Evolution of Psychological Systems: What is science?


During its short formal history, psychology has proclaimed itself to be a science, though this claim has sometimes been disputed (as we’ll see) and what goes after the intro text definition “Psychology is the science of ….” has changed.  However, it’s rarely the case (outside Division 24 types) that psychologists tackle the question of what science is and how it works.  There’s a huge literature on this (it’s called philosophy of science), but as Thomas Kuhn observed about sciences in general, scientists consult this literature only during periods of doubt and crisis.  This literature is the focus of the first 2 weeks’ classes, though I try to tame it by focussing on one important question: What is scientific explanation? Thus we also will ask, can psychology give scientific explanations of the same type given in other sciences?  Should it?

Afterthoughts on class of August 21.  On our first day, I took up the question of scientific explanation, and covered the most traditional way of treating it, associated with positivism and logical positivism. The positivist movement is of great importance in philosophy of science, because it basically created the field.  Positivists saw science as a uniquely (in the strong sense) successful human institution, and strove to distill the essence of science into a content-free set of methods that could be applied to any topic whatsoever, from the movements of the planets to the question of god’s existence.  As it did so, positivism began to influence the practice of science, especially those sciences, such as psychology, that were uncertain of their status as sciences (we’ll get to this historical part later).

Positivists proposed a very precise definition of scientific explanation, the deductive-nomological model, that I covered in the first lecture.  Critical to the the D-N model are these ideas: laws of nature, explanation as deduction, and explanation as prediction.

Forethoughts.  In the next class, we will consider criticisms of the D-N model and alternatives to it, most importantly the causal approach and the semantic conception of theories.  One thing to do before class is to think about the term “model” as you have encountered it in psychology and the use of the term “model” in the economics paper I have asked you to read.  Of course, that paper’s authors are writing for fellow economists, so their definition is implicit (though, as we’ll see, closer to the formal meaning in philosophy of science) and thus hard to grasp.  But I hope the exercise in encountering a mysterious, even alien, scientific, culture, will help in achieving one of my major goals for the course: Seeing psychology from the outside.

History of Psychology: Education rather than training

Thoughts on our first meeting (August 21; August 25)

A good way to understand what this course is for is to distinguish education from training.  In psychology, graduate programs in areas such as clinical and counseling psychology (such as ours here at VCU) are called graduate training programs, because the courses, practica, and internships are designed to produce professional psychologists with the practical skills they need to do their future jobs.  This idea, however, applies to much of undergraduate work, too.  Courses such as Experimental Methods move you along to a potential career in psychology by furnishing you with the practical tools you need to get into and succeed in graduate school and beyond.  Most of your PSYC coursework is a mixture of training and education–it’s training when you learn how to do things in psychology, but anyone might benefit from, say, a course in Child Development or Social Psychology, even if they don’t plan to become psychologists.  What students learn can make them better parents and citizens and help them understand themselves.  Indeed, one running dispute about college curricula concerns the tendency of professors to see their students as young, unformed versions of themselves–academics or professionalsl–rather than as people looking to learn something interesting about the world and themselves.  451 as I teach it is squarely part of your education rather than your training.  I hope to inform, and, with luck, excite, you by learning about psychology as a discipline rather than learning how to do it.

Afterthoughts.  This is why the first lecture focussed on the new skills you need to flourish in History of Psychology.  You’ve learned how to think like scientific psychologists, to do it (training) but I will be asking you to see it from the outside (another important theme of the first lecture) with the aim of understanding psychology rather than doing it, contemplating psychology rather than practicing it.  

One concept that I know is difficult is Nagel’s idea of science as the View From Nowhere.  Please don’t hesitate to ask in class for further discussion of it; if you think you have a general (if fuzzy) idea about it, we will be seeing how the idea came into existence in a few weeks and how it helped create the field of psychology.

Forethoughts.  The next lecture will continue to develop the special skills you need for History of Psychology, as we look at some special issues and problems that come up in intellectual and scientific history than in history of politics or war.  I will also introduce a narrative framework within which we can view the history of psychology as part of history in general.

Published in: on August 26, 2008 at 8:13 pm  Comments (1)  
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Welcome to the History of Psychology blog

This blog is primarily for students in my history of psychology classes at Virginia Commonwealth University, but I will comment on related topics, too.  Regular blogging will begin August 20, 2008.

Each class-related blog will contain Afterthoughts about the day’s or week’s classes and Forethoughts about upcoming classes.

Published in: on August 17, 2008 at 7:01 pm  Comments (2)