Van Kaam the Psychologist

The project of Formative Spirituality came out of the study of religion and psychology. The main theorist is Adrian van Kaam.

As a psychologist, it would appear that van Kaam's central concern was with the underlying philosophical assumptions of the various schools of psychology. According to him, these assumptions went unacknowledged by most practitioners in the field thus having an unrecognized effect upon psychological theorizing and practice.

Without a recognition of these assumptions regarding the "nature of man" and their effects psychologists fall prey to an error of mistaking their partial psychological perspective for the whole. Van Kaam groups these perspectives into two main camps: the positivist and the idealist. Both of these are expressions of an underlying Cartesian prejudice-- mind-body types of dualism.

These two main assumptive camps produce the various schools of psychology that are, at best, limited perspectives on any given human event. This elicits from van Kaam a concern for the development of a structure or principle of organization that would enable us to maintain awareness of, and a sense of relationship among the various perspectives that may be taken on the varieties of human experience. Early in his thought he used the term "anthropological psychology" in an attempt to communicate the need for this structure that could be used to integrate the various perspectives on the "nature of man".

Van Kaam's use of the term "anthropological psychology" not only functioned as a way of taking into account various underlying assumptions, but by the nature of its integrative function it would be able to view the human as both similar to animals and as unique from them. It would function in such a way that the psychologist should be able to simultaneously hold in his or her attention the insights of such various schools of thought as the Skinnerian and Jungian without becoming exclusivistic. This psychology would be able to integrate not only various psychological schools, but religious perspectives on the "nature of man" as well.

Van Kaam summed up his understanding of psychology as follows. Notice how he describes some movements as "temporary" and notice the use of "comprehensive frame of reference".

The main relevant insight that is derived from the existential view of the human is that the human "...is a dialogue with things and processes in his own organism and in his surroundings." Existential psychology, by viewing the human as a unitary expression rather than as the traditional Cartesian-derived subject and object, unites the positivist and idealist trends which tend to inquire about only the subject or the objective world in isolation one from the other.

The thrust of van Kaam's work as a psychologist seems to be towards a theoretical structure, called "anthropological psychology", which could integrate the various scientific perspectives on the human being. Existentialism, as it affected psychology, serves as a corrective to this perspectival absolutism.

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© 1995-2000 Jeremiah D. McAuliffe, Jr., Ph.D.