Modern versus Western Thought: Self and Social Character

William H. Young

Over the first half of the twentieth century, American social and political science began to turn Modern thought in the directions of subjectivism and determinism through forms of social constructionism—cultural determinism, behaviorism, and progressivism.

In the mid-twentieth century, subjectivism advanced in different directions and began to have a greater effect on society. Feeling replaced intellect in an emerging “other-directed” social character in which the feelings of others in peer groups rather than the self increasingly determined the individual’s motives and actions. Humanistic psychology turned attention to the conscious mind and the self but emphasized subjectivism. In self-actualization, knowledge of objective reality was less important than subjective perception and understanding of the world. Self-esteem determined by others became a basis for a destructive movement that moved through education.

Other-Directed Social Character

In The Lonely Crowd (1950), Harvard sociologist David Riesman (with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney)[1] foresaw that the “social character” of upper-middle-class Americans was changing from “inner-directed,” based on intellectual ability, a production ethic, and internalized principles (one’s gyroscope), to “other-directed,” based on a cooperative self, a consumption ethic, and what others feel about one’s self (one’s radar). Riesman drew upon the neo-Freudian social psychology of Eric Fromm and others in developing his treatment of social character. One prime psychological aspect of an other-directed social character, he concluded, is anxiety.

Riesman defined social character as “that part of character which is shared among significant social groups and which, as most contemporary social scientists define it, is the product of the experience of these groups.” Similarly, today, “social character” is seen to describe the emotional attitudes common to people in a social class or society and to determine their socially typical expectations and socially adaptive behavior. It is the shared character type of a social class or society.[2]

Riesman based his vision of the transformation to other-directed social character on the re-orientation of American big business and society toward mass consumption rather than production and on the increasing influence of a mass media on society. He identified an informal representation of such an epoch change as the death of Henry Ford in 1947. He also introduced the increasingly key role of the peer group in the values of social character and in the influence of its values on the conduct and milieu of American business. Part of his projection was that future American society would be more leisure and less work-oriented. The other-directed social character was the kind of adaptive behavior that would be required in such a society.

As Riesman argued specifically in The Lonely Crowd:

The type of character I shall describe as other-directed seems to be emerging in very recent years in the upper middle class of our larger cities…While all people want and need to be liked by some of the people some of the time, it is only the modern other-directed types who make this their chief source of direction and chief area of sensitivity….It is perhaps the insatiable force of this psychological need for approval that differentiates people of the metropolitan American upper middle class, whom we regard as other-directed…

The other-directed person must be able to receive signals from far and near; the sources are many, the changes rapid. What can be internalized, then, is not a code of behavior but the elaborate equipment needed to attend to such messages and occasionally to participate in their circulation. As against guilt-and-shame controls, though of course these survive, one prime psychological lever of the other-directed person is a diffuse anxiety. This control equipment, instead of being like a gyroscope, is like a radar….

Approval itself, irrespective of content, becomes almost the only unequivocal good in his situation: one makes good when one is approved of. Thus all power, not merely some power, is in the hands of the actual or imaginary approving group, and the child learns from his parents’ reactions to him that nothing in his character, no possession he owns, no inheritance of name or talent, no work he has done is valued for itself but only for its effect on others. Making good becomes almost equivalent to making friends, or at any rate the right kind of friends….[3]

Riesman noted the important role of traditional public education in building inner-directed individuals and criticized progressive education for shifting to other-directed pedagogies. In the past, he wrote, the schools’ emphasis on intellectual ability had shaped “the inner-directed character. It affirms to the child that what matters is what he can accomplish, not how nice is his smile or how cooperative his attitude.” Progressive education, Riesman observed, had begun as an effort to free children from excessive discipline; “today, however, progressive education is often no longer progressive; as people have become more other-directed, educational methods that were once liberating may even tend to thwart individuality rather than to advance and protect it.”[4]

Riesman concluded with the following advice:

The idea that men are created free and equal is both true and misleading: men are created different; they lose their social freedom and their individual autonomy in seeking to become like each other.[5]

Riesman was quite prescient. At the time The Lonely Crowd was published, he posited that most of the country remained inner-directed, but observed the growth of the other-directed among the upper-middle classes along the coasts and in urban areas. He accurately predicted that the other-directed type would continue to expand and become the country’s dominant mechanism of social character. In today’s society, other-direction represents the chief mode of conformity.

While not using Riesman’s term “social character,” in The End of the Experiment (2016), Stanley Rothman and other authors find, similarly, that today’s intellectual and cultural elite, and much of our professional upper middle class, is no longer driven for achievement based on a standard of excellence set for oneself, but driven for power to control or influence others and to attempt to maintain a narcissistic self-esteem.[6] This is a stark rejection of the vision of human effort honored at the Founding.

The happiness sought by the other-directed person of our time—the psychological basis for Modern thought—is what Mortimer Adler, editor of Great Books of the Western World (1952), calls, in Ten Philosophical Mistakes (1987), “contentment.” He contrasts that to the ethical basis for happiness in Western thought going back to Aristotle, “the moral quality of a life well lived,”[7] illustrating what we have lost in our transition.

Other-directed persons want to be loved rather than esteemed, to relate to rather than lead others, to receive assurance emotionally in tune with others. They are inherently restricted in ability to know themselves. Thus, an other-directed society consists of individuals significantly lacking in self-knowledge, human potential, and leadership.

Humanistic Psychology

Between the 1930s and the 1970s, the “cognitive revolution” replaced B.F. Skinner’s radical behaviorism as the reigning psychological paradigm. Cognitive psychology is the study of mental processes such as “attention, language use, memory, perception, problem solving, creativity, and thinking.”[8] Humanistic psychology rose into prominence in response to the limitations of both Freudian psychoanalysis theory, seen as unscientific, and Skinner’s narrowly reductionist behaviorism.

Abraham Maslow’s book Motivation and Personality (1954) started a philosophical revolution out of which grew humanistic psychology. This changed the view of human nature from a negative view—man is a conditioned organism—to a more positive view in which man is motivated to realize his full potential. This is reflected in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and in his theory of self-actualization. Maslow saw “self-actualization” to be the desire for self-fulfillment of capability or potential, a motivation for constant betterment.[9]

Humanistic psychology redirected attention to the conscious mind, but self-actualization, the human potential movement, and the therapeutic society focused the self on subjectivism and will rather than objective reality. Rollo May, Maslow, and Carl Rogers founded the “humanistic” psychology movement. They argued that knowledge of objective reality is less important than a person’s subjective perception and understanding of the world.

Perhaps recognizing the needs of the other-directed, humanistic psychology became involved in applying its principles to cultural activities as well as human potential. The Association for Humanistic Psychology (AHP) describes the benefits of humanistic therapy as having a “crucial opportunity to lead our troubled culture back to its own healthy path” to fulfill the purposes of the founders of the association “dedicated to a psychology focused on these features of human capital [individuality, creativity, meaning] demanded for post-industrial society.”

In 1978, AHP embarked on a three-year effort to explore how the principles of humanistic psychology could be used to further the process of positive social and political change. The effort included a “12-Hour Political Party,” held In San Francisco in 1980, where nearly 1,400 attendees discussed presentations by such non-traditional social thinkers as Ecotopia author Ernest Callenbach, Aquarian Conspiracy author Marilyn Ferguson, Person/Planet author Theodore Roszak, and New Age Politics author Mark Satin. The emergent perspective was summarized in “Sketch for a Humanistic Manifesto” by AHP President George Lennard. It proffered such ideas as moving to a slow-growth or no-growth economy, “decentralizing” society, and teaching social and emotional competencies in order to provide a foundation for more humane public policies and a healthier culture.[10]

Self-Esteem and Education

The rise and role of therapeutic aspects of public education relate to Rogerian kinds of psychotherapy and the self-esteem movement. In Left Back (2000), Dianne Ravitch explains how Rogerian humanistic psychology contributed to the constructivist teaching pedagogy that so undermined the teaching of knowledge in public schools. Ravitch also summarizes how humanistic psychology led and contributed to the self-esteem movement in education.[11]

That movement gained considerable traction regarding the education of minority students during the 1970s. It adopted the belief that self-esteem is determined and awarded by society or culture rather than earned and developed by the individual through reciprocal participation in the private sphere, as contemplated by the Founders.  

Both Rogerian psychology and the self-esteem movement have had significant impact on college students. Today, self-belief is still seen as more important than learning. In a series of articles (here, here and here) for NAS in 2009, Slouching Toward the Therapeutic University, Tom Wood explained the effects of those movements and argued that:

within the academy, the main culprits and enablers seem to be administrators and Res Life and Student Affairs staff, since it is primarily these academic personnel who have succumbed most to the now widespread view that, like any business, the university must provide customer satisfaction….[12]

Modern Thought

With the turn to other-directed social character, subjectivism and feeling, the emotional orientation of the peer group began to replace intellectual discipline and reorient the aspirations of individuals. Subjectivism increasingly took the place of objective reality. Self-belief supplanted learning. As a result of these developments, the progressive replacement of thinking by feeling was further accelerated. 

The next article will address the emergence of an “adolescent society” in American high schools, leading eventually to an extended culture of adolescence and subjectivism.

This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

Image: Pixabay, Public Domain


[1] David Riesman with Nathan Glazer and Ruell Denney, The Lonely Crowd: A study of the changing American character (New Haven: Yale University Press, Originally Published 1950, Abridged Edition, 1961).

[2] “Social character,” Wiklpedia,

[3] Riesman, Lonely Crowd, 19-25.

[4] Ibid., 59-60, 97, 135

[5] Ibid., 309.

[6] Stanley Rothman, Althea Nagai, Robert Maranto, Matthew C. Woessner, and David J. Rothman, ed. The End of the Experiment: The rise of Cultural Elites and the Decline of America’s Civic Culture (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2016), xi, 83-84.

[7] Mortimer J. Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes: Basic Errors in Modern Thought—How They Came About, Their Consequences, and How to Avoid Them (New York: Macmillan, 1985).

[8] “Cognitive psychology,” Wikipedia,

[9] “Self-actualization,” Wiklpedia,

[10] “Humanistic psychology,” Wiklpedia,

[11] Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 392, 426–29.

[12] Tom Wood, “Slouching Toward the Therapeutic University: Parts 1 and 2,” National Association of Scholars, 30-31 March 2009.

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