Saturday May 19, 2018

A proper theory of psychedelic utopianism requires a reassessment of past and present theories of psychology. In particular, it requires a critique of contemporary cognitive-behavioral approaches (not unlike the Frankfurt School’s critique of positivism), and a revalorization of certain elements of the “humanistic psychology” movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Jessica Grogan’s Encountering America provides an entry-point into the history of the latter movement. I’m thinking here of figures like R.D. Laing and Abraham Maslow, but also encounter groups, Esalen, and the so-called “human potential movement” more broadly. Finally, this reassessment would also have to engage with humanistic psychology’s successor, the field of “positive psychology.” Among contemporary scholars operating in this field, I’m particularly interested in the work of Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner and the UC system’s Greater Good Science Center. On the other end of the political spectrum, however, we have figures like Martin Seligman and American Enterprise Institute president Arthur C. Brooks. (This latter figure, by the way, also serves on the advisory board of Charles Koch’s Well-Being Initiative.) For more on positive psychology, check out Daniel Horowitz’s book Happier?: The History of a Cultural Movement That Aspired to Transform America.

4 thoughts on “Saturday May 19, 2018”

  1. Slight dismay at naming positive psychology and the ‘successor’ to humanistic psychology. Uncomfortable with the implied linear sequence and indeed, the implication that humanism stoped in the 70s. But of course, I’m biased towards the silly label I apply to myself.

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    1. You’re right, Bruce. I think I misspoke there. I’m relying in part on Jessica Grogan’s account, which suggests that humanistic psychology encountered various impasses over the course of the 1970s following the death of key figures like Maslow. Psychology departments seem to have gravitated (at least in the US) toward cognitive-behavioral approaches, which downplay or even dismiss subjective experience. As someone who majored in English, meanwhile, my sense is that other departments in the humanities devote attention to various psychoanalytic traditions (mainly Freud and Lacan) without adequately explaining how these traditions relate to current psychological research. From what I’ve read so far, humanistic psychology seems extremely insightful — so I’m mainly trying to figure out why these insights have been marginalized within current configurations of higher ed.

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    2. As for positive psychology, I haven’t read much in this area, though I’m deeply suspicious of the way some of its practitioners have used the field’s findings to lend support to dominant ideologies. I think you and I probably share similar sentiments in that regard. What I wrote in today’s post is meant mainly as an attempt to assign myself a program for future reading and research. Please let me know if you have any suggestions of books I should consult to better navigate these waters!

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      1. Very neatly put, both parts. And your astute observations apply equally to Australian universities / psychology departments. Although having said that, it is now around five years since I left the sector.
        The comments about CBT are right on. It has seemed to me that this framework is well suited to those who are wary (or indeed terrified) of subjective experience or those messy emotion things, given CBT’s fundamental dismissal of emotion having intrinsic meaning and value.

        As for positive psychology, it’s a neat way to teach courses and sell books, but (in my opinion) breaks down immediately in the face of trauma and lived anguish, experiences that a therapist encounters daily.
        That last is my current interest (though not, I must emphasise, as a scholar; too lazy, not bright enough). It seems to me that almost all stories relate to trauma in some way: birth, infancy, developmental, family, emotional, physical, etc etc. I’m waiting for someone to write a book on what I call ‘everyday trauma’, a kind of learned distrust of self and the world that arises from an experience of family/attachment as dangerous. Of course, I’m aware that my view is entirely influenced by the small sample of humanity I sit with. But I wouldn’t be looking to Psychology as a discipline for exploration of this. It is self-serving and disconnected. I’d ask therapist-poets and philosopher-writers…

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