The Spiritual and Technological Roots of Individualism in the Environment, part 2

The American psychologist Abraham Maslow had some thoughts about creativity:

It looks as if there were a single ultimate goal for mankind, a far goal toward which all persons strive. This is called variously by different authors self-actualization, self-realization, integration, psychological health, individuation, autonomy, creativity, productivity, but they all agree that this amounts to realizing the potentialities of the person, that is to say, becoming fully human, everything that person can be. Source

A single, ultimate goal! Oh my.


Eduard Munch, The Scream, 1893

Look at the cleverness of Maslow’s statement, step by step:

Step 1: It looks as if there were a single ultimate goal for mankind…

Mankind: all humans on earth. Got that.

Step 2: …a far goal toward which all persons strive.

So, all persons are striving for the goal of mankind? Hardly. Human selves don’t tend to get themselves as organized as all that. Some turn their bodies into books. It looks painful.


Knowing humans as I do, I’d say it’s more like all persons are striving separately or together or both, and that the sum total of this separate or united striving is a portrait of the struggle. The logic of all of this separate striving would seem to be that it’s the sum of these random activities that lead to a spontaneous pattern, which can be called the goal of all mankind. To the populist institutions of American political consciousness, however, these activities are termed random; their sum leads to a spontaneous-generated (self-actualized) pattern, which can be called the goal of all mankind if we just replace Maslow’s “the goal of all mankind” with “the goal of the American public,” which is not really the same thing.


U.S. Marines in Afghanistan

That’s not what Maslow, for all his Americanness, is saying, however. He’s saying that the goal is set, and that humans strive towards it. What this goal is could be many things —world peace, clean streets, love, God, healthy oceans, and so on — but that’s all illusory, because it is a “goal for mankind,” not a goal “of” mankind. In other words, it is not the sum of the actions of humans that is the goal to Maslow. It’s more like fate, which is actually a little odd at first glance, because it means that:

a. There is a goal set for mankind.

By someone or something. Perhaps by that process, if processes can set goals.

b. All persons strive to meet this goal.

And that means, even the lot below, not all together but each one, singly, one at a time, and according to a script shared by their enemies:

It can’t be through individual initiative, though, because, look at them, that bunch have, at best, used their individual initiative to give up their individual initiative, and, besides, all in all persons are really lousy at doing what they’re told. It takes some force.312951396_slaves_scar_65_xlarge

Is that what Maslow means? Persons are forced to meet this goal? No. They strive towards it, he says. He can only mean one of two things:

a. genetically, humans are compelled to strive to one goal.

b. spiritually, humans are compelled to strive to one goal.

He can’t seriously mean spiritually, though, because a lot of them are compelled to destroy all spiritual striving, and the goals humans have for religion vary widely. It must be genetics, which Maslow means, then: biological imperatives. In other words, this is a biological imperative:


Protest in Iran

It’s a stretch. Fortunately Maslow goes on…

This is called variously by different authors self-actualization, self-realization, integration, psychological health, individuation, autonomy, creativity, productivity, but they all agree that this amounts to realizing the potentialities of the person, that is to say, becoming fully human, everything that person can be.

Becoming fully human! Oh my.


Eduard Munch, The Scream, 1895

Note that the eyes are gone.

So, Maslow is saying that some biological imperative compels all persons to “self-actualize”; only then do they become fully human. Before that, they were persons but not humans. Here, have a look at the bastard.


Abraham Maslow

My guess is that this is what he considered a “fully human” person to look like.

To be fair to Maslow, this is not a new idea. The poet Wolfgang Goethe used it to suppress the writings of his sister Cornelia two-and-a-half centuries ago, because in his society it was a role of bourgeoise women to look after courtly households, and her education and artistic intelligence, far better and greater than his (which were better than that of princes or kings), made her unfit for that and, thus, only half human.


Cornelia (Goethe) Schlosser c. 1777

In Goethe’s society, or at least in his conception of it, children were born as animals and achieved human-ness through training. When they fit into and extended the mores of society, they achieved human status. If they were led astray along the way, or over-educated for their station, they were half-shapen creatures of little interest — at least to Goethe. To be fair to Goethe, this was an older idea yet. It got its start here:


Lucas Cranach the Elder, Paradise, 1530

Of course, even then the humans were a little unruly.

Part of the humanization of persons in Goethe’s time included spiritual enlightenment, which included the lengthy process of confirming a teen-aged person into the church. This process led to the internalization of Christ, that god-man who was nailed at the intersection of Heaven and Earth and then, well, died…


Erfurt Cathedral

… but then didn’t, actually, because he was alive in each of his believers singly, and in all of them together (and in himself). In other words, in this tradition the achievement of a self came through the choice to sublimate it into non-self — to a goal beyond the self — and into obedience. It is this same obedience which Maslow is talking about when he mentions…

self-actualization, self-realization, integration, psychological health, individuation, autonomy, creativity, productivity

It’s just that he expresses it within the ideological, biologically-driven individuality of American political and social philosophy, which is based on Enlightenment ideas of Liberty, Freedom and Individual rights…


Patrick Henry Getting Things into Swing

… which are based on a principle linking freedom to private property that this man …


John Locke, 1667

…invented before the first American colonists hit the beaches. Simply, he argued that since there were no common principles as to how humans related to their land, there was no God-given right to aristocratic land ownership and government; the only principle that was possibly universal became the labour a man could do with his own hands: if a man laboured on a patch of earth, he could not be separated from that patch and it became his, a private plot, because to separate a man from his labour was to make him a slave. Given that men like this …


Jacques Lacan

… have successfully demonstrated that there is such commonality, in the biological origins of humans and their early, pre-verbal relationships with their mothers and fathers, the entire premise of Locke’s argument has recently become very shaky indeed, because these relationships are not compelled but cognitively worked out with all the physical and intellectual means that infants can bring to them, and are infinitely variable, depending on family, environment and circumstances. What’s more, a child raised in this industrial environment near the mouth of the Fraser River…


Surrey, British Columbia

… is going to cognitively develop in reaction to that environment, while one raised in this environment, far far up the watershed of the Fraser River …


Big Bar Lake

… will develop in quite different ways. Sure, they will have oodles of commonality, but one of the points of that commonality is that their different environments will lead to difference, as well as to attachment to the place that formed them. This is one reason there are French people, Lithuanian people, and this group of guys …

1920Indian Teachers Bargaining for a Better Employment Contract

And so, there we have it: within a particular social environment (The USA), constructed out of a particular spiritual tradition (a form of protestantism based on obedience to authority), on the set of a certain set of ideas of human identity and liberty forged in political struggles in England and Europe, based on certain misunderstandings of human identity (John Locke and friends), Maslow has described a form of human identity, which he differentiates from personhood and which only comes from willing obedience to a set of biological imperatives, which all just happen to match American ideology. Such convenient matchings are always trouble. At no point, for instance, does he talk about environment, although this is all a story of environment, all a story of people embedded in society and place. So, here’s mine, just to come clean:

fairviewredivoMy Grandparents and “Pootzie” above the Lower Similkameen Valley, c. 1962-3 photo Hugo Redivo

What a mess.


Eduard Munch, The Scream, 1895

He did a lot of these things. The caption reads “I felt the greatest scream throughout nature”. The verb (pierce? echo? reverberate? spread?) is left blank. Munch has no words for it. To him, nature is an echo of himself, but those parts of himself out in it are unknown to him.

The root of this mess is actually simple. It is the Enlightenment use of the “I” — a kind of shorthand fill-in for the self in all its unbounded mystery — as a measuring stick for the foundation of a system of knowledge. Johann Gottlieb Fichte set the ball rolling in 1793, when he started lecturing at the University of Jena. He published his observations in 1794. Since then, all of us in the West and all of us in scientific culture have been living, more or less, within Fichte’s system. It’s a very large system now, and very powerful. Maslow is deep within it. So are his ideas of self-actualization and creativity. Let me show you three views of this system. When you look at them, remember: they are all the same.

1: the directional view


Some weeds beside the trail made into a portrait of a human identity. The goal of creating an I-self for persons was to enable them to shift their humanism from an inhabitation of sacred space to observation of disconnected processes within that space, which could be linked together later by will. This is called the creation of knowledge, and is what is known in English as “science”. 

2: the technological view

B Reactor at Hanford, Washington

The world’s first plutonium producing engine, and the scourge of Nagasaki. This is one of the manifestations of this knowledge, and one of the most poisonous and most complex artificial humans built out of the I-self.

3: the self-actualization view


The University of British Columbia Okanagan Virtual Tour

The I in the lower right talks. Loads of identity fun! Institutions like this are in the business of training persons to actualize and develop their Fichte selves in an image of, yes, the institution.

In other words, any complete discussion of human identity is going to have to discuss relationships to environment, Christianity, technology, and the I. That’s where we’ll go next, deeper into Fichte’s work at the University of Jena and from there into notions of creativity and environment operative in the world of actualized I-selves today. Until then, here’s an image of a bed of volcanic ash above the Bonaparte River to contemplate. To Fichte, this was the world. Everything beyond the bounds of this gaze was the self.


The reverse is also true, and that’s what I’m walking towards. There’s a nice deer trail there. Let’s follow that! Off we go!

2 replies »

  1. Wow! Many thanks for that Tour de Force! I love the sense of the expansion of the sense of the Self that you give here. We have received much from the idea of the Self that Carl Jung gave us but we have westernised it, conflating it with our own idea of the I. The great 2nd century theologian, Iranaeus of Lyons, declared that the Glory of God is a human being who is fully alive and then went on to say that to be fully alive means to see God. That too has been reduced to the western religious project that is generally equally I centred. I very much look forward to seeing how you develop this.


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