Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Book Recommendation

I happened to be browsing in the library the other day and happened to pick up Edward Reed's From Soul to Mind. From the title I was expecting it to be rather bad, I think, but it turned out to be well worth reading. It's a history of the development of psychology as a discipline, very readable; it confirmed some things I had thought, corrected some misconceptions I had had, and taught me things I hadn't known at all.

Philosophers tend to assume that psychology grew out of philosophy; in fact, it's not hard to find them saying that it did, without qualification. There is a sense in which it is true; both contemporary academic philosophy and psychology grew out of more wide-ranging philosophical thought, especially in moral philosophy. But there is also a very important sense in which the reverse is true, and although it is a secondary issue in the book, Reed is especially good at pinning it down. Academic philosophy as we know it grew up as a reaction to the development of psychology as a science. Philosophy departments, especially in the English-speaking world, began to be created as a regular, distinct department as part of a struggle between those who held that psychology should be handled in purely experimental terms and a reactionary movement that advocated non-experimental approaches, or who argued for other sharp limitations in the study of psychology, and was trying to imitate the institutional success of psychology. 'Philosophy' is a potentially equivocal term. It can be used in broader and narrower senses, and it is generally only when used in the most broad sense that we can seriously say that psychology developed from philosophy. Any common use of the term that is narrower than that (and it is not difficult to find people advocating such uses as the primary uses) makes the reverse true.

(Although Reed doesn't address this particular point, it is precisely for this reason that twentieth century analytic philosophy was so dominated by MME: mind, metaphysics, and epistemology. Although all three areas slowly expanded in what they covered, MME at its core consisted of topics, handled non-experimentally, that the psychologists at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries were attempting to study. There is no intrinsic reason why so much of philosophy in the past ten decades should have been taken up with issues in epistemology and the philosophy of mind. History of philosophy developed too slowly to serve in the same stead, and the same is true a fortiori for comparative philosophy, but ethics would have done just as well as the dominant philosophical field. Indeed, in a sense it started out that way: moral philosophy was king and in the nineteenth century topics analogous to those handled in MME were typically handled as adjuncts to such moral philosophy (philosophy of science, for instance, was an incidental outgrowth of disputes between utilitarians and intuitionists). But early philosophy departments were heavily concerned with psychological issues, or, perhaps more accurately, philosophical issues raised by psychology, and the result was that those issues became fixed as standard philosophical topics: skepticism, mind-body union, accounts of sensation and how they relate to the external world, etc. These topics can be traced back historically; and their rise can be traced to groups that, for widely varying reasons, opposed experimental approaches to the study of the mind. Since that time they have taken on a life of their own, but the reaction to psychology is what entrenched them. So the early institutional origins of contemporary philosophy -- in reaction to and in imitation of the development of psychology departments -- have had an impact on the field, even though (of course) there are other factors that have come into play since.)

There are occasional weaknesses in the discussions in the book, but I found them to be rather minor. Highly recommended, especially to philosophers.

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