Reprinted from Humanity and Society (the journal of the
Association for Humanist Sociology) Vol 22, No. 3, August 1998


Humanistic Psychology and Humanistic Social Science


Arthur Warmoth
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.

Value-based and value-affirming social science. This view was presented in Maslow's seminal paper "Problem Centering vs. Means Centering in Science." This paper--and indeed Maslow's whole career--makes the point that psychology should be studying serious problems in the service of basic human values. Key values of humanistic psychology included self-actualization, which focused on the possibility of the fulfillment of the individual person, and synergy, which advocated the possibility of creatively integrating diverse needs and strategies in order to maximize human fulfillment in organizations and communities.

The Present and Future of Humanistic Social Science.

I believe that the future of humanistic psychology lies in two areas. The first is a deepening exploration of our underlying philosophical foundations. This implies the continuing exploration of the phenomenological, social constructionist, and human systems approaches that were implicit in the experiential and holistic orientations of the humanistic revolution.

The second area of opportunity lies in the possibility of developing more effective collaboration between theorists, researchers, and practitioners who support humanistic values across all of the the social science disciplines . My conviction as to the importance of this second area has been reinforced by the opportunity to offer these observations to the Association for Humanist Sociology. Perhaps the common theme that ties the humanistic social sciences together is not so much the adjectival descriptor "humanistic," which is subject to a variety of interpretations and emphases in different fields, as it is a commitment to a common project: the humanizing of society and its institutions.

There are three areas where interdisciplinary focus and collaboration could be particularly fruitful:

1. Systematic exploration of the relationship between person, community, and society.

2. Addressing the Internal organizational challenges of decreasing marginality and increasing diversity.

3. Developing a concept of deep democracy that would extend democracy from the political to the cultural and economic arenas.

The Relationship Between Person, Community and Society. The importance of understanding this relationship stems from the fact that modern society has led to systematic alienation and the marginalization of many of the values of community that humanistic psychology and sociology hold dear. The pursuit of this understanding takes us back to Tönnies classical distinction between gemeinschaft and gesellschaft. However, rather than looking at these social forms primarily as stages in social evolution, it is useful today to see them as denoting human systems of different scales (size), each of which has its utilities and values, and each of which has its limitations and disadvantages.

Many of the problems of contemporary society can be traced to the failure of large-scale institutions: corporations, government bureaucracies, mass media. Either these institutions are out of control or they are attempting to do things for which they are simply not equipped. These are the institutions that, in general, have supported and been supported by mainstream, value-neutral social science. There is a contemporary intuition, shared by both the far right and the far left, that community-building--mobilizing the resources of communities, neighborhoods, organizations--is the answer. However, there is not yet a coherent body of social theory that would support reconstructing and reinventing community. Nor is there adequate theory to permit us to tame large scale social organizations. (I believe that they need to be tamed, rather than eliminated, because they do permit technological forms of productivity--ranging from bullet trains to pacemakers to moon landings--which it is not politically feasible to eliminate.)

Organizational Issues: Marginality. The importance of looking at the issue of marginality in relation to the humanistic social sciences was stimulated by the excellent plenary presentation in Columbus by James M. Galliher, co-author (with John Galliher) of Marginality and Dissent in Twentieth Century Sociology: The Case of Elizabeth Briant Lee and Alfred McClung Lee (199?).

Of the three organizations represented at Columbus, the Association for Humanistic Psychology (AHP) is by far the largest. However, that is because AHP represents practitioners and lay persons who are not identified with academia. In terms of the numbers of members who are teacher/scholars in academic settings, AHP represents numbers comparable to the memberships of the Association for Humanistic Sociology and the Association for Humanist Anthropology.

Humanistic psychology has had an enormous impact on American society, supporting values that included self-awareness, self-esteem, and self-actualization, as well as more effective interpersonal communication and relationships. This project of re-constructing the self was a middle class response to the alienation that was characteristic of late industrial society. However, I believe we are now facing deeper levels of the restructuring of society into forms which have been called postmodern of postindustrial. Humanistic social science has a great deal of useful perspective to contribute to the postmodern transition. However, humanistic social science continues to be marginal in academia. It is interesting to note that postmodernism as an epistemological position has been more successful in literature and philosophy departments than it has been in psychology or sociology.

There are signs that this may be changing, and intellectual clarity is certainly a key strategy in expanding our influence. However, given the history of our adaptation to academic marginality, I find myself wondering whether there may some attractive aspects of marginality that inhibit us from engaging in effectively influencing mainstream society. After all, an ideologically committed marginality can be an effective way to maintain a coherent sense of community.

Organizational Issues: Diversity. Humanistic psychology and sociology are both deeply committed to diversifying participation in our organizations. I believe that achieving ethnic diversity and gender diversity are different challenges. In humanistic psychology, we have been far more successful in achieving gender equity than we have in the ethnic arena. This may be because, in the context of the humanistic movement, men and women share a common understanding of the meanings of terms such as "person," "gender." "equality," and "fairness" that facilitates transgender dialogue in a variety of dimensions. Achieving ethnic diversity, however, presents a more complex challenge. I believe that an important part of this challenge is to define our own ethnic heritage.

Understanding the ethnic roots of the humanistic approach itself includes making an effort to disentangle the liberal, judeo-protestant cultural values of individualism and intellectual self-promotion from the democratic values of equality of personal worth, political participation, and social justice that clearly have a transcultural appeal in the contemporary world. It is clear that humanistic social science has its roots in the Enlightenment Project, which was revolutionary in its proclamation of the democratic values of equality and political participation. But it also seems clear that these insights were the product of an intellectual culture with deep judeo-protestant and classical humanistic roots. While democracy probably could not have been invented without that cultural history, hindsight suggests that these traditions are characterized by excesses of rationalism and individualism. Indeed, an anti-rationalist (though highly individualistic) romantic protest has been the complement of Enlightenment rationalism almost from the very beginning. And the romantic character of humanistic psychology (the "natural goodness" of the person) has been widely noted. However, it is only in the contemporary world that we find ourselves in the middle of a process of polycultural intercommunication that leads us to question our particular tradition of individualism.

Outrsituation is further colored by the contradictions of 19th century political and economic liberalism. Although that culture clearly embraced the idea of political equality in principle, in practice it was political and economic equality for the bourgeoisie and the colonial powers, not for everyone. This heritage of bourgeois elitism disguised as democracy continues to pervade many of our social institutions, including our universities. (That this was also associated, especially in anglophone countries, with a uniquely disempowering sentimentalization of womanhood may explain why some other cultures find our preoccupaton with strict gender equality so puzzling.)

This is not to suggest that our individualism and rationalism, or our romanticism, or our academically agonistic (and sometimes playful) intellectualism, are necessarily a bad thing. Quite the contrary. However, they are characteristics that are associated with a particular ethnic history. It is a history which we need to consciously own, if we are to find the proper place of the humanistic social sciences in a postmodern, polycultural world.

Fortunately, constructionist epistemology, which, as noted above, shares common roots with humanistic psychology's philosopy of science, is a useful approach for understanding a culturally pluralistic world. In particular, it offers the possibility of philosophical and social policy analyses that can address multicultural and transcultural issues, including those of a global economy and ecology. A new generation of humanistic social theory that is both ethnically self-conscious and committed to multicultural political and moral values would help us find better approaches to effectively serving a global, polycultural society.

Deep Democracy. Traditionally, democracy has been associated primarily with the political arena. However, progressive social evolution in the postmodern world requires that the democratic values of equality and participation be extended into the economic and cultural arenas as well. Humanistic social scientists, who have been living with these values for years, should be as well equipped as anyone to provide a theoretical framework and practical strategies for this extension. My suspicion is that the key to his lies in focusing on organizations at the community level of scale. After all, it is only at this level that truly interactive whole person participation is even possible. If we were to refer more of the day to day decisions about the management of the natural and social environments to small, local groups, we would be moving in a more deeply democratic direction. It is clear, in principle, that information technology makes it possible for small, local organizations to have all of the information they need to make sophisticated, environmentally sensitive decisions. What is needed is for the humanistic social sciences to design social systems that take advantage of this opportunity. (Two of my favorite candidates are local currencies and community banking.)


It is clear that the new world being created by information and communications technologies will be very different from the modern world created by the first industrial revolution. It is also clear that "value-free" social science, which is a thinly-veiled privileging of technocratic and patriarchal values, is reaching the limits of its usefulness. The humanistic social sciences have several decades of honorable history building up critical and value-affirming approaches within their respective disciplinary boundaries. I believe the crucial question for the immediate future, which has sometimes been called the "postmodern era," is whether the humanistic disciplines can collaborate to articulate a convincing metanarrative of multicultural and ecologically sustainable values, while creating effective and concrete interdisciplinary approaches to solving a wide range of ecological and social problems which appear to be unsolvable in the context of our society's accepted conventional wisdom. It is certainly worth making the effort!



Galliher, James M. & Galliher, John. (1995). Marginality and dissent in twentieth century sociology: The case of Elizabeth Briant Lee and Alfred McClung Lee. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.