Kovel’s Phenomenological Thought – The Will

Presented to and published by The University of Rabat

1. Introduction

To put forward his theory or rather, his understanding, based on clinical observations–especially single cases–and teaching, Kovel reduces the complicated mechanism of neurosis to the absence of internal will; that of psychosis is reduced to a deviation from a “balanced life” (common experience.) Deviation is, according to Kovel’s research, the common denominator of all illnesses–unhappy life, neurosis, psychosis, etc. Kovel’s approach is more than ambivalent: phenomenological, structural and psychoanalytical. As a phenomenologist, profoundly existentialist in some aspects of his views, he remains unknown to philosophers, be they in the U.S.A., Britain or on the Continent. This paper cannot do justice to the whole work of Kovel. It sets as its aim, however, the seizure of his thought, findings in their structural logic.

Eclectic certainly, Kovel surprises and convinces by his pertinent descriptions. But most surprising of all is his idea of internal liberty, as prima causa, accountable for almost all, if not all, abnormal behaviours. This idea is, in Kovel’s logic, connected to a web of ideas and presuppositions.

2. Kovel’s General Thought

“No thing”, stresses Kovel, “can be human unless it is paradoxical.” 1 Anxiety and narcissism, for instance, are a few examples of human chemistry. Narcissism is now accepted and understood as one of the most essential and basic components of human behaviour. Whether its essence is rooted in biology or not brings very little to the utility of this mechanism. Those who believe it to be biological often leap to see it as unavoidable. This was the conclusion of Freud. But it must be recognised that there is more freedom, flexibility in biology or even the “matter” than there is in the Spirit, Mind or the Language. Thus, albeit invariable in its existence, as anthropologists found, narcissism remains variable–according to the group, needs, religion, etc. But, in combining within itself some other unbelievable constituents–like weakness, strength, ignorance, dependence, omnipotence, omnipresence, grandeur, imagination, etc.–narcissism offers us, incessantly, possibilities and chances of disequilibrium: unbalanced behaviour, feeling, judgement, etc., whether it be political, moral or military. 2 If due to some circumstances, the self/ego becomes–through narcissism–a giant or a Superman, whether spiritually or academically, he, then, no longer would know or be able to adapt. Self-criticism and narcissism seem, following Kovel, to be antagonists. Like narcissism, anxiety appears as a biological fact. 3 It is described and viewed as a system of anticipation–an alarm clock. However, whenever the anxiety grows in disproportion to the reality (depending on subjects and situations,) it becomes a system of disorientation or, in Kovel’s word, an illness.

The logic of Kovel appears simple: in practice, however, problems arise. To understand the disequilibrium in statistical terms (deviation,) Kovel refers to pre-supposed criteria: “common-lived-experience” (Mean). But the absence of the Mean renders all attempts to quantify narcissism or anxiety as a pathological (based on its deviation from the comon sense) lure. While the illness (neurosis or psychosis) might be viewed, in broad terms, as a deviation from the norm (the balance or the common sense), the Mean remains to be defined. This was the long and painful target of Husserl. He thought it was necessary, before any conclusion, to establish a common background to be used as a scale–something to work with and on. Bewitched by descriptions, some phenomenologists forgot the struggle of Husserl.

Husserl raised precisely this problem: how is a common-lived-experience possible? The only solution that Husserl found was passivity. By being instituted and institutionalised, through complex systems, the intersubjectivity is built.  Merleau-Ponty became aware that what we believe to be a common-lived-experience is a wild world = not yet known. As such, we cannot refer to it as a scale. My intention is not to elaborate further on these concepts — they merit a paper on themselves. My intention is to show the difficulty met, when one like Kovel refers to pathological concepts (in order to be understood and acted upon) to an unestablished scale or concept.

Despite the ambiguity, which is not limited to Kovel, it is illuminating to bring back all concepts to our common-lived-experience when describing neurosis, psychosis or simply these lived experiences: love, hatred, etc.

We undoubtedly could and should recognise some neurosis by its exaggeration, disproportion, to what we normally believe to be the norm, but it should be borne in mind that our scale is not yet defined and it might never be so. Thus, as such it cannot serve as a very safe measure to classify all what we might consider as aberrant behaviours.

3. Neurosis

There exists in neurosis, following Kovel, an inability to make choices. There is, in other words, a loss of the internal liberty. When the environment, for instance, offers a certain number of choices, it requires a decision–getting married or remaining single, taking a holiday or not, etc. The Ego creates obstacles, invents motives and blocks, as it were, the way. 4 The hallmark of neurosis, stresses Kovel, is the constraint. The reality erodes, loses its consistency and disequilibrium takes over. An obsessional patient found himself unable to go to work: he was incapable of leaving his house — he spent the whole day checking whether or not the doors were locked. Treatment by the most recent techniques like exposure (leaving the doors open while away) proved to be inefficient most of the time. 5 Neurotic phenomena are so varied and complex. They range from simply forgetting names, a specific loss of memory, to spending life in bed. 6 The finding of Professor Kovel is that there is in all neurotic behaviours this linguistic proposition — “I cannot”. 7 The essence of the latter sentence is, in fact, “I won’t”. The “I cannot” simply clothes the truth = “I won’t”.

It is not here a question of “bad faith”. The core of this, as Sartre described in Being and Nothingness is the ambivalence. In neurosis, like in politics, masks veil the reality. The discovery of masks is not new –Freud and especially Lacan have excelled in the subject — especially with regard to the language. This is where the analytical philosophy has grossly failed: the language can be a comedy. The matter, for Kovel, resides within a will that willingly refuses to right the wrong.

The “I won’t” is, Kovel believes, motivated by a logic of praxis. Neurotic phenomena are problems and solutions. They occur as equilibrium and disequilibrium. They are the price to be paid in order to withstand life. 8 As praxis, neurotic behaviours are auto-adjustment, auto-rehabilitation. As illness, they start like a style of life.

But as such, neurosis is never static. 9 From mere strategy to cope with situations, it ends as a physical illness. 10 The person refuses to end his strategy and decides on which direction to go forward. There is a will, but not the appropriate one. As Sartre, Kovel inflates the internal liberty. But as Sartre himself, Kovel’s position is ambivalent. Sartre recognised the positivity of history, its conditions and tyranny. Kovel blames the infancy: its causes, misery, neurosis, etc. Sartre and Kovel are not antagonists. It is in the
infancy that Kovel finds the unfinished madness. 11 The mind, at the infantile stage, is willy nilly forced to undergo experiences, to face conditions without being totally capable. Inability means perturbed life, dented will. Descartes spoke of the monstrosity of human will as infinite. But the “volonte”, for Descartes, cannot be dented — it is neither incarnated in our body nor in any historical context.

But, a child lives and grows in a confused world, for want of the language, his desires lack insight. Confusion is unavoidable. 12 Traumatism commences in infancy. Kovel adds very little here to what educationalists have already said. His originality is the emphasis on the will. Like G Roth, Kovel accuses the will as the prima factor in bulimia. 13

The nurturing conditions of the will are in the infancy. Despite the natural power with which a child is embodied, situations — like weakness, illness, poverty, etc. — occur where the resistance is lowered — thus disequilibrium as neurosis or embryo. It is, however, in adult life (when similar situations to those which engendered the wound(s) are encountered) that the wounded person adopts “I won’t” but clothed with “I can’t”. 14

Despite his emphasis on the infancy, Kovel breaks away from Freud — for the latter there exists no will, no freedom, but pulsions (drives or urges). Freedom, thought Freud, is a philosophical wish.

Despite the apparent rejection of “I can’t” in neuroses, Kovel admits the passivity of the will, the impotence of our soul; and there are a wide variety of causes to passivity. These are correlated to a complex system in which we live. But overall, Kovel reduces the tragedy of neuroses to the unwillingness, understood as “I can’t”. Neuroses are all, Kovel believes, pregnated with this destructive fire –hatred which is incurable, said Hegel. Each neurotic phenomena — depression, sexual disorder, obsessional thought, etc. — contains a sort of hatred directed towards new objects/persons. Historically, these had already been the objects of an ancient desire(s). The hatred, like “I won’t”, is deeply masked. 15 “I won’t”, expressed as “I can’t”, is motivated by this negative power — hatred.

The conflict between the conscious and the unconscious is a two-fold battle — it is within the self and between the world and the self. But the wrestle, gained or lost, and it is often both, does not take place in a clear mind, thought or cognito. This is the reason why some patients can only objectify their difficulty outside themselves. They often say — it was my wife’s fault. But the insight does not prevent, as it was thought, neurosis. If it does not prevent, it cannot cure, either. This, most psychoanalysts would fiercely resist. As for phenomenologists, the insight is not for Kovel the cardinal point. The cornerstone is the imbalance (balance of imbalance) created and maintained by the “I won’t” change. 16

4. Psychosis

Psychosis is described in terms analogous to neurosis. The actual debate on classification is avoided. But, the dichotomy between psychotic and neurotic depression is rejected. Kendel (Edinburgh) has also rejected the dichotomy 17 accepted by the Newcastle Group. What is at stake, Kendel believes, is not two entities, but a continuum. 18 Kovel’s method is descriptive; as such it avoids the language of substance, entities, etc. Kovel and Kendel meet. It is, however, a statistical model that Kendel used. But as an arbitrary model not everything within is as safe or empirical as at first glance it appears. The scoring method, its axiom, could be as subjective as a piece of poetry. Kovel’s method is not based on controlled groups; it is existential and phenomenological. Thus, depression, neurotic or psychotic, is described in terms of structures.

Like neurosis, psychosis occurs as a new balance. But, in fact, this is a disequilibrium (illness). The original harmony and mechanics were unable to resist pressure.

It is no longer a matter of “insight” — psychotic patients (schizophrenia) may have more insight into their condition than neurotics. 19 Psychosis sets, following Kovel, as a specific rupture between the reality, the world (whose contents are not always concrete data) and the person. This new dynamic structure is pregnated of feeling that rejects all objectivation (objectivity). 20 But behind this feeling a lack of incentiveness is at work. The gene, however, bears its respnsibility. Heredity works, believes Kovel, as a predisposition for some perturbed form of life — be it either psychosis or neurosis. The infancy, the family, the society, the politics as well as the economics and biology, all co-determine the illness — psychosis. But not less with psychosis than neurosis, the problem rests upon the personal.

5. Comparison

A comparison between psychosis and neurosis might prove of help in understanding Kovel’s position. The “I” in neurosis is intact. 21 The self, in other words, is the centre of experience. The sense of reality is not lost. Contrarily, psychoses suffer a sort of disintegration. The self, in neuroses, experiences an intrusion, but it watches this aberration, as it were, from a safe vantage point. In psychoses, the self erodes, crumbles and disintegrates. And there is no limit to this. 22

The body which belongs to both the objective and subjective world loses its boundness — its parts are felt aliens. 23 But this disintegration is in view of a new reality-structure. 24 Perception, be it pathological or artistic, is the image of the schema-body. But the latter in psychosis is shattered and swamped into hatred feeling. 25 As anxiety is very high, symptoms, like hallucination, attack, withdrawal, etc., are to temper this psychotic anxiety. 26

To survive, psychotics need to construct a web of relations sui-generis. Everything is personalised. As neurosis, psychosis destroys and builds. But motives for each one are different. Whether using “I can’t”, “I won’t”, or simply assalting people, psychosis and neurosis can’t disown their soul — the will. It is not a matter of denying the illness, it is a question of discovering the power embodied in the will. It is the structuring power. This theory bears heavy moral and political implications.

6. Therapy

It is not the existence of the symptom itself which should, Kovel believes, decide therapy — it is its interference with life. 27 A neurotic symptom might be more severe and incapacitating than a psychotic experience. But some neurotic phenomena might be viewed only as an amusing side of the personality. Some people never have a specific symptom; they can never objectify their misery — all in all. Some people can never distinguish between meaningless life, boredom and neurosis. Thus, the balance is not in a book or the head of the therapist. Each therapy can be justified in the sense that it helped a limited number of people. The inter-subjectivity, admitted by Kovel, does not, for him, lead to a universal therapy. The virtue of Behaviourism was to break away from the idealism, to look into the agility of human reactions. But it is claimed to be now a technology.

Religion, however, according to Kovel, has cured — with its notion of conversion — more people than all the drugs produced by the pharmaceutical factories in the USA. But the paradox explains what Kovel tries to convey — Religion meets the wishes and desires of the internal liberty. This paradoxical phenomenon can only be explained through the Will.

7. Conclusion

One might either agree or disagree with Kovel; nevertheless, a Sartrian and anti-Freudian point is made. He goes further than Sartre. Circumstances never entirely crush our internal liberty.


1 Kovel, J, A Complete Guide to Therapy. From Psychoanalysis to Behaviour Modification. Pelican Books; 1978, p 49
2 Ibid, p 33
3 Ibid, p 49
4. Ibid, pp 34-35
5. Progress in Behaviour Modification, Vol 8, Academic Press, Inc, 1979; pp 1-44
6. Kovel, J, Ibid, p 35
7. Ibid, pp 32-42
8. Ibid, p 40
9. Ibid
10. Ibid
11. Ibid, p 43
12. Ibid, pp 32-68
13. Roth, G, Feeding the Hungry Heart, to be published by Grafton Books
14. Kovel, J, Ibid, pp 23-69
15. Ibid, pp 43-64
16. Ibid, pp 32-51
17. Kendel
18. Ibid
19. Kovel, J, Ibid, pp 62-63
20. Ibid, p 63
21. Ibid, p 65
22. Ibid
23. Ibid
24. Ibid, p 66
25. Ibid
26. Ibid, pp 65-68
27. Ibid, p 67
28. Ibid, p 58