President's Column

Humanistic Psychology, Human Dignity, and the Interpretive Stance of Agape Love

What gives us a right to claim that each person is entitled to dignity?

By Brent Dean Robbins, PhD

As I introduced in my last president's column, the theme of my presidential year is “Human Dignity and Humanistic Values.” Dignity is a central value of humanistic psychology because all of its other values hinge on the recognition that each person who is encountered has intrinsic meaning and worth, and is therefore non-fungible or irreplaceable. Perhaps a simpler way to say this is that each person is a potential gift to the community. To the extent that this potential of the person to realize his or her gift is never realized, whether by reason of his or her own choice or due to the marginalization of the person by her society, we face an irredeemable loss. At the same time, this recognition of human dignity is impossible through a reductive scientism which reduces human beings to the status of things, as is the case in the implicit philosophies of traditional psychologies and psychophysiology. To recognize the intrinsic dignity of the person is to feel the ethical call to respect each person as an end in herself and not merely as a means to our own end. At the same time, we often fall short of this ideal, and so the vision of the possibility of an inclusive community in which each person can realize herself as a gift to the community calls us to the future, to the future of a potential Beloved Community, as Martin Luther King, Jr. called it.

What gives us a right to claim the dignity of each person? In philosophy there is a term for evidence that is self-evident. This term is apodictic. Apodictic evidence is self-evident. If I point to a red pencil, the redness of the pencil is apodictic evidence. If another person refuses to acknowledge the red color of the pencil, all I can do it point to the pencil and guide his gaze back to the object until recognition occurs. I would say that dignity has this same kind of apodictic quality – it is self-evident and can only be pointed towards to be recognized. However, in contrast to the redness of the pencil, the quality of dignity requires more than a passive perception, but a shift into a particular attitude or interpretive stance, as was argued by existentialist Max Scheler (Frings, 1997). To recognize the dignity of the other requires seeing the other through the interpretive stance of agape love. Agape love is not to be confused with a strong liking for something or someone, nor is it to be mistaken for attachment or romantic infatuation or sexual desire. Agape love can be directed toward anyone, even one's own enemies. To love someone in this way is simply to will the good of that person as that person, without regard for how that good may or may not benefit one's self. This is an attitude that every therapist must learn to cultivate if they are to be of any help to a client, so that narcissistic self-interest of the therapist does not suffocate the therapeutic space of the client. It is through this attitude of loving regard for the good of the other that we can see the apodictic evidence that the other person is a person with dignity.

To connect this interpretive stance of agape love to a philosophical tradition, I have referred to it as a “hermeneutic of love.” Hermeneutics is the philosophical study of interpretation as a human activity. Within this tradition, French hermeneutic philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1970) identified Freud, Nietzsche and Marx as “masters of suspicion.” He saw these three figures as representing the heights of the modernist interpretive stance of reading texts in a way that interrogates them for their deeper, hidden meanings through an attitude of incredulity. However, the hermeneutic of love offers another, perhaps more appropriate way to read persons if we are to recognize their dignity. In contrast to an attitude of suspicion, a hermeneutic of love interprets and relates to the other through the attitudes of charity, empathy and openness. When a person is approached through these attitudes, with sincerity, it allows the person or text to reveal otherwise hidden truths. In other words, it deepens the intimacy of the encounter (wherein, intimacy refers to opening a safe space for self-disclosure). Whereas Ricoeur identified masters of suspicion, we may be able to identify figures who are servants of a hermeneutic of love. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi, for example, are people who come readily to my mind.

The hermeneutics of love, I contend, is an attitude that is salient in all of the major figures of humanistic psychology. Rollo May's (2007) "Love and Will," after Paul Tillich, explored the important dialectic between love and power (will) by which true power is only ever power through love. In the "Art of Loving," Erich Fromm (2006) identified agape love as the only valid basis for meaning in life. In Viktor Frankl's (2006) "Man's Search for Meaning," love is considered a basic condition for a meaningful existence. In the approach to therapy developed by Carl Rogers (1995), agape love, which he called “unconditional positive regard,” is considered to be the essential ingredient in effective therapy. Abraham Maslow (1993), in "Farther Reaches of Human Nature," saw love as uniquely capable of revealing true knowledge about the other person by permitting the other person “to unfold, to open up, to drop his defenses... (p. 109). These represent only a few examples.

This hermeneutic of love and the corresponding recognition of human dignity has a long history in humanistic psychology, going back to it's roots in existential personalism with figures such as Max Scheler, Edith Stein, Gordon Allport, and Martin Luther King, Jr. To recover this aspect of humanistic psychology is to discover the very core or essence of humanistic psychology's mission and, therefore, by implication, to point us toward our future: the realization of the Beloved Community.

Toward the Future

As we move toward the future, there are several important projects that remain the focus of attention this year in the Society. The annual conference held at Sofia University in Palo Alto, California, was a resounding success. The theme of dignity echoed in many of the presentations at the conference, and carried over into conversations beyond the formal presentations into the halls and venues of the meeting space. The upcoming Div. 32 program for the annual American Psychological Association (APA) Convention to be held in Washington, DC, is also framed by the theme of dignity, and for example, will feature presentations on themes such as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s address to the APA, critical engagements with the DSM-5 and psychiatry, concerns with social justice, and training in mindfulness approaches to therapy, among many others. In addition, the Task Force on Human Dignity and Humanistic Values continues to refine a position statement on human dignity, which will be discussed at the Outgoing Meeting of the Society in August. In addition, in a historic development, made possible by the River Styx Foundation, the Society will make history by holding it's first ever in-person Global Summit on Diagnostic Alternatives, which will be held in Washington, DC in the two days leading up to the APA Convention. This event will include invited participants who are international experts in mental health and share a desire to reach consensus on an action plan that would move our profession toward a genuine alternative to current, misguided diagnostic practices.

I am very excited about these developments, and feel very grateful to have this wonderful opportunity to serve as president of this Society of Humanistic Psychology. I look forward to seeing you in Washington, DC.


Frankl, V. (2006). Man's search for meaning . Beacon Press.

Frings, M.S. (1997). The mind of Max Scheler . Milwaukee: Marquette University Press.

Maslow, A. (1993). The farther reaches of human nature . New York: Penguin.

May, R. (2007). Love and will . New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Ricoeur, P. (1977). Freud and philosophy: An essay on interpretation . Cambridge, MA: Yale University press.

Rogers, C. (1995). On becoming a person: a therapist's view of psychotherapy . Mariner Books.