Although philosophy and psychology have always been intertwined, the surprising difference you’re about to discover is incredibly valuable to understand.
You see, there are a lot of simplistic discussions about philosophy vs psychology.
For example, some people will say things like:
- Philosophy studies wisdom while psychology studies the soul
- Philosophy and psychology both study humans and how they behave
- Whereas philosophy leads to one set of career options, psychology leads to another
- Psychology can observe behavior in laboratory settings, but philosophy cannot
Although there is some truth to some of those statements, frankly, they’re all missing the most important point.
So if you’re a lifelong learner and ready to solve the riddle, let’s dive in.
What’s the Difference Between Philosophy and Psychology? 4 Things to Know
Both philosophy and psychology are rich fields that involve many branches. Arguably, philosophy gave birth to psychology, and there’s a simple way to demonstrate why this is true.
Let’s look at this simple fact first and then explore other things you need to know about the differences between these two fields.
One: Philosophy Is What We Use When We Don’t Have A Science
Technically speaking, psychology is a science. There are many kinds of psychological sciences, ranging from cognitive neuroscience to the study of personality, forensic psychology and more.
In order to study aspects of the human mind related to cognition, performance at work, development from childhood into adulthood, etc, psychologists use tools of observation, measurement, analysis and scientific writing.
But when we have questions about the nature of existence for which no such scientific tools exist, we use philosophy. This is not to say that philosophy cannot be scientific. Much of the best philosophy draws upon all the science the philosophy has on hand.
However, it would be ridiculous to say that anyone has tools to measure concepts like infinity.
Yet, we still manage to think about the infinite in a variety of ways despite not having a science of infinity. You don’t even have to understand mathematics particularly well to arrive at certain conclusions about this aspect of reality. This is why philosophy is important.
When I say that philosophy gave birth to psychology, I am pointing to the fact that most of our records show that philosophy predates psychology. People seem to have been asking questions about the nature of reality somewhat before they were asking about the nature of the mind.
Two: Philosophy Combats Confusion, Psychology Creates It
This point might have you scratching your head.
Why on earth would psychology create confusion?
It absolutely does because it is a science.
Science is a tool that allows us to ask hypothetical questions and then produce evidence that either confirms or denies our hypotheses.
There’s going to be confusion along the way any time science is correctly performed.
Philosophy, on the other hand, looks at confusing data or stimuli and tries to make sense of it. Indeed, this is precisely why we have the philosophy of science.
Because philosophy is concerned with truths about reality and science is concerned with providing evidence that helps clarify the validity of our questions, this difference between the two fields is essential. Science is much more concerned with validation than it is with truth, and that is why science must constantly test and retest.
And make no mistake. If you thought that science was about truth, this is simply not the case. In fact, there is something called the reproducibility crisis. An extraordinary number of studies that scientists have assumed give us an accurate picture of the world do not work when other scientists try to produce the same results.
If we did not have philosophy to try and help us figure this out, we would be in big trouble indeed.
Three: Philosophy Has Multiple Methods, But Science Boils Down To Just One
Although science is of course incredibly complex, it ultimately has just one method: the scientific method, or empiricism. Our claims are valid when they can be reproduced.
There are a lot of ins-and-outs to the scientific method, such as falsifiability. This is an important principle, so please look into it.
Philosophy, on the other hand, does not rely on falsifiability. It might refer to it, but more often than not, philosophers rotate problems through a variety of philosophical methods. For example, an individual philosophy might look at a given problem through the lenses of:
- Ontology and metaphysics
- Related fields like psychoanalysis, economics, sociology and other disciplines
Indeed, a philosopher does not need to be a Marxist (or even a Marxoid) in order to benefit from wondering how such a person would try to solve a particular problem.
Likewise, a philosopher can provide incredibly useful ways of looking at things by simply wondering how a psychoanalyst would answer a question that has arisen either personally, regionally or on the world stage.
One problem we face in today’s world is that many scientists now use social media to share their views. Many people take those views to be scientifically valid because they are coming from scientists.
Doing so causes us a lot of heartache because those scientists are in fact being philosophical. But when you know the definition of philosophy, you know it’s possible to be philosophical without actually being a trained philosopher.
As a result, often their philosophical views are much weaker than they would be if they had as many methods as a trained philosopher typically uses.
Four: Philosophy Broadens And Deepens, Psychology Explains How That’s Possible
Although there is a field called philosophy of mind, often it tries to account for differences between mind and matter. It is highly speculative about where the mind ends and matter begins and vice versa.
But overall, philosophy’s main role is to help us broaden and deepen our understanding of reality, truth and answer the hard questions for which no science yet exists that can help us. As soon as a science emerges, philosophy tends to let it do its work and then help make sense of the data.
What makes psychology so exciting is how it works to tell us how it’s possible for the three pounds of brain matter in our skulls to produce philosophical thoughts in the first place. Psychology is literally the psychological study of how the many parts of this one organ called the brain collaborate together to create the experiences of thinking, using language to communicate and complete goals in competitive environments.
Certainly, philosophers have done a lot to help us learn how to cope with adversity. But psychology, not philosophy, is behind the development of pharmaceuticals. Many of them have been incredibly helpful for people around the world. And when ethical issues arise, philosophy is there to help us work out what is right.
Psychology vs. Philosophy: How Are They They Same?
As we’ve seen, there are several critical differences that make philosophy and psychology very different.
Yet, there is at least one way that they are the same:
They both combine many sub-disciplines.
They are also able to work together.
And the surprise ending I’ve been leading us toward all along?
It is this:
These days, you really cannot be a philosopher without understanding as much about psychology as you possibly can.
One would hope that psychologists would also be guided by philosophy, particularly in the realm of ethics. But let’s call a spade a spade. It is in no particular way necessary to know about philosophy in order to engage in psychology. Sadly, many people aren’t even aware of what philosophy really is.
But philosophers must be aware of psychology and that is because philosophy deals with the nature of reality. Science has evolved to become a very key part of reality indeed, and its importance is only growing.
The Future of Philosophy and Psychology
In order to ensure that psychology helps humanity flourish and doesn’t drown it in psychiatric pills or what Jerry Muller calls the Tyranny of Metrics, it’s imperative that we all practice philosophy at its highest level.
This means that we must practice free inquiry. We must keep our critical thinking skills sharp. We must be able to reflect deeply on how psychology affects our individual experiences and our global culture.
The ability of philosophy to help make sense of what psychology tells us about the human brain and how it produces our experience of mind should never nudge psychology out of the way.
Rather, we must use our philosophical skills to help us understand what is empirically justified in psychology. And as philosophy continues to evolve, we as sophisticated philosophers must recognize the limits of philosophy when it cannot be empirically justified.
When well-used, philosophy’s many methods bolster psychology’s main scientific method. And at the end of the day, the earliest philosophy on record points us to precisely this quest.
As discussed in A Companion to African Philosophy, the Ancient Egyptian philosophers talked about tep-heseb, or the “correct method.” They believed that correct thinking was possible. In other words, that thinking can and should be correct.
In that regard, our best philosophers and psychologists of today surely agree.
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So what do you say?
Is the difference between psychology and philosophy clearer to you now?
I hope you can see that we don’t have to think in terms of psychology vs philosophy. Although they cannot be evenly weighted in any meaningful way, as the Ancient Egyptians indicated, they can be combined in ways that support “correct thinking” for one and all.