The Psychotherapy Literature
A Brief Evaluation

The number of books that have been written about psychotherapy is absolutely vast. The number really worth reading is correspondingly small. There are three factors I can think of to account for this phenomenon.

First, psychotherapy has from the very beginning been a business; pretty well all the major writers in the field since Freud himself have had at least one anxious eye on the necessity to make a living, and this has meant that few have been able seriously to contemplate the idea that maybe therapy doesn't 'work' as a form of treatment.

Second, the experience of doing psychotherapy, for therapist at least as much as for patient, is dangerously seductive: an atmosphere of intimacy and trust builds up which is in its way unique, and, whatever its positive effects, can lead to a disastrous suspension of the critical faculty. For patients this may mean an unquestioning acceptance of the therapist's apparent authority and self-abandonment to a conversion-like experience; for therapists it may lead to a compelling belief in their own semi-magical powers.

The effect of these two factors, separately and in combination, is to colour the literature in a variety of ways ranging from simple false optimism to sentimentality, therapist grandiosity, an almost religiose exaltation, insightless mystery-mongering, and so on. This is very clearly seen in much of the early writing in psychoanalysis and analytical psychology, not least by Freud and Jung themselves who frequently nudge closer to theosophy than to science, and is also reflected in the fact that psychoptherapy and 'the occult' often become fused in the modern mind (not to mention on the modern bookshop shelf).

The principal qualities of such writing tend to be moral and aesthetic; that is to say, theorists become unable to resist the temptation to moralize about human conduct or to 'aestheticize' about human nature. It is very easy to come away from reading some therapeutic gurus (especially those from within the so-called 'humanist' camp) feeling either guilty or inadequate or both.

The third factor influencing the sheer bulk of the psychotherapy literature, and accounting for its mind-numbing aridity, is the pressure of the academic market. In order to build a successful and respectable career in what passes in this corner of the university world for 'science', one simply has to churn out endless research papers. This leads to perpetual squabbles and disputes, the invention of innumerable 'theories' of this and that and the proliferation of 'techniques' and 'measures' which have no continuity or general applicability. Unfortunately for them, serious students of therapy have to wade through much of this stuff, but the interested general reader doesn't.

Nobody with an interest in this field should approach it without reading some of the work of its principal figures. However, the mental attitude with which such an approach is made is of the first importance, and it is above all crucial to avoid the kind of awed respect which is too often accorded productions concerning 'the human mind'. Though many have assisted in creating them, in fact no one has solved the supposed mysteries attending this subject, and all anyone achieves is little more than a statement of their own preferences and prejudices.

Freud, for example, wrote and incredible amount of nonsense (as will quickly be gleaned from the critical works listed on the Psychology and Psychiatry page) but it would be impossible to gain an accurate view of the field without reading some of his work. The Interpretation of Dreams is interesting and revealing, and the New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis give a broad picture of the essence of psychoanalysis.

Much of C.G. Jung's writing is impossibly boring and impenetrable - particularly his interminable disquisitions on astrology and the occult, etc. - but some is very clear and refreshing: for example, Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Again, The Practice of Psychotherapy (Vol. 16 of The Collected Works) is quite a readable account and a nice change from orthodox psychoanalysis.

Apart from the writers referred to on the Psychology and Psychiatry page, more or less orthodox psychoanalytic accounts dominated the scene until the middle of the twentieth century, when the influence of mainly American innovators began to be felt.

In terms of influence, Carl Rogers is the foremost of these (he is regarded among other things as the founder of the counselling movement). He did a great deal to deflate some of the mystery surrounding psychotherapy before creating a few myths of his own! On Becoming a Person and Client Centred Therapy convey the flavour.

George Kelly's intellectually disciplined and profoundly insightful approach had a big influence, more in Britain than in his native land. His two-volume The Psychology of Personal Constructs is probably a bit daunting for the general reader, and the secondary literature might be easier. In this latter respect http://www.oikos.org/content.htm is very informative.

Several other 'brand-name' therapies were created around this time. For example, Fritz Perls's 'Gestalt Psychotherapy', Eric Berne's 'Transactional Analysis', Albert Ellis's 'Rational Emotive Therapy'. These approaches have been enormously influential in shaping the (post-) modern therapy industry, and vast amounts have been written by and about their creators and acolytes. This output forms the bulk of the so-called 'humanist' approach to therapy and it appeals to a great many people. From my minority perspective this literature is mostly specious, misleading and superficial!

The voluminous research literature which has accumulated round psychotherapists' anxiety to prove their worth is certainly not uninteresting for the specialist, though the general reader may find much of it tedious. A good introduction and overview is provided by A.E. Bergin & S.L. Garfield (1994) Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change.

Meanwhile, psychoanalytic therapies continued (and continue) to plough their own, somewhat elitist and precious furrow. The Freudian dissident Melanie Klein founded the British 'Object Relations' school. Klein was a mystery-monger par excellence and wrote a great deal of obscurantist twaddle, but some of the later adherents such as D.W. Winnicott and Harry Guntrip wrote much more interestingly and instructively. More recently, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan enjoyed a tremendous vogue, as much in literary as in therapeutic circles. His writing is wildly idiosyncratic and virtually incomprehensible.

There are a few writers on therapeutic psychology who struggle against the temptations of the market and the seductions of the therapeutic experience to write honestly and illuminatingly about their calling. The following is a selection.

Peter Lomas
1981. The Case for a Personal Psychotherapy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
1987. The Limits of Interpretation. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
1994. Cultivating Intuition. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
1999. Doing Good? Oxford University Press.

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

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

Emmy van Deurzen
1998. Paradox and Passion in Psychotherapy. Chichester: Wiley.

Paul Gordon
1999. Face to Face. Therapy as Ethics. London: Constable.
2009. The Hope of Therapy. Ross -on-Wye: PCCS Books

This page last updated 21.6.09


Back to:-
Psychology and Psychiatry