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Of the ‘Arts’ and ‘Sciences’

Mitakshra Medhi

One of the most crucial battles that Psychology has had to fight is for a legitimate identity. Needless to say, the only possible way, as is popularly perceived, is to earn the label of a science. In today’s world, seeing is believing. Hard facts, supported by scores of research, are needed to acknowledge that a phenomenon does exist. This is the job of “pure” sciences of Physics, Chemistry and Biology. But for Psychology, it has been a rocky ride, at least in the West. Formally believed to have started off in 1879 by Wilhelm Wundt upon establishing a laboratory in Leipzig, Germany, this field is constantly being looked down upon and misused.

Before this formal recognition, Psychology was mostly a part of Philosophy, from the ancient times. The rivalries of dualism versus monism, determinism versus free will, structuralism versus functionalism, and empiricism versus rationalism form the crux of what Psychology is, at present times. While structuralism developed, the first force of Psychology – the Psychoanalysis – emerged at the turn of the 20th century. With Sigmund Freud talking about a son’s sexual desires towards his mother, in an age when sex alone was considered but a taboo, psychoanalysis came to the limelight as a scandalous yet very attractive discipline. It had the elements of attraction, though the concepts themselves were greatly ridiculed. Some even believe that the over-sexualisation of the concepts may probably have been to gain attention in a world dominated fiercely by hardcore sciences. What other way did Freud have? One couldn’t define or measure the unconscious, neither could he prove the existence of it with hard facts, except of course, through his famous Hysteria patients. But there was nothing definite about it. And, he did suffer. Most of his disciples moved away from him, developing their own Neo-Freudian theories – borrowed and modified. Yet, they had the same setback – none of them could ‘prove’ their concepts.

It would be wrong to say that Behaviourism arose as the second force, because of the decline of Psychoanalysis. Rather, this perspective was more in opposition to the structuralists and the functionalists. There was a battle between the two ‘earlier’ schools – structuralists wanted to study the structure of the mind, functionalists believed that its functions were more important. Amidst this came Dr. James Brodus Watson, mocking both the previous schools and ruling out the very existence of the mind. His idea was to study something more observable, as in behaviour. He began his theory completely rejecting the mind, albeit he did move on to monism later in his career. This school brought in heavy-scale experimentation, sometimes even resorting to unethical means to achieve their goals. It was at this point that Psychology was believed to have been incorporated, without much skepticism, into the realm of the Sciences, although still looked down upon. Many other behaviourists followed close by. The main content of Psychology – the mind – ceased to exist. Was it in a bid to earn the label of a science? Some may doubt so. However, the fact cannot be neglected that the theorists, themselves, grew up at a time when Science, and Science alone, was a fact. Everything else was a lie. So it wasn’t wholly an obsession with the label. It could have been simply an act of turning the discipline into something that can be deemed more “realistic”.

So, how much of a science Psychology really is? Is it even fair to the discipline to be carved into something that is so definite? If looked at closely, human beings, given their enhanced ability to feel and think, are in constant change. What may be a fact today, will inevitably become a fable tomorrow. What better way to prove this than to think of the Flynn Effect! Or the changes in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual. If the changing nature of the mind is difficult to solidly account for, proving what this abstract entity really is, in itself, nearly impossible. Neither can we completely refuse to accept its being. It would be as ridiculous as when Watson, to dismiss this entity, postulated that thought processes are simply sub-vocal speech. This regresses us back to the age-old question – Is Psychology a science at all?

Perhaps the only stance one can cling on to is to state how scientific methods are used for research in this discipline. Hence, the facts gathered have to be concrete evidences. But consider this for a moment. Nothing is absolute in Psychology. Even if all the evidence point towards a conclusion, we still have to use it as a prediction, rather than a definite fact. There are still those chance factors, situational interferences to take note of. And never is a Psychological research ever without limitations. So how is it a science, if the current considerations of science are to persist?

Thus, this very question is possibly without an answer. It would be almost utopian to view Psychology as something that is credible, but not a part of science or at least not a part of what is presently considered a science. Any acceptance of distance between the two would instantly send Psychology spiraling down the already-feeble belief systems that the masses place upon it. But trying so hard will continue to hinder the beauty of Psychology – the lack of absoluteness. Therefore, in a not-so-optimistic conclusion, the discipline that studies the mind and behaviour of human beings, would have to be happy sitting on the edges of belief and disbelief, and continue to fight a lost battle to be something that were, ironically, developed by the human beings themselves.

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