Postmodern Psychology – Introduction
Postmodern psychology is summed-up well by Walter Truett Anderson, “All ideas about human reality are social constructions.”1
Psychology, understood as the study of the psyche, or soul, has fallen on hard times. Traditionally, we understood our personal identity as what we are born with—a stable, unified soul including mind, heart, will, and conscience. Yet, in recent years, our Postmodern condition has made the concept of a “soul” obsolete. Now, instead of being a soul, we are confronted with a multiplicity of “selves.”2
Hazel Rose Markus, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, calls this “the most exciting time in psychology in decades and decades.” We have begun to realize, she says, that “there isn’t just one answer to the ‘Who am I?’ question.” Mitchell Stephens, a journalism professor at New York University explains that “mutating lifestyles and changing intellectual currents have led a group of increasingly influential psychologists—Postmodern psychologists seems to be the name that is sticking—to the conclusion that we have no single, separate, unified self. They maintain that we contain many selves and that the proper response to the suggestion ‘Get in touch with yourself’ or ‘Be yourself’ is ‘Which one?’”3
Stephens offers the following example to clarify this point. “Consider...Mick Jagger. The Rolling Stones’ lead singer was and, if the tabloids are to be believed, remains a classic libertine, but he is also a father and, until recently at least, a family man. Jagger is a rock’n’roller, a bohemian, whose songs and lifestyle challenge traditional standards of behavior; yet he travels in upper-class British circles, hobnobbing with dukes and princesses. Jagger can be coarse and crude, yet he knows his nonfiction and his vintages. Which is the real Mick? His answer: all of the above. ‘People find it very hard to accept that you can be all these things at almost the same time,’ Jagger has complained.”4
Postmodern Psychology – The Socially-Constructed Self
According to philosopher Allan Bloom, “The self is the modern substitute for the soul.”5 In other words, the traditional idea of an immaterial soul as being the seat of our personal identity has been replaced with the Postmodern notion of socially constructed “selves.” Reflecting historically on how this shift came about, Bloom suggests that society’s earlier preoccupation with the soul “inevitably led to neglect of this world in favor of the other world,”6 giving the priest, as the guardian of the soul, increased influence and power. This, in turn corrupted kings. “Princes were rendered ineffective by their own or their subjects’ opinions about the salvation of their soul, while men slaughtered each other wholesale because of differences of such opinion. The care of the soul crippled men in the conduct of their lives.”7
As a result, there developed a backlash against the soul. This shift was set in motion by Machiavelli (1460) and Thomas Hobbes (1651), who replaced the idea of the soul with “a feeling self.” As Bloom comments, Machiavelli and Hobbes “blazed the trail to the self, which has grown into the highway of a ubiquitous psychology without the psyche (soul).”8
But the transformation did not stop there. By the time the French political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau came on the scene in the early 1700s, the self had degenerated into individual self-interest. Rousseau observed that self-interest was not a sufficient base for establishing “the common good,” a necessary foundation for political life.
At the beginning of the 21st century, Postmodern psychology had taken the emphasis on self-interest to its logical extreme. If there is no God’s-eye-view of what constitutes the individual, we are left to the changing whims of our social condition telling us who and what we are. And, as it turns out, the answers are as varied as there are people to express them.
Postmodern Psychology – The Denial of Human Nature
Elaborating on the condition of Postmodern psychology, Bloom explains, “Man is a culture being, not a natural being. What man has from nature [biology] is nothing compared to what he has acquired from culture. A culture, like the language that accompanies and expresses it, is a set of mere accidents that add up to a coherent meaning constitutive of man.”9
Traditionally people sensed that both nature and culture are important for human development. But once the move was set in motion to negate nature and accent culture, Postmodernists jumped to banish nature altogether. This left only culture to shape the human psyche.
For Foucault, each of us is “a being which is at least partially subjected to socially produced constraints and divisions.”10 He sees “the modern-day notion of the self [as] bound up with, and inseparable from, the workings of social structures and institutions.”11 There is, therefore, no distinction “between public and private selves implied by the concept of human nature nor can the individual be reduced to individual consciousness.”12
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia is an important Postmodern text. Deleuze and Guattari reject the idea that the soul is naturally whole, unified, or coherent; rather it is a harmful illusion. Instead, they see the self as a flux of desires and intensities caught up in an ongoing process of change.
With the denial of human nature complete, the stage was set for the Postmodern definition of the socially constructed self. Ward explains, “There are many sides to the unfolding story of Postmodern identity, but the starting point is that the self is fundamentally social.”13
Postmodern Psychology – The Denial of Human Nature
Compared to Postmodern psychology, Christian psychology is founded on the concept of soul (mind, heart), self-identity, and self-awareness (1 Thessalonians 5:23). In Genesis 2:7, we learn that God breathed and mankind became a living soul. In Matthew 10:28, Jesus warns us not to fear those who can kill the body, but rather fear the one who can kill the body (soma) and soul (psyche) in hell (gehenna).
J.P. Moreland summarizes the biblical concept of our identity when he says, “Human beings are composed of an immaterial entity—a soul, a life principle, a ground of sentience—and a body. More specifically, a human being is a unity of two distinct entities—body and soul.”14
Originally “psychology” meant the study of the psyche (soul). Now that we have entered into a post-Christian culture, maybe psychologists need to search for another name to describe their profession. Perhaps this is what Christian psychologist Paul C. Vitz had in mind when he wrote the article, “Psychology in Recovery.” Vitz offers the following suggestion at the end of his article, “I close on a guardedly optimistic note. On the horizon I see the potential for a psychology that I call ‘transmodern.’ By this term I mean a new mentality that both transcends and transforms modernity. Thus, it will leave both modern and Postmodern psychology behind. It will bring in transcendent understanding that may be idealistic and philosophical (e.g., the virtues), as well as spiritual and religious. It will transform modernity by bringing in an intelligent understanding of much of premodern wisdom....In such a transmodern world, psychology would be the handmaid of philosophy and theology, as from the beginning it was meant to be.”15