Peter Philippson on Gestalt Therapy

Interview with Peter Philippson

Gestalt Therapy: Roots and Branches

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Karnac Books: What made you write this book?

Peter Philippson: I have been developing an understanding of psychotherapy and the Gestalt approach over more than 20 years, and an important part of that development has been the journal papers I have written over those years.  It seemed appropriate at some stage to produce a collection of these papers, as they explore themes from my previous books in more detail, and also give some sense of the evolution of my ideas.
Could you briefly explain, in easy words, what your book is about?

Gestalt Therapy began as an offshoot from psychoanalysis over 60 years ago (its main founder, Frederick/Fritz Perls, was a training analyst in Berlin and South Africa).  In developing its separate identity, some of the shared perspectives and continuities between the two have been downplayed.  Of course, in the intervening time, there have also been relational developments within psychoanalysis that have in some ways paralleled the development of Gestalt Therapy.  In this book, I explore both the commonalities and differences with our roots in psychoanalysis.  I was glad to be able to quote as a frontispiece from my great-great-uncle Ludwig Philippson, whose ‘Philippson Bible’ (translation of the Jewish Bible into German) was significant for Freud, and mentioned in ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’.

A major starting point for the development of Gestalt Therapy from psychoanalysis was a specific understanding of self arising from contact.  To put it (relatively) simply, there are two kinds of words.  There are ‘thing’ words like table, that point to something.  Then there are comparison words like big/small, high/low, where neither pole has a meaning except in relation to the other.  The Gestalt theory of self says that ‘self’ is the second kind of word, always a comparison with ‘other’ (both human and non-human), and the development of a relatively continuing sense of self is an achievement, not a given.  When this becomes over-fixed, due to historical experiences, the person’s ability to make contact fluidly and to keep flowing awareness becomes limited.  Therapy involves going to immediate experiencing through the senses, emotions, through relationship and cognition, and open new possibilities of experiencing oneself in relation to the world.  In the book I look at many implications of this both for psychological theory and for therapy.  What do words such as regression, transference and drive mean in such a relational theory?  What is the relation between emotion, thinking and fantasy in the work?

I am also interested in the philosophical roots of the approach in existential and phenomenological ideas.  I was many years ago a philosophy postgraduate, and keep a strong interest in the philosophical side of what we do as psychotherapists.  There is a growing resurgence of interest among Gestaltists of these roots, which to me is an exciting development.

Finally, I am interested in looking at the foundations of Gestalt theory in the light of new discoveries from the fields of child development and neuroscience.  Mostly I think the Gestalt approach is very well supported by these discoveries, but some aspects do need looking at again.  We need to keep reworking the theory, questioning it, but not forgetting our roots.

Where did the idea of the book come from?

I was putting together a publications list, which was getting very long!  I looked back over some of the papers with a sense of rediscovery, and thought how interesting it would be to put them together in a way that could help them form a narrative.  I decided to stay with the original texts, to exclude pieces that I no longer like, and to add short introductory paragraphs.  There is one new paper and one unpublished fragment, both of which felt relevant to the themes.

What were your motivations and feelings towards writing this book?

I felt excited about bringing all these together, and liked the developing shape of the collection.  I had to face a number of irksome technical difficulties: the papers were on different computers with different operating systems and word processing programs, so finding ways to convert formats was complicated.

Do you think your book could possibly change some aspects of the profession?

matisse-danceMy hope is to help move forward the growing understanding that psychotherapy must be embodied and relational, not about an individual disembodied mind.  The need for this is clear in writers on child development and neuroscience (Stern, Schore, Ramachandran, Rizzolatti, Damasio) echoing the founders of Gestalt Therapy 60 years ago.

An important part of this is a questioning of an emphasis on ‘attunement’ as a major aspect of psychotherapy.  This belongs in a ‘one person psychology’, where the client brings him/herself and the therapist attunes to allow the client to explore that self.  In a relational understanding, the client that I see is the client-actualizing-with-me, and it is precisely in the new relational possibilities that change occurs.  As therapist, I have to attune to our co-creation of self and other as it unfolds.  I question an understanding of phenomenology that implies the therapist holds back on his/her meaning-making in order to better understand the meaning-making of the client.  Usually the client comes when s/he feels stuck in fixed self-understanding in a way that no longer facilitates living full lives.  In the therapeutic encounter, new meanings and new ways of being oneself emerge.
Would your book be of help to lay people as well or is it for professionals only?

I think there is an interest and growing knowledge of issues in psychology and philosophy.  I think many people are fascinated at how we come to be as we are, and how we can be helped when things are difficult.  Our world is moving very fast, with new ways of interacting through computers and phones, while the world of work and relationships becomes more diverse and insecure.  The relational basis of our social world provides new possibilities and new challenges.

I have tried to write in a way that is not too obscure, while not wanting to oversimplify issues either.  My hope is that this book will appeal to and be accessible to lay people as well as professionals.

Did you receive any support in order to complete the writing of this book?

I received a lot of support in many ways.  A major supporter was my long-term co-therapist and friend John Bernard Harris, a Gestalt psychotherapist (now retired) with a background as a philosophy lecturer.  I have been supported by participation in discussions in person and online with colleagues over the years at Manchester Gestalt Centre and on the Gstalt-L discussion list, particularly Dan Bloom, Philip Brownell, Sylvia Crocker and Seán Gaffney.  I have been well supported by my family: Mary, my partner of 36 years, and my sons Jeffrey and Robert.  Jeffrey, who is a physicist, has been a kind support in my speculations about the universe (the mistakes are my additions!).  My clients have been willing to go with my lurches in understanding of psychotherapy, and have given me feedback as my way of working has changed over the years.  And editors of journals and publishers have been willing to engage with me to get my writing into publishable form: I would like to thank Malcolm Parlett and Christine Stevens from the British Gestalt Journal, Joe Wysong and Mollie Rawle from the Gestalt Journal and Gestalt Journal Press, and Joe Melnick and Susan Fischer from the Gestalt Review.

KB: Thank you, Peter Philippson.

Peter Philippson, Gestalt Therapy: Roots and Branches – Collected Papers, (Karnac Books, 2012); and The Emergent Self: An Existential-Getalt Approach (Karnac Books, 2009)

Peter Philippson is a Gestalt psychotherapist and trainer, a member of the Gestalt Psychotherapy and Training Institute UK, a founder member of Manchester Gestalt Centre, Full Member of the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy, Senior Trainer for GITA (Slovenia) and trainer for training programmes internationally. He is Past President of the Association for the Advancement of Gestalt Therapy.

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