Thursday, September 05, 2019

Beyond “scientific psychology”

Kandinsky c

So, let me ask, what is knowledge of human beings? How does it enter into our understanding of ourselves and others as individuals? Can it be acquired by scientific observation, and does it have the kind of generality, precision, and objectivity characteristic of science? Wittgenstein asks: can one learn this knowledge? Let me quote his very brief answer: 

‘Yes; some can. Not, however, by taking a course in it, but through “experience”—Can someone else be man’s teacher in this? Certainly. From time to time he gives him the right tip.—This is what “learning” and “teaching” are like here.—What one acquires here is not a technique; one learns correct judgments. There are also rules, but they do not form a system, and only experienced people can apply them right. Unlike calculating-rules.’ 

The experience which Wittgenstein has in mind is the kind one has in living ones own life. It refers to one’s dealings with people in their variety in different situations, meeting with their cooperation as well as obstruction, their gratitude and their resentment, finding communion with them and at other times feeling at a loss and out of ones depth. The point is that we acquire whatever knowledge we have of mankind in living our life, engaging with others and suffering lifes adversities. The more open we are in ourselvesthat means open to hurt, grief, criticisms, as well as to the pleasures of give and takethe more we are capable of learning from others about life. By contrast the psychologists laboratory is an ivory tower. — Ilham Dilman, Raskolnikovs Rebirth: Psychology and the Understanding of Good and Evil (Open Court, 2000): 2-3. 

At Leiter Reports, there is a link to a piece, “Beyond the Replication Crisis,” with the following conclusion posted along with a request for comments:

“The replication crisis, if nothing else, has shown that productivity is not intrinsically valuable. Much of what psychology has produced has been shown, empirically, to be a waste of time, effort, and money. As Gibson put it: our gains are puny, our science ill-founded. As a subject, it is hard to see what it has to lose from a period of theoretical confrontation.” 

I tried to post a comment, but for some inexplicable reason, Brian never posts my comments. I gave up attempting to comment several years ago, but thought I’d try again (it turns out the passage of time in this case could not work any magic), as this was a topic that very much interests me and to which I’ve given some thought over the years. In any case, what follows represents what I wanted to say (it’s not the original comment, as I did not save it).

Whatever the specifics of “the replication crisis” (some of the comments to Brian’s post argued the ‘crisis’ was rather exaggerated or its implications scientific psychology far less dramatic) one might have drawn the same conclusion based on other, albeit not unrelated reasons, those culled from the outside looking in as it were, the foremost of them owing to the field’s regnant presuppositions and assumptions, as well as the highly constricted scope of psychology experiments. The backbone of such psychology (its forms of knowledge being impersonal, general, inductive, statistical, and theoretical) is of course experimental, and the artificial nature of such experimentation, owing to its constitutional inability to faithfully reproduce or even emulate or imitate the conditions of everyday life or cohere in some measure with folk psychology (first-person or not) and its corresponding narratives, by itself suggests its findings will largely “be a waste of time, effort, and money,” and thus one can reasonably reach the conclusion that scientific psychology as currently organized and practiced is “ill-founded.” 

As I’ve noted in this space before, one domain fundamental to human psychology, the study of emotions, likewise reveals the intrinsic weakness of scientific psychology, a fact highlighted here by Jon Elster, although he is able to salvage some residual utility from this discipline:

“… [W]ith respect to an important subset of the emotions we can learn more from moralists, novelists, and playwrights than from the cumulative findings of scientific psychology. These emotions include regret, relief, hope, disappointment, shame, guilt, pridefulness, pride, hybris, envy, jealousy, malice, pity, indignation, wrath, hatred, contempt, joy, grief, and romantic love. By contrast, the scientific study of the emotions can teach us a great deal about anger, fear, disgust, parental love, and sexual desire (if we count the last two as emotions). [….] I believe…that prescientific insights into the emotion are not simply superseded by modern psychology in the way that natural philosophy has been superseded by physics. Some men and women in the past have been superb students of human nature, with more wide-ranging personal experience, better powers of observation, and deeper intuitions than almost any psychologist I can think of. This is only what we should expect: There is no reason why one century out of twenty-five should have a privilege in wisdom and understanding. In the case of physics, this argument does not apply. Advances in mathematics and experimental techniques have made it possible to go far beyond what could be achieved in earlier centuries. There has be no similar revolution in psychology. Although the pages of psychology journals testify to a great deal of concern with methodology, even the most sophisticated statistical analysis cannot compensate for the intrinsic limitations of laboratory studies on humans.” (Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions, 1999: 48-50) 

Compare the virtually identical sentiment expressed some twenty-five years earlier by an avowed “pupil” of Wittgenstein (yet also a dear friend) in a small book of essays by the psychiatrist Maurice O’Connor Drury, The Danger of Words (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973):

“We might say of a great novelist such as Tolstoy, or our own George Eliot, that they show profound psychological insight into the characters they depict. Or again we should say of a historian such as Burckhardt that he had great psychological acumen in penetrating the motives behind the facts of history. In general, then, it is the great novelists, dramatists, biographers, historians, that are the real psychologists.” 

And like Elster, Drury is not simply dismissive of scientific psychology as such: “I believe that experimental psychology has made and will continue to make very significant contributions to the study of neuro-physiology.”
Kandinsky a
Another philosophical and theoretical perspective from which we can critique scientific psychology can be gleaned from psychoanalytic theory and therapy. Of course it has long been fervently argued that psychoanalysis itself is not now nor ever will be a “science,” and so perhaps it is understandably expected that psychoanalysis is disposed to conspicuously serve as one of several possible polemical or conflicting vantage points from which a vigorous critique of scientific psychology can be—and has been—formulated. I won’t here systematically address, let alone attempt to assess, the arguments in this multi-faceted and long-standing debate about the scientific merits (or lack thereof) of psychoanalysis except to state that I happen to believe psychoanalysis can and should be viewed as a (new) science of subjectivity: in one sense, it is betwixt and between the natural and social sciences, and free to borrow—thus benefit—from both; in another sense, psychoanalysis is distinguishable from the modern sciences in its proximity to philosophy, other “therapies of desire” (those of both religious provenance, as in Buddhism, and non-religious origin, as with ‘philosophy as therapeia’), and the arts, especially literature. 

This is not to ignore the genetically derived flirtations with and occasional indulgence in scientism that shadowed the beginnings of psychoanalysis. Nor should we forget the primary (thus not exclusive) focus on psychopathology, early on at least, which effectively suppressed, distorted or left unexamined key conceptions and assumptions essential to normative models or pictures of what makes for psychological health and well-being. In brief, psychoanalysis is a science, given a sufficiently generous definition of science, one with strong family resemblance to or close in spirit to the meaning of vidyā in Sanskrit. In any case, wherever one falls out in this debate, psychoanalysis remains abundantly rich with psychological insight and knowledge of the sort that can enable us to keenly appreciate the chronic shortcomings of scientific psychology as the preeminent academic field (in the sense that it tends to crowd out different orientations, e.g., psychoanalysis) dedicated to the study of human psychology.

The late Ilham Dilman, who penned a number of exquisitely incisive analytical examinations of Freudian psychology and psychoanalysis in general, and was, it turns out, likewise a student of Wittgenstein’s writings (his review of the aforementioned volume by Dury, concluded that it was ‘like [a] breath of fresh air’), ties our material together with a concise summary of the differences between “scientific psychology” and psychology proper: 

“What the psychologist is concerned to discern and understand in human conduct are expressions of the human soul—verbal and other—that is of individual human beings. Here it is important to remember that human beings can be themselves in what they say and do, and as such accessible to others, and they can also withdraw, put up a front, hide their feelings and intentions from others. They are capable of lying and pretense. There is nothing like this in the animal world or the world of physics, nothing like this which the physicist or ethologist needs to take into account in his observations. For much of what the psychologist needs to understand he has come to know people as individuals. [….]

The trouble with academic, experimental psychology is that, deceived by the pretensions of science, it does not recognize its own limitations. As Wittgenstein puts it at the end of the Philosophical Investigations: 

‘The confusion and barrenness of psychology is not to be explained by calling it a ‘young science;’ its state is not comparable with that of physics, for instance, in its beginnings …. For in psychology there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion.

The existence of the experimental methods makes us think we have the means of solving the problems which trouble us; though problem and method pass one another by.’” — From Dilman’s chapter on “science and psychology” (which deserves to be read in full) in Raskolnikovs Rebirth: Psychology and the Understanding of Good and Evil (Open Court, 2000: 1-21)

Kandinsky dRelevant Bibliographies
Images: Wassily Kandinsky


Post a Comment

<< Home