Pols logo

Philosophy of Science, Physical Science and the Humanities

I will briefly sketch some philosophical and scientific theories that have apparently influenced Szasz. These influences are demonstrated by his quotes, whether direct or indirect, and related ideas. Afterwards I will comment on the relationship between physical science and the humanities according to Szasz.

Szasz seems to have been influenced by Vaihinger, among others. Vaihinger, who was inspired by the theory of evolution, considered thinking a tool for survival – a weapon for conquest and defense. Therefore he considered thinking, and also science, less useful for seeking truth on an abstract level, or for uncovering the purpose of life. In accordance, thinking and science are composed of certain thought constructs that function both inside and outside of science. They are either incongruous with reality or even contradictory in themselves, but nonetheless useful and maintained. An example from mathematics is the concept of the infinitesimal. Vaihinger calls these constructs fictions. Because they reflect an unreality, he designates the conjunction “as if” to these fictions.

In addition, Szasz’s views on science seem to be influenced by logical positivism. He insists that arguments be based on facts and experiences, and judgments thereof which can be validated.

Science is but the prediction of future experiences. It is determined by its utility. Metaphysics cannot be reconciled with science. These premises, as well as a preoccupation with the use of language, are found extensively in Szasz’s work. However, he seems to differ with Von Mises in where to place the dividing line between physical science and the humanities, which have fundamentally different methods of interpreting reality .

Szasz was also influenced by Susanne Langer who speaks of “…the claim that symbolism is the recognized key to that mental life that is characteristically human and above the level of sheer animality.” This is reflected mainly in the theory about human mental and social functioning which Szasz developed in The Myth of Mental Illness. The person who attaches meaning to himself and his world through symbols is to a certain extent complementary to the person who attempts to gain cognition of his world through observation.

Karl Popper seems to be important to Szasz mostly for his social and political philosophy. Popper considers societies as temporary solutions to problems. Political liberty is the most important political value and essential condition for maximizing the potential for solutions. Popper, like Szasz, rejects every form of totalitarianism, but rather endorses parliamentary democracy. Popper rejects a system whereby government considers procuring the happiness of members of society among its tasks. On the contrary, the goal is eliminating unhappiness. Social reforms should not take place on a massive scale. He advocates “piecemeal social engineering,” an idea that Szasz seems to have adopted from him. Finally there are Popper’s views on historicism. Szasz quotes them concurrently in The Myth of Mental Illness. They prompt him to critically review the theory of psychoanalysis, which he characterizes as historicist doctrine.

Bertrand Russell also influenced Szasz’s thinking about the relationship between body and mind. Russell attempted to solve the problem that many important phenomena are but subjective experiences and cannot be related in an objective, scientific way. Yet these subjective factors, which can be experienced only through introspection, are so comprehensive and central, that it is not sensible to declare them categorically unavailable to scientific research. He found a solution by proposing that the reality that occupies science is the reality of “public data” – perceptible by everybody, and therefore constituting verifiable reality factors. However those reality factors that a person can know only through introspection cannot be related objectively. He calls them “private data.” Psychology is the science dealing with private data, thus confirming that these private data are indeed available for scientific research and evaluation (Pain and Pleasure, pp. 14-20). The methods and the object of research are different in the physical sciences and in psychology. Woodger, according to Szasz, has suggested that physical science utilizes two languages: the exclusive language of physical objects, and the language of perception. These languages should be separated and distinguished from the two languages of psychology, namely the “personal language,” about people, and the “community language,” about groups. That means that physical science and psychology differ because different languages are employed. In addition there are differences in the way information is systematized and classified.

Finally, Hayek should not be left out, because his views about the differences between physical and social sciences strongly remind one of Szasz’s views. Hayek lists three differences between physical and social sciences. Physical sciences are distinguishable firstly by historicism, noting that everything that is encountered can be explained from the past; secondly, by collectivism, noting that physical science is based on complex wholes which it analyses; and thirdly by objectivism, which holds that things should be judged on their own merit, so disregarding any introspection, and should be considered objectively. In contrast, the social sciences, according to Hayek, should be marked firstly by scant contribution of history in predicting events; secondly by individuals, noting that the opinions, beliefs, and actions of the individual are fundamental and that social events should be studied as a consequence of all that individuals think and do; and thirdly by subjectivism, noting that the meaning ascribed to things is fundamental. Hayek considers the adoption of elements of physical science by social science, which he historically ascribes to Saint-Simon and Comte, wrong and dangerous. Szasz defends Hayek’s position on this.

Szasz believes that these two groups of sciences cannot be epistemologically linked. There will always be a gap of understanding between, for instance, the experience of an emotion, and the “organic substrate” of such an emotion. Even if it were possible to determine exactly what transpires at a molecular level in the brain of someone experiencing a certain emotion, scientifically we can but determine that these two phenomena appear simultaneously though the connection between them cannot be established.

Szasz stresses that all attempts at a holistic approach have been unable to close this gap. In discussing psychosomatic medicine, he states, “We recognize that in spite of all the empirical work in this area, we still face the mind-body problem.” The scientist will have to be content with studying either public data or private data. When it comes to studying humans, that means either examining the body as a physicochemical machine, or examining experience and behavior. He distances himself from the psychosomatic method that he practiced in the beginning of his career under the direction of Alexander. The most friendly statement he makes about it is, “Some workers, well aware of the methodological differences between medicine and psychiatry, still consider the ‘psychosomatic approach’ a useful one, understanding thereby a separate use of both methods and a combination, in the mind of the observer, of what has been learned. I do not see how anyone could object to this conception of psychosomatic medicine. At the same time, I think it should prove to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to put this conception to actual use in a clinical situation.”

Distinguishing physical science from the humanities is so essential to Szasz that it forms the epistemological foundation for adhering to the biomedical concept of illness. Illness is a physicochemical disorder of the body. (See Chapter I, 4.2.1.) Psychiatry to him is social psychology. Psychiatry, inasmuch as it uses the methods of physical science, is called so erroneously. (See Chapter 1, section 4.1.)

To Szasz the worlds of physical science and the humanities are separate. Different laws apply. The relationships between cause and effect are totally different. Regarding psychological phenomena, not the question “What caused it?” but the question “What is the person expressing by that?” is appropriate. Behavior has to be examined in a broader context before it makes sense to reach any conclusions.

Szasz warns of the danger of using pseudoscientific methods and constructs from physical science when speaking of phenomena in the humanities. For instance, examining the pharmacological properties of drugs is a matter for pharmacology, but chapters on drug addiction do not belong in pharmacological text books. (See Chapter I, 5.1.)

If science’s goal is expanding knowledge and insight, it makes an essential difference to Szasz whether the object being studied is influenced by that study or its results. A major difference between physical science and the humanities is that in the latter case, the object of study is intimately involved with and affected by the outcome because the people or their institutions which are the object of the study will be changed by it. Szasz notes that the point of physical science is to expand control over objects and events. Unfortunately, in the humanities as well the goal is to find ways to exercise more control over people. Morally, the goal should be to examine how people might be left more alone, in other words, to find ways of maximizing self-control.

Szasz proposes two ways in which human behavior can be controlled. Either the person does it himself through self-control, or it is done for him by coercion. The self-control system stresses values as free will, interpersonal variety, and self-determination of fate. The coercion system is about material values, scientific determinism, and conformity. Inasmuch as the humanities aim to control human behavior and experience, for instance by discovering the mechanisms that determine behavior, we can speak of a tendency to increased scientific determinism. However, the more scientists assert humans to be determined beings devoid of free will, the more those scientists can be asked whether they themselves are also devoid of free will, and if so, who or what determines or controls their choices. Possibly even more important, attempts to control people evoke their resistance. “Coercion stimulates resistance, prohibition engenders desire,” and “It is mainly by resisting authority that the individual defines himself.” (Ceremonial Chemistry, pp. 143-145).

Szasz points out another important circumstance that demonstrates the influence of humanistic research on the “object” of that research. As man is extremely dependent on his fellow man, and the human need for social contact is “second only to the organismic need for the satisfaction of the biological requirements for survival,” (Ceremonial Chemistry, p. 35) and as man is a rule-following being, descriptions of human behavior soon assume a normative meaning. This applies particularly to descriptions of “normal” human behavior. Much of what psychiatrists do and describe has such an effect, even though the intention is to describe, not to set norms. What is called description easily turns into prescription. But also what is offered as a scientific description may well be a veiled morality. Szasz states that Freud and Marx “…have become celebrated and socially significant more because of the social impact of their prescriptive programs than because of their scientific discoveries” and that this applies to many others as well.

Throughout Szasz’s work we find the importance he accords to the categorical and unambiguous separation of physical science and the humanities this way. He tirelessly confronts the confusion engendered when concepts and methods from physical science are applied to the study of the humanities.
Previous
Next
Table of Contents