What is the humanistic perspective?

By Brett Joseph

In a recent letter to the Saybrook University community, incoming president Nathan Long, Ed.D., affirms our “passionate dedication to mission” and states that “in a day and age in which higher education is faced with myriad challenges both internally and externally, Saybrook’s approach to progressive research and scholarly application is even more relevant than it was 42 years ago.”

Abraham Maslow
Abraham Maslow

This unique approach, expressed in Saybrook’s mission, core principles, and values, has often been described as stemming from a “humanistic perspective,” in keeping with the original vision of Saybrook’s founders. Work from luminaries such as Rollo May and Abraham Maslow defined the field that has come to be known as “humanistic psychology.”

Today, while still leading the humanistic psychology movement, Saybrook has become a truly global learning community. Its mission and the contributions of its scholar-practitioners extend into a wide range of complementary and integrative fields, including pioneering new degree programs in humane education and global workforce collaboration. As our academic community grows, so does our larger community of stakeholders, those whose lives are improved and enriched by our progressive research, and our work in the world. I agree with Dr. Long that our unique approach is more relevant than ever. Although I am biased, I also believe we are fairly described as “the world’s premier institution for humanistic studies.”

However, I also would venture that what makes our learning approach most relevant to the complex problems and needs of our global community is our ability to admit that we do not have all the answers. We are willing to ponder on questions such as “What does it mean to be human in the 21st century?” As my own path has taken me from studies in psychology through socially engaged spirituality and organizational systems, I have come to appreciate the depth of inquiry implied by this question and the need to keep the conversation going so that the “humanistic perspective” is broadly understood as something much more than an institutional brand or tradition.

During a study break last week, I started using Google to search all the various definitions of “humanism” or “humanistic studies” that are scattered across the web. This little exercise prompted me to think about how this (often confusing) concept of humanism might appear in a mind-map, given the many different types of responses that might be elicited by the question, “What is the humanistic perspective?”

Admittedly, I was not surprised to find that there is no single cohesive definition. For example, the editors of The Humanist magazine emphasize how humanism is a rational philosophy that stands as a bulwark against a global rise of religious fundamentalism, whereas various university programs associate the term with the classical humanities. As mentioned, Saybrook’s brand of humanism stems from its origins in humanistic psychology, yet is evolving toward a more integral and socially engaged humanism that touches on how we engage in medical care, peacemaking, business management, and a variety of other pursuits.

At risk of oversimplification, I found that these “versions” of humanism seemed to align within three broad categories, based on where they fall along the spectrum of public versus private, rational versus aesthetic, etc. These perspectives might be described as “private-creative” (aligned with the classical humanities); “public-rational” (aligned with secularist philosophy); and pluralistic-integral (aligned with humanistic psychology and the human potential movement). A common denominator seems to be an emphasis on a certain embodied realism, which can also be described as a critical stance toward too much abstraction or “otherworldliness.”

Yet, the distinction made by some between humanism and religious fundamentalism, or between humanism and scientific positivism (the latter duality being reflected in the common institutional separation between the “sciences” and the “humanities”), carries a built-in tension. Although rarely stated explicitly, the modern concept of “the humanities” often is treated as synonymous with the pejorative notion of “unscientific.”  Disciplines such as biology and psychology have distanced themselves from the humanities, and today many scholars agree these disciplines have suffered as a result. By the same token, humanism tends to embrace science as an answer to religious fundamentalism. No wonder there is so much confusion over the meaning of the term “humanistic”!

So what do we really mean when we describe our approach to research and practice as “humanistic” and “progressive”?   I believe that the humanistic perspective, as it is currently evolving, may well offer a pathway to a “unity of knowledge” (borrowing a term used by celebrated biologist E.O. Wilson). I further believe that such unity can only be achieved if we are willing to live with a certain amount of tension and avoid the habit of trying to “resolve” binaries such as the humanism/theism binary.

On one hand, all categories such as disciplines implicitly exclude some other categories. On the other hand, categories in the end are abstract constructs that can be transcended if we are willing to forego the luxury of absolute certainty.

I, for one, choose to embrace the tension and uncertainty of “being human.” After having spent my life seeking to embody the humanistic spirit, if “in the end” it turns out that the religious fundamentalists are right and I am someday swept up and placed at the feet of an otherworldly deity, my first question will be whether I can retain my ability to doubt.


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