"Psychologism" is the term first used in Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century to designate the philosophical trend defended by Jakob Friedrich Fries (1773–1843) and by Friedrich Eduard Beneke (1798–1854) against the dominant Hegelianism. Fries and Beneke advocated a philosophical position based entirely on psychology. They held that the only instrument philosophical inquiry has at its disposal is self-observation (or introspection) and that there is no way to establish any truth other than by reducing it to the subjective elements of self-observation. Psychology becomes, from this point of view, the fundamental philosophical discipline. Logic, ethics, metaphysics, philosophy of law, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of education are all little more than psychology or applied psychology. Beneke wrote, "With all of the concepts of the philosophical disciplines, only what is formed in the human soul according to the laws of its development can be thought; if these laws are understood with certainty and clarity, then a certain and clear knowledge of those disciplines is likewise achieved" (Die Philosophie in ihrem Verhältnis zur Erfahrung, p. xv).
Fries and Beneke, who viewed Immanuel Kant as their predecessor inasmuch as he defended the "rights" of experience, held, nevertheless, that he was mistaken in wanting to institute an inquiry independent of experience which would arrive at knowledge of the a priori forms of intuition and of the categories and in seeking the transcendental ground of truth—the objective validity of human knowledge. This inquiry, Fries claimed, is impossible. The critique of reason can only be a science of experience based on self-observation (System der Metaphysik, p. 110). In the same period Vincenzo Gioberti branded as psychologism all of modern philosophy from René Descartes on. He meant by psychologism the philosophical procedure that claimed to go from man (that is, from experience) to God and contrasted it with ontologism, which is the movement from God to man.
The doctrine defended by Fries and Beneke has some connection with certain aspects of English empiricism from John Locke to David Hume in that in both theories experience is not only the instrument of control and the criterion of the truth of knowledge but also the psychological origin of knowledge itself.
Fries and Beneke were correct in accusing Kant of rejecting psychologism, since he had posited the premises for a critique of any psychologism by distinguishing (in a famous passage in the Critique of Pure Reason ) the quaestio facti of the "physiological derivation" of a priori concepts—that is, of their occurrence in the mind or consciousness of man—from the quaestio juris of their validity, which demands as a response the transcendental deduction. This distinction, on the basis of which Kant criticized Locke, who would have answered only the first question, is one of the pivotal points of the whole Kantian doctrine—namely, that the truth of empirical knowledge does not depend on the psychological mechanism but on a priori conditions independent of this mechanism; that the validity of the moral norm does not depend on desires or appetites but is a priori as well; and that the validity of aesthetic judgments is in turn based on taste, an a priori faculty.
Toward the middle of the nineteenth century, psychologism was defended in the very field in which it would seem most foreign—logic and mathematics. In John Stuart Mill's A System of Logic it is explicitly stated that introspection is the only basis of the axioms of mathematics and the principles of logic; in Mill's Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy logic is classified under psychology and distinguished from it only as the part is distinguished from the whole or art from science. Many logicians in subsequent years accepted this point of view.
The Kantian point of view was developed systematically by Rudolf Hermann Lotze in his Logik. The psychological act of thinking is, according to Lotze, completely distinct from the content of thought. The psychological act exists only as a determinate temporal phenomenon, whereas the content has another mode of being—validity. A decade later Gottlob Frege defended the same point of view with regard to mathematics.
Never take a description of the origin of an idea for a definition, or an account of the mental and physical conditions through which we become conscious of a proposition for a proof of it. A proposition may be thought, and again it may be true; never confuse these two things. We must remind ourselves, it seems, that a proposition no more ceases to be true when I cease to think of it than the sun ceases to exist when I shut my eyes. (Die Grundlagen der Arithmetik, introduction)
In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the neo-Kantians argued against the psychologistic presentation of philosophy. The Baden school (Wilhelm Windelband, Heinrich Rickert) defended the independence of values from psychological experience, which could never establish their absoluteness and necessity, and the Marburg school (Hermann Cohen, Paul Natorp) held, similarly, that the validity of science, like that of ethics and aesthetics, does not depend on psychological conditions but on the laws proper to these sciences—that is, on the methodological rules that govern their construction. Cohen and Natorp held, moreover, that "thought" or "consciousness" does not designate a psychic reality subject to introspection but the objectively valid content of knowledge—the totality of the possible objects of knowledge itself and the method used in the development of the sciences.
The systematic critique of psychologism in the fields of logic and mathematics is an important part of Edmund Husserl's Logische Untersuchungen. His main objections are that if logical laws were based on psychological laws, then (1) they ought to be, like the latter, vague and approximate, whereas, at least in part, they are so exact that they cannot be guaranteed by an empirical element; (2) they ought to be based, like all empirical laws, on induction, which yields only a probable validity and not the apodictic certainty they manifest; (3) they ought to imply the existence of such psychic events as representation and judgment, whereas they do not concern the reality of psychic life and of other facts (unlike the laws of nature, which are merely probable) but concern necessary relations independently of facts (Logische Untersuchungen, Vol. I, Secs. 21–24). Later in his career Husserl wrote, in terms very close to Frege's, "To refer to it [a number] as a mental construct is an absurdity, an offence against the perfectly clear meaning of arithmetic discourse, which can at any time be perceived as valid, and precedes all theories concerning it" (Ideen, Sec. 22). He warned against the tendency to "psychologize the eidetic"—that is, to identify essences, which are the authentic objects of knowledge, with the simultaneous consciousness of these essences (ibid., Sec. 61).
The battle between psychologism and antipsychologism is sometimes fought among philosophers with the same point of view. Among the existentialists Martin Heidegger, who adopted as his method Husserl's phenomenology, intended existential analysis as the uncovering of human situations in their essence, not in their psychic occurrence (Sein und Zeit, Halle, 1927, Sec. 7), whereas Jean-Paul Sartre, speaking of existential psychoanalysis, seems inclined toward psychologism, although he tried to correct it by affirming that "consciousness is not a mode of particular knowledge but it is the dimension of transphenomenal being in the subject" (L'être et le néant, Paris, 1943, p. 17).
Within logical empiricism the argument against psychologism is one of the fundamental points of Rudolf Carnap's first work, Der logische Aufbau der Welt. The fundamental theses of Logische Syntax der Sprache, especially the principle of tolerance, are incompatible with psychologism, according to which, obviously, there could be only a single language—that determined by psychological laws. Carnap took the same line when he criticized Bertrand Russell's thesis that propositions are mental events in "Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology." Arguments against psychologism occur frequently in the writings of other logical empiricists, though traces of psychologism can be found in the thesis, deriving from Russell and held by many logical empiricists, of the immediate, private, and incommunicable character of the sense data that are at the basis of empirical propositions.
See also Beneke, Friedrich Eduard; Carnap, Rudolf; Cohen, Hermann; Descartes, René; Empiricism; Existential Psychoanalysis; Frege, Gottlob; Fries, Jakob Friedrich; Gioberti, Vincenzo; Hegelianism; Heidegger, Martin; Hume, David; Husserl, Edmund; Intuition; Kant, Immanuel; Locke, John; Logical Positivism; Lotze, Rudolf Hermann; Mill, John Stuart; Natorp, Paul; Neo-Kantianism; Propositions; Psychology; Rickert, Heinrich; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Windelband, Wilhelm.
works favoring psychologism
Beneke, Friedrich Eduard. Die Philosophie in ihrem Verhältnis zur Erfahrung, zur Spekulation, und zum Leben. Berlin, 1833.
Fries, Jakob Friedrich. System der Metaphysik. Heidelberg, 1824.
Gioberti, Vincenzo. Introduzione allo studio della filosofia. Brussels, 1840.
Lipps, Theodor. Grundzüge der Logik. Hamburg–Leipzig, 1893.
Lotze, Hermann. Logik. Leipzig, 1874. Translated by Helen Dendy as Logic. Oxford, 1884.
Mill, John Stuart. Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy. London, 1865.
Mill, John Stuart. A System of Logic. 2 vols. London, 1843.
Sigwart, Christoff. Logik. 2 vols. Tübingen, 1873–1878. Translated by Helen Dendy as Logic. 2 vols. London, 1890.
works critical of psychologism
Carnap, Rudolf. "Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology." Revue internationale de philosophie, 4th year (11) (1950): 20–40. Reprinted in Readings in the Philosophy of Science, edited by Herbert Feigl and May Brodbeck. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1953.
Carnap, Rudolf. Der logische Aufbau der Welt. Berlin: Weltkreis, 1928.
Carnap, Rudolf. Logische Syntax der Sprache. Vienna: Springer, 1934. Translated by Amethe Smeaton as The Logical Syntax of Language. London: Kegan Paul, 1938.
Frege, Gottlob. Die Grundlagen der Arithmetik. Breslau, 1884. Translated by J. L. Austin as The Foundations of Arithmetic. Oxford: Blackwell, 1950.
Husserl, Edmund. Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und Phänomenologischen Philosophie. Vol. I. Halle: Niemeyer, 1913. Translated by W. R. Boyce Gibson as Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. New York: Macmillan, 1931.
Husserl, Edmund. Logische Untersuchungen. 2 vols. Halle: Niemeyer, 1900–1901.
Pap, Arthur. Elements of Analytic Philosophy. New York: Macmillan, 1949.
other recommended titles
Bermudez, Jose Luis. "Psychologism and Psychology." Inquiry 42 (1999): 487–504.
Cohen, Jonathan. "Frege and Psychologism." Philosophical Papers 27 (1998): 45–67.
Davis, Wayne. "Psychologism and Humeanism." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 67 (2003): 452–459.
George, Rolf. "Psychologism in Logic: Bacon to Bolzano." Philosophy and Rhetoric 30 (1997): 213–242.
Kitcher, Patricia. "Revisiting Kant's Epistemology: Skepticism and Psychologism." Nous 29 (1995): 285–315.
Nicola Abbagnano (1967)
Translated by Nino Langiulli (1967)
Bibliography updated by Benjamin Fiedor (2005)