A Further Conversation about
Humanistic Psychology
by Dr. Eric Dodson

Since the first segment of this conversation was mostly well-received, I've decided to write another installment. For those who haven't seen the previous part, the main themes were: Non-reductionism, wholism, fundamental mystery, freedom, re-envisioning scientific psychological inquiry, individual choice, the transcendence of one's personal life-situation, and responsibility. I think that the main themes for this part of the conversation will probably be: Meaning, experience, phenomenology, existentialism, the project of articulating the psychological significance of our everyday worlds, and the 'meaning of life.' Maybe there'll be something on passion, too.

As before, in this conversation you’re placed in the role of having to explain humanistic psychology to someone who 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: Y’know, the other day when we were talking about that humanistic psychology course you’re taking, you were saying something about “meaning,” like “humanistic psychology tries to illuminate the meanings implicit in everyday experience.” What’s all this “meaning” stuff about?

You: Well, basically humanistic psychology sees “meaning” as an inherent, irreducible aspect of human existence. In fact, it’s really a fundamental part of the wholistic view we talked about last time.

Your Friend: You mean that the wholistic view not only asserts that there’s an irreducible interconnectedness between the individual, other people and the universe as a whole; it also claims that that interconnectedness is irreducibly meaningful in nature?

You: Hey, well said! Maybe you should take my test for me next week! You’re starting to sound like a real humanistic psychologist!

Your Friend: Well, actually, I’m not really sure I buy it. After all, most of the time people aren’t going around with big meanings in their heads. Most of the time we’re all just getting through the day -- you know, meeting the demands and immediate requirements at hand. Only now and then is anything like “meaning” happening.

You: Well, actually, that’s how humanistic psychologists see things, too. It’s true -- most of the time we’re NOT reflectively aware of the many complex layers of meaning we’re living-out. And you’re right -- usually we’re simply moving through life -- getting things done, trying to move through the bad times, get to the good times, etc. But if you think about it, this usual kind of situation is already loaded with all sorts of meanings -- even if we aren’t usually aware of it. For instance, think of an example -- pick something -- anything you do every day without even thinking about it -- something so robotic and so empty that it couldn’t possibly have any real meaning.

Your Friend: Well, um, this morning I got up and brushed my teeth...

You: Whoa, you did? What did you do that for?

Your Friend: Well, uh... um... so they’d look okay... so I wouldn’t get bad breath... you know.

You: Yeah, but what’s going on there? I’m guessing that it has something to do with trying to get other people to react positively to you -- rather than negatively. (Your Friend: Well, yeah) So... this empty, robotic teeth-brushing is really saying something about your personal values -- that you care to some extent about being attractive to other people.

Your Friend: Well, yeah, but doesn’t everyone?

You: Well, certainly not everyone cares equally or in the same way. After all, some people don’t brush their teeth much at all. (Your Friend: Well, yeah) Moreover, have you ever noticed how not all cultures share the same ideas and values about personal hygiene? Not all cultures throughout the world tell you that you should brush your teeth. For instance, have you ever noticed how often people in other countries seem to have bad teeth, by our American standards?

Your Friend: I’m remembering the Metros of Paris last summer...

You: So this teeth-brushing is also saying something about how you’re participating in a set of distinctly American cultural values that have to do with hygiene and attractiveness.

Your Friend: Well, actually the main reason is so I don’t get more cavities.

You: But what makes you believe that?

Your Friend: You know... “4 out of 5 dentists recommend...” Science says it’s true.

You: So, brushing your teeth is also saying something about how you tend to believe in the truth of science (again a Western cultural value). But I think you’re actually saying a little more than that. “4 out of 5 dentists...” is a slogan from a commercial. So we’re talking about a basic belief in the truth of science, but it’s a version of scientific truth filtered through the lenses of marketing, advertising and popular mass-media. Brushing your teeth is starting to say something about how you’re connected to the larger cultural whole -- something about how relatively large social, cultural dynamics are finding their way into you -- into your own personal values, perspectives and behaviors. And it’s happening (at least in part) in terms of a specifically scientific vision of truth and reality -- in conjunction with a commodified vision of health, attractiveness, sex-appeal, etc. The main point here is that even something that seems at first pretty vacuous and everyday -- brushing your teeth -- is actually bearing many meanings that say important things about your psychological world -- personally, interpersonally, and even culturally. And all of this is really just the tip of the iceberg -- we’ve only been looking at teeth-brushing for less than one page.

Your Friend: Bitchin’! But there still seems to be a big difference between how everyday life is intrinsically meaningful, and the kinds of things you’re talking about in that example. It seems like there are basically two kinds of meaning going on here.

You: Well, in a way there are. From the perspective of humanistic psychology, everyday life is irreducibly meaningful, but its meaning is mostly implicit. In other words, its meaning is there, but we actually have to make a sort of turn -- to look at our everyday experience, to reflect upon it, think about it, and interpret it -- in order to make that level of implicit meaning explicit. In other words, there’s the level of the implicit meaning of everyday experience, and then the level of its explicit, fully articulated meaning. However, humanistic psychology also sees these two levels as fundamentally interconnected. After all, one can only ultimately say something about everyday experience by first living it, and then looking at it. But not only that -- the reverse dynamic is also true. Looking at experience and finding its meaning -- is itself a kind of experience, and so it lends shape to the experiences that come after it (notice how this jibes with what we were saying last time about how humanistic psychology seeks the kind of understanding that can actually change our everyday lives). In other words, the level of implicit meaning shapes the explicit level, and at the same time the level of explicit meaning also shapes the implicit level. So, what seem at first to be two separate kinds of meaning are actually two regions of an ongoing interplay of meaning.

Your Friend: Okay, but what does this have to do with meaning in the big sense -- like the “meaning of life?”

You: Well, the very broad, overarching meanings, like the “meaning of life,” are basically also part of this ongoing interplay. First, the very wide, very general meanings we have and hold are part of how we move through life in the first place (our broad meanings shape our concrete experience). At the same time, we ultimately get our very broad meanings from our experience of the world, each other and ourselves (our broad meanings are also shaped by our experience). But here we’re talking about something that makes humanistic psychology different from many other schools of psychology. For instance, many Introductory Psychology textbooks claim that psychology is not about finding reasonable answers to broad questions like “the meaning of life.” Humanistic psychology, however, sees those very broad questions as completely proper and inescapable parts of any truly meaningful psychological inquiry. In other words, from the perspective of humanistic psychology, genuine psychological knowing should seek to matter at all levels of meaning -- implicit, explicit, and even the most broad issues and questions, such as the overall “meaning of life.” And the fact that a lot of psychology tries to distance itself from the most encompassing, most important questions about the nature of life -- is mostly a commentary on the sad state of a lot of psychology, and actually part of psychology’s symptomatic disconnection from people’s everyday lives and concerns.

Your Friend: Y’know, all of this stuff about implicit and explicit meaning is kind of reminding me of something that I learned in my philosophy class. There’s a school of philosophy called “phenomenology” that has two primary modes. First, there’s “pure phenomenology,” which seeks to account for the world’s seemingly external reality-status by looking at acts of consciousness and corresponding appearances to consciousness, and by trying to find their “essences,” or necessary, invariant structures -- given in phenomenological reflection with an experiential quality of indubitability. But what you’re describing sounds more like “existential phenomenology,” which seeks to articulate the significance of existence in terms of an ongoing, open-ended interpretation (or “hermeneutic”) of everyday experience, and which takes our fundamental connection to world as its starting point.

You: Well, yeah. If fact, it’s fair to say that much of humanistic psychology’s research methodology is basically phenomenological. That’s why so much of humanistic psychology’s research is qualitative and descriptive, rather than quantitative and statistical. That’s also part of the reason why humanistic psychologists talk so much about phenomenology. Basically, what we’ve been talking about as the “implicit” level of meaning maps onto the “phenomenal level” (or “ontic level”) in more technical phenomenological language. And the “explicit” level maps onto the “phenomenological level” (or “ontological level”). Basically, we’ve been talking all along about doing existential phenomenology from a psychological standpoint. We’ve just been describing it more in plain English, rather than in technical, phenomenological language.

Your Friend: Cool! Speaking of “existential,” all of this is reminding me a little of Soren Kierkegaard’s emphasis on passion and commitment in the pursuit of subjective truths.

You: Well, now that you mention it, humanistic psychology shares quite a bit with existentialism -- not only with existential phenomenology specifically (as in the case of thinkers like Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty), but with existentialism more generally (as in the additional case of thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Camus, Buber and Dostoyevski). And yeah, humanistic psychology does try to embody some fair fraction of Kierkegaardian passion. The point of humanistic psychology is not to come to understandings that we don’t really care about -- in ways that we don’t really care about. The point is to begin to enter into a very personal, passionate search for the questions, issues and knowledge that really matter -- that really burn. The point is exactly to think passionately, especially as a way of living passionately -- as a way of feeling one’s involvement in life’s core riddle swelling like powerful music. The point is to dance the wild, delirious dance of human understanding -- intensely, feverishly -- with eyes wide and pounding heart... almost as if knowing life is something that actually matters.

Your Friend: Um, glub... mff, uh... y’know, I’m starting to sense that this is different from the attitude of “dispassionate” observation that natural science stresses.

You: Yeah, this is a difference. At the same time, though, humanistic psychology is about thinking well -- thinking precisely as well as passionately. The point is not to go around flailing spasmodically in your thinking and expression. Rather, humanistic psychology is about thinking, feeling, growing, living... well, all of them put together in some beautiful, poetic way -- in a way worthy of the gift of life.

Your Friend: Y’know, this is all sounding kind of weird. I’ve been in school for the last 15 years, and no one’s ever told me that the point is ultimately to begin to live a passionate, beautiful, poetic life. It sounds kind of strange... okay I guess, but weird. Anyhow, what makes living a passionate, beautiful, poetic life so great?

You: Well, I guess that at some point you just have to experience it. It’s not the kind of thing I can just convince you of, if you haven’t seen at least a small glimpse of it somewhere in your experience. Basically, whether humanistic psychology’s right for you depends upon how deeply you actually experience life as a poetic, beautiful, passionate thing. Without some grain of that basic experience, all of this can only sound like empty talk.

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