hunger, aggression, excitement and growth

In two prior posts I discussed the relationship between Fritz Perls and Paul Goodman and the novel psychological theory that resulted from their shared work on the book Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality (co-authored with Ralph Hefferline, 1951). To me, this theory is so interesting that it warrants spelling out a little further (to the small extent that I understand it!).

I think it's characteristic of Paul Goodman's philosophical cast of mind that he undertook to restate the fundamental premises of psychology from scratch, stating only ideas that could be experientially understood rather than trotting out the artificial and bloodless concepts on which most personality theory relies.

Perls and Goodman's theory begins with the premise that "experience occurs at the boundary between the organism and its environment." The most common or normal kind of interaction that takes place at this boundary is what they call "growth." It starts with a motivation, or desire, or excitement, or drive on the part of the organism, which leads to some decision, or action, or reaction, or contact intended to manipulate the environment. If this contact satisfies the desire, the result is growth, or "creative adjustment," or "assimilation." The clearest example would be when the environment has food in it: the organism appropriates and assimilates the food as the basis for physical growth. We can take this as a metaphor for all kinds of growth. We grow by absorbing the energy and resources of our environment—consciously and aggressively distinguishing between what is good for us and bad for us, what is assimilable and what is unassimilable in our surroundings. [I believe this is the key concept of Perls' first major work, Ego, Hunger, and Aggression (1942).]

But if the contact or manipulation isn't successful, if it fails to do what it sets out to do or it can't get no satisfaction, it remains unfinished, unresolved—and this is where the psychology of abnormal or neurotic development begins. In the Perls/Goodman theory, the organism keeps on trying to resolve the unresolved contact, especially if the motivating drive is something essential (and especially if the organism is very young). Rather than give up on its organic needs, the organism is likely to take emergency measures to buy time, to postpone the assimilation, delay the resolution. Enough time spent putting the satisfactions of organic growth in a holding pattern can turn the unresolved situation into a chronic emergency. Following Wilhelm Reich, Perls and Goodman described this outcome as a physical tension or musculo-skeletal rigidity in the organism. This rigidity would have a mental aspect as well, in terms of a diminution in the overall energy available for making novel contact and spontaneous creative adjustment. If the organism's needs continue to go unmet, the chronic emergency becomes the new normal and eventually passes out of awareness, without ceasing to draw its share of energy and diminish the quality of contact with the environment. There we have a theory of repression, perfectly compatible with Freud and Reich but expressed in highly concrete, essentially verifiable or falsifiable terms.

Also, this theory allows ample room for the possibility that the environment exerts powerful reciprocal influences on all of us organisms—that contact, manipulation, and assimilation are all two-way thoroughfares. Therefore, it was hardly a stretch for Goodman to pass back and forth between psychological and sociological ways of thinking. And it was hardly an accident that he achieved renown for combining the two approaches, through the diagnostics of abnormal sociology and the assumption of a therapeutic pose toward society at large.