Radical Psychology
Spring 2005



Africa's Psychology: A Critical Perspective

A Review of T. Len Holdstock’s Re-examining Psychology:

Critical Perspectives and African Insights

Shlomit C. Schuster

Re-examining psychology: Critical perspectives and African insights, by T. Len Holdstock. Routledge, London and Philadelphia, 2000 (255 pages. ISBN 0415187923, $87.95 hardcover. Digital version, 2000, ISBN B0000ANFFC, $75.00).

 

This is a scholarly book to indulge in. One cannot turn its pages without having read them! T. Len Holdstock has written a fascinating account of what his life and teaching experiences as a professor of psychology on the African continent taught him. It has been written for a large professional audience, not only for psychologists; it is interesting to a wide range of scholars. Re-examining psychology: Critical perspectives and African insights is a valuable book for psychologists and others from the African continent, and the developing world, but perhaps it is most valuable for Western psychologists.

At present, many nations have already acquired, or are in the process of acquiring, a multicultural national identity, which would consequently require a psychology — or psychologies — conscious of different ethnicities and yet able to transcend ethnocentrism. The dialogue initiated by Holdstock between the insights of psychology's critical traditions and Africa’s traditions seems to be leading the way to such a multicultural psychology that fully cares for human beings in their natural and social environments.

The first part of the book evolves around exposing the need for revising psychology's underlying assumptions. The critical research is impressive, with references that are relevant, up-to-date, and extensive. It is, then, not surprising to find at the book’s back section an index listing of more than thirty pages with references to authors and work relevant to the re-examination of psychology.

Holdstock's vision is to redeem Western psychology through criticizing it, while additionally he explores Africa’s psychology and culture, and shows both of these as valuable and beneficial. He ascribes to Africa’s psychology and culture the potential to heal the Western world of its shortcomings in holism:

In a very real sense, African psychology dreams of redeeming, not only the discipline and profession of psychology, but of the entire human condition. It dreams of initiating a science that will enable us to understand the universal nature of our being, of establishing a relationship with the world around us. What Coleridge has said of poetry can be applied equally well to Africentric psychology, 'in ideal perfection', it 'brings the whole soul of man into activity’ (p. 71).

Rightly so, Holdstock places Africa's psychology in the context of multiculturalism, but within this context he profoundly sees and accentuates those typicalities of Africa's psychology that should not be disregarded:

The increasing fragmentation of the world order, in terms of groups adhering to some cultural identity or another, is an equally if not even more astounding phenomenon than globalisation.... Valid as the call for a focus on the contact zones of cultures certainly is, it applies primarily to those instances where the technological advances that make globalisation possible are experienced. ….Despite globalization, the majority of the world's population does not experience its effects at first hand. These are the people about and from whom psychology has to learn more by indwelling in their frames of reference with an approach that is in keeping with the worldview of the cultures about which we would like to know more (p. 76).

This topic Holdstock discusses also in one of his numerous papers, e.g., "The perilous problem of neglecting indigenous cultures" (1999). And, as an aside, in addition to his many papers on African and indigenous cultures, client-centered therapy and other topics, Holdstock also wrote the monograph Education for a new nation (1987), and co-edited a book with M.G.T. Kwee by the title Western and Buddhist psychology: Clinical perspectives (1996).

Though the politicians, poets and writers of Africa have been able to raise their voices, and are heard worldwide, "the voice of the [African] psychological community on the ideological assumptions underlying their discipline has been relatively muted" (p. 144). Also, today, in the post-colonial area, Africa’s psychology is in need of liberation. Many, if not all, of ex-colonialism's powerful institutions promote an evolutionism that employs criteria of the old "universal" culture, i.e., Western culture, instead of the African way of life. Holdstock considers that the grip of Africa's colonial past is still dominant: "To what extent the ethnocentric approach to psychology can be modified remains an open question, for the power wielded by Western institutions and paradigms is undoubtedly very strong and very difficult to resist." (p. 158). I feel uneasy with Holdstock's belief that Western institutions such as, for example, the Anglican Church in South Africa, are not really African institutions. I have found that Western institutions can truly assimilate, become other-centered, e.g., become at least African-Anglican. I appreciate the author's desire to empower authentic African culture and traditions, but it might be impossible to determine what or when authentic culture and tradition is or arises. I seems to me that nations, people, and persons can choose and determine what they find to be their authentic culture and identity, and this does not necessarily have to concur with a historical identity, or with the myths of age-old traditions.

What Africa’s psychology has to offer the world is described in the second part of the book: The African worldview in psychology, and in general, entails a living holism, a holism that is based in the lived experience. In contrast to privacy-oriented Westerners, people in the African realm are characterized by a dynamic intrapersonal dimension: they have “other-centeredness.” Ubuntu is the concept that expresses the African way of human relatedness: it involves humaneness, care, compassion, gentleness, respect, and empathy. Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu's life is considered a model of ubuntu.


Characteristic of Africentric psychology is its revolt against the rationalisms of mainstream psychology. Africa's aesthetic dimension could significantly contribute to the revival of psychological romanticism. Most Western psychologists are not aware of having become alienated from their own Romantic tradition. This tradition has been a vital force in Western civilization’s past; it seems desirable that Romanticism regain and maintain this relevance.

 

So far I have not discussed the aspect which I consider the most important feature of this book, namely the Rogerian aspect. In several places Carl Rogers' personal centered approach is compared with the concept of ubuntu. In the1960s and 70s Holdstock studied and worked with Rogers in the USA, and later, when Holdstock had moved to South Africa, he arranged for Rogers to visit him there in 1982. The book contains some interesting anecdotes about Rogers' visit: his encounter with an African sage, and his facilitating an encounter group between South Africa's different ethnic populations in Johannesburg. Holdstock finds that African psychotherapy, grounded in ubuntu, has an even more inclusive foundation for well-being than Rogers' approach:

Ubuntu is a function of being. Admittedly, the eventual goal of Rogers was similar, but the implementation became basically associated with and remained largely restricted to the professional sphere. The expression of ubuntu in daily behaviour is also apparent in a wider range of behaviour and attitudes than originally intended by Rogers (p. 202).

Holdstock concludes his book with a reference to additional professional credentials: for many years he was involved in laboratory research into the human brain. These years of exposure to the credo of "scientific objectivity" made him appreciate the scientific approach but it taught him its shortcomings as well. Holdstock's plea, coming from a Western scientist and aimed to the Western world, is asking the West to welcome and accept what Africa's psychology has to offer. It is a convincing and engaging appeal.

 

It might not be necessary to applaud this book further. Nevertheless, as a final statement: I highly recommend Re-examining psychology: Critical perspectives and African insights as a textbook for colleges, and for the general educated public. It is excellent.



References

Holdstock, T.L., Education for a new nation. River Club, South Africa: Africa Transpersonal Association (1987).

Holdstock, T.L. & Kwee, M.G. (Eds.), Western and Buddhist psychology: Clinical perspectives . Delft: Eburon (1996).

Holdstock, T.L., "The perilous problem of neglecting indigenous cultures" American Psychologist, no. 54, (1999), 838-839.

 

Note on the author and correspondence— Dr. Shlomit C. Schuster, is a practicing philosophical counselor. She has written several scholarly articles on philosophical counseling and other topics. She is the author of Philosophy practice: An alternative to counseling and psychotherapy (Praeger, 1999), and The philosopher’s autobiography: A qualitative study (Praeger, 2003). Her home in cyberspace is www.geocities.com/centersophon. She can be reached at counsel@actcom.co.il

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