Decade of the Person: Tribute to Erwin Straus MD
December 12, 2004

Erwin Straus MD (1891-1975), phenomenologist and neurologist, was aleader in the anthropological medicine and psychiatry movement in Europe (a tradition which includes such persons as Martti Siirala, Medard Boss, von Weizäcker,Kütemeyer, etc.). This group was influential in combating mechanistic-reductionistic and physicalistic approaches to psychiatry as well as neurology (perhaps Oliver Sacks could be considered a modern representative of this perspective with his neuroanthroplogical and subjective viewpoint) as well as establishing a broad philosophical and ethical conception of human existence. My analyst further introduced me to the work of Straus, particularly his capacity to see meaning in symptoms, character, etc. My analyst introduced me to his paper on upright posture-a dynamic conception of body posture (e.g., how one ‘faces’ the world, other persons, etc.). I was particularly impressed by Straus’ phenomenological rendering and grasp of auditory hallucinations (which I quoted at length in my paper given in Norway at ISPS “Auditory Hallucinations: Speaking One’s Dissociated Mind”) presented in his paper “Aesthesiology and Hallucinations” (contained in Existence: A New Dimension in Psychiatry and Psychology edited by Rollo May et al in 1958).

Straus noted that there were many scientists who expected that human behavior could be totally accounted for by objective study of the brain at a molecular level of analysis. Part of the problem, Straus believed, is that we overlook the complex structure of apparently simple experiences.

Straus (1982), years ahead of his time, wisely noted:

“The physiologist, who in the everyday world relates behavior and brain, actually makes three kinds of things into objects of his reflection: behavior, the brain as macroscopic formation, and the brain in its microscopic structure and biophysical processes. From the whole-the living organism-the inquiry descends to the parts: first of all to an organ-the brain-and finally to its histological elements. Statements concerning the elementary processes acquire their proper sense only in reference back to the original whole” (p.145 in Man, Time, and World: Two Contributions to Anthropological Psychology by Erwin Straus in 1982 for Duquesne University Press).

Straus: “Behavior and experience are constantly my, your, or his [her] behavior and experience; and they stand as such in relation to my, your, or his [her] brain” (p. 147). Straus strongly objects to splitting off neurophysiological processes from the context of the living, experiencing human subject, i.e., reductionistic analysis must be eventually related to the superordinate whole, experiencing organism, not to do so, is to miss the forest for the trees.

Again, Straus:

“The physiology of the brain...ignores the possessive-relationship; it replaces-generally without giving an account of it-my, your, or his [her] brain with a or with the brain...the reference to the possessive relationship may not be dismissed as a sentimental claim...the elimination of the possessive relationship distorts the phenomena, narrows down the problem area, and thus tacitly anticipates a theoretical judgment. If my, your, or his [her] brain is replaced by the brain, then the brain is generally viewed not as an organ of an experiencing being, but rather as a steering apparatus of a movable body...In every anatomical and physiological observation of the brain, two brains are involved: the brain of the observor and the observed brain. The elimination of the possessive relationship compels one to ignore this fundamental fact...The violence in the way behavior has been treated finds a necessary compensation in an anthropomorphic interpretation of the brain [e.g., the unacceptable term “the schizophrenic brain” is surely a scientific category error with consequences involving imprecise, reductionistic trends]. One grants less to behavior than is due to it, and gives the brain more than belongs to it” (pp. 147-148).

Martti Siirala, Finnish psychiatrist-psychoanalyst, has presented our field with an eminently worthwhile volume which further addresses these issues: “From Transfer to Transference: Seven Essays on the Human Predicament” published in 1983 by Helsinki University Press.”

Todd Feinberg, a neurologist in New York, in the tradition of Edwin Weinstein MD, has presented a more dynamic view of neurological functioning in his volume “Altered Egos: How the Brain Creates the Self” published in 2001 by Oxford University Press.

Brian Koehler PhD
New York University
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New York NY 10003

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