Radical Psychology
Winter 2005

Visible Humanity:

Cultural-Historical Considerations for Postmodern Psychology

Michael J. McGuire

Abstract — Postmodern psychology attempts to bring into sharper relief the cultural and historical underpinnings of individual suffering. But the current social milieu, dominated by conventional understandings of the self and psychopathology, poses a unique challenge to thinkers and psychologists in the 21st century. How do current assumptions about the nature of human beings serve to inform conceptualizations of individual mental illness? What is the character of postmodernity, such that depression is so visible and pervasive within cultural psychology? Via dialogue between phenomenological social psychology, cultural-historical therapeutics and Heidegger’s ontology of the human being the above questions are approached and others are raised.

Keywords — culture, phenomenology, history, self, postmodernism, psychology, conventional psychology


Nowhere, Beloved, will world be but within us. Our life
passes in transformation. And the external
shrinks into less and less. Where once an enduring house was,
now a cerebral structure crosses our path, completely
belonging to the realm of concepts, as though it still stood in the brain.
Our age has built itself vast reservoirs of power,
formless as the straining energy that it wrests from the earth.
Temples are no longer known. It is we who secretly save up
these extravagances of the heart. Where one of them still survives,
a Thing that was formerly prayed to, worshipped, knelt before—
just as it is, it passes into the invisible world.
Many no longer perceive it, yet miss the chance
To build it inside themselves now, with pillars and statues: greater.

--Rainer Maria Rilke (1923/1982), Duino Elegies

Perhaps it takes the words of a poet: “The external shrinks into less and less…a cerebral structure crosses our path…vast reservoirs of power…Temples no longer known…” Rilke’s telling words, prophetic in vision, should speak to us now louder than ever. They give voice, if we are willing to hear what they have to say, to the shadows of our age at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

What has happened to the world, Rilke wonders? It has been made invisible. Yet here is a glimpse of Western culture today: “Reality” television, automated cash machines, dreams of cryogenic reincarnation, clinical depression. The world has been made invisible in many ways, and profoundly so. However, what has become invisible about the world has not disappeared. Rather, the invisible is what has been mis-placed — and re-placed — allowing for the appearance, the visibility, of another kind of world. This reflection considers the condition of the world’s psychological visibility as situated culturally and understood historically.

The Cultural is the Psychological: The Visibility of Depression

As Martin Heidegger says in his 1947 essay “Letter on Humanism,” “Da-sein itself occurs essentially as ‘thrown.’ It unfolds essentially in the throw of Being as the fateful sending” (p.231). Da-sein, the human kind of being, finds itself delivered over to the world as the historical destining of Being. What we are thrown into, or delivered over to is the openness — the disclosive space — which is fundamentally whowe are as being-in-the-world. Within this openness, and out of it, any and all things appear aswhat they are; that is, as having meaning or mattering. Thinking now from the Heidegger of Being and Time (1927/1962), the human as thrown, being-in-the-world-with-others-alongside-things is essentially a social being, woven within the relational context of a particular cultural-historical situation and the everyday practices thereof.

Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein’s throwness has significant import here, for it emphasizes our radically social humanity. It is within this shared (multi) cultural space, that particular meanings get constituted or constructed, making the world psychologically visible.

The condition of the postmodern, Western psychological space, the humanity into which we are thrown, is one that recognizes and affirms Nietzsche’s death of God, while it embraces the seductive appeal of materialistic consumption and simulated reality. Descartes’ cogito is replaced with a de-centered self while “self-help” books and television diviners of the soul copiously lurk within the cultural psyche. Forgetful of a sense of mystery toward the world, and alienated to the core, contemporary cultural-psychological space is one that experiences depression as one of its most visible symptoms. But, as Robert Romanyshyn (1989) in Technology as Symptom and Dream writes:

We avoid depression and its lows as we avoid perhaps nothing else, and it is for us in our society, as it is in any highly medicalized society, a symptom to be treated, an illness to be cured. In a society that values progress and equates progress with upward mobility — the rise up the corporate ladder, as it were — depression is profoundly anti-progress … Depression is ‘the other face of the American dream.’ (pp.226-227)

What then is the meaning of our cultural-psychological depression? Our depression is a cultural phenomenon. But being depressed in the conventionally understood and clinically diagnosable variety, means that something is wrong inside of you. A person who is depressed is a person with a chemical imbalance in the brain. A person who is depressed should be “fixed,” a corrective aimed at more efficient functioning, and more “rational” thinking.

These conceptions of depression — which are the most pervasive Western conceptions — only make sense, that is, only take on the meanings that they do, within a certain cultural-historical milieu. This milieu is one that, in the parlance of mainstream psychology, commits a “fundamental attribution error” by foisting societal problems on the backs — or more precisely, in the heads — of individual, self-contained subjects. It is this kind of psychological visibility of the self, as it is pre-scribed and circum-scribed by the dominant, modern natural scientific attitude, to which I now wish to turn. First though, we should hear Rilke’s words again, as he says, “And the external shrinks into less and less. Where once an enduring house was, now a cerebral structure crosses our path, completely belonging to the realm of concepts, as though it still stood in the brain” (1982, p.189).

The Self and the Social Field

In what kind of cultural world can a visible phenomenon such as depression thrive? The current cultural understanding of the human, the understanding in which conventional psychology today operates, first says that what matters is what is measurable and quantifiable. The same rules that apply for mathematics and physics apply to the person. This calculability of the human is what Romanyshyn has in mind above, when he sees depression as a manifestation of a cultural desire for efficient functioning. Efficient functioning and calculative thinking have come to govern the set of background practices in which conventional psychology operates.

Human beings live in inherently meaningful contexts. In question is the meanings that arise from our contexts and how these meanings change what it is to be human. The time period in question is the postmodern age, the current context. Exactly how the functional-calculative configuration of the human has come into being may be better understood by following early Heidegger, and his notion of publicness .

In Being and Time, Heidegger writes that: “By publicness everything gets obscured, and what has thus been covered up gets passed off as something familiar and accessible to everyone…Publicness proximally controls everyway in which the world and Dasein get interpreted” (1927/1962, p. 127). The conventional view in psychology, in purporting to be a strictly natural scientific-epistemological endeavor implies that its way of understanding the human is the only way. When the conventional notion of the human, with its accompanying and reifying discourse, is filtered into the kind of publicness characteristic to Western thought, all else regarding the human that seems to fall beyond measurement becomes either quaint subjectivity or qualitative illusion. The conventional view then, as one that places world-cultural phenomena inside the heads of suffering individuals, is the one that gets publicly accepted as true since it equates truth with measurability and measurability with reality . Thus today, with depression being part of postmodern psychological visibility, the human is reified as it is equated with the cerebral structures of the computational brain in desperate need of chemical upgrading or re-programming. Convinced by the allure and explanatory might of this view, we easily become familiar with and comfortable within such a world. And it is not as if we should want to somehow “escape” our current way of envisioning the world either. In fact, if we take Heidegger’s notions of throwness and publicness seriously (as equiprimordial structures of existence and everydayness) this idea of escape is no more desirable than it is ontologically conceivable. What counts is the engagement we take up with the world, our capacity to question the cultural practices in which we ourselves partake, and our ability to maintain an openness to new ways of making sense of our own psychological visibility.

Conventionally trained, but culturally oriented social psychologist Edward Sampson (1998) exemplifies what it means to be both engaged in, and open to disclosing psychological space in new ways. His emphasis on active discourse between the conventional view in psychology and what he calls the socio-historical view is respectful of Heidegger’s analysis of the human being as inescapably thrown, and radically social in character. In emphasizing the need for dialogue, Sampson makes visible a voice that has been consistently silenced since the dominance of the cognitive revolution in psychology of the 1970s. Not content in merely “adding” his socio-historical psychology to the mainstream in an accommodating or patronizing way, Sampson seeks to let marginalized perspectives speak in their own voices within adiscursive matrix of intelligibility. In pioneering the socio-historical view from within conventional psychology, he offers an alternative to the highly visible, yet depression-prone self-contained subject. Sampson doesn’t offer an “alternative self,” that one could just switch into, suddenly changing everything for the better. Instead, he provides a theoretical perspective on selves which is respectful of different ways of being a social self.

In his article “The Debate on Individualism,” Sampson (1988) distinguishes between “self-contained individualism” and “ensemble individualism” as indigenous psychologies of the self. A self-contained individual maintains a “firm self-other boundary,” an internal or “personal” locus of control, and an “exclusionary conception of the other” (p.16, Figure 1). An individual, according to Sampson, whose indigenous psychology understands the self as an ensemble individualism, characteristically maintains a “fluid self-other boundary,” where control is dispersed, and located within the social “field.” Additionally, in the ensemble type of self, the conception of the other tends to be inclusive rather than exclusive, which follows logically given a more fluid self-other boundary (p.16).

Returning now to the visibility of depression in postmodernity, what becomes apparent is this: depression as such predominantly occurs within a culture — within a particular Heideggarian publicness — that understands the person as an internally bound and located center of control. Would “depression,” understood as “something wrong inside of you,” make any sense to an indigenous psychology of Sampson’s ensembled individualism? Probably not; and how could it, when “inside the head” would be an empty concept rather than a psychological reality? Psychological reality, and thus psychological visibility ,is social reality— social visibility. It is the social field that provides the condition of possibility for individual selves. As Dutch psychiatrist J.H. van den Berg (1983) writes:

What the patient brings to analysis is not strictly her own, it is not strictly individual pathological difficulty…. The patient brings the effects of a “strenuous social life” as if not she, but society were ill. The patient is indeed ill…. an illness from which we all are suffering, an illness which is not of an individual, but of a social nature. Society is ill; this comes first. Only after this are there also neurotic patients. They are the ones who could not stand this social illness. (p.160-61, my italics)

Technological Disclosing and History

Thus far I have discussed the cultural and radically social aspects of our humanity, as seen through one form of psychological visibility: the depressive self. I now wish to continue this discussion of postmodern psychological space, with an emphasis on the historical considerations for this reflection.

“The year in which the theory of the neuroses and the theory of psychotherapy came into existence out of nowhere can be identified with particular exactness. Both theories appeared in the summer of 1882” (Van den Berg, 1983, p.115).  In The Changing Nature of Man (1983), Van den Berg refers to Freud and Breuer and their initial analytic work with suffering “hysterics” in Vienna. What van den Berg shows, in his historical-psychological treatise, is how the current psychological space in which we live has profound historical indices. There were once no neuroses and no depression . These conceptualizations and abstract formulations didn’t exist, nor did the corresponding personal experiences. How do we approach this bold claim, when, at the beginning of the 21st century, depression is at epidemic proportions in Western postmodernity? How is it that depression has come to be the mood of this historical epoch?

Romanyshyn and late Heidegger both suggest that a clue, if not an answer, to the origins of our current depression lay in the cultural-psychological visibility created by the technological world. For Heidegger, the ways in which humans disclose the world has changed across historical epochs. In the technological age, humans reveal the world in terms of the calculability of resource use and consumption, or in terms of what he calls “standing-reserve.” Heidegger says of such revealing that, “Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it be may be on call for a further ordering. Whatever is ordered about in this way has its own standing” (1953/1993, p. 323). Technology, far from being merely a means-to-end, instrumental phenomenon, is seen as a revealing or unconcealment of the historical destining of any and all things. The trouble is, however, that this technological style of revealing, characteristic of but not specific to the postmodern age, can allow us to disclose not only the things in our worlds, but also our selves in terms of calculative functioning.

This is precisely the danger Heidegger speaks of in “The Question Concerning Technology,” and it is here specifically that we can see the import of Heidegger’s later thought for psychology. Remember, depression, as the conventional view has it, marks something wrong inside of you, a chemical imbalance in the head. What Heidegger has seen is this: The ways in which we relate to our world relate back on us. If we see our worlds in terms of calculation, we run the risk of seeing ourselves as calculative resource functions and measurable, mechanized entities. Here is the parallel with our discussion of depression: Something is wrong inside of you (a “faulty thought process”), or more accurately, inside of your computational brain. What do you do? You seek out a chemical re-programmer and obtain the input (drugs) necessary for your mind to be “glitch-free” and superbly functional again. You’re happy; the pharmaceutical company is happy; perfect right?

Glaringly dystopic as this portrayal may be, it is precisely what has become real in medicine, pharmacy, and psychology. And people are still depressed! The portrayal is a visible, cultural example of how disclosing the world in a certain way, namely, one informed by a strictly natural scientific episteme, can lead to a forgetting of one’s human place on the earth. All of this is not to say that people shouldn’t take anti-depressants, which help millions of people cope with depression. However, as a culture we need to allow for other perspectives, new understandings and alternative therapies. We are misleading ourselves if we believe that our depression will lift with the swallowing of a pill. Our depression is larger than the biological makeup of our brains.

Conclusion: An Opportunity for Transformation

Romanyshyn (1989) suggested earlier that, “depression is the other face of the American dream” (p.227). Depression is the visible attunement, a symptom, of a humanity alienated from the body, from the earth, and from one another. But depression can also be seen as an opportunity to come back to what has been mis-placed. Romanyshyn suggests that, “Depression [then] is a matter of home, of coming home or trying to, of being called home. It is not an illness to be cured it is the cure.” And quoting psychiatrist Walker Percy, Romanyshyn adds, “[Not] to be depressed today can only be a sign of your derangement” (p.227). Listening to cultural-psychological depression and to what it says about our human living is a chance at re-membering what has been forgotten or repressed.

Listening in this way, to the suffering, depressive self, will be difficult though, because it will mean giving up control . The self-contained, encapsulated individual in Sampson, the depressed, Cartesian spectator-self in Romanyshyn, and the technologically disclosed, calculative self in Heidegger, all have in common an obsession with control. With measurement, quantification, and causal explanatory models, comes the idea that we are authors of the cosmos, positioned on an almighty god-like pedestal. Believing to be position-less observers of the world, we become lords of the universe, and lose sight of humanity by trying to escape from it. And so we try to become immortal for a moment — Homo astronauticus — but we are soon pulled back to earth, back to our bodies, and back to ourselves.

Through depression, we are forced to listen to the cultural-psychological visibility that we have built for ourselves, and to be responsive and open to Rilke’s calling for “building it inside ourselves now, with pillars and statues: greater.” Neither “inside us” as separate, distinct individuals, nor “greater” in the sense of “upward progress,” but instead, from inside ourselves as communities of potential cultural transformation, can we then empower individuals.

Van den Berg’s claim about neuroses can work both ways also. “Society is ill; this comes first. Only after this are there also neurotic patients” (1983, p.161). The social is the condition of possibility for the individual. The task for psychologists is to start thinking first from the cultural-historical space of the world, in order to engender transformation and healing at the level of individual suffering. In this way, postmodern psychology is a cultural therapeutics.


Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time . Trans. Macquarrie and Robinson. New York: Harper Collins. (Original work published 1927).

Heidegger, M. (1993). Letter on humanism. In D.F. Krell (Ed.), The Basic Writings of Martin Heidegger(pp. 217-265). New York: Harper Collins.  (Original work published 1947).

Heidegger, M. (1993).The question concerning technology. In D.F. Krell (Ed.),The Basic Writings of Martin Heidegger (pp. 311-341). New York: Harper Collins. (Original work published 1953).

Rilke, R. M. (1982). The selected poetry of Ranier Maria Rilke. Ed. and Trans. S. Mitchell. New York: Vintage International. (Original work published 1923).

Romanyshyn, R. (1989). Technology as symptom and dream. New York: Routledge.

Sampson, E. (1988). The debate on individualism. American Psychologist. 15-22.

Van den Berg, J.H. (1983). The changing nature of man. New York: Norton.

Notes: This paper was written as part of an advanced social psychology course at Duquesne University, one of a handful of psychology programs that embraces a critical awareness with respect to the field. This paper could not have been written without the students from that class and professor Michael Sipiora.

Institutional Affiliation and Correspondence: Michael McGuire is at Duquesne University. email : connectmjm80@hotmail.com

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