Friday, May 11, 2007

The Psychology of Philosophy

As an undergrad, my favorite philosophers were Nietzsche, Zhuangzi, and Paul Feyerabend -- all critics of High Reason, elegant rhetoricians against seeing philosophy (and science) as dispassionate intellection of the one truth. Why was I drawn to them -- to each of them from the first page, almost? Was it a nuanced appreciation of the arguments and counterarguments? Of course not. Rather, it was a psychological urge: Something in me rebelled against tyrant reason. I wanted to see it get its comeuppance. (What this partly because I was so attracted to reason, almost painfully intellectual as a kid?)

My 1997 dissertation, I realized only in retrospect, had four parts each of which was a rebellion, too: The first part (on infant and animal belief) attacked the views of Donald Davidson, probably the most eminent philosopher at my graduate institution. Each of the other three parts assaulted the views of one of my dissertation advisors (against Gopnik's treatment of representation, against Lloyd's treatment of theories, against Searle's treatment of belief). Coincidence? Fortunately, they were a tolerant lot!

My interests in philosophy have traced a crooked course, from Nietzsche and Unamuno to skepticism and philosophy of science, to developmental psychology, belief, consciousness, self-knowledge, and moral psychology. However, as I now realize looking back, a central theme in most of these has been an interest in, not just the philosophy of psychology, but the psychology of philosophy. What psychological factors drive philosophers toward certain views and away from others?

There is no broadly recognized subfield called "psychology of philosophy", though much of Nietzsche's best work fits aptly under this heading. Historians of philosophy -- especially those whose home departments are outside of philosophy -- generally recognize the importance of historical and social factors in shaping philosophical views, but few push for a deeper understanding of the psychological factors. Yet surely we could look more closely at such factors. We could use the tools of contemporary psychology (tools unknown to Nietzsche) to help improve our understanding of the field. Why not? Philosophy leaves such a wide latitude for disagreement, and our philosophical impulses -- our attractions to certain types of view and distaste for other views -- play a role so early in our exposure to philosophy, before we can really fairly assess the arguments, that it seems almost undeniable that contingent features of individual psychology must play a major role in our philosophical lives. (This needn't always be a matter of psychodynamic "depth psychology." One theme I find recurring in my work is the role played by unwitting metaphor. For example here and here and here and here.)

I was brought to these reflections reading Shaun Nichols's forthcoming contribution to next week's On-Line Philosophy Conference. Nichols's piece is exactly what I've just endorsed: a piece of psychology of philosophy, using the techniques of empirical psychology to cast light on philosophical motivations.

I'll post a link to that essay and to my commentary (which will contain more discussion of the psychology of philosophy) next Monday, when they are posted.


Anonymous said...

This was a really interesting post!

I studied philosophy as an undergraduate, and always felt that psychology was conspicuously absent.

Theories were presented as if they were the purely deductive outcomes of prima facie axioms, and yet there was so much disagreement between what was obviously true to some and obviously false to others, with no attention given to the psychological factors (and assumptions) that might predispose a Nietzsche or a Hegel to think so differently. Sometimes, the addition of another more psychological axiom (or a psychologically based heuristic) filled the apparent gaps in a theory and justified things that were otherwise not justifiable.

In general, it seems that human beings are currently waking from our 'dogmatic slumber' and realizing that the human being as a (predominantly) rational animal is an inadequate theory, which means of course that philosophy cannot ignore the messiness of psychology and the emotions and what we understand of cognitive mechanisms and biases.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I agree with you completely, Joseph. Thanks for the kind remarks!

Anonymous said...

This was one of my chief frustrations with academic philosophy, and one of the reasons I left grad school.

I found philosophical debates, when grappled with long enough and hard enough, and at pretty much all levels of sophistication, ultimately coming into relief as conflicts between different modes of information processing, different cognitive styles or sensibilities or whatever -- with the parties almost as a matter of course seeing past each other on some level, along some dimension, in the throes of "advancing an argument" or "defending a position". Normatively freighted questions of justification, endorsement, theory assessment, etc, lost their potency in my mind and what got interesting and made more sense were questions about the psychology of theory construction, inquiry, debate.

Indeed, my impression is that this is where deep philosophical reflection naturally leads us -- at least if we're without intellectual axes to grind a deep structure of biases. Ie, I think it's quite natural to move away from "philosophy as debate" and move toward "why do people debate in philosophical terms? And what is it, exactly, that they're doing"?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Austen! I agree that there's something seriously problematic in how many philosophical debates are standardly conceived. That doesn't mean we can't still ask questions about moral right and wrong, the nature of persons, etc. -- it would be a shame to give up doing that! -- but we have to think carefully about what the criteria are for good answers and on what basis we come to those answers!

Justin Tiwald said...

This is fascinating. I enjoyed your comments on Nichols as well.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...


Jon Altschul said...

Currently a UC Santa Barbara Philosophy grad student, I am constantly struck by an omni-present theme, which is that the philosopher’s own psychology heavily shapes her philosophical inquiry. For me, I first encountered this theme in Locke. It is evident that Locke’s distaste for unchallenged authority is reflected not only in his political writings, but in his metaphysics and epistemology as well. His questions of whether there are any ideas at all behind these words we use in philosophy (substance, identity, etc.) suggest a motivation to break from the established views of the rationalists. To get at the root of his overall philosophy, it is crucial understand⎯not only Locke the Philosopher⎯but Locke the person as well.

This theme can be seen in all areas of Philosophy, even contemporary Epistemology⎯
my area of specialization. The question of whether justification is internal or external to the believing subject, for instance, is a philosophically interesting one. But those who endorse internalism (traditionally the view that a subject’s reasons are, in some sense, cognitively available and perhaps even articulable) thereby also endorse views according to which people are required to take responsibility themselves for the beliefs they hold. Contrast that to externalism, where a subject can be justified in believing a proposition just in case a certain state of affairs in fact obtain, regardless of the capacities of the subject. I see this conflict paralleled in politics, religion, social policy, and in many other arenas. One can present persuasive arguments that conform to reason and logic. However, I believe that it is not just a pursuit of truth that moves, say, an internalist to argue along her lines; there are factors outside of philosophy and within the psychology of personality that are also (perhaps equally) influential.

Thus, I typed “Psychology of Philosophy” into google and Eric’s blog was one of the first hits. Thank you for your thoughts, Eric. This may indeed turn out to be a growing field in 21st century Philosophy.

Anonymous said...

Jon Altschul, your comments brought to mind the following by William James, which you may find interesting:

The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments. Undignified as such a treatment may seem to some of my colleagues, I shall have to take account of this clash and explain a good many of the divergencies of philosophers by it. Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries, when philosophizing, to sink the fact of his temperament. Temperament is no conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusions. Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises. It loads the evidence for him one way or the other, making for a more sentimental or a more hard-hearted view of the universe, just as this fact or that principle would. He trusts his temperament. Wanting a universe that suits it, he believes in any representation of the universe that does suit it. He feels men of opposite temper to be out of key with the world's character, and in his heart considers them incompetent and 'not in it,' in the philosophic business, even though they may far excel him in dialectical ability.

Yet in the forum he can make no claim, on the bare ground of his temperament, to superior discernment or authority. There arises thus a certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions: the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned.

Pragmatism, World Publishing Co., 1970 (original 1907).

I found the quote at Philosophy as Autobiography, which is also apropos.

Becki said...

I'm really interested in this issue and wondered if you would recommend any reading in this area? I am writing a book on the non-identity problem and am really interested in the fact that 'intuition' seems to be the only reason for accepting the potentially offensive principle of procreative beneficence. To me these intuitions are the results of psychological proclivities of the writers and do not indicate the moral value they are presumed to do.

So if you have any recommendations for reading on this I would be most grateful and thanks for this most interesting post.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Becki: You might want to check out recent work by Stephen Stich and by Jonathan Weinberg on the psychology of philosophical intuition. Fiery Cushman and I also have some data (not yet in circulating draft) that suggests that philosophers, including people with PhDs in ethics, are just as subject to order effects in their judgments about trolley problems as are non-philosophers. (If you're interested in that, I can send you a few summary slides.)

You might also chat a bit with David Boonin, if you're not already in contact with him. He has recently been collecting informal survey data on undergraduate's intuitions about the non-identity problem and the conditions under which they can be manipulated.

Becki said...


Thanks for the pointers - really helpful. I have just emailed David Boonin who I hadn't been in touch with before.

My email is

and you can see further details of the sort of thing I've been doing (straightforward bioethics, nothing in this area yet) at:

If you have anything else that might be helpful/interesting in this area I would be really interested to see it.

Thanks again


Jerry Binder said...

I am thrilled to discover this site. I am, and have been, an instructor in philosophy and psychology. Where and how the two intersect has always fascinated me--and presented many intellectual problems. We do have, of course, clinical psychology; and now I am seeing an emerging new practice of clinical philosophy. Oh, what would Socrates say about that? Looking forward to becoming part of the conversation.

Anonymous said...

Like the grad student a few comments above, I also stumbled upon this wonderful post through a googling of "psychology of philosophy". The serendipity of discovering like thoughts born independently in minds distant from one another in time and space is always a joy.

But in this line of thought, the similarity we share here might just be rational tails becoming wagged by our intuitive dogs of the same specie.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the kind comment, Anon! I agree that this approach applies to itself and thus partly calls itself into question.

Vree said...

I'm a bit sad that "psychology of philosophy" does not yield academic search result as one'd think it'd be a recognized field by now. I'm not talking about "philosophy of..." obviously, ie. the roots of an academic field in fundamental thinking. I'm talking about the roots of fundamental thinking in psychology (and biology...and then the roots of that in physics). One would think that it is necessary to re-apply those findings to fundamental psychology itself (as well as, perhaps, the imaginary psychology, biology and physical laws of different hypothetical minds, beings and worlds) to find out what biases are present by default in the very fundamentals of our systems of knowledge. I think most of us do this type of self-checking by default, and pure psychology itself certainly dives into this, but I have never heard of an interdisciplinary field chiefly committed to this enterprise.

Unknown said...

Greetings, Eric.

I came across your post, having googled "psychology of philosophy," as I was thinking that philosophy could only be derivative of the psychology of the individual. Wonder if there is any substantial advancement in this area since your post. Thanks so much. Gregory Sacra