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A New Metapsychology for the 21st Century

The Unified Theory of Knowledge is a metapsychology for the 21st Century.

The term metapsychology dates back to Freud. I believe the time is ripe for a new metapsychology to emerge. The Unified Theory of Knowledge (UTOK) refers to the body of work I have been developing over the past 25 years. It has many different facets, with an intricacy that it has been likened to a cathedral. It can be perhaps best characterized as a new “metapsychology” for the 21st century.

The prefix “meta” refers to that which is beyond or that which is more comprehensive or operates at a higher level of abstraction. Metacognition, for example, is cognition about cognition. Metapsychology thus can refer to a frame that reflects on psychology or can refer to a comprehensive approach to the field and its subject matter. I am using the word to reference both meanings. The UF analyzes psychology and its subject matter, and it generates a comprehensive view of the field that attempts to address its core philosophical and metatheoretical problems. Put simply, it identifies the core problem of psychology and offers a novel and coherent solution. The UF can be divided into three interrelated projects. These include: (1) the outline of a “consilient” theory of knowledge; (2) a unified theory of psychology (meaning both the subject matter and the institution); and (3) a unified approach to psychotherapy.

Consilience is a term introduced by E. O. Wilson and refers to the unity of knowledge. Specifically, it is the jumping together of facts and concepts that give rise to a scientific and humanistic account of human knowledge that is both comprehensive and coherent. At its broadest contours, the UF is offered as a theory of knowledge and wisdom for the 21st Century. The argument is it affords scholars a new synthetic philosophy that can potentially unite the great branches of thought and give rise to a picture of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. In plain language, it offers up the outline of a new theory of everything that provides new ways to solve long standing problems. Specifically, it offers new resolutions to understanding “knower-known”, “matter-mind”, “subjective-objective-intersubjective”, and “fact-value” relationships that have long preoccupied and confounded philosophers.

The centerpiece of the UTOK is the Tree of Knowledge System, which is a new theory of knowledge that maps both the natural world and our scientific knowledge of it into four separable dimensions. It is a proposal for a “descriptive metaphysical system” (i.e., it defines key terms, like Mind and behavior) that is both ontological (i.e., it specifies the contours of reality and our theories about it) and epistemological (i.e., it clarifies how we know what we know) in nature. As this article notes, it can also be considered a new map of Big History. A central insight of the Tree of Knowledge (ToK) System is the claim that the universe can be divided up into four different planes of existence, which are labeled Matter, Life, Mind and Culture. When she was four, my daughter Sydney effectively captured the essence of this taxonomy as: “rocks, plants, animals, people.”

The ToK System further posts that these different dimensions of behavioral complexity can be (and have been) mapped by different domains of scientific investigation. Specifically, the material plane is mapped by the physical sciences, the life plane is mapped by the biological sciences, the animal-Mind plane should be mapped by the psychological sciences, and the Culture-Person plane is mapped by the human or social sciences. The term “should be” is italicized because it points both to how the ToK System descriptively points out that the problem has not been solved and proceeds to offer a clear prescriptive solution (see here).

As this blog notes, it is important to differentiate the subject matter of psychology (i.e., mental behavior) from the institution of Psychology. The UTOK posits that the institution of Psychology should be defined using the descriptive metaphysics provided by the ToK. Doing so unifies the field by making it coherent and consilient, with a clear subject matter and lexicon. Somewhat paradoxically, the solution to the problem of psychology provided by the UF results in dividing up the institution of psychology into three great branches that are related, but separate. According to the UTOK, the basic foundation of psychology should be the science of “mind-brain-animal behavior” represented by the Mind dimension of behavioral complexity. This is called "basic psychology" and is a purely natural science of animal behavior. A separate field called “human psychology” should be differentiated from basic psychology. Human psychology is about human persons behaving on the Culture-Person plane. It sits the base of the human-social sciences (i.e., anthropology, sociology, economics and political science). Finally, there should also be a clearly identified but also separate institution associated with the profession of psychology, called “health service psychology”, which refers to the domain of licensed professionals.

This point brings us to the second major project embedded in the UTOK, which is the unified theory of psychology (UT). The UT works toward developing a unifying meta-paradigm that theoretically knits together the major paradigms and their key insights into a coherent whole. To achieve this synthesis, three additional ideas are included that help to make up the whole UTOK. They are: Behavioral Investment Theory (BIT), the Influence Matrix (IM), and Justification Systems Theory (JUST). BIT provides a coherent meta-theoretical framework for the Animal-Mind dimension of behavioral complexity. It offers a theory of the nervous system as the organ of behavioral investment. The Influence Matrix is an extension of BIT to the human primate “relational system.” Specifically, the Matrix maps the self-in-relation-to-other mental architecture that drives (pre-verbal) human social motivation and emotion. Finally, JUST is a theory of the evolution of language, human self-consciousness, and culture. It frames the Person-Culture dimension of behavioral complexity in a way that cuts across the social sciences, including human psychology, anthropology, political science, and sociology.

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

Together, the ToK System, BIT, IM, and JUST work to generate an effective solution to the problem of psychology. This argument was laid out in A New Unified Theory of Psychology. That work showed why the ToK System required a clear division between basic psychology, which was defined as the science of the Animal-Mental dimension of behavioral complexity grounded in BIT, and human psychology grounded in JUST, which forms the base of the science of the Person-Culture dimension. That work also showed how the unified theory could assimilate and integrate the key insights from the major perspectives. In particular, it affords a vertical integration of the levels and dimensions across the physical, biological, psychological, and social planes of complexity. It also provides a horizontal integration of psychodynamic, humanistic, behavioral and cognitive approaches to psychology and psychotherapy.

The third project embedded in the UTOK is the movement toward a more unified approach to psychotherapy (UA). The UA returns to the original problem I encountered in my graduate training in clinical psychology, which was the applied problem of psychotherapy integration. This is the problem of how we combine the key insights from the major perspectives to develop the most comprehensive and effective systems for doing the applied work of professional psychologists (and other mental health workers). The UA uses the UT to achieve this goal.

Specifically, with the UT, one can develop a coherent generalist approach to professional psychology and the practice of psychotherapy that is commensurate with the science of human psychology. Like the UT, the UA also consists of several separate but related ideas that have an applied focus. These include an integrative theory of human character adaptation, called CAST, the major domains of personality called the Wheel of Development, a clearly defined model of human well-being called the Nested Model, and, finally, CALM-MO, which is an integrative set of psychological mindfulness principles that foster adaptive emotional and social processes. This sets the stage for a unified approach to psychotherapy.

The UA is not just about psychotherapy, but it is also connected to training and education and developing a coherent professional identity for “psychological doctors”. This connects the UF to developments in the field associated with a more unified professional identity, called “Combined-Integrated Health Service Psychology”. This is the model of training that is employed by the doctoral program in which I am a professor and core faculty. I joined the program at James Madison University in 2003, where I served as training director for the program from 2005 to 2017. Consequently, I was intimately involved with both learning and then developing the program’s training philosophy and approach. When I arrived, the original founders of the program were already on the leading edge of the argument that the future of professional psychology needed to transcend the traditional practice boundaries of clinical, counseling, and school psychology and offer a more unified identity.

The UA connects to the emerging unified psychotherapy movement, the primary ways the unified framework conceptualizes personality and psychopathology, the key principles and processes that guide a generalist/unified approach to assessment and intervention, and the delineation of a health service psychologist identity and approach to training and education. The UA is a central aspect of the overall UF. It emphasizes the point that the UF is not just a set of abstract ideas about knowledge and theory. Rather it is ultimately a concrete project about alleviating suffering and enhancing human flourishing that involves participatory knowing and emphases on phenomenology and living a rich and fulfilling life. Toward that end, between 2017 and 2019, I worked on a metamodern sincerely ironic artistic representation of the system called the UTOK Garden Philosophy. It was designed as an interactive language game that could foster the cultivation of wisdom.

The bottom line is that modern academic psychology is anchored to a scientific empirical epistemology that is inadequate for a host of reasons. The most obvious is that it completely fails to solve the problem of psychology. In contrast, the Unified Theory of Knowledge addresses the problem head-on and offers the field a view that is scientific and humanistic, epistemologically and ontologically aligned, and empirically grounded and metaphysically sound. In short, it provides a new, unified metapsychology for the field in the 21st Century.