What is psychology?
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: July 2019

section 1

Psychology is a special science: humans are no objects

As a science, psychology occupies a rather peculiar position. While all other sciences are about things that exist outside of ourselves, psychology is in first instance about what happens inside ourselves. The problem is that studying in a rigorous and reliable manner what exists only subjectively inside someone's consciousness is extremely difficult. So, in the beginning of last century, psychologists simply gave up on it 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.

It is true that there are aspects of psychology, for example in sales, where behaviour is actually all that matters, and there are other areas like those related to learning and attitudes, where inner states and processes can be translated reliably in terms of measurable outer behaviour. But still, there are several reasons why limiting oneself to what can be measured objectively "on the outside" stands in the way of real progress in psychology.

Three reasons to develop psychology a rigorous science of subjective reality

The first reason to pay attention to what happens inside ourselves is purely pragmatic. Our human behaviour is the end-result of an enormously complex series of processes, and to understand and predict human action, they do require a detailed examination. Strangely enough, the early "behaviourists" did not acknowledge this at all and they were quite happy to treat the mind as a black box, where under certain well-defined circumstances, a standardised "stimulus" was supposed to produce a predictable, equally standardised "response". Fortunately, over time, mainstream psychology realised that this was an error and psychology is now routinely defined as the science of behaviour and experience, but as we will see later in more detail, the shift has not gone far enough.

The second reason we should look at consciousness and inner states is in some ways even more serious than the first. It is that what happens inside ourselves simply matters and is important in its own right. We humans are not only our outer actions but also our thoughts and feelings, our desires and fears, our doubts and our faith, our impulses and our will, our good-will and commitment, our pain and our joy, our love and our loneliness, and all these are inner states that exist primarily in consciousness. And this is not all; beyond these, we are are even something sacred much deeper within, and a real science of psychology should not be afraid of studying that too, for in the end, that is what we are in our innermost being and our highest consciousness. As someone expressed it rather nicely, we are not bodies who have a soul, but we are souls who have a body.

The third reason for an inner focus may not be so obvious as the first two, but it is at least as important. It is that we human beings have the not always pleasant but actually pretty marvellous privilege of being aware of our shortcomings. We are discontented, we are looking for more and for better. Sri Aurobindo holds that this is because man is not a finished product: he is a “transitional being”[REF]. Biology tells us that there have been more primitive forms of life before us, and if we don’t ruin this beautiful planet, there will be more developed creatures after us. As we will see later in more detail, the evolution which we are a part of is not just the development of ever more complex living bodies; it is also the slow emergence of ever greater powers of consciousness. And so, a serious, self-respecting psychology should also be the science of our urge for progress, of our search for a greater love and a more beautiful life, of our aspiration for a wider consciousness, of values, of a deeper meaning and a higher truth. The approach to psychology described in this text takes this as its central focus and uses the evolution of consciousness as the meta-narrative even for individual human development, because the evolution of consciousness is the story of the growth of the soul in the world.

Why Psychology has not done it

And yet, as we saw, mainstream psychology as an academic science has done its best to stay away from subjective reality and especially from consciousness. In fact, for most of the 20th century, consciousness was seriously taboo in science (Güzeldere, 1995), and Psychology, which tried to model itself on the physical sciences, kept it at a distance. Classical behaviourism, which went furthest in this direction, limited psychology strictly to what is immediately, objectively observable and banned all reference to consciousness, thoughts and feelings. It tried to predict human behaviour solely on the basis of externally visible stimulus-response loops. This may have worked, to some extent, for the rats they studied, but of course this didn’t work for humans. Human beings are far too complex, and the same outer behaviour can have completely different psychological causes and meanings. And, as we saw, even more serious, almost everything that really matters to people went missing in the behaviourist's universe, because without consciousness there can be no love, no beauty, no meaning, no agency, no knowledge even.2 As a result, over the years, reference to inner mental states and processes was gradually allowed back in; new, post-reductionist approaches developed; some attempts at integrating spirituality and science were made; and by the end of the twentieth century even “consciousness” was rehabilitated as a valid subject of scientific enquiry. But the shadow of physicalist behaviourism has not been lifted yet. Psychology still suffers under the heavy burden of the demands of objectivity, public access and measurability, criteria that seem to have worked fine for physics, but that stand in the way of a fruitful study of our inner life.

Unfortunately, the shift from "behaviour" to "behaviour and experience" has been only half-hearted, and it is still not the subjective reality itself that is explored by mainstream psychology. What is studied, even in so-called qualitative research, are people's statements about what they experience, and this is far more amazing than psychologist seem to realise. It is as if one would try to develop medicine by relying exclusively on what patients can tell about their disease, or as if one would try to study astronomy by asking ordinary people about what they see in the evening sky. Strangely enough, in modern psychology there is no recognised way to "go inside" and study directly what happens in our consciousness (as distinct from what happens in our brain [FN]). In other words, there is in psychology no consciousness-equivalent for chemistry and physiology, nor for microscopes, telescopes and precise measuring equipment. There is neither a science, nor a "technology of consciousness" to take psychology further, and inner states are hardly ever studied directly by psychologists themselves. It is good to take a moment, and realise how strange this is. Chemists don't interview representative samples of the lay public about the "experiments" these lay people do in their kitchens. Chemistry makes progress because highly-trained chemists do their experiments in sophisticated, well-equipped labs and then report on their own experiments; colleagues check their processes and outcomes and "the rest of us" simply believes the experts. So why can psychologists not try different methods to change themselves and then report on their own experiments with consciousness? In the beginning of the twentieth century, psychology started in this direction but after just a few years, it gave up on it. And now, one hundred years later, virtually everything modern psychology knows is based on the sophisticated statistical analysis of naive self-observations by members of the general public. As a result it rarely if ever goes beyond common sense. As a highly respected elderly British psychologist remarked: "Whatever we have found is either trivial or dubious."[FN-REF]1

It is of course true that it is more difficult to be "objective" and dispassionate about what happens inside oneself than about a chemical process in a lab, but as we will see in the chapters on cognition, this problem is not unsurmountable. The only real problem was that the early "introspectionists" did not look outside the confines of the Euro-American knowledge tradition, because the know-how required to study the realm of consciousness was available — humanity developed it millennia earlier — but it was part of the Indian civilization. In fact, by some strange irony of fate, almost exactly in the same period that Freud created Psychoanalysis and academic American psychology made its disastrous turn towards Behaviorism, a Cambridge-educated Indian in the small South Indian town of Pondicherry tested India's ancient inner knowledge with impeccable intellectual rectitude and reported on it in equally impeccable English. [FN] Unfortunately, his work was almost entirely ignored. It finally did have some influence, many years later, through Transpersonal psychology, but till date it has not had the impact it deserved. Why this is so is a complex question but one of the reasons might well be that American psychologists gave too much attention to the beneficial effects of yoga and meditation on personal well-being, and not enough to the methods of enquiry that gave rise to these techniques. Part of this book is devoted to an attempt at making up for this lapse by asking attention for the manner in which the Indian tradition has tackled the problem of introspection and how its findings can help to take psychology further. [INTERNAL LINK]

Nazruddin'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. It is about Nazruddin who is feverishly looking for something under a streetlight. A puzzled onlooker 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 we know 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 is looking for 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 tends to focus on our past and it is not the full story either. The core of our own being is our consciousness. Consciousness is what we are, subjectively, in our own personal experience. And so a science of psychology has to be primarily a subjective science; it has to be a science of consciousness. The question then is, is this possible? Is it possible to develop a real, rigorous and progressive science and technology of consciousness?

Can we have a science of consciousness?

As we have seen, consciousness is in a category of its own. It is the one "thing" that is not out there to be studied as object. Out there, all we can study are its physical correlates, but in the end that is not what we are interested in, for in a deep and literal sense, we are our consciousness, and consciousness is quintessentially subjective. It is what we are "on the inside", in our experience. So the question remains: can we study with true scientific rigour something that exists only inside consciousness and that can only be known subjectively? The very idea of rigorous subjectivity as an integral part of science sounds contradictory to modern ears, for science looks at subjectivity with suspicion. Our present science values the objective, outside reality as easier to study accurately and reliably than what we are on the inside, subjectively. Subjective knowledge is considered arbitrary, open to illusions and biases.

However, the stress on the difference between the two and our preference for objective knowledge is a fairly recent phenomenon and may not be as valid as we may think. As we will discuss later in more detail,[INTERNAL LINK] everything we know and are is inherently a mixture of subjective and objective elements, and both sides, the subjective as well as the objective side, can be made more reliable and accurate. In fact, it is quite well possible that reductionist knowledge of the outer world only appears to be more reliable, simply because collectively we have put so much more effort into its development. Every child is made to grasp the basics of physics and mathematics, but how many schools teach the basics of self-observation and reflection? The world’s intellectual elite has worked hard to fine-tune the processes of objective research, it has built an ever more elaborate physical technology to extend the capacities of our physical senses, and amassed an amazing amount of detailed knowledge about the physical world, but our inner life is has not received the same attention. Its development is left to our free time, to an inherently conservative religion, or a variety of intellectually uncritical sects and subcultures.

But that modernity has not managed to develop rigorous research in the domain of our inner life so far, does not prove that it cannot be done. One of the recurring themes of this text will be that subjective knowledge, like objective knowledge, can be honed and perfected, and that effective and reliable methods to achieve this have already been developed in India, over millennia, by the various approaches to jnanayoga, the yoga of knowledge. The techniques of jnanayoga, not dreams, are the royal road to understanding ourselves. So, what is it that Psychology can learn from the Indian tradition?

Psychology and the Indian tradition

Indian philosophy, music, dance, hathayoga and spirituality are entering our new global civilisation on a large scale, but as yet, they feature largely as an embellishment for a still predominantly materialist and intellectual life. The decontextualised techniques of yoga and meditation are accepted as means for coping with the stresses of corporate life, mindfulness is used in therapy and counselling, but the knowledge aspect of Indian culture has hardly penetrated the hard core of the global civilisation.3 At universities psychology is still taught, the world over, as if the Indian systems of reliable subjective knowledge don’t exist. We can understand this perhaps as a late remnant of colonialism and the lingering dominance of the Euro-American culture in the world, but even if this parochialism is understandable, it is not excusable, for India’s well-developed inner understanding goes far beyond what modern psychology has discovered and may well have something to contribute to psychology which is crucial if the new world order is to develop towards a more sane and harmonious future.

In the next section we will have a closer look at what it is exactly that the Indian civilization can contribute to modern psychology.


1.   Till now, "qualitative research" has been most useful for the possibility to give a voice to groups of people with unique experiences. The closest psychologists have come to study the details of inner states and processes is to interview people who have special gifts (as in Petitmengin, 2006) or people who have reached advanced stages of meditation (as in Ataria, 2015).

2.   For a more detailed analysis of what the four main schools of psychology have contributed and what they have missed in terms of basic epistemological territory, see Appendix 1-1-1. For an assessment of Classical Behaviourism one could have a look at Appendix 1-1-2.

3.   The different ways mainstream science has used to study Indian systems of thought and practice (and spirituality in general) without endangering the physicalist / positivist paradigm have been discussed in another chapter in the Appendix.

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