[Le Devoir de philo] The triumph of therapeutic culture

Twice a month, Duty challenges enthusiasts of philosophy and the history of ideas to decipher a current issue from the theses of an outstanding thinker.


The obsession with mental health, and health in general, has peaked in recent years, in part due to the pandemic we are going through. But this obsession took hold after a long road and a cultural change with serious consequences.

The author who can best help us understand this cultural change is the North American sociologist Philip Rieff. Little taught today, however, he delicately described the rise ofpsychological man and the triumph of a therapeutic culture. The latter was forged in restricted social circles (bourgeoisie, cultural elite) before the 1960s, but since then it has triumphed to become a kind of single thought, spread by the medical system, the big media, multinational companies , the advertising industry. , our governments and Hollywood. This culture spreads small maxims as simple and effective as they are insignificant: “today I choose myself”, “take care of yourself”, “listen to your body”, “cause for the cause”, “why suffer? »…

In 1950, a young professor of sociology, Rieff fell in love with a brilliant student: Susan Sontag. Ten days after their meeting, they marry. During this decade, Sontag supported Rieff in writing her first major book, Freud: the mind of a moralist. The essay offers a pessimistic reading of civilization and contributes a central concept to Rieff’s theory: thepsychological man.

The hospital as a cathedral

Rieff had created a luminous maxim, which sums up our cultural history: “The hospital succeeds the parliament and the cathedral as the archetype of Western culture. This cultural history rests on a succession of social types: the political, the religious man, the economic man, the psychological man. The first type is dominant during Antiquity; it is idealized in the thought of Plato and Aristotle. The politician is the one who affirms his identity in public activities. He frequents the Agora, goes to the Areopagus, in short, he dedicates himself to what we call civic life.

In the Middle Ages, the politician gave way to a second type, the religious man. The latter develops his identity on the occasion of religious activities: attending mass, celebrating religious festivals, participating in processions, pilgrimage.

Then, at the beginning of the Modern Age, as industrialization progressed, economic man replaced religious man. The individual is engrossed in productive activities like work, trade, production, etc. This third figure is however unstable and transitory. It simply heralds the birth of a fourth type: psychological man. The latter does not affirm his identity by opening himself to the outside, in social activities, as occurs with the three previous types. On the contrary, he is driven to tirelessly explore the smallest corners of his inner life. Obsessed as he is by a furious pursuit of well-being, his feelings dictate his actions.

endless self-examination

Rieff’s great book was published in 1966: The triumph of the therapeutic. According to him, culture is defined primarily by what it forbids. It establishes prohibitions, attitudes considered unacceptable. This view has institutional implications. The vitality of a culture depends on its ability to assert its authority through its institutions.

Until the middle of the 20thY century, Rieff recalls, culture opens individuals to the outside world. By participating in social activities, the individual develops her identity. Thus, identity was instilled and learned; the individual did not create or choose it. The culture was bigger than the individual; he preceded it and made it a social being.

However, the rise of psychological man gave birth, during the 1950s and 1960s, to a new culture, the therapeutic culture. It is based on authors who affirm that society oppresses the individual through its institutions. The new therapeutic culture aims to cure the neuroses manufactured by society.

The psychological man is not open to the outside like the previous three types. He is committed to himself. His life, from morning to night, is an endless examination of himself. Thus, the old hierarchy has been inverted. From now on, the institutions are summoned to serve the individual, to ensure his well-being and, in particular, his mental health.

In the past, institutions were places where people were educated. They prepared us to inhabit society and contribute to it; Since the triumph of therapeutic culture, institutions have become platforms where you can put on a show, put on a show; In short, they have become spaces where individuals are invited to give free rein to their moods, to express what they feel inside. At work, in the bistro, in our social relationships, we are all invited to confess, to monologue, to reveal our little secrets, as if we were competitors in a reality show where we compete in authenticity.

Three disciples: Wolfe, Allen, Lasch

Rieff was not writing for the general public. His texts were difficult, mysterious, hermetic. He refused to be a public intellectual. He saw himself as a monk and revered the teaching profession and its natural habitat, the classroom. He forbade his students to take notes during his presentations. Sentence by sentence, he dissected and commented on the great works, the starting point for dialogue with the students. One session was Weber, another was a text by Durkheim or Lenin.

Outside of academia, his thesis inspired daring popularizers. In the cinema first, Woody Allen built part of his work around the torments of psychological man. Journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe, for his part, has produced legendary analyzes of the craziest expressions of therapeutic culture that have marked the ” i decade “. The reports and novels of the writer present characters who share the cult of the individual and the liberation of impulses and desires. The new therapies that mark the 1970s revolve, in their analyses, around the obsession consisting of talking about nothing more than oneself.

This posture, aimed at exploring our anxieties and our little wounds, has long been the preserve of the privileged classes; however, it was democratized after World War II. This search, formerly, provided only moments of leisure. By a curious Orwellian inversion, it is now fostered in all walks of life, including workplaces, companies that have understood the value of trying, even healing consciences… “Tell me what is in your heart, dear employee . I hear you… “

The definitive analysis of therapeutic culture was provided by Christopher Lasch in The culture of narcissism, in 1979. Posing as Rieff, he demonstrated that the narcissistic personality shaped by the therapeutic culture was not, as supposed, selfish and imbued with excessive self-love. She was more of an anxious, nervous soul, in survival mode, seeking to please at all costs. This personality was deprived of the essential milestones to access emancipation or more simply maturity. He agreed with Rieff’s conclusion: The therapeutic age, for all its talk about human potential and self-actualization, was ultimately anti-therapeutic, producing increasingly bitter, anxious, depressed, and frustrated humans moving forward in life. with a deep sense of emptiness.

Among the lasting effects of the triumph of therapeutic culture, we discern the birth of a religion of health, the meteoric expansion of the medical system, and the rise in prestige of physicians (and more broadly of therapists). The pandemic did not create these trends; she simply magnified them.

In his analyzes of the i decade Tom Wolfe had brilliantly portrayed the duplicity and snobbery of the radical chic, that evolving salon rebel in the cultural realm, who had quickly exchanged class struggle for the more harmless struggle of “personal liberation.” On the occasion of the pandemic, the therapeutic culture has today given birth to a new figure, the “medical chic”. This influencer, dressed in a lab coat, with a degree in health sciences, who comments on the stock market ratings of viruses, lecturing on Twitter the “toothless” who complain against the multiplication of sanitary measures.

Thus, the constitution of a “therapeutic society” allows a new social division to emerge, along with the left-right division and the nationalist-globalist division. This split is structured around the new hegemony of the medical system. On the one hand, a growing number of people violently oppose this hegemony; on the other, a growing number of people are unable to face the slightest test of life without submitting to medical (and pharmaceutical) assistance. Fortunately, there are still a good number left to camp somewhere in between, between these two extremes. In the coming years, they will have to show patience and participate in social debates to defend the values ​​that have advanced our civilization.

Suggestions? Write to Robert Dutrisac: rdutrisac@ledevoir.com. To read or reread the old texts of Le Devoir de philo, enter our digital platforms.

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