Lecture 7.  September 11 and 17.

Afterthoughts.  In Plato’s Socratic dialogues a repeating theme is expertise, especially when the issue at hand is how a state (polis) should be governed.  In motivating his idea of rule by Guardians, Plato has Socrates ask his students whom they would consult for wisdom about health (physicians) or cookery (chefs), and then suggests that just as there are experts in health and cookery, there must be experts in government.  And, just as we follow the wisdom of physicians and chefs, we should follow — be governed by — the wisdom of the Guardians he so fully describes in the Republic.

For now, let’s put aside the question of whether or not there can be expertise in governing and look at the notion of expertise itself, because Socrates and Plato raise an important question about expertise and rational decision making more generally.  Obviously, one way to define expertise and to determine who is an expert is to look at the outcomes of a person’s decisions and actions.  An expert doctor is one who consistently makes the right diagnosis and comes up with the right treatment; an expert chef is one who consistently cooks good food.  But recall that Socrates and Plato (and Western thought in general) demand more, that intuition (right action) is not real expertise; the true expert must be able to reflect upon, and thus give a theoretical account of his or her decisions.  This argument suggests that the correctness, the rationality, of a decision lies not (or not entirely) in its outcome, but in the process of making the decision.

Let me give an example of how this separation of outcome (intuition) and process (theory) has influenced psychological studies of decision making in Socrates’ field of concern, moral decision making.  Perhaps the most influential psychologist of moral development in the 20th century was Lawrence Kohlberg.  He put to his participants a series of moral conundrums (like the trolley problem we discussed in class, though he did not use it in his research), and then asked them what they would do in such a case and to provide an explanation for their chosen action.  His procedure was very Socratic — elicit an intuition about what’s right and wrong in a specific case and then require that the decision be justified.

Based on his findings, Kohlberg claimed that children and adolescents progress through a series of stages of increasingly adequate moral judgment.  Kohlberg’s proposal was based on many considerations (such as being influenced by Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development), but what’s most important for us now is that he defined his stages not with regard to the moral choice made but with regard to the process by which it was made.  In Kohlberg’s account of morality, the developmental level of expertise of a decision-maker was determined not by the outcome of the decision but by an evaluation of how the decision was reached.  Viewed through the lens of the history of psychology, Kohlberg was following the path blazed by Socrates and Plato.

Forethoughts.  The tension between action and explanation is one that will haunt the rest of the course especially when we come to consider psychology’s influence on society.  Like most of us, Socrates thought that there is an explanation, or account, of an action that justifies it rationally.  Moreover, he implicitly assumed that this justification was also a causal explanation of why the action was taken, even if the actor was not aware of it.  If this is the case, then scientific psychologists could study how people make decisions, discover what the processes of good decision making are, and then distill them into methods and policies employable by the state.  Suppose, on the other hand, that good decision making is an intuitive process that cannot be turned into a rational theory stable as a series of propositions; for example, the best explanation of decision making might be neuroscientific, not rational, ones.  Are voters rational ( Should politicians learn psychology, economics, or neuroscience (

Know thyself

Lecture 5.  September 4 and 10.

Afterthoughts.  “Know thyself” was an ancient Greek motto, attributed to many thinkers and oracles.  For psychology, it’s the most important Greek saying.  As touched on in earlier lectures, a key goal of this course is questioning those beliefs and practices we take most for granted — so much for granted that we don’t know they are there.  We have now met the Greeks who began this Western tradition, in metaphysics with the difference between Being and Becoming, in epistemology with the distinction between Appearance and Reality, and we have seen how these distinctions helped lead to the first theory in psychology, the representational theory of perception, which was meant not only to be an account of perception but a defense of empiricism, Emedocles’ Way of True Seeming.  We have also learned about the very tight connection between Greek democracy and the birth and maintenance of the critical tradition in philosophy and science.

A decisive turn has now been made by the Sophists, who brought Greek skepticism and self-inquiry into the social realm itself, questioning the connection between human nature (physis) — the object of psychology — and nomos — the structure of society.  The Sophists were the first Greeks to refuse to take social beliefs for granted, and to wonder what, if any, social arrangement is most conducive to human happiness, or eudaemonia, human flourishing, as the Greeks then understood happiness.  Their concerns broaden the scope of disciplined inquiry into the human mind to include social and motivational factors as well as cognitive ones.

Forethoughts.  Although Socrates will reject the Sophist’s separation of human physis and nomos (they claim that human nature can flourish in any society and he will not), he, more than anyone, inaugurates the Western tradition of reflexivity, of knowing — and, more important, being able to justify — one’s beliefs and actions.  In the next Lecture we will see how Socrates does this and the immense implications of his approach and assumptions on the project of self-knowledge and psychology, and how Plato tries to answer Socrates’ provocative questions.

Human Nature in/and History

Lecture 3.  August 28 and September 3.

Afterthoughts.  Psychology is different from other sciences in a way that is often called reflexivity.  This idea is extremely important in this course, but can be hard to understand because the concept is difficult and the term is used in different ways in different contexts.  The idea of reflexivity appeared for the first time in this lecture, although I did not use the term.  I will introduce it here and continue to comment on it in future posts as the course unfolds.

Science studies nature; psychology studies human nature.  But when we study protons (for example), they do not study us back or study themselves, they do not read or hear or care about our theories concerning them, and they do not change over time.  But when psychology studies human nature, it’s studying itself (we study it and it studies us, as it were), people do learn and care about what we say about human nature, and humans have a history, opening up the possibility that human nature, unlike proton nature, has changed over time, in part because of what we have said about ourselves.  Note that I did not write “because of what we have learned about ourselves.”  “Learn about” is a success verb–it asserts that what we found out is true.  But science can make mistakes.  When we are wrong about protons, it does not change them.  But when psychology makes mistakes, the dissemination of its findings can change people, and thus what we find out later about them.  This is reflexivity: Psychology as a science holds up a mirror to human nature, as physics holds up a mirror to physical nature.  But, as I said before, the protons don’t look back, but people do; putting up a mirror on the sidewalk doesn’t change the behavior of the tree it reflects, but it certainly changes the behavior of people who see themselves in it.  Psychology as science seeks to describe human nature, but as a social institution cannot help but alter what people do and how they think about themselves.

Let me bring this back to the Lecture.  In slide 21 I wrote that the course of history is constrained by human nature.  In its first aspect, this looks like no more than a physicist saying that science and engineering are constrained by physical nature: We can’t do anything about the fact that F = M x A nor can we travel faster than light.  But in the case of human nature, things are more complicated.  In the first place, biological constraints are much less rigid than physical constraints.  A creature’s genes set a sort of leash on development past which development is impossible but within which much variation can occur.  Genetically identical twins, even when reared together, are similar but not absolutely identical.  Second, humans are, like all mammals, a learning species, capable of changing behavior in response to the challenges of the environment and, as a social species, are able to pass what we have learned as individuals on to others.

Finally, and uniquely, we reflect –there’s that word — on what we have learned, how we learned it, what it means, and how it fits into our lives.  This reflection is the key point.  It used to be thought that only humans made tools, but then chimps were found using and improving sticks to hunt ants.  It used to thought that that only humans had social traditions, but then monkeys were discovered who shared potato-washing skills and birds who shared how to pull tops off milk bottle skills.  But the chimps don’t ask “What’s a tool” or birds “What’s a skill?”

Much of our own use of technology is not too different from the chimp with the ant-hunting stick; we use our iPods and cell phones, but don’t think much about them.  The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once said (fans call it Clarke’s Law), that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  Thus my daughter reported that her grandmother looked at her (our daughter’s) cell phone as if it were space alien technology.  This does not mean she can’t learn to use one, only that it’s magic, albeit useful magic.  She does not reflect on it.

So, in a sense, without psychology, we use our brain/minds as powerful and useful magics.  As I remarked later in the lecture, modernity and modernism are not the same thing; postmodernity and postmodernism are not the same thing.  The latter are reflections of and on the former.  A magician watching a magic act sees something very different from the ordinary person.  Psychology is a reflection of and on the human nature.  And just as modernism in turn changed human life — a city of Bauhaus factories and offices is different from one of cathedrals and palaces — psychology has in turned changed human nature.  Or has it?  That’s a big question for us to answer in the coming weeks.

Forethoughts.  Western thought is the most reflective tradition of human thought — ultimately, nothing has been taken for granted or gone unquestioned.  There’s even a resulting paranoid tendency in Western thought that reached a dead end in psychoanalysis and some forms of postmodernism.  As we will presently see, the reflexive/self-reflexive fount of Western philosophy, science, and psychology is to be found in the proudly autonomous, free, democracies of Greece.  When they began to separate human physis, human nature, from human nomos, human law, radical reflexivity began.  F = M x A is a law of nature; “Thou shalt not covet” is not a law of human nature, because people covet (slide 22, “The envious have inherited the earth”) but it acknowledges human nature, reflects on it, and tries to control it, the explicit goal of modernism and postmodernism.