Review of ‘The Talking Cure – Wittgenstein’s Therapeutic Method for Psychotherapy’ by John Heaton

John Heaton is, amongst others, a practising psychiatrist and psychotherapist, a regular lecturer on the Advanced Diploma in Existential Psychotherapy programme at Regent’s College, London, and a long- and some-time editor of the Journal for Existential Analysis.

This is Heaton’s third book with Wittgenstein in its title. In it, he applies the great philosopher’s insights to the psychotherapeutic process in all its forms. Heaton’s principle thesis is that many of our deepest and most intractable problems find their roots in linguistic confusions and limitations, and are resolved not by the search for causes inherent in the various pseudo-scientific doctrines and theories of the mind (such as those of Freud and Klein), but by careful attention to the use of language. This is particularly true in neurosis and psychosis in which language is used not so much to clarify and to communicate as to deceive and to obfuscate.

Like all the best things, the talking cure has its roots in ancient Greece with such luminaries as Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic (see my post on Diogenes here). Upon being asked to name the most beautiful of all things, Diogenes replied ‘parrhesia’ (free speech, full expression), and his intransigently courageous and sometimes delightfully shocking behaviour consistently accorded with this, his, truth. The self-understanding that underlies parrhesia is revealed not in reductionist propositions based on questionable pictures of the mind, but in the singular use of language – both by the expression and by its truthfulness. In short, it is revealed not in causes, but in reasons, with all their multiplicities and particularities.

For Wittgenstein as for Heaton, the talking cure is, like philosophy itself, a battle against the bewitchment of intelligence by means of language, for it is not knowledge but understanding that is needed to live an integrated, productive, and, dare I say it, happy, life. To date, this important, indeed, devastating, critique has had little or no impact on psychotherapeutic practices, and Heaton’s revolutionary book requires and deserves to be read not only by psychotherapists and psychiatrists but by every mental health professional. Although the book is not difficult to leaf through, she with little more than a scientific background may find it difficult to understand, accept, or come to terms with certain concepts. As Lichtenberg tells us, ‘A book is like a mirror: if an ape looks into it an apostle is hardly likely to look out … he who understands the wise is wise already.’

Neel Burton

NB: This review has also been published in the September issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry.

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Why I specialised in psychiatry

In 2008, just 6% of candidates sitting Paper 1 of the MRCPsych exam were UK graduates, evidence if any were needed that recruitment into psychiatry is facing an unprecedented crisis.

Psyche in the temple of love

In 2008, just 6% of candidates sitting Paper 1 of the MRCPsych exam were UK graduates, evidence if any were needed that recruitment into psychiatry is facing an unprecedented crisis.

In my experience, most medical students enjoy learning about mental illness and talking to mentally ill people, who often have a refreshing knack for saying things exactly how they are. In a fit of inspiration, some medical students tell me that psychiatry is the only specialty that enables them to think about themselves, about other people, and about life in general. They also like the lifestyle: an hour for each patient, ‘special interest’ days, protected time for teaching, light on calls from home, and guaranteed career progression. In medicine they might treat yet another anonymous case of asthma, chest pain, or pulmonary oedema. In surgery they might do one knee replacement after another, up until the day they retire or collapse. But in psychiatry there can be no factory line, no standard procedure, and no mindless protocol: each patient is unique, and each patient has something unique to return to the psychiatrist. I often come across those same students again, months or sometimes years later. After the smiles and the niceties, it transpires that they are no longer so interested in psychiatry. So what happened?

The students are never too sure, but I think I have an idea. Whilst I was a medical student in London, an American firm offered me a highly paid job as a strategy consultant in their Paris office. So I gladly left medicine, and the many inconveniences of working in (and increasingly ‘for’) the NHS. I had a great time in Paris, but the job itself turned out to be more about dealing with personality disorders than about having good ideas. I quit after six months and freelanced as an English tutor to high-flying executives, bankers, venture capitalists, and such like. As my clients already spoke good English and merely wanted to improve their fluency, all I had to do was to make conversation with them. My lessons often turned into something akin to psychotherapy, as I realised that I could make my clients open their hearts and minds simply by listening to them speak. Although they seemed to have everything in life, they were actually deeply unhappy, and had rarely stopped to ask themselves why. I wanted to find out why, so I decided to go back to the UK, do my house jobs, and specialise in psychiatry. I had always been far too ‘ambitious’ to consider psychiatry, but by then it had become clear that I didn’t want to pursue a career that didn’t allow me to think and feel, and to relate to others and to the world in a genuine and meaningful way. There are not many such jobs, but psychiatry – along with general practice, teaching, academia, and the clergy – is certainly one of them, and is even, arguably, their archetypal form.

The following year whilst going about my house jobs I put up with all sorts of abuse from my colleagues in medicine and surgery. One of the other house officers, by then a good buddy, took me aside one day and said with an alcoholic mixture of concern and disdain: ‘Why do you want to go into psychiatry? You’re a good doctor. Can’t you see you’re wasting your talents?’ It became very clear, first, that the stigma that people with a mental disorder are made to feel also extends to the doctors who look after them; and, second, that this stigma emanates most strongly from the medical profession itself, mired as it is in middle class preoccupations and prejudices and, as a whole, far too grounded in neurosis not to be terrified of psychosis.

Of course, it is simply not true that psychiatry is ‘a waste of talent’. The term ‘psychiatry’ was first used 200 years ago in 1808, in a 188-page paper by Johann Christian Reil. He argued for the urgent creation of a medical specialty to be called ‘psychiatry’, and contended that only the very best physicians had the skills to join it. These physicians needed not only to have an understanding of the body, but also a much broader range of skills than standard physicians. Indeed, a psychiatrist can change a person’s entire outlook with a single sentence, so long as he can find the right words and the right time. No protocols, no high-tech equipment or expensive drugs, no pain or side-effects, and no complications or follow-up. Now that is talent, and one so great that I can only ever aim at it. And each time I fail, I always have medicine to fall back on.

Posted on 26/07/2010: A recent update on the recruitment crisis facing psychiatry can be found