The Dogma of Psychology

Shabnam Ziabakhsh
Department of Psychology
Simon Fraser University

I first became interested in ideas such as telepathy, out-of body experience, and mind reading, foolishly thinking that these are explored in psychology. I little knew that these ideas fall under the rubric of parapsychology. However, I soon realized that the field of parapsychology has been exiled from mainstream psychology, and that any talk of it would subject the person to ridicule and marginalization. Fortunately, I learned the rules of the game as an undergraduate. On the advice of one of my instructors, I learned to never admit my interest to anything except mainstream scientific research. I was told this approach is the only way to win the hearts of the graduate admissions committee.

The point is that the discipline of psychology is dogmatic. This dogmatism has lead to a psychology that is predominantly depersonalized, hollow, or without a "soul", so to speak. Psychologists in playing the game of science, have taken the game too seriously, and have developed a "one track mind".

Historical Roots of Psychology

Much of modern psychology owes its origin to the post- Renaissance dichotomy between the extended mechanical world of matter, and the unextended world of the mind (soul). Moreover, the unextended substance was said to possess a God- given freewill, whereas the extended body was determined by the movements in the physical world. Descartes has thus provided an ontology of two worlds - each with distinct characteristics - where the mind and the body were viewed as essentially separate entities in spite of the fact that he spoke of their interaction through the pineal gland. Through such categorization, Descartes established a "thinking set" or a "road map" for those who pursued the road to knowledge.

Locke, against the background of the Cartesian dualism, shifted his attention from the soul, and began the empirical investigation of knowledge. Locke, taking a realist position, suggested that a person's memories (ideas) mirror or reflect reality, and that they are copies of what exists independent of the mind (Rychlak, 1981). Locke also began to think of ideas as efficiently caused effects, placed into minds as one might place china into a dinnerware cabinet (Rychlak, 1981). Locke, by shifting his attention from the soul (or the self) to a relatively more concrete element such as memory, ultimately defined the agenda for philosophy and psychology. By taking this reductionist stance - reducing the experience to its so called "essential element" - he set the stage for psychology to ultimately look at components or elements of experience, rather than seeing the whole. Locke's legacy lead to a form of molecularization in psychology - reducing the human experience to mere components or units for observation.

Hume, being a radical empiricist, rejected the mind and causality all together. Due to the unobservability of inner-experiences and causes, their existence were basically denied (Paranjpe, 1987; White, 1990). With this revolutionary claim Hume ultimately undermined morality - since he denied agency of humans; and he also shook up the enterprise of science which was in the business of finding causes (Paranjpe, 1994a). Hume's focus on direct experience and experience alone, and his apparent denial of causes, set the stage for the study of observable behavior, and the denial of the inner-experiences. The exogenic approach in psychology - looking for environmental and external factors in determining behavior - can be traced back to the Humean tradition of the denial of inner experiences or the endogenic approach.

Kant following the Cartesian dichotomy made a sharp distinction between the mental life as it is known through the subjective experience (phenomena), and the world as is (noumena) (Rychlak, 1981). The latter is a part of the "empirical world", whereas the former points beyond external reality to a "transcendental ego" that is the source of the fundamental categories that characterize human experience. However, Kant also pointed out that the transcendental ego, and the subjective reality can never be verifiable and scientifically studied. From this assertion it was implied that psychology could never be a true science, because of its resistance to the mathematization of subjective experiences. Danziger (1990) argues that this assertion eventually lead to the assigning of a low status to psychology since the field was viewed as having no future as a science. This may explain the reason why the Lockean- Humean tradition was able to have a strong hold on psychology, and continues to this day. Nevertheless, the Kantian influence can also be seen among psychologists who focused on the self-as-knower, human agency, and the phenomenal world of individuals.

It must now be apparent that Cartesian dualism had profound effects on the way the world was perceived. Descartes certainly had his own reasons for introducing this incarnation of dualism into "Western" thought. Descartes, as a scientific man, wanted to endorse the claims of mechanics, and yet, as a religious and ethical man, he wanted to maintain the concept of the soul (Paranjpe, 1994a). However, this dualism left a legacy of confusion and problems that continues to cause difficulties for psychologists today (Tonks, 1994; Paranjpe, 1994a).

Ryle (1949) tried to resolve the mind-body problem by suggesting that the Cartesian dichotomy is nothing but a categorical error. However, it can be implied from his argument that what he really is dissolving is in fact the mind. He argues against volition, free-will, and human agency, and in so doing he is in fact denying the very existence of the center of awareness or consciousness. Hence, it can be argued that the only thing Ryle finds troublesome in the Cartesian dichotomy is the mind. However, the attempt of this paper is not to resolve this ancient debate, but it is important to point out that the issue is far from being resolved (Shaffer, 1967), and Descartes' legacy can be seen in every aspect of academia in the Western world.

The division between the Arts and the Sciences can be directly traced to Descartes' mind-body dualism. The study of matter has been assigned to the sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.), while the Arts (humanities, law, philosophy, theology, etc.) takes on the challenge of the mind and the soul. Psychology on the other hand, being on the margins between the arts and the sciences has developed an almost split- personality. One personality devotes its attention to the study of the mind (instrospective), whereas the other personality solely looks at matter or the external world (extraspective).

Dualism in Psychology

The internal conflict of psychology reflects its position at the crossroads of science and arts. However, psychology first originated from the philosophy of mind and thinking. Wilhelm Wundt is often linked with the origins of modern psychology (Kroger & Scheibe, 1990). The method of introspection was employed to examine the inner world of private experiences. However, Wundt also agreed with Kant, that introspection would not transform private consciousness into a scientific object (Danziger, 1990). Wundt, essentially recognized the need for another, non- experimental type of psychology. This was "Volkerpsychologie" - a kind of psychology based on the historical, ethnographic, and comparative analysis of human cultural products, especially language, myth, and customs (Kroger & Scheibe, 1990). Wundt's social psychology led to the "Chicago School" of Meadian symbolic interactionism, and the eventual development of the sociology of knowledge.

Freud was another major figure in psychology who attempted to focus on inner experiences. However, dualism and the Cartesian dichotomy are apparent in every aspect of Freud's theory. On the one hand, Freud wanted to represent his theory as a natural science, being reduced to physiology; on the other hand, he looked upon his theorization as psychology, an art of interpretation not reducible to any of the natural sciences (Lesche, 1985). Riceour (1970) views psychoanalysis as the study of energetics (physiological drives) and hermeneutics (interpretation and meaning). Moreover, Rychlak (1981) views Freud as being a mixed Kantian-Lockean model. Freud's theory is Lockean and reductionistic to the extent that it tries to explain human behavior in terms of physiology (biological determinism), and it reduces the mind into components (Id, Ego, Superego). On the other hand, the Kantian spirit can be detected in Freud's concept of the "wish" (implying human agency, and final cause), and dream interpretation (focusing on the phenomenal world).

Behaviorism came about as a total opposition to the introspective outlooks of Wundt and Freud. Skinner viewed the study of inner-experiences, and introspectionism as an outdated ideology. He argued that psychology must "abolish the autonomous man - the inner man, the homunculus, the possessing demon, the man defended by the literature of freedom and dignity" (quoted in Dennett, 1981, p. 57). Hence, behaviorism developed with a firm agenda of becoming a scientific study of human behavior. Skinner followed Hume and Mach whose fundamental doctrine were of description of experience (Passmore, 1967). In light of the Humean-Machian doctrine, Skinner viewed behavior as a function of measurable environmental conditions (extraspective), and not caused by inner motives or intentions. Like Mach, his focus was on observation and observation alone, and viewed a functional relationship between the stimulus and response (as opposed to a cause-effect relationship). Moreover, both Skinner and Hume followed Locke in using a molecular units of analysis - stimulus and response (Paranjpe, 1994a).

Exogenic as well as endogenic perspectives are both apparent in psychology. However, the Humean-Lockean view of reality has exerted an iron grip on the discipline of psychology, and has left the alternative approaches simply marginalized (Danziger, 1990). The result has been a psychology that is depersonalized, and highly mechanical. Bakan (1965) views the mystery-mastery complex as one the major forces in sustaining the depersonalized stance in psychology.

The Mystery-Mastery Complex

The mystery-mastery complex refers to the need for mastery or control over the world by preserving the mystery or the "secret". Of course, there is a dialectical relationship between the two - one reassures the existence of the other. Bakan (1965) suggests that the mystery- mastery complex that exists in psychology is really a reflection of the complex that exists in the modern industrial society of the West.

One of the ways in which psychologists keep the mystery mastery is through the scientist-subject distinction. In as sense the field of psychology has been reduced to the "psychology of the other one" (Paranjpe, 1994b). For example, Skinner denied human agency and intentionality for his objects of investigation, and yet elaborated an utopian society in Walden II, which clearly reflected Skinner's own final-cause (Paranjpe, 1994b). The predominate practice in psychology has been to treat individuals as mere objects, in isolation from their environment (in a social vacuum), to be investigated by psychologists who posses all the characteristics that are denied to their subjects.

In preserving the mystery, Lagerspetz (1990) suggests that, if individuals in fact lacked intentionality they should not be told, fearing that this may discourage or deny individuals from taking responsibility. According to Lagerspetz, "scientific inquiry into the nature of man should, however, be kept separate from considerations as to how the knowledge should be conveyed to the public. It is clear that psychologists, especially since they are psychologists, should take responsibility for how their views influence people." (p. 31) This clearly suggests censorship. By keeping psychological knowledge away from the public, the separation between the scientist and the subject is further enhance, and the authority and the power of psychologists is further confirmed.

In sustaining the mastery-mystery complex, psychology has also focused on the study of observable behavior (Bakan, 1965). The true mastery over individuals is seen as mastery over the behavior of others. In essence, the mind is left a mystery (Skinner's black-box), in order to predict and control behaviors. Taking a reductionist approach also allows psychologists to take control over isolated components or elements of individuals' experiences - whereas the mastery over the whole human experience may prove to be a more difficult task.

According to Danziger (1990) the mystery-mastery complex is also achieved by the "mystique of the laboratory" (p.185). The very artificiality of the laboratory situations establishes the credentials of knowledge claims. The replacement of normal language with jargon also helps to mystify and preserve the "myth of objectivity". According to Benston (1989), the myth of objectivity is the essence of psychology's claim to being a science. Benston argues that by using the disclaimer of science and objectivity the scientist would posses enormous powers. In other words, in the name of science "anything goes" - from the medical treatment of women's reproductive organs, to the psychosurgery used to cure homosexuality in men and promiscuity in women (Benston, 1989).

Psychology, against the backdrop of psychologists' desire to have power, fell into the game of science. After all, nothing can influence and control the minds of the public as can "scientific" claims. Science is in fact the religion of the 20th century. The whole of industry is controlled and operated on the basis of science and scientific claims (Benston, 1989). Psychology in trying to establish itself as a natural science, has become a mechanical and depersonalized study of human behavior. Likewise, Bakan (1965) argues that the mystery-mastery complex in psychology forces a conception of hollowness upon the individual - the concept of an "empty organism".

The Cognitive Revolution

With the cognitive revolution one might think that the problem of psychology has been resolved. Cognitive psychology has been seen as the revolt against Behaviorism. One may assume that by psychologists' focus on cognition rather than behavior might leave the depersonalized nature of psychological practice as simply a thing of the past. However, the difference between cognitive and behavioral psychology may be more complementary than contradictory (Stam, 1990). Kendler (1990) argues that cognitive psychology, in spite of what some would like to believe, is not at odds with methodological behaviorism.

Cognitive psychology is at least implicitly reductionist (Stam, 1990). It has compartmentalized the mind into short and long term memory, and further into semantic, episodic, and procedural memories. Likewise, social psychologists who study social cognition have reduced thinking and reasoning to heuristics or schemas. Reductionism neglects final-cause theorization, and disregards intentionality and human agency. Cognitive psychology views human behavior as being efficiently caused. According to Kendler (1990), the state of the human mind (or its functional organization) is inferred, and then the behavioral output is predicted in the same way that the state of a rat's mind is inferred from its past experiences in order to make predictions about the rat's behavior.

According to Gergen (1985), cognitivism in psychology has not overturned the exogenic perspective. Likewise, Shweder (1990) argues that the Cognitive revolution has failed to develop an adequate theory of selfhood, and has neglected human agency, intentionality and final causes. Moreover, the use of the computer terminology, such as encoding, decoding, storage, and retrieval, has only aggravated the problem by further depersonalizing the discipline of psychology. The input-output language of cognitive psychology seems frighteningly similar to the stimulus-response language of behaviorism. Hence, what the cognitive revolution has offered psychology is an abundance of metaphors, as fancier ways to speak about S-R associations. With the advancement of computer technology in the western world, it was only matter of time before psychologists would have used such models in order to "objectively" study the mind.

Therefore, in the mainstream of psychology, the prominent forms of psychology that are being practiced at universities still based upon Humean-Lockean reductionism. Of course, this is not the only way that psychology is being practiced, in spite of the fact that the identity of the discipline of psychology is mostly determined by the psychological practices of the mainstream - knowledge by consensus (Kuhn, 1970). Those psychologists who do posses a Kantian spirit and focus on human agency, free-will, and the self, tend not to practice in psychology departments - for example, most of the counselling psychology programs are found in faculties of Education and tend to use phenomenological approaches. But of course, there are always a few "rebels" and "trouble makers" who keep the Kantian spirit alive, even in the most dogmatic psychology departments.

Paranjpe (1994a) also speaks of a tacit conative revolution that is currently under way in psychology. This conative revolution is marked by the promotion of agency and final cause explanations in contemporary psychology - e.g.,. Markus and Ruvolo's possible selves (1989), and Brian Little's personal projects (1983). Perhaps in time, the conative revolution will achieve what the cognitive revolution failed to realize.

The Socially Constructed World of Psychology

Which group of psychologists are practicing "bad" psychology? Which psychology is "truer" than the other? Or, what is the latest "truth"? These questions are often addressed explicitly or implicitly because there is a view that the truth exists somewhere out there independent of how psychologists (or scientists in general) go about conducting their searches for knowledge.

However, social constructionists view scientific knowledge as never being independent, but always enmeshed within a network of social relationships and social rules (Danziger, 1990). Therefore, what initially is produced is not so much knowledge or truth, but merely the claims of such. Such claims are only transformed to knowledge by an acceptance process that involves a number of individuals (such as reviewers, readers, textbook writers) who share certain norms and interests (Danziger, 1990). Likewise, Kuhn (1970) suggests that it is the consensus among community members which ultimately determines what the latest knowledge or claim to truth is. Kelly (1955) also Suggests that the realm of psychology is limited by the psychological theory we happen to be using at the moment.

The constructed nature of knowledge is further enhanced by Berger (1966) who sees scientific communities as socially constructed worlds. He also views objective reality as not what is "out there", so to speak, but rather as "reality that is shared with others" (p. 108). Social constructionists have been criticized because of the relativism that is implied in their work. However, Gergen (1985) argues that it is the shared consensus or shared intelligibility that protects communities from the "anything goes" mentality.

However, what the social constructionist movement offers psychology is that it highlights the social, political, and historical components that are involved in theory making, research, and science in general. It can be argued that psychologists themselves have bought the objectivity-myth, and have lost sight of the social, historical, and political components that govern their search. Danziger (1990) points out that the political environment largely determines what types of knowledge products can be successfully marketed at a particular time and place. Feminist theorists (Benston, 1989; Farganis, 1989; Heldke, 1988) have criticized most of science as being gendered and as being marketed and catered by and for men. It can also be argued that science is coloured, and that it essentially caters to a particular race and class.


The status of psychology as it is today can be traced back to the Cartesian dichotomy. It was this dichotomy that separated the church from the "objective" investigation of knowledge, and in the same vein, separated the arts from the sciences. Descartes' socially constructed division between the mind and matter, created a road map for thinkers who followed him. Moreover, it was the Lockean-Humean empiricist epistemology, and the Kantian rationalism that created a duality and a dichotomy in psychology. However, due to the masterful status of the empiricist framework, the myth of objectivity of the empirical research, in addition to the culture's mystery-mastery complex, psychology has been led to the reductionist empiricist epistemology of the natural sciences, and the subsequent marginalization of alternative disciplines. The result has been a dogmatic discipline that is highly depersonalized, and hollow.

According to Danziger (1990), the remedy is not to replace the naive naturalism of the past with a simpleminded sociological reductionism - that is to say that psychological

knowledge is "nothing but" a reflection of social conditions. However, what needs to be taken into account is the realization of the social embeddedness of knowledge, and its consideration when raising epistemological questions. In other words, psychological theory and research should be analyzed in light of its social, historical, and political context.

I am not denying the knowledge that has been gained by the empiricist and the reductionist approaches, however I am arguing that knowledge could be further gained and enhanced by taking other non-positivistic, non-Western, non reductionist perspectives. The dogmatism that exists in the discipline of psychology hinders the development of other perspectives and ways of understanding and thinking about the world. I tend to agree with Heldke (1988), that if only the search for understanding was done similar to cooking and recipe making, we could have had a psychology that was composed of all sorts of foods and flavors, and all sorts of techniques for making and trading recipes - there seems to be a flavor of democracy in her approach.

About the Author

Shabnam Ziabakhsh is currently a Ph.D. student at Simon Fraser University (Psychology department). Her area of interest is in social psychology - in specific, acculturative processes of new of immigrants, and women's identities and women's issues. Her career objectives are to teach and to be involved in the community through applied work.


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