What is a human science?

5 JUNE 2016

A terrible thing happened when the psychologists decided that psychology was a science. I remember the rejoicing that took place in the British Psychological Society when, some time in the 1980s, psychology was formally admitted into the official list of sciences!

The problem is that most science, because it deals with things and processes and ideas rather than people, can happily use a logic which is entirely suitable for that purpose, which which is no good for understanding or dealing with people. It is called First Tier thinking, and is based on a logic which starts off with statements like: A is A; A is not B; nothing can be A and B at the same time. It goes on to say that every statement is either true or false. This does very well with normal science, though it does run into difficulties at the quantum level. Technically this is called formal logic: it can also be called Aristotelian, Newtonian, Cartesian or Boolean logic. It is the basis of all our computers, where 1 and 0 is all you need.

For dealing with people, however, we need to move on to Second Tier thinking, which starts off with statements like ‘A is not simply A’ and ‘Something can be A and non-A at the same time’. This is a different kind of logic, but it is what we need if we are going to deal with people. If a client comes into my therapy room and I say – “Adam is Adam” – that is completely uninspiring – it leads me nowhere. But if I say instead – “Adam is not simply Adam” – more possibilities open up. In other words, real change is possible here. Technically this is called dialectical logic. It embraces contradictions and paradoxes: a man can be a heartless brute and a sentimental slob at one and the same time: a woman can be a caring mother and a cruel slut at one and the same time. People are like that – complex beings who cannot be summed up in a single phrase. And if psychology tries to deny that and persists in using First Tier thinking, psychology is mad.

Unfortunately, it appears that academia finds it hard to admit this simple truth. Science has to win the day. But science itself is not just one thing. There are two kinds of research in the psychology of people – quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative research has had huge success in establishing itself as the method par excellence for dealing with people in psychology. But qualitative research, which does not use numbers very much, produces results which are much more interesting, and much more human.a

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