History of Psychology: Rationality and Science

Lecture 2 (August 26 and 27).

Afterthoughts.  A key point in considering the special issues and controversies in history of science is science’s claim to be a uniquely rational enterprise. As we will learn, rationality — being able to give a coherent, logical, and understandable explanation of and justification for one’s beliefs and actions — is a critical idea in the history of the West.  Indeed, being rational defines one’s status as a free, adult, human being.  If a person is deemed irrational they may be confined in an institution, have someone else placed in charge of their affairs, or found not guilty of a crime.  The success of the scientific revolution led the leaders of the Enlightenment Project (which we will get to in a few weeks) to see science as providing solutions to problems of human living that had not been solved by politics, tradition, or religion.  In the same vein, in the twentieth century a very influential group of philosophers of science, the Logical Positivists, tried to distill the essence of scientific rationality into a set of methods that could be applied to any area of human endeavor, exerting a tremendous influence on psychology from the middle of the century onward.  (We won’t get to them in this class, but they can be found in the text).  The considerable public authority of psychology and psychologists today derives in large part from psychology’s claim to be a science.

Traditional (“Old History”) history of science tended to support science’s unique image by following the approaches I discussed in class.  However, the “New History” of science undermines science’s special status, by showing that change in science is often caused by factors outside scientists’ control and about which they often have little awareness: In short, scientists are not Vulcans, they are human beings, and the history of science is not separable from the rest of history.  In our first class, I talked about how a goal of this class is questioning assumptions we take for granted; the special status of science-as-rationality-embodied is one of them; I also said that this can be disturbing (Socrates was put to death for doing it). So, it is unsurprising that history of science is sometimes seen by scientists themselves as dangerous, and the teaching of history of science as akin to Socrates’ weakening of the moral values of the youth of Athens.  They fear that learning about history of science may be bad for the training of young scientists, that the history of science should be rated X (S. G. Brush (1974). Should the history of science be rated X? (Science, 183, 1164-72))  So you can tell people your history class is x-rated!.

An example of exoteric and esoteric reading of a modern work of art — Star Wars — can be found at http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2005/05/the_public_choi.html.  Darth Vader is the hero, not the villain in this Struassian reading.

Forethoughts.  In the next lectures I will be describing world history at the most abstract level.  The important points to pay attention to are how human nature (the subject matter of psychology) has been itself an important determiner of the course of human history, and then how psychology as a social institution has been shaped by — and shapes — by the broader processes of social and cultural change.

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