Rollo May -- Psychology and the Human Dilemma
Read: (Intro, Chapters 1, 2, 3, 12, 8, 13, 14)
Rollo May speaks of the human dilemma not in the sense of a problem,
-- but in sense of polarities, tensions & paradoxes that mark human existence.
May contends that psychology is mostly failing to speak to the vital issues and tensions of our times.
-- psychology mostly tries to reduce the essential human dilemma and focus on solving problems instead.
-- hence psychologys emphasis on quantification, technique & science.
-- this emphasis fails to embrace the historical, literary & myth/symbol dimensions of human existence.
-- so, May advocates reinventing psychology so as to embrace these dimensions, as well as to speak more forcefully to the essential human dilemma.
Chapter 1 -- What is the Human Dilemma?
So, psychology has historically avoided the paradoxical aspects of human existence,
-- and engaged in an Occams Razor ethic of NIMIS SIMPLICANDO (too much simplification).
A central dimension of the human dilemma:
-- the DIALECTICAL RELATIONSHIP between subjectivity and objectivity (which are always mutually and simultaneously affecting one another).
-- for instance, time has both a subjective side and an objective side. Similarly, space has both subjective and objective sides.
-- this dialectical relationship between subject & object is central to human freedom & potential (e.g., finite freedom, world openness).
May sees two characteristic over-emphases within psychology:
1. B.F. Skinner is representative of over-emphasis on objective side.
2. Carl Rogers is representative of over-emphasis on subjective side,
But, the ability to stay within the human dilemma (without reducing it) is integral to the development of human consciousness and to human creativity.
Chapter 2 -- Modern Mans Loss of Significance
Main theme: Were experiencing a loss of what it means to be an individual -- in the face of collectivist mass-movements in education, communication, technology, entertainment, etc.
-- for instance, the character of Willie Loman (from Death of a Salesman), whose entire life was devoted to being a cog in the machine of marketeering and commodity sales. He never knew who he was.
-- May mentions nuclear war as contributing to the sense of personal insignificance.
-- But today, perhaps a better example would be our preoccupation with being entertained and avoiding boredom. (Why do we imbue our entertainers with so much money, status, power, influence, etc.?)
-- using technological mass-media as a distraction from life
-- connections to prevalence of rage and apathy (a diminishment of consciousness).
-- what are people raging about, if not their sense of diminished personal significance?
-- why are people so easily bored & apathetic, if not because their lives seem so often empty and insignificant?
Chapter 3 -- Personal Identity in an Anonymous World
NORMAL ANXIETY -- which helps us adapt to high-tension situations
NEUROTIC ANXIETY -- non-adaptive -- paralyzing and debilitating
One place where this plays out: Todays education tends to produce neurotic anxiety
-- especially with its emphasis on grades & competition, which invite students to fixate on external signs & criteria, rather than on cultivating their own personal sense of discernment & value.
-- this fosters form of cynicism that undermines students coming into their fuller identities.
-- in addition, there is a corresponding loss of sense of joy, exploration, adventure, life-relation, etc. in learning.
-- all in all, theres a deep need for education to widen & deepen consciousness, cultivate sensitivity and depth of perception, formation of deeper values and capacities to value.
Chapter 12 -- Freedom & Responsibility Reexamined
In light of cultural changes, freedom has become problematic.
There are 2 prevailing distortions of the meaning of freedom:
(1) The full freedom assumption, in which there are (or should be) no limits, no boundaries, no rules, etc.
-- its not consistent with reality -- hence its a fundamentally dishonest posture.
-- it generates an infantile, self-absorbed attitude that in turn tends to generate separating & alienating dynamics -- which ultimately impede social evolution & improvement.
(2) Distrust of freedom, in which people are seen as incapable of exercising full freedom & responsibility. People need to be taken care of because theyre incapable of taking care of themselves.
-- youre not free to decide your own state of consciousness via drugs
-- youre not free to sell sex, or to buy sex from others
-- no more diving boards, lawn darts, not wearing seat-belts, etc.
-- ultimately, youre not free to decide if you live or die
-- May asks, could therapy as we currently know it be a possible form of social control?
All in all, theres a need for new understanding of basic, human freedom & responsibility. Such a new understanding would include:
-- an acute awareness of self-world,
-- hence a willingness to transcend the strictures of the immediate situation.
-- doesnt center around drives (psychoanalysis), since how one takes up ones drives is itself a function of ones freedom.
-- nor similarly, conditioning (behaviorism), nor control
-- therapy has to do with the enlarging the consciousness of freedom, along with the concomitant enlargement of responsibility (the ability to respond to the world).
Principles of Freedom
#1: Freedom is a quality of the centered self.
-- not a function of will or ego or mind
(or any other part of ones psych)
-- but the self acting as a totality, i.e., ones entire being
#2: Freedom always involves social responsibility.
-- freedom is NOT about just doing what one pleases
-- freedom is about responding to the limits of life
(bodily limits, intelligence, social structures, etc.)
-- its not about freedom from conditions, but
freedom for engaging the world as it is.
#3: Freedom requires the capacity to accept, bear and live constructively with anxiety.
-- this refers to normal anxiety, not neurotic anxiety
-- To be free means to face and bear anxiety; to run away from anxiety means automatically to surrender ones freedom.
-- as with demagogues, also drugs
-- taking away the persons anxiety, we also take away his opportunity to learn... Anxiety is the sign of inner conflict, and so long as there is conflict, some resolution on a higher level of consciousness is possible.
-- Freedom is something you grow into -- i.e., its an acquired taste.
Markers of freedom:
-- playing a part in the decisions of larger groups
-- respect for rational authority
-- responsibility -- thinking & acting for the long-term welfare of the group
-- esteem for self as an individual of worth & dignity. He is able, if need be, to stand alone.
-- able to accept the anxiety which is inevitable in our shaken world
Implications for therapy:
#1: Freedom and responsibility always imply one another (so therapy that enlarges freedom must also enlarge responsibility)
#2: Therapy involves enlarging the capacity to experience normal anxiety -- not eliminating it.
#3: Therapy must address the sphere of values as markers of social engagement.
#4: Therapy involves the clients coming into his/her values, but this requires that the therapist acknowledge his/her own values.
Chapter 8: Existential Therapy and the American Scene
Main theme: Existential Therapy -- a form of psychotherapy grounded in the reality of human existence, and the lived perception of ones existence as real.
-- based on the European philosophy of Existentialism -- the philosophy that seeks to illuminate the nature of existence & being.
4 main points:
(1). There are affinities between this European approach and Americas history and values.
-- an emphasis on decision, action and the immediacy of experience over the search for abstract truths.
-- an emphasis on personal freedom and responsibility, and the power of individual choice to better ones life.
(2). Yet paradoxically, American psychology remains largely resistant to taking an existential approach.
-- perhaps Americas investment in the practical (part of our frontier ethic), which extends into psychology in the form of behaviorism and fast-fix therapies
-- is ultimately about trying to exert control over chaos and irrationality. Hence American psychology has become mostly about control -- rather than about exploring human existence.
-- this leads then to an overemphasis in American psychology on technique as an efficient, mechanical means of controlling behavior.
-- this cultural overemphasis on practicality & technique leads to a problem -- too much doing, and not enough simple being.
-- losing the sense for the depth of life (the ontological sense) because of all of our focus on accomplishment and productivity.
-- analogously, losing the sense for history and tragedy in human existence.
-- all of this adds up to a state of ontological repression, a loss of the sense for actually being alive in the universe -- a diminishment of individual self-consciousness, and ultimately of life itself.
(3). Yet existential psychology has a special significance for American psychology and psychotherapy.
A. a passionate insistence on exploring humanitys distinctive character, rather than limiting Y to its animalistic/physicalistic aspects.
B. breaking through the epistemological loneliness of the modern situation
-- the sense that what we know is mostly disconnected from how we live.
C. allowing psychology to recognize the value of philosophical insight, and to claims its own philosophical presuppositions.
-- rather than trying to evade the question by objectively looking at the facts (itself an attitude laden with mostly unacknowledged philosophical suppositions)
Psychotherapy then becomes about neither treatment (in the narrow sense) nor simply collecting insights about ones psychological being, but about
-- A personal encounter with the reality of ones existence.
-- gaining a decisive orientation to ones own existence
As Rollo May puts it, the patient will never get insights, never be able to see the truth, except as he is ready to come to decisions about his own existence.
The goal of psychotherapy, then, is not adjustment or even lessening suffering.
Rather, its the full confronting of ones own existence. Thats what enables us to deal with the most important realities of life in the first place.
(4). Problems and criticisms
A. Existential psychology needs to embraced the unconscious as an the enlargement of the human sphere (rather than as a contrary idea).
Somewhat paradoxically, Rollo May recommends a phenomenology of unconscious experience.
B. Existential psychology needs to embrace the genetic (in the sense of origins) dimension more -- childhood, e.g., as a way of understanding the full person.
C. A lack of therapeutic interest in some European approaches.
But therapeutic change is also a process of becoming.
Chapter 13: Questions for a Science of Man
-- the inadequacy of applying the natural-science model to psychology,
-- the need to develop a different theoretical basis for psychology.
As a natural-science approach, biological psychology has produced many drug treatments for psychological disorders
-- but how often is this a way of treating the symptoms, while leaving the essential problem of life un-addressed?
-- Psychologically, anxiety and depression are natures way of telling the person that he has an underlying problem that requires effort toward correction (p. 185)
-- ultimately, by short-circuiting the sense for engaging and overcoming lifes challenges, overuse of drug therapies only adds to the social & individual sense of apathy & emptiness (even if it seems to solve problems in the short term).
Pure behaviorism represents another attempt to understand mankind by way of the natural scientific model
-- by making it a matter of purely objective observation of behavior
-- where measurability becomes the main arbiter of truth & reality (somethings only really real when you can measure it).
-- however, the presumption that anything can be observed without taking into account the perspective of the observer isnt even accepted by modern physics.
-- moreover, this approach doesnt readily take into account the human awareness of ones being conditioned (which can affect the process of conditioning).
Problems of this sort only make it more urgent to formulate a theoretical basis for psychology in keeping with human reality.
What is required to overcome problems like these is a way of understanding human beings that integrates (rather than separates) mind and body, and whose axioms center around that makes human beings distinct.
Distinguishing characteristics of human existence:
1. language and symbols -- a way of detaching ourselves from the immediacy of the present and relating to more than the concrete situation.
2. Time -- the capacity to stand out from the present, which means for human beings an awareness of death. He can see the world as though he were in it or were not in it (p. 193)
3. Social interaction -- awareness of personal relationships, and the active choice of social engagement.
The common element in these 3 is: The capacity to experience oneself as being simultaneously subject and object, and to transcend the immediate situation.
May calls this SELF-RELATEDNESS (which is not the same as egocentricity).
-- here, its more appropriate to speak of self-world (which is dynamic, relational and symbolic), than organism-environment (which is static and objective).
-- SELF-AWARENESS, then, is the reflective, intellectual aspect of self-relatedness.
-- self-relatedness includes both conscious and unconscious aspects
Self-relatedness is evident in the experience of self-chosen abandon, or ecstasy.
-- ecstasy is an act of ones entire being, acting with ones whole person
-- in ecstasy, theres a heightened awareness, a transcending of rationality (rather than a mere irrationality)
Self-relatedness is also a gauge of neurosis & psychosis, both of which have to do with a truncation of self-relatedness -- not living it out fully.
Self-relatedness is also the root of ethics -- which ultimately hinge on peoples transcending of the immediate situation, in order to act with respect to long-term benefit for some larger group.
On one hand, the social responsibility of psychologists is especially great insofar as psychology has to do with changing how people think, feel, behave, etc.
On the other hand, psychology has historically tended to disown its responsibility.
Rollo May: This contradiction calls for self-examination on the part of psychology
Three related issues:
-- Psychology tends to rationalize a lack of commitment by adopting a posture of “waiting until all of the evidence is in.” The problem here is that in dealing with the world’s emergencies, waiting only produces a greater state of crisis.
-- For psychologists, knowing the truth of the human condition requires commitment rather than passivity. Even if the problems which run through our world seem so immense that we couldn’t possibly affect them, remaining passive and disengaged is the one sure way they won’t change.
-- In fact, exercising genuine personal freedom is rooted in committing to some posture or standpoint in the world (rather than just “doing as you please”)
-- “…our frame of mind as psychologists seems to be one which denies and represses power” (p. 205), and especially destructive, demonic formations of power. Instead, psychology tends to overemphasizes rationality, and to treat the world as though people were fundamentally rational.
-- This makes psychology attractive to people who tend to repress their own power-needs, which then often get lived out in attempts to control others in therapy and/or research.
-- “What I am advocating… is a widening and deepening of consciousness to take in the problem of power in its tragic, dynamic and demonic aspects” (p. 207).
-- Psychology has a tendency to view itself and its truths as being “above history,” rather than as expressions of a particular historical and cultural situation.
-- This leads to the problem of psychology’s “playing God,” which our society exacerbates by expecting psychology to judge which thoughts, feelings and behaviors are acceptable for humanity.
-- In the West, the physical sciences began with the Greeks’ view of uncovering the secrets of nature. In the medieval period, nature was seen as having a fundamentally rational order. In the modern period, the goal shifted to gaining power, over nature, rather than understanding it.
-- Two related historical developments helped put psychology in this position of playing God:
-- The 17th century turn from religion’s “moral absolutism” to that of science.
-- The 19th century “to make man also an object of calculation and control” (like the rest of the physical universe)
The problem of psychology’s “playing God” also takes the form of its quest to control and manipulate people (“predicting and controlling behavior,” as the early behaviorist Watson put it)
-- May suggests an alternative – “… enlarging the other person’s consciousness and freedom to participate responsibly in the choice of social values” (p. 210)
But this alternative requires that psychology focus on “understanding the nature of social values and the interrelationship of the individual’s freedom to those values” (p. 212) – a different direction for psychology than predicting and controlling behavior.
Rollo May proposes that social values and individual freedom exist in dialectical relation (a continually mutual interplay). Hence there is no such thing as a “purely social value.”
-- the individual participates in social values, but his or her conscious experience, behavior and participation also affect social values.
-- having psychologists simply prescribe “correct” values is no solution, because this would be tantamount to brainwashing
-- psychology’s job is to understand the processes of valuation; the content of values should come from things like religion, philosophy, literature, etc.
Three related “considerations” –
1. “… the emergence of a new value occurs to a greater of lesser extent as an attack upon the existing values of the society” (p. 214)
-- creators of new values, such as Jesus and Socrates, are always seen at first as enemies of society. That’s because creating new values always involves opposing the prevailing status quo.
2. “… preserving and respecting the individual’s right and capacity to question” (p. 214)
-- totalitarianism is about disallowing individuals to question basic assumptions about what’s going on.
-- in contrast, “To be able to question is the beginning of one’s experience of identity” (p. 215) – a sign of health, both individually and culturally.
3. “… human values are never a one-way street, but always involve a ‘no’ as well as a ‘yes’ – which I shall call a polarity of will” (p. 215)
-- a dialectical tension between the negative and the positive
-- “…the freedom to say ‘no’ is what gives substance and power to one’s experience of identity, in that it proves that what one feels and thinks matters” (p. 215)
-- “…this makes the possibility of being a rebel, of experiencing anger, and engaging in revolt, potentially constructive experiences” (pp. 215-126)
-- furthermore, because consciousness itself operates by way of negations and exclusions (when I’m thinking about one thing, I’m not thinking about another one; when I’m perceiving one scene, I’m not perceiving another one), “conflict is of the essence of consciousness” (p. 217).
“…rebellion is built into the structure of human consciousness, and is one of the elements that constitute consciousness” (p. 217).
Finally, May concludes the chapter by emphasizing that values are acts rather than merely abstract propositions. In fact, “It is in the act of valuing that consciousness and behavior become united” (p. 220)
As such, valuing involves commitment and active world engagement rather than mere wishful thinking.
Consequently, freedom, conscious choice and responsibility are integral to values.