Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development

Postmodernism and Humanism: A Proposed Integration of Perspectives That Value Human Meaning Systems

Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development

Postmodernism and Humanism: A Proposed Integration of Perspectives That Value Human Meaning Systems

Article excerpt

Both postmodernism and humanism place a high value on individual differences in meaning systems. However, there are significant theoretical barriers to integrating these systems into a counseling orientation. A theoretical integration is proposed, along with implications for counseling practice.


Over the history of the counseling profession, hundreds of theories for understanding clients and counseling processes have been proposed (Corsini & Wedding, 2000). One way to organize this vast array of perspectives is according to the degree to which theories value individual differences in subjective experience. Humanism, for example, emphasizes careful attention to client subjectivity, whereas traditional behaviorism, alternatively, places little value on the inner experiential life of clients.

Postmodern perspectives, like humanism, fall on the end of the continuum that emphasizes careful attention to the nuances of client experience (Hansen, 2000, 2002). With their focus on narration and constructivism, postmodern orientations place great value on the subtleties of human meaning systems (Held, 1995). Thus, although postmodern approaches to counseling have an entirely different philosophical foundation than does humanism, they share with humanism an emphasis on client diversity and experiential differences and a reluctance to group clients into broad categories (Gergen, 1995b).

Currently, mental health culture is immersed in the medical model (Barney, 1994; Shorter, 1997), an orientation that falls at the extreme end of the continuum that devalues client subjective experience (Hansen, 2003). Although this orientation has undoubtedly been helpful to certain clients, individual differences in subjectivity are eclipsed in the medical model by an emphasis on classification and treatment of psychiatric symptoms (Hansen, in press). Because of the pervasive influence of this model, counselors working in modern mental health care environments are usually required to diagnose and conceptualize clients in terms of overt symptom constellations, a demand that is antithetical to the humanistic underpinnings of the counseling profession (Hansen, 1997, 2003). Thus, the traditional humanistic values of the counseling profession have been suppressed in modern mental health culture by the dominance of the medical model (Hansen, in press).

There are many reasons for the rise of the medical model, including the discovery of chemical agents that alleviate symptoms (Shorter, 1997), the fact that third-party payers are structured according to a medical perspective (Hansen, 1997), and, perhaps most important, because of the economic benefits of this model for organized psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry (Leifer, 2001). However, another possible reason, which I am now proposing, for the dominance of the medical model is that theories that emphasize human complexity, notably humanism and postmodernism, do not provide a conceptually unified alternative to theories that blur individual differences through categorization, such as the medical model. That is, there is little dialogue or cross-fertilization between humanistic and postmodern orientations. As isolated perspectives, neither humanism nor postmodernism has the critical mass to challenge the dominant medical model.

The purpose of this article, then, is to explore the consequences of integrating humanistic and postmodern perspectives, with the hope that an integration of orientations that emphasize human meaning systems will provide a more effective challenge to the dominant medical model, which virtually ignores individual differences in meaning construction. This is accomplished within the following structure: (a) theoretical background, (b) conceptual similarities and differences between humanism and postmodernism, (c) resolutions to conceptual differences, and (d) discussion and conclusions.



Humanism, as a counseling perspective, began to emerge in the middle of the 20th century (Hansen, in press). …

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