Still More Conversation about
Humanistic Psychology
by Dr. Eric Dodson

This is part III of an ongoing conversation. The main theme this time is knowledge, both as it’s usually conceived and as humanistic psychology starts to re-envision it. There’s some stuff about how humanistic psychology questions our cultural tendency to evaluate knowledge in terms of its utility, newness, linearity and productivity (mostly traditional phallocentric values). There’s a description of how humanistic psychology offers an alternative to knowledge structured around those values -- an alternative formulation that stresses profundity, circularity, patient dwelling and connection to life (more traditionally feminine sensibilities). Finally there’s an outline of some of the implications for a humanistic re-envisioning of education.
The last two of these conversations were pretty much descriptions of conventional humanistic psychology. In contrast, this conversation probably contains a larger admixture of specifically Dodsonian concepts (especially in the stuff about productivity, feminism and education).

Your Friend: Last time, when we were talking about how humanistic psychology seeks a passionate form of thinking and knowing, you were saying something about how “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.” That makes it sound like “knowledge” according humanistic psychology is something different from traditional psychology’s idea of what knowledge is.

You: Well, what you’re saying is true is several respects. For instance, we’ve already talked about how humanistic psychology seeks knowledge that can matter at the level of people’s concrete everyday lives, as well as the levels of abstraction and explicit meaning.

Your Friend: Yeah, but there must be more to it than that. For instance, one obvious question would be this: What makes some knowledge matter in that very concrete, immediate way, whereas other knowledge doesn’t -- at least not nearly as much?

You: Well, before we get to the crux of that question, it’s probably good to note that humanistic psychology doesn’t pretend to have knowledge that matters to every single person on the planet. The reality is that very different kinds of knowledge matter to different people. As the adage goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” At the same time though, there seem to be psychological truths that most people find meaningful, and truths that most people find inconsequential. For instance, here’s one finding: Abraham Maslow finds that our everyday creative acts can help us find our truer selves -- which in turn can help us live more authentic, more beautiful lives. Here’s another finding: The neurotransmitter 5-Hydroxytryptamine derives from a metabolic synthesis that passes through the amino-acid Trytophan and the intermediary stage of 5-Hydroxytryptophan. Now, which finding seems more directly relevant to you and your life?

Your Friend: Err... I’m not sure; I’ll have to think about it. But what about my question about knowledge?

You: Well, maybe that example is starting to get at an answer. Maybe part of the reason why most people find Maslow’s finding more relevant is that it starts to get at “large” knowledge -- knowledge about the very general questions and issues that undergird everyone’s life. It’s not that the finding about 5-Hydroxytryptamine is wrong -- it’s probably very correct. It’s more that the knowledge about 5-Hydroxytryptamine seems very “small” -- it’s so specific and detailed that its meaning for most people’s lives seems practically nil -- “merely correct,” as the German existential philosopher Martin Heidegger puts it.

Your Friend: Well, now that you mention it, Maslow’s finding does seem to have a bit more “oomph” in it somehow. So, for humanistic psychology, “knowledge” means “large” knowledge about big issues -- and that’s how humanistic psychology tries to matter to people’s concrete lives.

You: Yeah, that’s certainly part of it. But remember that humanistic psychology doesn’t just throw-out the more detailed findings of natural science psychology -- rather, humanistic psychology tries to re-understanding them in a more general, more fundamental way -- namely, in terms of human existence and human experience. So, all-in-all, humanistic psychology incorporates detailed findings, too. But humanistic psychology does definitely contend that psychological knowledge as it’s currently defined is way out of balance in the direction of being too detailed and too irrelevant to the business of living life (just look at some current mainstream psychological journals if you’re not convinced). And to address this imbalance, psychology (and our culture more generally) desperately needs to shift its values and attitudes in the direction of large knowledge, large questions and large meanings... even as far as questioning our understanding of our existence and reality as a whole.

Your Friend: Y’know, those questions are reminding me a little of something in Goethe’s Proverbs in Prose: “All intelligent thoughts have already been thought; what is necessary is only to try to think them again.”

You: Well, there’s probably something to this, as far as the big questions are concerned. Similarly, Whitehead once commented that the whole of Western philosophy is basically footnotes to Plato.

Your Friend: So, then what’s the use of trying to think the big questions -- they’ve already been thought-out.

You: Well, in a way there is no “use” to wrestling with the big questions. But then again, humanistic psychology doesn’t necessarily see the most “useful” psychological questions as the best ones. In fact, from the point of view of humanistic psychology, many of life’s most interesting and most important questions have a value far beyond being useful. To take a simple example -- why do you fall in love? Certainly falling in love can be useful in some ways -- it’s useful not to feel lonely; it’s useful not to be sexually dissatisfied; it’s useful to propagate the species, etc. But all of the reasons why love is useful hardly get at most people’s experience of falling in love. In fact, for most people it’s exactly all of the very un-useful things about love that make it such a great thing to experience in the first place. Although it runs against the grain of our cultural value that says that something needs to be useful in order to be valuable, humanistic psychology doesn’t want to limit itself merely to what’s useful. Humanistic psychology also wants to explore all those very un-useful questions and issues that make life worth living in the first place. In fact, from the perspective of humanistic psychology, any human inquiry that tries to fix its highest value on simple utility is in essence diminishing the larger, more important whole of life. Psychology needs to be about far more than simple utility, especially because life itself is far more than that.

Your Friend: Okay, but still doesn’t the prospect that most of life’s big questions have already been answered mean that that part of humanistic psychology is less interesting and less meaningful?

You: Well, not necessarily. It’s only less interesting and less meaningful within the scale of values that automatically accords what’s new the greatest worth. In our example, for instance, the finding about 5-Hydroxytryptamine is far newer than Maslow’s finding about creativity -- which goes back at least as far as Plato’s theory of the “divine madness” of poets. Often the old truths that we rediscover are far more profound than the fashionable but usually trivial “Johnny-come-latelys.” And the fact that we’re rediscovering old truths doesn’t make them any less true, or any less meaningful or important to our lives.

Your Friend: Okay, but there’s still something bothering me about this aspect of humanistic psychology. It’s like there’s nothing being produced here -- it’s all a kind of re-hashing.

You: Y’know, I think we’re touching upon something pretty revolutionary about humanistic psychology, something that’s also somewhat contrary to our prevailing cultural ethos about knowledge and its purpose. In our culture, productivity is one of our highest values, and so knowledge itself assumes that sort of structure. In other words, knowing more and more becomes the predominant way we think about knowledge. Some humanistically inclined feminists note that for the most part, men are the ones who have defined what knowledge is and what it isn’t, and that therefore knowledge is structured mostly according to a traditionally masculine way of perceiving -- for instance, it’s mostly about trying to get bigger and bigger -- more and more productive -- more epistemologically pumped-up (add Schwarzenegger accent). But this over-emphasis on the masculine attitude tends to make knowledge on the whole lop-sided and distorted. Eventually, it runs into the problem of knowing lots of stuff, but without the wisdom necessary to keep our knowledge in perspective -- hence nuclear bombs, death camps, wholesale despoilment of the environment, etc. These thinkers also suggest that there are more feminine alternatives that have been historically repressed and neglected -- where knowledge is more about deepening our receptivity to life, and fostering more substantive connections with each other and the universe as a whole. In essence, humanistic psychology suggests that knowing better is at least as important as knowing more.

Your Friend: Well now you’ve flipped. You mean humanistic psychology says that women should run the world?

You: No, that’s just another way of playing the same old androcentric power-game. The real point is to transcend the master-slave crap altogether -- and in the process to liberate both the masculine and the feminine that’s part of both genders.

Your Friend: Well, okay, but “knowing better?” What does that really mean? I don’t get how there can be any kind of knowing that’s at least as good as knowing more?

You: Well, currently the model for knowledge (and hence the paradigm for scholarship and teaching) is mostly about the progressive, additive increase of what’s known. But the deepening of knowledge is something different. Deepening doesn’t just happen as a product of the additive increase of knowledge. Deepening what we know requires dwelling with it for a protracted period -- staying with it, circling around it, meditating upon it, considering it again and again, having it seep into one’s soul over time. In other words, as an alternative to the currently predominant additive model of knowledge, humanistic psychology offers a circular model. But here humanistic psychology is transgressing against one of our culture’s most sacrosanct values -- that of productivity -- since it’s generally more productive to know something indifferently, rather than to take the time and effort to actually care about it. The problem, of course, is that eventually most of what we know, and most of what we do -- ends up being stuff that we don’t actually care too much about.

Your Friend: You know, some of this is reminding me of a few classes I’ve had along the way.

You: Well, humanistic psychology’s revolutionizing of knowledge also has many implications for teaching and education -- themselves psychological processes, if you think about it. For instance, hasn’t it ever struck you as odd that education -- a process that’s basically supposed to help get people in touch with our wondrous universe -- so often leaves students scrawling “School Sucks” all over the bathroom walls? What’s going on here, if not noble intentions somehow gone terribly wrong?

Your Friend: Or, here’s another example: Isn’t it an odd presumption that just because someone has the talent and tenacity to earn a doctorate -- that fact automatically makes them good at teaching 18-year-olds, or anyone else for that matter?

You: Well, I think we’ve both experienced some evidence to the contrary along the way. Basically, from the point of humanistic psychology, phenomena like these are indicators that academe as a whole is in dire need of reconnecting with basic, human reality. From the point of view of humanistic psychology, part of that’s due to our tendency to idolize abstract knowledge at the expense of people’s actual lives. To a large extent, the academy has forgotten that knowledge is in the primary service of life -- not the other way around.

Your Friend: Yeah, wouldn’t it be great if it were different, even a little?

You: Well, humanistic psychology suggests that it can be -- not that it’s easy, though. To restructure education means transgressing against many of our society’s central values, and there are many powers that aren’t likely to take kindly to it. For instance, humanistic psychology suggests that academicians need to get over at least these problems: (1) Their tendency to forget that knowledge is in the larger service of life, (2) their obsession with producing large quantities of scholarship, (3) their tendency to undervalue students and teaching, (4) their tendency not to give students good reasons why they should actually care about what they’re learning, and perhaps most of all, (5) their tendency not to make it plain how they themselves care about their chosen fields of endeavor.

Your Friend: Hmm... I’m trying to remember the last time one of my professors took the time to tell a class why he cares about his field in a deep and personal way...

You: Now you’re getting the picture. And the strange thing is that we usually take it all for granted -- it’s just business as usual -- until someone like a humanistic psychologist points it out. Then it starts to look pretty strange. But the really strange thing is that it usually doesn’t seem very strange -- a kind of meta-strangeness that we students are stuck right in the middle of.

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