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?