Rollo May's Existentialist Theories

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  • 0:00 Existentialism & Rollo May
  • 1:06 May's Existential…
  • 1:56 May's States of Existence
  • 4:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dana Dance-Schissel

Dana teaches social sciences at the college level and English and psychology at the high school level. She has master's degrees in applied, clinical and community psychology.

Rollo May was an American psychologist who is often referred to as the father of existential psychology. This lesson will explore the theories of Rollo May.

Existentialism and Rollo May

Have you ever wondered about the meaning of life? We all wonder why we are here at times and what our purpose is, don't we? These philosophical questions usually become more pressing in the face of tragedy and suffering as we try to make sense of something that seems so senseless. These are the types of questions that lay at the foundation of Rollo May's work.

Rollo May was an influential American psychologist who helped establish a new branch of psychology called existential psychology. Existentialism focuses on man's search for meaning and purpose in life.

May came to existentialism through personal hardship. His earliest education centered on English and theology, and he spent the earliest part of his career teaching English abroad. However, May was stricken by tuberculosis, a bacterial lung infection, and was hospitalized for several years. During this illness, May began to explore the meaning of life in the face of death. This curiosity eventually led May to study clinical psychology. In fact, he was the recipient of the first PhD in clinical psychology granted by Columbia University.

May's Existential Psychology Theory

In many ways, Rollo May's work stems from humanistic psychology, which focuses on the capacity for growth and achievement in human beings. May took these ideas a step further as he explored the purpose of anxiety in human beings. He proposed that anxiety emerged as a result of uncertainty in life and of looming death. May determined that human beings fear death because we cannot comprehend our own lack of existence.

However, May believed that facing these feelings of anxiety and fear was a necessary experience if personal growth and meaning were to be achieved in life. May focused on the concept of freedom as the pinnacle of human existence. Freedom, in May's theory, represents the power to choose and direct one's life. May also explored the concepts of love and will as crucial in negotiating life's challenges.

May's States of Existence

Rollo May's existentialist theory lays out four unique states that commonly emerge throughout life as human beings negotiate their existence. Think about your behaviors and motivations in your life. More than likely, these change pretty frequently depending on the situation you inhabit at given time. This is similar to the way Rollo May's four states of existence play out.

The state of innocence, according to Rollo May, basically represents a lack of will or intention. There is no intentional or decisive behavior in this state; people just exist. To understand this more clearly, think of an infant. We often describe infants as innocent because they are not in control of much in their own lives. They do not really carry out independent actions or plans. If they do something wrong, we don't blame them because we feel that they did not know any better. This is the same idea that Rollo May conveys with the state of innocence. People in this state are just being. They are not actively involved in or negotiating life's challenges.

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