The Man Who Discovered Peak Experience : THE RIGHT TO BE HUMAN: A Biography of Abraham Maslow<i> by Edward Hoffman Ph.D. (Jeremy Tarcher: $18.95; 416 pp., illustrated) </i>
“Self-actualization,” “humanistic psychology,” “peak experience.” Sympathetic readers associate these terms with the aspirations of the human-potential movement. Critics see them as hallmarks of the self-absorption of the “me generation.” But, inevitably, these phrases evoke the name of Abraham Maslow, the research psychologist and Brandeis professor who coined them.
Maslow died in 1970 at age 62, but his influence grows with each year. Humanistic psychology and an ever-proliferating variety of popular therapies and self-help groups increasingly have been adopting his ideas: His denunciation of the pathological focus of most of conventional psychiatry and psychology, his conviction that each of us has a “real self” that is good or neutral and can be realized, and his belief that such self-realization includes and is in part based on transcendent experience.
Lifespring and est, the latest diet and exercise book, and many of the most recent applications of ancient meditative techniques are all informed and buoyed by Maslow’s hopeful revisionist psychology.
In “The Right to Be Human,” Edward Hoffman, a psychologist who has previously co-authored a biography of Wilhelm Reich and written about Jewish mysticism and psychology, traces the growth of Maslow’s mind and the formation of his most distinctive and influential theories. He shows us Maslow in 1928, an undergraduate at New York’s City College, excitedly reading the behaviorist psychology of John B. Watson, discovering in his upbeat essays both a “science of psychology” and the possibility of changing even the most vexing of human behaviors.
We see him as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin studying dominance behavior among monkeys under the tutelage of Harry Harlow, who performed the famous experiments on the effects of maternal deprivation on primates. Then we are back in New York with Maslow as he works, first under Edward Thorndike, the pioneer of psychological testing at Columbia, and then with the great European behavioral scientists who came as refugees to the New School for Social Research in the 1930s: the physicians, Alfred Adler, Karen Horney, and Kurt Goldstein, the gestalt psychologists, Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka, and the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm.
Though he was at this time a professor of psychology at Brooklyn College, Maslow still exhibits the openness, eagerness and arrogance of the very bright and bookish student. Reading Hoffman’s account, we can picture Maslow, tall and slightly stooped, waiting at a few paces distance for one of his mentors--Wertheimer or Adler or the Columbia anthropologist Ruth Benedict--to answer the fast question so that he can have extra time, the last words on the walk home or over the cup of coffee in the cafeteria. And reading Hoffman’s account, we discover the building blocks from which Maslow developed those concepts for which we remember him.
Behaviorism confirmed Maslow’s distinctly American can-do sense of optimism. His work on dominance in monkeys helped him to understand that the hierarchy of social relations had its analogue in a hierarchy of needs and satisfactions. Wertheimer first suggested to Maslow that this hierarchy of human impulses and behaviors might extend from survival needs and sexual satisfaction to feelings of kindness and altruism. And Goldstein, the great neurologist who coined the phrase “self-actualization” provided both the clinical evidence and the theoretical suggestion that each organism, including, of course, each human, had within it a kind of internal need to use all of its potential.
By the 1940s, Maslow began to articulate his distinctive humanistic perspective, to lay the groundwork for a “Third Force” in psychology, one more optimistic than the First Force of psychoanalysis and deeper and richer than the Second Force of behaviorism. In a series of books, papers and lectures he outlined a new theory of motivation and personality, a “psychology of being” he would call it. Human beings were, as other psychologies maintained, motivated by instinctual needs--for food, warmth, sexual release, etc. But once these lower needs were fulfilled, they no longer held sway; Then other, “higher” needs--for affiliation, love, creativity, altruism, could emerge. Human beings should not take their measure from pathological specimens or the “average man” but from those of their fellows who are most highly developed--the “saints and sages.”
Our guide and model, Maslow declared "(is) the fully growing, self-fulfilling human being.” Each person had within himself a potential, similar to that of the saints and sages, waiting to unfold. When, in the 1960s, the quest for their own greater potential became a motivating force for large numbers of seekers and activists, Maslow found a mass audience. His 1962 text, “Toward a Psychology of Being,” sold 200,000 copies before a trade edition was released in 1968.
Toward the end of his life, Maslow’s concerns broadened still further. He became particularly interested in the power of peak-experiences--"a single glimpse of heaven"--to transform individuals, and in the possibility of creating utopian communities of self-actualized people who had had such experiences. He saw the need now for a “Fourth Force” in psychology, one which emphasized transcendent experience, and he coined the term transpersonal psychology to describe it. Meanwhile, his conviction that individual self-actualization and corporate success were interrelated had made him a guide to progressive businessmen as well as individual seekers.
Hoffman tells the story of Maslow’s intellectual development and of his widening sphere of influence well, and in the process, he provides a nice portrait of many of the significant figures in 20th-Century North American psychology. He is far less skillful in making Maslow the man come alive. We do have a sense of the eager overachieving and sometimes arrogant boy who remained alive inside the man--boasting of his IQ to his Brandeis colleague, Max Lerner, puzzled that some of his mentors became impatient with him--but there is precious little about Maslow’s relationships with his wife and children and little depth to the accounts of his relationships with contemporaries and colleagues. It’s not clear if Hoffman, who clearly idealizes Maslow, doesn’t want to tarnish his image or whether he was consciously--and unfortunately--limiting himself to intellectual biography.
But even with this significant shortcoming, “The Will to Be Human” is a fascinating and useful study of the thoughts of a man whose hopeful, expansive vision of what it means to be human has much to offer us.