This essay was originally published in the March 1971 issue of The Objectivist and later anthologized in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought (1989).
In certain passages of Atlas Shrugged, I touched briefly on issues which I wanted to discuss theoretically at a later date and at greater length.
One such passage is the scene in which Hank Rearden, struggling to understand his wife’s behavior, wonders whether the motive of her constant, spiteful sarcasm is “not a desire to make him suffer, but a confession of her own pain, a defense for the pride of an unloved wife, a secret plea — so that the subtle, the hinted, the evasive in her manner, the thing begging to be understood, was not the open malice, but the hidden love.”
Struggling to be just, he gives her the benefit of the doubt and suppresses the warning of his own mind. “He felt a dim anger, like a voice he tried to choke, a voice crying in revulsion: Why should I deal with her rotten, twisted lying? — why should I accept torture for the sake of pity? — why is it I who should have to take the hopeless burden of trying to spare a feeling she won’t admit, a feeling I can’t know or understand or try to guess? — if she loves me, why doesn’t the damn coward say so and let us both face it in the open?”
Rearden was the innocent victim of a widespread game that has many variants and ramifications, none of them innocent, a game that could be called a racket. It consists, in essence, of substituting psychology for philosophy.
Today, many people use psychology as a new form of mysticism: as a substitute for reason, cognition and objectivity, as an escape from the responsibility of moral judgment, both in the role of the judge and the judged.
Mysticism requires the notion of the unknowable, which is revealed to some and withheld from others; this divides men into those who feel guilt and those who cash in on it. The two groups are interchangeable, according to circumstances. When being judged, a mystic cries: “I couldn’t help it!” When judging others, he declares: “You can’t know, but I can.” Modern psychology offers him both opportunities.
Once, the power superseding and defeating man’s mind was taken to be predetermined fate, supernatural will, original sin, etc.; now it is one’s own subconscious. But it is still the same old game: the notion that the wishes, the feelings, the beliefs — and, today, the malfunction — of a human consciousness can absolve a man from the responsibility of cognition.
Just as reasoning, to an irrational person, becomes rationalizing, and moral judgment becomes moralizing, so psychological theories become psychologizing. The common denominator is the corruption of a cognitive process to serve an ulterior motive.
Psychologizing consists in condemning or excusing specific individuals on the grounds of their psychological problems, real or invented, in the absence of or contrary to factual evidence.
As a science, psychology is barely making its first steps. It is still in the anteroom of science, in the stage of observing and gathering material from which a future science will come. This stage may be compared to the pre-Socratic period in philosophy; psychology has not yet found a Plato, let alone an Aristotle, to organize its material, systematize its problems, and define its fundamental principles.
A conscientious psychotherapist, of almost any school, knows that the task of diagnosing a particular individual’s problems is extremely complex and difficult. The same symptom may indicate different things in different men, according to the total context and interaction of their various premises. A long period of special inquiry is required to arrive even at a valid hypothesis.
This does not stop the amateur psychologizers. Armed with a smattering not of knowledge, but of undigested slogans, they rush, unsolicited, to diagnose the problems of their friends and acquaintances. Pretentiousness and presumptuousness are the psychologizer’s invariable characteristics: he not merely invades the privacy of his victims’ minds, he claims to understand their minds better than they do, to know more than they do about their own motives. With reckless irresponsibility, which an old-fashioned mystic oracle would hesitate to match, he ascribes to his victims any motivation that suits his purpose, ignoring their denials. Since he is dealing with the great “unknowable” — which used to be life after death or extrasensory perception, but is now man’s subconscious — all rules of evidence, logic, and proof are suspended, and anything goes (which is what attracts him to his racket).
The harm he does to his victims is incalculable. People who have psychological problems are confused and suggestible; unable to understand their own inner state, they often feel that any explanation is better than none (which is a very grave error). Thus the psychologizer succeeds in implanting new doubts in their minds, augmenting their sense of guilt and fear, and aggravating their problems.
The unearned status of an “authority,” the chance to air arbitrary pronouncements and frighten people or manipulate them, are some of the psychologizer’s lesser motives. His basic motive is worse. Observe that he seldom discovers any virtuous or positive elements hidden in his victims’ subconscious; what he claims to discover are vices, weaknesses, flaws. What he seeks is a chance to condemn — to pronounce a negative moral judgment, not on the grounds of objective evidence, but on the grounds of some intangible, unprovable processes in a man’s subconscious untranslated into action. This means: a chance to subvert morality.
The basic motive of most psychologizers is hostility. Caused by a profound self-doubt, self-condemnation, and fear, hostility is a type of projection that directs toward other people the hatred which the hostile person feels toward himself. Blaming the evil of others for his own shortcomings, he feels a chronic need to justify himself by demonstrating their evil, by seeking it, by hunting for it — and by inventing it. The discovery of actual evil in a specific individual is a painful experience for a moral person. But observe the almost triumphant glee with which a psychologizer discovers some ineffable evil in some bewildered victim.
The psychologizer’s subversion of morality has another, corollary aspect: by assuming the role of a kind of moral Grand Inquisitor responsible for the psychological purity of others, he deludes himself into the belief that he is demonstrating his devotion to morality and can thus escape the necessity of applying moral principles to his own actions.
This is his link to another, more obvious, and, today, more fashionable type of psychologizer who represents the other side of the same coin: the humanitarian cynic. The cynic turns psychology into a new, “scientific” version of determinism and — by means of unintelligible jargon derived from fantastically arbitrary theories — declares that man is ruled by the blind forces of his subconscious, which he can neither know nor control, that he can’t help it, that nobody can help what he does, that nobody should be judged or condemned, that morality is a superstition and anything goes.
This type has many subvariants, ranging from the crude cynic, who claims that innately all men are swine, to the compassionate cynic, who claims that anything must be forgiven and that the substitute for morality is love.
Observe that both types of psychologizers, the Inquisitor and the cynic, switch roles according to circumstances. When the Inquisitor is called to account for some action of his own, he cries: “I couldn’t help it!” When the humanitarian cynic confronts an unforgiving, moral man, he vents as virulent a stream of denunciations, hostility, and hatred as any Inquisitor — forgetting that the moral man, presumably, can’t help it.
The common denominator remains constant: escape from cognition and, therefore, from morality.
Psychologizing is not confined to amateurs acting in private. Some professional psychologists have set the example in public. As an instance of the Inquisitor type of psychologizing, there was the group of psychiatrists who libeled Senator Barry Goldwater [in 1964], permitting themselves the outrageous impertinence of diagnosing a man they had never met. (Parenthetically, Senator Goldwater exhibited a magnificent moral courage in challenging them and subjecting himself to their filthy malice in the ordeal of a trial, which he won. The Supreme Court, properly, upheld the verdict.) [Goldwater v. Ginzburg et al. 396 U.S. 1049] >
As an example of the cynic type of psychologizing, there are the psychologists who rush to the defense of any murderer (such as Sirhan Sirhan), claiming that he could not help it, that the blame rests on society or environment or his parents or poverty or war, etc.
These notions are picked up by amateurs, by psychologizing commentators who offer them as excuses for the atrocities committed by “political” activists, bombers, college-campus thugs, etc. The notion that poverty is the psychological root of all evil is a typical piece of psychologizing, whose proponents ignore the fact that the worst atrocities are committed by the children of the well-to-do.
As examples of eclectic mixtures, there are the psychologizing biographies of historical figures that interpret the motives of men who died centuries ago — by means of a crude, vulgarized version of the latest psychological theories, which are false to begin with. And there are the countless psychologizing movies that explain a murderer’s actions by showing that his domineering mother did not kiss him good night at the age of six — or account for a girl’s frigidity by revealing that she once broke a doll representing her father.
Then there is the renowned playwright who was asked in a television interview why his plays always had unhappy endings, and who answered: “I don’t know. Ask my psychiatrist.”
While the racket of the philosophizing mystics rested on the claim that man is unable to know the external world, the racket of the psychologizing mystics rests on the claim that man is unable to know his own motivation. The ultimate goal is the same: the undercutting of man’s mind.
Psychologizers do not confine themselves to any one school of psychology. They snatch parts of any and all psychological theories as they see fit. They sneak along on the fringes of any movement. They exist even among alleged students of Objectivism.
The psychologizers’ victims are not always innocent or unwilling. The “liberation” from the responsibility of knowing one’s own motives is tempting to many people. Many are eager to switch the burden of judging their own moral stature to the shoulders of anyone willing to carry it. Men who do not accept the judgment of others as a substitute for their own in regard to the external world, turn into abject secondhanders in regard to their inner state. They would not go to a quack for a medical diagnosis of their physical health, but they entrust their mental health to any psychologizer who comes along. The innocent part of their reasons is their failure of introspection and the painful chaos of their psychological conflicts; the non-innocent part is fear of moral responsibility.
Both the psychologizers and their victims ignore the nature of consciousness and of morality.
An individual’s consciousness, as such, is inaccessible to others; it can be perceived only by means of its outward manifestations. It is only when mental processes reach some form of expression in action that they become perceivable (by inference) and can be judged. At this point, there is a line of demarcation, a division of labor, between two different sciences.
The task of evaluating the processes of man’s subconscious is the province of psychology. Psychology does not regard its subject morally, but medically — i.e., from the aspect of health or malfunction (with cognitive competence as the proper standard of health).
The task of judging man’s ideas and actions is the province of philosophy.
Philosophy is concerned with man as a conscious being; it is for conscious beings that it prescribes certain principles of action, i.e., a moral code.
A man who has psychological problems is a conscious being; his cognitive faculty is hampered, burdened, slowed down, but not destroyed. A neurotic is not a psychotic. Only a psychotic is presumed to suffer from a total break with reality and to have no control over his actions or the operations of his consciousness (and even this is not always true). A neurotic retains the ability to perceive reality, and to control his consciousness and his actions (this control is merely more difficult for him than for a healthy person). So long as he is not psychotic, this is the control that a man cannot lose and must not abdicate.
Morality is the province of philosophical judgment, not of psychological diagnosis. Moral judgment must be objective, i.e., based on perceivable, demonstrable facts. A man’s moral character must be judged on the basis of his actions, his statements, and his conscious convictions — not on the basis of inferences (usually spurious) about his subconscious.
A man is not to be condemned or excused on the grounds of the state of his subconscious. His psychological problems are his private concern which is not to be paraded in public and not to be made a burden on innocent victims or a hunting ground for poaching psychologizers. Morality demands that one treat and judge men as responsible adults.
This means that one grants a man the respect of assuming that he is conscious of what he says and does, and one judges his statements and actions philosophically, i.e., as what they are — not psychologically, i.e., as leads or clues to some secret, hidden, unconscious meaning. One neither speaks nor listens to people in code.
If a man’s consciousness is hampered by malfunction, it is the task of a psychologist to help him correct it — just as it is the task of a doctor to help correct the malfunction of a man’s body. It is not the task of an astronaut-trainer or a choreographer to adjust the techniques of space flying or of ballet dancing to the requirements of the physically handicapped. It is not the task of philosophy to adjust the principles of proper action (i.e., of morality) to the requirements of the psychologically handicapped — nor to allow psychologizers to transform such handicaps into a moral issue, one way or the other.
It is not man’s subconscious, but his conscious mind that is subject to his direct control — and to moral judgment. It is a specific individual’s conscious mind that one judges (on the basis of objective evidence) in order to judge his moral character.
Every kind of psychologizing involves the false dichotomy whose extremes are represented by the Inquisitor and the cynic. The alternative is not: rash, indiscriminate moralizing or cowardly, evasive moral neutrality — i.e., condemnation without knowledge or the refusal to know in order not to condemn. These are two interchangeable variants of the same motive: escape from the responsibility of cognition and of moral judgment.
In dealing with people, one necessarily draws conclusions about their characters, which involves their psychology, since every character judgment refers to a man’s consciousness. But it is a man’s subconscious and his psychopathology that have to be left alone, particularly in moral evaluations.
A layman needs some knowledge of medicine in order to know how to take care of his own body — and when to call a doctor. The same principle applies to psychology: a layman needs some knowledge of psychology in order to understand the nature of a human consciousness; but theoretical knowledge does not qualify him for the extremely specialized job of diagnosing the psychopathological problems of specific individuals. Even self-diagnosis is often dangerous: there is such a phenomenon as psychological hypochondriacs, who ascribe to themselves every problem they hear or read about.
Allowing for exceptions in special cases, it is not advisable to discuss one’s psychological problems with one’s friends. Such discussions can lead to disastrously erroneous conclusions (since two amateurs are no better than one, and sometimes worse) — and they introduce a kind of medical element that undercuts the basis of friendship. Friendship presupposes two firm, independent, reliable, and responsible personalities. (This does not mean that one has to lie, put on an act and hide from one’s friends the fact that one has problems; it means simply that one does not turn a friend into a therapist.)
The above applies to psychological discussions between two honest persons. The opportunities such discussions offer to the dishonest are obvious: they are an invitation for every type of psychologizer to pounce upon. The Inquisitor will use them to frighten and manipulate a victim. The cynic will use them to attract attention to himself, to evoke pity, to wheedle special privileges. The old lady who talks about her operation is a well-known bore; she is nothing compared to the youngish lady who talks on and on and on about her psychological problems, with a lameness of imagination that prevents them from being good fiction.
Psychological problems as such are not a disgrace; it is what a person does about them that frequently is.
Since a man’s psychological problems hamper his cognitive judgment (particularly the problems created by a faulty psycho-epistemology), it is his responsibility to delimit his problems as much as possible, to think with scrupulous precision and clarity before taking an action, and never to act blindly on the spur of an emotion (it is emotions that distort cognition in all types of psychological problems). In regard to other men, it is his responsibility to preserve the principle of objectivity, i.e., to be consistent and intelligible in his behavior, and not to throw his neurosis at others, expecting them to untangle it, which none of them can or should do.
This brings us to the lowest type of psychologizing, exemplified by Lillian Rearden.
Though her behavior was a calculated racket, the same policy is practiced by many people, in many different forms, to varying extents, moved by various mixtures of cunning, inertia, and irresponsibility. The common denominator is the conscious flouting of objectivity — in the form of the self-admitted inability and/or unwillingness to explain one’s own actions. The pattern goes as follows: “Why did you do this?” “I don’t know.” “What were you after?” “I don’t know.” “Since I can’t understand you, what do you expect me to do?” “I don’t know.”
This policy rests on the notion that the content of one’s consciousness need not be processed.
It is only a newborn infant that could regard itself as the helplessly passive spectator of the chaotic sensations which are the content of its consciousness (but a newborn infant would not, because its consciousness is intensely busy processing its sensations). From the day of his birth, man’s development and growth to maturity consists in his mastery of the skill of processing his sensory-perceptual material, of organizing it into concepts, of integrating concepts, of identifying his feelings, of discovering their relation to the facts of reality. This processing has to be performed by a man’s own mind. No one can perform it for him. If he fails to perform it, he is mentally defective. It is only on the assumption that he has performed it that one treats him as a conscious being.
The evil of today’s psychologizing culture — fostered particularly by Progressive education — is the notion that no such processing is necessary.
The result is the stupor and lethargy of those who are neither infants nor adults, but miserable sleepwalkers unwilling to wake up. Anything can enter the spongy mess inside their skulls, nothing can come out of it. The signals it emits are chance regurgitations of any chance splatter.
They have abdicated the responsibility for their own mental processes, yet they continue to act, to speak, to deal with people — and to expect some sort of response. This means that they throw upon others the burden of the task on which they defaulted, and expect others to understand the unintelligible.
The number of people they victimize, the extent of the torture they impose on merciful, conscientious men who struggle to understand them, the despair of those whom they drive to the notion that life is incomprehensible and irrational, cannot be computed.
It should not be necessary to say it, but today it is: anyone who wants to be understood, has to make damn sure that he has made himself intelligible.
This is the moral principle that Hank Rearden glimpsed and should have acted upon at once.
It is only with a person’s conscious mind that one can deal, and it is only with his conscious mind that one can be concerned. The unprocessed chaos inside his brain, his unidentified feelings, his unnamed urges, his unformulated wishes, his unadmitted fears, his unknown motives, and the entire cesspool he has made of his stagnant subconscious are of no interest, significance, or concern to anyone outside a therapist’s office.
The visible image of an “unprocessed” mentality is offered by non-objective art. Its practitioners announce that they have failed to digest their perceptual data, that they have failed to reach the conceptual or fully conscious level of development, and that they offer you the raw material of their subconscious, whose mystery is for you to interpret.
There is no great mystery about it.
The mind is a processing organ; so is the stomach. If a stomach fails in its function, it throws up; its unprocessed material is vomit.
So is the unprocessed material emitted by a mind.