Existential psychology is perhaps best understood by the writings of Rollo May, who first published a book by that name.

So identified is existentialism with humanism that many refer to the two fields as "existential-humanistic" psychology (May, 1969, p. vi). The emphasis is upon existence, the present, and what that meaning has for those individuals who are faced with the prospect of death. Rollo May (1956) calls the existentialists ". . . the shock troops of the humanistic movement who often make rash and extreme statements and feed on crises."


1. How are existentialism and humanism different?
2. How are existentialism and phenomenology different?
3. How is "becoming" different from "essence?"
4. What is meant by an emphasis on action as opposed to understanding?
5. What is the existentialist's position on illusions?
6. Why does modern man feel fragmented?
7. What are the applications of existentialism to psychology?


Krutch (1962) claims that both naturalism and transcendentalism seemed to make sense; they were, at least, "logically tenable." But existentialism,a rejection of rationality, an irrational universe? George Bernard Shaw proposed the solution in "Back to Methuselah," says Krutch. That is the antidote to Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." Man has two things: l) the imagination; and 2) the will which "enables him to see to it that what might be shall become what is." One generation of Americans was, to a large degree, surprisingly captivated by "Waiting for Godot," and Beckett, and all the plays that advance an existential point of view and reject rationality and meaning. The only admitted meaning is what the individual can construct for himself. A self centered, egotistic, and "ego-trip" psychology emerged from a prevalent past.

Most definitions of existentialism contain little or no substance, but the core idea stresses action and becoming as opposed to essence and existence.

Existentialism, as a philosophical position, addresses two metaphysical questions. The first question deals with ontology -- what is the nature of reality or the nature of being? The second question deals with epistemology -- what is the nature of knowledge. Let us first turn to the question of ontology.


The nature of reality and the nature of being, as defined by the existentialists, may be understood by the following propositions:

Being and becoming are valued.

Being and becoming are more valued than existence and essence. What a thing is becoming counts more than its essence or essential nature. Existentialists emphasize the emerging, developing, changing, and dynamic characteristic of a thing; Aristotle emphasized its essence, quality, or specific nature. Existentialists emphasize the process; Aristotle attempted to define the structure of something by reference to the process. To maintain, with Aristotle, that man possesses an inherent quality would be to ". . . introduce a permanent element, contradictory to man's power of transforming himself indefinitely (Tillich, in Sartre, p. 7)." Man, on the contrary, is continually creating himself.

Fragmentation of humans.

The existentialists believe that man has progressively become more fragmented. At one time, man may have been comparatively whole and integrated. During the past few centuries, and especially in the twentieth, man has gradually become more fragmented. May (1958) claims that this fragmentation emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, especially in Victorian England. And it occurred primarily because of the increasing dependence upon and the use of abstractions. Compartmentalization of both the world and oneself has resulted. Thus, rationalism fails; it has encouraged categorical and compartmentalized thinking. For example: Victorian good was opposed to evil; rational man was opposed to the irrational child. This categorical thinking produced certain undesirable consequences; people have been caught in a double life involving a personal and impersonal side, a rational and irrational side. The need for different selves or to play different roles has created internal division and its consequent anxiety. Fragmentation, with its resulting anxiety, fear and diminished ego, produced inaction. The fragmentation within man has been reflected in or perhaps caused by the fragmentation within science. The unity of science movement, therefore, has been an attempt to bring disparate fields together.

May (1958 , p. 19) claims that anxiety results from self estrangement. If one could only return to the naive, untortured, and sensory level of existence. Or, as Keats cried out, "Oh, for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts."

Individual norms.

The norm for any action resides in the individual rather than in the group. Existentialism is a completely relativistic system. A person's behavior, therefore, cannot be compared to the behavior of some other person or to some other group. Since the guides for behavior are found within each person, it becomes very important, as the Greek Sophists claimed, to "know thyself." Pascal, whom May (1963) credits as the person introducing existentialism into western thought, said, "one must know himself." If this does not serve to discover truth, it at least serves as a rule of life (Harper, 1948, p. 3)."

Since the norm is the individual, as the existentialists maintain, then particulars and the unique, rather than the abstract and the rational are valued. Understanding, claim the existentialists, kills action. The Dionysians, for example, saw deeply into the world and became depressed; their only escape was through revelry and excessive sensation. The Apollonians, however, lived in illusions and accepted them. The existentialist's life, like that of the Apollonians, is one of an illusion of an illusion. The Gestaltists, as we shall see, were intrigued with illusions, studied them, and make good bed-fellows with the existentialists.

Mystery and illusion vs. the common sense approach.

Existentialists seem to believe that the world is basically mysterious. If the world is mysterious, then one should not expect to make much sense out of life. As someone has said, there seems to be a cyclical development in the world. Dante, in the middle ages, saw the world as mysterious and "held together by something called 'love' (Krutch, 1953, p. 172)." Newton came along, however, and constructed a common sense explanation of the world, substituting the concept of "gravity for the more mysterious concept of love. He saw an apple fall in the backyard. He used the common sense explanation of movement of earthly bodies to construct a theory of the movements of heavenly bodies. Newton's theoretical position dominated science to the end of the nineteenth century.

In the twentieth century, however, there was a return to the mysterious as Einstein's theory of relativity finally challenged Newton's common sense approach. Einstein convincingly controverted the common sense interpretations of celestial movements. His notion that matter is energy or that the universe is expanding argues against common sense; one is, then, forced to return to incomprehensibles. The result is that the obvious interpretation from one point of view, it appears, does not provide a workable system from another point of view. Thus, the position of your stance produces different notions of truth. Everything, therefore, becomes relative to your point of view, or perspective, or perception, and one is forced to a relativistic position. Modern science and existentialism appear to have something in common. They both support imponderables.

There is a difference between Einstein and the existentialists, however. Where Einstein believed that some meaning could be constructed out of observed data, the existentialists did not. For Einstein, some generalizations were possible. The most comprehensive generalization ever formulated was probably the one which he devised: E = mc2. There are no absolutes in his system; there are only probability statements. Such relative statements, however, do not escape being generalizations; and they are the most effective end products available under the existing conditions.

There is some indication that seeing too deeply into the world creates problems, and that a naive approach to life, one that accepts illusions as being real,will, in the long run, be the more worthy life. To see as a child, not yet to really understand, to accept the fanciful and the mysterious without question leads, in the long run, to the happy life. Perhaps this is the reason so many today are enamored with certain forms of science fiction.

One prominent philosopher, Nietzsche, had much to say about the value of illusions. The Germans, he believed, looked deep into the world. Their vast knowledge and discoveries in the nineteenth century especially, created insights which were overwhelming and contradicted common sense. The resulting paradoxes were disturbing and created anxiety. Those Dionysians among them, who lost the illusions, found the world no longer mysterious. They attempted to escape both the insights and its resulting anxiety by engaging in excesses. The result, according to Nietzsche, is the romanticism of German music and philosophy which intoxicates and befogs the mind (Nietzsche, 1872, p. 13). This is the Faustian life, where individuals proceed by inner development; they see, know, and struggle with the nature of life. Sometimes, as Blake suggests, excesses lead to wisdom. Nietzsche said that the naive artist creates the illusion of illusion.

In the 189O's there was a rash of studies on illusions. These studies of illusion suggested that empirical explanation of knowledge, as proposed by the British, was not completely accurate. According to the empiricists, sensation had been considered the basis for knowledge. Thus, the image on the retina is a pretty good copy of the object in reality; the idea in the mind, therefore, is a pretty good copy of the image on the retina. But illusions denied the reliability of sensations (Foster, 1881). In illusions, one's perception differs from the retinal image. In the case of reversible figures, for example, the mind may see several things, even though the retinal image remains constant. This problem was bequeathed to the Gestalt psychologists, which we will discuss in another module.

EPISTEMOLOGY: Knowledge through action.

The second concern of the existentialists is epistemology. How do we know what we know? What is knowledge? What is truth?

Understanding kills action.

The existentialists maintain that too much intellectual analysis interferes with an active participation in life. The world of the mind and all of its intricate conceptualizations can stifle spontaneous and authentic experience. The very process of creating meaning about the world and about ourselves results in the end product of verbal abstractions. The problem with these abstractions is that they are fantasy worlds and that they interfere with our involvement in the world of life and in the community. Kierkegaard, who coined the term existentialism, ". . .rejected rationalistic descriptions of the universe in order to make the human being free to exercise a Christian option . . . (and) appears to urge men to use their freedom to become rational in an irrational universe (Krutch, 1962, p. 10)." Krutch, however, says that this point of view is a logical monstrosity, for how can man have evolved from an irrational universe and at the same time create "meaning and purpose" in his life?

Sartre, the French atheistic philosopher, also rejects rationalism and, according to Krutch, urges man to avoid the meaningless dichotomy of rational vs. irrational. The Greco-Christian point of view, which existentialism rejects, has furthered this dichotomy. It maintains that an idea, form, or pattern, is the beginning from which all else evolves. The gospel according to Saint John states in Neo-Platonic fashion: "In the beginning was the Word and the word was God." This can be translated from the Greek as, "in the beginning was the 'idea' or the 'rational'." Sartre, at the other extreme from John, rephrases this as "in the beginning was the thing, the object." All others, God and reason, have come from man.

Krutch (1962) criticizes this kind of existentialism on the same grounds as he criticizes the materialistic or naturalistic theories of Darwin, Marx, and Skinner. For the arbitrary choices of the existentialists are simply a substitute paradigm for the determinism of the materialists. Both make man equally meaningless.

Rollo May, following Kierkegaard, says that "truth becomes a reality only as the individual produces it in action (May, 1958, p. 28)." Knowledge comes from action, not from within monasteries or laboratories or libraries; knowledge is meaningful and valid only as one lives into it. This does not mean, as frequently implied, that one must engage in vigorous encounters. It does mean that one's involvement in life and the world around, will lead to learning. Ideas must emerge from and be tested in the market place. May quotes Nietzsche as saying, ". . . every truth should be faced with the question, 'can one live it?' (May, 1958, p.29)." This is undoubtedly the reason existentialists are frequently humanists and vise versa.

A second existential belief about the source of knowledge is that the subjective can be studied objectively. Much of knowledge results from subjective experience. Truth is more quickly discovered when one is involved and subjective. One example of this is the idea that the therapist should be a "participant observer," as suggested by Sullivan. The therapist is not one who reclines, observes, and makes notes about the verbalizations of the client. Rather, the therapist participates in the therapeutic process and he communicates his own feelings and attitudes about the client as a person and about what the client is saying. This technique has been widely accepted by the Gestalt therapists and encounter theorists. The more that one becomes involved in the situation, the better the therapy, or so it seems from some observations.

Both the subject and the object are real. There is no cleavage between subject and object, no question as to either-or. Rollo May claims that therapy attempts to eliminate the subject-object cleavage. The emphasis is on emerging and becoming, rather than on the essence or the abstraction. There is a reality underlying both subjectivity and objectivity; this reality is basic to the system of Kierkegaard, the novels of Koffka, the developments of the impressionists, and the philosophy of Zen Buddhism.

One of the first accounts of group therapy describes an encounter experience in which the subject is studied objectively. Moreno recalls that: In the spring of Z9Z there appeared in Vienna a brochure in which the concept of the encounter was, apparently for the first time, isolated and defined in modern terms: "a meeting of two: eye to eye, face to face (Moreno, 1960, p. 144). The image involved the tearing out of one's eyes, placing them in the other's, and visa versa. The other is then seen with his own eyes; you are seen or experienced with your own eyes. Thus the subject becomes the object.


Today, there is one popular form of psychotherapy based on humanistic and existential psychology. It is called Gestalt psychotherapy, a misnomer. It bears little or no relationship to Gestalt psychology. At least the relationship between Gestalt psychotherapy and Gestalt psychology is not made explicit by its leader, Fritz Perls, the prime mover and central person in Gestalt psychotherapy.

The Gestalt therapeutic technique of Perls is based on an encounter between therapist and patient. Traditional psychotherapy has usually involved some form of verbal communication between therapist and client. Sometimes it has also involved catharsis of a non-verbal nature, such as play therapy, group therapy, drug therapy, and psychodrama. Gestalt psychotherapy, however, has discarded both interpretation and catharsis, techniques generally used in traditional psychotherapy.

There are four major propositions in Gestalt therapy. These propositions are deductions from the belief that abstractions are bad. The four propositions are as follows:

1. Interpretation is a mistake. Perls makes this point in the film, Psychotherapy. Traditional psychotherapy, glorifying the role of interpretation, believed that the patient can thereby discover the illogic in his delusional or artificially contrived ideas. Freudian therapy collapses when interpretation is discarded. Perls and others fear that interpretation and abstraction create an irreal world. The client's problem already centers around his belief that the verbal world is real. Interpretation creates a double jeopardy since it heightens this maladjustment by forcing the client to become yet more abstracted.

2. Concentration on non-verbal activities can guide the client away from abstractions. During therapy, Perls directs the client's attention to those mannerisms which are maladaptive, e.g., swinging one's legs, tapping one's fingers, and gesticulating with one's arms. The considerable amount of wasted nonverbal energy is lamented by Perls, just as the considerable amount of energy expended on ideational fantasies is lamented by Freud. If attention is focused on these non-verbal maladaptations, the client's perception of his present life style will hopefully emerge.

3. Acting out of one's life style is a valid substitute for the talking out process of Freudian psychotherapy. The basic technique in psychoanalytic therapy was actually discovered by Breuer's first patient, Anna Pappenheim. She realized that a relationship existed between her verbalizations and her neurotic symptoms. She spoke of her treatment as the talking out treatment. The talking about her symptoms, rather than the post-hypnotic suggestion, is what actually led to the permanent disappearance of the symptoms. That discovery, elaborated upon by Freud and Breuer, was based upon the transformation process of healing. One kind of energy was substituted for another kind of energy. If psychological problems get converted into physical symptoms, then it should be possible to convert physical symptoms into psychological phenomena -- transform maladjustive tics into productive energies. In any event, the talking out appeared to change the thought processes into something more characteristic of the individual's life style.

4. The fourth and last proposition states that the present, the here and now, is more valid and should be more valued than the past. Abstractions are bad because they can occur only when time is stopped. This happens when a person summarizes past events; this then becomes a substitute for reality. Ideation, then, substitutes for reality. Perls hopes to maintain and protect the present reality by drawing attention to the present, and thereby away from abstractions. Korzybski, Hayakawa, and others in the semantics movement have long maintained that climbing the ladder of abstraction leads away from, rather than towards, reality.


William James
Paul Tillich


After answering true or false to these questions, go back and change the false statements, in several ways, to make them true.

NOTE: Page references are only approximately and need to be corrected for this printing.

1. Existentialism is concerned with the present, while humanism is concerned with the future. (29)

2. Existentialism is concerned with life while humanism is concerned with death (29).

3. Existentialism is concerned with essence and a thing's nature, rather than with action and becoming (29).

4. Human nature is not static, it is constantly in a state of change (30) .

5. Rationalism, thought, and the tendency to value abstractions has continually contributed to the increasing fragmentation of man (30).

6. Modern society has contributed to the separation of the rational and the irrational side of man, and has led to increasing compartmentalization of thinking (30).

7. The standard for action rests with an absolute sense of right and wrong (30).

8. To understand something is to produce effective action (31).

9. Existentialism values a more common sense approach to life (31).

10. Mystery and illusion about the universe are said to be the causes of man's problems (31).

11. Modern science has tended to eliminate illusions (31).

12. The existentialists maintain that "in the beginning was the word, " and the word will make you free (32).

13. Knowledge comes from an active participation in life, rather than a passive observer of life (33).

14. Gestalt therapy is an; application of gestalt psychology (33) .

15. The major Gestalt therapist was Rollo May (34).

16. In Gestalt psychotherapy, emphasis is placed on non-verbal activities, and on the past conditions that led to the present problems (34).

17. Acting out is more valued than talking out, in Gestalt psychotherapy (34).


Unit 9 Table of Contents

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