Throughout history many individuals and groups have affirmed the inherent value and dignity of human beings. They have spoken out against ideologies, beliefs and practices, which held people to be merely the means for accomplishing economic and political ends. They have reminded their contemporaries that the purpose of institutions is to serve and advance the freedom and power of their members. In Western civilization we honor the times and places, such as Classical Greece and Europe of the Renaissance, when such affirmations were expressed.
Humanistic Psychology is a contemporary manifestation of that ongoing commitment. Its message is a response to the denigration of the human spirit that has so often been implied in the image of the person drawn by behavioral and social sciences.
Ivan Pavlov’s work with the conditioned reflex had given birth to an academic psychology in the United States led by John Watson, which came to be called “the science of behavior”. Its emphasis on objectivity was reinforced by the success of the powerful methodologies employed in the natural sciences and by the philosophical investigations of the British empiricists, logical positivists and the operationalists, all of who sought to apply the methods and values of the physical sciences to questions of human behavior. Valuable knowledge was achieved in this quest. But if something was gained, something was also lost: The “First Force” systematically excluded the subjective data of consciousness and much information bearing on the complexity of the human personality and its development.
The “Second Force” emerged out of Freudian psychoanalysis and the depth psychologies of Alfred Adler, Erik Erikson, Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, Carl Jung, Melanie Klein, Otto Rank, Harry Stack Sullivan and others. These theorists focused on the dynamic unconscious – the depths of the human psyche whose contents, they asserted, must be integrated with those of the conscious mind in order to produce a healthy human personality. The founders of the depth psychologies believed that human behavior is principally determined by what occurs in the unconscious mind. So, where the behaviorists ignored consciousness because they felt that its essential privacy and subjectivity rendered it inaccessible to scientific study, the depth psychologists tended to regard it as the relatively superficial expression of unconscious drives.
“An assumption unusual in psychology today is that the subjective human being has an important value which is basic; that no matter how he may be labeled and evaluated he is a human person first of all, and most deeply.”
Humanistic View of Human Behavior
Humanistic psychology is a value orientation that holds a hopeful, constructive view of human beings and of their substantial capacity to be self-determining. It is guided by a conviction that intentionality and ethical values are strong psychological forces, among the basic determinants of human behavior. This conviction leads to an effort to enhance such distinctly human qualities as choice, creativity, the interaction of the body, mind and spirit, and the capacity to become more aware, free, responsible, life affirming and trustworthy.
Humanistic psychology acknowledges that the mind is strongly influenced by determining forces in society and in the unconscious, and that some of these are negative and destructive. Humanistic psychology nevertheless emphasizes the independent dignity and worth of human beings and their conscious capacity to develop personal competence and self-respect. This value orientation has led to the development of therapies to facilitate personal and interpersonal skills and to enhance the quality of life.
Since there is much difficulty involved in inner growth, humanistic psychologists often stress the importance of courageously learning to take responsibility for one as one confronts personal transitions. The difficulty of encouraging personal growth is matched by the difficulty of developing appropriate institutional and organizational environments in which human beings can flourish. Clearly, societies both help and hinder human growth. Because nourishing environments can make an important contribution to the development of healthy personalities, human needs should be given priority when fashioning social policies. This becomes increasingly critical in a rapidly changing world threatened by such dangers as nuclear war, overpopulation and the breakdown of traditional social structures.
Many humanistic psychologists stress the importance of social change, the challenge of modifying old institutions and inventing new ones able to sustain both human development and organizational efficacy. Thus the humanistic emphasis on individual freedom should be matched by recognition of our interdependence and our responsibilities to one another, to society and culture, and to the future.
Methods of Inquiry
All of these special concerns point toward the need for a more complete knowledge of the quality of human experience. Humanistic psychology is best known as a body of theory and systems of psychotherapy, but it is also an approach to scholarship and research, to inquiry informed by a strong sense of purpose. The purpose is to provide a level of understanding that can promote the power of personal choice and the care and effectiveness of social groups.
Humanistic psychology recognizes that human existence consists of multiple layers of reality: the physical, the organic and the symbolic. In considering these components it advocates the use of a variety of research approaches to study their characteristics and intentions. It contests the idea traditionally held by the behavioral sciences that the only legitimate research method is an experimental test using quantified data. It argues for the use of additional methods specifically designed to study the organic and symbolic realms.
Humanistic psychology is strongly supportive of phenomenological and clinical approaches to the study of the human position in the order of life. It also encourages the discovery of new research approaches which seek to further understand the richness in the depth of human being.
The symbolic dimension of consciousness is of special interest. It is in this realm of our lives-a uniquely human realm– that meaning value, culture, personal decision and responsibility are expressed and manifested. The humanities are thus important resources in humanistic psychology research. Another thing the humanistic approach brings into account is the fact that society’s ideas about what count as legitimate knowledge constitutes a certain kind of power over our lives. The assumption that knowledge is confined to what can be directly perceived and publicly measured leads easily to the conclusion that personal values, meaning and decision lack a larger significance or interpretation. The value-based position taken by humanistic psychology implies a commitment to the use of research approaches that provide access to all characteristics of human existence.
Humanistic Psychology Today
During the 1970s and 80s, the ideas and values of humanistic psychology spread into many areas of society in the United States. As a result humanistic psychology is no longer “Humanistic Psychology”. It is, of course, still represented by the Association for Humanistic Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology , as well as APA Division 32, the Division of Humanistic Psychology. However, it is also represented in a variety of APA divisions concerned with psychotherapy and issues of social concern. And it is in Transpersonal Psychology (Association for Transpersonal, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, New Age, East-West, the Consciousness Movement, Noetic Sciences); the Growth Center and Human Potential Movements; the Self-Esteem and Addiction Recovery Movements; Family Therapy, Holistic Health and Hospice, and Organizational Development and Organization Transformation. It is philosophically aligned with the post-modern philosophy of science, constructivist e
pistemology, structuralism, and deconstructionism. We also could include green politics, deep ecology , the feminist and gay rights movements, and the psycho-spiritual wing of the peace movement. Perhaps this is what Rollo May was pointing to when he suggested that AHP has accomplished the mission for which it was founded. This breadth, depth and diversity is representative of the world we live in and takes into account an integrated and balanced view of human nature and maintaining balance and harmony in the grand scheme of existence.
“As the world’s people demand freedom and self-determination, it is urgent that we learn how diverse communities of empowered individuals, with freedom to construct their own stories and identities, might live together in mutual peace. Perhaps it is not a vain hope that is life in such communities might lead to the advance in human consciousness beyond anything we have yet experienced.”