History of Psychology sample essay

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This paper aims to trace and analyze the historical development of the subjective nature of truth, the sources and reactions towards the theory. The implications of the theory of subjective truth are vast since a position on the nature of truth permeates one’s personal life goals and purposes, cognition, and morality of individual and hence also affects research methodology and psychotherapy.

Subjectivism focuses on individuals’ thoughts and feelings as well as the proposition that knowledge of humans can never be separated from the knower. This literature review covers the existence of truth as being subjective during the time of the early Greek philosophers, present within Hellenistic and Roman psychology and persisting within romantic and existential philosophy, humanistic psychology and the approaches of the postmodernists in the mid-1960s.

Keywords: subjective truth, history, postmodernism

The Subjective Nature Of Truth: A Historical Development

The constant tension of whether truth is objective or subjective has long since existed throughout history and continues to pervade in current schools of psychotherapies. “Science versus Humanism” is the term Conway (1992) gives to the philosophical dimension along which the values underlying the theories of psychologists differ. A scientific approach to psychology is based on the epistemological tradition of objectivism. Mahoney (1989) summarizes objectivism as beliefs that an objective and separate ‘real world’ lies beyond the organism, independent of perception and that valid knowledge is ultimately rendered from our sensory experiences, and can be totally separated from the knower (Mahoney, 1989 as cited in Conway, 1992).

In contrast, the humanistic approach to psychology is based on the epistemological tradition of subjectivism which focuses on thoughts and feelings. Furthermore, knowledge of humans can never be separated from the knower (Conway, 1992). Due to different theories on the nature of truth, methodology for observing consciousness and the role of inner experience differ. The human science approach to psychology seeks to explain behavior in terms of a person’s subjective existence (Kendler, 2005). Humanistic psychology and philosophical phenomenology are two schools of thought that employ the human science interpretation of psychology (Kendler, 2005). The implications of the theory of the relativity of truth is seen in the individuals personal life goals, purpose of life, cognitive styles, morality, ethics, counseling goals, research methodology and conceptualization of definitions.

Due to the great relevance of the topic to psychology, this essay traces and analyzes the historical development of the subjective nature of truth, the sources and reactions towards the theory. Early Greek Philosophers and Hellenistic and Roman Psychology The Sophists were a group of philosophers who believed that nothing is inherently right or wrong but that believing something is right makes it right and vice versa (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 41). Protagoras (485-420 B.C.) was the most popular Sophist who proposed that man is the measure of all things, meaning that man determines whether something is true or untrue and hence, truth depends on the perceiver not physical reality (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 41).

The context of this perspective of the nature of truth is that Protagoras lived in the Periclean democracy where skills for effective communication were valuable to own especially in the political sphere (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 42) where some beliefs were more advantageous to utilitarian harmony than others. Hence, Protagoras was primarily interested in teaching effective argumentation to demonstrate the practicality of the relativity of truth. Socrates (470-399 B.C.) disagreed with the Sophists’ view that no truth exists beyond personal opinion. In the second century A.D., a school of thought named Skepticism promoted suspension of judgment and preferred to say ‘This is how things appear to me” rather than to claim having arrived at irrevocable truth (Hergenhahn, 2009).

They were of the view that dogmatists constantly fought amongst themselves and were always agitated unlike the Skeptics who sought a life of peace and lived by two primary guides: appearances (sensations and feelings) and social convention (Hergenhahn, 2009). Displaying a similarity with the Sophists and the Skeptics, the Cynics such as Diogenes (412-323) advocated individualism and that true happiness depended on self-sufficiency and living a life that was natural, rejecting any type of control, be it bodily or social control. The theme of moving away from absolute truth and towards a relativistic conception of truth, individual feelings, opinions, social convention or whatever ‘truth’ brings gain (e.g., political status or living peaceably with others) will manifest itself again throughout history.

Instrumental theory of truth: Profitability as criteria for truth William James (1842-1910) was of the view that ideas become true as long as they help people satisfactorily relate with other parts of one’s experience (De Waal, 2005, p. 43). James proposes that it is far from essential for our thoughts, beliefs or in other words, conceptions of truth, to copy reality. Hence, he opposes the singularity of truth and posits that multiple, though different beliefs are acceptable. In contrast, there can only be one truth for the empiricists and the rationalists since truth is the perfect copy of reality (De Waal, 2005, p. 47).

Based on pragmatic principles, James proposes that any hypothesis cannot be rejected if there are useful results that come from it. Pragmatism is hence a principle that views any ‘truth’ as true as long as it profits. In other words, the pragmatist’s notion of truth is that beliefs originating from within one’s self but does not copy anything without the believer will still count as true when these lead people to directions that are worthwhile (De Waal, 2005, p. 50).

The theme of moving away from a singular truth independent of the knower and towards whichever concept, idea or belief brings profit is a pattern seen even during the Early Greek Philosophers and Hellenistic and Roman Psychology. A profit-focused approach to handling truth, as proposed by the pragmatists, will strongly permeate and an underlying principle in future philosophies and approaches to psychology such as romanticism, existentialism, humanistic and postmodern psychology.

Romantic and existential philosophy: Feelings, human choice and freedom

In the late 18th century, an artistic and intellectual movement named Romanticism rebelled against Enlightenment rationality that overemphasized linear and the investigation of causes by trying to add feelings and intuition to rationality (Schneider, 1998). Romanticism emphasized the wholeness of experience via implicit processes such as affect, intuition, kinesthesia, imagination as well as the descriptions of these processes (Schneider, 1998). Rousseau was of the view that facts of history were of less importance than what values can be learned from them and that history should be considered as a collection of fables (Rousseau, 1762 as cited in Robinson, 2008).

This type of thinking is seen again in Postmodernist thinking later on in history although to Rousseau, historical facts were not subjective but unknowable because of human error and interpretation. In psychology, romanticism is manifested in orientations of existential-humanistic, hermeneutical, narrative, and transpersonal psychologies (Schneider, 1998). Carl Rogers of the school of humanistic psychology, whose thoughts will be further explored later on in this paper, has much similarity with the romantics since experience is Rogers’ highest authority and makes decisions based on what feels [emphasis mine] right, valuable or worth doing (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 593). Like romanticism, existentialism stresses subjective experience.

The existentialists (18th and 19th centuries) encourage us humans to consider the meaning of living authentically, in one’s own personal way (Oaklander, 1992). If one chooses freely, one chooses authentically and leads an authentic life. Since there are no objective values for the existentialist, it depends more on how one chooses rather than what their choice is. An existential philosopher, Kierkegaard proposed that each person’s life individually has its own self-determined meaning. Subjectivity is truth, that is, the person’s beliefs define that person’s reality (Oaklander, 1992, p. 577).

Though the existentialist philosophers differ in their views in a few aspects of their thinking, one common theme is the emphasis on human freedom and choice and the related slogan of Sartre that ‘existence precedes essence’ which means that humans have no prepackaged nature or essence but that we are is what we choose to be (Oaklander, 1992). In other words, subjectivity must be the starting point (Oaklander, 1992). Sartre also says that “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Such is the first principle of existentialism. It is also what is called subjectivity…” Influenced by existential philosophy, a brand of contemporary psychology which has the key concepts of freedom, individuality, authenticity and responsibility emerged called existential psychology (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 574).

The man who is generally considered to be the bridge between existential philosophy and existential psychology is Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) who is of the view that there is no ‘ultimate truth’ but emphasizes interpretation and that there is no ‘real meaning’ behind a phenomenon (Daitz, 2011). He proposed that humans choose nature of their own existence and it is worthy of notice that Heidegger chose to be committed to Nazism (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 574).

The theme of moving away from a singular truth independent of the knower and towards “personal truth” as self-defined by individuals as well as the unfortunate consequence of individuals freely choosing what they think is right or desirable which may conflict with what society views as desirable. This will manifest itself again with slight differences in humanistic and postmodern psychology.

Humanistic psychology: An application of subjective truth

In the early 1960s, humanistic psychology, a new human science that would study humans as aware, choosing and emotional beings, appeared in reaction to traditional scientific approaches to psychology (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 571). Unlike the two existing schools of psychology, behaviorism and psychoanalysis, which assume determinism in explaining human behavior, humanistic psychology assumes humans are free to choose their own existence and that subjective reality is the most important cause of behavior (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 571). A basic tenet of humanistic psychology is that subjective reality is the primary guide for human behavior (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 586).

Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) was of the view that humanistic science should allow the individual to be freer and more inner determined (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 586). What he deemed as self-actualization is what humans achieve when they are true to their own nature (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 587). Carl Rogers (1902-1987) also proposed that a person who is likely to live a fulfilling life is motivated by his true inner feelings instead of beliefs, traditions and values imposed by others outside the individual (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 593).

Rogers started the movement of Person-Centered therapy which stress an essential trust in the experiential world of the client and stress three conditions to promote the client’s growth: congruence (genuineness on the therapist’ part), true empathy, unconditional positive regard. A limitation that Owen (1999) notes in his analysis of both psychoanalysis and person-centred therapy is the conflict for the person-centred therapist to both communicate unconditional positive regard as well as congruence with a negative feeling about a client. In other words, prizing the client and also at the same time, being honest with personal feelings towards client.

This poses a question of what a therapist should rightly do when being honest also means being non-empathic and withholding unconditional positive regard from the client. This problem of congruency undeniably stems from the theory of truth and its subjective nature since what the therapist believes to be true and what the client believes to be true are both equally ‘true’ if the assumption is that the individual self-defines truth. Postmodernism approaches: Contemporary development of the theory of truth Modernists believe in objective reality that exists independent of any attempt to observe it whereas postmodernists believe in subjective realities that do not exist independent of observational processes (Corey, 2005).

Postmodernism is similar to the romantics, existentialists, the Sophists, and Skeptics and aspects of James’ psychology in that there multiple truths and these vary with individual experience, thus paving the way for postmodernism. According to Schneider (1998), the postmodernist were different from the romantics in that postmodernists promote a relativistic chaos when this conflicted with the sensibility of Romanticism (Schneider, 1998). The Romantics assumed knowledge as determinate and argued for the universality of autonomous experience while postmodernism assumes it as indeterminate and relativistic, thus fragmenting knowledge and experience (Webb, 2006).

Similar to James’ pragmatism, the postmodernist is of the view that a problem exists only when people agree there is a problem needing to be addressed. Narrative therapy is an application of the Postmodernist approach to psychology and encourages clients to see their stories from different perspectives (Corey, 2005). The client’s reality is focused on without disagreeing whether it is accurate or rational (Weishaar, 1993 as cited in Corey, 2005). Unlike traditional therapists who see the client as the problem, the narrative therapists believe that the problem is the problem (Corey, 2005). This separation of client from problem allows one to take a stance against specific storylines, be hopeful in generating a more positive, healing story and thus reducing self-blame.

The therapist searches for times when the client made a choice and times when the client was successful (Corey, 2005, p. 403). Very similar to the assumptions of the Cynics and particularly the Romantics, the Postmodernist approach is based on the optimistic assumption that people are able and that they possess alternative stories that can enhance their lives (Corey, 2005, p. 403). The nature of truth and the approach to psychology: Future research direction Within the United States and internationally, Kirschenbaum and Jourdan (2005) carried out a survey that found an increasing number of therapists who identify themselves as “eclectic” or “integrative” amongst Carl Rogers’ client-centered/person-centered therapists over the past 30 years.

In his writing on the topic of romanticism’s potential in complementing psychology, Schneider (1998) writes that experimental research, whether in hypothesis-making or verification, cannot fully replace romantic insights and needs to refer back to qualitative data that Romantics emphasize (Schneider, 1998). Hence, there are advantages in employing research as well as therapy methodology that take into account aspects of the intuitive and emotional aspect of human beings that romanticism emphasizes. In view of the advantages, Schneider also writes about the implications for therapists in training. He proposes the provision of rich and sensitive qualitative descriptions of their clients in addition to treatment plans that are problem-oriented or behavioral in focus (Schneider, 1998).

Therapists in training should also pay attention to emotional, kinesthetic, and cognitive experiences of clients. Besides just assessing progress toward therapy goals, the meaning of therapy goals for clients should also be considered. Schneider is of the view that therapist with the full range of experiential data about their clients would be in an optimal position to collate essential data for a treatment plan. Hence, research should be done to measure the effectiveness of this approach to therapy in addition to (i.e., eclectic approaches) or instead of traditional approaches.

In his comparison of person-centred therapy with psychodynamic therapy, Owen (1999) notes the possibility of conflict that person-centred therapists might face in trying to be congruent to their own personal feelings while at the same time, being non-judgmental and providing unconditional positive regard. Further research should be carried out in the area of long-term consequences to the therapist and to the client as well as strategies that can be employed when there is a conflict in the congruence of the therapist and the therapist’ provision of unconditional positive regard.

Research may also include investigating the incorporation of one aspect of the psychodynamic approach which is neutrality (neither making interpretations nor providing unconditional positive regard) towards the client’s sharing of his personal experience or thoughts (Owen, 1999). Neutrality allows for a full range of emotions including negative emotions of the client.


Whether truth is absolute and independent of the knower and perceiver has been supported and argued against since the period of the early Greek philosophers. Similar themes that focus on the human individual to evaluate and make their own choices, define their own meaning and ultimately, define and act upon what is the nature of truth and the truth itself recur time and time again whether in the form of an emphasis on affect like the Romantics or Postmodernist who selects part of a narrative, whether accurate or true, to put it to good use in helping the individual cope during therapy.

The implications of the position taken on the nature of truth have been demonstrated throughout history in major schools of philosophy, psychology and in this paper. Future speculation of this theory of truth is that, after certain negative events that will happen in future times as a result of pragmatic and postmodern thinking, a reaction against relativistic and individualized conceptions of truth that may take a shape of fundamentalism may return to schools of philosophy and the social sciences.

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