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Psychology and Social Change
THE RELATIVITY OF PSYCHOLOGICAL SYSTEMS
IN THE history of mankind we see two alternating principles of change in operation, which seem to present an eternal dilemma: the question as to whether a change in the people themselves or a change in their system of living is the better method for improving human conditions. In our own era of social distress, where the two principles of change seem actually to overlap, we are becoming increasingly aware of the two dynamic forces inherent in this human conflict of the individual striving against the social impact of the civilization into which he happens to have been born. This eternal conflict of humanity's striving for volitional control of uncontrollable circumstances is dramatically epitomized in our time by two opposite movements which clashed in the epoch called the World War: the heightened individualism of the pre-war period manifesting itself in the rise and development of individual psychology conceived of as an educational and therapeutic instrument, and the reaction following it of spontaneous mass-movements which found powerful expression in the social and political ideologies characteristic of our post-war era. While politicians, educators and psychologists are advocating their respective remedies for the most pressing symptoms of this conflict, unforeseen events, as so often in history, have taken matters out of their hands and are shaping systems, as well as people, far ahead of any expectations. The best we can do under these circumstances is to catch up with those spontaneous developments which occur about us and are affecting our own life, individually and socially. This catching up, though, to my mind, is not merely a realization of what is going on and an idea of what ought to be done about it, but an actual living in and with the flow of events, following its changing currents as we swim along fully aware of its dangerous undercurrents.
Times of social crisis, such as we are now going through, do not permit of much reflection but call for quick action. The high tide of nineteenth century intellectualism, receding during the World War, has since given place to a period of hectic activity in which we are discovering, not without embarrassment, that our mind, despite its proverbial quickness, is failing to keep up with the torrent of onrushing events. Bound by the ideas of a better past gone by and a brighter future to come, we feel helpless in the present because we cannot even for a moment stop its movement so as to direct it more intelligently. We still have to learn, it seems, that life, in order to maintain itself, must revolt every so often against man's ceaseless attempts to master its irrational forces with his mind. No matter in what terms this presumptuous aim is attempted, sooner or later a reaction sets in, be it in the form of intellectual scepticism and pessimism—through which, for example, the Greeks perished—or in the actual rebellion of our frustrated human nature.
Whether we like to admit it or not, the fact remains that so far in history the most radical, that is, vital changes have been brought about through warfare and revolution, through an active change of order according to which the people changed, or rather, were forced to change. After a new order had been established through violence, education—conceived of in the broadest sense of the word—always was and still is the essential means of effecting the subsequent change of people. The strength, as well as the weakness, of any such indoctrination lies in its lack of flexibility ; educational systems as representatives of political ideologies tend to become just as absolutistic as the religious systems which formerly provided the basic philosophy for education. Ever since Aristotle proclaimed it a necessity for the State to educate its youth in the spirit of its constitution, this principle has been the guiding rule of strong statesmanship throughout the ages up to the present time. At crucial points in modern history we find an increasing awareness of the political importance of education, as borne out by the German tradition that it was the "schoolmaster" who won the victory over Austria in 1866, just as in quite recent times it has been said that the Eton boys could not stand up against the drill of Hitler-youth discipline. As a matter of fact, the proverbial militaristic spirit of the German people seems to be nothing but a continuation into adult life of the classroom discipline. Even the Victorian English, despite their dislike of systems and theories, admitted that the battle of Waterloo was won at a school; and the individualistic French, after their defeat in 1870, drew the conclusion that the German "Gymnasium" must be superior to their own "Lycée."
In our times, however, modern educators, puzzled by the instability of our social order and the lack of generally accepted ideals, tried to replace the conforming philosophy of traditional education by a more individualistic one based on scientific psychology. Instead of adjusting the individual to a social order continuously shifting, hence, threatened in its foundation, progressive educators proclaimed the individual's capacity to change as the main goal of present-day education. They thereby tacitly declared the bankruptcy of traditional education, which, by its very nature, can only serve to indoctrinate and thus maintain collective ideologies but cannot foster the development of individual selfhood. Hence, the individualistic results of those psychological experiments carried out by a group of progressives proved contrary to the ideal of American mass-education. In fact, progressive education, or rather, certain progressive schools in this country, have been criticized for their antidemocratic catering to a "privileged" group who could afford a "child-centred" school for their offspring. While an educational strengthening of selfhood might be desirable for the individual in times of social upheaval, when he needs greater inner security to weather the threatening storms in his changing environment, it separates the individual from the social influences which, in one way or another, strive for uniformity. Yet it needed the threat of foreign ideologies to make progressive educators in this country aware of the danger, which I pointed out in Modern Education, in 1930. The Detroit Conference of the Progressive Education Association, in 1939, found it necessary to re-define the ideal of individualism. Emphasis was laid, as against the "child-centred" school, on the "social-blueprint" theory of education orientated towards the fostering of democratic values.
At the same time, it is true that, just as traditional education aims at the establishment and perpetuation of the existing social order and the psychological type representing it, the individual's self-development tends towards difference, hence, makes for change. In this sense, educational philosophies, no matter how radical their origin, tend to become conservative if the social system which supports them is to endure. On the other hand, there operates, simultaneously with the traditional psychology of character which is taught, another more realistic one which has to be learned from spontaneous developments and applied to one's own change as well as to the changing of others. In all our educational efforts we have to recognize the decisive influence of living forces outside the established social order, in other words, the individual's education outside the classroom. This state of affairs, commonly deplored as the unfortunate discrepancy between theory and practice, serves in reality the human need of balancing one extreme with its counterpart. Instead of striving for a one-sided, that is, absolute solution—which in practice would mean stagnation—we should realize that a dynamic dualism operates in the human being as a force of balance and not only as a source of conflict. In neglecting this basic dynamism in human nature, all education, especially that of our Western civilization, with its dependence on political ideologies, sooner or later fails to achieve uniformity, because it unwittingly fosters the growth and development of the opposite type from the one it set out to produce. We have seen how in Europe pre-war imperialism bred socialism, and how a democratic ideology in government and education led to fascism and communism. By the same token, the educational systems based upon those extreme political ideologies are in turn likely to precipitate individualistic reactions.
Be that as it may, we see at present, as far as the method of indoctrination and the result of uniformity are concerned, a strong comeback of traditional education, not only in the totalitarian states but also in this country which has yet to find the true democratic balance between individualistic liberty and the freedom of political equality. There remains, nevertheless, this essential difference between the democratic form of government and the educational philosophy of the totalitarian states: while the one practises the method of changing people, educating them to a better life, the other is adjusting the people to a change of system which promises an ultimate advantage to the individual. Here it becomes clear that the first method follows evolutionary principles, whereas the other is necessarily of a revolutionary nature. Both these principles are merely following, or rather, copying, the two natural processes seemingly necessary for the maintenance of life. Conceived of in this sense, evolution and revolution are not mutually exclusive ideologies which are played against each other as "natural" versus "man-made," but conceptions corresponding to the two antagonistic principles constituting life itself.
From this it follows that all the "either-or" controversies ending in a blind alley are, in the last analysis, due to man's inability or unwillingness to accept the simultaneous or alternate operation of the two principles which govern life and determine his destiny. Yet it is not merely the question of seeing the two sides or accepting them intellectually which seems to be so difficult, but an experiencing of them in actual living. For living consists of action, and action has to be one-sided, excluding any other alternative of behaviour. From this it follows that our insistence on a one-sided interpretation or solution of any given problem is the result of our transferring the main characteristic of action, its one-sidedness, to thought, which, on the contrary, consists of an alternate consideration of the two sides. That is to say, in our civilization thought has increasingly become the substitute for action, while we ourselves have become more and more inactive and increasingly talkative. This accounts for our reverting, in times when action is called for, to the dialectical interpretation of events instead of realizing the dynamic interplay of living forces behind this logical method of thinking. This predominance of thought finds expression in our designating the simultaneous operation of dynamic life forces as "irrational," while we conceive of the dialectical sequence of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis as a rational exposition. Because the will-ing side of human nature cannot allow for spontaneous happenings that are beyond its control, we falsify the whole outlook and meaning of life by conceiving of spontaneous natural developments as irrational and believing, contrary to all evidence, the will-ful to be the rational.
This paradoxical state of affairs is reflected in the conflicting struggle of different ideologies, be they political, educational or psychological. By emphasizing one aspect of the problem at the expense of the other, that is, the will-ful or the spontaneous, the rational or the irrational, in terms of evolution versus revolution, the different political creeds, educational systems and psychological schools are striving for a supremacy which cannot be established by any absolutistic dogmatism. Each of these ideologies, while claiming to have found the very truth, is actually only expressing temporary needs and desires of one side of human nature, thereby forcing the other frustrated side to assert itself alternately in violent reactions. Hence we have the eternal cycle of changing ideologies, in the face of which we still cling to the faith in an absolute solution.
The real problem seems to be our need for, or insistence on, the absolute—a general human problem that lies beyond psychology. Yet this, our "beyond psychology," does not mean a simple acceptance of the modern emphasis on other factors, such as economics, politics or technique, determining human behaviour. For that we have to go beyond individual and social psychology to group or mass psychology, because in the long run it is the masses who either create psychology or to whom it is forcibly applied. It means more psychology rather than less, but of a different kind. It is an emphasis upon the dynamic forces governing life and human behaviour, in a word, the irrational; whereas our present-day psychology is conceived of as a rational explanation of human behaviour, at best, a rationalization of the irrational but not an acceptance of it as an essential driving force. In fact, the tendency of our times to minimize the importance of all psychological explanation of human behaviour seems to me indicative of the failure of our rationalistic psychology to account for the increasing power of irrational forces operating in modern life. Hence, for the failing rationalistic psychology must be substituted other rational explanations of human conduct, among which the economic seems the most logical, although in reality it operates just as irrationally as every other rational principle carried into practice.
Let it be understood that by "irrational" forces we do not mean the blind biological impulses which have rationally been taken into account in analytical psychology. We mean rather certain powerful ideologies which have been accepted or interpreted as purely rational, when in reality they are emotional, while natural forces operating in the human being have been stigmatized as irrational because they seem uncontrollable. Thus we really have to reckon with two kinds of psychology: the one actually lived by the individual or the people, which, inasmuch as it consists of a simultaneous expression of two opposing principles, is "irrational" ; the other, rational psychology, which as an explanatory science provides scientific methods for educational and therapeutic purposes. Whereas the irrational psychology automatically creates an attitude towards life which can find expression in action, the seemingly rational psychology easily develops into an ideology which, far from being an expression of life itself, is meant and used as a means by which to change life in terms of a certain social order. All attempts gradually to translate any such ideology into practice—be it educationally or politically—are likely to be overtaken by spontaneous developments of the irrational elements. Inasmuch as ideologies are created by the more sensitive type, who anticipates and crystallizes certain urgent needs and desires, they always remain somewhat untimely or out of step, either in their premature anticipation or in their belated application.
The rapid rise and sudden decline of our own psychological era provides a striking example of that fatal discrepancy in time and content between the immediate strivings of a certain epoch, their ideological expression or formulation by a creative personality and its systematic application. Individual psychology, which has failed us in the understanding and directing of present-day mass movements, was preceded by a cultural group-psychology inaugurated by Nietzsche, who, inspired by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, analyzed the different reactions of opposed groups in their eternal struggle for supremacy. This dynamic conception of cultural types was followed, in an era of comparative stability, by Freud's medical approach to a scientific psychology of morbid individuals suffering in a seemingly healthy civilization. Particularly during its rapid development from the beginning of the century to the World War, therapeutic psychology seemed the long-sought panacea for all human evils. The humanistic ideal of the nineteenth century, which was to change the individual through rational methods of education and re-education, appeared to be practically fulfilled. Even straight psychotherapy, which was supposed to be concerned with the personal happiness of the individual, was only part of this idealistic educational scheme, in that its basic philosophy consisted of adjusting deviates to the accepted norm. The educational aim of psychoanalysis, however, was overshadowed from the very beginning by its more attractive aspect—the development of one's own personality. Accordingly, the individual's experience in the therapeutic process was elaborated into a general theory claimed to be a universal explanation of all human behaviour, regardless of time and place.
Excerpted from Beyond Psychology by OTTO RANK. Copyright © 1941 Estelle B. Rank. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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