Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Psychologism is the theory that psychology is the foundation of philosophy.

explanatory context

This suggests that introspection is the most appropriate method of philosophical enquiry.

Originally propounded in the early 19th century by two German philosophers J. K. Fries and F. E. Beneke, psychologism has since been particularly associated with a tendency in logic that dervied from the work of J.S. Mill. Mill claimed, for example, that all mathematical axioms and principles of logic are revealed by introspection.

Psychologism also refers to the attempt to explain social phenomena on the basis of facts and theories about the make-up of individuals. In this sense psychologism denies the reality of social structure or else reduces structure to the 'social setting' in order to provide an explanatory frame. An implication of this is that compounding a series of discrete studies of individuals and their milieux will lead to knowledge of the social structure. In short psychologism rejects the idea that social structure is independent of the individuals that compose it.

Psychologism has also been used as a rather unspecific general term of abuse directed at various forms of positivistic thinking.

In another context, psychologism is arguably manifest in the retreat to introspective knowledge that is evident in postmodernist art and art theory.

analytical review

Kusch (2015) explains:

Many authors use the term 'psychologism' for what they perceive as the mistake of identifying non-psychological with psychological entities. For instance, philosophers who think that logical laws are not psychological laws would view it as psychologism to identify the two. Other authors use the term in a neutral descriptive or even in a positive sense. 'Psychologism' then refers (approvingly) to positions that apply psychological techniques to traditional philosophical problems (e.g. Ellis 1979, 1990).

'Psychologism' entered the English language as a translation of the German word 'Psychologismus', a term coined by the Hegelian Johann Eduard Erdmann in 1870 to critically characterize the philosophical position of Eduard Beneke (Erdmann 1870).

Although the term continues to be used today, criticisms and defenses of psychologism have mostly been absorbed into wider debates over the pros and cons of philosophical naturalism. 


New World Encyclopedia (2015) states:

Psychologism is a philosophical position that attempts to reduce diverse forms of knowledge including concepts and principles of logic and mathematics to states of mind or phenomena that occur in the mind. It takes psychology as the fundamental discipline that can explain and justify knowledge in philosophy. Studies of the mind had been a part of philosophy since antiquity. Modern philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Kant made considerable contributions to the studies of the mind. In the nineteenth century, psychology became an independent discipline and flourished. Along with developments in psychology, some took psychology as the fundamental discipline upon which all other forms of knowledge are built and receive their justification. Psychologism is a form of reductionism that attempts to reduce other forms of knowledge including those of logic and mathematics into psychological concepts. In particular, psychologism challenges the idea of a priori knowledge of principles and concepts in logic and mathematics.

Frege delivered severe criticisms against psychologism on the ground that principles of logic are universally true a priori, and therefore are irreducible to psychological concepts. Upon receiving Frege's criticism, Husserl gave up his earlier position based on psychologism, and become one of the major opponents of psychologism.


Travis (2010) claims:

Psychologism is a term of abuse. It refers to one of several errors. One is to violate correct demands on the objectivity of judgement; to allow what is so to be decided by our (or some thinkers') impressions of what is so. The other is to engage in a priori 'science'. This chapter explores Frege's (and others') demands on objectivity, why there should be such demands, and the room this leaves for our thought to be shaped by the parochial. It also discusses some of the further hazards of mistaking philosophy for science (notably empirical psychology), or vice versa.


Encyclopaedia Britannica (1998) states:

Psychologism, in philosophy, the view that problems of  epistemology  (i.e., of the validity of human knowledge) can be solved satisfactorily by the psychological study of the development of mental processes.  John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) may be regarded as the classic of psychologism in this sense. A more moderate form of psychologism maintains that psychology should be made the basis of other studies, especially of logic. A classical attack on both forms of psychologism was  Edmund Husserl's Logische Untersuchungen (1900–01; "Logical Investigations").

Psychologism, however, continued to find adherents. Early in the 20th century, James Ward developed a genetic psychology that he considered essential to any adequate epistemology; Brand Blanshard's monumental The Nature of Thought, 2 vol. (1939), insisted that epistemological studies must be rooted in psychological investigation; and  Jean Piaget conducted considerable psychological research on the genesis of thought in children, accepted by some philosophers as a contribution to epistemology. Similarly, empirical studies of innateness (via the "visual cliff," in which an infant placed at the edge of a glassed-over "cliff " shows behaviour suggestive of innate depth perception) continue to be seen as epistemologically significant.

associated issues


related areas

See also





Encyclopaedia Britannica,1998, 'Psychologism', available at, accessed 13 June 2019.

Kusch, M., 2015, 'Psychologism', Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1 December 2015, available at, accessed 13 June 2019.

New World Encyclopedia, 2015, 'Psychologism', 12 June 2015, available at, accessed 13 June 2019.

Travis, C., 2010, 'Psychologism', Oxford Scholarship Online, available at, accessed 13 June 2019

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