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History and Philosophy of Psychology Section


by Fraser Watts

It seems appropriate to begin my editorship of this periodical with some reflections on the nature of the history and philosophy of psychology, and the issues and challenges it currently faces in the UK. The BPS History and Philosophy Section, and this periodical, has a broad vision of what the History and Philosophy of Psychology consists of. We also think that history and philosophy are of critical importance of psychology as a whole; in this editorial I will explain why.

History: Getting good documentation about the history of psychology involves not only building up better archives, and documenting who has done what, when and where. It also getting better at telling the story of how psychology has developed. It is particularly helpful to put the development of psychological research and practice in the context of changing assumptions and paradigms in psychology. That leads on, in turn, to broader questions about how the development of psychology has reflected wider trends in the history of ideas, and how psychology has impacted on wider society. We need, not only to study the history of psychology in ways that are of interest to psychologists, but also to explain the wider social significance of the history of psychology. The modern history of psychology as a discipline and profession can fruitfully be studied from the perspective of the social sciences.

It is also important to remember that there was a long period of systematic exploration and practical wisdom about what we would now call ‘psychology’ before that term was much used. That is of interest too, and should not be neglected. The development of something called ‘psychology’ is one of the most interesting developments in the history of the exploration of psychological phenomena. There may be things of enduring value in how psychological processes and phenomena were conceptualised and handled before we had ‘psychologists’, and the perspectives of the earlier period may continue to exercise more influence than is often realised.

Philosophy: Lines of scientific enquiry and patterns of professional practice in psychology are determined to a significant extent by background philosophical assumptions. That seems to be true of every science. Psychology has already been through a number of  ‘paradigm shifts’, such as the rise and fall of behaviourism, in which background assumptions have changed quite radically. The story of psychology in the twentieth century is roughly one of shrinkage and constriction, followed by broadening and emancipation. The philosophy of psychology is committed to making assumptions about the nature of psychology more explicit, understanding their origin and significance, and subjecting them to critical examination.

 It is one of the distinctive features of psychology that it is both a natural and a human or interpretative science. It considers biological, individual and social aspects of how humans function, and tries to hold all that together in a single integrated endeavour. The philosophy of psychology also includes a more explicit consideration of the ethics of psychology, placing the ethical issues with which psychology has to grapple in the broader intellectual context of philosophical ethics.

CHIP (Critical and Philosophical Issues): History and philosophy are important for the whole of psychology, because they are the disciplines that promote a critical perspective and enable psychologists to achieve critical distance from what they are doing. Achieving that critical distance involves asking fundamental questions in a way that is searching, rigorous and well-informed. Without critical distance, it is all too easy for psychology to simply persist with current lines of enquiry and patterns of practice, regardless of how fruitful they actually are. It is a secondary matter whether that critique leads to a search for a new direction; but a critical perspective provides a springboard for considering how psychology might be re-envisaged in the years ahead as assumptions about the nature of psychology continue to change.

The Section welcome the fact that CHIP is required to be taught in every undergraduate psychology degree in the UK. However, we are concerned that not all Heads of Departments see it as a priority area, and that it is often not well resourced. The Section hopes to support the BPS in raising the profile and standards of CHIP in British psychology. The special issue of this periodical edited by Peter Hegarty, Katherine Hubbard and Lovemore Nyatanga last year (Voumel16, number 1) provided a valuable assessment of the teaching of CHIP in the UK, and suggestions about how it might be developed.

Wider Significance: Though the history and philosophy of psychology is partly a field of specialist interest like any other area of psychology, it is unlike any other area in being important for the whole of psychology. We are aware that the history and philosophy of psychology is currently a relatively weak area in Britain. Some of the key founding figures have now retired, including Elizabeth Valentine who did such an excellent job of editing this periodical over many years, and to whom I am much indebted.

It is probably fair to say that in the UK the history and philosophy of psychology currently lags behind how this area is handled in some other countries, such as Canada. British psychology sets standards of excellence in most areas but, sadly, not currently in history and philosophy.  This raises important organisational issues. The Section would not be doing justice to its field if it simply catered for those with a specialist interest. We want to develop new ways in which the Section can work collaboratively with other parts of the BPS. That includes, not only parts of the BPS like the History of Psychology Centre with which we have obvious links, but with every subsystem of the BPS, raising awareness everywhere of the importance of a critical perspective, and of the contribution history and philosophy can make.

Email: [email protected]

Thu, 13/04/2017 - 10:29


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