Taoism, Confucianism and Humanistic Psychology
I had lunch yesterday with a professor who is in residence at my college this term from Tsinghua University in Beijing. We had a great conversation, and as is expected the subject turned mostly to Confucianism and Taoism (he’s a Taoist). As most probably know, Taoism and Confucianism are different in some central ways. I’m not so much interested in that admittedly interesting topic here, though. Instead, what I want to take a peek at is a very speculative question: whether there are any connections between these two philosophies and the theory of Carl Rogers, a leading figure from the humanistic psychology movement.
Many typically see the difference between Taoism and Confucianism, at least on a prima facie level, as one between Taoism’s stress on nature, and on letting the individual respond to the world in ways that aren’t imposed by some prior structure or understanding of things, and Confucianism’s stress on the social world, and on structuring the understanding of things through those social categories. One way (possibly) of stating the difference might be that whereas Taoism sees the human through nature, the Confucian sees nature through the human.
As I noted above though, the function of this post isn’t to compare Taoism and Confucianism. Instead, in my conversation with Martin, an interesting topic came up — humanistic psychology (here I’m thinking mostly in terms of Rogers, Maslow, May and perhaps Frankl). What we were discussing was whether Carl Rogers’ view of psychotherapy could be considered Taoist, and whether Rogers’ way of understanding the origin of most pathology might be thought of as Confucian in origin. Here’s a simplified outline:
Rogers believes that each individual has an innate core (an organismic self, he calls it) that expresses “what it is” as the unique individual it is. The organismic self is always in touch with (or rather exemplifies) what the unique creature is. For Rogers, because of this, the individual, if it listens to the organismic self, is always “in tune” with what is best for it. It always responds to nature, or the world, in ways that make sense to not only its own uniqueness, but in a way that does justice to the constant emerging novelty of new experience. For Rogers, the organismic self is “open” to the world in a way that is creative, unstructured, and tolerant.
The first question, then is: does Rogers’ way of understanding the human being’s (primordial and basic) relationship to the world sound Taoist?
Next up is Rogers’ picture of pathology. Quickly stated, it looks like this: when those around you tell you “you are valuable when and if you X” (where X is a behavior, or a stance towards things, etc), the individual develops “conditions of positive worth”. The result of this is that the individual starts to impose on the world (and the self) what counts as “right” or “appropriate” and as a result discounts the natural expressions of the organismic self. Essentially, the person begins to respond to the world in terms of the social categories that he/she has learned.
Question Two: Rogers’ description of pathology: is it a way of rebuking the Confucian path? (I agree that Confucians need not be robotic conformists; indeed, part of what it means to ‘respond appropriately’ for a Confucian may in fact include essential components of artistic creativity that incorporates as aspect of one’s unique particularity, most specifically in understanding what it means to realize through performance — zhi — one’s understanding of the communal knowledge that allows situations to be meaningful or significant in the first place. Here, in this question, I’m speaking more broadly).
Of course, to those who know Rogers, part of what psychotherapy consists in is the attempt by the therapist to help the client (not patient, for Rogers) to remove those social conditions of worth and to re-engage with, and embrace, the organismic self. This, for Rogers, is required for more psychologically healthy living.
Admittedly, some of these possible connections are easily made by over-simplifying both the positions of the Taoist and the Confucian (it’s a blog post, what can you say?). Still, I wonder if the general connections are rightly applied. I have no idea if Rogers ever read any Taoism or Confucianism, by the way, but if he had it would be interesting to know what he thought about them.