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1935 - ON POTENTIAL

Humanism as Antithesis

      Humanism was a reaction against behaviourism. My first destination on retiring at 35 was California, since this was considered "the edge of history" where one could see the future. At Esalen Institute in Big Sur, the first growth centre, I got immersed in the humanistic movement. Peripheral involvement in a posthumous volume of articles by Abraham Maslow, the leader of the movement, published by Brooks/Cole where I was author-in-residence, also helped. The humanistic concept of the person could be considered as a system of five propositions in which each proposition contradicts the corresponding proposition in the behaviouristic concept of the person:
The person has intrinsic needs
The person is growing from the inside out
The person is responsible for behaviour
The person has intrinsic worth
The person has intimate relationships
      The humanist agrees with the behaviourist that the nervous system mediates between internal and external environments to satisfy biological needs. Death is the dramatic documentation of the biological needs. However, the humanist argues that the nervous system also has needs of its own. Mother nature loads Jack and Jill with hunger and thirst so that they can survive. However, she also loads them with sex so that the species will survive. Mother Nature like many mothers wants to be a grandmother. Since there is a long period of infant dependency in our species, she loads them not just with sex but with love so that they will stay around to take care of their children. Whereas biological needs ensure the survival of the individual, those sociological needs ensure the survival of the species.

      There is a huge body of empirical evidence of a need for stimulation and of a need for consistency. Those are, respectively, the organic bases for the need to know and the need to understand. That is, we need not only to know but we need a consistent map of the world. Thus our behaviour is determined not by the objective world but by our subjective map of the objective world. The subjective map is a space-binder and a time-binder - we are not confined to the here and now. In our minds, we can roam freely through space and time. Our behaviour is determined not just by the present but by memories and regrets from the past and hopes and fears about the future.

      The nervous system is thus not, as the behaviourists argue, simply a mediator between the internal and external environments. Our behaviour is thus not simply a mechanical response to the world-as-it-is (objective world) but an organic action based on the world-as-we-see-it (subjective map). Our motivation is not merely hedonistic, avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure, but much more complex and unique systems of motivation, dealing with our fears (prospects of pain) and our hopes (prospects of pleasure). The survival value of pain is obvious. Just imagine how impossible life would be if we did not experience the pain which informs us that our tanks are full. The survival value of pleasure is less obvious. However, unless mother nature had loaded us with the pleasure of making love, our species would soon peter out. Shifting from the present (pain and pleasure) to the future (fear as anticipation of pain and hope as anticipation of pleasure) allows imagination to enter into the analysis, and takes us far beyond mere hedonism.

      If the person has intrinsic needs, then the person grows from the inside out. Every normal child has the potential to be fully a person, just as every normal acorn has the potential to be fully an oak tree and every normal kitten has the potential to be fully a cat. Powered by the intrinsic system of needs described above, the child seeks satisfaction for them. In an appropriate environment, children are able to satisfy those needs and thus realise their human potential. The basic project of the child is to become an adult - not any old adult but a great and good adult. We therefore need to 'explain' not the genius of a Pablo Picasso or a Margaret Mead (or whoever you think has most fully realised the human potential) but rather why we are not all Picassos or Meads. We need to explain not growth itself (this is simply the unfolding of the intrinsic potential) but the stunting of growth.

      The humanist thus sees the members of my karass as having the potential to be fully human just as as the acorn has the potential to be fully an oak tree and the kitten has the potential to be fully a cat. Thus, we have to explain not so much Albert Einstein or Margaret Mead (or whoever you think has most fully realised the human potential) as how the rest of us are so stunted! Abraham Maslow argues that the biological, sociological, and psychological needs described above are organised in a hierarchy. When biological needs are satisfied, we shift gears up to sociological needs, and when sociological needs are satisfied, we shift gears up to psychological needs [MASLOW]. Most people on our planet are so poor that they spend their lifetimes dealing with the satisfaction of biological needs - finding food and providing shelter for themselves and their families.

      Several members of my karass were born rich in potential (we all get the conception-day gift of the wisdom of our species) but poor in opportunity to realise this potential. They were born in poverty. It is interesting to see how they shifted the emphasis in their lives from chance to choice. All of them seem to have had some good luck which saved them from a life limited by poverty.

      Even those who are able to easily move up this hierarchy to the level of the psychological needs to know and understand do not necessarily realise the full human potential. Abraham Maslow argues that one of the reasons so few of us are able to realise the full human potential is because the need to know is limited by the fear of knowing [MASLOW]. One GAMMA project was to develop a Scale of Technophobia for the Department of Communication of the Canadian Federal Government. It soon became clear that what we were really measuring was neophobia. People, who had just told us how they had affectionately named their car Mabel, would say that they hate technology. When the contradiction was pointed out, they would protest that Mabel is not really technology. Turns out that technology refers only to unfamiliar machines. What they hated was unfamiliar things, whether machines or whatever.

      Fear of new things makes good evolutionary sense. As long as things remain the same, there is no danger. It's new things which are threatening. However, there is considerable evidence of a need for stimulation, which is satisfied by novel stimuli. This need drives us to explore and manipulate new things to remove the danger or threat of danger. Having explored and manipulated a novel stimulus, it is no longer novel, and we have to seek other novel stimuli to satisfy our need for stimulation. Perhaps exploration becomes functionally autonomous - initially we explore to remove danger but eventually we explore just to explore. Most of us however cease to explore once we deem the world to be safe.

      Members of my karass tend to be among those whose need to know and understand is not constrained by this natural fear of knowing, However, the humanistic concept of the person does not explain what they chose to know and understand. Why did our various scholars chose their fields of expertise? We need to take the environment into account to explain why Elvis Presley chose to sing rock and roll whereas Luciano Pavoratti chose to sing opera. This is relatively easy. However, how do we explain the very different careers of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Ronnie Hawkins all born in the same place (deep South of America) at the same time (1935) and all inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame? That requires a closer look at their environments. The humanistic concept of the person tends to emphasise the positive aspect of human potential. How do we explain the members of my karass who realised the negative potential of human nature - Richard Kuklinsky, hitman; Robert Vesco, white-collar criminal; and General Gnassingbé Eyadema, Dictator - and how they chose their particular brand of evil.

Return to the Table of Contents       Continue to Chapter 1.4


1   I once spent an evening with a therapist in San Francisco. His conversation consisted largely of the problems he was having in his hectic life. "Why" I ventured at one point, "should I come to you for therapy. Your own life is so screwed up. How could you help me with mine." "Some people are good coaches but they are not good players." "Good point - where do I sign up?"