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.


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