Laing, R. D.

Laing, R. D. (1927-1989) was a Scottish psychiatrist whose work centered on schizophrenia and its causes. He proposed the controversial theory that mental illness, particularly schizophrenia, is a defense against the rigid and even “insane” structures of “normal” society. In the 1960's, when his existential vision was most popular, he was viewed as something of a shamanistic guide to the self.

Ronald David Laing was born to working-class parents in Glasgow, Scotland. In high school, he focused on Greek and Latin and read philosophical and literary classics in their original languages. In the public library, he read philosophy, psychology, and theology. He then studied psychiatry and medicine at the University of Glasgow and received his M.D. degree in 1951. After a year as a conscript psychiatrist in the British military, Laing returned to the University of Glasgow as a professor of psychiatry. Thereafter, he moved to London for training as an analyst, established a private practice there, and began to conduct research.


Laing objected to the way mental patients were generally treated in the standard practice of psychiatry and did not regard hospitalization or shock therapy as valid forms of treatment. In a similar vein, he did not strictly regard schizophrenia as a diseased condition that needed “fixing.” Rather, he considered it the response to an untenable reality. He proposed that society, by encouraging conformity, rendered individuals powerless to express their true identities, and he held that the individual's escape through madness often resulted in later clarity and wholeness in the personality. In his words, “breakdown may be breakthrough.”

Laing published several books about his investigations into the causes of schizophrenia. In his later writings, he somewhat modified his earlier, more controversial theories.