CUSP, Psychology, Social Psychology

Is psychology a science?

Is psychology a science? This question is less straightforward than it might first seem. It has been discussed by numerous theorists. This month, the question was the focus of a seminar for CuSP, the Culture and Social Psychology research group. As part of his contribution to the seminar, Prof. Paul Stenner writes about some of the traditions of thinking relevant to the question.

In 1958 Hans Eysenck, then the most cited social scientist in the world, wrote a book called ‘Sense and Nonsense in Psychology’. It railed against sloppy unscientific thinking and called for the tightening up of the discipline around rigorously designed experiments and psychometric studies. In this, he echoed Karl Popper’s highly influential advocacy of falsification as the demarcation criterion for scientificity (leaving Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx clearly outside the fold). But the troubled question of the scientific status of psychology has been with the discipline since its emergence as a science in the 19th Century and it has never quite gone away. 

Many today would consider Eysenck’s gesture to be rather narrow-minded and perhaps even an act of epistemic violence. Since at least the 1980s, constructionist arguments have gathered force that sometimes push for the opposite extreme: not even natural science can claim absolute truth and all knowledge claims must be situated in local historical contexts. This led to the famous ‘science wars’, a polemic perhaps best avoided.  

But in a curious way psychology is and always has been at the very heart of these extremist tendencies to polarise, and for good reason. Certainly that’s the case with the major founders: Gustave Fechner, Wilhelm Wundt, Wilhelm Dilthey, Sigmund Freud and William James to name just a few. Amongst these, Dilthey stands out because of his interest in psychology as a discipline capable of providing foundations for all of the human studies. It was Dilthey that coined the now well-known distinction between the Naturwissenschaften and the Geisteswissenschaften (the natural sciences and the human studies). This distinction is based upon the idea that natural sciences like chemistry and physics deal with facts that present themselves as part of an external world that is separate from the consciousness of the scientist who studies them. The natural scientist seeks lawful regularities amongst these facts by means of generating hypotheses which allow inferences to be drawn.

Those who study history or literature, by contrast, do not deal with a separate reality external to their consciousness but with the living connections at play in reality as it is experienced. In human studies there is no need to use hypotheses in order to make an inferential ‘leap’ to a reality beyond the mind, since what is being studied is reality as experienced in the mind, or as processed by a mind. Dilthey’s remarks on the dangers of what would now be called methodolatry remain fresh today: 

We do not show ourselves genuine disciples of the great scientific thinkers simply by transferring their methods to our sphere: we must adjust our knowledge to the nature of our subject-matter and thus treat it as the scientists treated theirs. (Wilhelm Dilthey, 1894/2010, p.89)  

Indeed, perhaps psychology has always tended to organise itself around two centres, one oriented towards the humanities and social sciences, and one towards biology and the natural sciences. And, notwithstanding an understandable tendency to polarise and specialise, perhaps it is important to work out how to work with both. If we do accept that psychology is a discipline with (at least) two centres, one concentrating in the natural sciences and one in the human studies, we are faced with the questions of whether and how to move between these. But much of way ‘theory’ is envisaged in psychology is skewed towards the first way of thinking. In my view, the value of Dilthey’s ‘metatheory’ is that it sharpens our appreciation of the need to address the ‘second’ centre by means of what he called hermeneutics. 

One of Dilthey’s main works was a biography of another thinker, Friedrich Schleiermacher, who had revolutionised modern hermeneutics and linked its two sources, one theological and one concerned with the arts. Dilthey put hermeneutics squarely on the map for psychology and the human studies and he was the first to do so and remains thoroughly relevant. (Those interested in the dull dusty history will be interested to note that G.H. Mead studied with him.) For Dilthey, hermeneutics is a systematic reflection on the art of interpretation. He draws attention to the fact that the human studies have a long tradition of methodological reflection and refinement that rivals that of the natural sciences, but that the focus is on how to systematize different approaches to ‘understanding’.  

Understanding is the word that Dilthey uses to refer to the process of grasping what something means. This – in his terminology – is unique to the human studies because the subject matter here is always more than just an objective phenomenon: it is an objective expression that indicates preferences, values, desires, need or whatever. For example, if someone calls for help, we recognise that this is not, say, an interesting auditory phenomenon for subjection to a Fourier analysis, but an expression of the need for assistance. 

This example makes the difference between a phenomenon and an expression seem rather obvious, but further exploration shows that the distinction is less straightforward. It becomes necessary to reflect critically on HOW we are understanding, that is, on the process involved. Dilthey uses the term ‘interpretation’ to refer to a specialised type of understanding which can occur when the objective expression (the call for help) is recorded in a permanent form that can be dwelt upon at length by the one trying to understand it (examples might be writing, the transcription of an interview, a stone sculpture, etc). Through history, different schools of interpretation have arisen and the distinctions between schools have become apparent, leading to more explicit statements of the rules and methods for doing interpretations. This is the form of study that historically was called ‘hermeneutics’, and there is a large historical stock of wisdom concerning the skill of interpretation. But at the root of it, we must return to Dilthey’s insight that understanding (as distinct from natural scientific explanation) deals with the kind of subject matter that is an expression, and hence is taken not at face value but as an objective form that results from a process of experience that has shaped it. 

I suggest that Dilthey’s value comes not just from the clarity of his distinction, but also because it is never absolute. It carries the further implications that human studies must also engage with natural science (an archaeologist must draw upon chemical analysis, a historian cannot be ignorant of the effects of cannons on flesh etc) and also that the ‘subject’ of experience need not be limited to human beings. This reflection may appear to some as all too ‘male, pale and stale’, but Dilthey’s approach resonates quite well with the high-level reflections on science of some of the most important contemporary thinkers, including Karen Barad, Isabelle Stengers, Donna Haraway and others who are adopting forms of process philosophy that seek to avoid bifurcating nature into mind and matter, materiality and subjectivity.Also, in a more down to earth way, Dilthey’s metatheory returns us to very practical points about what psychologists should study, and how, and in addition, it emphasises the importance of hermeneutic techniques for interpreting psychosocial phenomena.

Read about CuSP here:

Read about Paul Stenner here:

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