Is Therapy an Art or a Science? An Existential-Humanistic Perspective

This is a classic debate in the field of psychotherapy. In its beginnings, Freud clearly intended for psychoanalysis to become a science. Many of those who have entered the field since have sought the same goal. However, is psychotherapy best seen as an art or a science??

In beginning, it is important to make a distinction between the field of psychology and the field of psychotherapy. While this distinction in many ways is arbitrary because they are both closely related to each other and highly influential upon each other, this distinction is still important. In more recent times, this distinction appears to be growing. This can be illustrated in the separation of PhD (Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology) from a PsyD (Doctorate of Psychology). Psychology has become more research-based (science) while psychotherapy is more flexible to be an art, a science, or a mixture of the two.

An existential perspective would focus on the idea of an empirically informed art. In other words, existential thought would not devalue the scientific knowledge, but neither would it elevate it too highly. Science and research is one way of knowing. There are still many other ways of knowing which exist. This includes phenomenological, spiritual, intuition, and relational ways of knowing. While these are generally more abstract ways of knowing, they are equally as valid.

Though existential psychology speaks of the importance of both objective (scientific) and subjective (art) ways of knowing, the majority show favoritism toward the subjective ways of knowing. Still, it may be better stated that existential thought tends toward an epistemological pluralism. Epistemology is the study of how we know or how we know what we know. Epistemological pluralism, then, is advocating for the usage of multiple ways of knowing when attempting to attain knowledge or determine truth. This position is consistent with many current trends in postmodern thought which voice a strong distrust of over-reliance on any singular epistemology or way of knowing.

Existential thought would strongly criticize much of the field of psychology today for the over-reliance on scientific knowledge. This is most clearly seen in the various movements of the empirically supported treatments (sometimes also referred to as the Empirically Validated Treatments). These movements display favoritism toward quantitative or objective research methods. Many existential approaches would seek a greater balance between quantitative and qualitative research.

Original version added 2004; Updated December 2005