Psychology, theories of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-R021-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 24, 2017, from

Article Summary

The object of study in psychology is the experience and behaviour of organisms, particularly human organisms. Psychology resembles the other sciences in employing methods appropriate to material phenomena but, unlike them, the mind (sometimes held to be immaterial) is among its objects of study. If the mind were immaterial it is difficult to see how psychology could proceed. Psychology differs from the other sciences in that understanding may not permit prediction and/or control of the phenomena. This is a consequence of the fact that human organisms may become aware of causal factors that would otherwise have determined their experience or behaviour. Being aware, they have a choice. (This is not, of course, to deny that the choice may itself be determined by more remote factors.)

In the seventeenth century, Descartes proposed that the mind (or soul), though immaterial, was nevertheless capable of two-way causal interaction with the material body. It is often held that what is immaterial cannot interact with what is material but Descartes’ proposal was, in its context, so valuable that it has ever since exercised a profound influence on philosophy and on what most of us take for granted (for example, the unexamined belief that the mind/soul is, in some sense, immaterial but does, in some sense, interact with the body).

The possibility of scientific psychology was preserved by Leibniz’s hypothesis of psycho-physical parallelism (according to which the deity keeps mind and body running in parallel, though there is no causal interaction between them). This view did not survive the passing of an era of universal (and largely unquestioned) religious belief. At the beginning of the twentieth century behaviourism tried to do without mind, it also tried to avoid surreptitious appeal to the lay person’s unexamined ‘mind’ concept. In the 1960s, the cognitive revolution in psychology substantially broadened the range of phenomena under investigation but at the cost of allowing appeals to an unexamined ‘mind of last resort’.

The headlong advance of the computer, which has taken over many functions previously reserved to members of the human species, leaves open the question whether it will, one day, take over all of them – or will be permitted to do so.

    Citing this article:
    Wetherick, N.E.. Psychology, theories of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-R021-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2017 Routledge.

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