Western Psychology versus European Psychology

For decades, a battle has been brewing. And likely you have been completely unaware of it.

The 1960 edition of Existence, edited by Rollo May, begins to explain the conflict between American Psychology and European Psychology.

May explained that around the time of WWII, American psychiatrists and psychologists had noted a gap in our understanding of the human mind. They were not sure if they were seeing the patient or a psychological rendition of the patient through the therapist’s projection. Every psychotherapist has his or her collection of favored views of human behavior.

The questions that plagued them were: does the patterns and mechanisms of behavior they observe scientifically connect the patient with the correct system of analysis? Could the innate logic of the system miss the patient all together? The analyst can only question the patient but lack no empathy with the unsaid.

As the time that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) published the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM-1 in 1952, still considered the “bible” for Western psychology today, more questions arose. Anxiety can run from mild to incapacitating.

* What is the normal level of anxiety?

* What is justified and unjustified anxiety?

* How can we know if we are seeing a patient in his or her natural environment?

* How much has culture, religion, and language impacted the psyche?

These unanswered questions also motivated psychologists and psychiatrists in Europe. Ludwig Binswanger, who was instrumental in the Existential-Analytic movement, was dissatisfied with the American approach to psychiatry. His complaint was that psychotherapy is ultimately focused on the mentally ill but not to the exclusion of the normal human being. He argued that humanity is not mechanistic but contains many variances having to do with feelings, emotions, values and unique worldview.

The most notable influence was Martin Heidegger and his work spawning the new “Existential Psychology.” Existential psychotherapy is based on the model of human nature and experience developed through European existential philosophy. Existentialism focuses on the universal truths of humanity: There is the freedom of Being, meaning of life, and responsibility. These are the conditions in which we live life.

Similar to the APA, the European or Continental psychologists saw that people suffer from anxiety. They concluded, however, that this angst comes from living in an unpredictable world. Many people feel alienated and lack purpose. To them, life is meaningless.

Unlike the APA, the European viewpoint is that this anxiety is a natural concern and does not imply mental illness. It is the overall wellbeing that is lacking. All of these discoveries come from philosophical exploration of an individual’s experiences found in Continental Europe.

As I read May’s book, I wondered: How could there be such a conflict when we are dealing a mind common to all humanity? How could there be a European view and an American view?

American Resistance to European Psychotherapy

The European brand of psychotherapy was met with resistance in America. The American mainstream academics at the time held that all the real major discoveries had been made and scientific details were all that was left. They had no interest in moving away from analytic psychology based on definitions.

Another point of contention was the accusation that European Psychology was based on philosophy. Why, the Americans asked, should they let philosophy encroach into psychiatry when philosophy is not a science? However, every scientific method rests on philosophical assumptions.

The strongest resistance to the Continental European approach was how America was preoccupied with technology. While we as Americans were not interested in the foundation of technology, we relied on the clinical approach to behavior with the study of stimulus response systems along with animal psychology.

That is, observing behavior which is inductive whereas the Continental European approach is theoretical, focusing on the faculties of the mind holistically.

It was after the bombing of Hiroshima that we learned that a war can be won with technology rather than American lives. Instead of focusing on soldiers as individuals, we focused on “troops,” a large number that could be classified and quantified. With this mindset, the American psychologists determined that philosophy to them was nonscientific and could not offer sound physical evidence.

However, unlike American psychologists, through my experience in sales, I learned the European approach to psychology answered all my questions. We are not technical machines that need adjusting from time to time. American psychology has yet to sufficiently understood the constitution of human motivation.

In sales I was not interested in what someone wanted or why they wanted what they wanted but what was the source of their desire of wanting to want. What do objects mean in our lives and why do we want to want them? I discovered that the answer was directly linked to our unique identity beneath our personality and was the foundation to Authentic Systems.

The battle continues as European psychology and American psychology are still divided. By utilizing European psychology, Authentic Systems taps into a truth that other methods including personality profile tests used by the APA cannot touch.

About the author

CEO of Authentic Systems, Degree in Philosophy from University of California, Berkeley.
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