He subjected psychoanalysis to a process of renewal. He abandoned the methodology in vogue until that moment to draw inspiration from the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and the hermeneutics of Wilhelm Dilthey.

Based on this new perspective, Binswanger taught that the person is free to build the existence he wishes. There will be those who want to dedicate their lives to art, some to business, some to others … Existence transcends being and everyone can take the path they prefer. He also established three very specific types of existence:

  • The Umwelt : the surrounding world, or rather the relationship we have with all living beings that are part of our context.
  • The Mitwelt : the living being in relation to the world. In this case, Binswanger was referring to interpersonal relationships.
  • The Eigenwelt:  the world, understood as the subjective and personal experience of the single individual.

Love can change us, according to Ludwig Binswanger’s psychoanalysis

Another very interesting concept developed by Ludwig Binswanger is Being beyond the world. With this idea, the Swiss psychiatrist taught us that it is up to us to change what doesn’t make us feel good and makes us unhappy. We can do this because we enjoy free will.

According to Binswanger’s existential approach, we can progress as we face new transformations. These changes only take shape through motivation, and the source of motivation is, without a doubt, love.

This dimension, that of the sincere affection that others transmit to us and that we can give to ourselves, can lead us to new and better realities, as well as transforming our relationships and even our world.

Hands holding a heart.

The thought of which Binswanger was the founder, the so-called Deseinanalyse (or existential analysis), quickly spread throughout Europe and the United States. Today his figure, as well as his legacy, are still representatives of one of the most interesting currents of contemporary philosophy. Ludwig Binswanger died in 1966 in his hometown of Kreuzlingen. He was 75 years old.

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