Twentieth Century Psychology: The History of Psychology(Brett and Peters)

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This is the final essay in a series of essays on Brett and R S Peters’ work “The History of Psychology”. In the opening essay on the Philosophy of Man Peters pointed out how throughout the ages there has been a tendency to focus on the data or the subject matter of a collection of different kinds of inquiries occurring in the name of religion medicine and philosophy. This subject matter , of course, very quickly proliferates and demands ordering if the impression is not to be one of total confusion.

In 1870 Psychology unilaterally declared its independence from Philosophy and Religion and decided to focus on the scientific method as a means of uniting a chaotic field of data or subject matter. This move incorporated a commitment to observation and a resultant suspension of the “psychological” practical attitudes involved  in calls to action and the evaluation of action which was the concern of Aristotle’s practical science. Psychology reduced the circumference of the circle of its concerns to a  theoretical reasoning  that committed itself to what Brett called “observationalism” and introspection(a psychological mechanism which turned observation inwards).

The twentieth century, it is maintained, was largely obsessed by observationalist assumptions and reactions to observationalism such as behaviourism. Initially upon the declaration of independence, the definition of Psychology accepted by many leading researchers was “The science of consciousness” but it was then discovered that consciousness could not be observed and could not, therefore, fit into the theoretical scientific framework of being manipulated or measured as an experimental variable. The “scientific” response to this was to  redefine Psychology as the “science of behaviour” and this move merely further reduced the circumference of the investigative circle and much that was of interest in the Philosophy of man was ignored.

The Medical model also played its part in the development of Psychology through the reciprocal influences of Psychiatry and Freudian Psychology under the heading of technologies of cure which sometimes steered and sometimes were steered by theoretical views of diagnoses. The concept of development played its part in influencing the direction of Psychology by both focusing on animal research and child development. Simultaneously the social sciences with its tendency to highlight the role of the social environment in the development of the individual also contributed to a rich mixture of ingredients. One of the responses of the behaviourists to the introspective musings of subjects in “experimental” situations was to discard what people were saying and concentrate instead upon what was being done: behaviour. At the same time the medical model, operating in what Brett called the technological therapeutic mode was emphasizing a moral treatment of patients that demanded that the Doctor listen to his patients both for the purposes of diagnosis and for the purposes of treatment. This ethical focus was probably a consequence of the need of Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis to view humans holistically if the practical problem of restoring man  to health was to be solved. Freud’s initial training was in the Physiology of the brain. This was complemented with a medical training because, as a Jew, he could not look forward to a well-paid research position at Vienna University. Both of these largely theoretical educations proved to be inadequate to solve the kind of problem Freud was faced with in private practice. He was forced to resort creatively and experimentally to  various “technologies” such as hypnotism in order to address the complex symptoms of his patients. But Freud was also a man of culture and we know he was familiar with the writings of Kant and this perhaps prevented him from engaging in the various forms of quackery that was a sign of the times. Paradoxically it was probably Platonic, Aristotelian and Kantian Metaphysics and Transcendental Philosophy that turned this Physician into a leading figure on the world stage in the 20th century. Popularly, he became famous for his idea of “the unconscious” but this was probably only one of a number of innovative concepts he formed in his 50 years of theorizing. Ernest Jones, Brett points out, thought very highly of the Freudian distinction between the primary and secondary process of the mind working in accordance with different principles: the pleasure-pain principle and the reality principle respectively. Freud’s background in Physiology and Biology led him to formulate a theoretical idea of “instinct” and this together, in turn,  with his philosophical interests enabled him to construct a complex hylomorphic concept of instinct as constituted of the elements of “aim”, “object” and “source”.This complexity was of course not appreciated when criticism of his thesis of the sexual etiology of neurosis became almost universally accepted. The more superficial ideas of an organism being merely a bundle of instincts gained much traction at the beginning of the 20th century. In his seminal work, “The Interpretation of Dreams” Freud published the results of his adventures of reflection into the realm of wish-fulfillment which reads very differently to his other more technical works where we are clearly in the realm of action. The Interpretation of dreams  is almost like a hermeneutic work of interpretation operating on a mythical world, except for the famous chapter 7 on the psychical apparatus that  brings us back into the real world of action. In Kantian terms dreams are phenomena that happen to us and are distinct from the things we choose to do, and there is no obvious route for Kant from the realm of fantasy to the realm of the real world. Freud claimed that dreams are the royal road to the unconscious but what many of his critics fail to see is that the road leads in the other direction to the world of reality and action, and Freud’s work actually allows us to journey on that road connecting these two different “cities” of the mind. Our minds begin their life dwelling in the city of the primary process ruled by solipsistic wish fulfillment and anxiety and life in this city is obviously problematic. The contrast of the solid city built of choices and real actions leading to real consequences is stark. These are Brett’s words:

“However, whatever the right sort of description for such goings on which Freud called the primary processes, Freud saw clearly that they require a different sort of description from that which we give for processes explaining actions or performances. For we explain these in terms of the ends which people have in mind and their information about means to ends, which falls under rules of efficiency and appropriateness. To act or to perform a person must have a grasp of causal connection, of time, of external reality, and of logical contradictions. Such standards are the product of ages of convention, adaptation, and conscious experimentation. This inherited wisdom is handed on from generation to generation, as what Freud called the secondary processes begin to develop out of the autistic amalgam of the child’s mind. A wish, to be transformed into a reason for acting, has to have logical and causal connections, together with standards of social correctness, imposed upon it, to that what is wished for, the objective, can be connected with acts that lead up to it. It is interesting to note that Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics distinguished “wish” from “choice” roughly along these lines.”(R. S. Peters)

The analogy of two different cities obviously breaks down with the concept of the unconscious which actually is a concept on the boundary of the physical and the psychological. Ricoeur noted that this  part of Freud’s theory is more physiological and relates to the “energetics” and physical mechanisms of the body such as the leaving of memory traces by ideas that pass in and out of consciousness. Freud discovered that not all of these traces give rise to memories which can be retrieved in the way memories normally are. Some of these traces are of ideas that at one time passed through consciousness and require special techniques or circumstances before they are able to “surface” once again in the realm of consciousness: techniques such as hypnosis or free association, and circumstances such as dreaming or narcosis. Why one might ask do these “ideas” nor naturally “surface” in consciousness under the appropriate circumstances? Freud’s answer is that something or some force is preventing this natural process from occurring. There is, in other words, a repressing force operating in the mind distorting its natural function. Freud also acknowledged tendencies of the id which are not conscious and have not been formed by the egos defense mechanisms. Examples of traces that are prevented from expressing themselves in consciousness are  “the traces left by experiences in early childhood–especially those involving wishes of which we feel ashamed”. In his later theorizing, Freud introduces “agents” into his topographical model. The Ego, for example, is the outer face of the id that negotiates as best it can with three masters: firstly it meets the demands of the external world instrumentally finding the best means to the ends which meet these demands, secondly it meets the demands of the id, sometimes defensively, thirdly it meets the demands of the superego and its demands that certain standards of behaviour and judgment be maintained.. This latter agency of the super-ego is obviously an introjection of mechanisms of society which regard “norms” as necessary for the ordering of relations between men in society. Here we are obviously dealing with the attitudes I referred to in the beginning of this essay. The final third wave of Freud’s theorizing provided us with a picture of the workings of a “silent” instinct that wreaks havoc in society: the death instinct that manifests itself defensively as aggression and this was for Freud the final piece of the puzzle depicting the contours of human nature. A number of patients with sadistic-masochistic tendencies were flying beneath the radar of Freudian theory and until Thanatos entered the arena of theoretical explanation these patients were paradoxes for Freudian theory. The superego obviously contained more than a little of this aggression as well as containing the influences of our closest relatives and friends as well as the influence of social institutions.Many everyday transactions in the social world are in Freudian theory, given technical labels which refer to a network of descriptive and explanatory concepts. The theory proposed that conflicts in early childhood can centre around organs and operations of the body and that the failure to resolve such conflicts might result in personality distortions which have been famously described in personality type theory.

R S Peters spends much time on describing and commenting on Freudian theory and feels it necessary to say the following in conclusion:

“If any justification is necessary for spending so much time on presenting Freud’s theory as a whole it is to be found in its overwhelming importance and influence in twentieth century Psychology. It combines the purposivism of other theories with the stress on the unity or wholeness of the personality which purposive theories have often neglected. It has been illustrated by more empirical material than any other theory and is richer in causal genetic hypotheses. In fact, there are enough speculative hypotheses in Freud to keep a generation of psychologists going in the endeavor to state them precisely and to test them. The stress on “the unconscious” and the importance given to early childhood experiences was revolutionary when we consider the theories in the field at the end of the 19th century. The only respects in which Freud was a child of the 19th century were his Darwinian approach, his vague metaphysical leanings derived from Schopenhauer, and his conception of “ideas” as dynamic mental entities which he inherited from Herbart.”(R. S. Peters)

Interest in the development of the child and personality types gave rise in the twentieth century to an industry of attempts to “measure”  the abilities and personality of children and adults. Educationalists became interested in intelligence testing. Testing and experimentation also continued in earnest with different animals. Psychometrics became a part of many Psychology and Teacher training courses at Universities and Colleges. Everyone became technically interested in the “instruments” of Psychology and the conceptual aspect of psychological investigations was marginalized. Statistical studies aiming at proving causal relationships between variables soon gave way to studies using probability theory to calculate correlations between variables, especially in those studies in which a conceptual understanding of the variables and their contexts were lacking.

The Social Sciences also played an influential role in mobilizing researchers. Marx’s Economic theories lent themselves well to a theory of value which continued a tradition begun by Hobbes and  Hume, a tradition that attempted to separate value from the realm of objectivity in favor a psychological fallback position which attempted explanations of social phenomena in terms of the invariable psychological(subjective) characteristics of individuals. Hobbes, for example had attempted to “deduce mans social and political behaviour from basic psychological postulates about self-preservation which were themselves presumed to be deducible from physical postulates about matter in motion”. Hobbes wonders whether life can be anything more than the mechanical movement of springs and gears. This value-phobia inhabited even the thinking of those social scientists who rejected the psychological approach and like Marx regarded the concepts of class, nation and the collective to be far more useful for social analysis than the needs and wants of individuals. The Philosophical notion of a prescriptive set of concepts possessing objectivity and truth  and subject to the laws of logic was a thin crescent moon in the starry heaven of academic ideas. Peters points to a publication  by Charles Cooley entitled “Human Nature and the Social Order” which he claims was very influential in America, the home of social psychology:

“Its main theme was that human personality is a social product and that most of our beliefs and attitudes are socially acquired. The “social order” thus determines the individual personality. Kantian objections were conspicuous by their absence in this zone of debate.”

Peters points out insightfully that this discussion only had one direction in which to go and that was toward a description of human automata. This environment also made it difficult for Freudian ideas to persist and Freud bashing became a favorite past-time of many American academics. Even Malinowski’s serious objections to the Freudian Oedipus complex was overshadowed by a general lack of interest in Freuds theories. The condition of the existence of his theories depended upon insisting  upon a link with social anthropology.

The overall impression of Peters is that during the 20th century there emerged a proliferation of “schools” of Psychology all operating on either different assumptions or with different methods or with  different concepts and that this has in no small measure contributed to what many philsophers regard as the “conceptual confusion” in the subject.