Relativism and Its Relevance for Psychology
by Kundan Singh
Paper presented at the National Conference on Yoga and Indian Approaches to Psychology,
September 29-October 1, 2002, Pondicherry, India.
It is quite apparent that different psychological theories are relative with respect to psychologists, time, and culture, though the authors of all these numerous theories have claimed scientific objectivity. This paper narrates a personal journey of an endeavour toward understanding the underlying cause of relativism encompassing the different psychological theories by examining the very foundations of the scientific paradigm that all these theorists claim to adhere to. The analysis resulted in an understanding where the notion of the Truth, which is at the foundation of any scientific enterprise including psychology, is relative and absolute simultaneously – a position very difficult for the logical and the discursive mind to understand and make sense of. This intellectual understanding opens for us a mystical mode of inquiry into the human nature, for according to the different Indian mystical traditions, the truths of human existence and behaviour cannot be understood by the logical and the discursive mind. This paper, which draws substantially from the writings of Sri Aurobindo, talks about a kind of psychology which will be made possible by making a mystical exploration into the nature of Reality where forces invisible to the ordinary human eye, which nevertheless determine the human behaviour, will be observed and known.
My preliminary tryst with psychology
Before I discuss the issue of relativism and its relevance for Psychology, let me tell you a story from my personal life. It is not only relevant to the main issues of this paper, but also highlights a style, which is so characteristic of the village life in our country – the art of story telling. In my experience, whenever the village elders have to refer to something subtle and profound, they invariably do so through the use of stories. Since we are talking about Indian Psychology, I am deliberately using a style which is common with the common people of our country, and uncommon with the educated elites. Let me, however, quickly add that I leave it to the judgment of the august audience to decide whether the article has something subtle and profound, and it is not something that I would like to claim for myself.
Without further ado here is the story: I was a student of Chemistry at the University of Delhi when beset by my own problems of life which invariably come when one questions the meaning of one’s existence intensely, I set out on a journey where I wanted to understand myself and the riddle that the enigma of our existence presents to us. The questions that were haunting me at that time were the usual questions that trouble an individual undergoing some sort of an existential crisis: who am I, what is the meaning of my existence, where do I come from and where do I go after death, what is the purpose of my life, what profession should I choose that would give me self-fulfillment, what is right and wrong, what is good and evil, what is the true nature of love, does the Divine exist or is He/She/It a mere figment of our imagination, what is science, do science and religion interface with each other, what is the nature of Ultimate Reality, etc., etc.?
Since many of these questions concerned understanding myself, I thought that the discipline of Psychology would help me in understanding myself. Although I loved the discipline of Chemistry, I abandoned it to make a switch to Psychology thinking that it will give me profound insights into myself, and into the nature of laws that govern human behaviour.
Invariably a student of hard sciences, because of the nature of the training, gains the mindset that there is one truth: Things either are true or are false. There are no shades of gray for scientists. Consequently, I had developed the mindset of looking for conclusive opinions and truths. To my consternation and surprise, I found only psychological theories trying to explain behaviour and behavioural problems from so many different perspectives and standpoints.
I as a student was encountering this day after day, and I began to think if there was something largely amiss here. For me, it was a very logical question to ask why the many different schools of psychology explained the laws of human behaviour in so many different ways. Also, what was it that made all these laws scientific? For none of the theorists claimed that their laws were not scientific – on the contrary they claimed that these laws were derived from an objective and an unbiased observation. My heart, soul and intellect could not buy this argument. Since the thinking had not matured by then, this was a period of confusion and turmoil – for deep inside I knew that there was something that was problematic with the discipline but I did not know what it was exactly. The question why there was no one single explanation for human behaviour began to haunt me intensely.
The metaphysical exploration of psychology
Since psychology claims to be a science, I turned my attention towards understanding the very nature of science and its philosophy. In the process the writings of Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend were quite revealing. The most significant insight that I got from Kuhn (1970) was that science, like any other human activity, is guided by certain assumptions that are often unstated and not subject to any kind of empirical test. For example, it is assumed that rules of method and logic are valid instruments for a scientific inquiry to progress: However, these rules are never subjected to any kind of empirical test. Furthermore, for meaningful research to take place the scientific community must agree on the methodologies, the goals, and the valid subject matter of research. The agreement on all these issues would constitute a framework or a paradigm within which the investigation of nature can take place. The paradigm has two components – disciplinary matrix and shared exemplars. The disciplinary matrix consists of a certain fundamental set of assumptions that are often unstated and not subject to empirical test. These assumptions form the basis for testing specific hypotheses. For example, reductionism states that the world can be understood by breaking it into smaller units until we arrive at a set of fundamental units – this is an assumption that is not subjected to any kind of an empirical test, and thus constitutes a portion of the disciplinary matrix of scientists who adhere to this belief. The disciplinary matrix also presupposes a meta-structure that harbors assumptions regarding the human nature, regarding the lawfulness of Nature, regarding the relationship of humans to Nature, etc. The other component of a paradigm is shared exemplars – the models for investigating new problems which include the methodology for pursuing the research.
For any meaningful research – or for that matter any research – to take place it is imperative that the researcher has some sort of a framework, otherwise how is she going to interpret the data. Data is essentially neutral, and meaning needs to be ascribed to them. It is the paradigm with all its presuppositions, and all the predispositions of the researcher – her psychology, her cosmological world – view, her language, her inner states, her belief, her expectations, and her previous knowledge of the world – which helps in the interpretation of data. The mainstream discourse on science very categorically states that facts and theory are separate. Feyerabend (1993), however using countless examples from the history of science, states that this is a myth:
[T]he material which a scientist actually has at his disposal, his laws, his experimental results, his mathematical techniques, his epistemological prejudices, his attitude towards the absurd consequences of the theories which he accepts, is indeterminate in many ways, ambiguous, and never fully separate from the historical background. It is contaminated by principles which he does not know, and which, if known, would be extremely hard to test. Questionable views on cognition, such as the view that our senses, used in normal circumstances, give reliable information about the world, may invade the observation language itself, constituting the observation terms as well as the distinction between veridical and illusory appearance. As a result, observation languages may become tied to older layers of speculation which affect, in a roundabout fashion, even the most progressive methodology. (p. 51, italics his)
I further learnt that before scientific research begins, the community of scientists reaches a consensus as to what are the essential components of the universe, what are the valid questions of research, what is ‘scientific’ and what is not, etc. Lyotard (1979/1984) states that this is essentially a problem of legitimization. The question of good research and bad research is contingent upon the community of scholars deciding whether it is in harmony with the criteria of truth, of justice, of beauty – though these criteria are held to be universal to all humanity, they are specific to the larger culture or country to which the community belongs. Since research is a social activity, it is not free from politics – consequently, it involves unexamined biases, and social interest like fame, fortune, love, loyalty and power of the investigator. Feyerabend (1993) puts this most beautifully:
Scientists are not content with running their own playpens in accordance with what they regard as the rules of the scientific method, they want to universalize their rules, they want them to become part of society at large and they use every means at their disposal – argument, propaganda, pressure tactics, intimidation, lobbying – to achieve their aims. (p. 163)
These insights were totally beneficial to me, and they explained why we have as many theories as the psychologists. The psychologists are human beings as well, and they are very much grounded or caged in their own perspectives that totally determine the way they approach the problem of solving the enigmas of human behaviour. Psychologists see different facts because they ascribe different meta-structure of biases, theories, paradigms, cosmological worldviews, beliefs, culture, expectations, etc. to the raw data in order to interpret them. In other words their individual humanness makes them see psychological issues differently. I learnt further that psychology and psychological concepts do not evolve in a vacuum but are rooted in a socio-historical context. The tremendous diversity of psychological theories in psychological literature began to make sense.
Thomas Leahey in History of Psychology gives a very detailed history of the different psychological schools that have evolved during the course of its growth as a discipline while enumerating the various factors that have contributed in its evolution. Freud’s theory, which places so much emphasis on sexuality, is very much rooted in the Victorian social mores of Europe. Middle-class Europe did not have a very healthy relationship with its sexuality, and had to constantly struggle with the natural human drives in order to maintain its integrity. Writes Leahey (1992):
There is abundant evidence that the struggle for integrity by the middle classes – from which Freud drew most of his patients – was intense and was fought in an environment that we would today find shocking. (p. 221)
Anything that could give pleasure was looked down upon, and society did its best to stamp out that activity. Consequently the Victorians were constantly sandwiched between guilt and temptation, which manifested in their neuroses.
Freud’s emphasis on childhood sexuality as the precursor of psychological problems was also rooted in his own childhood experiences. After his own self-analysis, in a letter to Fleiss, who was one of his friends, he writes that he remembered that he was sexually attracted to his own mother. He was in love with her, and wanted to see her nude. He was also jealous of his father – this totally explains where his theory of Oedipal complex comes from. Freud generalized his own childhood experiences to humanity in entirety (Leahey, 1992).
It became abundantly clear to me that there is an invisible metaphysical structure behind a theory that gives it validity and legitimacy. As a logical corollary to this insight, I could see clearly that different schools of psychology are relative with respect to investigators, time, and culture. This is my story of how I reached an understanding of the relativism that is so prominent and apparent in western psychology. I would now discuss its relevance for Psychology – which is the theme of my paper.
Towards a paradigm shift in psychology: Psychology based on the mystical exploration of the Nature
The intellectual and emotional realization of relativism with respect to different schools of psychology brought me to a state where I felt that there was no future of psychology, and that the pursuit of ultimate truths was not possible. The understanding regarding relativism got further complicated when I realized that the conclusion “Truth is relative” harbors in it an absolute truth – so my understanding about nature of Truth and Ultimate Reality became relative and absolute simultaneously. This led me to a bewildered emotional and intellectual space where holding the simultaneous existence of the two, which basically are opposites, could not make sense. I reached the stage where my logical and discursive mind could see its limitation in entirety. Consequently, the world of Indian spirituality began to open for me, which as we shall see has influenced me to argue for a paradigm shift in psychology.
Indian mystics since time immemorial have recognized that pursuit of knowledge through mind and intellect results in relativism, and it is only in the transcendence of relativism and dualities that the true nature of things is revealed. Psychology in my understanding is closely entwined with the ultimate truths of our existence: Until and unless the very basic enigma of our existence is solved, I do not feel that the real discipline of psychology is possible. Vedanta posits that this world consists of dualities, and that the Ultimate Reality, which is the source of all that exists, is beyond all these dualities. True knowledge can only be gained when one transcends the dual world. Swami Satprakashananda (1977) writes:
It is maya that brings about the relativity of subject and object, the knower and the known. The two are dissimilar, yet inseparable. One does not exist without the other. The universe is a conglomeration of pairs of opposites, such as life and death, light and darkness, joy and sorrow, knowledge and ignorance, plenty and want, beauty and ugliness, kindness and misery, love and hatred, good and evil, in which the antitheses are correlated; yet either factor appears to be an independent element and in vain we try our utmost to have one of the pair to the exclusion of the other. This is the effect of the maya. There is no elevation without depression, no construction without destruction, no addition without subtraction. In each case they the contraries form a single process. They are inseparable; yet they appear disparate. This is the effect of maya (pp.96-7).
Similarly, according to the Buddhists, the world exists as an inseparable and reconciled whole of opposites. Black and white, good and evil, valleys and mountains, friends and enemies are co-implicates. All contradictions and oppositions, seen from a slightly different perspective reveal that they are one and essentially whole. The opposites are not against each other but complement each other. Darkness is born out of light and day is born out of night.
They argue that knowledge rooted in dualities like ‘subject’ and ‘object’ and ‘knower’ and ‘knowledge’ result in Vikalpa which is not the reflection of realty. Paratantra is the true basis of knowledge which can lead to the transcendence of Vikalpa which will further guide the seeker to Tathata or Enlightenment where the true identity of things is revealed.
A very logical question then would be why does the exploration into the Ultimate truths result in relativism? The reason for this, as supported by many mystical traditions, is that the discursive and the logical mind cannot arrive at the truths of our existence. Intellectual activity alone is not capable of solving the final enigmas of our existence – it cannot unravel all the mysteries. Western psychology – due to the spirit of the times – has mainly been inspired by an intellectual and cognitive activity with a heavy reliance on the logical and discursive mind to find out the truths of human behaviour, for the West has considered intellect with its purified reason to be the ultimate instrument for exploring the nature of human existence. That is the reason that things have come to such a pass where we have a thousand and one schools of psychology each claiming an exclusive monopoly on the truth of human behaviour. On numerous occasions in his writings, Sri Aurobindo has commented on the limitation of the mind. Let me quote one passage from him:
Mind in its essence is a consciousness which measures, limits, cuts out forms of things from the indivisible whole and contains them as if each were a separate integer. Even with what exists as obvious parts and fractions, Mind establishes this fiction of its ordinary commerce that they are things with which it can deal separately and not merely as objects of a whole. For, even when it knows that they are not things in themselves, it is obliged to deal with them as if they were things in themselves; otherwise it could not subject them to its own characteristic activity. It is this essential characteristic of Mind which conditions the workings of all its operative powers, whether conception, perception, sensation or the dealings of creative thought. It conceives, perceives, senses things as if rigidly cut out from a background or a mass and employs them as fixed units of the material given to it for creation or possession. All its action and enjoyment deal thus with wholes that form part of a greater whole, and these subordinate wholes again are broken up into parts which are also treated as wholes for the particular purposes they serve. Mind may divide, multiply, add, subtract, but it cannot get beyond the limits of this mathematics. If it goes beyond, and tries to conceive the real whole, it loses itself in a foreign element; it falls from its own firm ground into the ocean of the intangible, into the abysms of the infinite where it can neither perceive, conceive, sense nor deal with its subject for creation and enjoyment. ( Sri Aurobindo, 1949, p. 151)
Mind is an instrument of analysis and synthesis, but not of essential knowledge. Its function is to cut out something vaguely from the unknown Thing in itself and call this measurement or delimitation of it the whole, and again to analyse the whole into its parts which it regards as separate mental objects. It is only the parts and accidents that the Mind can see definitely and, after its own fashion, know. (Sri Aurobindo, 1949, p.118)
Similarly, according to Vedanta, mind is not the knower of things but an object of knowledge. Just like physical objects, like a chair for instance, can be observed, mind also can be observed – which make it an object of knowledge rather than a knower. Hence the knowledge of our existence cannot be grasped by the mind – it is something else that is the knower. That according to Vedanta is the Self, which is the self-intelligent, self-aware, self-evident, self-illuminating consciousness.
It is only by consciously identifying oneself with the consciousness beyond the mind that one finds the truths of one’s existence. That Self is the self of all selves, and by knowing that one not only gains the knowledge of one’s own self but also the knowledge of the selves of all others. According to Sri Aurobindo, all the things that we call our real self like mind and body are not the self at all – these are external aspects of personality put forth by the Nature for the play of life. The real Self is within and above all that we usually identify as our self. The identification with the real Self reveals to us the knowledge of all the mysteries that the universe has concealed from us, which includes the truth that lies behind the psychology of every human being. Sri Aurobindo (1949) comments:
Since the Self which we come to realise by the path of knowledge is not only the reality which lies behind and supports the states and movements of our psychological being, but also that transcendent and universal Existence which has manifested itself in all the movements of the universal, the knowledge of the Self includes also the knowledge of the principles of Being, its fundamental modes and its relations with the principles of the phenomenal universe. This was what was meant by the Upanishad when it spoke of the Brahman as that which being known all is known. It has to be realised first as the pure principle of existence, afterwards, says the Upanishad, its essential modes become clear to the soul which realises it. We may indeed, before realisation, try to analyse by the metaphysical reason and even understand intellectually what Being is and what the world is, but such metaphysical understanding is not the Knowledge. Moreover, we may have the realisaion in knowledge and vision, but this is incomplete without realisation in the entire soul-experience and the unity of all our being with that which we realise. It is the science of Yoga to know and the art of Yoga to be unified with the Highest so that we may live in the Self and act from the supreme poise, becoming one not only in the conscious essence but in the conscious law of our being with the transcendent Divine whom all things and creatures, whether ignorantly or with partial knowledge and experience, seek to express through the lower law of their members. (p. 358)
Western psychology has failed because it is trying to explain the inner by studying the outer. We need to identify this failure, and strive to change the rules of the game that have been practiced so far – to understand the outer we need to study the inner first. From the spiritual literature, and the written accounts of mystics we know that there are layers and layers of consciousness, and forces that are invisible to the ordinary human eyes that are constantly impinging on human beings that determine their behaviour. These forces and levels of consciousness can only be discovered if we undertake a mystical enquiry into the nature of things, where we actually see things how they are. This requires a yogic development which involves a direct and intuitive experience with the nature of things. Sri Aurobindo (1992) is quite forthright about such a kind of psychology rooted in a mystical exploration of our existence.
A direct and experiential and experimental psychology seems to be demanded if psychology is to be a science and not merely a mass of elementary and superficial generalizations with all the rest guesswork or uncertain conclusions or inference. We must see, feel, know directly what we observe; our interpretations must be capable of being sure and indubitable; we must be able to work surely on a ground of sure knowledge. (pp. 335-36)
The future psychology or the psychology that I envision, primarily based on the insights of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, is one in which such knowledge of psychology by identification becomes a legitimate field of enquiry in academia, and is taken up by large numbers of people. For centuries together in India, the exploration of the deeper truths of our existence has taken place by the mystics – Rishis and Munis. Under the destruction brought about by colonialization and the dominance of western heuristics in academia henceforth, a legitimate field of enquiry into the nature of our existence was systematically decimated and discredited. The time has come for us to bestow legitimacy to the age – old tradition of ours, and inspire the younger generations to become mystics who can determine the psychological laws and the psychology of individuals based on knowledge by identification. It is important to educate the youth about the possibility of this kind of knowledge. Incidentally, it is the educated who need to be educated, for it is a very common knowledge in India even today that the mystics know about the past, present and the future of Individuals and their thought processes – perhaps one of the main reasons why even the fake yogis flourish here in the country so much.
Given the present state of affairs as far as the academia is concerned, this seems like a revolutionary step, for becoming a mystic is not an easy task. In my experience it is one of the most difficult things to do as it involves transcending and transmuting everything that is human, and that which limits us in the realm of life and death. As an introduction to what is surely going to be the psychology of the future, we can start to make a beginning in the Indian Universities by introducing thoughts that have been spoken to humankind from a mystical perspective. Our ancestors have left us with a rich repertoire of knowledge contained in the Vedic, Vedantic and Buddhist thoughts. The wisdom that is contained in these words itself can become a guiding light for the future endeavours. Today the curriculum is heavily dominated by western psychology – instead of viewing these various schools of psychology as the gospel of truth, and basing our research on those foundations, we need to critically examine them. These thoughts have evolved in particular social contexts, and we need to place them in those contexts. The fundamental flaw with the methodology of the different psychological schools needs to be identified, and we need to make a quantum jump by exploring the mystical and the invisible realm of Nature who carries in herself all the secrets that govern the human behaviour.
This paper is dedicated to my Gurus – Mother and Sri Aurobindo.
I would like to express my heart felt gratitude to my maternal grandparents – maa and Nanaji – whose care, love and affection during my childhood has made this paper possible. My words will never be able to express the gratitude that I harbour towards my maternal grandmother who brought me up with a lot of love, care and warmth. With very fond memories I would like to remember my maternal grandfather who introduced me to spirituality even before I could realize it.
I am thankful to my friend Rick Lipschutz for having proof-read the paper. I would also like to thank the Infinity Foundation for having funded my travel to make the presentation of the paper possible.
Aurobindo, S. (1949). The life divine. New York: E. P. Dutton &Co., Inc., Publishers.
Aurobindo, S. (1992). Essays divine and human with thoughts and aphorisms. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.
Feyerabend, P. (1993). Against method. New York: Verso
Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Leahey, T.H. (1992). A history of modern psychology: Main currents in psychological thought. New Jersey: Printice Hall, Inc.
Lyotard, J. F. (1984). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge. (G. Bennington & B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (Original work published 1979)
Satprakashananda, S. (1977). The universe, God, and God-realization: From the viewpoint of Vedanta. St. Louis: Vedanta Society of St. Louis.
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