Old Saybrook 2:
Can humanistic psychology survive itself?
by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative
On a November weekend in 1964, a group of scholars
gathered at Old Saybrook, Conn., to forge a vision that has had enormous
impact on the lives of Americans ever since.
Those attending included Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, Clark Moustakas,
Carl Rogers and James Bugental. At the forefront of what was then called
the "human potential movement," these were the leading thinkers
of humanistic psychology. Their vision was to employ the insights of psychology,
as a study grounded in the broad humanities, to enhance every individual's
quality of life. This compared to the dominant medicalized agenda of only
Recently, there was an effort to reprise the spirit of that original
meeting at the State University of West Georgia, whose psychology department
became one of the nation's leading exponents of humanistic psychology
under the longtime leadership of Mike Arons. The Old Saybrook 2 Conference
brought together thinkers and practitioners to discuss the status and
future of humanistic psychology.
I had a particular interest in attending, because I graduated from
West Georgia's master's program in the mid-'90s. By the time of my enrollment,
the psychology department had lost much of the radical edge that made
it so famous 20 years earlier. Part of the reason, certainly, was the
general loss of humanistic psychology's éclat in a society that
is increasingly dominated by values we associate with economy: expediency,
materialism, hierarchy, science, etc.
West Georgia continued nonetheless to promote the values of humanism
and also took up the subject of transpersonal psychology. My first class
there was in Buddhist psychology with Kaisa Puhaka. I looked forward to
an experience of steeping myself in classes in creativity with Mike Arons,
Lacanian thought with Kareen Malone, Jungian theory with the late Bob
Masek. At the same time, I commuted to California to receive two years
of training under the mentorship of Barbara Findeisen in her radical STAR
program. Because of my work with Findeisen, my time at West Georgia was
greatly expanded from the usual 18 months to almost four years.
As I approached the midpoint of my studies at West Georgia, I became
one of the victims of the values that had begun to erode the psychology
department's own radicalism. The state enacted a new licensure law that
basically rendered all of West Georgia's classes (and my own extensive
and expensive practicum training) useless for those wanting to practice
psychotherapy. Like many others, I had to spurn the most attractive intellectual
opportunities at West Georgia and enroll in traditional counseling classes,
which, incidentally, turned out to be no more helpful in securing licensure.
The question for many of us became whether we could retain our vision
in a system that did everything it could to standardize practice, mainly
as the treatment of pathology, effectively returning therapy to the medical
fantasy from which humanistic psychology attempted to rescue it 30 years
Mike Arons, who stepped down as department chairman in an emerging battle
partly between clinicians and thinkers, saw through the question immediately.
He began articulating the need for radically new forms of psychological
practice - a movement of which I became a part. Others, like Maureen O'Hara,
of Saybrook Graduate School, have become important voices in the critique
of the way the state imposes normative values on the practice of psychotherapy.
Some of their writing on the subject can be found on the Saybrook Conference
web site: www.sonoma.edu/projects/os2/.
The problem, which I encountered continually at the West Georgia
conference, is a deep reluctance on the part of many people in humanistic
psychology to question the ways in which their approach really may fail
to address the situation of the contemporary individual. Puhaka and Malone,
in one seminar, addressed this concern. For example, they noted that the
valorization of the individual's autonomy - the "I'm Okay, You're
Okay" model - might tend to discourage meaningful discourse, cutting
it off at the point disagreement arises. Malone noted that her own attraction
to the (almost ubiquitoiusly demonized) French postmodern thinkers was
stimulated by their willingness to engage in discourse without the agenda
of fixed resolution. This in turn caused at least one participant to term
such an endeavor "mental masturbation."
Nostalgia seemed more pervasive than critique at the conference.
There was an almost reflexive condemning of technology and cyberspace
as examples of pathological diminishment of the body, whose presence is
of course central to the humanistic paradigm. When I expressed my own
view that the cyber body, including the erotic cyber body, is a new form
of embodiment that not only can't be ignored but might be essential to
human survival on a dying planet, I was criticized but not engaged in
discourse. "I just don't want that!" a woman blurted at me.
Maslow's and May's emphasis on creativity - the idea that everyman
is an artist in charge of carving out his godgiven self -- was repeatedly
emphasized. And there was an almost relentless criticism that creativity
has lost currency in American life. A few of us, though, noted on the
contrary that creativity has migrated almost entirely to the business
world and that, at the same time, there has been an explosion of books
on the subject of personal creativity.
To my own mind, following James Hillman's critique, the problem
isn't the diminishment of the creative impulse, but the repression of
the aesthetic sense - a repression I would call as deadly as the erotic
repression that was Freud's obsession. An example, visible from my window
at this moment, is the architecture of downtown Atlanta. All manner of
creative energy has gone into producing it, but it is soul-less, hideous,
by and large, completely inhospitable to the relational human body.
So, in my view, the project of psychology is the reanimation of
the aesthetic sense so that creativity recovers soul. This is not about
the imposition of formal aesthetics but the broad recovery in our day-to-day
lives of the embodied sense of awe that we now marginalize in museums
and nature preserves.
Copyright 1999 by Creative Loafing
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