Criticisms of Transpersonal Psychology and Beyond—The Future of Transpersonal Psychology: A Science and Culture of Consciousness


Book Chapter in The Wiley‐Blackwell Handbook of Transpersonal Psychology


Harold Walsh, 2013

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After nearly half a decade of transpersonal psychology, to be precise 43 years after the foundation of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology that gave the nascent movement an academic and scholarly appearance, it seems about time to pause and ask: What has the movement of transpersonal psychology really achieved? What is the impact, if any, it has made on the academic purveyance of psychology, its teaching and research, its application in clinical work, counseling, and education? What are the structural changes or improvements, if any? One can easily see that many of these questions seem to be rhetorical and have to be answered rather disappointingly in the negative. Although transpersonal psychology has tried to install itself as a new force with the remit to reform academic psychology, so far it has not really succeeded. Apart from three or so dedicated private graduate schools and training centers in the USA and one of originally two postgraduate courses in the UK, to my knowledge there is no structural impact that can be perceived. Traditional psychology has proceeded on its trajectory, and chairs for transpersonal psychology, funded by public funds of large schools or endowed chairs that radiate out are largely missing. Although new disciplines such as educational or organizational psychology have now succeeded in establishing themselves through new chairs and departments, the same is not true for transpersonal psychology. Why is that so? Curricula of psychology courses have changed over the past decades. New courses have been added, new topics and subjects have been taken in, honoring their importance. Transpersonal psychology, as a rule, and exceptions confirm this rule, is not one of them. New scientific disciplines within psychology have succeeded to make themselves visible, through scholarly outlets, conferences, and meetings, establishing their intellectual footprint. Transpersonal psychology has not been nearly as successful as other disciplines within psychology. Although transpersonal psychology conferences exist, you will rarely find reports and headlines about findings presented there. What is wrong here?


Although transpersonal psychology and—to frame it in a broader context—spiritual approaches and techniques within the clinical counseling fields are popular among practitioners and seem to receive a warm welcome from many, this has not been at all reflected in academic representation. Let us take two examples, both from Germany. Thirteen years ago the German language journal, Transpersonal Psychology and Psychotherapy (now the Journal for Consciousness Science) was founded and has had a comparatively good circulation of roughly 1500 subscriptions—more than a lot of the professional journals in, say, psychosomatics or clinical psychology. This testifies to the interest of clinicians. But the university courses representing at least some aspect of transpersonal psychology are extremely rare. Currently in Germany there are only three university teachers with the necessary credentials to supervise PhD theses, who have some track record in publishing in this field, and enough interest to take on new students.


We recently did a representative survey among 909 German psychotherapists who are working under the statutory reimbursement system (Hofmann & Walach, 2011). Of their patients, 22% mentioned some sort of spiritual problem or topic and 66% of the therapists said that university or postgraduate training should give more attention to these issues. Two-thirds of our respondents said that they have had a spiritual experience themselves, at least once, and 36% said they have had such experiences very often or repeatedly. This clearly shows that there is interest in spiritual issues on the practical level, because the topics are germane for patients and therapists alike, but this reality of life has not found its way into academic structures of teaching and research. Has transpersonal psychology succeeded in becoming an scholarly voice for all these practitioners?


Seen from a distance and with sober eyes, one has to admit that the success of transpersonal psychology as a discipline is indeed meager, to put it benevolently. A critic of the field would surely say: “Transpersonal psychology has failed as an academic-scientific discipline. It has not proven its worth or and hence should just vanish.” If some future for the academic study of transpersonal and spiritual phenomenon is to be established, opening an inroad for spirituality into academic circles and allowing for the broadening of psychology as a field, it is necessary to assess critically the history of the transpersonal enterprise, its shortcomings and failures, listen to criticisms leveled against it, and understand the largely unspoken critique of mainstream science in order to determine the potential chance for transpersonal psychology.


In this chapter I wish to critique transpersonal psychology constructively. I will go briefly through the history of psychology as a discipline and through the history and sources of transpersonal psychology as a subdomain in order to understand the frictions and possible points of departure. I will then point out some criticisms and unsolved problems and develop a future perspective. My recommendation will be to reinvent the transpersonal enterprise along the lines originally intended by the founding fathers of psychology, William James and Franz Brentano: a psychology, a science—and culture—of consciousness, in order to get rid of some of the problems besetting transpersonal psychology. I do this from the vantage point of an academic teacher and researcher with a clinical training and experience in a transpersonal discipline, psychosynthesis, a long-standing spiritual practice in Zen meditation, the experience of being one of the founding members of the German Association of Transpersonal Psychology and Psychotherapy, and a former professor and course leader in one of the universities in the UK that is offering a postgraduate degree in transpersonal psychology and consciousness studies. I do this also with a firm commitment to the scientific enterprise, because I passionately believe that it is the only true international forum and joint venture of humankind that is comparatively successful and peaceful. At the same time I also believe that if science is to remain successful and helpful in the resolution of the problems on our agenda today then it will have to broaden its scope and paradigmatic stance by taking seriously some of the issues that led to the rise of transpersonal psychology.

A Historical Approach

In order to understand a current situation, historical analysis is normally useful. So it is appropriate to revisit briefly the history of psychology in general and that of transpersonal psychology in particular. At variance with most textbooks of psychology, I date the beginning of psychology as a scientific discipline to 1866. This is the year when the young professor of philosophy, the theologian and priest Franz Brentano (1838-1917), defended his position at the University of Wurzburg¨ in Germany. One of the famous theses was worded: “The true method of philosophy can only be the method of natural science” (Wehrle, 1989, p. 45). By that Brentano meant that philosophy had to become empirical and experimental. In 1871 he was to take up the philosophy chair at the University of Vienna. He made it clear that his interpretation of an empirical philosophy would be the new science and study of psychology. He also proposed that this method would have to proceed through thorough and careful introspection so as to understand the laws of the psyche. At the same time the vagaries of his private life were difficult. He was the priest responsible for drafting in 1869 the paper of the German bishops’ council against Papal Infallibility, which was proclaimed in 1870. The German bishops’ opposition against this move remained unheard. This led to Brentano’s leaving the church. On top of this, he fell in love with a Jewish heiress of a big banking business in Vienna and he wanted to marry her. An apostatic priest, marrying a Jewess in Catholic Vienna was a terrible scandal. Bretano was forced to resign, emigrate to Saxonia, marry there, come back and attempt to reclaim his chair. He was unable to do so, because the Austrian emperor refused to countersign the university’s appointment documents. So Brentano was unable to resume his academic position, and his work remained undone. He was never able to write his important work, and what remained of his influence was indirect. Freud heard his lectures and put Brentano’s teachings into the practice of inner hermeneutics so as to understand psychological content and derive laws from it (Merlan, 1945, 1949). Edmund Husserl was inspired by Brentano to develop his phenomenology (Husserl, 1919). Similarly, Carl Stumpf (1919) developed Gestalt psychology (Stumpf, 1919), and even Rudolf Steiner (1921), the founder of anthroposophy, studied with him (Steiner, 1921). Brentano himself was a deeply spiritual person, dedicated to daily contemplation, as he called it in the Catholic tradition, and was always looking for a way to reconcile the spiritual and the academic world, without a tangible success that he might have been able to pass on (Stumpf, 1919; Tiefensee, 1998).


The date often quoted as the year psychology was born is 1879 (Luck,¨ 2002). This is the year when Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) opened his psychology laboratory at the University of Leipzig. It soon became the strange attractor for psychologists from around the world: William James and Stanley Hall were only some of those who visited (Brent, 1993). What is not well known is a very important episode in Wundt’s life that has an important bearing on the topic (Kohls & Benedikter, 2010). Roughly at that time, in 1877, the professor of physics in Leipzig, Johann Karl Zollner,¨ became interested in studying mediumistic performances, because he thought they would prove his theory of a fourth, spiritual dimension that could be incorporated into physics. The American medium Henry Slade was traveling through Europe and performing interesting feats: tables flew around, chairs hovered in the air, it was impossible to know information was given, and so forth. Hermann Ulrici, a professor of logic in Halle, wrote about those sessions, concluding that spiritism was of utmost scientific importance. To bolster his claim, he mentioned various renowned professors, among them Wilhelm Wundt. Wundt became furious (Wundt, 1879). He quickly came to under-stand that associating the nascent discipline of psychology with potentially fraudulent, but surely scientifically questionable performances of mediums was very dangerous, because it might threaten the new discipline’s ability to be established within the academic system. In the attempt to join the established sciences, contact with and proximity to unscientific parapsychological phenomena had to be avoided at all costs. So Wundt included a clear warning about and prohibition against, such studies in his book on hypnosis and in the foreword of the second edition of his psychology textbook and all further works (Kohls & Benedikter, 2010).


Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is often misquoted as someone who had no interest in the occult and transpersonal phenomena (Simmonds, 2006). Although this is surely true on the outside, he was in fact quite interested in precognitive dreams, even in the immediate perception of his clients’ states of mind in a phenomenon he called transference, which he recognized as having some similarity to clairvoyance (Freud, 1922, 1925). Freud’s description of an open, receptive attentive state without content is very much akin to the phenomenological consciousness that Husserl would later advocate. Both Husserl and Freud were stimulated by Brentano’s teaching. But Freud was also fighting for scientific recognition, and he knew that being associated with quackery and esotericism would be the death of psychoanalysis. So he made a scientific vow: no dealings with spiritual issues, please, in order to not endanger the still fragile flower of psychoanalysis. And psychoanalysis, true to its master’s heritage, steered clear from the muddy waters of religion and transpersonal experiences.


Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) cannot be understood without his own spiritual experiences (Shamdasani, 1994, 1995, 1998a, 1998b, 2003, 2005). Already in 1913 he had his famous visions of floods of blood over Europe which inspired him to develop the process of active imagination in which he entered these visions, explored them, and came out again and described them. The results of these explorations were described and painted by him in The Red Book, which was edited only recently (Jung, 2009). Only later would Jung come to understand that his visions had been very powerful precognitive intuitions of what would happen a few years later during the Great War (1914-1919). He actually stated that he was happy when the war broke out, because this proved his visions correct and helped him to believe that he was not psychotic, but clairvoyant (Jung, 1967). All his later developments—the concept of a collective unconscious, of dynamic archetypes that structure individual psychic life, and the striving of developmental lines towards an emerging whole—can be seen as an unfolding of his original visions. It would be difficult to find any component in Jung’s psychology that is not spiritual. But apart from creating an influential school of psychotherapy, what has Jungian psychology achieved? The academic mainstream has largely ignored it.


William James (1842-1910) is renowned as the founder of American psychology (James, 1981, 1984, 1985). His stance of radical empiricism is akin to Brentano’s “scientific method” which he prescribed for psychology. His pragmatic, undogmatic approach, that was not predicated on any one of the prominent philosophical systems of his time, was flexible enough to accommodate fields as different as the study of religious experiences, clinical phenomena, and the stream of consciousness. In fact, one of the best and, in my view, still valid definitions of psychology stems from William James (1984) quoting George Trumbull Ladd, professor of philosophy at Yale: “The definition of Psychology may be best given in the words of Professor Ladd, as the description and explanation of states of consciousness as such” (p. 9).


Brentano, Wundt, James, Freud, and Jung—the five most important founding figures of psychology—were all open to transpersonal experiences, at least initially. Wundt and Freud later turned away and proclaimed a ban on the study of such phenomena. Jung was openly supportive of spiritual topics. Brentano was implicitly supportive, but failed for personal reasons to make his impact. William James was soon to be superseded by the behaviorist movement.


In Vienna the work that had been begun by Brentano was continued in philosophy by Ernst Mach, who succeeded Brentano in the philosophy chair, and Mach’s colleagues Neurath, Schlick, and Carnap, who later formed the Vienna Circle, delineating the neopositivist movement that became so influential (Smith, 1994). Apart from some quite innovative ideas—to stick to sentences that were clear, logically analyzable and empirically supportable, to make science useful to humankind, to drop anything that was not really open to scrutiny and consensus—the neopositivists spoke out a clear-cut ban against what they saw as “metaphysics.” By that term they meant a type of philosophy that was indulging in speculations, based on presuppositions that were outside empirical evidence. They banned religion and spiritual topics as unscientific and associated with an old type of thinking.


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