Essay: Human Beings Make Sense

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[. . .] Such alienation from the world and from nature is universal in modern society (May, p 54). May thought that the schizoid personality best typified the modern age of being "detached, unrelated, lacking in affect, tending toward depersonalization, and covering up…problems by means of intellectualization and technical formulations" (May, p. 56).

Individuals are not merely abnormal but isolated and alienated from society, with a sense of disconnectedness of the type portrayed in film noir. Ever since the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, the Western world has had a "passion to gain power over nature" rather than be part of it (May, p. 57). For the existentialist psychotherapist, "the problem is not at all that these patents have endured impoverished pasts, it is rather that cannot or do not connect themselves to the present and future," and the past seems dead to them because they believe they have no future (May, p. 70). In existentialist therapy, the main question is never "How are you?" But "Where are you?," in the sense of being either detached or present, aware or running away from problems, lifeless or experiencing "existence as real" (May, p. 85).

Description and reflection are vital tools for existential psychology, no matter whether for experiences in the past, present or future. Yet this should not be done with overlays, theories and generalizations from the therapist, but rather inductively in which the patients are free to describe their own experiences, verbally and in writing. These experiences may be individual, general or universal, and this requires "qualitative comparisons of different individual cases, real and imagined" (Churchill and Wertz, p. 254). Only at the end of the process of collecting the descriptions does the researcher or therapist offer a psychological explanation, starting with informal thoughts and reflections. For example, researchers in Pittsburgh conducted interviews with 50 crime victims and ask them to describe what happened to them, reporting as many details as they could remember. Then they isolated each theme or moment in these experiences, generalizing about the meanings that the participants ascribed to them and recurrent themes or meanings in each of the interviews. At the end, the researchers realized that the victims had categorized their experiences into five stages" before victimization; the actual experience of victimization; struggle with the perpetrator; reliving the experience; and post-victimization. All of them felt a "loss of agency" and an absence of community, as well (Churchill and Wertz, pp. 255-57).

Phenomenology Part 2 The Worldly Character of Human Existence

For Heidegger, existence in the world depends on context, culture and history, whether participation in tribal rituals, sports or work. Human life is not split into subject-object relationships but is "being-in-the-world" (Sipiora, 2000, p. 69). For J.H. van den Berg, the purpose of existential psychology is to describe the world and its meaning. He defined phenomenology as psychotherapy for a "destitute" time, and also as "cultural therapeutics" or "Cosmotherapy," in contrast to the "calculating rationality" that has become the norm in Western society in which life lacks both morality and meaning (Sipiora, 2008, p. 426). For van den Berg and other phenomenologists, existential psychology must offer ideals and spirituality, and be focused not only on individuals and their personal problems, but on the modern, dehumanized industrial society that offers no meaning to life beyond "mundane functioning" (Sipiora, 2008, p. 427). This is what Heidegger meant when he said that the rationalism of the modern, technological world had left humanity with a feeling of homelessness and meaninglessness. Rollo May also asserted that the world "is the structure of meaningful relationships in which a person existed" and "in the design of which he participates," and van den Berg agreed that human existence could only be understood by studying the world and not only the isolated, alienated self (Sipiora, 2008, p. 429).

As Heidegger explained it, the old German world bauen had lost its true meaning in modern times, and no longer meant to dwell in a place but simply to build things. In the modern world, factories, apartments, bridges and power plants were being built all the time, but none of these were real dwellings or homes. Modern man has no home, and he inhabits structures but "does not dwell in them," and dwelling is now just another activity performed "alongside many other activities" (Heidegger, 1971, 145). This has nothing to do with humanity, however, which means to "be on the earth as a mortal," to dwell there and to cherish and cultivate it, and to stay in one place with a feeling of security (Heidegger, 1971, p. 149). Modern industrial society only exploits the earth and wears it out, and human beings now just treat it as a thing, when in fact they are part of it. Earth is a home, and people dwell on it with each other, and as Heidegger pointed out, the ancient German word for a tribal assembly was a Thing (Ding). Real building is impossible unless human beings also learn how to dwell again, although that does not necessarily mean reversion to living on small farms and engaging in subsistence agriculture. Nevertheless, dwelling "is the basic character of Being in keeping with which mortals exist" (Heidegger, 1971, p. 160). Thinking is also a part of building and dwelling, which means that there is a real shortage of dwellings in the modern world -- a housing shortage. This is in fact the greatest problem in contemporary society, even more so than the plight of the poor and the industrial workers, but "as soon as man gives thought to his homelessness, it is a misery no longer" (Heidegger, 1971, p. 161).

According to Rollo May, existential psychotherapy had to consider history, culture, philosophy and literature in its attempts to explain the "anxiety and conflicts of contemporary man" (May, p. 6). Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and other modern philosopher had understood that there was a "growing split between truth and rationality in Western culture" in the 19th Century, and that it suffered from the "delusion that reality can be comprehended in an abstracted, detached way" (May, p. 12). For this reason, Western society had become repressed and dehumanized. In the 20th Century, Heidegger, Jaspers, Paul Tillich, Miguel Unamuno, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus and Jose Ortega y Gasset all portrayed "the despairing, dehumanized situation in modern culture" (May, p. 15). Kierkegaard also foretold the new physics of Albert Einstein and Werner Heisenberg in which the object and observer both disappeared and were relativized (May, p. 22). In his painting Guernica, Pablo Picasso showed "the atomistic, fragmented condition of European society" in the 1930s, and both Freudianism and existentialism were crisis philosophies born out of the world wars and Great Depression, as well as the rise of totalitarian police states.

Existentialism in particular was the philosophy of a transitional era, such as the break between feudalism and modernity during the Renaissance, "when one age is dying and the new era was not yet born" (May, p. 15). Freud recognized the despair and depression of modern civilization, where the "soul has gone stale," as Nietzsche put it (May, p. 17). In the 19th and 20th Centuries, Western civilization underwent an "emotional, psychological, and spiritual disintegration," in which split personalities like Jekyll and Hyde became common. Victorian society concentrated on the physical and material aspects of industrialization while repressing real emotions and sexuality, and gradually turned human beings into machines. Science and philosophy also became fragmented and compartmentalized with no unifying principles, while psychology abandoned any "clear and consistent idea of man" (May, p. 19). When World War I began in 1914, this old order was already in a state of collapse, and Freud came to realize that society itself was also sick and neurotic, not only individuals. Prophetically, he described the 1920s and 1930s as a period of "atomic chaos" that led to the rise of the totalitarian state (May, p. 20).

In phenomenology history, culture and society are not objects outside the individual, but are always linked to human beings who read meanings into them. Culture, physical objects, nature, other persons, and institutions are "inextricably bound up with all the others." All human beings experience the world in "meaningful relevance" to their own projects, goals, interests and desires (Churchill and Wertz. P. 250). Heidegger regarded the true nature of the world as mythical and Four-fold, consisting of earth, heaven, mortals and gods, with mystical visions that occur "in things and the places of their crossing in the world" (Sipiora, 2000, p. 70). Myth (Mythos) "permits thought about that which appears, that which becomes present," and therefore Being is a myth as well, but one that is beyond human comprehension and explanation (Sipiora, 2000, p. 71).

This world is also timeless, and is continually called into existence, while phenomenological psychology provides insight into the myths, poems and fantasy-images that describe it, like the Four-fold. An earthen jug, for example, "holds the wine yielded from the grapes, which in turn have… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Human Beings Make Sense.  (2011, May 11).  Retrieved July 18, 2019, from

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