Adrian Williams: Dialectical Psychology

As explained by Walford (1981) with references back to Harold Walsby’s paper The Paradox Principle and Modular Systems Generally, the particular value of dialectical logic lies in the comprehension of intellectual and social matters. For the process of manipulating the physical world in order to survive as individuals or as a society formal logic is usually more appropriate. The field of study which shows this difference most clearly is psychology, a wide-ranging subject which was only admitted to the International Council of Scientific Unions in 1982 although it had been a member of the International Social Science Council since 1952. In 1982 psychology was admitted to be “in part a natural science and in part a social science,” before being accepted by the other physical and biological sciences.

This information has been taken from the Presidential Address to the British Psychological Society in 1983 (Hetherington, 1983). The rest of the address covers definitions of psychology, plus anecdotal evidence, introspective data and phenomenology, psychokinesis, mysticism, and religious experiences. The conclusion refers to “the hermeneutic method” and ends by suggesting that “psychology is part a natural science, part a social science and part an interpretative science.” The final sentence is: “Perhaps we need William James to remind us that ‘the natural-science assumptions with which we started are provisional and revisable things.'” (James, 1892)

Somewhere in these ideas is the concept of the dialectic even though it is not mentioned by Hetherington. William James was a famous psychologist of the last century whose ideas have come into fashion, and been partly lost again during this century.

Another version of psychology which requires recognition of dialectic is Freud’s work on psychoanalysis, of which the most important feature is that our understanding of ourselves is self-contradictory. This conclusion is so alien to the psychologists who use formal logic that they deride psychoanalysis as unscientific and substantially cut it out of the syllabus of courses in higher education in Britain. How do they get away with it? The answer is the usual one: the psychologists who use exclusively formal logic in their work are the majority and they can impose their views by force of numbers on the minority who use dialectical logic.

However, the dialectic will not be denied. Because all theories that use formal logic are inadequate there comes a time when enough work has been done to show the limits of the current theory and a new theory has to come into use. This is the change of paradigm of a group of scientists as explained by Thomas Kuhn (1962). Since these scientists using formal logic cannot handle the idea that something can be itself and not itself at the same time they restrict themselves to the idea that something is itself or not itself. A paradigm shift then reduces to changing to a theory which bases itself on features opposite to some of those which were regarded as most basic previously. Parastatic psychology has been doing this all this century. A survey of this process is given by Allan Buss in chapter one of A Dialectical Psychology (Buss, 1979). Buss shows that the structuralist psychology of Wilhelm Wundt at the end of the last century was based on the concept that the person constructs reality (PcR). This theory was superseded by the behaviourism of Watson, Skinner, Hull, and Tolman in which reality constructs the person (RcP). This has now given way to the present-day cognitive psychology in which PcR.

Those are the parastatic forms of psychology but there are also eidodynamic forms. Throughout this century Freudian psychoanalysis (RcP) has been suffering increasing competition from the humanistic psychology (PcR) of Abraham Maslow and others. Buss’ classification of Freud and Maslow agree with the stated positions of the originators but misses an important feature of each Freud’s theory assumes RcP but is then used to direct an analysis and attention inward so that he/she may be released from the effects of reality (i.e. RcP becomes PcR). Maslow assumes PcR but directs a client to a hierarchy of needs of which the most basic are biological/physical needs. By taking account of these, adjusting behaviour to allow for them, he/she is able to concentrate thereafter on higher needs (Pcr becoming RcP). Both types of psychology can thus be seen to incorporate two views in conflict – it is indeed largely this that leads us to classify these theories as dialectical. Since the people who support eidodynamic theories do not simply back down when faced by superior numbers against them these theories can remain in use alongside each other until replaced by more comprehensive theories (as opposed to those just changing some starting assumptions).

As might be supposed from the title of Buss’ book, he wants all the old forms of psychology to be replaced by a dialectical psychology which “emphasises the reciprocal, interactive relationship between the person and reality such that each may serve as both subject and object.” (Buss, p. 8) From the standpoint of systematic ideology we can safely say that he is not going to get it. Most of the psychologists anywhere in the world work at a parastatic level doing detailed work on the aptitudes and motivations of people to do particular sorts of work or other activities concerning physical problems, i.e. just the activities for which both the psychologists and their subjects need to use formal logic. It can be predicted therefore that the bulk of psychologists will use theories which oscillate over periods of years from relying on RcP to relying on PcR and vice versa. What determines which theory is dominant? (Or, to reformulate the question: what determines which theory becomes the paradigm for the bulk of eidostatic psychologists?). Systematic ideology offers (as yet, at least) no information to answer that question. The question and the answers are left to conventional historians who will offer various explanations based on the personalities and social structures of the time in dispute, and also varying according to the assumptions of the major ideology which each historian brings to his own work.

The hopelessness of trying to spread dialectical psychology as the norm is shown by the recent history of psychoanalysis. Schools of analysts have proliferated, each with its own jargon to add to the original esoteric words derived from Latin and Greek. None of these schools can point to evidence of a dominant position for itself. In contrast, a version of Freudian theory reduced to eidostatic terms has been developed and widely spread. This is Transactional Analysis (TA), originated by Eric Berne in the early 1960’s (Berne, 1975), where the Freudian superego, ego and id have been replaced by Parent, Adult and Child within the person. Conflicts between these three “ego states” are admitted and explained but the concept of self-contradiction will not be found in any book about TA. Such is the reality of producing and selling a work for mass (eidostatic) consumption. Moreover, for those who want to use TA as therapy, results are expected to be much faster and cheaper than with psychoanalysis (one session per week of group treatment as opposed to five sessions per week of individual treatment). However, a theory with the simple concepts of TA expressed in words such as ‘game,’ ‘racket,’ and ‘script’ will not generate more understanding of human thinking for an ideologist. Such a person is still left with having to learn about psychoanalytic concepts and the analogy of the development of personal thinking from birth to the ideological development of a society from, its foundation.

Let us therefore welcome dialectical psychology from whoever it comes as a wide-ranging eidodynamic form of psychology and thus as development of our understanding of ourselves while recognising that will never have the large-scale following that its proponents hope for.

Berne E.: (1975) Transactional Analysis in Pychotherapy, London: Souvenir.
Buss A. (1979), A Dialectical Psychology, New York: Irvington.
Hetherington R. (1983), Bull. Brit. Psychol. Soc. 36, 273.
James W. (1892), Psychology, the Briefer Course, p.335, New York: Holt.
Kuhn T. (1962), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Walford G. (1981) The Dialectic of Demand, paper available from the author at the same address as Ideological Commentary.

from Ideological Commentary 19, July 1985.