Two Approaches to Understanding Psychology

We live in a world full of things and forces. Throughout history, thinkers have tried to organize all this according to some system that comes into their minds. For example, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) invented a way of organizing living things that has remained useful to this day. Another example is the Periodic Table for organizing the elements which was invented by Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev (1834-1907), the Russian chemist Today it is taught to every high-school chemistry student. At some point in history, it became evident to certain people that, besides the external world, there is an inner world that has been called the Psyche or the Mind. Not every thinker believes that there is such a thing, but among those who do, some have tried to organize the vast array of inner things and forces according to various systems that have occurred to them. For the last six years or so, it has been an interest of mine, an hobby, to try to figure out a useful system for organizing human experience.


The menu system found on this Website (found by hovering over the "Two Approaches to Understanding Psychology" button or by clicking on one of the two approaches found in the left menu column under "Two Approaches to Understanding Psychology") is a result of this ongoing thought process.

I was hoping to come up with a definitive system on the level of Linnaeus' and Mendeleev's, but I have not, and now think that, for reasons I will discuss below, this goal can never be achieved.

I should also say that, in discussing this project with many people, it is my experience that almost no one is interested in it. Many people don't believe there is such a thing as an inner life, and, many who do, feel it isn't worth focusing on it, maybe because it seems like focusing on it is useless and even egocentric and narcissistic. Yet, in spite of me thinking these very same thoughts, the goal has grabbed me for many years. I have thought about why this might be. Part of the answer seems to me that, I am the type of person Jung called an Introvert, and the inner world feels very real and important to me. It often seems to be a jumble and out of control, and it feels that bringing it into some kind of order would be a benefit to myself and others. To be able to label experiences as they come up, to put them in some sort of category, is a step towards gaining a perspective on them, putting them in their proper place. If you can not label your experiences correctly you can get into just as much trouble as if you can't label external objects correctly — there are poisonous and dangerous experiences, as it were, just as much as there are poisonous and dangerous plants and animals.

So I have come to understand my fascination with this process of labelling and categorizing (and re-categorizing) as a kind of meditation, a way of understanding myself and bringing my inner self into some sort of order.

However, as mentioned, there are many problems in this project. It is not straightforward. It seems that any problems Linnaeus had with his or Mendeleev had with his, this project has the same and more. Some of the problems seem deep and fundamental, and I want to present them in what follows. It is also what led to the idea of there being two approaches to the task and not just one.

Problem 1

The reader may have already thought of one problem which is that, in the above discussion, I may have left out large chunks of reality that need to be recognized and categorized. Religious people will wonder why I have left out the whole realm of religious worlds; thinkers may think I have left out the worlds of numbers and concepts; and artists may think I have left out the world of beauty. 

The problem, here and elsewhere as we will discuss below, is that who you are and what you are like determines what you think exists. Almost all of us think there are dogs and cats and trees and flowers, but not everyone thinks there are gods and demons, beauty and truth, infinity and the number One. From this angle, Linnaeus had it easy; he didn't have to argue for the existence of his subject matter. Mendeleev's subject matter was more obscure to the ordinary mind, but he could speak with other scientists, and lay people could see, with their own eyes, the results of science even if they couldn't abide by the concepts.

Psychologists could write to psychologists and not worry about communication with a wider audience. In the extreme, I could think for and write to myself and not care what anyone else thinks. But it is my nature to seek a wide audience and try to state things in a way that any intelligent truth-seeker will understand and agree with (assuming what I'm saying is true). Therefore, I have the problem, which is a psychological one, of trying to communicate with people of different types who have radically different beliefs.

This is why this article is complex and why the system is complex.

Problem 2

The main problem I ran into is not easy to describe. When I was in graduate school of psychology there was a a teacher who was influenced by a visionary movement named Emily Conrad who had developed a system that involved introspecting on what is going on inside ones body. As I remember it, you close your eyes and focus on different areas of the muscles of your body. You start with your toes and focus on each toe, one at a time, and then on the muscles in your feet and ankles. You tense a muscle and then relax it, then another muscle, and the another, and you focus on each of these experiences as they occur. Eventually you move up to the muscles around your eyes and forehead. 

These "exercises" must have influenced me more than I thought at the time, as it seems to have become part of my project which involves systematic introspection. I remember being struck by the fact that these introspective exercises brought objective material into focus. It was a different type of material than what is around us such as tables and computers and trees and houses. Yet it is objective nonetheless. The feelings in the muscles can be experienced and monitored and described. My belief in the objectivity of these observations has never wavered. 

My own introspecting has included the tensing and relaxing of individual muscles as learned from my teacher but has expanded to include many other things within myself. These include feelings and emotions and thoughts and images (for example, dreams) as well as visual and auditory and gustatory and other sensations (including itches and so on). It is easy to think of an inner world that parallels the outer world and that is full of just as much stuff as the outer world, even if it is "stuff" of a different kind.

These exercises I remember from graduate school did not contradict what I had learned in my career as a philosopher. The focus of my studies in graduate school was the British Empiricists such as Locke and Berkeley and Hume. All of these philosophers, right or wrong, insisted on a difference between our immediate experience which is something we can focus on and know for sure and completely and immediately as opposed to the objective world which is a public affair and that require time to learn about. The British Empiricists had been influenced by Descartes who had been looking for knowledge he could know for absolute sure. The idea that what we can know for sure and immediately is our own experiences comes out of this search.

Perhaps the thing that is hardest for a non-philosopher to understand let alone accept is the idea that, even with your eyes open and fully awake, you are having a stream of experience that can show you just as much about yourself as about the world around you. It's not just your pains and itches and feelings that are, in some way, private to you, but your experiences of color and shape and movement and sound and taste are also personal and private. 

To put this another way, imagine lying in bed in the early morning when it is still dark, on a morning when you have nothing to do during the day. You are not feeling rushed and are in that state between sleep and wakefulness. You begin by focusing on specific muscles and on the sensations in them. You focus on any emotion you might be experiencing and try to allow yourself to become fully conscious of it. You try to focus on feelings you might be having, no matter how vague. You can also focus on the thoughts flitting through your head and on memories that pop into mind. Thoughts of the future come in and out of focus. And you allow everything to come and go as it does, and you just watch and take note and try to label. You become aware of the position of various parts of your body and of the feel of the bedding. You try to focus on the feeling itself. And the same for the sounds you hear. Some sounds you may recognize but not all. For some sounds you may wonder if they are outside or only in your head. And you notice your feelings of confusion arising from such questions. You look at a red light (if you have some electronic device). You are not wearing your glasses, so the light is out of focus and you see eight red lights. You are not sure how many there are in reality, but you know know that, in some sense, there are eight red lights. You see them and can count them. They are part of your experience.

It is such a state that it occurred to me that it would be an interesting and useful project to try to catalogue all these experiences. Why would this be important? It would be useful to know when you are having a feeling or an emotion and exactly which one you are having. Perhaps your wife or children think you are angry a lot, but you don't feel it. It would be useful, for you and them, if you could know what you are feeling and when. And this if for no other reason than that you might then have a chance to choose how you handle your anger instead of it choosing how it will handle you. Similarly for anxiety and depression and guilt and shame. Knowing when and what you are feeling can help you and others in ways that I will leave to the imagination of the reader to list.

To illustrate Problem 2, let us continue with this imaginary scenario: Let's say you are lying in bed doing this introspective exercise and are feeling you are getting somewhere, but now you notice that you are feeling something in your stomach that you describe to yourself as a feeling of hunger. You notice a feeling of restlessness spreading through you body, and you are experience a vague light diffusing through the room. You decide to get up and "begin your day" but resolve to continue with the exercise. You vow to "watch" all the experiences you have as you go through the day, but, almost as soon as you get out of bed, you forget your resolve. It is cold, colder than you expected. You notice the door is wider open than you thought and that you almost bumped into it, and, in a matter of minutes or even seconds, you become absorbed in something else besides your introspective exercise on your experiences. You are still experiencing, no doubt, but, as your day goes on, you are no longer focusing on them but on the world around you. It is only the next morning, when you awake and are lying in bed, that you remember your project. You may try again the next day, but it seems no matter how hard you try, the day takes over and you forget yourself, as it were. It seems there is no way around it. And it is worse if you have important things to do and still more difficult if you many important things to do and if there is a time frame on them.

Problem 2 is this: If our goal is to describe our experience, to give a complete catalogue of our experiences, it seems there is a whole chunk of our experiences that are not about experiences, not focused on experiences. If we want to understand ourselves we have to take this large chunk of our lives into consideration and try to describe it, but we can not, because to be in the fully awake state is to forget our project. There seem to be two states of our being or our consciousness, but it is only in one that we are able to catalogue and apply the categories to our experiences. The second state seems as absorbing, as time-consuming, and at least as important as the first state, and it is in direct contradiction to it. You can't, it seems, be in both at once.

It seems that you can not fully stay in the state of awareness of the inner life. To put this in another way, if your goal is to stay within your inner life and to categorize it and to use the categories as you progress through your day, you will fail. Or to put it another way, the commitment to the inner life is doomed, as we are fated to spend a good chunk of our lives forgetting about it and focusing on the world. To put this still another way, you can't describe the inner life without taking into consideration the outer life. The outer world is a good chunk of our inner lives, even if we are extreme introverts.The outer world may start as just another thing met with in your meditations, but, without warning, it becomes the only world, the world. This transition is so powerful and so immediate and so total that it can be described as an instinctual reaction to the environment. For the meditator, the transition can be an emotional shock. The world can come to meet you with a powerful crack on the head or a collision with another car or with an overdraft notice from your bank or from a wife walking out in anger.

The problem exists for people of the other extreme also. You may make every effort to focus on the outer world with its objects and forces, but at some time you will face something inside. It may come out in a dream or in a conflict with a spouse or child or boss or after finding out about a disease you have, but there will come a time when your pains and feelings and emotions and thoughts will come into focus, and what you have thought of as "the world" will recede as if it were the dream.

All this leads to the conclusion that you can never catalogue experience without giving some place to that which is not experience. Anxiety is rarely, if ever, an isolated, pristine, inner phenomenon. It is also a reaction to something in the world, perhaps to the sight of a rattlesnake on a hike in the mountains or to the headline of the development of nuclear weapons in an enemy country.

It is also possible to stumble on psychology from either starting point. If you start with you immediate experiences, you will soon run into your own anxiety, depression, anger, and so on. If you start with your wide awake active life in the world, you will run in to the psychology of other people and, eventually, into your own. Psychology looks different if it is seen as a study of people in the world than if you look at it as a study of this moment of anxiety in which you feeling tension in your chest and butterflies in your stomach. Therefore we are led to the idea of Two Approaches to Psychology.