We do not need theories so much as the experience that is the source of the theory (Laing 1990: 15).

This was the starting point for the paper I wrote in 2009 as part of my training at The Site for Contemporary Psychoanalysis. I had recently encountered Laing for the first time and had been captivated by his writing, which resonated powerfully with what I was experiencing in clinical placements, both within NHS psychiatric services and at Islington Mind.

I set out to enquire whether, from his powerful and persuasive political commentary, a theoretical thread might be teased out. I was struck by the contradiction inherent in this opening quote from Laing: yes, of course, theory begins with experience – it was Freud’s experience in the consulting room which drove his theoretical enquiries. But surely, to set about the task of writing about experience, of describing it, as Laing does so powerfully, is to set about the work of theory. Writing, it seems to me, is theorising. And this led me to challenge Laing’s claim to be offering a phenomenological description of experience, which can somehow be free of theory. 

During the course of this enquiry, I explored Laing’s relationship with, and critique of, mainstream psychoanalytic theory and, in particular, his engagement with the concept of the unconscious and unconscious processes. In drawing my conclusions, I asserted that there is ‘too much which divides Laing from his hero, Freud, for Laing’s approach to be meaningfully described as psychoanalytic. Laing offers instead a phenomenological approach.’ This statement became a focal point for the assessment of my paper by its Training Committee readers, and a point of divergence for them. They insisted that the statement required further investigation and, indeed, justification.

Now, 5 years on, as a graduate of The Site, and working in private practice, I find myself curious again about that point which so provoked my readers. I am also interested in its wider implications. Was Laing a psychoanalyst? What does it mean to be a psychoanalyst? And what position does a psychoanalyst take up in relation to the unconscious? These questions lead inevitably to a deeper enquiry into what is meant by the unconscious and whether psychoanalysis is a religion, with a central belief system held to by its ‘true followers’. Why does this concept become such a point of division? And is there anything more fundamental than a simple political turf war behind the ongoing struggle over the right to the title of psychoanalyst. 

These questions may provide fertile ground for a subsequent paper, but I have chosen to leave the paper in its original form with the hope that there might be a fruitful return to these questions in the future.