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  • Psychologism, Overpsychologism, and Action
  • Michael Loughlin (bio)

psychologism, action, agency, reasons, normative, mereological fallacy

To someone coming fairly fresh to this debate, Sykes’ paper is somewhat shocking. The psychogenic inference seems such an obvious fallacy, yet he shows, with detailed reference to both diagnostic practice and the literature on mental disorders, the extraordinary pervasiveness of its influence, extending even to the systematic ambiguities built into key diagnostic terms.

Sykes characterizes the inference in the following terms: “If there is no known physical cause for a symptom or disorder, the cause must be psychological” (2010, 290). He notes the glaring fallacy of mistaking an epistemological point (that a physical cause is not, at present, known) for an ontological one (that no such cause exists) and blames this fallacious inference for “overpsychologism”: the “overdiagnosis of psychological problems.” I would actually have liked him to go even further in his criticism of the inference, noting its philosophical presuppositions with regard to the nature and limitations of how we may explain human actions, and clarifying the relationship (if any) between his use of the term “overpsychologism” and the “psychologism” reviled by many philosophers for its own seductive, superficially appealing, and ultimately destructive impact on our understanding of a range of areas—including logic, the justification of theories in science, and ethics.

It is clear from both the initial version of the psychogenic inference and the “variant” form sketched by Sykes (virtually identical, but with a reference to “mental disorders”) that we are already in the business of classifying somebody’s actions as either “symptom” or “disorder” whenever the inference is made. As numerous commentators in this area have noted (e.g., Sadler 1996; Fulford 2001; Pickering 2003), the characterization of someone’s behavior in such terms is laden with philosophical assumptions. This point is demonstrated by one of Sykes’ most striking illustrations.

The example of the photophobic boy whose cap-wearing was construed as evidence of a psychological problem (the “need” for a “defense against the outside world”) is employed by Sykes to indicate the dangers of “overpsychologism.” In this case, the determination to find a “psychological cause” led to the failure to spot a “physical cause” of the behavior. But arguably the main or primary error here is more precisely “psychologism.” The problem is not with the type of causal explanation sought, but with the insistence that his behavior could only be explained with reference to the ideas of symptom, disorder, and indeed [End Page 305] causation (physical and psychological) when a far more natural and straightforward explanatory language was available.

For the boy’s behavior should not be characterized as a “symptom” of a “disorder,” any more than my applying a plaster to my wound is a “symptom.” It should be viewed as what it was: the perfectly rational action of a person suffering from physical discomfort. The physical discomfort of course had a cause, which (it turns out) was the boy’s photophobia, but the most obvious way to “explain” his behavior is not to seek out its physical cause, any more than it is to look for a psychological cause. The right thing to do is to enquire after his reasons for his action. After all, no one else was helping him with this condition, so he very sensibly helped himself, until others (laden with false preconceptions that framed their thinking regarding his behavior) tried to interfere, wrongly construing his cap as a “symbol” rather than a tool well suited to its task.

Why do I feel this error, this misconstrual, should be classified as “psychologism” (rather than Sykes’ preferred “overpsychologism”)? Psychologism in the philosophy of mathematics and logic was thoroughly and effectively criticized by Russell (1996), Frege, and Husserl (1970) for attempting to “explain” the (necessary) truths of logic and mathematics with reference to (contingent) “psychological facts” about how the human mind is constructed. Insofar as mathematics and logic could meaningfully require an explanation, it is not clear that they could be “explained” with reference to psychological phenomena or “psychological facts”: as though our minds “just so happen” to be designed such that we cannot believe that 2 + 2 = 5 or that a contradiction is true (inviting the...


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pp. 305-309
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