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Philosophy and Psychology

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Philosophy can mean different things

Sometimes philosophers deal with questions of truth and sometimes with questions of goodness ; sometimes they offer consolation for life’s sorrows and sometimes they are purely pragmatic. In the philosophy of science, a theory may be valued only for its predictive capability ; its truth or falsity may be immaterial. In ethics, philosophy may have a prescriptive function, offering a preferred set of values ; but where those values originate from is a debatable question.

Sub - Headings
Metaphysics and Logic
Components of  Philosophy

I hold the traditional view that philosophy is the attempt to define a qualitative approach to life.

This view implies that philosophy is the analysis and interpretation of values and standards, within the thinker’s experience of reality. But values and standards are also the domain of psychology. Therefore there is a great deal of overlap between the two disciplines.

Philosophy separated from psychology in the nineteenth century, under the need to put logic and logical analysis on a mathematical basis. However, logic is only one of the two tools that are needed for analytical thinking. The other tool is the ability to observe the associations between ideas – this tool is a psychological one. Hence effective thinking in philosophy requires both rational and psychological forms of analytical ability. The nineteenth-century separation of philosophy from psychology removed much of the content from British philosophy and gradually put it to sleep. I put the two disciplines back together again. So hopefully the long winter of hibernation is coming to an end. [¹].

What is the relation between these two disciplines ?
The way that I have consistently experienced it is that psychology limits philosophy : psychology sets the boundaries within which philosophy can range. The narrower the range of a person's psychological understanding of life, so correspondingly will the authentic range of his philosophy also be narrow. Without an adequate understanding of life, so the thinker is dependent on imagination and prejudice when trying to stretch his ideas to fit aspects of reality that he has never experienced.

Within a perspective that emphasises the qualitative features of life we will find that philosophy provides most of the framework and psychology provides much of the content. The effectiveness of philosophy to define a qualitative approach to life rests on its analysis of psychology : this enables the individual to create himself within the context of his historical situation.

More generally,

the purpose of philosophy is to abstract what is valid from all realms of value so as to enable the person to create his or her own identity ; the historical situation determines what is holistically possible.

The results of such philosophical analysis should be consistent with the empirical results of psychology.

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Metaphysics and Logic

The highest realm of thought for man is that of metaphysics. Since man is a part of this realm he can approach metaphysics through his own understanding of life. Metaphysics is not theology. Man cannot know god but he can understand concepts that concern the nature of reality and being. Metaphysics deals with the creativity and destructiveness within creation, with the purpose and the meaning of evolution, and the way that it functions. Man enters into metaphysical discourse when he creates values and meanings. [²]

All conceptions of reality are based on metaphysical ideas.
Even within orthodox science, concepts such as force (for example: electricity, magnetism, gravitation) and laws of causation are metaphysical concepts : their existence can never be verified directly, but only indirectly through their effects. [³]

Traditional philosophy has metaphysics or ethics as its starting point. But psychology was hardly explored then. Within tradition, what passes as truth may sometimes be only idealism or wish-fulfilment. The psychological boundaries of the traditional thinker formed a perspective of denying validity to the material world. The material world, a world of constant change, could not be accepted as a real world ; the real world somehow lay behind all the change, like an archetype. So ethics and metaphysics had to conform to a world-hating, world-denying, mentality. Ethics was often formulated in ways that enabled a person to survive in an uncertain realm of pain and sorrow.

The exploration of consciousness began in earnest in modern times with the ideas of Rene Descartes and Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes started his political philosophy with a psychological profile of his contemporary, seventeenth-century Englishmen. Eventually the reaction against the attitude of world-denial produced the compensating swing to materialism as the basis of philosophy. Materialism has its place in any system of thought that attempts to understand reality.

To try to ascertain what is truth requires the reduction, even the elimination, of psychological boundaries ; the philosopher of reality needs to be a psychologist too. A genuine metaphysics is not a flight from materialism but assimilates it into a greater perspective that has fewer boundaries.

The practical importance of the role of psychology as the base of philosophy is dramatically illustrated in the problem of good and evil.
A person’s attitude to this problem defines their ethics, or at least the code that they live by. Within the Christian and the Indian world-denying mentalities the problem of the existence of evil cannot be solved. I started off as a traditionalist ; there was nothing original to my thinking and to my understanding of the world. Only when I came under the influence of Nietzsche and the much wider base of world affirmation that he espoused could I work out in detail the nature of emotion and the problems that it causes. I accepted that there had to be meaning to all the emotional problems that arise when a person engages in a worldly life.

My understanding of emotion led me to the relativity of good and evil. Neither absolute good nor absolute evil exists, but each arises from the other : good arises from evil, and evil arises from good. Within evolution, creativity arises from destructiveness, and destructiveness arises from creativity.

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The exponents of analytical logic in the early half of the twentieth century believed that their logic would downgrade metaphysics to the status of being purely a nonsensical thought system.

Only philosophers with no understanding of psychology could take such a view. To explore metaphysics requires the combination of intuition with rationality, and both develop within the constraints of psychology. Intuition is right-brain centred, and rationality is left-brain centred. Using both together produces holistic thinking. [4]

All non-sceptical philosophies, and these include those produced by analytical logicians, are underpinned by two psychological premisses, which are :

The first premiss is subjective and the second one provides for objectivity. The sceptic omits the second belief. The first premiss just demonstrates the psychological limitations of the person ; it indicates the range of that person’s experience of life. The wider that range of experience then the wider must philosophy become in order to explain it. The poverty of experience of analytical philosophers was reflected in the poverty of their conceptual thinking.

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Components of Philosophy

Philosophy is the analysis and interpretation of values and standards. Hence the components of philosophy can be conceived to be as follows :

In Summary

Philosophy is the study of what values and standards are known within the conditions of how they are known.

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Another way of defining the relationship between philosophy and psychology is that between truth and need.

Psychology works with need.
Philosophy works with truth.

As an example, consider political theory. A psychological approach can determine the needs of the various strata of a society. Then a philosophical theory can be constructed which takes into account these needs. Usually, however, a political thinker centres his theory at his own social level.

This view of the relationship can be re-phrased. In considering a question such as  ‘ What is the meaning of life ?’, there are two factors involved in attaining an intellectual understanding.

a). What is the psychological motivation of the inquirer ?

b). What is the philosophical answer to the actual question ?

Both factors have to be explored if wisdom is to be attained. Only by answering factor (a) first can we be assured that the answer to factor (b) is not supplied just by the imagination. It is not easy to state the difference between need and truth, and in practice it is very hard to separate them. In fact there is only one way to separate them, and that is to be committed to finding a first-hand answer by living one’s ideas. Such intense life experience usually separates truth from need. This is the existentialist approach.

In times past, the difference between truth and need was formulated in terms of esoteric and exoteric knowledge. Exoteric knowledge (or need) was suited to the capacities of the beginner, whilst esoteric knowledge (or truth at a higher level of mind) could be handled by the mature person.

If a person is presented with a level of truth about reality that is beyond his capacity to assimilate and handle, then it is likely to cause psychological difficulties for him. This difference between truth and need is a recurring issue in religions and in social customs. For example, if a person is psychologically dependent on organisations to do his thinking for him, then he will be unable to accept any New Age themes that require him to do his own thinking. A person who binds himself to traditional views will be reluctant to embrace the freedom of thought that non-conformity gives. But also, a person who has suffered from the narrowness of social conventions will be reluctant to embrace the genuine aspects of tradition. 

We can also see this difference between truth and need in action when the materialistic scientist or philosopher cannot understand the psychic basis of many New Age values.

What is the value of wisdom ?
What is the value of being able to separate truth from need ?  Wisdom provides a perspective of living that the individual can practise without being unduly influenced by worldly pleasures and pains. My wisdom is the synthesis of psychology and philosophy into a lifestyle that is consonant with my highest ideals.

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Another way of looking at the relationship between philosophy and psychology is to bring in metaphysics. Psychology needs to be put into a philosophical perspective. And philosophy is only a pattern within a metaphysical framework.

Psychology is content
Philosophy is form
Metaphysics is system

The final destination of truth is metaphysics. The valuation that is put on metaphysics reflects the valuation that humanity puts on itself. In modern times, the downgrading of metaphysics has occurred in tandem with the de-valuing of humanity, through the development of nuclear weaponry that can wipe out all human life.

The importance of metaphysics is that it sets the parameters of the good life.

And the importance of truth is that it is the only basis on which the good life can be achieved and maintained !

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The number in brackets at the end of each reference takes you back to the paragraph that featured it. The addresses of my other websites are on the Links page.

[¹]. See article Reason and Intuition for a description of the two aspects to the thinking process. [1]

[²]. See article Meaning and Value. [2]

[³]. See article Causality and Metaphysics. The basic metaphysical framework within which I set my ideas is described in the article Monism and Dualism. [3]

[4]. See footnote 1. [4]

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The articles in this section are :

Philosophy and Psychology
Paradigm and Ideology
Reason and Intuition
Loop of  Intuition
Causality and Metaphysics

Copyright @2003  Ian Heath
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Ian Heath
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