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Freudian Psychology

Freud's, Skinner's, and Forgiveness's Image of Humanity

What is the underlying view of humanity beneath these psychology theories?

KuanShu Designs, used with permission
Source: KuanShu Designs, used with permission

In my pathway to the undergraduate degree in psychology and then the doctoral degree, I took many psychology courses in which I learned about the classical theories going back to the turn of the 20th century with Sigmund Freud and marching forward in that century to B.F. Skinner, Carl Rogers, and others. I was unaware, as I sat in those courses, that each theory presented to the class was giving an explicit view of what humanity is. I missed completely this angle on the theories: What is it really saying about who we are as persons? I suspect that everyone else in the class missed this, too, because we were so focused on the actual content of each theory, such as Freud's oral stage and anal stage and all the rest, that we never stopped to ask the more important questions: What is all of this saying about who we are as humans? Is Freud seeing far enough in his vision for humanity? Is Skinner seeing far enough? If not, what is missing?

Thus, as my contribution to those of you who have ever taken such psychology classes, that included classical theories of psychology, I present for your expanded reason some views that focus, not so much on what the theories say in their detail as much as on what each one specifically implies in its much broader sense about who you are as a person and who the rest of us are as well. We will focus on Freud's Psychoanalysis and Skinner's Behaviorism. For the purpose of contrast and comparison, I then will present my own (not classical) newer theory of Forgiveness Therapy.

Freud's Psychoanalysis

KuanShu Designs, used with permission
Source: KuanShu Designs, used with permission

As many of you know, Freud's seminal contribution was what he called his psychosexual stages of development, which focus on the experience of pleasure from different zones of the body. The oral stage of the infant shows a quest for pleasure through sucking. This advances all the way up to adolescence and adulthood in which the pleasure centers in the genital stage of sexual intercourse. For Freud, we as humans are dominated by what he called the Pleasure Principle. If we do not find socially-acceptable ways, which he called sublimation, to express these pleasure-needs, then we could develop anxiety or what he called neuroses. His final book, Civilization and Its Discontents, was a rather pessimistic view of humanity: In our incessant quest for pleasure, we never can get quite enough in just the right way and so the bulk of humans (civilization) is doomed to a fate of having our basic need for pleasure going unfulfilled. The consequence is a life of unhappiness.

What Freud seemed to do, in his image of humanity, is to lower the potential of the human being to the animal level: naturalistic sexual quests, to perpetuate the species, and then call it a day, call it a life if you will. He did not emphasize the growth in the moral virtues of the deliberate quest for justice, for the altruistic helping of others, for love in service to others. His vision was far too small and even dangerous. I say it was dangerous because, if all of us sitting in those classes absorbed all of this as truth, then our quest toward the higher levels of humanity would reach only as far as the genitals. Yes, we share sexual needs with the lower animals, but we as humans possess so much more. Yet, we never got that from the lectures on psychoanalysis.

Skinner's Behaviorism

KuanShu Designs, used with permission
Source: KuanShu Designs, used with permission

B.F. Skinner's ideas offer a strong disagreement with Freud. For Freud, we have an inner motivation, a quest that we all share in common. For Dr. Skinner, the motivation actually centers on people outside of us who have the means, through positive and negative reinforcement and punishment, to mold us in an image that these outsiders have for us. As long as others hold the means of reinforcement and punishment and as long as we respond behaviorally to them, then we are all machines. We respond to commands as long as those giving the commands give us candy as we respond.

I never quite realized that Dr. Skinner was stripping free will away from all of us, extinguishing our rationality to reason this way: Hey, what's going on here? Do I really want to go in this direction just because those who reinforce me wish for me to do this? Should I resist and become my own person with my own goals? Yes, we all do, at least at times, respond to others' reinforcements, but I have come to learn that humans have a much deeper capacity to resist living exclusively in the image and likeness of the social manipulators. We are more than machines to be manipulated, but those of us in these classes never received that message.

Forgiveness Theory

KuanShu Designs, used with permission
Source: KuanShu Designs, used with permission

Once I started to study the philosophy of forgiveness, I realized that we as persons all have free will. We are free to stay in our more-animal-like state as described by Freud or to go ahead and be machines as we work for the reinforcements from the social manipulators, but I also saw our capacity to grow in the moral virtue of agape love or deliberately and willingly choosing to stretch ourselves in becoming more loving people, even toward those who refuse to love us. I realized that we have choices that we are free to make, even if our instinctual sexual desires conflict with our higher goals to love. Our choices sometimes will not be reinforced, but when we can see farther than pleasure and reinforcement-candy, we are living a life of moral integrity which can increase happiness and improve relationships. We are more, much more, as persons than Freud or Skinner ever taught us... and I was never taught that in psychology class.

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