In 1956, Georges Canguilhelm, delivered a lecture at Collège Philosophique which was later published as an essay, as a sharp critique on Psychology, particularly of instrumental psychology. Canguilhelm’s critique is still relevant at an age characterized by the crises of replication and representation.
Canguilhelm’s critique begins with the question “what is Psychology?”. He argues how that question is unsettling as it asks about what a psychologist do. Canguilhelm argues Psychology, as of the 1950s was limited to be a “composite empiricism that has been codified, literally for the sake of teaching.” He states that
In fact from a good number of works in Psychology, one gets the impression that they add up to be a philosophy without rigor, an ethics without exigency, and a medicine without control.Georges Canguilhelm
Psychology, in it’s attempt to be a science found itself in a transition phase when the focus of what constituted a science had shifted from the object to its method. Over time, the definition of the object of science shifted from the domain of problems and questions to the intention and target of science. In short, science became characterized more by its method than its problems. The determinism in such a science is not Newtonian but statistical. Canguilhelm criticizes experimental psychology as largely a psychology of animals. He asserts that Psychology is experimental, solely based on the method.
Canguilhelm’s critique is built upon the history till 1956, the golden year that laid foundations for artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology. Psychology has been constantly evolving ever since – from Humanism and social psychology to behavioral economics, social neuroscience and more.
Yet, Canguilhelm’s critique raises certain timeless concerns for Psychology, as a discipline. He points out how an instrumental obsession on human biology stripped off the sociopolitical layers of Psychology. Canguilhelm wonders how objective can one be when one observes and be observed simultaneously, for observation evoke self consciousness. He asks:
In doing what they do, what do psychologists hope to accomplish?
In the name of what are they instituted psychologists?
His critique inadvertently questions the authority of a Psychologist as a judge of behaviors.
Canguilhelm’s criticism points towards an identity crisis for Psychology. He suggests that trying to reduce it into a science actually results in a diffusion of responsibility. The need for constant revision of definitions, Canguilhelm suggests arise from a lack of acknowledgement of Psychology’s position within a philosophy. Perhaps, this incoherence is actually hindering Psychology from actualizing its true potential.
Read Georges Canguilhelm’s account on Psychology till the 50s, here.