Precursors of humanistic, existential, and social cognitive approaches in American psychology: The contributions of Emerson and Thoreau




Goudie, Andrea Kay

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Texas Tech University


Before the inception of psychology as a formal discipline in the late nineteenth century, Emerson and Thoreau articulated what were to become central constructs in twentieth-century American personality theory. This study demonstrates that Emerson and Thoreau have made substantive contributions to humanistic, existential, and social cognitive psychology which have not been given their rightful place in the annals of American psychology. (1) Emerson and Thoreau contributed to the humanistic perspective of Maslow and Rogers. They articulated comparable conceptualizations of self and its positive character, comparable conceptualizations of self as an interactive creator of experience, comparable conceptualizations of the actualizing potential of the self, and comparable conceptualizations of the receptivity of the self to peak experiences. (2) Emerson and Thoreau were formulators of the existential perspective. For them, as for twentieth-century American existentialists, being and nonbeing were central to the human condition. The active human being was subject to contingency but was, simultaneously, a participant in this contingency. Emerson and Thoreau grappled with the conceptualization of the subject-object split, and recognized both personal and cosmic/intrinsic potential. (3) Emerson and Thoreau were contributors to the psychological thought of William James. Emerson in particular laid the foundation for James's conceptualizations of the stream of consciousness, the relationship between the self and consciousness, self as a definer of reality and provider of directionality, and the processes of volition, reasoning, and cognition. (4) Emerson and Thoreau contributed to cognitive theory in a two-pronged manner: Emerson contributed indirectly through the intellectual continuum which extends from him through James to contemporary cognitive theory; and both Emerson and Thoreau contributed directly to Bandura's social cognitive conceptualizations of observational learning, self-efficacy mechanism, self-regulatory agencies, and reciprocal determinism. The study endorses the position that because psychology coalesced out of diverse disciplines, the approach to its study which most successfully avoids both parochial fragmentation and the intellectual counterpart of reinventing the wheel is an understanding and appreciation of its indebtedness to a diversity of contributors.



Thoreau, Henry David, 1817-1862, Existential psychology, Humanistic psychology, Cognitive psychology, Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1803-1882, Psychology -- United States -- History