Philosophy & Psychology: the odd couple

As regular readers of this blog will know, one of the things that fascinates me is how ancient Greek philosophy has been picked up and used by cognitive psychology, and how this has brought philosophy and psychology closer together.

This convergence has led to a bit of inter-disciplinary argie-bargie, or what Kant called 'the conflict of the faculties', as one discipline elbows the other. See, for example, Martha Nussbaum having a crack at Positive Psychology, or social psychologists like John Bargh and Jonathan Haidt having a crack at philosophy, or Sam Harris having a pop at pretty much everyone. At times, the two disciplines remind me of one of those odd couple movies, like Midnight Run or Planes, Trains and Automobiles, where two very different people are thrown together and forced to get on with each other.

Speaking for myself, I have been both excited and occasionally alarmed by the contemporary fusion of moral philosophy with neuro-psychology. Excited, because it seems like the therapeutic insights of ancient Greek philosophy are finally resting on a firm evidence base. Hume complained that the "moral philosophy transmitted to us by Antiquity" was "entirely hypothetical". Well, not any more. Cognitive psychology has now tested out the Stoics' cognitive theory of emotions, and many of their therapeutic techniques for transforming the emotions, and found that they often work. That's exciting. It suggests ancient ethical philosophy 'fits' with human nature, just as the Greeks claimed it did.

But I've also been alarmed, because there's a danger that this new 'moral science' or 'science of wellbeing' can become rigidly didactic, and even (in a worst case scenario) fascistic. You can imagine a future where dictators attempt to re-programme us for our own good, when we diverge from the scientifically-proven path to happiness. The danger is that claims to objectivity paralyse critical debate over the Good Life - which is itself a crucial part of the Good Life.

We're already seeing how the UK's 'emotional literacy classes' spoon-feed our children some questionable ethical assumptions about the Good Life on the basis that 'they've been scientifically proven', when in fact they haven't. Aristotle warned that we should look for accuracy in the moral sciences "only so far as the subject admits". Let's be careful. Let's encourage open debate, experimentation and innovation.

I've just read a great addition to this discussion: Kwame Anthony Appiah's Experiments in Ethics, which came out in 2008. Appiah is a professor of philosophy at Princeton, and one of the better known philosophers in the world - he was one of the interviewees in the philosophical documentary, The Examined Life, in which he spoke about cosmopolitanism (something on which he's an expert: one half of his family are British Labour party royalty, the other half is Ghanian royalty).

Appiah supervised the PhD of Joshua Knobe, the young hotshot who came up with the modern discipline of experimental philosophy (or X-Phi), which seeks to drag philosophy out of its armchair or lecture room and back into the world of experiments, field research and flesh-and-blood situations. So, in some ways, X-Phi is taking up the challenge of experimental psychology and seeking to introduce its spirit back into philosophy.

I say 'back into', because Appiah argues that experimental philosophy "rather than being something new, is as old as the term philosophy". He says: "What's novel isn't the experimental turn - what's novel was the turn away from it."

Appiah argues that philosophy and psychology were natural bedfellows until recently. In the ancient world, as he reminds us, philosophy claimed to be the 'science' of eudaimonia, or human flourishing. Plato and Aristotle, as he notes, "had almost physiological theories about the nature of the soul" (there's no 'almost' about it - they were physiological theories, and their dual processor theory of the psyche is now widely accepted in psychology).

Appiah then leaps to the 17th century, but let me add that the Hellenistic philosophers who came after Plato also taught practical philosophy, which was rooted in the idea of askesis, or exercises. You practiced the exercises, and this transformed the psyche and helped you attain eudaimonia. So really, their philosophy was self-experimental. And the 'evidence' that a philosophy worked was your life, your inner states, and how you behaved in various trying situations. This idea of the askesis or self-experimentation of philosophy was then carried into Christianity: hermits and monks were, really, self-experimental philosophers, practicing askesis on themselves to transform their psyches and attain developed states of consciousness. For more on this, read Pierre Hadot's Philosophy as a Way of Life.

You then have the appearance of 'natural philosophers' in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Some of these try to practice 'experimental philosophy' - this usually means experiments on the external world, rather than on themselves. The exception to this is practitioners of alchemy, which involved experimentation on both the external world and the inner world of the alchemist - but this field could hardly claim to be empirical in the way that, say, the experiments of the Royal Society strived to be. It was, alas, full of charlatans.

In the 18th century, we see David Hume, in his Treatise of Human Nature, trying to "introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects". And throughout the 19th and early 20th century, experiments in psychology were considered a proper part of the discipline of philosophy. Indeed, JS Mill asserted that logic "in so far as it is a science at all, is a part, or branch, of Psychology".

To show the closeness of these two disciplines, Appiah notes that Josiah Royce was president of the American Psychological Association in 1902, and then president of the American Philosophical Association in 1903. He also notes that, until the middle of the 20th century, the philosophy course at Cambridge was called the 'moral sciences' course, and could include an optional course in experimental psychology.

So when did the two disciplines split? Appiah points the finger at Husserl and Frege (two philosophers about whom I admit I am almost entirely ignorant), who, he claims, introduced a "vehement anti-psychologism" into philosophy, in an attempt to define itself against psychology. Frege, he notes, tried to separate the truths of philosophy from the psychological or cognitive processes by which we reached them. Frege wrote: "The description of the origin of an idea should not be taken for a definition, nor should the account of the mental and physical conditions for becoming aware of a proposition be taken for a proof."

Philosophy became, throughout the 20th century, increasingly a discipline devoted to "conceptual analysis", to analyses of logic, meaning and language, analyses which became increasingly remote from any practical usefulness in people's attempts to be happy. (For a great satire of how obtuse and pointless philosophy became, listen to Beyond The Fringe's great sketch about Bertrand Russell and GE Moore, here.)

Philosophy sought to defend itself from the encroachments of psychology by erecting a great wall and calling it the Is / Ought divide, which David Hume supposedly invented, though as Appiah points out, "Hume never supposed that a disjunction between 'is' and 'ought' was a reason to recoil from evidence and experiments".

It's seemed to me, and it seems to Appiah too, that you can insist far too much on the Is / Ought divide. Any 'ought' has to be based on some sort of psychological theory of human nature, or 'Is'. Appiah writes: "What would be the point of norms that human beings were psychologically incapable of obeying?"

Finally, Appiah notes that philosophy, from the 1960s on, increasingly returned from its obtuse isolation back to Aristotle, the Greeks, and the idea of philosophy having the goal of eudaimonia, or human flourishing. He quotes Richard Wollheim, writing in 1961: "It is a very marked feature of the moral philosophy of the recent past that it has sedulously separated questions of philosophy from questions of psychology...But now that the differences have been firmly noted, it may well be the task of the moral philosophy of the immediate future no longer to hold apart the two aspects of human nature so distinguished. Moral philosophy, in other words, may revert from the tradition of Kant to that of Aristotle".

And this is what happened - the Neo-Aristotelians and Neo-Stoics are now back in force, with Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue in 1981, with Martha Nussbaum's work on flourishing and capabilities over the last 20 years, with Lawrence Becker's return to Stoicism, with Pierre Hadot's work on the 'spiritual exercises' of ancient philosophy, and with cognitive psychology's useful empirical testing of the ideas and techniques of ancient philosophy. We have indeed seen a rejuvenation of philosophy through the embrace of eudaimonia as a goal.

Still, I would argue that philosophy still has quite a lot of catching up to do with psychology. Experimental philosophy sounds cool, but, as Appiah points out, it's still focusing on hypothetical moral quandary questions, which are somewhat interesting, but not much practical help to the ordinary man or woman's pursuit of eudaimonia. Pondering quandaries has its place, but you don't tend to come across that many quandaries in real life. I've never thankfully been faced with a runaway trolley scenario. But there are many real life challenges that we often face - how to cope with rudeness, or loss, or insecurity. What can philosophy tell us about these situations?

The challenge for philosophers now is genuinely to embrace the self-experimental spirit of their Hellenistic ancestors. It is no longer sufficient merely to quote philosophy. The challenge is to live it. Philosophy, then, becomes a much more demanding pursuit. It's not something you merely know about, and can understand and teach. A philosopher in the future will be judged, as they were in the past, as much by how they live as by what they say. The evidence of the efficacy of their teaching will be their own actions and lives.

Philosophy is already changing in this way. I think Alain De Botton is a pioneer in this sense - he was insisting a decade ago that philosophy is really a form of self-help - it was and is becoming so again. But that means we expect a lot from philosophers - we expect them to be virtuosos of self-control and emotional equanimity. Which is hard, because, as De Botton has himself said, most people get into philosophy because of emotional traumas, and are often somewhat more insecure and emotionally volatile than the average punter - that's why they are drawn to philosophy.

As soon as philosophy seriously returns to its original goal of the pursuit of eudaimonia, you will quickly see, as you saw in the ancient world, a whole host of shysters and charlatans talking the talk of philosophy while failing to walk the walk. What I like about De Botton, and what I aspire to myself, is his honesty - he does not claim to be wiser or happier than the average punter. He is open about his own failings and insecurities. He reminds me, in that sense, of Rousseau, or Montaigne, both of whom were also admirably open about their own insecurities.

Finally, to return to Appiah's book, he suggests that situationist psychology may pose a fatal threat to Greek philosophy's idea that we can train ourselves through askesis to become more coherent, wiser and better people. Psychologists like John Bargh have shown how humans are very often simply reacting to the situations they're in. We're a million different people from one day to the next - depending on the cues and primers around us. Think, for example, of Philip Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment. So how then can we hope ever to become 'masters of our selves', as the Greeks claimed we could, if we can't help but respond automatically to the cues of our environment?

This, to me, should be the terrain of modern experimental philosophy. The experiments of Bargh and others reveal to us how human nature usually is. But the ancients claimed that we could train it to become more coherent, more conscious, more resilient, more capable of conscious critical thought in the heat of the moment. The training is hard. Let's see if it works, in real life situations.

How do we make humans more resilient, more capable of robust moral agency that survives even in stressful situations? How do we train ourselves, and others, to be conscious, to think for ourselves, to resist mindlessness? What is the proper course of training? How do we make our automatic habits conscious, and our conscious insights automatic?

I think Positive Psychology, to its credit, is already doing important work in these areas, and is already applying its ideas on a huge scale - look for example at its programme to teach Stoic / CBT ideas and techniques to every soldier in the US Army. I think behavioural economics is also making advances: it's teaching us more and more about the irrational biases our minds are prone to, but has more work to do on how to train ourselves to resist those biases. Modern philosophy is late to this party, but it should put on its dancing shoes and get involved.