Our Philosophical knowledge of man and the History of Psychology(Brett and Peters)

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Professor R S Peters published an abridgement of the three volumes of Professor Brett’s “History of Psychology” in 1953(revised in 1961). The original volumes were published between 1912 and 1921.   The subject matter of Psychology has historically been very differentiated and that differentiation does not appear to be organised in any obvious way. This fact has led some commentators to question whether there is any specific subject matter which Psychology is about. Many 20th century  Philosophers have complained about the conceptual confusion inherent in the theories and claims of Psychology and pointed to specific regions of confusion. So when a History of Psychology is written by a philosopher and an abridgement attempted by another philosopher it certainly deserves attention. Peters tried to impose a philosophical framework on Brett’s work. Many myths are exposed on this journey of abridgement and some of these are the construction of scientific superstition. The myth of privileged “data” accumulating under different headings and science cautiously making generalisations about this “data” makes a very large assumption that one can approach nature with a mind like an empty wax tablet upon which nature can impress its form. Peters points out in his abridgement that no one individual can “begin” acquiring knowledge. We all are part of a long tradition:

“The very language we speak incorporates in a condensed form all kinds of assumptions about things, people, and situations. We take things for granted that our ancestors discovered by trial and error: we can neither avoid nor dispense with our social inheritance which is handed down in the form of countless traditional skills and assumptions.”(Peters, 1961)

The above quote quite categorically adopts the view that at some point we began our epistemological journey with assumptions that are very general, We do not “construct” them from particulars. We take our assumptions with us in our dealing with things, people and situations and learn to differentiate between them and to particularise them. Apart from this we also have interests in and attitudes towards our world and these assist in generating expectations and assumptions which in turn provoke the asking of questions when frustrated. There is no such thing Peters, argues as a  presupposition-less inquiry. With all this in mind, one can maintain that subject matter is not the key differentiator of Psychology from other areas of inquiry. What is more adequate to this task would be to differentiate one tradition from another by constructing their respectively different traditions of inquiry: that is from establishing their history. So Peters claims:

“What we call psychology is just an amalgam of different questions about human beings which have grown out of  a variety of different traditions of inquiry.”

Three major traditions are of interest and probable sources of psychological inquiry: religious investigations, medical investigations and philosophical investigations into the nature of man. In all three types of inquiry, the investigations take into account what people say about their own actions and feelings. Peters introduces an interesting philosophical distinction between three types of questions: questions of theory, questions of policy and technological questions.

So generally, if we wish to talk in terms of disciplines these are characterized in terms of the way these disciplines go about answering questions. This way includes the integration of expectations, attitudes, and interests in relation to the aspects of reality these disciplines are concerned with. Peters  then draws an interesting distinction between two of these three elements  and claims there is a clear and logical distinction between two types of statements: statements which  involve expectations and statements which involve our interests and attitudes:

“If a person says that iron expands when it is heated he is describing what he expects to observe but if he says that swords ought to be beaten into pruning hooks he is expressing an attitude towards the use of iron, or prescribing a course of action. Descriptions are answers to questions of theory: prescriptions are answers to questions of policy.”

Prescriptions  are related to “interests, attitudes, and demands”:

“They cannot be confirmed or falsified simply by lookings at things or situations. The man who says that peace is better than war cannot be refuted by being made to look at swords as well as pruning hooks or by being taken from his husbandry to watch a battle. The wrongness of killing people is not revealed to us by simply watching a battle. People can agree on their expectations of and assumptions about things people and situations, yet they can at the same time differ radically in their attitudes to, interests in and demands of them. And if they disagree with such questions of policy there is no agreed procedure for settling the dispute.”

Technological questions are questions about the means one should employ to achieve a particular end. An engineer builds a bridge to meet certain specifications. He creates the required states of affairs in accordance with general assumptions about temperature, expansion and material stresses and a description of initial particular conditions. Questions related to health and happiness are technological questions, questions about the means to achieve a particular end.

These three types of questions succinctly demarcate Philosophically the arena of psychological questioning. Since 1870 and the secession of Psychology from Philosophy these three types of inquiry have been favoured: the scientific the technological and the prescriptive. The philosophical or self consciously reflective dimension of psychology diminished in importance. That dimension in which  so called “second order”  questioning occurs which wishes to examine our assumptions  and which require a reflective level of self-consciousness of one’s own activity and a reflective awareness of how we use  language in these areas of inquiry:

“If a moral philosopher attempts, like a moralist to recommend a way of life or a new conception of society, he does so in a second order manner by redefining words like”justice”, “good” and “natural” or by concentrating on certain procedures for deciding on “rightness” or “wrongness” like looking at the consequences of actions or paying attention only to peoples motives.”(Peters 1961)

Philosophical concerns were once vitally important to psychological investigation and the history of psychology. Many of the mental concepts philosophers have reflected upon such as “reason”, “will” “desire” “conscience” have subsequently been converted into first order concepts by the anxious desire of the scientist to convert the thinking about activity into the activity itself. As a consequence, many scientists dismiss these concepts because they seem to suggest a first order activity of introspection(internal as distinct from external observation) thus confounding the entire reflective process which was not observational but connected to establishing a logical justification for the assumptions involved in the activity. Sever this philosophical dimension from psychological questioning and we will very quickly produce the conceptual confusion Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty and many other analytical philosophers have pointed to.

But what would be an example of a psychological investigation which took into consideration a reflective philosophical approach? Toward the end of the 18th century, Kant actually produced a text book for a discipline which he termed “Anthropology”. This work was designed to facilitate the political task of preparing the citizen for a cosmopolitan existence. Philosophy,  for Kant, was a cosmopolitan affair which could be characterised by 4 fundamental questions: What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope for? and What is a human being? This last question is the concern of Anthropology specifically but there will be a relation to the first three questions too. The Anthropology claims that investigations into human nature can take two forms: either physiological(what nature makes of man) or pragmatic(what man as a free acting being makes of himself or can and should make of himself). Physical anthropology is scientific and based on observation or introspection. Kant is rightly suspicious of this latter line of investigation because of the difficulties of the fact that the very act of observing changes the behavior that is observed(presumably introspection also changes the activity it is relating to). If this is correct it is an amazing indictment of the experimental psychology project that was to be launched in the next century almost a hundred years later. The freedom of the will is not a variable that can be controlled or manipulated. It is incredibly difficult if not impossible to grasp the essence of human nature. But almost paradoxically Kant does think that we can profitably pursue the line of investigation suggested by pragmatic philosophy, namely,  the question of what man can or should make of himself.