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Three Meanings of the Word Psychology

Psychology can have many different reference points; here are three.

When people find out that I have developed a unified theory of psychology, they often are skeptical because the first thing that comes into their mind is that I can explain all of their unique experiences with predictive precision. That is not the meaning I intend. I have found that the confusion stems from different meanings of the word psychology. Because I have had this conversation with several folks, I thought I would summarize it here, as others might find themselves getting confused about exactly what is meant by "psychology".

First, there is “folk psychology”. This refers to one’s basic commonsense subjective sense of being in the world and the way one makes sense of one’s self and others. In modern times, folk psychology is most commonly characterized by recognizing some form of difference between the subjective experience of being, thinking, and feeling (often bracketed as “the mental”) and the objective, external world (often called “the physical”). In addition, people usually use “belief-desire” concepts to explain the actions of themselves and others. For example, we can ask: Why I am writing this blog post? The “folk psychology” answer is I desire to make a point and believe I can do so and that it will be helpful to advance understanding. We can also think of “folk phenomenology” as a part of folk psychology, which refers to how people understand their own conscious experiences and the nature of their subjectivity and selfhood. Here is a blog post on folk psychology, and how to correspond it to three key concepts from the Unified Theory of Knowledge (UTOK).

The second definition is a refined, reflective, or philosophical psychology, what I think can be termed a “meta-psychological” position. This is the position of philosophers like Aristotle, who reflected on the nature of the mind, of knowledge, and questions of what we should value and developed sophisticated answers. Indeed, meta-psychology or philosophical psychology overlaps in both questions and history with philosophy proper. We can see this in the way Nick Maxwell frames the general issue of philosophy when he writes:

The proper task of philosophy, even more important today, perhaps, than ever before, is to keep alive rational – that is, imaginative and critical – thinking about our most urgent and fundamental problems of thought and life. It is, above all, to keep alive such thinking about our most fundamental problem of all, which can be put like this: how can our human world, the world as it appears to us, the world we live in and see, touch, hear, and smell, the world of living things, people, consciousness, free will, meaning and value – how can all of this exist and best flourish embedded as it is in the physical Universe?

As this question suggests, it is very close to what would be salient and central to a reflective or refined psychological position.

As Maxwell notes in that article, during the Enlightenment natural science split off from natural philosophy, so that modern science (AKA MENS Knowledge) became a separate language game. This brings us to the third meaning of “psychology”. It refers to psychology as a branch of the natural-into-social sciences. Although there are many questions and debates about this and some who question whether it makes sense, it nevertheless is the basic consensus of mainstream academic psychology is that it:

  • is a science
  • its subject matter is “behavior and mental process”

It is this last, academic meaning of psychology as a science that the UTOK system is primarily concerned with. The UTOK directly notes the science of psychology has long had a “crisis” of defining its subject matter. That is, although there is now agreement that “behavior and mental processes” is the domain, there is no deep agreement about what people mean by behavior and mental processes. Lev Vygotsky identified the crisis way back in 1927, and it has never been resolved. I have long argued that this is a crucial problem lying in plain sight, and I am amazed by how few people know about it. From the vantage point of UTOK, the only way to have any real hope of a fundamental second Enlightenment is to figure out a way to address this problem or something very similar.

The problem of psychology is a natural consequence of the Enlightenment Gap, which refers to the failure of modernity to generate a conception of science and philosophy that effectively characterized the proper “field relations” between matter and mind and science and society. This is the problem the UTOK addresses. It shows how to solve the problem of academic psychology and in so doing resolves the Enlightenment Gap. Here is a four-hour lecture on it. Here is a lecture on how it specifically solves the subject matter problem, framed as the “BM3 Problem,” which stands for "behavior-mind-mind-mind" and refers to the fact that there is confusion about the meaning of mental processes as referring to:

  • mental behaviors
  • neurocognitive processes
  • subjective conscious experiences
  • self-conscious justification processes in people

The first is the “B” problem (see also here), the latter three are the “M3” problem. See here for a Map of Mind1,2,3 that shows how to place these different conceptions of mental processes in proper relations.

Given that John Vervaeke and I have synced up (he is a cognitive scientist and philosopher) with massive convergent validity despite totally different points of entry on the problem, (see this series on Untangling the World Knot of Consciousness), I am now comfortable saying that the academic problem of psychology, that is, the proper way to frame the science of psychology, has now been achieved. That is, there is now a very clear model available regarding what psychology is in relationship to biology from below and the social sciences from above.

This can be placed in the larger UTOK frame and suggests that we can resolve the Enlightenment Gap and move forward in a consilient way to understand the proper relations between mind and matter and science and society. This includes one’s unique subjective experience of being, although it does not reduce your experience to some theory, but rather frames it with a refined scientific understanding.

The journey that resulted in the UTOK vision started with my journey as a clinician. That is, it is rooted in the problem of human psychological suffering in the real world. It most certainly does bridge back both to folk psychology and to a meta-psychology position akin to philosophy. The argument is that UTOK provides a way to link these domains together much better than ever before.

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