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The Imperfections of Self-Actualizing Persons

Editor’s Introduction to the 3rd edition of Maslow’s Toward a Psychology of Being, New York: Wiley, 1999.

Abraham Maslow

Although self- actualizing persons can be seen as moving in the direction of a kind of human perfection, it must not be supposed that any of them is ever entirely without flaws or shortcomings. Even in those who are farthest along, there are residual imperfections. Indeed, Maslow seemed to find these residual imperfections of self- actualizing persons rather comforting, as though they were proof that such persons really were human after all— not “stuffed shirts or marionettes or unreal projections of unreal ideals,” but real- life flesh- and- bones human beings. To emphasize the point, he was quick to point out that self- actualizing persons, though moving in the direction of perfection, nonetheless

show many of the lesser human failings. They, too, are equipped with silly, wasteful, or thoughtless habits. They can be boring, stubborn, irritating. They are by no means free from a rather superficial vanity, pride, partiality to their own productions, family, friends, and children.31

In addition to these lesser human failings, there are two other types of characteristics, which some might see as shortcomings, that flow directly from the self- actualization process itself. Their tendency to find all experience full of wonder, beauty, and fascination, for example, can sometimes lead them to seem absent- minded or humorless or to be neglectful of the conventional social amenities. Similarly, their compassionate attitude toward people in general can sometimes cause them to be too compassionate, doing things out of pity that they know to be wrong both for themselves and for the other person; and their lack of deficiency- motivated suspiciousness toward other persons can sometimes put them in situations where they are taken advantage of. Most striking of all, however, is the fact that self- actualizing persons, at the other extreme, are “occasionally capable of an extraordinary and unexpected ruthlessness.” But while this capacity might seem at first glance to be a very serious flaw indeed, it must be remembered that these are “very strong people” who can act with “surgical coldness when this is called for, beyond the power of the average [person].”32 Some readers will have had the experience of being in a relationship they know to be doomed to failure, where both parties are miserable in it and only hurting each other, but both are also too squeamish to put an end to it. The self- actualizing person would terminate such a relationship at the moment it was seen to be completely unsalvageable. Although the abrupt finality of the act might seem to some to come from a kind of ruthlessness, what it really stems from is a clear- minded perception that this is what is necessary and best for both parties.


PSYCH106: Recall that this piece was originally written as the editor’s introduction to the 3rd edition of Malsow’s Toward a Psychology of Being. Hence the focus is on that book from this point onward. The book you are reading, Farther Reaches of Human Nature, was published a few years after Toward a Psychology of Being, and the song it sings is essentially the same. Both books were collections of miscellaneous papers and lectures that Maslow had already published elsewhere.

In his original paper on self- actualization Maslow had mentioned two further characteristics of the process, but only fairly briefly. It was not until the publication of the present book that these were drawn out more fully and given much greater prominence. The first pertained to what you will find him referring to in Chapters 6, 7, and 8 as “peak-experiences” and “B-cognition,” and the second was what you will find him discussing in Chapters 11 and 12 under the heading of “values.” As you will see, these two drawings- out are closely related, the second flowing quite directly from the first. From this point on, all quotations attributable to Maslow are taken from Toward a Psychology of Being, unless otherwise indicated.


We had best begin by defining some terms. In Toward a Psychology of Being you will find Maslow using the letter D as an abbreviation for “deficiency.” Thus, “D-motivation” means “deficiency motivation” and “D-cognition” refers to the sorts of perceptual and other mental processes that occur under the influence of deficiency motivation. The letter B (=”Being”), on the other hand, refers to the opposite of deficiency. Thus “B-motivation” points to the non- striving, unfolding sort of motivation that occurs once the deficiency needs have become stably satisfied, and “B-cognition” refers to the kinds of perceptual and other mental processes that come to the fore once the mind- clouding effects of deficiency motivation have been removed.

From at least the age of twenty, and probably even earlier, Maslow had an interest in what had been traditionally described as “the mystic experience.” And the main source of the interest appears to have been quite personal. As he indicated in the same undergraduate philosophy paper cited earlier, “I have myself had the mystic experience … [in which I experienced something] so intense that it left me almost weeping.” In his original paper on self- actualization, Maslow noted that that this experience of “limitless horizons opening up,” accompanied by “ecstasy and wonder and awe,” occurs fairly commonly among self- actualizing persons as a kind of momentary intensification of their general tendency to apprehend reality more directly and clearly. His emphasis, however, was not only on the quivering, trembling, full- blown “mystic experience” of tradition, but also on the milder, more everyday versions of it that he thought might occur “dozens of times a day” in self- actualizing persons and are also found surprisingly often among persons who could not be described as self- actualizing.33

This was quite an important moment in the original paper, because in all other respects Maslow was inclined to see a kind of chasm standing between the self- actualizing person and the mere “average” person, whereas here we find him focusing on a continuity. As indicated above, however, it was not until Toward a Psychology of Being that he drew the point out fully. In a section of Chapter 6 significantly entitled “Redefinition of Self- Actualization,” he observes that such experiences can come to anyone; and when they do come, those who have them take on, at least momentarily, some portion of the characteristics that he had described under the heading of self- actualization. So in effect, even average persons momentarily “become self- actualizers” in such experiences. For at least that brief moment they become “more truly [themselves], more perfectly actualizing [their] potentialities, closer to the core of [their] Being, more fully human.” In short, we can now see self- actualization as “a matter of degree and of frequency rather than an all- or- none affair”— as a kind of “episode, or a spurt in which the powers of the person come together” in an extraordinary way.

Here is the underlying logic of the point. Although we can speak abstractly of “self- actualizers” as persons who are no longer laboring under the mind- clouding effects of deficiency motivation, the fact is that no real- life flesh- and- bones human being can be completely free of deficiency motivation at every moment. The self- actualizers have reached a level of stable satisfaction of the deficiency needs— but that does not mean that they have satisfied these needs once and for all. Even they must devote a certain portion of their lives to maintaining that level. Let them go long enough without food, and they, too, will grow hungry. Let the roof of their house rot away from neglect, and they, too, will get cold and wet. Let them neglect the duties of their employment, and they, too, will be without a job.

By the same token, however, there are times when these ineluctable residua of deficiency motivation fall away, if only for a moment, and it is then that the perception of reality becomes clear and direct in the fullest possible degree. It is as though the person ascends for a brief moment to the top of a very high peak, looking out from there upon limitless horizons, with “ecstasy and wonder and awe.” Hence Maslow’s name for it: “peak- experience.” The same is true of “average” persons, although typically in lesser degree. There are occasional moments when they, too, can briefly transcend the clamor of deficiency motivation; and these are the moments when they, too, can ascend at least part- way up the peak to get a glimpse of reality “in its own Being . . . rather than as something to be used, or something to be afraid of, or to be reacted to in some other [deficiency- motivated] human way.” The peaks ascended to by average persons might not be as frequent or as high as those of the self- actualizing, but they are peaks all the same.

The View from the Peak

The classic description of what occurs in experiences of the sort traditionally labeled “mystical” was provided by the psychologist- philosopher William James in his enduring work of 1902, The Varieties of Religious Experience. For James as well, the origins of the interest in such experiences were personal. Although he apparently was not given to experiencing “mystical consciousness” spontaneously, he did on several occasions artificially induce it— or at least something very much like it— by means of inhaling nitrous oxide. And what he found in his “anæsthetic revelations” was something closely akin to what others had reported of spontaneous mystical experiences (religious and otherwise) down through the ages. They all converged, he observed

towards a kind of insight to which I cannot help ascribing some metaphysical significance. The keynote of it is invariably a reconciliation. It is as if the opposites of the world, whose contradictoriness and conflict make all our difficulties and troubles, were melted into unity. Not only do they, as contrasted species, belong to one and the same genus, but one of the species, the nobler and better one, is itself the genus, and so soaks up and absorbs its opposite into itself.34

It was also very closely akin to what Maslow reported, about sixty years later, as the overarching import of the peak- experience. From the “Olympian point of view” of the peak- experience, one sees that

the whole of Being … is only neutral or good, and that evil or pain or threat is only a partial phenomenon, a product of not seeing the world whole and unified, and of seeing it from a self- centered or from too low a point of view. … dichotomies, polarities, and conflicts are fused, transcended or resolved. … [What are] thought to be straight- line continua, whose extremes are polar to each other and as far apart as possible, [turn] out to be rather like circles, or spirals, in which the polar extremes [come] together into a fused unity. … [Inconsistencies, oppositions, and contradictions are] products of partial cognition, and fade away with cognition of the whole.

But of course, it is one thing for an experience to feel like a deep insight and quite another for it actually to be one. In his own earlier investigation of the subject, William James was quite aware that the great revelations of the moment do not always pan out “when measured by the verdict of the rest of experience.” Yet, in reflecting back on the insight from his own nitrous- oxide experiences (“the opposites of the world … melted into unity”), he acknowledged that he could not “wholly escape from its authority. I feel as if it must mean something, … if one could only lay hold of it more clearly.” Reflecting more generally on the whole spectrum of such experiences, he observed that at the very least they prove the potential range of human consciousness to extend far beyond its normal workaday boundaries:

that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question,— for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.35

Although Maslow’s approach to the matter was stylistically very different, his conclusion was essentially the same. Like James, he was well aware that “it is possible for the great insight to be mistaken.”

The poem that creates itself in a peak- experience may have to be thrown away later as unsatisfactory. Creation of a product that will stand up feels subjectively the same as the creation of a product that folds up later under cold, objective critical scrutiny. All peak- experiences feel like Being- cognition, but not all are truly so.

Nonetheless, “we dare not neglect the clear hints” that in at least some peak- experiences reality is “seen more clearly and its essence penetrated more profoundly.”

For all their parallels, however, there was one important respect in which James and Maslow in their treatments of the subject profoundly differed. Concerning the practical implications of such experiences— peak, mystical, revelation, illumination, epiphany, or whatever they might be called— James went only so far as to say that “they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map.” Maslow, on the other hand, came to believe and ardently to proclaim that there is a realm of practical, everyday human existence for which the truly revelatory, B-cognition types of peak- experiences can furnish formulas and do give a map. It is the realm that pertains to the perennial question of human values.

Toward an Objective Standard for Human Values

There is a certain point of view that holds all statements concerning “value” to be nothing more than statements of personal taste and preference. Thus, to say that something is beautiful is to say nothing more than “I find this to be beautiful”; to say that something is good is to say nothing more than “I regard this as good”; and so forth. This position is usually spoken of as value relativism. Its rallying cries include such well- worn phrases as “Beauty exists only in the eye of the beholder” and de gustibus non est disputandum (“There is no disputing about matters of taste”).

The opposite position, which I will speak of here as value objectivism, holds that in at least some instances beauty, goodness, and the like, exist not only subjectively in the eye of the beholder, but also objectively in the object beheld. In the language preferred by Maslow, it would be styled as a “fusion of fact and value” or as a “dynamic parallelism or isomorphism . . . between the inner and the outer.”

Although Maslow ended up as a value objectivist, that is not how he began. Steeped as he was in the ideological traditions of science and secular humanism, he had started out as a rather conventional value relativist, arguing in the fairly standard psychological and anthropological language of the day that all human judgments of value are “completely dependent on the peculiar history of the individual and determined by the culture in which he finds himself.”36 His transformation into a value objectivist did not come all of a sudden, but gradually over a period of about twenty years.

The key to the transformation was Maslow’s growing emphasis, especially in the decade leading up to the initial publication of Toward a Psychology of Being, on the possibility that self- actualization involves a clearer perception of reality. Recall that by this time he had come to see self- actualization not just as the province of a very few, but as an intrinsically human height to which anyone can potentially ascend in the peak- experience, even if only rarely and momentarily. At some point during this decade, it dawned upon him that there is something here suggestive of the relationship between the person who has 20/20 vision and the one who is severely myopic: namely, that the first sees much farther and more clearly, and accordingly has much to tell the other about what is really “out there.” The first step of the argument appears in Chapter 6 when Maslow observes that

if self-actualizing people can and do perceive reality more efficiently, fully and with less motivational contamination than we others do, then we may possibly use them as biological assays. Through their greater sensitivity and perception, we may get a better report of what reality is like, than through our own eyes, just as canaries can be used to detect gas in mines before less sensitive creatures can. As a second string to this same bow, we may use ourselves in our most perceptive moments, in our peak- experiences, when, for the moment, we are self- actualizing, to give us a report of the nature of reality that is truer than we can ordinarily manage.

Maslow’s extension of this logic of the “better report” to the question of values might prove somewhat difficult to follow without a roadmap, because he used the term “values” in two different senses. Although he himself would say that these two senses are ultimately fused together in a unified whole, our immediate purposes will be best served if we keep them separate.

The Values of “Being Itself”

The first sense is the one that appears when Maslow speaks of the peak- experience as a perception not only of Reality as it really is, but also of the values that are inherent within Reality as it really is. These are what he describes as the B-values: wholeness, perfection, completion, justice, aliveness, richness, and all the others that you will find mentioned in Chapter 6 and elsewhere in Toward a Psychology of Being. This sense is somewhat problematical, because there are two ways in which it can be understood, and it is not clear whether Maslow intended it to be taken in the first way, or the second, or both. The difference between them stems from the fact that the term “value” is intrinsically relational. A “value” does not hang suspended in mid-air. To say that such- and- such is a “value” is to imply that it is of value to someone or something, or that it is valued by someone or something. So the question is, by whom or what are the B-values valued?

The first possibility is a fairly tame one. Except for the most fully self- actualizing among us, our ordinary workaday system of values is heavily contaminated by deficiency motivation. In the peak- experience that contamination drops to a virtual zero, yet the experience is strongly infused with a sense of value. What happens is that in the moment of the peak- experience we see realities that we did not see before, and these newly perceived realities engender in us a sense of value that is quite different from our ordinary, workaday sense of value.

The second possibility, far less tame, would involve a little side- trip into metaphysics. When we behold “Being itself” through the clear lens of the peak- experience, the values that we perceive there are “its values rather than our own.” Taken literally, the implication is that the B-values would exist, as values, even if there were no human beings or other cognizant creatures around to regard them as values. In effect, it is “Being itself” that does the valuing! The general issue here is a variation on the old question: If a tree falls in a forest when no one (not even a squirrel or a butterfly) is there to hear it, will there be any sound? The answer is, it depends on what you mean by “sound.” If by “sound” you mean something that is heard by someone or something, then clearly there will be no sound— unless you want to suppose that the “Forest itself” hears it.

Self-Actualizing Persons as “Good Choosers”

Although Maslow enthusiastically proclaimed that “the philosophical implications [of the peak- experience] are tremendous,” his bottom- line interest in the matter was not so much on abstract philosophical implications as on the practical application of this “better report” to the task of individual human growth and development. This is the other and much more straightforward side of his concept of “value,” which you will find drawn out chiefly in Chapters 11 and 12.

The seeds from which an idea can grow can sometimes come from the most peculiar places. In the present instance, they had come from a research report Maslow had come across around 1935 on the subject of free- choice behavior in chickens.37 Most readers of this report at the time would have seen it as interesting, but hardly world- shaking. Maslow apparently saw it this way, too, at the time, though it stuck in his mind and eventually assumed the proportions of “a startling experiment . . . pregnant with implications for value theory.” The basic finding was that, if ordinary barnyard chickens are allowed to choose their diets freely from among a wide range of edible offerings, some chickens are observed to choose well and grow strong and healthy, while others choose poorly and become scrawny weaklings. However, if the poor choosers are then confined to the diets selected by the good choosers, they, too, grow stronger and healthier. The startling implications that Maslow eventually came to see in this experiment were two in tandem: first, that some organisms are better choosers than others of their species; and second, that “the good choosers can choose better than the bad choosers what is better for the bad choosers themselves.”

Lest there be any doubt on this point, let me emphasize that the key concept here is not chickens but choosing. In any animal species, including the human species, the individual members choose from among a variety of alternatives, and this choosing is of course by no means limited to matters of diet. Some people are predominantly good choosers, in the sense that they regularly choose the alternatives that conduce to health and wholeness; and others are not such good choosers. Either way, what the choices reflect is the individual’s underlying system of values— from which we can infer that some value systems are true, in the sense that they are in accord with the deeper realities of human nature and the human situation, while others are not so true. Given this mention of health, wholeness, and values all in the same breath, you will certainly be able to anticipate the next link in the chain. The good choosers among human beings are the self- actualizers, who see reality more clearly and are accordingly more closely in touch with the realities of their own deeper inner natures. Thus, if we want to derive an objective, naturalistic system of human values, applicable to good choosers and poor choosers alike, the way to go about it is to study the values of “these highly evolved, most mature, psychologically healthiest individuals” along with the values that appear in “the peak moments of average individuals, moments in which they become transiently self- actualized.”

That is, let us see what happens when we playfully treat [the self- actualizing] as biological assays, more sensitive versions of ourselves, more quickly conscious of what is good for us than we are ourselves. This is an assumption that, given enough time, we would eventually choose what they choose quickly. Or that we would sooner or later see the wisdom of their choices, and then make the same choices. Or that they perceive sharply and clearly what we perceive dimly.

In brief: If you wish to move in the direction of health, wholeness, fulfillment, the actualization of your best and deepest potentialities, then study the reports, and in particular the choices, of those who have already moved in that direction themselves. Once again, it is a bit of rediscovered “pristine wisdom”— but with a spin and flavor that are distinctively Abe’s.

“Wonderful Possibilities, Inscrutable Depths”— And What to Make of It All?

This is Maslow’s vision of human nature in the proverbial nutshell. Most readers will probably find it a very attractive vision, because— to put it quite plainly— it tells us things about ourselves that we very much enjoy hearing: that we have “a higher nature,” that we “can be wonderful out of [our] own human and biological nature,” and all the rest of it. It is also telling us something about the nature of “Being itself” that I suspect many of us would very much like to believe: that “the whole of Being, when seen at its best and from an Olympian point of view, is only neutral or good, and that evil or pain or threat is only a partial phenomenon, a product of not seeing the world whole and unified.” Then, too, there is the hope that even those of us who do not regularly inhabit the Olympian heights might from time to time catch a glimpse of the truth of these claims directly, in our transient moments of peak- experience.

But as Maslow himself notes in his discussion of peak- experience, it is one thing to have the grand vision, or to find it attractive, and quite another to subject it to “cold, objective, critical scrutiny.” When the production of this new edition of Toward a Psychology of Being was still in the planning stage, the publisher asked me to be sure to include an appraisal of “Maslow’s influence.” That was the point at which my normally stout heart began to flutter a bit, because at first glance Maslow’s influence within the mainstream of psychology appears to have been rather scant. We will come back in a moment for a second glance, but first I need to give you an idea of why his work has not lighted the fires that some of its more enthusiastic admirers might have expected. It is not simply that mainstream psychology is hide- bound, close- minded, hard- hearted, and so wrapped up in the worship of Science as to be unable to see what is really worth seeing. There are, in fact, some perfectly legitimate grounds for taking Maslow’s claims with a substantial dose of critical skepticism.

Of his three main psychological concepts— the hierarchical structure of motivation, self- actualization, and peak- experience— only the first has been well received within the psychological mainstream. This favorable reception does not extend to every detail of his motivational theory, though there does seem to be fairly wide agreement that the basic concepts of “hierarchy” and “prepotence” are plausible and scientifically useful. His claims concerning self- actualization and peak- experience, on the other hand, have been met with considerable skepticism and often outright dismissal. This is not to say that these claims have gone completely unnoticed. I expect there are many psychologists, even among those firmly dedicated to what Maslow describes in Appendix A as “the canons and folkways of impersonal science,” who find his views on these matters appealing and full of interesting possibilities. The problem comes when these views are subjected to the cold, objective, critical scrutiny that all proffered psychological ideas must satisfy before they can be regarded as passing muster.

Consider, for example, his core concept of self- actualization. At first sight you might think that the validity of this concept could be established by a positive answer to the simple question: Are there people in the world who show, in varying degrees and combinations, the characteristics that Maslow described as self- actualizing? As I occasionally find at least some of these characteristics in myself and in quite a few other persons of my acquaintance, I would certainly have to answer the question with a qualified yes. I suspect the reader will have something of the same reaction. But note well that this is only the first step, and a rather tiny one at that. Far larger is the claim that these characteristics, taken as a whole, constitute the truest representation of what human nature really is, down beneath the surface. The verdict of mainstream psychology on this point is essentially that the idea is interesting but completely unproved. More than that, it is fairly clear in retrospect that Maslow’s vision of self- actualization was in large measure a reflection of his own personal tastes and preferences, and seemed to be predicated on the assumption that he himself was a “good chooser” in matters of this sort. In his later years he acknowledged this reflection quite freely. In 1967, for example, he observed in print that

My investigations on self-actualization … started out as the effort of a young intellectual to try to understand two of his teachers [Ruth Benedict and Max Wertheimer] whom he loved, adored, and admired and who were very, very wonderful people. … I tried to see whether [their] pattern could be found elsewhere, and I did find it elsewhere, in one person after another. … My generalizations grew out of my selection of certain kinds of people … whom [I] liked or admired very much and thought were wonderful people …. [They were] selected with all kinds of built-in biases.38

The recognition of the role played by his own tastes and preferences was carried even further in an entry Maslow added to his personal diary at about the same time:

May 28 [1967] … It’s been with me for years. Meant to write & publish a self- actualization critique, but somehow never did. Now I think I know why. I think I had a hidden, unconscious criterion of selection beyond health. Why did I get so excited over Arthur E. Morgan just from reading his book— so sure he was a self- actualizing person? It’s because he was using the B-language. What I’ve done was pick B-people. In addition to all the other overt and conscious criteria. People in the B-realm, using B-language, the awakened, the illuminated, the ‘high plateau’ people who normally B-cognize and who have the B-values very firmly & actively in hand— even tho not consciously. Pearl, for instance. Pop Schrank. All of them, I guess. When Lagemann asked me about contemporary public figures, I refused. But I had looked over [various suggested] lists of people who fitted my stated 3 criteria, & I just couldn’t swallow them. … [They fit the criteria, but] they are clearly not B-people. Same for the APA [American Psychological Association] board of directors— very capable and sound, etc., but no B-cognition. … So I guess I did read into my selectees a criterion beyond Œhealth.’ … I’d smuggled in an unconscious additional variable of B-ness, B-values, B-language. [The italics are Maslow’s.]39

Although “smuggled” is perhaps too strong a word, there certainly was this unconscious additional variable. Maslow started out with the tacit assumption that the deepest, truest potentialities of human nature are those that correspond with what he eventually came to call B-cognition, the B-values, and other B-prefaced sorts of things— and it is no mere coincidence that these were the very same “wonderful possibilities” he had been pursuing since the days of his youth. Perhaps he was a “good chooser” in matters of this sort. Perhaps this is the truest representation of the intrinsic core of human nature, which he was able to see by virtue of some special clarity of perception. But then again, perhaps it is simply a portrait of what he himself found most admirable in human nature, mixed in with his own hunches about what “Being itself” must look like when seen from the Olympian heights.

A similar demurral has greeted the concept of peak- experience. There is no question that people sometimes have experiences that feel as though they are moments of revelation. What draws the skepticism is not the phenomenon itself, but the specific claims that Maslow made about it. Partly, it is because these claims once again line up so neatly with his own personal tastes and preferences— the “B-ness, B-values, B-language” predilections as noted above. But mainly it is a skepticism engendered by concerns about the rigor of the logic and methodology that underlie the claims. At a certain pivotal point in Chapter 6, for example, Maslow declares with italicized emphasis that “the peak- experience is only good and desirable, and is never experienced as evil or undesirable.” This characteristic is “very puzzling,” he noted, “and yet so uniform that it is necessary not only to report [it] but also to try somehow to understand [it].” And so it was that he went on to draw his central and by now familiar conclusion concerning what the peak- experience reveals about the nature of Being itself:

The philosophical implications here are tremendous. If, for the sake or argument, we accept the thesis that in peak- experience the nature of reality itself may be seen more clearly and its essence penetrated more profoundly, then this is almost like saying what so many philosophers and theologians have affirmed, that the whole of Being … is only neutral or good ….

But now go back to read carefully the first two paragraphs of Chapter 6, and you will see how even the most fair- minded and sympathetic of psychologists might be inclined to raise questions concerning logic and methodology. Maslow had based this particular peak- experience conclusion, along with all the others, chiefly on verbal interviews with about eighty respondents and on the written responses of 190 college students. The peak- experience “is only good and desirable, and is never experienced as evil or undesirable”? Given the particular set of instructions to which his subjects were responding, the result could scarcely have been anything else.

I would like you to think of the most wonderful … experiences of your life; happiest moments, ecstatic moments, moments of rapture, perhaps from being in love, or from listening to music or suddenly ‘being hit’ by a book or a painting, or from some great creative moment. …

Maslow’s findings on peak-experience might have been quite different had he asked his respondents to report the most intense and revelatory experiences of their lives, without tilting the scale by adding “wonderful,” “happiest,” “ecstatic,” and the like. Different, too, might have been his conclusions concerning what the intense revelatory moments of life purport to reveal about Being itself. Examine the full literature on such experiences, and you will see that they come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Sometimes they are more or less as Maslow described them, but at least equally often they fall well outside what he described. In either case, what they actually reveal about Being itself is, to say the least, equivocal; with the result, as William James put it, that they are “capable of forming matrimonial alliances with materials furnished by the most diverse philosophies and theologies.”40 Maslow’s vision of what peak- experiences reveal about Being itself is only one of a wide range of philosophies and theologies that have attached themselves to such experiences.

So if you are accustomed to subjecting things to cold, objective, critical scrutiny, you will certainly find plenty of places in Maslow’s psychology where that habit can be brought to bear. In my own reading of his work I find warning signs aplenty: “Questionable Logic!” “Weak Methodology!” “Personal Taste and Preference!” “Leap of Faith!” and so on. Yet, when all is said and done, when every last methodological weakness has been noted and every last bit of questionable logic chopped, there is still something in Maslow’s vision of things that I cannot entirely put aside. Partly, it is out of sheer respect for his willingness to go so far out on a limb. He knew perfectly well that there would be plenty of us logic- choppers around to hack away at it, but out he went all the same— not just willingly, but with joyful enthusiasm. He of course ardently believed in the importance of what he was doing; but at the same time he was also having great fun at it. Small wonder that playfulness, fun, joy, exuberance, and the like are prominently included in his listing of the B-values!

A much larger part of it, however, is the nagging suspicion that Maslow, in spite of all the points we logic- choppers and methodology mavens can score against him, just might be on to something after all. I noted earlier that Maslow’s influence within psychology appears at first glance to be rather scant. Now we come to the second glance and find something really quite remarkable. It is that this same nagging suspicion has over the past several decades slowly but surely worked its way into the psychological mainstream.

What I have been referring to here as the psychological mainstream is of course not a single stream, but a complex assortment of smaller currents and cross- currents. The word “influence” means literally “flowing in,” and that is exactly what seems to have happened. Something of Maslow’s vision of things has flowed into the psychological mainstream and become one of its many currents. The point has been well stated by Henry Gleitman, the author of a widely adopted and eminently mainstream introductory psychology textbook. Although Gleitman’s words allude generically to “humanistic psychology,” the main reference is obviously to Maslow. Granted that “many of the major tenets of the humanistic approach to personality rest on rather shaky foundations.”

Nonetheless, there is one accomplishment of which we can be sure. The humanistic psychologists have reminded us of many phenomena that other approaches to the study of personality have largely ignored. People do strive for more than food and sex or prestige; they read poetry, listen to music, fall in love, have occasional peak- experiences, try to actualize themselves. Whether the humanistic psychologists have really helped us to understand these elusive phenomena better is debatable. But . . . what they have done is to insist that these phenomena are there, that they constitute a vital aspect of what makes us human, and that they must not be ignored. By so insisting, they remind us of the unfinished tasks that a complete psychology of personality must ultimately deal with.41

To appreciate just how great an accomplishment this is, consider the tone of the following words from the most widely adopted, eminently mainstream introductory psychology textbook of 1948. Recall that this would have been just two years prior to the publication of Maslow’s original paper on self- actualization, six years prior to the appearance of his Motivation and Personality, and fourteen years prior to the initial publication of Toward a Psychology of Being. And notice in particular the subtext of the message, the expression of confidence that psychology is basically on the right track with this approach, and all that remains is to fill in the details and tie off the loose ends.

Since people are products of their biological structures and their environments, personality has come to be regarded as the individuality that emerges from the interaction between a biological organism and a social and physical world. . . . Personality consists of an individual’s observable behavior … It is defined as an individual’s typical or consistent adjustments to his environment … [and studied through] an examination of the processes by which people cope with their needs, limitations and thwartings.42

Needs, limitations, and thwartings— it is certainly not a vary attractive picture of human nature. But more importantly, it is a picture that most precincts of mainstream psychology nowadays would find quite incomplete. While Maslow was not the only one to bring this change about, he must surely be reckoned as one of the principal agents of it.

In considering the question of Maslow’s influence, however, it is important to note that his intended audience was by no means limited to professional psychologists. He felt he had a valuable insight to share, an insight that had immediate practical implications for the enhancement of human health, goodness, and effectiveness, and he sought to share it with as wide an audience as possible.

The Bottom Line

Quite apart from the issue of Maslow’s influence, there is still that very large question of what to make of him. What shall we make of his overall vision of human nature? How seriously can we take it? What confidence might we have that it is anything more than a kind of “poem that creates itself in a peak- experience,” only to be “thrown away later as unsatisfactory”? These, of course, are questions that each reader must answer for oneself, according to one’s own sense of what is credible and what is not. You have probably already guessed a part of my answer. Being by nature something of a logic- chopper and methodological purist, when I read Maslow I find sources of exasperation on almost every page. There are moments when I would like to shake him by the shoulders and say, “Come on, Abe, tighten it up!” And yet, I always come away from it with the thought that the total package makes a kind of sense, even with the shortcomings of its individual components.

Actually, this is much the same reaction I have to all the other various psychological visions of human nature. There is much in the writings of Sigmund Freud that I find equally questionable; yet, the Freudian package taken as a whole seems to me to make a kind of sense. The same is true in varying degrees of the behavioristic package, the trait- theory and cognitive- process packages, and all the rest of them. It is even true of the vintage 1948 “needs, limitations and thwartings” package, up to a point. Study any of these theoretical visions thoroughly, with the right balance of open- mindedness and critical skepticism, and you will come away understanding human nature better than you did before. One need not be troubled by the fact that they go off in different directions and are often contradictory of each other. All it means is that each tells a part of the story and none tells the whole story. Perhaps someday some great mind will come along to weave all of these partial stories into a coherent whole, to give us the full and final word on what human nature really is— though, candidly, I do not expect it anytime soon.

Meanwhile all we have are the partial stories, each with its own proportions of truth and error. On balance, I would take Maslow’s story of human nature to be of about the same order of magnitude as the Freudian and the behavioristic, in that they are all three the result of going way out on a limb in order to see as far and broadly as possible. They of course go out on different limbs and thus see different things. So be it; human nature is complex and multifaceted.

In any event, Maslow had great fun writing [his psychology], and I expect most readers will have great fun reading it, even if they occasionally find themselves sharing my impulse to shake him by the shoulders. While you are having your fun, I think you might find another layer of it— Maslow probably would have called it “meta-fun” or “B-fun”— in reflecting on the fact that he alone among psychological theorists has insisted that fun is an important psychological datum and an essential component of the core of human nature. Yes, I do sometimes wonder if he might have been on to something after all?

Awaken Mind

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Source: AWAKEN


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