Early Developments in Psychology as a Science and the Usage of Intersubjectivity
This post continues the series on the Nineteenth Century intellectual movements and schools that influenced the development of mature phenomenology in the early Twentieth Century. If you haven’t yet read last week’s post on existentialism, you might want to start there.
In the 200 years following the advent of modern science, human understanding of nature grew exponentially. Researchers, experimenters, engineers, and academics were able to formulate reliable methods and discover natural laws for how the planets move, how chemicals transform from one state to another, and how species evolved, among many other discoveries that dramatically changed human society. By the middle of the Nineteenth Century, there were some frontiers of science that were still largely unexplored, including human behavior and the human mind. As mentioned above, there were some early modern philosophers who came up with speculative systems for how the mind works, but for a long time there was no methodology to sort out which of the competing systems were more accurate than any others. Some scientists were able to make gradual progress in these efforts and they created the field of psychology. These developments had significance influence on the creation of the mature phenomenology that appeared in the early Twentieth Century.
Wilhelm Wundt was one of the pioneers of psychology, which he saw as a discipline situated between the natural sciences (such as biology, chemistry, and physics) and the humanities (such as linguistics, historiography, and anthropology). Wundt’s work got into several areas of psychology that were only beginning in his time, such as what we now identify as neuropsychology, cultural psychology, and evolutionary psychology. However, the overall field was new and extremely broad and hadn’t yet been divided into subfields and specific methods and paradigms hadn’t yet been developed. Wundt and his colleagues explored phenomena such as memory, perception, cognition, emotion, and motivation and tried to formulate experimental methods that would elucidate how each of these operate within the inner workings of the mind. Toward this end, Wundt extensively used introspection in his work, although he decisively rejected any unskilled and naïve usage of introspection. He sought ways of refining introspective methods so as to make the practice more reliable.
Around the same time, Franz Brentano formulated what he called “descriptive psychology”, which involved careful personal introspection on the content of consciousness and how it relates to the outside world. Brentano sought to develop accurate descriptions of mental states and their causal explanations. Brentano saw all of our internal experiences, whether they be perceptions, desires, dislikes, etc., are all about something in the world (that which is perceived, desired, etc.) This relation between our inner world and the outside world is called intentionality, and it became the central concept of descriptive psychology. Brentano drew from his reading of Aristotle and also certain Medieval Scholastic philosophers to formulate the concept of intentionality. Taking inspiration from Descartes, Brentano believed in the self-evidence of one’s ability to grasp their inner mental world through inner perception and he believed that perception of the outside world was more fallible.
William James also made early advances in the science of psychology from a pragmatist standpoint. James argued that we can consider something true if it works for us and provides us with some utility. James formulated the notion of radical empiricism, wherein we can consider our first-person experiences such as emotions and acts of will to be empirically given truths, in the pragmatist sense. Since one can observe their own self experiencing emotions and having a will to do certain things, those can be considered known from experience, hence they are empirical truths. He also explored how our perceptions, emotions, habits, and wills coalesce into a holistic and continuous stream of consciousness.
Probably the most famous of the psychologists of this era was Sigmund Freud, who formulated psychoanalysis and did extensive work in subjects such as the subconscious, hidden drives and motives, and dream interpretation. Freud came up with lots of fanciful and speculative interpretation of how the subconscious functions and what are the most significant factors driving human behavior, which supposedly are things we are usually not aware of and which are programmed into our minds at childhood. His fame and influence notwithstanding, much of Freud’s work has been debunked and has been shown to be quite unscientific. However, we can recognize that some of his theories and techniques were not only innovative but also had the potential to provide legitimate insights into the inner workings of the mind that are outside of our ability to understand through introspection nor through any form of direct objective observation that was available in Freud’s time. For example, Freud developed methods and techniques to assist patients in bringing out repressed memories that were causing deep distress, even though the patients were not previously able to figure out the source of their distress.