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More on Psychology as a Human Science

What exactly is a "human science"? In view of the diversity of perspectives it embraces, a precise definition of the term "human science" is elusive, and ultimately depends on your definitions of "human" and "science". Nevertheless, the term "human science approach" in psychology refers to a variety of kindred perspectives that share some common roots and assumptions about the goals and methods of our discipline.

The first person to treat psychology as a human science was Wilhelm Dilthey, whose two volume treatise, Introduction to the Human Sciences appeared in 1893. Dilthey argued that the natural sciences employ experimental and quantitative research methods which seek to predict and control the behavior of objects, and are therefore inappropriate to the study of human history, psychology or art. The study of human minds and their artifacts requires a separate methodology which does not seek to predict or control people's behavior, but which seeks instead to understand it.

To grasp what Dilthey was getting at, consider the distinction between the German words Erklären and Verstehen. Erklären means to explain objects, events and processes in terms of antecedent causes in naturalistic terms, as the natural sciences do. It applies equally to the behavior of inanimate matter, other animal species, and to human beings, considered from a materialistic and deterministic point of view.

As a result, the process of Erklären seeks to render the world intelligible by minimizing, abolishing or transcending human subjectivity, and by explaining the contents and qualities of experience in terms of natural processes that go on outside of it. So, for example, gravity, gamma rays, natural selection are not objects of experience, though they shape our experiential world profoundly.

The word Verstehen, by contrast, applies only to human behavior, and the attempt to render human subjectivity intelligible in its own terms. It is an intersubjective or interexperiential process of understanding the other person in light of the meanings with which they themselves endow their situation or surroundings, which Dilthey termed hermeneutics. By contrast with Erklären, which seeks to bracket or eliminate subjective experience, Verstehen seeks to elucidate it fully by attending carefully to the contents of consciousness, and the tacit or "lived" meanings that are embodied unconsciously in the structures of human subjectivity.

After Dilthey, two movements in Continental philosophy that embraced and espoused a human science perspective were phenomenology and existentialism. Phenomenology stresses that there is a world of immediate or "lived" experience that precedes the objectified and abstract world of natural-scientific inquiry. To regain the freshness of primordial experience often requires that we unlearn old habits of thought through patient and unbiased attention to the nuances of "subjective" experience, while questioning many widespread cultural preconceptions about organism and environment, mind and body, subjectivity and objectivity, facts and values, perception, memory, affect, volition, and so on.

Existentialism stresses that despite disparate social and historical situations, differences in age, gender, ability and so on, all people, partake of the same basic structure of existence -- of thrownness, contingency, and the need to infuse or confer value and to impart meaning to life through action and decision, and to take responsibility for their personal destiny.

Like phenomenology, existentialism took root in a mood of deep disenchantment with the 19th and 20th century European zeitgeist. By the end of the 19th century, the rapid growth of the natural sciences promised abundant moral and material blessings on all believers in the cult of progress. In this brave new world, positivists proposed that philosophy should assume her mission, as handmaiden to the natural sciences. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were two notable thinkers who refused positivism's stifling embrace, and argued that the real goals of philosophy, self knowledge and freedom, are not to be found on this path, and that the ideology of progress obscures alarming trends toward conformism, banality and routine self-deception.

These concerns, echoed to varying degrees by 20th Century existentialists, informed the development of existential phenomenological psychology. Historically, the psychology department at Duquesne emphasized existential and phenomenological approaches to the study and treatment of mental disorder. Nowadays, however, we define ourselves and our approach less narrowly, and see the pursuit of psychology as a "human science" as one which draws deeply on many non positivist traditions in Continental philosophy.

Thus hermeneutics, psychoanalysis and depth psychology, feminism, critical theory, and post-structuralism are also explored in the department’s ongoing efforts to develop psychology as a human science. Underlying this project is a concern for the multiple meanings of human life, the importance of cultural diversity in pursuing a truly human science, and the liberation and well being of persons individually as well as in community.