The Post-modern Intensification of
Humanistic Psychology:
A Non-lecture of Disinformation
by Eric Dodson

In part, this article is intended as a contribution to Don Rice's initiative to explore and reinvent humanistic psychology for the '90s and beyond - not only as a historical artifact, but as a living, breathing way of fathoming our human condition in our increasingly post-modern times.

Last week, I gave what I call my first "non-lecture of disinformation," which aimed at evoking (as opposed to presenting, explaining and understanding) the spirit of post-modern, deconstructionist and post-structuralist philosophies, as well as their relevance to the social- psychological state of our world. It was a strange and somewhat scary turn for me (being as addicted to lucid exposition as I am). I felt as if I were transgressing against the outer boundaries not only of humanistic psychology, but of the academic enterprise more generally. Why would I feel called to give a "non-lecture of disinformation?" What would such a non- lecture have to do with "Humanistic Psychology in a Technological World" (the title of the course)?

Well, the non-lecture started this way: I passed out copies of a portrait of Jesus laughing (thanks to Anne Richards), and asked the class whether we humanistic psychologists are capable of laughing at (or with) our most serious gods. I'll admit, it was a pretty loaded question, in part because it immediately begs two other sets of questions. First, who or what are our gods and goddesses? In other words, what values and perceptions about the nature of human reality do we hold to be most sacrosanct and inviolable? Second, what are our attitudes toward those particular values and perceptions? And finally, are we capable of transcending our attitudes (perhaps as an entry-point to a more timely and profound reinvention of our project)? Is it even desirable to consider doing so?

The Pantheon of Humanistic Psychology

Of course, I realize that the first question is already problematic, particularly because different people often see very different gods and goddesses residing in humanistic psychology's pantheon. So, I'll take a personal and perhaps idiosyncratic stand, and name a few of what I see as our most sacrosanct ideas and values:

SUBJECTIVITY: recognizing that subjective experience and human freedom are always parts of human reality

MEANING: recognizing that people are oriented to themselves and to the world in terms of meaningful relatedness,

PEAK EXPERIENCE: exploring and valuing people's higher experiences in life (such as peak experiences, epiphanies, spiritual experiences, etc.) as aspects of human possibility,

PROCESS: recognizing that being in process is part of what it is to be human,

EMANCIPATION: fostering a more humane world-state -- one that revolves less around master/slave dynamics, and more around attaining humanity's higher potentials -- a distinct possibility of human evolution,

OPENNESS: valuing and cultivating openness to other, new modes of human experience and expression,

There are, of course, more of our gods and goddesses I could name, but I think that this short list will suffice for now. The question I'd like to ask at this point is this: Why do we humanistic psychologists tend to see these sorts of values as necessities -- as indispensable ingredients in a humanistic psychology? Isn't it because we see human reality as being that way? In other words, for us these values aren't just bloodless abstractions -- rather, they're important because they express human reality -- either in its actualities or in its possibilities. After all, whatever else human reality is, isn't it always at least a subjective affair, where people do sometimes find themselves in meaningful process, where peak experiences do sometimes happen, where openness and emancipation are always possibilities (and sometimes even actualities)? In short, don't we see humanistic psychology in these terms precisely insofar as we see human reality in these same terms?

The post-modern deconstruction of gods and temples

Certainly the term "post-modern" is one of the most vague and slippery terms in today's vocabulary. It refers variously to movements in art, literature, philosophy and culture. It appears in the popular press in many different contexts, and with seemingly many different meanings. It's a term that seems to resist precise definition, or even any definition, and at times it begins to sound like another empty buzz-word that people use mainly to imbue themselves with an aura of intellectuality.

Still, in philosophical usage, post-modernism refers something a little more definite. In philosophical usage, post-modernism refers to a fairly broad range of philosophical views that aim generally at two things. First, post-modern philosophies seek to describe our world's present trajectory -- how our world is changing, as well as how it is likely to change in the near future. Second, post-modern philosophies seek to question the very ideas and structures that people usually find to be beyond question altogether. That is, post-modern philosophies seek to raise suspicions about what we'd most like to take for granted; post-modern philosophies seek to undermine even (or especially) our most cherished ideologies and dogmatic assumptions. Thus, post-modern philosophies seek to participate in the very world-trajectory they seek to describe.

A good example of a post-modern philosophy is deconstructionism, which focuses on texts, and hence systems of thought, value and expression (which can always be viewed in textual terms). Deconstructionism seeks to demonstrate that any text or system of thought contains the elements of its own contradiction -- a demonstration that always takes place within the text's system itself, and not simply from some external, contrary point of view. Indeed, from a deconstructionist perspective, there is no such thing a consistent account of reality, since any systematic account of reality can be shown at some point to be contradictory and hence dubious. The effect of all of this is that deconstructionism undermines the absolute, dogmatic, ideological quality of all texts and systems of thought. It undermines their solidity altogether, especially since solidity itself becomes a dubious metric of any system's value.

At this point, it may be handy to observe two important aspects of deconstructionism: (1) Deconstruction is not the same as destruction, since demonstrating a system's inconsistencies still leaves the system intact. The deconstructed system remains as intact as it ever was, but now lacking a self-contained, monolithic solidity, and (2) Deconstructionism subjects itself to deconstruction, too. Although deconstructionism is not a system of thought as such, the will to deconstruct asystematically can itself be seen as a kind of systematic activity, so deconstructionism is itself subject to deconstruction (as some bright student always notices). So, on the whole, deconstructionism doesn't take even itself seriously as a new ideology, as a new god.

All of this deconstructive activity leaves one in a rather strange space, a space where (1) all accounts of reality are questionable, (2) none is necessarily more or less questionable than any other (since gradations of questionability have themselves become questionable), and (3) even the very notion of reality, be it subjective, objective or existential, is shown to be nothing more than an unstable social construct. It seems that all of our moorings have been undone, along with the very notion of mooring itself -- and on top of that we can't even moor ourselves to the idea of being unmoored. As in Yeats' apocalyptic vision, "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world; The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned."

However, post-modern philosophers (such as Baudrillard) hold that this deconstructive pattern not only is true within the province of philosophical deconstructionism, but is descriptive of our evolving world trajectory itself. For instance, Baudrillard cleverly demonstrates how we increasingly take the simulation of reality for reality itself (as in the genuine grief people felt for Lady Diana -- a person most people knew only by way of her carefully constructed image). This tendency is increasing so much that simulation is assuming the place of the real altogether -- resulting in an entirely simulational reality that Baudrillard calls the "hyper-real," which not only supplants reality, but is often actually better than reality (for instance, Rick Roderick points out that the Swiss cuisine at Busch Gardens is actually better than the Swiss cuisine in Switzerland - - and more Swiss, too).

This notion of the hyper-real applies not only to the media-ization and commodification of external reality, however, but to what we humanistic psychologists like to think of as being a person. After all, if a person is a being who lives out a human reality, and if the very nature of human reality itself is changing, then at some point doesn't it become questionable whether there are people any more? Do we even want to call beings whose reality is a hyper-reality, a reality of fragmentary, ever-shifting simulational images "people?" Are beings whose identities are shaped through and through by mass commodity-culture still people? The point is that the answer isn't necessarily clear.

Of course, these are not the only troubling questions post-modernism poses for humanistic psychologists. The larger tide of post-modern deconstruction calls all gods and goddesses into question, including those that inhabit our pantheon -- Subjectivity, Meaning, Being a Person, Peak Experiences, Life as Process, Emancipation, Openness, Spirituality and more. Post- modernism doesn't take any of our values seriously (since value itself is now dubious), and it invites us to do likewise.

To borrow an apt word from Tim Johnston, this is a "horrible" space to inhabit. For instance, post-modernism doesn't really give us any reason to choose humanistic psychology over behavioral psychology. Humanistic psychologist? Brick-layer? Mass-murderer? Post- modernism doesn't give us any reason to choose over another. For that matter, it doesn't really give us any reason to get out of bed in the first place. In fact, post-modernism questions the giving of reasons itself. It seems like the all-consuming post-modern deconstruction of everything can lead only to a nullifying of all differentiation of value -- in short to nihilism, which is the term that almost all of post-modernism's detractors ultimately invoke.

My Old View of Post-modernism

Until recently, I also felt that post-modernism led to a nihilistic reductionism, mostly to social, linguistic and/or political determinants. I would sometimes argue the post-modern view, but only for didactic reasons (or sometimes just to be a pain in the butt). However, I did feel that post- modern thought is valuable in certain ways. It does keep important existential/humanistic questions alive; maybe without post-modernism, they'd disappear entirely. I also felt that post- modern thought does accurately reflect our changing social condition, which in many ways seems nihilistic. I even felt that post-modern thought strengthened humanistic thought by providing an opposing perspective -- an opponent, as it were, for us to confront (and a much more formidable opponent than behaviorism, our traditional nemesis).

However, I never really felt that post-modernism's deconstruction of subjectivity reached our innermost sanctum -- the fact of existence itself. For me, post-modernism's attempt to demonstrate that subjectivity is inseparable from social, linguistic and political contexts never really indicated anything like the "death of subjectivity," since I always took subjectivity in the existential sense anyhow -- as already being in fundamental inter-relation with social, linguistic and political worlds.

Finally, I found the general atmosphere of post-modern writing to be somewhat petty and self- indulgent. There seemed to me to be something incredibly juvenile about these deconstructionist vandals, who went about throwing stones at other people's creations while offering precious little of their own. This sense of mine was further compounded by my encounters with certain post-modern writers, whose styles often seemed to be at the infantile level of self-absorption -- more concerned with amplifying their own celebrity by being obscure than with saying something that actually matters.

My New View of Post-modernism

Now, however, my thinking is shifting in a fairly radical way. I'm seeing post-modernism's value to humanistic psychology not in terms of its providing an opposing force, but in terms of a fundamental intensification of the humanistic project -- an intensification at the level of our attitudes and values, at the level of our participation in humanistic psychology's project. Of course, I realize that this view is not exactly part of humanistic orthodoxy; in fact, I've found only a few graduate students who agree with it. But to me, that's just part of what makes it provocative and interesting.

The post-modern intensification of humanistic psychology

How can post-modernism, which takes none of our values seriously, intensify our project in some way other than by providing a simple opposition? To get at this question, let's revisit the world-space that post-modernism both describes and helps generate. A landscape where all gods, goddesses and temples have been deconstructed at first looks very uniform. After all, all values, mooring points, and directions partake of the same dubiousness, which also applies to the "non-value" of dubiousness itself. On closer examination, however, the post-modern landscape doesn't even have the homogeneity of a uniform plane (since the planar equality of questionability is itself subject to deconstruction). Rather, it's more like a sea of molten lava -- with momentary eruptions of value that in the next moment sink back into the greater, ever- shifting, ever-undulating mass, even as other values are erupting in other locations. However, even this analogy falls short, since some eruptions defy the three-dimensional axis of lava altogether, and extend into other dimensions... but you get the picture.

In a way, the post-modern world-space bears a striking resemblance to the world-space that the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre describes in Being and Nothingness. Here, Sartre finds that the significance of all values, perceptions and gods is a matter of choice, and hence a function of the freedom that is itself an invariant of our ontological condition. For Sartre, we spend a lot of time trying to deny our basic freedom by choosing to fool ourselves into thinking that things just have to be a certain way (he calls this "bad faith") -- but in reality, we could always choose other attitudes and meanings for the conditions in which we find ourselves. For Sartre, there are no absolute values, mooring points or gods that we do not choose as such -- usually as a function of bad faith. In fact, Sartre even proposes that something as rock-solid as "personality" is mostly a function of bad faith, since the very notion of personality presupposes an essentially un-chosen consistency of character at variance with the deeper reality, which is that we could make inconsistent choices at any and all points.

For Sartre, there are no absolutes that we do not choose as absolutes, and no gods that we do not choose as gods. The one exception for Sartre is freedom itself -- to which we're "condemned." This is an important difference between Sartre and post-modernism. Although Sartre ejects all other gods and goddesses from his pantheon, he leaves one behind: Freedom. Post-modern thinkers, in contrast, eject Freedom also.

In the midst of a world whose absolutes are not absolutes at all, but freely chosen (usually in the mode of bad faith), Sartre does not advise us to refrain from choice (itself a choice), but to do just the opposite -- to choose, to engage the world, to participate, to create meaning and to invent -- but do so honestly, without the dishonest pretense of saying we have to choose any particular thing. To choose one form of participation over another takes on a quality of absurdity, since one also chooses the significances that make one kind of participation seem preferable to another kind (hence our choices are ultimately groundless, in a sense). But absurdity in this instance is not a negative characteristic, but a positive attribute of honest engagement with the world (indeed, for Sartre the absurd is an ontological category -- a basic part of our existence, our world-relatedness).

I think that post-modern thought leaves us at a similar juncture. In a post-modern world, the gods of humanistic psychology have become suspect, but so have all other gods in all other pantheons (including post-modernism's). Post-modernism may not give us any good reason to get out of bed, but it doesn't give us any good reason to stay in bed, either. Post-modernism doesn't give us any good reason. As with Sartre, post-modernism leaves us in a world-space devoid of the moorings of good reasons, and leaves us with no choice but to invent some position in the world nonetheless (which we're already doing, anyhow).

But in a more everyday way, don't our best moments in life happen precisely when we aren't compelled by the necessity of good reasons? For instance, I've found that I give my best lectures not when I have good reasons to give a hot lecture, but precisely when I have no particular good reason to do so. I find I can give pretty good lectures for good reasons -- incisive, informative, cogent. But the lectures I give for no good reason often seem much more powerful, much more audacious and vibrant -- and much more toward the center of true university. In a sense, I find that there are plenty of reasons to give good lectures, but no good reason to give a great lecture. Greatness seems to slip between the cracks of the best of reasons. The same seems to be true for students, as well. That's why I try support the projects they undertake for no credit and for no good reason, such as the Heidegger reading group, the Philo-Cafe, the Dionysian Readings, and the Philosophical Society (as well as this newsletter). What a sterile life it is that does things only for good reasons! (There's a similar finding in traditional psychological research in the form of the "overjustification effect" -- for instance, children will actually play less frequently with toys that they already like when they're being rewarded for playing with them).

When people commonly speak of something as "useless," or having "no good reason," they usually mean something negative. However, I'm suggesting that these words can be incredibly positive descriptors -- words that can describe part of how something is passing beyond the confines of utility and good reason, and becoming something more deeply alive, something really powerful and profound. But what post-modernism undermines is exactly our desire to take upthe project of humanistic psychology for good reasons! Within the post-modern landscape, humanistic psychology is not a matter of good reasons (such as adopting a psychological stance consistent with the nature of human reality). Humanistic psychology becomes useless -- as useless and questionable as anything else. But this fact is hardly occasion not to take up the project of humanistic psychology -- in fact, just the opposite! The lack of any reason to do humanistic psychology becomes exactly the "reason" TO do humanistic psychology, with all of its now questionable gods and goddesses intact -- precisely as the structural condition for humanistic psychology's realizing its more profound potentials in a post-modern world!

In a sense, the post-modern turn leaves us right where we started -- assuming a humanistic position in the world in which we find ourselves. However, in another sense, the post-modern turn has radically altered the structure of assuming a humanistic stance in the world. Now, instead of entering the humanistic project because the gods of psychological necessity (now shown to be tin) are compelling us, we engage the humanistic project as an act of sheer audacity performed on post-modernity's trackless expanse, an act of ultimate absurdity pregnant with endless power and endless possibility.

A Taste for the Hyper-Absurd: A Post-modern, Laughing Humanism

To assume a position, any position, in the world without good reason is absurd, in a sense. As one hoists one's banners and names one's gods in a post-modern world, one can even begin to laugh at the utter absurdity of banners and gods. One can even start to laugh at oneself as the absurd person hoisting banners and naming gods. But at this point, Absurdity itself threatens to become a serious god (hence the capital "A") -- a god in immediate need of deconstruction. In its deconstruction, Absurdity becomes absurd with respect to itself. In other words, a god that is absurd with respect to its own absurdity might at any moment grow serious -- precisely as a function of its larger absurdity (much like people sometimes put on a very serious air as a way of being funny in some larger way). This kind of absurdity I call the "hyper-absurd" (a play on Baudrillard's "hyper-real"). Hyper-absurdity refers to the absurdity of Absurdity, but also to the absurdity of Hyper-absurdity itself, so there's something of an infinite regress in it (another dimension of its absurdity).

To be a humanistic psychologist in a post-modern world is, I claim, a bold, laughable act of hyper-absurdity -- and that's exactly what makes it worth doing (so much better than being compelled by the all too serious absolute of psychological necessity). Perhaps the new millenium is calling us to reinvent humanistic psychology in a way that will let us laugh at even our most serious values and perceptions. Perhaps reinventing humanistic psychologist entails our cultivating a taste for the ultimate absurdity of our own project -- not as a way of attentuating it, but as a way of radically intensifying it, as well as bringing it into convergence with our increasingly post-modern world.

So, I return to my original question: Are we humanistic psychologists capable of laughing at (or with) our most serious gods? Probably it requires a radical shift in our attitudes even to consider the possibility -- a certain openness to what was previously unspeakable. Perhaps in the end, this sort of openness is not unlike the Openness we espouse as a humanistic value. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda spoke of laughter as the language of the soul. Nietzsche claimed that he would only believe in a god that could laugh. I'm not sure what the answer is for us, but it seems that the world is calling for us to join its post-modern trajectory. Perhaps the universe wants us to laugh.

"The spirit of a warrior is not geared to indulging and complaining, nor is it geared to winning or losing. The spirit of a warrior is geared only to struggle, and every struggle is a warrior's last battle on earth. Thus the outcome matters very little to him. In his last battle on earth a warrior lets his spirit flow free and clear. And as he wages his battle, knowing that his will is impeccable, a warrior laughs and laughs... A warrior treats the world as an endless mystery and what people do as endless folly"  (Carlos Castaneda, A Separate Reality, pp. 259, 265)

Return to Eric's Page