Theory of Knowledge

A unified approach to psychology and philosophy

Considerations Regarding the Unification of Psychology

Five key domains involved in unifying psychology.

As evidenced by the Review of General Psychology June 2013 special issue, the most recent issue of the Journal of Theoretical and Philosphical Psychology, claims by evolutionary psychologists that their perspective represents a unifying view, books by Arthur Staats and myself, and recent discussions on the Society for Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology list serve, it seems that the idea of unifying psychology (or generating a general theory of psychology) is getting about as much attention as it ever has. Yet a cursory review of this literature shows enormous diversity in approaches. Consider that although Fiona HIbberd’s lead JTPP article was explicitly directed at unifying psychology, it nonetheless is a very different kind of project than mine or the approach by evolutionary psychologists.

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This diversity suggests that we need some organization of this discussion, and the goal here is to provide a snapshot of the key issues that seem to be involved in attempting to unify the field of psychology. Specifically, I identify five broad domains that I believe should at least be considered in attempting to produce a general, workable framework: A) Problems of Definition and Identity; B) Philosophical Issues; C) Theoretical Issues; D) Empirical Issues; and E) Practical/Applied/Professional Issues.

A.  Definitional/Identity – The second chapter of the book outlining my unified approach is called “The Problem of Psychology” and one of the central claims it makes is that psychology has had so many different definitions and conceptions that no one knows what it means. As such, I believe it is essential for any author of a general theory or proposal to unify the field to define their use of the term as explicitly as possible. This is frequently not done and leads to much confusion. One reason for the confusion is that there are several issues that are embedded in the concept of psychology and what it might mean, and these issues can be summarized as follows:

  1. What exactly is the subject matter that the proposal is claiming psychology to be directly concerned with? Is it, for example, concerned centrally with experiential consciousness, human reflective self-awareness, cognitive/mental processes, overt behavior or some combination therein?
  2. What, exactly, is the proposed relationship between animals and humans and how does this relate to the subject matter? Is the prosed conception of psychology concerned with all animals, some animals, or no animals except humans? What makes humans different or is there “no dividing line?
  3. Related to subject matter is the question of the institutional identity of psychology that one is proposing. Is the proposed “Psychology” a “science”, an allied health profession or a collection of studies in the humanities or none of these? Similarly, what are the proposed “Psychology’s” boundaries with other fields, like biology, anthropology, sociology,  medicine, counseling and social work?

B. Philosophical Issues – Almost everyone, it seems, views psychology as some kind of knowledge system, and thus it follows that there are deep philosophical questions. Psychology is likely to be a particularly “sticky-wicket” when it comes to philosophy because the knower-known relationships are particularly complicated. In addition, psychology’s relationship to philosophy has been particularly confounding. Some of the major philosophical issues seem to be:

  1. Conceptual/Semantic – What are the meanings of the terms used (e.g., mind, self, behavior, cognition, consciousness) and their conceptual relation to one another? Hibberd’s paper on metaphysics is an example of someone attempting to articulate what a foundational conceptual framework for psychology (and existence writ large) might look like.
  2. Philosophy of Science – Exemplified by the modern versus post-modern divide, analyses here focus on the kind of knowledge psychology produces (e.g., are lawful processes discovered or narratives constructed?). This domain also relates to whether psychology is conceived of in terms of a natural or social science or humanistic enterprise (or some other philosophical entity).
  3. Worldviews/Assumptions – Theistic psychology has been promoted by some prominent members of division 24, arguing that a naturalistic worldview is simply an assumption, one that is different from a theistic assumption. Those who argue for the evidence of mystical/parapsychological  also bring a challenge to a “conventional” worldview. Thus, one must be clear about the worldview the proposal is embedded in.
  4. Values – As Steve Quackenbush has argued that, the problem of value is central to any general theory of psychology and must be addressed. The reason is that claims about what psychology is have direct implications for claims about the nature of being human and thus will at least indirectly (and may be even directly) impact our value systems.
  5. Historical Social Contextual Issues – Knowledge systems are not built in a vacuum but reside in particular socio-historical contexts. A perspective on where the knowledge emerges from and how it relates to other broad knowledge systems should be considered.

C. Theoretical Issues – This refers to the nature of the causal explanatory matrix for the phenomena. Some key questions regarding theoretical issues are:

  1. How does the subject matter of psychology (identified in domain one) come to be, what causes it to change, what is its potential, why does it wither and die?
  2. How does the theory relate to folk psychology (the everyday notion that people have that animal/people behave the way they do because of beliefs, desires and capacities)?
  3. How does it deal with “mainstream psychology”? Is it a new perspective? Does it reject mainstream perspectives? How does the proposed theory mesh with major paradigms (e.g., behavioral, cognitive, psychodynamic, humanistic, physiological, evolutionary, cultural)? Does it attempt to integrate some or all? Does it dismiss some or all?
  4. Is the perspective explicitly defined against any particular knowledge system?

D. Empirical – This refers to issues of research and methods of fact gathering. Some of the key questions regarding empirical issues are as follows:

  1. How does the system address the enormous body of empirical work that has currently been done? Programs of research exist on everything from reinforcement and punishment to sexual behaviors and attraction to learning and memory to cognitive dissonance and ego defenses to child development and parental attachment to cultural influences on perception and on and on. While no system could address every line of research in detail, what is the general relationship between the proposed system and the broad swath of empirical research? What research seems validating of the system? What seems troubling or inconsistent?
  2. What does the system say about what kinds of methods are valuable and what kinds of methods are suspect in generating knowledge? Does it address the tensions between quantitative versus qualitative data? Or the tensions between Individual versus aggregate data analysis (e.g., Jim Lamiell makes the strong argument that psychology’s current obsession with aggregate data has major implications for the kinds of questions to which psychology is getting answers)?   
  3. Does the framework advocate for a particular methodology? Is the framework testable/falsifiable? Does it lead to new empirical questions or new methodologies?

E. Practical/Applied/Professional Implications – Currently, far more psychologists function as mental health professionals than theorists or researchers. Thus any serious proposal must address issues of application and the profession. Some key questions regarding issues of application and the profession include:

  1. Stemming from the claims about the nature of the subject matter, what does the proposal say about living the good life? What is animal or human well-being?
  2. What are states of being that the proposal suggests we ought to be promoting?
  3. How does the proposal view the current state of the profession? Is the professional institution synonymous with the science or is it separate? Should  the three practice areas of psychology (clinical, counseling, school) remain distinct or should they be blended into a more global professional identity?
  4. What of the current state of assessment and therapy? What are the implications of the current proposal for the fragmented state of psychotherapy? Does it implicate some paradigms as likely being more valid than others?
  5. What message does the vision have for society at large? What are the implications for education, government, sustainability and the current ways we organize our knowledge systems and our view of ourselves (related back to the problem of value)?
  6. How does the view align with, support, or invalidate certain political or cultural positions?

As a discipline, psychology has been fragmented from the start. James, Wundt, Freud, Watson, Vygotsky, Rogers, Festinger, Gergen and many other major contributors to the field have all had remarkably different conceptions. This fact and the daunting list above may well be considered to be a nod to the pluralists like Sigmund Koch who argued the field was and would always be a “collection of studies”. However, that conclusion forces us to accept the chaotic, fragmented state of knowledge and it seems many are now wondering if we can in fact develop more holistic, coherent, integrative (or even radically different) approaches. Those who do so would be wise to consider all that is involved. If unification--or at least a more coherent view of the field--is to emerge, it will emerge when scholars reference their various approaches in relationship to the domain(s) they are trying to address. 

Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at James Madison University.

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