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Synopsis of Georges Canguilhem, ‘Qu’est-ce que la psychologie?’

[‘What is Psychology?’]

CpA 2.1:77–91

This essay by Georges Canguilhem was initially delivered as a lecture at the Collège Philosophique on 18 December 1956, and published in the Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, 1958, no. 1. Canguilhem’s essay is reprinted in CpA 2, which bears the general heading, ‘Qu’est-ce que la psychologie?’ In his Introduction to the volume, Jean-Claude Milner suggests that Canguilhem’s essay serves as a ‘guide’ for the ensuing analyses of the discourse of psychology. Milner singles out Canguilhem’s critique of contemporary psychology’s instrumentalist assumptions about subjectivity and symbolic communication, and his warnings about the influence upon it of a ‘rationalised politics’ of ‘needs and capacities’ (CpA 2.Introduction:73).

Canguilhem sets out with the claim that psychology is a discipline whose status remains unfixed and which lacks foundations. It draws in unequal and uncontrolled measure on philosophy, psychiatry, and received ideologies about social roles and positions. Modern philosophy of science acknowledges that ‘every science more or less gives itself its own given’, and that concepts of science now ‘place more emphasis on method than on object’ (CpA 2.1:78). So, on the assumption that there is no objective ‘given’ for psychology, how is it possible to delineate psychology as a ‘unitary’ domain? Canguilhem criticises Daniel Lagache’s claim in his 1949 ‘L’unité de la psychologie’ that experimental psychology, clinical psychology, psychoanalysis, social psychology and anthropology are all definable on the basis of a ‘general theory of conduct’ (78-79). For Canguilhem, Lagache’s approach overemphasises the ‘humanist’ tendency in the fields at the expense of the ‘naturalist’. The outstanding problem remains whether there is a continuity or discontinuity between human and animal language and society, and this is left unresolved in Lagache’s account, as well as in contemporary psychology in general.

Canguilhem’s approach will be to show that the term ‘psychology’ has been used by a multiplicity of independent programmes in the history of science. Before the assignation of possible points at which these programmes might meet, they each must first be intercepted at the point of their genesis.

In section I, ‘Psychology as a Natural Science’, Canguilhem argues that psychology first emerges in antiquity as a natural science, the science of the psyche or soul, which is held to be a natural being. According to the dominant Aristotelian view, the soul can be regarded by physics as part of the living body (and not yet as a substance distinct from matter). The soul is a natural object of study, a form located in the hierarchy of forms, even if its essential function is the knowledge of forms. Canguilhem detects an unbroken line from this conception of psychology to modern neuro-physiology.

In section II (‘Psychology as the Science of Subjectivity’), Canguilhem shows how the collapse of Aristotelian natural science in the 17th century led to the emergence of psychology as a new ‘science of subjectivity’, where the analysis of mind was now pursued with the aim of overcoming the illusory features of subjectivity that act as obstacles to the progress of mechanistic physics. Psychology was thus reconstituted as ‘an enterprise for the exculpation of the mind’ (CpA 2.1:81). It now breaks into three separate ‘sciences’:

(A) The science of the external senses, and the project of articulating a quantitative account of sensation (in the accounts of extensive and intensive magnitudes from Descartes and Malebranche to Fechner, Helmholtz and Wundt).

(B) The science of ‘inner sense’ in empiricist psychology (Locke, Condillac, Ribot) and rationalist psychology (Wolff). Canguilhem argues that Descartes’ object at the beginning of the third Meditation is really nothing more than ‘thought’ in its most impersonal sense, but that this was persistently misunderstood in the 17th century, where the Cartesian ‘interior’ tended to be conceived on the model of introspection or self-observation. The empiricist and rationalist conceptions of inner sense were however terminated by Kant, for whom subjectivity became ‘an organisational function of experience’ (CpA 2.1:84), rather than an element in experience. For Kantianism, even if one were to apply the mathematics of the continuum to the modifications of inner sense through the mediation of the concept of intensive magnitudes, an experimental psychology on the model of chemistry (composed of analyses and syntheses) would still not be possible.

(C) The science of the intimate senses. In contrast to Descartes’s real approach to the cogito, which proceeded with ‘the ascesis of a mathematician’ (85), the romantic psychologist Maine de Biran reformulated the cogito as an I wish, appealing to concepts of effort and affectivity, with the aim of making psychology the science of the sens intime. For Maine de Biran, the human being is not an intelligence served by organs, but a living organization that is served by an intelligence. It was this ‘somato-psychic’ approach to the mind which underwent an inversion at the end of the nineteenth century, when the psychic ceased to be the intimate, the elusive interior, and became an ‘abyssal’ unknown (86). The replacement of the ‘somato-psychic’ with the ‘psychosomatic’ occurred alongside a shift in the concept of the unconscious. In Descartes, the psyche had been assimilated to consciousness, while the unconscious was treated as belonging to the order of the physical. But after Freud, it is also possible to conceive of unconscious psychic states, so that psychology can no longer be thought as the science of consciousness. The psychic is henceforth no longer the intimate, but is now also that which itself hides, and which we hide. ‘The intimate is opened up to the abyssal, and psychology becomes the science of the depths of the soul’ (86).

In section III, Canguilhem argues that developments in these three modern scientific projects served as the conditions for the emergence of the twentieth-century conception of psychology as a biology of human behaviour (behaviourism). But whereas the theories of the previous centuries, despite their misconceptions, retained their relations with philosophical theory, the biological model of behaviourism does not allow for any philosophical approach to subjectivity, nor any historical self-understanding or social contextualization. For Canguilhem, behavioural psychology is a product of an emergent historical framework of instrumentalism. The whole modern psychology of adaptation and learning is based on a thoroughgoing instrumentalism. Present day psychology is essentially managerial and ‘derives totally from the search for the “laws” of adaptation to a socio-technical – and not a natural – environment’ (89). The use of ‘psychological testing’ is also flawed in its conception. When a subject appears to act defensively during a psychological test, this is really a sign ‘his repugnance at seeing himself treated like an insect by a man in whom he recognises no authority to pronounce on what he is and on what he must do’ (90). Alfred Kinsey continues this trend in the field of human sexual relations. These methodologies are founded on an inadequate theory of symbolic communication between subject and other.

In order to combat the ideological bases of psychology, it falls to philosophy to deploy its ‘inherent naivety’ (91) with regard to questions concerning subjectivity, and to return to ‘the side of the people and of born non-specialists’ when questioning the claims made by psychology.

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:

  • Jacques Lacan, ‘Science et la vérité’, CpA 1.1:11
  • Robert Pagès, ‘Quelques remarques sur “Qu’est-ce que la psychologie?”’, CpA 2.2:92-98

English translation:

  • Georges Canguilhem, ‘What is Psychology?’, trans. Howard Davies, I&C, vol. 7, Autumn 1980.

Primary bibliography:

  • Lagache, Daniel, L’unité de la psychologie (Paris: PUF, 1949).

Secondary literature:

  • Badiou, Alain. ‘Y a-t-il une théorie du sujet chez Georges Canguilhem?’, in Étienne Balibar et al., Georges Canguilhem: Philosophe et historien des sciences, Actes du Colloque (6-7-8 décembre 1990) (Paris: Albin Michel, 1993), pp. 295-304;
  • Balibar, Étienne, Cardot, M., Duroux, F., Fichant, M., Lecourt, Dominique, et Roubaud, J. (eds.). Georges Canguilhem: Philosophe et historien des sciences, Actes du Colloque (6-7-8 décembre 1990). Paris: Albin Michel, 1993.