Albert Ellis’ Philosophical Revolution
Albert Ellis Tribute Panel
American Psychological Association Meeting
San Francisco, August 17, 2007
Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D.
On November 8, 1991, in a memorial lecture for Alfred Korzybski, Albert Ellis stated,
I never would have originated rational-emotive therapy (RET) had I not been strongly influenced by philosophers rather than psychotherapists. For when I founded RET in 1955, the field of therapy was almost completely run by clinicians, ranging from psychoanalysis to behaviorists, who firmly, and rather dogmatically, believed that people's early experiences, especially with their sacred parents, made them or conditioned them to become emotionally disturbed.
I take this to be a just description of the roots of the philosophical revolution that Al affected in psychology. 1
In the mid 1950’s when Al founded REBT, most philosophers were not interested in using philosophy to solve human problems of everyday living. The tenor of philosophy, especially in America and Great Britain, was toward linguistic analysis. The goal of philosophy was to clarify language largely in order to avoid pseudo-problems and misconceptions. A popular philosophical school was logical positivism, an analytic, science-oriented approach begun in Germany in the 1920’s and 1930’s, influenced significantly by Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, among others. The logical positivists argued that any cognitively meaningful statement must in principle be empirically verifiable. The paradigm of knowledge was science and the prevailing outlook was that philosophy was at its best when it stuck to clarifying the language of science and mathematics, and steered clear of practical applications.
For Al, like the logical positivists and early empiricists, the testing ground of meaningful ideas was experience. But, what was new, different, and refreshing—indeed revolutionary—was his practical application of the methods of linguistic analysis and empiricism as a coherent modality of psychotherapy. At a time when philosophers preferred the ivory tower to grappling with the problems of everyday life, Al Socratically applied philosophical theories and methods to uncover and rationally treat the anti-scientific, dogmatic thinking behind most needless human suffering. Thus, he would ask, where is it written that you must always get the approval of others; or that justice should always prevail? Applying the criterion of verifiability, he refuted such absolutistic “musts” and “shoulds.” In like manner, he helped people overcome self-stultifying, absolutistic and anti-scientific views about religion, sex, love, and a host of other topics that philosophers were, at the time, largely ignoring.
In contrast to most of his contemporaries, Al also found much practical value in the seminal works of ancient philosophers, especially the stoic thinker, Epictetus. Here the emphasis was on living pleasurably in the here and now—not on finding eternal bliss in heaven. As Epictetus claimed, it was not the events in peoples’ lives that upset them but rather their interpretations of these events. Al connected this idea with his predilection for linguistic analysis, especially the constructivism of Korzybski—that is, the view that people largely construct their worlds out of the language they use in symbolizing or “mapping” these worlds.
In psychology, Al’s critique of empty, anti-empirical metaphysics was aimed squarely at Freud. Against the strongly entrenched Freudian tradition, he wrote, “psychoanalysis is not particularly philosophic, does not explore and look behind people's disturbing assumptions, creates vague, almost undefinable higher-order abstractions of its own (such as 'ego', 'id', and 'superego') and almost entirely ignores the depth-centered semantic problems that Korzybski raised and went a long way toward solving.” 2
But the trail that Al blazed factored in more than Freud. On the one hand there was the strict deterministic, behaviorist stance of B.F. Skinner, which denied freedom and responsibility in its attempt to make psychology scientific. On the other was the humanistic stance of Carl Rogers, which attempted to make psychology “person-centered,” as well as the existentialism of Sartre, Heidegger, and others in the phenomenological tradition who claimed that human beings bore absolute freedom and responsibility. For Al, these approaches had merit but were also themselves examples of extreme, absolutistic thinking.
Al’s solution to these apparent antimonies was eclectic. For him, psychology was both cognitive and behavioral; it was also rational and emotive. It was humanistic and existential in coming down on the side of freedom and responsibility, but it avoided the absolutistic claim that human beings were absolutely free.
Al’s philosophical revolution was in this way similar to the “Copernican revolution” Immanuel Kant affected in epistemology in the eighteenth century. Finding both British empiricism and continental rationalism lacking, Kant synthesized the two. The mind was not a passive recipient of ideas as Locke had argued. Nor was knowledge possible without the sense data afforded by sense perception. Thus, Kant proclaimed, “concepts without percepts are empty; percepts without concepts are blind.” Al’s approach to psychology was not unlike that of Kant’s to epistemology--the eclectic synthesis of what were to other theorists, irreconcilable contradictions. By Parody of Kant,
“Cognition” without “behavior” is empty; “behavior” without “cognition” is blind. And, “reason” without “emotion” is empty; “emotion” without “reason” is blind.
Karl Marx remarked that the purpose of philosophy is not to interpret history but to change it. Al’s approach to philosophy travels on the same legs. At a time in history when philosophy was “interpreting” language, Al set out to take this analysis into the trenches of practical human existence to help people deal rationally with their behavioral and emotional problems. In so doing, he affected nothing less than a philosophical revolution in psychology, and changed the course of history.
1. Albert Ellis, “General Semantics and Rational Emotive Therapy (RET)” Albert Korzybski Memorial Lecture, November 8, 1991. Accessed on August 23, 2007 at http://learn-gs.org/library/ellis.htm