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.
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:
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:
C. Theoretical Issues – This refers to the nature of the causal explanatory matrix for the phenomena. Some key questions regarding theoretical issues are:
D. Empirical – This refers to issues of research and methods of fact gathering. Some of the key questions regarding empirical issues are as follows:
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:
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.