Postmodern Humanistic Psychology:
Revisioning the Academy
by Eric Dodson

Here's another effort to further the discussion about reinventing humanistic psychology for the late '90s and beyond, as suggested by Don Rice.  I know that the title sounds like a raging contradiction, but as Lacan notes, "...in discourse it is contradiction which sorts truth from error... Reality is defined by contradiction" (Sem. I, pp. 264, 267).

This article is basically a continuation of my essay, The Postmodern Intensification of Humanistic Psychology: A Non-lecture of Disinformation (see the last Crucible). In that essay, I tried to outline what I see as an important point of intersection between postmodern thought (especially a la Baudrillard) and traditional humanistic psychology. I think that this question is important, first because postmodern thought is gaining increasing currency within the range of disciplines that seek to articulate the individual and social significances of the human condition. For instance, currently in our own department, a number of our graduate students (and I) are in a course on postmodern thought -- a course that's being co-taught by the English and Sociology departments. Beyond postmodern thought's pervasiveness, however, is the fact that humanistic psychology is now seeking its redefinition with respect to our shifting intellectual and social landscape. To my perception, it's no accident that Don Rice is currently calling for more discussion on this issue, and that the main theme of next year's Saybrook conference concerns how humanistic psychology might reinvent itself for the late '90s and beyond (especially to escape the dismal alternative of turning into an ossified museum-piece).

Here are the main points I'd like to make in this paper: (1) that humanistic psychology possesses a distinctly protean dimension -- precisely as an honest reflection of human reality's protean nature, (2) that this protean dimension prefigures a point of intersection between humanistic psychology and postmodern thought, (3) that by extension, both humanistic psychology and postmodernism call not only for a new understanding of human reality, but for a new intellectual intelligibility, and hence a new kind of academic project altogether, and finally (4) that this call to revision the academic project would lie in (among other things) a radical questioning of the implicit, sacrosanct value-structures that currently both undergird and constrain the academic enterprise. As a finale, I would like to sketch what I see as some of the academy's increasingly problematic (but mostly unquestioned) value-structures, and to propose some more fruitful, more powerful alternatives. Hmm... well, I can see that I've outlined a project that would probably fill a book or two (hey, there's an idea!), but I'll try to keep this short by providing just a bare skeleton of the arguments.
 

(1) Humanistic psychology has a protean dimension that's central to its nature.

In my view, humanistic psychology was historically born out of two primary motivations: (a) a reaction against the ways in which the prevailing visions of the time (i.e., psychoanalysis and behaviorism) truncated and hence distorted human reality, and (b) a positive desire to enter honestly and faithfully into the project of saying something truly meaningful about the nature of the human condition. In the main, humanistic psychology has sought to remain true to human reality itself -- in its subtle hues and shapes, its complexities and ambiguities, its contradictions and paradoxes, and in the elusive character of its furthest reaches. THIS is the value and desire that made sense of radically questioning psychological orthodoxy in the first place -- even down to the point of questioning existence itself. The main point here is that in its nascence, humanistic psychology had radical questioning in its soul, and I would contend that it still does. However, in its better moments this sort of radical questioning also applies to humanistic psychology itself, and even runs as deeply as questioning its own basis (its own "gods," as I put it in the last essay). But to question one's foundational ideas deeply is to be open to changing them, and ultimately to be open to living out those changes. To question radically (that is, undogmatically) is to be ready for change at any moment. Hence, I contend that humanistic psychology, in its quest to grapple earnestly with the riddle of human existence, is necessarily protean in its structure.
 

(2) This protean dimension prefigures a point of intersection between postmodernism and humanistic psychology.

Often postmodern thought takes the form of asking questions about dynamics and thematics hidden in the status quo. Sometimes this proceeds by way of historical, genealogical interpretation (as in Foucault's genealogies of madness, punishment, etc.). Sometimes it proceeds by way of deconstructing monolithic systems of thought (as in Derrida's deconstruction of Husserlian phenomenology). Sometimes it proceeds by way of observing the contemporary social scene (as in Baudrillard's renderings of seduction, simulation and hyper-reality). Still, in all of these cases, the thrust is to question the status quo in a radical way -- to undermine cheap, superficial and ultimately oppressive answers to life's questions. But isn't this basically humanistic psychology's project as well? Furthermore, postmodernism is, as commentators such as Best & Kellner note, an amorphous and protean thing, even to the point of resisting definition altogether. The main point here is that postmodern thought and humanistic psychology share a point of possible convergence in that they both ultimately seek their continual redefinition as an integral part of their shared attempt at radical inquiry into the human condition. Moreover, I claim that this point of convergence is not at all incidental, but lies at the heart of their respective projects.
 

(3) By extension, both postmodernism and humanistic psychology call not only for a new understanding of human reality, but for a new intellectual intelligibility and hence a new academic project altogether.

I contend that a truly radical line of inquiry naturally throws into question not only the particulars lying within some domain of concern (such as psychology), but also the structures that form the contexts within which the domain itself lies (such as the academic milieu in which psychology lies, at least partially). Questioning the context of the academic enterprise is certainly a thematic within traditional humanistic psychology, particularly in humanistic psychology's ongoing attempt to enlarge the academic project by including powerful, concrete life-experiences and actual personal growth within the purview of its primary purpose (and not taking them merely as epiphenomena). Furthermore, the closely allied existential tradition (in many ways also a precursor of postmodern discourse) has sought to expand even the sphere of thought itself -- as in Kierkegaard's insistence on the priority of "subjective truth," or Heidegger's emphasis on cultivating a poetic sensibility, and entering into "meditative thinking." However, the attempt to revision the foundation of the academic project is probably most evident in postmodern thought, particularly in its calling into question not only objectivity and thinking, but even subjectivity and meaning (among other key elements). The point here is this: as forms of radical inquiry, both humanistic psychology and postmodern thought seek not only a new understanding of the human condition, but a new kind of academic project altogether. (Of course, it should also be noted that both humanistic psychology and postmodern discourse seek to revision not only the academic enterprise, but also the larger social contexts in which the academy is situated in the first place.)
 

(4) The call to a new intelligibility and a new academic project would lie in (among other things) a radical questioning of the implicit, sacrosanct value-structures that both undergird and constrain today's academic enterprise.

A humanistic/deconstructive reading of today's academy could conceivably take any number of forms. Still, any such inquiry, being radical, would at some point seek to question the academy's root-metaphors and foundational values. For the most part, any such an inquiry would hardly content itself with examining only the academy's stated raisons d'être, but would seek out its hidden value-structures -- the unacknowledged contradictions, the hidden political- historical-economic constructions, the secret social-linguistic markers of countervailing dynamics, etc.
 

Finale -- a sketch of some increasingly problematic academic values, and their possible alternatives.

Such a line of inquiry could easily take the form of a Foucaultian genealogy of the academy -- certainly an ambitious project. However, at this point I would like to move toward a humanistic/deconstructive reading of today's academy by way of examining some of the signifiers academics commonly use to assign value to their endeavor.

Three such telling signifiers reside in a phrase that we academics invoke fairly frequently to confer high praise: "serious, productive scholarship." Seemingly, being a praiseworthy (i.e., not marginalized) player in the academic scene has something centrally to do with producing serious scholarship. Let's look a little more closely, a little more radically, at how these signifiers can begin to illuminate the academy's structures and deformations.
 

(a) The Attitude of Seriousness

Perhaps above all else, we academics long to be taken seriously. After all, when our work is not taken seriously, it more or less means that it doesn't (or shouldn't) matter very much. When we speak of work that's not taken seriously, we're almost always referring to work that isn't very good; it may be misguided, or it may plain wrong, or it may be irrelevant -- but it's definitely not good. In fact, as a general rule, the more serious a piece of work is, the better it is. And the opposite also holds true: In our academic world, we generally don't want our work to be "taken lightly," and we most certainly don't want it to be regarded as ridiculous, absurd, laughable, ludicrous or silly. Even the word "risible" makes us bristle somewhat. But perhaps the darkest of all epithets in the academic lexicon is this: "a joke." In our academic world, calling someone's work a joke is an extremely serious matter.

Question: is it only an accident that all of these signifiers align themselves so perfectly along the axis of quasi-moralistic evaluation? Or could this pattern indicate something significant about the structure of the academic project? Could it be that our insistence on an attitude of seriousness is actually constricting and diminishing our inquiry into the nature of the human condition? After all, aren't laughter and dance equally central to what it is to be human? Why then should we value "serious" modes of inquiry and expression above all else? Furthermore, when our narrow evaluative structure deviates so drastically and so obviously from the broad panoply of human experience, doesn't it constitute a kind of misdirection and distortion? I suspect that this basic inconsistency has something to do with the ironic fact that so many of our students so often find serious scholarship about the heart of the human condition... to be ultimately a colossal bore. In short, why not embrace a vision of academic inquiry that itself reflects the very expanse of human experience it purports to study (rather than just one tiny sector of it)?

At this point, I would propose that we academics begin to grow past our usual fixation on the attitude of seriousness, and move toward a broader, more encompassing vision. I personally would like to see much more "laughing" scholarship -- scholarship that's substantive, profound, and that really illuminates something significant -- but does so in the spirit of levity. After all, aren't our moments of humor often the most revealing moments, and the most human? Perhaps instead of valuing "serious" scholarship almost exclusively, we in the academy might begin to value something like "polyvalent" scholarship -- I'm not sure yet what the best descriptor here would be. "Diverse" and its cognates sound too hackneyed. Perhaps "encompassing" or "embracing?" Perhaps "pluriform?" Any ideas?
 

(b) The Value of Productivity

In my essay entitled "The Soul of Intellectuality and The Ethic of Productivity" (in one of last year's Crucibles), I attempted to extend some ideas from earlier thinkers by arguing that our de facto ethic of productivity generally amplifies our frantic preoccupation with the trivial and the superficial, and at the same time diminishes our potential for genuinely profound inquiry into the nature of the human condition. I contended that this fixation on productivity manifests itself more concretely in our common preoccupation with increasing the countable measures of our worth as scholars (such as the number of papers and books we've written, the number of conferences we've attended, the number of grants we've received, and so forth).
 

At this point, I would like to add that our common preoccupation with productivity is a symptom of the larger commodification of our academic enterprise. In this day and age, productive scholarship is just that -- a kind of product. And as Henry Ford so aptly demonstrated, nothing is quite as productive as mass production -- the more mechanistic and routinized, the better. Within this value-structure, actual profundity (with all of its slowly crafted subtlety) is not only unimportant -- it's a vexing impediment to greater and greater productivity. In other words, scholarship that actually matters -- that actually speaks to people in a way that makes a profound difference in their lives -- becomes a problem for us, because it gets in the way of our producing as much countable scholarship as possible. Perhaps the utter strangeness of this state of affairs is most familiar to us young academics, who are often very well aware that it is far safer to have long lists of impressive credentials (that hardly anyone really cares about) than it is to have changed people's minds and hearts profoundly, but without the long lists. Again, one can only wonder if all of this has anything at all to do with the fact that few people read, say, psychological journals simply for their deeply significant and exciting insights into what it is to be human.

As I urged in my earlier essay, I would like to see us move away from our preoccupation with productivity and being productive, and move more toward actual profundity -- toward illuminating the human condition in ways less mired in productive minutiae, and more directed toward exploring issues and dynamics in ways that move people and affect their lives significantly (at least half of the time -- I'm not arguing for an absolutism here, just a shift in emphasis).
 

(c) The Stuff of Scholarship

Within the general task of producing lots of serious scholarship, the printed word almost always takes precedence over the spoken word. Usually the printed word takes the form of books and articles in journals. It's even fairly common practice at conferences to "deliver a paper" by reading it verbatim to a group of professors and graduate students who in all probability can read quite well on their own. Entirely extemporaneous presentations, where thought takes a unique shape in the moment, are comparatively rare. We academicians may laud the dialogical scholarship of a Socrates, and we may valorize the kind of profound understanding of world that evolves out of oral traditions, but as a group we ourselves remained inordinately biased toward the written word.

I suspect that there are two inter-related reasons for this imbalance. First, since the written word usually assumes a more tangible, more definite form, it is easier to count. A apt phrase spoken to a colleague may strike her to the heart and marrow, and may open wide intellectual vistas for her, but it's a lot harder to point to it, count it, and list it on a c.v. And since the metrics of productivity revolve mostly around countable forms of scholarship, we discount oral modes, for the most part. The second related reason for this imbalance lies in the more or less unacknowledged value of repeatability. Because it has a tangible form, the written word stays put; we can study it and analyzed it over and over, in meticulous detail. The spoken word, in contrast, is relatively elusive. The spoken word is less repeatable, first because a verbal articulation virtually never exactly matches its verbal re-articulation, and second because people are often changing their perspectives and views, and so the content of what they say is often shifting in the first place. Unlike the written word, the spoken word has the quality of uniqueness about it. The spoken word occurs at a distinct point in time, in a distinct context, and in the ever- shifting heat of interpersonal presence. (Even hearing a recording is never quite as good as actually being there.) However, we academics generally distrust the unique, and favor the repeatable. Scientific knowledge, for instance, derives from repeatable observations, not unique aberrations. However, isn't it likely that a preoccupation with the merely repeatable (at the expense of the unique) will eventuate in some imbalance in the direction of what Heidegger called the "merely correct" (at the expense of "the true")? In other words, doesn't our typical overemphasis upon the value of repeatability end up diluting the spontaneity and vigor of our enterprise? Isn't there something profoundly amiss in an academic atmosphere that invites us to read papers verbatim to other professors, but discourages us from expressing our thought in unique and spontaneous speech -- in the inimitable blossoming of direct human presence?

At this point, I would like to see us move toward a broader vision of scholarship -- one less constrictively bound to the written word, repeatability and countability, and more open to modes of intellectual expression that favor the unique, spontaneous eruption of direct, vigorous interpresonal presence. Perhaps a phrase like "thoughtful exploration" would better capture this broader vision than does the word "scholarship," which I sense has become somewhat corrupted by the way we typically use it.

Now, I would like to summarize my position by stating it as bluntly and as polemically as possible:

The academy's most urgent problem lies in its preoccupation with producing serious scholarship.

I propose that we academics begin to live out a broader, more powerful vision of our enterprise. Instead of fixing our values around signifiers like "serious, productive scholarship," I propose that we begin to shift our values in the direction of something like thoughtful exploration that's both profound and polyvalent.

Hmm..."the production of serious scholarship..." ...OR... "thoughtful exploration that's profound and polyvalent..." Which would we rather be engaged in? Which would benefit our students more? Which would sooner ignite the fires of intellectual adventure for all concerned? Which seems closer to the soul of True University?

Naturally, the shift in values I'm proposing is neither simple nor trivial. In fact, I imagine that only a few sectors of the academy would be interested in even entertaining the notion, much less actually doing it. In many ways, the academy is simply content to reflect the value-structures that are part of the larger social milieu in which the academy resides in the first place. I readily admit that my view is quite radical -- most particularly in the etymological sense of the word (Latin: radix -- root). Yet to me, effecting this sort of shift in values is one of the more exciting and fruitful possibilities of truly radical inquiry -- such as that proper to both humanistic psychology and postmodern thought. Who knows, perhaps a more vital academy can serve as an entry into a more vital human world. This is an area where an alliance between humanistic psychology and postmodern thought seems particularly promising. One of the great strengths of humanistic psychology is its sensitivity to the ebb and flow of human possibility and value. More than most disciplines, humanistic psychology has the power to point to how we tend to settle for second- rate value-structures, and sell ourselves and our projects short -- often in ways we don't immediately want to recognize or acknowledge. Postmodern thought, on the other hand, is currently providing the best opening for radical inquiry to extend into many disparate disciplines within the academy.

So... I'll end by casting some of the main themes of this paper in terms of a question. Can humanistic psychology, in the spirit of its radical inquiry and its protean nature, find commerce with radical postmodern inquiry in a way that begins to move the academic enterprise toward healthier, less constrictive values -- thereby providing an entry-point into a healthier human world? Needless to say, the answer to this question is anything but certain. Still, it seems worthwhile to try. So, in the spirit of a thoughtful exploration that's both profound and polyvalent, I offer you this very nascent attempt, and invite you to respond.
 

Return to Eric's Page