The Scope of Psychology

The Scope of Psychology.—Science, like the Elephant’s Child in the story, is full of an insatiable curiosity. Just as the physicist reaches out, analysing and measuring, to the farthest limits of the stellar universe, so does the psychologist seek to explore every nook and corner of the world of mind; nay more, he will follow after a mere suspicion of mind; we have seen him trying to psychologise the plants. The result is a vast number of books and monographs and articles on psychology, written by men and women of very different interests, knowledge and training; for science does not advance on an ordered front, but still depends largely on individual initiative.

A high authority on the Middle Ages has said that one mortal life would hardly suffice for the reading of a moderate part of mediƦval Latin; and the psychologist must recognise, whether with pride or with despair, that one life-time is hardly enough for the mastery of even a single limited field of psychology. The student has to get clear on general principles, and then to resign himself to work intensively upon some special aspect of the subject-matter,—keeping as closely as he may in touch with his fellow-workers, and aiming to see his own labours in a just perspective, but realising that psychology as a whole is beyond his individual compass.

Does that sound exaggerated? Let us then attempt a rough classification! We begin with the psychology of the normal mind. Under this heading we have to distinguish

(1) human psychology. Human psychology may be general, the psychology of the adult civilised man, which forms the principal topic of the text-books of psychology; special, the psychology of the human mind at some other stage of individual development: infancy, childhood, adolescence, senility; differential,the study of the differences between individual minds; or genetic, the study of the development of mind from childhood to manhood, and its gradual decay in old age.

(2) Animal psychology may be subdivided, in the same way, into general, special, differential and genetic psychology.

(3) Plant psychology is still in its first beginnings; but many students are taking the subject seriously.

(4) Comparative psychology is the comparative study, either of various types of animal mind, or of the minds of plants, animals and man. It, again, may be general, special or genetic. All these psychologies deal with the individual mind. There is also a collective psychology; and, though its divisions are not yet sharply marked off from one another, we may distinguish

(5) social psychology, which includes the study of what is called the social consciousness, and also the scientific study of the products of the collective mind: language, law and custom, myth and religion;

(6) ethnic psychology, the differential psychology of nations or races; and

(7) class psychology, the differential psychology of classes or professions. Turn now to the psychology of the abnormal mind. Here we find, under the heading of individual psychology,

(8) the psychology of deficient and exceptional minds; of blind deaf-mutism, of genius, of the subnormal and the supernormal child;

(9) the psychology of temporary mental derangement; of dream, of hypnosis, of intoxications, of occasional hallucination and illusion; and

(10) the psychology of permanent mental disorder, of the chronic derangements of insanity. We may also study

(11) the psychology of temporary derangement of the collective mind, that is, of the manias or mental epidemics that sometimes sweep society: the mediƦval dance-manias, unmotived panics, outbursts of superstition, of religious persecution. If we proceed further, from psychology proper to psychotechnics, or to what is ordinarily termed applied psychology, we have the great departments of

(12) educational psychology,

(13) medical psychology or psychotherapeutics,

(14) juristic psychology, or the psychology of evidence and testimony, and

(15) economic psychology, which includes such things as vocational psychology and the psychology of advertising.


You need not ascribe any special importance to this classification; still less need you memorise it. The various topics might very likely be better arranged, and the list is by no

The Scope of Psychology
means complete. Realise, however, that every term in the list has its text-books and treatises, its manuals and monographs, and very likely its magazine or magazines; realise again that, although the emphasis varies in the different countries, the list might be filled out not alone in English, but in all the chief European tongues; and remember, lastly, that some of the headings have a very long history, and a correspondingly long series of printed works over and above those that represent current knowledge. You then get a glimmering of the range and scope of psychology. It is true, of course, that much of what has been printed is out of date, or inaccurate, or superficial, or prejudiced, and for these or like reasons may safely be scrapped. Yet it all has to be sifted. The brain a tool of the mind

The mere bulk of psychological material would be less formidable if every writer adopted the same principles and wrote from the same point of view; but that is hardly to be expected. Psychology has always been exposed to the infection of common sense; it has only recently turned to scientific methods; and when the time came for it to take its place among the sciences, there was naturally difference of opinion regarding the standpoint it should assume, the procedure it should follow, the model it should seek to copy.

Where such differences of opinion obtain, the best way to begin your study is to master one system thoroughly; your ideas are thus made consistent and your knowledge receives an orderly arrangement; then, as you read further, you can use this system as a touch-stone whereby to test new ideas and to arrange new knowledge; and if the new ideas seem preferable to the old, or if the old framework breaks down under the new knowledge, you can alter your own system accordingly. If you begin, on the contrary, by studying a number of works abreast, you are liable to become confused. And it is better to be wrong than to be muddled; for truth, as Bacon said, emerges more quickly from error than from confusion. 
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