Appraisal Special Issue, Spring 2020 The Common Good: An Introduction to Personalism
Person, Community, and Psychology
During the 1940s and 50s in the United States, in, when psychoanalytic psychiatry was the paradigm of mental health care, having only recently come under attack by behaviourism, a curious thing happened. Individuals with schizophrenia would experience a psychotic decompensation (a decline in reality testing that can include hallucinations, delusions and disorganized speech and behaviour, as well as other symptoms) and be admitted to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. Chlorpromazine/Thorazine, the first antipsychotic medication was becoming available for the treatment of psychosis, making an enormous difference in the lives of individuals with schizophrenia. At the same time, mental health intervention during this era possessed a highly individualized focus. While factors beyond the person (family, for example) might be considered as causal factors, treatment typically focused on the patient alone. As one of my own professors in graduate school put it, the psychoanalyst’s view was that the family had harmed the person (even referring to ‘schizophrenogenic mothers’), and the patient was to be handed over to the hospital staff to be ‘fixed’ and then returned to their family. What tended to happen, though, was that the person would return to their family and decompensate again. At some point around the mid-century, some smart people in the psychoanalytic community had a new thought: maybe the problem is not solely in the individual. Maybe their family environment has something to do with their overall mental health status. This shocking insight was, in essence, the beginning of what came to be known as family systems therapy. Today, when most psychotherapists sit with a family, there is one person who is thought of as the ‘identified patient,’ but the entire family and their interactions, for better or worse, is the client. Interventions that touch on the whole family system tend to promote better mental health for the patient.
This familial or interpersonal focus was not without precedent within the psychoanalytic community. Already, in the first generation of Freud’s disciples, when psychoanalysts began working with children, they found a rather different picture of development and psychopathology than the one Freud had described based on his working with adults and reading backwards into their childhood. Contra Freud’s focus on internal psychic activity, children who had warm, loving environments tended to develop into warm and loving adults, while those confronted with deprivation, trauma, dysfunction, anger or loneliness tended to turn out quite differently. The subdiscipline of psychoanalysis known as Object Relations Theory diverged from classical Freudian psychoanalytic theory early on in recognizing that a healthy relational world is essential for the normal and healthy development of a person. This recognition brought about a distinct shift in the process of psychotherapy. Instead of dealing exclusively with a single patient’s intrapsychic conflicts and the transference in the psychoanalytic hour, therapists began dealing with early life relationships, which provided individuals in treatment the opportunity to ‘rework,’ ‘reexperience’ and ‘have a do-over’ in their own relational development with the goal of correcting the effects of harm done. This allowed the person to move forward in life in a more healthy, relational context It was not accidental that D. W. Winnicott came to view psychotherapy in relational terms, as a ‘holding environment’ in which individuals could find what they had not been able to find in their own development.
This issue of Appraisal has provided several reviews of Jonas Norgaard Mortensen’s The Common Good. Being a psychologist by training, in this piece, rather than attempting to capture the whole book, I am going to focus on the final chapter, which is titled, ‘Postscript: Psychology and Personalism.’ First, the title ‘PostScript’ is a bit misleading – it is a full-length, developed chapter that considers the interface between the disciplines of psychology and personalist thinking. There are three topics I would like to attend to in this review: first, I will provide a brief overview of the chapter. Second, I will look at the wider questions raised by Mortensen about personalism and contemporary psychology, and finally, I will attend to the issue of how personalism might inform the psychotherapy process.
There are many personalist philosophers who stand behind the vision articulated in this chapter, individuals whom Mortensen references earlier in the book, such as Emmanuel Mounier, Martin Buber and the whole tradition of communitarian personalism, Gabriel Marcel’s existentialist perspective, Desmund Tutu in his focus on the need for reconciliation in family and society, Nikolaj Grundtvig and his focus on the development of persons through the educational system and the importance of the common good as the context in which this occurs, Jacques Maritain’s perspective on the individual and the common good, and Max Scheler and Edith Stein’s thoughts on empathy. Collectively, these figures point to the importance of the social, the communal, the cultural, and the societal and the development of persons, and as a group they serve as a strong counterweight to the increased cognitive focus of contemporary psychology, typified in such statements as ‘You are your brain.’ The chapter cites ample evidence for the necessity of the relational for the development of healthy persons, in part through the via negativa of psychological research about what happens to children who are denied a healthy social context in which to develop. From Harry Harlow’s animal studies, Anna Freud's work at Bulldogs Bank in England, to studies of children in eastern European orphanages, it has become abundantly clear that without a relational framework, we cannot fully develop as persons.
Given the growing presence of cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience, Mortensen does well to mention the perspectives of these disciplines with regard to the human person. He notes that all of us are born with more neurons than we need – we all go through a process of neuronal pruning – apoptosis – early in life. Each of us is born roughly 150 billion neurons in our brain, though by the time we reach adulthood, this is been culled to 100 billion, still impressive, but a 33% loss. Experience, not least relational experience, plays a decisive role in this process. What is not used disappears, and what remains often does not reach full development. The recent and developing field of epigenetics focuses on the impact of experience on the brain, right down to the level of the structuring of strands of our DNA, and the manner in which individual genes express proteins as influenced by our experience.
Science has provided enormous insight into these processes, but, as Mortensen points out, the scientific worldview also creates blind spots. Within the regional ontology of sciences, there are numerous philosophical assumptions in play, which are typically unacknowledged, but forceful nevertheless. The worldview of science is fundamentally materialistic and deterministic, and it is from this perspective that much of contemporary psychology considers persons. The personalist philosopher John Macmurray, across several works, traced the historical development of science and its impact on philosophy, from the beginnings of the scientific revolution and the development of physics (which dealt in deterministic cause-and-effect paradigms) through the 19th century development of the biological sciences and the beginnings of genetics, which, despite the inclusion of the biology of living things as a legitimate subject of study, remained deterministic in its perspective, moving from paradigms of cause and effect to those of stimulus and response. Science and the philosophy that has developed in relation to it has, historically, taken a bottom-up approach to the nature of persons. A fundamental consequence of this approach is that both disciplines (science and philosophy) have attempted to understand persons from the perspective of the physical and the organic, that is from the perspective of determinism. In his book Persons in Relation, Macmurray points out that one of the chief developments of personalist thinking in the 20th century was to recognize another level or aspect, which he termed ‘the Field of the Personal.’ This recognition was a critical personalist move, a turn from ‘what’ to ‘who’ in thinking about persons and his argument was that in order to understand the world around us, including ourselves, we cannot continue to take the bottom-up approach of the sciences and make use, solely, of empiricist philosophy. Instead, both scientists and philosophers must reverse this process, beginning with that which is uniquely personal. Instead of trying to understand persons in terms of matter, mechanism and biology, what we (all of us) tend to do in practice is engage in a world of metaphorical understanding – when we subtract that which is uniquely personal about us, we are left with the field of the organic. When we remove biological life, we are left with the field of the material and mechanical. Mortensen argues in his postscript, essentially, for this top-down approach to persons, recognizing what is unique to each of us, and principal among this uniqueness is the relational nature of our being. To take such a perspective is to eschew approaches that focus on the pursuit and maximization of individual pleasure, as well as recognizing that the notion of radical independence is, at its base, an illusion that redounds to our ill. He advocates a ‘relational psychology’ (p. 148) that overcomes the limits of the empirical thinking that is pervasive in psychology through an interface between a more robust philosophical anthropology grounded in personalistic principles that recognizes the relational as an essential aspect of persons.
3. Personalism and psychotherapy
Consideration of the manner in which personalist thinking might influence the psychotherapy process, both for psychotherapist and patient, deserves a book-length treatment in itself. The Common Good remains more theoretical than practical in this regard, but this is not because psychologists influenced by personalism are not doing such work on the ground. Mortensen and his colleagues at the Institute for Relational Psychology are engaged in precisely this endeavour. And, because personalism is an international perspective, attempts to develop an explicit personalist psychology are in progress in other countries as well. I will briefly mention one book that captures this process as it is being worked out in Central and South America, Introducción a la psicología personalista (Introduction to Personalist Psychology, 2013)3 edited by José Luis Cañas, Xosé Manuel Dominguez and Juan Manuel Burgos. South American psychological tradition still bears the mark of its psychoanalytic foundations, and one of the major influences on personalist psychological thinking is the work of Victor Frankl. In addition, one sees recourse to the work of the humanist psychologists of the 20th and 21st century, as well as personalist thinking, particularly in the domains of philosophical anthropology and ethics. The authors of this work have already found success in a process that in many parts of West has barely begun – the move beyond models of empiricism and determinism that, while encompassing such thinking, are not limited by it. Cañas and his colleagues (2013) explicitly address issues of human dignity, as well as an integral and unified vision a person that takes into account body mind and spirit, They also consider the notion of human suffering that extends beyond suffering conceived of as something simply to be avoided at all costs, but rather as something that can also have personal meaning. The authors place all of these considerations in the context of human living in community, which includes a recognition of persons as having an open-ended quality, open to new development, new insight and revelation in many contexts – in the family, in education, in the world of work, in ever-larger social constellations, and with God. Characteristic of many of the authors in Cañas (for example, Xosé Manuel Domínguez Prieto, Marco Tulio Arévalo Morales, and Pablo René Etchebhere and Inés Riego de Moine) is their willingness to consider the religious dimension of persons, something that has been largely absent from the beginnings of modern Western psychology to the present. Indeed, the willingness to consider an individual's relationship with God in the therapy room is regarded by much of mainstream psychology as something suspect and a bit distasteful. In contrast, Mortensen’s ongoing consideration on the relational nature of persons allows room for consideration of every personal relationship, including our relationship with God, an opening out which allows the psychotherapeutic setting to deal directly and deeply with fundamental questions of human living – the meaning of life and death, of suffering and fulfilment, and of human life in the wider context of relationship to God. Mortensen and his colleagues are spearheading a different and much needed vision of psychology and psychotherapy, one that is capable of recognizing and attending to the whole person, and the whole person’s community. It is my hope that the translation of the new edition of The Common Good into English will be an important step in this direction. I look forward to what he has to say about all of these topics in the future.