Abstractions of Intent: How
a Psychobiography Grapples
with the Fluidity of Truth
© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019
C.-H. Mayer and Z. Kovary (eds.),
New Trends in Psychobiography,
Adopting multiple strategies can provide a more comprehensive overview of a subject whose diverse aspirations and plentiful activities warrant a broader exploration. A consequence of the mixed methodology, however, are the opportunities for misrepresentation that result from the adoption of vulnerable systems, especially in the psychological realm which solicits speculation, inference, and other subjective calculations.
In May 1886, Georges Seurat unveiled his 70 square foot Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand. The painting depicts fashionable Parisians enjoying a Sunday afternoon on an idyllic island in the River Seine between Neuilly and Levallois-Perret. The canvas is replete with some forty stereotypical Parisian figures—women of fashion, men in bowler hats, prostitutes, children, umbrellas, dogs, soldiers, boats,a rowing team, a monkey, and a musician. Individually, the rigid and somewhat
indistinguishable images are ill-designed to be the focus of singular attraction but are integral and essential to the panorama. The technique Seurat adopted, Pointillism, involved the use of small touches of pure color intricately placed side-by-side on the canvas. When viewed from a certain distance, these colored spots blend into figures of aesthetic clarity. Move closer, and the portraits dissipate, rendering the composition unintelligible. Move away, and each part asserts its relevance to the whole, but the whole is not its parts, and the parts do not constitute the whole.
The painting, viewed from afar as intended, is a gestalt: the whole is other than the sum of its parts, albeit dependent upon their participation. The individual figures and the finished work resonate in codependence with one another, manifesting a masterpiece abstractly detached from the components that constitute the work. The truth of Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand is in the exactness of the colored spots, their placement on the canvas, and the changeless final masterpiece which the artist deemed worthy of display.
In an abstract sense, the similarities between this artistic masterpiece and a psychobiography are appealing. The methodology incorporates seemingly inconspicuous elements of a life history that, when placed side-by-side on an academic canvas, blend into events and occasions that are, by themselves, imperceptible to the final product. Step back to observe the multiple entities rendered by this method, and one begins to sense their integral relationship to the cohesive whole of the presentation. One only needs canvas, the painted background (the subject’s ethos), and figures, pronounced and ambiguous (entities and occasions), assembled by numerous points of color (causes and consequences) that coalesce into an integral and homeostatic final product.
5.1.1 Understanding Events and Occasions
Every evolution—ethos, philosophy, activity, and so on—is an occasion. Occasions are akin to Alfred North Whitehead’s actual entities, defined as dynamic and ongoing activities unfolding or producing themselves through time (Hosinski, 1993). The events that participate in the creative unfolding of an occasion are fixed in time as opposed to the unfixed spatio-temporal process of an occasion. A psychobiography is a well-researched, comprehensive, multi-method presentation of a series of occasions through the documentation of events and the explication of the causes, motivations, and consequences thereof.
Pillemer (1998, 70) suggests three significant or seminal episodes central to a psychobiography. Originating events are the momentous events that are responsive to the genesis of a subject’s enduring beliefs or attitudes. Anchoring events represent the milestones that perpetuate these values, as evidenced by the subject’s life-story. The third episodes, turning points, mark specific series of events and occasions that augment the subject’s passion. This triumvirate of causal relationships is not a one-off but is integral in the evolution of all substantial beliefs and activities.
Throughout this chapter, a published study developed and produced employing a psychobiographic methodology is exampled. The overarching focus of the study is a contemporary theorist with diverse aspirations and activities. Convinced that the sheer volume of life occasions merited multiple avenues of investigation, a mixed message methodology of both quantitative and qualitative research was adopted. Personal philosophy bore significantly on the relevance of abundance. A scholar grasping a singular view denies the creative capacity that flourishes in the enlightened awareness of human ingenuity. The errant belief that there is only one truth and that any one individual is in possession of it is the root of all malevolence that plagues the world. A theorist of any mettle studies systems and embraces a collective. Any theory or philosophy is based, intentionally or unwittingly, on an amalgam of grounding belief systems. In any theory, the tenets that form its ground are particular, relative, and essential constituents; their axiomatic completeness equal to (or other than) the sum of values and beliefs. One cannot be a rationalist without experientialism, logic, and discursive reasoning. Utilitarianism needs the participation of reductionism and forms of naturalism.
Michael Murphy (See Runyan’s, 2019) is co-founder and Director Emeritus of Esalen, nestled in California’s Big Sur. The progressive Institute is the acknowledged birthplace of the human potential movement (Tomkins, 1976), inspired by Abraham Maslow’s psychology of peak experiences, which underscores humanity’s potential for the metanormal expansion of consciousness. Murphy’s search for meaning—and his exploration of wide-ranging and diverse fields to validate that search—underscores multifaceted constituents that support his philosophy and productivity much like pointillism colors its canvas. At least four philosophical components undergird Murphy’s world vision and activities: existentialism, experientialism, humanism, and universal integrality. His research into and conviction of deliberate human advancement― heralding a higher dimension of human consciousness―is underscored by these fundamental philosophical concepts, which required extensive study rendered by any means available. I opted for a mixed-methodology adopting both quantitative and qualitative research.
A psychobiography is subject, not only to the researcher’s inclinations and distortions but the subject’s as well. This permissiveness afforded by a psychobiography―its hermeneutics, its in-depth case study, its narrative, etcetera―lends itself to error and misinformation. The relevance of this theme is revealed throughout this chapter.
A psychobiography differs from a mixed-methodology in scope, magnitude, and extent of methods of investigation. The use of multivalent systems in the Murphy study ensured an integrally comprehensive investigation. The end product was not without its faults, however. Upon publication, the validity of certain conclusions came into question. Was the result true to the subject’s values, and contributions? Was the justification of his belief system well defined? Was his integrity underscored in the conclusions? How are truth and authenticity best served and what impediments interfere that require accommodation? How does the truth factor in a psychobiography as opposed to other methods of inquiry? Does the broad scope of a psychobiography deliver more forthright conclusions than other, less inclusive methods?
What is a Psychobiography?
Simply defined, a biography is an account of someone’s life written by someone other than the subject. According to William McKinley Runyon (1984), a biography is “a portrait painted by a specific author from a particular perspective, using a range of conceptual tools and available data.” Historian R. G. Collingwood (1946) defines biography as “the discerning of the thought which is the inner side of an event.” Biographical narratives foster a keen understanding of characteristic adaptations, a phrase coined by Northwestern psychologist Dan McAdams (2001), to include:
The use of psychology in psychobiography inserts itself through aggregate-level social sciences such as social structure and personality interpretation, history, sociology, psychological anthropology, and political psychology. The study maintains its flexibility by drawing upon the knowledge of many schools of thought while devising new concepts as they become necessary for evaluation. Extensive and often exhaustive research is required to remain faithful to the subject’s intersubjectivity.
Runyon (1988) advocated for the use of psychology in psychobiography, “mediated through the aggregate-level social sciences, including such scientific ‘substratum’ as social structure and personality, historical sociology, psychological anthropology, and political psychology.” George Atwood and Robert Stolorow (1993) also campaigned for the use of multiple perspectives, promoting “a psychobiographical method capable of flexibly drawing upon the knowledge of all the different schools of thought, and also of devising new concepts as it goes along.” In the published study, this correlated well to the data-driven research of extraordinary events and occasions which, as Murphy points out in The Future of the Body. Explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature (1992) demands “a synoptic acquisition of soundly verifiable data that draws at once upon the natural and human sciences, psychical research, religious studies, and other fields.”
The methodology of Erik H. Erikson’s (1958) Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History is the genesis of modern psychobiography and its foundation of psychological analysis. To Atwood and Stolorow (1993), Erikson was the first pure psychobiographer because he was able to synthesize aspects of the psychology of knowledge (personal-subject relativity) and the sociology of knowledge (historical-cultural relativity). “Although each field [psychology of knowledge and sociology of knowledge] can make a certain degree of independent progress, their analyses are allied and complementary.” What evolves from these are syntheses of material that coalesce into a psychobiographic framework. These sciences include sociology, biology, psychology, religion, phenomenology, history, and so on.
Murphy’s theoretical constructs emerged from both Eastern and Western spiritual philosophy. He is a barometer of humanity’s temperament, including its mental, physical, and spiritual aspects. The events and occasions of his life are integral to his ethos, worldview, and subsequent activities. These include: (1) research and analysis of philosophical and scientific apperceptions of advanced metanormal potential, 2) data-driven evidence of advanced human potential, (3) efforts to bridge the gaps among science, religion, and mysticism, while addressing the comparability of religious teloi, and (4) humanitarian efforts in education, health, politics, and religion to address the disenfranchised through international diplomacy (Mullen 2014). The plenitude of Murphy’s contributions made it expedient to employ many investigative approaches; a more restrictive methodology would have failed to accommodate the magnitude adequately. Combining the criteria of qualitative and quantitative inquiry made it easier to research and document the scope of Murphy’s life, ethos, goals, productivity, and so on. The construction of the whole, the final product, was achieved through, hopefully, a thoughtful and scholastic synthesis into a final gestalt. In hindsight, success was only partial, and conclusions flawed, a complication which, I maintain, is common due to ambiguities of truth and the tolerance accorded by the criteria of multiple methodologies.
Quantitative research involves the empirical investigation of observable and measurable variables. It is used for testing theory, predicting and illustrating outcomes, and determining integral relationships. Quantitative research takes a particular approach: answering research questions, generating hypotheses, setting up research strategies, offering conclusions, and so forth. Analysis of data-driven research is quantitative, as are the surveys, and comparative or correlational studies. Although generally conceived as focusing on data articulated numerically, it is also used to study events or levels of occurrence.
Qualitative research focuses on examining a topic via cultural phenomena, human behavior, and belief systems. A comprehensive study of the life and productivity of an individual can make use of interviews, open-ended questions, opinion research, and so on to gain insight into certain beliefs, concepts, and systems.It provides an overview of the human side of an issue concerning behaviors, beliefs, opinions, emotions, and relationships, supported by such intangible factors as social norms, esoteric beliefs, ethnicity, socio-economic status, philosophy, religion, ethics, etcetera (Denzin 2000).
A psychobiography is constructed by engaging qualitative and quantitative methodologies and their subsidiaries―the empirical and non-empirical, ontological and epistemological, narrative, interview, in-depth case study, hermeneutics, the social sciences, and so on. Even so, while this mixed-method study meets the criteria of an adequate psychobiography it, by no means, promises the most comprehensive, which demands an even more robust and radical adoption of multivalent ingredients and methods to subsidize the gestalt. The components of a good psychobiography are more fluid, fragmented, and decentralized in its pursuit of authenticity. The good psychobiography will not shy away from seemingly disparate components but will embrace than as means to provide a more thorough investigation. Resoluteness and flexibility, concreteness and fluidity, proof and conjecture, reason and intuition, exclusion and inclusion―all become academically acceptable grist for the mill. A quantitative approach creates a blueprint that establishes the parameters of the study, a logical order that provides the foundation for the various components necessary to the evolution of the product. The qualitative element, more reflexive and evolving, adds texture and nuance to the structure. The quantitative architecture strategizes the product. The qualitative brings life to it.
Picture a fan in the stands at a baseball game. He (or she) sits in one of the multiple sections, the view angular and myopic. To fully appreciate the game, he listens to the statistician and color-commentator on the radio, one actor providing hits, runs, and innings, the latter, personality profiles and stories. Awash with the sticky smell of beer and hotdogs, inclement weather, ear-shattering insults and enthusiastic roars, and the mingled sweat of thousands, he visualizes the game by experiencing the combined components that contribute to the festive totality of the event. Remove a singular sensation―the sound, the smell―and his experience is somewhat muted. The game is a dynamic and exciting experience because of the multivalent stimuli―coalescing conflicting forces that converge to narrate nine or more innings.
The Case Study
A psychobiography is an in-depth case study, according to Atwood and Stolorow (1993), an integral and comprehensive presentation of a personalistic, phenomenological, historical, clinical, and interpretive investigation. Its methodology allows the gathering of as much information as possible, using multiple disciplines. Three general characteristics distinguish an in-depth psychobiographical case study from other methodological orientations and approaches, according to Atwood and Stolorow (1993). First, the in-depth case study is “inherently personalistic and phenomenological because it presupposes that the issues under investigation can are best understood from a perspective inclusive of the subject’s personal, subjective and phenomenological world.” Second, psychobiography is historical (1993, 28), which means that the subject’s world is illuminated in a historical and linear perspective, albeit the fluidity of occasions mitigates the opportunity for a purely linear presentation. Third, the in-depth case study is both “clinical and interpretive.” This overarching requisite for interpretation, however, is a double-edged sword as the researcher is highly susceptible to: (1) incorporating his or her sensibilities, (2) bias and misinterpretation due to the vicariousness of a biography, (3) the suggestiveness of the subject, and (4) the researchers own condition. The study is also subject to the prejudices and misinformation by the subject, sources, and contemporaries. Awareness of this potential impediment is essential; however, the psychobiographer cannot allow the search for truth to overwhelm the authenticity of the work, which implies being genuine or as real as possible, or as accurate in substance as possible, given one’s subjective and objective truth.
Case study research allows the exploration and understanding of the motivations, events, and occasions that impact the subject’s life history. This holistic, in-depth investigation specializes in analysis of the subject’s social, moral, ethical, and behavioral underpinnings: schooling, faith instruction, socio-economic status, family structure, and other influencers which motivate sociological concerns. This method was particularly relevant to Murphy’s focus on education, health, religion and other humanitarian efforts.
A good psychobiography is “committed to a narrative mode of truth arrived at through [the] in-depth, case study approach to biographical and psychological knowledge” (Erikson 1958). The case study nourishes itself through intersubjective methodology, which aids in clarifying relationships and motivations. In the soft sciences, intersubjectivity is the psychological relationship between people―how common-sense, shared values are used to interpret mutual compliance within social and cultural life. It is the trademark of systems and institutions who share a particular ideology. It also highlights how unilateral groups alienate disagreeable groups through self-preservation, which incurs bias, prejudice, truth-distortion, and other extensions of inherent territorial emphasis. Intersubjective investigation addresses these temperaments, as well as those of others who offer significant support or opposition as evidence of motivation.
Interviews and Review of Materials
Among the sources of data the psychologist is likely to turn to when carrying out a case study are interviews with the subject and contemporaries, diaries, personal notes, letters, documents, and so on. In psychology, case studies often confined themselves to the examination of a particular individual; a psychobiographic researcher is inclined to extend this research to contemporaries and other influencers.
Murphy’s firm conviction of the inherent human potential to access the metanormal required the theoretical study of phenomenon to describe the subjective reality of events, and philosophical research and analysis, which involved clarification of definitions, prevailing wisdom, and norms. The perusal of the books, essays, and articles written about the subject was important. Esalen’s (2013, 2014) extensive website was an excellent source of corroboration. Multiple sources pertaining to issues and values addressed by Murphy had to be analyzed, as did his published fiction, nonfiction, and works-in-progress.
The interviews were of inestimable value, first to set the boundaries of a good working relationship and then as a forum to address topics that required further explication. These one-on-one interviews were structured by specific lines of questioning, generously enriched by Murphy’s extemporaneous flow of vision and thought, which were of enormous value. On average, these meetings lasted approximately two hours. Some issues were explored in person; others via phone and email. Recordings of interviews were professionally transcribed, results reviewed by me, and then submitted to Murphy for approval. The rich material from these interviews informed multiple aspects of the study. It was during the interview process that the first tingling of disingenuity arose when I began to mentally edit specific exposition that might disrupt conclusions underscoring the study. About halfway through, my research was confronted by the fact that some of Murphy’s beliefs and exploits were antithetical to my secular sensibilities. An Actual Man (2010) is a series of essays in honor of Murphy’s 80th birthday. Among the biographies, reports, and anecdotes were features describing Murphy’s humanitarian works in Russia, and Esalen’s part in Yeltsin’s 1991 ascension to the presidency. Tompkins’ (1976) extensive profile in The New Yorker was highlighted, as was evidence of the metanormal in everyday experience, a tribute by Huston Smith, and Ken Wilber’s encomium to an exemplary human being. In the midst of these and other profound contributions was a story about Murphy’s paranormal escapades with the San Francisco 49ers. The essay asserted that the ritualistic burying of football gear and his ability to manipulate reality was instrumental in the 1981 success of the fledgling upstarts that led to their first Superbowl. I had already consumed numerous texts providing confirmation of paranormal feats including Frederic Myer et al. (1907, 1918) early 20th century evidence of levitation and life-after-death and Thurston’s (1951) descriptions of stigmata, luminous phenomena, and bilocation. Add to this Murphy’s penchant for metaphysics, Siddhis, and other esoteric practitioners, and I felt myself cornered in a self-created abyss of intellectual superstition. I write about this now with some amusement, as confirmation of how a researcher is subject to personal bias and ambiguous inference. I decided not to include the football story in my study for fear it would unduly prejudice my readers against the merit of Murphy’s contributions to natural science but had to bite the bullet when it came to Murphy’s academic homage to Frederic Myers. Years later, I recognize the 49ers’ essay, with some embarrassment, as a tongue-in-cheek, piece of smart fiction or, at the most, an illustration of over-inflated egos. My revisiting of the paranormal claims of Myers and others of his ilk did not bring me total relief, but as my philosophical evolution now embraces the possibility of… I am satisfied by its inclusion. In his forward of Cosmos and the Psyche, Richard Tarnas(2006) writes:
The question remains, whether my sensitive and less-tolerant research was culpable of rendering a disservice as result of implicit reservations. The caveat provided in the study does little to assuage any contemporary misgivings. “I believe my integrity of purpose, positive skepticism, and extensive research will facilitate a strong, unbiased assessment.”
Murphy has authored and collaborated on numerous novels and works of nonfiction. Incorporated into the study was an assessment of Murphy’s fiction as evidence of his predilection for mystic spiritualism, Eastern and Western collaborative thought, and metanormal human capacity. Elements of his appreciation for the interrelationship of science, mysticism, and esotericism began in novel form then neatly transcribed themselves to his most crucial nonfiction work: the data-driven research on transformative human capacity, The Future of the Body (1992). Explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature.
A subject’s worldview is both implicit and definitive exposition of philosophical and religious lineage. It was essential to look at the significant contributions influencing Murphy’s evolution of thought―paranormal research, Catholic miracles, esoteric documentation, the evolution of psychology, Huxley, Maslow, and Teilhard de Chardin, cross-cultural religion and metaphysics, process and evolutionary philosophy, science, and so on. This abundance of research material provided a more formidable, and daunting diversity of interests that served as the foundation for my study and informed the substratum of Murphy’s ontological development. Mainstream academic research was enlisted to solidify, confirm, or offer alternative vieszpoints for Murphy’s theories. Murphy (1992) defines this method of data-driven research, analysis, and interpretive documentation as “synoptic, multidisciplinary, or integral empiricism (remembering, of course, that empiricism usually refers to data acquisition and verification limited to sensory experience.”
Embracing individuality within a history of events and occasions is, of course, a key component to any study of a person. The primary method for doing so is through narrative. As personality psychologists began to turn their attention to peoples’ life histories, the story becomes more valid in “conveying the coherence and the meaning of lives” (McAdams 2001). In a psychobiography, the narration is the method of presentation incorporating the elements relative to the construction of the final product into a stimulating and understandable rendition of the subject’s evolution of thought, and activity. Storytelling is a method of making the study readable, comprehensive, and appealing. Pillemer (2008) defines narrative truth as the criterion we use to decide when a particular experience is captured satisfactorily; it depends on continuity and closure and the extent to which the fit of the pieces takes on an aesthetic finality. It is left to the researcher to determine, through judgment and scholasticism, the primary experiences that factor into decision-making and lead to the explication of the subject’s worldview.
As cautionary advice, Wilhelm Dilthey and Frederic Jameson (1972) maintain that ascertaining truth through narrative biography will incite debate, a desirable component of any presentation. However, to them, the narrative truth is also a razor’s edge because of the many factors that instigate misinformation. Since narration is a composite of many differing and supporting collegial contributions, this unpredictability is even more prevalent.
One of the more unique qualities of Murphy’s body of written work is the transposition of his fictional accounts of metaphysics, science, the spiritual, the magical, and the mystical to his later nonfiction that complements and enhances the actuality of many elements, the plausibility of more, and possibility of many. This evolution originates with his fantastical creations of the metanormal in his best-selling Golf in the Kingdom (1972), continues throughout his other novels, and culminates in his data-driven, natural science exploration The Future of the Body. Explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature (1992). In other words, Murphy’s concentration in the natural history of metanormal accession and evidence thereof does not diminish in the transition from novel to nonfiction but expands and substantiates itself. It is a textbook example of how, in the words of Oscar Wilde (1909), “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life, and I feel sure that if you think seriously about it, you will find that it is true.”
Michael Murphy has written or contributed with significant impact to more than half-a-dozen additional works of nonfiction, which address the codification of transformative capacities, the evolution of humanity’s potential, extraordinary capacities within sports, studies of yogis and Zen masters, cardiovascular and metabolic changes, and psychological, physiological, and spiritual transformation.These are illustrated only to corroborate the vast diversity of materials that were considered and
as evidence of how Murphy’s forays into fiction implemented his later works. In an article in The American Society for Aesthetics, F. E. Sparshott (1967) argues against those who contend that works of fiction cannot be considered the embodiment of claims to tell any truth about the real world. Truth in fiction is “the explicit content of the fiction, and a background consisting of either of the facts about our world … or of the beliefs overt in the community of origin.”
A singular entity cannot exist without its interrelationship with other entities. Every thing, every entity is a creation―intertwined, interconnected, and interdependent with and within other creations. It is therefore prudent to engage Pillemer’s (1998) three significant or seminal events as central to the evolution of occasions created by the participation of originating, anchoring, and turning points. It is impossible to provide a purely linear exposition of a subject’s history because life is factored by the manifestation of occasions.
History is primarily concerned with the knowledge of the mind and the thoughts it generates, which motivate an individual’s philosophy and action. “The task of the historian is penetrating to the thought of the agents whose acts they are studying” (Erickson 2003). The evolution of Murphy’s occasions is paramount to this study, as is his place in contemporary studies of a natural history that combines science with religion and metaphysics.
William McKinley Runyon’s (1984) Life Histories: A Field of Inquiry and a Framework for Intervention served as a support vehicle for inquiry into the role of Murphy’s life-history. Particularly germane were the investigations into: 1) the philosophical growth and conclusions resulting from Murphy’s intensive study, and experiential activities, (2) his ethos and set of mental characteristics, (3) analysis and insight into the psychological motivations of his ethos and activities, and (4) the practical implementation of these motivations and activities in interactions with others.
The study provided special consideration to Murphy’s research into human transformative capacity―his conviction of the potential for metanormal functioning as evidenced by his participation in, and investigations into events, occasions, practices, and phenomena affected by and affecting the human person.
Murphy’s fundamental philosophies staunchly lend themselves to the theory of advanced innate human potential and practical implementations to expand same. His (1) existentialism underscores the human faculty to determine its motivation and development, especially essential to its inherent ability to deliberately evolve by way of metanormal events and occasions, (2) experientialism manifest by his actual experiments to affect extraordinary events and occasions, (3) humanism evident by his belief in involution and evolution, a doctrine that asserts that the prominence of humans to self-create and evolve is imbued by divine allowance and participation, and (4) universal integrality which posits that all entities are creatively bound to all other entities, intertwined, interconnected, and interdependent. It is these systems that motivate the events that are paramount to Murphy’s occasions. As the theory maintains, occasions are not only evolutionary but interdependent upon all that precedes and proceeds them. One cannot fathom their causes without understanding the relevant factors of the creative process; it is the task of the researcher to make best efforts to investigate and comprehend this process through abundant research and thoughtful explication.
The interest in psychobiography slowed between the great wars of the Twentieth Century to witness a resurgence in Dilthey’s (1961) adoption of hermeneutics. The hermeneutic circle is similar to gestalt in that the parts are “accessed in relation to a totality while knowledge of the whole is constituted by study of the parts” (Atwood and Stolorow 1984). The ultimate goal of the hermeneutic process is to analyze, in added depth, how the subject’s philosophic, spiritual, and religious subjects of inquiry facilitated his or her ethos and subsequent activities. David Polkinghorne, author of Methodology for the Human Sciences: Systems of Inquiry (1983) advocates for the use of hermeneutics to better understand what canon and tradition mean to a specific element of philosophy, writing,
Hermeneutics is a system of rules, “a whole whose parts were held together by the aim of giving an interpretation of general validity” (Dilthey and Jameson 1972). Scholars later expanded the system of hermeneutics to apply to any literary text, which broadened the scope of influences on a particular ethos or philosophy while maintaining the integrality of hermeneutic tenets. One’s spiritual and philosophical evaluations are products of interconnected parts, which are in turn constituents of the whole; again, the parts without the whole—as well as the whole without its parts—inadequate to conclusive evaluation.
Polkinghorne (1983) warns that one of the difficulties with hermeneutic knowledge is that it is difficult “to attain a degree of intersubjective agreement and certainty that one has understood an expression accurately,” additional evidence of how bias and misinterpretation factors into any psychobiography. The researcher’s cognizance of hermeneutic interpretational compatibility to the ethos and philosophy of the subject is highly susceptible to error due, much in part, to the varying definitions and understandings that accompany all manner of texts. A psychobiographer is compelled to identify the extent of the hermeneutic contribution to the subject’s worldview; but is, likewise, influenced by those sources relied upon for evidence and affirmation. To Esalen biographer, Jeffrey J. Kripal (2007), hermeneutics is “a model that recognizes a truly profound engagement with a text [that] can alter both the received meaning of the text and one’s own meaning and being.”
Murphy’s broad expanse of interests was served well by the hermeneutic circle as his belief system overarches his concept of inherent human potential. For example, as iterated, extraordinary potential is closely tied to the theory of involution-evolution which posits that the energy and capacity of divinity are thrust into the basest of evolutionary particles, expanding in sympathy with human consciousness. Hermeneutic evaluations were essential to Murphy’s theme of religious, spiritual, metaphysical, and scientific comparability. Aurobindo Ghose’s (2006) cultivation of a multi-runged ladder to Supermind factors the evolution of human consciousness which supports advanced human potential. Exegetical scrutiny evidenced the symbiotic relationship of Teilhard de Chardin’s (1974) Omega Point to Ghose’s Supermind, and Murphy’s (2012) Supernature. The methodology also served to facilitate the coalescence of multiple aspects of divinity. A review of relevant religious, spiritual, and philosophical commentaries grounded the study’s construct and allowed comparison with Murphy’s ethos and activities. Cooper (2006) was particularly helpful in understanding various interpretations of evolutionary panentheism; and Myers (1907, 1918) and Thurston (1951) assisted in the information and documentation of metanormal human potential (1951).
Interpretations and Intuitions
In his study on Richard Price, co-founder of Esalen with Murphy, Erickson (2003) informs:
The psychobiographic, in-depth, case study is a reconstructive, intuitive, interpretive method based upon the synthesis of all available evidence culled from all available sciences providing systematic analyses of information on the life and life’s works of a single individual.
This conclusion is supported by other theorists (Runyon 1984, McAdams 2001) and by the methods of personality comprehension enabled by the psychological in-depth case study. It is within this context that things get rocky, as the constituents of misinformation (speculation, intuition, interpretation, inference, and so on) are subject to bias, error, and misinformation generated by the researcher’s condition. Add to this the same elements of plausible misinformation provided by the subject, intentionally or otherwise. Runyon (1984) offers the following benchmarks to mitigate explicit misinformation:
While it is true that much misinformation is because of poor judgment, a lack of thoroughness, or ignorance, other human elements also participate in conclusions that might appear misleading or wrong. McAdams (2001) asks: “To what extent are memories for personal events accurate renditions of what happened or biased reconstructions of the past?” Occasions maturate as events happen and vice-versa. One does not maintain a firm grasp on their evolution. We rarely retain accurate recollections of the day, time, circumstance, or other exacting details of Pillemer’s triune events in the creation of an occasion. However, memories and their interpretations, whether correctly recollected or not, should not be taken as false or intentionally inaccurate. In best case scenario, one creates the best and most honorable recollection of which one is capable.
For we can always make mistakes about the motivation and the principal actors in a study; they themselves can indeed spread misconceptions about their own motives. But the work of a great poet or innovator, or a religious genius or a genuine philosopher can never be anything but the true expression of his spiritual life; in that human community delivered from all falsehood, such a work is ever true and unlike every other type of expression registered in signs; it is susceptible to complete and objective interpretation; indeed, it is only in the light of such works that we begin to understand the other contemporary artistic monuments and historical actions (Dilthey and Jameson 1972).
How close to the fire must a researcher’s feet be held depends a great deal on intentionality, which is subject to motivation. Many insist that academic sources used in support of an argument ease the degree of misinformation but that is indeed not the case. Any decent researcher can glean sources that support any conclusion one chooses to deliver. A standard academic practice requires the grad-student render a paper, which
conclusions are in opposition to the student’s ethos and convictions. A researcher must always consider the multiplicities and motivations of truth. Truth means different things to different people. It is fluid and contingent on motivation and interpretation. An evolving truth is proof of the capacity of mind and sensation. A researcher is highly susceptible to incorporating his or her personal sensibilities, and is subject to prejudice and misinterpretation due to the vicariousness elements of investigation, the suggestiveness of the subject, and the researchers own condition. The study is also contingent on prejudices and misinformation by the subject, sources, and contemporaries. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so also does truth evidence its ambiguity.
The psychobiography employs many methodologies, its conclusions subject to misinformation and interpretation. Qualitative research focuses on examining a topic via cultural phenomena, human behavior, and belief systems. A comprehensive study of the life and productivity of an individual can make use of interviews, open-ended questions, opinion research, and so on to gain insight into certain beliefs, concepts, and systems.It offers a close-up look at the human side of an issue concerning behaviors, beliefs, opinions, emotions, and relationships, supported by such intangible factors as social norms, esoteric beliefs, ethnicity, socio-economic status, philosophy, religion, etcetera. As the validity of science evolves, however, so does the truth of the causes and consequences of a theory.
The inherently personalistic aspect of the in-depth case study opens up avenues of misinterpretation as does the study of the phenomenological which is inherently subject subjective. Add to this the interpretative nature of a psychological inquiry, which is largely based on instinct, speculation, and inference. These overarching requisites for interpretation provide ample room for misinformation. The tenets within any hermeneutic are extremely difficult to fathom. Many texts subject to evaluation are products of another age and civilization, created and with commentaries in a language, itself, open to interpretation. Take for example, Buddha’s Noble Truth. The word dukkha or suffering that underscores the Four Nobel Truths can be translated in multiple ways including anxiety, constraint, distress, and so on. Suffering connotes a purgatorial existence of physical torture, which is counterproductive in its gravity of message. The more reasonable condition of humanity is a state of distress or dis–ease.
So, do these predilections to misinformation render a study obsolete? The contrary is true. A subject, researcher, or source is not without fault; it is this susceptibility to error, mistake, bias, motivation, and so on that establishes the humanness and authenticity of the participants. A flawed and arguable psychobiography does not diminish the final product but enhances it through its complexities of comprehension, value, and truth to the participants. It is indeed fortuitous that a good psychobiography does not lie dormant in the academic wasteland of the unforgettable but rises into forums of debate and commentary.
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