Psyche and Psychology

Lecture 4.  September 2 and 8.

Afterthoughts.  The deepest problems of biology and psychology began with explaining the difference between the living and the non-living by positing the existence of an entity, the psyche, that inhabits the bodies of living creatures.  In biology, this line of thought led to vitalism, the idea that living tissue possesses a vital “spark of life” making it absolutely and decisively different from mere matter.  In psychology (note we still call our field after the breath of life), it leads to the problem of dualism.  It is clear that animals and people are material beings in some sense like rocks–drop me and a rock off of a tall building and we both break.  And it is also clear that animals and people are different — I move sense the world and respond to it, the rock does not.  The problem arises when we explain the difference by saying I (or an animal) possess a secret thing inside, a psyche,  responsible for my sensing and behavior.  If the psyche is a thing, rather than a process, we immediately want to know what it looks like, how it works, how it controls the body, whether it can exist without a body, and so on, and these questions become the subject matter of psyche-logos, the study of the soul.  But suppose that there is no such thing?  Can there be a science about nothing?

Forethoughts.  The problems posed by dualism will be important in understanding Plato and Aristotle. Plato will follow Pythagoras and accept the idea that the soul can exist without the body, that it ought to exist without the body, and, going past the Bronze Age definition of psyche as a breath of life, hold that the soul is the essence of each individual person, and that all, not just a few, are eternal.  This point of view will help give Plato’s philosophy its rather religious, otherworldly, and puritanical cast: The Good is not to be found in this life but in heaven (Plato’s upward hand in Raphael’s painting).  Aristotle, on the other hand, will to a large degree accept the Bronze Age collection of mini-souls, but will resist the notion that souls are things, preferring to see them as life-processes rather than as indwelling entities.  Moreover, Aristotle does not see the body as a dangerous tomb wherein the soul is stored between happy existences in heaven, but as the proper and necessary condition of living a full life (Aristotle’s downward gesture in The School of Athens).  Aristotle’s psychology could have avoided the problems that will plague dualism (and psychology) well into the twentieth century, but, as we will learn, dualism trumps naturalism in the history of psychology.


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