Toward a Relational Humanism

By Gergen, Kenneth J. | Journal of Humanistic Counseling, July 2015 | Go to article overview

Toward a Relational Humanism


Gergen, Kenneth J., Journal of Humanistic Counseling


Humanist conceptions of the person evolve across history. Whereas humanism has served a pivotal role in the caregiving professions, its individualist emphasis now stands as an impediment to its future. Proposed is a relational reconceptualization of the person, placing relational as opposed to individual well-being at the forefront of humanists' concerns.

The history of humanism is an uneven one, marked by diverse and contradictory influences. Its philosophical assumptions, values, and associated practices have shifted markedly across centuries and cultures (Davies, 1997). During the 1600s, Renaissance humanists attempted to revive the social values of classical Greece, with their emphasis on enhancing communal harmony through education. In certain respects, this view of education is echoed in the current concept of the humanities in higher education, and it stands in significant contrast to the sciences. In the late 1800s, however, the European humanist movement became important in defining the human being as a natural as opposed to spiritual being, thus challenging the hegemony of the Church as the arbiter of worldly knowledge. In this sense, humanists stood firmly in the Enlightenment tradition. Humanists such as John Dewey advocated humanism as a form of secular religion. The powers of human reason, along with ethics and social equality, were emphasized (Wilson, 1995). As humanism came to find a home within 20th-century social science, it carried with it a fundamental tension. Similar to the natural sciences, humanists were committed to a concept of knowledge based on reason and experience. At the same time, in contrast to the positivist science, they were deeply engaged in issues of individual and social value. Thus, as commonly recognized today, the humanist tradition has primarily functioned as a resistance movement to the materialist/positivist reductionism otherwise dominating the study of human behavior (Waterman, 2013). Such resistance has carried with it a range of assumptions and values that have inspired theoretical inquiry, wide-ranging research, and valued forms of practice--particularly within the fields of therapy and counseling.

To touch on central elements of the resistance, whereas the mainstream behavioral sciences define the mind in terms of cognitive/neuromechanics, humanists have placed personal experience toward the center of their concerns. Whereas the positivists have embraced deterministic explanations, humanists have honored human agency. Thus, where behaviorally oriented scientists view impersonal experimentation as the optimal research method, humanists regard empathic interpretation of others' experiences as pivotal to understanding. Whereas positivists have attempted to avoid issues of moral and ideological significance, humanists continue to sustain the moral and ethical concerns of early humanism. Thus, humanists are often concerned with issues of social justice, and they advocate what may be viewed as a compassionate understanding for others. Indeed, one might regard the humanist orientation today as locked in a "battle for human nature," as Schwartz (1987) might put it. It is a battle over whether we are to understand ourselves as machine-like creatures, inextricably driven by forces of heredity and environment, or as sentient beings who can draw from our experience and consciously decide our courses of action.

Yet, as I shall propose in this article, battles such as this find their origins in cultural traditions. Conceptions of human nature are not driven by "what there is," so much as they emerge from historically situated, value-invested negotiations among people. In this sense, we may set aside the long-standing battle over the truth about human nature and begin to inquire more specifically into the consequences of such beliefs for social life. And, although I personally have been a champion of humanist resistance to positivist reductionism, I wish now to place the humanist cluster of conceptions under critical scrutiny. …

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