Observing, sense-making and perspective-taking

'Values in psychological science: Re-imagining epistemic priorities at a new frontier', by Lisa M. Osbeck (Cambridge University Press; £80); reviewed by Phil Loring.

Should psychology be a loose confederacy of tribes whose common goal is to be free to engage in ‘parallel play’? Or should it aim to contribute to the solution of pressing global challenges: environmental crises, information warfare, nuclear proliferation, poverty, apathy, and whatever is coming next? With this slender book, psychology professor Lisa M. Osbeck throws down a heavy gauntlet. She challenges psychologists of all stripes to take a closer look at the epistemic priorities that unite and divide the psychological community. And, crucially, she beckons psychologists to think outside the discipline, arguing that tomorrow’s problems are not going to be solved by psychologists alone, but through collaborations across a range of fields.

As someone professionally situated outside psychology, but informed by its history, I found this book invigorating. Discussing what type of science psychology is or should be, and whether it is even a science at all, is an old game. Diagnoses of the fragmentation at the heart of psychology, and attempts to heal that defect, started before the field was a recognised profession, and continue today. Osbeck deploys her knowledge of this history gracefully. Her perspective is judiciously grounded in recent work in philosophy of science, science studies, ethnography of science, and history of psychology. In drawing on these specific fields, Osbeck demonstrates the provocative main point of her argument: that psychological science has more to gain today from looking to the arts and humanities than it does from looking to the sciences.

Osbeck invokes William James and his brother Henry as icons of the cross-fertilization she seeks to cultivate between the arts (mainly literature), humanities and psychology. Osbeck’s vision for psychology is inspired by William James’s statement that the knower is an actor, not a spectator. To remain relevant, she argues, psychological science needs to shift its focus onto its most essential instrument: the activities of the investigator. Three investigative activities are presented as central to the arts, humanities and also psychology: observing, sense-making and perspective-taking. Osbeck treats each as a complex, embodied, goal-directed, value-laden practice whose relevance to psychology is in some ways obvious and in some ways surprising. In the process, she engages thoughtfully with a number of major ‘psy’ scientists including Wilhelm Wundt, John Watson, Edith Stein, and others. This is sharp, original analysis.

In a book so compact and dense, it’s crucial to be clear. Mistakes that should have been caught in proof make it hard to follow in some chapters. As a rule, the prose is structured and controlled but not often sparkling or transparent, as if the author may have been undecided about who her audience was. Historians like me might find the style of writing familiar, while psychology students might find it alienating. The question of who Osbeck is writing for goes to the heart of the whole book, and it is surprising that she does not address it directly.

My overall conclusion, without knowing Osbeck’s earlier work, is that the ideas expressed here are new, preliminary, and still under construction, yet they genuinely merit the attention of the wider psychological community. Framing psychological science in terms of observing, sense-making and perspective-taking (and other investigative activities still to be determined), instead of methodological traditions or theoretical frameworks, is innovative and important. Instead of a constellation of armed encampments that barely tolerate each other, what more can psychology be? In Osbeck’s imagined future, psychology dwells more or less comfortably at the frontier between the sciences, the arts and the humanities. It prioritises collaboration, both intradisciplinary and interdisciplinary. It investigates, and cultivates conditions that give rise to flexible problem-solving, nuanced modelling, and transformative thinking. Above all, it never loses sight of the acting person. What would it take to get there?

- Reviewed by Phil Loring, Curator of the History of Medicine, Norsk Teknisk Museum, Oslo, Norway

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