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The Failure of Psychology and the Death of Psychotherapy

More on the death and de-souling of psychotherapy

Some of my recent reading prompted me to begin thinking about an article on the failure of psychology. It would appear that my esteemed blolleagues, Ryan Howe and Stephen Diamond, have themselves been prompted to think and write about some of the same issues.

Oddly, the notions of identity crisis, mentioned by Ryan, and the loss of spirit, mentioned by Stephen, were what provoked my thinking and were, in fact, the genesis of this article, even before their posts appeared. Synchronicity continues to pleasantly surprise.

My two previous posts [1] [2] were, in some ways, a subtle effort to preamble and position this one, and now it would appear that, as one says in jazz, we have set up a dialogue of call-and-response.

That the current state of the profession is dire - this in terms of the de-evolution of psychiatry, the rise of psychopharmacology, and the influx of hackers, slackers and pseudo-spiritual teachers, as well as therapists who demonstrate increasingly weak clinical skills while catering to patients seeking a quick fix or their own desire to make a quick buck -- there is no doubt. The genesis of this collapse, as well as the identity crisis and loss of spirit, actually started in the 19th century.

Historically the word psychology first appeared as the title of Aristotle's Psychologia, a subset of his De Anima. The word was likely first introduced into more common usage by Melanchthon, although some scholars would be more inclined to credit Freigius or Goclenius of Marburg.

Either way, by 1730 the marriage of the words psyche (soul or spirit) and logos (study) was being used liberally by Wolff in Germany, Hartley in England and Bonnet in France, supplanting earlier terms like scientia de anima - the science of the soul. By 1888, the New Princeton Review had categorically defined psychology as "the science and study of the spirit or soul". All of this is lost, however, to the post-Cartesian rationalism that held sway in the Europe of the late 19th century.

We are taught that Wilhelm Wundt was the founder and father of modern psychology by virtue of his 1879 explication of the psyche as anchored in a scientific paradigm of introspection and structuralism. Some sources push back even further and note Sir Francis Galton, as well as Hermann von Helmholtz. Most curious, however, is the towering figure of Gustav Fechner.

Fechner forever stamped psychology as a science in 1850 with a simple formula -- S=K log I (the mental sensation varies as a logarithm of the material stimulus) - and, in doing so, would appear to have torn the tree from its roots and left us in a house divided. The scientific imperative won the day and, despite the admonitions of no less than Immanuel Kant -- and reiterated in the post-modern era by Thomas Szasz -- that psychology would never become or be deemed a science because it was impossible to experimentally measure psychological (read: spiritual) processes, the study of soul was jammed into a mold that it did not fit by lesser minds and left barren and bereft.

Here's the curious part - in an 1835 book entitled Life after Death, Fechner wrote:

Man lives not once, but three times: the first stage of his life is continual sleep; the second, sleeping and waking by turns; the third, waking forever.

In the first stage man lives in the dark, alone; in the second, he lives associated with, yet separated from, his fellow-men, in a light reflected from the surface of things; in the third, his life, interwoven with... universal a higher life

In the first stage, his body develops itself from its germ, working out organs for the second; in the second stage his mind develops itself from its germ, working out organs for the third; in the third the divine germ develops itself, which lies hidden in every human mind.

The act of leaving the first stage for the second we call birth; that of leaving the second for the third, death. Our way from the second to the third is not darker than our way from the first to second; one way leads us forth to see the world outwardly; the other, to see it inwardly.

There you have it - mind, body, spirit - the three stages of the growth of consciousness, where humans die only to awaken to the expansiveness of the Universal Spirit. This was Fechner's core position on mind, soul and consciousness, and a thing quite different from Fechner's Law, as his scientific pronouncement would come to be called. The plot thins.

Even curiouser, said Alice, Eduard von Hartmann, in his Philosophy of the Unconscious, posited the philosophy of Schopenhauer, which Schopenhauer explicitly stated he had derived mostly from Eastern mysticism, Buddhism and the Upanishads - 30 years before Freud!

Further, Freud took his concept of the id directly from Georg Groddeck's The Book of the It, wherein Groddeck asserts the concept of a cosmic Tao or organic universal spirit.

All of this is a powerful reminder that as the Buddhists say, mind is Mind; mind is not brain - where Mind is that self same expansiveness of Universal Spirit. Put more plainly, psychology is heavily grounded in Eastern spiritualism and Western mysticism and to suggest that psychology is solely a science and the elements studied therein can be verily quantified - remember, we are talking about mind and Mind, not brain - is a less than satisfying, or at the very least incomplete, interpretation.

Fechner made tremendous contributions to empirical and measurable psychology and, in fact, his landmark work Elements of Psychophysics is considered by most scholars to be the first definitive treatise on psychometrics. What seems to have gotten lost is that the entire premise of Fechner's psychophysics did not rely solely on Fechner's Law, but harkened back to his predication of mind-body-spirit found in Life after Death, and it is the integration of these two postulates that is definitive. Fechner deemed spirit and matter to be inseparable and part of one larger reality, and his attempts at measuring the elements of mind were an effort to point up that inseparability, not to deny it.

The works of Fechner and his contemporaries, William James and James Mark Baldwin remained conversant with the great spiritual traditions throughout their development, and these pioneers in the then emerging field of psychology marked no conflict between the wholly scientific and the wholly spiritual. These thinkers posited a wholistic, integrated view of the study of mind and spirit as not only obvious, but necessary.

Despite these foundations, the modern psychodynamics architected by Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung and Alfred Adler - as informed by the discourses of William James - was almost inevitably at the sufferance of its context. To that point, the break between Freud and Jung was compelled by a disagreement over the structure of personality, and that disagreement was largely compassed by the inability of Freud, the rationalist, to accept the notion of the collective unconscious (or collective soul) posited by Jung, the spiritualist. Post-Cartesian rationalism holds firm, Jung is marginalized and psychology, to great dismay, is ever more firmly planted in the arena of science.

So psychology becomes a metaphor for the human condition as described by the very premises upon which it draws. The self of psychology has been divorced from the Self of psychology by its context, its self-and-other definition and its identification with a world that is illusory. This is exactly what the teachings of Yoga, Buddhism, Gnostic Christianity, the Kabbala, Sufism and a whole raft of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions suggest as the cause of suffering.

Unable to bear the weight of the false, or at least incomplete, premise under which it labors, psychology - divorced from spirit -- has begun to crumble under the weight of its own inauthenticity.

Part 2 of this series will consider how the emerging field of neuroplasticity is revamping our thinking about psychology and psychological process through the reintroduction of Mind as an engine for change, and how Buddhist doctrine and the science of Yoga -- don't forget, Buddha wasn't a Buddhist - he was a Yogi --informs that field and can provide useful perspective in the efforts to reinvigorate psychodynamic psychotherapy, not as an airy-fairy New Age pseudo-discipline, but as a demonstrated transformative paradigm.

I have included here a very brief reading list that I feel students, professionals and generally interested individuals may find useful with regard to this topic.

  • The Tao of Psychology - Jean Shinoda Bolen
    Foundations of Eastern and Western Psychology - Swami Ajaya (Allan Wienstock, Ph.D.)
    Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain - Sharon Begley
    Healing Emotions - Daniel Goleman
    The Myth of Mental Illness - Thomas Szasz
    The Perennial Philosophy - Aldous Huxley
    The Book of Secrets - Deepak Chopra
    The Yoga of the Bhagavad Gita - Paramahansa Yogananda
    The Yoga of Jesus -- Paramahansa Yogananda
    Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior - Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
    The Perennial Philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita - Swami Rama
    He - Robert A. Johnson
    She - Robert A. Johnson
    Integral Psychology - Ken Wilber

© 2008 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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