Margins and Vitality

A good friend asked me a series of questions, which were meant to act as writing probes. One of them was: “Is psychology a dead-end or is it waiting to be born?”.

I decided to write an answer to it, because it is the only question on his list that bothered me. I sensed an urge to avoid it, and I was also inclined to see it as a personal attack. Notice this possible rephrase: Is what you have devoted your life to a dead end? Or is it a promise of birth? The question offers only two choices. Does it offer a false dichotomy? After all NOT {dead end} doesn’t equal {promise of birth}, and NOT {promise of birth} doesn’t equal {dead end}.

It is already apparent that I want to analyze the question, instead of answering it. I want to find a license to dismiss it, similar to how your question might be asking for a license to dismiss Psychology.

Notice the similarity in the way I perceive the question, and my own response to it. I feel that the questioner is asking for a license to dismiss Psychology. Or perhaps the questioner wants to confirm (or renew) a license he thinks he already has. And, when I entertain this judgment of the question, I am inclined to dismiss it. But I can’t.

I have to admit my thinking of this issue was extremely biased during my final two years in Toronto. And those were the days in which we regularly talked about Psychology, my doubts, and my strategies for overcoming the limits of the discipline. Context is important. Instead of University of Toronto, I could have been part of York University’s History & Theory of Psychology division. Had I been in a different place, in a different department, working with a different group of people, I might have been feeling differently about Psychology. I might have felt less frustrated, less critical, or less detached.

No, not necessarily. And this secondary, self-critical response comes from recalling Amedeo Giorgi’s analysis of his own position. In an autobiographical chapter, he argues against the idea that marginality is a choice we make after careful evaluation of our tradition (Giorgi, 2009). Instead of a choice, he paints a picture of marginality as destiny. The marginal figure is already marginal before coming to a full realization of the tradition. The disposition to resist, or fail to identify with, the mainstream is already there before one is able to consciously evaluate one’s tradition. It’s as if Giorgi says, “I see the problems, and I voice them out. But I am also aware that the drive behind my voice is probably supplied from somewhere other than seeing the problems themselves.” I’m telling you this to invite some degree of skepticism regarding how you might interpret my criticism of mainstream Psychology.

There is another, related way to re-think those last two years in Toronto. And to get into that I should first talk about another psychologist, Raymond Bergner. In one of his several under-appreciated papers, Bergner (1998) asks, what is it that makes an activity meaningful? He makes a taxonomy of three categories — An activity can be meaningful in three ways. It can be intrinsically meaningful (good for its own sake; not requiring any further justification); it can be instrumentally meaningful, i.e., it leads to some desired outcome (such as money, freedom, health, status, etc.); it can be spiritually meaningful. His concept of spirituality here isn’t supernatural, and it can be rephrased in terms of the concepts of character or integration. In the spiritual sense, an activity is meaningful if it fits the person’s broader sets of values and aims, or his/her superordinate intentions, as those values and aims have been evolving through the individual’s history.

So, those years I had became aware that what I was doing was instrumentally meaningful, and at times intrinsically meaningful, but it wasn’t spiritually meaningful. Why is that such a big problem? Why can’t I just enjoy the results of my work (status, career, etc.) like many others? We should consider the nature of marginality, once again, to make sense of my inability to be content with the instrumental meaning of my work.

Instrumental meaning, particularly the kind of instrumental meaning associated with academic success, exists only within a sub-cultural context, within a specific type of community. Academic success does not typically address any basic survival need, but is rather a kind of currency that can be appreciated only by virtue of membership in a cultural community. I claim that it is most meaningful at the mainstream of that cultural community, by individuals who most strongly identify with such meaning. The closer you feel to the mainstream, the more you can identify with the instrumental meaning (e.g., status), and the more that instrumental meaning can merge with your spiritual meaning. What about the marginal figure? It seems to me that the marginal figure, even when faced with instrumental success, cannot derive meaning from it. Again, we face Giorgi’s idea that marginality is destiny.

So far, I have avoided your question. I said I was inclined to analyze the question, but instead I have spent time analyzing my forthcoming answer (if I ever end up answering the question at all). I have spent time talking about why you should take my criticisms of Psychology with a grain of salt.

Moreover, if I were truly a marginal figure (as I sometimes think I am), would I still be irritated by your question? Would I still take your question as a personal attack?  My strong emotional reaction, despite my self-proclaimed marginality, is a demonstration that marginality is not a form of detachment, but a form of attachment. It is a form of affinity, a way to belong, a way to self-identify, a way to see oneself and one’s tradition. When Jacques Derrida said, “I never speak of what I do not admire”, he was responding to the misperception — that many, including Jordan Peterson, hold — that his lifework was a simply a destructive force against his tradition, whereas it was truly an effort to keep that tradition alive.

But Peterson himself holds that any tradition is always already dead. And the essence of marginality (or, liminality) might be the recognition of this lack of vitality, this frightening lack of vitality in a gigantic, organized machine that continues to move despite having no life. The promise of rebirth might be wishful thinking, but it might also be what constitutes the source of spiritual meaning.

I didn’t start by directly answering your question, because the context of the answer had to be prepared first. It would be reasonable to regard Psychology as (at least partially) dead, as much as it would be reasonable to see it as waiting to be (continually) re-born.

References:

Bergner, R. M. (1998). Therapeutic approaches to problems of meaninglessness. American Journal of Psychotherapy52, 72-87.

Giorgi, A. (2009). Professional marginalization in psychology: Choice or destiny? In L. P. Mos (Ed.), History of Psychology in Autobiography (pp. 131-157). Springer.

Notes in Feb 2018

You might not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you. Academic politics is as unavoidable as politics in any other communal domain. Your withdrawal, your inaction, your compliance will help perpetuate existing structures, unexamined positions, and rent seekers.

academic olympics

At first glance, it may seem like the stakes are not high. Ego strokes seem to be the primary currency. But that itself is the outcome a diversion. The diversion begins when an academic sees him/herself as outside of the real world. It begins when we see ourselves as stroke accumulators. Yes, feel free to replace “stroke” with “h-index”, “citation”, or “publications”.

We ought to be more than that, but what exactly?

There is ambiguity in the identity of a scholar, and I think that ambiguity has to be embraced. If I am an agent of a specific theoretical position, e.g., responsible for defending a side in a debate, then I am a partisan. Being a partisan is relatively easy. We want to be more than that. We want to be scholars. But what is that exactly?

Forced Positions

A student stopped me on the corridor the other day, and asked: “I’m doing some research on task-switching, but I don’t know what is the relevance of this research to everyday life. How is my work relevant? How can I apply it?”

I told him, in a tone that I believed was playful and lighthearted, that there might not be any application. Basic research does not promise applicability. It’s better to accept that possibility, rather than hold on to the delusion that every experiment we conduct has a direct, important, real-life application.

Today, I saw him again. He told me he had shared my sentiment with his supervisor, and that his supervisor had strongly disagreed with my “partisan” position. Of course, he was talking about the partisan position that he had manufactured for me.

You might not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you. Your withdrawal, your inaction, your compliance might force you into positions with which you disagree. Sometimes it is necessary to take a side. Other times, it may be necessary to be able to clearly express not taking sides. It may be necessary to get out of forced positions.

Notes on Teaching Cognitive Psychology (1)

Today’s lecture was about narratives. This topic is almost never covered in Cognitive Psychology courses. We did not have it when I took the course in 2008. Even when I took Psychology of Language and Reading Processes we still did not cover narratives. And I believe my experience is representative of the majority.

Why most instructors don’t include narratives? The answer can be traced back to Ulrich Neisser’s (1967) classic textbook, which continues to be the dominant model adopted by other textbook writers. The major feature of the classical model is that it presents “lower” cognitive processes at the beginning of the course, keeping the “higher” processes for the end. By the time we reach the higher cognitive functions (Chapter 11th in the 11 Chapters in Neisser’s textbook) we have already completely severed the connection to everyday experience and to common sense.

Mind as Computer

Neisser’s syllabus very likely serves two complementary functions, one in the guidance of the research community and one in the guidance of teaching. When it comes to research, a researcher can pick up an item from Neisser’s list, e.g., working memory, attention, etc, and rest assured that his/her work fits within a coherent framework.

When it comes to teaching, the researcher zooms back and presents the overall framework to the students. The framework gives the field a sense of structure. It helps package the field for the sake of presentation to the students and interested others. Most of us teach Cognitive Psychology, in part, as a defense of why it should continue to exist. It is a way for the field to justify itself and its present form to its consumers.

“Every established order tends to produce the naturalization of its own arbitrariness.” — Pierre Bourdieu

This is why I include narratives and other less popular topics in my syllabus. I am trying to find new ways into Cognitive Psychology. I am also trying to find better ways of connecting the field the everyday experience. Finally, I try to avoid being an advertising agent for the discipline. That is why I begin the course with B.F. Skinner’s (1977) article “Why I am not a Cognitive Psychologist“. To do my job well, I must present the field’s critics, as well as its proponents. I must consider the possible future in which Cognitive Psychology, as we know it today, is no longer part of the mainstream.

Interview with Jan Smedslund

Jan Smedslund is a Professor Emeritus at University of Oslo, Norway. He began his research career with experimental work on cognitive development. His collaborators include Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner. During 1967-8, he turned away from experimental work and began working on conceptual and foundational issues in psychology (Smedslund, 1991b). In 1988 he published Psycho-Logic, a later edition of which was published in 1997 as The Structure of Psychological Common-Sense. Psycho-Logic is the project of explicating and systematizing the structure of common-sense psychology in terms of a set of interconnected axioms. It has roots in the work of Fritz Heider. The justification and scope of the project is outlined in a target article in Psychological Inquiry (Smedslund, 1991a). Smedslund continues to write, in a clear and compelling manner, about the limits of experimental psychology and alternative ways of conceiving the task of psychologists (e.g., Smedslund, 2012, 2015, 2016). He is also a practicing clinical psychologist.

Davood Gozli: After reading your work, I began asking what would be the most minimal, most strongly defensible, way of describing experimental psychology, and what I have settled on is a view of it as a form of abstract art. I use the word abstract not in the sense of general or widely-applicable, but in the sense of removed or maybe deprived. This is because experimentation typically requires taking away what is present and relevant in everyday situations. The research outcome, therefore, takes the form of links between variables within an abstract situation. This seems like a defensible characterization, and anything beyond it cannot be taken for granted. What do you think of this view?

Jan Smedslund: In my publications I have tried to show that the domain of psychology is very inhospitable to experiments because of characteristics such as irreversibility, infinite numbers of determinants, social interactivity, and impossibility of impersonal objectivity. I cannot offhand give a simple comment to your formulation, due to the complexity of the issues involved. Given some interpretations it certainly seems to have merits.

DG: The meaning of words in psychological research is often very different from their meaning in ordinary language. For a student who is interested in a psychological topic, there is always the danger of falling prey to a bait-and-switch trick: the student’s interest leads him/her to a lab and after years of work s/he realizes that there is not much in common between his/her original interest and what goes on in the lab, except for a set of words. Why do you think this bait-and-switch happens so often and at such a wide disciplinary level?

JS: Contemporary research methods are the outcome of a prolonged effort to make psychology “scientific” (fulfilling requirements of objectivity, replicability, etc.). Since this does not really work, due to the characteristics of psychological phenomena, it is almost unavoidable that there will be a gap between a student’s personal and practical interests and the misguided work in a lab.

DG: Many departments of Psychology are now populated with neuroscientists, physiologists, health scientists, statisticians, and perhaps a few psychologists. Do you see this, in any way, as a failure of psychologists in protecting what is unique about psychology? Do you see this as a danger to the future of psychology?

JS: Yes, this trend seems to be a consequence of the misplaced aspiration to be “scientific”. The future is uncertain because of the widening gap between academic research and psychological practice, and because the latter needs a different kind of foundation. Today there are two kinds of psychologists – the researchers and the practitioners.

DG: Most experimental psychologists, myself included, begin our careers not with a study of clear thinking and argumentation, but as research assistants. The problem is that a research assistant does what s/he does uncritically. It is an instance of inheriting a tradition without fully understanding the tradition. And, I think part of that inherited tradition is the skill of neglecting, and maneuvering around, criticism. I am interested in educating students who are more critical of what is happening today in academic Psychology. What are your thoughts in this regard?

JS: The problem of how to train students has several aspects. In academic psychology, I have led many seminars with only one rule: The sessions were to have no preset agenda, the participants were free to introduce questions and problems that occupied them and that were then discussed in the group. This appears to be the only way of gradually improving the quality of arguments and establishing the attitude expressed in the sentence “it ain’t necessarily so.”

In training practitioners, the focus is on two closely related attitudes – the (motivational) commitment to the ethics of the professional role and the (cognitive) adoption of the not-knowing attitude. The practitioner must be “decentered” (Piaget’s term) and maintain a balanced view of own values and concepts and those of the client. It is impossible to describe these matters in a few words. However I envisage a training process without emphasis on statistics, design, methods and techniques. One must train to encounter new clients in a personal way with a thoroughly absorbed reflective background and in a clearly defined professional context. To be a psychologist is, in Yalom’s terms, encountering and trying to be of help to one’s “fellow travelers”.

DG: Please tell us about your experience and strategies in communicating your ideas (e.g., publishing articles, debates with colleagues, etc.).

JS: My strategy has been to engage in dialogues, preferably with those who disagree with my views. But, while trying to learn from others, I have still followed my own road.

DG: In my upcoming course on Systems & Theories in Psychology, I have planned a lecture on Psycho-Logic. I also considered including Peter G. Ossorio, and perhaps the Discursive movement (e.g., Edwards & Potter, 1992). Do you have any other recommendations for myself and the students for improving the course?

JS: A few names occur to me: Fritz Heider’s classic book, George Kelly’s books on “personal constructs”, Ken Gergen’s recent book “Relational Being”, Anna Wierzbicka’s books, my own (2004) book “Dialogues about a New Psychology”. There are so many! (It also depends on the background of the students and their aspirations).

DG: Are there psychology Journals that you would recommend for those who are critical of the mainstream?

JS: Theory & Psychology, Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, New Ideas in Psychology, etc.

DG: I am grateful for your work. And, thanks for this exchange.

References:

Smedslund, J. (1991a). The pseudoempirical in psychology and the case for psychologic. Psychological Inquiry2(4), 325-338.

Smedslund, J. (1991b). Psychologic: A technical language for psychology. Psychological Inquiry2(4), 376-382.

Smedslund, J. (2012). The bricoleur model of psychological practice. Theory & Psychology22(5), 643-657.

Smedslund, J. (2015). The value of experiments in psychology. In Sugarman, Martin, & Slaney (Eds.), The Wiley Handbook of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology: Methods, Approaches, and New Directions for Social Sciences, 359-373.

Smedslund, J. (2016). Why psychology cannot be an empirical science. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science50(2), 185-195.

Inheriting the Past

A review of Michael Billig’s “The Hidden Roots of Critical Psychology: Understanding the Impact of Locke, Shaftesbury, & Reid”.


May 17, 2015

I am beginning to write this review during my stay in Treasure Island, Florida. I am scheduled to give a talk at the Vision Sciences Society’s (VSS) annual conference on Tuesday morning — two days from today — but I have not been preparing for that talk. Instead, I have been obsessing over this book by Michael Billig. Today, I finally finished it. I got out of bed, made coffee, stayed on the couch like a zombie until I reached the end of the book, and began thinking about writing this review as I stepped into the shower.

Finding this book was itself an interesting chance events, which had to do partly with meeting Thomas Teo. During the past fall, I had to read, review, and discuss Teo’s book “The Critique of Psychology: From Kant to Postcolonial Theory” as coursework for a graduate level seminar on history of psychology. Thomas Teo joined that session and heard us discuss his book. After the class, I approached him and asked if he could give me some guidance for further reading on critical psychology. He graciously agreed. I was naively hoping for a short list of 3-5 books, perhaps ordered by their importance. Instead, I received a long list of close to a hundred books, ordered alphabetically. I went through the list feeling defeated under the heavy burden of “homework” for what I considered a fancy hobby. Among the list of authors I recognized one name — Michael Billig. I had just finished reading “Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences”, which was a book that you had brought to my attention.

A quick note on “Learn to Write Badly”. I strongly believe this book is a must-read for students of psychology. The book made a very strong impact on me and it deserves a review of its own. For now, I would just say that there is a special kind of trust for a writer that is formed after reading a great book. The kind of trust that makes it very easy to decide to read the author’s other works. The kind of trust that is generalized, raising your baseline level of optimism for other writers and other books. I felt that trust after reading “Learn to Write Badly”. Therefore, choosing “The Hidden Roots” out of Teo’s long list was easy.

Why is “The Hidden Roots” so important? A more specific question that I feel better equipped to address is why this book is so important for students of cognitive psychology. The reason has to do with the scope of cognitive psychology. It has to do with the “blindspots” of cognitive psychology. It has to do with what — of psychology — is included and what — of psychology — is excluded in this scope. It has to do with a debate regarding the importance of what is included and excluded. It has to do with the underlying assumptions of psychology about what it means to be human. “The Hidden Roots” tackles these issues by bringing to life a story from the forgotten past of psychology, and by showing how that story remains unfinished and the debate remains unresolved.

The past is never finished. As new intellectual challenges arise, so our view of the past. Sometimes it is necessary to ask what the conventional views are overlooking: what is being concealed today by the histories that have been regularly told? (l. 42)

The book is particularly important for those who are sensing that “something is missing” about the picture of the human mind that is painted by cognitive psychology, but cannot fully articulate what it is that is missing. Cognitive psychology has made the big promise of understanding the nature of human thinking and the sources of human behaviour. Its connection to other disciplines, such as computer science, linguistics, and neuroscience further gives us the impression that the nature of the mind is going to be grasped sooner or later. “It’s only a matter of time”.

At a deeper level, the promise of cognitive psychology is compelling for the same reasons that John Locke’s view of the human mind was compelling. They are both compelling because of the intuitive appeal of two underlying assumptions — individualism (that an individual, taken out of his/her social, cultural, and historical context can be the subject of psychological investigation) and elementism (that the mind of the individual subject can be understood through investigating sub-personal psychological “objects” or processes, i.e., the psychological elements). Pointing out these two assumptions and their consequences is one of Billig’s important accomplishments in the book.

May 20, 2015

… Writing this review was interrupted by the busy conference schedule. My talk went quite well, despite not having rehearsed it very much. My colleagues and fellow travellers listened to me practice the night before the talk and gave me some helpful suggestions. Jason Rajsic in particular was the cause of many improvements, for which I am grateful. Anyways, back to our topic…

As you know, I took a course on early modern philosophy during my undergraduate at Trent. Unfortunately, the course was very dry and uninspiring, and was one of the reasons I decided not to go for a double-major in philosophy and psychology. In retrospect, I believe the course lacked a truly historical dimension. Instead of considering the philosophers’ historical, social, cultural, and personal contexts, we read a set of primary texts. Again, in retrospect, I believe it was not a coincidence that our instructor was enamoured with the present-day cognitive neuroscience, to the point that the work of Antonio Damasio found its way into the lectures on Descartes and Hobbes. Was Shaftesbury mentioned? Not once.

My experience in that early modern philosophy course taught me an important lesson: Learning about the past can seem like a completely futile endeavour, if we believe that the past is simply a less advanced version of the present. I particularly found reading Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” to be an irritating and useless experience. The book seemed like an unnecessary way to think and talk about what I was already thinking and talking about in my psychology courses. The course eventually ended and I very strongly felt I would not have anything to do with Locke for the rest of my life. It was reading Billig’s “The Hidden Roots” that opened my eyes to the importance of Locke. I now understand what makes reading Locke so irritating today, especially for someone who is decently-versed in cognitive psychology.

Present psychologists will supposedly recognize parts of their own activities in the distant parent’s work. But other parts ensure that the parent belongs to a pre-disciplinary generation. Locke remains an ancestor – a framed portrait gazing from the wall – rather than a distinguished colleague. Thus, the paternal label suggests a complex pattern of recognizable similarities and differences, points of identification and points of difference (l. 421).

Locke’s ‘way of ideas’ is fundamentally consistent with the contemporary cognitive psychology, while at the same time appearing painfully primitive and, consequently, unnecessary to read. It is the kind of writing that discourages students from studying history of psychology. Side note: While in a conversation with someone at the conference the other day, I mentioned that I would be teaching history of psychology during the summer. His response was, “could you have chosen anything more boring?” A question like this is rooted, unfortunately, in a prevalent misunderstanding of the potential role of history. “The Hidden Roots” effectively challenges this misunderstanding.

May 22, 2015

… I am back in Toronto. I was reading Michael Wertheimer’s “A Brief History of Psychology” on the plane, and noticed an interesting connection. In the “Brief History”, Wertheimer refers to the decline of the Greek civilization after Alexander the Great, and two philosophical responses to that crisis — Epicureanism and Stoicism (p.25). It is interesting that the same two responses returned during the Enlightenment period, perhaps in response to the crisis of faith. Billig describes how Stoicism returned in the works of Shaftesbury and Reid, while Epicureanism returned in the hands of Gassendi and Locke.

At present, we remember our Epicurean forerunners better, not because they were more important, but because they are more similar to us.

What really caught the imagination of seventeenth century thinkers were not so much Epicurus’s ethical and aesthetic teachings. It was his atomism. Epicurus had taken from Democritus the notion that the world was comprised of small, indivisible units of matter […] (l.969).

In light of the Epicurean elementism, what is supposed to be the stoic alternative? Even though it is not quite straightforward to derive a philosophy of psychology from stoic philosophy, it is true that certain ways of approaching psychology are incompatible with the stoic mindset. And this is due to stoic ethical and social sensibilities. Billig, through the study of Shaftesbury and Reid, shows us how adopting a stoic mindset renders certain ways of approaching psychology trivial, while rendering others as misguided.

The stoic reaction was simple. If you search for ever smaller units, you will come up with discoveries of increasing triviality. Epictetus expressed this stoic impatience with atomism as a principle of exploration: ‘What does it signify to me … whether the universe is composed of atoms or uncompounded substances, or of fire and earth?’ What really matters, he continued, is to know ‘the essence of good and evil, and the proper bounds of the desires and aversions’ (l.1512).

By shedding light on the hidden half of the Locke-Shaftesbury debate, Billig shows at the same time (a) the limits of a Lockean psychology, and (b) how far the scope of psychology could reach if it is liberated from individualism, elementism, and the desire to found a “system” upon a set of irrefutable premises. What was missing in Lockean psychology was a relevance to ethics, social conduct, social bonds, personal identity, dialogue, ideology, or aesthetics.

Shaftesbury was attracted to stoic philosophy as a guide for moral self-improvement. He wrote in his Regimen that if philosophical thinking is to mean anything, then it must be ‘a matter of practice’. The purpose of his studies was ‘my own amendment’ and there was little value in ‘those speculations’ that did not lead to ‘my amendment’ (l. 1486).

What is it about the past that illuminates the present so uniquely? What is it about learning about the Epicurean metaphysics, the Lockean ‘way of ideas’ that illuminates so effectively the underlying philosophical assumptions of my own work in cognitive psychology? I don’t completely understand. Mind you, it is not my goal to undermine my own discipline. It is my goal to be aware of its scope, its limits, its reach, and its blindspots as much as possible. And I have come to believe that such an awareness is not possible without considering what we have inherited from the past. We have not inherited ideas. We have inherited debates and oppositions of ideas. To regard only one side of those opposition alone would be a failure to truly inherit the past. What we belong to is not a single line of development, but a series of dialogues. To continue along a single line of development is to deny the true meaning of what we do.

I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in philosophy of psychology. In fact, unlike Teo, I would recommend only this one book to students of cognitive psychology, knowing that appreciating this book would lead them to further research and perhaps dozens of other books. After reading this book, the student would either have to change what he/she is doing, or to acquire a completely new and enriched awareness of his/her own practice.

At any rate, I am looking forward to our meeting tomorrow. Thank you, once again, for bringing Michael Billig to my attention. I am also grateful for Thomas Teo for sending me his list of readings. And I will let you know if I make any further progress on that list.


 

Read More: Interview with Michael Billig