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Making psychology a reflexive human science

As the thousand flowers of psychological research bloom in the fields of popular understanding, we ought to reflect upon the nature of the explanations our field proffers. 

The model of the rational computable subject leaves out much that makes us human. For one it does not adequately convey the relation between culture and biology. It is time we admit the insufficiency of the positivist project; we should not tie our hopes of explanation too tightly to the experimental paradigms we develop to operationalize prevalent metaphors of mind (Koch, 1999; Danziger, 2008). 

Joseph Henrich’s reflections on the cultural context of empirical research further suggest that the majority of our findings reflect a very small WEIRD sample of the human population. Lack of context obscures the significance and meaning of research results. Empirical psychology ought to foreground historical and cultural context so that in addition to deriving descriptive principles of mechanism, psychologists can discursively approach the phenomena as part of our broader cultural projects. 

Drawing from historical and anthropological forms of analysis will allow psychology to better encapsulate how the mind emerges from and reflects back onto its particular cultural context. 

History and context can expand empirical psychology

An interdisciplinary psychology must posit explanation at multiple levels, from description of the mechanics of receptor function to the discursive space of identity. Mixing these distinct layers of explanation would allow the mind sciences to express the phenomenological reality of the contextual setting of individual minds. Anthropology is designed to secure such stories and will help us describe what epistemic use psychology fulfills in a given locale. For example, psychology is used in the West to assess pathology and provide therapeutic interventions for mental suffering. 

“It is time we admit the insufficiency of the positivist project.”

If tradition is the self-encounter of the human mind, horizon is the vantage point of knowing the relative significance of a finite position. History then allows for a broader understanding of the reflexive links between knowledge and practice. As Gadamer (2004) surmised, we understand the horizon of the questions we ask by regaining concepts from the past in a way that includes our own comprehension of them. Deployment of psychology in concordance with an historical anthropology enriches our understanding of the symbolic sphere we inhabit. According to Roger Smith (2019: 17), “Historical knowledge contributes narrative, and the understanding of narrative is fundamental to the notion of being human; human self-knowledge and action are mutually constitutive, or, belief changes a person and what a person does changes belief.” 

We also know from history that many causes are best characterized as chaotic or through complexity theory due uncertainty, the interdependency of variables, and the contingent nature of agency (Gaddis, 2002). The historical method of developing narratives seems to be crucial to our imaginative appraisals of truth and knowledge and should be considered in its own regard as a shaping influence upon the nature of belief and explanation in psychology. Observation, imaginative sense-making, and perspective-taking are themselves sources of knowledge rather than artifacts in the scientific process (Osbeck, 2019).

Models should allow for variability, design limitations, and failure rates. Heuristics should be understood as pragmatic applications that we substitute for deductive knowledge (Wimsatt, 1976). Our theories should be so robust and valid that failure of replication does not threaten the foundation of the field. To counteract these crises, psychologists can develop familiarity with levels of analysis above and below the brain and the person. In this way, we can develop generative models which are open to inter-field integration. 

“Making psychology a more reflexive human science would bestow a sense of scope and context.”

It is time empirical psychology adds historical and anthropological methodology so that in addition to descriptive principles of mechanism and verificationism a new generation of psychologists will approach the mind with a view to more discursive, contextualized, and empathetic explanation. Some community psychology is already moving in this direction, but we also need laboratory and theoretical research to adopt this approach. Making psychology a more reflexive human science would bestow a sense of scope and context and allow for more effective communication with humanists and natural scientists. 

Exciting frontier work that integrates types of explanation are being undertaken in the study of affect, pain management, and the gut-brain axis. Such work expands and investigates the embeddedness and multilevel integration of mind and body. Focusing on such phenomena has the potential to unify subjective/mental and objective/material aspects of mind because it concerns the precise relations between bodily mechanisms and enculturated conscious experience. Using anthropology, we can see healing as the pragmatic goal of such work in the historical context of a shift from dualism to monism. Through a more thorough understanding of our mythological frames, we can better understand the motivations of the unique form of shared understanding that is psychological explanation.

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