Psychology as a Human Science: notes for students

Roger Brooke, Ph.D., ABPP
(Students: If you quote from this page, be sure to cite your references. Lifting from this page is plagiarism and is easily detected by your professors.)

Psychology as a human science is an approach to psychology in which our assumptions and methods are consistent with our experience of ourselves as human beings. Therefore, it is an approach which endeavors to address human experience and behavior on their own terms: that is, terms that are adequate to that which is particular about human beings.

Assumptions about human beings
1. Human beings are fundamentally transcendent. This term means that human beings are fundamentally conscious, interpreting and interacting with the events in their lives, using a degree of freedom in how they interpret their experience and make choices accordingly. Unlike other animals, humans have the capacity to loosen the intentional ties that bind them to their context and to reflect on their context. This possibility of transcendence is almost continuous in human experience, as we are always in some sort of dialogue with ourselves and the situation in which we are embedded. This wider perspective is founded on the fluidity, range, and complexity of human temporality.

2. Human being is always in a context. Experience and behavior are always contextual. But the human context is not merely a combination of genes and environmental conditions. The human context is a network of meaningful relations and personal intentions, rooted in language, time and cultural history. The human context is never a set of “independent variables” causing certain behaviors (“dependent variables”) to occur. This is because the human being is never separate from her context; human behavior and context do not have an external relationship between conceptually discrete variables. What natural science calls independent variables are events which are meaningfully interpreted and engaged.

For human beings, the context has an internal relation to experience and behavior, meaning that the relationship of experience to context is one of meaning, interpretation, and intentions. It is a dialectical relation that changes both the person and the context at each moment. Note that there is no context that causes you to be in this class. All the occurrences that make up the context of your being here — doing well enough on SATs, having financial support, having a history of successes which encourage you to think you can succeed, parents who believe in you (or parents who don’t and you are going to show them!), having long term professional goals — all these are contexts to which you continually relate, and this ongoing relation to context (an aspect of transcendence) changes both the context and you over time.

3. Human beings live in time in a way that is not clock time at all. Human temporality is historical, meaning that we live in the present and towards the future while still in relation to memory and the past. This is fundamentally different from the natural scientific idea of causality. Scientific determinism underlying most psychology imagines time as an endless succession of immediate material moments, each moment caused by the material events in the preceding instant. However, that notion is simply not true for human beings. We live in relation to the past as deeply historical beings, but that does not mean our behavior is caused by it. This confusion of human historicity (that we are historical beings) and determinism runs through much of psychology, and is especially exasperating in Freud. Freud’s well known terms–repetition compulsion, fixation, regression, and transference–all speak of the temporal complexity of human historicity, but this insight into the historical gravity of human motivation and experience is then translated in his metapsychology into the “scientific” language of causal determinism. Much to enjoy thinking about here.

Human science methods

  1. Seek understanding rather than physiological, epidemiological, or experimental explanation;
  2. Involve detailed, penetrating description rather than an analysis of variables/factors;
  3. Explore meaning and significance rather than measurement;
  4. Require that the researcher acknowledge the situatedness and contextuality of his or her questions and the results that emerge in relation to them. There is no God-like eye view; all statements are positional; all descriptions have an interpretative dimension and are indebted to the rigors of hermeneutics.