Psychology's Tower of Babel

Psychology desperately needs a shared language and unified conceptual system.

Posted Jan 25, 2013

Genesis 11:1-4

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth."

 One of my biggest frustrations with the field of psychology is the chaos that exists at the semantic level. Consider, for example, that I direct a doctoral program in Combined-Integrated Clinical and School Psychology that is transitioning from offering the Doctoral of Psychology (PsyD) to the Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology (PhD) degree. The program was originally was a Combined Clinical, Counseling, and School program, but during our accreditation cycle in the early 2000s we were asked to drop the ‘counseling’ because we did not have a traditional counseling psychologist in our core faculty. We did so, but the program did not change at all. An EdS Counseling Program in our department, during its accreditation from a counseling body, asked that our department rename itself—from the Department of Graduate Psychology to the Department of Graduate Psychology and Counseling—because they felt the counseling profession (which is different than counseling psychology!) needed stronger and more explicit representation. Interestingly, that program recently changed its name from Community Counseling to Clinical Mental Health Counseling. During our most recent site visit, our accrediting site visitors said they were surprised we dropped the ‘counseling’ description because to them our program felt more like a counseling psychology program than a traditional clinical or school psychology program. Are you confused yet?

The unified theory offers the field of psychology the chance to go from the current tower of babel to the Tower of Babel in the biblical sense. The phrase a ‘tower of babel’ (lower case) is often used by academics and refers to the confusion that ensues when words have overlapping but also different meanings to different people and in different contexts. Although some word usage variation is inevitable, the field of psychology is currently a massive tower of babel. Its core concepts like mind, self, behavior, and consciousness and it professional categories (e.g., clinical versus counseling psychology), are defined by weak paradigms or politics and carry local meanings that result in much confusion when they are translated outside of that context.

I was just at a conference in which the central argument was being made to a group of clinical psychologists that the profession of psychology should collapse across the traditional boundaries of clinical, counseling, and school, and define itself as a health service profession. This is actually the argument that our program at JMU has been making for over a decade, which is why we are a “combined” program. The field needs a unified professional identity and it needs a meta-theoretical system that can define the science and its key elements, like mind, behavior, and self-consciousness. If the field can’t solve the semantic problem of general meaning of its constructs, it will continue to be the Rodney Dangerfield of the sciences and just one of a multitude of emerging, competing mental health professions. In contrast, if a workable, comprehensive semantic conceptual system can be built, we psychologists could then construct a Tower of Babel in the traditional sense of the term, and we would have a powerful system built that offers a unified language to describe the world.