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Rousseau and Humanistic Psychology

March 10, 2011

While reading about the theories of these 17th and 18th century philosophers for this class, I’ve noticed a common reoccurring theme of how all these theorists view human nature in a negative way. Although I understood how these theories could be applied to our lives, I realized that I never had any interest in reading about them, as I rather contemplate human nature in a more positive light.  This was up until Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men. Rousseau believed that human nature is innately good and society is the corrupting force that transforms man into the self-interested man described by Hobbes. This positive view of human nature is a refreshing change compared to Locke’s description of man as selfish and a social animal, and Hobbes’ view that man will behave in a warlike nature if the state is without authority. This also got me thinking about how Rousseau’s political theory relates to other subjects.

Rousseau’s philosophy reminded me of a view of psychology I learned about in high school. The theories of humanistic psychology emphasize the basic goodness of human beings, in contrast to the earlier theories of psychology that focused on abnormal behavior and psychological problems. Like Rousseau, humanist thinkers give more credit to the individual in controlling and determining their state of mental health, and take environmental influences into account. According to humanistic psychologists, the ultimate goal of living is to attain personal growth and understanding. Through constant self-improvement and self-understanding can an individual ever be truly happy. The one key point about this view of psychology is that it promotes free will related to change. This ability of humans to change over time is also seen in Rousseau’s argument, when he states that human nature can, and does, in fact change, and we can bring about this change ourselves. Rousseau’s positive thinking partially stems from the fact that he did most of his writing during the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution in 18th century Europe. His thinking was also a response to Locke’s view of human nature and the natural man. This connection between Rousseau’s philosophy and humanistic psychology shows how the arguments based on the positive view of human nature and the ‘natural man’ has been developed over time.

5 Comments
  1. Josh Platko permalink
    March 10, 2011 10:04 PM

    I really enjoyed reading your post. I couldn’t help but agree with you on almost all levels. In the first paragraph you state that Rousseau thinks we are all corrupted by society. This seems true we are all best in the forms in which we were born, because thats how we are supposed to be. Now were driving everywhere, and living indoors. I personally love these aspects of life, but maybe thats not how were supposed to be acting. Maybe we should be walking everywhere and living outdoors? I’ll let others decide that. This continues along with your paragraph about the humanistic pyschological approach. Society predicts our outcomes, and restricts us to certain limits. If these limits didnt exsist, we could be choosing to do ANYTHING we want. But again I dont think these rules we follow are bad, because life seems to be somewhat under control.

  2. March 12, 2011 12:42 AM

    I found it intriguing how you connected Rousseau’s ideas to humanistic psychology. I feel this is a valid comparison in that both believe humans are fundamentally good. Nevertheless, I would like to point out that the humanistic psychological approach promotes the free will to change and improve our lives through increased understanding while Rousseau differs on this approach. Rousseau’s notion is that we are truly human in our original state only, and that society has corrupted our existence. I would disagree with Rousseau on this account, as it is society that has propelled us to a better understanding of ourselves. From your text, I would say that this is where Rousseau and humanistic psychology differ in opinion and I assert that the humanistic psychology more accurately depicts how changes in how we live are positive for our existence.

  3. Ad maiorem Dei gloriam permalink
    March 12, 2011 10:11 AM

    While I think that Rousseau text does have some logical inconsistencies etc, I don’t think that Rousseau’s argument that we are truly human in our original state can be disproved on the grounds that ‘society has propelled us to gain a better understanding our ourselves’.

    Because, first, we have the benefit of hindsight. Second, even if society has helped us gain a better understanding of ourselves, it still doesn’t undermine the fact that we had a natural state that society could have corrupted. After all, having an understanding of ourselves doesn’t disprove that we had a natural state in which society later corrupted.

    Consider this: when you were an infant, did you know what greed was? Did you know how to cheat, steal? It’s perfectly plausible that as we grow up, we react to societal norms and there our identity corrupts. So, society has helps us in that it has a dominant ideology to which we hold on to, hence we become aware of ourselves. That still doesn’t disprove the fact that as an infant, I didn’t know what greed was, or how to steal.

    Next, I believe that we respond to things that happen around us hence I feel that there’s a snowball effect in that we constantly react and, over time, become acclimatized to these constructions. Consider this: according to psychological research, people are turned off by gore and perversion the first few times they watch such shows. However, over time, they get so used to that violence that it becomes ‘all right’. If this example doesn’t show how human nature/identities are constructions/reactions to certain forces, I could always provide more. As such, it’s not inconceivable that there was indeed an original state (to quote scripture, it was because of SIN that caused a rift and disrupted that natural state of purity).

  4. Ad maiorem Dei gloriam permalink
    March 12, 2011 10:13 AM

    While I think that Rousseau text does have some logical inconsistencies etc, I don’t think that Rousseau’s argument that we are truly human in our original state can be disproved on the grounds that ‘society has propelled us to gain a better understanding our ourselves’.

    Because, first, we have the benefit of hindsight. Second, even if society has helped us gain a better understanding of ourselves, it still doesn’t undermine the fact that we had a natural state that society could have corrupted. After all, having an understanding of ourselves doesn’t disprove that we had a natural state in which society later corrupted.

    Consider this: when you were an infant, did you know what greed was? Did you know how to cheat, steal? It’s perfectly plausible that as we grow up, we react to societal norms and there our identity/state of nature gets corrupted. Society has a dominant ideology to which we hold on to, hence it is around this dominant ideology that we react towards. We become aware of who we are/how we should behave according to this dominant ideology (which is why we dutifully pursue a degree to get a job yada yada). That still doesn’t disprove the fact that as an infant, I didn’t know what greed was, or how to steal.

    Next, I believe that we respond to things that happen around us hence I feel that there’s a snowball effect in that we constantly react and, over time, become acclimatized to these constructions. Consider this: according to psychological research, people are turned off by gore and perversion the first few times they watch such shows. However, over time, they get so used to that violence that it becomes ‘all right’. If this example doesn’t show how human nature/identities are constructions/reactions to certain forces, I could always provide more. As such, it’s not inconceivable that there was indeed an original state (to quote scripture, it was because of SIN that caused a rift and disrupted that natural state of purity).

  5. Aubrey Weil permalink
    March 13, 2011 4:55 PM

    I really enjoyed reading your post and cold not help but to agree on nearly all aspects you mention. Similarly, I was disappointed in the fact that nearly all of these theorists that we study in polisci 101 have a common recurring theme to view human nature in a negative way. I kept finding myself asking why no political theorist had enough trust in humans to contemplate humane nature in amore positive light. As you say, Rousseau’s belief in the good of human nature caught me off guard and truly captivated my attention. Finally a man saw the good in humans. Not only does Rousseau’s positive thinking catch my attention, but also the fact that he believes human nature has the ability to change and develop over time.
    Being a psychology major, I found it extremely interesting to see how you compared the theorist’s views to the views of psychologists. I naturally think, in contrast to many political theorists, of the basic goodness of human beings because of my constant study in the field of psych that emphasizes this positive thought. I agree strongly with your idea that early political theorists, such as Locke and Hobbes, do not give enough credit to the individual in controlling and determining their actions and emotions. Humans have the natural ability to self-improve, a common view of psychologists and a relation seen only to Rousseau’s philosophical beliefs.

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