A Note of Gratitude for My Friend

A letter of deep appreciation for my friend, Dr. Leigh Shaffer.

Posted Jun 17, 2017

Dr. Leigh Shaffer is a dear friend and colleague whose health has not been good lately. He has borne his illness as he has conducted himself throughout his life, with much grace, humility, and dignity. I wanted to take this opportunity to write a note of gratitude for my time with Leigh, as he has been an inspiration to me.

I first encountered Leigh via a referral from the renowned historian of psychology, Ludy Benjamin. I had been given the opportunity to have a couple of special issues in the Journal of Clinical Psychology devoted to my unified theory of psychology, and I was looking for commentators who could offer incisive critiques or creative additions. “The man you really want to talk to,” Benjamin told me, “is Leigh Shaffer. He is a professor at West Chester University who probably has as deep of a grasp on social psychology as anyone I know." That sounded promising, as this was very high praise coming from a psychologist like Benjamin.

Source: Leigh Shaffer

So I reached out to Leigh and encountered one of the most humble, likeable, and knowledgeable individuals I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. In what I would come to realize is typical, he at first expressed some surprise that Ludy recommended him, and he humbly wondered if he would have anything to contribute to a project like the theoretical unification of psychology. But then I sent him my proposal and upon his first encounter with it he immediately digested the central points with a depth and clarity that were surpassed by virtually no one. At the time, my writing style was not the easiest to follow. I tried to cram so much big picture stuff into a short space that many folks would get lost in the missing specifics and have trouble seeing exactly what it was that I was trying to do. Not Leigh. He quickly saw the proposal I was offering as a new approach to the field. And then dove into a key aspect of it, the Justification Hypothesis, with a clarity that was invigorating to me. Someone else really got what I was trying to say!

His commentary grew into a full length paper, "From Mirror Self-Recognition to the Looking Glass Self: Exploring the Justification Hypothesis." It is a brilliant exposition that captures one of the most central points of the Justification Hypothesis. He wrote why the JH provides an evolutionary theory of the self that frames and organizes many different perspectives in social psychology and microsociology, from George Herbert Mead’s symbolic interactionism to Cooley’s looking glass self, to Grice’s principles of cooperation in communication to Goffman’s presentation of the self in everyday life. He saw how the JH frames the linkages of self and provides a way to explain private to public filtering, attributional biases, and cognitive dissonance. Let me tell you, when someone picks up your ideas and sees aspects of them more clearly than you can, it is a very cool and rewarding experience.

Leigh would go on to author two additional papers on the JH. One would explore how the JH provided a bridge between sociological approaches (e.g., Durkheim’s social facts) and social psychological explorations of norm formation (the work of Asch and Sherif). A second paper explored how the JH provided a framework for understanding the emergence of religion. Specifically, he argued that a central feature of religion involved “animistic attribution” (the tendency to see purpose in the world) and he authored an incisive paper on why the JH explained why humans had such a strong theory of mind capacities and why that element, combined with the need for meaning making framed by the JH, would give rise to the evolution of religious systems of justification. Here again Leigh was advancing the ball in ways that I had not foreseen. With Leigh’s guidance, I was also able to see clear linkages between Leigh’s concept of recipe knowledge, the JH and the evolution of technology, and I included a section exploring this in my chapter on the JH.  

My first in-person encounter with Leigh was very memorable. We met at an APA convention, as we were doing a symposium on Defining Psychology, where we were articulating the new unified theory to the field. Leigh found me before our symposium as I was giving a poster presentation. We had been communicating via email and phone for a few years. After we met in person for a bit, he said something that would open up my horizons. “You don’t know this about me, Gregg, but I am an Evangelical Christian.”

I must admit I was surprised. (As I am sure most people know, most academic psychologists who explore evolutionary reasons for religion are not Evangelicals). “Seriously?” I said. “That is fascinating. I need to understand this more.” And indeed we did just that. A series of letters, totaling 50 single space pages, back and forth between a skeptic and a believer. I learned about Biblical exegesis, clarified exactly the difference between an Evangelical and Fundamentalist, and ended up reading the New Testament more carefully than ever, as I explored the deep messages it was communicating via Leigh’s tutelage. Leigh gave me the full freedom to press my skepticism and articulate why I had a hard time accepting some of Evangelical claims. It was all done with trust and respect and honor for the integrity of the process of seeking out the true and the good. I deeply believe we need more of these kinds of exchanges—thoughtful intellectual spaces opened up between worldviews. Leigh was a wonderful guide, and I developed a profound appreciation for the sophistication and devotion with which Leigh simultaneously held together a scientific psychological and an Evangelical view of the world. It was a most edifying encounter.

Leigh came down for two Visions of Integration conferences I sponsored at JMU, where he shared his gifts as an orator. I distinctly remember my students commenting on how Leigh’s style was at once easy to follow and deeply sophisticated. “How can someone just get up and talk to people that way?” one asked, “It was so moving.” Leigh’s gifts as both a preacher and a scientist were on full display.

Leigh and I continued to exchange emails and ideas. I visited him at his prior job at West Chester University in PA, before he moved with his wife Barbara to be with his daughter and her family in Columbia, MO. We became Words with Friends buddies and maintained contact that way. When I gave him family updates, he was always both deeply kind and sincere in his replies. When my friend and colleague Harriet Cobb died by suicide, I was deeply touched and supported by Leigh’s personal sentiments, both for me and Harriet and her family.

In this polarizing, confusing time that is fraught with hostility and clashes between ideological visions about how the world is and what we should do, my deep appreciation for Leigh Shaffer only grows. His capacity to think deeply about the world and to engage it both scientifically and spiritually is inspiring.

Most of all, he embodies the universal best that humankind has to offer. He has lived a life of deep wisdom, humility, and kindness, and I will be forever grateful for our time together and for what he has taught me.

Perhaps I should close with a final thanks to Ludy Benjamin. It was, indeed, a wonderful referral!