7/31 – Talking Transcendence: Scott Barry Kaufman in Dialogue with Alfonso Montuori

Scott Barry Kaufman and Alfonso Montuori

Scott Barry Kaufman and Alfonso Montuori

Scott Barry Kaufman

Alfonso Montuori

Alfonso: Scott, your earlier books drew extensively from neuroscience. This one rediscovers and updates Maslow and Humanistic psychology, the latter a tradition that has not been at the forefront of psychology for many years now. What prompted this decision?

Scott: Why now?

A: Right. Because humanistic psychology fell out of favor in many ways. Positive psychology came in and seemed to take over the mantle, as well as some of the goals, of humanistic psychology, such as a greater focus on psychological health and well-being. But you’ve returned to it, and obviously Maslow is a key figure. But you’re also clearly drawing on Carl Rogers and Rollo May and that whole tradition. So what brought you to it? Unlike me, you didn’t grow up with this, did you?

S: I didn’t grow up with it. I started my career very much interested in human intelligence, multiple intelligences theories, and ways of expanding our notion of what it means for someone to have potential. I resonated with the humanistic perspective once I encountered it. Better late than never. However, I applied a humanistic lens in my research, even before I fully discovered the writings of the humanistic psychologists. For instance, in my book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, I argued that the field of intelligence needs to incorporate more of a whole person approach to understanding children and their potentials. So, when I was prepping for my positive psychology class at University of Pennsylvania and came across the writings of Abraham Maslow in particular, I really resonated with humanistic psychology. I felt as though we shared the same spirit animal or something. There was something there that I felt a deep resonance with—his way of thinking—and haven’t looked back since then.

A: Maslow is still very popular in management and organization theory where everybody brings out the pyramid-shaped hierarchy of needs. One of the things that you’re doing is addressing some of the misconceptions people have about Maslow’s work, like the hierarchy of needs and the concept of self-actualization. That it’s all about me and my development and fundamentally not concerned with others. The hierarchy of needs is very popular, but you’re looking at it and saying, “well, we’re not looking at it the right way.”

S: That’s right. So, first of all, Maslow never drew a pyramid in any of his writings. I think he was a developmental psychologist at heart. His writings are very much about how human development is a constant two step forward, one step back contiguous dynamic. We can address multiple needs simultaneously. We can at any moment return to the lower needs, and it really wasn’t lifelike to think of it as some sort of video game where you accomplish a certain level and then just move on.

A: And then you’re done.

S: Yeah, and then you’re done. I think his writing made it clear that wasn’t the case, but the way it’s popularly presented doesn’t make that clear at all.

A: One of the things that you’ve done with this book is give people a much better idea of what some of the more famous concepts that we owe to Maslow are all about. And you also give us a more complex picture that’s updated with all the psychology that’s been happening. Time flies. We’re looking at what, 60 years.

S: Long time.

A: So there’s some substantial work that’s been done since Maslow’s time. But his work is still clearly very relevant, right?

S: I think more relevant than ever. I keep thinking to myself: what would people like Carl Rogers be saying if he was alive right now, to try to create the peace psychology that he wanted—with so many divisions, with such a divided America? What would people like Rogers be saying and what would their call be? I try to channel them. What would your buddy Frank Barron say, if he was alive right now, about creativity being squashed with “cancel culture”, for instance? Everyone getting canceled because they’re saying one bad thing, one thing that a mob doesn’t like, and they’re canceled. What would Frank Barron say? Is that conducive to a creative society or not?

A: Right. Let’s talk about some of the important concepts that you develop in the book. You discuss about Maslow’s Being and Deficiency needs, B and D needs. Tell us something about that.

S: Well, a lot of people focus on the hierarchical arrangement of the hierarchy of needs and don’t realize that Maslow actually emphasized more the distinction between the D realm of human existence and the B realm of human existence. So in the D realm, we’re motivated by deficiency. Everything looks like whatever it is that we’re deprived of. So as an example, if we’re chronically hungry, everyone looks like a hamburger to us. If we’re chronically lonely, we become very, very needy, socially. If we’re chronically deprived of esteem, we can become a narcissist and demand esteem from others, feel almost entitled to it because we’d never had it. So these things can really make us enter this realm of the D realm of human existence where we’re not growing, we’re not becoming a better person. We’re just preoccupied with satiation.

But if we enter the B realm, the being realm of human existence, it’s like replacing a clouded lens with a clear lens. We see reality for what it is. We see other people for who they are, not just simply for what use they have for us. When you’re in a deprived state, everything is viewed through a very selfish lens in a way.

A: How can you satisfy my needs, right?

S: Yeah, literally the definition of selfishness. And by the way, selfishness, I use that as more of a neutral term. I actually don’t view that selfishness as necessarily good or bad. I’ve been working on some research on healthy and defensive, healthy selfishness. But it’s just literally selfish because it is all self-centric. But when we enter the growth realm, it’s like, we can be in awe of someone who’s so different from us, someone who’s just maybe interested in something completely different. We can just admire them for who they are like we would watch a beautiful sunset. We don’t try to change the sunset. We don’t get angry that the sunset’s not conforming to our sense of symmetry. We just admire it.

A: I think that’s a very interesting perspective and it also makes me wonder about something. There’s a tendency these days in popular discourse to focus very much on trauma, which then gives the impression that, well, I’m traumatized and it really can’t be fixed, in a way. Or if it is, it’s going to take a really long time and a lot of hard work, not to mention some serious bills. There’s this sense that once I’ve had this trauma, unless I go through incredibly deep work, I’m never going to get rid of it. As a result it becomes like a label that we attach to ourselves that then suggests that from now on sort of everything becomes a deficiency need in a way.

S: That’s exactly right. I tend to take a humanistic approach where I lead first with a person’s humanity and I don’t really necessarily feel the need to, upon first meeting someone, to lay out to them all of my traumas I’ve had in my life, and how I was in special education as a child. When I’m meeting someone on a first date or a stranger on the street, I want to show that I have some strengths. There’s some exciting things going on in my life right now, at this moment in my life, and we can choose what we want to make the core of our identity. It doesn’t negate the trauma that we had. This is not victim blaming, but it just shows that we’re multifaceted people. And we often forget to illustrate or highlight our higher potentials.

A: Sometimes I just get the sense that it’s almost like a competitive trauma kind of situation.

S: The Victimhood Olympics.

A: Yeah, exactly. My sense is that in that process, we actually dig ourselves deeper rather than overcoming what we’ve experienced that hasn’t been positive.

S: I think that’s right.

A: You talked about post-traumatic growth too, which is a very interesting concept. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

S: Post traumatic growth is an area of psychology that’s interested in understanding why some people grow from trauma, how they grow in immense ways. It’s not as though they preferred to have had the trauma or not have had the trauma. That’s not the point. It’s that they feel that it’s transformed them in some way, like a seismic earthquake of the soul, it has shattered their assumptions about the world and led them to see greater possibilities and a greater purpose for themselves and others. You often see increased creativity as well, and increased connections with people, maybe cutting out some other connections; some of your shady friends. Goodbye! You shift your priorities. I think it’s a really interesting area of research—really trying to understand how this works.

A: And it also involves self-reflection on our experience as opposed to repression.

S: Yes. Productive rumination. We have a lot of rumination that is unproductive. It’s like you’re a broken record over and over again, over again. I’m going to take revenge on these people— it’s not productive. Where’s that leading to? How’s that helping you grow? How’s that helping anyone else grow? But there is productive ruminating. It’s okay to cognitively process in a meaningful way what happened to you and help it propel you forward.

A: That’s a great distinction. One of the things Maslow said has always fascinated me: “dichotomizing pathologizes.” There’s a recurring theme in your book with the ideas of synergy, paradox, dialectical movement going beyond dualisms, being safe enough to explore, and these seem to recur at a lot of the different levels of development, if not all of them. And you were also talking about selfishness, and that there’s nothing wrong with being selfish in a certain context. Being both selfish and unselfish, in a way, rather than just saying: well, unselfish is good, selfish is bad or vice versa. So there is this constant synergy.

S: I think that in order to be a fully human person, you have to be selfish. Doesn’t mean self-full. I think that if you’re never selfish even just a little bit, and there’s no “ishy” there with yourself, then you can lose yourself and become always altruistic. I think that you can have pathological altruism and I’ve studied that as well, where all you do is to serve others. Well, if all you’re doing is serving others and their values, that means you have no values. You’ve got no values anymore. There’s no part of yourself anymore that even you value. What I want to do is I want to integrate Eastern and Western philosophy. Any of the extremes I think are problematic.

A lot of young people, especially a lot of young girls, are raised to be taught to sacrifice their needs for others. Complete self-sacrifice is a terrible thing. Why should you sacrifice your existence on this planet? This is just my view and I think the research bears this out as well. It’s not a good thing. We should teach people to formulate their values carefully to discover who they are and what they love. Helping others is a wonderful goal as an extension of yourself, but I don’t think it’s a wonderful goal when it’s divorced from yourself. I’m glad you agree.

A: Well, it’s a very interesting issue, isn’t it? It also taps into the whole notion of American individualism, which can be taken to this extreme where it’s all about me and not doing anything for anybody else. Having to wear a mask that may protect others then deprives me of my freedom. Ayn Rand’s position was that altruism is the devil, and if we do anything for each other, basically we have to pay for it, which is rather extreme.

S: It’s extreme in one sense. In another sense, it actually makes sense. Take Karen Horney’s work. I’m a big fan of Karen Horney. I think she’s one of the most underrated feminist psychotherapists, psychoanalysts of all time. I have her biography over there on my shelf. But she talks about how losing yourself is like making a pact with the devil. We do kind of lose our soul when we become completely dependent on the validation of others. And so there’s something there about the pact of the devil. I know it’s dramatic, but there’s something there.

A: That’s another one of the synergies Maslow talked about, right? Between self and other, between inner-directed and outer-directed, as David Riesman put it: self-actualization is not just about I-me-mine, that it’s also relational, and self-actualizers have this “Gemeinschaftsgefühl,” this feeling of being connected to other people and humanity in general. You know of course that a lot of sociological research, particularly in the fifties and sixties, with books like The Lonely CrowdThe Pursuit of Loneliness, and then more recently, like Bowling Alone, talks about a lack of connection in Americans. How do you feel about that? Would you agree with that assessment?

S: Yes. It really does pain me to see the lack of true intimate connections. We have more connections on social media than ever. In the history of the world, obviously. It’s a recent phenomenon in the history of humanity, but we are sacrificing our intimacy, our relatedness to each other, our mutual relatedness. We’re becoming very tribal as well, which really concerns me. Well, we’ve always been a tribal species, but there’s lots of aspects of our human nature that we go in and out of in cycles throughout the course of, what are we highlighting right now? I think we’re spotlighting our tribal nature more than our universal love nature.

A: There’s that sense also that people are struggling to get a sense of what is universal. I think it’s kind of confusing in a way, because even in the scientific literature, people are shy when it comes to things like universals or shared humanity. Those kinds of terms are looked upon with some distrust, these days.

S: There’s a faction of people who deny that there’s such a thing as a human nature. They prefer the blank slate view that we’re all just born as lumps of clay to be molded by society. But that doesn’t seem quite right. When you think of all the things that are built into our genome to help us learn from the environment, it’s already pre-packaged, all the learning mechanisms, like amazing learning structures that help us soak up language so fast at such an early age. We have built-in mechanisms to help us with that. We have lots of other built-in mechanisms that, over the course of evolution, have allowed us to quickly learn things so that every generation doesn’t have to do it all over again. Evolution helped us, gave us a little bit of a head start. I’m not making the argument that everything is innate, but we have some built-in “skeletons” that get fleshed out by experience, as Rochel Gelman has argued quite convincingly in my opinion.

A: So let’s talk for a second about a concept that’s associated very strongly with Maslow, self-actualization. Looking back on Maslow and looking at his work now, from your perspective with all the research that’s been done since then, where do we stand with self-actualization?

S: Wow! Where do we stand? I think that self-actualization is not this individualistic pursuit at the cost of others. I think we have to think about it in the way Maslow is thinking about it towards the end of his life, which is that we don’t fully self-actualize if we only are realizing our full potential. We have to help realize the potential of others to really actualize our full potential as a human, as a species. Self-transcendence. There are lots of ways of getting outside of ourselves, and again, it doesn’t mean sacrificing yourself. It’s a point I want to continually make. In fact, I’m going to write that down right now because I want to tweet it later; I think in terms of tweets these days. <laughs>

It’s just means that you’re not so self-focused all the time: where everything and its goal and its value is measured to the extent to which it satisfies your needs. I also talked about meta needs. Having meta needs—having a real deep abiding concern for the B values, things like truth, justice, beauty, and meaningfulness—those things can give us wonderfully transcendent experiences in life that redirect our attention to things outside of ourselves. But these things are still extensions of ourselves. They’re giving us an increased connection with humanity, allowing us to feel a sense of oneness with our fellow humans. Self-actualization, thought more on those terms, is more in the spirit of what Maslow meant than purely actualizing all the things you want.

A: Mm-hmm (affirmative). There’s that going beyond the dualism again, right? Transcending the traditional oppositions of self and society, self and other. It seems like it was this recurring theme in your writing that I kept seeing, at all the different levels. I thought that was a particularly interesting aspect of your book.

S: What was it, exactly?

A: This going beyond traditional dualisms.

S: Right. Oh yes. Dichotomy transcendence.

A: In a way you see that in descriptions of the creative person as well. That they can be both more primitive and more sophisticated, both very in touch with their emotions, but also very rational.

S: I love it. Let’s come up with a list. Let’s just brainstorm: order, disorder, evil, good, male, female…

A: …Complexity and simplicity, open and closed.

S: Yes! This is fun. There are so many false dichotomies in our society. Selfish versus unselfish, or selfish versus altruistic.

A: Yes.

S: Beautiful. Beautiful.

A:  It seems like self-actualization, then, is finding a means of transcending these dichotomies that tend to arise in society.

S: Self-transcendence, yes. 

How are you feeling these days, looking at 2020? You’ve been on this planet awhile. What are your thoughts when you look at all the young people today and the way that they’re fighting for social justice? And you probably remember the seventies, right?

A: Sure. I left England in the early 80s to come here to go to graduate school. A few years earlier, the Sex Pistols had come out with “Never Mind the Bollocks!” and there was this great poetic line in a song called “God Save the Queen:” “there is no future in England’s dreaming.” I thought, “man, that’s some shit!” and that’s what it felt like for a lot of young people as well as adults at the time. One of the things that I’m seeing now is that there are a lot of young people who really don’t want to talk about the future very much, because it’s not looking that great. You’ve got environmental catastrophes coming down the road, the economy looks shaky. The more I ask young people, the more they sort of say, “well, I think I’ll be okay, but the world is going to hell in a hand basket.” That for me is very, distressing—that this is the world they’re having to deal with, and “I’ll be OK but the world is going to hell” is in fact the dominant response to that question according to research as well.

Just a quick aside. A lot of the science fiction shows that I watched when I was a kid happened in what is now the past. I think UFO was supposed to be 1980, Lost in Space was supposed to take place 1997, and then there was Space: 1999. There was 2001: A Space Odyssey, and its sequel 2010. Even the future in Back to the Future is 2015. It almost seems like we’ve slowly develop a wall to the human imagination of the future. We’ve always had dystopias, but at a certain point all we started seeing were dystopias, like Blade Runner and Hunger Games. Wherever you look, there’s some horrible future coming down the pike.

There were no images of anything looking genuinely positive. My big interest right now is how can we mobilize the human imagination, not for Pollyanna futures where everything’s perfect and everybody’s happy, but for articulating what a better future would look like. A future where there is more social justice, where it is greener, where people aren’t nasty and mean to each other, where we get along better. That isn’t some kind of impossible miracle, because we’ve all seen things like this in our daily lives. People can get on with each other. We have examples of better rather than worse ways of being together, but it just seems like we can’t envision any futures that are more appealing. It’s like, “well, we’re going to hell, but I suppose me and my friends will do our best and we’ll be okay.” That’s deeply distressing to me.

S: I’m right there with you.

A: How can we mobilize the imagination and get people to think about realistic, better futures? Let’s put it that way.

S: I love what you’re saying and I agree. Some of that has to come from leadership. I think that we’re not seeing too much of that in terms of leadership right now.

A: There are no visions coming from politicians. That’s for sure.

S: You need to run for president, Alfonso.

A: Maslow became interested in social systems, organizations and these broader kinds of themes of how you can create organizations that are more collaborative and eudaimonic. He was interested in McGregor, right?

S: Right. I mean, obviously McGregor was interested in Maslow, and then Maslow discovered McGregor’s work and realized he was being written about in McGregor’s books. He was like, “oh, well, you know what, that’s interesting, but I’m going to take it a step further because McGregor had theory X and theory Y.” Maslow was like, “You know what? I think McGregor didn’t go far enough. We need a theory Z.” When work is not just about reward and punishment, not just about finding your work intrinsically interesting. You can go above even that. Your work is allowed to impact the world. Not everything is about you all the time. It didn’t dawn on McGregor that it could actually be self-transcendent. Maslow says, “no, I think we need it. We need transcendence. We need a Z here.”

A: Right. A lot of that had to do also with assumptions about human nature. Are human beings essentially lazy? Are they going to try and get away with doing as little as possible, or is this an opportunity for human development? Is this community or organization a place where human beings can grow and actualize their potential?

S: Absolutely. That’s the theory. The theory of what your theory of human nature is.

A: Right.

S: I mean, I think that it’s important to talk about human nature, but I also talk a lot about individual differences in my career. I imagine that some people do react much better to their life and work when they are motivated by Theory X. There are some that just love being told what to do. That’s just who they are. Look, I’m a very nonjudgmental person. With Theory Y, there are those who are just perfectly content going into their job, 9:00 to 5:00, doing a good job, checking out, and they’re done. But Maslow said there needs to be room for the people who are the transcenders. He called them the transcenders. I personally wouldn’t make a value judgment call and say that transcenders are better than others. I don’t think Maslow would say that, although maybe he would. Quite honestly sometimes, in his writings, he slips into that kind of language.

But there are some people, what they live and breathe are peak experiences — the B-values that I was talking about earlier — and that’s for them, that’s their job. There’s no dichotomy between work and play for these folks. Maslow wanted to have room in his theories for that, but I think that maybe we shouldn’t say that like human nature is X, Y, and Z. It’s all of it.

A: If we look at history, human beings can be incredibly kind and generous and creative, and we can also do incredibly horrible things, so we go back to some of the existential roots of humanistic psychology, it’s a human choice: our human nature gives us a huge continuum of choices, and how we show up in the world reflects a choice we make. We can show up in all sorts of different ways.

S: We go in and out of what interests us throughout our lifetime. I mean, we may go through a period of self-transcendence, we might go through a period of deprivation. It’s okay. It’s human. It doesn’t mean that you can never become self-transcendent again. We go in and out of these things.

I’m really enjoying this conversation.

A: Me too. Your book is very generative. As an aside, I don’t know if I told you, but we used Wired to Create in our doctoral program to get students to think about creativity and how can we look at the educational process as a creative process, right?

S: Yes.

A: The dissertation is supposed to be an original contribution to a field, and yet, there’s not a lot of talk of what that means in most doctoral programs. We say, “don’t plagiarize,” but we don’t say, “okay, well, let’s really look at this. If a dissertation is supposed to be an  original contribution, then by definition, that means there’s a creative process.” How do we then frame the whole educational experience as a creative process, which I think it should be? It’s why I got into this mess of being a college professor, because I had some very creative educational experiences and others where I was like, “get me out of here.”                    

We’re at a time when we need to be very savvy in order to live in this, quote, “post-truth world.” Robert Kegan is right—we’re in over our heads. And funnily enough, it’s almost like everybody should have research skills. How many people have you come across who said, “Well, I did some research on the web.” It’s like, yeah, everybody’s doing research, but do we have the skills, or are we just looking at the first thing that seems to support our beliefs?

S: I think it’s the latter.

A: Right. Maslow wrote about that in a really interesting book, The Psychology of Science.

S: Yes, and people don’t know about that book. He argued that self-transcendence should be a respectable topic of investigation in that book, and he argued that a lot of scientists shun the emotional and experiential side of human life.

A: Yes, he argued very strongly against that, and rightly so. But isn’t it funny how when we go to conferences we see people criticizing each other, and sometimes that can get pretty emotional. People get competitive, they get into fights, but we really don’t talk about it. We claim to eliminate it but we really don’t. There’s that layer of rationality, that illusion of rationality, that we really don’t address it in academia, do we? 

S: I don’t think so. I’ve been out of academia since grad school in a lot of ways. I’ve kind of been over here doing my own thing, teaching when I can. I walk into the academia, and then I walk back home, but to be honest I haven’t really been entrenched. I don’t even know, really, if I could even speak for academia anymore, because I just don’t feel like that’s a core part of my identity anymore.

A: Oh, that’s interesting. How do you view yourself now, Scott?

S: A “public intellectual”.

A: There you go. It’s a category that I think is still alive in Europe, but here in the states there has been a kind of marginalization. So, I’m glad that you’re waving the flag of the public intellectual because we need that right now.

S: Thank you so much for saying that. I think sometimes it can sound a little pompous to call oneself a “thought leader”. I would never call myself a thought leader, and even the idea of a public intellectual, that might still sound a bit arrogant or highbrow. I simply mean that it’s the space I’m occupying: where I try to make as much of a contribution as I can to popular culture, the ideas that people are having about the world, and what we can do to make sense of all these things, maybe even bring peace to things. I want to step outside of the ivory tower; I want to live in the real world. That’s all I mean by it, you know?

A: Yeah. My sense is that the way that you write is also a way that the nonacademic can appreciate, and there’s so much work being done. Any time we immerse ourselves in the literature, how do we keep up with all these different journals publications? I was seeing this in the more popular books that would come out about creativity. If I see the nine-dot problem one more time…

S: Yeah.

A: We’re recycling ideas in the field, and yet there’s all this interesting work that’s being done, and it takes a person like you to synthesize them and bring together for people who are not buried in the silos of academia.

S: Thank you for saying that. I think that’s right. I mean, there’s a place for academia still in terms of doing research, but I see a lot of problematic aspects of academia right now with people canceling researchers because they don’t like what the researchers have found. Some mob will come in and say, “well, we don’t like the findings of what they found, so let’s cancel the researcher.” I see that as problematic for civilization as well, but not just academia. 

My friend, I have such deep respect for you, and I’m glad we finally got a chance to do this.

A: It was lovely. Yeah. It’s great to see you again, and congratulations. It’s a great book. I’m going to be assigning it in fall. You’re doing great work.

S: Thanks, Alfonso. You gave me chills!

Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D, is a cognitive scientist interested in the development of intelligence, creativity, and personality. He applies a variety of perspectives to come to a richer understanding and appreciation of all kinds of minds and ways of achieving greatness.

Alfonso Montuori, PhD, is a professor at California Institute of Integral Studies. He has been Distinguished Professor in the School of Fine Arts at Miami University, in Oxford Ohio and at the University of Rome, and in 1985-1986 he taught at the Central South University in Hunan, China. Alfonso was born in Holland, and lived in Lebanon, Greece, England, and China before coming to the United States in 1986. His father was Italian and his mother Dutch, and he grew up speaking several languages. An active musician and producer, Alfonso has performed with or recorded artists such Joe Henderson, Roy Hargrove, Aztec Camera and his wife, noted jazz singer Kitty Margolis. His research has focused on creativity, transdisciplinarity, complexity, leadership, education, and social change, and has been translated into Chinese, French, Italian, and Spanish. Alfonso is also a consultant in the areas of creativity, innovation and leadership development whose clients have included Fortune 500 companies, non-profits, and artists.


  1. Pratibha Gramann on August 13, 2020 at 11:43 pm

    Liking the psychology that centers around Self-actuslization and self-trancendence, and whole person – these seem
    more relevant.
    I have a new framework for psychology based on Principles of the cosmos . It is Transpersonal and Transcendent. I’m interested to discuss the same and difference between these 2 concepts.

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