Because I have already used the phrase, “psychological humanities”, and because I know I am going to use the phrase in the near future (both here and on my YouTube channel), I have decided to spend some time on introducing it. Trying to provide an introduction gives me a chance to reflect on psychological humanities. I also hope to improve my understanding with the help of your feedback.

Let’s begin with Thomas Teo’s 2017 article, where he invites psychologists to pay attention to some neglected dimensions of psychological research, questions that fall beyond the scope of natural science. These are questions toward which the humanities disciplines are presumably responsive. The non-responsiveness or pseudo-responsiveness of natural sciences could show up in the form of neglect, denial, indifference, or switch.

Teo centers his overview of psychological humanities on subjectivity, the paradigmatic and paradoxical case when it comes to the blindspot of natural-scientific psychology. To put it briefly, questions that address subjectivity ask what it means to be a subject and what it means for the world to include and be disclosed to subjects. Since I’ve already given a list of pseudo-responses that can come from the natural attitude, let’s go through each with a reference to the question of subjectivity.

  • Neglect. Subjectivity is neglected while we pay attention to the objects of study, treating psychological concepts in terms of third-person characteristics, and as targets of explanation, prediction, control, etc.
  • Denial. Attachment and attention to subjectivity is regarded as something to overcome, as lingering religious, cultural, philosophical baggage. For an example of this pseudo-response, see Skinner (1977), and after seeing Skinner’s explicit denial, it becomes easier to detect the same maneuver in more implicit cases.
  • Indifference. This might be verbally expressed, e.g., “Who cares about subjectivity? We are doing serious science here! Isn’t subjectivity for artists, or therapists, or philosophers, or… .” But the apathy doesn’t have to take such an overt form. It can show up as a relatively more innocent and unreflective inability to care, about which the person him- or herself might be puzzled.
  • Switch. Also known as bait-and-switch. “Yes, subjectivity is important! In fact, it has been important at least since ancient Greek philosophers! But those philosophers belonged to a radically different time, when the word “armchair” was not yet a dirty word. They didn’t have our advance knowledge of neuroscience and our sophisticated methods of measurement. Rather than asking what is subjectivity, we could conduct psychological experiments and investigate networks of brain cells!” In this way, the concern with subjectivity is switched with a concern about brain networks.

The concern related to subjectivity, as raised by Teo, is not merely a philosophical turn (or intervention) in Psychology. Philosophy is one of the six approaches Teo includes in describing the scope of psychological humanities. I will get to those six approaches in the near future. At this moment, I want to express what I see to be a more fundamental concern. What does it take to care about psychological humanities? What does it take to have the enabling concerns?

Can reading Teo’s article trigger interest in psychological humanities (in people who don’t already have such an interest)? Or is it more likely to draw sympathy in people who already have such concerns. If reading the article does raise sympathy, what is it exactly that happens in reading the article? My concern is part of my attempt to understand psychological humanities. Isn’t part of understanding a scholarly discipline understanding its motivation, its orientation, and its “desire” for continued movement. We understand philosophy, when we stop being indifferent to it, for instance, when we get lost in a Socratic aporia and find the desire to find our way.

Let me briefly share some relevant anecdotes. One of my mentors during my undergraduate studies received a CFI (Canada Foundation for Innovation) grant, which he then proceeded to spend on (among other things) a motion tracking device. This device included a large ball, which would create a magnetic field in the room, and sensors that research participants would wear, enabling the researchers to track limb positions and motions as people performed experimental tasks. What was surprising to me at the time was my professor’s response to having the device. Essentially, his response was: “Wow! We have this now. Let’s come up with a way to use it!” We had the technology and now we had to ask our research questions. I don’t think I have to use the cart-horse analogy here to emphasize an obvious point, although it is apparently difficult to withhold the analogy.

Later conversations I had with professors at various other universities brought up the same point. A professor applies for a grant to buy research equipment. They receive the grant, buy the equipment, and then realize they don’t have any research questions. One of my mentors at University of Toronto told me: “We now have EEG (Electroencephalography) equipment in my lab, but I don’t have any EEG questions. I just don’t think that way. I don’t think in terms of electrophysiological responses.”

The resolution, in these types of situations, is to have a doctoral student or a postdoctoral fellow bring in the new line of research that puts the new technology to use. For our present purpose, we should note that the doctoral student or postdoctoral fellow brings in the attitude necessary for the research, which entails the enabling concern with the research objectives.

Now, let me get to my main point, if the transition from doing research without a set of equipment (motion tracker, EEG, etc.) to doing research with the equipment requires some effort (so much so that in many cases it is solved by bringing in the researchers!), I think the transition from a purely natural-scientific attitude to an attitude that is responsive to psychological humanities would require even more effort. Keep in mind that beginning to conduct research with a new piece of technology isn’t just about learning new technique, it is about becoming concerned with, becoming able to care about, research questions that can be addressed with the new piece of technology. It’s about ceasing to be indifferent to a new type of questions and objectives.

Doing research with an EEG machine or a motion tracking machine requires education. Caring about research with those machines requires education. Similarly, caring about psychological humanities–to see the point in them–requires education. Something must happen with us to ask “What are the [psychological] humanities?” and something must happen with us not to dismiss the question.

With this preamble out of the way, let’s turn to Thomas Teo’s article. Feel free to read it before my next post. If you’re interested in coming along with me, with more seriousness and commitment, I would recommend that you check out: Sam Rocha’s (2015) Folk Phenomenology and Alva Noë’s (2015) Strange Tools. If you’re even more serious, you could substitute Noë’s Strange Tools with Hans-Georg Gadamer’s (1989/1960) Truth & Method.

Reference:

Gadamer (1989). Truth and Method, 2nd ed. (Translated by J. Weinsheimer and D.G. Marshall). Bloomsbury. First German edition published in 1960.

Noë, A. (2015). Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature. Hill & Wang.

Rocha, S. D. (2015). Folk Phenomenology: Education, Study, and the Human Person. Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Skinner, B. F. (1977). Why I am not a cognitive psychologist. Behaviorism, 5(2), 1-10.

Teo, T. (2017). From psychological science to the psychological humanities: Building a general theory of subjectivity. Review of General Psychology21(4), 281-291.