Freedom through the Cultivation of Humanness: Philosophy, Psychology and the Authentic Self
“Less and less is life animated through personal discovery, intimacy with others, or self-reflection. While life has become more manageable for many people, it has become commensurately less engaged.”
~Kirk Schneider, Rediscovery of Awe, 20
Within psychology there are several schools that are divided concerning the nature of the self. Behaviorism views the self as something that has been conditioned and created by the external world. Observation of behavior is ultimately the best way to understand the individual because the individual has been shaped and formed fully through her interaction with the environment. In contrast, Humanistic and Existential schools of psychology view the human self as something that is not only shaped by environment, but also shaped by the free exercise of choice in the process of self-creation and cultivation. For Humanistic and Existential psychologists values, meaning, and authenticity are issues that are closely tied to psychological well-being, whereas for the Behaviorist would consider such notions extraneous to an understanding of the individual and her well-being.
Part of what inspires the thinking of the Existential and Humanistic psychologists is the thought of the existential philosophers. The existentialists saw humans as a unique type of being that can engage in freedom or fail to engage in freedom and they saw freedom as the defining characteristic of being human. For the existentialists “Being”, or the relationship of the self to the self is real and important. It is in the realm of the self’s relationship to the self that one’s freedom is revealed. One’s freedom can be engaged or escaped and the existentialists thought that the engagement with one’s freedom was important for a meaningful life.
The particular issue that this paper explores is the issue of personal authenticity in relation to psychology. The claim of this paper is that there is a self within the individual that is creating values, ideals, and meaning for the individual that is based in subjectivity. This highly subjective process of self-creation cannot be understood through external observation, but must rather be understood by engagement with the individual’s subjective life. A comprehensive psychology must not only recognize the physical (and observable) aspects of being human but also the ethical and freedom-based aspects of being human. The individual is in a continual process of defining humanness for herself. It is through this uniquely human process of defining one’s own humanness and values that one uses one’s freedom.
Behaviorism versus Humanistic/Existential Psychology
The Behaviorist sees the individual as the result of stimulus (from the external world) and response (from their brain and body). Concerning Behaviorism, one of the founders of the school John B. Watson stated: “psychology, as the behaviorist views it, is a purely objective, experimental branch of natural science which needs introspection as little as do the sciences of chemistry and physics”(Bjork 79). In other words, everything that is of significance for the understanding of the individual is observable. It is not that behaviorists think that individuals do not have an internal mental life, but rather they claim that the internal life of the individual is less important or significant than observable behavior. And, they would claim that the self is fully tied to environment and the uniqueness of individual identity is tied to a uniqueness of environment. There is nothing distinctive about human consciousness or human nature, it is simply a more complex web of reactions to the environment than other animals.
In contrast to the Behaviorist approach to the individual, Humanistic/Existential psychology views the individual as not only needing to be understood through external observation, but also through an investigation of the individual’s relationship to herself and her own freedom. Carl Rogers, a prominent Humanistic psychologist had several debates with B.F. Skinner (the founder of behaviorism) in the 1950’s about Behaviorism versus Humanistic approaches to human psychology. Rogers states: “I have come to realize that the basic difference between a Behaviorist and humanistic approach to human beings is a philosophical choice”(Rogers 56). The philosophical choice that Rogers is referring to is the issue of human freedom and choice. Further characterizing the issue Rogers states:
Let me simply add that what is really at issue is the
confrontation of two paradoxes. If the extreme
behaviorist position is true, then everything an individual
does is essentially meaningless, since he is but an atom
caught in a seamless chain of cause and effect. On the
true, then choice enters in, and this individual subjective
choice has some influence on the cause-and-effect chain.
Then, scientific research, which is based on a complete
confidence in an unbroken chain of cause and effect,
must be fundamentally modified(Rogers 58).
The essential point that is being debated between the Humanistic and Behaviorist schools of psychology is the question of human determinism. On the one hand behaviorists claim that human consciousness and experience is no different from any other physical process and is fully determined by conditioning and physical laws. Human choice never enters the scene in any real sense, only the illusion of it. On the other hand, Humanistic psychologists claim that there is something unique about human consciousness and experience that involves subjectivity and awareness of self. Human choice does enter the scene because humans are capable of change and growth that may arise spontaneously or intentionally.
For Humanistic/Existential psychologists, phenomenology plays a key role in the understanding of the individual. Phenomenology is a philosophical approach to the individual and it essentially places emphasis on individual experience prior to subject/object separation. Phenomenology is defined as:
. . .the study of structures of experience, or consciousness.
Literally, phenomenology is the study of “phenomena”:
appearances of things, or things as they appear in our
experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the
meanings they have in our experience. Phenomenology
In other words, the phenomenologist is concerned with the study of experience of subjective consciousness from a first person point of view. The phenomenologist emphasizes personal experience and subjective being. In contrast, the behaviorist highlights that which is observed from a third person point of view. A separation of mind from the outside world is assumed and the self is conceptualized as a conglomerate of reactions with no significant content of its own (e.g. the significant content of the mind is only in relation to the external world because the self is purely a result of conditioning and the environment). In contrast the phenomenologist claims that subjective experience itself must be studied because the self (or the subjective consciousness) may hold valuable information about the individual.
“To truly exist, we must quit the inauthentic sphere of existence” (Daniels 2).
For Humanistic and Existential psychologists, when seeking to understand the issues and dynamics of their patient’s lives, it is imperative that they look at the subjective lives or the relationship of the individual with her freedom in order to better understand the individual. Authenticity is about the relationship of the individual to his or her freedom. Personal authenticity arises out of a deep level of freedom and responsibility that the existentialists assert the individual is capable of. The concept of personal authenticity is dependent on the idea that humans have a relationship with themselves, their conscience, and the process of their own self-creation. Authenticity relies on the idea that humans have the capacity to create themselves, at least to a degree, and that they cannot escape their freedom through appeal to deterministic forces. Authenticity then is the engagement of one’s freedom through self-creation, while inauthenticity is the lack of engagement with one’s freedom through the process of self-creation.
In Jean Paul Sartre’s work “Existentialism is a Humanism”, he articulates one of the main principles of existentialism:
Man is not only that which he conceives himself to be,
but that which he wills himself to be, and since he conceives
be after being thrown into existence, man is nothing
other than what he makes of himself. This is the first principle
of existentialism (Sartre 22).
For Sartre freedom defines human beings and the individual is only essentially what she does through her actions in the world. Sartre is proposing a view of humans that is controversial because it states that the individual is not defined by society, by convention, or by pre-existent ideas of human nature. The individual is in a continual course of development based in personal freedom. In other words, according to Sartre and the existentialists, the individual is deeply responsible for the cultivation of the self and the actions he takes in the world.
Martin Heidegger, an existentialist wrote about something he called Dasein. Dasein is a uniquely human quality and is characterized by self-consciousness, or awareness of one’s Being. And as an extension of being aware of the self, Dasein has the unique capacity to choose itself. From “Being and Time” Heidegger writes:
Because Dasein is in each case essentially its own possibility
it can, in its very Being, ‘choose’ itself and win itself; it can
But only in so far as it is essentially something which can be
authentic—that is, something of its own—can it have lost
itself and not yet won itself. As modes of Being, authenticity
and inauthenticity are both grounded in the fact that any
Dasein whatsoever is characterized by mineness(Heidegger 97).
Heidegger is stating that Dasein, or the ability to reflect on the self, makes it such that one’s self can be possessed by the self, or not. One can have a self, or fail to have a self. The difference between having a self or not having a self lies in the degree to which one engages in the creation of one’s self and the level to which one takes responsibility for one’s self and one’s actions.
For Heidegger the experience of inauthenticity involves a loss of the self and a lack of engagement with the fundamental questions underlying one’s life by an immersion in the “they” or the norms and values of society. From “Being and Time” Heidegger states:
With Dasein’s lostness in the “they”, that factical potentiality
-for-Being which is closest to it (the tasks, rules, and standards,
the urgency and extent, of concernful and solicitous Being
-in-the-world) has already been decided upon. The “they” has
always kept Dasein from taking hold of these possibilities of
Being. The “they” even hides the manner in which it has tacitly
It remains indefinite who has ‘really’ done the choosing. So Dasein
make no choices, gets carried along by the nobody, and thus
ensnares itself in inauthenticity (Heidegger 312).
Heidegger sees the phenomenon of Being as a unique opportunity for the individual to partake in at least partial self-creation. When the individual fails to take the project of self-creation upon herself, she is by default defined by the rules and ideals of those around her. The freedom that Being allows is something that can be engaged, or not and this is an important point. Inauthenticity then is the failure to engage with one’s being and one’s self-creation.
Humanistic Psychology and Authenticity:
“By becoming lost in our presumed knowledge we have forgotten what it is to exist” (Daniels 3).
For the Existential/Humanistic psychologists, freedom, self-development, and authenticity are aspects of what a healthy and functional individual expresses. Existential/Humanistic psychology emphasizes the importance of choice and self-responsibility. Similar to existential philosophy, Existential psychology sees human freedom as the most defining characteristic of the human condition. As such, an existential psychologist will take seriously the individual’s relationship to his life choices and whether the individual is living in authentic relationship to himself. For an existential psychologist courage is a large part of what creates a healthy individual.
Rollo May the Existential psychologist points to the essential point in Existential and Humanistic psychology and that is the experiential and dynamic process of being a human individual. He states:
They hold [existential psychologists] that these [drives and
behaviors] cannot be understood in any given person except
in the context of the overarching fact that here is a person
who happens to exist, to be, and if we do not keep this in mind,
all else we know about this person will lose its meaning. Thus
to coming into being, becoming. Their endeavor is to understand
this becoming not as a sentimental artifact but as the
fundamental structure of human existence(May 50).
For the Existential psychologist it is imperative in therapy to remember that the individual has freedom and that her existence is a continual question that she is answering and a process that she is assisting in unfolding. To treat the individual as a being which the therapist can treat as strictly physiological and behavioral is to treat the individual as something that she is not: an object. The essential point underlying the difference between a Behavioral and Existential approach to the individual is around the idea of the individual as a being versus the individual as an object.
For the Existential/Humanistic psychologists the experience of one’s freedom and the capacity to define the self is the defining characteristic of human life. In failing to recognize the importance of such a process, psychology essentially avoids the deeper questions of human existence. And for the Existential/Humanistic psychologists such avoidance leaves psychology with an incomplete picture of the individual and human well-being.
In line with the worries of the existentialists are the worries of the Humanistic and Existential psychologists. For Humanistic psychologists, ethical problems and the choosing of values, and the process of self-creation is an integral part of what it means to be a human being. Failing to recognize the importance of choosing values and one’s stance on the philosophical issues of life in psychology was tantamount to failing to engage in a large portion of what psychology needs to be addressing.
If psychology is to be a field that genuinely benefits humanity, it must take into consideration the ethical, self-creating, and philosophical aspects of human experience. These aspects of human experience are highly subjective (and this is why they have been heavily ignored), but a conception of human nature that avoids such questions will never be able to truly help individuals to grow. Psychologists need to a certain extent be philosophers because conceptions of truth, success, the good, and meaning all heavily influence mental and spiritual well-being. To act as though psychology can ignore such vital questions is to ignore the creative and free aspects of human existence. And to ignore such aspects of human existence is to miss an invaluable opportunity for humans to take hold of their own future and beings.
Inevitably the evolution of human beings will involve the increasing willingness to be self-reflective and self-owning. The greater degree to which humans are accountable to truth, values, and ethics, the greater extent to which we will be intentionally creating a world that we desire to live in. The degree to which we fail to engage in our ability to define ourselves and our world is the degree to which we will continue to behave inauthentically and out of habit and fear. When we overemphasize the rational and the formulaic aspects of human life, we underemphasize our own ability to choose our own values and meaning in life. We must engage in the defining of our humanness.
Personal authenticity involves the process of questioning the values and principles that one adopts and intentionally working to know one’s self. When one comes to know their self, they have a capacity for authentic action in the world. This capacity for self-ownership allows one to feel greater freedom and connection to an ethical way of being in the world. And this gives one a feeling of well-being because one is being honest and helping the world as well. Our subjective ethical being is inevitably tied to our overall well-being. How could it not be?
Underlying the debate between the Behaviorists and Humanistic psychologists is a disagreement about the nature of the self and the degree of freedom that human nature allows. The result of this debate has far-reaching consequences. Many of the crises that we are facing as a species will require that we take the defining of ourselves and the world upon ourselves rather than living out of the habits and expectations of the past. We must to a certain extent become beings that exist independent of the expectations of our environments; otherwise we will not be able to move out of unhealthy habits and societal practices.
In the end the existentialists saw the individual as ultimately responsible for who she became and what her actions said about her. They promoted a profound level of personal responsibility. While this level of personal responsibility may not be attractive to all people, it does point toward a world in which people examine their actions and beliefs and move through the world consciously. This type of world would be safer than a world in which people are unconsciously navigating the world because people that have thought about their ideals and values are far more open to changing their views (because they’re concerned with truth and values).
According to many Humanistic psychologists, congruency with one’s self, or authenticity can greatly contribute to the meaning of one’s life and one’s capacity to experience the higher possibilities of human nature, such as self-actualization. Self-actualization involves the realization of one’s innate tendencies and interests which can lead to a high level of inner to outer congruity. These higher states make it possible for humans to get greater satisfaction at a lower cost to the planet—which is becoming increasingly important. Our externally-oriented, materialistic orientation underestimates the value of our freedom to create otherwise. A high level of inner to outer congruity leads to a feeling that one is in control of the self, is free, and can engage in meaningful projects.
The view of the self that Behaviorism promotes does not make room for the higher functions of human nature. It sees the self as highly reactive and determined and severely limits the capacity for self-growth and the development of the individual. As a result, Behaviorism encourages a lack of engagement with the self. Such a view of human nature is inevitably going to lead to a superficial experience of being human because the area of values and ethics is left out. This type of oversight encourages an ethic of conformity and an external-orientation that leaves the individual with little self-possession and little genuine knowledge of the self. In essence, such a view of human nature limits the exercising of individual freedom.
The principle of authentic selfhood is an important ideal in an age of conformism to external notions of success and meaning. In order to be a truly free human being, we must engage in the process of our own self-determining. Such a process gives us a self and it is through having a self that we become capable of acting on behalf of the dictates of our conscience and against the views of the “norm”. We need to envision an ideal society as being one that is much more than economically affluent. We must engage our ethical and spiritual being and take hold of our immense power to define humanness.
Bjork, Daniel. B.F. Skinner: A Life. New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 1993. Print.
Daniels, Victor. “Lecture on Soren Kierkegaard.” Sonoma State University. 10 Feb. 2005. .
DeCarvalho, Roy Jose. The Founders of Humanistic Psychology. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1991. Print.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2008. Print.
May, Rollo. The Discovery of Being. New York: Norton and CO, 1986. Print.