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Synopsis of Robert Pagès, ‘Quelques remarques sur “Qu’est-ce que la psychologie?”’

[‘Some Remarks on “What is Psychology?”’]

CpA 2.2:92–98

Robert Pagès was Daniel Lagache's successor as the head of the Laboratoire de Psychologie at the Sorbonne and was a proponent of a discipline he referred to as social psychology. This piece is the response Pagès made to Georges Canguilhem’s 1956 lecture ‘What is Psychology?’ (reprinted in CpA 2.1). It was first published in 1958 in the Revue de métaphysique et morale, alongside the published form of Canguilhem’s lecture. In the note appended to the piece, Canguilhem states that Pagès’ response derives from interventions he made following the former’s 1956 lecture at the Collège Philosophique.

Pagès contends that despite Canguilhem’s critique in ‘What is Psychology?’, the project of a ‘scientific psychology’ is still a valid one. He announces his agreement with Canguilhem’s proposition that concepts of science now ‘place more emphasis on method than on object’ (CpA 2.1:78). Like every science, says Pagès, psychology has a method, or a ‘protocol of operations’ (CpA 2.2:92). But against Canguilhem’s suggestion (following Kant) that psychology is at best ‘descriptive’, Pagès argues that it can nevertheless continue to aspire to the status of experimental science. ‘Every domain of description can, in principle [en droit], become experimental’ (93). As an example, he gives his own discipline of social psychology. He claims that the sociology of larger groups (such as urban populations) has arrived at experimental status, even if this is not yet the case for the sociology of small groups. ‘If psychological description … is possible in fact, experimentation is possible by right and scientifically desirable - desirable because description is never more than a truncated experimentation, where the different variables are simply subjected to a limited range of “anecdotal” values, unsystematically classed’ (93).

Pagès concedes that psychology necessarily assumes selective definitions of what human beings are, and presupposes an implicit distinction between animal and human behaviour, but he denies that this means it rests on an unacknowledged ‘philosophy’. It assumes nothing more than the set of operational properties it gives itself in any particular instance. It has no internal tendency to treat human beings as mere instruments (or as a ‘man-instrument’ [homme-outil], as he paraphrases Canguilhem’s depiction in CpA 2.1:88-89); what it is doing is producing knowledge of human beings that can be deployed in multiple ways. Referring back to Canguilhem’s reference to the ‘bleak and insipid’ Kinsey (CpA 2.1:90), Pagès replies that the statistical accounts of human sexual behaviour provided by scientists like Kinsey can be deployed in a number of ways, both positive and negative. Alluding to Kinsey’s origins as an entomologist, Pagès suggests that in any case Kinsey’s innovations are a step forward from the old ways of entomology, which was ‘for too long devoted to the poetry of the marvellous’ (CpA 2.2:94).

With regard to Canguilhem’s account of how present day psychology became dominated by a biological behaviourism that can aptly be called ‘psycho-technicist’, Pagès issues three main objections. First, he says that he is ‘uncertain that the separation of the initial “meanings” [“sens”] of the different branches of psychology has been carried over entirely to the present day’ (CpA 2.2:94-5; cf. CpA 2.1:79); 90). In the current situation of psychology, the techniques and ideas of the entire range of different approaches touched upon by Canguilhem have been caught up in a cross-pollination. So psychopathology in its most recent form appeals to tests and psychometrics, while conversely psychoanalytic ideas have played an important role in animal experimental psychology. Second, Canguilhem’s claim that research into learning, habit and adaptation is necessarily ‘instrumentalist’ can be questioned. Pagès claims that in ‘What is Psychology?’ Canguilhem himself makes a distinction between the utility of knowledge for human beings (‘utilitarianism’) and the utility of human beings for knowledge (which Pagès agrees can aptly be called ‘psycho-technicism’); the former does not imply the latter. Third, Canguilhem’s account of the dominance of ‘psycho-technicians’ in contemporary psychology does not take account of ‘interior conflicts’ (96) in particular fields. Pagès contends that the study of learning (a term he prefers over the ‘more pragmatic’ French apprentissage) is riven between different approaches, theoretical, clinical and political, to the study of aptitudes and to psychological testing, and that it is precisely this lack of consensus that makes the theory of learning one ‘the most unifying’ [le plus unificateur] among the domains of psychology (96).

Pagès notes that some of Canguilhem’s concerns about the ideological use of psychology as a technique of subordination could possibly be alleviated by making these ideologies ‘the object of a psycho-sociological study’ (96). Although many contemporary professional psychologists do indeed practice subjugating techniques, as when they allow ‘the constraints of the labour market or the economies of war to constitute the latent or explicit norms of the selections, orientations or formations’ (96) of the study of behaviour, even if this approach is statistically predominant and historically actual, there is no logical relation between psychology and ‘the philosophy of the man-instrument’ (96). What is required is a change in values, not in method.

Pagès concludes that it remains to re-assess the relations between three domains: (1) psychological technique, with regard to its efficacity and orientation in social practice; (2) psychological science, with regard to its coherence and status, and (3) the philosophy of psychology (whether it appears implicitly or explicitly). He claims that ‘if philosophical anthropology is the attempt to put the sciences of man into philosophical perspective’, then ‘contemporary psychology could also contribute to the project of a liberatory anthropology’ (97).

A brief ‘Note’ by Georges Canguilhem is appended to Pagès’s piece. Canguilhem notes that he retains his reservations about ‘the psychology of instrumentalist inspiration’, and doubts that it could be grounded in any sort of ‘systematic philosophy’ (98). With regard to the latter, he says ‘I apologise for not having marked more explicitly in the lecture my refusal - whether wrongly or with reason - to give the name of philosophy to a construction whose aim will not be the search for any form of plenitude of consciousness, exclusive of all division in the human species’ (98).

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


English translation:

  • None

Primary bibliography:

  • Canguilhem, Georges, ‘Qu’est-ce que la psychologie?’, CpA 2.1