Psychology and Philosophy – Uneasy Siblings

By Juan Bernal

Most of us who work in some aspect of philosophy have had the experience of trying to explain to someone that philosophy is not psychology. To those members of the philosophical set, the distinction may seem obvious, but any attempt to spell it out requires some careful thought and reflection, which is what I attempt to do in this exercise.

Is Psychology a sibling of Philosophy? Surely in the past they were close siblings, members of the same family, philosophy. Today the relationship between the two is more problematic. Does work in philosophy have any relation to the student’s psychological state? The answer also is not a clear-cut one. Philosophy can help a person psychologically, but this is not central to the function of philosophy.

Some History:

Historically in Western Philosophy, Psychology was part of philosophy until the 19th century when it became a separate science. In the 17th and 18th centuries, many Western philosophers did pioneering work in areas that later came to be known as “psychology.” Eventually psychological inquiry and research became separate sciences some of which could be characterized as the study and research into the mind. In short, psychology became identified as the science of mind insofar as its function is to analyze and explain mental processes: our thoughts, experiences, sensations, feelings, perceptions, imaginations, creativity, dreams and so on. It is mostly an empirical and experimental science; although the field of psychology does include the more theoretical Freudian psychology and the more speculative Jungian psychology.

When we study Western Philosophy, we find a concentrated effort to maintain a distinction between philosophical and psychological considerations. But these have not always been kept separate. Even today some areas of philosophy remain intermixed with psychological considerations. It may be that some forms of philosophy can never break away completely from psychological issues.


Traditionally, philosophers in the Western tradition did not always observe a wall of separation between philosophy and psychology. For example, Baruch Spinoza’s great work, Ethics, includes many observations and insights about our reasoning processes and emotions. The early works in Epistemology (theory of knowledge) by such thinkers as Rene Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant include a great deal of observations and statements about mental processes connected with knowing and belief. In other words, these writings tend to mix psychological statements (process of knowing) with conceptual philosophy.

But there are differences between psychology and philosophy which are significant and should be observed in careful writing in either area. In our critiques of these 17th and 18th works in epistemology, we try to separate the philosophical theme (logic, conceptual and propositional evaluation) from the psychological aspect (causes of belief, mental process underlying perception). Scientific work that seeks to understand and explain the workings of the brain and the neurological processes which underlie thought and experience (viz., psychology) is different from philosophical inquiry into mind, consciousness, knowledge and experiences. Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, takes great pains to keep his philosophy separate from empirical psychology. But it is not clear that his analysis (or other analyses) of the phenomenology of different experiences remains something clearly distinct from psychology.

But in large part the problem remains, especially in such areas of philosophy of mind, of keeping philosophical work free of psychology altogether. Moreover, we should not assume that in all cases these must be kept separate, as some work in philosophy surely requires consideration of the psychological sciences.

Even today the student will likely be surprised by the number of psychological insights that Spinoza offers in this great work, Ethics, back in the 17th century and similar psychological observations by Friedrich Nietzsche in the 19th century. William James, the great American pragmatist, includes much psychology in his philosophy. He has much to say about the stream of consciousness and special experiences, such as religious experiences.

Current Concerns:

Philosophy of mind: There is a sense in which the mind is a psychological construct; there’s another sense in which it is not. “My mind is such and such” can be restated as “my thinking is such and such.” Sometimes it is the psychology behind my thinking that is the issue; but other times we’re interested in what could be called the conceptual-propositional issues; and still other times we might be more interested in the literary-artistic expression of ideas, values, and perspectives. (In this latter connection, see Walter Kaufmann’s book, Discovering The Mind.)

In Epistemology we’re concerned with the concept of knowledge; but our primary interest is not one of describing the psychology of knowing. Our interest is not in the process by which we come to know something, but in the clarification of concepts associated with knowledge and belief; and in the logic of propositions related to knowledge. Included among the philosophers who engage in the philosophy of knowledge are Bertrand Russell, D.W. Hamlyn, and Richard Rorty.

In the area of academic philosophy, besides the large field of epistemology, we have philosophy of mind, theory of consciousness, philosophy of language, Cartesian Idealism, and the free will issue. Ordinarily these are not seen as forms of psychological inquiry. They are more directed to conceptual and propositional issues. Included among the philosophers who engage in work on knowledge, language, and mind in this vein are Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gilbert Ryle, D.W. Hamlyn, John Austin, and Daniel Dennett

But psychology is very much a part of those philosophical studies of special experience, such as the religious experience, the mystical experience, and even moral experience. A good representative of this approach is the great American pragmatist, William James. Much of his work in philosophy does not stray too far from his psychological interests.

Some aspects of philosophy are concerned with the nature of human thought. This interest is distinct from psychological study, description and theory. But to be adequate and credible it needs to take into account the work of psychologists and the cognitive scientists. The subject of human thought is a big topic which can be approached from different directions. One of these is philosophy; another is psychology and the cognitive sciences. Still others are literary art, the fine arts, and history.

Suppose I ask about Spinoza’s thought with regard to moral obligation; how does he defend the thesis that morality and rationality are closely intertwined? As a student of philosophy, my interests could be strictly philosophical interests. I want to know how he develops and defends his philosophical thesis. On the other hand, I could be curious about the causes of Spinoza’s thinking; or maybe interested in possible motives that he might have had for adopting his particular philosophy. What events in his childhood or family life led him to embrace the values of rationality and the ideals of the geometric method? In this latter case, I would be proceeding as an amateur, folk psychologist.

There are different ways of trying to understand the thought of a person, e.g. a writer or a philosopher. We take one way when we ask about the causes and motivations behind the person’s ideas; i.e., we ask about the psychological ‘workings.’ Another way is to do philosophical criticism and evaluation of the person’s ideas. But the two (psychology and philosophy) can be combined in a single study.

Philosophy and the psychological well-being of the individual:

Another way of considering the interaction of psychology and philosophy is at the personal level. Do a person’s meditation on philosophical questions bring about (or bring closer) some degree of psychic harmony? To the extent that philosophical work and thought contribute to a person’s sense of well-being and fulfillment, one could argue that philosophy is a form of therapy. Is there a sense in which philosophy can be therapeutic?

If the unexamined life is not worth living (Socrates), then it may follow that the examined life (the “philosophical life”) is worth living. This could be seen as suggesting that philosophical thought results in a form of personal fulfillment and good psychological health.

Contrary to this we have the view (mostly the prevailing view) that philosophy is an intellectual discipline which has little or nothing to do with anyone’s striving to achieve some form of personal, psychic fulfillment. Add to this the fact that most people who work in philosophy (e.g. academic philosophers or professors of philosophy) are not especially noteworthy for lives of psychic well-being. In this regard, think of people like Blaise Pascal, S. Kierkegaard, F. Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein. How psychologically healthy and well balanced were they? They were emotionally and mentally tormented, and won’t be mentioned much as models of psychic calm and well-being. Moreover, some philosophers are driven to engage in philosophy, much like artists, poets, and composers are driven to do their creative work. Here we have a form of psychological compulsion that does not seem to be a form of therapy. In fact, some people even refer to philosophy as a type of disease.

Closing Thoughts:

The student of philosophy usually is not a psychologist, but nothing says that the student cannot proceed as a psychologist of sorts. I imagine situations in we attempt to get clear about our thoughts and values; and attempt to be honest about our motivations for all that we do. People used to say back in the 1960s era: I’m just trying to get my “head straight.”

Suppose that a psychologist can tell me about the causes, the mental processes, and hidden motives that underlie my thinking and behavior. He might say that in order to truly understand what I am about I must have some understanding of these “psychological” things; i.e., I must acknowledge and expose them. If I were to accept his advice and try to do those things, would I be acting in accordance with the Socratic maxim to “know thyself”?

The professional is concerned with empirical, descriptive psychology and with research into neurological and psychological processes. But we, the amateurs, are primarily indulging a form of folk psychology: Trying to say what I think about my own thinking. Or trying to deal better with my psychic life. Sometimes I apply this ‘folk psychology’ to myself (I try to figure out what I’m about) or to others (I try to understand their motives for saying such and such or doing so and so.)

On a more practical level, we can imagine someone asking: “What do I really want in life? How do I get there?” Can philosophy help us here? Maybe not, but then again think of two of our great figures in Western Philosophy, Socrates and Spinoza. They are often cited as models of psychological harmony and wisdom. Ultimately, aren’t we all psychologists to some degree, even those of us who flounder about in philosophy? Yes, we are to some degree ‘psychologists’ insofar as we are awake, alert, conscientious, and honestly engage in self-examination. This does not need to be kept separate from our work in philosophy.

Dr. Juan Bernal PhD is a retired mainframe programmer with degrees in philosophy and Spanish literature.

Juan is the a managing blogger & author at which covers various topics from western philosophy, religion, and history. is a place were people can interact, debate, and contribute to the topics that interest them pertaining to philosophy.

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