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A Student's Guide to Psychology

  • by Daniel N. Robinson


Psychology, that “nasty little subject,” as William James called it, embraces the full range of actions and events which appear to depend, at least in part, on perceptions, thoughts, feelings, motives, and desires. These very processes, however, also seem to depend, at least in part, on internal biological states as well as external social influences. To complicate matters even further, influences can be “social” only insofar as they are perceived or thought of as such, and can only be “influences” to the extent that they converge on motives, feelings, and desires. These considerations, in turn, reflect or are in some way conditioned by larger cultural and historical influences. In all, then, what James ironically described as a “nasty little subject” is in fact a complex and overarching set of problems and perspectives arising from the abiding project of self-knowledge.

That project, of course, is not owned by any discipline or society of scholars or scientists. Self-knowledge includes factors at once biological, genetic, anatomical, medical, social, civic, political, moral, aesthetic—the full range of facts and endeavors that give shape, direction, and definition to a given life. There can be no sharp line establishing just where the psychological domain ends and another begins. Typically, specialists in one domain assume to be more or less settled what those in another accept as a central problem or question. Thus, the political scientist accepts Aristotle’s dictum that “man is a social animal,” and then proceeds to examine the various forms and foundations of political community. The evolutionary biologist might examine the adaptive advantages conferred by social life; the psychoanalyst, the consequences of withdrawal from the social context.

The history of science leaves no doubt but that such specialized modes of inquiry yield a rich crop of useful facts and basic principles by which to understand a wide range of phenomena. Equally clear, however, is that these gains are not without cost. The principal cost is the narrowing of perspective and the tendency to regard a small part of the overall picture as revealing the essential nature of the whole. The biochemist who accurately summarizes the atomic and molecular composition of the human body has not summarized anything of interest about the human person whose body it is. The neurophysiologist who presents an account of the processing of information in the optic nerve does not explain just what makes one scene breathtaking and another prosaic. Needless to say, responsible biochemists and neurophysiologists claim no more than what is warranted by the findings of rigorous research and what seem to be plausible inferences. But the unsuspecting consumer of information, especially when encouraged by the specialist’s exaggerated claims, is vulnerable to the “nothing but” fallacy: Optic nerve discharges are essential to normal vision, therefore vision is nothing but these discharges!

The sections that follow present findings and theories developed within specialized fields of psychology and kindred disciplines. Reminders are supplied regularly to the effect that these findings and theories form some part of the larger story, but surely not the whole story. Moreover, it can only be the more complete story that allows one to decide finally just how important the various parts of the tale are. Consider, for example, a story such as King Lear or War and Peace. If these are taken in their wholeness, it becomes clear that the essence of the stories would be unaffected had Lear been a Dutch rather than a British king, or if Pierre had not been quite as tall. The point can be expressed economically: Until one has a defensible and general conception of the essence of human nature, all attempts to establish any one part of the story as essential must be premature.

This much granted, it is also clear that what we might come to regard as the “essential” nature of anything must include its composition, its functioning, and the ways in which it manifests itself. It would be odd to discuss the essential nature of human beings, for example, while having no basis whatever on which to classify something as “human”; or to assert that an essential feature of such beings is “thought,” but with no clear identification of actions or events as instances of “thought.” Though the parts of the story are insufficient, they are nonetheless vitally important if there is to be progress toward the fuller account.

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