The Focusing Institute Presents The Gendlin Online Gendlin Online Library Banner

Gendlin, E.T. (1967, June). [Review of the book Psychology and the human dilemma]. Psychology Today, 11-12. From

[Page 11]



by Rollo May
Van Nostrand, 1967,
221 pages, $5.95

Reviewed by Eugene T. Gendlin, University of Chicago

The development of an existential psychology in America is in good part the work of Rollo May. He helped bring existentialism to psychology some fifteen years ago, and since then his impact has increased each year. As he says here, he isn't an existentialist in a "cultist" sense. In American psychology the existential approach is part of a wider trend which includes many views. In his new book, Psychology and the Human Dilemma, May offers a wealth of valid and stimulating ideas in a totally engaging and readable fashion.

The lightness of the style is deceptive and stems from the fact that the chapters originally were talks, but he presents more careful thinking than first appears; despite broad flights, the author always lands very well. I often quarrel with how he gets from point to point (especially in subjects I work with), but I agree with most of his conclusions. This isn't a basic theory book, but it is an excellent introduction to an existential outlook on life and our current society.

Rollo May is concerned with the pressure on us to fit in and "be significant" in some group, system, team or organization—at the price of giving up our own significance. Today our educational system selects university students by an "IBM system" emphasizing grades and other externals which demand routinized and pre-set performances and productions, so that the student who doesn't put every effort into grades (but takes much time to think and develop on his own) feels like an "odd ball."

Rollo May senses paralysis in the face of the vast impersonal machine of national and international events that no one controls. He sees helplessness that besets not just the ordinary man but also everyone in Washington's super-human organization. No one really sets policy, no one exercises power. Pragmatic moves are made from day to day as events occur, while no one directs events. He chides us for too often avoiding the anxiety of our own individual challenges, and sees us instead failing prey to the resulting anxiety of meaninglessness, the loss of anything that would have been our own.

The underlying theme of all May's comments is the necessary reassertion of human choosing, feeling, and acting to replace today's trends which make men passive objects. All this is true also of our science. Speaking as a rueful psychologist, May writes: "These inevitably depersonalizing processes unfortunately fit much of what we have been teaching for many years. We have been telling students that they are only a reflection of social needs and forces, and it is not surprising that they come to believe it."

(Actually, of course, it would have been surprising to May and to me if the students had come to believe this and to act like it. That would have tended to prove the false teaching.)

The point, however, is to ask what sort of psychology, what sort of science, can deal with man as more than a passive object. Isn't it the whole point of science to predict and control? Isn't anything studied in any science always an object, a machine, a something that obeys laws? Existentialism points to a different sort of knowledge. The laws of mechanics and deductive logic are only one sort of lawful order. May quotes Von Uexküll's biological "plans" as different and more complex. And man exceeds other animals in the variety of his further developments. It is therefore foolish for us to seek a science that will represent us as far simpler than biological and human laws, and it is dangerous to base social engineering on such a science.

If science puts everything into man as a studied object, then the thinker and social engineer are left anonymous and totally uncontrolled, depersonalized, irresponsible, featureless, and not understandable at all by our science. Rollo May sees in psychology the same paralysis, the same impersonal, anonymous and undirected force which he sees in national policymaking and many individuals' attitudes toward themselves as objects.

May tells us that this is the "human dilemma" in the title of the book—man is always both an active subject and a passive object.

This corrects a common misconception in interpreting existentialism: namely that total freedom can be anything we choose. Such a romantic assertion flies in the face of what we all find when we try!

May phrases it: "Only in knowing ourselves as the determined ones are we free." This last sentence and his many similar discussions seem to mean that we can't help what happens, but only what attitude we take toward what happens. In fact, he means more than this—in taking an attitude toward what happens we change what happens! Why is this a dilemma, rather than a privilege or a power? Here I differ with May. He sees a dilemma because he hasn't solved how the subject and object sides relate. Freedom, he tells us, is "not the opposite of determinism. It is the individual's capacity to know that he is the determined one, to throw his weight, however slight it may be, on the side of one particular response among several possible ones."

May's intent certainly is to assert and affirm man as the creative interpreter of situations and deviser of new alternatives. But which alternatives? With what meanings to devise them? Which ones to throw our weight into? Like most existentialists he doesn't help us much here. He gets into trouble. On the one hand he deplores the view that values are handed down by society to the individual, and he says that what counts is "the act of valuing," not the contents of values. But he also deplores the present culture's "lack of values" and says this "gives young people nothing to commit themselves to," makes them anxious, disorganized, and deeply troubled. He urges us to solve the lack of values, and quickly so people won't be so anxious and lost.

[Page 12]

He defines anxiety as a threat to those values with which a man "has identified" himself. Then he argues that a man will overcome anxiety to the extent that his values are stronger than the threat to the values. This certainly implies that we ought to hang on to our values, they ought to be "stronger than" any threat to them. Yet, contradicting this, May also holds that sometimes we must give up the security of our old values in favor of the anxiety of wider experience.

Rollo May stands between two anxieties: He tries to distinguish them as "neurotic" anxiety (which makes for less consciousness), and "normal," "tragic," or "mature" anxiety (which involves more consciousness).

If a threat to my values arises—shall I hang on to my values and hope they are "stronger than the threat" so that I overcome the anxiety, or shall I welcome it as a chance for change and growth? Can I tell which is which? Can I tell when my values (whether from society or myself) are stultifying and must be given up despite "mature" anxiety, and when they are fine values with which I ought to stay strongly identified? May emphasizes that the process of valuing counts, rather than (my italics) the contents. But this is a little like saying it doesn't matter what values one has. Existentialists do in fact often sound as though they mean that. Having eliminated all rational schemes and axioms, they implore us to be extremely responsible and highly aware of the fact that we must choose, but they say it doesn't matter what.

May opposes this result, but he doesn't show how he avoids it. He insists that we must have values. Anxiety is a threat to those values with which a man identifies himself. This means that without values we would most certainly become eventually numbed by constant anxiety. Anxiety is a disorganization of being, while values are the patterning of any human way of being that isn't simply going to pieces. Unfortunately, May leaves the question of values hanging there, in abstract choice. He should go on! It should follow now that we are the values with which we are identified. The only real freedom is that difficult activity of working with what we already are and feel, an activity in which we occasionally succeed in parlaying what we are into something further, new and different. It should also follow that we can recognize those relatively rare occasions when we do succeed, when we have not only an abstract thought, but have actually made a difference in how we are and feel.

Despite intending something of the sort (at least I think he does), Rollo May leaves his statement too abstract, as many existentialists have a way of doing. He lets values sound as if they were baseless choices, unrelated to how we concretely feel. Thus he makes it sound as though we could pick any values whatever, and as if the free subject's activity were totally unfounded, anchorless, and unrelated to that already determined object which, of course, we also are. And this is his dilemma!

Note to Readers:
  • How Do I Refer To This Document? An example reference is at the top of this page. Please include the Internet address in the reference, even if you cite the document in a printed article, so that others can find the Gendlin Online Library.
  • Can I Link Directly To This Document? Yes. We encourage you to link directly to it from your own online documents. We have built "hooks" into this web page to make it very easy to connect to individual pages and headings in the text. For examples, see: How to Link to The Gendlin Online Library.
  • Biographic Note: Eugene T. Gendlin is a seminal American philosopher and psychologist. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago and taught there from 1963 to 1995. His philosophical work is concerned especially with the relationship between logic and implicit intricacy. Philosophy books include Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, Language Beyond Post-Modernism: Saying and Thinking in Gendlin's Philosophy edited by David Michael Levin, (fourteen commentaries and Gendlin’s replies), and A Process Model. There is a world wide network of applications and practices ( stemming from this philosophy. Gendlin has been honored three times by the American Psychological Association for his development of Experiential Psychotherapy. He was a founder and editor for many years of the Association’s Clinical Division Journal, Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. His book Focusing has sold over half a million copies and has appeared in seventeen languages. His psychology-related books are Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams and Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy.
  • If you see any faults in this document please send us an email.
  • Add a comment to the Gendlin Online Blog for this article.
  • See the reference for this document in the Gendlin primary bibliography.
  • More on Philosophy of the Implicit from the Focusing Institute website.
Document #2122 version 070422 build 071008