Psychology & Science: Reflections on a Discipline in Crisis

What is visible within a science, the sorts of statements it can make and encompass, the discursive strategies it deploys – these are all contingent upon some prior condition, at least, according to a disparate range of modern philosophers. For Heidegger, Gestell (enframing) provides the precondition for something to be made present. For Foucault, drawing from the latter, an episteme is the condition of possibility of knowledge. In Kuhn’s philosophy of science, paradigms provide the boundaries within which ‘normal science’ can occur, and Wittgenstein wrote of the rules of language games.

Whilst these concepts are not straightforwardly equivalent, what they share is the idea that there are a priori assumptions that precede scientific research, and that the products of such research will be contingent upon these assumptions in various ways. The assumptions ordain in advance what can be seen, and what can be said, and what simply makes no sense within a given perspective. This point seems to be forgotten by those who are most enthusiastic about the notion of psychology as a ‘science’ (as opposed to say, psychology as a branch of metaphysics, or as a subset of psychoanalysis).

What psychology makes visible, and what it articulates, within its particular framework, is principally devoted to the statistical study of hypothetical constructs (diagnoses, ‘traits’, states, ‘behaviours’, etc). What is rendered invisible, or unsayable in this approach? First, and most obviously there is no proper consideration of ontology, no thorough or coherent analysis of the sort of being to whom one is appending all these statistical artifices. Secondly, there is a refusal of the qualitative dimensions of empiricism, as if anything that cannot be assigned a number is essentially non-existent. Thirdly, there is very largely a repudiation of the social and linguistic dimensions of human life – despite their conceptual contiguity, sociology, history and linguistic perspectives are sidelined in an Anglophone psychology that is fundamentally atomistic, with socio-linguistic ‘’factors’ tacked on as a kind of ontological afterthought. This accounts, for instance, for the ludicrous lengthiness of the tired nature-nurture debacle, as if something like human ‘nature’ could wander about unmediated by social bonds, laws and language. No such nature exists, except, perhaps, in mythology, yet to question these untenable assumptions, or others (‘temperament’ comes to mind, as does the notion of ‘cognition’) is to situate oneself outside of respectable scientific discourse, as currently conceived. There are the two options from which to choose, it seems to me – either a narrow, quantitative, pettyfogging ‘science’ of psychology, that ignores the most vital aspects of human life in pursuit of concepts that are as degraded as they are ridiculous; or, something altogether different to science itself, but which replaces rigour with statistical fetishism.

Of course, within a science (or paradigm, or framework) like psychology, there can only ever be a limited contest of ideas. Mostly, there is a contest of power, more or less independent of ideas. Authorities determine what is scientific or ‘evidenced-based’. To dare to observe flaws in the ‘science’ of psychology is to risk accusations of unprofessionalism or scientific nihilism. Students and would-be practitioners must obey their masters if they want a Masters.

And these issues are not merely theoretical. If an entire discipline construes human subjects as mere bundles of data, from which ‘information’ is to be extracted as efficiently as possible, one might expect this to be reflected in clinical practice, and it is (often). The individuals, institutions and systems that treatment people thus can regard themselves ‘scientific’.

2 thoughts on “Psychology & Science: Reflections on a Discipline in Crisis

  1. My Psychology 1A textbook’s first sentence was: “Psychology is the study of the mind, brain and behaviour.” Its second sentence was: “Psychology is a science.” The entire first chapter was devoted to explaining what a science is, and what a science is not. The words “mind”, “brain” and “behaviour” were not defined.
    Thought you might find that amusing. My laughter was somewhat bitter.
    I love learning and have (being no longer young) studied a range of topics from physics (experimental and theoretical) to theology, education through psychology at under- and post-graduate levels. Taking up each new discipline is always fascinating, especially unlocking the Kuhnian and Wittgensteinian ‘gateways’ into each, an essential pre-requisite to success.
    I’m currently on hiatus from studying psychology for precisely the reasons you refer to in your last paragraph. Well, that’s not strictly true – I was also deeply pissed off at, even perhaps insulted by, a discipline which would allow a textbook which started in such a ridiculous manner to become a standard text.
    I don’t know whether I’ll take up my formal studies of psychology again. I am more interested in inner journeys, transformations, transmutations … precisely those things which cannot be described by a discipline which “construes human subjects as mere bundles of data”.
    Thank you for another thought-provoking post.

    • The defensiveness of the profession regarding its scientific status is extraordinary, but not surprising, since it places all of its authority on this pillar alone. When the DSM-5 was published in the face of widespread ridicule, many of the relevant psych authorities simply doubled down on old dogmas, and pretended the controversy didn’t exist. I think there’s more for psychology to learn from the humanities – including greater rigour – than from aping sciences it can never emulate. Thanks again for your comments.

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