The Science of Psychology: When Subject is Object

One fundamental misunderstanding in psychology's efforts to become a science seems inescapable: for anything to be known, there must be a subject who perceives and interprets the knowledge. Object and subject form a basic pair of philosophical opposites in the development of ideas, and the confusion between them is brought into relief when the subject becomes an object of science.

The ideas governing psychology and psychiatry were examined by Jung in his attempts to get at the root of the difficulties inherent in the mind's study of itself. His empirical discoveries have yet to be widely acknowledged a hundred years later. Why?

As he showed in his, Psychological Types, the argument begins with the projections of introverted and extraverted viewpoints. The two ways of seeing the world determine how we experience it. To get a clearer picture of the subjective effects of thinking on psychology in general, however, Jung's broader description of how we perceive is important.

The introvert, Jung wrote, is "... oriented by the factor in perception and cognition which responds to the sense stimulus in accordance with the individual's subjective disposition. For example, two people see the same object, but they never see it in such a way that the images they receive are absolutely identical. Quite apart from the variable acuteness of the sense organs and the personal equation, there often exists a radical difference, both in kind and degree, in the psychic assimilation of the perceptual image."

Jung explained the extraverted attitude as one which continually appeals to the external world, the object; while the introvert inclines to what the sense impression creates in the subject's response to it. As is true of all perception, he wrote:

"The difference in the case of a single apperception may, of course, be very delicate, but in the total psychic economy it makes itself felt in the highest degree, particularly in the effect it has on the ego."

The statement also applies to the specialization of science and the bodies of knowledge acquired by different disciplines. The sum of each is governed by a focus which moves back and forth on a spectrum between the single investigator and all in the field. Based on observation, repetition, and prediction, objective results are validated when all agree. Psychology has yet to agree even on the definitions of its ruling concepts.

Science is extraverted in the sense that it observes objects outside itself, though even the strictest conditions of observation require interpretation. The scientific method began as the study of objects which "don't think back"; there was no perceiving subject to be considered. Even so, Jung cautioned:

"We must not forget -- although the extravert is too prone to do so -- that perception and cognition are not purely objective, but are also subjectively conditioned. The world exists not merely in itself, but also as it appears to me. Indeed, at bottom, we have absolutely no criterion that would help us to form a judgment of a world which was unassimilable by the subject." Our human faculties of perception condition our experience of the world -- science included. Even the rudest study of the history of thought confirms this.

He explained that to ignore this subjective factor is to assume the possibility of "absolute cognition" -- that we could attain an objectivity beyond what our senses allow. All objectivity is relative to how we perceive, even with the most sensitive instruments. Beyond that, knowledge becomes the "the effect it has on the ego."

This, Jung wrote, is "an attitude of intellectual arrogance accompanied by crudeness of feeling, a violation of life as stupid as it is presumptuous. By overvaluing our capacity for objective cognition we repress the importance of the subjective factor, which simply means a denial of the subject. But what is the subject? The subject is man himself -- we are the subject. Only a sick mind could forget that cognition must have a subject, and that there is no knowledge whatever and therefore no world at all unless "I know" has been said, though with this statement one has already expressed the subjective limitation of all knowledge.

"This applies to all psychic functions: they have a subject which is just as indispensable as the object. It is characteristic of our present extraverted sense of values that the word "subjective" usually sounds like a reproof... brandished like a weapon over the head of anyone who is not boundlessly convinced of the absolute superiority of the object." The freight train of objective science and its effects on the ego have steam-rolled psychology into a fundamental contradiction. Jung wrote:

"By the subjective factor I understand the psychological action or reaction which merges with the effect produced by the object and so gives rise to a new psychic datum." Though we identify the thing with the image, the image is conditioned by the mind which reflects it. We relate to it through the unconscious effects of that immediate creation. It's as personal as it is universal. Here's the stick dangling the apple in front of psychology:

"Insofar as the subjective factor has, from the earliest times and among all peoples, remained in large measure constant, elementary perceptions and cognitions being almost universally the same, it is a reality that is just as firmly established as the external object. If this were not so, any sort of permanent and unchanging reality would be simply inconceivable, and any understanding of the past would be impossible. In this sense, therefore, the subjective factor is as ineluctable a datum as the extent of the sea and the radius of the earth."

A fact is a fact is a fact, right? Well, apparently not until we have a fuller picture of what a fact is. Separate facts are relative to a greater whole. It doesn't fit with the objectives of science to think that it can never arrive at a total picture. But, what is the total picture? Jung went on:

"By the same token, the subjective factor has all the value of a co-determinant of the world we live in, a factor that on no account can be left out of our calculations. It is another universal law, and whoever bases himself on it has a foundation as secure, as permanent, and as valid as the man who relies on the object. But just as the object and objective data do not remain permanently the same, being perishable and subject to chance, so too the subjective factor is subject to variation and individual hazards. For this reason its value is also merely relative."

Relative? Have you ever heard such a term applied by today's psychology?

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