The following article was published in the The Humanistic Psychologist, (Journal of the Society for Humanistic Psychology.) Volume 39, Number 1, January-March 2011, pp.71-74. It will give the reader, who is interested, another means through which to understand the philosophical and psychological foundations of my practice of psychology.
JOHN ERNEST “ERNIE” KEEN
February 15, 1937 – May 20, 2010
Bruce A. Levi
J. Ernest “Ernie” Keen, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA died in Sykesville, Maryland after a long battle with dementia. He is survived by his first wife, Dorris Keen, three children, Andrew, Christa, and Whitney, six grandchildren, and his second wife, Teresa Amott. It is a cruel irony that this brain disease ravaged the mind of a humanist and scholar whose hallmark was to take complex ideas and communicate them with clarity, simplicity, and empathy.
Ernie was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. He earned his undergraduate degree at Heidelburg University in Ohio, and received his Doctorate in Psychology from the Department of Social Relations at Harvard University in 1963. He did a year of post-doctoral work there. Gordon W. Allport, who developed the trait theory of personality, was Ernie’s dissertation director and mentor. During this time, Ernie also worked closely with Rollo May and became acquainted with fellow graduate student Rolf von Eckartsberg.
He began teaching at Bucknell University in 1964 and published his landmark work, Three Faces of Being: Toward an Existential Clinical Psychology, in 1970; he was promoted to Full Professor in 1974 and remained at Bucknell until his retirement in 2000. He received the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1970 and the Class of 1956 Lectureship for 1970-1971. He was appointed to the Institute of Human Values at Yale University during his sabbatical year, 1976-1977. He served as Chair of the Psychology Department from 1979 through 1981, as Director of the Student Transfer Enrichment Program from 1992 to 1998, and was one of the founders of the Social Justice Residential College at Bucknell. He was twice a visiting lecturer at Duquesne University, and gave keynote addresses to organizations such as the International Human Science Research Conference In 2001, the Division of Humanistic Psychology of the American Psychological Association presented Ernie with the Rollo May Award for his lifetime contributions to the field.
Ernie was a gifted psychotherapist and author of eight books and many articles spanning subjects in existential-phenomenological psychology, the human potential movement, the history of ideas in American psychology, the psychopharmacological and behaviorist assaults on human consciousness, and the experience of depression. He argued to de-medicalize the difficulties people encounter living their lives. Over and against the cultural norms of psychology and psychiatry, which overlooked the deeper meanings of one’s experience in favor of diagnostic categories of mental illness, Ernie espoused the value of empathically understanding difficult emotional experiences in terms of their narrative structure. In all his works he revealed the flawed and largely unexamined philosophical foundations of mainstream American psychology, and championed psychology as a human science and the valuing of human freedom and agency as the means to foster psychological healing and guide psychological research.
Notable among his early books, A Primer in Phenomenological Psychology (1975), exemplified Ernie’s genius for taking the most difficult of philosophical treatises and arguments about consciousness and showing not only their relevance for a deep human science based psychological understanding of human behavior, but furthermore, described this in a clear and concise manner while remaining respectful to the philosophical foundations. For example, in the first two chapters of this work, Ernie described how his five-year-old daughter, having arrived at her friend’s house, changed her mind about sleeping over when she had been so looking forward to it all day. This rather prosaic everyday kind of event became the means through which Ernie taught the reader to understand the structure of his daughter’s experience utilizing, among other ideas, Husserl’s (1905/1964) phenomenology of internal time consciousness and Heidegger’s (1927/1962) ontological notion of being-in-the-world. In the process, we learn how to understand his daughter’s lived experience as lived, get a wonderfully clear explication of the phenomenology of internal time consciousness and being-in-the-world, and a demonstration of how these concepts can be applied to subjective experience in a scientifically rigorous way.
In a series of five books beginning with Drugs, Therapy, and Professional Power (1998) and ending with his last book, Depression: Self-Consciousness, Pretending, and Guilt (2002), Ernie critiqued the marginalization of consciousness by psychology and psychiatry and with it the resulting morally inferior position of researching and treating people as things to which something is done or happens. For Ernie, one ought to go past the diagnosing of depression as an illness to be treated. Instead, helping someone articulate the underlying narrative of their sadness authentically creates opportunities for that person to begin to do something to change that narrative. The reduction of human experience as something to be predicted and controlled rather than, first and foremost, empathically understood and related to, as something belonging to a particular person, has done violence, not only to those we study and treat, but, to who we are as psychologists. Ernie argued that this was a moral issue with serious consequences, with which psychological science ought to be concerned.
Ultimate questions about one’s existence -- such as “Who am I becoming in doing one thing rather than another?” (Keen, 2000, p. xi) -- are not just questions for a psychotherapy client, but for the clinician as well. The failure to take these questions seriously has led to the erosion of, among other things, the valuing of the psychotherapeutic relationship, in favor of brief treatment protocols and psychiatric medication interventions as a first (and often only) response. The short-term “fix” demanded by the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, while helping some, has led to greater numbers of relapses and greater costs to society in both economic and emotional terms. As a result, as psychiatric medications have been over prescribed, people have been under treated. Ernie would ask us to consider who we are becoming when, as psychologists, we collaborate with such forces; and, what we are to make of a popular consciousness that allows such things to happen.
The revelatory nature of Ernie’s thinking about the foundational problems of psychology, practiced as a natural science, was informed by a phenomenological framework that ontologically elevated and restored consciousness as central to the enterprise of psychology and understood the “life-world” (Husserl, 1954/1970) as the fundamental context for understanding human experience. And when psychology approaches consciousness, not as another “thing” in the world like other things, but as that presence through which the experience of a world is possible at all, it can begin to realize itself as a human science. He was not opposed to psychological research utilizing experimental and quantitative methods but understood such methods to be limited and inadequate for the study of consciousness, which required qualitative methods.
His socio-historical and cultural critique of the discipline of psychology, as being out of touch with the “lived world,” was also informed by his study of post-structuralist philosophers like Michel Foucault, and ongoing dialogues with Bucknell colleagues in history (John Kirkland), philosophy (Joseph Fell), and religion (Douglas Sturm). In the field of humanistic psychology, Ted Sarbin was particularly influential in Ernie’s later work.
But to truly appreciate Ernie one would have had to have the privilege of experiencing him as a teacher and colleague. In the finest sense he remained a student/scholar as he taught. He had the capacity to listen to students and hone in on the best of their ideas and help them articulate them further. His lectures were inspiring, his thoughts flowed forth effortlessly, his manner relaxed and inviting. He embodied a combination of incisive thought with an endearing, wry, self-effacing wit. Commenting on one of his books in a letter to me, he wrote:
It is long, well researched, carefully argued, and undeniably important. Unfortunately it is also long, boring, pedantic, and presumptuous. What it is not is glib, superficial, unambivalent, and meaningless. Sounds like a winner to me—no? (Keen, 1998, January 2)
He was always available to his students and colleagues engaging in enriching conversations at school and at home. His close friend and long time colleague, Douglas Candland (also a Bucknell psychologist), related an amusing and at the same time humbling anecdote about Ernie’s reputation in the field. While in Japan at a conference where one wore name and school labels, a Japanese psychologist, noticing that Candland’s nametag indicated he taught at Bucknell, approached excitedly. Dr. Candland, as he related the story to me, thinking happily that someone in Japan might know him, greeted the man. The man then exclaimed how lucky Dr. Candland was that he could speak with Ernie Keen everyday.
I had the good fortune to study with Ernie for three years from 1969 to 1971 serving in the last year as his graduate assistant and having him direct my master’s thesis. In those days, I was at a desk in an antechamber to his larger inner office. The wall in front of his desk was full of the drawings by his young children and a window overlooking a grassy lawn. The other three walls contained floor to ceiling book shelves full of books except for the highest shelf which contained empty, bright yellow cans of pipe tobacco, uniformly stacked in three can pyramids. I know I asked him why he kept them, but I don’t remember his response. I assume now that the cans provided him with some amusement and had something to do with his interest in explicating the problems behind the problems of psychology. The brand name on the cans? Revelation.
Sometime after I left Bucknell, Ernie stopped smoking his pipes and became a successful triathlete. It is sad that this movement toward healthful living did not prevent his becoming ill at such an early age and silence his voice; a voice of moral clarity, warmth, and compassion. In a letter to me, dated January 1, 1995, which marked the beginning of a flurry of activity that produced his last five books, published between 1998 and 2002, Ernie, presciently, poignantly, and passionately wrote:
…next year will be a second semester sabbatical, and I am beginning work on a long essay (Book?) on psychoactive medication. Most of my research so far has led me to intensify my hostility to it, not on a case by case basis but as a direction of psychology and psychiatry to go in their continuing evolution into mature professions. I think chemotherapy guarantees that any maturity will be also senile. Before that state overtakes me, I want one more shot at the technologists and what they are doing to the experience of life, and especially to the experience of our feelings, our tragedies, struggles, conflicts, and pains.
Psychology would be well served passing on to future generations of psychologists this man’s work to re-humanize the project of American psychology. Ernie Keen, through his teaching and writing provided us with a clear picture of what is wrong with American psychology and a blueprint of what psychologists can, and in fact, ought to become when subjectivity really matters to them. When human subjectivity once more becomes central to a psychological understanding of a person’s behavior, then psychology as a science will achieve a self-reflective maturity and re-discover its soul.
Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time (J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans). New York: Harper & Row. (Original work published 1927)
Husserl, E. (1970). The crisis of European sciences and transcendental
Phenomenology (D. Carr, Trans.). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. (Original work published 1954)
Husserl, E. (1966). The phenomenology of internal time-consciousness (James S. Churchill,
Trans.). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. (Original lecture course presented 1905)
Keen, E. (1970). Three faces of being: Toward an existential clinical psychology.
New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Keen, E. (1975). A primer in phenomenological psychology. New York: Holt,
Rinehart and Winston.
Keen, E. (1995, January 1). Letter to Bruce Levi.
Keen, E. (1998a). Drugs, therapy, and professional power: Problems and pills. Westport, CT: Prager.
Keen, E. (1998, January 2). Letter to Bruce Levi
Keen, E. (2000). Ultimacy and triviality in psychotherapy. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Keen, E. (2002). Depression: Self-consciousness, pretending, and guilt. Westport, CT: Prager.
Bruce A. Levi is clinical psychologist with a private psychotherapy practice in Westport, CT. He received an M.A. in Psychology from Bucknell University in 1971 (under the mentorship of Ernie Keen) and a Ph.D from Duquesne University in 1978. He draws upon a wide variety of treatment strategies integrated within an existential-phenomenological approach to create particular styles of therapeutic relating tailored to the needs and resources of each individual and/or family. He is certified in clinical hypnosis and an approved consultant with the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis. And, he is on the faculty of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation’s Dissociative Disorders Psychotherapy Training Program. He offers supervision and consultations, has presented workshops and leads an ongoing study group centered around dissociative disorders and trauma.
My heartfelt thanks to Scott Churchill for his invaluable editorial advice and for encouraging me to write this piece in memory of our dear friend, Ernie Keen.
Contact information: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Address: 20 Bay Street, Westport, CT 06880