Psychology’s Neglect of Philosophy

Psychology’s neglect of Philosophy

It is interesting to observe that up until the 19th century, psychology was informally a branch of philosophy. Questions related to the human mind, and even the treatment of mental ailments such as existential angst and despair, were traditionally concerns of philosophy. Of course, they now fall within the domain of experimental and clinical psychology. And though psychology would seem to owe a great debt to philosophy, for the most part it remains unthankful, and shows a surprising lack of respect or regard for its historical roots.

Psychology’s neglect of philosophy started over a century ago, when it began distancing itself from its parent discipline. Though it would continue to study the physically elusive qualities of the human mind, psychology longed to be viewed as a science. In order to do so, it would need to embrace some form of empiricism – a theory of knowledge asserting that evidence must be derived from observations by the physical senses. Some would question whether this was even possible, given that the target of inquiry was, and continues to be, something that largely escapes physical investigation. Still, psychology would work hard to define itself by the standards of science, and in doing so it would minimize or neglect non-empirical sources of knowledge.

Philosophy is nearly synonymous with rationalism – an epistemological approach that uses reason as a critical source of knowledge or justification. The impression that I often get from my psychology students, and even colleagues, is that non-empirical evidence or justification is unworthy of serious consideration – it is implicitly rejected by mainstream psychology. Students become especially uncomfortable when highly theoretical lectures start to sound ‘philosophical,’ and I have even heard a few frustrated students exclaim: “this is supposed to be psychology, not philosophy!” The kind of logical reasoning practiced by philosophy appears foreign to mainstream psychology. And though psychology would ostensibly seek a full separation from philosophy, I will argue that it cannot do so without risking the title of ‘science’ that it so greatly values.

What is Philosophy and how does it Work?

In contrast to scientific empiricism, philosophy uses deductive or logical arguments as a way of gathering evidence and affirming or disconfirming hypotheses. And just like empirical science, philosophical arguments have rules they must follow. An argument will usually consist of one or more premise and a conclusion. The premises contain the statements or propositions intended to provide justification or evidence for the truth of another statement. Deductive reasoning will often attempt to show that a certain conclusion necessarily follows from a set of accepted premises. A valid argument, for example, is able to demonstrate that if the premises turn out to be true, the conclusion must, by necessity, also be true. A deductive argument is additionally judged to be sound if it is valid and its premises are true. Thus, one can make a valid argument, but the argument can nevertheless be revealed as unsound. Here is an example:

  1. The brain is shaped entirely by learning (P: Premise 1)
  2. Emotions emerge from states within the brain (P: Premise 2)
  3. Therefore, emotions are learned (Q: Conclusion)

The above is an example of a valid argument, since if we accept the premises, the conclusion must be true. However, it appears unsound, since at least one of the premises (Premise 1), is false. It is important to think of the premises as the ‘data’ used to support or refute a given conclusion. However, just as is the case within the empirical sciences, data may sometimes become ‘contaminated,’ which can lead to unfounded conclusions. And just as it is possible to engage in bad science, one can also engage in poor deductive argumentation, which may involve committing one or more logical fallacies (to be explored in a future article).

I am taking the time to carefully explain all of this because the impression that I often get from students and colleagues, is that they think philosophical reasoning has no framework or rules – that it uses esoteric and rhetorical language to support or refute almost any conclusion of one’s choosing. However, it would seem to me that these kinds of attitudes are based on a poor understanding and appreciation of deductive reasoning and logic, and I would argue that psychology desperately needs both.

Why Psychology Needs Philosophy

A parsimonious definition of psychology may involve: “the study of how humans think, behave, and feel.” But how do we go about doing that? As already stated, if psychology is to be defined as an empirical science, it must prioritize knowledge obtained through physical observation, measurement, and experimentation. However, its main target of investigation (e.g. the human mind) escapes adequate definition on empirical terms alone. So while investigators may on very rare occasion touch a living physical brain, they cannot physically touch or visually observe a human thought or feeling. And though we can carefully observe and measure many human behaviors, it is extremely difficult to know with certainty where it originated from, either in the physical structure of the nervous system, or in the causal sense of attribution. We are often reduced to asking someone why they did what they did (which is subjective, and not objective evidence), or we must infer through some set of theoretical assumptions. Advances in neurobiology claim to be closing this ‘mind-body’ gap, though even here one must either presuppose how the mind-brain relate, or otherwise subscribe to various philosophical positions that allow us to interpret the evidence in a particular way.

It would appear that psychology is then left in a theoretical bind. It could operate as some kind of empirical science, conducting research regarding the activity of the mind, if it had a framework for how the mind is presumed to work. However, none is evident a priori, since the mind is only partially tangible to the senses, and even then, much of it can be argued as being subjective. Stated differently, it would seem that the research must be grounded in a theoretical framework, but as long as we study something that escapes definition by the physical senses alone, this framework (i.e. a philosophy of mind) will always be based on non-empirical deductive reasoning and the creation of invisible psychological constructs. Thus, it would seem that the most important step for psychologists, would involve entering the realm of theoretical reason, an area in which they typically pay very little attention and for which, one may argue, they have been inadequately trained.

Nevertheless, psychologists have managed to ‘advance’ their field by adopting various theoretical frameworks from which to investigate. Below are some examples:

  1. Phrenology (1810-1840): The mind is massively modularized; each mental faculty is represented in a particular area of the brain. A person’s propensity for a given personality trait can be determined by measuring the area of the skull atop the corresponding area of the brain.
  2. Behaviorism (1900-present): The mind is a product of the brain, which is assumed to be a largely flexible and plastic system, capable of being shaped by learning and environmental conditioning.
  3. Cognitivism (1950-present): The mind is a product of the brain, which works like a computer, processing information and symbolic representations by activating specialized mental programs, computational rules, or information-processing modules.
  4. Evolutionary Psychology (1980-present): Same assumptions as cognitivism, with additional claims that the mind is massively modularized with domain-specific mental programs that were adapted to specific problems from our Pleistocene past.

It is worth noting that each of the above theoretical paradigms was arrived at by some kind of rational argument. That is, they did not emerge from physical investigation within the human neurosciences, though they sometimes ‘cherry-pick’ from neurobiology in ways to fit with their theoretical world-views. And while each of the above paradigms is assumed to be ‘true’ by their respective theoretical camps, each has been seriously contested on grounds of careless deductive reasoning and contradictory empirical evidence. These are serious charges, since a faulty theoretical framework will guide hypothesis testing, research, and even how the data is interpreted. Is the mind flexible like neuronal silly putty, or is it a pre-programmed bio-electrical computer? Does it process specific information, or is it representational and relative? There are many options and alternatives. So even though researchers may claim that a particular finding is ‘supported by research,’ that may only be true if one accepts the assumptions of the theoretical paradigm overseeing the investigation.

The logical fallacies or faults in reasoning, that our paradigms are accused of committing, seldom, if ever make it into the mainstream psychological literature or classroom discussion. Students are never taught to be suspicious of the theoretical blueprints they are handed. They are never encouraged to hone their deductive reasoning skills. So while serious conceptual flaws might be debated for years or even decades within international journals that address conceptual problems within the field, mainstream psychology continues to be swept along by theoretical momentum and the drunken allure of empirical investigation. The research generating paradigm becomes both figuratively and literally life sustaining, even if it may be fundamentally wrong. In experimental psychology, empiricism reigns king, as does the ‘publish or perish’ adage and dreams of rejecting null hypotheses. Psychological ‘discoveries’ are triumphantly made, though their validity may only be maintained while the theoretical ‘flavor of the decade,’ or ‘the Truth of the moment,’ endures. But even if psychologists were trained to recognize the ways in which their theories have parted ways with reason, who would want to bring an end to the party, where nearly any kind of empirical study can get published – where we get to have our cake and eat it too!

More often than not, it would seem that critical evaluation comes not from within, but from outside our field. Philosophers are typically the ones raining on our empirical parade by offering scathing critiques our theoretical frameworks – though we seldom hear them. I suspect we dismiss the philosophers because we implicitly dismiss rationalism and their not practicing our epistemologically preferred method of empiricism. Science without rationalism (i.e. philosophy) is blind in many ways, but it is especially problematic for psychology to think that it can dismiss or do away with rationalism. As stated above, psychology wants to engage in empirical research to explore psychological phenomena (e.g. human thinking, behaving, feeling), but in order to do so, they must come up with a framework to study it. This framework is a slippery one to nail down, and will always involve some kind of deductive reasoning to define, which may at times resemble a theoretical ‘leap of faith.’ And without critical examination, they can take on all the qualities of a religion, and psychology would offer plenty to choose from. Once inside the paradigm of their choosing, the theoretical framework is accepted as ‘true’ – we might guess the reason to be so that ‘the research may go on,’ though, as philosophers of science so often point out to us, our paradigms may be built on an unsafe foundation.

Something of an ironic picture thus unfolds. Psychology initially wanted to define itself by rigorous empirical standards that would bring it closer to some kind of objective ‘reality.’ However, in severing its ties with philosophy and rationalism, it risks moving further from it. That is, in order to become a better ‘science,’ psychology neglected rationalism and deemphasized the importance of logic. This is problematic for any science, but especially psychology, since defining the mind always begins as a rational exercise and the theoretical lens through which the research is done may become tainted, thereby questioning the true ‘significance’ of our psychological findings.

So how do we resolve this issue in psychology? Well, I would like to offer a few suggestions for our field to consider:

  1. Just as psychology students are typically required to take a number of ‘statistics’ courses, they should also be required to take a number of philosophy courses in logic and theory of mind.
  2. Psychology programs should offer their own courses dedicated to exploring a varied assortment of theoretical issues within psychology.
  3. Any introductory psychology course teaching from a particular theoretical paradigm (e.g. cognitive, behavioral, and evolutionary psychology), should, in their textbooks, include a chapter written by a critic of that paradigm, briefly detailing any conceptual issues that have been lodged against it.
  4. Whatever our theoretical orientation or belief system, we would do ourselves and our field a favor to question them – and question them often.


Update: check out a couple of related video posts on psychology, theory, and critical thinking.


3 Responses to “Psychology’s Neglect of Philosophy”

  1. Did we invent God to have someone to blame? | Notes from Aboveground Says:

    […] As one regular participant here puts it, “even though researchers may claim that a particular finding is ‘supported by research,’ that may only be true if one accepts the assumptions of the theoretical paradigm overseeing the investigation.” […]

  2. Gray Says:

    Great post. As a philosophy graduate and psych student I can sympathise with a lot of this. I do think you’re perhaps over-emphasising the Rationalism of philosophy and I think this is part of the problem, that it’s seen as solely an exercise in logic and rational argument, divorced from empirical concerns. This is why many dismiss it or shy away from it, thinking it to be armchair pontificating or speculation and irrelevant to their chosen field.

    The truth is most modern (analytic philosophy at least) has to have one eye on the science, has to at best incorporate the empirical evidence in to its arguments or at the very least not contradict it, if it wants to be taken seriously. In this sense, while much of what it does is on the fringes, the dark places where experimental evidence is lacking or impossible, it’s still very much a combination of rationalism and empiricism as an exercise. There are few idealists left in academic philosophy, everyone accepts empiricism as a valid and important source of knowledge (in fact many believe that it’s the only source.) I know your point was really about the kinds of tools philosophy employs rather than its content, but this kind of emphasis runs the risk of misrepresenting philosophy as a practice that is separate from, or unconcerned with, science. The truth is, however much people are either blinde to it, that there is no science without philosophy and there SHOULDN’T be any philosophy without science. Separating the two in to separate domain is purely an artificial exercise that helps for organising university campuses.

    As someone with a background in both, particularly as someone who got his undergraduate degree in philosophy before going on to behavioural science, I absolutely agree with you about the benefits that studying logic and philosophical reasoning in general can have, if at the very least because my training in the former has given me a whole range of skills that have assisted in conceptual clarification and an understanding of the fundamental basis for the field that is often assumed by others. I believe this is a real advantage.

    Brad Reply:

    Thanks Gray. And I wholeheartedly agree that there ought to be no hard and fast line between science and philosophy. I remember writing this in frustration with psychology students who could not tell the difference between reasons and opinions. My intent here was to encourage psychology students to be a bit better versed in philosophy – especially basic deductive argumentation (although the philosophy of mind is very relevant to us as well).

    Still, I wonder if we couldn’t make a strong case for philosophy taking priority in certain kinds of questions (e.g. consciousness). It seems to me that science is able to answer epistemological questions, but one could argue that we tend to overlook or presuppose the ontological status of the item of inquiry. I think many of the continental philosophers would say that ontology comes first (though the analytical philosophers may haggle on this?). But if science is limited to epistemology, then in many cases (perhaps all), I think we might be justified in saying that certain forms of philosophical inquiry would need to come first. Does that make any sense?