Rational and Irrational Action – Exploring the Proper Subject Matter of Psychology

One of the courses that I am currently taking is Philosophy of the Social Sciences.  I went into this course thinking that the social sciences were a sub-set of science as a whole, but based on my first few weeks I think that the professor is instead making the argument that the two are quite different.  I’ll probably write more on that topic in the coming weeks, though it is only peripherally related to the particular topic I want to talk about today.

My latest reading for the course was Human Nature and Human History, by Collingwood.  This paper, as the title implies, explores human nature. The paper builds on the notion that human nature is fundamentally rational by suggesting an integral part of this rationality is the ability to benefit from the rational experience of other people.  We can rethink the ideas of other people (i.e. we can learn from the thoughts of others).  Collingwood characterizes history thus – historians look through the facts of history towards the thoughts that drove it.  This is history in an extremely lose sense, since he also says this is essentially what we do when we try to understand others.  This notion of human nature Collingwood puts in opposition to more naturalistic science definitions – he is rejecting the notion that we can capture human nature in statistics and laws in favor of a much more autonomous model.

The previous much abbreviated paragraph summarizes the majority of the article.  At the very end, however, Collingwood has a note about psychology.  He says that if we buy his proposal, we might be wondering where this leaves psychology.  He outlines several options, but his main proposal is that psychology proper should be preoccupied with the non-rational elements of human nature.  By his account rationality can not be properly explored by psychology because rationality is not something that follows ‘rules’ in the general scientific sense of the term.  The non-rational elements of our mind, however, are much more rule abiding and therefore are proper candidates of study.

I cannot decide exactly what I think of this proposal.  On one hand I want to be skeptical, given that there seems to be a danger of separating reason into a special substance or something of that nature.  On the other hand, his account actually fits quite well with some of my explanations of autonomy.  Either way, I find the article very interesting.

Let me know what you think,


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