Carl Rogers: Inherent Capacity as a Scientific Basis for Democracy
Carl Rogers was a clinical psychologist who became famous after World War II for his work in developing, and then scientifically studying, an approach to psychotherapy first termed "non-directive," and later renamed "client-centered." Rogers's terminology was important; he was largely responsible for the widespread adoption of the term "client" in the mental health field. "Client" gradually replaced "patient," at least outside of psychiatry, illustrating the democratization of the therapeutic relationship and the retreat from (or sometimes even outright rejection of) the medical model in which a dependent and suffering individual relied on the kindness of an omniscient doctor.
After twelve years of full-time work in a child guidance clinic (the Rochester, New York, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), Rogers switched to an academic career. In 1940 he moved to Ohio State University and in later years he was affiliated with the University of Chicago, the University of Wisconsin, and the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in La Jolla, California. Toward the end of his life, Rogers founded the Center for Studies of the Person in La Jolla. Beginning in 1940, university employment facilitated Rogers's system-
atic investigation of what actually occurred during counseling and psychotherapy. He and his colleagues were the first to use and publish unedited transcriptions of audiorecorded therapeutic encounters and they earned reputations as innovative pioneers in this new field of research.
The client-centered approach was based on a series of hypotheses, the most fundamental of which was an almost religious belief in the inherent human capacity for growth, psychological insight, and self-regulation. Rogers, who grew up in a very religious family and studied at the Union Theological Seminary before transferring to Columbia University Teachers College to study psychology, sometimes called it a "divine spark." According to Rogers, "the individual has within himself the capacity, latent if not evident, to understand those aspects of himself and of his life which are causing him dissatisfaction, anxiety, or pain and the capacity and the tendency to reorganize himself and his relationship to life in the direction of self-actualization and maturity in such a way as to bring a greater degree of internal comfort." If a nurturing interpersonal environment were achieved, in psychotherapy and elsewhere, "change and constructive personal development will invariably occur."
The Rogerian conception of psychotherapy required a healthy self equipped with healthy psychological potential. "Therapy is not a matter of doing something to the individual, or of inducing him to do something about himself," Rogers wrote in one early formulation. "It is instead a matter of freeing him for normal growth and development, and removing obstacles so that he can again move forward." a No longer was the therapeutic subject someone whose behavior and personality were so disordered that they needed prescriptive assistance. The therapeutic subject may have been neurotic, but he (or she) remained a "person who is competent to direct himself."
The humanists' concern with normality was consistent with the overall clinical lessons of World War II. Their psychotherapeutic techniques, however, diverged sharply from those of the psychodynamic psycho-therapists who dominated the clinical professions after 1945. Simplified, the theory underlying psychodynamic practice was that experts helped individuals paralyzed and helpless in the face of unconscious fears. The clinician acted simultaneously as judge, interpreter, and healer. In contrast, the Rogerian therapist was a supportive cheerleader watching the client engage in what amounted to something like deliberate self-help. If therapists were sufficiently "permissive" (i.e., accepting and empathetic), and if they made strenuous efforts never to
interpret or even evaluate feelings or problems, then clients' internal capacity would inevitably move them toward self-understanding, and from there on to greater satisfaction and maturity. Robert Morison, an officer of the Rockefeller Foundation, was skeptical of Rogers's ideas about the therapeutic relationship and thought his detour from the medical model betrayed a "trace of fanaticism."
Rogers frequently noted that the concept of internal capacity not only confirmed the logic of democratic social arrangements, but revealed the psychological roots of those arrangements. "If, as we think, the locus of responsible evaluation may be left with the individual, then we would have a psychology of personality and of therapy which leads in the direction of democracy, a psychology which would gradually redefine democracy in deeper and more basic terms." Human nature and democracy, in other words, could be allies rather than enemies. In the following passage, Rogers approvingly quoted a student evaluation in order to make this point.
I have come to see that there may be a scientifically demonstrable basis for belief in the democratic way of life. . . . I cannot honestly say that I am now unalterably convinced of the infallibility of the democratic process, but I am encouraged and inclined to align myself with those who hold that each individual has within himself the capacity for self-direction and self-responsibility, hoping that the beginnings of research in areas such as client-centered therapy will lead to the unquestionable conclusion that the democratic way of life is most in harmony with the nature of man.
The humanists were especially cognizant that their benign conception of human nature, and the fortuitous basis it provided for democratic ideas and behaviors, ran counter to much psychological theory and rather a lot of psychological data (especially notable were studies done under pressure of war). The bulk of twentieth-century psychological thought hypothesized a malignant psychological interior, an awful place where destructive instincts and monstrous terrors lurked, threatening to rip through the thin veneer of Western civilization. "There is no beast in man," Rogers wrote defensively in 1953. "There is only man in man. . . . We do not need to be afraid of being 'merely' homo sapiens."
Rogers's famous 1956 dialogue with B. F. Skinner, leading behaviorist and author of the utopian novel Walden Two, was evidence of his deep concern not only about the political implications of various psychological theories but about the political role and direction of clinical experts and behavioral scientists themselves. In his exchanges
with Rogers and elsewhere, Skinner had proposed that democratic political ideology was a historical relic. He conceded that it had perhaps been necessary and important for the political tasks facing the eighteenth century (i.e., overthrowing monarchies), but Skinner believed democratic ideology was obsolete in an era of modem science. "The so-called 'democratic philosophy' of human behavior . . . is increasingly in conflict with the application of the methods of science to human affairs." Science—psychological science in particular—had revealed freedom to be mythological and social control to be both necessary and inevitable. The real question, according to Skinner, was not whether social control was good or bad, but what kinds of control would be exercised, and by whom.
Rogers countered with the concept of universal, inherent capacity. He forthrightly criticized the idea that experts always knew best and worried that "the growth of knowledge in the social sciences contains within itself a powerful tendency toward social control, toward control of the many by the few." Giving too much power to experts could surely lead "to social dictatorship and individual loss of personhood." Rogers's apprehensions, however, revolved around people like Skinner, usually behaviorists, whose calls for power and control were most candid.
Excluded from such analysis was his own brand of helping relationship, which he claimed was based on cooperative, nonauthoritarian partnerships between "equals" or "co-workers." (This failed, of course, to explain why one of the "equals" was a "therapist" while the other was a "client.") Rogers thought of his politics as a logical extension of his psychology—both were intensely egalitarian projects devoted to realizing autonomy and freedom—and regretted that more of his colleagues were not aware of the intimacy of this relationship. "There are really only a few psychologists who have contributed ideas that help to set people free," Rogers complained toward the end of his life, because "it is not in fashion to believe anything."