Carrol Against Psychologism

bautiste at bautiste at
Mon Jul 6 19:20:28 PDT 1998

Carrol Cox wrote:

> 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,

I find this statement difficult to understand. The nothing studied in psychology is surely subjective (at times), but these are subjective feelings, desires, thoughts, that many people will agree they have. The nature of these subjective thoughts might be in disagreement, but THAT people have subjective thoughts seems to be universal.

On the other hand, the many varieties of behaviorism seem to have something to study, i.e., behavior. Following the general empirical approach of observing multiple subjects over time and then determining a characteristic feature of these subjects' actions and experience seems to stand the test of scientific verifiability. That is, given circumstance A, the majority of people will act in X way.

Piaget's study with children, therefore, can identify various stages through which children acquire and exhibit various cognitive skills dealing with time/space and even morality. His results stand or fall in terms of whether these skills are observable in some way in every subject under 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.

I believe that neuroscience does say that they can explain motivation. I may not agree with some of the leading theories, but I do think there is a biological basis for something John Searle and others call "intention." Others talk about the argument from an evolutionary perspective, showing how consciousness has arisen from various evolutionary necessities such as child rearing.

> 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.

What does _constitute_ knowledge then? Is it only empirically verifiable facts? The kinds of knowledge embodied in common sense, cultural traditions and even moral systems are _knowledge_, no? The rules used to constitute the correctness of these types of knowledge may differ from the scientific method, but they are just as "verifiable" in experience as is scientific knowledge. Do they provide the kind of of certainty that a chemical formulation does? Probably not, but that only means they have different rules for verification.

As far as historical explanatory power is concerned: that way of speaking seems to beg the question about what is explanatory power. I think Herodotus' historical descriptions are quite explanatory and quite powerful. They provide an explanation for why things happened the way they did.

While I am interested in hearing more about why things happen in history, I am left with the notion that things do not happen at a systemic level only. They happen on the ground. They involve questions of motive and identity--the subjective reasons for why people do what they do. Once I can figure out why someone is motivated to act in a particular way, I can perhaps begin to reach a level of understanding with him/her about changing his/her behavior to work towards a clearer understanding of what needs to be done to solve problems.

I think your Marx quote is quite good at showing the vacuities of "mythological" ways of explaining historical developments. However, this level of description is not the only one, nor is it necessarily the only correct way of explaining how history happens. Shakespeare's psychological "explanations" for Caesar's rise to power are just as illuminating for an understanding of history as are Marx's manuscripts. They just work at different levels of experience and understanding. I think Kant was on to something when he suggested that the only kind of history that can be written is in the form of a novel.


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