Human dignity and humanistic values

Several years ago, when I learned of my election as president of Society for Humanistic Psychology and took on the role of president-elect, I began to use this preparation time to reflect deeply on what it means to be a humanistic psychologist. Much of this preparation has been an exploration of the early history of the movement and its emergence as a third force in psychology between the behaviorists that dominated the academy and the psychoanalysts who thrived in the clinic. As a society, we have had many occasions to revisit fundamental questions about our humanistic identity. I think we are at another historical moment when it would serve us well to stop, reflect and trace back the foundational roots of humanistic psychology and its most fundamental mission in the field of psychology and in the world at large.

Historically and philosophically, phenomenology is the epistemological foundation for humanistic psychology. Phenomenology is always engaged in a process of interrogating the meaning of constructs, tracing them back to their origins in life-world experience and making sense of them within their social, historical and linguistic context. The phenomenologist never tires of the slow, deliberate process of exploring what things mean and examining our role in the constitution of these meanings. Whether we are explicitly aware of them or not, these meanings are always already present in the way we comport ourselves to our work and the way we interact and communicate with our colleagues. Interrogating our humanistic identity, then, is a matter of constantly, and with great vigilance, rooting out what we already implicitly understand about what we are and what we are called to be in the world. We can then bring these meanings to explicit, critical reflection and into more vibrant action in the world.

To interrogate the meaning of humanistic psychology, we can take humanistic psychology’s phenomenological approach and turn it back upon itself. To engage in phenomenology is to describe the phenomenon and then to identify its invariant themes. Next, through imaginative variation, the investigator distills the phenomenon down to its essential or eidetic structure. Using this approach, we can ask, what are the invariant themes of humanistic psychology? What is the (situated) essence of humanistic psychology? In the next newsletter, I will expand on my findings but I want to focus this newsletter on what I have found to be a core, invariant theme of humanistic psychology that is often overlooked: a fundamental recognition of human dignity.

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