Reprinted from Humanity and Society (the journal of the
Association for Humanist Sociology) Vol 22, No. 3, August 1998
Sonoma State University
Past President, Association for Humanistic Psychology
The Historical Background of Humanistic Psychology
The intellectual ferment that led to humanistic psychology began to in the period before World War II in the writings of men like Alfred Adler, Gordon Allport, Henry Murray, and Prescott Lecky, as well as the early writing of Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and Rollo May. These ideas began coalesce into a movement in the 1950s, with the public acceptance of the more popular writings of Rogers, Maslow, and May, as well as in the philosophical and psychiatric interest in European existentialism. It was crystallized in 1962 by two events: the publication of Abraham Maslow's Toward a Psychology of Being, in which humanistic psychology was defined as the "Third Force" in contrast to behaviorism and psychoanalysis, and by the first of a series of conferences sponsored by Sonoma State College that led to the creation of the American Association for Humanistic Psychology. (These events had been slightly preceded by the foundation of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, which was actually the original sponsor of AAHP.) During the 1960s and 70s, humanistic psychology became a major force shaping middle class culture in the United States, a development also known as the Human Potential Movement.
There were many aspects to humanistic psychology. There was a dialectic relationship between the Europe-oriented human scientists and existential psychoanalysts on the one hand, and the American self psychologists, including Maslow, Rogers, Clark Moustakas, and James F. T. Bugental on the other. There was a thoroughgoing revolution in the practice of psychotherapy, which added a wide range of group process, somatic, and non-verbal approaches to the therapist's repertoire. From the point of view of the social sciences, there were three essential characteristics to the humanistic movement:1. An epistemology that admits the centrality of human experience as basic data.
2. An emphasis on holistic theoretical models.
3. An advocacy of value-based and value-affirming social science.
The centrality of human experience as data. This epistemology was central to humanistic psychology's critique of the positivist philosophy of science that dominated academic experimental psychology at the time. The principle propositions of this epistemology are 1) All human knowledge ultimately represents interpretations of human experience; therefore it is important to take experience seriously, and to try to understand how the processes of interpretation function, and 2) An appreciation of the individual's unique eSystems Theory complete understanding of that person, particularly in clinical and growth facilitating relationships. This critique looked back to European phenomenology and existentialism and to the American pragmatism of William James and John Dewey. It also anticipated the view of today's postmodernist social constructionism.
Holism; ecological thinking and systems models. The founders of humanistic psychology all agreed that it was important to see the whole person as more than a 'sum of parts.' This emphasis on holistic models was a cornerstone of Gestalt psychology, which came to the United states from Germany during the rise of Hitler. It exerted an important influence as an experimental alternative to behaviorism, and was also an important influence for many humanistic psychologists. An equally important influence on Maslow, who was primarily responsible for establishing the centrality of holism for humanistic psychology, was the work of the neurologist Kurt Goldstein (who in turn had been influenced by the originator of the term, the South African statesman, Jan Christian Smuts).
While the early humanistic psychologists emphasized a holistic understanding of the person, we are coming to see that this approach is equally useful when applied to a wide variety of human and ecological systems. From this perspective, holism in humanistic psychology can be seen as a precursor of a general human systems point of view, which also had roots in General Systems Theory. General Systems Theory was founded by the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, who was a colleague of Maslow's.