Towards a new foundation for psychology
Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 03 May 2021

section 1
What is psychology, and how is it studied?

Psychology as a science is unique: it is about ourselves

The psychology I'll try to describe in this text is the science of the soul, the psyche, of what we are in our innermost essence. It is of course also the science of our more humble thoughts and feelings, our desires and fears, our doubts and our faith, our impulses and our will, our pain and our joy, our love and our loneliness, our outer action and inner agency, and the myriad ways all these interact in shaping our lives. But above all else, it is the science of our urge for progress, our search for a greater love and a more beautiful life, our aspiration for a wider consciousness, a deeper meaning and a higher truth.

Mainstream psychology is not like this. The reason is that psychology occupies a unique position amongst all the different branches of science. While all other sciences are about things that exist in the physical, outside world, psychology is — or rather should be — about what happens inside ourselves. The natural territory of psychology consists of things and processes that exist subjectively in our consciousness, and science does not really know how to deal with consciousness and what happens inside of it. For science, studying these things in a rigorous and reliable fashion is not as straightforward as studying what exists out there, in the physical world, "for everyone to see".

And so, while psychology at the end of the nineteenth century started off as the science of consciousness, in the beginning of last century American psychologists gave up on consciousness and redefined psychology as the science of behaviour. Since behaviour can be observed and measured objectively, psychology suddenly turned into a real, objective science like all the others.

Over time, mainstream psychology realised this did not work as well as it had hoped, and psychology is now routinely defined as the science of behaviour and mind or even behaviour and experience, but, as we will see, the shift has not gone far enough and we are still not as good in dealing with the subjective side of reality as we are with the objective side.1

Looking for one's keys

The problem with subjectivity is of course not a new one. There is a cute Sufi story that explains the predicament of mainstream psychology rather well. It is about Nazruddin who sees a man who is feverishly looking for something on the street. Nazruddin asks him,

“What are you looking for?”
      “I’m looking for my keys!”
“Where did you lose them?”
      “Over there, in my house.”
“Then why are you looking here, outside your house?”
      “Because inside the house it is dark.
      Here at least I can see what I’m doing!”

A simple story, and perhaps over-used, but it contains a deep truth. As one of the Upanishads tells us, the house of our body is made with its windows (the senses) opening outside. So we tend to look outside of ourselves for the solution of our problems. But that’s not where the key to their solution is to be found. Though meant as a warning for "the common man", the Sufi story describes quite accurately what academic psychology has been doing so far. It has been looking at external behaviour simply because that is what it knows how to research. The physical sciences have worked out their methods for centuries and they have achieved amazing successes with it, so it is tempting for psychology to follow their lead. But the methods of the physical sciences haven’t worked for psychology so far and they will not work in the future, for what psychology needs to study is not to be found in the physical world, outside of ourselves. It is not even to be found, or at least not in its entirety, in our social surroundings; culture is important, but it is not the essence of what we are. The real domain of Psychology is inside, it is our consciousness and all that happens inside of it.2

Psychology as the science of consciousness

Consciousness belongs to our very essence: without consciousness there would be no experience and we would not even know whether we existed. And so a science of psychology has to be primarily a science of consciousness; it should be a science of what we are "on the inside"; a science of the subjective domain. There are several reasons why humanity needs such an "inner science".3

The first of them might simply be that psychology should honour who we are. What happens inside of us is important to us. We are subjects, and a real science of psychology should not be afraid of studying everything that this entails.

A second reason to pay attention to what happens inside ourselves is purely pragmatic. Even our outer behaviour is the end-result of an enormously complex series of inner processes, and to understand, predict and improve human action, these inner processes do require a detailed, direct examination. The only way to do that is by going inside ourselves. Mainstream psychology accepts this, and psychologists routinely ask their subjects to report on what they think and feel. The problem with this is, that introspection is far more difficult than it may appear at first sight. Early psychologists tried to teach people how to "introspect", but their methods were too simplistic and they never managed to make introspection reliable. We will see how one can observe one's own inner states and processes in a rigorous and reliable manner with the help of the more sophisticated methods developed in the Indian tradition. Once psychologist begin to master these skills, they can use their improved "inner instruments of knowledge" to look directly at psychological processes in a manner that is not that different from the way telescopes and electron microscopes are used in the hard sciences.

A third reason is ethical. A physicalist, objective science looks at human beings as objects, and nobody likes to be treated as an object. If we are, we feel manipulated, and rightly so. This is not only an individual problem. For the general health and happiness of a society, it is a total disaster if too large a number of people feel unrecognised and unfairly treated. It is good to realise that this doesn't happen only under totalitarian regimes, it also happens in democracies and to children in mainstream education which, in spite of all the goodwill of individual teachers, is still in its basic structure based on an objectifying, behaviourist psychology.4

A fourth reason to study consciousness directly is the issue of meaning and values. A physicalist, objective science has nothing meaningful to say about values since there is no place for values and meaning in a positivist study of the physical reality. Social constructionism cannot help either as its yardstick for values is ultimately only a matter of consensus, and if history can teach us anything then it is that consensus is an extremely dangerous path to follow when it comes to values.5 Meaning and values exist primarily in consciousness and we will see how a genuine science of consciousness can actually lead to their naturalisation.

A fifth reason is methodological. One could argue that our mind can study the physical world because it can look at it as if from above or as Nagel put it "from nowhere". We can not look at our own thoughts and feelings in the same way because we identify with them: if we try, we become like a judge hearing his own case. Interestingly, this problem is not unsurmountable. There are centres of consciousness that do not identify with the workings of the mind and from these centres one can observe what happens in one's own mind with the same objectivity with which that mind can study what happens in the physical world. It may be clear that to operate in a reliable manner from these centers, one needs a sophisticated understanding and considerable mastery over one's consciousness, more or less in the same way that one needs physics to make instruments with which one can study the physical reality.

And finally, there is one reason that takes us perhaps too far into the future, but that is nevertheless at the heart of the matter. It is that our entire analytical, mental way of dealing with life is actually not good enough for a comprehensive understanding of the whole of reality. The reason is that our human mind is solidly dualistic, while reality is not. The way mainstream science deals with the world, is not only misleading because the world is not just physical, but also because the mind itself is not the best way for knowing all aspects of reality. There is more to the world, there is more to knowledge, and there is more to us. But to understand that extra, the first condition is to get a better understanding of consciousness and its role in the world.

Can we have a science of consciousness?

It may be clear then, that there is a genuine need for a science that tackles the subjective domain directly and that is as rigorous, self-critical, effective, detailed and comprehensive as the science we already have of the objective domain. It may also be clear that to develop such a science will not be easy, and that it will require a new philosophical foundation, a better understanding of what knowledge actually is, effective methods to make subjective enquiry more precise, reliable and shareable, and behind all of that, a willingness amongst psychologists to work on themselves and turn themselves into better instruments of knowledge and action. As mentioned earlier, the groundwork for all this is already available outside the scientific tradition. There are, for example, impressive indications of sophisticated self-enquiry in the writings of the Christian mystics and in more recent times Phenomenology has made a fresh, secular attempt. But to the best of my — admittedly limited — knowledge, by far the richest storehouse of sophisticated knowledge and know-how about consciousness can be found in the Indian civilisation.

Turning Eastward

Studying the Indian tradition is however, not that simple. The Indian civilisation is extremely complex and so, if one wants to go beyond the usual platitudes, one has to choose between a selection and a synthesis. For one's own individual growth, a selection may well be the most efficient way to proceed, but since each Indian system has specialised in a different aspect of human nature, if we want to develop a comprehensive framework for the whole of psychology, what we need is a synthesis. Instead of attempting to make my own, for which I am ill-equipped, I've used for this text, the synthesis Sri Aurobindo made in the first half of the last century.6

Sri Aurobindo's synthesis

There are several things that make Sri Aurobindo's work uniquely suitable for the development of a new foundation of psychology. One of them is that he realised early on that what works in the enormous variety of Indian efforts at developing knowledge and mastery in the inner domain is a specialised use of in itself common psychological processes. As he wrote in the introduction to The Synthesis of Yoga, "yoga is nothing more than practical psychology". And so, for the synthesis he made of the various schools of yoga and philosophy, he left their outer — often culturally determined, religious and ritualistic — forms aside and concentrated instead on the underlying psychology. The result of that effort is an exceptionally comprehensive understanding not only of those aspects of human nature that are important for spiritual growth, but of the whole of psychology, right from our dealings with our everyday physical and social circumstances, to the most lofty, light and harmonious regions that only spiritual practice can make accessible. As may be clear, one can fully, experientially, know such a synthesis only from an inner height and wideness of consciousness that most of us are not capable of — and perhaps not even need — but even a simple mental understanding of it helps, just like a good map helps to find your way in an unknown country.

Where to start

One of the first things that strike us in Sri Aurobindo's synthesis is how many broad avenues and narrow byways there actually are from the limitations, conflicts, pain and suffering of the ordinary consciousness to the perfect love, joy and understanding we crave for. Though this may look confusing at first sight, it actually means that there is always a road, from wherever one happens to be, to the centre. For the individual, all that is needed is to take the first step on any of those roads, and to admit that what really matters to human beings — love, truth, harmony, beauty, meaning, values, the list is long — needs to be pursued with all the energy, rigour and precision we can muster, however difficult that might be. But for our collective life, for the development of a science of the subjective domain, that is not enough. There we need a map not only of the local detail in the particular spot we happen to find ourselves, but also of the terrain as a whole, together with methods for making our maps more precise, reliable and serviceable, and even though for each individual his or her individual growth is the most important, there is a place for more abstract insights about what we are, how we work, and how change actually happens. So that is what we'll try to give an indication of in the rest of this text.

In the next chapter we will give a quick overview of the four areas in which India can make a major contribution to modern psychology.

 

Endnotes

1.    During a conference in Oxford, a highly respected elderly British psychologist remarked once that whatever psychology had found was either trivial or dubious. I expected the younger psychologists surrounding him to protest, but they didn't. They solemnly nodded. It might be tempting to dismiss his observation as exaggerated cynicism, but can one even imagine a senior physicist saying such a thing about physics?

2.    A short description of the pit into which psychology fell when it tried to avoid the direct study of consciousness can be found in Appendix 1-1-2.

3.    It is of course not that consciousness has not been studied. There is the interdisciplinary field of Consciousness Studies and a colossal amount of meditation research has been done, but all these efforts are still hampered by the demand of objectivity, which leads to a focus on its physical correlates, the social and physical processes that influence it, and the behaviour that follows from it, while what we argue for here is a rigorous science of consciousness itself, what it is and what it does, as seen from the inside.

4.    The disastrous effects of an educational system that objectifies children during the most decisive years of their lives, is seriously underestimated and I ardently hope there will come a time when we will wonder how we could ever have been that barbaric. Education should be based on a deep, soul-based respect for each individual child, and it is rather shameful that this needs saying. For more on the unhealthy effects of schooling, one could read the appendix entitled, "Is schooling injurious to health?".

5.    In case of doubt, it is good to remember that Hitler was voted into power and for several years supported by the majority of ordinary people in Germany. If Germany had won World War II, would an extreme form of racism, the systematic murder of political opponents, socialists, invalids, mentally ill, Gypsies and Jews have been morally right?

6.    Interestingly, it was roughly in the same period that Freud created Psychoanalysis in Europe, and that Watson lay the foundation of Behaviourism in the USA, that Sri Aurobindo began to test — and expand — India's ancient inner knowledge with impeccable intellectual rectitude in a remote French corner of colonial India. While Freud and Watson started large movements within the academic world, Sri Aurobindo worked quietly on his own and though he published the first version of almost all his major prose works between 1914 and 1920, even now, almost a century later, the quality and extent of his work are still hardly known. Those who don't know his work may wonder why I have put so much faith in one single author, but I hope that as we proceed, whatever initial scepsis the reader may have will be dispelled by the sheer quality of Sri Aurobindo's work. There is a short biography of Sri Aurobindo in the Appendix.