In the most recent post, which began this series, I said that I would discussion of Thomas Teo’s (2017) article, “From psychological science to the psychological humanities: Building a general theory of subjectivity“. If you have not yet read that article, I’d encourage you to do so, because what I’ve written here is a response to Teo’s article. While thinking about that article, let us also remember our general plan: We want to know what the psychological humanities are. We want to know whether (& why) we are interested in them.

My first response, after reading Teo’s article, was an urge to share something concrete with you, a personal story, something that can ground our discussion. I think I have this urge as a result of Teo’s abstract style of writing. But I’m going to delay my storytelling, for a brief time, and begin with writing about what I liked in the article. I’d like to know if you agree with any of these points or if you think I am leaving something out that you think is important.

The article is clear, well researched, and thorough. Nobody will accuse Teo of being unreasonably selective, over-emphasizing one approach over others. His classifications identify the broad categories within the humanities: philosophical, historical, sociopolitical, cultural (including postcolonial and indigenous), artistic, and technological (concerned with science and technology). In addition to this plurality, the article is organized around a single notion: subjectivity. That is to say, the six approaches are presented as six ways of being concerned with subjectivity.

To say the humanities are concerned with subjectivity is something of a tautology and we might criticize Teo on this basis. But tautologies, especially when we recognize them, can shed light on our concepts. When we hold an object in our hands and turn it around to examine it from different sides, we are doing something akin to formulating tautologies. We can learn new things (including what we ought to do next) as long as we know we are still holding the same “object”. I think it was Brain Haig who said tautologies are often the first step in theorizing.

I wrote that Teo’s six approaches present six ways of being concerned with subjectivity, but we should revise that statement. The six approaches themselves reflect distinct forms of subjectivity. Historical study, for instance, corresponds to a form of subjectivity that can and should be distinguished from the philosophical form. That is, by the way, why reading about philosophers–which is mostly historical–isn’t the same as studying philosophy.

[M]ost people nowadays do not study philosophy itself. They study philosophers. Most so-called philosophers these days do not write or teach philosophy. They write and teach about philosophers who, once upon a time, wrote and taught philosophy.

Samuel D. Rocha (A Primer for Philosophy & Education, p. 14)

What Rocha is referring to is a confusion about–an inability to distinguish among–forms of subjectivity. This is the reason why Teo’s classifications are useful, not only in distinguishing the different approaches within the humanities, but also in distinguishing the humanist approach from the form of subjectivity that corresponds to the natural/social sciences. We should be careful not to forget, when we think about different approaches in the humanities, that we are paying attention both to their motives and to their subject-matter, both to where they come from and to where they are going, to their formation and to their problems, to their education and to their continued movement.

In the natural and social sciences (& in psychology as a natural/social science) our attention goes to the discipline’s subject-matter (not motives). We pay attention to where the discipline is going (not where it comes from), its problems (not its formation), its continued movement (not its education). That is why history of psychology often gives rise to critique.

Of course, if you ask a cognitive psychologist who studies, say, visual attention, about the motives or the formation of their research, you’ll get a justification for why they are doing what they are doing. But if you investigate further, you’ll discover that those justifications are prepackaged, designed to stop the line of questioning and redirect attention back on the subject-matter. In fact, I’d argue that if you pay close attention, psychological “science” has a constant wish to be unaware of itself (of the form of subjectivity that sustains it). By contrast, if you question someone in the humanities about their work or their discipline, they should (ideally) be as willing to talk about their origin/formation as much as they are willing to talk about their subject-matter/problems.

There is a metaphor here that might be useful. Let’s imagine being a house guest with two different hosts. One host expects you to remain within a certain acceptable range, when you’re in their home. You’re expected not to go, for example, to the basement or the bedroom. The other host welcomes you everywhere in their home. There is so much we can say about the two hosts, the difference between them is obviously not limited to that superficial level. Just to pick one, we could say that the first host is more attached to an image of their home and wants to preserve that image at the cost of limiting your movement.

Now is a good time for sharing the story I promised you. The first time I stood up in front of a group of academics and talked about a critique of psychology was during the summer of 2014. I was a guest at University of Vienna. There was an informal session, where everyone was talking about the general direction of their research, their challenges, plans, hopes, and possible collaborations. I remember the look in everyone’s eyes, when I started speaking. You could read in their faces, “Is he having an emotional breakdown?” The more they listened to me, the more that question became visible on their faces. I wasn’t. What I was saying that day was the result of many months of study. But to them it looked like an emotional breakdown, because I was going out of the acceptable range. In “scientific” psychology, certain topics come up in public conversation if, and only if, the person is having a breakdown. These topics include certain parts of an academic career, politics of science, institutional dynamics, power, doubt in the worth of your research, the (in)appropriateness of methods, the limits of psychology as a science, and so forth.

We can connect this anecdote to the psychological humanities. Now that we have read Teo’s article, you could consider this footnote to any future definition of (psychological) humanities. Humanities entail an education, as a result of which you can entertain a wide range of topics without regarding that exploration as a breakdown. To borrow the old-fashioned Lacanian terms, the humanities enable us to move away from seeing the discourse of the hysteric, as the only possible interruption to the discourse of the university, and cultivate the ability to see the discourse of the analyst. Without the humanities we overestimate the reasonableness of the natural/social sciences, which means tacitly presupposing that only an unreasonable (“hysterical” or “perverse”) voice can interrupt their discourses.

With reference to Lacan’s four discourses, one objection to Teo’s article would be that it presents itself as part of (Lacan’s) discourse of the university. This shows up not only in the body of the text, but also in the title. The hint is in the words “From … science … to … humanities”. We could read this as inviting a move from the sciences to the humanities. Or maybe even imagining that if psychological scientists continue their work, they will find themselves in the humanities. To understand why this isn’t possible, just imagine the metaphor of two hosts. Once you accept the rules of the first host (who restricts your movements), then no amount of movement within the “acceptable” range gives you the view of repressed places.

I see the rhetorical point in Teo’s presentation, and his appeal to a general theory of subjectivity is reminiscent of the unification/fragmentation discourse in psychology. Teo is trying to solve the problem of addressing unsympathetic readers, which means he is attempting to translate his ideas about psychological humanities into the language of mainstream psychology. Does this work? I’m not sure. But, in this case, even a failure can be instructive.

Setting aside the rhetorical strategy, I disagree with Teo’s characterization of the arts. At least in this article, he assigns the arts an overly specific function (namely, resistance). The attitude that seeks justification in terms of utility (Philosophy does X, History brings Y, … & the arts do Z) is the natural attitude (Husserl), and isn’t this attitude what we learn to suspend with philosophy, with the arts, and with the humanities? The more I think about this question, the more I realize that psychological humanities might itself indicate a haste, a rushing into utility rather than embodying the appropriate attitude. Do we adopt the phrase, “psychological humanities”, to promise utility? Why not simply say the humanities? What we get in return may or may not be relevant to our psychological concerns. Psychological humanities presupposes a promise of utility. When we think of narrowing down the fields of humanities and decide, “We pay attention to the psychological parts” aren’t we replicating the same problem that was created with the natural/social sciences?

If the problem is with the restriction, not with the particular field, in which we are restricted, then we should ask again: Why psychological humanities? Needless to say, our answers cannot be, “Because we are employed in departments of psychology, reading and writing in psychological journals…”

Teo’s article is a clear and useful overview. It should be on the reading list for students of psychology. Let’s keep it in mind and return to it at a later point. For the next time, I am turning to a more recent paper by Thomas Teo (2020) “Theorizing in psychology: From the critique of a hyper-science to conceptualizing subjectivity” in Theory & Psychology. If you’re interested in preparing, then please read it.

Notes:

  1. You could read about Lacan’s four discourses in Slavoj Žižek’s Jacques Lacan’s Four Discourses. I first heard about these from Glenn Wallis, who introduces them in his Spectral Discourse.
  2. George Saunders’ (2021) recently published book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Masterclass on Writing, Reading, & Life, is a wonderful example of the humanities-oriented education. I wholeheartedly recommend the book.
  3. Sam Rocha’s Primer, quoted in this post, is an extremely useful (and beautiful) place for thinking about education and philosophy.
  4. Thanks to a comment by Ana Luiza Sá Alvarenga on my “preamble” video, I became aware of the Brazilian psychologist, Fernando González Rey, whose work is also relevant for this series. Perhaps we will read his 2018 article, “Subjectivity and discourse: Complementary topics for a critical psychology“.