A Ku Indeed!

Taoism, Confucianism and Humanistic Psychology

Posted in Chinese Philosophy, Course Material by Chris on February 21, 2008

multid1.jpgI 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.

4 Responses

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  1. keni said, on November 1, 2008 at 6:20 am


    well ive just been having almost exactly the same discussion via email with an iraqi artist friend of mine. in relation to the role of silence in his art as well to the idea of art/music in arabic thought generally.

    it seem much like the confucius/taoist distinction a sort of organismic primordial silence if you like can be posited at the starting point or origin of any artwork which can be distinguished from the silence that enters in between notes to enable a song or a rhythm on a drum to continue.

    furthermore, a parallel distinction is made in arabic between concord and harmony. where concord is the blending or merging with all that is, even with discord, and where harmony is seen in the musical sense as a special version of this: namely, a concord that enables a series, that act which merges a prior note with a subsequent note or one which enables a return to the original note.

    thus it seems to me that what we have here if we may be allowed to link the two distinctions is a silence that is both passive at the start and active in forging harmonies in the world. a pool of the mind, in a sense, into which we can dip and returning to which we can actively create harmony.

    now, this it seems to me is where confucianism dovetails nicely with taoism. without necessarily priviledging either as first or more important. one might begin to see how the efforts we make toward enbling a functioning society dovetail with the efforts we make to be functioning individuals.

    the two need not be set in opposition but importantly re-inforce each other.

    assuming we can take the human mind to be essentially free originally, then it makes sense that we can use our minds in both the ways youve defined the two religions. that is, at least it seems to me, we can see ourselves through nature to the possibilities this may entail to viewing myself in nature’s light, and on another occasion, i could learn to see nature through how society views it and learn to see myself as well as a social creature.

    the ethical dilemmas it seems to me can be similarly resolved through a concerted effort to lay the two views on the table and to make important decisions out of both internal meditation (internal that is to say in the taoist/rogerian sense of independent to social mores view) and a concern for social harmony, both silence in the original note sense and silence in the subsequent rhythmic sense.

    the only reason why this might seem difficult for a westerner to grasp at first may be because our culture is imbued with the traditions of rationalism we inherit from aristotle in which one thing cannot be another thing. whereas i think the chinese like the indians do share an ability to reason multi-dimensionally at once. this then is the difference between either/or logic and both/and types.

    i wonder if that helps.

  2. Chris said, on November 2, 2008 at 5:44 am

    Hi Keni,

    I missed your reply (I don’t usually look at the “recent comments” list).

    Your reply is very interesting, and I appreciate the musical analogies. Could you say a bit more about the concord/harmony distinction? It’s your central analogy, and I’m not entirely sure I’m grasping it (though I like it quite a bit!).

    I particularly like the reconciliation of Taoist and Confucian concerns about the societal and the natural, which is often seen as in contradiction.

    I’ll wait to hear more about the above distinction, but is part of your point here that harmony between the natural and the societal (ways of conceiving of oneself, say) would allow for an easy shift from one to the other, whereas some forms of self-conception do not allow for an easy move from one to the other (what Rogers might call oppressive societal categories that obscure the organismic self by making a person less confident with their natural mind)?

  3. brett strohl said, on June 2, 2009 at 1:29 am

    I graduated a year ago with a M.A. in counseling and the psychological theory which I studied most extensively was that of Rogers’ Person-Centered theory.

    While I was studying counseling, I read three of Rogers’ books, and also during that time I also read The Tao of Pooh, which is a book that offers a description of basic tenets of Taoism.

    The circumstances that led me to read The Tao of Pooh are nearly as bizarre to me as what I read in the book itself. I had recently read several of Elaine Pagels’ books about Gnosticism as a result of a personally turbulent time for me, which prompted me to learn more about religion. After reading so many books about Christianity, I decided I should learn more about eastern religions and I had no idea where to begin. After thinking about this an image appeared in my mind of Winnie the Pooh, from the cover of the book The Tao of Pooh, which pictures Pooh flying a kite with a Yin Yang symbol. I had seen this picture in book stores possibly a small handful of times around the time when it’s sequel, The Te of Piglet, was printed in 1992. This would have been 15 years before I remembered the image of Pooh holding a kite, and then decided to read the book. So while in the middle of reading several of Roger’s books I read this book about Taoism.

    What was so striking about the book was that the tenets of Taoism, as presented in the book, were nearly perfect, if not perfect, mirror images of Rogers’ tenets of Person-Centered theory.

    In one of his books he does mention an appreciation for Taoism but does not acknowledge Person-Centered theory to be the mirror image of Taoism that I perceive it to be. As to why he does not, I can only guess. Perhaps The Tao of Pooh is different enough from how Taoism was presented to Rogers that what he read or heard did not seem so strikingly similar. What I suspect is that Rogers may have felt somewhat threatened, in that what he saw as his one great original idea, was in fact an idea that was over two-thousand years old. After reading The Tao of Pooh I would argue Rogers’ one great original idea was the practical application of Taoist principles to the treatment of mental illness and not Person-Centered theory itself.

    The whole experience was altogether a bit mind-boggling. Why would I decide to read this book, out of the blue, at this exact time when it was so meaningful to me? My only explanation would be that sometimes books choose me and not the other way around. But even more befuddling to me then that is how could Rogers have independently compiled an ideology so nearly identical to one thousands of years older than he was? That is a question I have absolutely no answer for.

  4. Alan said, on July 10, 2012 at 8:23 am

    Very interesting!!

    In the field of Psychology we can find lots in common with Taoism. A neat example of just how much they have in common (at least to non-traditional aspects of Psychology) can be found in a book that I read and that I recommend to anyone titled “From Tao to Psychology: An Introduction to the Bridge Between East and West”, by Julián Laboy, an academic-research psychologist.

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