JONATHAN MILLER is best known as the author of 2 The Body in Question, an introduction to human
anatomy and physiology, which was made into a successful television series with Miller himself as host. Although trained as a medical doctor, Miller has also distinguished himself as an actor (in Beyond the Fringe) and a director (of films, plays, and operas), and he is perhaps our closest contemporary approximation to a Renaissance man. Having disposed of the body, he now turns to the mind: his new book consists of interviews with 15 "leading experts" on human psychology, most of them members of university faculties. He has also spoken with practicing psychoanalysts, philosophers, an anthropologist, and even a historian of art (Sir Ernst Gombrich).
Although the interviews encompass a wide range of subjects, the bulk of them deal with the estate of psychology as an academic discipline. Virtually all the psychologists represented here describe the discipline as having undergone a revolution during the past two decades. In the most general sense, that revolution might be labeled "up from behaviorism." The previous generation, they argue, sought to explain human experience in terms of stimulus and response. The behaviorists were devoted to eliminating any notion of the mind as a subjective or purposive entity--a center of consciousness. They did so because they believed psychology could become scientific only through the ruthless exclusion of all ideas smacking of metaphysics or mysticism. By way of contrast, Miller's psychologists insist that the mind is a creative agent that lends shape and order to the world it experiences. They acknowledge the admirable scientific impulse that inspired behaviorism, but they also hold that it produced no interesting intellectual results. Behaviorism allowed psychology to speak precisely about mental functioning, but it so drastically reduced that range of legitimate psychological discussion as to leave the discipline tongue-tied. One might say that it had the same unhappy effects on psychology that logical positivism has had on philosophy.
Ironically, the reaction against behaviorism was sparked by developments in technology, particularly by the computer. Psychologists found that they could make no sense of the way computers functioned without recourse to ideas like intention and representation; and obviously if such notions were the most adequate abstractions to describe the functioning of computers, they could hardly be considered "metaphysical" or "mystical" when attributed to human beings. Since one spoke of computers in a language that was shamelessly "mentalistic" (they were forever "wanting" this or "rejecting" that), how could one possibly banish such locutions from discussions of the human intellect?
At the same time, the model of the computer suggests two important ways in which the new psychology differs from received conceptions of the mind: first, it insists that mental processes are essentially unconscious, and secondly it views the mind as a thing of parts, a federation of mental agencies. In other words, the new psychology restores the familiar idea of purposiveness, but it rejects (as did David Hume) the notion that the mind is a unity, just as it rejects (along with Sigmund Freud) the notion that the mind is aware of its own activities.
If escaping the doldrums of behaviorism were enough to ensure that academic psychology might have something interesting to say, there would be cause for celebration. In truth, however, the discipline continues to traffic in two kinds of propositions: those that are true but self-evident and those that are true but uninteresting. In terms of almost any issue that might be considered important for human existence--for our conception of ourselves or the conduct of our lives--it offers pitifully little that rises above the banal. Thus Robert Hinde, for example, thinks we will consider ourselves enlightened to hear that "every relationship depends on the personalities of the individuals involved," or that "if you ask why little girls behave differently from little boys, it's partly because little girls are expected to behave differently from little boys."
Alongside flatulent generalizations of this sort, academic psychology retains its insatiable appetite for the trivial. Consider the work of Richard Gregory, who discourses at length here about optical illusions. A particular drawing, he shows, can sometimes look like a vase, while at other times it will look like identical profiles facing one another at close remove. Life, of course, is full of illusions, but, alas, they bear faint resemblance to Professor Gregory's ambiguous vases. The illusions of real life are at once more fateful and far less easily explicated. Indeed, even the ambiguities of our visual experience (as John Ruskin showed a century ago) are richer than anything Professor Gregory has imagined. One is thus not at all surprised to find Jonathan Miller's interlocutors repeatedly complaining that nobody pays any attention to them. Jerome Bruner, for example, remarks despairingly: "Here is a field which presumably has expert cognisance concerning the nature of man. Yet somehow, its way of looking at man doesn't get discussed when it comes to matters of jurisprudence, of economics, of social policy. All those models for descibing and regulating human affairs take virtually nothing that comes from 'expert' psychology into account."
The academic psychologists with whom Miller has spoken pretend to greater sympathy for psychoanalysis than did their immediate forebears. They note, for example, that, like the Freudians, they too believe that mental processes are largely unconscious. Nonetheless, they reject Freud's emphasis on the role of conflict in unconscious life (not to mention his emphasis on sexuality), and in general they are resentful of the popularity that his ideas continue to enjoy. "Psychoanalysis," says B.A. Farrell, "has had an influence which is quite out of proportion to its scientific credibility." Yet they also seem to recognize that it enjoys such popularity because "in some puzzling way it is true." The concession is significant. It implicitly acknowledges that psychoanalysis has won its following--both among the population at large and among artists and intellectuals--precisely because, unlike academic psychology, it speaks to the felt problems of human life and says things that are far from self-evident. Psychoanalysis may be extravagant, but it is (for that very reason) neither trivial nor banal. It will continue to eclipse academic psychology until the latter discipline grows considerably more venturesome than is suggested in these interviews.