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Philosophical Assumptions are fundamentally important in Psychology

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The philosophy of science is the study of how science goes about its own business, that is, how science obtains knowledge. Knowledge must be obtained gradually. How knowledge is obtained, and even what knowledge really is, remains controversial. One aspect of scientific activity that all philosophers of science seem to agree on is the dialectical nature of scientific knowledge. In other words, it seems clear that scientists are in a constant swing between adherence to rules of proper scientific conduct such as methodologies, theories, hypothesis, and the rejection of these same rules to adopt new ideas. The philosophy of psychology also closely monitors contemporary work conducted in cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and artificial intelligence, questioning what they can and cannot explain in psychology. Philosophy of psychology is a relatively young field, due to the fact that psychology, under the Scientific Method, came to dominate psychological studies beginning in the late nineteenth century.

In his 1932 lecture on psychoanalysis as “a philosophy of life” Freud commented on the distinction between science and philosophy: ‘Philosophy is not opposed to science, it behaves itself as if it were a science, and to a certain extent it makes use of the same methods; but it parts company with science, in that it clings to the illusion that it can produce a complete and coherent picture of the universe, though in fact that picture must needs fall to pieces with every new advance in our knowledge. Its methodological error lies in the fact that it over-estimates the epistemological value of our logical operations, and to a certain extent admits the validity of other sources of knowledge, such as intuition'(Cooper et al, 1998). Many psychological theories derived from philosophical thoughts and ideas. This essay explores some of these theories which stem from philosophical assumptions.

Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939) basic tendency of living included a position on the instincts, the sources of punishment and guilt and also the mechanism of defence whereby instincts are satisfied while punishment and guilt are avoided. He studied in a Medical school in Vienna where he received training that shaped the personality theory he developed later in life. Ernst Brucke, a tutor there was a key influence in the intellectual development of Freud. He was part of the mechanism movement. Mechanism is a theory that all natural phenomena can be explained by physical causes. It can be contrasted with vitalism, the philosophical theory that vital forces are acting as living organisms so that life cannot be solely connected with mechanism. The mechanism movement argued that the principles of natural science could explain not only the behaviour of physical objects, but human thought and behaviour as well (Gay, 1998).

Brucke rejected the counter argument for vitalism, only teaching that humans are dynamic physiological systems whose functioning adheres entirely to basic physical and chemical principles, such as the principle of conservation of energy. “This teaching was a foundation for the dynamic view of personality Freud developed later in life” (Sulloway, 1979, p.69) His influences on Freud led to the development of the science of psychodynamics. Freud wanted the world to acknowledge that we are often irrational and impulsive and that we can be characterized by conflicts of a sexual and aggressive nature. This was a “shock to many scholars in the humanistic tradition of western thought, which emphasized rationality and the virtues of ethical conduct, to learn that human beings are often irrational and that they continuously engage in internal struggles to keep their sexual and aggressive impulses in check” (Ryckman, 1993, p.23)

Humanism is based on the abilities to determine right and wrong by appealing to universal human qualities, particularly rationality and so contrasted with Freud’s assumption. Freud’s model of the mind may be considered a challenge to the enlightenment model of rational agency, which was a key element in much of modern philosophy. Freud’s theories have had a tremendous effect on critical theory. He had an incisive influence on some French philosophers following the ‘return to Freud’ of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. “Today Freud’s influence is worldwide” (Ryckman, 1993)

Many different academic areas use Freudian concepts including philosophers and sociologists in their analyses of problems confronting modern society. Sigmund Freud is one of the most famous psychologists to ever hit the study of psychology. His name alone symbolizes the importance of his theories, and the name that comes to most people’s heads when saying the word psychology is Sigmund Freud. Freud was a psychodynamic psychologist and came from the conservative point of view which states that man is bad and society is good, which I do not agree with 100% because not all man’s actions are necessarily bad and with bad intentions. Freud was a real pessimist when it came to human nature. He identifies man’s weaknesses in saying that man is a biological creature with biological drives.

Both man and society play a big role when it comes to behaviour. Another well known psychologist which is actually a student of Freuds’ is Carl Jung who is also a psychodynamic psychologist which means he also comes from the conservative point of view which I mentioned earlier meant he felt man is bad and society is good. Carl Jung went a little deeper than Freud did in his theories and he challenges some of his ideas. Jung theories are strongly based on Darwin’s theory of Evolution. Jung thinks we evolved behaviourally which has allowed us to prosper and move forward in order to keep up with society. I do not agree once again that man is bad and society is good, I feel both play a big part in human behaviour. Another part of Jung’s theory as well as Freud’s theory that I don’t like is that I don’t feel that man is mainly sexual. The part of Jung’s theory that I do agree with is that man has evolved behaviourally overtime because if we didn’t we would still be behaving like the cave men did thousands of years ago. This is just one theoretical idea derived from philosophical thought.

“Constructivist epistemology is an epistemological perspective in philosophy about the nature of scientific knowledge held by many philosophers of science” (Routeledge, 2000). Constructivists maintain that scientific knowledge is constructed by scientists and not discovered from the world. It is the theory of knowledge, the generic definitions of which are centred on the active participation of the subject in constructing reality, rather than on reflecting or representing reality. Personal construct psychology is regarded as sharing a constructivist epistemology as testified by its philosophical assumption of constructive alternativism. It is opposed to positivism, which is the philosophy that the only authentic knowledge is knowledge that is based on actual sense experience. Such knowledge can only come from affirmation of theories through strict scientific method. The constructive psychologies theorize about and investigate how human beings create systems for meaningfully understanding their worlds and experiences.

George Kelly, a cognitive psychologist from Kansas, was concerned primarily with the epistemic role of the observer in interpreting reality. He argued that the way we expect to experience the world alters how we feel about it and act. According to Kelly, we as people are actually the scientist, striving to understand and interpret our own experiences in order to deal with them, “Mankind, whose progress in search of prediction and control of surrounding events stands out so clearly in the light of the centuries, comprises the men we see around us every day, the aspirations of the scientist are essentially the aspirations of all men” (Kelly, 1995, p.43). The fundamental assumption underlying his theory was the philosophical stance of constructive alternativism. Reality is what one renders as reality; events can always be viewed from an ample variety of perspectives. The concept of constructive alternativism insinuates that our behaviour is never completely determined. This highly contrasts with the next part of my essay which bases its theory on the idea that all behaviour is determined.

According to René Descartes two classes of human behaviour exist; voluntary and involuntary. The idea voluntary is governed by the mind and involuntary being purely mechanical. Descartes got the idea that much human behaviour could be mechanical from watching the movements of mechanical statues that could be triggered by the observer of the mechanism. He suggested that “if human behaviour could be simulated so well by these mechanical figures, then perhaps some of the principles on which the mechanisms operated also applied to the humans they were designed to imitate” (Rachlin, 1991). The dualism of Descartes psychology denotes that the understanding of both mind and body are required to explain the totality of human behaviour.

Descartes argued that only humans have minds, and that the mind interacts with the body at the pineal gland. This form of dualism or duality proposes that the mind controls the body, but that the body can also influence the otherwise rational mind, such as when people act out of passion. Involuntary behavior generated interest among psychologists whilst studying the body. According to Descartes psychology was primarily associated with the human mind and the physical world, including the body was outside that realm. Behaviorism is a philosophy of psychology based on the hypothesis that all things which organisms do should be regarded as behaviours. “During the 20th century, behaviorism was the predominant school of thought in scientific psychology” (Cervone & Pervin, 2008). The behaviorist assumes that people can be viewed as collections of machine-like mechanism.

The behaviorist explores how these mechanisms change in reaction to environment input. Behaviorists do not believe that people have the ‘free will’ to choose the way they act. Unlike other personality theorists, those who fall under the category of behaviorists based their theory on the study of animals in contrast with the others who developed their theories studying persons. Behaviorists identify environmental factors as the true cause of people’s feelings, thoughts and actions (Cervone & Pervin, 2008). An important figure in the world of behaviorism, and who applied it to the formation of his theory is a profoud psychologist, Burrhus Frederick Skinner.

Skinner was one of the most influential theorists in modern psychology. His work was very important and has been studied by many for years. Skinner was a very straightforward man and a very educated man. His theories have helped mankind in many ways. He has studied the behavior patterns of many living organisms. He has studied the behavior patterns of many living organisms. Skinner was a well-published writer. His work has been published in many journals. He also has written many books on behaviorism. His most important work was the study of behaviorism. Skinner read Bertrand Russell’s book Philosophy, leading to his interest in psychology. Within this book, Russell had described Watsons Behaviorism which furthered his attraction to philosophical issues in psychology. Skinner began Harvard as a committed behaviourist (Ferguson & O’ Donohue, 2001) He said, “Behaviorism is not the science of human behavior; it is the philosophy of that science” (Skinner, 1974). Skinner was an important philosopher of psychology.

He developed what he called radical behaviorism, which was his philosophy for studying psychological matters. He was influenced by a 16th Century philosopher of science Francis Bacon, whom placed emphasis on observation and induction, along with many scientists and researchers whose work he followed. He chose elements of their theories and combined them with his own ideas creating a wholly unique philosophy of science and experimentation Skinner stated “Behaviorism is not the science of human behaviour; it is the philosophy of that science” (Skinner, 1974, p.3) He further stated that “behaviorism is a formulation which makes possible an effective experimental approach to human behaviour. It is a working hypothesis about the nature of subject matter” (Skinner, 1970, p.18). Skinner believed that psychology should be the study of behaviour and for Skinner this is anything that the organism does.

Skinner called his kind of behaviorism ‘radical’ because radical can mean ‘root’, and Skinner thought his behaviorism was a thorough-going ‘deep’ behaviorism (Ferguson & O’ Donohue, 2001). Radical behaviorism proposes that all organismic action is determined and not free. It emphasises the important role of the environment and the organisms interactions with the environment in understanding the current status of the environment. The organisms relationship to the environment is one of mutual influence. All this would lead to the idea that radical behaviorism is a kind of environmentalism. (Ferguson & O’ Donohue, 2001)Psychologists have developed many different ideologies on the concept of human behaviour which they have derived from popular and often contrasting philosophical assumptions. They used these ideas as a basis upon which to build their own theories.

However, even the greatest of psychologists can only theorize about what makes human beings act the way they do. Absolutes are not part of psychology. Everything is relative and open to speculation and theorists are merely giving us their views or ideas about life. Philosophy of psychology also closely monitors contemporary work conducted in cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and artificial intelligence, questioning what they can and cannot explain in psychology. As psychology’s primary method, it became necessary for this new branch of philosophy to distinguish between the many different schools of psychology that have arisen; for example, to explain what are the differences, how they differ, and why is it important to know the differences.


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Ferguson, K.E. & O’ Donohue, W. (2001). The Psychology of B.F. Skinner. California: SageGay, P. (1998). Freud: A life for our time. New York: Norton.

Hjelle, A.L. & Ziegler, D.J. (1988). Personality Theories: Basic assumptions, research, and applications. Singapore: McGraw-HillKelly, G.A. (1995). The psychology of personal constructs. New York: Norton.

Neimeyer, R. A. (1985). The development of personal construct psychology. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska press.

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Rachlin, H. (1991). Introduction to modern Behaviorism, 3rd ed. New York: Freeman &CompanyRoutledge (2000). Concise Routledge encyclopedia of PhilosophyRyckman, R.M. (1993). Theories of Personality. California: Brookes/ColeSkinner, B.F. (1974). About Behaviorism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Press.

Sulloway, F.J. (1979). Freud: Biologist of the mind. New York: Basic Books.

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