The very first laboratory in psychology was developed by Wundt, a professor of philosophy, in late 1800s. And indeed the early psychology seemed very close to armchair philosophy. Freud's theories are good examples of that. It was really behaviorism that tried to make psychology into an empirical science and so it seems mainstream psychology has committed to valuing as the highest, the empirical route to acquiring to knowledge.

My background is in psychology so I don't know exactly how philosophers come to a particular conclusion given dozens or hundreds of theories available for every important question posed. My assumption is that philosophy is more about perfecting the arguments in a theory so that it's rationally coherent, so perhaps the most coherent (and comprehensive) theory wins out at the end, in trying to explain, for instance, the nature of reality. And given psychology's attempt to only comment on concepts that can be operationalized and tested in the lab, the two should not cross paths often.

But I'm still curious that when a widely-accepted theory in philosophy is challenged by empirical psychology, how did/does philosophers react. Does it simply ignore it (surely some branches in epistemology don't view empiricism as the ultimate/best way to gain knowledge)? Does it see psychology's views as superior and so change in order to be consistent? Psychology's go-to statistical tests have come under criticism relatively recently so it also makes sense that philosophy ignore psychological findings unless we're dealing with results that have stood the test of time.

In any event, appreciate your views.

  • That was an inexact term for describing a theory that enjoys great support among academic philosophers. Since I don't know the philosophical theories, it's hard to give example. I imagine solipsism is not a mainstream one for instance but I don't know. But in psychology cognitive-behavioral theories enjoy great support, as opposed to Freud's original theories.
    – Jlente
    Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 3:35
  • whether or not psychology counts as a genuine science remains an open question. The "crisis of psychology" is a perennial theme. "My assumption is that philosophy is more about perfecting the arguments in a theory so that it's rationally coherent, ..." Lots of philosophers are against theory. I think most philosophers are more interested in questions than answers. that said, philosophy always bows to science. but is psychology a science?
    – user20153
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 0:01
  • 1
    alternatively, "empirical psychology" is quite obviously an oxymoron. whatever it is such "scientists" observe, it is not the psyche, which by definition is unobservable.
    – user20153
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 0:14

4 Answers 4


I am going to disagree with other posters, in my view in the last two centuries the interplay between philosophy and psychology was intricate, and with profound impact on both sides, of all sciences second perhaps only to physics. Let me give two examples.

The rise of empirical psychology and psychophysiology in 19th century gave rise to the so-called "psychologism about logic" , the idea that "logic" (which at the time included what we call epistemology, theory of knowledge) is a reflection of psychological laws governing human reasoning. This was seen as a challenge by an entire tradition in philosophy, and such giants as Frege and Husserl became the champions of anti-psychologism, some of their arguments are discussed under Is Logic Empirical? Husserl's first major work, Logical Investigations (1900), which started the phenomenological movement, was largely motivated by anti-psychologism. On the other side of the dispute were strange bedfellows, empiricist Mill and one of the first life philosophers, Dilthey. Dilthey, came up with a view of "descriptive psychology" from a first person perspective, that emphasized empathy and analysis of emotional expression over the reductionist psychophysiology of the time, later developed by Jaspers and others into "understanding psychology", also influenced by Husserl's phenomenology and existentialism. D'Agostini discusses the subsequent developments in From a Continental Point of View:

"Particularly, in the first decades of the century [20th], there was the demand for defining philosophy in relation to the new ‘sciences of thought’: mathematical logic and empirical ­ ‘naturalistic’ psychology. In fact, the wide interest in the nature of pure thought and pure theory (logic 2) for European philosophers (also neo-Kantians and neo-Hegelians) was partially connected to the effort made by philosophy to save its own primacy and identity while conserving its own ‘science of logos’ (logic 1) an aim successfully accomplished for the moment, as Kusch explained, as the thread of psychologism was finally foiled in the 1920s (Kusch, 1995).

However, it was not on behalf of pure thought that the battle was won. On the contrary, the very adjective ‘pure’ soon began to fade, and the research culminated (for Heidegger since the 1923 winter courses on Faktizität) with the victory of impure existential thought. According to Heidegger, Jaspers and the heirs of neo-Kantianism, as well as the later Husserl, the sense of philosophical theory is preserved if and only if it is assumed in its impure version."

That was quite a tectonic shift in the study of "logos", and while it was partly motivated by internal and other cultural developments, the pressures from contemporary psychology certainly played a large role.

The second example is behaviorism. It was quite in vogue with some major analytic philosophers in 1950s, including Quine and Sellars. Quine's Word and Object (1960) is thoroughly behaviorist in its view of language acquisition, and throughout his works he was arguing strongly against the use of "mentalistic predicates" in science. In Epistemology Naturalized Quine resurrected the psychologism's idea of subsuming epistemology under psychology, making it "a chapter of psychology", as he put it, and offered anti-foundationalist rebuttals to Frege and Husserl.

The demise of behaviorism started with Chomsky's critique of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (1959) for its inability to account for the linguistic faculty, with theoretical, arguably philosophical, arguments, including the somewhat dubious "poverty of the stimulus". The outcome was the more nuanced cognitive psychology blooming since 1960s. And the irony of naturalized epistemology, quite popular today, is that it explicitly makes philosophy answerable to advances in natural science. So Quine got an earful about his linguistic behaviorism from his own supporters. Here is Zammito in A Nice Derangement of Epistemes:

"Instead of prescribing to, we must learn from, children's primary language learning. Instead of prescribing to, we must learn about, natural language in its difference from formal logic. There is still too much "first philosophy" in Quine. We must rescue naturalized epistemology from its own founder... Cognitive science is an empirical science working to unearth the mechanisms through which natural language constitutes itself. That account has had to recognize the indispensability of mental states, of beliefs, if it is ever to become adequate to the problem. All the more clearly, in the discourses of culture, we are compelled to seek a more robust naturalism that does not succumb to reductionist physicalist or behaviorist presuppositions."

And three decades later, in his last book Pursuit of Truth (1990) Quine wrote:

"I acquiesce in what Davidson calls anomalous monism, also known as token physicalism: there is no mental substance, but there are irreducibly mental ways of grouping physical states and events... the mentalistic predicates, for all their vagueness, have long interacted with one another, engendering age-old strategies for predicting and explaining human action. They complement natural science in their incommensurable way, and are indispensable both to the social sciences and to our everyday dealings."

Philosophers do listen.

  • 1
    I am not in the position to criticise the answer in most aspects - I would just appeal to you not making statements à la "most famous student". There are Putnam (arguably), Dennett, and Dummett as well.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 2:26
  • 1
    @PhilipKlöcking My bad, removed. I generally tend to overuse superlatives, it seems.
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 19:35

In general, there's been relatively little interaction between philosophy and psychology over the last several decades. This isn't just a matter of different questions and different methods, but also the institutional divisions and incentives — philosophy department hiring and tenure committees generally don't give much credit for publishing in psychology journals, and vice versa.

However, there have been several particular interactions that you might find interesting. One is the "situationist critique" of virtue ethics, which points to experimental research in social psychology to challenge the existence of stable character or character traits. (Read more about this here.) Second is the "experimental philosophy" movement, which more or less explicitly borrows basic experimental methods from psychology to investigate how people respond to philosophical thought experiments. (Read more about this here.) Third is the field of cognitive science, which has often involved both psychologists and philosophers as primary researchers; some philosophers have also acted as outsider critics of cognitive science. (You can read a philosophical discussion of cognitive science here.) Fourth, and I think overlapping with cognitive science, a certain tradition of philosophy of mind has been heavily engaged with psychology and neuroscience research; I'm thinking especially of Patricia Churchland, Paul Churchland, and Daniel Dennett.

In many of these particular interactions, philosophers have appealed to research or methods from psychology to produce critiques of other philosophers. I think cognitive science and the related tradition in philosophy of mind have generally been more collaborative, with philosophers influencing the empirical research; but often even here philosophers appeal to empirical research to criticize other philosophers.


Psychology interacts with philosophy the same way any other science does. If you look, for instance, at 'Consciousness Explained', you will find many examples of applications of psychological results to philosophical problems. So some philosophers obviously react by taking the result and including it into a wider narrative as support. All of the content of the sciences are ultimately philosophy, since Aristotle's Physics, at least, and any part of philosophy can be used to make sense of any other part.

But psychology is still not yet a fully paradigmatic discipline, in a Kuhnian sense, in the regions farther from both neurology and sociology. So the theories at play are often ungrounded, inconsistent or at odds, even when they are statistically validated. We can have good evidence that Dialectical Behavioral Therapy works, and twenty theories as to why, which all undermine one another.

One approach to this seems to be the one you have taken -- to disown this whole middle ground and claim only the stuff directly bordering neurology or sociology is really part of the discipline. But the central part of psychology does exist, at least as an engineering discipline, and still needs a network of basic theories to support continued development.

Within that area, the discipline itself still does not have an overall sense of what is 'down' when it comes to 'basing' an explanation of an observation upon a theory. For instance, you can go 'up' to social context in an explanation, which takes you 'down' to developmental theory or 'down' to neurons which takes you 'up' to evolution in order to really get an explanation of middle-range human behavior.

It is therefore often inappropriate to take any psychological theory from those realms seriously when it gets farther away from its source, and its domain of application. From a philosophical POV, everything there is circular or vague, and no improvement on traditional rational psychology.

  • And yet psychology is not science, due to the obvious epistemic limitations upon self-knowledge. Nor is "Consciousness Explained" philosophy, it is the advancement of agenda from a mistaken weltanschauung. See here for the agenda and here for the mistaken weltanschauung. If you are not a subscriber, see here for a summary of the agenda - scroll ~3/4s
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 17:18
  • "Mistaken weltanschauung" is, itself, a contradiction in terms. No full and cohesive picture of the world can be proven mistaken.
    – user9166
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 15:27
  • no, your comment is mistaken. Mistaken weltanschauung is not contradiction in terms. A worldview that the earth is flat is demonstrably mistaken, and this whether or not the way of looking at the world is "full and cohesive" (whatever that may mean).
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Dec 9, 2016 at 19:38
  • The idea that the world is flat is not a worldview, it is a single fact.
    – user9166
    Commented Dec 9, 2016 at 19:48
  • Not quite, it is not a fact that the world is flat and this despite any mistaken weltanschauung positing that it is.
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Dec 9, 2016 at 22:00

Philosophy need not ignore "empirical psychology" (whatever that might be) for philosophy merely observes psychology for what it is: study of psyche. For example, epistemological philosophy observes that the conclusions of psychology are only to be agreed or disagreed with, they are matters of opinion not the confirmation of hypothesis. Furthermore, considering the epistemic limitations of first person subjective ontological status and without objective test or measure, the self cannot be rationally assessed - and this whether or not everyone agrees that when someone says "I feel glad" they mean it sincerely. Note that though the term is often used as misnomer for weltanschauung ("a way of looking at things") philosophy is respect for obtaining knowledge and advances verstehen; philosophy is not the reverence of plausible explanation. Note as well that there is a vast epistemic difference between philosophy (heuristic, advancing verstehen) and the opinions (hermeneutic, proffering weltanschauung) of philosophers', psychologists', plumbers', et cetera ad nauseum.

Whether you use psychology to mean the study of psyche or as a term for cognitive "science" the fact remains that psychology is not science - and for that matter neither is most any subject matter with the term "science" in it. For example, "computer science" is engineering, not the investigation and confirmation of what is by means of observation, falsifiable and verifiable hypothesis and peer review. Whereas computer engineering contends with ponderables (but does not advance by means of confirming hypothesis, it merely advances syntactic structures), psychology contends with imponderables (e.g. motivation, akrasia, et cetera) and unknowables. How shall you measure a report of "that feels good"? Seen any advancements lately in "the meaning of life"? How would you verify the statement of a subject who claims, "I feel glad"? Would observation of their behaviour constitute verification of "I feel glad"? No. Would an fMRI of their cranial activity constitute verification of "I feel glad"? No. Of course you would be free to make these observations and claim them as confirmation of a hypotheses correlating what is said with what is, however, (per Cioffi, Frank, 1985, "Psychoanalysis, Pseudo-Science and Testability") in this case the mistake is imagining that you have confirmed hypotheses rather than merely instantiated them. There are, of course, ponderables which psychology studies (e.g. intent) and even palpables (the distinction of psychoses and neuroses, i.e. something you undergo vs. something you undertake) so do not mistake my analysis for disparagement of either the study itself or the subject studied by psychology. There is, however, a vast epistemic difference between the advancement of the hypotheses from neuroscience and the conslusions of a study.

This, for example, is how philosophy contends with psychology:

In the past couple of centuries we have also become convinced that this common-sense psychology is grounded in the brain, that these mental states and events are somehow, we are not quite sure how, going on in the neurophysiological processes of the brain. So this leaves us with two levels at which we can describe and explain human beings: a level of common-sense psychology, which seems to work well enough in practice but which is not scientific; and a level of neurophysiology, which is certainly scientific but which even the most advanced specialists know very little about.

But couldn’t there be a third possibility, a science of human beings that was not introspective common-sense psychology but was not neurophysiology either? This has been the great dream of the human sciences in the twentieth century, but so far all of the efforts have been, in varying degrees, failures. The most spectacular failure was behaviorism, but in my intellectual lifetime I have lived through exaggerated hopes placed on and disappointed by games theory, cybernetics, information theory, generative grammar, structuralism, and Freudian psychology, among others. Indeed it has become something of a scandal of twentieth-century intellectual life that we lack a science of the human mind and human behavior, that the methods of the natural sciences have produced such meager results when applied to human beings.

The latest candidate or family of candidates to fill the gap is called cognitive science, a collection of related investigations into the human mind involving psychology, philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, and artificial intelligence. Cognitive science is really the name of a family of research projects and not a theory, but many of its practitioners think that the heart of cognitive science is a theory of the mind based on artificial intelligence (AI). According to this theory minds just are computer programs of certain kinds.

From http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1982/04/29/the-myth-of-the-computer/ - please note that much of the article is spent rejecting false arguments, as there are many and so little to advance other than a concise, mundane and verifiable statement of the case.

So what then is psyche? As the term translates from the Greek it means either soul, spirit, self or breath. The former two translations are imponderable non-sense. Of the latter two, the former is epistemically limited and study of the latter is in the domains of biology, particularly physiology. Breath, of course, is interesting in that it is both consciously and intentionalistically manipulated as well as automatically regulated such that we don't suffocate while we sleep. The crux of psychology is the study of self. What can psychology tell us of self except as either observed by self and unverifiable or observed by other(s) and simply a matter of agreement or disagreement? Knowledge of course is empirical verification of what is (else how do you know what is?) If a person states, "I feel glad" they know whether or not they mean it, or even if they are not certain of the adequacy of the expression and utterance to convey their feelings. How would an other verify the sincerity, confusion or deceitful expression? That we can guess and be correct is all well and good, but we have no means to empirically verify the statement and rationally assess a truth value.

And indeed the early psychology seemed very close to armchair philosophy(sic). Freud's theories are good examples of that

The explanations Freud offered were precisely armchair weltanschauung. And the reason these explanations were not hypothesis is because not only were his explanations incapable of being verified or falsified, anything given in their support was equally imponderable. For example, how could we know that a males desire to have sexual intercourse with his mother and be reborn are manifest and find their satisfaction in the act of defecation? Such a claim cannot be verified because the desires claimed are unconscious and the male cannot attest to them since the male is entirely unaware of them. Such a claim cannot be falsified because any grounds given to falsify the claim that behavior is to the male a fulfillment of an unconscious wish would itself be imponderable. You will note as well the similarity of Freud's false arguments to those of all metaphysicians from Plato extant. In all cases there are claims to knowledge for which no one or no thing can be given to verify or falsify either the claim or the evidence given in its support. To say that there is an idea of a thing to which all like things aspire and partake may give pause for contemplation, but it is not demonstrable by any rational means. Ask yourself: Why is no more known about Forms now than was known upon first utterance, and this despite tedious frequentation over two millennia? Answer: For same reason that no more is known about the unconscious, id and superego than was known upon first utterance 100+ years ago.

I'm still curious that when a widely-accepted theory in philosophy is challenged by empirical psychology, how did/does philosophers react. Does it simply ignore it (surely some branches in epistemology don't view empiricism as the ultimate/best way to gain knowledge)? Does it see psychology's views as superior and so change in order to be consistent? Psychology's go-to statistical tests have come under criticism relatively recently so it also makes sense that philosophy ignore psychological findings unless we're dealing with results that have stood the test of time.

Acceptance is entirely beside the point of philosophy. If acceptance were the arbiter of truth value then the earth would be flat and you could sail off of it. You cannot. Consider the difference between philosopher's and philosophy (as well that the history of philosophy is not philosophy). Philosophy is something you do. It can be said that philosophy is something you have, but to the point, philosophy is performative not contemplative. and here I will leave you with the instrumentalist ethos else philosophy is merely guesswork as to how many angels dance upon the head of a pin.

"If after utterance you cannot be assured of knowing something that you did not know before, or, failing that, that you cannot at least be able to assess whether what was uttered can eventually lead to something you did not know before, simply STFU or if you are not the utterer, reject the false argument(s)."

  • There is no support that is logically connected to any fact in the whole post. The lack of support is not theoretical, it is actual. The evidence is physically missing. It is not the job of commenters to give data. But it is the job of question answerers to provide reasoning or support. You have failed to make any attempt to give what is considered an answer in this forum.
    – user9166
    Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 20:12
  • @jobermark and stating the case is adequate to the occasion of the OP's question. The case is thus: the conclusions of psychology are opinion, not confirmation of hypothesis. Without objective measure the self cannot be rationally assessed. That you disagree is neither reasoned rejoinder, counter-argument nor counter-example.
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 20:31
  • 1
    The burden of providing evidence or citations is on the answerer -- you. I did not even disagree. I just said you owe us some logic and some context. Inventing the idea that I am even disagreeing proves you are not behaving rationally.
    – user9166
    Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 20:43
  • The first statement implies every statistical study done in developmental psychology is not aimed at judging the related hypothesis. This is either a hatred of psychology researchers, or a lack of grasp on reality. Neither is rational, so it cannot be rationally assessed.
    – user9166
    Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 22:23
  • 1
    Mr. Kennedy you seem to know nothing about experimental psychology. How is it concerned with the philosophical self? Psychology provides statistical results concerning human behaviour, including self reports, and these are reproducible. How is it opinion? Why should they be less "confirmed" than any hypothesis? They are observations, as in any fields. And how is it relevant that some subjects might lie when they say "I am glad"? It's not even clear what you mean by "rationally assessed". Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 0:21

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