Chapter 1: The Roots and Geneology of Humanistic Psychology
Author: Donald Moss, PhD
The humanistic movement in psychology has emphasized the search for a philosophical and scientific understanding of human existence that does justice to the highest reaches of human achievement and potential. From the beginning humanistic psychologists have cared deeply about what it means to be fully human, and have sought pathways and technologies that assist human beings to reach full humanness. Humanistic psychologists criticized the mainstream psychological schools of the first half of the twentieth century for proclaiming a diminished model of human nature. Their strivings for a new and better concept of humanity provided much of the motivation for the early flourishing of humanistic psychology.
What Does it Mean to be Fully Human? Concepts of Human Nature in Psychological Science
Articulate humanistic scholars such as Abraham Maslow and Rollo May criticized psychoanalysis and behaviorism for attempting to explain the full range of human nature in terms of mechanisms drawn from the study of neurotic patients and laboratory rats. Sigmund Freud wrote monographs about such artists as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci and religious leaders such as Moses. Freud used the concepts of abnormal psychology to explain the lifetime artistic and spiritual achievements of these outstanding human beings (Freud, SE, 1953-1974, Vol. 11, 13, 23).
John Watson arrogantly proclaimed that, given the opportunity, he could condition any human infant to become either a criminal or a scientist by consistently applying the principles of modern behavioral theory (1924, p. 82). Later, B. F. Skinner attacked such concepts as freedom and dignity and proposed re-engineering human society by a process of instrumental conditioning (Skinner, 1971).
For humanistic psychology, this psychological reductionism presented a challenge: Can we study the higher reaches of human nature, and discover a new basis for psychological science? Can we use the higher forms of human behavior to illuminate the lower, instead of basing all psychological understanding on laboratory rats and the mentally ill? Authors as diverse as Erwin Straus (1982), Abraham Maslow (1950), and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990) formulated this same challenge - to understand humans in terms of their highest potential and through the study of individuals who display the highest levels of human functioning.
Will Our Science Stifle or Nurture the Fulfilled Human Life?
The concern in humanistic psychology over inadequate scientific and philosophical models was not merely a matter of achieving a better understanding for the sake of understanding. Rather, reductionistic scientific theories of human behavior run the risk of constricting or reducing actual humans. If the prevailing understanding of humanness within science is narrow, there is a risk that the same concepts will pervade popular culture as well and diminish the self-understanding and aspirations of the average human being. Traditional "naturalistic" psychologies run the risk of harming human beings, by inviting them to lower their expectation for what is humanly possible.
A Pre-History and a History of Humanistic Psychology
The present chapter will provide a pre-history and a history of humanistic psychology. The history will recount those significant figures in modern psychology and philosophy who provided the foundational ideas and approaches making humanistic psychology what it is today. The pre-history examines the millennia before modern humanistic psychology and identifies some of the many antecedent figures who suggested more philosophically adequate concepts of being human. This portion of the chapter must remain sketchy, leaping across centuries at a time, because of the enormous variety of philosophers, theologians, and literary figures who have contributed at least passing insights into what it means to be fully human. More time is spent on antiquity because foundations for later understanding were laid down then. Many Renaissance and modern efforts to restore a more adequate image of humanity have returned to early Greek and Christian texts for inspiration.
The Pre-History of Humanistic Psychology Classical Greece
Homer and the Human Journey. At the dawn of Western civilization, Homer's Odyssey created the image of the human individual as hero and of human life as a quest or adventure. Odysseus, returning to Ithaca from the communal quest of the Trojan wars, is detained far from home, by the nymph Calypso, the Sirens, and a variety of other dangers and distractions. In the course of the epic, Odysseus becomes an individual and a hero facing danger, battling adversaries, and savoring the adventures of the road. Finally he returns to his home and family in Ithaca. The modern Greek poet, C. P. Cavafy, wrote of each human being's "Journey to Ithaca:"
- Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind.
- To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
- But do not hurry the voyage at all.
- It is better to let it last for long years;
- And even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
- Rich with all that you have gained on the way,
- Not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches. (Cavafy, 1961, p.36 )
Greek Tragedy . The Greek dramatists portrayed human heroes struggling powerfully against fates that define the course of human lives. The protagonists are heroic, and inhabit a world peopled with gods, demi-gods, and humans, but their pathways are defined in advance and end in tragedy. The fate of Oedipus is foretold by an oracle and is changed neither by his father Laius's actions nor by Oedipus' heroic struggles. The final words from Sophocles' drama Oedipus at Colonus express the tragic view of life: "Cease now and never more lift up these lamentations, for all this is determined."