Several years ago, when I learned of my election as President of Society for Humanistic Psychology and took on the role of President-Elect, I began to use this preparation time to reflect deeply on what it means to be a humanistic psychologist. Much of this preparation has been an exploration of the early history of the movement, and its emergence as a Third Force in psychology between the behaviorists that dominated the academy and the psychoanalysts who thrived in the clinic.
As a Society, we have had many occasions to revisit fundamental questions about our humanistic identity. I think we are at another historical moment when it would serve us well to stop, reflect, and trace back the foundational roots of humanistic psychology and its most fundamental mission in the field of psychology and in the world at large.
Historically and philosophically, phenomenology is the epistemological foundation for humanistic psychology. Phenomenology is always engaged in a process of interrogating the meaning of constructs, tracing them back to their origins in life-world experience, and making sense of them within their social, historical, and linguistic context. The phenomenologist never tires of the slow, deliberate process of exploring what things mean, and examining our role in the constitution of these meanings. Whether we are explicitly aware of them or not, these meanings are always already present in the way we comport ourselves to our work and the way we interact and communicate with our colleagues. Interrogating our humanistic identity, then, is a matter of constantly, and with great vigilance, rooting out what we already implicitly understand about what we are and what we are called to be in the world. We can then bring these meanings to explicit, critical reflection and into more vibrant action in the world.
To interrogate the meaning of humanistic psychology, we can take humanistic psychology’s phenomenological approach and turn it back upon itself. To engage in phenomenology is to describe the phenomenon and then to identify its invariant themes. Next, through imaginative variation, the investigator distills the phenomenon down to its essential or eidetic structure. Using this approach, we can ask, what are the invariant themes of humanistic psychology? What is the (situated) essence of humanistic psychology?
Based on my own investigation of the history and great works of humanistic psychology, I believe I have identified at least five core, invariant themes of humanistic psychology: phenomenology, human dignity, rejection of the fact-value dichotomy, anti-reductionism and holistic thinking, and a hermeneutics of love.
The Phenomenological Approach: From Epistemology to Ontology
If we, so to speak, “reverse engineer” the epistemological approach of humanistic psychology, which is phenomenology, we can ask what this impetus toward phenomenology implies about the metaphysical or ontological presuppositions of humanistic psychology. Why do humanistic psychologists in particular seek out this phenomenological way of seeing and knowing? It seems clear to me that this move toward phenomenology is opened by a humanistic ontology that understands that human beings are different than things.
The human being is a kind of being that is a radically different reality than that of, say, a rock or a hammer. This difference is so fundamental to our approach that we often forget it, because it is so much a part of the air that we breathe, yet it is fundamental in that it clearly distinguishes humanistic approaches from all of the other approaches to psychology that fail to recognize this difference—this personalist difference. Within the logical positivism that informs behaviorism and cognitivism, human beings are seen to be objects that are ultimately no different in kind than the objects of physics. That’s why their epistemology is borrowed from Enlightenment-era physics. In Freud and most versions of psychoanalysis that follow Freud closely, human beings are typically understood to be driven by unconscious mechanisms that are biological in nature but no different than other forms of life. Within reductive neuroscience, the human is identified by his or her nervous system and seen to be ultimately reducible to the material forces that govern nervous system activity. Starting from within these reductive approaches, I challenge, it is impossible to arrive at any legitimate concept of human dignity.
At a time when B. F. Skinner’s (1971) Beyond Freedom and Dignity was casually rejecting the concepts of human freedom and dignity, humanistic psychology affirmed these concepts. The humanistic stance that affirms the ontological difference between human beings and objects was part of a worldview that was pulled along by an ethical concern—to protect dignity that had become the basis for the protection of basic human rights, including the United Nations’ (1948) Declaration of Universal Human Rights. Article I of the Declaration states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” To say that human beings have dignity is to say that human beings also have an obligation or duty to respect the rights of all people. These rights include the right to life, liberty, and security of person; the right to be freed from slavery; equal protection before the law; freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention or exile; and so on.
Immanuel Kant, the philosopher and ethicist, was influential in his distinction between price and dignity. To have a price, according to Kant, was to be measured against other values. A box of cereal and a 1998 Mazda MX-6 are objects, and objects have a price—their worth can be estimated in terms of other values, such as their economic worth. However, a being with dignity must be measured according to her intrinsic worth. “In the realm of ends,” he writes, “everything has either a price or a dignity. Something that has a price can be exchanged for something else of equal value; whereas that which exceeds all price and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity” (Kant, 1785, cited in Williams, 2005). To say that human beings have dignity is to say that any given person is beyond price, of non-quantifiable value that is non-fungible and therefore of infinite worth.
This is why, against utilitarian ethics, we can say that it is impossible to estimate a person’s worth over and against the anonymous crowd. Human worth is not summative in the way something with a price has summative value. Therefore, a single person—think for example of Rosa Parks—can be seen, ethically, to have as much value as a whole collective of people who stand against her.
Humanistic psychology, after Kant, is an approach to psychology that recognizes the ontological dignity common to all human beings by reason of their nature or being. This is why humanistic psychology is suspicious of all kinds of reductionism that attempt to reduce human beings to the properties of things. This is why we refuse to permit the narrowing of the meaning of a person to a label such as a mental health diagnosis. This is why humanistic psychology is drawn to holistic approaches that understand the person to be more than the sum of his or her cognitive, behavioral, and anatomical parts. This is why we understand that the person, while situated always within an interpersonal context, is not reducible to mere social meanings—no person is just-nothing-but a social construction. The person transcends reductionistic labels and simple categories by virtue of her dignity. To relate to the other person as a person of dignity is to engage with her in an I-Thou encounter, as opposed to an I-It encounter, as Martin Buber (1958/1937) described; it is to encounter her as a person rather than a thing.
Condemned to Ethics
We are drawn to phenomenology because phenomenology is one of the few secular traditions that permits a valid recognition of the ontological dignity of the person. With the recognition that basic human rights require us to preserve this notion of dignity, and that our holistic, non-reductive and phenomenological approach gives us the basis upon which to do so, it becomes clear that humanistic psychology not only has a clear epistemological basis in phenomenology and a metaphysical basis in the recognition of ontological dignity, we also have a clear ethical imperative to protect the basic human rights of all people everywhere. This is so even if that means doing so with great humility, with an awareness, through our existential viewpoint, that any simplistic ethical formulation is bound to be just as ethically violent as the pretense that we can do without ethics. Sartre (2003/1958) said we are condemned to freedom. This means, too, that we are condemned to ethics. We are convicted by the ethical Other. We cannot escape it; it haunts us. For us, as Emmanuel Levinas (1969) taught us, ethics is our first philosophy—it is what calls us out to our metaphysical and epistemological stance—the stance that understands the ontological dignity of the person—the call of the Other.
To say that ethics is the first philosophy of humanistic psychology is to say that humanistic psychology is guided by values—understandings of the good life that lead us to take stances on issues of importance. Last year, when Louis Hoffman was President of the Division, the theme of his presidency was diversity. And he spent his presidency working to make our organization more inclusive. The concept of diversity is a value. It is a value that, whether we explicitly realize it, is undergirded by a recognition of the ontological dignity of persons. When Martin Luther King, Jr.’s envisioned our future society as an integrated Beloved Community built on agape love (good will toward all people), this gave rise to his famous dream. At the 1962 “Address Before The National Press Club,” King pronounced:
We are simply seeking to bring into full realization the American dream—a dream yet fulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men no longer argue that the color of a man’s skin determines the content of his character; the dream of a land where every man will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. (King, 1962, p. 105, cited in Baker-Fletcher, 1993).
When humanistic psychologists affirm the dignity of all persons, we join in solidarity with Dr. King’s vision of the Beloved Community. This is why we care about including people who are different. This is why we must. The value of diversity and other humanistic values, such as compassion, authenticity and creativity, to name a few, guide us in our selection of methodologies that can better access (not to mention, utilize) these human virtues.
A Hermeneutics of Love
The disclosure of humanistic values, grounded in an appreciation of the ontological dignity of the person, is guided, I contend, by a hermeneutics of love. By the phrase “hermeneutics of love,” I am intending to invoke the memory of the classic text by Paul Ricoeur (1970), Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. In that book, Ricoeur identified Freud, as well as Nietzsche and Marx, as three “masters of suspicion.” He saw these three figures as representing the heights of the modernist interpretive stance of reading texts in a way that interrogates them for their deeper, hidden meanings through an attitude of incredulity.
In an address I gave at last year’s annual conference (Robbins, 2013), I suggested that there is another way to reveal the hidden meanings of persons and texts: a hermeneutic of love. In contrast to an attitude of suspicion, a hermeneutic of love interprets not through a mood of fear, but through the attitudes of charity, empathy and openness. When a person is approached through these attitudes, with sincerity, it allows the person or text to reveal otherwise hidden truths, which can be communicated through a well-earned sense of trust and non-defensiveness. Whereas Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche were masters at suspicion, it doesn’t take long to begin to recognize important figures who we could deem, in contrast, Servants of a Hermeneutics of Love: Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Francis of Assisi, Thich Nhat Hahn, Rumi, and Thomas Merton are a few figures who come to mind.
The hermeneutics of love is an attitude that is salient in all of the major figures of humanistic psychology. Rollo May’s (2007) Love and Will, after Paul Tillich, explored the important dialectic between love and power (will) by which true power is only ever power through love. In the Art of Loving, Erich Fromm identified agape love as the only valid basis for meaning in life. In Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, love is considered to be a necessary condition for a meaningful existence. In the approach to therapy developed by Carl Rogers, agape love, which he calls “unconditional positive regard,” is considered an essential ingredient in effective therapy. Abraham Maslow, in the Farther Reaches of Human Nature, saw love as uniquely capable of revealing true knowledge about the other person by permitting the other person “to unfold, to open up, to drop his defenses…” (p.109). The list could go on.
It is clear enough that a thorough examination of the humanistic literature identifies a hermeneutic of love as a distinguishing and central theme of humanistic psychology. This hermeneutic of love flows from a phenomenological epistemology, a metaphysics that recognizes the ontological dignity of the person, and an ethical call to the preserve the dignity of (and therefore the transcendence of) the Other (who is beyond price). The hermeneutics of love is the interpretive stance that brings these epistemological, ontological and ethical presuppositions of humanistic psychology and puts them into action.
In summary then: Humanistic psychology, in essence, is a human science guided by a hermeneutic of love within a phenomenological epistemology, which is grounded in the recognition of the ontological difference between human beings and things, which, in turn, flows from the ethical recognition of human dignity.
Baker-Fletcher, G. (1993). Somebodyness: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the theory of dignity. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
Buber, M. (1958/1937). I and thou. New York, NY: Scribner.
Frankl, V. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. Beacon Press.
Fromm, E. (2006). Art of loving. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.
King, M. L., Jr. (1962). An address before The National Press Club. Washington, DC, 19 July 1962.
Levinas, E. (1969). Totality and infinity. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.
Maslow, A. (1993). The farther reaches of human nature. New York, NY: Penguin.
May, R. (2007). Love and will. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
Robbins, B. D. (2013). Humanistic psychology as a hermeneutics of love. Annual Conference of the Society for Humanistic Psychology, February 2013, Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, CA.
Rogers, C. (1995). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Mariner Books.
Sartre, J. P. (2003/1958). Being and nothingness. London, UK: Routledge.
Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York, NY: Bantam Vintage.
United Nations (1948). The universal Declaration of human rights. https://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/
Williams, T. D. (2005). Who is my neighbor? Personalism and the foundations of human rights. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America.
— Brent Dean Robbins