The Psychologist Who Resisted the Cultural Onslaught

There were brilliant early resisters last century to the cultural onslaught of Marxism and critical theory in the West—the philosophers Augusto Del Noce and later Roger Scruton come to mind—and much has been written about them. One may ask, however, if there were any psychologists who were similarly perceptive?

The answer is yes. At a time when the world was spellbound by significant waves of psychology—Freudian, Behaviourist and Humanistic—the American psychologist Paul Vitz (born in 1935 and pictured above) understood the depth of the anti-Western attack within them, especially within humanistic psychology. Vitz’s thought and writing date from the 1970s, and while he did not use the expression “critical theory”, he detected its ideas and long-term dangers in the revolutionary frenzy of the 1960s onwards and how this impacted psychology. His pungent analyses went against the zeitgeist and deconstructed much of psychology’s version of anti-Western critical theory. Such thinkers who see through the times are rare, and even more so if they are psychologists. Vitz saw through the anti-Western toxins decades before Jordan Peterson did.

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To see Vitz’s counter-cultural critiques for what they were, it is necessary to glance at some of the historical context. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the Frankfurt School, from which critical theory arose as a non-military attack on the “superstructure”, the cultural legacy of the West, had tried to muster psychology to its cause. At first, it did so through its outspoken member Wilhelm Reich, a psychoanalyst who had studied with Freud and published Die Sexualität im Kulturkampf in 1936 (published in English as The Sexual Revolution), and who loudly advocated the loosening of all social and sexual restraints. But Reich’s championing of sexual perversions was too much even for the Frankfurt School thinkers, though it would not be out of place now. It was Herbert Marcuse, who had fled to America in the 1930s, who gave the political/psychological alliance more credibility and force. He promoted the ideas of the Frankfurt School in his classes at Columbia University and linked the social/political critique of Western capitalism to the psychology of Freud by reinterpreting many of Freud’s ideas. Overthrowing Western civilisation, Marcuse proposed in his highly popular Eros and Civilisation (1956), involved loosening the shackles not only of economic and cultural restraints but also all personal restraints, allowing instinct to reign, to attain true proletarian liberty. Personal liberation was linked to political liberation: “Culture constrains not only his societal but also his biological existence, not only parts of the human being but his instinctual structure itself.” [1]

This harnessing of psycho-political forces to liberate Western society synchronised with other calls for liberation. For example, Margaret Sanger’s American Birth Control League in 1921 called for liberation of women from patriarchal control over sexuality. Also, Joyce Milton pointed out, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict helped popularise the concept of cultural moral relativity for Americans in the 1940s, praising other less repressive societies.[2] And Alfred Kinsey with the assistance of the National Research Council, founded the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University in 1947, now known as the Kinsey Institute—researching sexual behaviours that would have had him arrested, even in our times.[3] Another significant influence was the Humanist Manifesto of 1933, which stridently rejected the Judeo-Christian worldview, insisting on social revolution, in oh-so-friendly a way.

There was a dark horse lurking from the mid-twentieth century onwards—humanistic psychology—which became the deadliest conduit of critical theory’s anti-Western thrust. Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, who are considered the “founders” of humanistic psychology, lived in this ambience of the 1960s cultural revolution, which had its wild Reichian side in the LSD advocacy of Harvard professor Timothy Leary. They had eagerly signed the Humanist Manifesto. The aims of Maslow and Rogers were similar to those of Reich, Marcuse and Marx—to strike at the restraints in Western society, particularly obliterating its Judeo-Christian religious heritage as it impeded personal liberation. But they did so in a much more genial, engaging way, gradually “hypnotising” the West in a way that Lenin would doubtless admire. These psychologists represented the more academically validating critique of society’s repression. Their effectiveness was not in a direct assault on the West, but in sidelining, ignoring and deriding its legacy in mellifluous comments, creating a solid ground for cultural amnesia in psychological studies in the decades to come. If psychology had a story rooted in the Judeo-Christian understanding of the person, they were determined to lure their students into forgetfulness of it.

This humanistic ambience, the endless vision of human potential, had no use for the wisdom of traditional religions nor for its own history. In assuming continual human progress, a social Darwinian evolution, it proposed self-actualisation as the ultimate goal of human life, a peak state of experience which involved throwing off the inhibitions of religious and cultural institutions and presenting their highly popular psychology as “new knowledge” to the halls of academe, filled with many students who were mostly Christian, and who were sitting ducks. There was no recourse to wisdom as a source of resilience, just denigration of the past, which was to contribute to transformation into what we see today—a strident cancel culture, raging wokeism, and a hatred of all things Western.

Vitz entered psychology in the middle of the twentieth century when waves of confusion were engulfing Western shores. He graduated with a BA in Psychology from the University of Michigan in 1957, and with a PhD in Psychology from Stanford University in 1962. When he began teaching academic psychology in the early 1960s, humanistic psychology had taken hold so deeply that few, including himself, could escape its hold. He provocatively described it as a new faith, calling it “selfism”, as it fitted in so well with the Me Generation, saying it even trumped Freud. Writing in 1977, he remarked:

In fact, most psychologists practicing today have been strongly affected by humanistic self-theories. Many American psychoanalysts have accepted so much of self-psychology that it is difficult to identify them as Freudian at all. [4]

Vitz came to understand that “selfist” humanistic psychology constituted a toxic anti-Western attack, in loosening the connection to the “we” of culture. While others, such Thomas Oden and Abraham Mowrer, had critiqued aspects of the new psychology in article form, Vitz’s 1977 work, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship (PAR) was the first book-length critique detailing its cultural impact. While not using the expression “critical theory”, Vitz grasped its content floating around him, and his work constitutes a significant early counter-attack to its deceptions.

One central tenet of critical theory is its focus on demolition of the West’s past. Vitz perceived this attempted demolition in the work of his humanistic peers. Rogers, the esteemed academic and author, the best-known of the humanistic psychologists, in his work Carl Rogers on Personal Power (1972), saw the future in terms of a “new revolution” which humanistic psychology represented, saying that from it would emerge “a new kind of person, thrusting up through the dying, yellowing, putrefying leaves and stalks of our fading institutions”.[5] Similarly, Maslow in Toward a Psychology of Being (1962) described humanistic psychology as “a general Weltanschauung, a new philosophy of life, a new conception of man, the beginning of a new century …”.[6] Maslow and Rogers, for all the allure of their friendly approach, emphasised the revolutionary nature of their thought and the newness of their conception of the human person.[7] This was a Darwinian-Marxist coalition, for on one level there was a pervasive confidence in the power of psychology to take us to a higher level of understanding; on another level, there was awareness of the need to throw off the shackles of Western civilisation to do so. As with Marcuse, the personal search for liberation had a political dimension but it must be remembered that it was not Freudianism that was the main conduit—but the ever-avuncular, winning smiles of academic humanistic psychologists that delivered the toxins. Who would suspect such lovely people of dastardly motives?

Never was the destruction of the past more forcefully exemplified than in the new understanding of the human person. This cannot be overstated, as it overturned a view that had prevailed in Western civilisation for thousands of years—and after all, psychology deals with “persons”. Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas and their followers had written eloquently of the union of soul and body and what constituted the human person. It was still assumed by pioneer nineteenth-century psychologists such as Wilhelm Wundt and his followers. One could take issue with it and disagree with it, but one would give reasons for doing so. Rogers and his peers avoided rational discussion of this kind—this was the cunning “psychops” nature of his approach. He could use words like person in a new way, obfuscating any historical understanding of it. The weapon of this smiling assassin of history was vagueness, as Vitz astutely detected. In Rogers’s work On Becoming a Person (1961), used by generations of psychology students, the “definition” of a “person” is so vague that one could be forgiven for feeling bamboozled: “a person is a fluid process, not a fixed and static entity, a flowing river of change, not a block of solid material; a continually changing constellation of potentialities, not a fixed quantity of traits”.[8]

Vitz searched in vain for clarity. He came to the conclusion that beneath the soft Rogerian academic voice lay a dangerous miasma of confusion, and generations of students were being lured into it. Rogers often played ping-pong with words, interchanging person with self or individual—each of which had had its particular historical legacies in Western philosophical thought. Referring to one of his clients, Rogers opined that, for one unhappy woman, “to become her ‘real self’” in therapy, is to become “the person she wanted to become before coming to therapy”.[9] What did he mean? Vitz highlighted the smoke and mirrors:

When Carl Rogers titles his well-known book On Becoming a Person, he is simply wrong. Instead, he has written a book on becoming an individual, in particular an autonomous self-actualizing, independent individual. An individual is created by separating from others … by concentrating psychological energy and affect on the self instead of on God or others. The founders of modern psychology clearly knew this.[10]

Rogers does not discuss, debate or refine what he does not agree with—he simply ignores. But Vitz points out what Rogers and his peers ignore—the long trail of forebears whose ideas lurk beneath humanistic psychology—such as Feuerbach, Mill, Huxley and Dewey. Though Rogers does not acknowledge this genealogy, Vitz analyses and exposes it in clear outline in Psychology as Religion. And although Rogers claimed to hold no “doctrine”, Vitz reveals his doctrinaire steel fist under the empathic glove:

Rogers is a clear example of one who holds firmly to the fixed dogma that modern knowledge has rendered Christianity and other traditional religions permanently out of date. A corollary of this doctrine, rigidly held in much of the contemporary academic world … is that the intelligent believer will sooner or later rebel from the faith. [11]

A second idea that Vitz took aim at in humanistic psychology was that of perpetual grievance. This was embedded in “critical theory” and seeped into psychology via Reich’s and Marcuse’s endless calls for anti-institutionalism and calls for political, economic, psychological and religious liberation—which could mean anything you wanted it to be. As Stefan Daniel observed, the deconstructionists of 1968 wanted a liberty which meant “the creation of self-determining monads” for whom “almost every kind of limit, prescription, or definition is an instrument of domination”.[12] Any limit, any principle, was an oppressor of the West.

Vitz saw early on that this unrealistic autonomy from institutional structures in Rogerian thought would not liberate anyone from unhappiness, but would in fact increase it. The self cannot bear such a heavy burden as creating its own happiness. Vitz pointed out that disengaging from institutional legacies reduces the sense of resilience, of drawing from the wisdom of the past, of being connected to others. It creates harm in attacking our respect for rational thought, in our understanding of objective reality, which ties in well with the critical theorists’ undermining of Western thought itself. The attack on Hellenism and rationality was well under way before the looming critical race theories, identity politics, gender agendas and woke manifestations.

A third pervasive area of Vitz’s critique was his deconstruction of Rogers’s much-vaunted counselling method. This was tantamount to psychological sacrilege. Yet, Vitz fearlessly hurled logical and psychological spanners into the well-known “trinity” of Rogers’s counselling method—Congruence, Unconditional Positive Regard and Empathic Understanding. Without doubt, these three counselling qualities are desirable to some extent, and Vitz gives credit where credit is due. But he points to their dangerous absolutisation in Rogers’s hands. While seeming to invite deep reflection, these psychological principles became political, hypnotic tools to control the thought of the client.

For example, congruence is fine if it refers to genuineness in the therapeutic relationship. But Vitz asks if this is not a utopian idea in Rogers’s hands, positing the therapist as having perfect, genuine understanding of your psyche. What if that understanding is highly skewed against your worldview? How is it possible “for any human being ever to fully or absolutely receive another” without acquiring the omniscience usually attributed to God?[13]

As for the Rogerian principle of Unconditional Positive Regard—an acceptant, non-directive attitude in the counselling psychologist facilitating change—there is nothing wrong with that—to some extent. But again Vitz asks if this is “simply a transformation of the devout believer’s conviction of God’s unconditional love for him” into an unconditional trust of the destination to which the counsellor is leading the client, that is, the path of endless self-esteem. Does this not encourage in the client “full-fledged self-devotion”, a “cult of self-worship”?[14] Vitz asks whether there is a disguised “power” and manipulation lurking within the counsellor’s subtle promotion of a particular view, “in a most uncanny fashion” like the classical myth of Narcissus.[15] Rogers’s purported non-directiveness on the part of the counsellor, Vitz concluded, was in reality a pronounced directiveness—a cunning, authoritarian focus on the self which enabled forgetting any connections to one’s Western heritage.

As for that much-praised Rogerian quality Empathic Understanding—again, there is nothing wrong with empathy and we know the world needs more of it. While Rogers came across as warm and empathic, however, there were hidden limits to it, for there was no empathy for the spiritual dimension of the human person, the spiritual seeker in us all, something which Vitz recognised, and which later psychologists (such as William Kilpatrick and Keith Pargament) were to rediscover and explore.

Vitz critiqued Rogerian hyper-individualism as dangerous, as a:

glorification of his self, for whom the entire world is devoid of interest except in so far as it offers him an opportunity to experience his own superiority, power, and splendour. He is unable to grasp the inherent beauty and nobility of objective values and indeed fears them as a menace to his supreme glory.[16]

The East had its Lenin, the West had its Rogers. Both were immensely destructive cultural forces using different techniques.

Ironically, Rogerian/humanistic utopian visions coincided with growing social fragmentation, depression and a growing dehumanisation of the person. After so many self-esteem classes in schools, why was there such a high suicide rate in Western countries? Had we forgotten the fact that resilience and courage were important in facing life’s inevitable sufferings, that there were character strengths, virtues which helped every person survive life’s inevitable tragedies? Humanistic psychology did not include a discussion of evil and how our forebears dealt with it. This finally got through to Rogers’s peer, Rollo May, who in a 1984 article questioned Rogers’s ignoring of and failure to deal with its existence.[17] Vitz had already shown that Rogers ignored the issues of undeserved suffering and the moral strength needed to bear it, about which Western culture has much to say.

Vitz’s Psychology as Religion was brilliant and counter-cultural in the way that Augusto Del Noce’s The Age of Secularization (1971) had been.[18] Both were “discovered” decades later, as often happens with the work of true thinkers who see through their times. Vitz recalled that there were few who echoed his concerns, writing to me the following:

At the time 1975–77 I did not know any other critics of humanistic psychology. In the summer of 1976 as I was completing the ms Tom Wolfe published an influential article titled “The Me Generation” which had some of my perspective and in 1978 Christopher Lasch published his influential book “The Culture of Narcissism.” Neither of these are/were psychologists and they each took a more cultural point of view.[19]

In critiquing Rogerian/humanistic psychology, Vitz was taking on a movement of immense significance in mass-cultural terms from a psychological perspective. He gave intellectual and spiritual witness to a nonconformism in the face of the postmodern world at a time when people were caught in rivers of Kool-Aid, singing “Kumbaya”. His books and articles span almost half a century, covering his years as Professor of Psychology at New York State University and more recently as Professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Virginia (now Divine Mercy University). They deserve deeper study in psychology (and history) courses, for they give a breadth to the understanding of the past century, in exposing the confusing utopianism of the “Me” generation. He analysed it all with a cool, critical (and often witty) eye.

In his opposition to the breezy, humanistic toxins of half a century ago, which surrounded us on all sides, one might go so far as to call him a Western psychological Solzhenitsyn. He read between the lines and was a cultural myth-buster. Such people are rare—and well deserving of our attention as to how cultural myth-busting is done.

Wanda Skowronska is a psychologist and author who lives in Sydney. She is the author of Catholic Converts from Down Under … And All Over (2016).



[1] Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilisation, Ch 1. (UK. Routledge: 1956, 1998)

[2] Joyce Milton, The Road to Malpsychia: Humanistic Psychology and Our Discontents, (USA: Encounter, 2003)

[3] See Elishana, ‘Alfred Kinsey: a Disturbing Report’, Culture Witness, May 2017.

See also: Alan Branch, ‘Alfred Kinsey: a Brief Summary and Critique’, The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, May, 2014.

[4] Vitz, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), 14.

[5] Rogers, Carl Rogers on Personal Power (New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1977), 262.

[6] Abraham Maslow, Towards a New Psychology of Being (New York: Van Nostrand, 1968) 2nd Edition, iii.

[7] James Bugental commented at the time ‘I think we are on the verge of a new era in man’s concern about man which may – if allowed to run its course – produce as profound changes in the human condition as those we have seen the physical sciences bring about in the past century’. James Bugental, “Third Force Psychology.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 4:1, Spring (1964), 19.

[8] Rogers, On Becoming a Person (1960), 122.

[9] (OBP, 233, 235).

[10] Vitz, P.C., ‘A Covenant Theory of Personality: A theoretical introduction.’. In L. Morris (Ed.), The Christian vision: Man in society, (Hillsdale, MI: Hillsdale College Press, 1984), 94 ff.

[11] PAR, 77.

[12] Stefan Daniel, ‘Gaul Divided’, First Things, Feb, 2016.

[13] Vitz, PAR, 79).

[14] Vitz, PAR.79-80, 105.

[15] Vitz, PAR, 80.

[16] Vitz, P. C. and Gartner, J. ‘The vicissitudes of original sin’: A reply to Bridgman and Carter. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 17, (1989), 9-12.

[17] Rollo May, “The Problem of Evil: An Open Letter to Carl Rogers,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, vol. 22 (1982).

[18] Augusto Del Noce, The Age of Secularization, Ed., transl. by Carlo Lancellotti (Canada: McGill University Press, 2017). This is a collection of essays written between 1964 and 1969 which the author published as a book in 1971.

[19] Personal written communication with the author – 19/1/2010.

5 thoughts on “The Psychologist Who Resisted the Cultural Onslaught

  • denrcarroll says:

    I enjoyed this article. I must have a look at Vitz.

  • mmoulton says:

    Wonderful essay Wanda. Thank you.
    I found your discussion of “Congruence, Unconditional Positive Regard and Empathic Understanding.” hugely enlightening.

  • norsaint says:

    Was it Vitz who said the psycho analysts were merely the state’s storm troopers?
    Perhaps not. Some other head shrinker with a Polish sounding name.
    With all due respect to the author who obviously is not of their ilk, the psychobabblers are charlatans, pure and simply.
    The late Malcolm Muggeridge was right when he opined that African witch doctors must have looked on enviously at the credulity those in the west afforded its practitioners.
    What is doubly hilarious, is they’re regularly pulled into our sham court proceedings to give “expert testimony”.

  • STD says:

    Psychologically speaking-Voyeurs.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    I studied a little psychology and a lot of history, among other things long ago.
    I am glad I did it that way; too much psychology is bad for anyone, although it sometimes offers useful insights into what went on in history, or in one’s own home (buyer beware there). Psychology has its place in studying human endeavours but as a background theme, the “Prussian character armour’, for example.
    Vitz sounds like one to read, one of those academics who went against the increasingly Marxist-oriented ‘humanist’ flow in the 50’s and 60’s, perhaps rather like those who founded this august Magazine to consider cultural and political ideas in ways less under the rising ambient Marxist gaze.

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