Explaining psychologism, considering Husserl

By David Reynolds

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The term psychologism brings with it certain connotations. While it certainly regards the functioning of the mind, do not presume that all psychology is psychologistic. Rather, psychologism is a philosophical school of thought that may be practically appealing, but it also carries with it significant consequences to the way we perceive our own freedom. To facilitate an understanding of psychologism, a brief explanation of the ideology, and Edmund Husserl’s objections to it, is required.

Psychologism is a naturalistic school of thought; as such, it holds the mind as an element within nature. As the theories and principles of science prove to be practical and applicable, we rely on the universality of certain natural laws, i.e. causation. That every effect has a cause is a logically necessary truth. Further, without even thinking of causal principles, we apply this principle in our everyday lives in order to make sense of our surroundings. Yet, by placing the mind as something within nature, it also falls subject to the natural laws.
Psychologism asserts that the mind is subject to functioning according to such determinable laws. While every psychologist may not ascribe to psychologism per se, the science of psychology, its applicability and practicality, does much to support pyschologism’s appeal to common sense. Nevertheless, if the mind is to obey determinable laws, such as causation, then the notion of a human’s free will must be abolished. If the science of psychology can be so finely tuned as to determine all of the laws that govern thought and behaviour, then there can be no room for choice, and all that is left is stimulus A entails response B.

Husserl’s objections to psychologism are numerous, but most center around the notions of psychology and logic. One appealing argument is that the laws of psychology are vague, while the laws of logic are precise, and psychologism attempts to have the vague entail the precise, which is intuitively abhorrent. Nevertheless, Husserl’s most convincing argument is not merely an objection to pychologism, but rather an attack against any theory that attempts to assert the foundation of logic.

Husserl’s revolution is formed as such: any theory is a set of principles and what can be deduced from those principles; any theory must, itself, be logically structured and founded on logic; psychology is a theory and founded on logic; hence, to found logic on psychology would become a circular argument. Psychologism’s faith in the determinable laws of the mind (psychology) seems ill founded, and, along these lines, Husserl criticizes psychologism for begging the question. Furthermore, the implications of this objection usurp the position of any theory’s claim to the foundation of logic!

Husserl’s claim is bold, and it is this revolution which leads him to develop phenomenology. However, any conception of knowledge without an appeal to logic seems near impossible. Perhaps, while logic may be irreducible, it is not the singular foundation for knowledge.

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