In The Last Superstition, Edward Feser talks of modern philosophy as if it were a cross between a conspiracy and a huge bumbling mistake. He posits that the heavy-hitters of early modern philosophy, including Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Kant, were (either unwittingly or wittingly) directly contributing to the complete breakdown of natural philosophy and ethics by eliminating formal and final causality, resulting in all sorts of novel yet paradoxical philosophical problems such as The Matrix-style brain-in-a-vat scenarios, and the so-called “mind-body problem.” He also argues that some of them did this, not because this philosophy was better, but because they wanted to free society from the shackles of the church, which had a monopoly on philosophy (and power) for centuries.
While it’s an interesting and even somewhat convincing theory, when I read the book (and even now) I didn’t know enough about the history of philosophy to really verify what he was saying. However, I did know that experimental psychology does suffer from a lot of those paradoxes, and as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, experimental psychology’s ability to model mental processes is negatively affected by a modern non-teleological view of matter. Making matters worse, modern psychologists don’t even seem to realize these problems exist, taking a billiard ball-style metaphysics uncritically and completely for granted. However, after I really examined the early foundations of modern psychology, Feser didn’t seem that crazy after all.
Anyone who has taken an introductory psychology class that talks about the history of psychology knows that in the late 1800s, there was a feud between the “Functionalists” (represented by psychologists like William James) and the “Structuralists” (represented by Wundt and Titchener), however, introductory classes don’t get much further or deeper than that. It was the dawn of a new science, psychology, and these schools of thought were attempting to lay down the epistemology and research methods of this new science. The Functionalists, in a nutshell, felt that the most useful way to study consciousness was to examine its “survival-value” as James put it, or in other words, what it was for. In line with the new-found principles of natural selection, consciousness obviously had a function, relative to the organism and its environment, and psychology ought to determine what that is. In general, I would say that the Functionalists were philosopher-psychologists, in that they were well aware of the historical roots of the philosophy of mind.
The Structuralists, on the other hand, felt that it was far more important to break down consciousness into its “elements,” and this would allow us to later (at some undefined point) to figure out what its function is. These scientists were trying to align psychology with what was then modern physics, biology, physiology, and chemistry, and this is important when trying to understand their worldview. On this view, a thing’s function could easily be ascertained once you know what the parts are. The interesting thing about the Structuralists is that they believed that the best way for psychology to understand the parts of consciousness is for trained psychologists to introspect – in other words, to “vivisect” their own consciousness into what they believed were its component parts.
At this point, you might be able to see why this should matter to metaphysics. Any talk about what a material thing is for brings up the issue of teleology, and teleology implies final causation (whether one realizes this or not).
In The Postulates of a Structural Psychology, published in 1898, Structuralist E. B. Titchener attempts to delineate the new field of structural psychology (a term he uses interchangeably with experimental psychology) from the Functionalists like William James. In this document, Titchener plainly states that Functionalism, while perhaps useful (in some nebulous way he never defines), cannot be the starting-point of the new science of experimental psychology. In fact, he argues that function isn’t even science, or at least, its conclusions have no “scientific finality.”
It is true, and it is a truth which the experimentalist should be quick to recognize and emphasize, that there is very much of value in ‘descriptive’ psychology. But it is also true that the methods of descriptive psychology cannot, in the nature of the case, lead to results of scientific finality…We must remember that experimental psychology arose by way of reaction against the faculty psychology of the last century. This was a metaphysical, not a scientific, psychology. There is, in reality, a great difference between, say, memory regarded as a function of the psychophysical organism, and memory regarded as a faculty of the substantial mind…There is, further, the danger that, if function is studied before structure has been fully elucidated, the student may fall into that acceptance of teleological explanation which is fatal to scientific advance: witness, if witness be necessary, the recrudescence of vitalism in physiology. Psychology might thus put herself for the second time, and no less surely though by different means, under the domain of philosophy. In a word, the historical conditions of psychology rendered it inevitable that, when the time came for the transformation from philosophy to science, problems should be formulated, explicitly or implicitly, as static rather than dynamic, structural rather than functional.
So Titchener is trying to keep psychology from backsliding into philosophy by denying that function can play a major role in it, though in his paper he never really justifies why the “metaphysical” or functional should be banished from psychology, other than his assertion that it’s just not scientific (and might lead to such things as vitalism). When Titchener talks about “metaphysics,” I am guessing he’s doing it in the sloppy way, or in other words, “metaphysical” means immaterial. But, ironically, by banishing the immaterial from any valid explanation in psychology, he was making a positive metaphysical claim, namely, materialism.
It is also ironic that, after the immaterial was banished from “scientific psychology,” function necessarily returned in the form of psychoanalysis and applied psychology. If you’re using psychological methods to cure an undesirable mental illness it’s hard to escape teleology – a mental process that doesn’t function properly implies it has a function! The only problem is that once function returned, psychology as a whole had forgotten that materialism and function don’t get along very well (if at all), and is unaware of the metaphysical problems that come from non-teleological matter. Most psychologists these days simply assume materialism (so they can be considered “scientific”) and figure the future of psychology will slowly but surely explain everything there is to know about consciousness. I wouldn’t hold my breath.