[Changes, 18, 172-176, 2000; also in King-Spooner, S. & Newnes, C. (eds) Spirituality and Psychotherapy, pp 47-51. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books, 2001.]


David Smail

‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’
Ludwig Wittgenstein

There is much more to Wittgenstein’s famous last sentence (of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) than merely an obvious tautology, and I think we would do well to take it as a guide in any discussion of spirituality. That is to say, the place of spirituality in psychotherapy must remain, I think, largely unspoken.

This is principally because words are such an inadequate means of giving expression to experience (despite what the ‘deconstructionists’ say, there is a great deal beyond discourse and text!), but also because ‘psychotherapy’ is such a broad, inclusive and imprecise concept. We should stick to what we can be clear about.

I also put this view extremely tentatively. Therapy can be, and is, done in many different ways, and need not, for all I know, be spoken about at all in any systematic manner. Certainly, in trying to get my ideas together for this discussion, I have, as I’m afraid will be all too obvious, found it hard to arrive at a firm and consistent view. What I detect in myself as a psychologist is, so to speak, a prejudice for the material over the spiritual, the public over the private, and what follows is an attempt to explain that prejudice.

Inevitably, what I want to discuss here is my view of psychotherapy, i.e. the view of a psychologist who is concerned to analyse and make explicit understandings of psychological distress, how it comes about and how it may best be alleviated. From this point of view, there is an almost total dependence on words and the struggle, through them, for common understanding; what cannot be spoken of has no place in this undertaking (which is not the same as saying it is unimportant).

There is nothing especially difficult or unusual about finding oneself in this situation. As Michael Polanyi argued in his terribly neglected Personal Knowledge(1), ineffability is involved in every human undertaking. He showed that ineffable personal experiences and appreciations lie at the very core of scientific judgement itself.

But for psychotherapists there is perhaps a particular difficulty, since we are not only dealing with ineffable subjectivity more than most, but also through it. The very tools of our trade are inexpressible, not least because the therapeutic encounter is first and last intensely and irreducibly personal. We are constantly tempted to try to talk about the experience beyond language because that is where so much of our experience lies. And we can’t talk about it! In this way the heart of psychotherapy can only be alluded to with a delicate discretion. There are very few writers who manage to achieve this. Peter Lomas(2) is one; Miller Mair(3) is one; Paul Gordon(4) is one; in his inimitable way, Bob Hobson(5) was one.

Immediately psychotherapeutic writing does try to eff the ineffable – and it does so all too often – it becomes yet another cultural influence turning us inside-out, and the result is a kind of sickening intrusion; at best a seductive sentimentality, at worst a violation of interiority. The process impoverishes us by trying to turn our private riches into public capital: we are propelled into a kind of cultural stock exchange in which we lose title to our own souls.

All this presents those of us who try in our writing to convey something of the heart of psychotherapy with a familiar dilemma in which we tend either to fall into the kind of sentimentality or intrusiveness just mentioned, or to attempt to convey the nature of the therapeutic process through, for example, case examples that betray the confidentiality of our clients and/or distort, more or less subtly, the nature of our relations with them. The trouble is we cannot say what we do without falling into exactly the kind of bad faith Jean-Paul Sartre described so well in Being and Nothingness.

But even if we could say what we do there would be little point because nobody else would be able to do it. We, all of us, ‘do’ psychotherapy in our own way, and no two of us are the same. It’s impossible to impersonalize the personal – in my view that is precisely the mistake of trying to form ‘schools’ of psychotherapy around the personal characteristics of one individual (e.g. Freud, Jung, Rogers, Perls, Ellis, et al.), or indeed to create a ‘profession’ of therapy and counselling with registers, systems of ‘training’ and accreditation, etc.

Some things that can be said about the experience of the spiritual

As a psychologist I am a materialist. My core belief is that the experience of being a body in a world gives rise in each of us to a unique subjectivity. But there still is nothing other than bodies and worlds. Selves and subjectivities are not self-creating and self-moving things and spirit has no intrinsic substance through which it can act on the world(6).

However, privately, like everyone else, I live within my subjectivity. I have a soul too.

The behaviourists and positivists try to rob us of our subjectivity, they rape and trample on it. But to take a materialist stance does not imply insisting in a totalitarian manner that subjectivity is mere illusion, that the whole notion of souls or spirits is meaningless: only that there’s very little point in trying to talk about them in anything other than an essentially theological context. I’ve nothing against theology – but it is, or at least in my view should be, different from psychology.

As psychologists trying to say something in public about the causes and cures of human distress, we have to stick to the effable, even though the effable never tells the whole story.

I would say, though, that there is nothing necessarily ‘higher’ about the ineffably subjective: it is a mode of experience we all know and which as much informs the clumsy, banal and destructive as it does the rare, sublime and healing.

Take the example of writing (I’m quoting here from a previous talk(7)):-

Many professional writers speak with awe of the magical experience of writing, of the way it seems to take place through them, almost as if their words were being written by the hand of God. Portentous accounts of creativity have been grounded on this experience. Indeed, I have experienced it often myself and can vouch for its capacity to leave one feeling deeply moved.

It wasn’t until a man I knew told me how his short stories came to him that I began to get an idea of what this experience might be about. Eyes misting with emotion, he told me how his stories seemed eerily to write themselves, how they poured themselves from the end of his pen faster than he could control the muscles of his hand. He positively glowed - humility and pride in equal proportions - that the mystery of the creative act should have been vouchsafed to him.

The trouble was, his were without question the worst short stories I have ever seen committed to paper. Chaotically constructed, banal, misspelt and ungrammatical, they were in fact barely literate.

What this reveals, I suspect, is merely that for anyone, creatively gifted or not, writing tends often to carry with it a different kind of experience from talking, without the same kind of illusion of control: one is more aware, with writing (rather perhaps as with dreams), that the ego is not as central as we often take it to be.

A lot of our subjective experience is like this: it comes with an overwhelming force of conviction, revelation even, un-sicklied-over with the pale cast of words in such a way that it seems to possess us from outside, from ‘above’. This, I suspect, is more or less what Freud meant by ‘primary process’. It is the stuff of dreams, and in part no doubt also of ‘peak experiences’. But in fact it’s not really special; it’s just the way subjectivity feels, and it feels before we think. In this way subjective experience is quite literally irresistible. But that doesn’t mean that it’s incorrigible, as the philosophers say (i.e. infallible).

Please note that I’m not belittling the sense of spirituality – I value it as highly as anyone. Nor (though in principle I have nothing against reductionism) am I reducing it to anything. All I am doing is trying to demystify it. Mystification is a constant danger for psychological speculation and reflection, and one of the best ways we can protect ourselves against it is, precisely, to beware of trying to eff the ineffable.

So in my view our best bet as far as our vocational discourse is concerned is to focus on the public world in which we are embodied (and which we can discuss in a common language) and leave our privacy (and our souls) in peace.

As psychologists and psychotherapists writing and talking about psychotherapy we should aim as far as we can to tell the truth about it. This does entail staying within a universe of common discourse, where the currency is words more than feelings. In this respect I am happy with the notion of ‘science’. Science still needs rescuing from scientism. Science, though hijacked for much of this century by various piratical groups (such, in our discipline, as the behaviourists) is not identical with positivism and should not be allowed to become the object of derision for so-called ‘postmodernists’.

At its broadest, scientific truth is the ever-corrigible judgement of society, in which its members seek freely and unconstrainedly to understand and elaborate their relations with each other and the world. But it is partial, always and for ever incomplete. The ultimate nature of reality is a mystery. It really is a mystery, and we can’t ‘discover’ it, ‘establish’ it or even talk about it meaningfully. But that doesn’t mean that there is no reality or that nothing is real or that we can’t do our best with what we’ve got.

There is, no doubt, a kind of discipline – at times perhaps quite an uncomfortable one – in restricting ourselves to the common currency of words as we try to understand and elaborate what goes on in our patients, between them and their worlds and between them and us. Parallel with our necessarily incomplete attempts to do this, and to elaborate a common set of (linguistic) concepts which will facilitate our understanding, there runs all the time a deep stream of inexpressible private experience, an ebbing and flowing of feeling and relationship, an unending seam of imagination, intuition and dream which form the most basic elements of our cognition and understanding as human beings.

There are places in the world for all these things – in religion, in art, in poetry. My only question is how much room they should occupy in our discussions about psychotherapy – discussions which I do really want to call scientific discussions. It would be absurd, certainly, if we tried to mix up the spiritual with the professional; if, that is, we not only tried to eff the ineffable, but also made it the object of degree courses, accreditation and registration procedures, etc.

As I indicated at the beginning of this piece, I do not want to be dogmatic about all this. Perhaps psychotherapy itself is more a spiritual calling than a scientific discipline. I could easily be persuaded of that. Some people, indeed, make out a very good case for it. My own inclination, though, from my point of view as a psychologist, is to persevere with scientific aspects of what causes human distress and what are the best ways of trying to do something about it. It may of course turn out that that is not much to do with psychotherapy at all.

1 Polanyi, M. 1958. Personal Knowledge. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

2 Lomas’s most recent book is Doing Good? Oxford University Press, 1999.

3 Mair, Miller. 1989. Between Psychology and Psychotherapy. London & New York: Routledge.

4 Gordon, Paul. 1999. Face to Face. Psychotherapy as Ethics. London: Constable.

5 Hobson, R.F. 1985. Forms of Feeling. The Heart of Psychotherapy. London & New York: Tavistock.

6 This view is elaborated in my book The Origins of Unhappiness, Constable, 1999. See also Power, Responsibility and Freedom at http://www.djsmail.com/intpub.htm

7 Smail, David. 1999. ‘Psychotherapy, society and the individual’. Talk given at the Ways with Words festival of literature, Dartington. This may be read at: http://www.djsmail.com/talk99.htm