Letter/Observer Forum

Interdisciplinarity and Integration: How Far and Wide?

Jason Finley is to be commended for his succinct statement of the potential value to psychology of knowledge and understanding grounded in the humanities (“Bridging Psychological Science and the Humanities,” Observer, October 2017). What would be even more gratifying is if we would recognize and celebrate how such a perspective was astutely analyzed, several decades ago and in characteristically cogent and colorful style, by APS Fellow Sigmund Koch. This summary statement of his vision of “The Psychological Studies” should serve as further invitation to consider both its intellectual and institutional implications.

I have argued that psychology has been misconceived, whether as science or any kind of coherent discipline devoted to the empirical study of man. That psychology can be an integral discipline is the 19th century myth that motivated its baptism as an independent science — a myth which can be shown to be exactly that, both by a priori and empiricohistorical considerations. My position suggests that the noncohesiveness of psychology finally be acknowledged by replacing it with some such locution as “the psychological studies.” The psychological studies, if they are really to address the historically constituted objectives of psychological thought, must range over an immense and disorderly spectrum of human activity and experience. If significant knowledge is the desideratum, problems must be approached with humility, methods must be contextual and flexible, and anticipations of synoptic breakthrough held in check. Moreover, the conceptual ordering devices, technical languages (“paradigms,” if you prefer) open to the various psychological studies are — like all human modes of cognitive organization — perspectival, sensibility-dependent relative to the inquirer, and often noncommensurable … Because of the immense range of the psychological studies, different areas of study will not only require different (and contextually apposite) methods, but will bear affinities to different members of the broad groupings of inquiry as historically conceived. Fields like sensory and biological psychology may certainly be regarded as solidly within the family of the biological and, in some reaches, natural sciences. But psychologists must finally accept the circumstance that extensive and important sectors of psychological study require modes of inquiry rather more like those of the humanities than the sciences.

-Frank Kessel
University of New Mexico

References and Further Reading

Bevan, W., & Kessel, F. S. (1994). Plain truths and home cooking: Notes on the making and remaking of psychology. American Psychologist, 49, 505–509.

Koch, S. (1999). Psychology versus the psychological studies. In D. Finkelman & F. S. Kessel (Eds.). Sigmund Koch: Psychology in human context — Essays in dissidence and reconstruction (pp. 115–143). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Kessel, F. S., & Finkelman, D. (2001). The lasting legacy of Sigmund Koch. American Psychologist, 56, 417–419.

Leary, D. (2001). One big idea, one ultimate concern: Sigmund Koch’s Critique of Psychology and Hope for the Future. American Psychologist, 56, 425–432.

Robinson, D. (2001). Sigmund Koch — philosophically speaking. American Psychologist, 56, 420–424.