A Conversation about Humanistic Psychology
by Dr. Eric Dodson

I've been thinking that it might be a good idea to describe some of humanistic psychology's central facets in terms of a conversation -- a sequence of questions and answers -- perhaps like you might have with your parents or your friends who are curious about what you're learning in this class. In this conversation, you're the one placed in the role of having to explain humanistic psychology to someone who basically doesn’t have a clue about it. It might be helpful for you to think about how you would answer "Your Friend's" questions before you actually read the answers I’ve written. This will help you figure out if your understanding is reaching the level of being coherent and convincing, since it's generally much harder to explain something to someone else than it is to understand it yourself (and remember that on the tests you have to convince me that you're understanding things).

Your Friend: Hey, you're taking that new course in humanistic psychology, aren't you? Well, what's it about?

You: Uh, duh... I dunno... burp, uh... it's like, complicated, (scratch belly)... u-huh... I dunno...

Eric's Comment: This isn't such a good answer, so you try again.

You: Well, basically humanistic psychology is a non-reductionistic, wholistic school of psychological thought that looks mostly at our everyday experience of the world, and tries to illuminate the various psychological meanings and significances implicit in it.

Your Friend: Whoa, "non-reductionistic?" Dude!

You: Yeah, well, that just basically means that humanistic psychology attempts to see people -- us -- in terms of the fundamental complexities of our actual lives as we experience them. Humanistic psychologists try to see us as we are -- without reducing us or our worlds to something else -- such as, just how our brains work, or just how our parents treated us when we were children, etc. Humanistic psychologists see those sorts of totalizing explanations as oversimplifications of our lives, basically.

Your Friend: You mean humanistic psychologists don't care how the brain works?

You: No, that's not it. Humanistic psychologists still care about the brain, and even about all of the other areas of traditional psychology. But for humanistic psychologists, we're not just our brains; we're not just our past histories, we're not just units determined by the larger cultural matrix, etc. Humanistic psychologists basically see all of these things as aspects of the larger whole -- which is the person himself/herself as a whole -- always living life in many different and inter-related worlds and contexts.

Your Friend: Hmm... is that the "whole" of "wholistic?"

You: Yeah, basically... a whole person, in all of his or her complexity, subtlety and paradox -- living life in a whole wild, mysterious universe of many dimensions and many simultaneous contexts. Basically, the wholistic stance implies that we live our lives in a fundamental interconnection with the world and with each other.

Your Friend: Now you're getting deep on me... a mysterious universe?

You: Well, yeah... humanistic psychology wants to get deep. Why not? We’re not just shallow beings; we’re also very deep beings, so why shouldn’t psychology reflect that? And “mystery” is part of how we’re deep. From the point of view of humanistic psychology, we’re not simply determined by anything or any combination of things. There’s always part of us (and part of our world, too) that resists being completely captured or accounted for by any deterministic explanation. By the way, one implication here is that our freedom is actual and basic to what we are, according to humanistic psychology.

Your Friend: Whoa, how are you jumping from "mystery" to "freedom?"

You: Well, think about it. If the universe is ultimately deterministic in nature -- if everything is really completely caused by other external things -- then so are we, and so is our experience of being free, making choices, etc. In other words, if all that ever happens in the universe is stuff causing other stuff, then our freedom is basically just an illusion, because our experiences of freedom are also just the product of some batch of external causes -- kind of like being a puppet on strings. In other words, for freedom to be real, there has to be something un-determined (and undeterminable) about us -- something fundamentally mysterious, something elusive.

Your Friend: Well, okay... but then how can humanistic psychology ever claim to know anything, if it sees everything as fundamentally mysterious?

You: For humanistic psychologists, part of the paradox of any genuine knowledge is that it is always simultaneously permeated with mystery. Knowing things doesn’t diminish the world’s fundamental mystery, any more than fundamental mystery diminishes what we know. For instance, have you ever noticed that the more you learn, the more there is to learn? Basically, humanistic psychologists still claim that we can know things, but they also suggest that it’s good for us to be honest about what our knowledge really is -- never truth that’s simply absolute for everyone for all time. It’s always a matter of our seeing things from a certain perspective, a perspective that’s always open to questioning, re-interpretation, deepening, contradiction and even flat-out rejection. In short, humanistic psychology sees knowledge as what it actually is in the first place -- intimately bound up with what seem at first to be its opposites -- uncertainty and mystery. Of course that doesn’t mean we can’t know things -- but it does start to shift our sense for what knowledge is.

Your Friend: Hmm... I think I’m getting a little queasy. Maybe it’s your double-negative in that last sentence. Actually, all of this is starting to sound pretty un-scientific.

You: Well, it’s fair to say that humanistic psychology is suspicious of trying to understand human reality simply by applying the methods of natural science. Basically, humanistic psychologists agree that natural science is great for some things -- like understanding chemical reactions in test-tubes, for instance. But when it comes to human beings in all of their strangeness, complexities and contradictions -- natural science just isn’t very good. Of course natural science can come to some correct truths about us -- no one’s denying that. But it’s hard for a natural-science approach to get at some of the most interesting psychological questions -- like “how can we start to live truly meaningful lives?”, “what are intense spiritual experiences about?”, “what reason do I really have to get out of bed in the morning?”, and so forth. To get into questions like those, psychology needs to start taking people’s un-scientific, subjective experience as fundamental.

Your Friend: But those don’t sound like very scientific questions.

You: Well, they aren’t -- at least not according to the traditional definition of natural science. But humanistic psychologists basically want to re-shape what we understand science to be -- so that it can better address human psychological reality as we experience it. Humanistic psychologists sometimes like to say that they’re after a “human science psychology,” rather than a “natural science psychology.” After all, why should psychology simply exclude what seem to be many of life’s most important questions? Maybe the problem’s not in the questions; maybe the problem’s in our ideas of what science and psychology are in the first place.

Your Friend: Well, maybe. You know, I always thought that there was something kind of funny about psychology -- that it’s somehow out of touch with the basic reality of living life.

You: Well, humanistic psychologists often think so, too. That’s one reason why they want to revolutionize psychology, and along with it at least part of how we understand ourselves and our lives. But not only that. Humanistic psychologists also think that it’s important for psychology to come to the kind of psychological understanding that actually matters to us -- that matters so much so that it can actually change how we move through life. Humanistic psychologists see the kind of disconnection you’re talking about as being mostly symptomatic of the state of psychology itself. Think about it -- isn’t it actually pretty bizarre that psychology -- a discipline that seeks to fathom what it is to be a human being -- largely fails to speak to people where they live and breathe -- in terms that actually matter to them?

Your Friend: Well, yeah, now that you mention it, it does seem pretty weird. But how would humanistic psychology want me to change my life? It sounds kind of creepy -- almost like some kind of cult.

You: Yeah, y’know, there are always a million people everywhere always wanting to change our lives -- all you have to do is just turn on the TV. And most of the time the people who want us to change have a hidden agenda -- to make themselves more rich, more powerful, more famous, etc. Basically, there are always a million greedy people telling us how we should live our lives, in one way or another. What makes humanistic psychology a bit different is that it says that it’s a good idea to perceive and grow into your own unique potential in life -- not necessarily anyone else’s -- and that you yourself are the ultimate judge of what that means.

Your Friend: Wow, you mean it’s like an ad that comes on TV and says, “Decide for yourself what products you want to buy.”

You: Yeah, you got it. But actually, there’s more to it than that. Humanistic psychology also says, “And try not to decide in a superficial or stupid way. Buy the products that not only meet your current needs, but that help you enter into your own unique potential in life. Let the deep pulse of your unique destiny speak to you -- your life is not a superficial or stupid thing.”

Your Friend: Y’know, I can’t remember seeing too many ads that say things like that. But can’t this stuff about deciding for myself also turn into a kind of cheap ideology?

You: Sure it can. But so can anything. Any history textbook can tell you that human beings are endlessly creative when it comes to perverting good things -- basically nothing’s immune from that. The question is whether we’re going to let that possibility keep us from trying to find better lives for ourselves.

Your Friend: But what if I don’t want to change? What if I like things just the way they are?

You: Well if you really feel that life has no more to offer you -- then it doesn’t make much sense to change -- so don’t. Humanistic psychologists don’t just exclude the possibility of stasis either. On the other hand, they DO espouse the idea that living a better life is a good thing -- even if your life’s already okay. One thing that makes humanistic psychologists different is that they don’t see fixing people’s problems as psychology’s only purpose. In their view, pretty much everyone has some larger potential in life to perceive and eventually grow into -- and that’s part of what makes life wonderful -- our lives can be amazing adventures at the level of our becoming uniquely great human beings. The bumper sticker says, “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.” Humanistic psychologists admit that a lot of people’s lives are more or less like that, but that no one’s life has to be that.

Your Friend: Well, I can see that humanistic psychology places a lot of emphasis on my choosing how I’m going to live my life -- and I can see the connection with the emphasis on freedom. So... basically humanistic psychology says that I can do whatever I want, right? Party on! Anything goes! Sign me up!

You: Whoa, hold on there, cowboy (or cowgirl). Remember that humanistic psychology sees us as beings who are fundamentally connected to world -- and that includes the world of other people. In other words, the world always has a demand-quality that is not just the product of our own choices. Our freedom is never just the freedom to do whatever we want whenever we want, because being a free human being is not the same as being God. On the other hand, humanistic psychologists also contend that we are at least somewhat free in any situation. Even in situations as un-free as concentration camps, people are at least free to choose their own attitudes toward their suffering (as Viktor Frankl states). Basically, the freedom that humanistic psychologists talk about is not an absolutized “freedom from” conditions imposed on us by the world. Rather, it’s a “freedom for” a deeper, more powerful world-engagement. In essence, one of the paradoxes of our freedom is that it only really means something when we actually choose something (and hence give up our freedom). Basically, humanistic psychologists see responsibility for oneself and for one’s world-engagement as integral to our freedom (and vice-versa). In fact, for humanistic psychologists the two are basically inseparable. Humanistic psychology does see freedom as central to what human beings are -- but that’s no excuse to start acting like a self-absorbed moron -- in fact, just the opposite is true...

This conversation will continue, but only if you freely choose to tell me that you’re benefiting from it.

Return to Eric's Page