Letter 3: Philosophical History

A review of Martin Farrell’s “Historical & Philosophical Foundations of Psychology“, Cambridge, 2014.


July 24, 2015

The brief summer course is coming to its end and it is an appropriate time to write about the book I used as the only required reading for the course. Choosing the book was not easy. When I was the teaching assistant for the course, the instructor used Thomas Leahey’s History of Psychology: From Antiquity to Modernity (7th edition), although I soon realized that there was no real required reading aside from the lecture slides. The students could do well in the course without ever opening the book. I did not want to adopt that strategy. And, after some consideration, I decided to switch from Leahey’s book to a new and more reader-friendly book. Leahey’s text is remarkable, but it is not a beginner’s textbook. Particularly for a 6-week summer course, it is a little too dry and a little too encyclopedic. There was also Raymound Fancher’s book, Pioneers of Psychology, which Jay recommended. Michael Wertheimer also refers to Fancher’s text as the best of its style. There was also Graham Richards’ Putting Psychology in its Place, which despite its corny title had Michael Billig’s stamp of approval. A Critical History & Philosophy of Psychology, by Walsh, Teo, & Baydala, was another great book that I used in a few of my lectures, but I could never expect the students to read such a massive book in full.

Dan Robinson’s Intellectual History of Psychology also seemed very appealing, but I did not choose it because I did not want to include material prior to the 17th century. Not this time. Robinson’s text, nonetheless, instilled in me the desire to continue looking for a philosophical history of psychology. There is something about the philosophical style that makes it antithetical to the encyclopedic style. It encourages in-depth, critical, and comparative thinking, even when it is not explicitly critical and comparative. The philosophical style also circumvents the defeatist attitude common in cultural or political approaches to the history of psychology. At the same time, it does not become overly “whiggish” — Focusing on the philosophical dimension of psychology reveals a serious challenge to the assumption of constant and continual progress, in a way that cannot be revealed by focusing, for instance, on the neuroscientific dimension of psychology.

Furthermore, I wanted a text that would allow me to go on my own occasional tangents and communicate some of my own thoughts to the students. [Throughout the course, I have come to believe in the collaborative nature of the relationship between the teacher and the text.] The more I looked around, the more I saw the appeal of Farrell’s text. It is a beginner’s text. It is inviting and engaging. It is well organized. The philosophical approach is, indeed, the biggest appeal of this volume. History and philosophy are mixed together so well that the end result does not feel like a mixture at all. It feels like one single outlook. One specific way of examining the history of psychology.

July 25, 2015

Why do I believe in the importance of telling a philosophical history of psychology? As natural-scientific psychologists, we have been trained to raise an eyebrow when faced with philosophical consideration. We have been trained to think that no amount of metaphysical systematization could replace the illuminating force of an empirical finding. We have been shown that some of the most intelligent philosophers across history were misguided due to their reliance on pure speculation, intuition, and thought experiments in the absence of evidence. Recall how George Mandler, in the first pages of his History of Modern Experimental Psychology claims to have left out all considerations that could be regarded as “metaphysical”. We have been trained to avoid the proverbial armchair and stick to our lab work. Farrell’s book gives students a chance to be aware of [and to re-examine] this mindset. It demonstrates that any given program of research in psychology, from its very beginning, has already given answers to philosophical questions.

Side note: I believe what Mandler meant by “metaphysical” were issues related to God, free will, and immortality of the soul. This would not be a fair definition, however, thanks largely to “the old man of Königsberg“, who discarded these issues from the domain of metaphysics, giving it freedom to attend to its two proper subject-matters — ontology [the questions of existence] and epistemology [the questions of knowledge], both of which have relevance to psychology.

July 26, 2015

Farrell’s book has a good organization, which I followed closely throughout the course with minor deviations. It begins with philosophy of science (the rise of logical positivists in early 20th century and their major critiques, including Popper, Lakatos, Kuhn, & Feyerabend). The treatment of logical positivism could certainly expand, perhaps into a separate chapter [at present, logical positivists share the first chapter with Karl Popper]. I say this because Farrell returns to positivism in Chapter 12 [Titchener]. A more extensive treatment of positivism at the outset of the book would create a better context for the rest of chapters, particularly those related to philosophy of science, structuralism, and behaviourism. If you use Farrell’s volume as textbook, I would encourage you to supplement your lecture notes [on logical positivism] by looking at Chapters 2-3 of William Bechtel’s Philosophy of Science. The chapters are available for free online.

In contrast, the treatment of Paul Feyerabend [the most radical anti-method philosopher of science, and the author of Against Method] could be shortened. Although Feyerabend’s core message is worth serious consideration, his arguments are not very strong. The argument based on Galilei’s refusal to take evidence into account — assuming it is historically accurate — is just a weak appeal to authority.

Feyerabend argues that, at the time of Galileo’s trial, the weight of evidence and argument was actually on the side of the Ptolemaic theory of the stationary Earth. (p.59)

This reminds me of the — questionable — story about Charles Darwin changing his mind about his theory of evolution while lying on his deathbed. Who cares what Darwin thought on his deathbed about evolution? Who cares if Galilei chose to ignore evidence?

There are two indications that suggest Farrell is, indeed, taking Feyerabend’s side. First, he ends the discussion of philosophy of science with Feyerabend without a critical evaluation of Feyerabend. Second, throughout the rest of the book he rarely returns to the topic of philosophy of science, as if the discussion has ended conclusively in the first three chapters. This does not seem appropriate for a textbook of such a scope. Philosophy of science deserves explicit foreground role in almost all the chapters, most notably in chapters on Freud, Wundt, Titchener, behaviourism, and cognitive psychology. Feyerabend does not represent a successful end to debates on philosophy of science, and he should not be regarded as such.

July 27, 2015

Following the chapters on philosophy of science, the book then takes us back in time, to 17-19th century philosophy of mind, and afterwards [after a brief and shallow dip into psychoanalytic thought] begins the story of Psychology as a discipline. We encounter Wundt, Titchener, James, Dewey, the behaviourists, and the cognitive movement. The book finally ends with some of the recent revisions of, and reactions to, cognitivism. The selective treatment of topics is one of the main reasons why I liked this book. Covering a small set of topics allowed the coverage to be extensive and engaging. We read about Freud in relation to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche; we read about Helmholtz and Wundt in relation to Kant; we read about Spinoza in relation to Fechner’s psychophysics; we read about Brentano in relation to gestalt psychologists; and, we read about Dewey in relation to Hegel. The book effectively demonstrates the unavoidability of philosophy, lending support to the maxim that if you think you are avoiding philosophy, then you are probably doing philosophy poorly.

Although the connections and continuities across psychology and philosophy are generally demonstrated effectively, there are points where the connections would benefit further explication and exploration. For example, the link between Berkeley’s theory of vision could be (a) contrasted with the Lockean view of vision and (b) compared with the recent sensorimotor theory of O’Regan & Noë (2001). Darwin’s notion of instincts could be explored further in connection with Freud’s ideas. John Locke’s philosophy of mind could also be explored in connection with cognitivism [something I could not appreciate before reading Michael Billig’s Hidden Roots]. The contribution of the Würzburg school and the experimental investigatins of Ebbinghaus deserve discussion in relation to Wundt’s original vision of psychology.

A connection that I had a difficult time understanding was that between Brentano and the Gestalt movement. During the lecture on Gestalt psychology, I confessed to the students that I was not entirely convinced whether Brentano belongs to the history of Gestalt psychology. I then invited the class to provide me with a persuasive argument defending Farrell’s decision to include Brentano in the context of Gestalt psychology. One student sent me the following argument: The impact of Brentano on von Ehrenfels is really the indirect impact of Aristotle on von Ehrenfels. Aristotle famously made the distinction between the four kinds of αἴτιος (cause), which include the distinction between substance and form. The substance-form distinction is analogous to von Ehrenfels’s distinction between simple sensation and gestaltqualität. In addition to his emphasis on descriptive method, therefore, Brentano passed Aristotle’s thoughts onto von Ehrenfels. I am still not entirely convinced, but it does seem like a fair argument.

The inclusion of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche is a nice touch, and in fact I covered chapters 7 [Schopenhauer & Nietzsche] & 10 [Freud] in the same lecture. I further supplemented the lecture notes on psychoanalysis by consulting Walsh et al.’s Chapter 9, which is much more substantive than Farrell’s brief [and rather uncritical] survey of Freud. I particularly followed Walsh et al. in their inclusion of Jung, Lacan [both disagreeing with Freud’s characterization of psychoanalysis as a natural science], Karen Horney [who brought a strong social dimension to psychoanalysis], and the common critiques of psychoanalysis.

July 28, 2015

If the book were to expand to include humanistic psychology, while staying true to its original style, then we would probably see the inclusion of [not only] Rogers, May, and Maslow, [but also the philosophical forerunners] Kiergkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre. We would also encounter another dimension of Nietzsche that is hidden in the present edition of the book. Let me be clear, I am not criticizing Farrell for not including humanistic psychology. I am also not engaging in futile thought experiments about potential variations in the book we are discussing. If you bear with me for another few paragraphs, you will discover that I am in the process of making a point. To bring the point to light, let us leave humanistic psychology and consider another more prominent branch of psychology — social psychology.

The history of social psychology is much less straightforward than that of humanistic psychology, particularly with regard to its philosophical forerunners. This is essentially because there is more than one way to define social psychology. And, I suspect there are more ways to define social psychology than there are ways to define “individual” psychology. Who should we include? Thomas Reid? George Herbert Mead? Aristotle? Should we bring in the political dimension of social psychology? The moral dimension? The emotional dimension? Should we choose the intellectual trajectory that ends at the contemporary experimental social psychology? Or, should be choose the trajectory that arrives at, for instance, discursive psychology? Or, social neuroscience? A close consideration of this issue makes it clear that the history we study is, in part, a consequence of our decision about the present. Our view of the present-day psychology shapes what we include and exclude in our history.

Farrell’s text ends with a chapter on neuroscience, modularity, and embodied cognition. These, therefore, are those segments that Farrell identifies as present-day psychology. These are the endpoints of the narrative. Locke, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Freud, and Wundt are, therefore, all considered in a narrative that ends with neuroscience and embodied cognition. Is it fair to assume that Nietzsche or Locke would be treated differently in a history of social psychology or in a history of humanistic psychology? Is it fair to assume that we would encounter a different Nietzsche in those narrative? This aspect of history is worth addressing in the book. Once again, I am not criticizing the selectivity of Farrell’s scope. I am pointing out the importance of addressing [explicitly] the type of history he constructs. The history we construct does not simply include and exclude individuals and topics. It gives specific roles to the individuals that are included. Roles that are meaningful in light of the direction in which the history appears to have unfolded. As Wertheimer disclaimed in the beginning of his Brief History of Psychology, there is no such a thing as the definitive history of our discipline. Each history is a product of a series of choices. And awareness of those choices would benefit our investigations.

July 31, 2015

In closing, I recommend Farrell’s book, particularly to students of cognitive psychology. It is, as I said, an excellent beginner’s text. It is effective in awakening the philosophical consciousness that the reader would carry with him/her in future readings of history. Although course instructors who choose it as course textbook would have to rely on supplementary material, that is a small cost for giving students an engaging and enjoyable book.