Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Prof. Barbara Held, a distinguished clinical and philosophical psychologist. Her lifelong emphasis on critical and clear thinking was profoundly palpable and personal. It showcased not only her academic rigor but also her deep personal commitment to truth. While I encourage you to listen to the interview yourself, here are some of the main topics we covered together:
Beyond Postmodernism: Prof. Held challenges postmodernism in psychotherapy, emphasizing the need for a realist ontology, as detailed in her book “Back to Reality: A Critique of Postmodern Theory in Psychotherapy” (W.W. Norton, 1995). She also critiques what she calls middle-ground theorizing, as detailed in her book “Psychology’s Interpretive Turn: The Search for Truth and Agency in Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology” (APA, 2007). While on this topic, she also referred to a book that was influential in her own career, “Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood” by Simon Evnine. This book, along with “Psychology’s Interpretive Turn” would serve as a valuable resource for thinking clearly about, for instance, epistemic cultural relativism.
The Problem with Unbridled Positivity: Held’s views on the “positive attitude” emphasize the need to pay attention to personal traits, i.e., the degree to which relying on positive affect is viable for a particular person, as well as situational factors that give meaning to both positive and negative affect. She stresses the importance of recognizing negative emotions, suggesting that giving voice to them can be therapeutic. In this context, she referred to “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking” by Julie Norem, along with her own book “Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching: A 5-Step Guide to Creative Complaining.”
Bridging the Humanities with Science: Barbara Held advocates for recognizing the value of art, literature, and philosophy in understanding the human psyche. At the same time, she argues that we should acknowledge the complexity and debates within the humanities, rather than simplistically imagining them as a utopian solution to major problems in Psychology. Lastly, she highlights that the term “psychological humanities” is puzzling, as virtually all aspects of the humanities are psychological.
Scientism vs. Science: Held cautions against thoughtlessly using the term “scientism” when considering psychological science. The accusation of scientism appears to be both unclear and unproductive as a means of engaging with psychological research. A more effective approach would be to address specific lines of research and critique them, if necessary, using more precise language that fosters genuine dialogue with researchers.
Following Your Passion: Ending on a personal note, Held’s advice to find and pursue your interest underscores the importance of exploration and curiosity in a research career. “There are no magical books,” yet each of us may encounter books that plays a special role in our journey.
In sum, my conversation with Prof. Held was full of insights (cautionary notes!). Her perspective provides a unique lens into psychology and its relationship with philosophical work. I recommend delving into her articles for a comprehensive understanding of her work and its significance. Explore the full interview on my YouTube channel, and to learn more about Prof. Held’s contributions, visit her Bowdoin profile.