Aristotle and the History of Psychology(Brett)(Philosophical Psychology)

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The History of Psychology, according to Professor Brett,  is the history of  a number of traditional inquiries amongst which are included The Rationalist tradition which includes both Plato and Aristotle, The Religious and ethical tradition, The Observationalist tradition, and the Medical Tradition. Brett also discusses the emergence of the theme of self-consciousness(Kant and Neo Kantians), what he calls the theme of the gateway of method, and theme of the  reinterpretation of authority  followed by the theme of the challenge to authority. This is a broad spectrum of concerns and can explain the controversies that arise whenever someone suggests a “reduction” of Psychology to one or two of these traditions/themes.

Aristotle is regarded as a Rationalist but  Brett does not observe what has subsequently been noted by Aristotelian scholars, namely,  that his thought would have something to contribute to each of the traditions, and the themes mentioned above. This essay attempts to show the breadth of  Aristotle’s interests and indicate how these interests correlate with the  breadth of concerns of the above traditions/themes. The theme concerning authority is particularly significant given the fact that Aristotle was regarded as “The Philosopher” for centuries and a “reinterpretation” of his work was needed by the religious authorities before a challenge to his authority could be mounted.

Brett is also eager to point out Aristotle’s deficiencies as a scientist even after pointing out that he differed markedly with Plato in his approach to reality by extolling the virtues of observation, methodological classification, and experimentation. Apparently, Aristotle’s fondness for definition was supposed to be a residue from the Platonic theory of forms according to Brett but what he then continues to say about Aristotle’s  hylomorphism does not quite amount to devaluing a commitment to definition.

Since matter, space and time must be infinite for Aristotle and the infinite can neither have a beginning nor an end, any chunk of finite matter must have a principle of organization which forms it into the kind of thing it is. Now there has been a great deal of philosophical discussion relating to whether there are natural kinds or not and Aristotle has been accused of adhering to the position that these natural kinds just occur in nature without any further explanation. This is not the case because we know he  believes that the infinite is formed into these natural kinds by a principle which is constitutive of the essence of that thing. The essences of things Aristotle believed shall be given in a thing’s essence -specifying definition.

The   theoretical framework  of Aristotle  also includes:

a)4 kinds of change that occur in the world,

b)three principles of change which ensure that we can make sense of the fact that something retains its identity throughout a process of change as long as that change does not destroy the identity of the thing in question, and

c) four different kinds of explanations of the change that occurs to the environment whether it be global change or the local change of the behaviour of a thing in the environment.

Amongst the 4 kinds of changes that were referred to, Substantial and Qualitative change were obviously more philosophically significant than Quantitative or Relational change.  This was Aristotle’s objection to the Pythagorean claim that the real qualities of things such as the sound of harp strings were to be related to the underlying mathematical lengths of the strings.  The latter mathematical relations, i.e. according to Pythagoras, explained the former qualities of the sounds that we qualitatively identify and appreciate.

This claim was certainly true of the harp strings but according to Aristotle, this state of affairs could not necessarily be generalized to all substances and qualities. The harp’s creation brought a substance into being in accordance with all the teleological qualities that a Harp requires. The quantitative knowledge relating to the length of the strings is, of course, part of the process of making the harp and in Aristotle’s terms part of the efficient and material causes of the harp.  The separation of quantitative changes from qualitative and substantial changes was a revolution in thinking which began with Plato and actually upset the Pythagorean attempt to universalize the ideal of mathematical thinking in nature. Modern quantum theory disregards the Aristotelian revolution when it insists that events in the sub atomic universe are to be explained by a mathematical formula which works but no one knows why it works.

The idea in the mind of the maker of the harp is , for Aristotle, not a quantity but  a form, one of the three forms which are communicated in his composite world of matter and form, the other two forms being 1. the biological form of reproducing  the species  to create another individual related to me and 2. the forms of knowledge that are communicated from teacher to learner: these last forms will probably include the form of the good, the form of justice and the form of beauty.

Finally, Aristotle’s definition of human nature as a rational animal was revised in a later work to “man is a rational animal capable of discourse” and part of what Aristotle means here by “rational”  are: 1. the theoretical knowledge of the world. and 2. the ability to plan one’s life by imposing some kind of life-formula upon my desires and wishes as well as 3. the ability to regulate communal desires and wishes via one’s understanding of the role of laws in the construction of the communal flourishing life. These plans and formulae are continually subjected to a critical reflection process which will determine whether they are right and wrong, whether they have achieved their purposes.   The composite of a man includes his animal nature and the relation of this aspect to man’s rational nature requires understanding Aristotle’s view of the soul.

This is the complex theoretical framework which he used for both biological and political science research in his Lyceum. There was no discipline of psychology at that time but there was much talk about the concept of the soul or psuche.(as distinguished from the physical animal-like body). Brett refers to Aristotle’s definition of human nature(rational animal capable of discourse) as not being “scientific” because it embodies no causal reference. Brett is using “causal” in some narrow linear scientific sense which works best when applied to the physical world of a billiard ball reacting with another billiard ball. For Aristotle “cause” means “explanation”(“aitia”) and both rational and animal have a complex conceptual relation with each other which is reminiscent of the relation of the soul(psuche) to the body. But there are largely 4 assumptions about the soul which are being used in Aristotle’s reference to the 4 kinds of change, three principles and 4 causes and these are:

  1. “Soul” is co-extensive with “life”. This is what the term “soul” means
  2. The soul is the actualization of a body furnished with organs.
  3. The movements of such a physical body are to be explained in terms of its soul. The soul is a form or a principle and is not the sort of thing therefore that can be moved
  4. There are levels of soul which form a hierarchy where the lower form is a necessary condition of the higher and the higher transforms the lower. The levels are the vegetative, which correspond to plant life, the animal level corresponding to animal life and the human corresponding to human life which incorporates and transforms both these lower “levels” of soul.

So life is the first power or capacity of the physical body and power builds upon power: language, for example,  builds upon the powers of memory and experience(in which we come to know or to see man as a man) and is in turn built upon by the power of rationality which eventually learns to think theoretically and systematically about the world(if all the conditions of this actuality are met along the way). Reason has also a practical dimension referred to above when  we impose plans or formulae upon our individual desires  and wishes(efficient causes of action) and we understand and pass laws which regulate our societies. These latter two capacities are intimately linked to the ethical concepts of right and wrong, standards of correctness  which add an achievement or areté -aspect to action

The soul moves the body but cannot itself be moved therefore it  is nothing physical but rather it  is able to move the body because thought in the form of intention or reason can move the body. But thought has an end built into itself and is experienced as a coming to rest rather than a movement. We come to rest in the very performance of the activity. So the form of transmitting thoughts from learner to teacher is not like that the relation between the builder building a house and the house that is built. In this example the house is an external end to the activity. In thought, on the contrary, the end is logically internal to the activity. The “telos” of the learner learning is logically tied to the activity of the teacher. teaching.

“”Seeing” and “remembering” are also so called achievement “verbs”. When we speak of them we speak of a standard that has been attained and are not making reports about movements in our soul(mind) or body. Similarly with action: action is not a movement because movements just happen without being right or wrong:  that is action is not a term of the same logical type as movement. Action also internally and logically contains its end. It has been planned and thought about. This is why the end of an action is necessary to explain the movement one makes in trying to achieve that end. These ends are also further evaluated in terms of whether they are right or not. The plans, formulas or  maxims are regarded as intelligent or not  either in relation to the circumstances or to other higher purposes such as the meaning of ones life.

Seeing and remembering can also be components of knowledge and both Plato and Aristotle are in agreement that our desire to understand the world is best manifested in the knowledge we have of the world. The process of acquiring knowledge, however, is multilayered and multi-faceted. The best account of this process can be found in Jonathan Lear’s work on Aristotle entitled “Aristotle: the desire to understand”:

“Man is not born with knowledge but he is born with the capacity to acquire it. But the world must cooperate with him if he is to exercise that capacity. Man starts life with the ability to discriminate among sensory phenomena, an ability he shares with other animals. His soul retains a record of its sensory encounters. Through repeated encounters with items in the world, our sensory discriminations develop into memory and then into what Aristotle calls “experience”. Experience Aristotle characterizes as “the whole universal that has come to rest in the soul.” From repeated perception of particular men, we form the concept of a man, and the knowledge that this thing which we see is a man is experience. If the universal, or concept, were not somehow already embedded in the particular, we could not make the transition from bare sensory discrimination to knowledge of the individual… Because the universal is embedded in particulars, a persons first explorations among particulars will lead him toward a grasp of the embodied universal. Having acquired experience, or knowledge of individuals, we are able to formulate more abstract forms of knowledge, the arts and sciences(technai and epistemai). Each stage of cognitive development is grounded in the previous stage…..”