What is it about?

Rollo May always acknowledged that encountering Otto Rank in the mid-1930s altered the trajectory of his life. Until now, however, few scholars have undermined just how significant Rank was for Rollo. In this article, drawing on Robert Abzug's new biography of May, I tell the full story.

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Why is it important?

This article is the first ever that explains how Otto Rank influenced Rollo May, one of the most celebrated American psychotherapists and public intellectuals of the second half of the 20th century. May brought a darkly tragic Rankian awareness of the existential unconscious into the conformist, anti-intellectual consciousness of America.


For any understanding of the universal suffering of human beings, isn’t the strange consciousness of living—the dim awareness that we’re alive, for a moment, on a speck of dust as it spins, meaninglessly, around the sun, itself only a slightly larger speck of dust in the vast, incomprehensible spaces of the cosmos—the single most significant fact of human existence? The nature of consciousness remains utterly mysterious. Neuroscientists cannot even agree on a definition of consciousness, or on a definition of a “self” that is conscious, much less measure either one. According to philosopher David Chalmers, who coined the term “hard problem” of consciousness, we cannot explain how the water of the brain turns into the wine of consciousness. No scientific instrument has ever been invented to detect the presence or absence of consciousness. What Otto Rank called “the consciousness of living” seems to me to be identical to the hard problem of consciousness, which requires explaining how the first-person experience of “I am” emerged in the cosmos. No one has a clue. Consciousness remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma, shrouded in darkness—just like the existential unconscious. Perhaps the time is approaching when the adjective “existential” will no longer be necessary when we speak of “science.”

Robert Kramer
Eotvos Lorand Tudomanyegyetem

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This page is a summary of: Discovering the existential unconscious: Rollo May encounters Otto Rank., The Humanistic Psychologist, January 2022, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/hum0000272.
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