DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC121-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2020
Retrieved February 22, 2024, from

1.3. Arguments and counterarguments

Despite the number of texts produced and the temporal extension of the controversy about psychologism, the basic arguments offered by both contenders are relatively few and tend to repeat monotonously.

Psychologism arguments are of two orders:

  1. a Positive ones:

    • a.1 Since thinking and knowing are psychological processes, they must be the object of study of psychology or, more precisely, the laws of thinking or knowing are a subclass of psychological laws (Fries, 1824: 104; Mill, 1865 [1979]: 365; Lipps, 1893: 1–2).

    • a.2 All knowledge is ultimately supported by evidence, which, being an experience (Erlebnis), necessarily has a psychological nature (Husserl, 1900 [1975]: 183ff.).

    • a.3 We can never go beyond the limits of the conceivable and, therefore, of what is psychologically given (Erdmann, 1892: 375; Lipps, 1880: 530).

At the base of these arguments and other similar ones, there is always the conviction, explicit or implicit, that the only direct and immediate objects of my knowledge are immanent states of consciousness (my ideas or Vorstellungen) (Sigwart, 1873–8 [1904]: 6–7; Erdmann, 1892: 35, 147–8; Wundt, 1893: 12; Lipps, 1893: 2). This presupposition, which has its roots in the Cartesian turn to subjectivity and the empiric reading of such a turn (Locke, 1689–90 [1950]: II, 167), is what has often been called ‘the principle of immanence’ (Blumenberg, 1959: 989–97) and implies the denial of all forms of direct realism.

  1. Negative ones:

All anti-psychologism presupposes a dualism that it is unable to mediate. This dualism can take two basic forms, namely, between a psychological subject and abstract objects, or between a psychological subject and a transcendental subject. Psychologism, however, does not need to face this problem because, in principle, the psychological subject’s access to his objects is explained by itself (Bolzano-Exner, 1834 [1935]: 74–5, 78; Palagy, 1902: 37; Husserl, 1903 [1979]: 154; Natorp, 1901: 282; Husserl 1913a [1975]: 19; Natorp, 1918: 432–3; Bauch, 1917: 136, 142; Kerry, 1887: 305; Frege, 1893: XIXff.; 1897: 63–4).

Anti-psychologism arguments are of five basic types.

  1. Since psychologism is a peculiar form of empiricism, many anti-psychologism arguments are actually anti-empiricist arguments such as, for example, that a priori truths, as universal and necessary, cannot be empirically founded, or that empirical truths can never have apodictic certainty, or give basis to absolutely exact laws, etc. (Husserl, 1900 [1975]: 72ff., 94ff.).

  2. To found logic or epistemology in psychology produces a vicious circle, for psychology presupposes logic and epistemology (Lotze, 1874 [1912]: 543–4; Natorp, 1887: 264).

  3. c Psychologism rests on a confusion and, therefore, is overcome to the extent that a distinction is introduced. This confusion can be of different orders, even though in many cases there is a certain parallel between them, namely between:

    • c.1 quid iuris – quid facti (legitimisation of the objective validity of our knowledge and its laws – explanation of its real origin in the psychological subject) (Frege, 1884 [1988]: 7; 1897 [1980]: 67);

    • c.2 Geltung – Genese (the legitimation of the objective validity of our knowledge – the causal genetic explanation of its origin) (Windelband, 1884 [1907]: 327);

    • c.3 Erkenntnis – Erkennen (knowledge understood as the logical-objective content formulable in propositions – knowing as the effective process of knowing always linked to a real psychological subject) (Cohen, 1902 [1922]: 2–3);

    • c.4 Urteilen – Urteil (judging as activity – judgement as its product) (Husserl, 1900 [1975]: 77);

    • c.5 Denken – Gedanke (thinking as a psychological activity – the abstract object ‘captured’ by this activity) (Frege, 1918 [1986]: 35);

    • c.6 two senses of ‘idea’ (Vorstellung), that is, as a psychic act (Vorstellen) and as its content (das Vorgestellte) (Frege, 1884 [1988]: 41–2]);

    • c.7 Wahrsein – Fürwahrhalten (being true – holding effectively for true), and, correlatively, between laws of the being true (logic) – laws of holding effectively for true (psychology) (Frege, 1893: XV–XVI);

    • c.8 two senses of law, normative and descriptive and, correlatively, between two senses of laws of thought (Denkgesetzt), as normative laws of how one should think and as descriptive laws of how one actually thinks (Frege, 1893: XV; Husserl, 1900 [1975]: 67);

    • c.9 Objektivität – Wirklichkeit (objectivity – actuality/effective reality) (Frege, 1884 [1988]: 40; 1893: XVIII) or Ideal – Real (ideal – actuality/effective reality) (Husserl, 1900 [1975]: 79–80).

  4. d Psychologism leads to unacceptable consequences because it necessarily implies relativism.

    • d.1 Relativism contradicts the very idea of truth and ends up taking all meaning away from it by untying it from the principle of identity and non-contradiction and admitting that something may be true for some and not for others (be about species, be about individuals) (Husserl, 1900 [1975]: 124–5).

    • d.2 A being who did not accept the principle of identity would not possess another logic, but would simply be considered insane (Frege, 1893: XVI).

    • d.3 Relativism necessarily leads to scepticism and it contains a nonsense because it denies its own conditions of affirmation and also the assumptions of its intelligibility (Frege, 1897 [1980]: 45–6; Husserl, 1900 [1975]: 129–30).

  5. e Psychologism relies on false assumptions, mainly concentrated on its erroneous conception of subjectivity, being able, of course, to vary what is understood by such falsehood, ranging from the ‘naturalisation’ of consciousness (the consideration of consciousness as a natural object) to the unquestioned presupposition of the immanence principle (Natorp, 1888: 88f.; 1918: 432–3; Frege, 1893: XIXf.; Husserl, 1900 [1975]: 6–7; 1911 [1987]: 8f., 17f.).

Due to the fact that the controversy surrounding psychologism was not reduced to a denial or affirmation of abstract entities, but necessarily led to the question of the possibility of apprehension of them, it is understandable that criticism of psychologism is prolonged in a non-arbitrary way in the proposal of a new theory of subjectivity, which takes into account the requirements of anti-psychologism. An essential aspect of it will be to show that the anti-psychologism does not face dualism as an insurmountable problem (Natorp, 1888, 1912a; Husserl, 1900 [1975]).

Based on the above, we arrive at an essential point to correctly understand the discussion about psychologism, namely that its systematic structure cannot be reduced to mere conceptual distinctions or purely formal argumentative chains, because the development of a theory of subjectivity was essentially linked to the question of its correct description and, eventually, of the explanation of the appropriate methodological principles for such description. It is no coincidence that Husserlian phenomenology arises and remains linked throughout its development to the question of psychologism. The Prolegomena cannot be considered as a closed unit in themselves, for they are only the first volume of LUs. Forgetting this leads to the famous and misguided criticism that Husserl rejects psychologism in the first volume, to fall back to it in the second. To give a concrete example of what we are saying, note that, from the purely conceptual distinction between two senses of Vorstellung, we proceed to the establishment of a descriptive difference between act and content, between content and object, to the complication of structure analysis of content, distinguishing real and ideal content, content as an object of the act and as a mediator of the relationship to the object, etc. Criticism of the idea of ​​evidence is an important aspect of an alternative description of subjectivity too. Husserl’s case being paradigmatic of what we say, it is, certainly, not the only one (Moore, 1903: 25).

Citing this article:
Porta, Mario González. Arguments and counterarguments. Psychologism, 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC121-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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