DO SCHOOLS OF PSYCHOLOGY STILL EXIST ?

by Wolfgang Metzger (1972)

(1st part)

[W. Metzger Bibliography of Publications in English, French, Italian, Japanese and Spanish]


Special lecture at the 36th Congress of the Japanese Psychological Association. Osaka University 1972, 1-20.
A German version, titled "Gibt es noch Psychologische Schulen?", was first published in 1973 in Westermanns pädagogische Beiträge (1973/6, 314-325), re-published in 1986 in Wolfgang Metzger, Gestalt-Psychologie (Frankfurt: Kramer, 109-123).


I. Formulation of the Question

If today we were to ask a psychologist, "What is left of the great disputes which determined the image of psychology in the twenties ?" the answer would be over-shadowed by a kind of a tacit agreement. "Those disputes belong to history. Psychological schools do not exist any more. Those particular conceptions which used to be the cause of fights as bitter as those over the articles of faith became part of our general psychological knowledge. We have found that their validity is not a general one, but rather limited to certain partial areas and problems. They are, in a sense, banished to that place in the general image of psychology where they belong."

It is an odd concept of science, which is pronounced here: a specific clear-cut image of the human being and of human mental life is renounced. Psychology becomes a collection of correlations between all possible psychological facts including all physiologial, physical, geographical, sociological, etc. facts which might be found in their viciity; sometimes, it becomes a collection of mathematical formulas which define those interrelations somewhat more exactly. However, those who would hope to find in conemporary psychology something that would lead to understanding of one's self and of others would fail to find it. In reality, the situation is even worse. In his very knowledgeable essay (Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 1965), J. McV. HUNT draws attenion to the very peculiar contradiction between the basic conceptions of modern psychology and those of successful progressive educational practice.

HUNT considers the present pedagogical-psychological way of thinking a schizophrenic one as far as suggestions for educational practice are concerned. With those suggesions derived from the basic concepts of modern psychology, a pedagogue may be only amused or offended. Modern psychology can offer nothing more than rewards for the desired behaviour and punishments for the undesired one by means of which certain habits are supposed to be built up and others eliminated. On the other hand, modern pedagogics maintains that these are the most dubious means of education. That means, then, that our nice concept of the unity of psychology is a thoroughly false one. Two sciences on the same subject - HUNT continues - contradictory in their basic assumptions and inferences cannot be both true at the same time. Sooner or later, one of them will have to give up. And HUNT supposes that it will be psychology rather than pedagogics.

His assumption is supported by two experiments (among others) published almost at the same time: SCHENK-DANZINGER's experiment with a human child and HARLOW's experiment with the child of the rhesus monkey. According to them it appears, first, that the question of whether or not those beings will accept the social behaviour desired in their group is decided at a stage of their development, where they cannot have any experience with pleasant or unpleasant consequences of certain behaviour in the group - which, according to the S-R-model of the classical learning theory, is the necessary condition for the appropriation of suitable patterns of social behaviour - because they are still hanging on the breast of their mothers. Second, there has not been, as yet, a successful attempt to return an uncared-for to the path of virtue, i.e., back to the desired social behaviour, by punishing his undesired behaviour and rewarding the desired one. To this end, quite different measures are needed, as we may read - to name only the sources on hand - in the classical studies of AICHHORN, and also in the works of Alfons SIMON and H. FÜLLIGER.

However, is it really so bad with psychology? Is the S-R-scheme, including the modifications introduced by passive and active conditioning, really all that psychology has to offer for the solution of educational problems? This question is parallel with that of the unity of psychology, i.e., with whether there are really no more differing conceptions and schools in psychology. Should the answer be affirmative, it would be necessary - to cope with the knowledge and needs of the pedagogues - to invent immediately a new psychology which would correspond better to the reality of man.

Moreover, an affirmative answer would mean that psychology is no longer a young, vital, progressive science, as such sciences are characterized by continuous emerging of new problems bringing about the most contradictive assumptions or hypotheses. And it is an age-old experience that one of the most significant driving powers of progress is the effort to find among these contradictory assumptions the correct one. The notion "assumption" or "hypothesis" should not be understood here in the diluted sense of statistical lingo where it means only one of several possible outcomes of a situation, which - if it does not come true - is "rejected". This notion means something more to us : a not yet or not yet sufficiently proved assumption concerning a more or less broad scope of functional relations, in about the sense in which the notion "model" is understood today, but without the presently much advocated meaning that only a mathematical formulation makes a full-fledged model out of a hazy idea. (See also DROESLER, Congress in Vienna, Symposium on Perception.) Thus, we understand the notion "hypothesis" in the old sense, as a statement, which could be promoted to the status of a theory by sufficient experimental proof.

Of course, there will always be hypotheses of very different ranges. And only in those cases where the hypotheses had a sufficient range, a sufficiently broad area of validity, a basic significance, was it customary to speak about a "school", especially when it advocated several different, logically independent but "matching" hypotheses at the same time.

Thus, the question appears to be as follows: are there still some differences in the opinions concerning the basic questions in psychology ?

II. The Principles of Contemporary Psychology

Let us take, as our first example, orthodox behaviourism, as it was represented, for example, by SKINNER, because it is widely considered the psychology of the present time (also by HUNT). Analysis shows that it is built up of about a dozen principles conceived by the prominent representatives of the school as axioms or articles of faith. However, they might be nothing more than unproved hypotheses.

1. The Principle of Objectivity

Only data which can be observed and recorded from outside may be used in psychoogy if it is supposed to be scientific psychology. Psychology can cope with its ambition to be an empirical science only as a science of behaviour.

This is not a hypothesis concerning the facts of psychology; rather, it is a methodic rule, or, more clearly, a prohibition to evaluate certain data because of their lack of reliability.

2. The Principle of Passivity or of Primary Reactivity

The psycho-physical organism starts to function only because of external influence. Thus, the objective of the science of behaviour is to assess the relations between the influences from outside (stimuli or situations, "S") and the reactions towards the outside world (responses, "R"), i.e., the "S-R-relation". The reactions R, bring about a mostly new situation resp. a new kind of influence S2; thus, the elementary relation as a whole may be symbolized as S1-R-S2.

3. The Principle of Genetic Identity of Psycho-physical Systems

The hereditary or innate psychic outfit is the same for all men, if not for all verebrata. Therefore, for experimental research of human behaviour, doves or rats may be used.

4. The Principle of Minimum Genetic Outfit (of Tabula Rasa)

Without taking into account some elementary reflexes, there are no hereditary relations between the influences S and the reactions R. All differences in reactions R are the result of previous differences in the surroundings S (i.e., S from birth till the respective moment): milieu theory or environmentalism. What a person knows, he has learned during his individual existence. The capability of learning is the basic property of the psychic. Theoretical psychology is basically a theory of learning.

Principles (3) and (4) form together the doctrine called empiricism since the 18th century.

5. The Principles of Elementarism and Connectionism

Learning is a process of formation of connections between elementary facts, of inforcement of such connections or of weakening or extinction of connections already existing.

6. The Principle of Contiguity (Principle of Contact)

The decisive condition for any connection is time-space vicinity, if possible, repeated many times.

7. The Principle of Contingency of Arbitrariness

There is no principle of connection formation but for that of contingency; that means that chance or an arbitrary decision of the experimenter is the only decisive factor. The factual pertinency ("matching", "mutual demandedness") of the facts to be connected plays no role.

Thus, no distinction is made between the attainment of a (desired) goal on one side (e.g., of a correct solution of a problem by following, without error, some suitable proceedings) and getting a pleasant reward (a piece of candy) as a result of observing an arbitrary (prescribed by the experimenter) behaviour on the other side.

The principles (5), (6) and (7) form together the so-called "associationism". From the beginning they have also been the principal rules of empiricism (principles (3) and (4)). The new associationism differs - because of principles (1) and (2) - from the old one in that it deals with connections of situations S with reactions R (passive conditioning), rather than with connections between contents of consciousness ("ideas").

8. The Machine Principle

There are an older and a new version of the assumptions concerning the relations between situations and reactions; incidentally, they do not exclude each other.

a) The older one is the automation model. It is divided - according to the assumptions about the energy sources - into two subtypes:

a1 - The conduction or telephone network type: the stimulus S penetrates as an impulse through a receptor cell into the nervous system and there it proceeds - because of the central network of connections - to the effector organ where it leaves the organism as the reaction R.

a2 - The trigger type: the stimulus S acts - like a pressure on a push-button or a dime dropped in the slot - as a trigger which releases a ready-to-work but, until the moment of stimulation, blocked mechanism; then, the mechanism starts to work with its own energy.

b) According to the newer concept of the homeostatic or tension-reduction model (borrowed from CANNON), the stimulus S disturbs the equilibrium state of an organ system, and the reaction R restores it again. The needs are just these disturbances of equilirium or increases of tension, and the gratification of a need is just this reduction of tension. (Von BERTALANFFY calls all three variants together "the robot model of man".)

As it was shown by W. KÖHLER, the notion of homeostatic processes with their necessary feed-backs already exceeds the limitations of the classical machine principle, as the process may affect itself at least at one single spot. though by means of special conductive connections.

According to the tension-reduction model the psycho-physical system seeks under all circumstances a quiet state. This model may therefore be understood as an expresion of the principle of quietism: all activity is the result of disturbances and "sweet leisure" is the normal state of man.

9. The Principles of Chance and Effect

In order to understand the formation of new connections and the extinction of existng ones, as in passive ("classical" PAVLOVian) conditioning, no new principle is needed, as conditioning is but another name for association introduced for the special case in which one of the elements to be connected is an activity of the subject.

If new types of performance are needed as in trial and error learning resp. operant or instrumental conditioning, these can - as a consequence of principle 7 - only be found by chance and recognized as suitable and retained by their effect.

10. The Principle of Additivity of Personality Structure

The S-R-connections reinforced by success-failure learning are also called habits. Personality or character is the sum of habits. Any of these habits may be induced or eliminated individually without changing anything in all other habits (vegetable bed model). From these ideas of formation and elimination of habits results immediately the old, traditional, but, by modern pedagogics, rejected practice of "candy and whip". As the desirability or undesirability is determined by the educating society, the result of such an education is the maximum obtainable degree of adaptation (adjustment) or the conformity, in other words, opportunism.

11. The Principle of Reductionism

There are no autochthonous psychic dynamics. All dynamics, e.g., that of learning, of thinking, of exploring, serves the purpose of decreasing organismic tensions. He, who is not hungry, does not think.

12. In the area of social psychology, reductionism results in: The Principle of Primary Social Atomism

There are no primary social needs and desires. They are only secondarily formed by conditioning, i.e., by the realization that certain persons are exceptionally suitable tools or means for the gratification of certain organismic needs and/or for the reduction of certain organismic tensions. In this respect, there is an unanimity between behaviurism and psychoanalysis.

III. Axioms or Hypotheses?

A question arises here: are the above principles axioms, i.e., necessary presumpions of any psychology, or are they hypotheses, which - in the present state of the science - would have to permit the existence of other hypotheses and eventually - perhaps even now - give way to them; in other words, are there still opposite schools in psychology ? Thus, our question is: are the above principles necessary: And, in addition, are they sufficient ?

1. On the Principle of Objectivity

The principle of subjectivity cannot be considered an alternative to the objectivity principle. It characterizes a historical phase of psychology which continued until the introduction of behaviourism. As the objectivity principle is a prohibition, the alternative would be a psychology without this prohibition. This alternative is realized in phenomenological psychology, in "Gestalt theory" and in a number of other approaches of present psychology, and - as we shall see - it is successful.

Incidentally, behaviourism itself - even at its extremes - disregarded its own prohibition from the moment it started to speak about the "concealed", "internal", "preceding", "behaviour", meaning processes which cannot be registered by physiological means, but which are rather unequivocally identical with the acts and contents of subjective psychology. The confession of having given up a principle which played a fundamental role in the establishment declaration of behaviourism is, of course, embarrassing. However, it is even more embarrassing that this abandonment of a basic principle not only was not confessed but rather veiled by semantic manipulations, by adding to the names of these subjective facts the suffix "behaviour".

Thus, a psychology without the principle of objectivity is not only possible but rather inevitable. That is why we have a new variant of behaviourism calling itself "subjective behaviourism" (G.A. MILLER, E. GALANTER, K.H. PRIBRAM, 1960). The adjective, of course, inevitably annuls the only clear denotation of the word "Behaviourism" as a non-subjective psychology.

2. On the Principle of Primary Reactivity

Here, also, the alternative is not a concept of a psycho-physical organism characterized by exclusively spontaneous activity; the true alternative is an organism capable as well of spontaneous activity as of re-action, and, in which, in many cases the re-active behaviour patterns are only superposed on the primary spontaneous ones.

As it was proven by COGHILL, the first movements of the amblystomic larva are spontaneous because they occur at a stage of development when the receptor nerves do not yet have connections with the motor centers. The same was shown by von HOLST, e.g., that the rhythmic-locomotor fin movements of the fish are not triggered and maintained by external stimuli and that these stimuli only modify them. Behaviour in play and in exploration goes also beyond the limits of the S-R-scheme, as the opporunity for it is looked for even by animals and as it immediately starts anew after each conclusion, i.e., after each reduction of tension.

In this case as well, the unavoidable necessity to accept these facts is veiled by behaviourists by a notorious renaming manoeuvre: in the place of the objectively observable - that means originally unequivocally external triggering situation S (with respect to the organism) - simply a non-observable inner-organismic environment of the motor centers is introduced; and it appears as if the meaning of the term reaction had not been changed.

Anyway, a psychology rejecting the principle of primary reactivity is not only possible, but rather required by the facts.

3. On the Principle of Genetic Identity

The principle of genetic identity of psycho-physical systems is identical with the denial of specific inborn traits. Here also, the alternative would not be a psychology which would try to reduce all differences in the behaviour of different individuals to the differences of the predispositions, but rather a psychology that would avoid dogmatic presuppositions with regard to the contribution of genetic and environmental factors to individual differences.

As to the validity of this principle for all vertebrata, this was clearly refuted by an abundance of results of recent comparative behavioural research, obtained under pure conditions, e.g., in the Kasper-Hauser experiment.

As to the differences in human psycho-physical genetic outfit, no basic doubts exist any more. The existing controversy pertains only to the relative effects of innate outfit and of environment.

In spite of all this, behaviourism is still stuck with the principle of genetic identity. This is a result of an attitude that is even less scientific than the method of renaming, namely simply ignoring all facts not corresponding to one's principles (See K. LORENZ 1961).

Altogether, it appears that a psychology without the principle of genetic identity is not only possible, but - in the face of the existing facts - necessary.

4. On the Principle of Genetic Minimum Outfit

In the discussion of this principle it is necessary to take into account the fact that the principle of objectivity was already rejected by behaviourism itself (see above). The most significant arguments against the minimum outfit principle are derived from the subjective sphere.

In contrast to the tabula rasa approach, all sensual data enter

a) an already existing and unchangeable system of dimensions - not more and not less than three space- and one time-dimension. Moreover, sensual data are limited to a system of elementary qualities already existing. Interestingly, this system may differ between individuals in a clearly definable way according to their basic outfit (DALTONism).

b) the bulk of the sensual data is divided and grouped spontaneously in accordance with a given system of categories.

c) this grouping is distributed all over the three given space dimensions according to the minimum and/or optimum principles (Prägnanz-tendencies) which are inherent to the system and not modifiable by individual experience, thus only partially accord- ing to experience, but partially defying experience. (See among others, E. MACH, W. METZGER, G. KANIZSA).

The facts a), b) and c) are not consequences of experiences, but rather conditions which make it possible to acquire any experience; they are "pre-empirical".

The principle of reaction patterns inherent to the system is not to be confused with the principle of nativism. Nativism maintains only - in contrast to empiricism - that adjustment to reality is in certain aspects reached phylogenetically rather than ontogenetically. It does not mention system-specific reaction patterns at all. Moreover, there are in the case of animals, many and, in the case of men, at least several strucures originating from the above laws, without any previous experience resp. success and error learning with biologically specific releasing functions. These cannot be under- stood without admitting some analogon of the much abused "idea innata". (The English expression IRM - innate releasing mechanism, as well as the German AAM - angeborener ausloesender Mechanismus, adequately reflect these facts only in their first two words, but the word "mechanism" is misleading and should be replaced by the word "cue", in German "Merkmal").

All this means that the principle of genetic minimum outfit is not consistent with the facts. Thus, a psychology without this principle is not only possible but rather necessary.

Continued in 2nd Part


W. Metzger Bibliography of Publications in English, French, Italian, Japanese and Spanish


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