The Modern Western Philosophical and Psychological Humanistic Tradition
The Philosophical Context of Bloch Healing (Part 1)
Modern Humanistic Psychology rose to prominence in the United States in the 1950s within the academic psychology establishment, partly out of a reaction to what was considered by some to be an undue concern within psychology with what was neurotic or disturbed (the psychoanalytic tradition) or with a reductionist view of the person as an essentially predictable machine that could be objectively understood and quantified and that could and should be moulded through the scientific understanding of stimulus and response (the behavioural tradition). Humanistic psychology does not reject the lessons of analytic and behavioural models, but seeks to include and advance upon them within a broader view of the person that emphasises human experience and meaning.
The Modern Western Humanistic Tradition (MWHT) is a restating of ancient philosophical ideas on the nature of human beings. It can be traced back to the nineteenth century existentialist philosophers, most of who arose from an earlier tradition of theological enquiry, and includes thinkers such as Kierkegaard, who pioneered a combination of theological, philosophical and psychological enquiry into what it means to be human. These early humanists were religious philosophers, for whom theological discourse was seen as a rational means to approach that which cannot be known directly but which could be intuited and experienced to exist, God, through a greater understanding of what it is to be human.*
The MWHT** has influenced most modern disciplines. It consists of a broad set of theories and models connected by some fundamental shared values and philosophical assumptions about the nature of human beings, the aims of therapy and the nature of the therapeutic relationship. These include the view that a person is more than the sum of their parts, and that it is possible and worthwhile, within an academic setting, to study and validate the nature of that “more”, including the human capacities for love, trust, joy and courage. The study of human health, self-development, creativity, meanings and values, the right of each individual to autonomy and self-determination, the realising of human potential, and affirming the inherent value and dignity of human beings are central to the philosophy of the MWHT.
The MWHT emphasises the uniqueness of every human being, and therapy is aimed at helping clients realise their own unique potential. The person is seen as an integrated and self-regulating whole, and it is only when this balance is disturbed or incomplete that dis-ease and dysfunction arises as symptoms, rather than as causes. The MWHT takes an optimistic view of human nature as revealed in the fully functioning, healthy person, and sees the purpose of any type of therapy as an opportunity to develop these qualities.
Although there have been many important thinkers in this field, I have chosen to focus briefly on the work of three who are widely regarded as amongst the most outstanding figures, and whose work resonates most clearly with the principles and practice of BH. These remarkable thinkers have all produced large bodies of work in many different fields, so I have focussed on those particular aspects of their work that serve to clarify and confirm the principles and practice of BH.
*The discipline of Theology, whilst by definition the study of theism, has always included the study of spirituality, which includes the means used by a person to discover the essence of their being, and the deepest values and meanings by which people live. Such considerations lead inevitably to a study of the sense of connectedness with a larger reality, which includes other people and even nature or the cosmos. These may or may not include (according to the thinker) the concept of God. It is for these reasons that the MWHT, a mostly non-religious tradition, was able to start with the ideas of Theologians before being taken up by academic psychologists.
Whilst it is true that the term ‘humanism’ is nowadays sometimes used by those who reject the concept of God outright (atheism), this is neither the original meaning of the word (the “study of what it is to be human”), nor the intended meaning of most of the thinkers within the modern humanistic tradition who, whilst rejecting an authoritarian and dogmatic approach to religion, accept that theism and humanism can be complementary.
**I am indebted for much of the contents of this paragraph and the next to the statements of fundamental principles of the UK Association of Humanistic Psychology Therapists (UKAHPP), and the American Association for Humanistic Psychology (AHP).
Martin Buber (1878-1965)
Martin Buber was a philosopher and academic, and is considered by some commentators to have been the most influential religious thinker of the twentieth century. Buber’s thought represents a kind of “religious secularism”, and is heavily influenced by secularist ideas from Kant, Feuerbach and Nietzsche. Above all, Buber was a humanist in that, for him, the highest values of religion were nothing if not humanly intelligible, and his work is essentially a celebration of the human ability to commit to values. In common with the modern psychological humanists, he saw the quality of inter-person relationships as central both to an ethical human society and to our experience and understanding of our relationship with one-another and everything else, seen and unseen. According to Buber, “A person cannot approach the divine by reaching beyond the human. To become human, is what this individual person has been created for.” Although he was not a psychologist or a therapist, his philosophy profoundly influenced Carl Rogers and other academic humanistic psychologists.
Buber’s most influential work was his essay on human existence, Ich und Du, written in 1923 and later translated into English as I and Thou, in which he sets out a philosophy of relating. Buber divides the nature of the relationship that people enter into with others into two basic types, according to how the individual views or perceives others, with every person at all times in one mode of perception or the other. In the first type, which he calls I-It, an individual (I) experiences others as they might an inanimate object (It). When a person perceives their relationships as I-It, they are engaging with the world as if they were the subject and others the object of their examination, of their experience. In this mode, they are functioning as an objective observer rather than as a participant. Everyone that they encounter is to them as mental representations, created and sustained by their own mind, without a life of their own; an object to serve his or her interests. Therefore, the I-It relationship is in fact a relationship with oneself, not a dialogue, but a monologue. It is the mode of science and philosophy, the mode through which we come to know things intellectually, and to put things to use for us. The I-It mode is the normal everyday way in which people relate with the things, and even with the people surrounding them.
In the second type of relating, which he calls I-Thou, an individual (I) enters into a relationship with others in full recognition of their status as living beings, with their own separate and unique natures (Thou). When a person perceives their relationships as I-Thou, they are engaging with the world as if both they and the other person were the subject, both full participants in the relationship. The other person is met in their entirety, not as a sum of their qualities, but in a real dialogue with a partner, as if the other person were the entire universe, or rather, as if the entire universe somehow existed through them. This applies to relationships with people and even, albeit without such obvious reciprocation, with animals, and even things.
According to Buber, the ‘I’ in each of these two modes of relating is quite different, because the person’s perception of their own identity is profoundly affected by their perception of the identity of others. The ‘I’ of the I-It relationship has no real life of their own, and experiences themselves and the world as empty and meaningless, and they attempt to fill this void with things such as possessions and power. According to Buber Western culture, with its emphasis on a purely analytic, material view of existence, has generally come to think that the mode of I-It is the only mode available to human beings for engaging with the world. As a result of this approach, the modern person has come to feel isolated and dehumanized because modern society is exclusively an It-world, dependent upon experiencing and using others rather than encountering and relating with them.
On the other hand, the ‘I’ of the I-Thou relationship is acknowledging not only the life of another, but also their own. The person that perceives their relationships as I-Thou is in a state of consummation. All of their psycho-spiritual needs are met; they have no use for material beyond that required for the meeting of basic physical needs, and are always seeking opportunities to make the sacrifice that may intensify further the I-Thou of their relationships. For Buber, the only solution to the modern person's woes is a fulfilling community that can only be built by making proper use of the neglected second mode of engaging the world.
According to Buber, the population is not divided into two discrete groups according to mode of perception. Rather, he argues that human life consists of an oscillation between the modes, and that I-Thou experiences are less common because they cannot be sustained. The best that we can do is to be available to enter again and again into I-Thou relationships so as to give life meaning. It is when the I-It way of seeing becomes so strong that the I-Thou is rarely able to occur, that a person’s life becomes inauthentic and their existence becomes unhealthy. It is important to note that Buber by no means renounces the usefulness and necessity of the I-It mode. Though one is only truly human to the extent one is capable of I-Thou relationships, the I-It way of experiencing the world allows us to classify, function and navigate. It gives us all scientific knowledge and is indispensable for life.
Buber’s aim is to investigate what it is to be a person, and what types of activity further the development of the person. For Buber, a healthy life is measured by the frequency of I-Thou relating: therefore healing in a therapeutic relationship occurs when the therapist is able to engage another person in genuine communication. This allows the client, at least for that moment, to abandon the way of perceiving that causes them to regard others, and consequently themselves, as objects without real life, at the cost of their own psycho-spiritual life. In this way the therapist is able to assist another person to reconnect with themselves, with others and with the world. The therapist, in relationship with their patient,
“…must not know him as a mere sum of qualities, strivings and inhibitions, he must be aware of him as a whole being and affirm him in this wholeness. But he can only do this if he meets him again and again as his partner in a bipolar situation…If he is content to ‘analyse’ him…he may be successful in some repair work. At best he may help a soul which is diffused and poor in structure to collect and order itself to some extent. But the real matter, the regeneration of an atrophied personal centre, will not be achieved. This can only be done by one who grasps the buried latent unity of the suffering soul…and this can only be attained in the person-to-person attitude of a partner, not by the consideration and examination of an object.” (I-Thou, pp. 98/99, see ‘Further Reading’)
Abraham Maslow (1908-1970)
Abraham Maslow was a noted American academic psychologist and the leading founder of modern academic humanistic psychology. Unlike most psychologists in the 1950s, he focussed on studying the psychologically healthiest people that he could find. Maslow interviewed many such people and wrote in great detail about the characteristics and values that they tended to have. He eventually came to the conclusion that healthy people were not automatically reacting to the situations in which they found themselves, as the behaviourists held, but were actually at all times trying to accomplish something greater.
Maslow developed a theory of a hierarchy of human needs at the top of which, in his final versions, are the needs for "self-actualization", the realisation of our full potential through creative and productive living and, above that “self-transcendence”, the recognition that the needs of others are not separate from our own:
“Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.” (The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, p. 269, see ‘Further Reading’)
According to Maslow, healthy people are particularly likely to have frequent ‘Peak Experiences’, which are defined as moments during which a person feels more whole, alive, self-sufficient and yet a part of the world, connected to themselves and to others, and more conscious of the value of truth, justice and harmony. For Maslow, ‘Peak Experiences’ are transient moments of “self-actualization” that we should all study and cultivate because in time they can develop into permanent traits. He described consciously induced, sustained peak experiences as a characteristic of the highly self-actualized person, usually requiring a lifetime of work to this end.
Maslow’s humanistic model allowed psychologists who had, like himself, come from the quantitative social sciences to appreciate the ‘spiritual’ dimension of human nature, that is, the spirit with which a person lives their life in terms of values and meanings, whilst still working firmly within the modern academic model. His research on the nature of the healthy person, his well-argued belief that people possess the inner resources for growth and healing and his view that the purpose of therapy is to help remove obstacles to individuals' achieving this, gave rise to many therapies, most prominent among them the person-centred psychotherapy of Carl Rogers.
Continued on the