The Rise And Fall of The Therapeutic Society: (Part I – The Rise of Psychology)

The Rise And Fall of The Therapeutic Society: (Part I – The Rise of Psychology) May 27, 2023

In 1955 German sociologist Helmut Schelsky wrote these enigmatic yet incisive words:

Psychotherapy and psychological care, deliberate sex education and organized marriage guidance, birth control and child guidance clinics, group teaching and human relations, the entire apparatus of modern mental welfare technology or of ‘social engineering’, are taking the place of the dwindling services of institutions and conventions in shaping the world of human instinct …. This process may be described as the conventionalization of the mind through the popularization of psychology.

To a far greater extent, and to a far greater depth, than a deliberate and organized attempt to achieve psychological influence could effect, the psychological interpretation and self-interpretation of modern man has taken over precisely the role of that force in the life of society which ritualizes and provides symbols, which distances and classifies, and which creates norms and standards. The withdrawal of this force from the old institutions is the origin both of such interpretation and self-interpretation and of the object of its study. But one must also note that the scientific value of psychology is today almost negligible in comparison with its significance as a function of society, and the psychologists have thus, in a very deep sense, become the officials and agents of society.

Helmut Schelsky, Sociology and Sexuality, 110-111 (quoted in Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School, 584-585)

This may be a difficult passage to grasp initially, especially for those not accustom to reading German sociologists (or German scholarship in general). However, if we unpack Schelsky’s 70-year old statement, I think we can achieve a clearer vision of our own society today. What Schelsky critiqued in 1955 has, in a very real sense, become true in 21st-century America. Let’s break down Schelsky’s statement in step-by-step fashion.

Step One: The Triumph Of Psychology

In his book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, theologian Carl Trueman provides an excellent history of the genealogy of ideas that has lead to what Philip Rieff called “the triumph of the therapeutic.” In one interview, Trueman highlights how out of the many thinkers he discusses in the book, perhaps the one most central to the development of contemporary American culture is that of Sigmund Freud. Freud’s psychologizing of the human person lies at the heart of how our society views its constituents today.

One feature of Freud’s psychologizing as opposed to earlier, philosophical views of the inner self (like that of Augustine, or Rousseau), was his analytic approach to the human “soul.” In giving psychology a veneer of scientific respectability, in German the difference between Naturwissenschaft (Natural Science) and Geisteswissenschaft (the Humanities), Freud initiated the transformation of psychology from an abstract, theoretical discipline to a medical “science.” This is an important development to recognize if one is to grasp the significance of Schelsky’s insight.

Because of this, the line between psychology and what have traditionally been called “the hard sciences” has been significantly blurred. We take psychological interpretations as if they were scientific conclusions. We assume they are not qualitatively different than the conclusions of physics, chemistry or geology. In transferring the certainty of the hard sciences to the realm of psychology, we treat psychological pronouncements as definitive. Today, 70 years after Schelsky’s writing, we seem to confer upon them an even greater status than those “established” discoveries of physics or chemistry. And biology at this point has clearly succumbed to the psychological–there is simply no question about that.

As such, all our contemporary political, legal and pop-cultural battles are fought on a psychological battleground. We see ourselves and others, to use another of Rieff’s terms, as “psychological man.” The psyche: the interior life of the individual world of thoughts and feelings, reigns supreme. All our societal and economic interactions and political strategies are aimed at lending aid and comfort to this inner world of individual thoughts and feelings. It is one giant game of trying to please all the people all the time, right down to the level of discrete thoughts and emotional states.

When Schelsky wrote in 1955 of the “entire apparatus of modern mental welfare technology” this is what he was getting at. The apparatus that promotes and holds together this psycho-therapeutic view of man is the broad, extensive system of social psychological networks we have created in the West. Its presence is ubiquitous, and its goal is to try to plan out, to engineer, what we think will be a healthy, utopian society. Well, it is not what we think, it is what those who hold to the psychological view think.

This network exists of everyone from the local public school guidance counselor to the governmental agency DEI worker to the post-traumatic stress disorder specialist to the gender identity psychiatrist to the child welfare worker, the sex-ed expert and the Christian “marriage and family” therapist. Our culture is saturated with psychoanalytic thought about nearly everything, to include our history, our theology and our biblical exegesis. There is no escaping the therapeutic framework that Freud initiated and that has, as Schelsky righty saw, become the dominant force in “shaping the world of human instinct.” And, in a psychotherapeutic world, instinct, not intellect, is king.

Step Two: The Demise of Institutions and Conventions

However, this therapeutic apparatus did not emerge in a vacuum. It replaces something that came before it. It is, in one sense, a critique of that which was before– a rejection of the interpretive anthropological framework that preceded it. Schelsky highlights three features of these earlier institutions and conventions whose services by 1955 were already “dwindling” in their efficacy and stature. The three features of the earlier “force in society” that the psychological interpretation of man takes over are:

  1. The provision of rituals and symbols for society,
  2. The capacity to distance itself from society and make classifications
  3. The formulation of norms and standards for society

These three functions are not, in fact, aspects of an ambiguous or amorphous institution or convention. They relate directly to two areas of human existence that psychology has replaced, namely, religion and metaphysics (perhaps even philosophy in general). Prior to the rise and dominance of the psychological self-interpretive framework, there were two modes of human thought, both with their own institutions, that enabled society to look outside itself for answers about itself.

Religion, specifically Christianity in the West, once provided the symbols and the rituals for an ordered and meaningful human existence. That is no longer. We recognize, for example, how the Church has abdicated its role as purveyor of universal symbols and explicator of rituals when we see a rainbow flag lighting up the White House (and pretty much everything else) or see a sports arena or concert venue entertaining hundreds of thousands of adoring worshippers. How can religion compete in such cultural spaces, so attuned to psychological man’s needs as they are?

Metaphysics, or classical philosophy (prior to Kant), gave an ontological grounding for those symbols and their ritualistic expression. Finally, out of both religion and metaphysics came ethics and the capacity for normative judgements, which is the basis for all law (or, at least, all just laws). Schelsky was keenly aware that not only were religion and metaphysics on the wane in the West, but that their replacement was establishing itself to a “far greater extent” and “to a far greater depth” than could even have been planned. Psychology was seeping into the very lifeblood of Western society, and it would dictate to us how we were to see ourselves for years to come. It would develop our rituals and symbols, determine our categories for speech and establish the new norms by which we would live.

Step Three: The Chink in The Therapeutic Armor

Nevertheless, Schelsky identified the soft underbelly of the therapeutic worldview already in 1955. In spite of its emerging hegemony as a hermeneutical lens for understanding man and society, Schelsky, like the logical positivists of his time, recognized the fact that psychology in the end does not measure up as an actual science. Thus, in spite of the social phenomena of psychologist becoming “the officials and agents of society,” the “scientific value of psychology” is “negligible in comparison to its function.”

Karl Popper, himself a critic of logical positivism, and who maintained that social and psychological factors had to be taken into account in the overall project of the natural sciences, nevertheless “equated the empirical and analytic methods of the natural sciences–based on the twin pillars of experimentation, or testing, and theory or systematic deduction–with scientific rationality as such” (Wiggershaus, 569). It is here, in this conflict between the claim of psychology as a “science” and the natural sciences and their methods as scientific rationality as such, that we come to the crux of our current, cultural crisis. If the natural sciences have lost their authority, then psychology is indeed triumphant, regardless of how scientific its status actually is.

While it may appear that the natural sciences are indeed capitulating to the social and political pressures exerted by those who advocate a psychological interpretation of man, it must be noted that it is not science, but scientists, who are susceptible to such pressures. If science does ascertain truths about the world, then that is itself a fact that is not reliant on whether any scientists speak publicly about those truths or even acknowledges them to be the case. However, the occasional courageous man or woman will inevitably step up and speak truth, and speak it publicly. They do this regardless of the social and political pressures exerted by the irrational revolutionary forces in our midst.

it shows psychological breakdown
What Comes After The Therapeutic Society?

The Church in The Therapeutic Society

In the next post, I will discuss in greater detail the theological and ecclesial ramifications of the hegemony of the therapeutic. I will also offer a prediction of what I think will follow its hegemony, and follow rather quickly. However, in our current cultural moment, it is fairly obvious to those with ears to hear and eyes to see that the Church has itself rapidly capitulated to the psychological interpretation of man. Perhaps it has done so even more readily than the natural sciences. Of course, there are some good reasons for this, even if in the long run it has had catastrophic consequences.

One reason why the Church has been so amenable to the rise and triumph of the psychological interpretation of man is because Christianity is a deeply psychological religion. One only need read Augustine’s Confessions, or Paul’s autobiographical sections in places like Romans 7 to see how central the individual human soul is to the Christian life. Christianity lays great emphasis not only on the community of God, but on each individual member of that community. Unlike in Eastern religions, the telos for the individual soul is not obliteration, nor total assimilation (into the One). It is participation in the universal life of God as a particular son or daughter of God.

Further, unlike Islam or Judaism, the Christian God is also the incarnate Godman. As such, God Himself took on not only a human body, but a complete human psyche, or mind. This is central to orthodox Christian teaching, for as Gregory of Nazianzus put it succinctly: “whatever is not assumed, is not healed.” High Christological theologies demand that Jesus became fully human, not just a body, nor just a soul. Rather, Jesus was fully God and fully man and to be fully man requires a real body and a real soul.

The real problem then is not psychology itself. The real problem is the Church abdicating its role as the authoritative teacher of spiritual psychology to the secular practice of “scientific” psychology. It is the rejection of Paul and Augustine and their intellectual offspring in favor of Freud and Foucault and their intellectual offspring. Of course, the underlying reason for this abdication of a biblical psychology in favor of a secular psychological approach is the fact that the Bible makes moral evaluations and holds us to ethical standards. That means that God makes moral evaluations about us and holds us to ethical standards. Translation: “Christianity is hard!

For a Church that has handed over its authority to the secular therapist this is simply unacceptable. After all, why make life more difficult than it already is?

For Part 2, click here.

About Anthony Costello
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to a devout and loving Roman Catholic family, I fell away from my childhood faith as a young man. For years I lived a life of my own design-- a life of sin. But, at the age of 34, while serving in the United States Army, I set foot in my first Evangelical church. Hearing the Gospel preached, as if for the first time, I had a powerful, reality-altering experience of Jesus Christ. That day, He called me to Himself and to His service, and I have walked with Him ever since. You can read more about the author here.
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