Sunday, July 10, 2011

Theoretical psychology and the subject matter of psychology

This blog, named Theoretical Psychology, is the English counterpart of my swedish blog Psykologidoktoranden (“The Psychology PhD Student”). For quite a while I have felt the need to write in english, for two reasons. First, the academic language, at least in psychology, is English. I might as well get used to that reality. Second, my interest in theoretical psychology and philosophy is not shared by many within the discipline of psychology, certainly not in Sweden. Networking within the field of theoretical psychology, is probably best done on an international basis.

Scholars and laymen familiar with psychology probably recoqnize numerous subfields of psychology—developmental psychology, neuropsychology, personality psychology, social psychology, psychophysics, et cetera—but theoretical psychology is less known. I actually learned about it last year, after seven years as a scholar in psychology.

Theoretical psychology, at least according to Wikipedia, “is concerned with theoretical and philosophical aspects of the discipline of psychology”. It is often described as a interdisciplinary field that involves not only all fields of psychology, but also philosophy, history, sociology and antropology. However, I prefer to look at it as mainly meta-theoretical psychology, where the crucial question is what psychology really is about in the first place. Theoretical psychology is about the very foundations of disciplinary psychology itself.

What is psychology? This is a justified question since the subject matter of psychology is not so easily defined, particularly compared to disciplines like geology (rocks) or zoology (animals). Often psychology is defined by its methods (the psychological experiment and sophisticated statistical procedures) or simply—although seldom explicitly—defined as “what psychologists do”. Ever since William James and Wilhelm Wundt (the “fathers of psychology”) psychologists have argued over what psychologists should do, or not should do. Is psychology about experiences, consciousness, behaviour, mental processes, brain functioning, or something else?

The essential problem with any attempt to define the subject matter of psychology is the exclusion of all other views on psychology, which de facto is being practiced at universities all over the world. At the end of the day, defining psychology as “what psychologists do” might not be that bad after all. Unfortunately, this ends up in psychology being more of a tradition than a clearly demarcated discipline. Traditions tend to resist change.

Within the American Psychological Association, Division 24 is concerned with the theory and philosophy of psychology. The divisions of APA are numbered in sequential order, and the 24th division was formed in 1962. It has some 500 members, which should be compared to over 154,000 members of the APA. The International Society for Theoretical Psychology (ISTP) has some 200 members worldwide (that is, subscribers to the paper version of the journal Theory and Psychology). Psychologists, in general, do not trouble themselves with philosophical questions about psychology. Instead, implicit or explicit, they accept the basic assumptions of mainstream psychology: empirism, materialism and reductionism.