Mark Freeman is a renowned author and a pioneering voice in the emerging field of the psychological humanities. He serves as Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Society in the Department of Psychology at the College of the Holy Cross. His body of work, including the critically acclaimed Toward the Psychological Humanities: A Modest Manifesto for the Future of Psychology (Routledge, 2023), offers a profound reimagining of psychology, interweaving it with the arts and humanities to better understand the human condition.
He is the author of numerous additional works, virtually all of which, in one way or another, speak to the emerging field of the psychological humanities. These include Rewriting the Self: History, Memory, Narrative (Routledge, 1993); Finding the Muse: A Sociopsychological Inquiry into the Conditions of Artistic Creativity (Cambridge, 1994); Hindsight: The Promise and Peril of Looking Backward (Oxford, 2010); The Priority of the Other: Thinking and Living Beyond the Self (Oxford, 2014); and Do I Look at You with Love? Reimagining the Story of Dementia (Brill | Sense). Along with David Goodman, he has also co-edited Psychology and the Other (Oxford, 2015) and, with Hanna Meretoja, has co-edited the recently published The Use and Abuse of Stories: New Directions in Narrative Hermeneutics (Oxford, 2023). He also serves as Editor for the Oxford University Press series “Explorations in Narrative Psychology.”
In this interview, we’ll explore his personal journey toward the psychological humanities, delve into his work in narrative psychology, and discuss his approach to the concepts of ‘self’ and the ‘Other.’ We’ll also touch upon how his perspectives guided him as he navigated his mother’s journey through dementia, a deeply personal narrative shared in his book.
The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio of the interview here.
Justin Karter: Could you start by sharing what inspired your journey toward the psychological humanities and how this path has shaped your career?
Mark Freeman: I could go back as far as junior high and high school when I was a singer in a rock and roll band, but I’ll leap ahead instead to when I was an undergraduate at Binghamton University.
That was in the 1970s, like a lot of people who pursue psychology, I was interested in big ideas, deep issues, you know, plumbing the depths of the human condition, and that really wasn’t what was happening at that point. On some level, it’s still not happening. But back then, things were predominantly behavioral in orientation, and I was kind of shocked by the whole thing. I had just imagined that psychology was something really rather different than what it was, and that’s partly because I got my images of what psychological understanding was through places like literature and film and the arts and so on.
As luck would have it, I stumbled upon two courses, and it really was luck. I took a course in Phenomenological Psychology in the Philosophy Department, and I won’t pretend to have known at the time what phenomenological psychology was, but I read the course description, and it sounded kind of cool, and it was way closer to what I thought psychology was and also might be. So I was really turned on to that.
I also took a course in the Psychology Department where the main text was called Visual Thinking by Rudolf Arnheim, who was one of the most prominent psychologists of art for many, many years. That, too, really turned me on, and I wound up doing a term paper on Gestalt psychology and art, and just found like I was beginning to find myself, and to find my way into at least some version of the discipline.
The question, of course, after that is what to do. Okay, so I have these funky new ideas about what psychology might be. I was eager to pursue them in some way, but of course, there aren’t many places where you can do that. I took off for several years, did some extensive traveling in the States and around Europe, and eventually had the great good fortune of finding a place that really seemed to suit me, and that was the University of Chicago. I enrolled in the Committee on Human Development, which was a mixture basically of the social sciences and for me, philosophy. It was a kind of do-it-yourself program. I would say most of the people who got their PhDs in the committee turned out to be psychologists, but some became anthropologists, some became sociologists, and so on. So, it was a very heady place to be.
There were a couple of things that I just would call attention to, and it might seem like I’m going into too much detail about this, but it’s actually relevant. In the Committee on Human Development, the main focus was to study human lives in as comprehensive, multifaceted a way as possible. So, we were required to take courses in things like developmental psychology, you know, that sort of thing. But also courses in sociology, cross-cultural human development, and other things. At that point, there was a big focus, especially on the idea of life history and how to understand it, right? How do we understand the movement of a human life? What kind of methods are appropriate to it? So, that’s what was going on in the Committee on Human Development.
But I also went to Chicago because I was interested in learning more about the work of the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, and I saw that he was teaching a two-semester seminar in the Phenomenology of Time Consciousness. It was risky territory for me. I had some philosophy, but not a whole lot, and we had to read in the first semester Plato and Plotinus and Aristotle and St. Augustine, and all of that was new to me. Second semester Husserl, Heidegger, all that, but it was amazing.
Ricoeur, at that point, was also really doing a deep dive into the idea of history and historiography and their relation to narrative, and in fact, he wound up teaching another course that I also had the great privilege of taking called Historicity, History, and Narrative. It was precisely about the kinds of issues that I was pursuing in human development, but on a much broader plane, and we were reading literature, we were reading history, we were reading historiography, we were reading psychoanalysis, and more.
So, there was a kind of amazing confluence between what was going on in my home department and what was going on in philosophy at the time, especially through the work of Ricoeur. So that just sent me to a really quite extraordinary place. You know, the very first piece I ever did was when I was a grad student; it was a very audacious piece called “History, Narrative, and Lifespan Developmental Knowledge,” which I published in the journal Human Development. It was back in 1984 because I just had to figure out some way of integrating and synthesizing all the stuff that I was learning. Otherwise, I would have exploded, so to speak.
The other thing I did was engage in some empirical research, broadly speaking. I became involved in what was known then as the Artist Project, which was led by Mihaly—Mike—Csikszentmihalyi, the person who’s best known for the idea of flow.
He had a research project that studied a group of aspiring painters and sculptors who’d been schooled at the Art Institute of Chicago in the mid-60s, and the goal was to find out what they had and hadn’t been doing some two decades later. So I got to travel to all kinds of funky places, you know, ranging from the Hamptons to Soho, and also outside of New York, to have very extensive talks with some of these people, and so that kind of threw me headlong into the art world and what was happening in the art world, what was happening in the world of culture more generally, what kinds of work had currency and cachet, what kinds of work didn’t, and so on.
So, I basically had two large streams of work. My dissertation was on the Artist Project, but at the same time, I was doing all of this narrative work.
All of that really was going well. I was getting a lot of stuff in print. I had these incredible mentors who were helping me along and so on. And then the question was, well, where do I go with that? Quite honestly, there are some people who are casualties of the University of Chicago because they might have been terrific scholars, thoroughly interdisciplinary, innovative, creative, and more. But that’s not what most departments are looking for, especially psychology departments, who are generally looking for people whose work is much more specialized, who fit into the journals that are generally considered to be the best, which often aren’t.
But again, in a real stroke of luck, I saw an ad. It was 1985 or 1986. The College of the Holy Cross wanted somebody to teach phenomenological psychology and just about anything else I wanted to do. So, I was lucky to land there, and I’ve been there ever since. This is now my 38th year.
For the first two books I did, one was tied to the artist’s project and was called Finding the Muse, A Sociopsychological Inquiry into the Conditions of Artistic Creativity, and the other was called Rewriting the Self, subtitled History, Memory, Narrative. Of the two, it’s actually the latter book that was more of a precursor to what would eventually become known as the psychological humanities, and it was and remains kind of an odd book in some ways, especially in relation to what was going on at the time. It’s a book in which each chapter focuses on a literary text. Five of those texts are non-fictional, and one is fictional. The non-fictional texts range from St. Augustine’s Confessions all the way to Philip Roth’s “autobiography” called The Facts. The one work of fiction that I explored was Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea.
So, I was interested in issues that are arguably, though maybe not in the eyes of some psychologists, called psychology—memory, identity, history, narrative—but I was moving into the humanities and into literature as a prime vehicle for doing it.
So, that was a focus for quite a while, and eventually, I expanded that focus because I didn’t only want to write about books. I also wanted to write about people, and eventually, those people would include my father, one of my daughters, my mother, and, on some level, myself.
It’s challenging work to do. You never want it to be too self-indulgent or confessional, but I did want to explore the lives of people I knew and cared about, and that led me to think more deeply still about what it means to be human. So that’s a start.
Justin Karter: You begin your book, “Toward the Psychological Humanities,” by sharing how conflicted you felt as you delivered your presidential address for the Society for Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology at the America Psychological Association Meeting in 2015. First, I want to say that I was actually in the room for this address – as a Master’s student new to the field trying to find my way – and was really inspired by your approach. So, I owe you a thank you for articulating a version of psychology that I felt I could get on board with. Second, can you bring our listeners into the conflict you felt at the time? What is so “weird–and, at times, positively wrongheaded and deplorable” about the discipline of psychology?
Freeman: It was a very, very difficult time for me to be president of the division, and the reason actually had to do with what was going on in the APA at large. I don’t know if you recall, but one of the main topics was what they referred to as “enhanced interrogation techniques,” otherwise known as torture, and that was one of my take-off points, and it occupied a lot of my time and thought.
The word “deplorable” is a strong word, maybe too strong. I wouldn’t want to use that word to characterize the whole of psychology, but I could certainly use it to characterize some of what was going on at the time. But there were lots of other things that I had seen throughout my entire career that I also thought were wrong-headed in some ways, or if we want a somewhat more charitable version, just radically incomplete.
I continued to see methodological narrowness, and while there were some efforts afoot to change that, for instance, in the Society for Qualitative Inquiry in Psychology—which, as you know, I also became heavily involved in—psychology still had delimited its focus methodologically in a remarkably parochial way, focusing especially on the kinds of phenomena that could readily be encapsulated, objectified, measured, and so forth.
I have no particular interest in knocking that. There is certainly a realm of phenomena for which that kind of approach is appropriate and valuable, but there are so many other ways of exploring the human realm; the human experience and qualitative work were part of it, but I was also interested in pushing it even farther in some ways. There’s some qualitative work that is fairly standard social science that’s just not quantitative. But as I say, I wanted to push things even farther, and not just for the sake of pushing things farther, but for the sake of expanding the field of possibility in psychology as an arena of inquiry.
What else did I see that led me to think some of it was and remains wrong-headed? A lot of the work in psychology is hermetic. People are speaking to one another about a relatively narrow band of phenomena and are often developing highly sophisticated and technical procedures, both in order to study those phenomena and to begin to explain them. That results in a lot of very, very technical jargon that’s often only accessible to those within that particular subfield, and so on.
So this is why I wanted to move further in the direction of the psychological humanities. As I say in the book, if I really want to read something or experience something that plumbs the depth of the human experience and allows me not only to think about it in some intellectualized way but maybe to feel it and to engage in some imaginative flight, I’m much more likely to read a good work of literature or go to the theater or go to a concert or whatever. And so by degrees, I also came to ask a very basic question: Why can’t a portion of psychology have the kind of expressive, living, evocative power and passion that works outside the discipline sometimes have?
Karter: I’m wondering if, as somebody who’s deeply attentive to narrative, you can say something about the type of language and narratives that are produced by mainstream psychology and how you see them working in the world around you, with students that you work with, and even in the broader political discourse. I’m thinking both of sort of our diagnostic nomenclature and how it’s being widely used, but also the phenomena of a lot of young people increasingly using psychological concepts to understand themselves and other people.
Freeman: We are surrounded by narratives, and they occur, of course, in sites ranging from the confines, so to speak, of our own lives to what’s going on in the wider world, culturally, politically, and so forth.
One of the things that I’ve done for a very long time as a teacher is give students the time and the space to be able to explore their own lives through narrative, and not just for the sake of introspection but to begin also to understand some of the discourses and forces that have led them to lead the lives that they have, in terms of the expectations that have been put upon them, in terms of the desires that they have, in terms of what it is that they see as being a meaningful and valid life.
I’ve had students engage in some considered narrative work. I’ve sometimes called them narrative self-analyses. I’ve sometimes called them mini-memoirs. They have to really work hard at those. They have to do multiple drafts. They have to get some feedback, and as I tell them oftentimes, these stories need to be both about you and not about you. Right? You need to be able to tell a story that addresses some feature of psychological life that exists beyond you as a self, and that’s actually quite a hard thing to do.
Karter: I am also thinking about “the hermetic” discipline of mainstream psychology, as you described it. When the hermetic seal is broken, and these concepts that are forged in increasingly specialized and experimental settings become part of the popular discourse, they or become part of the ways that people are making sense of themselves and their relationships with other people. As a narrative psychologist, how do you see this sort of increased psychologization working against the sort of poetic, humanities, or literary approach to understanding our lives?
Freeman: Psychologization is part of the fabric of contemporary culture and has even become more visibly so in recent years, as people talk about, for example, the anxiety that derived from COVID. Meanwhile, students are taking courses in psychology departments where they are being exposed to the DSM and the jargon of psychology and diagnostic categories and, on some level, applying them to their own lives. You’re probably familiar with the looping effect. So, you know, that certainly happens. I mean, on some level, we become the selves that we’re reading about and studying about and that are circulating through contemporary culture.
Some of that’s fine, in its way. So, my goal would never be to say, nor would it be possible, to disregard all of that. Stand apart from all of those discourses and categories that are circulating, and see if you can move into the depths of your own truth. You know, that would be “un-hermeneutical.” It would assume the possibility that we could extricate ourselves from all that surrounds us and somehow encounter and behold ourselves nakedly. And as you well know, that’s not possible.
What is possible is to provide some resources that can allow students to interrogate things to become aware, more aware, at least of the way in which they are constituted and formed, and perhaps on some level, deformed as modern selves.
So, there’s a limit to what can be done in the span of a semester or a year. I have no illusions about being some magical transformative force. But I hope to be able to have students acquire some critical consciousness toward the way that we’re talking about ourselves, and some historical consciousness, in the sense of being more aware of the formative factors that have culminated in their way of thinking about themselves.
One has to be very cautious in doing these things. If I’m going to write about my mother, or my father, or myself, and I’m going to try to do it with some measure of honesty and integrity and depth, it’s not only going to be risky, but it’s almost certainly bound to be painful in some way.
Karter: And I know that you say this as somebody who has written both about “the self” in general, and yourself and your mother, as you mentioned, so let me pick up on “the self” first. One of the intriguing aspects of your work is the idea of transcending the ‘self.’ Could you discuss how these experiences, as exemplified in music and other forms of art, as well as mystical or religious encounters, contribute to our understanding of the human condition and the possible interplay between the human and the divine? How does this concept of transcendence challenge and expand our conventional notions of selfhood and psychological experience?
Freeman: How did I develop this interest? I certainly developed an interest through some of the things I was reading. Like St. Augustine’s Confessions, and people like Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas, and so on. I also, by virtue of being at the College of the Holy Cross, was engaged in dialogue with really smart people who were interested in things like religious experience. Being in dialogue with those people allowed me to see, in some ways, the poverty of some of my previous education because a lot of those issues were kind of ruled out of bounds as being either too religious or just too freaky for psychology. So that’s part of it.
But also, there was experience as such. And, for me, probably the best inroad into my moving in this direction was my own experience of music as both a listener and a player. I mentioned earlier that I’d been a singer in a band many, many years ago; I had played guitar, although not particularly well, for some 40 years and decided to finally take lessons when I was around 60. And I also just had some extraordinarily moving experiences, singing in choirs, and listening to classical music, and jazz and blues, and so on. And it led me relatively early on to ask, What is this? What is this? And, initially, how can I begin to understand it? And so, I moved back and forth between my own experience and also encountering some texts that really helped me think differently about these phenomena.
One text that really allowed me to think differently was William James’s book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, which is not only about religion, but it is about things like the experience of nature, the experience of art, the experience of music, and so on.
It’s an extraordinary compendium of experiences of people who are describing a kind of ecstatic oneness with the world. And, James discusses the central characteristics of mystical experience; people have the conviction that they’re discovering new dimensions of knowledge and reality and selfhood, and they also describe themselves as encountering some sphere of reality and being that is outside the perimeter of the self.
In classic James fashion, towards the end of the book, he basically asks, so what is all of this? Are these just really cool and interesting, deep and provocative experiences that, finally, can be understood in a purely psychological way—which is to say, naturalistically? Well, maybe it’s unconscious, or subconscious, cerebration, as he calls it. Or maybe it’s some kind of biochemical phenomenon. He’s also interested in the issue of why it is that so many people who have these experiences also have significant elements of psychopathology, including religious virtuosos, mystics, great writers, painters, and all the rest.
So he wants to answer the question. Can all of this be understood in the basic terms that psychology has formulated? Or might it be the case that there’s something else at work? He doesn’t know exactly what that is. He doesn’t know what to call it. He refers, at one point, to spiritual energies.
He offers us an answer in the final pages. He says, Look, I can’t possibly answer this question in any definitive way. All I can tell you is that what experience has revealed to me in multiple ways, throughout the course of my life, and what I’ve learned from other people’s lives, is that there may be more to human beings than a purely naturalistic, wholly secular, so to speak, account can give.
I find that to be a courageous and very provocative move. And I’m not especially religious, so I should kind of get that out of the way. As I said to one psychologist of religion, probably 20 years ago, I said, Look, you need to understand this. I’m a Jewish guy from New York. My wife is a Lutheran who’s basically become a Buddhist, and my kids are confused Unitarians. So, I’m not trying to smuggle in religious dogma through the back door.
What I am trying to do is practice fidelity, radical fidelity, to what experience seems to tell us. There are so many ways in which we can explain things away; we can explain things away biochemically and neurologically. Any one of a number of ways. But at times, I think it’s important to really listen to what experience seems to say.
It also becomes important to find a language to be able to speak to experiences that are not readily articulable, explainable, and so on. And that also means moving into a different register of language, and maybe even moving beyond language altogether, for some of what we do in psychology.
Karter: Part of what I’m hearing, in the answers that you’ve given so far, is that this whole project of the psychological humanities is not just a supplement to psychology. It is, instead, a necessary approach for students, for people learning psychology, to be able to think about how to put the constructs and the narratives that they’re learning together–how to make sense of them, how to hold them lightly, how to make sense of themselves, through different lenses–and then also to be able to sit with others whose experiences seem unknowable or uncharacterizable, or where our language fails us.
I think you demonstrate in your work how this way of thinking about psychology prepares you for witnessing this kind of ineffability. In particular, in your book “Do I Look at You with Love?” you explore your mother’s journey through dementia. Could you share how your background in narrative psychology and the psychological humanities influenced your perception and experience of this deeply personal journey?
Freeman: So there I am as a student of memory, identity, self, and so on, and it was clear that my mother was falling victim to some mild cognitive impairment. That was painful and disturbing, of course, to her and to me and my brothers and our families. But I won’t deny that it also became fascinating. So, relatively early on, I began writing, and I wound up basically writing four or five pieces that paralleled the trajectory of her disease across the dozen or so years of her dementia. And I will say in, in many ways, I see it as a real psychological humanities endeavor. In fact, I go so far as to say that it was probably that book, more than anything, that allowed me to move more from promising the psychological humanities or talking about it in an abstract way to actually doing it.
One decision I made relatively early on was, and some people might find fault with this, I decided not to read very much about dementia at all. I wanted my own understanding to grow out of what it was that I was seeing, what it was that I was observing, and what it was that I was understanding.
So, how do you find the language to do that? I mean, it’s another challenge. It’s not unrelated to the one we just talked about. How do you find language to talk about phenomena that are in some fundamental way ungraspable? But there was another thing I wanted to do in the book. And that is, so much of what I had read was almost exclusively tragic. And understandably so; it’s a tragic disease. And in some cases of dementia, it seems as if there’s no story to tell except a tragic one of deterioration and demise. But that’s not the only thing that I saw in my mother’s experience.
Yes, of course, I saw deterioration and demise, and protest and rage and confusion, and what I call dislocation and lots of other horrifying, painful things. And I also saw beauty and joy and connection of a sort that I wouldn’t have seen had she remained healthy. That’s such a strange thing to say, but it’s true. It’s partly because I spent lots of time with her. And it was time also spent being attentive and being there for her. I’m not trying to portray myself as a caregiver hero; there were times when I left to do other things, and there were times when she would piss me off, or I’d find it annoying or frustrating, whatever. So all that’s part of the story.
But I also, to use the language of the philosopher Levinas, was called out of myself, by the face, by her, by what she demanded of me. And that was an extraordinary process. In some ways, I would consider it a process of my own maturation–being able to set aside one’s own preoccupations, and on some level interests, because somebody is really drawing you outward.
Let me mention one other dimension that really gets to the psychological humanities. I’ve been involved in an enterprise, or at least I was involved in an enterprise for a number of years, called Art Transcending Borders at Holy Cross. The goal of the project was basically to infuse the arts more visibly into the life of the College, and we decided early on that we would have a special class that was devoted to that, and it was called CreateLab.
In the first year of CreateLab, eight faculty were in a theater space together for the entire semester with about 70 students. There was a composer and novelist, a sculptor, two people from theater, somebody from economic sociology, and myself. The theme for that year was “Time, Memory, and Identity,” and the goal was to bring together all of our interests, knowledge, and skills as thinkers, artists, and so forth to shed light on this trio of ideas.
Another year, we had the theme “Looking Backward, Moving Forward,” and it had a special focus on dementia. We had about 40 students that year. They read my book [on my mother]. Another person who was teaching in the class, his mother, is a well-known poet, and she was writing about dementia, partly because this fellow’s father was in the throes of it. There was a photographer who taught at a nearby college whose father also had fallen prey to dementia. And he had done extraordinary kinds of photodocumentary work.
So, we have a work of psychological literature, we have photography, we have music, we have poetry. The goal is for students not just to have the most comprehensive intellectual understanding of this difficult phenomenon that they can possibly have but to also be able to approach it from a myriad of perspectives, all of which can serve to illuminate it and deepen their own understanding of it but also their feel for it in some way.
Karter: So the psychological humanities is an approach that offers a way out of using one way of seeing and understanding the person. A goal is to incorporate different ways of understanding, and it opened up possibilities for you to see other elements of your mother’s dementia, other elements of her person, that otherwise, you might not have been open to.
Certainly, here at Mad in America, we have been focused for a long time on critique of the psy-disciplines broadly, and psychology as well, through critical psychology. So I want to pick up on your final principle, in your book on the psychological humanities, which is Tear Down the Walls (in the Name of Love). You argue that any critique of mainstream psychology should come from a place of love. And so my question, and maybe to end our set here with a love ballad, is “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”
Freeman: You know, for a long time, the kind of rap that I would share with my students took the following form. I would often say to them, my problem really isn’t so much with what psychology does as it is with what it doesn’t do.
So I had no interest in, you know, knocking down this or knocking down that, and for the most part, I still don’t. But I do think that there are aspects of the edifice, so to speak, that really need to be dismantled.
There’s no way to really move ahead, constructively and productively, without a moment of destruction, without a moment of negation, without a moment of critique. But the last thing I would want as a psychologist, and this I do mean, is to simply remain at the level of critique.
Early on in the book, I actually say that if I had to make the choice of being a psychologist again, there’s a good chance that I would do it. Why? Because psychology, at its best — and I know other people have entirely different images of what “at its best” means – is about getting to know other people; getting to really interrogate and explore the human experience imaginatively is a good and wonderful and even potentially noble thing to do.
So I don’t want my work, especially as I move into the closing years of my career, to be animated primarily by hostility, or for that matter, even critique. I want to do it with a sense of what the discipline might be, or at least a portion of it, what it could be, what I believe it should be. And that requires care. It requires patience. And, on some level, it requires love. But I really don’t mean love in a kind of mushy way.
I make some mention of Iris Murdoch towards the end of the book, and she has some remarkable things to say about love and about Eros more generally. It has a lot to do with being attentive enough to the world to see it, or at least come close to seeing it, as it is.
There are all kinds of ways that we could criticize that point of view; we could say, well, we never get to see it as it is. It’s always informed by our prejudices, and all the rest, and she undoubtedly knows that. Yet, there are ways in which we can become terribly clouded by our understanding of things.
One of the faults of academic psychology is that through its vast arsenal of methods and techniques, scales, and measures, it has beclouded our own encounter with elements of human reality that precede all of that arsenal of instruments. The ability to see human reality and the reality beyond the human clearly, attentively, and with true care for what is other, she suggests, is another way of speaking about love.
Featured image provided by Mark Freeman: Sculpture of Leonard Cohen in Vilnius, Lithuania
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