Psychologizing Philosophy

by Kevin Currie-Knight


I stand with Friedrich Nietzsche and William James when (albeit in different ways) they arrive at a similar position: a person’s philosophy reflects their temperament. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche suggested that every philosophy is “the confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious auto-biography.” In Pragmatism, James elaborates:

Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries when philosophizing to sink the fact of his temperament. Temperament is no conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusions. Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises.

For both, philosophy (and belief more generally) is our human way of navigating the world. Getting to truth may be our proximate or apparent goal, but the ultimate goal is putting this human attempt at truth to the service of living our human lives. Reason is always the reason of an embodied user, and to the degree that embodied users’ experience is colored by their personality and partiality, how they reason about the world will also be affected by those things. As well-reasoned as the philosophy might be, an optimist’s philosophy will likely look different than a pessimist’s; those who feel more comfortable with stasis and order will spin a philosophy that looks different than those more comfortable with change and vagueness, and a theist will likely have a different philosophy than an atheist. Each may start with different premises or intuitions that feel equally obvious to those who have them. Each may unconsciously have some vague sense of reality that their philosophy is spun in the service of. Even when philosophizing about the same world, each may emphasize different features of it and interpret those features differently.

For me, this “psychologized” view of philosophy means that philosophy is less a struggle to reach bona fide truths with dispassionate reason then it is a way for people to develop, exchange, and argue about differences over how to view things. Fiction, poetry, and personal essays can do some of that – sketch out different perspectives – but philosophy goes farther by adding the production and analysis of reasons into the mix. Not only does a philosopher’s argument sketch out how they conceptually make sense of a thing – whether objective moral facts exist, whether free will or determinism is more likely the best way of interpreting human choice – but she is then obligated to produce reasons that explain why she holds this view and possibly convinces others either to adopt it themselves or take it more seriously than they otherwise might have. (Analogously, judges may decide cases a certain way, but are obliged to produce opinions that show us how they arrived where they did.)

If temperament plays a crucial role in developing a philosophy and articulating reasons for (or against) it, this likely means that whether a reason is convincing has more to do with who is hearing and taking it up than with the reason itself. Barring issues like whether an argument commits an error in logic (and even that will depend on how much weight to give the rules of inference, another thing that can vary among philosophers), an argument that might be compelling for a theist may not for an atheist and vice versa. Some prefer straightforward analytic arguments and find other methods – phenomenology, hermeneutics, etc. – too loose and squishy. Those who prefer the latter types of arguments may find analytic philosophy too devoid of an existential element they find in those latter approaches. If one experiences the world with a strong intuition that objective moral facts or laws exist, it is unlikely that reasons against their existence will convince you that your intuitive experience is incorrect. Reasons are more powerful when they jibe with some set of intuitions we already have.

I want to warn against a few potential misimpressions of what this argument entails. First, this view of philosophy does not entail that reason has no role to play. Philosophy is about convincing others, preferably that one’s position is worth adopting, and at least that it is worth consideration. Even if I have little reason to think that very different others will find my arguments decisive, making those arguments serves several purposes. First, I might be wrong, and those different others may find my arguments quite compelling. Even if not, my reasons might at least convince them to take a view seriously that without supporting reasons might seem ill-considered or worthy of quick dismissal. Lastly, articulating and analyzing reasons for different positions keeps us circumspect and appreciative of the variety of conclusions reasonable people can come to.

Also, this view of philosophy – as vitally affected by individual temperament – doesn’t mean that we can’t say philosophy attempts to get at truths. For the record, as a pragmatist, I am not sure that it does, at least in the way most philosophers have in mind. The truths I think philosophers get to are truths about how best one can interpret aspects of the world that cannot ultimately be gotten empirically. The way I see it, philosophers cannot get to truths about whether humans have free will, but can get to truths (and I know some will dispute how I use that word) about whether some conception of free will is the most sensible way to think about human interaction with the world. I doubt philosophers with different temperaments – and often different intuitions from the start – will come to truths about what justice requires, but they can surely come to different ways to theorize ways of thinking about justice, getting better over time at articulating the moral ins and outs of each.

My own view of philosophy’s relation to truth is best articulated by William James, this time from his philosophical analysis of The Varieties of Religious Experience:

But why in the name of common sense need we assume that only one such system of ideas can be true? The obvious outcome of our total experience is that the world can be handled according to many systems of ideas, and is so handled by different men, and will each time give some characteristic kind of profit, for which he cares, to the handler, while at the same time some other kind of profit has to be omitted or postponed.

On this account, philosophy is the exchange of different interpretations and ways of thinking about subjects – from the existence of objective moral facts to whether math is created or discovered – bolstered by argument. I think particularly of debates over free will, where each side can interpret the same things via different and equally adequate interpretations. Where free-willers make much of our feeling of choice, determinists suggest that this feeling is an illusion and maybe itself determined. Where determinists point to there being no room for free will in a seemingly mechanistic world, free-willers suggest various ways that the type of contingency that could allow for choice is compatible with a mechanistic world. In the way James has in mind, it seems that free-willers, compatibilists, and determinists are often describing and interpreting the very same world in quite different ways with no one side coming up with that feature of the world that can’t be accounted for by the opposing camps’ arguments.

This leads me to the last thing this view of philosophy doesn’t entail: that since reason might not have a shot at convincing all philosophers of a single position, it all comes down to mere opinion. I like coffee, you like Kool-Aid, and there’s nothing more to be said.

In one and only one sense, this may be accurate: If you are determined not to see my argument as convincing, then despite my insistence that it is, I can’t make you feel its force. I’m sure we’ve all had the exasperating experience of making a case we think is decisive only to find that despite our best attempts, others did not find it so. It might be that they were much worse than us at philosophy, but it may be that they did not share the intuitions that undergird our argument because they don’t find our intuitions obvious, or didn’t find the types of arguments we use convincing (as when deontologists do not find utilitarian calculation a decisive moral exercise).

An upshot of this view – that philosophies involve temperaments as much as reasons – is that I doubt philosophers will ever achieve the grand agreements they often want. If reason is always a more personal affair than we’d like and one’s philosophy is affected by temperament, then as long as philosophers and their spectators differ, different folks, convinced of different arguments, will come to different conclusions. In an essay called “Must Philosophers Disagree?” the pragmatist F.C.S. Schiller concluded that they almost certainly must. (Maybe not coincidentally, he was an admirer of Nietzsche and James.) He wrote it the way I’d have written it:

The great types of philosophic diversity, the great problems on which philosophers disagree, are very persistent, and exemplify themselves from generation to generation in different philosophies. They carry on an inconclusive and unending warfare, precisely because neither side has hitherto penetrated into the psychological core of its opponents’ creed. Could they do so and catch a glimpse of each other’s internal economy and inner harmony, they might understand why their traditional methods of controversy have been so ineffective.

To summarize, the value I see in philosophy is that, like fiction or personal essays, it can let us compare different ways of viewing the same issues. Additionally, because philosophy utilizes reason in its methods, it forces the philosopher to “show their work” in a way that renders their sketch more insightful and worthy of consideration by its consumers. I would, however, stop short of suggesting that this exchange can get us to the sorts of truths most would consider worthy of the name, because it may be that different solutions to a philosophic problem may be more or less plausible to different thinkers and this might have to do with how the different positions and arguments relate to individual temperament.


10 responses to “Psychologizing Philosophy”

  1. Though we exist, we don’t know what we actually are! Existential experiences help us imagine various models of reality!
    Existence is the personal aspect of some unknown reality or truth!
    When our hunter ancestors became farmers, they were able to enjoy the luxury of writing or stargazing!
    Human mind divides Existential experiences into cosmos, life and consciousness!
    Science divides Existential experiences into relativity, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics and evolution!

  2. Bharath Vallabha

    Very interesting essay. I broadly agree. One issue it raises is the relation of philosophy and power. If philosophy is psychologized, philosophical debate seems of a piece with any other human interaction. If you think metaphysics is great and I think it’s nonsense, debating that seems less about what metaphysics is than about why you like it and why I don’t. Here we can exchange reasons, but not the kind of reasons concerned with the subject independent of our psychological profiles. Philosophy seems to be a form of autobiography.

    Curious what this means for you as a philosopher of education, in terms of the relation between teacher and students. As a teacher I hated grading partly because of this. One hopes there is some objective sense when a paper is bad, and yet if philosophy is psychologized, is it bad because it doesn’t vibe with my personality as a philosopher? Is it then just a matter of luck whether the student and teacher have similar philosophical personalities? If so, should departments aim not so much for breadth in terms of metaphysics, language, etc, or even European, Indian etc as much as by types of philosophical personality – a Nietzschean, a Kantian, a Socratic thinker, etc?

    This goes to issue to professionalization, of what holds the teachers in a Phil dept together conceptually. If philosophy is psychological, is tenure review just a matter of luck again of whether the reviewers have similar philosophical personalities?

    One reason I like psychologizing philosophy is it explains well the everyday, social club-ness of so much of philosophy. The assumption of reasoning towards abstract truths covers over the obvious experience of how much navigating philosophical discussion is about moving through in and out groups.

  3. s. wallerstein

    Great essay!!

    I’m pretty much agree. If our philosophy reflects our temperament, then the philosophical statement that philosophy reflects one’s temperament is the reflection of a certain temperament, in this case of mine.

    I tend to psychologize everything, politics, religious beliefs, values, etc. People with strong political convictions always accuse me of psychologizing politics, for example.

    I’m a big Nietzsche fan and Nietzsche of course sees himself as a psychologist as well as a philosopher. I haven’t read much William James, but I know that he wrote about psychology as well as about philosophy.

  4. Jay Jeffers

    Interesting essay! I enjoyed reading it.

    I certainly wouldn’t deny that temperament plays a role, but I suspect that I might be closer to the truth-tracking end of the spectrum than you – not radically but still noticeably, perhaps.

    For example, I wonder what you would say about when people change their view on a topic? I guess the answer I would imagine, based on your essay, is that they subconsciously found that their temperament was better suited to something else, or their temperament changed for one reason or another, etc. If so, that seems to be adding a step to the self-report that the agent changed their mind because of substantive reasons. I can’t prove that your view isn’t the real one at play, as you can’t disprove the agent, so that’s why I grope toward an appeal that maybe your view adds a step to the explanation, if it has to always go behind and say whether the agent zigs or zags, it matters not, because it still temperament based.

    Also, I liked that you listed several useful functions for reasoning, but unless I missed it, you didn’t say that reasoning is a quality control check on our own temperamental biases, thereby making our view less temperamentally based. That’s the view I lean toward. That I’m an animal with many non and irrational motivations and that reasoning helps me rise above all that, not perfectly, but still significantly,



  5. Kevin:

    I see operative the persuasion paradox ; how supposedly independent thinkers in the ranks of professional philosophy share the same general convictions. When the wind blows from the Idealist quarter they shiver under it, in his day the man on the Clapham omnibus seemed an eminently sensible fellow whose language was suitable for deep discussions. We never liked Continental philosophy ,conceptual analysis is the way forward.

    When panpsychism reaches critical mass it will be taken seriously and they will all spout it.

  6. jofrclark

    Interesting essay. Overall it begs the question of what is human reason;

    “Reason is always the reason of an embodied user.”

    “Philosophy is less a struggle to reach bona fide truths with dispassionate reason than it is a way for people to develop, exchange, and argue about differences over how to view things.”

    “Philosophy goes farther by adding the production and analysis of reasons into the mix.”

    “… but it may be that they did not share the intuitions that undergird our argument because they don’t find our intuitions obvious.”

    I would say that traditionally reason has been (and largely still is) identified with human intellectual thought in the form of rationality, analysis, and logic bona fides expressed and recorded in the form of spoken/written words (Greek logos “word”). The above quotes allude to this. However, the essay also observes and alludes to intuition as being a part of human reason. But intuition is not phenomenally experienced as a linguistic thought but rather as a bodily feel or sense. Thus the essay implies that the body is as much a part of the mind as the tongue and that human emotionality and intuition are as much a part of human reason as human intellect and rationality.

    If we are then to “ … penetrated into the psychological core of (an) opponents’ creed.” for the purposes of understanding one another and approaching a collective appreciation of truth, were going to have to be emotional about it and understand the affective content of another’s passions and the argument it represents and how that relates to their intellectual argument.

    Also, we will each of us have to become emotional ourselves and understand the content and argument contained in our own passionately held intuitions and how that relates to our own ideas.

    All this will certainly involve not only the objective study of the minds of others but the subjective study of our own – psychology. It will also rely heavily on that most humane emotional mental acumen – empathy.

  7. miloje

    Very good essay! Each person of starts with his or her own set of premises or intuitions. Those premises are the result of our personalities to a large part. Since we don’t agree with others on these premises(e.g. Is there a God or not), then it is unlikely(impossible?) that we agree on a a philosophy.

    At least in math you start out with a basic set of axioms to which everybody theoretically agrees. Then you can build a coherent system. Since philosophers don’t agree on a common set of axioms then how can they build a coherent, universally agreed philosophy?

    It seems we build our personal philosophy to justify our axioms(or intuitions).

  8. Animal Symbolicum


    (1) Do you see important differences between the reasoning we find among philosophers (i.e., among those who are philosophizing) and the reasoning we find among, say, mathematicians when they’re doing their thing or car mechanics when they’re doing their thing? Is philosophical reasoning special in some way, and, if so, in what way?

    (2) If you do see a difference, do you have anything in mind as to what might explain the difference?

    Is there, in sum, something about philosophy in virtue of which it, more than other practices, is so psychologized?

  9. “Could they do so and catch a glimpse of each other’s internal economy and inner harmony, they might understand why their traditional methods of controversy have been so ineffective.”

    I think that there’s a difference, in the sense that the way conflicts are handled in mathematics and car mechanics leaves less space for psychology.

    I’m not a car mechanics, but I work sometimes on my race bike, and I’ve noticed many times that my psychological attitude doesn’t make my derailleur work. It obeys the laws of physics and the principles of engineering; it doesn’t care about my feelings and convictions.
    (My psychological attitude makes me able to live with a less than perfectly adjusted derailleur, though.)

    Are mathematical results discoveries of some eternal truth, or are they human constructs? Your answer probably depends on your philosophical and/or psychological attitude. However, I don’t think this leads to a “controversy” like you have them in philosophy. If it is a controversy, it’s one that’s important in the *philosophy* of mathematics, which is *not* the same thing as mathematics. What ultimately counts in mathematics are structures, theorems and proofs, not if the mathematicians is a Platonist.

    A bit more controversial may be “constructivist” mathematics, a school of mathematics that rejects, for philosophical or psychological reasons, the logical law of the excluded middle. In general, these mathematicians will claim that a proof using this law actually doesn’t prove anything. But again, I don’t think this is a controversy like you have them in philosophy. If there is a controversy, it’s rather one-sided, only from the side of the constructivists. The large majority of mathematicians uses the excluded middle without thinking twice (it’s a powerful tool!). And as far as I know, they think constructivist mathematics is proper mathematics, but done with fewer screwdrivers in the mathematical drawer. It’s nice to know how far you can get without that extra screwdriver, but it’s not something you want to spend your time on.

    Not claiming there’s no place for psychology in mathematics, but it is definitely more restricted. That’s no surprise: the problems encountered by mathematicians (and car mechanics) are different from the problems studied in philosophy. With a bit of exaggeration, one could say that mathematics is one of those disciplines *defined* by the requirement that the space for psychology is as limited as possible. I don’t know if that’s an interesting path for philosophy. It smells a bit of mathematics envy.

  10. David Zimmerman

    “Interesting essay. Overall it begs the question of what is human reason….”

    A philosopher misuses the expression “begs the question.”