Mental Testing and the Structure of Society

Lecture 20.  October 30 and November 3.

Afterthoughts.  We have looked at the small beginnings of mental testing in the work of Galton and Binet.  However, it would not be long before mental testing became involved in large scale projects to remake society in ways that would have been familiar to Plato: The building up of an intellectually meritocratic ruling elite.

Forethoughts.  The first use of intelligence tests to sort masses of people into ability groupings came in WW I.  Led by then President of the APA, Robert Yerkes (a distinguished comparative psychologist) psychologists developed the Army Alpha (for literate conscripts) and Beta (for illiterate conscripts) IQ tests.  These tests sorted men into A, B, C, D, and F categories.  The “A” men went to officer candidate school, “B” and “C” men into the regular army, and “D” and “F” men were washed out.  

This use of IQ testing to sort people by ability aided the development of Galton’s plans for what he dubbed eugenics, the controlled breeding of human beings along the lines of what was done with horses and agricultural products.  Galton hoped to use IQ tests to identify the brightest minds of each generation and encourage the smart to marry the smart with social recognition and government grants of money upon marriage.  This kind of eugenics is known as positive eugenics.  In the US in the early 20th century positive eugenics led to exhortations to “sow only fit seed” and holding Fitter Family contests at state fairs.  Negative eugenics involves attempting to prevent the “unfit” from having children, and in the same period IQ tests were often used as the basis for institutionalizing and/or sterilizing “unfit” men and women in the US and elsewhere, including most notoriously Nazi Germany, but several Scandinavian countries as well.  A useful resource for eugenics in the US is Also see D. Kevles, In the name of eugenics: Genetics and the uses of human heredity, Harvard University Press, 1998.

The Army tests also led to the SAT, the Big Test (N. Lemann, The Big Test: The secret history of the American meritocracy, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999) most Americans take and fear, because it does seem to sort people into certain life tracks, exactly as in Plato’s Republic.  James Bryan Conant (1893-1978), scientist and president of Harvard University, set out to destroy what he called the “Episcopacy” and the SAT was his weapon.  The “Episcopacy” were a group of families, largely Episcopalian, who for generations led American business and government.  Conant saw this as undemocratic, and wanted America to be led not by a quasi-aristocratic inherited elite but an elite of merit, of intelligence.  He inspired and guided the construction of the SAT to be a socially usable measure of intelligence that could be used by elite universities to choose their students by merit rather than by family tree.  The troublesome possibility exists, however, that merit and breeding may merge.  If possessors of high IQ are thrown together in their 20s, they will tend to marry one another, and if IQ is heritable, then their children will do well on SATs and go to elite schools, as will their grandchildren, great grandchildren and so on.

On the other hand, research on successful entrepreneurs (e.g., T. Stanley, The millionaire mind, Andrews McMeel, 2001) suggests that the qualities making for business success are more personal than intellectual.  I once had an email exchange with a journalist who wrote about this topic for the Washington Post.  She said that her favorite license plate was one on an expensive sports-car that read “LOW SATS.”

The fact remains, however, that psychology and its tools have a great deal of power in the modern world.

Published in: on November 16, 2008 at 8:31 pm  Leave a Comment  


Lecture 19.  October 28 and 29.

Afterthoughts.   In order to make a place for psychology at the table of science, psychology’s founder, Wilhelm Wundt, proclaimed an “alliance” between philosophical psychology and physiology, fulfilling an unbroken tradition reaching back to ancient Greece.  Claimed as an ally, physiology at the same time posed a danger to psychology, threatening its autonomy as a science by reducing mental concepts to neural facts and its existence as a discipline by revealing its subject matter—the soul, or its replacement, consciousness—to be an illusion.  Redefining psychology as the science of behavior dispensed with the ghost in the machine, but only postponed psychology’s reckoning with physiology.  While the biological substrates of behavior eluded early neuroscience, they had to be there and would one day be discovered. 

The aim and concepts of reductionism were developed by philosophers in the positivist tradition that founded philosophy of science as a discipline.  The early positivists, led by August Comte, suggested that sciences could be arranged in a historical and philosophical hierarchy reflecting their relative appearances in time and their relative philosophical statuses from last developing and least basic science (sociology) to first developing and most basic science (physics).  The idea was, very roughly (details were worked out later), that the laws of group behavior (sociology) would reduce to the more basic laws governing the behavior of humans comprising social groups (psychology), whose laws in turn would reduce to the more basic laws of biochemistry governing the nervous system of each person (neuroscience), which would reduce to the laws of chemistry, and thence to the laws of the particles making up each chemical element (physics).

The problem of reduction arises when a domain is addressed by two theories, raising the question of how such theories might relate to one another.  Historical examples include theories concerning the movements of the planets, heat, and the behavior of gases.

One possibility, of course, is replacement: One theory is correct and the other is wrong, and the first, typically newer, theory replaces the other.  A paradigm instance is the replacement of the Ptolomaic, earth-centered, account of the solar system by the Copernican, sun-centered, one.  In this case the conceptual furniture of the universe was left unchanged: Moon and Mars, Jupiter and Sol remained, but their positions and motions were understood and explained in new ways.  In other instances, replacement entails the complete elimination of things posited by older theories.  For example, as atomic understanding of matter and energy progressed in the 18th century, older concepts used to explain phenomena such as heat were found to be without reference: Elimination was the fate of phlogiston and caloric and of fluidic theories of heat and electromagnetism in general.

The second possibility is reduction:  A theory might turn out to be valid at one level of description and explanation, but reducible to a more basic and more general theory.  A paradigm instance is the relation between the classical gas laws and the atomic theory of matter.  Early physicists had shown that the behavior of gases could be predicted and explained by laws using the variables pressure, temperature, and volume.  So, for example, pressure cookers maintain a gas (steam) at a constant volume so that as the air and water vapor is heated the temperature in the cooker rises; on the other hand, heating air causes a hot-air balloon’s bladder to expand.  The gas laws were mathematically precise and descriptively true.  As the atomic theory of matter developed, however, heat came to be understood as the rapidity of molecular movement in a physical body: the more rapid the motion, the higher the temperature.  Applied to gases, atomic theory explained why the gas laws were true.  In the pressure cooker, the atoms of water vapor trapped inside move faster and faster as heat is applied, and so temperature rises; in the hot-air balloon, the molecules of heated air push against the enclosing bladder, forcing it to open more, and volume increases. 

In a reduction, the reduced theory is retained in science, but is explained at a lower level of discourse (atoms rather than gasses) and is incorporated into a broader, more general, account of nature (gasses are seen to follow the same principles and are made of the same stuff as all matter without exception).  This example shows that when psychologists discuss and fear “reductionism,” they usually are discussing and fearing replacement instead.  Note, also, that replaced theories, even though known to be false, may be retained for practical use.  Calculating one’s location on the earth under Ptolomaic assumptions is much easier than under Copernican ones, and for centuries after Copernicus’ Revolution of the heavenly orbs sailors sailed the seas of a notionally earth-centered universe.

Forethoughts.  Early psychologists flirted with reductionism, but most moved away from it.  Wundt’s alliance with physiology weakened during his career.  In his early writings, he often proposed physiological accounts of mental processes such as attention, but in the end the alliance became more a matter of experimental method than of theoretical substance.  Freud was besotted with the prospect of reduction in his “Project for a scientific psychology,” but never published it, although its ghostly echoes remain in his later so-called “pure psychology.”  Behaviorists were similarly ambivalent in their relationships with physiology.  John Watson, who launced the behaviorist movement, was a materialist and sometimes talked like a reductionist and eliminativist, but it was more bluster and attitude than a real attempt to do psychology as physiology.  His student Karl Lashley, did try to carry out a reductionist program with respect to learning, but it never came to anything, probably because the research tools needed lay decades in the future.

In the later 20th century, cognitive psychologists and allied philosophers of mind declared their independence from physiology and denied that cognitive theories could be reduced to or eliminated by neuroscience.  Their most formidable argument derived from the symbol-system version of cognitive psychology, and is known as the argument from multiple realizability.  In brief, the argument is this.  In the symbol system view, cognitive processes consist in the manipulation of symbols by logical rules.  Symbol manipulation can be performed equally well by different physical devices, most notably organic brains made of tissue and electronic brains made of silicon and metal; hence, the familiar metaphor that the mind is like a computer, or, more precisely, that mind is to brain as program is to computer.  Cognitive theorizing, whether in psychology or artificial intelligence, was about formally defined symbols and rules; how symbols and rules were grounded in a brain or a computer was “mere implementation.”  At the margin, this meant that a person’s mind could, in principle, be written as a computer program and downloaded into a computer, with no resulting change in behavior. 

Important to the argument was the distinction between types and tokens.  Each person is a token of the (conceptual) type “human being;” each dime in your pocket is a token of the type “dime.”  The beauty of multiple realizability—known in philosophy as non-reductive physicalism—was that it was materialist—no soul-stuff need be invoked—yet it preserved the theoretical autonomy of psychology.  Every mental event, or token (in the sense of a piece of cognitive computation), corresponded to some physiological or electronic token, but no mental type shared across cognizers, organic or inorganic (e.g., knowing that a dime is a unit of US currency) corresponded to any physical type in the system implementing a cognitive system.  The idea is perhaps clearest in the case of computer programs.  One can play a game such as Command and ConquerÔ on a PC, an Xbox, or a Mac, and it will look and feel the same even though the underlying machine code is different in each device.  Reduction is therefore only trivially true and poses no threat to psychology.  Brains and machines carry out computations, but no theoretical gain is won by worrying about how they do so.  Description, prediction, and control, the scientific goals of theorizing, can be fully met at the cognitive level.

Nevertheless, reductionist and eliminativist proposals have been revived in the 21st century, as neuroscience has made enormous advances in understanding the physiological mechanics of mental processes. Clinical psychologists are struggling to survive in the age of Prozac.  Even economics, which would seem immune to reductionism because it deals with social entities such as money and interest rates, has within it a new approach called neuroeconomics.

Operational Definition, Legacy of Positivism

Lecture 18.  October 23 and 27.

Afterthoughts.  Positivists such as Comte believed that the basis of all truth-claims was direct observation of nature — positive knowledge.  We have seen that this caused a problem for science later in the 19th century when physicists and chemists started talking about things such as atoms and sub-atomic particles, and physicists such as Mach opposed their acceptance into science on positivist grounds.  They thought that all speculative beliefs, whether about God or angels or demons or even atoms, should be shunned as unverifiable and unscientific.  However, Mach and the strict positivists lost that debate.

Forethoughts.  But positivism adapted.  In the early 20th century a new form of positivism, Logical Positivism, arose in Vienna, along with psychoanalysis, the Bauhaus movement and other ideological fruits of modernity, and it dominated philosophy of science for 75 years.  Logical Positivism reconciled traditional positivism’s grounding of knowledge in observation with scientific use of terms referring to unobservable entities with a concept psychologists know as operational definition.  According to LP, a concept that seems to refer to something unobservable is legitimate in science if and only if the concept can be linked to something observable, typically a measurement or procedure of some kind, hence the phrase operational definition.  The term is defined by a scientific operation that can be observed.  Thus, for example, “mass” is a property of objects that cannot be seen, but can be operationally defined as weighing an object at sea level.  Or “electron” might be defined as a characteristic tracing on a photograph from a particle collider. 

Notice that there is a clever move here.  I wrote above about concepts that “seem to refer” to something observable.  Most scientists and ordinary people would think that “electron” refers to a particle too small to be seen, but LP denies this, because it, like traditional positivism, wants to exclude unobservable entities from science as dangerously metaphysical or religious.  According to LP, the meaning of a scientific term is exhausted by its operational definition — theoretical terms don’t refer to anything at all beyond the operation used to define them.

Operational definition was introduced to psychology in the 1930s by the psychophysicist S. S. Stevens, and it had an enormous influence on the field, an influence still felt today anytime a psychologist “operationalizes” a concept.  Operationism gave a huge boost to the redefining of psychology as the science of behavior rather than as the science of the mind.  Because consciousness is private, it cannot be observed by the scientific community, and cannot, therefore, produce positive knowledge.  However, behavior can be observed, and theoretical terms that allegedly refer to mind such as “drive,” “habit,” or “cognitive map,” could be redefined operationally as “hours of food deprivation.” “number of reinforced responses,” or “locating the food in a maze.”   Perhaps the most famous operational definition in psychology was given by E. G. Boring: “Intelligence is what the tests test.”  It’s important to note that according to LP there is no such thing as (or need be no such thing as) drive, habit, cognitive map, or intelligence, there are just the operational definitions of the terms.  Legitimating theoretical terms in science was, for LP, just a language trick.

However, despite psychologists continued devotion to operational definition, there’s really no such thing.  If you are interested in more on this topic, see Green, C. D. (1992).  Of Immortal Mythological Beasts: Operationism in Psychology.  Theory and Psychology, 2, 291-320.  Available at  Click on “Research and CV” tab, and then choose the highlighted title of the article.

The Authority of Science, the Boulder Model, and Clinical Psychology

Lecture 17.  October 21 and 22.

Afterthoughts. Some questions and remarks after class suggested I should clarify what I meant about the peculiarity of the Boulder Model scientist-practitioner model of training in clinical psychology.

An important feature of modernism is the introduction of rationality and science as conferring social authority.  Authority is an important concept — it confers legitimacy on a person’s or institution’s influence on others.  It is much more than mere power.  For example, a physician can write a prescription for you, but he or she cannot force you to take it (and the use of force on inmates in psychiatric facilities has been the subject of much controversy, lawmaking, and litigation on precisely this point).  Prior to the rise of science, the most important sources of authority were religion and tradition, the authority of the priest and the aristocrat targeted for extinction by Voltaire.  But (see Condorcet) the Enlightenment introduced a new, potentially highest, authority, reason, and the institution that embodies this authority above all is science.  As Dr. Wenkman says, “Back off man, I’m a scientist!”

But what gives science authority?  One is first tempted to answer, knowledge: Workable, valid, knowledge about how the world works.  So you trust the doctor because he or she knows more about the causes and cure of diseases than you do.  But we must think more deeply.  We trust the knowledge of science because of how it was obtained — rationally, through scientific research.  Scientists go to a great deal of trouble to ensure that their conclusions are reached through rational procedures.  That is why, for example, articles go through peer-review and instances of fraud evoke such horror among scientists.  Journals don’t just publish every article that comes in the mail, and scientists who commit fraud are drummed out of the scientific community.  Science is a collection of practices that happens to produce knowledge, not just an accumulated collection of facts.  Scientific authority is rooted in its practices, not the body of ideas currently found in texts.  Ideas may be wrong, and are replaced by new ones, but the practices of science remain to continue to weed out false ideas and create better ones.

After World War II, psychology saw the opportunity to create a new profession, that of clinical psychologist practicing psychotherapy, previously the exclusive bailiwick of psychiatrists.  Let’s go back to the physician, remembering that psychiatrists are physicians.  Physicians have ample biological knowledge, and it is in that knowledge that their claim to authority lies.  However, the typical physician is not trained as a scientist, in the practices of scientific research, and has probably not carried out any original research.  The physician is a practitioner of a craft, medicine, not a research scientist.  Thus the physician’s authority is second-hand, rooted not in the rational practice of science but only in the study of the fruits of that practice.  

If clinical psychologists had been trained as physicians were, they would have no more authority than that of psychiatrists, and indeed would have less, as they would have no training in medicine.  Moreover, psychiatry was an already existing, high-prestige, profession.  One way to increase the authority of clinical psychologists, then, was to make them scientists, producers of knowledge, not just users of knowledge.  Their training as PhDs places them one step closer to the rationality of science than that of MDs, and thus they can say what an MD cannot, “Back off, man, I’m a scientist!”

Forethoughts. Other questions concerned careers in clinical psychology.  Clinical psychology faces serious challenges today on 3 fronts.  First, there is managed care, which seeks to reign in medical costs, and has subjected psychotherapy, whose outcomes are hard to test and often of marginal effect size, to especially stringent controls.  In connection with this, second, there is the rise of licensed clinical social workers (and to some degree PsyD holders), who also performs psychotherapy, but whose training is briefer and who can be produced in much larger quantities than PhD clinical psychologists (just compare the graduating class sizes of VCUs School of Social Work with our Department’s Clinical Program).  Third, there is the ongoing biological revolution in psychiatry, because of which it’s possible to treat mental disorders with medications only an MD can prescribe.  Simply put, the market for PhD clinical psychologists has shrunk over the past few decades and is likely to shrink farther.  The APA is trying to cope with all these changes (e.g., by working to get clinical psychologists prescription privileges), but the glory days of clinical psychology practice are probably over.

Decision Making: Outcome or Process? Reason or Emotion?

Lecture 16.  October 14 and 20.

Afterthoughts.  In examining the moral question, we looked at two kinds of moral theories, Bentham’s consequentialist utilitarian theory and Kant’s deontological moral duty theory.  Note that the first evaluates the moral rightness of a decision by its outcome, whereas the latter evaluates moral rightness of a decision by the reasoning that led to the decision, no matter what the outcome.  Despite their differences, Bentham’s and Kant’s theories were (and are) part of the Enlightenment Project’s goal of grounding human life in reason, rather than in tradition or revelation (recall what Voltaire said about the aristocrat and the priest).  Bentham and Kant disagreed about what constituted proper moral decision making –a felicific calculus of pleasure and pain vs. formulating universally commanding categorical imperatives — but they agreed that genuinely moral actions must be grounded in reason.  Kant was especially clear that seemingly moral actions that flowed unreflectively out of a person’s character or animal instincts were not really moral at all, since no thought lay behind them.  

On the other hand, the leading Counter-Enlightenment thinker, Herder, argued that moral decisions were rooted in emotion, and the Scottish Commonsense philosophers held that moral intuitions were just that — immediate intuitions of right and wrong produced by a God-given moral sense and felt by us as sentiments of approval or disapproval.  Note that these emotion-based theories of moral action cross in a kind of 2 x 2 design with the concerns of Bentham and Kant.  It might be that our feelings of right and wrong have to do with happiness (a la Bentham) or might result from some larger moral concern for justice (a la Kant).

Forethoughts.  This yields quite a stew of ideas about how people make moral decisions for later psychologists to wrestle with.  The problem will become much more complex when the notion of unconscious mental processes gains favor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.   Let’s take Bentham’s theory as an example.  

Obviously, if someone sits down and weighs the happiness pros and cons of a decision, he or she is adhering to Bentham’s utilitarian precepts.  Charles Darwin, for example, will do this about marriage, not with regard to marrying a specific person, but with regard to whether or not to get married at at all.  Another person might decide to marry without giving the matter any conscious thought.  Is he or she being utilitarian?  On the surface, no, because the decision is reached without conscious consideration, and thus nonrationally.  But on the other hand, the person may have carried out the utilitarian calculus unconsciously, being conscious only of the outcome of the felicific calculus, not its process.  If the latter is the case, determining if the calculation was made, and the decision was, therefore, a rational one may be difficult.  We can see only the outcome, not the process.  Moreover, introducing the unconscious throws new light on the morality-as-thinking vs. morality-as-feeling argument.  It might be that seemingly irrational, emotionally-driven, actions are really rational after all, because the experienced feeling was the outcome of a non-conscious, but rational, calculating process.

These questions are extremely important today.  Recall Condorcet — the day will come when people will live only according to reason.  This was meant as a statement of liberation from blind tradition and ignorant faith, but it lays down a Kantian imperative: Everyone must live only according to reason, just as in former times they had to live according to tradition and God’s law.  Suppose, however, that people routinely make decisions that are not according to reason either consciously or unconsciously.  It’s not hard to set up experiments that put people in situations such as the Ultimatum Game ( requiring a moral decision, and seeing if the outcome of the decision is in accord with normative theory.  If it’s not, then the decider must be either irrational (there’s no calculation going on, consciously or unconsciously) or incompetent (the calculations are attempted, but the obtained answer is wrong).  

Then, what if research along these lines consistently demonstrates that the vast majority of people make such “irrational” decisions all the time?  It would then appear that if people are supposed to live according to reason, they are incapable of doing so on their own, and others will have to do their thinking for them.  For example, in his book What’s the matter with Kansas, pundit Thomas Frank argues that many voters (Kansas is just an example) have been misled into voting against their own self-interest, i.e., irrationally, but appeals to emotionally charged cultural issues such as abortion, gay marriage, religion, and guns.  The psychologist Keith Stanovich, in The robot’s rebellion, concludes from research on thinking and decision making that most people are not rational, and calls for a great project of cognitive reform.  Like Kant, Stanovich believes that values, not just instrumental means-ends calculations must be chosen by reason.

A practical example of this approach can be found in the claim of some economists who think the recent sell-offs on Wall Street have been produced by a non-rational cognitive shortcut called the availability heuristic (see

An example of a moral conundrum that has been extensively researched is the Trolley Problem (  We will return to it later, because bringing evolution into the decision-making picture will complicate things still further.

Universal and Particular: Implications for Social Science

Lecture 15.  October 9 and 15.

Afterthoughts.  Essential to the Enlightenment Project was (is) the universal claim of reason found in Condorcet’s Sketch, in which he looks forward to the day when all men everywhere will be governed only by their own reason, when particular religions and cultures will have given way to a universal, rational, way of life.  Thinkers of the Counter-Enlightenment, such as Herder, on the other hand, defend the particularities of culture and language against the universal empire of reason.

While it looks like this is fundamentally a disagreement about values and human nature, it has important implications for conceiving of psychology and the other social sciences as sciences.  The possibility and practice of natural science rests upon the idea that the laws of nature are universally the same everywhere and everywhen, as in Newton’s law of universal gravity: This is the View from Nowhere I discussed in our first week.  If the Enlightenment’s claim of universal reason is correct, then psychology and the other social sciences can be sciences in the same sense as physics.

Consider one path to such a conception of psychology as science, the one taken today by mainstream cognitive science, the symbol system concept of mind.  If people are to be universally governed by reason, then one has to have an idea about what reason is.  We have met one candidate for defining reason, in the Classical period with Plato and the Stoics.  Plato modeled rationality on geometry, and the Stoics developed the idea of mind as logic (logos) in their propositional calculus.  Key to both views is separating reason as a universal process from the particular things reasoned about.  The Pythagorean theorem is not about any particular triangle with a specific shape or size.  The logical argument

  1. If p, then q;
  2. q is true;
  3. therefore q is true 

is a valid argument no matter what particular propositions we plug into p and q.  Reason is thus truly universal: The same logico-mathematical rules govern thought regardless what cultural or era specific content is thought about.  

Psychology can, then, be the universal science of the mind-as-reason just as physics is the universal science of nature as matter-in-motion.  Cognitive science marries the Classical view of mind as rational calculus with the Scientific Revolution’s idea of the world as a machine.  People think with evolved meat-machine brains, and computers think with artificial silicon brains, and cognitive science is about the logical programs that control both of them.  While people in different cultures think about different topics, and may even have different values, the course of their thinking is determined by the universal laws of reason, and psychology is the science of those laws.  Associationist conceptions of the mind dispense with logic, but share the notion that the rules governing the mind — Hume’s “gravity of the mind” of association — are the same everywhere and in all people, indeed in all animals.  

Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, on the other hand, defended the particularities of culture and language.  Herder, for example, thought that because different languages had different grammars and concepts, that speakers of different languages would think in different ways.  Against the philosophes, who thought that human nature was everywhere and in every period much the same, Herder insisted that the peoples of different cultures and epochs could vary tremendously in how they thought and acted.  With regard to ethics, Herder rejected Kant’s proposal that moral decisions were based on reasoning from abstract moral premises, arguing that moral decisions derived more from feeling than from reason.

Herder’s viewpoint throws cold water on the ambition of psychology, or any of the so-called social sciences to be universal sciences along the lines of physics.  If reasoning varies from culture to culture and from era to era, and if morality is rooted in sentiment more than reason, then there may be no universal laws of human behavior, or they may be so few (e.g., all people get hungry) as to be scientifically uninteresting.  Or, perhaps, there are laws of human thought and action, but they are different in different cultures, and are not universal like the law of gravity. 

Forethoughts.  The various social sciences will begin to emerge in the nineteenth century, and this battle between the universal and the particular will shape debates about their proper methods and goals.  On the one side will be the universalists, primarily British and French, who will maintain the Unity of Science: All sciences, whether of the physical or human worlds, aim at universal law use the same methods, and should develop the same sorts of theories.  On the other side will be particularists, primarily German, who will say that human and natural sciences are radically different in method, theory, and ultimate ambitions.  Unlike the natural sciences, which predict and control nature, the human sciences interpret human thought and behavior within its meaning-giving cultural context.

Variations on the Cartesian Paradigm: Dualism and its Place in Science

Lecture 14.  October 7 and 13.

Afterthoughts.  The second aspect of the Cartesian Paradigm to which I want to draw special attention is its substantial dualism, the claim that body and mind (or soul) are separate things: res extensa and res cogitans.  Dualism as such, of course, is not new.  The Bronze Age Greeks were dualists to a degree, Pythagoras, Plato, and the Neoplatonists were dualists.  Aristotle was a dualist, but not a substantial dualist, because he did not say that soul was a thing.

What made Descartes’ dualism different from these earlier substantial dualism lies less in his conception of the soul, than in his conception of matter.  The Scientific Revolution was developing a powerful, detailed, and new conception of the material world as a machine, and thus Descartes proposed that animal and human bodies are likewise machines.   Human beings, then, must be seen as machines inhabited by souls that interact with them, raising the problems of interaction noted in the Lecture 12 post.

What emerge in the eighteenth century are alternatives to Cartesian dualism, along with alternatives to his conception of consciousness (Lecture 13 post).  There are 3; in each, one aspect of Descartes’ own dualism is rejected as an illusion.  The first to emerge is psychophysical parallelism, which we discussed in class in connection with Leibniz.  Parallelism retains the separation of mind and body (it’s a dualism), but says that the apparent interaction between them is an illusion: Mind and body are synchronized, like 2 synchronized swimmers, but, like the swimmers, they are not causally connected.

The other two alternatives are monisms, which means that they say only one thing exists, the mind or the body, but not both.  One form of monism is idealism, which we find in different forms in Berkeley and Kant. In ontological idealism, the material world does not exist — though there are many, many variations on idealism.  They will not concern us much, because the more influential form of monism in psychology, especially American psychology, and in contemporary thought more broadly, is materialism.  We have met materialism in Hobbes, La Mettrie, and in the French naturalists of the Enlightenment Project.  Materialists hold (like the atomists) that only matter and space exist in reality, that there is no soul, and that therefore the mind (and the appearance of mind-body interaction) is some sort of an illusion.

Forethoughts.  Together with the problems regarding the privacy of consciousness and the accuracy of introspection, Cartesian materialism helped push psychology towards behaviorism.  Parallelism, which was quite popular among psychologists of the founding generation, says that while mind exists, it does not do anything.  Materialism says that mind is an illusion.  Thus to define psychology as the study of the mind — and remember, in the Cartesian version mind = consciousness — is to define it as the science of something pointless or as the science of nothing at all.  As we will see, evolution adds a new aspect to the problem of mind and consciousness — is it adaptive?  The Cartesian paradigm concerning mind and consciousness, already present as psychology’s working framework, is pre-set to answer, “No, it’s not.”

Variations on the Cartesian Paradigm: Consciousness and its Place in Science

Lecture 13.  October 2 and 8.

Afterthoughts.  In the last post, I discussed two aspects of the Cartesian Paradigm that will cause problems for doing psychology as a science within it.  In this one, I will elaborate on one of them, the Cartesian conception of consciousness as developed by thinkers we are just taking up, the Scottish Realists and Kantian Critical Idealism.  All three variations on the Cartesian theme, Descartes’, Reid’s, and Kant’s pose serious challenges for psyche-logos as a science.

The Cartesian challenge we considered in the last post.  If consciousness is private, then studying it is much more problematic than studying the physical world.  

Realism poses a different challenge.  If there is no private realm of ideas, then the subject matter of psyche-logos would seem not to exist.  There is the external physical world, there are organisms, including people, who respond to and act on the physical world, but there is no inner world of ideas to study, and introspection is an illusion.  Moreover, if there is no world of ideas, questions such as Hume’s about the principles that govern the world of ideas are moot.  If there is no mind, there is no “gravity of the mind” to theorize about.

Kantian idealism, as we’ve seen, straightforwardly concludes that psychology, defined as the study of consciousness, cannot be a science.  While idealism admits that ideas exist and therefore might be introspected, such study cannot rise to the status of science.  The ideas populating consciousness are the end product of cognitive processes that cannot be subjected to scientific scrutiny.  In addition, because ideas are produced by the processes of the Transcendental Ego, there will be no “gravity of the mind” acting on ideas, as Hume proposed.  On this view, introspective descriptions of consciousness are more like butterfly collecting or bird-watching than science.  One can describe particular butterflies, birds, or conscious sensations, but that is all.  Explaining experience requires penetration of the Transcendental Ego, which, on Kant’s view, can’t be done.

Forethoughts.  Each of these three variations on the Cartesian Paradigm leads inevitably to redefiningscientific psychology (it will be important to remember that qualification) as the study of behavior.  Descartes’ own position will lead to methodological behaviorism.  Methodological behaviorism says, with Descartes, that consciousness exists and is private.  But, it then argues, because consciousness is private, it is not a fit subject for scientific investigation.  Any science that concerns itself with people must study what’s public, i.e., human behavior, not what’s private, human consciousness.  Kant himself reached a similar conclusion, as we have seen, endorsing his anthropology as a behavioral science of human beings.  Realism will lead to B. F. Skinner’s radical behaviorism.  If there are no ideas, only the world and organisms’ responses to and actions on, the world, then psychology becomes the study of the relationship between the the environment and the behaving organism.  Mental events drop out of the picture.

The Cartesian Paradigm

Lecture 12.  October 2 and 8.

Afterthoughts.  I talked about a Cartesian Paradigm, or Framework, that would guide scientific psychology for much of the twentieth century.  Here I want to amplify two aspects of the paradigm that will be especially important and trouble-making as we move through the rest of the course.

The first aspect is Descartes’ consideration of the mind-body problem and his particular solution to it, interactive dualism.  Most people share an intuition that there is something unique about people that sets us off from things and from the other animals, and we have seen how the Greek philosophers articulated this intuition in different ways.  However, Cartesian dualism is different from Greek dualisms, especially Aristotle’s, in important ways, and I want to stress here how Descartes’ situation is different from Aristotle’s (or all premodern thinkers) not so much because of his conception of mind or soul, but because of the new conception of matter as machine ushered in by the Scientific Revolution.

The key distinction for Descartes is between the soul and the machine-body, but for Aristotle (and the Bronze Age Greeks, too) the key distinction to be drawn was between the living and the nonliving.  For Aristotle, soul was the presence of life, in plants, animals, and humans alike.  The soul was not a thing apart from the living body, but defined the essence of each kind of creature, animated it, and gave it purpose: Soul was form, body was matter.  Soul was life-process, and what distinguished each grade of soul were the processes unique to it: animals had sensation and movement, to which humans added the ability to formulate universal truths.

Descartes, however, had to jettison the idea that plants and animals had souls, because in Christian thought only humans have souls, and he came to regard all physical things, including plant, animal, and human bodies, as machines whose various movements could be explained in the same mechanical terms as the movements of a clock or of the new Newtonian clock-universe.  For Aristotle on the one side there was unformed, unanimated matter and on the other was defining, change-giving form, or soul; for Descartes, on one side were machines, capable of motions of their own, having mechanical causes, and on the other was disembodied nonphysical soul.  Animal behavior had mechanical causes, as seemed clear from Vaucanson’s Duck and other clever automata.  Most importantly, animals had internal cognitive-mechanical processes too, responsible for sensation, awareness, imagination, memory, and learning, things traditionally associated with soul.  But for Descartes, these were no longer life-processes of the soul, as for Aristotle, but mechanical processes of the presumed reflexive gears, springs, and wheels of the nervous system and brain.  Soul was limited to one arena, consciousness, and found in only kind of creature, human beings.

The second critical aspect of the Cartesian Paradigm was the creation of the private realm of consciousness that flowed from the new scientific withdrawal of soul from the material world.  Ideas existed in consciousness only (and animals did not and could not) have them.  Because there seemed to be a New World of consciousness, it invited exploration and study with a special tool for making the voyage, introspection.  Thus was created the idea of a science devoted to consciousness, psyche-logos, the science of the soul.

Forethoughts.  We will soon see the problems raised by this new definition of human science; indeed, we have already met one in Princess Elizabeth’s observations about the difficulties of claiming that a machine can act on spirit and spirit on a machine, the problem of interaction.  What I want to point out here is a more basic problem for psychology defined according to the Cartesian framework: It makes doing psychology as a science nearly impossible, especially as science, especially physiology advances, and as the enterprise of science itself becomes more precisely formed in the nineteenth century.  

So little is left to soul in the Cartesian view that it will become tempting to simply eliminate the concept altogether and say that men are machines as are all animals, albeit more complicated ones.  If one takes this step, then since there is no psyche there can be no psyche-logos anymore then there can be Zeus-logos.  

On the other hand, if one retains the idea of consciousness, other problems arise.  If consciousness is real, but does not interact with body (the view of psycho-physical parallelism we’ll soon meet), then one can have a disciplined study of consciousness, but its point becomes unclear, especially when science is linked to application.  If consciousness exists but does not do anything, its study can have little, if any, practical pay-off.  In addition, introspection is necessarily a private exploration of one person’s consciousness, and even if it’s done in a lab with the best intentions and the tightest methodological controls, the resulting data are tainted with subjectivity, including the possibility of individual differences, the powers of suggestion and expectation, and the difficulties of verifying the accuracy of introspective reports.  While disputes of course arise in any science over the validity of data, the data of introspection will seem especially dodgy, and the enterprise of psyche-logos, while logically possible, will seem to many not to be worth the effort.

Note that these problems would not have arisen for an Aristotelean psyche-logos, because in Aristotle there is no private world of non-physical ideas populating a non-physical soul.  There is, of course, experience in Aristotle’s psychology, but experience is the process of sensation and perception; it is not the collective set of ideas present at some moment in consciousness.  There are no ideas needing description and reduction to lawful order.

That is why my last slide on Descartes said that while he invited the creation of psyche-logos, he made its practice impossible, even paradoxical.

Science as an Institution

Lecture 11.  September 25 and October 1.

Afterthoughts.  The question that we considered in today’s lecture — the “civilizational question” of why the Scientific Revolution took place only in Europe — is part of a larger picture concerned with seeing science as an institution.  When we think of science and scientists we tend to think of laboratories and researchers, but, as Weber observed in “Science as a vocation,” science is something much larger, a social institution composed not just of scientists, professional societies, and universities, but as a way of thinking with implications far outside the bounds of scientific investigation as such.

In this lecture, we looked at the the birth of science as an institution, and learned that it could not have been created without a variegated set of pre-existing values, practices, ideas, concepts, and institutions, many of which, such as corporations, had little or nothing to do with science to begin with.  The story exemplified the New History of Science I discussed in the first week of class.  

  • We saw that the spirit of certain times and places made the invention of science likely or unlikely.
  • We saw that the invention of science was not a thought out plan, but represented the coming together of numerous social, economic, and philosophical developments that coalesced in a remarkably creative way — almost a miracle and certainly unforeseeable.
  • We saw that the Scientific Revolution was not an inevitable step leading to modernity, but depended critically upon contingent historical processes that could have come out differently.
  • We saw that understanding the origin and course of the Scientific Revolution requires looking outside the technical problems addressed by early modern scientists such as Galileo and Newton to external factors such as Christianity’s recognition of the power of reason to at least partly grasp truth unaided by revelation.

The important lesson is that science is not, as scientists themselves sometimes seem to think, a uniquely rational enterprise that is (or, perhaps, ought to be) radically independent from everything else, but is an institution whose existence is interwoven with a network of other institutions which gave it life and continue to sustain it.

Forethoughts.  And as Weber observed, once science becomes part of this network of institutions, it begins to affect them.  In coming lectures we will look at psychology in light of these two insights.  We will see how the origin and nature of different psychologies were conditioned by the social institutions in which they originated.  For example, the psychology of consciousness was born in the (then) uniquely German new model universities that embodied a  certain values, such as pure research undertaken for its own sake, while in Britain and America the psychology of adaptation had no firm, yet defining, home, and developed in an atmosphere pervaded by different values, in which practical application of science was taken for granted.  We will then see (especially in the case of psychoanalysis) how psychological concepts were not only shaped by, but began powerfully to shape, peoples’ understanding of themselves in their innermost being and in their relation to others and to society.

Psychology Disenchants the Human World

Lecture 10.  September 23 and 29.


Hence, it means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted [de-magified]. One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service. This above all is what intellectualization means. This process of disenchantment, which has continued to exist in Occidental culture for millennia, and, in general, this ‘progress,’ to which science belongs as a link and motive force.

Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation” (1918)


Weber was one of the most important social thinkers of the twentieth century.  He was very concerned about the effects of the application of reason to all spheres of life, an application resulting in what he elsewhere called the “iron cage” of reason and bureaucracy.  The talk I just quoted was given by Weber to German college students in 1918.  Members of his audience felt especially disenchanted just then.  What had started for them as a romantic, noble, cause — World War 1 — had ended in European horror and German defeat.  Their newly unified (1871) empire had been replaced by what seemed to many a bland, bourgeois, unexciting, unambitious democracy, known now to history as the Weimar Republic.

Weber was addressing an important theme in the history of science, the creation of a new social role, that of scientist, and what might and should be expected of scientists and their new institution, science.  Organized science is the epitome of the application of reason, and the Scientific Revolution had created a triumphant picture of the world as a machine knowable by reason, whose movements could be precisely calculated and technically controlled.  The problem for many people, including especially, as he notes several times, the youth in Weber’s audience, was that science was invading human relations, too, reducing them to rational calculation and technical adjustment.  They deeply resented this, and Weber discussed what science can and cannot offer as a replacement for religion, feeling, and mystery — enchantment — in living a flourishing life.  The answer was, very little.

The profound questions raised by Weber are of great importance for the history of psychology as an institution, because psychology (especially in the United States) is the central science through which the discipline of reason and technocracy have been brought to bear on everyday life.  Your life has been sorted by numbers from the Apgar test applied when you were but seconds old, to the SAT test you took in high school, to usage data collected from your most recent Google search, and conclusions about your behavior and life’s prospects calculated by equations.  Priests used to offer guidance on negotiating life’s vicissitudes, now scientifically-trained psychologists do.  This is Weber’s iron cage.

Forethoughts.  Science will make its move from the heavens to the earth, from the planets to people, during the 18th century and the Enlightenment Project of the philosophes, the topics of the next 2 lectures.  All will question, some will reject, and a few will seek to erase, what they see as the irrational institutions that had controlled Europe up to then, unreflective aristocratic tradition and revelatory religion. 

Published in: on October 6, 2008 at 4:01 pm  Leave a Comment