Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Soul in Soulless Psychology

Robert Kugelmann

In a Word Association Test, someone is given a series of words as prompts and asked to reply with any word that pops into their head at the mention of each prompt. So here is a one-item Word Association Test. Your one and only prompt is: “soul.” … What comes to mind? … Probably the word, “body,” but no doubt there were others. Was “psychology” one of them? Since this is a fictious test, I have no idea, but I’m inclined to think that “psychology” was not high on the list.

There was a study of introductory psychology textbooks published between 1887 and 1987 to find out what psychologists study, according to the texts. Since these texts typically introduce students to the field, the definitions provided could shape the course of careers. Behavior was the most common, but Mind, Consciousness, and Experience occurred. One out of the 205 textbooks said psychologists study the soul, and that one was published before 1930.

Things were not always this way. Back in the 18th century there were vibrant sciences of the soul, some covering human life starting with anatomy and culminating in pronouncements about the soul’s immortality. Some of these sciences even proposed quantitative studies of aspects of the soul’s activities. Then in the second part of the 19th century, a paradoxical “psychology without a soul” took shape in Europe. Actually, there had been “psychologies” (the word not always being used) before that time, notably with David Hume and later British empiricists. Hume famously declared that when he introspected, he never  found a self, only sensations and the like, ever-changing.

Psychology without a soul arose for a number of reasons, but the most important of them was a turn away from metaphysical questions, especially in the natural sciences. Science was to be empirical, and the soul was not observable. As psychology developed in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many, perhaps most, psychologists turned away from the soul. No doubt William James’ Principles of Psychology (1890) played a role in this shift. James the empiricist concluded that there was no need to postulate a soul, because the “stream of consciousness” alone was sufficient to account for the self as both an object, the “me,” and a subject, the “I.” Referring them to the soul added nothing. By the time of the 1910 American Psychological Association meeting, another prominent psychologist, James Rowland Angell, declared the soul dead and buried as far as psychology was concerned. Psychologists were still interested in mental life, but also increasingly with behavior. Behavior was public in that you and I can observe the same behavior. Psychology was to be, in the words of the behaviorist, Max Meyer, a “psychology of the other-one.” Even if we have souls, no one can peer into them, so that the private nature of the activities of the soul were not available to scientific research. End of story for the soul. Or so it seemed.

The “psychology without a soul” narrative, a meme throughout the next century, is indeed the dominant narrative in the history of psychology, especially in the academic psychology taught in high schools, colleges, and universities. There is, however, another narrative, as rooted in the actual history of psychology as is soulless psychology. This other history tells about the ways that the soul endured in psychology. Some of these ways were rooted in the older “sciences of the soul,” although they also espoused scientific research in psychology, on a par with what the soulless psychology was doing. Others developed in psychotherapy, especially in “depth psychology,” the psychology of the unconscious. C. G. Jung perhaps more than any other psychologist of the twentieth century kept his eye focused on the soul. It is thus not surprising that important contributions to a psychology with a soul come from the Jungian line, including from Erich Neumann, James Hillman, and many others. Innovative ways of conceiving the soul occurred in other psychologies, including even the Thomistic psychologies of Thomas Verner Moore and Magda Arnold. The behaviorist E. B. Holt, a student of William James, even included the soul in his conception of behavior. Otto Rank, a creative psychoanalyst, tied together an understanding of the soul in psychotherapy with a concern for freedom and the here-and-now.

This alternative history of psychology continues in the present day, as the soul is still a lively topic, even if it is a “minority report.” For purposes of organization and memory, I categorize these present-day psychologies under three headings: soul as a noun; soul as an adjective; and soul as a verb. Soul the noun is the traditional way to reckon with it. Here we have the debates over “dualism,” namely the view that we are made of body and soul. Then arises the question: How do these two substances interact? Soul the adjective is a qualifier of  our behavior and experience. Here we speak about “psychological” reality and “psychological experience,” comparing it with other forms of reality and experience. Soul the verb is a doing, a making, and a recurrent theme here is that life consists of “soul-making.” All three reckon with the ways that we use the word “soul.” Because of the complexities of how we speak of “soul” in everyday life and in psychology, soul is difficult to pin down. This alternative history of psychology is the subject of The Soul in Soulless Psychology.

The Soul in Soulless Psychology by Robert Kugelmann

Title: The Soul in Soulless Psychology

ISBN: 9781009301213

Authors: Robert Kugelmann

About The Author

Robert Kugelmann

Robert Kugelmann is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Dallas, USA. He has written four books, including Psychology and Catholicism: Contested Boundaries (Cambri...

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