The Image of Man in Contemporary Thought

What can these developments contribute toward the Sciences of Man? The unsatisfactory status of contemporary psychological theory is common knowledge. It seems a hodgepodge of contradicting theories ranging from behaviorism, which sees no difference between human behavior and that of laboratory rats (and, more important, engineers pattern human behavior after the model of rat behavior), to existentialism, for which the human situation is beyond scientific understanding. The variety of conceptions and approaches would be quite healthy, were it not for one disturbing fact. All these theories share one “image of man” which originated in the physical- technological universe; which is taken for granted by otherwise antagonistic theories such as those of behaviorism, computer models of cognitive processes and behavior, psychoanalysis and even existentialism; and which is demonstrably false. This is the robot model of human behavior.

It is, of course, true that there are a considerable number of trends toward new conceptions, urged on by the insight that the robot model is theoretically inadequate in view of empirical fact and is practically dangerous in its application to “behavioral engineering.” Nevertheless, while robotic concepts are frequently denounced overtly and covertly, they remain dominant in psychological research, theory, and engineering. They therefore deserve brief consideration even now.

One leading concept is the stimulus-response scheme, or S-R scheme for short. Behavior, animal and human, is considered to be response to stimuli coming from outside. In part, stimulus- response is based upon inherited neural mechanisms, as in reflexes and instinctive behavior. The more important part, so far as human behavior is concerned, are acquired or conditioned responses. This may be classical conditioning by way of repetition of the sequence of conditional and unconditional stimuli according to Pavlov. It may be operant conditioning by reinforcement of successful responses according to Skinner. It may be early childhood experience according to Freud, beginning with toilet training and other procedures whereby socially acceptable behavior is reinforced, but psychopathological complexes may also be formed. This, then, dominates psychological engineering. Scholastic learning is best carried through by teaching machines constructed according to the Skinnerian principles. Conditioning with psychoanalytic background keeps the wheels of free enterprise going. Advertising, motivation research, radio and television are ways of conditioning or programming the human machine so that it buys what it should: the washing powder wrapped in the most brilliant color, the biggest refrigerator as symbol of the maternal womb, or the political candidate commanding the most efficient party machine.

The point is that the rules found by learning theorists in animal experiments are supposed to cover the total of human behavior. To Skinner, for example, the “verbal behavior” of the child is supposedly acquired in the same process of operant conditioning as Skinner’s rats and pigeons learn their little tricks by being gratified with small parcels of food for correct responses. As a witty critic (Chomsky, 1959) noted, parents supposedly teach their child to walk and to speak because their teaching behavior is reinforced by gratification, probably so that the child later on may make some money by delivering newspapers, or can call his parents to the telephone. More sophisticated versions of the scheme do not alter its essence.

A second principle is that of environmentalism which states, in accordance with the S-R scheme, that behavior and personality are shaped by outside influences. The famous expression is that by Watson: Give me a bunch of kids, (said the founder of behaviorism), taken as they come—and I will make them doctors, lawyers, merchant men, beggars and thieves, solely by the power

of conditioning. It is the same principle when psychoanalysis says that personality is formed by early childhood experience, especially of a sexual nature. In more general formulation, the human brain is a computer that can be programmed at will. The practical consequence is that human beings are born not only with equal rights but with equal capabilities. Hence our almost pathological concern with the abnormal, the mentally ill and outright criminal who, by suitable reconditioning, should be brought back into the flock—often to the detriment of consideration given the healthy, normal or superior. Hence also the belief that money buys everything: when the Russians build better space vehicles, a few more billions spent on education will produce the crop of young Einsteins needed for closing the gap.

The third is the equilibrium principle. In Freudian formulation, this is the “principle of stability”: the basic function of the mental apparatus consists in maintaining homeostatic equilibrium. Behavior essentially is reduction of tensions, particularly those of a sexual nature. Hence, let them release their tensions by way of promiscuity and other tension reduction, and you will have normal and satisfied human beings.

Fourthly, behavior is governed by the principle of economy. It is utilitarian and should be carried through in the most economic way, that is, at minimum expense of mental or vital energy. In practice, the economic principle amounts to the postulate of minimum demands: for example, reduce scholastic demands to the minimum necessary to become an executive, electronics engineer or plumber—otherwise you warp personality, create tensions, and make an unhappy being.

The present crisis of psychology (which, however, has already ‘ lasted for some 30 years) can be summarized as the slow erosion of the robot model of man which up to recent years dominated ‘ psychology, particularly in the United States.

Two points deserve to be reemphasized. First, the model of man as robot was germane to all fields of psychology and psycho- pathology, and to theories and systems otherwise different or antagonistic: to the S-R theory of behavior; to cognitive theory in what has been called the “dogma of immaculate perception,” i.e. the organism as a passive receptor of stimuli; to learning theories, Pavlovian, Skinnerian, or with intervening variables; to diverse personality theories; to behaviorism, psychoanalysis,

cybernetic concepts in neurophysiology and psychology, and so on. Furthermore, “man as robot” was both expression and motor force of the Zeitgeist of a mechanized and commercialized society; it helped to make psychology the handmaiden of pecuniary and political interests. It is the goal of manipulating psychology to make humans ever more into robots or automata, this being engineered by mechanized learning, advertising techniques, mass media, motivation research and brainwashing.

Nevertheless, these basic presuppositions are spurious. That is to say, conditioning and learning theories correctly describe an important part or aspect of human behavior, but taken as a nothing:but theory they become ostensibly false and self-defeating in .. their application. The image of man as robot is metaphysics or myth, and its persuasiveness rests only in the fact that it so closely corresponds to the mythology of mass society, the glorification of the machine, and the profit motive as sole motor of progress.

Unbiased observation easily shows the spuriousness of these basic assumptions. The S-R scheme leaves out the large part of behavior which is expression of spontaneous activities such as play, exploratory behavior and any form of creativity. Environmentalism is refuted by the elementary fact that not even fruit flies or Pavlovian dogs are equal, as any student of heredity or behavior should know. Biologically, life is not maintenance or restoration of equilibrium but is essentially maintenance of disequilibria, as the doctrine of the organism as open system reveals. Reaching equilibrium means death and consequent decay. Psychologically, behavior not only tends to release tensions but also builds up tensions; if this stops, the patient is a decaying mental corpse in the same way a living organism becomes a body in decay when tensions and forces keeping it from equilibrium have stopped. Juvenile delinquents who commit crime for fun, a new psychopathology resulting from too much leisure, the fifty percent mental cases in our hospitals—all this is proof that the scheme of adaptation, adjustment, conformity, psychological and social equilibrium doesn’t work. There is a wide range of behavior—and, presumably also of evolution—which cannot be reduced to utilitarian principles of adaptation of the individual and survival of the species,. Greek sculpture, Renaissance painting. German music—indeed, any aspect of culture— has nothing to do with utility, or with the better survival of individuals or nations. Mr. Babbitt is in every utilitarian respect better off than Beethoven or Michelangelo.

Also the principle of stress, so often invoked in psychology, psychiatry and psychosomatics, needs some reevaluation. As everything in the world, stress too is an ambivalent thing. Stress is not only a danger to life to be controlled and neutralized by adaptive mechanisms; it also creates higher life. If life, after disturbance from outside, had simply returned to the so-called homeostatic equilibrium, it would never have progressed beyond the amoeba which, after all, is the best adapted creature in the world—it has survived billions of years from the primeval ocean to the present day. Michelangelo, implementing the precepts of psychology, should have followed his father’s request and gone in the wool trade, thus sparing himself lifelong anguish although leaving the Sistine Chapel unadorned.

Selye wrote: “The secret of health and happiness lies in successful adaptation to the ever-changing conditions of the globe; the penalties for failure in this great process of adaptation are disease and unhappiness’’ (1956, p. VII). He speaks for the worldly-wise and in a sense he is correct. But, taken literally, he would negate all creative activity and culture which, to an extent, have made him more than the beasts of the jungle. Considered as adaptation, creativity is a failure, a disease and unhappiness; the Vienna historian of culture, Egon Friedell (1927-31) has a brilliant analysis of this point. The maxim of adjustment, equilibrium and homeostasis cannot be followed by anyone who brings one single idea to the earth, including Selye himself, who certainly has paid for doing so.

Life is not comfortable settling down in pre-ordained grooves of being; at its best, it is elan vital, inexorably driven towards higher form of existence. Admittedly, this is metaphysics and poetic simile; but so, after all, is any image we try to form of the driving forces in the universe.

Source: Bertalanffy Ludwig Von (1969), General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, George Braziller Inc.; Revised edition.

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