Carrol Against Psychologism

Carrol Cox cbcox at
Fri Jul 3 13:44:54 PDT 1998

Chuck Miller wrote:

<<To despise anything psychological, however, seems to miss the boat on what constitutes human motivations. Surely there is substantial evidence to show that [X and] psychology determine to a large extent how and why people do what they do.>>

This is the last of my three posts for today, so I'm not going to try to respond to many of the interesting substantive points in your post, nor am I going to reply in terms which you can accept to this part of your post, but at least I can clarify a bit. On no question do I so often find myself in sharp opposition to friends whose politics I share than on this issue of psychology (usually as posed by psychoanalyisis, on which I agree with Wojtek also: it belongs in the same genus as witchcraft). Social relations are real and knowable (corrigibly so); the brain/nervous system is real and knowable (corrigibly so). Both are the proper subjects of systematic analysis and study.

Psychology simply has nothing real to study. As we know it, it is a collection of empirical observations, some of which masquerade as explanations but which, in fact, are not explanations but mere labels for what requires to be explained, and which psychology will never explain any more than ancient or early modern empiric medicine ever explained anything. Behaviorism, psychoanalysis, etc. all suffer from this defect of having nothing to study.

Because political theory and neuroscience cannot now explain much of what you wish to call human motivation is no reason to flee for an explanation to the wilds of empiric psychology and its various ghillies and ghosties and long legged beasties and things that go boomp in the night. We will simply for the time being have to be content to say, We don't know. Perhaps will never know. Perhaps will know when capitalism is a long-past nightmare and social relations are clear enough, neurology advanced enough, to say something about human motivation that is actually explanatory. Some of the mass of empiric data which constitutes psychology can be useful as rules of thumb or summaries of rough probabilities, but that does not even begin to constitute any sort of knowledge. Certainly it is not a knowledge which has any historical explanatory power.

One may, in the following quotation from Marx, substitute "psychology" for "Providence" without loss of cogency.

>From *Poverty of Philosophyd*:

Every new category [in Proudhon's work] is a hypothesis of the social genius to eliminate the inequality engendered by the preceding hypothesis. In short, equality is the *primordial intention* [cf. Oedipus comlex or the behaviorist's stimulus/response], the *mystical tendency*, the *providential aim* that the social genius has constantly before its eyes as it whirls in the circle of economic contradictions. Thus *Providence* is the locomotive which makes the whole of M. Proudhon's economic baggage move better than his pure and volotalised reason. He has devoted to Providence a whole chapter, which follows the one on taxes.

Providence, providential aim, this is the great word used today to explain the movement of history. In fact, this word explains nothing. It is at most a rhetorical form, one of the various ways of paraphrasing the facts.

It is a fact that in Scotland landed property acquired a new value by the development of English industry. This industry opened up new outlets for wool. In order to produce wool on a large scale, arable land had to be transformed into pasturage. To effect this transformation, the estates had to be concentrated. To concentrate the estates, small holdings had first to be abolished, thousands of tenants had to be driven from their native soil and a few shepherds in charge of millions of sheep to be installed in their place. Thus, by successive transformations, landed property in Scotland has resulted in the driving out of men by sheep. Now say that the providential aim of the institution of landed property in Scotland was to have men driven out by sheep, and you will have made providential history.

(Chapter II, 1, Method, Sixth Observation.)

Carrol Cox

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