The Philosophers:
Their Lives and the Nature of Their Thought

Ben-Ami Scharfstein

Psychology: Ten Brief Answers

I hope that my position so far is not implausible. I continue with a basic question: What can philosophy gain by the examination of philosophers’ motives, temperaments, and lives?

Let me answer by making ten brief, interrelated points. They have been prepared by what I have already said and will be justified, as far as I can justify them, by all that follows.

1. On the genesis of objectivity: The process by which subjective problems become involved in or transformed into objective ones is crucial to the understanding of philosophy. As a collection of objective problems, philosophy has both a historical and a psychological genesis. To regard either of these as irrelevant is to sacrifice much of the ability to see philosophy in a reasonable perspective and to practice it reasonably.

2. On philosophers as philosophical instruments: In analyzing themselves historically or psychologically, philosophers shift their attention from philosophy, seen impersonally, to their own natures as philosophers. Experience, in and out of the sciences, has taught that we understand a conclusion better if we understand the physical or theoretical instruments by which it has been established. The philosopher, who is the instrument of his own thought, is no ideal thinking-machine. The nature of its human instruments can help to explain philosophy.

3. On the choice of assumptions and rules: Formal reasoning is unable to explain its own choice of assumptions and rules, except for the purpose of formal consistency and the like. Yet the choice is fateful. It may be possible to clarify it by explanations drawn from history, psychology, and other fields. If so, there is good reason to relax the now usual criteria of philosophical relevance.

4. On the likeness between implicit psychological processes and explicit reasoning: If the depth psychologies are even approximately true, the explicit reasoning of every person bears a structural relation to his emotional and implicit or unconscious processes. The relation is not predictable in detail, and its discovery is largely retrospective. But it can illuminate, not only the conscious choice of assumptions, but also the structural connections and intellectually obscure tendencies of a philosophy. These tendencies may be only implicit and yet have a powerful effect. The likeness between a person’s looks, actions, character, and philosophy may help to explain all four of these.

5. On the attraction of philosophers to certain philosophies, philosophers, and problems: The examination of the intellectually obscure or irrelevant features of a philosophy may reveal why it has attracted or repelled certain philosophers. A highly logical, minutely reasoned, or heavily qualified philosophy may attract compulsive persons. An introspective philosophy may act as a refuge for timid persons. A self-centred philosophy may attract narcissistic persons. Perhaps all the philosophers interested in music—they will be singled out—are inwardly joined, as perhaps are those—who will also be singled out—who are conspicuously uninterested in it. Perhaps philosophers who show signs of hypochondria or are concerned with suicide—both types will be pointed out—have unobvious but real philosophical similarities. Summarily, it may be supposed that there are philosophies, philosophers, or philosophic problems that attract persons because they express some dominant emotion or temper, such as doubt, fear, anger, indignation, compassion, self-indulgence, or self-division.

6. On intellectual lapses: The obscure or unintellectual features of a philosophy are likely to explain something of its intellectual lapses. Everyone but the author of a philosophy seems ready to concede that it has faults. It is possible to try to remedy these by reasoning, of course; but even if the reasoning is plausible, no one can adequately replace the philosopher himself in the construction of a philosophy. If it is he or his system that one wants to understand, it may be more enlightening, not to correct him, but to show how the presumed faults were natural to such a philosopher in such circumstances. Psychology is more clearly relevant to the explanation of obscurities, lapses, errors, and exaggerations than to that of appropriate or plausible reasoning.

7. On understanding by means of identification: All things considered, the formal grasp of the formal elements in a philosopher’s thought is not enough for understanding. One needs some sympathy, some ability to project oneself into his problems, some identification with him. As we have seen, fundamentally alien attitudes may make understanding impossible even in mathematics or physics. There is, to be sure, a necessary distance between any two persons, which it is not the normal business of philosophy to abolish. Nor can philosophy substitute the mechanism of identification for the freedom of critical reasoning. But the inability to imagine oneself in the position of someone else is a serious philosophical restriction. Psychology can help explain the restriction and perhaps weaken it.

8. On philosophical curiosity and consistency: Some of the drives, needs, or problems that underlie or constitute philosophy are relatively opaque to philosophical understanding. For example, philosophy as such is unable to explain the tenacious curiosity by which it is generated. It is likewise unable to explain its need for consistency and, beyond this, the need shown by many philosophers to create entire thought-structures ruled by harmony. Curiosity digs, consistency founds, consonance erects. Do we not want to understand why?

9. On the need for information: Whatever its pretensions, philosophy draws and must draw on the sciences and the arts. Epistemologists, who have often ignored professional psychology, have often unknowingly trespassed on it. The fairly recent sense-data theory of Russell, Broad, Moore, members of the Vienna Circle, and others is a case in point, for psychologists had long since found that the sense-datum was a more or less theoretical construct, particularly as it related to vision. [1] Learning theory has become far more sophisticated than it was, but philosophers may make assumptions that depend on earlier, now clearly oversimple versions of it. Even the attempt of contemporary philosophers to be modest and competent and confine themselves to the clarification of concepts soon intersects with lexicography, linguistics, psychology, and, I fear, non-verbal matters to which the concepts relate. Recalling his Oxford philosophical training, a psychologist remarks:

To examine the use of words is to plunge into muddle, innuendo, ambiguity, fantasy and internal contradiction. It is to discover words used for private ends, as counters in personal relations, and defined allusively, in the light of the participants’ experience. To examine the use of words is to tackle the whole of psychology, cultural anthropology and semantics combined; areas of endeavour for which the Oxford philosopher was academically and temperamentally unprepared. [2*]

10. On one’s relationship to one’s own ideas: Lastly, the relationship of a philosopher to his own ideas is never neutral. He is not merely their advocate, but their creator, and he feels them to be of his own substance. His opinion of himself rises with their success and falls with their failure. I will later use the phrase ‘idea-intimacy’ to designate his tie with them.

* ‘A common avenue to philosophy is a reaction to science (as one is taught) and one looks for a neater or less painful way of doing interesting intellectual work. As a result of this phenomenon, philosophy tends to attract impatient innovators who are eager to say new things and believe that a combination of native wits with a command of one’s native language, or diligence with a facility in logic-chopping, should be sufficient for doing most interesting intellectual work.’ H. Wang, From Mathematics to Philosophy (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), p. 374.

Psychology: Ten Brief Answers: pp. 59 - 61

1. C. F. Wallraff, ‘Sense-Datum Theory and Observational Fact: Some Contributions of Psychology to Epistemology,’ Journal of Philosophy (1, 1858). C. W. K. Mundle, Perception: Facts and Theories (London: Oxford University Press, 1971) tries to bring epistemology into consonance with the current psychology of perception. J. Piaget, Insights and Illusions of Philosophy (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972) complains that the reasoning of philosophers is vitiated by their factual ignorance.

2. L. Hudson, The Cult of the Fact, (London: Cape, 1972), p. 38.

SOURCE: Scharfstein, Ben-Ami. The Philosophers: Their Lives and the Nature of Their Thought (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980), Chapter 3: Truth (and Relevance) Again; section: Psychology: Ten Brief Answers; pp. 59 - 61, 406.

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