Ethical Personalism: Russian Psychotherapeutic Tradition

Bondarenko A.F.

Setting the Problem

This report is dedicated to setting forth some ideas and results of investigations dealing with tasks and problems of the Russian psychotherapy. The therapy which is a derivative of the Russian culture based on the Orthodox Christian tradition in comparison with Western therapies based on the Catholic or Protestant traditions.

First of all, we’ll dwell upon some basic statements underlying our research.

The first statement sounds as follows: a human being is a creature endowed notonly with the psychics in its highest form – mind. Man is able to develop a particular property of his/her own mind and entity – spirituality.

The second statement lies in the fact that spirituality is not a pure psychological notion. Once the notion is not construed within the system of operational psychological notions we cannot identify ourselves as subjects of our authentic social and cultural tradition within the framework of contemporary psychological science.

The third statement: spirituality is a property (a level) of a human mind revealing itself in conceiving, experincing and affirming some forms of life as absolute values of being, to which the dignity of the highest life meaning is attributed.

The fourth statement is the following: the content of absolute values is determined by ethnos’s history and culture and it is marked by presuppositionality i.e. it reproduces in its agents implications and ways of acting in a given culture.

To be precise, we do not interprete spirituality as a religious phenomenon or notion. Here we undersand spirituality the same way as D.I. Mendeleyev, V.I.Vernadsky and L.LaRouch did, i.e. as a noetic (noesis - intellectual) property of life in its highest forms liable to the human cognition. From this standpoint spirituality could beinterpreted as a certain level of comprehension of the world and self in the world,that is based on surmounting sensualistically empiric cognitionIt exists not to create theoretical or, moreover, ideological knowledge, but to discover fundamental principles of existence.On the basis of these principles one can preview the future development of the world – the Universe, society, personality. The supertask of such cognition is to discover meanings which correspond to the logic of reality’s development.

Now let’s focus on contemporary counselling psychology and psychotherapy situation to highlight the practical meaning of this research.

The situation is complicated with the fact that the fundamentals of almost all of the contemporary psychological counselling approaches could be found out in a quite definite philisophic, methodologic, and, deeper, religious tradition. Carl Jung once identifed religion as the most ancient form of psychotherapy. One can easily trace such backgrounds of the most popular psychotherapeutic approaches.

The backgrounds of Freud’s classical psychoanalysis can easily be associated with the Judaistic-Christian, in particular, Catholic tradition. The latter suggested a number of basic methologies and ideology of this psychotherapeutic school. These include the influence of the Holy family structure suggesting a first-born male is a direct heir after a father’s death, that gives rise to Oedipus’ complex, unlike a widow’s inheritance in the Orthodox traditon. The psychoanalitic procedure could be regarded as an analogue of the idea of purgatory. In methodological terms psychoanalysis can be traced back to D.Hume and J. Berkley’s subjective idealism, according to which it is the sensualistic reflection that forms human experience structure. Coupled with the Cartesian dualism and emphasizing rather interpretion than discovery this conception easily became a particular ideology of some layers of society in XX century.

Adler’s approach, and its key notions of inferiority complex and mechanisms of compensation and hyper-compensation, might be directly related to the idea of homeostasis. At the beginning of the XX century the idea was shaped in a wholistic conception of the interaction between organism and its environment. 

In his system of deep psychology Carl Jung splintered the idea of Absolute – as the highest determinant – into a number of forms named archetypes, each of them having its own name like gods and godesses in the pre-Christian epoch. The general background of these psychodynamic approaches, as it was noted, was Cartesian philosophy.

Behaviouristic psychotherapy beginning with its founders J. Watson, E. Thorndyke, V.M.Bekhterev and others followed strict canons of classic science. Behaviourism keeps announcing its picturesque bench-mark of empirical cognition, the main method of which is experiment and the explanation principle of which is the principle of reduction. It is logical positivism and empiricism neglecting crucial difference between man and animal that drives to animalization of humans manifested not only in identifying individual as a sum of reactions upon a configuration of stimuli, but also in programming the world as an arrangement that restrains or sometimes condones “an animal” in human. 

Philosophic and methodological genesis of the so called humanistic therapy is rather transparent as well. It is clearly demonstrated by the example of Carl Rogers’ “Client-Centered” approach. 

Emphasizing the meaning and the term “centered” (not “focused” or “concenrated”) is not accidental. The author of the term is Max Weber, one of the Gestalt Psychology founders, a representative of Wϋrzburg school. He discovered the so calledpsy-phenomen, postulated the primacy of the wholistic structures – “gestalts” that cannot be derived from their components. He suggested the term “centering”, whichtogether with the other terms points out specific features of the mental processes/operations (i.e. “rearrangement”, “grouping”, “transposition” etc.). The essence of the mental operation called “centering” is restructuring a perceived situation in such a way that Rubin’s phenomenon (“figure-background”) would appear in a distinst way, providing more differentiated image of perception in various combinations. In other words, it is mental (in the narrower meaning - perceptive) operation of “centering” that is believed to be one of the basic psychological mechanisms leading a subject of perception to the insight, i.e. to a perception shift that provides the best adaptive reaction.

The very name of Rogers’ approach unambiguously points out its original methodology, namely – Gestalt Psychology. The matter is that in the 1920-1930’s the mass migration of German intellectuals brought new ideas into USA behaviouristic psychological circles.This became the period of new trends in American psychology. According to Gestalt Psychology, physical reality and psychological phenomenology are being submitted to the principle of isomorphism suggested by Volfgang Kehler when he searched for the natural-science background of the Gestalt theory. If the initial behaviouristic model in probing psychics was a biological one, Gestalt psychologists then turned to physical chemistry first and after that to theoretical physics while looking for the explanation theory. If remember that 1920-1930’s were the time of unpecedented success in theoretical physics, it becomes clear a great impact of that science upon contemporary psychology. The rise of the quantum physics, atomic nucleus structure discovery, light dual nature discovery (corpuscular-wave light theory), new postclassical scientific principles of Copenhagen interpretation ( indeterminism, relativism, uncertainty) – these are only a part of the list of stunning achievements of that time science. The combination of introspective method in its phenomenological version with the isomorphism principle as an utmost explanational scheme of psychic phenomenon caused naïve and even comic quasideterministic explanatory language wittily derided by Robert Oppenheimer. This happened after Einshtein’s death who had maintained friendly relations with V.Wertheimer and V. Kehler. However, Rogers either didn’t find it necessary or couldn’t reject the naïve postulate of “congruence” that had been declared at end of 1940’s – beginning of 1950’s and had been apparently evoked by Gestalt psychology’s isomorphism principle, borrowed from the theoretical physics. 

Rogers’other basic terms are unoriginal as well. They include “centered”, “insight”, “phenomenological field”, “non-attitudinal perception”, not to mention a notorious notion of “experience” rooted in O.Kont’s positivistic empirisism and J. Dewey’s pragmatism. Gestalt-psychologists suggested their own version of the introspection method unlike that of V.Wundt and Wϋrzburg school. In M.Yaroshevsky words, “ in search for ways of penetrating into the reality of soul in its entirety and ingenuousness was suggested taking a stand of a “naïve” observer, free from the preconceived ideas of the soul’s structure” .

That’s the background of Rogers’ terminology vocabulary. Overall it’s an intentional and “genetically” transparent list of terms, notions, and principles borrowed from Gestalt-psychology. Its pseudo-explanatory bias appealing to modern physics, to E.Husserl philosophy that greatly influenced Gestalt psychologists, and to the dominating at that time existentialist ideas of freedom, responsibility and concern is quite vivid. Considering that Rogers was reared in a strict puritan family and was groomed as a priest, one can remember a psychological defence mechanism known as “ reaction formation” which easily explains Rogers’ preoccupation with the problems of freedom, empathy and indirectiveness. However these terms together with a notorious term “client”, substituting a usual “patient” deserves a separate analysis.

These comments of the observed psychotherapeutic and counselling approaches were given to illustrate the problem of influence that can be traced back to proper philosophic or scientific tradition, or social cultural standards which predetermine therapeutic approach.

Russian mentality containing the tradition of early ancient Rus symbolism and the later Byzantine spirituality is not an exception. 

This information poses some significant questions. Namely: what is the anthropological model of a human derived from this or that psychotherapeutic approach? Secondly, to which psychosocial purposes do these approaches lead? Thirdly, what should and could be the Russian psychologists’ attitude to all those conceptions? 

After all, each of us unconcsiously belongs to a certain culture. However Russian psychologists frequently employ in their practice approaches that are culturally alien, methodologically doubtful, and problematic in counselling practice. Finally, the most important question is the following. Which could be a semantic basis of the proper Russian psychotherapeutic tradition, reflecting and integrating the whole area of the Eastern - Slavonic social and cultural matrix of mentality?

Methods and Investigation procedure

Searching the responses to all of thes questions we have investigated a vast corpus of texts reflecting Orthodox theological tradition ( 5 volumes of confessor’s writings known as “Dobrotolyubie”, in particular the works of Antony the Great, Makary the Great, Avva Zosima, Ioann Lestvichnik, Grigory Sinait, Grigory Palama, Kallist and Ignaty Ksanphopul, Nil Sinaysky and Avva Isaia), as well as the works of outstanding representatives of classic Russian philisophy (G.S. Skovoroda, P.D.Yurkevich, K.N.Leontjev, P.A.Kropotkin, N.Ya.Danilevsky, P.A.Florensky, N.O. Lossky, N.F.Fedorov, V.V.Rosanov, F.A.Stepun and others), totally approximately 1 mln. words (942236).

To reveal basic notions reflecting and embodying the cardinal peculiarity of human being according to the context of its Russian mentality we have combined the content-analysis method with factor analysis which allowed to formalize the content and thus compare different discourses (texts). 

Those texts were analysed with the help of the VAAL Expert Psycholinguistic System. The following content-analysis parametres were taken into consideration: the number of lexems, lexical variety (ratio between the number of lexemes and the general number of words), average length of a word, average length of a sentence, text’s grammatical complexity (ratio between the number of punctuation marks within sentences and the number of sentences), the most frequent words, key words and phrases, emotional lexical assessments; groups of lexical categories of “needs”, “motives”, “values”, “valency”, “accentuations”, “representative systems”, “types of activity”, “forms of information performance”, “the logic of events exposition”, “the focus of attention”; and lexical categories singled out of the semantic content of the texts under research (they include: “soul”, “God”, “life”, “love” etc.)

Properly speaking, associating deep semantic structures on the basis of their frequency links is a thesaurus method. “Thesaurus, - as V.F.Petrenko states, - represents a network of key notions united with the meaningful (semantic) links” .


Separating basic categories out of the Byzantine theologists’ texts that had determined axiological substance of Russian religious culture allowed us to constitutethe prevailing value categoriesGod, the Lord, soul, heart, spirit, mind (intellect), body, life, resignation, passion, sin, sanctity, prayer, kindness, truth, love, cognition, light, spirituality, human being, verity, joy.

Along with these categories the most frequent ones in the texts of classic Russian philosophers are: entity, personality, people, Rus, Russia, society, idea, freedom, activity, the state, Slavdom, religionChristianity, the world, culture, science.

The categories common to both groups of texts are: intellect, moral, life, love, soul and spirit. Integrated into the basic phrases “intellectual soul”, “ethic value”these notions serve the aim of salvation concerning humans and the aims of development,concerning the mankind.
What attracts the attention is that the philosophic texts match the semantics given in theological discourse, but the philosofers project it onto the society.

Here such basic notions as “life”, “spirit”, “joy” are ethic values linked to the notions “love”, “light”, “the God”. As to the “spirituality” category, it’s undoubedly a key ethic value. A sort of value, a human experiences a true internal need in and which is an essential peculiarity of a man.
Another striking coincidence concerns emotional parallels between Byzantine theologists’ texts and those of Russian philosophers. Thus, on the basic lexical level/ axiomatic notions level/ the texts under research are characterized by the following features: benevolence, intellectuality, honesty, self-control, autonomy, extraversion, refinement, and uncommonness.

The principal components method applyed to the factorisation of the texts showed that the factors totality covering 67, 5% of dispersion reflects the fallowing Russian theological discourse determinants: 

logicality and consistency” (the principal factor), 
morality and immorality of personal being”, 
the power of love as an independence from the ill-will”, 
cognition as the highest activity value” .
Applying that same method to the factorisation of the theological texts allowed to single out four factors: 
benevolent intellectuality and honesty” (the principal factor), 
the power of prayer as an ethical value”,
sins of a human soul”, 
an unexplicacy of sanctity
The factors cover 74, 5% of dispersion.
The total factorization of the whole texts embodying Russian mentality allowed us to distinguish four independent factors, covering 66,5% of dispersion: 
logical consistency” (the principal factor), 
the value of cognition as activity, power and autonomy”,
an absolute ethic value of love”,
duty as a divine human essence”.

Discussing the Results

The preliminary results of our research, allow us some tentative statement concerning Russian religious and philosophic worldview within the context of understanding a human being and its purposes in the world. The key notions of this worldview are rather ontological and axiological than gnoseological (unlike in the Western tradition). In terms of contemporary fundamental science, while interpreting a human being Russian philosophic tradition prefers noesis to gnosis, i.e. according to V.I.Vernadsky, it focuses on the processes related not to empiric, but to universal principles of the Universe being. In other words, the cardinal idea of the human entity isn’t restricted only to the judgemental knowledge. On the contrary, it is concentrated on the noetic cognition,which gives chance to the creation of new ways of living.

Undoubtedly, it’s rather difficult to express all the multitude of links and nuances of the semantic structure embodying Russian mentality. However, it’s proved to be obvious that Russian councellors and therapists are hardly acquainted with the key descriptors of that social cultural Universe. Thus, they (we) try to introduce the protestant relativity principles into the absolutist tissue of Russian mind which is ethical per se. We are trying to substitute the absolute value of love as an attribute of “an intellectual body’s” life by the value of sex .The value of “life meaning” Russian psychologists try to substitute with the notion of “life success”. The value of “duty” we substitute with a very vague notion of “freedom” etc. In so doing, we, Russian counselling psychologists, overlook the most significant thing: we deprive our society, our people, our patients of their true personal being suggesting them living a borrowed life where the key values and the most significant determinants remain unannounced or simply hired out from other cultures.

Russian philosophy and, hence, scientific tradition are ontological and focused on discerning the essence. The western tradition is gnoseological and focused on the appearance. Hence, there’s the desire to seem rather than to be; to perform (better with TV broadcasting) rather than to act really, hence – an attempt to avoid the diagnosis since it requires understanding the essence of an event. Hence, the comprehension in a very fragmentary way and a patient oriented attitude to a human being: body-oriented therapy, psychoanalatically oriented therapy, existentially oriented therapy.

By contrast, the approaches rooted in the russian school suggests the wholistic attitude to a man. Thus, one cannot separate body and psychics since a human being is nothing but an animated body (“an intellectual body”), or a psychics embodied into the body (according to M.E.Burno).

In our mind the given results allows us to correct to some extend the counselling theory and practice of a practitioner dealing with the persons pertaining to the Byzantine Orthodox areal of the Eastern Slavonic culture.

It is the enumerated properties of a Russian that reveals the genuine content and the authentic subject of our native traditions and outlooks in the non-medical psychotherapy. We call the psychotherapeutic approach that appeared within the Russian social and cultural tradition ethic personalism.


Questions left?