Monday, May 14, 2012

Thought Experiment: Carl Rogers and Post-Modernism

It has been a very busy semester for me here at Yale, and as a result I have been pretty inactive in the blogging world of late.  Have several partially completed posts in the line-up for the future, but as a first foray back to the blog, thought I'd throw up some stuff I've been reading lately and see what people think.  I am currently engaged in the final research and writing push for a paper on philosophy that I'm excited about because I think it will integrate a lot of things I am interested in the ares of hermeneutics, existentialism, and psychology.  A significant part of my research the last few days has been focused on one of the leading psychologists of the last century, a fellow by the name of Carl Rogers, one of the founding figures of a movement known as "humanistic psychology" which attempts to move psychology away from the supposed scientific rigor of behaviorism and reconnect with philosophy, especially the existentialist philosophers of Europe.  If most of that introduction was meaningless to you, that's fine.  I find this stuff very exciting, but I'm an odd duck, I know.

What I've posted below is a lengthy selection from an essay Rogers wrote in 1978 titled "Do We Need 'A' Reality?"  This is perhaps one of the most succinct and compelling presentations of what a "post-Modern" worldview might look like that I have read, and I want to do a little thought experiment with it.  Experiment might not be the right word, as I think about it, but work with me.  What I'm very interested in is how other people react to this passage.  I've included very briefly some of my own thoughts below the quote, but I'm mostly interested in your reactions.  What do you agree with?  What do you disagree with? Where is Rogers right on the money?  Where is he lost at sea?  Is his vision attainable or is he too idealistic?  Let me know what you think:

I, and many others, have come to a new realization.  It is this: The only reality I can possibly know is the world as I perceive and experience it as this moment.  The only reality you can possibly know is the world as you perceive and experience it as this moment.  And the only certainty is that those perceived realities are different.  There are as many “real worlds” as there are people!  This creates a most burdensome dilemma, one never before experienced in history.  

Form time immemorial, the tribe or the community or the nation or the culture has agreed upon what constitutes the real world.  To be sure, different tribes or different cultures might have held sharply different world views, but at least there was a large, relatively unified group which felt assured in its knowledge of the world and the universe, and knew that this perception was true.  So the community frowned upon, condemned, persecuted, even killed those who did not agree, who perceived reality differently.  Copernicus, even though he kept his findings secret for many years, was eventually declared a heretic.  Galileo established proof of Copernicus’s views, but in his seventies he was forced to recant his teachings.  Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for teaching that there were many worlds in our universe.  Individuals who deviated in their perception of religious reality were tortured and killed.  In the mid-1800’s, Ignaz Semmelweis, an intense young Hungarian physician-scientist, was driven insane by his persecutors because he made the then absurd claim that childbed fever, that dread scourge of the maternity room, was carried from one woman to another by invisible germs on the hands and instruments of the doctors.  Obvious nonsense, in the terms of the reality of his day.  In our American Colonies, those who were even suspected of having psychic powers were considered witches and were hanged or crushed under great stones.  History offers a continuing series of examples of the awful price paid by those who perceive a reality different from the agreed-upon real world.  Although society has often come around eventually to agree with its dissidents, as in the instances I have mentioned, there is no doubt that this insistence upon a known and certain universe has been part of the cement that holds a culture together.  

Today we face a different situation.  The ease and rapidity of worldwide communication means that every one of us is aware of a dozen “realities”; even though we may think some of them absurd (like reincarnation) or dangerous (like communism), we cannot help but be aware of them.  No longer can we exist in a secure cocoon, knowing that we all see the world in the same way.

Because of this change, I want to raise a very serious question:  Can we today afford the luxury of having “a” reality?  Can we still preserve the belief that there is a “real world” upon whose definition we all agree?  I am convinced that this is a luxury we cannot afford, a myth we dare not maintain.  Only once in recent history has this been fully and successfully achieved.  Millions of people were in complete agreement as to the nature of social and cultural reality-- agreement brought about by the mesmerizing influence of Hitler.  This agreement about reality nearly marked the destruction of Western culture.  I do not see it as something to be emulated.

In Western culture during this century-- especially in the United States-- there has also been an agreed-upon reality of values.  This gospel can be stated very briefly:  “More is better, bigger is better, faster is better, and modern technology will achieve all three of these eminently desirable goals.”  But now that credo is a crumbling disaster in which few believe.  It is dissolving in the smog of pollution, the famine of overpopulation, the Damocles’ sword of the nuclear bomb.  We have so successfully achieved the goal of “a bigger bang for a buck” that we are in danger of destroying all life on this planet.

Our attempts, then, to live in the “real world” which all perceive in the same way have, in my opinion, led us to the brink of annihilation as a species.  I will be so bold as to suggest an alternative.

It appears to me that the way of the future must be to base our lives and our education on the assumption that there are as many realities as there are persons, and that our highest priority is to accept that hypothesis and proceed from there.  Proceed where?  Proceed, each of us, to explore open-mindedly the many, many perceptions of reality that exist.  We would, I believe, enrich our own lives in the process.  We would also become more able to cope with the reality in which each one of us exists, because, we would be aware of many more options.  This might well be a life full of perplexity and difficult choices, demanding greater maturity, but it would be an exciting and adventurous life.

The question may well be raised, however, whether we could have a community or a society based on this hypothesis of multiple realities.  Might not such a community be a completely individualistic anarchy?  That is not my opinion.  Suppose my grudging tolerance of your separate world view became a full acceptance of you and your right to have such a view.  Suppose that instead of shutting out the realities of others as absurd or dangerous or heretical or stupid, I was willing to explore and learn about those realities?  Suppose you were willing to do the same.  What would be the social result?  I think that our society would be based not on a blind commitment to a cause or creed or view of reality, but on a common commitment to each other as rightfully separate persons, with separate realities.  The natural human tendency to care for another would no longer be “I care for you because you are the same as I,” but instead “I prize and treasure you because you are different from me.”

 If you have read much of this blog you will probably recognize from the first paragraph of this quote that I am very sympathetic to at least some of what Rogers is saying here.  Two criticisms that I have, however, are worth mentioning.  First, I think Rogers moves too quickly from epistemology to metaphysics.  I agree with his assessment of the human condition in so far as we are able to "know" reality, but I'm not sure this means what he takes it to mean concerning whether or not there "is" a reality.  Second, I think Rogers is too idealistic.  I share his desire for a world of peace and tolerance, but I'm not sure its attainable by the human means he outlines.

That's all the assessment I'm giving here.  Want to hear what others think.  Enjoy!


  1. The difficult point for me is that Rogers equivocates about what "reality" exactly consists in. On the one hand, he seems to say very clearly that every human being has a different understanding of reality, but it is not clear if this authorizes the belief either that (there is one reality which we all agree upon but interpret differently [perspectivalism]) or that (there is no such thing as reality [nihilism]), where reality in both instances is understood roughly as 'the external world.' His catalogue of aggravations to the progress of the sciences would seem to suggest a realist perspective, and therefore would suggest the former. Less conclusively, but at least possibly, his plea for tolerance around differing world views that occupies the second section of his excerpt could suggest both the former and the latter; although, at least by my reading, he still seems to be suggesting the former.

    Honestly, though, I don't think Rogers has any interest in metaphysics. By my read, he seems more interested in preserving the free exchange of ideas and promoting the value of having different perspectives.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I think you are right that there is some equivocation going on, but I'm not sure Rogers would see the same dichotomy as you do. I think he wants to propose that there is legitimately a third option between perspectivism and nihilism, that there really can be multiple realities. Your remark about the catalogue of aggravations suggesting a "realist perspective" is interesting-- I wonder if that is a point of inconsistency for Rogers (suggesting he may underneath it all have a view that there is "a" reality).


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