Heidegger - Vygotsky - Jaspers - Piaget - Lacan - Lorenz - Laing - Derrida

Philosophical Biographies
Psychology 1933 - 1991

Martin Heidegger

(1889 - 1976), German philosopher, exponent of 20th-century Existentialism and critic of technological society.

The son of a Catholic sexton, Heidegger showed an early interest in religion and, upon finishing high school, joined the Jesuits as a novice. At the University of Freiburg he studied Catholic theology and medieval Christian philosophy. While at secondary school, he started an intensive study of Franz Brentano's On the Manifold Meaning of Being According to Aristotle.

For the rest of his life Heidegger was to contemplate the possibility that there is a basic sense of the verb "to be" that lies behind its variety of usages. From his early study of Brentano also stems his enthusiasm for the Greeks, especially the pre-Socratics, whose thought marks the dawning of the penetrating reflection that transpired before the cleavage of thinking into poetry, philosophy, and science.

The philosophy of Heidegger draws on philosophers prior to Socrates, upon Plato and Aristotle, and upon the Gnostics, but he was particularly influenced by several 19th- and early 20th-century philosophers: Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, founders of Existentialism; by the vitalist Wilhelm Dilthey; and by the founder of Phenomenology, Edmund Husserl.

While still in his 20s, Heidegger studied at Freiburg with Heinrich Rickert and Husserl, who was then already famous. Husserl's Phenomenology determined the background of Heidegger's doctoral dissertation (1914). Consequently, what Heidegger later said and wrote about anxiety, thinking, forgetfulness, curiosity, distress, care, or awe was not meant as psychology; and what he said about man, publicness, and other-directedness was not intended to be sociology, anthropology, or political science. His utterances were meant to disclose ways of Being.

Heidegger started teaching at the University of Freiburg during the winter semester of 1915 and earned his habilitation through a study of Duns Scotus. As a colleague of Husserl, Heidegger was expected to carry the Phenomenological movement further along in the spirit of his former master. However, in 1927 astonished the German philosophical world with the almost unreadable Being and Time. In spite of its intriguingly difficult style, this book was acclaimed as a deep and important work. It strongly influenced Jean-Paul Sartre and other Existentialists. Despite Heidegger's protestations, he was classed as the leading atheistic Existentialist. In the English-speaking world, however, its influence was negligible for several decades.

In Being and Time, Heidegger's declared purpose is to bring to light how it is to be: what does it mean to ask "What is the meaning of Being?" These questions lie behind the obviousness of everyday life and, therefore, also behind the empirical questions of natural science. One might say that the mission of Heidegger amounts to making each man ask that question with maximum involvement.

This crisis, according to Heidegger, stems from a deep fall (Verfall) that Western thought has undergone, owing to a one-sided technical development, a development that results in alienation (Entfremdung), or in a "highly inauthentic way of being." Fallenness, or inauthenticity, belongs to the inescapable way of human existence; i.e., it is an existential, an essential, potentiality (Möglichkeit), but epochs and individuals may be coloured by it in different degrees.

At the time of publishing Being and Time, Heidegger had been a professor ordinarius at Marburg for several years (since 1923). He resigned that post and, in 1928, returned to Freiburg, this time as Husserl's successor. What Is Metaphysics? was Heidegger's inaugural lecture; it elaborates das Nichts ("nothing").

Following Husserl, Heidegger held that it is the phenomenological and not the scientific method that unveils man's ways of Being. Thus, in pursuing this method, Heidegger comes into conflict with the dichotomy of the subject-object relation, which has traditionally implied that man, as knower, is something (some-thing) within an environment that is against him. This relation, however, must be transcended. The deepest knowing, on the contrary, is a matter of phainesthai (Greek: "to show itself" or "to be in the light"), the word from which phenomenology, as a method, is derived. The distinction between subject and object is not immediate but comes only later through conceptualisation.

As an aid in the effort to get back to "Thinking of Being" and its redemptive effects, Heidegger employs linguistic techniques. He develops his own German, his own Greek, and his own kind of etymologies. He coins, for example, about 100 new complex words ending with "-being." In reading his works one must, thus, translate many of its key terms back into Greek words.

In the early 1930s there occurred an event in the thought of Heidegger that scholars call his Kehre ("turning around"). This was denied by Heidegger himself, who insisted that he had been asking the same basic question since his youth, but in his later years he clearly became more reluctant to offer any answer. He did not even indicate a way in which to reach an answer to the basic problem of Being and Time.

At about the time of the Kehre, there also occurred Heidegger's short but eloquent pro-Nazi participation in the cultural politics of the Third Reich. Even before Hitler assumed power in November 1933, German universities were exposed to heavy pressures. They were supposed to support the "national revolution" and eliminate Jewish scholars and doctrines (such as relativity). The anti-Nazi scientist who had been the rector at Freiburg resigned in protest, and the teaching staff unanimously elected Heidegger as his successor.

Heidegger's inauguration speech (The German University's Self-Affirmation) was widely declared to be an affirmation of Nazism. On other occasions Heidegger gave solidly pro-Hitler speeches. "The Führer himself," he said, "and he alone is the German reality, present and future, and its law." In short, Heidegger succumbed to Hitlerism but not to Nazi cultural policy or philosophy.

Heidegger joined the Nazi Party and did not try to leave it, but hiis relations to the party deteriorated. He resigned as rector as early as the beginning of 1934. After World War II, Heidegger characterised Hitlerism as the historical explosion of a structural sickness in mankind as a whole and expressed concern that it would take time to get rid of the poison.

In November 1944 Heidegger terminated his university lectures, and in 1945 the occupying powers forbade him to take up official lecturing again. He was "investigated"; but his support of Hitler in 1933-34 was not found to be of the serious, "active" kind, and he did not lose his professional rights.

Lev Vygotsky

(1896 - 1934), Soviet psychologist who developed genetic approach to the development of concepts in early childhood and youth, tracing the transition through a series of stages of human development, based on the development of the child's social practice.

In his student days at the University of Moscow, he read widely in linguistics, sociology, psychology, philosophy and the arts. His systematic work in psychology did not begin until 1924. Ten years later he died of tuberculosis at the age of only 38. In that period, with the collaboration of Aleksandre Luria and A N Leontiev, he launched a series of investiagtions in developmental psychology, pedagogy and psychopathology. Vygotsky ran a medical practice in his native Byelorussia, actively participating in the development of the Revolution under atrocious conditions and almost total isolation from the West.

His most famous work is Thought and Language, published shortly after his death, developed for the first time a theory of language development which both anticipated Piaget's genetic psychology - describing the development of language and logical thinking in young children in the course of their interactions with adults and the world around them, interiorising the practical activity expressed in semsori-motor activity, via vocialisations, inner-speech and finally thought - and the development of theoretical, or conceptual knowledge in school-age children as their intuitive knowledge, acquired in their immediate life experiences, comes into active contact with socially transmitted knowledge of the teacher.

Equally renowned is The Crisis in Psychology, in which Vygotsky makes a systematic critique of all the currents and trends in European psychology of the day, including the dominant so-called Marxist psychology. In the Soviet Union of his times, Stalin fostered pseudo-scientific trends, such as Lysenko's theory of Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics, which used quotations from Marx and Engels or Lenin to support theoretical lines in science as if these were party-political questions which can resolved by reference to political doctrine.

Vygotsky was strongly influenced by Pavlov, the discoverer of the conditional reflex and leaned towards behaviourism, emphasising the requirement for science to adopt objective methods of investigation, in opposition to the introspective methods of Husserl, for example. Vygotsky did not live long enough to resolve the contradictions into which behaviourism is lead in coming to grips with the manifest reality of subjective consciousness.

His works were published after his death in 1934 and suppressed in 1936 and were not known in the West until 1958. More recently, linguists and educationalists influenced by Piaget's Genetic Psychology have been drawn towards Vygotsky's work, seeing in it a superior understanding of the relationship between the educator and the educated, in which the educator must "negotiate" with thechild or student who is credited with an active role in the learning process. Especially in the United States, Vygotsky has found a following among Community Development workers who value his concept of a "Zone of Proximal Development", in which leadership is able to facilitate intellectual and social development in struggles by communities to change their circumstances, leading to a subsequent benefit in an all-round development of conceptual ability.

Karl Jaspers

(1883 - 1969), German philosopher, one of the most important Existentialists in Germany, who approached the subject from man's direct concern with his own existence. In his later work, as a reaction to the disruptions of Nazi rule in Germany and World War II, he searched for a new unity of thinking that he called world-philosophy.

Jaspers was the oldest of the three children . His ancestors on both sides were peasants, merchants, and pastors who had lived in northern Germany for generations. His father, a lawyer, was a high constable of the district and eventually a director of a bank.

Jaspers was delicate and sickly in his childhood. As a consequence of his numerous childhood diseases, he developed bronchiectasis and cardiac decompensation, a severe handicap throughout his adult life.

Jaspers entered the University of Heidelberg in 1901, enrolling in the faculty of law; in the following year he moved to Munich, where he continued his studies of law, but without much enthusiasm. He spent the next six years studying medicine at the Universities of Berlin, Göttingen, and Heidelberg. After he completed his state examination to practice medicine in 1908, he wrote his dissertation Nostalgia and Crime. In February 1909 he was registered as a doctor. He had already met Gertrud Mayer during his student years and married her in 1910.

From 1909 - 1915, Jaspers was a volunteer research assistant at the University of Heidelberg psychiatric clinic, headed by the neuropathologist Franz Nissl. Because of his desire to learn psychiatry in his own way, Jaspers elected to work in his own time, at his own pace, and with patients in whom he was particularly interested.

Jaspers believed that the conditions that to establish psychopathology as a science, a language had to be found that, on the basis of previously conducted research, was capable of describing the symptoms of disease well enough to facilitate positive recognition in other cases; and various methods appropriate to the different spheres of psychiatry had to be worked out.

Jaspers tried to bring the methods of Phenomenology into clinical psychiatry, and his reputation as a researcher in the forefront of psychiatry was established. In 1913, he completed a textbook on psychopathology, the General Psychopathology.

In 1913 Jaspers entered the philosophical faculty, which included a department of psychology, of the University of Heidelberg. In 1916 he was appointed assistant professor in psychology; and in 1921 professor in philosophy. The transition from medicine to philosophy was due in part to the fact that the philosophical faculty needed an empirical psychologist.

In 1919 Jaspers published some of his lectures, entitled Psychology of World Views. He did not intend to present a philosophical work but rather one aimed at demarcating the limits of a psychological understanding of man. In it were foreshadowed all of the basic themes that were fully developed later in Jaspers' major philosophical works. By investigating the legitimate boundaries of philosophical knowledge, Jaspers tried to clarify the relationship of philosophy to science.

Following Max Weber, he asserted that scientific principles also applied to both the social and humanistic sciences. In contrast to science, Jaspers considered philosophy to be a subjective interpretation of Being, which attempted to postulate norms of value and principles of life as universally valid. For Jaspers, man's existence meant not mere being-in-the-world but rather man's freedom of being. Thus, the task of philosophy was to appeal to the freedom of the individual as the subject who thinks and exists and to focus on man's existence as the centre of all reality.

The elaboration of these ideas occupied Jasper's thought from 1920 to 1930 working with his brother-in-law, Ernst Mayer, himself a philosopher of repute, and he also enjoyed the friendship of Martin Heidegger, until Heidegger joined the Nazi Party.

In 1931, Man in the Modern Age was published and in 1932 the three volumes of Philosophy and a book on Max Weber.

When Hitler came into power in 1933, Jaspers was taken by surprise, as he had not taken National Socialism seriously. He thought that this movement would destroy itself from within. Because his wife was Jewish, Jaspers qualified as an enemy of the state. From 1933 he was excluded from the higher councils of the university but was allowed to teach and publish. In 1935 the first part of his future work on logic, Reason and Existenz, appeared; in 1936 a book on Nietzsche; in 1937 an essay on Descartes; in 1938 a further work preliminary to his logic, entitled Existenzphilosophie. Unlike many other famous intellectuals of that time, he was not prepared to make any concessions to the doctrines of National Socialism. Consequently, a series of decrees were promulgated against him, including a ban on publication.

His On My Philosophy is a short semi-autobiographical explanation of his philosophy dating from this time. Permission was granted to him in 1942 to go to Switzerland, but a condition was imposed by the Nazis that required his wife to remain behind in Germany. He refused to accept this condition and decided to stay with his wife, notwithstanding the dangers. It became necessary for his friends to hide his wife. Both of them had decided, in case of an arrest, to commit suicide. In 1945 he was told by a reliable source that his deportation was scheduled to take place on April 14. On March 30, however, Heidelberg was occupied by the Americans.

Jaspers withdrew more and more into himself. He revised the General Psychopathology in an effort to make it represent the high point of a free but responsible search for knowledge of man, as distinct from science, which had betrayed man. He also completed his work on logic, Of Truth, the first part of which was intended to throw the light of reason on the irrational teachings of the times. These works appeared in print in 1946 and 1947.

After the capitulation of Germany, Jaspers saw himself confronted with the tasks of rebuilding the university. In The Idea of the University, he called for a complete de-Nazification of the teaching staff, but this proved to be impossible because the number of professors who had never compromised with the Nazis was too small. Jaspers felt that an acknowledgment of national guilt was a necessary condition for the moral and political rebirth of Germany. In The Question of German Guilt (1946), he stated that whoever had participated actively in the preparation or execution of war crimes and crimes against humanity was morally guilty. Those, however, who passively tolerated these happenings because they did not want to become victims of Nazism were only politically responsible. The book attracted hardly any attention. In the spring of 1948 Jaspers accepted a professorship in philosophy in Basel, Switzerland. In spite of the apparent neglect of Jaspers' ideas of a moral regeneration of the German people, his departure for Basel was regarded as a betrayal by many of the German people.

Jaspers was convinced that modern technology in communications and warfare had made world unity imperative. This new development he defined as world philosophy, and its primary task was the creation of a mode of thinking that could contribute to the possibility of a free world order. The transition from existence philosophy to world philosophy was based on his belief that a different kind of logic would make it possible for free communication to exist among all mankind. His thought was expressed in The Perennial Scope of Philosophy (1948) and Philosophical Faith and Revelation (1962). Since all thought in its essence rests on beliefs, he reasoned, the task confronting man is to free philosophical thinking from all attachments to the transient objects of this world. To replace previous objectifications of all metaphysical and religious systems, Jaspers introduced the concept of the cipher. This was a philosophical abstraction that could represent all systems, provided that they entered into communication with one another by means of the cipher. A world history of philosophy, entitled The Great Philosophers (1957), had as its aim to investigate to what extent all past thought could become communicable.

Jaspers also undertook to write a universal history of the world, The Origin and Goal of History (1949). Following from this work, he was led to realise the possibility of a political unity of the world in a 1958 work called The Atom Bomb and the Future of Mankind. The aim of this political world union would be world confederation, in which the various entities could live and communicate in freedom and peace. As Germany appeared to him to turn more and more into a national oligarchy of parties, he wrote a bitter attack on these tendencies in The Future of Germany (1966). This book caused much annoyance among West German politicians of all shades. Jaspers returned his German passport and took out Swiss citizenship.

Jean Piaget

(1896 - 1980), Swiss psychologist who was the first to make a systematic study of the acquisition of understanding in children, the major figure in 20th-century developmental psychology.

Piaget's early interests were in zoology; at the age of 10 he published an article on his observations of an albino sparrow, and by 15 his several publications on molluscs had gained him a reputation among European zoologists. At the University of Neuchâtel, he studied zoology and philosophy, receiving his doctorate in the former in 1918. Soon afterward, however, he became interested in psychology, combining his biological training with his interest in epistemology. He first went to Zürich, where he studied under Carl Jung and Eugen Bleuler, and then began two years of study at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1919.

In Paris, Piaget devised and administered reading tests to schoolchildren and became interested in the types of errors they made, leading him to explore the reasoning process in these young children. By 1921 he had begun to publish his findings; the same year brought him back to Switzerland, where he was appointed director of the Rousseau Institute in Geneva. In 1926-29 he was professor of philosophy at the University of Neuchâtel, and in 1929 he joined the University of Geneva as professor of child psychology, remaining there until his death. In 1955 he established the International Centre of Genetic Epistemology at Geneva and became its director. In more than 50 books and monographs, Piaget developed the theme he first discovered in Paris, that the mind of the child evolves through a series of set stages to adulthood.

Piaget saw the child as constantly creating and recreating his own model of reality, achieving mental growth by integrating simpler concepts into higher level concepts at each stage. He argued for a "genetic epistemology," a timetable established by nature for the development of the child's ability to think, and he traced four stages in that development. He described the child during the first two years of life as being in a sensorimotor stage, chiefly concerned with mastering his own innate physical reflexes and extending them into pleasurable or interesting actions. During the same period, the child first becomes aware of himself as a separate physical entity and then realises that the objects around him also have a separate and permanent existence. In the second, or preoperational, stage, roughly from age two to age six or seven, the child learns to manipulate his environment symbolically through inner representations, or thoughts, about the external world. During this stage, he learns to represent objects by words and to manipulate the words mentally, just as he earlier manipulated the physical objects themselves. In the third, or concrete operational, stage, from age 7 to age 11 or 12, occurs the beginning of logic in the child's thought processes and the beginning of the classification of objects by their similarities and differences. During this period, the child also begins to grasp concepts of time and number. The fourth stage, the period of formal operations, begins at age 12 and extends into adulthood. It is characterised by an orderliness of thinking and a mastery of logical thought, allowing a more flexible kind of mental experimentation. The child learns in this final stage to manipulate abstract ideas, make hypotheses, and see the implications of his own thinking and that of others.

Piaget's concept of these developmental stages caused a re-evaluation of older ideas of the child, of learning, and of education. If the development of certain thought processes was on a genetically determined timetable, simple reinforcement was not sufficient to teach concepts; the child's mental development would have to be at the proper stage to assimilate those concepts. Thus, the teacher became not a transmitter of knowledge but a guide to the child's own discovery of the world.

Piaget reached his conclusions about child development through his observations of and conversations with his own children, as well as others. He asked them ingenious and revealing questions about simple problems he had devised, and then he formed a picture of their way of viewing the world by analysing their mistaken responses.

Jacques Lacan

(1901 - 1981), French psychoanalyst who gained an international reputation as an original interpreter of Sigmund Freud's work.

Lacan earned a medical degree in 1932 and was a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Paris for much of his career. He helped introduce Freudian theory into France in the 1930s, but he reached prominence only after he began conducting regular seminars at the University of Paris in 1953. He acquired celebrity status in France after the publication of his essays and lectures in Écrits, The Language of the Self: The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis. He founded and headed an organisation called the Freudian School of Paris from 1964 until he disbanded it in 1980 for what he claimed was its failure to adhere with sufficient strictness to Freudian principles.

Lacan emphasised the primacy of language as the mirror of the unconscious mind, and he tried to introduce the study of language into psychoanalytic theory. His major achievement was his reinterpretation of Freud's work in terms of the structural linguistics developed by French writers in the second half of the 20th century. The influence he gained extended well beyond the field of psychoanalysis to make him one of the dominant figures in French cultural life during the 1970s. In his own psychoanalytic practice, Lacan was known for his unorthodox, and even eccentric, therapeutic methods.

Konrad Lorenz

(1903 - 1989), Austrian zoologist, founder of modern ethology, the study of animal behaviour by means of comparative zoological methods. His ideas contributed to linking behavioral patterns to an evolutionary past, and known for his work on the roots of aggression.

Lorenz was the son of an orthopedic surgeon. He showed an interest in animals at an early age, and while still young, he provided nursing care for sick animals from the nearby Schönbrunner Zoo. He also kept detailed records of bird behaviour in the form of diaries.

In 1922, after graduating from secondary school, he followed his father's wishes that he study medicine and spent two semesters at Columbia University, in New York City. He then returned to Vienna to study.

During his medical studies Lorenz continued to make detailed observations of animal behaviour; a diary about a jackdaw that he kept was published in 1927 in the prestigious Journal for Ornithology. He was awarded a Ph.D. in zoology in 1933. Encouraged by the positive response to his scientific work, Lorenz established colonies of birds, published a series of research papers and soon gained an international reputation. In 1935 Lorenz described imprinting behaviour: at a certain critical stage soon after hatching, ducklings learn to follow real or foster parents.

In 1936 the German Society for Animal Psychology was founded and Lorenz became coeditor of its journal. In 1937, he was appointed lecturer in comparative anatomy and animal psychology at the University of Vienna and from 1940 to 1942 was professor of general psychology at the Albertus University at Königsberg.

From 1942 to 1944 he served as a physician in the German army and was a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union. He was returned to Austria in 1948 and headed the Institute of Comparative Ethology at Altenberg from 1949 to 1951. In 1950 he established a comparative ethology department in the Max Planck Institute, Westphalia. From 1961 to 1973 he served as director of the Max Planck Institute for Behaviour Physiology, in Seewiesen. In 1973 Lorenz, together with Frisch and Tinbergen, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries concerning animal behavioral patterns.

Lorenz's early scientific contributions dealt with the nature of instinctive behavioral acts, and he investigated how behaviour may result from two or more basic drives that are activated simultaneously in an animal.

Lorenz's concepts advanced the understanding of how behavioral patterns evolve in a species, particularly with respect to ecological factors and the adaptive value of behaviour for species survival. He proposed that animal species are genetically constructed so as to learn specific kinds of information important for survival.

Lorenz applied his ideas to the behaviour of humans, with controversial philosophical and sociological implications. In a popular book, On Aggression (1963), he argued that fighting and warlike behaviour in man have an inborn basis. Fighting in lower animals has a positive survival function, he observed, such as the dispersion of competitors and the maintenance of territory. He argued that warlike tendencies in humans may likewise be ritualized into socially useful behaviour patterns. In another work, Behind the Mirror: A Search for a Natural History of Human Knowledge (1973), Lorenz examined the nature of human thought and intelligence and attributed the problems of modern civilization largely to the limitations his study revealed.

R D Laing

(1927 - 1989), British psychiatrist noted for his alternative approach to the treatment of schizophrenia.

Laing was born into a working-class family and grew up in Glasgow. He studied medicine and psychiatry and earned a doctoral degree in medicine at the University of Glasgow in 1951. After serving as a conscript psychiatrist in the British army (1951-52) and teaching at the University of Glasgow (1953-56), he conducted research at the Tavistock Clinic (1956-60) and at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (1960-89). He had a private practice in London.

Throughout much of his career Laing has been interested in the underlying causes of schizophrenia. In his first book, The Divided Self (1960), he theorised that ontological insecurity (insecurity about one's existence) prompts a defensive reaction in which the self splits into separate components, thus generating the psychotic symptoms characteristic of schizophrenia. He was opposed to the standard treatments for schizophrenics, such as hospitalisation and electroshock. He further analysed the inner dynamics of schizophrenia in The Self and Others (1961) and published, with Aaron Esterson, Sanity, Madness, and the Family (1965), a group of studies of people whose mental illnesses he viewed as being induced by their relationships with other family members. Among his other works are The Politics of Experience (1967), in which madness is viewed as a form of transcendence of the normal state of alienation, and The Politics of the Family (1971). Laing's early approach to schizophrenia was quite controversial, and he modified some of his positions in later years. His book Wisdom, Madness and Folly: The Making of a Psychiatrist, 1927-1957 (1985) was autobiographical.

Jacques Derrida

(1930, Algeria), French philosopher, whose work encompasses literature, linguistics, and psychoanalysis.

Derrida studied at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he taught the history of philosophy from 1965. From 1960 to 1964 he taught at the Sorbonne. In 1962 he published his first book, a translation (with introduction) of a section of a work on geometry by Edmund Husserl. In 1967 three influential works by him were published: Speech and Phenomena, a study of Husserl; and two collections of essays, Writing and Difference and Of Grammatology. Three works published in 1972 were Margins of Philosophy; Positions and Dissemination. Derrida's thought is based on his disapproval of the search for scertainty or meaning. He offers a way of reading philosophic texts, called "deconstruction," which enables him to make explicit the metaphysical suppositions and a priori assumptions used even by those philosophers who are the most critical of "metaphysics".

Derrida eschewed ideology and sought to analyze language to provide an alternative perspective in which the basic notion of a philosophical thesis is called into question. His later works include Glas (1974), Truth in Painting (1978), and The Postcard (1980).


Heidegger - Vygotsky - Jaspers - Piaget - Lacan - Lorenz - Laing - Derrida
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