Re: What Is Psychology?

From: S.Harnad (
Date: Wed Nov 26 1997 - 12:53:33 GMT

> From Thu Nov 6 20:06:17 1997
> Psychology is the scientific study of behaviour and mental processes.
> It asks and tries to answer questions about every aspect of life. Laws
> and public policy are influenced by psychologists theories and
> research. There are five main perspectives in the study of psychology:
> biological, behavioral, cognitive, psychoanalytical and
> phenomenological.

The last two are pretty outdated, though. About Psychoanalysis and
Freud, see some of the other Skywriting Archives at:

    Grunbaum, Adolf. Precis of The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A
    Philosophical Critique. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 1986 Jun, v9

    ABSTRACT: In this selected summary of the present author's (1984)
    work appraising psychoanalysis, the following topics are addressed:
    the hermeneutics' reconstruction of Freud's theory and therapy as
    an alternative to what neorevisionists claim was a "scientific"
    misconstrual of the psychoanalytic enterprise; the clinical method
    of psychoanalytic investigation, the Freudian theory of repression,
    and the method of free association. Psychic conflict's causal role
    in producing neuroses, dreams, and bungled action is rejected
    because (1) free association has failed to support the
    psychoanalytic theory of unconscious motivation and (2) clinical
    data tend to be artifacts of the analyst's self-fulfilling

Phenomenology is a branch of philosophy that "analyses" what is going on
in the mind; it is open to the same criticism as other attempts to
understand the mind through introspection rather than experimentation
and theory (as you go on to say below).

> people believing that people's minds and behaviours could be observed
> and analysed through systematically and scientificly varying the
> situation presented to them.

What does "scientific" mean? (Kid-sib)

> Researchers study the brain activity of animals to
> in turn understand the human brain. It can give them an idea of how
> inborn biological mechanisms are responsible for human motives and
> emotions.

Whichever reference book was used for this (you should cite it, and
make sure you do not use the words in the book, only the ideas, told
in your own words) is out of date. Today brain imaging, the new,
noninvasive way of studying the activity of normal human brains would
certainly have been listed with for the biological side of psychology,
as would neuropsychology, the study of the effects of brain damage on
the human brain.

> Instead of studying the brain and nervous system, behavioural
> psychologists study the behaviour of individuals. John Watson, a
> psychologist in the early 1900's was the first behavioural
> psychologist. He stated that behaviour can be observed by other people.
> This brought psychology into the field of science, whereas before the
> dominant non-biological approach emphasised introspection (individuals
> observations of their own perceptions).

But behaviourism forgot one thing: the data, the behaviour, must be
observable, but to explain the data, to explain how our brain manages to
generate all the behaviour of which we are capable, what is needed is
theory. But because theories are not "observable" (they can only be
tested indirectly, the behaviourists emphasis on observability made them
needlessly anti-theoretical.

> One critisicm of the strict behavioural approach is that it does not
> take into account the individuals mental processes and conscious
> experiences.e.g deciding, reasoning, problem solving.

Our ABILITY to decide, reason, solve problems, etc. are "behaviours"
too, so that is not the problem. Nor it is really relevant (though it is
true) that we decide/reason/problem-solve CONSCIOUSLY (since we still
don't know HOW we do it). What is/was needed is an explanation of our
behavioural capacities; and that is what contemporary cognitive
psychology -- allied with artificial intelligence and neuroscience --
is trying to do today.

> The cognitive perspective is based on mental processes but not on
> introspection as th 19th century version of cognitivism was. They
> believe that we must study mental processes to understand the actions
> we take and this can be done by looking at specific behaviours and
> relating them to underlying mental processes. The analogy is made that
> information is taken in and dealt with by the mind much the same as a
> computer would do.

And notice that the internal processes that explain our actions must
be found through theory and theory-testing. Nor do they need to be
conscious: what we are conscious of is just the icing on the cognitive
cake: the real work is being done for us by UNconscious processes, and
those are the ones psychology must find.

> Freud developed the psychoanalytical perspective by combining ideas of
> perception and memory with notions of biologically based instincts. He
> believed that behaviour is influenced by unconscious processes such as
> fears and desires. They are forced into the unconscious because they
> are forbidden or punished by society and parents during childhood. Once
> in the unconscious they manifest as emotional problems, or on the
> positive side as artistic ability which is approved of socially. He
> believed there is a cause for every action but they are often an
> unconscious motive.

To make a long story short, psychoanalysis is very like astrology:
It's something a lot of people believe in, it makes sense to them, and
makes sense of their lives for them, but there is no more evidence that
it is true or even testable than there is for astrology.

> a non scientific approach is the phenomenological perspective which is
> interested in the viewpoints and personal experiences of events of the
> individual. It's concerned entirely with subjective experience. The
> other perspectives try to describe the inner life and experiences of
> individuals whilst the phenomenological perspective is concerned with
> predicting behaviour. This theory recognises the qualities that
> highlight the differences between people and animals therefore is
> called humanistic. It believes we have a natural need to progress and
> develop our potential.

Phenomenology is not the branch that predicts behaviour; the other
branches above (except psychoanalysis) are the ones that predict
behaviour. Phenomenologists are just trying to make sense of conscious
experiences. They try to analyse what goes on in the mind, but, unlike
cognitive theorists, who actually try to explain our behavioural
capacities -- try to "reverse-engineer" the mind to find out how it
works -- phenomenologists just look for principles that "explain"
conscious experience. We already know that conscious experience --
feelings -- do not give us much of a clue to how the mind works. They
(feelings) also take a lot for granted: Until challenged, we don't
normally think that there is anything to be explained about our
decisions, reasoning, problem-solving, memory (our 3rd grade
schoolteacher's name); these things just happen in our minds and it
feels as if we're doing them, though we have no idea how. So it is
unlikely that phenomenology can help us reverse-engineer the mind; in a
way, it's just another soothing story, like psychoanalysis and

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