Does Science Matter? Therapy, Individualism, and the Kosmopolit�s

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As a phenomenological psychologist, I participate in the tradition of human science (Ger: Geisteswissenschaften). Since the foundation of this movement in the pioneering work of Giambattista Vico in the 18th century and Wilhelm Dilthey in the 19th, human science researchers have claimed that the study of human beings demands a radically different approach from that of natural science.

In addition to teaching the Husserlian descriptive phenomenological psychological method developed by Amedeo Giorgi, I teach a yearlong course in psychological research. Many of my students are either practicing clinicians or are in the process of becoming psychotherapists. Often students have not read psychological research prior to taking the course.

Occasionally students candidly admit that they’re not particularly interested in research because their focus is therapeutic work with individuals. Such students find themselves studying research because the course is required for an advanced degree, not because research seems relevant for their clinical work.

Even if this felt-disconnection from research were to represent only a minority of my students, I would take it seriously, because it raises a genuine question: should science—whether quantitative or qualitative—matter to clinicians? I will respond to this question from my own perspective, in a provisional way, in order to promote discussion.

I’ll begin by posing the following questions: Is the sole aim of therapists to understand the individual? Are the most important psychological dimensions of an individual human being limited to those features that make his or her character or experiences most unique? 

This may strike philosophers or experienced clinicians as a naïve way of putting the question. But remember, I’m speaking in a pedagogical context, that is, I’m describing the encounter one has with students who are at the beginning of their careers. In this context I frequently encounter the following twin assumptions:

1.       We most deeply understand the individual person when we grasp what makes his or her psychological experience unique, and

2.       This is so because a person’s uniqueness is the very essence of their humanity

I’m going to respond to these two assumptions first from a Husserlian phenomenological perspective and secondly from the perspective of cultural psychology.

Speaking from phenomenology…

First, a phenomenological response: from my perspective, the two assumptions above neglect the intersubjective matrix within which all human meanings arise. Lau Kwok-Ying offers a nice discussion of these themes in Merleau-Ponty’s work. In short, the expression of what we call “individuality” is always dependent upon and rooted in shared meanings—otherwise, individuals’ psychologically rich expressions would be incomprehensible to others.

Phenomenologists acknowledge that psychological meanings are lived personally, and are often expressed in unique ways. The individual human being is valued, of course. At the same time, isn’t our humanity a relational attribute—part and parcel of belonging to a community of others—rather than my solitary possession? Language, values, hopes, fears—all of these are lived in relation to a world of others and in the midst of that world. None of them are experienced in strict isolation from others, much less created sui generis by an isolated individual. Thus even in the midst of a crisis of depression, in which one perhaps feels utterly cut off from others and despairs of connecting with anyone—nevertheless, this is still a relational phenomenon—only the meaning of the others for the sufferer includes a painful and cut-off sense of inaccessibility.

From a phenomenological perspective, when we are understanding the other’s experience, we are doing so because we are able to grasp in a fundamental way the intersubjective meaning of what’s being lived by that person, albeit in his or her own way.

In other words, in the case of a condition like that referred to by the diagnosis “Post-traumatic Stress Disorder,” we absolutely want to understand how the individual is experiencing the condition, because it may be lived in importantly different ways by different people.

But notice that there is an “it” in the first place that is being lived differently—in other words, we take for granted that the diagnosis “PTSD” is a way of pointing toward a constellation of psychical phenomena that can be described.

Precisely because it can be recognized and understood as a phenomenon apart from the specific, empirical facts of any one individual’s experience of post-traumatic stress, we are able to recognize the ways in which PTSD manifests in different forms and can call for different, nuanced clinical responses.

My point is that if we neglect the phenomenon of PTSD itself, or take the DSM’s diagnostic criteria as somehow self-evident, ahistorical, and requiring no further reflection, then we have effectively medicalized the individual person’s condition: concretized it, objectified it, and rendered it a fully comprehended “problem” to be mechanically “treated.”  Instead of what? Instead of investigating the meaning of what’s being lived by the individual as an intersubjectively meaningful experience—not merely a unique, idiosyncratic one.

Recognizing the intersubjective dimension of the other’s experience actually frees us to discern what is particular about the way it’s being lived by that individual.  Rather than erasing the individual or abstracting away from the human person, phenomenology is a means for a researcher to discover a greater presence to the other’s experience, precisely by neither reifying a diagnosis, on the one hand, which would impose a pre-interpretation upon the individual’s lived-experience, or by assuming that the individual’s experience is somehow sui generis, and effectively severing them from their environing community of meaning.

Before transitioning to the perspective of cultural psychology, I want to note that phenomenological philosophy is already well established in the intercultural domain—for example, Hyong-hyo Kim’s essay “Merleau-Pontean ‘Flesh’ and Its Buddhist Interpretation” in the book Merleau-Ponty and Buddhism. Our psychology needs to catch up with the philosophers!

Cultural psychology critique

The twin assumptions identified above are, through the lens of cultural psychology, blatantly cultural-bound. While it would be naïve to assert absolute boundaries between “cultures,” nevertheless, it should be evident that the prizing of individuality above all else is arguably a uniquely “Western” and perhaps in some respects even a uniquely Anglo-Saxon perspective. 

Rather than viewing this as a merely “cultural” phenomenon (the word “culture” sounds somehow innocent and beyond reproach!), we might also consider that individualism can embody an ideology as well, something Philip Cushman argued brilliantly in his book Constructing the Self, Constructing America: A Cultural History of Psychotherapy. And as Slavoj Zizek recently observed, an ideology is characterized precisely by the fact that its assumptions are so omnipresent that they are never recognized as assumptions. As educators, we owe it to our students to open up these questions with them.

To demonstrate what I mean about the individualistic view being culturally specific, let me sketch three alternate ideals regarding the essential human being: I’ll reference conceptions of the human person drawn from Jewish, Islamic, and Taoist traditions. Three traditions of spiritual thought are mentioned in order to indicate how other cultural ideals place far less emphasis on the importance of individual uniqueness as an end in itself, or embodying the primacy value of a person.

A caveat—I do not mean to suggest that these ideals are monolithic, univocal, or accepted or realized by all members of the respective communities. Nevertheless, they are each views that significantly shaped their surrounding cultures. What follows are mere thumbnails, an attempt to convey a sense of these varied worldviews and cultural “archetypes”:


In Ashkenazi Jewish culture, there is perhaps no praise higher than being called a “mensch.” Mensch literally means simply “a human being;” it implies being a genuine human being, or an actual human being. It is in certain sense the exact opposite of being special or unique—in a way, mentschlekhkeyt (literally, being a mensch, “mensch-ness”) signifies that being a real human being is the highest anyone can aspire to. That is so say: in this cultural context, realizing one’s absolute ordinariness is an ideal. From this perspective, what makes us most human is what unifies us with others, not that which makes us uniquely different and “special.” Norman Lear’s editorial, “A Church for People Like Us” is a brilliant exemplification of mentschlekhkeyt in action.

The felt-sense of mensch, in psychological terms, is completely antithetical to self-importance or preciousness. Instead, it is humble—unavoidably so! Maurice Friedman mentions Martin Buber’s recollection of the Jewish folktale, which relates that the long-awaited Messiah is in fact already present on the earth, waiting in the form of a beggar suffering from leprosy and seated by the gates of Rome, unrecognized among the street people. In other words, in the folktale the Messiah is already here, but is ignored because he’s unrecognizable among the most humble, poor, and physically repugnant members of the community. In much the same way, the mensch is in a sense completely unremarkable precisely because he or she is fully human and subject to human foibles.

Al-insan al-kamil

In classical Sufism, the mystical path in Islam, the phrase al-insan al-kamil is used to designate “the completed human being” (the Arabic word kamil is often translated as “perfect” but in English this suggests too much finality, whereas in classical Sufism it is dynamism and mutability rather than finality that is implied). One can say that in the Sufism of Ibn al Arabi (1165–1240), the ideal of human completion is represented not as achieving a supreme and fixed high level of spiritual achievement, but instead, as Sachiko Murata notes, as one who inhabits a “standpoint of no standpoint”: he or she is a “person of no [fixed] station.”  That is, they are always undergoing change.

According to the classical tradition this transparency to the divine is the outcome of effacements of the person’s distinct identity, shifts that are mediated by the human being’s loving relationship with relationship with God (such people are referred to as “friends of God”. Frequently cited by Sufis in this context is the hadith (a statement attributed to the Prophet) in which God says:

“My servant continues to draw near to me with supererogatory works so that I shall love him. When I love him I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes and his foot with which he walks.”

The paradigmatic expression of this occurs in the Qur’an verse 8:27, a description of a battle referencing an incident in which the Prophet is said to have thrown a stone that scattered the enemy’s troops. The verse itself reads in part, “it was not you who threw, when you threw, but it was God who threw.” In other words, the heroic action itself doesn’t belong even to the most revered Prophet in Islam.

This theme is a familiar topos in classical Sufi literature: the more complete the individual human being is, the more “empty” they are in a certain respect, because they are effaced in their Lord. But simultaneously (and here is the bridge, at least in some versions of Sufism, with mensch) the more human they are. As a cultural ideal of servant-hood, this represents a “lowering” of the individual in the face of something greater, and it is precisely through this service (the classical Arabic words for “servant,” ‘abd and “worship,” ‘ibadah both come from the same root) that the individual human being finds his or her dignity and purpose. So servant-hood in relation to the other, rather than unique individuality, is most prized here.

Shêng jên

In the Taoist texts of Chuang-tsu (whose name is also translated as Zhuangzi; 369—298 BCE) the following account is given of the “true” or “authentic” person (Shêng jên), here translated as “the true man”:

“What is the true man? The true man of old did not oppose the minority, did not strive for heroic accomplishments, and did not scheme over affairs. Such being the case, he did not regret it when he made a mistake nor feel smug when he was right…the true man of old—

Was towering in stature but never collapsed,
Seemed insufficient but accepted nothing;
Aloofly independent but not obstinate,
Amply empty but not ostentatious,
Merry as though he were happy,
Demurring as though he were compelled,
Suffused with an alluring charm,
Endowed with an arresting integrity,
Stern, as if he were worldly,
Arrogant as if he were uncontrollable,
Reticent as if he preferred to clam up,
Absent minded as if he forgot what to say….” (pp. 52-53)

The picture of the true person is remarkably unremarkable and, from an American perspective, unimpressive. This is obviously not someone interested in “marketing” or “branding” himself! On the contrary, this person appears to be in need, and even somewhat disagreeable by ordinary standards!

Similarly, Chuang-Tzu tells a story using the characters of Confucius and his disciple Yen Hui in which Yen Hui seeks permission to travel to intervene with the ruler of Wei, who is oppressing his people, in order to improve the Wei community’s condition.  In the tale, Chuang-Tzu negates every argument that an American “change agent” might come up with to justify intervention, and initially recommends “fasting of the mind” instead—a practice recently mentioned by Mark Yang in this blog. Rather than seeking to summarize this excellent story of Chuang-Tzu, I will simply recommend it as a parable especially to those involved in social transformation—an aim with which I have great sympathy (I mean this literally: the Greek sympathia means a community of feeling).

Final thoughts…

The sketches above are not remotely adequate expositions of the traditions I’ve referenced—rather, they are intended as tastes meant to convey differing flavors of a range of cultural ideals, none of which are consistent with strict individualism.

This is not to reject or indict individualism, nor is it to say that there is no individualism in the varied cultures I’ve mentioned. Quite the contrary—there are undoubtedly profound examples of individualism—or at the very least, striking examples of individuation—within movements such as the Arab Spring and pro-democracy movements in the PRC. The phenomenon of individuation is the property of no culture—although the exclusive valorizing of individualism is doubtless more pronounced in certain times and places.

But is individuation equivalent to “American individualism”? In his study of Jung and Kohut, Mario Jacoby writes: “for Jung the question of meaning is clearly connected with the self realizing itself through the individuation process. [Jung writes:] ‘In the last analysis every life is the realization of a whole…and the realization of (this) alone makes sense of life.’”

Framing realization as an individual person’s “realization of a whole” leaves the door open to the manifold ways in which “wholeness” can be experienced, and would seem to allow for a host of cultural variations apart from those that may be closest to home. This is particularly important in a time when being a “citizen of the world” (kosmopolitês—an expression said to have been coined by Diogenes the Cynic) requires that one seek to understand the varied motivations inspiring social action globally, from New York to Cairo to Moscow: none of the collective mobilizations we are witnessing are monolithic, none of them are identical, and yet as the hallmark of our times, don’t they urgently demand our attention and understanding?

— Marc Applebaum

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