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The Philosophy of Psychology Essay

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Updated: Jan 20th, 2020


Over time philosophers have taken great interest in inquiring about the various scientific fields. For instance, they have taken interest in investigating the grounds on which certain scientific fields are established.

The philosophers have thus made great inroads into investigating physics, biology and, psychology in great detail. But, philosophers have on the other hand identified various philosophical issues about these sciences that need to be investigated. In a broad sense, philosophy of psychology is an attempt to place psychology within the wider spectrum of intellectual investigation.

It is against such a backdrop that this paper sets out to attempt an inquiry that will look at the various segments of psychological inquiry as postulated. The paper will also give an inkling to the several claims in psychology as well as shed some light on the interrelatedness between psychology and other sciences.

Philosophy of psychology

Psychology comprises various branches. It is these branches that philosophy of psychology attempts to investigate. Since the branches are based certain foundations, the philosophy sets to investigate these with a view to making them clear or providing further information that clarify their foundation that clarify their foundations. According to Bermudez (2005), Philosophy of psychology can be described as “an investigation of the philosophical foundations of psychology”.

He further shows the distinct nature of the philosophy of psychology since its domain of investigation overlaps by that “domain of inquiry which the philosophers have taken to be their own preserve (Bermudez 2005). Thus, the major concern of philosophy of psychology is has to do with mind and cognition. Philosophers of psychology have to a greater extent been faced with the situation of borrowing from cognitive science. This field, thus, deals with great aspects of science and cognition.

Mental States

Mental states constitute an area that has been of concern to psychology. The place of these states has been reached through both experience and experiment. Thus, experiments suggest the poor way through which people approach probability. Also, when faced with probabilistic problem, many would end up advancing wrong judgments.

This means that people do ascribe several characteristics to mental states (O’Donohue & Kitchener 1996). It is further seen that each individual can assess own mental states through the process of introspection. Here one clearly observes own mental states. But this is in contrast to the idea that evidence can only be adduced from public view i.e. third person view.


Behaviorism is a school of psychology which tries to answer the question whether the aspects of psychology could be analyzed through scientific theory (Symons & Calvo 2009). The behaviorists rejected the idea that mental states had something to do with psychology. John Watson, the father of behaviorism, felt that psychology could still exist without associating its mental states, the mind and even content.

He thus advanced the aspect of stimulus and response. He felt that those were the major aspects that governed behavior. This is unlike the earlier insistence on psychology and introspection. Watson rejected introspection because, he claimed, it could not clearly be scientifically analyzed. Introspection as a scientific process, has elicited a lot of debate as the results could not be reproduced.

Behaviorism actually relegated the reliance on unobservable phenomena to the periphery. The mental aspects that were acceptable were those that exhibited observable entities. Behaviorists majored in finding out why certain behaviors only occurred under certain environments (stimuli). They, therefore, came up with two accounts. These accounts were classical conditioning and operant conditioning. One peculiar thing about these two accounts is that they had nothing to do with the mentalist aspects.

Pavlov, in classical conditioning posited that various animals do respond to certain environmental conditions (stimuli), thereby, defining behavior. A sound would be made and food given. The dog, after noting this pattern of events, would start salivating. So, the dog would start salivating just at mere hearing of this sound produced.

The operant conditioning theory was developed by B.F Skinner and Thorndike. This has since put behavior into two types; those responses associated when specific stimuli are presented e.g. food, and those not associated with food (operants). Skinner felt that whenever any behavior is reinforced, the particular action gets developed.

For example, should a rat receive food by pressing the lever, it will continue pressing it. It is therefore against the role that behaviorism has played on psychology that the theory has gained a lot of ground.

But, behaviorism has been rejected due to some flaws. This rejection came out of its limited scope of explanation. One other major problem with the theory is that Skinner’s view fails to explain the daily behavior of humans, for instance, it does not fully explain how language is acquired by children. Children learn it without any form of conditioning.

The major critique is that the theorists fail to identify other intervening factors that come between behavior and stimuli. It is this major failure that psychologists have felt it crucial to also include the major factors that also intervene. Chomsky has been the first critic to state the weakness of the theory, especially when it comes to linguistic acquisition. Thus, he said, in as much as the environment of the learner is crucial to language acquisition, the role of the learner’s individual contribution cannot be ignored.

Another problem with behaviorism is that its explanations are only acceptable when applied to simple animals subjected to highly controlled experimental environments only. The assertion is further weakened in complex organisms. For instance, the issue of language acquisition in children cannot be simply explained as the psychological behaviorists seem to posit. When such complex behavior patterns are put in consideration, the behaviorist explanation becomes more implausible.


Cognitivism arose out of the awakening that behaviorist approach could not, strictly address some pertinent problems in exhibited as earlier seen (Thagard 2007). Thus, Noam Chomsky, through his works on language acquisition, punched holes into behaviorist approach.

As behaviorists tried to explain the acquisition of all behavior through specific mechanisms of learning, Chomsky felt that some behavior patterns are governed by a certain level of innateness. He supported his claim of innateness in some of the organisms because some of the behaviors came quite early in the life of the animals, without even the animals having gone through any learning processes.

Chomsky found the human languages as being too complex and inherently innate. For instance, he says that speakers can comprehend and even produce new sentence never heard or spoken before (Thagard 2007). This means that the acquisition was not as a result of behaviorist mechanisms. Behaviorists, for instance, are unable to explain why language is productive.

This makes the claims by the behaviorists further implausible. From this finding, Chomsky suggests that there must be some sets of process that take place inside the human mind that are behind this issue of language productivity. He feels that the set of mechanisms are mentally represented. He refers to the rules as “generative grammar”.

Chomsky and other theorists felt that the human mind, just like the computer, performs operations based on a set of rules and mechanisms that inform behavior development. These representations appear in the form of structures of data such that, just like in computers, they stand for real objects and aspects in the real world. The cognitivists feel that these internal representations, when mapped with outcomes, they are able to tell which outcomes are appropriate and which ones are not.


This theory also benefited from Chomsky’s contribution. In it, it is believed, the human mind has inbuilt innate structures that enhance our cognitive capabilities. The innate capabilities include concepts, mechanisms and even beliefs. The nativists actually believe the mind comes equipped with a well-built innate structure (Botterill & Carruthers 1999).

The notion of innateness has, however, caused much confusion. Empiricists and nativists only differ in the amount of innateness that the human mind is composed of. Another controversy is that if the innateness develops with time is it right to refer to it as ‘innate?’ An innate trait should be one that is not influenced by any external condition or environment (Bermudez 2005).


Modularity, according to Fodor, refers to those distinct cognitive processes present in the human mind. As Fodor referred to them as ‘modules’, Chomsky referred to them as “mental organs”. It is actually believed that the human mind is modular and that various modules act differently while handling different tasks.


The essay has looked at the various aspects of philosophy of psychology. Philosophers have greatly contributed to the foundations of psychology. Though philosophy and psychology could be viewed as separate, there is need to encourage further the philosophical research into foundations of psychology to come up with new banks of knowledge.


Botterill, G., & Carruthers, P. (1999). The Philosophy of Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bermudez, J., L. (2005). Philosophy of Psychology. London: Routledge Press.

O’Donohue, T. W., Kitchener, F., R. (1996). The Philosophy of Psychology. California: Sage Press.

Symons, J., & Calvo, P. (2009). The Routledge Companion to Philosophy. London: Routledge Press.

Thagard, P. (2007). Philosophy of psychology and cognitive science: Handbook of the Philosophy of science. Amsterdam: Elsevier Press.

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