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PSYCHOLOGY : The Oddest Science

PSYCHOLOGY : The Oddest Science
The reading of yet another book about modern psychological theories is always, I find, a rather exasperating experience.



The Oddest Science


            The reading of yet another book about modern psychological theories is always, I find, a rather exasperating experience. Clothed in an ugly and hardly comprehensible jargon, the obvious is portentously enunciated, as though it were some kind of esoteric mystery. The immemorially ancient is presented, with fanfares, as a brand-new, epoch-making discovery. Instead of open-mindedness, we find dogmatism; instead of comprehensive views, we are given theories which ignore whole provinces of given reality, whole categories of the most significant kinds of facts. And instead of the concreteness so essential in a science of observation, instead of the principle of multiple causation which must govern all thinking about so complex a creature as man, we are treated to shameless displays of those gravest of intellectual sins, overabstraction, overgeneralization and oversimplification.

            All this does not mean, of course, that treatises about modern psychological theories should not be read. These treatises are conspicuous facts in the life of our time and, as such, they must not be ignored. Besides, it goes without saying that, in spite of all their defects, the formulators of modern psychological theories have made substantial contributions to the sum of practical wisdom and have done something to deepen our understanding of human nature.

            As a history of modern psychology in terms of "an integrative evaluation of Freud, Adler, Jung and Rank," Doctor Ira Progoff's recent book, The Death and Rebirth of Psychology, is clear and illuminating. So clear, indeed, and so illuminating that not only the virtues of modern psychology's founding fathers, but also their shortcomings stand out, in its pages, with glaring distinctness.

            Let us begin with what is, I suppose, the most serious, as it is certainly the most conspicuous, shortcoming of them all - the absence from all these theories (with the partial exception of Adler's) of any mention of the body as a conditioning factor in the formation of a personality, or as a determinant of thoughts, feelings and behavior. Adler, it is true, made a number of penetrating remarks on the consequences of a sense of organic inferiority; but even Adler was very far from giving the body its due as a shaper of individual character and destiny. Freud, Jung and Rank seem to have imagined that they could understand human minds without taking into account the bodies with which those minds are indissolubly associated. Their one-sidedness is the mirror-image of the one-sidedness of the exclusively physiological physician. But just as it is perfectly clear that bodies cannot be understood or successfully treated without reference to their minds, so too it is perfectly clear that minds cannot be understood or successfully treated without reference to their bodies. Doctors are at last reconciling themselves to the idea of psychosomatic medicine. It is time for psychologists to reconcile themselves to the complementary notion of a somato-psychic approach to the problems of mind and character.

            It was not only by psychology's founding fathers that the body was neglected. The same absurd one-sidedness was and still is observable in most of their successors. How rarely, in recent books on psychology, do we come upon a passage like the following from Doctor Erich Fromm's work on dreams, The Forgotten Language. Commenting on the words of an ancient Hindu writer, Dr. Fromm remarks that "he points to a significant connection between temperament (i.e., those psychic qualities which are rooted in a constitutionally given somatic basis) and dream content"- a connection "which has found hardly any attention in contemporary dream interpretation, although it is a significant factor in dream interpretation, as further research will undoubtedly show." After which Dr. Fromm passes on to other, one-sidedly psychological considerations. Let us hope that this passing reference to the significance of temperament may serve as an opening wedge to a new somato-psychic approach, not merely to dreaming, but to all mental activities. It will not be difficult to make such an approach; for all the really hard preparatory work has already been done by Doctor William Sheldon and his colleagues. Using Sheldon's rigorous and powerful methods, it is now possible for any psychologist or psychiatrist to make an accurate assessment of the "constitutionally given somatic basis," in which our "psychic qualities" are rooted. But though the means are available, they are hardly ever used, and psychologists continue to treat minds without reference to bodies, and to publish what they are pleased to call "case histories" without deigning to give the slightest indication of what sort of people, somatically speaking, their patients were. How much did Mrs. X weigh - ninety pounds or two hundred? Did Mr. Y have the physique of an ox or a daddy longlegs, of a panther or a jellyfish? To these questions most psychologists never vouchsafe an answer - presumably because, unlike the rest of mankind, they have never thought of asking them. In his monumental Atlas of Men, Dr. Sheldon has published several thousands of photographs showing the continuous variation of masculine physique, and assessing those variations within a frame of reference having three coordinates, endomorphy, mesomorphy and ectomorphy. Turning over the pages of this book, one sees at a glance that it is obviously impossible for creatures so unlike one another as men at the extreme limits of possible variation to feel, think and behave in the same way. This is something which every one of normal intelligence has known for the last two or three hundred thousand years. It has remained for modern psychologists to ignore this self-evident fact and to talk, in their vague, rhetorical way, about "Man," "Modern Man," or even "Man in the Era of Sexuality," as though there were standardized objects corresponding to these words. But in fact, of course, nobody has ever encountered these mythical beings. Nobody has ever encountered anyone but Tom, Dick and Harry, Dolly, Molly and Polly. But, as everybody knows perfectly well, Tom is congenitally unlike Dick, and Harry is constitutionally different from both of the others. And the same is true of Dolly, Molly and Polly. They are profoundly different one from another, and many of their differences are built in, or (as Dr. Fromm would say), "rooted in a constitutionally given somatic basis." Why, one wonders, do the men and women whose profession it is to understand and treat people's minds neglect to study these constitutionally determined differences between individuals? Such voluntary ignorance can be accounted for, I suppose, partly by the force of inertia and ingrained habit; the one-sided approach is traditional, time-hallowed, sanctioned by the bad example of the founding fathers. Nor must we forget that it is a great deal easier to be one-sided than to think and act realistically in terms of multiple causation. Wherever the line of least resistance can be followed, it generally is followed.

            We see, then, that in their theories, as in their practice, the founding fathers completely neglected the "constitutionally given somatic basis," which determines so much of our thinking, feeling and behavior. However, they did not neglect heredity altogether. Jung and, above all, Rank lightheartedly maintained that acquired characteristics are inherited - a doctrine which all geneticists, even (since the fall of Lysenko) in Russia, now repudiate. It was assumed in their theorizing that notions popular in earlier periods of history are somehow built into the hereditary make-up of twentieth-century babies. According to Rank, "the meeting of the points of view of these two eras (the Spiritual Era and the Sexual Era) and the resulting tension that remained in man ever afterwards [italics mine] comprise the main source of those inner conflicts that a later age described as 'psychological.' " This, surely, is pure balderdash. Hardly less nonsensical is Jung's equation of a human culture-pattern with the built-in behavior of an insect. For the East African tribe of the Elgonyi, he writes, their morning ritual "is a part of the pattern of behavior that life requires, just as the leaf-cutting ant cannot do otherwise than live out the pattern inherent in the nature of its species." But in fact the behavior-pattern built into the cells of the leaf-cutting ant is of a radically different kind from the behavior-pattern acquired, during infancy and childhood, by an East African tribesman. Take a batch of ant's eggs from the tropics and hatch them out in a greenhouse in Stockholm; the adult leaf-cutters will behave precisely as adult leaf-cutters behave in Africa. But now take a new-born Elgonyi baby and bring him up in Stockholm. By the time he grows up, he will be thinking, feeling, speaking and behaving like any Swede of his particular physique and temperament. The morning ritual performed by the Elgonyi in Africa is no more built into them than are their table manners or their language. And now consider the following statement. "When Jung refers to Christ as a 'symbol of the Self,' he means to indicate the fact [italics mine] that for the western psyche some variation of the image of Jesus Christ is inevitably [italics mine] the center, around which the symbolism of individuation is expressed." But it is an observable fact that many people born and brought up in the West (and so, presumably, possessed of a "western psyche") do not experience the image of Christ as a central symbol. Its presence or absence depends on the nature of the conditioning to which the individual happens to have been subjected.

            It is not only through their inherited make-up that bodies affect thoughts, feelings and behavior. Our moods, our general mental tone, our metaphysical theories and view of life, may be determined by faulty nutrition or a chronic infection. There is ample evidence that many undesirable mental states have their primary source, not in some traumatic event of childhood or the more recent past, but in what the late F. M. Alexander aptly called "the improper use of the self" - in bad postural habits, resulting in impaired physiological and psychological functioning. If you teach an individual first to be aware of his physical organism and then to use it as it was meant to be used, you can often change his entire attitude to life and cure his neurotic tendencies. But this, of course, is something which no one-sided psychologist has been taught to do, or would approve of doing, even if he knew how. He just goes on with free association and dream analysis, and hopes for the best. And the best (as those who have tried to assess the effectiveness of psychoanalysis assure us) does not happen as often as one might hope or, given the exorbitant cost of the treatment, legitimately expect.

            And here let us ask ourselves a question which is obviously of the highest importance. Why is it that, though practically every child has to endure large numbers of traumatic experiences, only some children grow up to be neurotics? This is a question to which neither the founding fathers, nor their successors, have paid the attention it deserves. Clearly, we are concerned here with one aspect of the more general problem of resistance. Why are some people so resistant to almost every kind of illness, while others go down like ninepins? There are doubtless many reasons for differences in individual resistance, some strictly environmental, others (more difficult, but perhaps not impossible, to control) built in and hereditary. Thus, extreme susceptibility to the common cold is probably due to a mutant gene. When the biochemical consequences of this mutation can be offset by pharmacological means, the problem of the common cold will be solved. (After which, no doubt, we shall have another, as yet unsuspected, problem to take its place!) And what of extreme susceptibility of psychological traumas? Perhaps this too is genetic in origin. The number of psychotics in relation to the total population has remained, it would seem, remarkably constant. Presumably susceptibility to these severe mental illnesses is due to inherited metabolic anomalies, which result in enzyme disbalance and a special kind of self-poisoning. That some genetic factor may be responsible, at least in part, for susceptibility to the milder forms of mental illness seems perfectly possible. If this is the case, we may look forward to a time when the pharmacologists will achieve rapidly and certainly the results which present-day psychiatrists, with their one-sided methods, can achieve, if at all, only after years of analysis.

            Dr. Progoff says of Freud that his psychological theories were too materialistic. My own view is that, like the theories of most other modern psychologists, they are not nearly materialistic enough. It is worthy of note that the most "spiritual" religions have been the ones to pay the closest, most scientific attention to the body. Hindu and Buddhist theology has a well-developed theory of inherited temperaments. According to this theory, a man is born to follow either the path of devotion, or the path of active duty, or the path of contemplation. And this is not all. If he is born with the capacity to unite himself with God through contemplation, he will be well advised to facilitate the contemplative process by paying special attention to his bodily posture and to such bodily functions as breathing, eating and excreting. Every Oriental philosophy is at bottom a treatise on transcendental psychotherapy. The aim of this therapy is to cure the (statistically speaking) normal of their complacent belief that they are sane, and to lead them on to a state of what may be called absolute, rather than statistical, normality - a state in which they realize who, at bottom, they are. There can be no spirituality except on a basis of well-informed materialism. Lacking completely such a basis, psychology as we know it at present is doomed to go on being theoretically unrealistic and, in practice, largely ineffective.

            Hardly less amazing than the founding fathers' neglect of the body is their failure to pay any attention to language as a determinant of thought, feeling and behavior. We are human because we talk, and the universe in which we live is largely a homemade affair, carved out of the given world by our vocabulary and our syntax, and re-created by ourselves so as to conform in its structure to the structure of the language in which we happen to have been brought up. All the founding fathers, and especially Jung, were deeply interested in what Dr. Fromm calls "the forgotten language" of dreams, myths and fairy tales. But incomparably more important to every human being than this forgotten language is the well-remembered dialect in which he talks to other human beings, the native language - English, Chinese, Eskimo - in terms of which he does most of his learning, almost all his thinking and even much of his feeling and perceiving. (Our perceiving is hardly ever of events as they are immediately given; it is rather of our own ready-made, verbalized concepts projected by the perceiver into the outside world and super-imposed, so to speak, upon the objects of our immediate experience.) Our dependence on language is such that, for most of us, words no longer stand for things - rather things stand for words, and objects are treated as so many illustrations of our verbalized abstractions. No language is completely true to the inner and outer world, to which it is supposed to refer. Most languages, indeed, are so untrue to given reality that it has become necessary to supplement them with the special languages of mathematics. Thus, the world is unquestionably a continuum; there are in reality no separate substantial things, there are only merging events and interacting processes in space-time. But our languages (at any rate those of the Indo-European stock) do not permit us to speak about the world as a continuum, and whenever we want to discuss this aspect of reality, we must use such special, ad hoc languages as the calculus. Our linguistic troubles would be grave enough, even if we always used our language correctly, according to the rules of logic and the dictates of common sense. But in many circumstances of life, we use language incorrectly and with a total disregard for the rules. The result is unrealistic thinking, debauched feeling and distorted perception, leading to action of every degree of inappropriateness from the merely eccentric to the diabolic, from harmless Micawberism to such collective insanities as Hitlerism, heresy hunting and religious wars. Consistently bad language, as Korzybski and the Semanticists have pointed out, is a prime cause of delinquency in thinking, feeling and behaving. But most modern psychologists, as we have seen, are more interested in squabbling about the interpretation of the coded rigmarole of dreams than in studying the far more important subject of the language nobody ever forgets, and the ways in which, during our waking hours, we talk ourselves and one another out of all contact with cosmic reality and the elementary conventions of human decency.

            And now let us briefly consider a few more of the shortcomings of the founding fathers. As Dr. Progoff has pointed out, all of them indulged in the intellectual sin of working up their private experiences into universal generalizations. Thus Freud, for psychological reasons of his own, extolled the extroverted life as "the way of health for every man." This conclusion is wholly unwarranted; for it is quite obvious that many people are congenially introverted and that, for them, the extroverted life is the way of misery, neurosis and disease. And here is another curious example of the same kind of intellectual delinquency. Otto Rank broke with Freud by performing what was for him a great creative act - the writing of his book, The Trauma of Birth. Freud had been very kind to Rank, and, after the break, the latter felt severe pangs of remorse. Universalizing his private feelings, he proceeded to "make the acute observation that one of the aftermaths of a creative act is an attack of guilt feelings, remorse and anxiety." The only trouble with this "acute observation" is that it happens to be untrue to all the facts, except those of Rank's private experience in a very special situation. When Rank asserted that all creative acts are followed by guilt feelings, he was not making an acute observation; he was merely indulging in bad logic, egotism and voluntary ignorance. I have known many artists, and I have observed that their creative acts were sometimes followed by boredom and a sense of emptiness, due to the fact that they had finished their task and had nothing further, for the moment, to do. Occasionally, too, some of them would experience a feeling of disgust at the thought that they had put forth their best efforts and exposed their very souls for the amusement of an indifferent, uncomprehending and profoundly frivolous public. The artists of my acquaintance never suffered from guilt feelings after an act of creation - for the good reason that none was in the peculiar position, while creating, of having quarreled with a benefactor. Building up grandiose generalizations from a few cases, or even from a single case - this, among the psychologists, has been standard procedure.

            No less characteristic, and no less deplorably unscientific, has been their tendency to dogmatize. The founding fathers quarreled with one another; for each was convinced of his own absolute rightness. Thus, in the matter of dream interpretations, "Freud," to quote the words of Dr. Fromm, "rigidly refused to accept any modification and insisted that the only possible interpretation of a dream was that of the wish-fulfillment theory. . . Jung. . . equally dogmatically tended to interpret the dream as an expression of the wisdom of the unconscious." Some of the old odium theologicum (the theological hatred, the loathing on principle) tends to survive among their followers, and we are treated to the ludicrous spectacle - ludicrous, that is to say, in a field which is supposed to be scientific - of Freudianity pitted against Jungism, orthodoxy against orthodoxy, and both against the eclectic Modernism which is gradually taking their place. Perhaps the most ludicrous fact of all is that forty years of sectarian squabbling might have been avoided, if the combatants had taken the trouble to study a book, which appeared at the dawn of the "Psychological Era." I refer to F. W. H. Myers' Human Personality, first published in 1903. Myers set forth a theory of the unconscious far more comprehensive than Freud's narrow and one-sided hypothesis, and superior to Jung's in being better documented with concrete facts and less encumbered with those psycho-anthropologico-pseudo-genetic speculations which becloud the writings of the Sage of Zurich. Jung is like those German classical scholars, of whom Person once said that "they dive deeper and come up muddier than any others." Myers has the immense merit of diving as deeply as Jung into that impersonal, spiritual world which transcends and interpenetrates our bodies, our conscious minds and our personal unconscious - of diving as deeply, but of coming up again with the minimum of mud on him. One of the oddest facts about the oddest of the sciences, is that this amazingly rich, wide-ranging and profound book should have been neglected in favor of description of psychological reality much less complete and realistic, and of explanatory theories much less adequate to the given facts.

(From Esquire Magazine)



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