R.D. Laing

By: Mark Kingwell
October 7, 2014


The Scottish psychiatrist, radical philosopher, alcoholic, drug user, and bad father R.D. LAING (1927–89) will always be associated with his 1960 book The Divided Self, which is subtitled “an existential study in sanity and madness.” Laing indeed saw himself as a kind of existentialist, adopting and extending versions of Heidegger’s “thrownness” with Gregory Bateson’s “double-bind” theory to address the condition of schizophrenia. The madperson, Laing argued, inhabits a different world than that of the “ontologically stable” person; he or she is assailed by contradictory and impossible impulses, such that every available option for thought or action is self-defeating. The resulting “problems in living” are baseline clashes of self with world that cannot be reduced to brain-born chemical imbalance. Laing’s rejection of the dominant “medical model” of psychiatry made him both an outsider to the psychiatric establishment and a de facto hero of the anti-establishment Sixties. There were many subsequent volumes of theory and poetry, but only The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise (1967), which detailed Laing’s self-directed experiments with LSD, had the same wide cultural impact. Like Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954), the book argues that psychotropic drugs are liberating, but it adds a political dimension in rejecting social categories of normality. Laing neglected his six sons and four daughters — birthed by four women — and died playing tennis in Saint-Tropez, aged just 61.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Joe Hill, Dan Savage.

READ MORE about members of the Postmodernist Generation (1924-33).


HiLo Heroes, Philosophy