- Psychology has become the dominant approach to making sense of experience and forming identity.
- This rise to prominence comes with an enormous responsibility.
- Dialogue with the humanities—philosophy, theology, art, literature—can help us to live up to our vocation.
When the modernist poet T.S. Eliot wanted a character with preternatural insight into human affairs and the tangled mystery of the human heart, he created Henry Harcourt-Reilly, a psychologist perceptive enough to help his fellow characters in The Cocktail Party figure out, “What you really are. What you really feel. What you are among other people.”
Over the course of the play (1950), the inscrutable therapist unmasks his interlocutors’ hidden biases and self-deceptions, teaches them to come to terms with their loneliness and grief, and confronts them with their freedom to choose the direction of their lives.
Offering not salvation but the tools needed to “make the best of a bad job,” Harcourt-Reilly is wisdom personified. Like Socrates in Athens, he asks the questions that teach you how to live.
That one of the great poets of the 20th century should cast a clinician as the voice of wisdom speaks to the cultural authority of the profession. (Why, one might ask, did Eliot not make Harcourt-Reilly a cleric, especially given the play’s religious overtones and its author’s personal commitments?) In the nearly 75 years since the play was first staged, that authority has only increased.
The Rise of Psychology as a Secular Authority
Indeed, the cultural significance of psychology is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the exalted role the therapist has taken in the cultural imagination, a role once reserved for moral and religious leaders (Cushman, 1995).
Much has been written on the advent of psychologists as “secular priests” and the movement of psychology into the space previously occupied by wisdom traditions. One need only consider the number of psychology books that top the New York Times Best Seller list or the popularity of therapy guru TV shows to see where contemporary audiences go for moral and philosophical insight.
It is undeniable that psychotherapeutic care has become the dominant approach to making sense of experience. For better or for worse, psychology is a shaper and teacher of human identity.
This rise to prominence comes with an enormous responsibility, one which brings considerable opportunities and many challenges. Modern psychology is a sophisticated science. It has taken up the “task of organizing personality,” as Philip Rieff put it (1987), during a time of major transition and incredible need.
The Challenges of Psychology as a Science
By and large, it has handled that task admirably, providing help and care to an untold number of sufferers. And yet, with a subject as complex and nuanced as the human psyche, clinicians must continuously ask ourselves whether our methodologies do justice to our vocation.
Take, for instance, the advent of the biopsychosocial model—a major advance for the field. This valuable framework is introduced to every trainee as a means of ensuring that three essential conditions of human thought and behavior are taken into account in their assessments.
Few among us, however, are philosophically and theoretically equipped to untangle the Gordian knot of their mutual valence (Gómez-Carrillo, et al., 2023). Or consider our field’s empathic desire to contribute to well-being and human flourishing. How many clinicians are aware of the assumptions such concepts carry with them, the millennia-long histories of inquiry and debate?
Is psychology, in its current formulation, capable of asking what it means to flourish? Can it articulate how one lives a good life?
These questions, typically reserved for the realm of ethics, are so vital to the work being done by practitioners and clinicians that neglecting them threatens to undermine the responsibility mentioned above. Of course, we do have answers to these questions, but they are often built on assumptions we fail to recognize and interrogate.
We rarely discuss such things in our grand rounds and supervision. Our responsibility as researchers and psychotherapists is to meet the needs of those who seek our care to the best of our abilities. That means working to broaden our understanding of the human condition and what elements go into making up a life well lived.
The Need for Psychology to Engage With the Humanities
Where can one look to find the resources needed to approach this vital calling? For thousands of years, human beings have turned to literature, philosophy, religion, and the arts and found sources of inspiration, beauty, meaning, humanity, and hope.
Outside of the field of psychology, many are discussing the stark decline of the humanities. In a society that values more and more the utilitarian assumption that the worth of human life can be measured by what one produces, feelings of despair, loneliness, and insignificance are understandably on the rise. If psychology is going to fulfill its promise to help those suffering from the symptoms brought on by our cultural and spiritual malaise, it must reinvigorate the very resources our culture is ready to abandon.
There is no drug capable of curing an existential crisis, but beautiful art and great literature can express it. No statistical analysis explains our social and political ennui, but the best philosophies help us see beneath it. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5) says nothing about our moral and spiritual longings, but the great religions and wisdom traditions were made to voice them.
Now is the time for psychology to resituate itself as the place where all disciplines that deal with suffering, identity, and the experience of the human condition meet. Only psychology in both dialogue and contention with the greatest works of human intellectual and artistic achievement can hope to address the crises of today and envision a more vibrant tomorrow (Freeman, 2023).
The goal of this page is to enter into that conversation and invite others to do so as well. Edited by a philosopher and a clinical psychologist—both of whom work in the Center for Psychological Humanities and Ethics at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development—Our Human Condition aims to introduce readers to language, ideas, and works of art that inspire the call for a more human and more humane psychological disciple.
Cushman, P. (1995). Constructing the self, constructing America: A cultural history of psychotherapy. Garden City, NY: DaCapo Press.
Eliot, TS. (1950). The cocktail party. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
Freeman, M. (2023). Toward the psychological humanities: A modest manifesto for the future of psychology. New York: Routledge.
Gómez-Carrillo, A., Kirmayer, L. J., Aggarwal, N. K., Bhui, K. S., Fung, K. P. L., Kohrt, B. A., & Lewis-Fernández, R. (2023). Integrating neuroscience in psychiatry: a cultural–ecosocial systemic approach. The Lancet Psychiatry, 10(4), 296-304.
Rieff, P. (1987). The triumph of the therapeutic: Uses of faith after Freud. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.