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Integrating Philosophy and Psychology: Personalistic Thinking in 21st Century Science

William Stern´s comprehensive system of thought, the critical personalism, "could well be of great value to contemporary scholars. In particular, the distinction between persons and things, on which all of critical personalism rests, can serve to refine our understanding of the nature and limits of contemporary work in fields as diverse as personality studies and cognitive neuroscience," James T. Lamiell remarks in his new monograph "William Stern (1871-1938): A Brief Introduction to His Life and Works."

"Critical personalism is not a specifically psychological theory. Rather, it is a comprehensive system of thought, a worldview or Weltanschauung, firmly grounded in considerations of a philosophical nature. It thus serves as a framework within which to situate a specifically psychological theory and, in turn, guide empirical investigation. William Stern was fully cognizant of the ambition of mainstream psychologists to separate themselves from philosophy, and it was for this reason that throughout the early years of his scholarly life he preferred to background his philosophical writings in favor of his more specifically psychological works. With the 1917 monograph, however, Stern took a decisive and very public step in the direction of bringing these two lines of his work together. In the introductory passages of the monograph, he sought to clarify matters for his readers as follows:

“In an epoch generally inhospitable to philosophy, … connections [between philosophy and psychology] have been seen as nothing other than a nuisance factor, an embarrassment to psychology. On this view, such relationships must eventually be severed … Hence, it is a matter of some urgency to build a bridge from the side of empirical psychology to the basic questions of a philosophical worldview, and this is the task that the present author has set for himself. He has up to now produced primarily works of empirical psychology which, though based on a certain philosophical standpoint whose features were quite apparent to knowledgeable readers, but which were, in spite of that fact, not explicitly and systematically incorporated into the psychological considerations. On the other hand, and quite independent of his specialized psychological works, this same author has sought to establish the system of a philosophical world view he has called ‘critical personalism.’ The author was always aware of an organic connection between these two domains of work. But this connection was so little apparent to others that many preferred to regard his preoccupation with a world view as “anti-psychological,” as a dalliance that at best would have no bearing on, and might even do damage to, the psychological works.

“What is needed now, therefore, is a work making explicit the necessary connection between these two domains of scholarship. Not only are scientific psychology and personalistic philosophy not foreign and indifferent to one another but on the contrary necessarily belong together. Personalism alone, it seems to me, is able today to vouchsafe for psychology those basic principles that are required for its development but which the discipline itself has not yet been able to fully admit because of its own dogmatic presuppositions. Personalism is suited to the task of clearing away countless half-clarities and illogicalities from which the psychology of our time suffers. Personalism is also able to bring into psychology a series of new perspectives, or to place what is already well known in new lights and interrelationships, and in this way clear a path for a fundamental advance.” (Stern, 1917, pp. 1-4)

Alas, and certainly due in no small part to the very anti-philosophical ethos against which Stern was struggling, critical personalism never did win wide favor among psychologists – neither in Stern’s own time nor since. Perhaps, however, the 21st century will be more hospitable to personalistic thinking than was the 20th, Lamiell hopes.

James T. Lamiell: William Stern (1871-1938) - A Brief introduction to His Life and Works

Pabst, Lengerich/Berlin/Rockledge(FL/USA), 2010, 172 pages, ISBN 978-3-89967-589-4