Psychology’s Grand Theorists by Amy Demorest
This book is about a few men who have had a profound effect on a great many people. They have done so by changing the ways that people think about their very own lives. It was the ambition of each of these men to develop a theory vast and powerful enough to account for the human experience in its fullest measure.
They sought to explain those human phenomena that are so universal and ever present as to be taken for granted: Why do we show emotion? Why do we want freedom? Why do we dream? They sought also to explain those human phenomena that are so odd or paradoxical as to appear to make no sense whatever: What leads a person to develop superstitious beliefs? Or to have a psychotic break?
Or to lead a political movement to practice genocide? Fascinated by the complexity of human life, each developed a model for bringing order and meaning to this complexity. For each man, the theory he offered to the world was so bold that it shocked a major part of his prevailing culture. And in each case, what was initially seen as impossible to accept has now come to be so pervasively adopted as to constitute the essential architecture of our contemporary knowledge. These are the originators of the “Grand Theories” of psycholog)’.
The first historically was Sigmund Freud, a Viennese physician whose major treatise introducing his theory was published in 1899.
When Freud looked at the human being, what he saw were seething forces arising from different sources within the mind to wage a never-ending war, and all of this going on without the individual’s own awareness. The next was Burrhus Frederic Skinner, a Harvard professor whose first major work appeared in 1938. When Skinner looked at the human being he saw a physical body, moved to behave as it does by its environment in the way that a billiard ball is moved by the objects it hits.
Finally there was Carl Rogers, an American psychotherapist whose book introducing his approach was published in 1942. Rogers saw yet a third vision when he turned his eye to the human being. What was plain to Rogers was that humanness is defined by one’s subjective experience of the world, and that it is this subjective frame of reference that determines an individual’s path in life.
Each of these men believed that with his theory’ he had achieved his ambition to discover the means for fully understanding the human condition. And yet what is obvious from these brief summaries of their theories is that their understandings were entirely different.
These three individuals were founders of three distinct paradigms within the field of psychology. Sigmund Freud provided the first comprehensive model with a psychodynamic approach to understanding persons. This approach offers us an image of the human psyche that infers powerful forces battling unseen within us, envisioning an intriguing mystery hidden under that which is apparent. In the view of this approach, unconscious forces in the mind seek a way to be expressed in behavior, yet they run into conflict with equally unconscious forces that seek to deny their expression.
Human behavior represents the resolution of this dynamic battle as these various forces are modified, channeled, and given compromised satisfaction. In Freud’s version of this model, the primary forces motivating behavior are sexual and aggressive impulses and the moral prohibitions with which they conflict. In a successful compromise between these opposing forces, human behavior represents the symbolic expression of sexual and aggressive wishes in a socially acceptable form.
Thus, even the most apparently adaptive and rational human behavior rests on a hidden base of passion, conflict, and irrationality. Freud’s theory was the first of its kind, but it has been followed by many others, such as those offered by Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Karen Horney, and Erik Erikson. Together these and other theorists have provided accounts of what it means to be a person that all fit within the psychodynamic paradigm, a perspective that holds a vision of people as at their core driven by dynamic forces in their unconscious minds.