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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 1997
Is There Room
in Empirical Psychology
for a Platonic Idealist?

Norine L. Jalbert, Psi Chi Past-President
Western Connecticut State University

[The following article was originally presented as the Psi Chi Presidential Address at the Psi Chi National Convention, held in conjunction with the APA National Convention, August 11, 1996, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.]

I will begin with my disclaimer and let you know up front that the title of my address may be somewhat misleading in that it seems to promise a more philosophically oriented message than what you will probably get. It might also imply that my message will focus on developing a persuasive and definitive answer to the question posed in the title. Actually, what I'm going to do is focus on the answer I assume to be self-evident and discuss how and why I think rational idealism is important to psychology. My one hope is that there are no Plato specialists in the audience who will cringe when, not if, I take some subjective and interpretive liberties with Platonic concepts. Basically, I view a presidential address as an opportunity for outgoing presidents to inflict their "pet" ideas onto a polite and almost captive audience, and I selected the title for this message specifically because it could serve as a springboard to raise several issues in psychology which, if not keep me awake nights, at least keep surfacing in my consciousness at frequent and unforeseeable times like a Lewinian Zeigarnik Effect. It's my belief that rational idealism can make significant contributions to psychology's attempts to grapple with these issues (and let me sleep nights).

So, let me begin by my answering my question: Is there room in empirical psychology for a Platonic idealist? Yes. Yes, there always has been and still is evidence of Platonic idealism and rationalism running throughout empirical psychology, even if only implicitly. It always strikes me as odd that anyone would view rational idealism as a point of view antithetical to empiricism. It's sort of like the nature-nurture issue--why make an either-or controversy out of something that seems so apparently related and interactive. I can't imagine empirical scientists who would really deny the value and importance of rational, logical thought to the development of their ideas, hypothetical constructs, hypotheses, theories, etc. Nor can I imagine rational idealists who would really deny the role empirical experience plays in their rational, logical path to true knowledge. Psychology, to me, has always been a melding of both rational idealism and empiricism even though, in more contemporary times, it's perhaps the unfortunate case that much of the rational idealism in psychology has been implicit rather than explicit. To the extent that psychology is influenced by Platonic idealism, we may too often be unable to recognize it, much less articulate it.

There is another "yes" to my question--Is there room in empirical psychology for a Platonic idealist?--and it is, yes, there ought to be, because to argue otherwise strikes me as counterproductive in a discipline such as ours which includes professionals who want to deliver care to those in need and professionals who want to uncover answers about human behavior logically and scientifically--what former Psi Chi president Michael Wertheimer, borrowing from William James, referred to as tender-minded and tough-minded psychology in his Psi Chi presidential address several years ago. There ought to be room for Platonic idealism and rationalism in empirical psychology and, furthermore, educators and students alike have a responsibility to insure that there is. We need to make rational idealism an explicit component in our curriculum and discourse so that its strengths and weaknesses can be openly discussed, debated, examined, and reexamined.

Now, some of you might be wondering why I would use a Psi Chi address as the forum to raise this question. After all, active Psi Chi members are mostly undergraduate students and not yet in a position to effect major changes in the discipline. The quick and anecdotal answer is that it's my first, but hopefully not my only, chance to speak at length to these issues. However, there is another, equally pragmatic reason that Psi Chi is an appropriate forum to raise the question, and that is that the audience at Psi Chi events tends to be either students, whom I view as possible future colleagues, or professors dedicated to educating these future colleagues. The long view of psychology's future would suggest that this is the audience that needs to be persuaded.

If we take a moment to look at the internal changes in our discipline over the past 20 years, the clear and obvious "truth" of the matter is that psychology has grown tremendously during this time. The newly published APA careers booklet, Psychology: Careers for the Twenty-First Century (1996), among other things, presents data about the number of degree recipients at the bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels. In 1991-92 there were 63,513 baccalaureate degrees awarded in psychology, making psychology one of the largest baccalaureate programs in the country. And, even though the majority of these degree recipients do not necessarily pursue graduate study in psychology, a significant number do (again, according to the data in the APA careers booklet, 10,215 master's degrees and 3,373 doctoral degrees in 1991-92), and these figures would probably be considerably higher if we included students going into graduate programs in other related disciplines. With so many undergraduate psychology students being trained and educated at the undergraduate level, it's no wonder that Psi Chi too has undergone significant growth during the same 20-year period. Psi Chi has been a beneficiary of the popularity of psychology. What I'd like to argue is that to the extent that Psi Chi students represent the academic "cream of the crop," then these are the students who are most likely to be the ones who pursue further study in psychology and become future colleagues. In a very real sense, then, the future of psychology is in their hands (there'll be so many of them), and I like to take any opportunity that presents itself to challenge them to take charge of the discipline and profession we will share. Furthermore, I view rational idealism as an important component in their effective discharge of this responsibility.

Part of my "take charge" message to students is to ask them to consider two things: (1) to care about the future of their discipline and (2) to wisely protect and nurture that discipline. Psychology as a separate discipline is still a young and developing science, but it finds itself at a crossroads in its historical development where much attention today is focused on whether psychology can remain a unified discipline or whether it will fragment into multiple specialties. Whatever the outcome, psychology certainly can still benefit from wise protection and nurturance. Unlike child-rearing, though, taking charge of protecting and nurturing an intellectual/scientific discipline is hundreds of times more ambiguous, contentious, disordered, etc. because everyone who participates in the discipline takes part in the process. There were almost 70,000 psychologists in the workforce in 1991-92--we're probably well over that number by now--and all of them play a part in defining the discipline. It's not just those in active leadership roles but also, and maybe more importantly, all psychologists who, in their professional activities, reflect to the world their sense of professional identity. I'd like to think that some of these psychologists will keep Platonic idealism and rationalism alive to guide them in charting psychology's future.

There is yet another reason that Psi Chi is an appropriate forum for this message. It would seem that founders of Psi Chi certainly must've had a place in psychology for a Platonic view since Plato's allegory of the Cave is a part of the formal Psi Chi induction ritual. In fact, it's partly because of this very Psi Chi ritual that I started using Plato as the "glue" to hold together some of my concerns about the future of psychology. Let me give you some of the background of how I found myself in the position of defending the use of the Platonic Myth for induction into Psi Chi and, in the process, perhaps persuaded myself of its importance not only to Psi Chi, but to psychology as a whole. In the process, I might also get around to clarifying a little of what I mean when I talk about rational idealism.

As many of you are aware, the Psi Chi induction ritual includes a reading of the Platonic Myth, or more accurately, a reading of Plato's allegory of the Cave. [See the sidebar on page 16 for the entire text from Psi Chi's Rituals booklet.] Several years ago, I entered into an e-mail discussion with several TIPS users on the appropriateness of the Platonic Myth for induction into a scientific discipline. The basic thrust of the challenge against the use of the Platonic Myth was captured in the following statement: "Since [Plato believed that] the . . . shadows represented empirical evidence of the senses and that the real world could only be illuminated by the light of logic and reason, the allegory hardly endorses an empirical undertaking like psychology." Maybe I'm selectively interpreting this person's comment, but when I read it, my first response was shock and dismay--that someone was whipping off an e-mail message that made it sound like logic and reason and empirical psychology were poles apart. I'd always believed that scientists prided themselves on their ability to use logic and reason to develop their constructs, hypotheses, theories, etc. I hope that has not changed sometime while my back was turned. It strikes me as counterproductive when people speak as though empiricism and rationalism are mutually exclusive endeavors. It's a focus on opposite poles rather than the middle ground. It's also what produces apocryphal anecdotes--like the one about German monks who were struggling in their library to calculate rationally the ideal number of teeth in a horse's mouth. When one young monk actually took the time to go to the barn to open a horse's mouth to count the teeth, the other monks were so scandalized with this breach of pure rationalism they punished him. Of course, the rational idealist would find equally bizarre the empiricist's argument that the failure to find a concrete spirit/soul/mind in the human body is evidence of its nonexistence. In psychology especially, where so many of our investigations involve hypothetical constructs, it would seem that we should be among the last to challenge rationalism. After all, the rational idealist believes in the reality of ideas and that rational thought is the best tool to help us understand and know these ideas. How is this necessarily antithetical to the scientific enterprise of psychology?

Going back to the Platonic Myth, though, I've often wondered whenever I've listened to students reading it during a Psi Chi induction ceremony what message they were deriving from it. I've also often thought that it's too bad that there's not some way to include Plato's analogy of the Divided Line in the ceremony, since the two together make more sense than either one standing alone. Both are expressions of Plato's epistemology, but the analogy of the Divided Line presents a clearer and more straightforward picture of how Plato positions sensory, empirical data vis-Ã-vis rational knowledge and his theory of forms. If you look at a diagram of the Divided Line and its related mental states [see box on page 17], you can see that the bottom half of Plato's Divided Line represents the world of appearances. This is where we would place empirical data, i.e., observation of the images of objects (which Plato refers to as eikasia or imagining) or of the objects themselves (which Plato refers to as pistis or belief). I like to think of this second level as Plato's equivalent of Piaget's concrete operational stage (perhaps with some explicit or implicit influence from Plato). And, just as Piaget recognized the intellectual limitations of the concrete operational stage of development, so did Plato recognize the limitations of using only the world of appearances to attain knowledge. For Plato, truth or true knowledge requires us not to ignore or deny the sensory, but rather to move beyond the world of appearances to the upper half of the Divided Line.

The upper half of the Divided Line represents the intelligible world, and we enter this world when we begin to think rationally about our beliefs in such a way as to extract conclusions from given principles, such as we do in mathematics and such as we do in experimental hypothesis testing or Piagetian formal operational thought. Certainly, no competent scientist would seriously question the value of rational and logical thought (which Plato referred to as dianoia or thinking) to the scientific enterprise. How else do we develop hypothetical constructs and link them to behavior; how else do we design controlled experiments to test our hypotheses; how else do we draw conclusions from our data analyses; and how else do we produce our theories of behavior--if not with reason and logic applied to our sensory, empirical experiences?

It's perhaps Plato's next step--his highest step--that creates the difficulty. For Plato, this is the stage of having true knowledge (episteme) or intelligence (noesis). Plato's idea-lism comes in here. This knowledge of Ideas or Forms constitutes the only true knowledge because Forms are eternal and are the objective reality underlying our imagining, beliefs, and thinking. As such, they serve as guides to all of our thinking. What some empiricists might find objectionable in Plato's idealism is his assertion that only the Forms are real; empirical experiences, being relegated to the world of appearances (or, if we refer to the Cave allegory, the perception of shadows or statues), are merely imperfect reflections of their Forms and not "real." I'm not conversant enough with philosophical debates on this point but, for my purposes, it's unimportant. Did Plato, when he asserted that only Forms are real, mean really real, or did he mean really true and eternal? If you believe he meant really real and you're an empiricist, I can see a problem. But that's not how I choose to interpret Plato. I prefer the notion that Plato meant the Forms or Ideas are the only real truth--which still permits me to be an empiricist using empirical experience to lead me to true knowledge/ideas. For me, and for Plato too perhaps, idealism also includes the struggle to get to that true knowledge, whatever it is, and the wise use of those truths to guide behavior. In the case of psychology, it's what I envision to be the principles that can serve as guideposts in the evolution of our discipline. If we challenge students to protect and nurture our discipline, the question becomes how and in what directions. It would be comforting to think that those who will lead will do so wisely and armed with true knowledge--that they have left the Cave, "perceive[d] the real . . . discern[ed] the source of the light," and returned to share these truths with those still in the Cave.

There's just one problem, a major one. Plato doesn't clarify how to recognize when we have really reached this stage of episteme. How do I know that my God is the true God? How do I know that democracy is the best form of government? How do I know that self-actualization is a good thing? Just as, or even more problematic than how we know is how do we deal with people who believe they have the truth but their truths are antithetical to mine? Wars and conflicts, large and small, reflect the opposing truths of each contestant. What truths underlie the psychological enterprise when we counsel a client or promote a theory of human behavior? Shouldn't these truths be as explicit as our most carefully crafted operational definitions? If they're not explicit, one thing is certain, and that is they can never be challenged or changed. For example, what is the "truth" about the concept of mental health--the essential, unchanging characteristics that transcend the differences wrought by socioeconomic background, culture, ethnicity, age, gender, etc.? Surely, there must be a core Form to this Idea. The alternative would be chaos or arbitrary relativity--the concept would change according to the "user."

One of my concerns after I got involved in the e-mail discussion about the Platonic Myth was that it added to my growing suspicion that rational idealism was losing ground, in science generally and in psychology in particular, and would soon be "lost" to explicit discourse or debate because students would not have been exposed to the philosophical language and background that enables them to express their views effectively.

Prior to this experience, there was and still is other, more tangible evidence that rational idealism is losing ground. Anyone who teaches the History of Psychology course is aware that more and more courses and textbooks are focusing on the history of modern psychology. Certainly there's the pragmatic issue of how much one can reasonably cover in a one-semester course, but what about what's lost? Can students exposed only to the modern notion of psychology really know their discipline and be wise caretakers of that discipline? Socrates, in 400-300 b.c., said that "knowledge is virtue" and charged everyone to "know thyself." Socrates applied these notions to the individual, but why not extend it to psychology? To take charge of psychology you have to know about it, and if you know it well enough you will take the best, the wisest, the (in Socrates' terms) virtuous course in charting psychology's development.

What does it mean to know psychology well enough? This is where one of my "soapboxes" comes in. I contend that it's not enough to just know contemporary psychology; it's also not enough to know modern psychology or psychology from the time of Descartes. You need to know the history of psychology as a modern discipline but you also need to know the history of psychology as an idea and as a quest. What is psychology? What is the "form" or truth of the idea of psychology? To answer this question you need to know how the problems of interest to today's psychologists were first formulated. What were the critical developmental crises that led to the formation of psychology as the discipline we know today? With the benefit of hindsight bias, can we determine whether or not the right or wrong fork in the road was taken? To answer these questions, and limiting ourselves to the Western tradition, we have to go back to 600 b.c. and start with the pre-Socratic philosophers. I'm not going to do that in this address, I promise. But I do want to make the point that a thorough knowledge of psychology requires a thorough knowledge of its development, not a truncated treatment.

When all is said and done, though, you might ask What's the problem if psychology "loses" rational idealism? Well, first of all, psychology only "loses" it in the sense that it is no longer an issue of explicit debate, discussion, or controversy. It doesn't go away; it just goes underground, so to speak, and "guides" our scientific endeavors in nonconscious ways. Let me give a few examples of what I mean.

One area of concern has to do with the dual nature of psychology as a caring or helping profession on the one hand and as a scientific discipline on the other. In 1973, there were roughly 22,000 psychologists in the workforce; in 1991 there were over 68,000. This growth in the number of psychologists over the past two decades is attributable to a disproportionate number of students opting for degrees in clinical, counseling, or other applied areas of psychology. Whereas 56% of the 22,000 psychologists in 1973 worked in academia, in 1991 this percentage dropped to 38%. What has also dropped during this time period is the number of advanced degrees in areas such as experimental, physiological, and comparative psychology--our traditional scientific specialty areas. This change in our population is probably a contributing factor to the internal turmoil that we've experienced at the national, regional, and local levels. The traditional "scientists" are losing ground to the practitioners. Will psychology manage to remain a single unified discipline, incorporating scientists, scientist-practitioners, practitioner-scientists, and practitioners, or will it fragment into multiple new disciplines? What should be the "truth" that we share in common if we are to call ourselves psychologists? Is our empirical, scientific identity the glue that holds us together? Then what about practitioners? Are practitioners too weak in scientific training or, more likely, unpersuaded of the importance of the scientific part of their curriculum, and are they being nonscientific in their delivery of services? Are scientists demand ing too much science of practitioners who, after all, deal with real people with real problems, for whom our nomothetic scientific literature oftentimes has little to offer? What does science offer the practitioner who believes that practice is more art and intuition than science?

There is a second issue, somewhat related to the first, that also deserves mention. We know from empirical data sources that our undergraduate student numbers are growing pretty steadily. We also know from the same empirical data sources that the vast majority of these students are interested in the practice of psychology and not necessarily the science of psychology. Is our current undergraduate curriculum appropriate for these students, and how do we know this? Have our curricular changes over the years been pragmatic, reactive changes in re-sponse to supply-and-demand issues, or have they been rational, thoughtful new visions about the common knowledge we need to share to remain unified as psychologists? Regardless of the answer, undergraduate psychology curricula are beginning to reflect the career goals of its students, and we've witnessed increased attempts to professionalize our undergraduate students. The first wave of curricular changes has focused on increased scientific training and professionalization. Undergraduate students today are encouraged to learn how to do research, encouraged to do lots of it, encouraged to present it and/or publish it. Generally, the reason given for all this emphasis is to help the student be competitive for graduate school and besides, who can argue with helping someone become a better scientist? What has not been discussed or debated is what gets lost when we take this course of action. Do students take fewer other psychology courses in favor of more research? Do students take fewer other non-psychology courses in favor of psychology ones? What's different about the student's educational experience if either of the above is true, and is the difference significant in any way? The second wave of curricular changes focuses on internships and externships as either a testing ground for the future clinical student or a training ground for the non-graduate school-bound major. Even here, we've seemingly spent more time jumping onto a curricular bandwagon and promoting uniform minimal standards than we have discussing or debating whether we really believe that a bachelor's-level psychology student has enough competence to deliver mental health services/counseling. Is this a case of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," or are there principles that guide these changes, and do these principles relate to some core truth about what psychology is?

A third and last area of concern I want to raise has to do with the delivery of mental health services and counseling in a country of increasing cultural and ethnic diversity, something I alluded to earlier. What will be our guiding principles in training students to deal with a noticeably different, culturally and ethnically speaking, population of clients if we have no concept of mental health that can transcend these differences? What will be the practitioner's guiding principles when counseling clients of diverse backgrounds? Today's focus and rhetoric on multiculturalism and sensitivity is fine if we're contrasting it against its polar opposite, ethnocentrism and insensitivity, but how exactly does it guide the practitioner? Is it enough if we familiarize ourselves with another culture and their different socialization pressures? Perhaps from an intellectual point of view, but not, I think, from a practice point of view. One of the curious things to me as a third-generation Asian American is the differences I've observed firsthand in four generations of relatives. There's been the obvious and commonly observed increased assimilation into American culture with each successive generation and the equally obvious and commonly observed loss (but not completely) of ethnic heritage and language. So here I am, a third-generation American Chinese professional woman. If I come to you for counseling, what will be your guiding principles? Will you know what those guiding principles are? Should your assumptions be different for me than for someone else? Where does multicultural sensitivity and relativity end and "truth" enter? What principles do we use to guide us in knowing when we need to bow to cultural diversity and when not? It's not persuasive to say that "we'll know it when we see it," especially since this approach seems neither scientific nor rational.

Rather than belabor the point, let me conclude my remarks by saying that if psychology wants to remain a unified discipline, then we must make a serious attempt to identify the essential truths of our discipline, the principles we need to share in common if we are to share the common label of psychologist. It may be that in the process of identifying these principles we discover that psychology cannot, after all, accommodate all interested parties and that the best course of action is to fragment. It's happened in science before. In either case, though, to accomplish anything close to this task requires more than empirical observation.
We have to strive for Plato's ultimate truth to find the truth about psychology.

Is there room in empirical psychology for a Platonic idealist? Of course, there is; we just don't always want to leave the safety and familiarity of the Cave and recognize it.

Norine L. Jalbert, PhD, Psi Chi's 1995-96 National President, is now completing her last year on the Psi Chi National Council as Past-President. Having served as faculty advisor of the Psi Chi chapter at Western Connecticut State University, where she is professor of psychology and chair of the psychology department, Dr. Jalbert joined the Council in 1990 as Eastern Regional Vice-President, served three years in that position, and was then elected as President-Elect in 1994. Her positive, energetic, and capable leadership has contributed greatly to the many new programs and projects Psi Chi has undertaken during the past few years, including the significant expansion of Psi Chi's student award programs, the initiation of the new Psi Chi Journal of Undergraduate Research, and the revamping of the Psi Chi Newsletter into the new Eye on Psi Chi magazine.

Copyright 1997 (Volume 1, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology



Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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