On Philosophy and Psychology

I have a BA in psychology, which qualifies me for absolutely nothing. Yet, I frequently come across “intuitions” in philosophy that have become a pet peeve of mine. For example, someone may ponder:

We frequently feel x. Why is it that we feel this way?

In this ponder, the person querying is assuming me all have the same intuition and, thus, the same psychology.

We don’t.

If there’s anything I have learned from not only my personal growth and development but my interactions with people and my study of psychology, it is that we are fundamentally individuals. If I were a therapist and treated all my clients the very same, applying the same technique precisely with each person, I would be a very poor therapist. Therapy is, thus, an art, just as living is.

This isn’t just a problem for philosophy, though. There are indeed branches of psychology that see people as unified in their psyches. This is problematic.

Even assuming, when I write, that there’s some unifying group that would be reading this is a problem. That is probably, incidentally, why Soren Kierkegaard, who developed a significant amount of psychology, wrote to “that single individual.”

We are each at different stages in life. We have experienced different things. While there may be generalizations we can come up with about human psychology, there’s no overarching theory that holds true for each individual.

I happen to hold a Christian theory of human development that’s not too common. It’s not one that I learned in my university experiences. It is, instead, one I came to by living.

Be that as it may, there’s supposed challenges posed by these so-called overarching views of human psychology. One of them is situationism. In situationism, the theory is that we are more influenced by and guided by the situation rather than our character traits. While there is some empirical evidence for this, there’s also empirical evidence for tons of things in psychology, such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

I do not hold the view that Maslow was correct. I simply point this out to show the empirical evidence is not necessarily slanted toward situationism over other views in psychology. To be quite honest, I do not think there will be much unifying truth in psychology the way one would hope. Take, for example, the study done by Simone Schnall and team which found that people make more harsh moral judgments when there’s fart spray in the air. All this may show is habituation. The people surveyed may have come to associate bad smells with bad things. Most of the time, this may have been a good judgment for them.

Habituation, as we know, is a significant part of virtue ethics. Aristotle, perhaps the most frequently cited virtue ethicist, wrote “We are that we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

In the fart spray example, we can say that the people surveyed just had poor habits of mind to make harsher moral judgments when fart spray was in the air. No one assumes virtues are plentiful. If they were, they’d be the norm, not the standard of excellence.

What surveys like this can teach us, though, is to modify our habits to make them better lined up with good judgement. If there’s anything psychology like this is good for, it’s for being a reflective tool by which we can gauge ourselves and align ourselves more properly. This has been the case in other areas of psychology, like implicit bias.

Researchers had come to notice that women and people of color, eg., are judged more harshly, are discriminated against in the hiring process, and more. They then made series of tests by which you can find out if you have these biases. Moreover, they found that, if you have these biases, there’s something you can do about it to reduce them.

Most of psychology, then, is better focused on gathering information like this to scoot us up on the overall bar of excellence, moving humanity toward progress. This is contrary to the view that psychology merely provides us with hard and fast truths about ourselves.

On this view of psychology, what we are waiting for is for someone from situationism to tell us what we can do to reduce situationist behavior. Because surely it can be done.

At its best, psychology is a mirror by which we look at our current reflection. Thus, just as a mirror may assist us with combing our hair and brushing our teeth, psychology can help us develop better cognitive and moral virtues.

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