Human Arenas

, Volume 1, Issue 4, pp 373–385 | Cite as

Postmodernism and Crises in Psychology

  • Sven Hroar KlempeEmail author
Arena of Becoming


The twentieth century went through a turmoil that produced crises in almost all the academic disciplines, but also in our civilization as such. In the 1980s, postmodernity appeared as one of the buzzwords that tried to rationalize some aspects of the turmoil. Many had problems with the term (like Lapoujade, this volume). This paper, however, pursues the crisis in psychology that Karl Bühler and Lev Vygotsky invited to discuss in the late 1920s. The aim is to examine what this crisis actually was about. A closer look at the appearance of psychology in philosophy in the eighteenth century demonstrates that rather philosophy instead of psychology went into a crisis. The objective aspects of medieval philosophy represented a kind of stability in the discipline. Yet, when psychology appeared as a part of metaphysics in the German Enlightenment, this stability was severely disturbed. The aspect of subjectivity that psychology introduced to philosophy created a crisis that provoked Immanuel Kant and forced him to develop his critical philosophy. Since then, subjectivity has been an accepted aspect of philosophy, but not with full agreement about how it should be understood. On this basis, Edmund Husserl talked about a crisis in European sciences in general. This paper, on the other hand, highlights the postmodern assumption, which says that the crisis is to be located in narratives produced by the sciences themselves. The broader the narratives are, the more they appear as self-contradictory. The more they pretend to explain, the more they fail to grasp the indeterminacy that is embedded in reality and actual life. As long as psychology is about the actual life, psychology is a science that can tell us about the crisis in narratives.


Postmodernism Crisis in psychology Post-structuralism The Arbitrary sign Crisis in narratives 

It has been said that Lyotard and other postmodernist authors “do not proclaim their own constructive, creative proposals, solutions, proactive thoughts about the sociocultural ruins that they describe in their works” (Lapoujade, this volume). On the one hand, this might be a correct observation. Yet on the other hand, it reflects a misunderstanding of what the core message in postmodernism is supposed to be about. Pinpointing this as a starting point, I will have a closer look on one of the “sociocultural ruins” in our civilization, namely psychology, which has been in a crisis for almost hundred years after Karl Bühler and Lev Vygotsky published about it in the late 1920s. This started up a long-lasting discussion that is yet not fully ended. Edmund Husserl also contributed to this discussion some few years later, yet by not just referring to psychology. He thought the crisis concerned scientific Western thinking in general. This means that there were several types of crises, but most likely that there also were some connections between them. No matter how a crisis is to be defined, it is anyway about a turning point in one or the other way. This implies two premises that will form the bottom line in this examination. First, a field that goes through a crisis must be characterized by an accepted and well-established content that has been kept in stability for a while. Second, both the turning point and the stability imply that there is a historical aspect involved. The concerned field should be characterized by some certain and even specified hallmarks before the turning point, which appear to be changed after the crisis. When talking about a crisis in psychology, it satisfies definitely the second criterion. It has a history, and this history has gone through several phases and changes, not least when the soul turned out to be about the mind. However, when it comes to the first criterion, the answer has to be left more open. Is it possible to state that there has been a common understanding of psychology at all during its history? If not, what has then been the historical background for psychology? It has been suggested that psychology runs out of philosophy, and this is a suggestion often taken for granted, without posing any further questions about it. Yet, if so, when did this unity start and when did it end? It is easy to argue for the fact that philosophy satisfies the two criteria mentioned above. So the upcoming and fundamental question then would be: Is it so that psychology, when it was a part of philosophy, was an accepted and well-established sub-discipline of philosophy? The most obvious answer to this would be no, as it is almost impossible to trace psychology in a state like that. This is different when it comes to philosophy, which was exactly in a state like that before psychology appeared as a term in the early modernity. However, after the appearance of the modernity, philosophy has continuously found itself in a crisis. So the suggested explanation to this would be partly in line with Husserl: Psychology is not necessarily in a crisis, but philosophy is. This fact can be brought a step further by suggesting that philosophy has been into this crisis along all the centuries since psychology intervened it and became a part of it during the sixteenth and seventeenth century. This is the battle I am going to pursue, and it is tempting to anticipate a conclusion saying that psychology was a factor in this crisis in philosophy.

The Crisis According to Bühler and Vygotsky

The suggested conclusion is maybe too narrow, as other factors also should be taken into account. One of those would be the conception of psychology itself and how the term is to be understood. This is an open question as the conception of psychology has changed during the history. This was an important factor when Vygotsky discussed the crisis in psychology. He said that this is also to the core of Bühler’s understanding of it: “Bühler acts as the representative of a broad synthesis of all fundamental aspects of modern psychological investigation, a synthesis which organically includes subjective and objective psychology, the psychology of experiencing and the psychology of behaviour, the psychology of the unconscious and structural psychology, natural scientific psychology and psychology as a science of the spirit” (Vygotsky 1930/1997, p. 163f). Everything should be included, and this broad perspective on psychology has followed psychology to the present day. Yet, Karl Bühler’s good friend and student of his wife Charlotte Bühler, Paul F. Lazarsfeld stated already in 1958 in a speech given at Karl Bühler’s 80-year anniversary that the crisis in psychology was more or less solved, as behaviorism and the most important aspects of humanistic psychology had more or less merged with cognitive science and the way it was perpetuated not least by such scholars as Jerome Brunner and Noam Chomsky (Lazarsfeld 1959). Although Lazarsfeld definitely pointed at something important, very few would now agree with his statement, and there was not even full agreement between Bühler and Vygotsky about how the crisis was to be described either. Vygotsky attacked Bühler’s position for not making a clear distinction between biological and social factors. Yet, Vygotsky’s position in this question was in line with what he called a Marxist position: “We may add that the circle of Marxists […] view it precisely as a theory of the unity, but not identity of the mental and the physical” (Vygotsky 1997, p. 290, original italics). This theory is comparable with Wundt’s parallelism, but has its roots in Spinoza, to whom Vygotsky preferred to refer.

Consequently, the roots of the crisis in psychology are very much entrenched in a more fundamental question about the relationship between nature and culture, or more generally, between objectivity and subjectivity. This is of course a question that can be traced back to Immanuel Kant in Western civilization. Bühler, therefore, is to be understood in the perspective of Kant, as he lectured on him, referred to him, and much of his solutions are derived from a Kantian reasoning (Sturm 2012). However, one difference is that Bühler is not focusing on the idea of pure sciences, but rather on how language works in the actual use of it, and this forms the background of his theory of language, which was published some years later in 1934.

Husserl’s Understanding

Husserl is the one who stated that the crisis concerned thinking in Western civilization in general (1970). He is also the one who argues for a discernable, identifiable, and stable understanding of philosophy. He discussed all these aspects in his Vienna lecture from 1935, in which he states, “only in the Greeks do we have a universal (“cosmological”) life-interest in the essentially new form of a purely “theoretical” attitude, and this as a communal form in which this interest works itself out for internal reasons, being the corresponding, essentially new [community] of philosophers” (Husserl 1935/1970, p. 280). The use of quotation marks refers to the Greek term theoria, which Husserl regards as a unique aspect of Western philosophy, as it originally was not related to any religion or religious practices, but a cultivation of a secular thinking in freedom.

Plato and Aristotle predominantly established philosophy defined in terms of theoria, but Husserl underlines that this was a general trait of scholars at the time, and therefore, it was also traceable among mathematicians and astronomers. Although philosophy developed an intimate relationship with Christian theology during the medieval time, they were still so faithful, especially to Plato, but later on also to Aristotle, so the aspect of theoria was not corrupted. According to Husserl, this term became corrupted in the age of the Enlightenment, in which rationalism and objectivism became synonyms with naturalism. The latter means that nature was regarded as being completely detached from the subject that observes it. This perspective contradicts Husserl’s idea about intentionality, which implies that there are no observations of nature without a mind that observes it. And this mind has always a certain direction, which guides the understanding of the observed. The latter he called “Noema” (Føllesdal 1969), and this relationship between the subject and the object does not contradict objectivity, which Kant demonstrated, and Husserl confirmed through what he called the transcendental reduction. This forms a kind of method, the so-called epoché, which forms the process of bracketing all types of previous knowledge to let the mind discover that even the mind itself has a certain and unavoidable direction, in which the cogito implies a cogitatum (Husserl 1998). This is the philosophical method Husserl applied to discover and even prove that the mind is intentional, and this method was also what he regarded as the solution to overcome the crisis in Western philosophy and sciences. This method, however, was never meant to be a scientific method, but a philosophical method just to reveal the mind as intentional, and nothing more than that.

Psychologia empirica and the Enlightenment

Husserl’s judgement of rationality and its destiny in the Enlightenment is very much related to the fact that empirical psychology had appeared as a part of metaphysics in 1732. The German Enlightenment philosopher Christian Wolff was the one that did so, and this understanding was adopted by almost all the scholars within the sphere of Lutheran areas in Northern Europe. Several theses on metaphysics were written in the wake of Wolff’s publications, and they followed up the way he had defined the parts of metaphysics, which were ontology, cosmology, empirical psychology, rational psychology, and natural theology (Klempe 2014). His student Alexander Baumgarten did so too, and his one-volume version of metaphysics was translated into German in 1760, and this was the textbook the students of Immanuel Kant had to read in metaphysics (Baumgarten 2004). However, Kant did not agree with this definition of metaphysics, and his disagreement forms a considerable part of the background for writing his first Critique, the Critique of Pure Reason. He himself refers to David Hume, and this concurrence is important, as the British empiricists had developed and discussed the same content as Wolff presented in his Psychologia empirica, but they never applied the term “psychology.” There were however two aspects of empirical psychology that caused problems for Kant. First and foremost, the fact that the empirical is about acquiring knowledge through senses, but also that all sensorial activities are intimately related to the subject and consequently stand for subjectivity.

This is the aspect that Husserl focuses on in his discussions about the subject and the role of subjectivity, but he puts it in another way. He talks in general about the naïveté that characterizes the objectivist science, which “takes what it calls the objective world for the universe of all that is, without noticing that no objective science can do justice to the [very] subjectivity which accomplishes science” (Husserl 1935/1970, p. 295). If one has been raised in spirit of natural science, one will exclude all subjective, and seek “what is objectively true even for the psychic” (Husserl 1935/1970, p. 295). This contradicts the way Husserl investigates the subjective; as he suggests that “the subjective […] is to be investigated as the psychic in psychology” (Husserl 1935/1970, p. 295). Consequently, psychology is the discipline that brings in subjectivity, and in German idealism, this was made explicit with Wolff. Yet this was not made explicit in British empiricism, which therefore in many ways formed the basis for such a naïveté among the naturalists. Although they examined both senses and the human nature in general, they did not explicitly investigate the psychic factor. Immanuel Kant did, but not without obstacles. One obstacle was his emphasis on inner observations in the first version of Critique of Pure Reason, which he moderated in the second version from 1787 (Klempe 2014). Inner observations represented an obstacle because Kant’s motivation for writing the first critique was to avoid psychology as a tool to investigate the mind, whereas to make inner observations represents an application of psychology. Husserl follows up Kant, but he also follows up Søren Kierkegaard by making a clear distinction between psychology and philosophy to avoid psychologism. This is especially true in his investigation of logic (Husserl 1970).

From Phenomenology Structuralism

In the wake of Husserl’s Paris lectures from 1936 (Husserl 1998), different aspects of phenomenology were adopted by all of the three most famous French intellectuals born in the beginning of the twentieth century: Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. However, each one of them formulated a version that stands for itself. The body-oriented type of phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty also referred to the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud. His version of phenomenology strengthened the interest for the body, but also for psychoanalysis (Merleau-Ponty 1962). Sartre’s being was examined in the perspective of phenomenon, and consequently highly related to the aspect of percipi (Sartre 1956). The relationship between Lévi-Strauss and phenomenology is not so direct. He is rather influenced by linguistics and especially the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. This is, however, a trace that is even as important in this context. First, de Saussure’s theory of the arbitrary sign can be understood in close connection with some aspects of Wilhelm Wundt’s psychology as Saussure attended Wundt’s lectures on the gesture in Leipzig in the 1890s (Blumenthal 1973). Second, the Saussurian perspective on language represented a completely new understanding that formed the basis primarily for French structuralism. In this context, I will claim that neither post-structuralism nor postmodernism is thinkable without the thesis of the arbitrary sign.

A full understanding of the thesis of the arbitrary sign can probably best be achieved by looking at it in the shade of the medieval controversy between nominalists and realists. Both represent an understanding of language that stands in opposition to the thesis of the arbitrary sign. The realist position represents the oldest and most widespread understanding. This says that there is a direct connection between a concept and its reference, in the sense that the universal idea that lies behind the concept has to exist. The realistic aspect concerns the reference, which exists as long as there is a corresponding term for it. This Platonic perspective lies behind one of Descartes’ proofs of God’s existence, when he says: “…so, purely on the basis of its perception that necessary and eternal existence is contained in the idea of a supremely perfect being, it must conclude that a supremely perfect being exist” (Descartes 2015, p. 141 (#14)). This understanding is embedded in some cultures’ traditions for giving a baby its name. It is not chosen for the sound of it, but for what it refers to. There is a magical thinking that lies behind, which says that the child can be identified with the same qualities as the name. The nominalists’ perspective stands for the opposite, which says that there are no substantial connections between the name and its reference. The name substitutes the reference, and the particular reference is the starting point to which the name is the tool that brings the reference into a conversation.

The thesis of the arbitrary sign is comparable with nominalism, but it brings this perspective a step further. In nominalism, the reference is the starting point, which is given a more or less arbitrary name. The thesis of the arbitrary sign says the opposite, specifically that the name is the starting point to which it is given a reference. The keyword, therefore, is oppositions, which implies that it is the differences in the sound of the words that generate their meaning. Thus, the guiding question is not about what a term may refer to, but what it stands in opposition to. This implies that the relationship between the signifier and the signified is completely arbitrary. A sign acquires its meaning by being different from adjacent terms. The meaning, therefore, is produced by the context, and not generated from the term itself. This implies also that the same term may refer to two different things. An “experiment,” for example, can mean one thing for a psychologist, but something else for a physicist. Although the aim is to control the variables in both cases, the actual sorts of control are not directly comparable. Another aspect of the same consequence is that the same term may change its meaning over time. Again, “experiment” may count as a good example. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard asserted that he conducted an experiment when he repeated a travel to Berlin to see if he could experience the same as he did on the same travel some years earlier (Kierkegaard 2009). He realized that he could not, and he concluded that repetitions do not occur in actual life. However, very few experimental psychologists will recognize this as a psychological experiment. They will most likely characterize his report from this travel as just theoretical speculations. Yet this is not just a question about different ideals about an experiment, but even more a result of the fact that the content of the term has changed since back then. This touches also the very idea behind the thesis of the arbitrary sign, specifically how to explain the nature of language that apparently is stable, but nevertheless develops and changes in the long run.

On this basis, de Saussure also says, “the arbitrary nature of the sign is really what protects language from any attempts to modify it” (Saussure 2011, p. 73). This implies that no individual is able to change the language. Once in a while, this is tried to be done by different governments, and the outcome of such experiments is nicely described by George Orwell in the novel “1984” where they appear as ridiculous. Language, therefore, “is checked not only by the weight of collectivity, but also by time”, de Saussure says (p. 74). This implies that language is conventionally given, and it appears as a heritage from previous generations. This makes the language comparable with morality and norms, but the conventionality may appear as stronger in language. It cannot be traced back to religion or any other higher instances, but only to itself. Thus, the linguistic system is self-sufficient and it constitutes itself. This is the most important aspect of the thesis of the arbitrary sign, but it is also the core idea behind French Structuralism. Jean Piaget summarizes this in an illuminative way by saying: “once we focus on the positive content of the idea of structure, we come upon at least two aspects that are common to all varieties of structuralism: first an ideal (perhaps a hope) of intrinsic intelligibility supported by the postulate that structures are self-sufficient and that, to grasp them, we do not have to make reference to all sorts of extraneous elements; second, certain insights – to the extent that one has succeeded in actually making out certain structures, their theoretical employment has shown that structures in general have, despite their diversity, certain common and necessary properties” (Piaget 1973, p. 5, italics added).

According to structuralism, the structures themselves are sufficient to make language to an advanced communicative tool. The necessary properties that Piaget refers to can be interpreted in many directions, and there is a tendency to ascribe de Saussure an idealistic stand (see f. ex. Billig 1997). However, de Saussure is quite clear about the fact that even the grammar is conventionally given. He highlights that one of the necessary qualities of language is that it is changeable, and that it by necessity goes through changes. Language is a dynamic entity, and it has to be treated and explained in terms of that. His thesis about collectivity as the force that makes the changes in language is comparable with Moscovici’s theory of social representation. Also, Moscovici underlines the fact that no individual is able to change the general representations in a community, but they change anyway (Moscovici 2000).

To make oppositions to a constitutional factor in structuralism can be traced back to Wilhelm Wundt. In the Outline (Wundt 1902), he brings in the term opposition as an aspect of how we perceive affects, which makes them different from how sensations are perceived: “In general, then, sensational qualities are limited by maximal differences, affective qualities by maximal opposites” (p. 37, original italics). Thus, opposites refer to something more than just differences as the human mind is involved in another way. Differences can be experienced, but they can also be measured independently from the experiences of them. Affects, on the other hand, are pure experiential entities, and they involve processes of comparisons that include the whole repertoire of affects one may have in mind. In this sense, the experience of opposites activates a type of relative competence. Each one of them is relative to the repertoire of affects or terms that are at hand for each individual.

This could be the psychological explanation of opposites, but in general, it could also form a psychological explanation of structuralism. However, de Saussure wanted to avoid psychological explanations of language (Saussure 2011). Consequently, he rejected Wundt’s understanding of language as he thought he psychologized the explanation of it. Nevertheless, de Saussure retained the aspect of oppositions as the core of the thesis of the arbitrary sign, and therefore, also as a principle for how the linguistic system is organized. In the same manner as Husserl, de Saussure tried to avoid psychologism, but in contrast to Husserl, he did not end up with transcendental universals that exist beyond what is conventionally given. Thus, the thesis of the arbitrary sign is neither entrenched in idealism, nor in psychologism. It represents an extreme sort of nominalism, as the sign is not defined by the signified, but by signifiers standing in opposition to each other. This means that the content of language is predominantly defined by the language itself and how it is organized, which is a consequence of how it is used by generations within a specified community.


When language is more or less detached from references to the world, the meaning is embedded in how it is organized and how it is used. This is the background for Michel Foucault’s use of the term “discourse,” which is quite clearly stated in his inauguration lecture given at the Collège de France in the evening on 2 December 1970 in Paris. In this lecture, he presents the program for his activities in general, and this is highly guided by analyzing how language is applied and used in the aim of controlling people and the society.

Here is the hypothesis which I would like to put forward tonight in order to fix the terrain – or perhaps the very provisional theatre – of the work I am doing: that in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organised and redistributed by a certain number of procedures whose role is to ward off its powers and dangers, to gain mastery over its chance events, to evade its ponderous, formidable materiality. (Foucault 1981, p. 52.)

The best way to analyze how the discourse is organized in the aim of executing power is to focus on exclusions and the taboos. Thus, he highlights especially sexuality and politics, as “sexuality is disarmed and politics pacified” (p. 52).
The different volumes on the history of sexuality must be read in this perspective. They are not so much about sexuality as such, but rather about how subjectivity is formed by means of focusing on sexual taboos. The latter is the paramount project of Foucault, as he exams how human reflects upon itself in a historical perspective. The big turn in this respect appeared in the eighteenth century, and “Foucault identifies some features of a process by which persons gradually became objects for themselves” (Danziger 1997, p. 25). When it comes to sexuality, the church’s pastoral care contrived to the will to know about details in human behavior in the sixteenth and seventeenth century by underlining and focusing on the confession of the flesh:

This was partly because the Counter Reformation busied itself with stepping up the rhythm of the yearly confession in the Catholic countries, and because it tried to impose meticulous rules of self-examination; but above all, because it attributed more and more importance in penance – and perhaps at the expense of some other sins – to all the insinuations of the flesh: thoughts, desires, voluptuous imaginings, delectations, combined movements of the body and the soul; henceforth all this had to enter, in detail, into the process of confession and guidance. (Foucault 1998, p. 19).

Yet the Counter Reformation responded to the movement of Protestants, which tells us that this tendency to make individuals to objects for themselves was very much to the core of a popular religious movement at that time.

Many scholars have focused on the role of self-reflectivity that came up along with the rise of modernity during the seventeenth and eighteenth century (Giddens 1991). However, Foucault is one out of very few that have linked this turn to a battle of the definition of psychology. He actually did so in a thesis on Kant’s anthropology (Foucault 2008). This was Foucault’s original complementary doctoral thesis, which he was recommended not to use and therefore was replaced by The Order of Things. Thus, it was written around 1960, but not published before 2008—both in French and English. However, it forms a highly valuable source for how to understand the role of psychology in philosophy and not least how it appeared as a factor in the growth of modernity, which is first of all characterized by this aspect of self-reflectivity in terms of an unspecified form of subjectivity. This implies that subjectivity includes reflectivity, which may represent a transcendental aspect of inter-subjectivity. Yet it includes also an aspect of relativity, which makes the individual human being to the measure for everything. The latter highlights the aspect of privatization, which definitely also forms a factor in the understanding of modernity.

This double meaning of subjectivity forms the background for Kant’s critical philosophy. Although none of the three critics refer too much to psychology, they are circling around its content. The first critique, the Critique of Pure Reason, is famous for having banned empirical psychology from metaphysics. This deportation of empirical psychology is actually to the core of the dilemma that philosophy had ended up with when psychology appeared as a part of metaphysics. Foucault’s project is to demonstrate that the last thesis of Kant, the anthropology, solved this dilemma by going beyond the premises that governed and guided his critiques, which is the insurmountable gap between pure thinking and the empirical use of senses. Foucault emphasizes the role of language to transcend both aspects, and according to him, this is the trick Kant uses in the Anthropology.

We are familiar with the distinction established in the Architectonic between rational and empirical psychology. The first belongs to pure philosophy, hence to metaphysics, and so is distinguished from rational physics, as the object of inner sense is distinguished from the object of outer sense. As for empirical psychology, there is a long tradition for placing it within metaphysics; more importantly, the recent failures of metaphysics have given rise to the belief that the solution to its irresolvable problems were hidden in psychological phenomena pertaining to an empirical study of the soul; in this way, psychology seized upon a lackluster metaphysics in which it had already claimed an unwarranted place. (Foucault 2008, p. 57, original italics.)

As a matter of fact, textbooks are not so familiar with this, as the history Foucault is lining up here is primarily a German history. This is slightly different from the British when it comes to the appearance of psychology, as the British empiricists did not refer to psychology. In German idealism, on the other hand, psychology appeared as a term among Protestant scholastics (Vidal 2011) to discuss the role of the soul in human life, but primarily to gain a deeper understanding of the human nature. Foucault is primarily an historian, and he uses “psychology” in the sense that it refers to the soul, with all its theological and philosophical connotations at that time. “Metaphysics” also has a certain meaning, as it does not refer to what is beyond scientific knowledge, but rather the opposite. It refers to the foundation of reliable, scientific knowledge. This was also a consequence of the Reformation, as philosophy was banished from theology. This made that philosophy had to form its own reliable ground for knowledge independent from theology. Thus, metaphysics was revitalized and redefined, and during the seventeenth century, empirical and rational psychology formed gradually a part of it. This ended up in a self-contradiction that Kant reacted upon, specifically the fact that metaphysics, which is about pure thinking, is weakened when empirical psychology is included. The latter is not about pure thinking, but about empirical approaches in terms of observations and the like. This is the background for Kant’s first critique, which is, at the bottom line, a kind of restoration of metaphysics on a new basis, which is the individual subject.
However, if the human subject forms the point of departure for philosophy, thinking is detached from ontology, and ontology becomes replaced by language. The ontological question about the existence of things is answered by analyzing the use of language instead. This is the background for The Order of Things, but it is based on the conclusion Foucault drew after having analyzed Kant’s Anthropology: “The truth that anthropology brings to light is therefore not a truth anterior to language” (Foucault 2008, p. 102). Yet, according to Foucault, this is also what Kant more or less realized after having worked out the three critical theses. Each one of them presupposes the existence of certain fundamental objects, specifically a pure reason, a practical reason, and the capacity of making judgments based on feelings. His anthropology, on the other hand, does not presuppose a certain object, but this is the conclusion he ends up with after having worked out his anthropology, and this thesis is thus a thesis that is completely detached from the three critiques.

We should no longer be surprised by the promise made at the beginning of the Anthropology, which was to study man as a ‘citizen of the world’ – a promise which the book seemed to go back on, by limiting itself to an analysis of the Gemüt. In fact, anthropology’s man is indeed a Weltbürger, but not in the sense that he belongs to a given social group or such and such institution. He is Weltbürger purely and simply because he speaks. It is in the exchange of language that he manages on his own account both to attain and to realize the concrete universal. His living in the world is, originally, residence in language. (Foucault 2008, p. 102. Italics added)

In other words, Foucault understands Kant’s Anthropology in the perspective of the thesis of the arbitrary sign. Human thinking is no more than what is expelled in the use of language, and the use of language is what constitutes the human’s world. The term ‘psychology’ may exemplify this. Foucault tries to avoid the term, as it has two different, and for him, not so interesting meanings. One is the reference to the soul, but the other is the modern use of it, in which it is to be understood as a technical art of engineering (Foucault 1998). A similar dilemma can be traced in Kant’s avoidance of the term. Also for him, it has these theological connotations to the soul, but additionally it double communicates by being a part of metaphysics on the one hand, but contradicts metaphysics on the other. Although Kant and Foucault actually do not have too much in common, they both avoid the term “psychology” and replace it with “anthropology.”

Lyotard and Postmodernism

If now, scientific knowledge is about its discourse, and science appears to be in a crisis, then the crisis is to be located in the discourse. This forms the background for Jean François Lyotard’s use of the term postmodernity. He defines it in terms of a narrative crisis, and he introduces his study on the postmodern condition by stating: “The present study will place these transformations in the context of the crisis of narratives” (Lyotard 1984, p. xxiii). The crises that may appear are all strongly connected to the use of the grand narratives, the great and more or less complete philosophical systems that aim at explaining almost everything. Those systems appeared along with the modernity, and in this sense, postmodernity may stand in opposition to modernity.

However, it is a great and widespread misunderstanding that “postmodernity” is to be understood as a historiographical category, which it is not. It does not depict a historical epoch, but rather a tendency that is already embedded in the modernity. Postmodernity, therefore, is a certain type of attitude, which is expressed in the definition he makes: “I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives” (Lyotard 1984, p. xxiv). Another place, Lyotard declares that a piece of art can only be modern if it has the character of being postmodern (Lyotard 1986, p. 19). The postmodern aspect of modernity is related to all the breaks that appear along with modernity. Even modernity as such is to be defined as a break, as Hannah Arendt expressed: “From the seventeenth century on, the insistence of on absolute novelty and the rejection of the whole tradition became commonplace” (Arendt 1998, p. 249). If Descartes’ systematic doubt is the best example of a modern attitude, Descartes himself also underlined that his way of thinking was completely new. Thus, the breaks form modernity, and the postmodern perspective is just to emphasize the importance of the breaks within the modernity. Since postmodernity is predominantly to follow up the content of modernity and take the consequences seriously, it ended up in an emptiness into which very few were able to identify. On this basis, Bruno Latour concluded that we have never been modern: “Postmodernism is a symptom of the contradiction of modernism, but is unable to diagnose this contradiction because it shares the same upper half of the Constitution – the sciences and the technologies are extrahuman – but it no longer shares the cause of the Constitution’s strength and greatness – the profileration of quasi-objects and the multiplication of intermediaries between humans and nonhumans allowed by the absolute distinction between humans and nonhumans” (Latour 1993, p. 131). On this basis, Latour was looking for a way to mediate nature and culture, which is to be found beyond modernism and postmodernism. Nevertheless, even Latour is a symptom of the crises in narratives that Lyotard wanted to highlight, namely by applying a language that seems to be detached from an experienced reality and rather entrenched in floating signs.

Lyotard is almost ending up with the same conclusion. In one of his last books, he is focusing on the aspect of the inhuman, and this replaces more or less the term “postmodernism.” The reason for this replacement is the widespread misunderstanding that appeared in the discussions around postmodernism, namely that it should represent a specified historical epoch that emerged after modernism. As already mentioned, postmodernism is an attitude embedded in modernism, and the floating signs are not about meaningless signs or complete emptiness. They are rather about the dynamism and fluctuation of meaning that is at the core of the experiential aspects of life. This is the consequence of the modern doubt that Descartes introduced. Yet this doubt is so basic that it goes farther than what Descartes was able to see: Doubt is at the core of reason as well. This implies that the experienced reality is not possible to grasp in its full extent, and it is therefore characterized by indeterminacy. This is the fundamental paradox and even the contradiction that characterizes modernism, namely the aim of grasping the secrets of life on the one hand, and the indeterminacy of the actual life on the other. When doubt is placed as a fundamental category of reason, the contradiction is not avoided, but included as a premise for thinking.

As if Reason had no doubt that its vocation is to draw on the indeterminate to give it form, and that it cannot fail to succeed in this. Yet it is only at the price of this doubt that reason reasons. (Lyotard 1991, p. 4.)

This is the background for attacking the grand narratives that do not take into account the indeterminacy and uncertainty in the actual life neither in theories nor in terms. This forms the crisis in narratives, which characterizes all sciences, but not least psychology, which should be a science about the actual life. This is not a new perspective as it characterizes modernity almost from the very beginning. Thus, it is not only related to postmodernity and Lyotard. He himself spend most of his last years in studying Kant’s understanding of the sublime, which is exactly about an undetermined, but strong experience, primarily in art, but it is a here and now experience that goes beyond pleasure or unpleasure. This is the content of Kant’s disinterest, which refers to an intellectual disinterest. This implies that the experience of the sublime transcends what is possible to put into words. This could sound like a very romantic perspective on art, but Lyotard extends this perspective by bringing in the aspect of the inhuman. There are two reasons for this. First, the human appears predominantly as something that is clearly defined. Second, a focus on the human ignores all the contradictory feelings and experiences that are embedded in being a human. “Between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe this contradictory feeling – pleasure and pain, joy and anxiety, exaltation and depression was christened or re-christened by the name of the sublime” (Lyotard 1991, p. 92, original italics). These are the aspects of the sublime that bring it beyond romanticism and into artistic avant-gardism. This is also to take the inhuman aspects into account, which is explicitly expressed by both Apollinaire and Adorno: “In 1913, Apollinaire wrote ingenuously: ‘More than anything, artists are men who want to become inhuman.’ And in 1969, Adorno again, more prudently: ‘Art remains loyal to humankind uniquely through its inhumanity in regard to it’.” (Lyotard 1991, p. 2.) Postmodernity, therefore, is highly connected to the Adornian perspective of negative dialectic, which says that once you think you have found the final solution, you have just confirmed the opposite (Adorno 1966).


Going back to the suggested conclusion presented at the beginning of this paper, it was stated that it is not necessarily psychology that is into a crisis, but rather that psychology contributed to a crisis in philosophy, which has lasted for centuries. In addition, this crisis is still at stake. The main argument for saying so is related to the German Enlightenment when psychologia empirica appeared as a part of metaphysics. This made metaphysics in conflict with itself. It changed philosophy completely and opened up for the new critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Without applying the term psychology, this intervention of it in metaphysics also paved the way for British empiricism, as the sensorial aspects of acquiring knowledge and the focus on the human nature in general were at the core of psychologia empirica. Consequently, the appearance of psychology was a crucial factor in the rise of a modern scientific understanding, in which subjectivity was included in terms of doing observations and making experiences in general to a foundation for acquiring scientific knowledge. However, as Husserl pointed out, the big misunderstanding that appeared in the wake of the Enlightenment was that, not only rationality, but also the scientifically observational acts, were all mixed up with naturalism. This is a misunderstanding that still dominates scientific discourses, namely that the observed objective world is understood as if there is no subject that observes it. Yet this misunderstanding is not about the status of the objective world or the subject, but rather about the use of discourses. Thus, the Saussurian thesis of the arbitrary sign forms a crucial premise for how to understand, not only language, but also the scientific discourse and how this is disposed and distributed. On this basis, the crises referred to are to be understood as crises in narratives, and one may even question if we can talk about crises at all as they just reflect the dynamism of the discourses. Postmodernism with Lyotard in the front criticizes philosophy and all scientific discourses for applying the great narratives, which blurs the aspect of indeterminacy that has to be included in all theories. This critic concerns psychology as well. This is true when it is used as a technic to control and predict people’s behavior. Yet, on the other hand, this examination demonstrates first of all that it was the intervention of psychology in metaphysics in the Enlightenment that prepared the ground for a change of focus—from the idea of a pure science to the distribution of discourse in terms of narratives. This was the result of Foucault’s analysis of Kant’s Anthropology, and this formed an important premise for Lyotard’s use of the term “Postmodernism.” In other words, if one is looking for a kind of stability that philosophy apparently was into during medieval and ancient time, there is no use to look after it today, as philosophy is into a deeper crisis than ever. This is what not only postmodernism, but the history of philosophy tells us. However, the question is if psychology in a broad and cultural sense in terms of a folk wisdom can help us to cope with the turmoil and crisis our civilization is now facing on different levels.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyNorwegian University of Science and TechnologyTrondheimNorway

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