Essay//Recognizing Child Abuse as a Public Issue: Insights from Social Cultural & Feminist Perspectives

The true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children”  Nelson Mandela.[1]

In the Netherlands, approximately 119.000 children grow up in a context of child abuse every year.[2] In fact, over a lifetime, 1 in 4 Dutch inhabitants have experienced or still experience child abuse.[3] The potential detrimental effects child abuse has on human development and health are widely known.[4],[5] Indeed, pediatricians claim that child abuse is a major public health problem and Dr. Burke argues that trauma and elevated stress levels in childhood correlate with the development of twelve diseases later in life, such as mental illnesses, addiction, and even cancer.[6] The significance of tackling child abuse at the source is thus of great relevance and importance because it affects the wellbeing of such a large proportion in society.

In general, child abuse and neglect can take on several forms, such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. The definitions vary across countries and are related to cultural norms of violence. This paper upholds the following definition by The Netherlands Youth Institute;

“Any form of threatening or violent interaction of a physical, psychological or sexual nature that threatens a minor, that is actively or passively imposed on the minor by parents or other persons to whom the minor is in a dependent or unfree relationship with, which causes or will cause serious harm to the minor in the form of physical or psychological injury.”[7]

This essay aims to investigate what broader societal pathologies underline the high prevalence of child abuse. Doing so this essay moves away from the tendency to regard family violence as a private trouble. Instead, I attempt to show how parents’ abusive behaviour is largely informed by social structures of power, norms and values, and culture. Through the investigation of these, I hope to unite the affected public and to create a platform for social change. For the purpose of this paper, I will first illustrate why child abuse is a public issue, after which I will engage in two perspectives: social cultural and feminist perspectives. The social cultural perspective questions how broader social cultural values, norms, and laws are implicated in child abuse, whereas the feminist perspective brings forward the aspects of impositions, expectations, and systems of power and their interrelation in the pathologies of child abuse. Subsequently I show what kind of policy avenues these two perspectives potentially point towards and come to a conclusion.

Public Issue

When we look at the history of child abuse, we see that the phenomenon is something of all times. We see that the issue has travelled and has been translated into policies across space and time.[8] Historically, children have had little rights with regards to their parents. For example, in Ancient Rome it was legal to kill your own children, and, in the Bible, Abraham nearly kills his son.[9] It was not until 1962, when paediatricians Henry Kempe and colleagues published a study on the prevalence of ‘the battered child syndrome’, that physical violence towards children became something of public attention amongst countries such as the United States (US), Denmark, and Sweden.[10] Also in the 1970s, radical feminist movements reinterpreted incest as sexual violence towards women and children.[11] The Netherlands needed more time. In fact, in the 1990s Dutch child protection services still judged parents by discerning between deserved and undeserved slaps and it was only in 2007, twenty-eight years later than Sweden, when violence towards children was officially illegal.[12] Due to these developments, physical and sexual child abuse became “a putative condition or situation that is labelled a problem in the arenas of public discourse and action”.[13]

Nevertheless, the prevalence of child abuse remains high in the Netherlands. This is because, according to van Beek, child abuse lies on the margins of what is defined as public and private.[14] But, even though it is easy to conceptualize child abuse as a private trouble because it often takes place within the sphere of the home, C.W. Mills’ concept of the sociological imagination enables us to see that child abuse is a public issue.[15] Child abuse would be a personal trouble if out of 100.000 children only one child is abused. But it becomes a public issue when in the Netherlands 1 in 4 inhabitants have experienced a form of child abuse.[16] These numbers encourage us to recognise that this individual experience is in fact part of a larger social phenomenon. Given that the family is the primary locus of socialization and stabilisation of characters[17], we can start to imagine what effect it has on the functioning of society if a quarter of ‘the people in general’ have been abused in this important phase of life.[18] It then becomes crucial to examine what broader societal forces are implicated in this issue in order to point towards a solution.

The public I wish to address here entails adults and children, that are affected by physical, psychological, and sexual violence at a young age, but also the politicians, child protection services, legislators, and other social institutions that construct the context in which child abuse occurs. This is in line with Dewey’s notion of a public, where a negative externality or issue calls a public into being.[19]

Child Abuse: The Social Cultural Perspective 

The prevalence of child abuse has been related by some sociologists to broader social-cultural factors, such as attitudes towards violence.[20],[21],[22] Here the basic line of thought is that societal symbols, norms, and values, interact with the everyday micro actions within the family. For example, in an extensive cross-cultural study, Douglas shows that norms and values within a culture influence the approval of corporal punishment, which is “the act of inflicting physical pain without injury on a child in an effort to correct the child’s behaviour”.[23] Moreover, the study displays that those who have been through a high amount of familial socialisation of violence were more likely to support spanking children as a form of punishment.[24]

Murray Straus, who has spent almost a lifetime researching the social factors that determine intrafamily violence, shows in his 1986 study that the decrease in rates of violence between 1975 and 1986 parallels with “changes in the family, in the economy, in the social acceptability of family violence, in alternatives available to women, in social control processes, and in the availability of treatment and prevention services”.[25] In other words, societal changes in norms and values regarding violence and family structure, impact the rates of physical violence towards children.

Similar results can be found in the following case. In Sweden, which was the first country to explicitly ban corporal punishment of minors in 1979, the abolishment was followed by a public education program and it was expected that, “through its educational function, the law would increase awareness of children’s rights to physical integrity, and of the problem of child physical maltreatment”.[26] Durrant and colleagues evaluated the effectiveness of the law and found that that the amount of violence towards children rapidly declined since this legal reform.[27],[28]  Rates of severe violence towards children, homicides due to child abuse, and positive attitudes to physical punishment have significantly dropped. Even if Swedish parents did strike their children, they are more likely to realize that this was unnecessary and ineffective.[29] It is important to note that despite these findings in Sweden, there remain instances of severe child abuse, though these rates are relatively low when compared to other countries.[30]

In the Netherlands, cultural values of negotiation are reflected in discussions between parents on the appropriateness of physical punishment of children, despite the fact that physical violence towards children has been illegal by Dutch law since 2007. According to van den Berg,

“egalitarian forms of interaction were so much preferred by teachers, parenting coaches and social workers that in one case I witnessed, not even slapping children was denounced. Even slapping children (defined by practitioners as an authoritarian technique) thus became the object of a negotiation”.[31]

This example shows that particular cultural norms and values can affect attitudes towards, and perhaps the prevalence of, physical violence towards children. Also, this case stresses the importance of accompanying public education and law enforcement with law reform, since the latter alone still potentially leads to physical child abuse to be negotiable amongst parents.

The strength of investigating child abuse from a social cultural perspective is that the perspective centres around the question of how societal forces are implicated in the prevalence and endorsement of child mistreatment, even though these nations officially declare to enhance efforts to reduce these forms of family violence.[32] To some extent however, this perspective does fail to explain why a minority of individuals remain abusive towards their children when they have been brought up in context in which intrafamily violence is not the norm, such as in Sweden.[33] In other words, anomalies occur and it remains hard to account for those from a social cultural framework. To tackle this limitation of individual pathologies it might be useful to take an interdisciplinary approach where one looks into psychological and social-psychological studies. Despite this complication, the social cultural perspective offers insights into the significance of societal changes in norms, values, and legislations of combatting child abuse.

Child Abuse: Feminist Perspectives

What is less discussed in most of the studies mentioned in the social cultural perspective is the interplay between gender issues and child abuse. However, feminist perspectives are important to our understanding of child abuse as a public issue since feminism played a big role in uncovering the debate on one of the biggest taboos of family violence: child sexual abuse.[34]

Before the 1920s, only social workers and volunteers concerned themselves with incest, however due to “an active reinterpretation of child sexual abuse” radical  feminists revived the debate in the 1970s.[35] The issue was framed as a form of domestic violence,[36],[37] which was conceptualised as “a social and collective problem that reflects the unequal gender power relations in patriarchal societies in a larger framework of patriarchy”.[38] Radical feminists maintained that this patriarchal order deemed males more likely to dominate women and children. Due to this power imbalance and the fact that men were socialised differently in sexual expression, it follows in this context that males are more likely to sexually abuse children than women would.[39],[40]

However, as we know, there is not one fixed form of feminism, “instead there are multiple feminisms, representing perspectives in a process of continual review”.[41] Indeed, postmodern feminists have argued that this radical feminist view on family violence is generalising and essentialising; “generalisations about abusive men, peaceful women and powerless children are both inaccurate empirically and unhelpful to those who are given a statutory mandate to intervene to protect those at risk”.[42]

Instead, it is crucial to recognise that women are implicated in child abuse as well, which was largely neglected in the radical feminist perspective.[43] Indeed, in a recent study in 2014, it was found that 45% of the perpetrators in the United States of child maltreatment were men, and 54% were women.[44],[45]

Although it becomes more difficult to explain women’s violence to children as a consequence of patriarchy, postmodern feminists argue that it is necessary to shift focus to understanding how oppressive institutional definitions of motherhood, women, and children create ambivalent feelings that could potentially lead to violent behaviour towards children.[46],[47] For example, in the Netherlands the mother receives approximately six weeks of paid birth leave whereas fathers receive only two days.[48] This reinforces the oppressive stereotype that women are natural caregivers. Indeed, this institutional conception of parenthood, where the mother is expected to be more in close contact with the child, might lead, according to Gelles, to mothers experiencing a loss of freedom and increased feelings of frustration towards the child.[49] Likewise, Ong argues that ‘motherhood’ is a product of patriarchy which emphasizes the pressure already placed on mothers to take good care of their children.[50]

Additionally, insights from intersectional feminist theory stress that it is crucial to examine how these impositions differ across multiple systems of oppression. The links between domestic violence, child abuse, and mothering must be interrogated by simultaneously considering “women’s multiple social identities and several systems of oppression”.[51]

In an attempt to bring all these feminisms together, I would like to argue that bell hooks’ definition of feminism has the potential to do so. In Feminism is for Everybody, she states that “feminism is a movement to end sexism”, where sexism embodies systems of domination, subordination, and oppression.[52] All feminisms above are movements towards ending sexisms, in the sense that they explicitly interrogate systems of power and oppression, related to both the realm of the family and wider society. They show that this division between the personal and the political is not so clear in the case of child abuse and domestic violence. Indeed, all demonstrate that child abuse is an issue of unequal distributions of material and emotional resources, power, and privilege.

Potential Policy Outcomes

The two perspectives discussed above both potentially lead to different policy outcomes, though some overlap could be found as well. Both the social cultural and feminist perspective encourage policies to move away from solely investigating individual pathologies of child abuse, which is a habit due to an increased trust in behavioural studies, such as (social) psychology, that tend to focus on the individual.[53] Instead, both approaches see that there is a great value in tackling the issue of child abuse on a broader societal level.[54]

The social cultural perspective recognises that social and cultural norms, values, and laws are crucial to our understanding and practice of child abuse.[55] This has been shown by the successful case of Sweden, where law reform combined with public education was correlated with significant reductions in both positive attitudes towards and rates of child homicide, abuse, and rape.[56] This case encourages us to acknowledge the importance of changes in policies, education, and law with regards to the issue of child abuse. This is in line with Clarke’s argument on policymaking as an ongoing meaning making process that reflects attitudes in society.[57] Thus, according to this perspective the problem of child abuse is a problem of norms, values and legislations, which should therefore be contested and changed through law reform and public education.

Likewise, feminist perspectives argue for the restructuring of institutional norms and values. However, for feminists, these need to be questioned in terms of their oppressive nature with regards to sexist expectations of childhood, paternity, and maternity. In Featherstone’s words:

“We would need to develop practices which allow men, women and children to explore the meanings that gender, attachment, dependence, vulnerability and violence hold for them. Notions of mothering and fathering would surely be vital to interrogate, particularly in relation to biographical and relational significance. Notions of children as possessions, as a means of completing identity and, as status symbols, would surely jostle with notions of rights and entitlements to be heard and recognized as aspects of family scripts”.[58]

Feminists stress the direct relation between the political, institutional, and public values of child rearing, and the personal, individual, and private experience of the family. Therefore, in policies, emphasis should be placed on what impositions are placed on parents[59], and on the “differences in material and emotional resources between such [abusing] parents and crucially the different meanings attached to particular activities and practices”.[60] Likewise, attentiveness must be brought to how multiplicities of oppressions intersect and potentially create particular vulnerabilities to domestic violence and child abuse.[61],[62]


Current debates on child abuse would be strengthened by an engagement with the perspectives outlined in this paper. The first perspective is characterized by a recognition of the interplay of broad social cultural norms and values, and the occurrence of and attitudes towards child abuse. The second perspective represents the importance of taking a step back to question the impositions placed on fathers, mothers, and caregivers across culture, class, and race. Both perspectives encourage us to think of child abuse as a societal issue, even though it is tempting to consider it as a private problem because child abuse occurs behind closed doors. However, drawing from sociological insights, it becomes clear the high prevalence of child abuse is something in need for a public discussion.

What we can learn from potential policy outcomes outlined in the previous section is that individual interventions alone are insufficient to solve the issue of child abuse. Instead, it is crucial to systematically interrogate and compare norms, values, and impositions placed on mothers, fathers, and caregivers, followed by a reformation of national laws and public education. The case of Sweden shows that these steps lead to a significant reduction in violence towards children.

Needless to say, it remains important to engage with the issue of child abuse at different levels as well. Belsky designed a four-level approach to child abuse; that is ontogenic development, which is concerned with “what individual parents bring to the situation, their developmental background and experiences”; the microsystem, “which is concerned with the interaction of individuals within the family”; exosystem, “the immediate social environment within which the family functions”; and the macrosystem, “broader cultural factors, such as cultural attitudes toward violence”[63]. Arguably, most research on child abuse centres around the first three levels. This is because we are living in ‘un-sociological’ times, in which the individual is privileged over the collective.[64] This research, however, focused on the latter level, though it could be argued that the power of the sociological imagination is to see that all these levels are interconnected, and related to space and time. This is why it is crucial to keep on engaging with the issue of child abuse from sociological perspectives.


van Beek, Krijn; Steketee, Majone; van Doorn Lia; & Ham, Marcel, 1 op de 4: kindermishandeling, een publiek probleem (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij van Gennep, 2017).

van den Berg, Marguerite. “Egalitarian Paternalism: Interactional Forms of Negotiating Equality and Intervention in Dutch Policy Practices.” Citizenship Studies 20.3-4 (2016): 457-474.

Calhoun, Craig. “The Problematic Public: Revisiting Dewey, Arendt, and Habermas.” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values 32 (2013): 67-107.

“Child Maltreatment – Facts at a Glance.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2014. Accessed December 14, 2018.

“Cijfers.” Kindermishandeling – Cijfers | NJi. Accessed December 13, 2018., Nadine Burke. The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-term Effects of Childhood Adversity. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.

Corby, Brian. Child abuse: Towards a Knowledge Base. (McGraw-Hill International, 2006).

Duyvendak, Jan Willem. “We Leven in ‘on-sociologische Tijden’.” Sociale Vraagstukken. July 24, 2017. Accessed December 17, 2018.

Harris, Nadine Burke. The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-term Effects of Childhood Adversity. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018).

Clarke, J. , D. Bainton, N. Lendvai & P. Stubbs.). Chapter one: Moving Policy Studies. In: Making Policy Move. Towards a Politics of Translation and Assemblage. (Bristol: Policy Press, 2015).

“Definitie En Vormen.” Cijfers | NJi. Accessed December 17, 2018.

Dewey, J., “Chapter 1: Search for the Public” In: The Public and its Problems. An Essay in Political Enquiry. (Athens: Ohio Press, 1927).

Damant Dominique, et al. “Taking Child abuse and Mothering into Account: Intersectional Feminism as an Alternative for the Study of Domestic Violence.” Affilia 23.2 (2008): 123-133.

Dominelli, Lena. “Father-daughter Incest: Patriarchy’s Shameful Secret.” Critical Social Policy 6.16 (1986): 8-22.

Douglas, Emily M. “Familial Violence Socialization in Childhood and Later Life Approval of Corporal Punishment: A Cross–cultural Perspective.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 76.1 (2006): 23-30.

Durrant, Joan E., and Staffan Janson. “Law reform, corporal punishment and child abuse: the case of Sweden.” International Review of Victimology 12.2 (2005): 139-158.

Durrant, Joan E. “Evaluating the success of Sweden’s corporal punishment ban.” Child abuse & neglect 23.5 (1999): 435-448.

Gelles, Richard J. “Child abuse as Psychopathology: A Sociological Critique and Reformulation.” American journal of Orthopsychiatry 43.4 (1973): 611 – 621.

Gordon, Linda. “The Politics of Child Sexual Abuse: Notes from American history.” Feminist Review 28.1 (1988): 56-64.

Hilgartner, S., C. Bosk. The Rise and Fall of Social Problems. A Public Arenas Model. American Journal of Sociology 94.1 (1988): 53-78.

hooks, bell. Feminism is for Everybody. (Pluto Press, 2000), 1.

Josephson, Jyl. “The Intersectionality of Domestic Violence and Welfare in the Lives of Poor Women.” Journal of Poverty 6.1 (2002): 1-20.

Kendall-Tackett, Kathleen. “The health effects of childhood abuse: four pathways by which abuse can influence health.” Child abuse & neglect 26.6-7 (2002): 715-729.

Mersky, J. P., J. Topitzes, and A. J. Reynolds. “Impacts of adverse childhood experiences on health, mental health, and substance use in early adulthood: A cohort study of an urban, minority sample in the US.” Child abuse & neglect 37.11 (2013): 917-925.

Mills, C. Wright. “Chapter 1. The promise” in The Sociological Imagination. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959).

Ong, Bie Nio. “The Paradox of “Wonderful Children”: The Case of Child Abuse.” Early Child Development and Care 21.1-3 (1985): 91-106.

Parsons, Talcott. “The Incest Taboo in Relation to Social Structure and the Socialization of the Child.” The British Journal of Sociology 5.2 (1954): 101-117.

Straus, Murray A., and Richard J. Gelles. “Societal Change and Change in Family Violence from 1975 to 1985 as Revealed by Two National Surveys.” Journal of Marriage and the Family (1986): 465-479.

Straus, Murray A., Richard J. Gelles, and Suzanne K. Steinmetz. Behind closed doors: Violence in the American family. (Routledge: 2017).

Volksgezondheid, Ministerie Van. “Zwangerschap En Geboorte.” Werken in Het Onderwijs | November 30, 2018. Accessed December 14, 2018.

Whitehead, Mark, et al. “Nudging all over the World.” ESRC Report, Economic and Social Research Council, Swindon and Edinburgh (2014).

[1] From Launch of the Blue Train, Worcester Station, Worcester, South Africa, Sept. 27, 1997

[2] “Cijfers.” Kindermishandeling – Cijfers | NJi. Accessed December 13, 2018.

[3] Krijn van Beek, Majone Steketee, Lia van Doorn & Marcel Ham, 1 op de 4: kindermishandeling, een publiek probleem (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij van Gennep,2017), 9.

[4] J. P. Mersky, J. Topitzes, and A. J. Reynolds. “Impacts of adverse childhood experiences on health, mental health, and substance use in early adulthood: A cohort study of an urban, minority sample in the US.” Child abuse & neglect 37.11 (2013): 917-925.

[5] Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, “The health effects of childhood abuse: four pathways by which abuse can influence health.” Child abuse & neglect 26.6-7 (2002): 715-729.

[6] Nadine Burke Harris, The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-term Effects of Childhood Adversity. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018).

[7] Original in Dutch: “Elke vorm van voor een minderjarige bedreigende of gewelddadige interactie van fysieke, psychische of seksuele aard, die de ouders of andere personen ten opzichte van wie de minderjarige in een relatie van afhankelijkheid of van onvrijheid staat, actief of passief opdringen, waardoor ernstige schade wordt berokkend of dreigt te worden berokkend aan de minderjarige in de vorm van fysiek of psychisch letsel.” –”Definitie En Vormen.” Cijfers | NJi. Accessed December 17, 2018.

[8] J. Clarke and D. Bainton, N. Lendvai & P. Stubbs. Chapter one: Moving Policy Studies. In: Making Policy Move. Towards a Politics of Translation and Assemblage. (Bristol: Policy Press, 2015), 9.

[9] Murray A. Straus and Richard J. Gelles, and Suzanne K. Steinmetz. Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family. (Routledge: 2017), 9.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Linda Gordon. “The Politics of Child Sexual Abuse: Notes from American history.” Feminist Review 28.1 (1988): 56-64.

[12] van Beek, 1 op de 4, 18.

[13] S. Hilgartner and C. Bosk. The Rise and Fall of Social Problems. A Public Arenas Model. American Journal of Sociology 94.1 (1988): 55.

[14] van Beek, 1op 4, 19.

[15] C. Wright Mills. “Chapter 1. The promise” in The Sociological Imagination. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), 2- 24.

[16] Van Beek, 1 op de 4, 9.

[17] Talcott Parsons, “The Incest Taboo in Relation to Social Structure and the Socialization of the Child.” The British Journal of Sociology 5.2 (1954): 101-117.

[18] Craig Calhoun, “The Problematic Public: Revisiting Dewey, Arendt, and Habermas.” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values 32 (2013): 71.

[19] J. Dewey “Chapter 1: Search for the Public” In: The Public and its Problems. An Essay in Political Enquiry. (Athens: Ohio Press, 1927): 84.

[20] Emily M. Douglas, “Familial Violence Socialization in Childhood and Later Life Approval of Corporal Punishment: A Cross–cultural Perspective.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 76.1 (2006): 29.

[21] Murray A. Straus and Richard J. Gelles. “Societal Change and Change in Family Violence from 1975 to 1985 as Revealed by Two National Surveys.” Journal of Marriage and the Family (1986): 475.

[22] Straus, Gelles, and Steinmetz. Behind closed doors: Violence in the American family. (Routledge: 2017).

[23] Douglas, “Familial Violence Socialization”, 29.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Straus & Gelles. “Societal Change and Change in Family Violence from 1975 to 1985 as Revealed by Two National Surveys.”, 475.

[26] Joan E Durrant and Staffan Janson. “Law Reform, Corporal Punishment and Child Abuse: The Case of Sweden.” International Review of Victimology 12.2 (2005): 139-158: 142.

[27] Ibid, 156.

[28] Joan E Durrant. “Evaluating the Success of Sweden’s Corporal Punishment Ban.” Child abuse & Neglect 23.5 (1999): 435-448.

[29] Durrant, “Law Reform”, 156.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Marguerite van den Berg, “Egalitarian Paternalism: Interactional Forms of Negotiating Equality and Intervention in Dutch Policy Practices.” Citizenship Studies 20.3-4 (2016): 457-474. 467.

[32] Brian Corby, Child Abuse: Towards a Knowledge Base. (McGraw-Hill International, 2006): 173.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Gordon, “The Politics of Child Sexual Abuse”, 56.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Corby, Child Abuse, 175.

[38] Dominique Damant, et al. “Taking Child Abuse and Mothering into Account: Intersectional Feminism as an Alternative for the Study of Domestic Violence.” Affilia 23.2 (2008): 123-133.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Lena Dominelli. “Father-daughter Incest: Patriarchy’s Shameful Secret.” Critical Social Policy 6.16 (1986): 8-22. ,12.

[41] Graham (1992; 56) in Featherstone, “What Has Gender Got to Do with It?”, 423.

[42] Featherstone, “Feminism and Child Abuse”, 71.

[43] Corby, Child Abuse, 175.

[44] “Child Maltreatment – Facts at a Glance.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2014. Accessed December 14, 2018.

[45] Richard J. Gelles, “Child Abuse as Psychopathology: A Sociological Critique and Reformulation.” American journal of Orthopsychiatry 43.4 (1973): 616.

[46] Dammant, “Intersectional Feminism as an Alternative for the Study of Domestic Violence”, 126.

[47] Featherstone, “Feminism and Child Abuse”, 74-75.

[48] Ministerie van Volksgezondheid. “Zwangerschap En Geboorte.” Werken in Het Onderwijs | November 30, 2018. Accessed December 14, 2018.

[49] Gelles, “Child Abuse as Psychopathology: A Sociological Critique and Reformulation.”, 616.

[50] Bie Nio Ong. “The Paradox of “Wonderful Children”: The Case of Child Abuse.” Early Child Development and Care 21.1-3 (1985): 91-106.

[51] Dammant, “Intersectional Feminism as an Alternative for the Study of Domestic Violence”, 131.

[52] hooks, bell. Feminism is for Everybody. (Pluto Press, 2000), 1.

[53] Whitehead, Mark, et al. “Nudging all over the World.” ESRC Report, Economic and Social Research Council, Swindon and Edinburgh (2014).

[54] Corby, Child Abuse, 173.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Durrant, “Evaluating the Success of Sweden’s Corporal Punishment Ban”, 447.

[57] Clarke, “Moving Policy Studies”, 20.

[58] Featherstone, “What’s Gender got to Do with It?”, 431.

[59] (Hearn, 1990) in Corby, “Child Abuse”, 176.

[60] Featherstone, “Feminism & Child abuse”, 77.

[61] Dammant, “Intersectional Feminism as an Alternative for the Study of Domestic Violence”, 131.

[62] Josephson, Jyl. “The Intersectionality of Domestic Violence and Welfare in the Lives of Poor Women.” Journal of Poverty 6.1 (2002): 1.

[63] Belsky (1980) in Corby, Child Abuse, 179.

[64] Duyvendak, Jan Willem. “We Leven in ‘on-sociologische Tijden’.” Sociale Vraagstukken. July 24, 2017. Accessed December 17, 2018.

Essay//Philosophy as Therapy: Insights from Existentialism on the Nature and Overcoming of Trauma

The idea of philosophy as a form of therapy has been present since antiquity.[1] In fact, many scholars have argued that Stoic Philosophy is a philosophical form of therapy. Epictetus described a way of living, an ethic with peace of the mind or serenity as the main goal, and was already busy with creating a philosophy that could assist the individual in achieving peacefulness.[2]

Although the possibility of philosophical therapy or counselling has often been ignored by the Anglophone tradition, there are also scholars, some psychologist but mostly philosophers, who recognize that there is a need for an alternative approach to psychological therapy.[3]

The issue is that psychology regards and treats human distress in medical terms – such as stress ‘disorder’– in which observable behavioural symptoms inductively lead to a medical diagnosis. Indeed, psychotherapy and psychopathology operate from an empiricist and medical framework, since its main objective is the determination of an underlying disorder or illness in the concerned individual. Using medical and generalizing terms, such as symptoms and diagnosis, certain deviant human behaviours are externalized and thus objectified.

Conrad and Slodden call this process of redefining previously considered normal human conditions as medical conditions, medicalization.[4] The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) facilitates this process, since this is the book that psychologists use to define and refine the symptoms and steps for diagnosing mental disorders. The mental disorders in ‘the bible of psychology’, however, are subject to constant change, which indicate that mental disorders are social constructions instead of intrinsic values or properties of the individual. For example, homosexuality was considered an illness 50 years ago.[5] Likewise, the conceptualization of PTSD has been subject to many paradigm shifts throughout history.[6]

The diagnosis of PTSD as trauma labels the individual, and thus categorizes and generalizes him or her into those who have a mental disorder. This process reduces the individual’s identity to a social construct, to a cosmetic reality, to an essence. Sartre would, in fact, argue that this process is alienating and deceiving, since the self is equated to an essence, while “existence comes before essence”.[7]

The aim of this paper is to step away from the diagnosis of the mind in scientific and medical terms, because this reductionist and objectivist model makes fundamental mistakes about the self and objectifies human experience and distress. The reader will therefore be provided with scholarly and literary insights from existentialism on the nature of crises, how to cope with them, and on questions about the nature of the self.

In order to step away from defining human distress in dehumanizing medical terms, such as traumatized and PTSD, a traumatic experience will be equated with an existential crisis. Existential literature has provided us with lessons on how to cope with these kinds of crises. In contrast to psychology, where great emphasis is put on what the traumatic event is, existential literature puts more emphasis on how to deal and cope with the traumatic event. Nietzsche’s metamorphosis of the mind provides very clear steps about how to turn this burden of personal history into a moment of ownership and new beginnings, in which the individual can recreate the self. Calling traumatic events existential crises normalizes the emotional state that goes along with these experiences, which is a necessary step because it allows for self-creation and thus provides a glimmer of hope.

The objective of this paper is to show that applying philosophy to these moments of crisis is more appropriate than going to a psychotherapist. In the case of PTSD, psychotherapy and psychopathology “dehumanize human distress” because the sciences overlook subjective individual experience.[8] There is a need for an alternative model of therapy since the current therapeutic approach in psychology relies too much on a medical model, in which the individual is reduced to a label of mental disorder and is turned into a victim of one’s history.

In this paper, philosophical counselling is proposed as an alternative to existing therapies within the field of psychology.  Philosophical counselling is a relatively new field within practical philosophy, which aims to guide the participant through the complexities of life in a philosophical way. Through the art of questioning, interpreting, and understanding, philosophical counsellors aid their visitors in exploring their own paths.

As mentioned before, the idea of philosophy as therapy has existed for almost as long as philosophy has existed. The purpose of this paper is to show that philosophy can be very comforting and empowering in coping with crises or traumatic events.

This paper will therefore argue that the teachings and wisdoms from philosophy, especially existentialism, provide a more humane account of human distress, and therefore that philosophical counselling should be employed instead of psychotherapy. First, psychology and the way it has framed human distress will be problematized from an existential and philosophical perspective. Second, the existential nature of human distress and notions of the self will be brought forward, in order to further demedicalise human distress. Lastly, the possibilities and limitations of philosophical counselling as an alternative to psychotherapy will be explored.

Problematizing Psychology

What is the Contemporary Problematic Framework of Diagnosis in Psychology?

The scientific discipline of psychology is based on the logic of induction, in which a series of observations of specific human behaviour lead to conclusions about the identity of a particular human being. Diagnosis, which is also based on inductive logic, is thus implicated in this way of doing research. Diagnosis in psychology relies on the observation and accumulation of pre-defined abnormal symptoms, which are part of a so-called mental health problem. Through the use of these medical terms – observation, symptoms, and diagnosis – a medical model is employed, in which diagnosis is based on pathologies of human behaviour.

Observed symptoms are treated as truth telling about the identity of an individual, within the paradigm of the discipline of psychology. In other words, there is a general consensus on which symptoms are an accumulation of which mental disorders since these are systematically written down in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). In this book, mental disorders and diseases are defined and classified based on their symptoms. The DSM provides a contextual framework for psychologists to categorize their observations and justify their diagnosis.

Psychology thus relies on an epistemology of empiricism, since only those behaviours that can be experienced through the senses or observed in experiments are taken into consideration for diagnosis. The premise for this epistemology is that psychologists or psychotherapists draw these observations objectively, since sensory experience justifies observation. Put bluntly, the discipline observes, measures, diagnoses, generalizes and thus objectifies human behaviour.

In contrast to existential philosophy, psychology tends to objectify and “dehumanize human distress”.[9] Dehumanization occurs when a human condition is objectified, meaning that this condition is presented in a physical sense and externalized into an object of study. The condition is externalized and put into medical terms and frameworks of science. In the case of psychological trauma, psychology objectifies stress, agony, or pain after an impactful event. Indeed, Joseph argues that the concept of trauma in scientific literature is problematic since human responses to life, implicating experiences, are pathologised and seen as negative behaviour that should be treated. Due to the discipline’s objectivist and reductionist approach, psychology tends to overlook the individual’s experience and neglects the positive effects a ‘traumatic experience’ can have on one’s life.[10]

Indeed, scholars have argued that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a deviant human condition that is medicalized.

The medicalization of mental disorder can be seen as the original case of the medicalization of deviant behaviour […] medicalization occurs when previously nonmedical problems become defined (and treated) as medical problems, usually as an illness or disorder […] medicalization describes a social process—like urbanization or secularization—that does not imply that the change is good or bad.[11]

Psychologists consider human distress after an impactful event abnormal and thus define it as a symptom of a ‘disorder’ that can be treated.[12] So, through the normalisation of behaviour, meaning that some behaviour is normal while others are not, medicalization of deviant or abnormal behaviour after a trauma occurs. Human stress is thus translated and externalized into medical terms, which dehumanizes the specific behaviour.

The same scholars argued that the DSM-V facilitates the creation and recreation of mental disorder, thus aiding the disappearance of previously considered mental disorders – such as homosexuality. “The development of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders became the touchstone and official “bible” for designating mental disorder in the USA and increasingly internationally”.[13] Categorical and conceptual frameworks addressing what behaviour is normal or abnormal define the symptoms of trauma, which are written and updated in the DSM.

Psychology could be considered a normal science since the discipline relies on a tradition of certain assumptions captured in the DSM. As the paradigm changes, these premises are rearticulated accordingly. The psychotherapist treats a traumatized person with a priori knowledge of how the trauma should be solved, thus overlooking individual phenomenological experience in treatment. This is problematic since the individual is framed and defined as a set of assumptions, which is objectifies the individual and limits her freedom.

The History of Diagnosis in Psychology

Today, psychology is defined as the study of the mind, more specifically, the science of human behaviour. Definitions and practices of psychology have changed through time; however, in modern psychology diagnosis is essential.

At the end of the 19th century, Freud created psychotherapy and became the father of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is the treatment of psychopathology through discourse between the patient and the psychoanalyst. Mental disorders were now diagnosed through conversation.

The Freudian gaze both muted and extended the medical model of mental disorder. It muted the biological emphasis by focusing on the intrapsychic nature of mental symptoms but also greatly expanded the notions of mental disease to include hysteria, obsessions, compulsions, homosexuality, drunkenness, sexual deviation, children’s misbehavior among others, as psychological disorders and subject to medical psychiatric treatment.[14]

However, diagnosis in psychology, or psychopathology, has a long history. Psychology used to be considered a branch of philosophy. The early Greek philosophers such as Thales, Plato, Pythagoras, and Aristotle already thought about notions of the psyche or soul. The Stoics were already busy with questioning the nature and structure of the mind, and wrote the first philosophical self-help book.[15] Although the roots of mental illness and their explanations are found in the Greek period, sociologists argue that the medical diagnosis of mental disorder originated in the early nineteenth century.[16]

In 1812, Benjamin Rush was the first one who was convinced that physicians should guard or take care of ‘mad’ people. This was a fundamental change, as those who performed abnormal behaviour were just considered different and were allowed to live among the normal people in the time before Rush. Since ‘The Father of American Psychiatry’, medical diagnosis of human behaviour has been prominent in institutions. During this time lying, crimes, and alcoholism, for example, were human behaviours that fell under the category of madness.[17]

As mentioned above, the DSM became the main tool for designing and redesigning the diagnosis of mental disorder. The number of mental disorders and diagnostic features grew immensely throughout the five editions. The most recent edition, the DSM-V, includes 297 diagnosed mental disorders and covers more than 900 pages.

This [great number of mental disorders] reflects a proliferation of diagnoses including a greater range of human behaviour. […] Psychiatric diagnoses are not necessarily indicators of objective conditions but are better seen as a product of a negotiated interactive influenced by socio-political factors. […] Diagnoses related to behaviour or cognition are frequently contested or controversial, but inclusion in the DSM reflects that the condition is legitimated as a medical disorder. While the DSM by no means includes all human conditions that are medicalized, it is a diagnostic repository of legitimated psychiatric conditions.[18]

Thus, the history of the medical diagnosis of human behaviours has evolved since the 18th century. The emergence of the DSM legitimizes the diagnosis of human behaviour. Since the bible of psychology is subject to constant change according to the spirit and belief of the time, we could say that diagnosis relies more on external factors than on factors intrinsic to the individual.

Paradigm Shifts in the Conceptualization of Trauma and PTSD

The most recent version of ‘the diagnostic bible of psychology’, the DSM-5, classifies PTSD as a ‘trauma-and stressor related disorder’, in which “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” leads to a set of distressing symptoms that endure for more than one month.[19] These distressing symptoms are “clustered in predefined categories of re-experiencing, avoidance, negative alterations in cognitions and mood, and marked alterations in arousal and reactivity”.[20] According to the DSM-V in the case of PTSD, re-experiencing entails reoccurring, often involuntary, memories and dreams of the traumatic event, which are also called flashbacks. These ‘symptoms of intrusion’ are avoided by the subject through the repression or avoidance of external cues and feelings, memories, or thoughts about the traumatic event. Additionally, the subject experiences an inability to remember parts of the event, to experience positive emotions – e.g. happiness – and to let go of persistent negative emotions. Moreover, subjects suffer from sleep disturbances and feelings of detachment. Diagnosis of PTSD relies on these symptoms. Additionally, PTSD is related to other psychological deviancies, such as depression, anxiety disorder, and psychotic disorder.[21]

In short, the discipline of psychology defines PTSD as a series of deviant behaviours after a seriously stressful event. This group of behaviours is considered undesirable and abnormal, and therefore serves as symptoms. Psychologists label those who experience these symptoms as being mentally ill, which is in this paper considered problematic from a philosophical point of view. But first, let us explore the many shifts in the conceptualization of trauma and post trauma behaviour, which will indicate the constructive nature of the diagnosis of people who are ‘mentally ill’.


In 1980, PTSD was included for the first time in the DSM-III and this represents, according to Jones and Wesseley, a paradigm shift in the conceptualization of post trauma behaviour into an illness.[22] This research found that mental health professionals continuously “reinterpreted psychological trauma in response to wars, disasters and cultural undercurrents”.[23] In other words, besides the assumed psychological and intrinsic component, there is an important sociological, external factor in the conceptualization of trauma and post-trauma behaviour.

In the early 20th century, trauma was usually conceived of as physical injury. In the aftermath of the Franco-Russian War (1870-1871), it was the first time a hypothesis was stated that a terrifying event might have other effects besides the physical injuries. Charcot was the first to define a set of distressing symptoms including: “palpitations, exhaustion, chest pain, dizziness and fainting, headache, back pain, trembling of the hands and neck, difficulty sleeping and mental disorientation”, as ‘‘névrose traumatique’’ and ‘‘hystérie traumatique’’ where a distressing event or a war served as a trigger for the development of these disorders. Charcot’s student, Pierre Janet, “suggested that subconscious fixed ideas (‘‘idee fixe subconsciente’’), established at earlier periods in the subject’s life, were responsible for neurotic symptoms seen after a traumatic event”.[24] In other words, certain subjects where genetically predispositioned for attaining a traumatic neurosis, and the traumatic event merely served as a trigger.

Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer used and expanded these ideas of a traumatic neurosis in their paper Psychical mechanism of hysterical phenomena. “Having identified fright, heightened by surprise, as the driving force, they too argued that the crucial factor was not the event itself but the ‘susceptibility of the person affected’”.[25] It was also suggested that the patient was unaware of the trauma that affected these symptoms. This is where a notion of causality comes into play; those that both have been exposed to distressing events in early life and have a predisposition are more sensitive for a traumatic experience to serve as a trigger to become neurotic. Freud proposed a way to cure this neurosis, “once the emotion attached to the memory had been discharged, Freud believed, the patient would be cured”.[26] The notion of being cured indicates the first signs of the pathologization of altered behaviour after a terrifying event.

In the decades after, multiple wars were fought: The First World War, the Second World War, and the Vietnam War. Interestingly, after each war, traumatic neurosis was redefined. It was not until 1980 that PTSD was explicitly mentioned. Back then; they defined it as ‘post-Vietnam syndrome’ or ‘delayed stress syndrome’.

Additionally, in the first half of the 20th century, theories of mental breakdown were framed within the dynamics of the group instead of the individual. Concepts such as the ‘herd instinct’ were brought into the discussion of the cause of trauma neuroses.

Described in 1908, but given impetus by World War One, Trotter (1919) argued that an individual should not be conceived in isolation as an autonomous being but as a gregarious animal whose ‘‘cardinal mental characteristic . . . is his sensitiveness to his fellow members of the herd’’ (p. 148). External threats, such as war, he believed, gave an intense stimulus to the herd instinct, while the ‘‘virtues of the warrior’’, courage, endurance and enterprise, were grounded in the ‘‘homogeneity of the herd’’ (p. 150). It followed, therefore, that those who broke down were in some fashion abnormal and some argued that a ‘‘weak herd instinct’’ could be detected in many soldiers who were diagnosed with shell shock.[27]

In other words, before 1980, trauma was understood as a failure of group dynamics. “Until the Vietnam War, war neurosis was often conceived as a failure of attachment and identification with the group”.[28] Those who were unable to conform to standards of behaviour, meaning those who did show any signs of stress after the intense event, were considered as outcasts. After 1980, the focus switched from the group dynamics to the individual. It continued to be believed that those vulnerable to mental disorder were more likely to develop a mental disorder with regards to their trauma as compared to those who are not.

The shifts in the paradigm of the conceptualization of trauma are thus, according to Jones, related to sociological factors such as war or any other terrifying events. As shown in the previous sections, the notion of trauma and PTSD is subject to continuous change due to external social factors in the discipline of psychology. Consequently, the mental disorder is not necessarily part of the individual, as the discipline presents it, rather, the condition is just a mere reaction to the environment, which has become a significant behaviour in psychology. Trauma or PTSD is thus not intrinsic to the individual; rather the disorder and notion is a social construct subject to change, which must never be equated to the reality of the individual, as it objectifies and individual and impedes her freedom.

What We Can Learn from Existentialism and What Is Trauma in an Existential Framework?

Lessons from Existential Literature

From an existentialist perspective, a traumatic experience could be equated to an existential crisis.[29] An existential crisis is triggered by a life changing event, or more specifically, when someone’s moral framework collapses. The second existential period, which started when Darwin published his famous work The Origen of the Species in 1859, is characterized by a fall of the Christian paradigm. This meant that dominating rules grounded in Christian thinking that defined human nature and human conduct fall away. It is a fall of absolutisms. During the demolishment of one’s absolutisms, big questions of life arise. Who makes the rules now? What is justice? What is morality? Who am I? What do I want? If God is no longer a consideration, how should the individual act?

To phrase it differently, an existential moment is stress or a catastrophe in kosmos. As opposed to phusis, which is the nature or materiality of things, kosmos is the world of ideas, context and morality. Kosmos is the mental reality in which meaning is created. In an existential moment, all points of reference with regards to meaning, morality and human nature are suddenly gone. An existential moment, and the cosmic crisis it leads to, is a unique opportunity to redefine and rethink your morality.

In existential literature, this moment of distress is framed as a possibility to take ownership of your life. In contrast to psychology, in which the crisis of the individual is medicalized, existentialism regards this moment as an opportunity for self-creation – and development. The wonderful philosopher and existentialist thinker Friedrich Nietzsche describes the quest for self-authenticity during cosmic stress.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche proposes a metamorphosis of the mind in which true ownership of one’s life can be achieved.[30] There are three stages: the camel, lion, and child. The camel walks around with a hump, which symbolizes the burden of culture. This burden of culture could be interchanged with a burden of personal history, or the burden of trauma. This burden involves one’s kosmos, which includes: one’s name, gender, parents, religion, state, and all the rules of conduct that embody these influences that determine one’s identity. The individual does not choose these influences; rather, they are imposed factors that govern the individual’s life. Nietzsche invites us to lose this imposed paradigm, and to take ownership of our life. By entering into the stage of the lion, you become aware of the baggage that you are carrying around. You become aware of the past that you are embodying. While, it is not you, it is cosmetic. You become aware of the edges of the framework you are carrying with you. When the lion is aware of his imposed baggage, his task is to push this away. In other words, you challenge your kosmos; you, for example, challenge your name, your gender, or your past. Nietzsche makes the analogy of the lion fighting the dragon, which must be done in solitude. During this battle, certain factors in one’s kosmos are affirmed while others are denied. For example, one may choose to keep his or her name and gender, but at the same time decides to never see his or her family again. The Zarathustrian moment is the moment of true ownership of one’s life, which occurs when the imposed paradigm is fully contested. Then, the last stage is entered: The Child. This last stage of Nietzsche’s metamorphosis is characterized by new beginnings. It is a stage of purity, a stage where one may choose his own framework. It is a moment of self-creation. The metamorphosis of the mind is completed.[31]

This metamorphosis of the mind could be applied to the concept of trauma. A traumatic experience is a burden and part of one’s identity that the person carries by choice. At first, the person might not even know she decisively carries a trauma with her. During this process of becoming aware, she has the possibility to choose whether she still wants it to be part of her life and identity or not. During the stage of the Lion, it seems completely natural to exhibit distressed behaviour, since one becomes aware of the way she is constructed. The stage of the Lion provides an opportunity for an existential crisis and thus a moment in which one can own her life. When she succeeds in challenging and fighting her personal history, there is an opportunity for self-creation, where everything is possible.

Likewise, the psychologist imposes a ‘kosmetic’ identity on the individual diagnosed as mentally ill, which must be questioned according to Nietzsche’s metamorphosis in the mind. One must constantly challenge the identities imposed on them in order to remain authentic and free. Diagnosis of mental disorder, such as PTSD, limits individual freedom and development. The unauthentic diagnosed individual embodies the identity of being mentally ill. Authenticity requires the challenge of the diagnosis of mental disorder. The self must not be equated to illness or brokenness, since there are no rules that define the limits of the self. It is an option if one may choose to be defined in these terms, but it should not be the default for defining the self after a traumatic experience.

Problematizing the Scientific Notion of the Self from an Existential Perspective

Since the early history of philosophy, there has been a debate about what the self is. This seems like an easy question; however, it is quite difficult to give the exact answer. In this on going debate, there are basically two camps. One camp defines the self as something fixed. In this case, there is a core self throughout one’s lifetime that does not change. In this camp, the self is conceived as a permanent quality to the individual. There must be a fundamental core that defines the self in every individual. Psychopathology and the medical diagnosis of deviant human behaviour relies on this framework of the self. It is a framework of the self in which the self is put in between brackets where the limits of conduct are defined. However, in existentialist philosophy, the self is generally seen as something fluid. Heraclitus, an ancient philosopher from the first existential period, is on this camp; he provides a metaphor in order to explain his case for the self as an ongoing process. According to Heraclitus, life is like a river. Every peak, descend, or bend of the river, is part of the flow of life. Nature is in a constant flux. Plato, in the Cratylus (402a), says: “Heraclitus says somewhere that everything is moving and nothing stays still, and likening things to the flow of a river he says that you could not step twice into the same river .“ We cannot step into the same river twice. This is because the river is constantly changing. The exact water one steps into at the first time, will have flowed away further in the river when another entry in the water is made. The river you stepped into for the first time is different from the river you stepped into the second time. The river is in a constant flux. So are we humans, as we are according to the monist Heraclius, by necessity part of the materiality of nature. We are living organisms, who live a biological life: a life of birth, flourishing, decay, and death. We are changing beings and part of the flux of life. When we step into the river, not only the river changes so do we. Moreover, what is it that a river is? Is it the water? The riverbed? The flow? Indeed, it is highly difficult to point out what the core of a river is, likewise for the determination of a core self. Or as Herman Hesse in his Steppenwolf regarded this debate: there is not one soul but one has more than a thousand souls.[32]

Jean-Paul Sartre agrees with the ancient philosopher Heraclitus. He regarded the self as a fluid and ever changing quality. Kate du Toit interprets Sartre’s philosophy of self-consciousness: “there are no predefined patterns of human nature but rather, existence precedes essence meaning that we are dynamic in nature and free to create ourselves in any way we wish within the givens of our existence”.[33] Indeed, ‘existence precedes essence’ served as a doctrine for his thought. It is applicable to the discussion of the self too. The only thing you are is what you are. You would deceive yourself if you would say that you are a waiter. You can never say; ‘I am depressed’ or ‘I am traumatized’. These are all masks you put on that give you identity. These masks are logically incorrect: if person A equals himself with B, it follows that A=B. The only thing that would be correct is A=A. I (A) am (=) a traumatized person (B), is thus logically incorrect, because A and B will never be the exact same thing.

By equating the self to another concept or essence, one’s true reality is denied. Remember, Sartre’s dogma existence precedes essence is used in his reasoning. He says that to refer to an essence when describing the self is self-deceiving because there is nothing about the self that has a deeper meaning or essence that can be unravelled. In fact, Sartre is addressing an issue of metaphysics and ontology. Essences operate in the cosmetic nonphysical realm, while existence or being functions in the ‘lower’ form of reality; the physical world. There is a hierarchy in this dualism. Sartre disagrees with referring to the self in ontological and essential terms. The diagnosis of an individual with a mental illness such as PTSD or depression is therefore self-deceiving.

Freud aimed to justify that individual experience and trauma are fixed in one’s psyche. He does this by proposing splits in the human psyche: the superego, ego, and id; and the unconscious and conscious.[34] The superego is the parental part of the psyche, which has a moral component including what society expects you to do. The id is the deep and hidden part of the self. It is where the raw, animalistic, instincts live. The ego lies in between the superego and the id. It is the centre of the self, which makes choices; it moderates between what the body desires and what society expects you to do. The unconscious realm of the mind is symbolized as a basement; it is deep, dark, and hidden. Memories that must be repressed and traumas, according to the Freudian model of the psyche, are located in this unconscious realm. These can float to the conscious realm and then come to an expression of neuroses. Freud thus designed a limiting and rather causal framework of the self, in which deviant behaviour could be justified as something intrinsic to the individual.

In contrast to Sartre and Heraclitus, science and psychology regard the self as a rather fixed and predefined entity, as a property between brackets: [x]. The brackets/framework of the self is defined, and when this framework is exceeded person [x] is equated to being mentally ill. In cases of ‘disorder’, person [x] is sick or broken. A cannot be B; A is A. In the scientific discipline of psychology essence precedes existence.

In existentialism, however the self would not have any predefined brackets. The individual lives in a monist closed system in which the individual has the absolute freedom and mobility to redefine and create the self. This created self cannot be equated to a non-physical concept such as a mental disease, since existence precedes essence. Psychology equates the person and his or her identity to a mental state. Rather, in existentialism it would be more appropriate to say that person x acts abnormal, which indicates impermanency and process.

The Existential Nature of Trauma: Crisis and Injury

“The word ‘trauma’ derives from the Greek word ‘trayma’, which means wound or injury”.[35] Indeed, in the beginning of the 20th century trauma was seen as a physical wound, and not yet as a psychological thing. Today, it is still used in the medical profession as a physical injury, however, in the discipline of psychology ‘trauma’ is used in a metaphorical sense, as it does not necessary involve materiality.[36] In other words:

Human responses to aversive experience are not analogous to a physical trauma: people do not passively register the impact of external forces (unlike, say, a leg hit by a bullet); rather, they engage with them in an active and problem-solving way. Suffering arises from, and is resolved in, a social context: shaped by the meanings and understandings applied to events, evolving as the conflict evolves. It is subjective appraisal that determines what a stressful event means: one man’s [sic ] trauma is another’s heroic sacrifice.[37]

Thus, physical and psychological or metaphorical trauma may not be confused, since it could be oversimplifying the individual subjective experience. By using the word ‘trauma’ there is a danger of seeing it as a generalized psychological injury. In fact, Thompson and Walsch argue, “[…] a traumatic experience can be understood as an assault on the self”.[38] A traumatic experience can cause the individual to lose the sense of who he is. In a way, one’s selfhood is challenged.

Trauma can therefore be seen as an existential injury, insofar as it can damage, distort or even destroy our sense of self and how we fit into the wider world. It undermines the basis of our existence, severely altering how we see the world and how we make sense of it — in effect, destabilising or even shattering our frameworks of meaning, our spiritual and existential foundations.[39]

In other words, traumatic experiences are like existential crises. In both instances, absolutisms are shattered. In order to challenge the notion of trauma as a medical and generalizing deviancy, Du Toit proposes to call a traumatic experience a crisis. The coined term ‘crisis’ takes away the medical aspect of feeling distressed with the world around you and values the individual. This crisis is existential in nature, since it “challenges one’s existing ways of being-in-the-world by evoking the so called ‘big questions of life’”.[40] Yalom defines this crisis as a boundary situation, which is “an urgent experience that propels one into a confrontation with one’s existential ‘situation’ in the world”.[41] This existential situation refers to the sudden awareness of the uncertainty of human existence; a dreadful nauseating feeling that involves death, meaninglessness, isolation, and freedom.[42] These uncertainties of existence are usually covered up with narratives of certainty, but when one experiences something in which tone’s existence becomes uncertain, this uncertainty and the distress accompanied comes to light, which scientists and psychologist reduce to a medical problem.

According to Du Toit, the reductionist and objectivist approach taken by psychologists and scientists overlooks subjective individual experience. Strictly adhering to this oversimplification of trauma may shut down the possibility of a diversity of experiences, denying many individuals the existential nature of such traumatic responses, thus stifling their ability to emotionally process their experience in purposive and meaningful ways.[43]

In contrast to this generalizing scientific framing of human distress, existential literature values individual experience. Existentialism regards human distress as being part of the daily dilemmas of human existence. This does not mean that the value of agony should be downplayed, but it rather means that everybody will encounter this moment of crisis where absolutisms falls down. Since, “it is in the essence of emotional trauma that it shatters these absolutisms, a catastrophic loss of innocence that permanently alters one’s sense of being-in-the-world”.[44] In moments of crisis in the kosmos, the framework through which one perceives the world is shattered.

Indeed, for those who are sensitive, a traumatic experience could destroy certain absolutisms in one’s life. For example, a child who suffers from child abuse could experience a shattering of his framework of how a family should be. This loss of an absolute or framework, may it be personal or social, brings with it a feeling of grief.

Attig (2002) writes of two types of pain that people experience when they are grieving: soul pain, which refers to the pain of losing our sense of rootedness in our everyday normality; and spiritual pain, which refers to the suffering involved in losing our sense of transcendence, leaving us dispirited, joyless and hopeless. Trauma, as a grief inducing experience, produces the same reactions—soul pain and spiritual pain. Both can be related to the existentialist concept of ‘ontological security’.[45]

This concept of ‘ontological security’ is used to determine how secure one is with her identity and whether one is secure or confident in challenging the harmful events that are inevitably part of human existence. Since in existentialist philosophy the self is generally conceived as something fluid; identity in this context should be conceived of “as a linking thread of meaning that connects past to future”.[46] Trauma, as in grief, distress, or pain, could demolish this linking thread, and thus one’s ontological security.

Unlike the medical model’s narrow and simplistic stimulus response model of trauma […], the notion of crisis places phenomenology at the heart of the experience; it is neither the essence of a traumatic event nor symptoms that are of primary importance, but rather one’s inner reception of the experience, alongside how one contains, reflects on and acts upon it.[47]

In existentialism, it is about how one deals with crises and there is less focus on the traumatic event that took place in the past. Rather the focus is on how the individual copes with a crisis and is in this sense more future based.

According to Kate du Toit, we should not only regard a traumatic experience or crisis as something negative that has to be repressed. Although it can be a painful path, we should regard a “crisis as an opening of existence in which the individual has the opportunity to take stock of their life on a deeper level”.[48] Although this path can be very painful, it provides a possibility to re-create oneself. One will possibly be better in dealing with the challenges of human existence than another. However, there is some potential or gift in traumatic experiences or crises.

The suicidal crisis, depression, or any period of severe suffering constitutes a break in the continuity of life. It disrupts life goals and plans and causes disarray in our beliefs, hopes and dreams. Yet in every such fissure, a gift can also be found, the gift of new understanding that comes from such a rift in our lives. In helping to find this gift we help prevent the experiences of suffering from being superfluous and worthless. The gift can take many forms. It can be a new outlook on life, true maturity, increased understanding of others, the satisfaction of being able to withstand the suffering and survive it, or the ability to share and teach others what one has learned. Recognizing the gift in any hardship gives meaning to the suffering. It can turn weakness into strength, inferiority into pride, and the sense of helplessness into potency.[49]

So, while at the same time there is a story of sadness, grief, anger, loss, and despair; the way existentialist philosophy regards trauma provides a glistering of hope and positivity. Through the metamorphosis of the mind, as proposed by Nietzsche, an individual first becomes aware of one’s suffering. This can be a painful and sad process, and one’s ontological security might be affected negatively. However, after one’s cosmic identity is challenged or fought, there is a place for new beginnings. Existential crises provide a unique possibility for the individual to rephrase his or her own worldview, including his or her identity. New beginnings are times of nothingness and shapelessness, which provides true freedom to give form and meaning to one’s life.

Proposing an Alternative: Philosophical Counselling

Issues With Psychological Counselling and Psychotherapy – The Need for an Alternative

Although the medical framework of trauma provides a useful language to speak about the psychological phenomenon, the loss of depth implicated in psychology ensures that individual experience is overlooked. Due to the objectivist and reductionist approach, the individual’s distress and pain is framed within a discourse that is dehumanizing. In fact, the current therapeutic framework of psychological trauma prevents those affected from exploring ways for personal growth, as a crisis could serve as a catalyst for self-development and self-creation.[50]

If we strictly adhere to the absolutisms inherent within the medical model of our field, we run the risk of potentially shutting down our clients thus preventing them from the possibility of discovering new ways of being-in-the-world that facilitate resilience and growth.[51]

Kate Du Toit, who is a psychotherapeutic counsellor, recognizes that there is a need for an interdisciplinary approach to explore and further explain and specify human distress. Throughout her research, she repeatedly mentions that existentialism can make significant contributions to the ways in which therapeutic institutions conceptualise and treat notions of trauma. She recognizes that there must be “an interdisciplinary dialogue between scientific observation and experiential domains, between art and science, and between doing and being”.[52]

Instead of relying on diagnosis of behaviour and thus equating the individual to a broken or ill something, there is a need for an alternative approach. Psychology fails to listen carefully to those that are in crisis; instead, they become reduced to objects of study. Thus, there is a need for an alternative approach that does not regard and judge the distressed individual from an assumed ‘objective’, ‘truthful’ and ‘essential’ perspective. There is a need for an alternative approach that does not dehumanize and reduce the individual to a medical object of study. There is a need for an alternative approach in which the counsellor listens to the counselee, in which power relations are diminished, in which the counsellor does not claim to speak the objective truth about the counselee.

In this section, an alternative to psychotherapy and psychological counselling will be proposed: philosophical counselling. The possibilities and limitations of the relatively contemporary movement in practical philosophy will be examined accordingly.

Philosophical Counselling: a New Paradigm

Philosophical counselling and practice emerged as a new paradigm from a critique on psychotherapy and academic philosophy from 1970 onwards. Although the new field of practical philosophy meets some of Kuhn’s requirements of paradigm – such as theory, examples, meetings, journals – consensus is lacking on what the nature and methods of philosophical counselling or practice is exactly. Hartelow defines philosophical practice as “the work of a philosopher in a spoken dialogue with people who do not need to have (academic) training in philosophy”.[53]

Hartelow addresses this question in his research and states that there are “three basic competences for philosophical practice: (i) the art of questioning, (ii) the art of interpreting and (iii) the art of understanding”.[54] These competences are arts since they are skills acquired during a study in philosophy. These are not just competences to get a conversation going, as they are grounded in a tradition of philosophy. In the next pages, philosophical counselling will be analysed according to these three competences.

The Art of Questioning

Philosophical counselling relies on the Socratic tradition of daily philosophical inquiry. The ancient philosopher, known through Xenophon and Plato, guided the youth in reflecting, questioning, and making sense of relationships, love, values, emotions, justice, death, life, and so forth.[55] Socrates assisted in giving their lives philosophical meaning and taught them the art of living through discussion, which made life less unbearable.[56]

From a Socratic perspective, philosophical counselling can be viewed as a conversational process guided by dialectical reasoning aimed at reflecting upon concerns and issues that normally arise in the course of living your life—as well as on the meaningfulness of your life as a whole.[57]

Today, those who have existential concerns about the meaning of suffering and death are either expected to repress these thoughts or sent to the psychotherapist for treatment. Rather than contributing to the oppression of existential crises, philosophical counselling aims to guide one philosophically through these terrifying questions of everyday life.[58]

The philosophical counsellor requires “a Socratic attitude of ‘not-knowing’”, which involves questioning the obvious in order to break away from any absolutisms, so that the visitor will come to an authentic reconstruction of his worldview and attitude. By posing the right questions, the visitor and the philosophical counsellor together come to a philosophical and critical understanding of the problem. This understanding is not a final solution to the posed issue, but rather a final philosophical question of the problem, which does not need to be answered. This philosophical questioning liberates the visitor from any preconceived dogmas and leaves the visitor with a philosophical and critical attitude.[59]

The Art of Interpreting

The working model of the tradition of interpreting in philosophical practice is the translation of the words of the visitor into philosophical terms. The translation of everyday problems and crises into philosophical terms is a Stoic tradition. First the concerns of the guest are translated into philosophical terms, and then philosophical examples are given in order to support the philosophical translation of the problem. This translation does not necessarily solve the problem, but rather changes and improves the language and dialogue.[60]

Lou Marinoff gives an example of philosophical interpretation in counselling. A conservative mother and rather free minded daughter walk into her practice. The mother wants her daughter to change her lifestyle. Instead of judging them pathologically, Marinoff diagnosed them philosophically in terms of absolutism and relativism.  The conversation completely changes. First the conversation was about who was right or wrong, then the subject of the conversation turned into the objectivity/subjectivity of values.[61]

Although one could argue that the interpretative tradition in philosophical counselling is rather therapeutic since it translates the visitor’s issues into medical terms such as signs, symptoms, and diagnosis, this is only in its form and not in its content. The content is strictly philosophical and not medical. The art of interpretation aims to translate the visitor’s issue into philosophical language, so that the dialogue changes and improves in such a way that the crisis finds some comfort.

The Art of Being/Understanding

Philosophy is first of all a way of living. Wisdom can have no other origin or locus than the personal way of living of this or that philosopher here and now. Support for this position can be found in ancient Greece at the very dawn of the western philosophical tradition.[62]

Philosophical counselling retrieves the original meaning of philosophy: the love for wisdom. Besides the common conception of philosophy as a bulk of knowledge or as a discipline at the university, philosophy is a way of life or as Heidegger puts it “…the Greek word philosophia [φιλοσφία] is a path along which we are traveling”.[63] Seeing philosophy as a way of living instead of something capitalised, is fundamental for comprehending the practice of philosopy. “In [the art of] understanding, a counsellor connects philosophy to the life of a guest, so that it explains a development, a choice or a lifestyle […] philosophical practice is a way to deal with life, referring to a lifestyle, an art of living”.[64]

Philosophical counselling aims to guide and understand those who have troubles with those finding their ways in the complexities of life. A philosophical practice, which was firstly introduced by Achenbach, differs from religious practices and practices of psychology in two ways: first the practitioner is an academic philosopher, who completed a university master in philosophy; secondly the practitioner shares the visitor’s problem empathically, meaning that the visitor’s issue is made their own. In philosophical counselling, empathic understanding replaces the distancing medical diagnosis.[65]

Thus, in philosophical counselling, the practitioner takes the individual’s experience seriously. The practitioner aims to understand the visitor’s distress.  Achenbach, who is one of the founding fathers of practical philosophy, designed his hermeneutics of philosophical practice: hermeneutische Eros, which has been translated by Schuster into an “erotics of understanding”.[66] In contrast to psychotherapy – in which the visitor is framed within a medical paradigm of diagnosis, which implies unravelling an underlying hidden essence – interpretation in philosophical counselling is framed within a context of understanding and of empathy.

Philosophical Counselling as an Alternative to Psychotherapy: The Case of Trauma/PTSD

Some scholars have argued that the difference between psychotherapy and philosophical counselling is minimal, since philosophical counselling borrows techniques from psychology.[67] Indeed, certain ideas are borrowed which shape the way in which philosophical counselling is performed. However, psychology fails to include virtues and lessons of philosophy in their advice. So in philosophical counselling the form might be therapeutic, the content, however, is completely philosophical.

It is problematic that in psychology emotional distress during or after a crisis is considered ‘disorderly’. Emotional distress cannot be considered as being ‘in order’ as in being part of everyday life. This distress evokes existential and ethical questions, which are often ignored in psychotherapy and psychological counselling where the focus mostly lies in feelings or emotions of the patient. Schuster argues that it is in fact very normal to feel distressed and insecure, and that philosophy is perfectly appropriate to find comfort, consolation, and hope in times of crisis.[68] Philosophy does not offer universal or absolute answers to the visitor’s questions of terror and distress; philosophical counselling rather offers a way to think differently about these personal issues.

Adding a medical aura to strong feelings, such as ‘clinical’ depression and stress ‘disorder’ and supressing these by the administration of drugs can cause a psychological blindness towards the self. Instead of giving the feelings a clinical name, philosophical counselling aims to comfort the visitor in having these feelings. It is okay to feel stressed after a crisis. Indeed, instead of ‘patient’ or ‘client’, philosophical counsellors prefer to use ‘visitor’ or ‘guest’. This takes away the medical and dehumanizing air of counselling.[69]

Moreover, rather than claiming to speak ‘scientifically proven’ and objective truths, philosophers have an awareness of the fact that multiple interpretations are possible. In contrast to scientific therapies in which the therapist is in the powerful position to judge the patient’s identity, philosophical counselling is based on questioning, interpreting, and understanding.

These three competences of philosophical counselling are used in circularity; a series of questions lead to a series of answers, which must be interpreted and understood, and then questioned again. This stimulates critical thinking, and offers a dynamic path to exploring the questions of life in times of shattering of absolutisms.[70] Philosophical counselling in this sense aids their visitors in undergoing a metamorphosis in their minds, with freedom as the ultimate goal. “Philosophical practice offers, at least potentially, what philosophy itself was to offer: freedom from the pre-conceived, the ill-conceived, the prejudiced, and the unconscious”.[71]


The aim of this paper was to show that philosophy is a perfect alternative for thinking about and coping with human distress. In this paper, philosophical inquiry into emotional distress is argued to be more appropriate and less dehumanizing than the ‘objective’ scientific approach to human behaviour in the discipline of psychology. Psychology medicalizes and pathologizes deviant human behaviour, which is subject to changes in society. This indicates that mental disorders, more specifically PTSD and being traumatized, are social constructs. The process of diagnosing an individual with psychological trauma objectifies a person because the individual is made a victim of his history and is reduced to a mental disorder or concept. Psychology thus makes fundamental philosophical mistakes about the self. Through the diagnosis of mental disorders psychology deceives their patients’ selves by equating them to a mental disorder, to a higher reality, to an essence, while in fact I have argued that existence precedes essence.

Besides the common perception of philosophy as an academic bulk of knowledge, there is an original conception of philosophy: philosophy as a way of life. Philosophy is a path along which those who love wisdom are travelling. To live a philosophical and Socratic life is to invite others to question everything that is taken for granted. This paper has questioned the dominant and scientific conceptualization of human distress by applying philosophy.

Teachings and wisdoms from philosophy, especially from existential periods, have shown to be very comforting and helpful during impactful events. In contrast to the authoritative and judgemental nature of psychotherapy, philosophy allows the individual to explore his or her own paths for self-creation, thus recognizing the positive aspects of being in a crisis.

Consequently, philosophical counselling has been proposed as an alternative to psychotherapy since its purpose is not to supress the emotions, worries, thoughts, and terrifying questions of life, but to guide the concerned participant through this phase of distress. The philosophical counsellor has mastered the art of questioning, interpreting, and understanding, and employs these masteries to guide the visitor to a critical and philosophical attitude towards the problem. This attitude allows the visitor to question the previously considered serious, and in some cases, pathological, personal issue from a relativist philosophical perspective. This allows the individual to take charge of her life, instead of hiding behind the identity of being mentally disordered.

Although this research aimed to be as inclusive as possible, the critique on psychology was mostly focussed on psychotherapy, psychopathology, and psychoanalysis, while there are many other branches of psychology that were not discussed in this paper. This is a limitation of this paper. Suggestions for further research would therefore involve looking at different types of psychology, including more recent forms of psychosocial therapy.


[1] Christopher Gill, “Ancient Psychotherapy.” Journal of the History of Ideas (1985), 307; Konrad Banicki, “Philosophy as Therapy: Towards a Conceptual Model.” Philosophical Papers 43, no. 1 (2014), 10.

[2] Epictetus, Discourses and Selected Writings (New York: 2008), 221-245.

[3] Kate Du Toit, “Existential Contributions to the Problematization of Trauma: An Expression of the Bewildering Ambiguity of Human Existence.” Existential Analysis: Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis 28, no. 1 (2017), 172-173; Banicki, “Philosophy as Therapy: Towards a Conceptual Model”, 8; , Shlomit C. Schuster, “Philosophy as if it Matters: The Practice of Philosophical Counselling.” Critical Review 6, no. 4 (1992), 588.

[4] Peter Conrad and Caitlin Slodden, “The Medicalization of Mental Disorder.” In Handbook of the sociology of mental health, Springer Netherlands, (2013), 62.

[5] Ibid., 65.

[6] Edgar Jones and Simon Wessely. “A Paradigm Shift in the Conceptualization of Psychological Trauma in the 20th Century.” Journal of anxiety disorders 21, no. 2 (2007), 165.

[7] Jean Paul Sartre, “Existentialism and Humanism,” in Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, ed. W. Kaufmann (Pickle Partners Publishing, 2016), 348.

[8] Du Toit, “Existential Contributions to the Problematization of Trauma” 167-168.

[9] Du Toit, “Existential Contributions to the Problematization of Trauma”, 167-168.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Conrad and Slodden. “The Medicalization of Mental Disorder,” 62.

[12] Ibid., 65.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 63.

[15] Epictetus, Discourses and Selected Writings New York: Penguin, 2008.

[16] Conrad and Slodden. “The Medicalization of Mental Disorder”, 62.

[17] Ibid., 63.

[18] Ibid., 63-64.

[19] American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub, 2013, 271

[20] Du Toit, ‘Existential Contributions to the Problematization of Trauma’, 168.

[21] American Psychiatric Association, DSM–5, 279.

[22] Jones and Wessely. “A Paradigm Shift in the Conceptualization of Psychological Trauma in the 20th Century”, 164.

[23] Ibid.,165.

[24] Ibid., 166.

[25] Ibid., 166.

[26] Ibid., 166.

[27] Ibid., 173

[28] Ibid.

[29]   Du Toit, ‘Existential Contributions to the Problematization of Trauma’, 167-168.

[30] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961

[31]David Aiken, “Nietzsche” Lecture, University College Roosevelt, Middelburg, February 17, 2017

[32] Hermann Hesse. Steppenwolf. London: Penguin, 2012, 68.

[33] Du Toit, ‘Existential Contributions to the Problematization of Trauma’, 167.

[34] Daniel L. Pals, Eight Theories of Religion. Oxford University Press, USA, 2006, 56-61.


[35] Neil Thompson, and Mary Walsh. “The Existential Basis of Trauma.” Journal of Social Work Practice 24, no. 4 (2010), 378.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Derek Summerfield, “12 Cross-cultural Perspectives on the Medicalization of Human Suffering.” Issues and Controversies (2004),241-242.

[38] Thompson and Walsch, “Existential Basis of Trauma”, 378.

[39] Ibid., 379.

[40] Du Toit, ‘Existential Contributions to the Problematization of Trauma’, 169.

[41] Irvin D. Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy. Basic Books, 1980, 159.

[42] Du Toit, ‘Existential Contributions to the Problematization of Trauma’, 170.

[43] Ibid., 169.

[44] Robert D. Stolorow, “The Phenomenology, Contextuality, and Existentiality of Emotional Trauma: Ethical Implications.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 51, no. 2 (2011), 4.

[45] Thompson and Walsch, “Existential Basis of Trauma”, 379.

[46] Ibid., 380.

[47] Du Toit, ‘Existential Contributions to the Problematization of Trauma’, 170.

[48] Ibid., 171.

[49] Israel Orbach, “Existentialism and Suicide.” Existentialism and Spiritual Issues in Death Attitudes (2008), 311.

[50] Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy, 159.

[51] Du Toit, ‘Existential Contributions to the Problematization of Trauma’, 173.

[52] Ibid., 172.

[53] Harteloh, Peter. “On the Competence of Philosophical Counsellors.” Practical philosophy 10, no. 1 (2010), 36.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Schuster, “The Practice of Philosophical Counseling”, 588.

[57] Walsh, “Philosophical Counselling Practice.”, 501.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Harteloh, “On the Competence of Philosophical Counsellors”, 41.

[60] Ibid., 41-42.

[61] Ibid, 41.

[62] Robert D. Walsh, “Philosophical Counselling Practice.” Janus Head 8, no. 2 (2005), 497.

[63] Martin Heidegger, “What is Philosophy?, trans.” W. Kluback and JT Wilde. New Haven (1956), 29.

[64] Harteloh, “On the Competence of Philosophical Counsellors”, 42

[65] Schuster, “The Practice of Philosophical Counseling”, 588.

[66] Ibid., 589.

[67] Lydia B. Amir, “Three Questionable Assumptions of Philosophical Counseling.” International Journal of Philosophical Practice 2, no. 1 (2004), 8.

[68] Shlomit C. Schuster, “In Times of War and Terror: Philosophical Counselling as an Alternative to Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health 21, no. 2 (2009): 79-90.

[69] Ibid, 83.

[70] Harteloh, “On the Competence of Philosophical Counsellors”, 43.

[71] Schuster, “The Practice of Philosophical Counseling”, 598.


Essay//Reconsidering Goya in Terms of Adorno’s Aesthetic: A Critical Analysis of the Function of “Ugliness” and “Grotesque” in Writings on Goya’s Late Work.

Essay//Reconsidering Goya in Terms of Adorno’s Aesthetic: A Critical Analysis of the Function of “Ugliness” and “Grotesque” in Writings on Goya’s Late Work.

Francisco Goya
Fig.1 Francisco de Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son,1819-1823. Oil on Plaster Mounted on Canvas, 146 x 83 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Beauty is often linked to order, rationality, perfection, civilization, truth, and the good; while ugliness is associated with “mundane reality, the irrational, evil, disorder, dissonance, irregularity, excess, deformity, the marginal: in short, the Other” (Nelson and Shiff 281). Francisco de Goya (1746 – 1828) is considered one of the greatest artists of the romantic period. Goya’s late work, the Black Paintings (1819 – 1823) – the name of which is not only devoted to the dark colours used, but also to its dark and ugly subject matter- have received relatively little attention in academic literature. The Black Paintings were designed to be personal mural decorations in his house. They include lugubrious associations of the ugly, for example; witches, old men eating, poor women laughing like witches and a man who is eating his son. Despite the fact that the conditions mentioned by Nelson and Shiff are prominent in both subject matter and style, scholars (Cascardi; Nehamas; Fingesten) have failed to label Goya’s late work as ‘ugly’, and therefore multiple possible functions of Goya’s late work have been neglected. In this paper, questions such as ‘what is the function of the ugly in his Black Paintings?’ and ‘why are ugliness and its function being marginalized in dominant discourse?’ will be answered.

This paper will argue that the function of the ugly is of social significance because “historically the dialectic beauty/ugliness was shaped by issues of hierarchy, value, and power” (Nelson & Shiff, 283). This paper will argue that Goya used the ugly in his painting in order to give voice to the repressed in society. In order to make this case, Goya’s Black Paintings will be framed in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, in which he states that the prohibitions, poor, and taboos in society are part of the category of the ugly (47). This kind of framing has not been done before, and will contribute to the academic discourse on Goya’s later work. Additionally, there seems to be a marginalization of the function of the ugly in literature, which contributes to Adorno’s Marxist argument that the elite academic class represses notions of ugliness in art. It is therefore highly important that an examination of the marginalized ugly in Goya’s late work will take place, since most literature fails to do so. In this paper, it will therefore be argued that dominant discourse in art history marginalizes a possible function of the ugly, associated with class struggle and the provocation of a moral shock towards the elite, in Goya’s late works (Nehamas; Cascardi; Fingesten; Museo del Prado). First, Adorno’s theory of ugliness will be explained and framed into a possible function of Goya’s use of the ugly, second, literature concerning Goya’s intentions and aesthetics will be summarized and criticized based on their marginalization of the ugly and its function, third, this repression of ugliness in dominant discourse will be explained and evaluated.

Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory of Ugliness

In Aesthetic Theory, Theodor Adorno (1903 – 1969) is concerned with the relation between art and society. He follows the Hegelian tradition of art, which assert that art is an expression of a society or culture and combines this with Marxist theory by including art’s capability to transform or revolt society. In fact, Adorno states that there is a social hierarchy in the dialectic of beauty/ugliness, where beauty is part of an elitist and oppressive class whereas the repressed and low class people are associated with ugliness. He takes it a step further by claiming that the beauty rises out of the ugly (Adorno, 46-50), like form rises out of formlessness. “Beauty is not the platonically pure beginning but rather something that originated in the renunciation of what was once feared, which only as the result of this renunciation […] became the ugly” (Adorno, 47). Similarly, in the earliest form of society, the relations of production were simple, shared, and formless. Notions of agriculture and property caused separation of classes, the bourgeoisie -the beautiful- and the proletariat -the ugly. Academics, philosophers, and art historians are all part of the superstructure that aims to control and dominate the struggle between classes by imposing their ideology, or in the words of Marx and Engels “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas” (Pals, 123 – 131). As Adorno was a Marxist, he assigned the ugly to revolt against the dominant class of the beauty, in order to regain the voices and the honest formlessness of the marginalized ugly (Nelson and Shiff, 283). In the following section, Adorno’s aesthetic will be brought to the frame of the function of the ugly in Goya’s late works.

Framing Goya’s Function of the Ugly in Adorno’s Aesthetic

In this paper, Goya’s function of the ugly is associated with class struggle and a provocation of a moral shock towards the elite. This is different from other artists from later periods, such as Gourbet, because Goya’s Black Paintings are both ugly in terms of content and how they were made. They were made in the last years of his life in solitude and resigned from society, as decoration in his house in the woods. Originally, the fourteen Black Paintings were painted on the walls of Goya’s house, the Quinta del Sordo (House of the Deaf Man), far away from society’s change into a monarchy (Glendinning, 467). The murals were painted in his last years of life, while he was suffering from serious illness. Goya painted them in ugly times of his life; he wanted them to be ugly. Just imagine his house, where the walls were filled with those dark and horrific depictions of the poor, irrational, and immoral, one every wall, wherever you rest your eyes. How the Black Paintings were made contributes to the original intention of the murals to depict ugliness in an ugly context.

In Adorno’s aesthetic theory, there is a social hierarchy in the dialectic of the beautiful and the ugly. For him beauty “was an exclusionary, elitist, and oppressive category forged by the dominant orders and forced on people” (Nelson and Shiff, 283). In general it is argued that the ugly is a deviation of the beautiful. Adorno, however, argues for the reversal of this genealogy. Initially everything was ugly. Beauty originated in the ugly, like form arises out of formlessness, like civilization emerges out of primitivism (283). This is according to Adorno a violent and oppressive means of change, where the ugly carries the voice of “the repressed who side with the revolution” (Adorno, 48). As Adorno believed that art had the capability to change society, he gave the ugly a task: “to foster sympathy for the degraded, to reverse social inequity” (283).

After his death, the decorations of the Quinta Del Sordo were transferred to canvas, in order for placement in museums, where they would be exposed for aesthetic pleasure. The intentions of the artist, the here and now, its aura, have been stripped away from the Black Paintings. The realization of dissonance is exchanged for aesthetic judgement of the works to be beautiful (see page 11 ). Indeed, the beauty, derived from aesthetic organization of the museums, of the Black Paintings originated in the ugliness of the original context of these murals.

Additionally, Goya started of as a portrait painter for the Royal Family of Spain and ended, later in life, by including the lower classes of society in his painting. First he focussed on the elitist dominant and beautiful class and after he chose to bring the repressed ugly forward. He gave the marginalized a voice by portraying them instead of the bourgeoisie. This change in style and content must not be disregarded, since it could indicate his interest in social revolution and provocation.

In short, the function of Goya’s ugliness could be framed into a Marxist context of class struggle and a provocation to a moral shock because the original context of and how the Black Paintings were made was ugly. In the following pages, it will be argued that any possible function of the ugly in Goya’s late works has been repressed and marginalized by the dominant art historical and museum discourse, which demonstrates the social hierarchy of the beautiful and the ugly as described by Adorno (46 – 50).


Many terms have been used as either synonyms or attributes of ugliness, such as “abject”, “horrific”, and “grotesque”, the latter being the most common alternative for ugliness (Nelson and Shiff, 282). According to Nelson and Shiff, grotesque is derived from the Italian grotto –cave- since it entitled the fantastic decorative designs that were found on the walls in the underground Roman temples and caves. Grotesque designs were found to be unnatural or going against natural law (282). Fingesten is one of the only scholars in literature who associates Goya’s Late Work with the grotesque (425). Fingesten, however, regards the grotesque as a genre instead of an aesthetic or style, and he claims Goya’s Saturn Devouring One of His Children (Appendix I, Fig.1) to be a “masterpiece of the grotesque genre” (422), where he defines the grotesque as;

“[…] a symbolic category of art that expresses psychic currents from below the surface of life, such as nameless fears, complexes, nightmares, Angst. It is a dimension of intense and exaggerated emotions and intense and exaggerated forms. […] In genuine grotesques there must be a congruity between subject matter, mood, and the visual forms in which they are cast” (419).

In other words, Fingesten argues that a painting is grotesque only when form and content are congruent in their grotesqueness, and according to this paper, Goya is the master in doing this, since he also experienced such horror (426). Indeed he states that “[…] ‘Goyaesque’ could often serve equally as an adjective for grotesque, but then not all grotesques are Goyaesque” (425), indicating that he recognizes Goya as being one of the masters of the grotesque genre.

Although Fingesten is the only scholar found in this literature review to explicitly state that Goya is part of the grotesque genre in terms of content and form, he fails to include a possible social function of this genre. If, according to Fingesten, the grotesque expresses emotional content such as “nameless fears, complexes, nightmares, Angst” (419), then why would Goya have chosen to do this? It could be argued that Adorno claims that this use of the grotesque exposes taboos and prohibitions of society, created by the superstructure. The point is that Fingesten does name the function of the ugly.

Additionally, Fingesten states that “the grotesque is not a style but a genre” (425). This is problematic, since the grotesque is one of the greatest alternatives for ugliness; however, it is now called a genre, a genre of ugliness. Beautiful art would not be called a genre, instead, beauty is linked to aesthetic experience. It is problematic that ugliness is not part of an aesthetic judgement; it is rather systematically generalized into categories of art. Indeed Adorno states that ugliness is marginalized in literature on aesthetics, while beauty is considered as the main indicator (50). The ugly should be investigated in terms of aesthetics instead of being set aside as the formal Enlightenment grotesque genre. Because beauty originated in ugliness (Adorno, 47), the ugly needs to be included in aesthetics since it marginalizes and neglects its possible functions.

A Misinterpreted Ethical Significance


In The Ethics of Enlightenment: Goya and Kant, written in 1991, Cascardi attacks the assumption that Goya’s late work is simply a rejection of the Enlightenment period (189). He argues that internal contradictions about reason, society, history, and society, are embedded in Goya’s Los Caprichos and Black Paintings. Not only are these works of art important for the Enlightenment culture, they are of ethical significance (190). Cascardi suggests that

“[…] Goya may be described as the first artist principally responsible for the “destruction” of the ethics of painting itself […] the ethical ambition of Goya’s work is to draw us consistently outside the frame of painting (i.e., of “painting itself”), toward a critical reflection on history, society, politics, and desire, as the fields in terms of which the obligations bearing on the subject of enlightened modernity were constructed” (207).

Cascardi devotes Goya’s ethical significance on art and culture firstly on Goya’s success in conquering the autonomy of art by addressing the individuals outside of the painting itself. Secondly, Goya has succeeded in pointing out “a fundamental instability embedded within the very notion of a rational ‘critique’” (Cascardi, 193). In other words, providing rational critique on things is an intrinsically flawed process because the realm of imagination is too big to grasp. This means that full rational critique can never be possible, which is shown in Goya’s late work, according to Cascardi. All by all, the main point of her complex argument is that Goya has an ethical significance because his work provokes a critical thought on modernity and its products, as those have their basis on rationality.


In contrast to Fingesten, Cascardi recognizes the social significance of Goya’s late work, however he fails to include notions of the ugly or related concepts into his argument. It is interesting though, that Goya’s Black Paintings and Los Caprichos are considered to be of ethical significance, although, the ugliness or dissonance of these works is not named, and the obvious change of style as compared to his other works is not taken into account. In his early and middle works, Goya mostly painted religious related themes and portrayed the elite, which is beautiful or ‘superstructure’ related subject matter. His interest in more dark and provocative, or ugly, subject matter was already visible in some of his works, for example in Yard of Lunatics (1793). But this was more prominent in his final works. Cascardi therefore incompletely describes the ethical significance, since notions of ugliness and its possible functions are marginalized and because he uses an ahistorical perspective. Not using notions of ugliness is especially significant because romantic ugliness is often politically charged in order to provoke a moral shock (Nelson and Shiff, 289).

The Coexistence of Beauty and Ugliness


In the article “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” Alexander Nehamas aims to provide the reader with an alternative interpretation of the etching part of Goya’s Los Caprichos that has the same name as the article (Appendix I, Fig. 2). He argues that the traditional Enlightenment interpretation is too optimistic and rationalistic. His interpretation is as follows:

“The sleep of reason produces monsters, but the sleep of reason does not represent the imagination’s taking over. On the contrary, reason is asleep when the imagination deserts it. For if, as a contemporary description of the work puts it, “imagination forsaken by reason begets impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the source of her wonders,” exactly the same is true of reason itself: their relation is symmetrical. It is only when both work together that each is fully awake.” (Nehamas, 38)

In other words, reason does not cancel out imagination, in fact when both are active then one is awake. Reason is asleep however, when pure rationality, the lynx, awakes (38). When reason and imagination are separated monster are produced, however, when they are working together a thing of beauty is created, Los Caprichos (41). Nehamas states that Los Caprichos are beautiful since it perfectly “claims that monsters –folly, malice, prejudice, exploitation- are always with us” (41), in other words, we all have our own monsters. Goya was able to depict the fearsome irrationality that is innate to human beings, even in those that are enlightened.

“Not that the world isn’t ugly […] Nothing may justify the cruel beating of the little boy in Yes, he broke the pot (Appendix I, Fig. 3), but poverty and lack of education—both of which Los Caprichos expose and indict—are enough to account for his mother’s anger and explain her reaction; she, too, is in the end one of the victims Goya’s etchings depict. Poverty and lack of education, however, are not enough to turn her into the beastly creature whose heartless pleasure in the beating of her boy gives the act its air of truly extraordinary savagery. One of the contemporary manuscripts that accompany Los Caprichos asks, “the child is mischievous and the mother bad tempered. Which is worse?” But the mother is worse than “bad tempered”: her crouching posture is feral, her lined face an almost impossible combination of fierce intensity and bestial indifference. There is hatred in the hand that held this stylus […] And yet that hatred does not prevent Los Caprichos—not even this particular etching, which, if anything, it makes more complex and worth contemplating—from being a thing of beauty” (41).

In this quote, Nehamas acknowledges that Goya’s Yes he broke the pot depicts ugliness, however, the etching is still beautiful. Ugliness does not exclude beauty; in fact they live in coexistence. He makes this claim by saying that “nothing can be ugly or without aesthetic value on account of features that it shares with other things. It follows that the moral features of art are irrelevant to it aesthetic value” (48). He is implying that the very same features could be both beautiful and ugly, relative to the individual. “I may find beautiful what others consider disgusting and ugly, I may be tempted to find beauty in something which I am myself of two minds; or I may have just made the wrong choice” (Nehamas, 395). So, both pleasure and displeasure could be derived from the same feature (44). For Nehamas, in contrast to Kant, beauty or aesthetic value and the judgement thereof, therefore cannot be universally shared. He argues that Goya’s Caprichos are beautiful and ugly at the same time, because Goya beautifully depicts the moral ugly (Pop, 177).


Although Nehamas critiques Kant in terms of universal aesthetic value and a rigid form/content distinction, Andrei Pop argues that Nehamas performs a straightforward Kantianism.

“That the same artwork can be morally repugnant, and thus ugly in content (the ugly humans it exposes to ridicule) and in treatment (the implicit violence which the author does to them), and at the same time intellectually beautiful (let us say, the cruel treatment of cruelty lends it a form that is both morally substantial and breath taking) is well shown by Nehamas’ account on Goya” (177).

According to Nehamas, regardless of the ugly and immoral content, Goya has succeeded in rightly imagining and depicting such ugliness, which makes the work of art beautiful in its form. This is indeed related to Kant’s account of the beautiful, where something can never be beautiful in terms of subject matter; it can only be beautiful when the form is purposeful.

Nehamas marginalizes notions of the ugly by equating it to the beautiful. The function of the ugly in Goya’s late work is lost because of this indifference. In aesthetic interpretations of his work the ugly is marginalized since aesthetic value apparently always has to be accompanied by notions of the beautiful. By neglecting the notion of ugliness as being prominent in Goya’s late work, its possible function and meaning, as described by Adorno, is neglected as well. Indeed Adorno states that the beautiful is just as prominent in the discourse of aesthetics as society is in the sociological sphere (50). Through a creationist tale, Adorno argues that the beauty originated in the ugly, however, in dominant discourse the ugly is marginalized. Meaning could therefore be lost, since it does matter whether a work of art is intended to be ugly or beautiful, since it could have a provocative significance. Nehamas’ interpretation neglects the function of the repressed ugly, by assigning Goya’s work to the elite beautiful class, which illustrates marginalization of the ugly by the elite.

Marginalization of the Ugly in the Black Paintings in Dominant Art Historical Discourse

How is it possible that notions of ugliness in Goya’s late works are marginalized in art historical and museum discourse? In order to explain this correctly in relation to Adorno’s theory of the beauty and the ugly, other theories from the Art of Art History will be brought to the frame. As mentioned above, the Black Paintings were originally personal mural decorations, later they were transferred to canvas and brought to a modern aesthetic museum. “The isolation of objects for visual contemplation […] has remained one of the outstanding features of the aesthetic museum and continues to inspire eloquent advocates” (Duncan, 430). In other words, museums are the promoters of the aesthetic approach to art due to the isolation of the objects. Accordingly, Goya’s Black Paintings are currently organized for aesthetic judgement in such a way that people will regard them as beautiful (Adorno; Nehamas). Due to these bureaucratic and oppressive processes, the original ugliness of the Black Paintings and feeling of abject while looking at them is being exchanged for an academic domination to regard them as beautiful.

The Black Paintings were not supposed to be in a museum, where they could massively and aesthetically be enjoyed in terms of the beautiful by the elite. The paintings were made for and of the individual and the ugly in society. Having them exposed in isolation on the beautiful walls of Museum del Prado, instead of collectively on the walls of his house, might have caused the paintings to lose their original meaning. The dominant and elite ideology of museums and art historians repress art of dissonance by dominating the aesthetic discourse. Two processes characterize this repression; the aesthetical discourse is mostly held in terms of the beauty, almost never in terms of the ugly; and the objects are placed in isolation for aesthetic experience to be consumed.

On the other hand, Nehamas provides the perfect example of the success of Goya’s social revolution. Goya’s late work is now considered beautiful, for whatever reason, and is being considered as very important in the canon of art history. He succeeded in reversing social inequity, since his dark paintings depicting ugliness in a grotesque manner are now considered as significant by the superstructure. The paintings are considered beautiful by the elite, which could point towards the hierarchy of the dialectic of the beautiful and the ugly to be reversed. Did Goya then succeed in Adorno’s proposed mission of art to change society?


            In his final years, right after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, Goya resigned from the public sphere and made The Black Paintings in solitude on the walls of his private house, withdrawn from society. He had never written or talked about these works, indicating that they were not meant for public, they were private (Glendinning, 465-467). These were sinister and ugly in terms of content and style, or as Fingesten called them ‘grotesque’. Fingesten has been the only scholar found in this research who explicitly states that Goya’s Black Paintings are masterly grotesque, however its function is neglected. Others have made the claim that the Black Paintings are ugly but beautiful in its ugliness, and an ethical significance has been devoted to Goya’s success in conquering the freedom of the artist (Nehamas; Cascardi). All of them fail to explicitly state the Black Paintings to be ugly in terms of form and content, and therefore disregarded its revolutionary significance. Indeed, dominant art historical and museum discourse have marginalized the function of ugliness in Goya’s late work. In this discourse ‘beautiful’ is used repeatedly to describe works of art, it has become apparent that ‘ugly’ is a taboo in the elitist aesthetic discourse, or as Adorno said; a “category of prohibitions”(47). Goya chose to portray the ugly; the poor, witches, unnatural beings, the proletariat, while he used to be a royal painter. In fact, it has been argued in this paper that the function of the ugly in Goya’s Black Paintings could have been dedicated to the exposition of class struggle, the tension between the superstructure and the base, which shows his interest for social revolution and has been marginalized in the dominant discourse of art history and museums.

This research paper is new in two ways; the marginalized function of the ugly in literature on Goya’s work is evaluated and a function is given to his works of dissonance by bringing Adorno to the frame. By framing art into a context, meaning changes according to the frame. The interpreter should keep in mind that this link is not necessarily natural; a context is brought into the frame of an artwork.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Cascardi, Anthony J. “The Ethics of Enlightenment: Goya and Kant.” Philosophy and Literature           15.2 (1991): 189-211.

Fingesten, Peter. Delimitating the Concept of the Grotesque.” The journal of aesthetics and art            criticism 42.4 (1984): 419-426.

Glendinning, Nigel. “The Strange Translation of Goya’s’ Black Paintings’.” The Burlington        Magazine 117.868 (1975): 465-479.

Nehamas, Alexander. “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.” Representations 74.1 (2001): 37-54.

Nelson, Robert S., and Richard Shiff, eds. Critical Terms for Art History. University of Chicago           Press, 2010.

Pals, Daniel L. Eight Theories of Religion. Oxford University Press, USA, 2006.

Pop, Andrei, and Mechtild Widrich, eds. Ugliness: The Non-beautiful in Art and Theory. Vol.   12. IB Tauris, 2013.




Essay//An Explanation for the Severe Treatment of Pussy Riot

The Severe Treatment of Pussy Riot

In the year 2011 a group of young women found themselves to have similar objections to Putin plus the interconnectedness of the church and state in a supposedly secular state. They formed a feminist punk protest group called Pussy Riot. The women collective protests by performing in a peaceful non-violent manner with the use of art, metaphor, music and provocative texts at uncommon and unexpected places (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer 09.50). On the 21st of February 2012, five young women dressed in colourful dresses and balaclavas performed an unexpected punk concert at the altar in the usually silent and peaceful Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, Russia. The Pussy Riot members were singing a self-styled punk prayer with sneering background guitars ‘’asking Virgin Mary to deliver Russia from the impending re-election of its former President Vladimir Putin’’ (Rourke and Wiget 234). After twenty seconds, the church workers and security pulled the girls away from the altar and two weeks later they were handed over to the police (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer 04.11). The three women were convicted for an act of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, which was not their intention as they were protesting against the Putin regime. After six months of being held in custody, the trial finally started and attention for the case spread throughout the world, which led to numerous protests against their custody. In the end, Nadezhda and Mariya were given two years of imprisonment, which is incredibly long for a crime that they did not commit. In this essay, the reason why the Russian government treated a minor provocative yet nonviolent protest so harshly and repressive will be explored by looking at theories of religion and examining the documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer.
Pussy Riot’s performance in the recently rebuild Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was not executed out of religious hatred or hooliganism, their true intention was to protest against the interconnectedness of the church and state in Russia. “Did you see where the Easter services were held? This Cathedral symbolizes the union of church and state. That’s not how it should be’’ (Nadezhda, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer 6.11). The participation of political leaders in services of the Church is usual in countries that follow Christian traditions, such as England, where important events are held in Westminster Abbey. The novelty of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow makes Putin’s presence at ceremonies extraordinary and it illustrates the new marriage between church and state (Denysenko 1066). In other words, in England attendance of politicians at Church ceremonies is based on traditions before secularism, whereas in Russia this has become a new tradition created in an already supposedly secular state, which is remarkable. So, one could say that the stern punishment of Pussy Riot is an effect of the formation of a desecularising regime in Post-Soviet Russia, which is characterized by the merge of church and state (Schroeder and Karpov 1). Moreover, Pussy Riot claims that Patriarch Kiril of the Russian Orthodox Church uses his power in church to support Putin’s position in the government. This could be true, as Kiril has been spotted with a watch worth more than 30.000 euros. One could speculate that this watch has been funded by the state as an act of reciprocity (Walker 1). Nevertheless, the Russian government charged the three women for wearing inappropriate clothing in a space for holy rituals and disrupting social order by acting out of hooliganism. The question remains, why were they treated so sternly and repressive by parts of society and the Russian state?

To start off, concepts like ‘the holy’ and ‘sacred’ explain part of the behaviour of Pussy Riot, the Russian state and Patriarch Kiril’s followers (Fasching). Hostility to the stranger is part of the sacred, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is a sacred space since opposing statements are received unfriendly in this space. Moreover, it is considered a taboo to deliver critique on the morals of this sacred society since these morals –or sacred customs- are the way they should be. In other words, the situation is like this since it is ought to be like this, ‘’is = ought’’. A sacred society consists of a finite set of answers because the world is the way it is. Having doubts about morality is therefore something that is discouraged in a sacred society and is given a powerful response to, just like what happened with Pussy Riot. However, the experience of the holy encourages hospitality to the stranger and it consists of ethics, which apply more to the whole of society. For example, ‘’do no harm’’ is an overarching ethic that should be applied to all living humans. In holy communities therefore, there is room for and encouragement of doubt and openness to the infinite. The way things are is opposed by questioning the sacred order of things – Is vs. Ought. This dichotomy of the sacred and holy could explain why Pussy Riot was treated so harshly by the Russian state. Pussy riot consists of people who do not agree with the current politics (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer 1.20), so they were acting out of the holy by questioning and criticising the sacred order. For instance at their fourth performance on Red Square in Moscow they sang: ‘’Riot is here to abort the [sacred] system!’’. This is an attack on the Russian society’s sacred doctrine of ‘’is = ought’’, since they are actually criticising the sacred order where there is absolutely no room for doubt. Pussy Riot is seen by the Russian state as the profane chaotic sphere of danger to its sacred order; they are therefore being seen as strangers and treated inhospitable. Patriarch Kiril even speaks of them as doing Satan’s work; therefore they should be punished harshly (Walker 1) and he calls for a mass prayer against the Pussy Riot movements. In this mass prayer, however, people spoke of Pussy Riot as their enemy by saying that they are witches or demons and that they should be hanged. These kind of hostile responses to the stranger belong to the sacred. Besides not being open to critique, the Russian state punishes the ones delivering critique and therefore, one could safely say that the Russian state and Patriarch Kiril are acting out of the sacred, which explains their firm reaction against the holy Pussy Riot.

Additionally, Fasching’s concept of doubling could also explain the stern treatment of Pussy Riot. Doubling entails the detachment and deniability of responsibility and having a dual personality in personal and professional life. The judges in the Pussy Riot case might deny responsibility since it is their public duty to follow the regime and its laws. They are in the end the ones that gave the harsh verdict, however, personally they might not agree with Pussy Riot’s punishment. The concept of doubling could obviously apply to all roles played in the conflict; for example, Pussy Riot also takes on a different role when performing.

Secondly, Durkheim’s theory on religion can be used. He also uses the sacred in his theory of religion, however in a different way than Fasching. According to Durkheim, the sacred is explained by its unifying function in society. Religion has social cohesion as its underlying function, which is absolutely necessary; he even claims that without the presence of religion there would not be a society. By worshipping the sacred, the community is actually worshipping itself and thus reviving and strengthening the importance of community. The Pussy Riot movement caused society to be imbalanced because the opposing reactions and protests they evoked by their performance and following imprisonment. Because Pussy Riot is perceived as a massive threat to society’s religion, which could actually be seen as the Russian community following Durkheim’s line of reasoning, the strong reaction against their protest in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is explained. As mentioned above, mass prayers were organized against the Pussy Riot movement (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer 28.56) at this Cathedral, which could be seen as an act of making people feel part of the community again and to stress the importance of community, in order to strengthen society. Pussy Riot being seen as a threat to community could therefore cause the severe reaction of the Russian State and Patriarch Kiril and his followers.

Thirdly, Marx’s theory on religion could be applied to this case. According to Marx, however, this ‘’religious distress is at the same time expression of real [economic] distress and the protest against real distress’’ (Pals 134). In other words, the suffering the prayers devote to Pussy Riot is in fact caused by emotions flowing out of class struggle. Religion is, therefore, ‘’the opium of the people’’ since it provides them with an illusionary, comforting reason for their misery and an escape route. A woman at the mass prayer called the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour ‘’the heart of Russia’’(Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, 31.50), which refers to Marx statement of religion being ‘’the heart in the heartless world’’ (Pals 134). Religion acts as a sunbeam on a cloudy and rainy day, it dazzles one from the actual situation. Pussy Riot seems to be a few steps further than others in Russia since they abandon religion and realise that they are being oppressed, as a woman and as a citizen, so they rise up and protest. Moreover, Marx argues for abolishment of religion since this is the only way the real and economic misery could be solved. Pussy Riot adapts this statement in a more sophisticated manner, they do respect religion however, they do not agree with state and church to be merged and still they use texts like ‘’God is shit’’. So, Pussy Riot’s view on society and religion could be explained by Marx’s theory on religion.

Fourthly, Weber’s concepts legitimate authority could also help in understanding the severe treatment of Pussy Riot. According to Breuilly, Weber distinguishes three types of legitimate authority: traditional, legal-rational and charismatic authority (478). Traditional authority is confirmed by customs and might be patriarchal, personal or magical charisma, legal-rational authority is derived from bureaucratic domination and charismatic authority is validated by extraordinary characteristics or ‘’personal magnetism’’ (Pals 166 and Breuilly 478). Patriarch Kiril’s speech encourages his followers to be involved into what happened in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which has led to mass prayers against Pussy Riot (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer: 33.26). This could be seen as traditional authority, which could explain the strong reaction of Russian Orthodox Church followers. Moreover, Putin could be seen as a combination of legal-rational and charismatic authority. Putin entered the illegitimate Russian politics (Ossinovski 20) when he already has been a highly charismatic individual, as he used to have career in foreign intelligence (Tempest 23). This enabled him to play with the desperate desires of the citizens, by for instance visiting poor villages and censoring media, which lead to many people looking up to him. Additionally, he creates a framework of law in which he is the main legal authority where he tries to apply a more vertical executive power. Putin himself calls this the Dictatorship of Law (Kahn 2). These two types of charisma that Putin controls cause him to be extremely powerful and untouchable. Moreover, most Russian Orthodox followers perceive him as a good man due to his charisma and the marriage between church and state. Since the majority of Russia is Orthodox, the charisma of Putin and the Patriarch could explain why they are admired and should not be mocked. Pussy Riot could be treated so harshly because they are simply metaphorically attacking them while actually offending the current desecularising regime in Russia.

In the closing of the trial of the three members of Pussy Riot, they emphasize that they did not meant to offend the Russian Orthodox Church, that Russia is not the way Putin presents it, that they were performing oppositional art against the current regime and that the system fears the truth (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, 1:10.44). They clarify again that their performance wasn’t conducted with the intention of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred towards the Orthodox Church, but was intended to be a political non-violent protest for the repressive nature of the union of the church and state. Altogether, the harsh treatment of Pussy Riot by the Russian State and the Russian Orthodox Church could be explained by the fact that Pussy Riot was perceived as offending religion. Various possibilities of reasons for them being felt insulted are given throughout the paper: it could be that the sacred society has a strong response against doubt and critique of sacred morals; it could be caused by the concept of doubling; it could be that Pussy Riot was seen as a threat to religion and therefore community; it could be that religion deludes the system from seeing the truth; and finally, it could be caused by the charismatic authority and influence of the two leaders, which prevents them from being insulted.

Works Cited
Breuilly, John. “Max Weber, charisma and nationalist leadership1.” Nations and Nationalism 17.3 (2011): 477-499.
Denysenko, Nicholas. “An appeal to Mary: An analysis of Pussy Riot’s punk performance in Moscow.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 81.4 (2013): 1061-1092.
Fasching, Darrell J., and Dell DeChant. Comparative Religious Ethics: A Narrative Approach. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001. 3-30. Print.
Kahn, Jeffrey D. “Russia’s” Dictatorship of Law” and the European Court of Human Rights.” Review of Central and East European Law 29.1 (2004): 1-14.
Ossinovski, Jevgeni. Legitimacy of Political Power in Putin’s Russia. London School of Economics and Political Science, Aug. 2010. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.
Pals, Daniel L. Eight theories of religion. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.
Pussy Riot : A Punk Prayer. Dir. Mike Lerner. Perf. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Mariya Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich. Roast Beef Productions, 2013. Film.

Rourke, Brian, and Andrew Wiget. “Pussy Riot, Putin and the Politics of Embodiment.” Cultural Studies (2014): 1-27.
Schroeder, Rachel L., and Vyacheslav Karpov. “The Crimes and Punishments of the ‘Enemies of the Church’and the Nature of Russia’s Desecularising Regime1.” Religion, State and Society 41.3 (2013): 284-311.
Tempest, Richard. “The Charismatic Body Politics of President Putin.” Journal of Political Marketing just-accepted (2016).
Walker, Shaun. ‘’Plight of Punk Rockers Turns Russians Against the Church.’’ Independent UK. Independent UK, 5 Apr. 2012. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.

The Nerve Killer Activity

An exercise to kill your nerves before a performance (1 hour – all day)

Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) has some very helpful tools in order to relax before one has to do a speech. Since the audience tends to copy the mental state of the speaker, it is highly important to be calm instead of stressed when doing a public speech. The following two exercises should be repeated multiple times in the hours before one has to go on stage.

Reverse the negative feeling into a positive feeling

  1. How are you feeling? Nervous? Do you want to get rid of this feeling? If yes, go to step 2, if no, stop.
  2. Locate the negative feeling.
    1. Where in your body do you feel the feeling?
    2. What movement does it make?
    3. What colour is it?
  3. Grasp the feeling out of your body and finger paint its movement and colour on an imaginary white canvas.
  4. On the imaginary white canvas, recoat the feeling with your favourite colour in the contradictory original movement
  5. Put the reversed feeling back at the original location of the negative feeling
    1. How are you feeling now? Neutral?
  6. (Optional, when you want to feel better than neutral) Think about a moment where you felt extremely happy or euphoric.
    1. Where is that feeling?
    2. What movement does it make?
    3. Intensify!

Additionally, repeat this mantra until you feel relaxed:

“I accept that I am nervous, however, I stay calm and relaxed because I am safe’’

“I accept that I am nervous, however, I stay calm and relaxed because I am safe’’

“I accept that I am nervous, however, I stay calm and relaxed because I am safe’’

And so forth…

If these exercises didn’t work, try again! You might have chosen the wrong feeling, movement, or colour. If it only works temporarily, do it again, again, and again. Practice makes perfect!

These exercises are useful for everyone; you can use them at any time of the day. Personally, I use the reversed feeling technique at least twenty times a day. It gives you the opportunity to feel good for no reason, which is desirable since I would rather have a life in which I feel good instead of feeling depressed. The mantra could be applicable for many other undesirable emotional states besides nervousness. For example:

“I accept that I am having a panic attack, however, I stay calm and relaxed because I am safe’’

“I accept that I am worrying, however, I stay calm and relaxed because I am safe’’

“I accept that I am scared, however, I stay calm and relaxed because I am safe’’

In short, these exercises are changing my wellbeing and I could recommend everybody to do a course in NLP. I did my NLP courses with Briseïs Scheiner, a certified NLP trainer and coach. When you are interested in NLP, do so with her!

On Nature

On a sunny and windy afternoon I sit down on the grass surrounded by fields of reed in Diemerpark, an urban park located in district Amsterdam-Oost, quarter IJburg. Until 1973, Diemerpark used to be a garbage dump. The district decided to impolder IJburg as this new quarter couldn’t use a garbage dump. They chose to wrap the contaminated soil in bentonite and foil, instead of applying soil remediation. Since 2004, the city park has been open for everyone. The reason I have chosen this particular park is because it is a very quiet and conversational site, where I often walk my relatives’dog. It is nice to be in a socially constructed nature site such as Diemerpark, and really be confronted with industrialization. The park itself is very large and low constructed, so you are able to see factories and electricity pylons that are 2,5 kilometers away from you. While sitting on grass, together with the sun shining in my eyes, I observe some things that actually really characterize Diemerpark as a socially constructed site of nature. In front of me, I see the house of my relatives across IJmeer. In the distance when I turn my face to the right, I recognize large factories by their heavily smoking chimneys. Behind me Amsterdam Rijnkanaal is located, and every 5 minutes when I look to my left, I see tram 26 crossing the bridge. In a radius of 100 meters there is nobody but me. It is about 6 degrees Celcius, and the wind is blowing really hard. The reed around the IJmeer bends along with the wind. Suddenly, a swarm of starlings flies in the mostly cloudy sky. The birds are singing, and I see some rabbits crossing the grass fields. Diemerpark is full of rabbits, I noticed, because of the huge amount of rabbit holes. A man walks his dog along the path ahead of me, and the rabbits run away scared from the dog. The dog barks and runs happily and plays with the rabbit holes. Some people are riding their bike along the same path. Another dog comes along, this time it is the dog of two children, around the age of fourteen, I guess. They throw a stick for the dog to play with him. It is almost spring, coots are nesting in the reed at the coast of IJmeer. For the last time, tram 26 passes me by.

The reason I consider Diemerpark as nature is because there are more animals than humans, and because it is quiet. It is accessible for both animals and humans. To me it is realistic to be at a place that feels like nature while seeing factories in the distance. This is how the world is at the moment. People have manipulated nature and the world. I know that this park is constructed by humans, so this site is not in itsoriginal state, however I still consider it nature because “we’’humans are nature. In this world, it is hard to find an innate piece of nature, in which we humans haven’t intervene yet. But as I said, we are humans and we are animals so why should we something we constructed as nature not consider nature? This is a hard question to answer, because you have to define nature. I consider nature as a space where everybody finds peace, it doesn’t matter if it is constructed by humans or not. There is no need to segregate human society from the ’natural world’, because both the concepts are interacting with each other. Diemerpark is nature and thus socially constructed. It is created to provide the habitants of IJburg with a park instead of a garbage dump and by that, making the quarter IJburg more attractive for people considering living there. My expectations correspond with my observation, as I have already been at the park several times. I expected to see some rabbits, birds, factories and people, and feel peace. Maybe the reason why my expectations correspond with my observation is because I interpret this site with those expectations. What I mean is that I may be excluding some events because I am focusing on the events that I expected. This corresponds with a quote from my Introduction to Human Geography textbook: ’the landscapes of nature are understood as ’ways of seeing’the world in which the ’real’and’imagined’are intricately interwoven.’(p157.)