J.H. van den Berg

"We get an impression of a person's character, of his subjectivity, of his nature and his condition when we ask him to describe the objects which he calls his own; in other words, when we inquire about his world. Not the world as it appears 'on second thought,' but the world as he sees it in his direct, day-to-day observation. A 'second thought' disturbs the verity of this reality. It has been this 'second thought' that has considerably hampered the development of psychology."

"Objects have something to say to us--this is common knowledge among poets and painters. Therefore, poets and painters are born phenomenologists. Or rather, we are all born phenomenologists; the poets and painters among us, however, are capable of conveying their views to others, a procedure also attempted laboriously, by the professional phenomenologist. We all understand the language of objects."

Curriculum Vitae of Professor Dr. Jan Hendrik van den Berg

Born: June 11, 1914 in Deventer, the Netherlands.
1932: High School Diploma
1933: Primary School teacher diploma.
1935: Head teacher diplima.
1936: High School teacher diploma in mathematics.
          Medical School, and specialization in psychiatry-neurology at the University of Utrecht. Studies completed in
1943: Marriage to Louise Johanna von Everdiengen; four children; two sons, two daughters.
1946: Doctoral dissertation about the autological method in psychiatry and its application to schizophrenic psychosis.
          Under supervision of Professor Dr. H.C. Rumke.
1946-1947: Studies in France (Sorbonne, Charenton, Ste. Anne). Subject matter of study: philosophy, psychology,
          psychiatry. Duration: one academic year.
1947: Studies in Switzerland (Lausanne, Bern, Munsterlingen, Kreuzlingen). Duration: three months.
1948: Lecturer in psycho-pathology, School of Medicine, University of Utrecht.
1951: Appointment as Professor of Pastoral Psychology, Theological Faculty, University of Utrecht.
1954: Appointment as Professor in Psychology, University of Leyden. Assignment: Phenomenological method and
          conflict psychology.
1967: Visiting Professor at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA, U.S.A.
1969: Lecture tour in the Republic of South Africa. Duration: three months.
1970: Visiting Professor (summer course), Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA, U.S.A.
1971-1972: Visiting Professor, University of South Africa, Pretoria, Republic of South Africa. Duration: one year.
1973: Visiting Professor (summer course), Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA, U.S.A.
1974: Visiting Professor at the Black University of the North, Sovenga, Northern Transvaal, Republic of South Africa.
          Duration: three months.
1975: Lecture tour in the U.S.A. and Canada.
1976: Lecture tour in the U.S.A.
1977: Lecture tour in England; Lecture tour in the U.S.A.
1978: Lecture; Centennial Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA, U.S.A.
1979: October 14, valedictory address University of Leyden.
1980: Lecture tour in the Republic of South Africa. Duration: two months.
1980: Death of Mrs. van den Berg.
1981: Lecture tour in Japan. Duration: seven weeks.
1982: Visiting Professor, Meduna University, Republic of South Africa. Duration: one month.
1984: Awarded M.D. (honoris causa) by University of the Orange Free State, Bloemfontein, Republic of South Africa.
1999: Lecture at Duquesne University, in honor of Fr. Edward L. Murray, Ph.D.
Since 1947 psychotherapeutic practice.

(Excerpt from Dreyer Kruger (ed.), The Changing Reality of Modern Man. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.)

Adapted from "Encountering J.H. van den Berg" by Dreyer Kruger:

"What strikes one about [Dr. van den Berg's] work is first of all, that it is bold, that he does not hesitate to upset some of the written and unwritten canons of the tradition and to oppose vested ways of thinking. His work is strikingly original; some of it iconoclastic. Moreover, one is struck by his versatility, which means that an exhaustive review of his work will require a fairly long book on its own. Although it is possible to discuss his work under a few headings, namely phenomenology, psychotherapy, metabletics, and spirituality, even that will not give an exhaustive review of what he has done. For example, I must mention his book on Psychology and Faith which to some extent can be brough under the heading of his interest in the spiritual but it actually reviews the rise and fall of the attempt to develop a psychology of faith.

Another work that does not fit into the categories of his main work is a book on the history of psychology (Kroniek der Psychologie). However, this book, like the book on faith, also reflects not a purely professional interest but a much wider perspective in which a knowledge of philosophy as well as the influence of phenomenological philosophy is fairly clear. However, even here he refuses to stay within a framework because he also brings in the work of literary figures such as Elliot, Charles Morgan and Alain Fournier.

Van den Berg never quite forgot that he was a physician as well, hence his work on the Psychology of the Sickbed. Of all his works, Kleine Psychiatrie shows least influence of his phenomenological background, because he wrote it especially as an introduction to students studying psychiatry or one of the other professions allied to it. Another work, which reflects his interest in the history of medicine but from a different perspective is Medical Power and Medical Ethics. In this work he considers the necessity for a new medical ethics in view of the overwhelming development of medical power through natural science and new technologies.

As I got to know him and his work better, it dawned upon me that he was not a psychiatrist, nor a psychologist, even a great one, in any mere professional or ordinary academic sense, but that he was totally and profoundly committed to the problem of Western [humanity] and filled with deep misgivings about the road [we] have taken since the Middle Ages. It is one of the ironies of contemporary psychology that it fails to demonstrate a concern with the problem of [humanity], that is allows its views of reality to be dictated to it by technology and its concommitant social structures, that it has hardly any historical dimension, that it is oblivious of the problematic past and blind to the possible agonies of the future. Yet Van den Berg's move into metabletics is exactly an attempt to give an account of how contemporary western [humanity] moved into its present existence.

From Van den Berg's curriculum vitae, we note that he started his occupational life as a teacher, then studies medicine, decided to specialize in psychiatry, became a phenomenologist during his psychiatric training, trained as a psychotherapist and eventually became a pioneer of the metabletic method.

Van den Berg as therapist: [Van den Berg] only wrote one book dealing with psychotherapy as such. It remains for me to add a somewhat more personal note. During the years of his psychiatric training, he also completed his psychotherapeutic training with a psychoanalyst. He went for the regular four hours per week, but only for one year, a comparatively short period.

From what he has told me, it is quite clear that Van den Berg was never assimilated and indoctrinated in the Freudian model. Two episodes from his life throw some light on this. In his early years, he had accompanied his father to the Cistercian Abbey in Diepenveen. His father had taken him there because he wanted to know whether his son would like to hear Silence. This experience deeply impressed him and his admiration for the contemplative life remains. His work on The Things has a sub-title 'Four Metabletic Reflections'. The second episode was that on one occasion when he had spoken about an experience of silence, when he has shown himself to be impressed with this life form, he had heard the analyst clearing his throat and had realized that he should not say too much about it.

Although Van den Berg was deeply impressed by the revolution in contemporary thought and culture brought about by Sigmund Freud, this by no means extends to all of Freud's work. His ideas about child development sem to Van den Berg to be quite contrived; his ideas on religion seem equally unimpressive. For Van den Berg, psychoanalysis must be seen within the broad sweep of the changing nature of [human beings] and as a cultural-historical indication of an essential change in western culture. This is brought out very clearly in his Divided Existence and his exposition of the psychoanalytic movment in Dieptepopsychologie which is at the same time a clear and unprejudiced position of the main conceptions of Freud and his most important followers. In his work, he also shows his understanding of and affinity with the work of Harry Stack Sullivan.

Phenomenology: In contrast with the Freudian approach, Rumke, one of the grand masters of Dutch psychiatry, who was Van den Berg's professor during his psychiatric training, and in whose department he later become chef de clinique, brought home to him the basic phenomenological spirit, namely, that one has to take the reality presented by the patient totally seriously and should not interpose one's theory. This meant above all that one has to listen to the patient, one really has to hear what he says and above all, has to understand him and not to be too sure that one understands him too quickly. Part of his psychiatric training also included time spent with Ludwig Binswanger and a year's study in France. However, an important influence in his development toward being a phenomenologist was reading Heidegger's Sein und Zeit [Being and Time]. Van den Berg says that phenomenology did not really become accessible for him until he had read this book. He and a colleague in the clinic threw themselves into a frenzied study of this work. This book was like an intoxication and when he had finished reading it, he knew that this was the beginning of a new orientation in his work. In 1947 when he was in France and was studying with Bachelard, Jean Wahl and Henri Ey, he actually travelled to Freiburg to spend time with Heidegger--mostly at Heidegger's famous hut in the Black Forest.

After his study of Heidegger he studied Husserl as well. He was very impressed with early Husserl, e.g., his Logische Untersuchungen as well as Ausdruck und Bedeutung. However, he could not go along with the later Cartesian turn in Husserl. For Van den Berg, phenomenology means that one has to take leave of all subjectivistic conceptions and must immerse oneself in how the world is present to us. Husserl was a great thinker but failed to illustrate what he said by means of examples. He remained tied to his desk and hardly moved outside the philosophical world at all. It is also fairly obvious that if Van den Berg had followed Husserl he would hardly have been able to write his great contributions in the metabletic field.

Van den Berg does not see any easy future for phenomenological psychology. In Europe it has suffered a severe setback. One of the factors mitigating against phenomenological psychology is the fact that universities do not insist upon a high standard of excellence in admitting students to the university. He believes that it is fairly easy to get students to understand behaviorism and even psychoanalysis, but with phenomenological psychology it is different. In order to become a good phenomenologist one has to have a fairly wide interest. One requires a certain knowledge of philosophy, of art and literature, of cultural history and so on. Once matters become so democratic that university education is supposed to be accessible to everyone, phenomenology will be at a disadvantage because of the intellectual demands made on the students. To this I personally would like to add that to the extent that psychology becomes professionalized, to the extent that there is an emphasis on techniques and technical refinements and strategies, phenomenology will be at a disadvantage too insofar as it is hardly the approach of choice if the emphasis is on efficiency and getting results quickly.

Metabletics: Although there were precursors to Van den Berg's metabletics (but not in psychiatry and psychology) his work is nevertheless original. What impressed him when he was studying in France was the difference between the German psychiatry which he had been taught in Holland and his inability to fully understand what the Parisian and French psychiatrists were talking about. His reaction was to immerse himself in French literature, French history, and a study of Descartes with whom he was already acquainted. Later on he read Sartre and other French phenomenologists. As far as psychiatric work was concerned, the Germans saw delusion as the core symptom of psychosis, whereas for the French it was the hallucination. The Germans emphasized thought process while the French emphasized perception. However, to understand why perception is so important in France, one has to know something more about French sensualism, the French spirit, French hedonism and French extroversion. The Frenchman can enjoy life much more and also more subtly. That is why there is a French cuisine but no real German cuisine. It struck him that there was not (and could not be) just one psychiatry but different psychiatries depending on the country and the time. Moreover, psychiatry really only started after the French Revolution. Perhaps that was because there was no real subject matter for psychiatry before that time. For instance, not a single word was written about neurosis as we know it now before 1733. Similarly, puberty was no described by anyone prior to Rousseau in the 1730's. This brought him back to the idea that the history of the sciences is not a linear development, but it has much to do with the fact that man and hence his culture, changes. This can easily be understood in the case of the human sciences, but he takes the matter futher--for him the same goes for the natural sciences. The way the moon, the sun etc. appear to us in daily life, changes and therefore there is a change in the sciences which study these phenomena. He was deeply influenced by a little book by Adolf Meyer (a German theoretical biologist), who said that William Harvey's discovery of the heart as a pump was, in fact, a very simple matter. This was because once one has entered the human body in a mathematically-minded way and one starts counting the number of beats per minute or looking at the content of the heart, one can easily come to the idea of the circulation of blood. Before Harvey's time, it did not happen because one could not enter the body in a calculating frame of mind. Even now the body as we live in it is no place in which to do arithmetic. Even now our body is rich in vitalism not in mechanism. However, once the vitalistic idea had been overturned, once the human body had been interpreted in terms of a different ideology, namely the ideology of natural science, it was possible to discover that the blood was circulating and that the heart was only a pump. One cannot discover something out of thin air. One needs an ideology, a new view of the world, a new Zeitgeist, and only then can the individual scientist make his discoveries. Reciprocally, and more radically, the nature of his discoveries tells us something about the nature of human existence in that period.

Van den Berg's first work in this field, simply called Metabletica (translated as The Changing Nature of Man) appeared in 1956. This book concentrated on psychology and psychiatry and to a limited extent on theology, but it contained very little of a natural scientific nature. It is easier for people to understand that the psychology (rather than the physics and the biology) we have can change in terms of the sub-stratum changes in life itself. However, from the first, he was determined to show that it was not only for the social sciences that this was true. He then immersed himself in the early history of anatomy and the concomitant events that took place during the same period. In two volumes on the human body, (Het menselijk Lichaam) he showed that in its full human meaning the living body is changeable.

He turned back to psychology, economics, sociology, industrial development and politics in his next work, namely, Divided Existence and Complex Society. Psychoanalysis and the discovery of the unconscious were not simple scientific discoveries, but rather reflected that the unconscious developed during the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as an anti-ego. This anti-ego came about as the result of the French Revolution in which the equality of man had been proclaimed. By proclaiming something which opposes reality to such an extent as the equality of man, man becomes a stranger to himself because he has to disclaim what he knows to be true. He was able to trace this development through many historical facts, such as the nineteenth century Doppelganger literature in German, the fact that Stevenson's book, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published in the same period as Freud and Breuer's first works etc.

In 1965, he published De Dingen (Things). In this book he set himself two goals. The first was to disclose that the changeability of things was not a 'purely subjective' matter but a characteristic of things themselves. The second was to consider the question whether there was a connection between the forms of things and human action in history. If there is such a connection, then the form of things change and a history of materiality becomes possible. This book was a preview for a more comprehensive study of the metabletics of matter of which the first volume was published in 1968...

In 1971 he published a popular and very readable, well illustrated book called 'Smorgens jagen, 'Smiddags vissen ('Hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon') in which he summarized some of his previous work especially Divided Existence, and at the same time presented an incisive critique of the form of present day life and what developments we can expect. The implicit social criticism in matabletics became clearer in his work on the reflex (De Reflex) which appeared in 1973. In this work he shows how man had come to be a being that can be studied in terms of reflexes and also showed how important it is that modern society, in fact, reflects this. It is not possible to drive a car or use a typewriter if we do not grant a certain autonomy to our reflexes. Interesting parallels between the development of transportation, of certain political and social changes and the increasing automatisation of life could be adduced.

In 1977 his major work up to the time of writing, appeared, with the ominous title of Gedane Zaken (literally, 'Matters done for'). This was to be the second volume of the Metabletics of Matter, which had first appeared in 1968, but it turned out to be different from what had originally been envisaged. In fact, the change in matter itself was being emphasized much less than had originally been intended. Instead he was influenced by the social events of the last number of years.

Perhaps this is the most controversial book that Van den Berg has written. First of all it is not only a metabletic work but contains social criticisms which are much more pronounced than in his book on the reflex. At the same time, although he regards the future as basically unpredictable, he looks for certain tendencies in the two spiritual revolutions which took place before and around 1700 and 1900, and finds that the two are in many ways opposed to each other. From this he deduces that it is possible to hazard an anticipation of the future. His prediction is that a terrible catastrophe will overcome the world towards the end of the current century or shortly thereafter and this may well be a blow from which western civilization may not recover.

Van den Berg is not the first or the only one to see a violent end to civilization as we now know it, but he certainly is the first one to anticipate this on the basis of juxtaposing two cultural revolutions. To Van den Berg this will not only be a great and terrifying event but it may also give rise to reinstatement of something that is of great value.

When I discussed this point further with Van den Berg at his home in Rhenen in late 1983, he affirmed that he did not mean that western civilization will necessarily come to a total end. He feels that the catastrophe may be avoided if we could master run-away technology and technocracy which he compares to Goethe's Zauberlehrling. In his pessimism however, he remains still hopeful that a samll beginning can again be made. There will still be some people, animals, plants: the earth will still be bathed in the sun's hear and light every day. About this specific phase, I asked him something which is very near to my own heart, namely, whether he had been thinking of Africa when he was writing this. he confirmed that he did have his African experience, more specifically his experience of the South African landscape, in mind.

Spirituality: Van den Berg ends Gedane Zaken with the words: 'Not everything will be destroyed. Something will remain for us, enough for a new beginning. Some plants, a number of animals. Unreachable stars. Mysterious planets. The sun every day, pouring fire over this, our earth. In the new world we have the same old, always new task, our only task: to screen off an interior. Everything that counts in this world is brought forth by the silence and darkness of that interior. Silentio et tenebris spiritus alito.'

Is the leitmotiv of his entire metabletic work--and even most of is other work--not man's spirituality and the catastrophic loss of the spiritual dimension which is the loss of a sacred place? Van den Berg confirms that this is so. He also says that besides Sein und Zeit, the book that has impressed him most is Das Heilige by Rudolf Otto. He discusses the work of Rudolf Otto and others in Psychologie en Geloof (Psychology and Faith). However, spirituality, its loss, the division between spirituality on the one hand and bodiliness and materiality on the other is part of the great cultural tragedy of modern western history.

Is Van den Berg a prophetic figure? He has never claimed this title. He has been an incisive critic of contemporary western society but he also believes in the great possibilities that still inhere in this culture and is filled with admiration for its comparable achievements. Whether he is a prophet or not, he looks further than most social scientists and psychologists in that he has a vision of how things could have been or could be. Whether one agrees with him or not, whether one belongs to his admirers or to the circle of those who see him as a mere noncomformist, I am sure that for the serious student he has raised many issues that cannot be passed over. His work is important for psychology and for psychiatry but not only for that. It is important that those who concern themselves with [humanity's] immediate future take note of what he has to offer."

(Excerpt from Dreyer Kruger (ed.), The Changing Reality of Modern Man. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.)


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