Darian Leader on philosophy and psychotherapy

Here’s a little interview I did for the new issue of Psychologies magazine with the psychoanalyst Darian Leader, who’s the most vocal critic of the government’s support for CBT. He thinks CBT peddles ‘rose-tinted positive thinking’ and likens the government’s support for it to Maoist brain-washing. I started off asking him about the riots:

Jules Evans: What’s your take on the riots?

Darian Leader: I think we’ve progressively lost the distinction between ethics and morals. Morals is simply saying something is right or wrong. Ethics is understanding the thought that leads to an action. It’s classically been distinguished from simply attacking an action as bad.

Jules Evans: So you think there’s been a lot of moral analyses of the riots, and not much ethical analysis?

Darian Leader: It’s been an interminable commentary. Everyone was simply sticking to their prejudices, you never heard people listening to each other and saying ‘that’s a good point’. That’s why dialogue is so different. Maybe we acquire the ability to hear others in childhood, or we don’t. We seem to live in a society that has lost the ability to hear each other.

Jules Evans: Do you think psychology can shed any better light on the riots?

Darian Leader: Yes, but I don’t think it should simply come up with an immediate soundbite. One idea it would question is that people necessarily know why they took part in the riots. Journalists have asked them if they were doing it for political reasons. But that assumes their own motivation is transparent to them. Psychology and philosophy would question if we’re always aware of our intentions.

Jules Evans: Can we discover our intentions?

Darian Leader: I don’t think that’s possible unless you engage in a dialogue with someone else. Think of the Platonic dialogues.

Jules Evans: Do you think this sort of dialogue can make us a better person or can lead us to better values?

Darian Leader: As soon as it tries to do that, it’s being normative, it’s moved from ethics to moralizing. Since its inception,psychology has offered a space free from the dominant value systems of culture. People aren’t condemned or judged, they’re not labelled good or bad. It’s important to preserve that space. In some parts of psychology, there’s now an effort to impart the values of the state in the counseling room.

Jules Evans: But surely even in psychoanalysis there’s a positive conception of the good life, of what it means to live well?

Darian Leader: I’m sure you can find plenty of analysts who try to sell some version of the good life. They’ve basically become life coaches. But other analysts don’t try to do that. Sigmund Freud rejected the idea of mental health and flourishing. The discourse of well-being is about selling things and making money. The Freudian vision is much darker. It rejects the concept of the well-rounded person.

Jules Evans: But Civilization and its Discontents talks about how we can to some extent redeem the savage animal in us, doesn’t it?

Darian Leader: That monograph suggests there will always be fractures in our civilization which can’t be healed. Each person has to find their own unique way in which to be saved. It doesn’t say everyone needs therapy. In fact, it suggests what’s most important is the arts.

Jules Evans: So you’re saying that psychology can explore the ethical – what makes us do something – without moving into the moral sphere. But ancient philosophy surely was ethical and moral. It explained our motivation, and also guided us to happiness and virtue. We seem to have lost that.

Darian Leader: I don’t think so. These aims, that we should ‘find ourselves’ or ‘be happy’ are recent inventions.

Jules Evans: What about Socrates’ injunction: ‘know thyself’?

Darian Leader: But ancient philosophy didn’t try to make people happier.

Jules Evans: Yes it did.

Darian Leader: I think Plato’s dialogues are more sceptical than that. They’re dialogues. The idea is that we shouldn’t take other people’s word for it. We should ask questions, discover how little we know.

Darian has a new book out, called What is Madness?


  • LadyAnthros says:

    With all due respect, when someone claims that "since its inception, psychology has offered a space free from the dominant value systems of culture," it's hard to take their views seriously.

    It's true that ideas of the moral (and normative moralisms in particular) have often worked more *implicitly* in psychological theories and psychotherapeutic contexts, than in other social institutions and discourses.

    However, to claim psychology as some kind of 'free zone' outside of dominant cultural beliefs, values, and ideologies, is absolutely ludicrous.

    You don't have to be a Foucauldian or social constructionist (or a Marxist for that matter) to see this. Just try thinking, e.g., about the histories of diagnostic categories (hysteria, homosexuality, etc)… See?

    I am no fan of positive psychology and the whole life-coaching model, but I don't think these false dichotomies will help the cause very much.

  • Jules Evans says:

    I agree – just think of Freud insisting poor Dora has a father-fixation, when in fact her father was trying to marry her off to another older man!

    I also think psychoanalysis, to provide a description of certain ill states (neurosis, hysteria etc), must also have an implicit idea of health and, even, flourishing.

    Ancient greek philosophy certainly put forward positive models of happiness and flourishing – whatever Darian says.

  • LadyAnthros says:

    Definitely. Notions of happiness and human flourishing are at the very center of Aristotelian ethics, for example, but they are, of course, conceived quite differently than what you get from popular self-help lit, Landmark Forum, Seligman, or even Maslow.

    That's why the more interesting task is to think through these different conceptualizations of 'happiness,' and how they are differently articulated and applied.

    (Which is one of the key things I see this blog as trying to do – thank you!)

  • Jules Evans says:

    Sure – thanks for reading!

  • JM says:

    This idea that psychotherapy or analysis can't actually help the patient is pervasive in the theory and, from what I can see, the practice of Lacanian analysis. It's terribly puritanical – a bit like the stern conceptual art injunction against beauty, with which it often seems to be kissing cousins – as Leader's dismissal of wellbeing shows. But while he rejects the idea as consumerist, he is, one assumes, still happy to accept a fee from the patients he refuses to help feel better.

    I've been the patient of a Lacanian and it did me no good and I've known others who were similarly left high and dry. I've also experienced other disciplines and know how they can maieutically bring about epiphanies. Leader seems to be rubbishing this kind of thing as a result of a sort of arrogant category error, as if a philosophical deconstruction of absolute truth also invalidates little contingent truths, the kind where, for instance, you realise you were only driving yourself nuts about one thing because you didn't think you could deal with another. I think he's got a serious and important point regarding CBT, but he does that point no favours by countering with his own fanaticism.

  • Great post but I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this
    topic? I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit
    further. Bless you!

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