Psychology Today and Tomorrow
Dr. C. George Boeree
From Logical Positivism to
The philosophy that came to dominate research in psychology in the
first half of the 20th century was called logical positivism. This
philosophy began with meetings of philosophers and physicists in Vienna
and Berlin in the 1920’s. The names that come up most often in
association with logical positivism are Moritz Schlick (the founder)
and Rudolph Carnap.
The basic idea of logical positivism is that all knowledge is based on
empirical observation, assisted by the rigorous use of logic and
mathematics. The ideal method in science, in other words, is
hypothesis testing. In fact, any theoretical statement is
meaningful only if it can be tested empirically. This is called
the verification principle.
What this meant in the larger scheme is that all metaphysical (and, of
course, theological) statements are meaningless. The only purpose
left to philosophy, according to the logical positivists, is the
investigation of the meaningfulness of scientific statements.
Over time, logical positivism came to dominate the thinking of most
people in physics and chemistry, and many in biology and
psychology. It was the behaviorists who adopted it most
But in the second half of the 20th century, a new philosophy called postmodernism came in with some
powerful criticism of logical positivism and all modern
philosophy. The most familiar names associated with postmodernism
are Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
Postmodernism started in architecture, when some young architects in
the late 1900’s rebelled against what their teachers told them about
“right” and “wrong” ways to design buildings. Their teachers at
the time were mostly modernists, who liked clean lines and pure
geometric forms, such as we see in many modern skyscrapers. So
the rebels started calling themselves postmodernists. Before, the
emphasis was on keeping with one architectural philosophy or another,
one style or another. The postmodernists said break the rules!
mix up the styles! play with space! defy gravity if you like!
In philosophy, modernism refers to enlightenment philosophy. Back
then, philosophers were seeking a single, monolithic Truth. But,
beginning with Hume’s skepticism and Kant’s critical philosophy,
philosophers became increasingly aware of the limitations of
philosophy. Although often hidden by the popularity of approaches
such as Hegel's
absolutism and Comte's positivism, this skeptical or critical line of
thought continued all
through the 1800’s to Nietzsche's perspectivism and William James'
The fundamental point of postmodernism is that there is no objective
reality or ultimate truth that we have direct access to. Truth is
matter of perspective or
point-of-view. Each individual constructs his or her own
understanding of reality, and no one is capable of rising above their
In the course of history, some constructions of reality have been
privileged, that is, supported
powerful elite -- wealthy European men, to use a common example.
have been suppressed. Examples of supressed constructions include
the points-of-view of
women, the poor, and nonwestern cultures.
Everything is seen through “glasses” -- social, cultural, even
individual. Even science! Thomas Kuhn, a philosopher of
science, pointed out that science is actually a messy business, full of
personal, cultural and even political influences. “Truth” is
whatever the scientists presently in power say it is -- until this
status quo is overwhelmed by contradictions. Then a scientific
“revolution” -- a paradigm shift
-- takes place. And things start
all over again.
The major tool of postmodernism
Deconstruction is when you show that some
system of thought is ultimately incomplete or irrational even by
its own internal ideas and reasoning. It’s like an extended
version of “reduction to absurdity” -- criticism from the inside
out. Or you can see it as an extension of nominalism: names
individuals, but words that pretend to refer to anything more
(universals, ideals, forms, natural laws, Ultimate Truths...) are just
By deconstructing some of our traditional philosophies, histories,
literatures, and sciences, postmodernism made us aware of the biases
we can’t easily see because those biases are too close to us, too much
of us. This has been the task, for example, of feminism.
Feminism began as a call to take women seriously. After eons of
women's lives being seen as little more than a footnote to men's, it is
way past time
attention to them both as subjects of serious interest and as thinkers
in their own right!
Feminists say that being male unconsciously biases men as philosophers
(or historians, scientists...). If we want to improve our
understanding of our world, we need to take the female perspective into
account. These are very good points!
Another postmodernist movement is multiculturalism.
It is argued that western thinkers are unconsciously biased by their
common cultural assumptions, social structures, and histories.
For many years, for example, there has been a tendency to see Europeans
and their descendents as somehow "normal," with other peoples and
civilizations in some way inferior or deviant.
Today, most social scientists are well aware of other cultural
perspectives, and are careful to examine their own biases. Social
science generally has welcomed the contributions of a constantly
expanding number of scientists from non-western backgrounds.
A bias that interests me is the bias that comes from class. Until very recently,
the majority of scientists and other scholars have been members of the
upper classes, with little sympathy for, much less understanding of,
the working class poor. Even today, we have to ask ourselves, who
do we as scientists work for? More often than not, it is for
establishments, academic or corporate. We do, consciously or not,
what our lords demand of us!
Unfortunately, some argue that the view from the lower rungs of society
are actually better than those from the top. Similarly, some
feminists have argued that the female perspective
is intrinsically better than the male perspective. This point of
view ignores the possibility that men may overcome their biases, and
the possibility that women can be equally biased. We find the
same tendency among advocates of other critical philosophies. It
is not, for example, necessarily true that if a theory is clearly
European it is wrong, or if it is non-western it is right. And
even someone who does research for multinational
corporations can occasionally be correct! Okay, probably not.
Furthermore, not all perspectives are equally valuable. Astrology
may be perspectives on personality, but they are, in fact,
wrong! The explanations of human behavior given by Siberian
shamans, although certainly interesting, are not anymore likely to be
accurate than the explanations provided by Europe's own early thinkers.
Deconstructionism and postmodern philosophies in general tend to be
negative philosophies. They criticize, but seldom offer
alternatives. Their arguments often lack empirical support or
even rational thinking: Remember that they are criticizing our
very ability to be empirical or rational!
At first, traditionalists were impressed and became interested in
limitations. Men as well as women became feminists;
westerners as well as others embraced multiculturalism. Most
welcomed the variety of perspectives!
But eventually, some noticed: If all truth is relative (just as
if all morality is relative), then feminism, multiculturalism, etc. are
not intrinsically truer or more valuable than “masculinism” or
Eurocentrism, etc. If we can’t make judgments as to what is or
isn’t True, then how can we progress? How can we improve
ourselves and our societies when "progress" is all in the eyes of the
If you believe that all perspectives are equally valid, then the only
thing that raises one perspective over any other, as Nietzsche pointed
out, is power. If philosophy and science are reduced to power
struggles among "authorities," we are right back where we were on, say,
February 17, 1600, when the church burned Giordano Bruno at the stake.
So, once we become aware (and stay aware!) of our limitations and
biases, aware even of the limitations of empiricism and rationalism
themselves, we must nevertheless return to empiricism and rationalism,
as the only
way we can at least approximate truth, perhaps as the only way we can
survive as a species. We must learn our lesson and then get back
The Situation for Psychology
So where are we today, in the first years of the new millennium?
Freudianism is slowly disappearing. Its insights have been
absorbed into a general clinical psychology that is dominated by
humanistic practices based more on Carl Rogers and Albert Ellis than on
The object relations school attempts to hang on to Freud, but is really
more than a belated recognition of humanist ideas, reconstructed into
psychoanalytic language. Jungian psychology, too, is
disappearing. Jung still lives on in the study of mythology and
symbolism and in the amazing popularity of the Myers-Briggs
categories. Adler, on the other hand, has been “rediscovered” and
his insights thoroughly integrated into humanistic and existential
psychology. The same can be said for “neo-Adlerian” theorists
such as Karen Horney and Erich Fromm.
Sensation and perception, the concerns of most of the originators of
psychology as a science, draw less and less attention over the
years. Gestalt psychology has, for the most part, been absorbed
into the mainstream and lost its status as a separate approach.
Its two offspring, humanistic clinical psychology and the field of
psychology are, of course, alive and well. Humanistic psychology
forms the bedrock of modern clinical practice, especially in the form
of an eclectic blend of Rogers and Ellis (despite their outward
incompatibility!), plus a few behavioristic techniques such as
Social psychology has become a blend of humanistic concerns and
inventive experimental research. Unfortunately, it has rejected
its phenomenological roots, and there is little
in the way of coherent theorizing or long-term commitment to research
programs. Much of social psychology is a matter of testing
disconnected, intuitive hypotheses.
Other disciplines, such as personality and developmental psychology,
follow the same pattern as social psychology. Not only is there
little in the way of theorizing in personality, but the trend is toward
quantitative research, almost all of it devoted to individual
pet paradigm is test creation using factor analysis,
despite the fact that factor analysis is a highly suspect methodology
that may well relate more to word meanings than to constructs with real
Developmental psychology has become increasingly applied, especially,
of course, in relation to education and parenting. One advance is
the movement towards consideration of the entire life span. This
also has close ties to applied areas, this time the social problem of
an increasingly elderly population.
Phenomenology as a method has become a part of a more general movement
usually referred to as qualitative methods. These methods have
become popular in certain fields, especially education and nursing, and
in certain orientations, such as feminism and multiculturalism.
Unfortunately, the methods are often poorly used. They are by
more susceptible to bias, and much of the research can only be taken as
exploratory at best.
Existentialism has fused with humanism, sometimes contributing its
philosophical depth, sometimes merely adding its confusing
jargon. Many existentialists and humanists have drifted into the
realm of transpersonal psychology, which investigates issues such as
altered states of consciousness and spiritual experiences.
Although there is legitimate and valuable research here, most of it is
a form of new age mysticism in the guise of
Behaviorism, much like gestalt psychology, has been absorbed into
mainstream psychology. While students continue to memorize
Pavlovian and Skinnerian conditioning paradigms, it is increasingly
understood that these are not particularly useful for understanding
human behavior. It is really Tolman and Bandura that appear to be
having the long-term impact. Hard-core behaviorists are moving
into the study of physiological processes.
The most disappointing area of psychology for me personally has been
cognitive psychology. While it began promisingly with the works
of psychologists like Ulric Neisser and the input from the artificial
intelligence movement, it seems that both Neisser and AI researchers
program! Neisser felt that cognitive psychology was ignoring
reality and is becoming a sort of intellectual game. AI
that it simply wasn’t necessary to model human cognitive processes in
order to outdo human performance. When the Deep Blue computer
beat grand master Garry Kasparov, humanity's secure place at the top of
creation seems to have ended.
One offshoot of cognitive psychology is a new interest in such
traditional philosophical issues as the nature of consciousness.
Often considered the “ultimate” psychological question, it has
generated a great deal of excitement at conferences. I may be
alone in this, but the problem of consciousness is not a problem for
me. It is only a problem if you insist, against all reason, on
being a materialist!
The most active part of psychology today is physiological
psychology. First, the remarkable progress in mapping even the
living, working brain with CT scans, PET scans, and MRIs will soon
result in a fairly complete picture of brain circuitry. Second,
the discovery of effective new drugs operating at the synapse has
revolutionized clinical psychology. And third, the completion of
the mapping of the human genome heralds the beginning of a far more
thorough understanding of the links between genetics and
behavior. On the other hand, physiological psychologists are
identifying themselves more and more with their biological and medical
colleagues, and distancing themselves from the “softer” side of
Related to the developments in physiological psychology is the impact
of sociobiology on psychological theory. Often called
evolutionary psychology, this approach has produced a significant
number of intriguing hypotheses about the origins of human behavior and
the existence of possible instincts that delimit, if not define, our
natures. Unfortunately, the approach has offered little in the
testable hypotheses as yet.
As it stands right now, psychology is fragmented, with a particularly
large divide between humanistic applied psychology and a highly
reductionistic biological psychology. What is needed is a
unifying theory, one that avoids the easy extremes. It has to be
informed by postmodern criticism, but must ultimately base itself on a
broad empiricism and rigorous rationalism. It has actually been
done before: William James did it in the 1890’s; so did Gardner
Murphy in the 1950’s. Apparently, the field was not ready to
recognize the full implication of their efforts and others like
them. Maybe we will be ready next time.
In the meantime, courses in the history of psychology (however
boring they may be!) have an important place in our educations:
looking at things from the big, historical perspective, and from the
of eternity” we get by studying philosophy, perhaps we will have
in psychology sooner rather than later.
See you in the future!
-- George Boeree
© Copyright 2005, George
Photographs by Jenny Boeree