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(Constable. 8.95; 7.95)

reviewed by Robert M. Young

Carl Rogers (1902-87) was the principal founder of humanistic psychology and psychotherapy, as well as a leading figure in the encounter group movement. His editors claim that no single volume did more to influence the field than his Counselling and Psychotherapy (1942). In his 'client-centred therapy' the recipient is not treated as a dependent patient but as a responsible client. His broader 'person-centred approach' has been applied to intensive groups, marriage, family relations, administration, minority groups and to interracial, intercultural and international relations. His influence has been world-wide, and toward the end of his life he came to be seen as a guru, pre-eminent among the figures - including Lewin, Maslow, Reich and Perls who made up the 'third force' in psychology between the reductionism of behaviorism and the putative pessimism of psychoanalysis.

It is not, therefore, hyperbole that Rogers has been called America's pre-eminent psychologist and admired as a social revolutionary, albeit a revolution on behalf of the relatively decontextualised and self-preoccupied individual.

I would readily grant that he was a welcome influence in the development of non-medical ('lay') psychotherapy and that the movement of which he was a part took on the medical establishment and won. These two volumes contain a selection from his sixteen books and two hundred-plus articles and studies, including a number of dialogues and exchanges with other guru figures, e.g., B.F. Skinner, Rollo May, Gregory Bateson (this one mutually agreed to be 'a fiasco') and various theologians. I admire his role in helping to break the hegemony of the psychiatrists and medical psychoanalysts, but I was dismayed by these volumes.

It is not easy to say why without seeming a sourpuss, so I'll begin by saying that in the course of preparing this review I asked various constructive and thoughtful friends and colleagues about Rogers. All but one - a humanistic therapist - rolled their eyes and groaned, saying that he takes such a naive and optimistic view of human nature that his work is only suitable for people who don't look about them at the actual events and conflicting forces in history,

e.g., Midwesterners, Californians, middle-class professionals and their well-off children. Libertarian leftists have been particularly critical of his ideas and influence. I am thinking of the critiques of Joel Kovel in A Complete Guide to Therapy (Penguin). Russell Jacoby in Social Amnesia (Harvester) and Barry Richards in his recent Images of Freud (Dent), where Rogers is the central topic in the chapter 'Humanistic Psychology Dispels the Freudian Gloom'.

A lot of what Rogers says is unexceptionable - the need for empathy, for being non-directive, for basic trust, for optimism, for 'growth toward maturity' and 'moving toward self-actualization'. But this is embedded in a euphoria and a belief in the basic rationality of people and a trust in 'the wisdom of the organism' that I found pretty hard to bear. For example: 'There is in every organism, at whatever level. an underlying flow of movement toward constructive fulfilment of its inherent possibilities. There is a natural tendency toward complete development in man.' Child abusers? Pol Pot? Mrs. T? Noriega? Pushers? Pimps?

Finally, his approach depends on a malignant, culpable caricature of psychoanalysis and of what happens in psychoanalytic therapy. He utterly mis-describes the relations between analyst and analysand in terms of power and control. He dismisses the key, relational process - transference - as unnecessary and rejects interpretation in favour of 'reflection of feeling'(roughly, repeating what the client just said, with a question mark at the end).

Most important of all, he radiates pure, naive optimism and accuses Freudians of pure pessimism and simply ignores the truth: that we are a conflict-ridden mixture of erotic and destructive impulses - of love, hate, need, generosity, envy, spite, splitting, projection, idealisation - and that finding a way to bear these and achieve some semblance of moderation requires a secure framework in which we offer the analysand understanding, sympathetically conveyed, with full knowledge that they wouldn't be there if their positive, constructive, rational resources were enough to allow them to work and to love satisfactorily.

This review appeared in City Limits in 1992.

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ


The Human Nature Review
Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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