Existential Psychology

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EXISTENTIAL PSYCHOLOGY

A comprehensive scientific theory that attempted to integrate the contributions of various behavioral sciences, and should therefore be distinguished from existential philosophy, psychiatry, and psychotherapy. Existential psychology required for its integration basic and comprehensive notions concerning man's nature. It found some of these in its existential attitude toward man, others in its phenomenological approach, and still others in contributions from different schools of psychology and psychiatry. It sought to advance the understanding of human existence by encouraging the dialogue between the behavioral sciences and the phenomenology of man, and by integrating the theories and data of psychology and psychiatry into a science based on knowledge of man's essential nature.

Basic Constructs. The ultimate aim of every science is systematic explanation and orderly understanding. In the 1960s the science of psychology began to move toward the construction of comprehensive theories that could integrate the phenomena and constructs of its various schools. Although such phenomena are interrelated, being themselves expressions of man's nature, the inter-relationship can be made explicit only when they are expressed in the same language orwhat is analogous integrated within a common frame of reference. Such a common frame of reference is that provided by a phenomenological description of the original experiences that are differently interpreted by the various schools. The fundamental structures of such experiences, however, require a comprehensive concept for their further integration, and the existential psychologist finds this in the notion of existence.

Existence. The term existence in this context refers to the fact that man's essence is to find himself bodily with others in the world. Man "exsists"literally, he stands out. Such a notion of existence unites the subjective, physiological, objective, and social aspects of man's behavior. The student of human behavior splits it into many aspects and studies these in isolation, thereby producing a variety of psychologies such as social, behavioral, physiological, introspectional, and psychoanalytical. The reintegration of these aspects presupposes a return to the original experience of behavior in its unity, which is to be found in the notion of existence itself. An integrational construct in existential psychology may be defined as a concept referring to observed phenomena that can be used for the integration of the greatest number and variety of such phenomena, as studied by different schools of psychology and psychiatry.

Subordinated Constructs. While existence (or existential) is one fundamental construct used in this comprehensive theory of psychology, subordinated constructs also are needed to develop a full theory. Examples are: mode of existence, existential world, existential transference, the centered self, ontological security, and insecurity. Such constructs function to connect the phenomena uncovered by various schools of psychology with the fundamental construct of existence.

Relation to Differential Constructs. Existential psychology and its constructs must transcend differential psychologies and their corresponding constructs if it is to integrate these within a common frame of reference. Existential constructs are therefore designed to transcend the predominantly subjective, objective, or situational connotations of differential constructs; they represent instead fundamental human characteristics that are rooted in experience. Rather than being function-oriented, they are person-oriented.

Existential psychology is thus a comprehensive theoretical psychology of human behavior that is conceived s a Gestalt of observable differentiations of an original intentional-behavioral relationship of man to the world. Behavior itself is the observable differentiation of man's intentional relationships. For methodical reasons, one can emphasize in this behavioral relationship three components: (1) the "intending" subject-pole, man; (2) the embodiment of this intentionality in measurable behavior; and (3) the "situated" object-pole of the resulting intentional behavior.

Differential psychologies concentrate on one or other of the main profiles of man's existence, thereby temporarily abstracting some aspect from the whole of man's behavior. This methodical restriction gives rise to methodically restricted constructs. Such constructs have their own validity and utility, provided they are not proposed as absolute symbols of the whole reality of human behavior.

Dualism and Integration. Scientific psychology was for the most part rooted in idealism or empiricism, emerging as it did in a cultural atmosphere saturated with Cartesian dualism. Every attempt to found a scientific psychology, therefore, started from either an idealist or an empiricist view of human nature. Idealism led quickly to introspectionism, which considered the contents of consciousness the legitimate and exclusive object of the new science. Empiricism, on the other hand, gave rise to behaviorism, which saw quantifiable bodily behavior isolated from consciousness as its exclusive subject matter. To be truly comprehensive, a psychology of existence must use constructs that are neither introspectionist nor behaviorist, but rather transcend the methodical limitations of both. Only in this way can it integrate their findings, without distortion, into a higher unity.

Psychoanalytic Theory. An appraisal of Freudian psychoanalysis from the viewpoint of comprehensive psychology shows that this too was developed within a framework of Cartesian dualism. S. Freud did not assume an original existential unity between man and the world. In Freudian theory, man is biologically fixed by a pattern of innate and instinctive drives, and this prior to his having any dealings with a world that is in principle alien to his being. The world, rather than being constitutive of man's existence, is purely a collection of foreign objects to which his fundamentally fixed biological structure reacts.

Later analytic development is toward a less dualistic view of man and his world, but seems still incapable of transcending the split between man and world on which psychoanalytic theory was originally based. Thus the cultural, interpersonal school of psychoanalytic thought rejects the idea that man's impulsive and emotional behavior emerges from innate instinctive drives within the organismic box. They substitute the perspective of environmental conditions, social pressures, and cultural patterns for the perspective of autonomous instinctual subjectivity; this in itself implies an underestimation of the relatively free subject-pole who interacts with his culture. They elucidate one aspect of human existence and are able to see the whole of human reality in the light of this. The "situational" aspect, it is true, is everywhere present in man, even in the innermost reaches of his being, and furnishes a valuable and fruitful insight, even if it is confined to only one aspect of human existence.

Differential Psychologies. Differential psychologies deal with isolated profiles of human behavior. Many of these profiles exhibit features, processes, and laws that have parallels in the activities of animals, plants, and inanimate objects. These similar aspects are abstracted, however, from the whole of man's behavior and objectivized for methodological reasons. The full meaning of such isolated features of behavior can be grasped only when they are reintegrated into the whole. Their sense becomes clear when perceived in the light of the properly human qualities of man as a whole; these characterize all profiles of his behavior and their mutual interdependency. Such comprehensive, all-pervading, specifically human qualities cannot be forced into the mechanical models of differential psychologies concerned with stimulus-response, punishment-reward, tension-reduction, or homeostatic models. Such frames of reference are equally applicable to nonhuman beings. Consequently, mechanistic constructs reflect precisely that in man which is not specifically and exclusively true of human behavior as such. The foundational constructs of existential psychology, on the other hand, point to precisely those unique qualities that set man apart from every other type of being. This puts existential psychology in a privileged position to connect the data and theories of differential psychologies.

Philosophy and Phenomenology. The discipline traditionally concerned with man's fundamental characteristics is philosophy or philosophical anthropology; this studies the being of man in the sense of his nature or his essence. Existential psychology must create similar constructs that represent the specifically human characteristics of behavior. Some constructs, however, are inadequate to this task; when obtained from a merely empirical study of certain groups, for example, they are capable only of integrating the data pertaining to those groups. Constructs obtained from an explicitation of man's very being, on the other hand, are, in principle, broad enough to integrate psychological data from all periods of human history and from all classes of men, even as these are obtained and interpreted by the various differential psychologies.

Theoretical interpretations are incompatible to the extent that they are influenced by incompatible philosophical anthropologies. The criterion that thus determines the selection of existential constructs is the principle of applicability. This principle states that the scientific theorist of human behavior should only borrow philosophical assumptions or constructs that can be used to integrate and explain the findings of differential psychologies. This judgment regarding the adequacy of an assumption or statement is thus a selective one and constitutes a psychological and not a philosophical judgment.

The integration of contributions from differential psychologies presupposes a study of these psychologies to distinguish what is based on real experience from unverified models, hypotheses, and implicit philosophies. The methods used to root such constructs in experience are the methods of natural observation and of phenomenology. Natural observation places one, as it were, in the field of phenomena to be studied, and enables him to describe these phenomena as they first appear. The phenomenological method then leads him to the inner structure of these phenomena, and liberates his perception of this structure from both personal and cultural prejudices that may be present in natural observation and description.

Conclusion. Existential psychology thus studied the intentional-functional behavior of persons who exist with others in a meaningful world. Such behavior also exhibits mechanical features that are abstracted for close observation and study by differential psychologists. Since these features are peripheral and not the unique core of intentional behavior, they are perceived in existential psychology as personal differentiations; as such, they are still permeated by the uniquely human characteristics represented in the fundamental existential constructs.

See Also: personality; existentialism; phenomenology.

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[a. l. van kaam]

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Existential Psychology

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