The Scope Of Psychology. Distinction from other Sciences icon

The Scope Of Psychology. Distinction from other Sciences


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The Scope Of Psychology. Distinction from other Sciences


Distinction from other Sciences.—We have already marked off psychology from all physical sciences. The world of material facts and processes is the object of physical science; its whole aim is to know this object more completely and precisely. Psychology, on the contrary, does not directly and primarily aim at increasing our knowledge of the material world or any part of it. The cognitive process itself is an object of psychology. But psychology cannot itself take the place or fulfil the function of the cognitive process which it investigates. In turning its attention upon the function of knowing, it necessarily withdraws its attention from the special nature of the objects known. It must indeed constantly recognise the existence of these objects; but this is only because their existence is involved in the very conception of cognitive process.


This line of demarcation separates not only psychology, but also other departments of philosophy, from the physical sciences. We have now to distinguish the psychological point of view from that which characterises logic, theory of knowledge, ethics, and aesthetics. These are all concerned with knowledge, feeling, and will, rather than with their objects. But their attitude is different from that of psychology. Logic is a normative science; it is preoccupied with the distinction between truth and error. It has to show how thought must proceed in order to represent its object correctly. Psychology, on the contrary, deals only with the laws that govern the cognitive process as it actually takes place. It is no business of psychology to inquire how it ought to take place. The principles which it lays down account equally for correct thinking and for incorrect thinking. It deals with objects as they are actually presented to consciousness. It has no concern with the nature of the object as it may be apart from its actual presentation. It cannot, therefore, inquire whether or not the actual presentation corresponds to the true nature of the object as it exists in the real world.


Theory of knowledge pushes the question of truth and falsehood further back than logic. It inquires how truth and falsehood are possible at all; in other words, it investigates how the private thought of an individual can apprehend a reality independent of his own individual existence, either truly or falsely; how, for instance, can a finite consciousness, composed of a series of fleeting states, beginning to exist at a certain date and ending at a certain date, connected with and dependent on a body which forms only a small fragment of the infinite extension of the material world,—how can such a finite and particular being contain in itself the thought of the universe as a whole? How can it becomo a spectator of all time and all existence? Obviously, such questions are very far removed from the province of psychology. The possibility of thought is assumed by the psychologist. The relation of subject and object is presupposed by him. as a datum. He simply investigates the actual laws which regulate the processes through which the subject passes in knowing, willing, feeling, in relation to the object.


Ontology may be regarded as an offshoot from theory of knowledge. Theory of knowledge inquires how the finite individual can be aware of the universe to which he belongs. It appears to some philosophers that this question cannot be answered unless we give an account of the nature of the universe as well as of the individual. But an attempt to give an account of the nature of the universe, as such, is ontology. Evidently this is very far removed from psychology, which has only to do with the natural history of subjective processes as they occur in time.


What has been said of logic, theory of knowledge, and ontology applies also to ethics. Ethics inquires how we ought to will, not how we actually do will. It may push its investigation further, and inquire how the distinction between right willing and wrong willing is possible at all; and finally, it may attempt to answer this question by giving an account of the nature of the universe as a whole. Psychology, on the other hand, deals only with the process of volition as it actually occurs, without reference to its rightness or wrongness, or to the ultimate conditions which make rightness and wrongness possible.


Aesthetics is precisely analogous to ethics, except that the distinction between beauty and ugliness is substituted for that between right and wrong. Psychology has nothing to do with this distinction, as such. It only inquires how things actually come to appear beautiful or ugly; it has no concern with such questions as whether what appears beautiful really is beautiful, or how the distinction between beauty and ugliness is constituted. Perhaps what appears beautiful therefore is beautiful; if this be so, then psychology solves the problems of aesthetics; but it does so only by accident. It cannot itself show that it has solved these problems. In order to do so, it would have to prove that in aesthetics appearance and reality coincide; but whether this be true or false, it is certainly beyond the province of psychology to discuss the question.

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