The Integration of Psychology and Philosophy

Interview With Professor Michael Pakaluk

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By Genevieve Pollock

ARLINGTON, Virginia, OCT. 6, 2009 (Zenit.org).- In an institute founded only a decade ago, scholars are gathering in a quest to remedy an age-old problem: the disintegration of psychology and philosophy, science and Catholic thought.

Michael Pakaluk is one of these scholars, a philosophy professor who teaches at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences.

He is the author of many scholarly articles and several books, including the Clarendon Aristotle volume on books VIII and IX of the Nicomachean Ethics (1998), and "Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics: An Introduction" (Cambridge, 2005). His most recent book, "The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God," is forthcoming with Ignatius Press.

In this interview with ZENIT, Pakaluk speaks about an integration project currently under way at the institute, which is bringing together psychology, philosophy and theology in both a theoretical and practical way.

ZENIT: What is the project of "integration" that is being pursued at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences?  

Pakaluk: "Integration" at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences means simply the study of psychology with confidence in the harmony of faith and reason.   

Clearly, that sort of "integration" can be sought within any discipline, although it is most important -- and potentially the most fruitful -- in areas such as philosophy and psychology, which deal with fundamental realities for human life.

John Paul II once remarked in an address to psychiatrists that "by its very nature, your work often brings you to the very threshold of the human mystery."  

If one adds to this, as an additional premise, the famous statement of "Gaudium et Spes" that "it is only in the mystery of the incarnate Word that the mystery of man is brought to light," it follows by a kind of syllogism that psychology is unavoidably integrative in this sense.

ZENIT: If that's what "integration" means, why is the Institute for the Psychological Sciences unique? Isn't integration what every Catholic psychology program should be attempting?

Pakaluk: When people used to praise Mother Teresa for being a "living saint," she would downplay this and insist that she was only doing what any Christian should be doing.    

Likewise, although people praise the Institute for the Psychological Sciences for its uniqueness, it's correct to say -- I believe -- that we are only attempting to do what every psychology department in a Catholic university should be doing.

And yet these psychology departments are not doing that. If you don't believe me, go to the Web sites of the well-known, historic Catholic universities, and see how the psychology departments there describe themselves.

I was shocked when I tried this the other day for a very famous university. First, the Web site gave a very inadequate definition of psychology, as "the science of human behavior." Then, in the three-page description of the program, one could find not a single word about Christ, man as made in the image of God, the Church, or the Christian understanding of the human person. Not a single word.   

I then checked every biography of the 20 or more professors in the department, where they described their interests and their research -- and, again, not a single word about the Catholic faith.   

It wasn't that the professors weren't relating psychology to other areas. One professor's research related psychology to multiculturalism; another connected psychology with work on hormones; another looked at relationships between psychology and feminism; and so on. So they endorsed the principle that psychology is profitably integrated with other areas.  

But apparently the view of the human person which has been developed in Catholic thought is not one of those areas.

Here's a good way of grasping what the Institute for the Psychological Sciences is like. I've known or been a part of seminars held during the summer, where Catholic graduate students and professors in some academic discipline come together for a week or two to discuss connections between the Catholic faith and their discipline.  

Invariably, the participants say with great excitement that these were among the most invigorating and interesting weeks in their lives -- where all kinds of new ideas were suggested in a spirit of true creative collaboration.  

At the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, we aim to make that sort of conversation the rule and not a rare exception.

ZENIT: It sounds like the integration pursued at the Institute carries along with it a distinctive view of the human person. Can you say more about this?

Pakaluk: Yes, at this institute we reject any sort of reductionism, which holds that a human being is "nothing but" an animal or a biological machine; and we affirm in contrast that we have free will and a distinctive power of rationality.  

We reject that human beings are autonomously individualistic and hold instead with Aristotle and the ancients that we are by nature relational and social.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we reject Cartesianism, which holds that a single human being is in fact a composite of two distinct substances, a body and a mind, and hold that it is important always to see the human person as embodied.

We believe that it is important for a clinician not merely to have expertise in particular sciences of man -- such as neurology and ethology -- but also to acquire an understanding of human nature itself, of the sort that perhaps only skilled novelists attain today, if they are really good novelists.   

Walker Percy writes something about this: "The proper study of man is man, said Pope. But that's a large order, especially nowadays, when there is no such thing as a study of man but two hundred specialties which study this or that aspect of man."

One aspect of integration, then, is to arrive at a grasp of the whole reality of the human person by arriving at a grasp of human nature.

ZENIT: Is this integration only theoretical, or is it practical as well?

Pakaluk: Yes, of course, just as Christianity is dogmatic but also implies a way of life, and a way of relating to others.    

It should be said that the clinical focus of the Institute for the Psychological Sciences assists this project of integration: The goal of clinical practice is the mental health of the whole person who is the client; thus, the whole person and not some fragment needs to be taken into account.

Integration even calls for a new way of pursuing science and putting it to practical work. When I teach "The Abolition of Man" to students here at the institute, I point out the passage in Lewis's third lecture where he calls for a "new Natural Philosophy," which is such that "when it explained it would not explain away," and "whose followers would not be free with the words only and merely -- and I tell them that at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences we are attempting to study one natural reality, at least, in this way.

ZENIT: The Institute for the Psychological Sciences is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. That's an important milestone, and yet the Institute has a relatively short history, considering the fact that psychology has existed for hundreds of years. Why have Catholics, it seems, been so slow to take up this task of integration?

Pakaluk: It's true that some Protestant programs in psychology, such as at Fuller Theological Seminary, have been speaking of "integration" now for several decades. Yet it's not that Catholics in contrast have been laggards.  

Recall that generally for the learned world, until relatively recently, psychology was regarded as a branch of philosophy. Psychology acquired an autonomy only through the development of empirical methods which seemed to be distinctive to it; and also, curiously, on account of the influence of Freudianism, which held that the unconscious, because of its non-rationality, was precisely not tractable by philosophy.
 
Catholic thinkers could hardly embrace the view of human beings endorsed by behaviorism, which was the direction that empirical psychology was taking, or Freudianism, and so the traditional view that psychology is a branch of philosophy survived longer in Catholic circles.   

This view was demolished, however, when in the '60s Thomism was for better or worse rejected by Catholic universities as the main organizing framework for knowledge. Since then there has been a "disintegration" of psychology and philosophy -- and theology --, which the Institute for the Psychological Sciences has lately tried to remedy.

ZENIT: Your own expertise is in classical philosophy, especially Aristotle's ethics. How does your expertise fit in with what the institute is trying to do?  

Pakaluk: The connection between Aristotle's ethics and clinical psychology might seem remote.

Yet actually Aristotle's ethical theory proves to be highly relevant to clinical psychology.

An entire new movement in clinical psychology, called "positive psychology," is based essentially on a view of the virtues similar to that found in Aristotle: It maintains that psychologists, to their detriment, have paid too much attention to mental illness, and not enough attention to the modes of human flourishing -- the virtues -- which can provide a kind of safeguard against mental illness.

Also, Aristotle's theory of friendship corresponds to a deficiency in Thomistic "rational psychology" as traditionally expounded. Thomism is excellent at identifying the "constitution" of human nature -- its powers, habits, and operations -- but, frankly, it is deficient in discussing those things that are most important for mental illness, that is, development and relationships.
 
One might also add that one aspect of the integration sought at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences is between ancient and modern; certainly the institute wishes to take account of the classical view of psychology as "the study of the soul."
 
ZENIT: Are Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas something like the official philosophers of the institute?

Pakaluk: No, we have no official philosophers, and we are definitely eclectic.

Aristotle and Aquinas are important, but Augustine and Edith Stein no less so, and then too we encourage students to take what they can from less systematic, more intuitive thinkers such as Victor Frankl, Walker Percy, and even G.K. Chesterton.
    
When all is said and done, perhaps the most important philosopher for us is Karol Wojtyla, insofar as his "Love and Responsibility" provides what I think is the best single example of the sort of integrative approach we are aiming at.

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