Critiques in psychology

Dafermos, M. & Marvakis, A. (2006) ‘Critiques in Psychology – Critical Psychology’,
Annual Review of Critical Psychology, 5, pp. 1-20
Manolis Dafermos & Athanasios Marvakis1
Critiques in Psychology – Critical Psychology2
In memory of
Klaus Holzkamp (1927-1995)
I. Psychology as a field of theoretical and political conflict: An introduction
At first sight, academic Psychology appears to whosoever attempts to approach it to be a
concrete body of accumulated knowledge, which modern generations are called to merely
assimilate and apply. The evolution of Psychology seems to be restricted in the accumulation
of mostly quantitative ‘unquestionable’, ‘real’ and non-critical knowledge, without the need
for a reappraisal of the theoretical system, the anthropological bases, the philosophical
foundations and their practical applications (Holzkamp, 1973). However, a deeper look into
the history and status of today’s Psychology may reveal that, in absolute contrast to this
simplified and ‘positivistic’ vision, the conflict between different approaches and
psychological theories – which base themselves on mutually exclusive epistemological
standpoints – has been the basic element in the production of psychological knowledge and
action for more than 100 years.
Bearing these introductory notes in mind we can say that the kind of Psychology that one will
encounter (as a student for instance) is ultimately a matter of sheer chance. At its origin as a
scientific branch, Psychology was already stigmatised by intense theoretical and political
arguments, resulting in winners and losers, in those that found themselves within academia
and those that were kept ‘out’ of it. Thus, we believe that on approaching the field of
academic psychology one comes in contact with each ‘local winner’ of the theoretical and
political conflicts and his or her version as to what Psychology is (or should be).
This continual ‘crisis’ within Psychology has actually been one of its most fundamental
characteristics as well as a topic of debate since its foundation. Contemporary social changes,
which will probably bring about the restructuring of the social sciences as a whole
(Wallerstein, 2001), are in turn inducing major modifications to the organisation and
formulation of Psychology as an autonomous academic strand as it has been formed since the
end of the nineteenth century. One possible outcome could be the division of Psychology (as a
uniform branch) into two fields: on the one side we could have an ‘individualistic-cognitiveneurological’ Psychology, which will merge with other research approaches of relevance (i.e.,
neurosciences, artificial intelligence, cognitive sciences etc).
Contact: &
The basis for this paper is an introductory chapter of the special issue of the Greek Journal “Utopia” (No. 64,
2005). This version has been (slightly) changed in order to function as introduction of the special issue of this
international journal. We would like to thank the many friends and colleagues, especially Thekla Yiakeimi, Ian
Parker and Sofia Triliva, for improving this text and making it palatable English.
On the other side, a generalised ‘Social Psychology’ may develop, which will merge with
other relevant strands (such as cultural studies, Ethnology, Anthropology etc). Such a
dualism, which manifests itself in the existence of two ‘camps’ with insuperable differences
between them, has been a major characteristic of scientific psychology since its first
appearance. The issue of its ‘unification’ keeps on reappearing since then (Staats, 1991). This
specific chasm can be identified even in Wilhelm Wundt’s theory; he was the ‘official’
founder of the first research lab for Psychology in Leipzig in 1879; that was the point of
mainstream Psychology’s historical emergence (Danziger, 1985; 1990; Nicolas and Ferrand,
1999). Wilhelm Wundt himself attempted to establish ‘two psychologies’ (Cahan and White,
1992; Danziger, 1980). In the process of his life he became gradually preoccupied with and
outlined the importance of the ‘second psychology’ (which was largely ignored by academia
until recently), namely the ‘Psychology of the People’ (Völkerpsychologie), as he called it.
During the 1980s and within the frame of that second field, ideas related to social
constructionism became particularly popular (Gergen, 1985; 1991; 1995; Shotter, 1995).
According to social constructionists, subjects can neither represent the outer world objectively
and accurately, nor produce universal truths. Contrary to the view that knowledge is the
reflection of an objective reality, advocates of social constructionist theory view knowledge
as constructed within social interaction. Social constructionists differentiate themselves from
‘radical constructionism’ on this point. The latter emphasises the cognitive (constructionist)
processes that individuals activate and, instead, shift the debate to the everyday
communicational acts and discussions (Shotter, 1995). Heralds of this approach support the
idea that ‘the subjects’ of psychological research are formed and constructed by discourses
that are historically and culturally specific. The person articulates a ‘discourse’ in the world,
which then develops through his interaction within a certain group or culture.
Despite the social constructionists’ attempts to escape both ‘Scylla’s dualism’ and
‘Charybdis’ solipsism’ (Kenneth Gergen’s own phrases), their epistemology not only
reproduces such approaches, but also results in multiple internal paradoxes. For instance,
while there is the view that subjects construct and produce through their mutual
communication with the world (the latter thus losing its material substance), the existence of
an objectively present world and of the subjects within it is also acknowledged, in the attempt
to avoid sliding into total solipsism (Gergen, 1995, p. 28).
Berger and Luckmann’s ‘sociology of knowledge’ has had substantial influence on the
development of constructionism. According to these writers, psychological theories are
invented before the events and they construct the very reality: ‘Psychologies produce reality,
which in turn serves the base for its reaffirmation’ (1980/1966, p. 326). 3 The New York
intellectual becomes Freudian because he has internalised Freudian psychology and the
farmer from Haiti becomes demonised when he internalises the psychology of voodoo. The
methodological tool that this approach makes use of relies on the explosion of psychology’s
ideological function, which is projected as being the arbitrary construction of reality in the
service of certain local means. However, its cognitive aspects are either downgraded or even
nullified. We are thus presented with a total subjectivisation of psychological knowledge and
with an objective reality that is the construction of this certain form of ‘discourse’. Should we
adopt this approach, inexplicably there still remain, not only the subjects that invent, construct
the psychological theories, but also the specific social and cognitive circumstances that
contribute to the formation of these theories.
Quoted and retranslated from the Greek edition (2003).
Breaking with these approaches reproduces the methodological dualism at a new level. This
dualism transcends not only Psychology, but also the whole of the social sciences. Mutual
critique between the advocators of these approaches does not supersede the horizon of
existing fragmented, fractal psychological knowledge. In sum, we can conclude that both
winners and losers of the conflicts set between the diverse currents within Psychology, both in
as well as outside the epistemological field, are up until now reproducing the methodological
polarities of a kind of a science that is imprisoned in the frame of bourgeois society (Haug,
In the present project we are exploring critical psychology, or better yet ‘critical
psychologies’ (we hope that the choice of the plural number will be better understood as we
go on) as a new strand, which, however, has deep historical roots.
We will start by tracing the philosophical roots of the concept of ‘critique’ in classical
German philosophy and Marxism. Let us not forget that psychology was not an autonomous
scientific discipline until the end of the nineteenth century. It was a branch of philosophy.
Besides, the relationship between psychology and philosophy has been a most prickly issue
up until the present. Following that, we will locate certain historical benchmarks, which
characterize the conflictual epistemological development of Psychology. By highlighting the
historicity of psychology a deeper form of critique of the widespread positivistic conceptions
emerges. The next step will be an attempt to present facts and figures ‘panoramically’. Our
purpose will be to show that critical approaches within psychology and critical psychologies
have produced a mass of literature, which is valuable enough to stand as the basis for further
development. In conclusion, we will attempt to sketch different phases and levels of the
development of critique in psychology in relation to its contemporary situation. The aim is to
highlight and render more obvious the prospects of its development as a science.
II. On the concept of ‘critique’: From classical German philosophy to Marxism
The concept of ‘critique’ comprises one of the fundamental categories in German classical
philosophy. According to Kant, critique means the exploration of the limits within which the
legitimacy of theoretical and practical reason is demarcated. The Kantian critique of
dogmatism (of the notion that reason moves through knowledge without the preliminary
exploration of its boundaries) has played an exceptional role for development of philosophical
thought. According to Kant, dogmatism is ‘…. the dogmatic route of pure reason [which
follows] without the precedence of Critique of this same force’ (Kant, 1979, p. 61). Thus, the
rationalistic metaphysics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is a characteristic
example of that dogmatism, of the absence of preliminary exploration of cognitive potential in
the field of reason. The inescapable result of reason moving outside the boundaries of its
action is, according to Kant, the emergence of antinomies.
With Hegel, critique acquired a double meaning. First of all, Hegel attempted the critical
exploration of the whole history of Philosophy (generally of the history of the human spirit),
and the reconstruction of the natural-historical (physical-historical) process of the becoming
of human conscience. The incongruent and contradictory character of Hegelian critical
historicity lies in the fact that the philosophical system, which he invented, is presented as the
climax of the history of human reason. Contrary to the widespread beliefs of some Frankfurt
School representatives, who were equating Hegelian dialectics with ‘negative dialectics’
(Adorno, 1966; Marcuse, 1968/1989), Hegel argued that a profound critique of the earlier
levels of the development of knowledge is achieved through the production of a system of
scientific knowledge, not through sheer rejection or negativism; “The true form through
which truth exists cannot be other than the scientific system of this truth” (Hegel, 1993, p.
Secondly, Hegel attempted a critical analysis of the alienation, which is characteristic for the
development of bourgeois society. Hegel’s contribution, as Marx has observed, lies in the fact
that he was studying labour as the base and the spring of human development. However,
labour was identified with the abstract mental labour. Therefore, Hegel identified alienation
with a general objectification; thus, the possibility of its real and practical transgression was
expelled (Mészáros, 1970).
As the Soviet philosopher Vazioulin (1971) observed, in Hegelian philosophy a specific form
of the domination of spontaneous social forces is taken, is reproduced as a universal form,
under the prism of the people that are dominated by this process. The disjunction of the
spontaneous social forces from the people and its domination over the people is characteristic
of all antagonistic societal formations; however, in capitalism it reaches its peak. In Hegel,
man’s species specific substance is projected as entirely independent and autonomous in
relation to the individual human subjects who are presented as the ‘shadows’ of
uncontrollable, blind forces. The contradiction in Hegel’s philosophy lies in the fact that,
while on the one hand he intensely critiqued the alienated bourgeois relations of production,
on the other hand, he presents modern society as eternal and unchanging and thus suggested
that, the transgression of this alienation is achieved only in conscience (in the sphere of the
‘ultimate spirit’), and not in the objective societal reality.
The negotiation of the concept of critique became particularly popular in Germany during the
deconstruction of the Hegelian system and the conflict between diverse currents and notions
that came about from its collapse. The neo-Hegelians and, most of all, Bruno Bauer, were
profoundly critical of religion (the official ideology of the Prussian monarchy), and they
studied it as a product of human spirit. Neo-Hegelians thought that the transformation of
reality would come through radical critique, identifying it, however, with the critique of
Marx was for a while influenced by the ideas of the neo-Hegelian philosophers. However, he
gradually detached himself from them and rigorously criticised their ‘absolute critique’,
especially the contradiction between the passive mass of people and the ‘charismatic
personalities of critique’ as the only and absolute active subjects; ‘The Critical School fully
publicized and made known its superiority over the human emotions and the people, above
which it stands enthroned in a divine solitude with nothing else than a occasional roar of a
sarcastic laughter coming from its Olympian lips’ (Marx, 1978, p. 170). Marx showed that
neo-Hegelians restricted themselves only to intellectual critique of social reality, whereas the
basic issue is its real, practical transformation.
The Marxist understanding of critique is revealed in Marx’s letters for the DeutschFranzösische Jahrbücher. In Marx’s third letter to Arnold Ruge (September, 1843), one of the
basic advantages of the new approach is identified in the fact that its representatives were
pursuing, not the dogmatic predisposition of the future, but contributing to the construction of
a new world through criticising the old one. On explicating the concept of critique Marx
observes: ‘I am referring to the ruthless critique of anything real; ruthless in two senses: this
critique does not fear its own consequences/conclusions and does not retreat in the conflict
with the dominators’ (Marx and Engels, 1981, p. 344).
In contrast to the neo-Hegelians, Marx did not restrict himself to the critique of religion, but
deepened his critique, which gradually develops and transforms arriving at a critique of
politics: ‘The critique of the sky transforms into critique of the earth, the critique of religion
into critique of law, the critique of theology into critique of politics’ (Marx, 1978, p. 18).
Marx’s study moved from the critique of politics to critical exploration of the sphere of
material interests and critical analysis of the bourgeois political economy (Vazioulin, 1975).
Hence, in Marx’s work, close examination of critique is connected to the shift from critical
analysis of the spheres of life in society to critical exploration of the inner, substantial
relationships between people in the sphere of material production. This work, delving deeper
into critical analysis of social reality, does not have an abstract contemplative quality, but is
interwoven with the discovery of the social subject (the proletariat), who can contribute to the
radical, revolutionary reformulation of society due to its position in the social division of
Marx’s critique was mostly centred on the critique of political economy. Marx himself did not
hesitate to name the most significant work in his life (‘Capital’) ‘a critique of political
economy’. Therefore, a profound critique of bourgeois political economy lies in the
systematic, categorical examination of the specific discipline’s subject of study and its
internal consistency (Vazioulin, 2004; Patelis, 2004). On this specific point, the critique of
capitalist society and of bourgeois political economy is connected to the systematic theoretical
delineation of capitalism’s internal contradictions concurrently rendering obvious the
conditions and perspectives of its historical transformation.
Marx’s methodology (including his beliefs on the critique of social reality) has special
significance for the development of social sciences and up until now it has been insufficiently
utilised. Soviet psychologist Lev S. Vygotsky was noting that Psychology is a science that
falls short compared to Marx’s Capital and is in need of producing its own ‘Capital’.
Vygotsky rigorously criticised Marxists who restrict themselves to fragmentary use of
citations from Marx’s work and attempt to apply Marxist theory in Psychology in an
immediate and mechanistic way (Vygotsky, 1996, p. 198). In Vygotsky’s view the most
fertile approach lies in the study and application of Marx’s epistemological method. Moreover,
the immediate mechanistic application of a general methodology in a specific discipline of
science is impossible. Thus, the application of a general methodology for the critical
examination of a certain scientific field (of Psychology in this instance) presupposes its
substantial development.
III. ‘Critique’ in the history of Psychology
The emancipation of Psychology and its detachment from Philosophy gradually took place
during the second half of the nineteenth century, and are commonly linked to the creation of
Wilhelm Wundt’s experimental laboratory in Leipzig. In the end of nineteenth and beginning
of the twentieth century the conflict between traditional Philosophical Psychology and the
developing Experimental and Functionalistic Psychology (which ultimately prevailed) was
especially widespread. Georges Politzer (1929/1974), a French philosopher and psychologist,
estimated that from the first decades as an academic branch of knowledge, Psychology was
suffering, not from dogmatism or from a monolithic theoretical constitution, but from the
existence of too many ‘critiques’. This means that it was characterised by the succession of
different forms of critique:
Critique of the old philosophical Psychology by the self-declared Scientific Psychology,
critique of the ‘Scientific Psychology’ by Wilhelm Wundt’s descendants … critique of the
totally mechanistic Psychology of Elements (Elementenpsychologie) by a Psychology of
Elements that wants to be more dynamic, then a general critique of the Psychology of
Elements … etc. (Politzer, 1929/1974, p. 12)
At least three concrete theoretical programmes appeared at the middle of the 19th century,
which aimed at establishment of Psychology as science from its onset; Wundt, Brentano and
Sechenov suggested them respectively:
We have already referred to Wundt’s introduction of a distinction between two
psychologies (the ‘Physiological Psychology’ as an experimental science and the ‘Psychology
of the People’ as a descriptive science of the habits, the language and the products of human
action). The representatives of each orientation within psychology based their theoretical
systems on one or the other type of psychological knowledge while criticising the
representatives of the opposite camp.
Contrary to the approach of Psychology as an experimental science, Franz Brentano
(1838–1917) attempted to found Psychology as a descriptive science that studies the activities
of conscience (vision, hearing, judgment), and not the analysis of its partial elements. For his
Phenomenological Psychology, conscience’s basic characteristics are agency, intentionality,
and consistency. Further development of Phenomenological Psychology focused on the
critique of the naturalisation of conscience.
Ivan Sechenov’s materialistic theory remained heretic in relation to Mainstream
Psychology. Sechenov was studying psychic activity as a reflexive process of interaction
between the organism and the outer world and attempted to supersede the schism between
conscience and the function of the brain. During the second half of the nineteenth century,
Russia’s scientific life was marked by the conflict between Kavelin’s idealistic Psychology
and Sechenov’s materialistic Psychology (Sechenov, 1995).
Mutual critique of the basic currents within psychology at the beginning of the 20th century
and the existence of conflicting views on its subject of study and its methods fuelled the
discussion on its methodological crisis. During that period, a sense of Psychology’s
theoretical deficiency intensified, while a series of theories evolved that approached
accumulated psychological knowledge in a critical way and analysed its methodological
crisis. Politzer was one of the first to study the conflict between ‘causal-explanatory’ and
‘hermeneutic-comprehending’ Psychology and suggested the development of a ‘new
Psychology’ about the ‘drama of life’. Karl Bühler (1927/1978) also analysed the
contradiction between methods of explanation and those of ‘comprehending’ and suggested
their unification as a means of surpassing the crisis within Psychology. Ludwig Binswanger
proposed a reconstruction of psychological knowledge on the basis of the laws of Typical
Logic as a remedy for healing psychology’s methodological crisis. Contrary to those views,
Vygotsky supported the view that the eclectic unification of approaches and methods does not
lead to a transgression of Psychology’s methodological crisis, but to a reproduction of that
crisis on a new level (Dafermos, 2002).
Finally, a functionalistic-positivistic approach arose as the dominant/mainstream current
within Psychology, at least in the Western world, which was followed by widespread
naturalistic reading of Psychology that was supposed to match the pattern of the natural
sciences solely. At this stage, we have to point out that we are talking about the natural
sciences as they were conceived by those representatives of psychology who assumed that it
was necessary to uphold their choices with ‘loans’ from ‘stronger’ (more established)
sciences. We are making this reference in order to underline the point that such notions
usually were based on invented, ‘constructed’ – thus suitable - views and interpretations of
the natural sciences.
The prevalence of positivistic Psychology was made possible through a tool-like handling of
psychological knowledge aligned with the needs and mechanisms of social control (Kardorff,
1984). It is not a coincidence that, for example, the institutional acknowledgment of
Psychology in the U.S.A. in the beginning of the 20th century was based exactly on the use of
psychologists as functionaries of the apparatuses of social control –in the army and in control
of immigration (to give just two examples).
The conflict between radically different streams in the understanding of the nature of
Psychology appeared in Greece as well. We can cite here the clash of views on Psychology’s
scientific subject, as it is expressed in the textbooks of the Lyceum, as a characteristic
example of the existence of mutually exclusive theoretical and political approaches. The 1977
Psychology course-book by Papanoutsos refers to ‘classical Psychology’ exclusively. The
subject of Psychology, according to Papanoutsos, is the exploration of the ‘psychic world’
(Papanoutsos, 1977, p. 7). One of the most valuable elements of this approach is the attempt
to form a psychological discourse in the first person. For a better understanding of this we are
here quoting a long extract in which the writer identifies/defines Psychology’s subject (what
Psychology should study and what it should not be involved in):
What characterises a psychic act or state, for example, an impression or an emotion, is:
(a) its unbreakable bond with the psychological subject, the ‘I’ that performs this act or is in
this state. The impression is my impression, your impression, his/her impression…. The
emotion is my emotion or that person’s emotion, who is one and specific person. Never an
emotion or impression vaguely and in an abstracted way. Without the bond with a certain
centre of psychic life no psychic event can exist or be perceived. And since the centre of
psychic life is not one, nor always and everywhere the same and unchangeable, psychic
reality appears in many and incomprehensible variations and vitiations due to its subjective
(b) The reference to something else ‘outside’ of it. A natural phenomenon, an electrical
discharge or a chemical union for instance, is what it is and nothing further. On the contrary,
my impression is the impression of something that came across my perception, my emotion is
the emotion due to an event in my life; therefore, both are what they are through their relation
with and by their reference to something else outside them. They acquire their
meaning/significance on the basis of this something. Without that, they are not conceived,
they do not ‘exist’. Natural phenomena are processes and, from this point of view, selfexistent; one does not have to look beyond or ‘outside’ of them to characterise them. On the
contrary, psychic activities and situations, when they are detached from the other to which
they refer (as well as from the I, their carrier/medium), not only do they mean nothing, they
‘are’ nothing. (Papanoutsos, 1977, p. 9f.).
Exactly this theoretical-epistemological approach, with the ‘first person’ as its starting point,
was wiped out by the later – and modernised – psychology textbook, which was edited by
contemporary Greek academic teachers aiming in replacing Papanoutsos’s book (Nasiakou et
al., 1987). An approach that Papanoutsos categorically disqualifies is adopted in the new text.
The reference, for example, to ‘my impression’ is transformed into the reference to ‘a mental
function’ in the new book (Nasiakou et al., 1987, p. 42). 4 The ‘modernisation’ of the
Lyceum’s Psychology textbook resulted in the elimination of the bond with ‘a certain centre
of psychic life’, without which (according to Papanoutsos) ‘no psychic event is or can be
conceived’. The modernisation has, thus, resulted in the substitution of the ‘first person’ by an
impersonal reference to psychological functions, which exist independently of the specific
subjects, who are brought up in a defined socio-historical context. Undoubtedly, we can trace
significant theoretical deficiencies in Papanoutsos’ ‘classical’ Psychology (e.g. idealistic
comprehension of consciousness, absence of historicity etc). However, in his approach the
concept of the subject is preserved, while it totally was wiped out by the functionalistic,
positivistic Psychology in order to be replaced by variable(s), abstract functions outside
history etc.. Something that is - in that schoolbook - proposed and taught as ‘modernisation’
of Psychology.
The positivistic suspension of the subject from mainstream psychological research in
exchange for admitting the discipline into the circle of ‘useful’(for the political elite and
powerful administrations/bureaucracies) hence ‘financed and funded’ sciences did not make it
disappear. It nevertheless, prompted and expelled the pursuit of the ‘subject’, the
‘experienced’, the ‘personal’, to contexts outside the realms of ‘science’: the church for the
humbled and scorned, the post-modern narratives for the educated, the ‘esoteric philosophies’,
the self-help publications for the middle class and the psychoanalytically oriented
psychotherapies for those who are financially well-off. The confinement and containment of
the ‘subject’ and the ‘personal’ in these realms functions as a peculiar ‘flight’ from the harsh,
unrelenting, and impersonal social reality and is presented as a de facto recognition as a
‘natural fact’ that people are debilitated and cannot change their lives or the society in which
they live.
IV. The ‘critical mass’ of criticisms in Psychology
A basic characteristic of the 1960s was the effusion of the activities of social movements in
the countries of Western Europe. This situation influenced the events in universities in a
catalytic way (which culminated in the 1968 students’ mobilisations). The leadership of the
students’ movements was critiquing the mainstream social sciences. One facet of the conflict
was the so-called polemic against positivism (widely known with its German expression:
Positivismusstreit), at first, in the field of Sociology. A critique of mainstream positivistic
Psychology had already developed since the beginning of the 1970s by approaches with more
theoretical orientations, such as Phenomenological Psychology (Jennings, 1986), social
constructionism etc.
In the meanwhile, critiques did not have a solely ‘academic’ character; we can, at this point,
observe their politicisation. And this becomes better understood if we bear in mind that
Psychology is no longer a ‘science under construction’, which is struggling for its
legitimisation and scientific and professional constituency. In many ‘developed’ countries,
Bearing in mind that it is very difficult to ‘compare’ approaches which are that different!
this process has not only been completed, but ‘psychological sciences’ now consist of a
forceful mechanism, an entire industry, that influences increasingly more and more facets of
social life. This concrete ‘psychological-industrial complex’ of mainstream Psychology not
only supports the governance of the territory and its subjects (Rose 1985; 1996), but also
poses dangers for subjects due to the psychologisation of social phenomena: social problems
are interpreted and faced as being the result of individual ‘deficiencies’, ‘inabilities’ and
‘particularities’. Consequently, the responsibility for problems that spring from the specific
organisational form of society rolls over to individual persons. It is, thus, understood why the
new critique focuses on implications of this specific psychological knowledge and praxis on
society (Fürnkranz, 1994), attempting to assess the certain political function of Psychology as
a societal powerful mechanism and apparatus (e.g. Kardorff, 1984; Zygowski, 1993).
Regardless of the difficulties, critical approaches within Psychology have until now produced
a volume of work, a ‘critical mass’, as characterised by Isaac Prilleltensky (1996), worthy of
attention. There are many traces of the composition of this critical mass of critiques within
A significant indication of this, are the thousands of critical works in Psychology, either in the
form of autonomous studies, monographs or in scientific journals. This production, or better
yet the market that this production might conceal, has led even big publishing houses (such as
the multinational Routledge and Sage, which function exclusively in commercial terms) to
publish series of books entitled ‘Critical Psychology’. We here quote as an indication of this
increase some of the titles of relatively new journals that intend to accommodate critical
discussions in Psychology: Forum Kritische Psychologie, Psychology in Society, Theory &
Psychology, Culture & Psychology, Feminism & Psychology, Human Development,
International Journal of Critical Psychology, Radical Psychology Journal, and there are
Additionally, as another indication of this ‘critical mass’, fellow psychologists from all over
the world are organising conferences and are organised themselves in various scientific
groups, with the intention of networking and opening possibilities for discussion and
promotion of their diverse theoretical and research interests. The ‘International Society for
Theoretical Psychology’ and the ‘Radical Psychology Network’ to name just two. In
Germany, a Second Society of Psychologists was found 15 years ago, which emphasised this
precise theoretical and methodological polyphony within Psychology and aimed at the
articulation of a different psychological discourse. The first International Conference on
Critical Psychology took place in Sydney in Australia in May 1999 and the next one will be
organised in Cardiff/GB in 2008. The fifth conference on German Critical Psychology was
organised in Berlin in the beginning of 1997 (Fried, 1998). Also, conferences on the
Psychology of Liberation are organised (Martín-Baró, 1994; Montero, 1987), etc..
As a final indication of the existence of this ‘critical mass’, we could also refer to the
organisation of postgraduate programmes in certain universities, such as the University of
Bolton and Manchester Metropolitan University in England as well as the University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban South Africa for instance.
Under this panoramic view, we have to deal with a key issue; critical approaches in
Psychology do not comprise of one concrete, institutionalised or codified, alternative
academic school or theory, which contradicts mainstream Psychology. It would be closer to
reality if we perceived these critical approaches and the ‘Critical Psychologies’ as ‘premises
or propositions’ for action (theoretical, research related and generally social action) that
produces not only scientific, but political discourse as well. The critique of Psychology, thus,
does not have one specific aim that is put to the forefront. Contrary to that, there are many
different starting points, where one can detect similarities, common nodes as well as
substantial differences. The editor of the International Journal of Critical Psychology, Valerie
Walkerdine, (2001, 9) suggests the concept of the ‘umbrella’ for critical psychology, which
covers a large number of politically radical reactions to mainstream Psychology and includes
feminist, antiracist, left, ecological and other initiatives (Fox and Prilleltensky, 1997; Parker,
1999; Sloan, 2001; Hook, 2004).
All these approaches converge on a political, rather than epistemological aim. This aim
conflicts with the pretence of mainstream social sciences that they are value free projects and
activities (Prilleltensky, 1997). A common starting point for all critical social sciences is, thus,
the assessment of the social effects of psychological theories and practices. They assess the
significance and the contribution that psychological theories and practices have made to the
‘reproduction’, that is the continuation and perpetuation, of the status quo (Prilleltensky, 1989;
Sloan, 1996). Oppression is rationalised through the myth of ‘value-neutrality’ and a specific
status quo is legitimised, which favours certain groups of the population with opportunities
and access to social and public goods. The emphasis is, therefore, put on the theoretical and
practical care for socially excluded and vulnerable groups and persons (Fox and Prilleltensky,
1997; Martín-Baró, 1994). The legitimization of inequalities is revealed, more specifically, in
theories of ‘intelligence’ that are used for the justification of racism, theories of the ‘social
roles’ that are used for the justification of sexism and theories of ‘individual abilities’ for the
concealment of and the apology for class distinctions. This means that the adjective ‘critical’,
when applied in the social sciences, implies the intention to emancipate (Treppenhauer, 1976;
Austin and Prilleltensky, 2001a); ‘…. Most writers agree that critical psychology is a
movement that calls psychology to work towards emancipation and social justice, and
opposes the use of psychology for the perpetuation of oppression and injustice’ (Austin and
Prilleltensky, 2001b, p. 1).
The most significant differences between the various forms of critique and propositions for
change are located in the philosophical, political, epistemological etc. rationale behind each
aim, its conceptual system and the integral theoretical quality of it, as well as in the political
strategies and priorities as far as the commonly accepted targets (Mather, 2000).
At this point we will attempt a brief, synoptic but panoramic view of the various criticalalternative suggestions that psychological theory and practice have put forward during the last
decades. It is natural that many of these suggestions will also be referred to one way or
another in the papers in this special issue:
During the last 50 years, there has been a certain interest in, an emphasis on the
significance of language in the social sciences and the work of certain writers is reassessed
(such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Valentin Vološinov, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Lev Vygotsky).
Language is not perceived here merely as a grammar-symbolic system, but (also) as a form of
social action, as a social praxis. This ‘linguistic turn’ has left its marks on Psychology and has
led to the formation of special branches, such as Discursive, Narrative and Dialogical
Psychology (Edwards and Potter, 1992; Harré, 1996). Social constructionism lies in relation
to this linguistic turn (Gergen, 1985; 1991; 1995; Shotter, 1995).
 The feminist movement has indelibly left its marks on all social sciences during the last
decades. As far as Psychology is concerned, it has led to the formation of Feminist
Psychology, an internally heterogeneous scientific field (see e.g. Lott, 1985; Wittig, 1985;
Oakley, 1998; Gergen, 1988).
 Doubts have been articulated with respect to the range and force of scientific findings and
techniques produced by the so-called ‘developed North’. These doubts have been specifically
voiced in the countries of the so-called ‘developing South’. Within this frame, Psychology has
been called a ‘sophomore science’; a science of the second year psychology students in the
Anglo-Saxon countries where they are called ‘sophomores’ (and research is overwhelmingly
based on the WAMS – White American Male Sophomores). Similar discussions were
organised under so-called ‘trans-cultural Psychology’ (Moghaddam Fatali, 1987; Segall and
Lonner and Berry, 1998), a part of which has now detached itself from the ‘main stream’ and
has evolved into ‘Cultural Psychology’ (Ratner, 2002).
 The representatives of a wider field, who either refer directly to Marx’s contribution to
Psychology, or attempt to form a psychological discourse founded on Marxist ideas. This
field was especially rich in the production of alternative suggestions for Psychology (e.g.
Parker and Spears, 1996; Lethbridge, 1992; O’Neill, 1985); for instance Theories of Action
(e.g. Kozulin, 1986), the Cultural-Historical School of Psychology in the Soviet Union
(Vygotsky, Leontiev, Luria, Galperin, etc). As early as the 1920s, the French philosopher and
psychologist Politzer attempted to form a ‘Psychology of Drama’ of the individual subjects.
Due to his short lifespan – the Germans executed Politzer for his resistance against the
occupation regime – he was not able to continue and conclude his work. A ‘Psychology of the
Subject’ also called ‘German Critical Psychology’ was developed on the basis of this
philosophical frame (Holzkamp, 1983, 1993).
 Psychoanalysis, or better yet the field that includes the various psychoanalytic approaches,
was in constant conflict with mainstream academia as early as the beginning of the twentieth
century; later on, it was expelled from academia (Holzkamp, 1985). Many of the critical
approaches within this strand have clear references to Marx or Marxism (Bernfeld et al.,
1970); ‘Critical Psychoanalysis’ (Hornstein, 1992) is an example. In Germany, there is also
the ‘Critical Theory of the Subject’ (Lorenzer, 1972, Horn, 1989ff.; Busch, 2003). Erich
Fromm and his ‘Radical Humanism’ were widely known (not only) in Greece, for example.
 One of the approaches aims at a profound critique of the mental institutions or the mental
health services in general. Such attempts to reorganise the health service for the ‘mentally ill’
have resulted in the establishment of a ‘Community Psychology’ (Keupp, 1994; Röhrle and
Sommer, 1995; Rappaport, 2000; Nelson and Prilleltensky, 2005), ‘Community Psychiatry’
(Madianos, 2000) and ‘Critical Psychiatry’.
Even the mere recital of this list of critical approaches in Psychology reveals the theoretical
heterogeneity of the field and the existence of directions with mutually exclusive social and
methodological orientations. However, the crucial question that is posed here is:
Who has the need for ‘another or an ‘alternate’ psychological discourse or logos which does
not render outside scientific research the ‘subject’ and does not consent to the confinement
and demarcation of the ‘personal’ to ‘specialized and specific’ learning and institutions?
Who has the need for another - critical - psychology, which is disentangled from the
dichotomy of ‘a-personal’, positivistic objectification and irrational subjectivism?
Who are the social subjects who refuse to compromise with the dominant status quo and who
seek out ways to change their lives and the society in which they live?
V. Summarising and classifying ‘critique’: Prospects for a further development of
The term ‘critique’ has been at the centre of this presentation. For this reason, we will
conclude our study with the attempt to summarise and classify the various possible
significations of this term in such a way as to better reveal prospects for Psychology’s further
development. The concept of ‘critique’ refers to different ‘levels’ – or better yet ‘steps’ and
‘stages’ - of conflict with the perceptions in mainstream Psychology (Holzkamp, 1983; 1992).
Critiquing the (ab)use of psychological knowledge and techniques
Critique here focuses on the use (or the abuse) of Psychology’s findings and techniques in
certain, applied fields (for example Psychology in the army, in industry etc). At this stage of
critique, applied fields in Psychology are put to the forefront and are studied through the
respective ‘users’ or ‘consumers’ of psychological knowledge. The special feature of this
approach is the fact that Psychology is studied through the lenses of its particular, practical
application. The aim of critical studies here is primarily directed to the ‘exposure’ and the
‘denunciation’ of the (ab)use of Psychology in the service of oppression and domination, as in,
for example, psychologists’ involvement in the Project Camelot, which was launched by the
U.S.A. Ministry of Defence (during the 1960s) to combat the liberation movements (Herman,
1995). In a classical study, which has been the linchpin of studies that underline the specific
alliances between the social sciences and the mechanisms of oppression and power (mostly
focusing on the USA social sciences), social scientists are directly called ‘servants of power’
(Baritz, 1960/1974).
This political-ethical critique focuses on the specific subjects that use (or apply)
psychological knowledge and its techniques. The appeal for ‘politicisation’ and use of the
knowledge in favour of the oppressed, the working class and so on, is addressed precisely to
these subjects. Such ‘appeals’ silently imply that Psychology can be used at will and for
different target groups than it is at present. Psychology itself as a science (its conceptual
apparatus and its methodology, etc) remains outside a systematic, critical analysis.
Critique of Psychology’s societal and political function
This orientation extends the horizon of critique beyond the subjects-users (or ‘implementers’)
of the psychological knowledge. Here, the connection between Psychology and society is not
perceived as ‘independent’ and ‘free’, and psychological knowledge is not regarded with view
to its particular users, but interwoven with the wider net of societal relations. Starting point is
a sociological analysis of the emergence, constitution and usage of these certain forms of
psychological knowledge/praxis within a societal field that is shot through with social
inequalities and conflicting interests. This step in the critique aspires to mark out the ‘double
nature’ of Psychology (and, thus, of its functions) as a professional branch subsumed in the
specific societal context (social institutions, process of production, education etc). The
critique that is exercised in this stage does not refer to possible ‘good’ or ‘bad’ intentions
behind psychologists who utilize the products of psychological research for blameworthy
means. Instead, it refers to Psychology’s societal function within the particular socio-
historical context. A critical examination of Psychology as a professional branch and its
usefulness for the reproduction of structures of power and social inequality is attempted.
Psychology, by inventing and producing a body of ‘psycho-techniques’ (Chorover, 1979) and
patterns of normality, has never ceased to be useful and ‘at-hand’ to the repressive
mechanisms of the state (i.e. the army, the penitentiary system etc) in terms of oppression,
manipulation of behaviour and the general exercise of social control. In a now classical
volume (Basaglia and Basaglia, 1975) the renowned writers that participated (i.e., Michel
Foucault, Robert Castel, Erich Wulff, Noam Chomsky, Erving Goffman, Franco Basaglia)
pointed to the fact that social scientists, as social groups rather than as individuals, as
‘experts’ on and specialists in manipulation and oppression, are sharing a portion of the
responsibility for committing ‘peace-crimes’ (‘crimini di pace’). Intellectuals function as ‘the
agents of power’, since they adhere to the role of offering their expertise in order to secure the
spontaneous compliance of the subjects (using a term from Gramsci: the subalterni), the
repressed and the restricted to certain conditions of life. During the late 1960s psychology
students from many different European countries announced resolutions that referred
critically to those specific functions of Psychology that reproduce the specific structures of
dominance and inequality in our societies (Rexilius 1988): The selection of staff and pupils
with the resulting exclusion of certain individuals and groups from the access to social and
public goods; taming, subjugation and manipulation of the disobedient or ‘unmanageable’
individuals or groups; intensification of labour and increase of the profitability; resuscitation
of health with the aim of reacquiring labour power; and use of social sciences for the needs of
totalitarian social apparatuses and mechanisms (such as psychiatric institutions, the
penitentiary system etc).
This form of critique contributed to sketching the socio-political role that Psychology plays in
a specific societal formation. However, critique refers less to Psychology as a science and
more to the specific societal relations and conditions, to the organisation of society etc, which
are ultimately responsible for the use of such a Psychology. The external critique is addressed
to Psychology as it is developed and a struggle for better societal conditions is proposed,
conditions that will favour a different utilisation of Psychology. Therefore, this struggle seems
to be led mostly by political subjects and, to a lesser extent, by psychologists as scientists.
This position allows the supporters of mainstream psychology to transfer the critique to the
level of societal relations, far away from Psychology itself and, in turn, to reject the
aspirations for such a critique calling it ‘political’ and not ‘epistemological’ critique that
secures empirically valid, true knowledge. Of course, this implies that the subsequent use of
scientific knowledge is not the responsibility of Psychology as a science, but depends on the
correlation of societal forces.
Critique of the underlying (theoretical and methodological) presuppositions and
perceptions of knowledge in Psychology
Such a ‘servile mindset’ towards each force of power, to which we have referred above, does
not leave the epistemological constitution of psychology untouched; on the contrary, it
implies that only (a) certain scientific standpoint(s) allows for such an attitude. This line of
critique is further developed by the so-called ‘postmodern’ critiques, which emphasize that
mainstream Psychology is not a mere and immediate mechanism of oppression and restriction
of individuals but we should discern a multiplicity of different shades of subjugation.
Mainstream Psychology performs its socio-political function by contributing to the
rationalisation of the tendencies of individualizing and fragmenting of the social, and thus
contributing to the formulation and the conception of modern individuality as such.
Psychology does not merely ‘distort’ or ‘imprison’ certain ‘helpless’ persons through
oppressive institutions, 5 but substantially contributes to the hierarchical positioning of the
individual subjects, to the control and governance of their agency and movements etc; thus, it
constructs or canalises certain concrete forms or modes of subjectivity (Henriques et al., 1984;
Rose, 1996; 2000).
The ease with which mainstream Psychology fights back the critique (on the basis of it being
primarily political and not epistemological) intensifies the need to increase the efforts for the
exploration of Psychology’s conceptual armoury: research methods, perceptions of the
epistemological subject of Psychology etc. The reference point of critique should be
Psychology as a science and the specific negotiation of its scientific subject. This view also
presumes that the proposition that science is an a-political and value free activity is critically
approached. Psychology – no matter how it is conceptualised and applied - is political in itself
and it also has its own special means at its disposal.
Critique will remain insufficient should it not include exploration of Psychology’s theoretical
possessions. The aforementioned political use and societal functions of mainstream
Psychology is not an external characteristic (that is added from the outside by certain users of
the knowledge for instance or by the conjunction of societal forces); the functions are made
possible by and woven into the specific (and limited) theoretical constitution of Mainstream
Psychology, which is enclosed in the bourgeois modes of thought and, ultimately, in the
boundaries of bourgeois society itself. (Haug, 1977):
Even the subject conducting the research is first of all subjected to the immediate forms given
to each and every individual by society as his or her ‘social space’. If the subject conducting
research is a ‘psychologist’ who has as object of his study another person (subject), the
problem becomes particularly acute. Being subjected to the same determining forms as the
research objects/subjects, the researchers view through them, as it were, and hence, do not
surpass these determining forms. This subjection of his/her way of seeing necessarily remains
non-conscious for the subject; for the subject to become conscious of this fact the subjection
has to be transcended. Precisely this perception of things as ‘self-evident’, as ‘taken-forgrated’ is the symptom of being subjected to those forms. (Haug 1977, p. 78).
Due to its enclosing in and reproduction of bourgeois forms of privacy, mainstream (thus:
bourgeois) psychology is still preoccupied with human beings in the abstract, is still
researching individual subjects as these are defined by and confined in the bourgeois forms,
that is the individual subject as a ‘private entity’, as ‘private individual’. Since mainstream
psychology is precisely not aware of the historical determination/production of this
‘privatism’, it identifies ‘private individuals’ with human beings, as the only possible persons
to be. The concealed and underlying anthropology of an abstract and secluded person (as it
was discerned by Holzkamp, 1973) can now be understood within the scope of this analysis
here; that is, the conceptual reproduction of the abstraction and isolation of subjects as
private individuals is reflecting a reality in bourgeois society. The isolation and abstraction of
the subjects from their lived specific societal and historical contexts, is thus conceptualised in
the theoretical reproduction of their non-societal appearance, of their self-denied sociality as
this is defined historically by the bourgeois forms of “privatism.” Thus, the conceptual
disjunction and the external contradiction between the individual and the society in
In the predominant division of labour ‘other’ specialists, usually on a lower position on the hierarchy of wages,
carry out the ‘dirty work’ following the directives of psychologists.
mainstream (bourgeois) psychology (as well as in certain approaches in the rest of the social
sciences) consists, in reality, of an non-conscious theoretical representation/reflection of the
real disjunction of the social and private processes in bourgeois society. Consequently, the
inadequacy of mainstream psychology (as well as of the other social sciences) to discuss
sufficiently the relationship between ‘subjectivity’ and ‘sociality’ of a person is nothing more
than the scientific expression of the fact that private-individuals in bourgeois society indeed
are signifying the negation of their societal contexts and live their lives in real invariable and
unchanging, accidental relationships, which strike to them as ‘natural’ and in the core of a
whirl of contradictory interests (Holzkamp, 1979, p. 33). In the context of bourgeois
psychology, there can be no prospect or possibility for individuals to develop in historical
conditions transformed by the individuals themselves.
Klaus Holzkamp (1983) emphasizes the individual’s double character of being a subject of
and a subject to the conditions of his or her life. That is, people are the creators of the
conditions of their lives on the one hand, but they are subject to them as well. However,
traditional Psychology overlooks and neglects the first side (that is the production and
reproduction of the conditions of life by the subjects themselves) and presents their living
conditions as given and watertight; it thus adopts the ‘postulate of immediacy’. Klaus
Holzkamp’s critique against traditional Psychology corresponds with A. N. Leontiev’s and D.
Uznadze’s critical approaches on the ‘postulate of immediacy’, that is the belief in a direct,
unilateral influence of the external stimuli on the individual’s behavior. In other words,
Psychology theoretically and methodologically is still falling behind the ‘Theses on
Feuerbach’ where Marx, against the traditional theoretical materialism emphasizes on the
active dimension of individuals as social subjects that have the ability to transform the world
(Holzkamp, 1977).
This third stage of critique of Psychology carries on with the exploration of Psychology’s
crisis, which reached the scene during the first decades of the twentieth century. This form of
critique, however necessary, is insufficient with regard to the prospects for the development
of Psychology as a science. Most critical approaches are usually confined to the sociological
critique of Psychology’s functions within capitalist society, while critical assessment of the
psychological theories that are already formulated is pursued to a lesser degree. A positive
negotiation of the still open, and still to be explored issues within Psychology has fallen short.
For instance, one of the issues that have been studied insufficiently is the actual scientific
subject of Psychology.
Transcendence of restrictions and promotion of a theoretical analysis of Psychology
In the previous stage we attempted to approach roughly the epistemological confinements of
Psychology within the limits of bourgeois society. This kind of critique easily leads to a
general ‘accusation’ that Psychology is a bourgeois – ‘servile’ - science. However, the
potential contribution of the specific theories and methodologies to knowledge is certainly left
outside exploration. Therefore, a differentiated evaluation of psychology’s vested interests
does not arise here. Instead, a certain more generalised ‘blaming’ of psychology as being a
bourgeois – ‘servile’ - science is promoted.
However, the aim here is not only the development of a political (ethical) critique of the use
of Psychology by certain people, neither the mere sociological critique of it as a professional
branch within a society that is permeated by inequalities and conflicts. At this stage of
critique, fundamental issues are put forward, such as rethinking the theoretical and social
restrictions of Psychology within bourgeois society, the exploration of Psychology’s scientific
subject etc. The transition from a negative to a positive positioning – from the critique of
Psychology to the development of a new Psychology – is imminent.
This, precisely, is the transitional point: does the researcher confine himself or herself to a
diversified critique of Psychology, or does s/he aim at its further theoretical development as a
science? It is quite difficult for one to comprehend the prospects for transgression of the
theoretical confinements within bourgeois society without the development of a valid
approach concerning its scientific subject.
A higher form of critique of Psychology is, thus, the promotion of the theoretical analysis of
Psychology as a science beyond the limits of bourgeois society. Initially, the exploration of
the theoretical armoury in a new, wider theoretical and methodological framework might
serve as a starting point. A dialectical ‘sublation’, a transgression of Psychology’s (scientific
and theoretical) categories and laws consists of the supreme kind of critical exploration of
Psychology as a science. The concept of ‘sublation’ (‘aufheben’ in German) contains
simultaneously two basic moments: (a) cancellation: the destruction, interruption, break with
the existing concepts and the configuration of a new categorical (classificatory) mechanism
for scientific research, and (b) improvement: holding in and securing continuity, sustaining
psychological concepts in a higher level. According to Vygotsky, this new Psychology will
resemble the existing one in the same way as the Great Dog constellation resembles the dog
that barks (Vygotsky, 1996, p. 218).
With such an ambitious project for critiques of Psychology and ‘critical Psychologies’ we
conclude our introductory presentation and give the stage to the authors of this special issue.
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