Beyond Postmodernism: Towards a Future Psychology

Beyond Postmodernism:
Towards a Future Psychology
Paper presented by Kundan at the Second International Integral Psychology Conference, 2001
held at Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, India.


Impressed by the apparent potential of physics to explain, predict and control natural phenomenon, psychology rooted in a Newtonian-reductionist framework embraced a methodology identical to what is employed by the natural sciences to generate universal, rational, objective and value-free laws of human behavior. This gave psychology the much-coveted status of science. The emergence of a postmodern worldview has thrown into critical relief the notion of rational, objective and value-free science or for that matter any knowledge pursuit. This paper narrates the problem associated with the objectivity of psychological knowledge by drawing largely from the critique of science by Thomas Kuhn, which emerged from his analysis of the history of science. Kuhn’s view leads one to identify the crucial role that paradigm plays in scientific research. An extension of his arguments, as well as some evidences from the anthropological research, suggests that psychological knowledge is relative with respect to person, time, culture and paradigms. A meta-analysis of Kuhn leads one to conclude that his argument bites itself or swallows itself, giving birth to a peculiar situation where opposite categories like relative and absolute, objectivity and subjectivity, and the truth and falsity of facts co-exist.

Against this background, this paper explores certain means to resolve the impasse generated by the recognition of relativity and the aforementioned paradox. Postmodernism is not something that should be feared by the academicians; rather it is a major pointer towards changing our modus operandi of knowledge pursuit. Mystics have long identified the pursuit of knowledge through mind culminating in the realization of its relative nature. Mind is not the final summit in the evolution of mankind. There can be faculties other than mind which can be used to uncover nature’s truths, and it is not in the spirit of science to fall prey to scientism. The history of humanity has been a witness to countless instances where mystics have demonstrated that there exists a realm of knowledge which can be accessed by silencing and transcending the mind. This paper thus explores the connection between postmodern thought and mysticism in reference to psychology.

The Origins of Scientific Thought in Psychology

Psychology’s identification with science is clearly revealed through a cursory examination of the contemporary conceptualization of the discipline. Throughout its history, psychology has been defined in myriad ways. The early psychologists defined it as the study of mental activity. With the advent of Behaviorism at the turn of the century, and its central concern with studying only the phenomenon that could be objectively measured, psychology came to be described as the study of behavior. This definition has featured in most psychology textbooks of 1930’s through the 1960’s. The cycle has come full circle with the development of cognitive and humanistic/transpersonal psychology, as most current definitions of psychology make references to both behavior and mental processes (Henley, Johnson & Jones, 1989). Despite little variations most definitions of psychology describe it as science. While conducting a survey and an analysis of the definitions of psychology in psychology textbooks published between 1887 and 1987, Henley et al. (1989) report that “psychology is the study/science ” appears in about 80% of the textbooks of psychology. It is thus apparent that mainstream psychology considers the discipline to be a science and uses a methodology similar to what is applied to the study of physical objects.

In the late nineteenth century, physics rooted in the Newtonian framework was solving puzzle after puzzle and this led philosophers like J.S.Mill to believe that by subjecting human beings to a similar kind of experimental setup, they would be able to isolate cause and effect relationships in quantitative terms, which would then allow them to generate universal laws of human behavior. There is no reason why it should not have happened for psychology is intricately entwined with the enigma of our existence. Any system, thought or methodology that harbors a promise to resolve this mystery ought to attract seekers of knowledge. But, more than a hundred years have elapsed since the first experimental lab was established by Wundt in 1879 and the outcome of this approach has been thousands of theories mostly at variance with each other (Proshansky, 1976). Confusion is what pervades this discipline. Consolidating this position, Bruner (1990) notes that “questions about the nature of mind and its processes, questions about how we construct our meanings and realities and questions about shaping of mind still remains largely unanswered”(p. ix).

An earnest review of these theories leads one to conclude that our approach towards the subject has been too narrow to embrace the complexity of human nature. How can we have so many theories of human nature and yet not be able to explain anything conclusively? But, before we talk about a new paradigm of psychology, it is important to review the central tenets of the methodology that has guided psychological research and generated these theories and consequently, the pitfalls of this approach.

Science was formalized by Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century when he wrote that in order to understand ourselves we have to stop consulting Aristotle and start questioning nature itself.  Bacon gave two fundamental laws of science viz.– induction and deduction which form the basic tenets of positivism, a school of thought which has dictated the conduct of psychology from the past to the present. Positivism later developed into logical positivism and together they are called the “received view of science”. Though logical positivism and positivism differ in certain ways, induction and deduction form the bedrock of their methodology proposed for uncovering nature’s truths.

The Problem with Induction and Objectivity

Induction starts with observation, stemming from an unprejudiced mind. The observations lead to singular statements – referring to a particular state of affairs at a particular time – that form the body of laws and theories from which scientific knowledge can be derived. For the singular statements to culminate in universal laws, an important condition that needs to be met is that the number of observation statements forming the basis of generalization must be large (Chalmers, 1982).

Following this, a finite set of singular statements would lead to a universal law. This was designated as inductive reasoning and the process as induction. Once the inductive laws are established, they can be tested at a different place and time. This is the process of deduction. The essential condition for the methodology of science is that the observation has to be value free, detached and objective. The subjective state of the observer, taste and expectation are not supposed to intrude in the act of observation.

As stated before, an important premise of induction is that the number of observations must be large. However, despite a large number of cases showing consistency, it is not guaranteed that the next event would not be contrary to it. Hence repeated observation cannot ultimately explain induction. For example, no matter how many white swans we may have encountered, it does not imply that all swans are white; the next that we encounter may be black (Popper, 1959/92). Inductive principle is considered as the mainstay of science by positivists. They maintain that if it is removed from the canon of science, science will loose its power to determine the nature of Truth. But how does one logically prove that the principle of induction is true at the first place and not an assumption. In other words, how does one ascertain that the inductive principle helps uncover the truth?  It is argued that since it seems to operate well in large number of cases, the premise is correct. This implies that one uses induction to justify induction and thus the argument assumes circularity. This is called the problem of induction. (Popper, 1959/92)

The most serious drawback with induction is with respect to its claim of objectivity in observation. It is a very common experience that no two individuals register the same thing even if the respective images on their retinas are the same. One does not even require much knowledge of psychology to know that the observer’s perception is determined by his or her expectations, belief, knowledge, inner state and psychological make-up.

The contention of an inductivist, that the true basis of scientific knowledge should proceed from an unbiased and unprejudiced mind, is further rendered absurd by the practice of the scientist to consider only such data which is relevant to his or her research. Since the idea of relevant and irrelevant is always present during the course of investigation, the possibility of an unbiased and unprejudiced observer takes a back seat. The investigator or scientist cannot be but an integral part of the research work and his or her subjectivity is bound to play an instrumental role in the outcome of the research. Thus, it can be safely said that the data that are generated by the scientist are not objective but collected within the larger framework of theory. They do not have an independent existence, rather they are constructed within the confines and boundaries of a theory. In other words, data are theory-laden and objectivity is the last thing that scientists should claim. Expressing similar concerns, Feyerabend (1993) writes:

The history of science, after all, does not consist of fact and conclusions drawn from facts. It also contains ideas, interpretation of facts, problems created by conflicting interpretations, mistakes, and so on. On closer analysis, we find that science knows no ‘bare facts’ at all but the ‘facts’ that enter our knowledge are already viewed in a certain way and are, therefore, essentially ideational. (p. 12)

The problem of objectivity is further compounded by the fact that “we speak more about our observation of the world rather than of the world, and we do this through a less than fully adequate language system. The linguistic limitation, by itself causes problems even if we could overcome other limitations” (Baker, 1991, p. 12). This happens because language does not only describe events, but also creates a cosmology, a worldview that influences the thought, behavior and perception of mankind. When a child begins to learn a language, the worldview of her ancestors is passed onto her. The pedagogic procedures used “both shape the ‘appearance’, or ‘phenomenon’, and establish a firm connection with words, so that finally the phenomena seem to speak for themselves without outside help or extraneous knowledge”(Feyerabend, 1993, p. 57). The human mind begins to take many facts of life as givens, and the entire process may be totally unconscious. Her worldview begins to create what she may observe. Also, in order to be unprejudiced, one will have to abandon language itself, which will remove all ability to perceive and to think, as a consequence of which the practice of science will stop before it begins. Writes Edward Sapir:

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language that has become the medium of expression of that society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group….We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. [Cited in Whorf, 1962, p.134]

Even physics, which right from the beginning has provided a recipe for carrying out psychological research, has come to recognize that the observer is an inseparable part of the observation being made. In other words, reality is not independent of the observer. Thus, Capra (1992) observes:

The human observer constitutes the final link in the chain of observational process, and the properties of any atomic object can only be understood in terms of object’s interaction with the observer. This means that the classical ideal of objective description of nature is no longer valid. (p. 78)

Further, to be objective means that there should be an intersubjective agreement over an issue, thought or a sensory experience. Wertheimer (1972), one of the foremost critics of logical positivism states:

The only way in which one can tell whether there is an agreement or not is for someone to observe this agreement. Hence, the criterion for the presence or absence of agreement is someone’s (ultimately, my) cognition of the presence of absence of the agreement. Thus, making science public by striving for intersubjective agreement, can in no way yield the desired result of objectivity in the sense of independence from the subjective experience of scientists or a scientist- or, better knowers or a particular knower. [Cited in Tolman, 1992, p. 37]

In short, objectivity was the cornerstone of the Enlightenment or the Modern era where it was presumed that science following a definite methodology would be able to solve all the mysteries of the world. The unarticulated assumption was that there is a world, which existed separate from the individual and it can be understood by wresting out its secret by a rational, unbiased and value free observer. Consequently, it created dualism like subject – object and sharp divisions like fact and value, and objective reality and subjective feelings. As the above arguments indicate that for an individual to be without a bias or a value, he or she has to come from nowhere. Values and biases are implicit to the human condition and dichotomies like subject-object, and fact-value are a myth.

Sociology of Knowledge: Objectivity Demystified

Apart from the values, inner expectations, knowledge, social position and observer’s bias, science embraces other dynamics as well which can constrain an objective approach to reality. The spirit of science is to question, but science was losing its tenor by falling prey to scientism, a kind of dogmatism comparable to fundamentalist aspect of any organized religion. Imbued with the spirit of questioning, Kuhn (1970) questioned the notion of science itself. His work is significant in that he has made it explicitly clear that science, like any other human activity, is a social activity which affects and is affected by the milieu in which it is embedded, and is guided by the sociological, economic, historical and political forces. According to him, science is practiced by communities of scientists and not by isolated men and women. To understand the workings of science, it is therefore imperative to understand the scientific community, its accepted and shared norms and beliefs. The complex nature of sociological factors that operate when any research is conducted can be appreciated with the help of Figure 1.

 Figure 1. [Adapted from Danziger, 1990]

The innermost circle represents the immediate social condition in which research is conducted. The next circle represents the research community that has to accept the data as scientific knowledge. The outermost circle denotes the wider social context that embraces the research community. The investigators, the research community and the society are interconnected in a complex web of affairs, which has many dimensions.

If we analyze the dynamics of the inner circle – the immediate research conducted for generation of psychological knowledge, we find that the objectivity of psychological knowledge and the rationale of the Newtonian framework for psychology are seriously challenged. The experiments that are conducted are done by human beings on human beings, in sharp contrast to physical sciences where experiments are conducted on inanimate objects. With the recognition of experimenter expectancy effects and demand characteristics, it can be inferred that the experimental results are co-determined by the social relationship between the experimenter and the subjects (Danziger, 1990).

As far as the research community is concerned, Kuhn (1970) points out that scientific practice is shaped by deep assumptions of the worldview of which the scientist may be unaware. For meaningful research to take place, the community must agree upon the goals, the methodologies, and the valid subject matter in thecontext of research. The agreement on all these issues would constitute a framework or a paradigm within which the investigation of nature can take place. The paradigm has two components- disciplinary matrix and shared exemplars. The disciplinary matrix consists of certain fundamental set of assumptions that are often unstated and not subject to empirical test. These assumptions form the basis for testing specific hypotheses. For example, reductionism states that the world can be understood by breaking it into smaller units until we arrive at a set of fundamental units. This is an assumption that is not going to be subjected to any kind of an empirical test, and thus constitutes the part of disciplinary matrix of scientists who adhere to this belief. As an example, while analyzing how Descartes influenced what was admissible in the scientific canon and what was not, Kuhn (1970) writes:

[A]fter the appearance of Descartes immensely influential scientific writings, most physical scientists assumed that the universe was composed of microscopic corpuscles and that all natural phenomena could be explained in terms of corpuscular shape, size, motion, and interaction. That nest of commitments proved to be both metaphysical and methodological. As metaphysical, it told scientists what sort of entities the universe did and did not contain: there was only shaped matter in motion. As methodological, it told them what ultimate laws and fundamental explanations must be like: laws must specify corpuscular motion and interaction, and explanation must reduce any given natural phenomenon to corpuscular action under these laws. Most important still, the corpuscular conception of the universe told scientists what many of their research problems should be. (p. 41)

And again,

Paradigm functions by telling the scientist about the entities that nature does or does not contain and about the ways in which those entities behave. That information provides a map whose details are elucidated by mature scientific research. And since nature is too complex and varied to be explored at random, that map is as essential as observation and experiment to science’s continuing development. Through the theories they embody, paradigms prove to be constitutive of research activity….In learning a paradigm the scientist acquires theory, methods, and standards together, usually in an inextricable mixture. (p. 109, my Italics)

The other component of a paradigm is shared exemplars — the models for investigating new problems which include the methodology for pursuing the research. The disciplinary matrix and shared exemplars, by constituting the paradigm, unconsciously trains a researcher to approach a problem in a specific way which gradually becomes his/her natural way. In this vein, Leahey (1991) writes:

Neither source of data is comprehensible without training, yet once the scientist learns to interpret them, he or she will see them in those ways and no others. Thus training can act as a set of blinders, keeping the scientist from seeing in new ways. All observation and perception – whether scientific or not – is a matter of interpretation as numerous psychological examples have shown. (p. 14)

Weber (1946) similarly contends the notion that science can be free from suppositions ever. It presupposes that the rules of method and logic are valid, which cannot be tested by scientific means. Further, facts are meaningless and neutral in themselves; they become facts when interpreted against a theory comprising of a priori categories. For example, the measurements made with the Atwood machine would have meant nothing in the absence of Newton’s Principia. Varied meanings can be ascribed to the same data. What once was a Layden jar became a condenser, as there were changes in the electrical paradigms.  Elucidating how the same entity can be interpreted in different ways under the influence of different paradigms or theories, Kuhn (1970) writes:

An investigator who hoped to learn something about what scientists took the atomic theory to be asked a distinguished physicist and an eminent chemist whether a single atom of helium was or was not a molecule. Both answered without hesitation, but their answers were not the same. For the chemist the atom of helium was a molecule because it behaved like one with respect to the kinetic theory of gases. For the physicist, on the other hand, the helium atom was not a molecule because it displayed no molecular spectrum. Presumably both men were talking about the same particle but they were viewing it through their own research training and practice. (pp. 50-1)

In short, Kuhn has shown that science is not as rational and objective as it had been supposed. Indeed, scientific rationality is a matter of consensus. It involves unexamined biases and social interests like fame, fortune, love, loyalty and power of the investigator. A choice of one paradigm over another may be induced by inner psychological causes or other sociological ones that cannot be defended by appealing to the office of reason. More often than not, scientists following the same norms of disinterestedness, objectivity and rationality arrive at different conclusions. The history of science reveals that there are many competing theories before one paradigm becomes dominant and all of them had arisen from experimentation and observation. Comments Kuhn (1970):

[E]arly developmental stages of most sciences have been characterized by continual competition between a number of distinct views of nature, each partially derived from, and all roughly compatible with, the dictates of scientific observation and method. What differentiated these various schools was not one or another failure of method–they were all “scientific”–but what we shall come to call their incommensurable ways of seeing the world and of practicing science in it. Observation and experience can and must drastically restrict the range of admissible scientific belief, else there would be no science. But they cannot alone determine a particular body of such belief. An apparently arbitrary element, compounded of personal and historical accident, is always a formative ingredient of beliefs espoused by a given scientific community at a given time. (p. 4)

The history of science also demonstrates that scientific knowledge is temporally relative. What was considered once as science has been later rejected as superstition. By the same token, what constitutes as scientific knowledge today, which has been extracted from nature by subjecting it to repeated investigation may turn out to be error tomorrow under the influence of a different paradigm. Kuhn (1970) states:

[H]istorians confront growing difficulties in distinguishing the “scientific” component of past observation and belief from what their predecessors had readily labeled “error” and “superstition.” The more carefully they study, say, Aristotelian dynamics, phlogestic chemistry, or caloric thermodynamics, the more certain they feel that those once current views of nature were, as a whole, neither less scientific nor more the product of human idiosyncrasy than those current today. If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge. If, on the other hand, they are to be called science, then science has included bodies of belief quite incompatible with the ones that we hold today. (p. 2)

A committed believer in science would say that the above stated phenomenon has taken place because science is cumulative and scientists have refined their theories in an effort to come closer to a truer and more accurate interpretation and description of nature. Kuhn disagrees and contends that instead of science being cumulative, it is revolutionary. A change in the paradigm changes the worldview of the scientist; or in other words the world comes to be viewed differently by the scientist. It involves a “reconstruction of the field from new fundamentals, a reconstruction that changes some of the field’s most elementary theoretical generalizations as well as many of its paradigm methods and applications”(Kuhn, 1970. p. 85).

Kuhn holds that it is difficult to demonstrate the superiority of one paradigm over another purely on ‘logical’ argument. The primary reason is that the proponents of the rival paradigms subscribe to a different set of standards and metaphysical assumptions. The rival paradigms are so incommensurable that no appeal to ‘rationality’ can settle the issue as Feyerabend (1976) writes:

Transition to criteria not involving content thus turns theory choice from a rational and “objective” and rather one dimensional routine into a complex discussion involving conflicting preference and propaganda will play a major role in it, as it does in all cases involving preferences. [Cited in Chalmers, 1982, p.138]

To complete this discussion let us analyze the outermost circle depicted in Figure 1.The pursuit of knowledge is very intimately connected with the society in which it develops; the sociology of knowledge very aptly discusses the dynamics operating therein which determine the subject matter of psychology or any discipline for that matter. The anti-theistic ideas of scientific psychology are a case in point. Science in order to establish its identity had to struggle against the Church which had usurped all powers to arbitrate every activity of man and mankind. It had restricted the freedom of inquiry and held courts of Inquisition to prosecute men like Galileo and Descartes and all those who differed from the scriptures. Moreover it had waged holy wars in the name of religion and caused much bloodshed. Against this backdrop, science dissociated itself from anything that had to do with God or with supernatural forms of existence. In conclusion, the social and historical forces do play a major role in the development of a subject (see Danziger 1990; Leahey 1991, for details).

It is being increasingly realized that each society has its own vision of reality that shapes the perception and thoughts of its inhabitants. This helps them to negotiate their life with different images, symbols, metaphors and institutions in a unique way that may be incommensurable with that of another society. It would be worthwhile to analyze the notion of the self in this light. Under the auspices of Cartesian metaphysics, self has been described by the western philosophers as universal, objective, ahistoric, non-contextual and authentic. This dominant paradigm suggests that the true and authentic self is atomistic, individualistic and non-social. The universality of this view is seriously challenged when different cultures are studied on their own terms, without the preconception that they are inferior. For example, in India according to the Bhagvatgita, the idea of a separate, individualistic, isolated and egoistic self is false and illusory. The egoistic self which creates selfish desires, hatred, attachment, craving, greed, conceit etc. is viewed as the cause of ignorance and suffering; and it is culturally expected there that one transcend this egoistic self in order to be transported into a state of wisdom, knowledge, calm and peace.

Few western philosophers too have contested this Cartesian idea of self and have argued that self is situated and shaped by social, cultural, economic and historical contexts. For example, Marx argued that the nature of man (or woman) is the product of material conditions determining their production. Allen (1997) states that “[s]elf is not something abstract, static, ahistoric and given. On the contrary, self is dynamic, complex and relational; it is socially, culturally and historically constituted and developed through an ongoing dialectical process” (p. 22).

Anthropology has challenged the uniformitarian view of humans–emerging from the Enlightenment concept–that the essence and truth of human beings is universal and constant, independent of time and culture. For instance, the Oedipal complex as espoused by Freud as universally valid did not hold ground when Malinowski (1927) tried to test its truth in matriarchal societies. Also, Mead (1928) challenged the psychologist G. Stanley Hall’s view that adolescence is a period of ‘storm and stress’ which he held to be universally true. Mead found that the adolescents of Samoa Island did not manifest a period of storm and stress. Geertz (1973) comments:

[A]nthropology…is firm in conviction that men unmodified by the customs of particular places do not in fact exist, have never existed, and most important, could not in the very nature of the case exist….The circumstance makes the drawing of a line between what is natural, universal, and constant in man and what is conventional, local and variable extremely difficult. (p.35-6)

What is intelligent, practical, viable and noble in one culture may be considered as foolish and lowly from the perspective of another culture. Torgovnick (1990) observes that it is very difficult to asses what is ‘modern,’ what is ‘primitive,’ what is ‘savage’ and what is ‘civilized.’ Montaigne (1877) observes that we designate anything that is not in conformity with our habits and customs as barbaric, for we have no criterion for judging the customs of others other than our own. Levi Strauss (1979) comments that the minds of ‘primitives’ are not inferior constitutionally; it is just that they are different, shaped according to the demands that their surroundings and environment present.

The above line of arguments indicate that psychology and all forms of knowledge–there is an intimate connection between psychology and knowledge–are relative with respect to individuals, time, culture and paradigms. But incidentally, this is a statement suggesting an absolute truth. Similarly, experimental psychology has devised experiments (for example, the duck-rabbit experiment), the results of which show that the perception of reality is necessarily subjective. But while stating this, it also makes a statement which embodies an objective validity. So a fact discovered by psychology becomes subjective and objective at the same time leading to a paradoxical and a peculiar situation.

A meta-analysis of Kuhn’s arguments culminates in a situation which is no different. One of the chief themes of his theses is that paradigms guide research in terms of observation and interpretation of data. If his premise is true–which of course, he has supported with a lot of evidence–then by extension it can be said that he has culled out data from the body of the history of science to support his theory that paradigms guide research. In other words, the data were collected with the theory–paradigm guides research– already in his mind. As soon as we recognize this, Kuhn’s arguments turn on themselves, thus assuming a circularity. A paradoxical situation emerges again: Kuhn’s arguments are true and false at the same time. They are true because there are evidences to support his claim and false because he contradicts himself by inviting his arguments on himself.

Secondly, Kuhn has cited evidences to show that facts and data have no meaning in themselves; they acquire meaning when interpreted against a theory or framework. There is an implicit circularity and paradox here too. By force of Kuhn’s arguments, it can be argued that the evidences that he has used to demonstrate the truth of his arguments are meaningful only against his contention that evidences have no meaning in the absence of a framework. Evidences lend support to his theory whereas a similar kind of contradiction as described above, and the fact of being oblivious to his own subjectivity, while attributing the crucial role of the scientist’s subjectivity in guiding research, renders Kuhn’s theory inadmissible. If the evidences of the other scientists are not sacrosanct, it can as well be said that Kuhn’s are not either.

In view of these circularities and paradoxes, does this mean that the pursuit of knowledge and psychology approaches a dead end? Does this mean that the impasse cannot be resolved? The answer is a resounding no if we begin to analyze the mystical traditions.

If not, then how does one reconcile to the relative truth of the postmodernists stated in an absolute way, which results in a modern koan  (if it can be loosely translated to mean a puzzle) like situation?

Post modernism is rejected by many on the ground that it leads to solipsism i.e. the self of an individual is the only reality; the only knowledge that he or she can have is about his or her own self and nothing else. An evaluation of mystical traditions allows us to perceive that solipsism is not as formidable as it has been made out to be. For all mystical knowledge starts when we start seeing the self. Let us examine how mysticism or spirituality, while offering the solution of extricating ourselves from the problem of relativity, the aforementioned koan and solipsism, can be an alternative paradigm to psychology research.

Beyond Mind: A Step Ahead of Postmodernism

The relativism to which postmodernism eventually culminates is not a new realization in the history of mankind. The mystics since time immemorial and across all cultures have recognized the pursuit of knowledge through mind resulting in agnosticism and relativism. References to mind, with reason and logic as its instruments, as an incompetent and inferior tools for such an endeavor is a common feature in mystical literature. Referring to this limitation of knowledge pursued through mind, Sri Aurobindo (1940/96) states:

A certain kind of Agnosticism is the final truth of all knowledge. For when we come to an end of whatever path, the universe appears as only a symbol or an appearance of an unknowable Reality which translates itself here into different system of values, physical values, vital and sensational values, intellectual, ideal and spiritual values. (p. 12)

The knowledge pursuit in the modernistic tradition is based on logic, reasoning and an objective agreement of evidences. Recognizing the limitation of such an approach and the relativity of reason, Sri Aurobindo (1958/95) alludes:

You believe according to your faith, which is quite natural, he believes according to his opinion, which is natural also, but no better so far as the likelihood of getting at the true truth of things is in question. His opinion is according to his reason… How is reasoning to show which is right? The opposing parties can argue till they are blue in their face – they won’t be anywhere nearer a decision… But who can look at the world as it is and say that the trend of things is always (or ever) according to the right reason – whatever this thing called the right reason may be? As a matter of fact there is no universal infallible reason which can decide and be the umpire between conflicting opinions; there is only my reason, your reason, X’s reason, Y’s reason multiplied up to a discordant innumerable. Each reasons according to his view of things, his opinion, that is his mental constitution and mental preference. (pp. 164-65)

Mind according to the mystics cannot perceive the Reality as a whole. It tends to classify, discriminate, categorize, divide, compare and measure. This indeed can be validated if we examine the large body of what we call as psychological knowledge. Two very prevalent practices that underlie the pursuit of psychology are through ceteris paribus clause, and models. Theories are built by varying some variables while keeping others constant in order to discover laws of behavior. Common sense observation can tell us that our lives do not operate that way; there is a gamut of factors operating on us as individuals which cannot, by virtue of the scientific methodology applied, identify the laws. The other practice is the pursuit of psychology through models. Models as such do not represent the reality but take few variables in utter disregard to others to create a picture of reality. Apropos to such a view, Sri Aurobindo (1958/95) writes:

Mind cannot arrive at Truth; it can only make some constructed figure that tries to represent it or a combination of figures…. There have been hundreds of these systems and formulas and there can be hundreds more, but none can be definitive. ( p. 157)

Minds build concepts and concepts are an integral part of prevalent psychology, which are defined and redefined by the psychologists during the course of their investigation of psychological phenomenon. The postmodern discourse has rendered all categories and definitions fluid, porous, vague, ambiguous and uncertain. We cannot talk about ‘personality’, ‘identity’, ‘sanity’, ‘normality’ etc with as much certainty as we used to in the past. It has identified that all categories and definitions are not fixed but subject to change with time and place. There is a larger meta-structure on which these edifices are built.

It is here that a deep and intimate connection between postmodern thought and mysticism lies. The confusion generated by the discourse has the seed of a paradigm shift in the knowledge of ultimate reality and psychology. The mystics have stressed that the truth of our existence cannot be understood in terms of categories and concepts; knowledge lies beyond these. In the words of Thich Naht Hanh (1995):

The world of concepts is not the world of reality. Conceptual knowledge is not the perfect instrument for studying truth. Words are inadequate to express the truth of ultimate reality… But if conceptual knowledge is fallible, what other instruments should we use to grasp reality? According to Buddhism, we can only reach reality through direct experience. Study and speculation are based on concepts. In conceptualizing we cut reality into smaller pieces that seem to be independent of one another. This manner of conceiving things is called imaginative and discriminative knowledge (Vikalpa) according to Vijñanavadin School of Buddhism. The faculty that directly experiences reality without passing through concepts is called non-discriminative and non-imaginative wisdom (nirvikalpajñana). This wisdom is the fruit of meditation. It is a direct and perfect knowledge of reality, a form of understanding in which one does not distinguish between subject and object. It cannot be conceived by the intellect or expressed by language. (pp. 41-43)

Concepts and categories have the potential to imprison the mind. All mental knowledge binds the intuitive faculties which are better instruments for the perception of Truth. A Socrates-like position that the only thing one knows is that one knows nothing is a perfect condition for the higher reality to unfold.

With regards to the koan, the mystics say that a concept and its opposite are parts of a unified whole but it is not within the ambit of mind – rational and logical- to resolve it. It can be only done by opening up the intuitive faculties within or by going into higher levels of consciousness by silencing the thoughts and by becoming aware. The culprit opposing such reconciliation is the logical mind referred to as Sem by Tibetan Buddhists about which Sri Aurobindo (1994) alludes:

Truth is not logical; it contains logic but is not contained by it. A particular syllogism may be true, so far as it goes, covering a sharply limited set of facts, but even a set of syllogisms cannot exhaust truth on a general subject, for the simple reason that they necessarily ignore a number of equally valid premises, facts or possibilities which support a modified or contrary view. (p. 10)

According to the Buddhists, the world exists as an inseparable and reconciled whole of opposites. It is black which creates white; good that creates evil; valleys that create mountains; friends that creates enemies. All contradictions and oppositions, seen from a slightly different perspective reveal that they are one and essential whole. The opposites are not against each other but complement each other. Darkness is born out of light and day is born out of night. Buddhists maintain that existence is a synthesis of opposites but the transcendence of the discursive mind is a must for the unity to reveal and unfold. In the poetic words of Lao Tzu:

Since the world points up beauty as such,There is ugliness too,If goodness is taken as goodness,Wickedness enters as well.For is and is-not come together;Hard and easy are complementary;Long and short are relative;High and low are comparative;Pitch and sound make harmony;Before and after are a sequence.  (Blackney, 1955, p. 2)

Postmodernism, thus by acknowledging the relative nature of categories and concepts can allow us to perceive the limitations of mind and brings us to the portals from where we can glimpse the higher realities beyond mind. But the essential condition, which postmodernism is yet to achieve is to transcend this relativity of mind.  It is still struggling to wriggle out of this impasse. An assimilation of postmodern thought into oneself permits the seeker of knowledge to make his or her mind fluid and plastic or in the words of the mystics ‘to empty her mind’. The empty mind or a mind devoid of all concepts is metaphorically compared to a sea which is absolutely calm. It is in this non-attached state to conceptualized knowledge that higher knowledge manifests called the wisdom mind by the mystics. Nyoshul Khe Rinpoche expresses this most beautifully:

Profound and tranquil, free from complexity,Uncompounded luminous clarity,Beyond the mind of conceptual ideas;There is the depth of mind of the victorious Ones.In this there is not a thing to be removed,Nor anything that needs to be added.It is merely the immaculateLooking naturally at itself.  [Cited in Rinpoche, 1991, p. 49]

As stated earlier, Western Psychology began the investigation of its subject matter with the notion of an observer and the observed where the observer and the observed were distinctly presumed to be separate and it was the task of the observer to discover the truth. Postmodern discourse has identified that the observer and the observed are interdependent and the subject of their knowledge is a product of the interaction between the two. While this recognition has made the rigid categorization of subject and object vague, it is being perceived as a precipitator of crisis among the academicians. In contrast, according to Zen Buddhism, this is not the end of knowledge, rather the beginning. Buddhists argue that knowledge rooted in distinction and discrimination like ‘subject’ and ‘object’ and ‘knower’ and ‘knowledge’ result in Vikalpa which is not the reflection of realty. Psychological knowledge following the modernistic (Newtonian – reductionist or Cartesian) paradigm can be said to be based on the principle of Vikalpa. The postmodern thought, which recognizes the interconnectedness and interdependence of the observer and the observed, reflects knowledge based on the principle of ParatantraParatantra is the true basis of knowledge which can lead to the transcendence of Vikalpa which will further guide the seeker to Tathata or Enlightenment where the true identity of things is revealed. Enlightenment is not an abstract state based on speculation and imagination but manifests a reality based on concrete experience. Sri Aurobindo (1972/95) while giving an account of his first major spiritual experience writes:

… to reach Nirvana was the first radical result of my own Yoga. It threw me suddenly into a condition above and without thought, unstained by any mental or vital movement; there was no ego, no real world – only when one looked through the immobile senses, something perceived or bore upon its sheer silence a world of empty forms, materialised shadows without true substance. There was no One or many even, only just absolutely That, featureless, relationless, sheer indescribable, unthinkable, absolute, yet supremely real and solely real. This was no mental realisation nor something glimpsed somewhere above, – no abstraction, – it was positive, the only positive reality, – although not a spatial physical world, pervading, occupying or rather flooding and drowning this semblance of a physical world leaving no room or space for any reality but itself, allowing nothing else to seem at all actual, positive or substantial. (p. 101)

Stressing that the reality experienced was without words or concepts, he further states:

One has to arrive at spiritual knowledge through experience and a consciousness of things which arises directly out of that experience or else underlies or is involved in it. This kind of knowledge, then, is fundamentally a consciousness and not a thought or formulated idea. For instance, my first major experience… came after and by the exclusion and silencing of all thought – there was, first, what might be called a spiritually substantial or concrete consciousness of stillness and silence, then the awareness of some sole and supreme Reality in whose presence things existed only as forms but forms not at all substantial or real or concrete; but this was all apparent to a spiritual perception and essential and impersonal sense and there was not the least concept or idea of reality or unreality or any other notion, for all concept or idea was hushed or rather entirely absent in the absolute stillness. These things were known directly through the pure consciousness and not through the mind, so there was no need of concepts or words or names.  (Sri Aurobindo, 1972/95, p. 87)

Thus, it is increasingly clear that postmodernism is just a step short of a kind of knowledge pursuit which promises to reveal the deeper aspects of human existence; the levels of existence which lie beyond mind. In other words, postmodernism, if allowed to proceed unhindered, precedes the development of a paradigm where the exploration of the deeper and higher realms of mind will be taken up on a large scale by seekers of knowledge unlike in the past where mystics have been isolated instances. It is gradually leading psychology from a science of mind and behavior to a science of consciousness. Consequently, “Psychology ought to be rather than is the science of consciousness” (Sri Aurobindo 1994, p. 332). Identifying that the basis of human behavior lies much deeper in the realm of consciousness and nothing much can be achieved by studying the outer aspects, Sri Aurobindo (1994) explains:

Psychology is the science of consciousness and its status and operations in Nature and, if that can be glimpsed or experienced, its status and operations beyond what we know as Nature. It is not enough to observe and know the movements of our surface nature and the superficial nature of other living creatures just as it [is] not enough for Science to observe and know as electricity only the movements of lightning in the clouds or for the astronomer to observe and know only those movements and properties of the stars that are visible to the unaided eyes. Here as there a whole world of occult phenomena have to be laid bare and brought under control before the psychologist can hope to be master of his province. Our observable consciousness, that which we call ourselves, is only the little visible part of our being. It is a small field below which are depths and farther depths and widths and ever wider widths which support and supply it but to which it has no visible access. All that is our self, our being, – what we see at the top is only our ego and its visible nature. Even the movements of this little surface nature cannot be understood nor its true law discovered until we know all that is below or behind and supplies it – and know too all that is around is and above. (pp. 333-34)

Contrary to the conventional practice in psychological research where one endeavors to discover laws by observation of others, this paradigm as enunciated by Sri Aurobindo and other mystics bases the study of one’s own self as its subject matter. Psychology as the science of consciousness should be such where “one must proceed from the knowledge of oneself to the knowledge of others” (Sri Aurobindo, 1972/93, p. 323). Solipsism thus assumes a central position in this research. But whereas solipsism refers to an individual self, mysticism goes much beyond. It speaks of the discovery of one Self which is present in all and transcendent to all. The Hindus call this as Brahma or Purusha, Christians as God, Muslim as Allah and Buddhists as Dharmakaya. The pronouncements of a few mystics will substantiate this.

All creatures have existed eternally in the divine essence, as in their exemplar. So far as they conform to the divine idea, all beings were, before their creation, one thing with the essence of God. (God creates into time what was and is in eternity.) Eternally, all creatures are God in God… So far as they are in God, they are the same life, the same essence, the same power, the same One, and nothing less.


When is a man in mere understanding? I answer, ‘When a man sees one thing separated from another.’ And when is a man above mere understanding? That I can tell you: ‘When a man sees All in all, then a man stands beyond mere understanding.’


Pursue not the outer entanglements,Dwell not in the inner void;Be serene in the oneness of things,And dualism vanishes of itself.………………………………..The two exist because of the One;But hold not even to this One.When a mind is not disturbed,The ten thousand things offer no offence…  If an eye never falls asleep,All dreams will cease of themselves;If the Mind retains its absoluteness,The ten thousand things are of one substance.  When the deep mystery of one Suchness is fathomed,All of a sudden we forget the external entanglements;When the ten thousand things are viewed in their oneness,We return to the origin and remain where we have always been… One in all,All in One -If only this is realized,No more worry about not being perfect!…………………………………………

The Third Patriarch of Zen

One Nature, perfect and pervading, circulates in all natures,One Reality, all-comprehensive, contains within itself all realities.The one Moon reflects itself wherever there is a sheet of water,And all the moons in the waters are embraced within the one Moon.The Dharma-body (the Absolute) of all the Buddhas enters into my own being.And my own being is found in union with theirs…………………………………………………………

Yung-chia Ta-shih

Behold but One in all things; it is the second that leads you astray.


(Cited in Huxley, 1946/94, pp. 9-88)

It is the promise of the mystics that by knowing our self, we would know all. ‘Know thyself’ is an age-old dictum given to mankind by Christ. Mystics hold that all the operations behind our psychological self as well as that of the others will proceed from a sure ground of clear vision of things. They call this the opening of the third eye – an eye that sees even when the physical eye is closed. This can be done by the process of yoga – a conscious union with our Self. Sri Aurobindo (1948/96) writes:

Since the Self which we come to realise by the path of knowledge is not only the reality which lies behind and supports the states and movements of our psychological being, but also that transcendent and universal Existence which has manifested itself in all the movements of the universal, the knowledge of the Self includes also the knowledge of the principles of Being, its fundamental modes and its relations with the principles of the phenomenal universe. This was what was meant by the Upanishad when it spoke of the Brahman as that which being known all is known. It has to be realised first as the pure principle of existence, afterwards, says the Upanishad, its essential modes become clear to the soul which realises it. We may indeed, before realisation, try to analyse by the metaphysical reason and even understand intellectually what Being is and what the world is, but such metaphysical understanding is not the Knowledge. Moreover, we may have the realisaion in knowledge and vision, but this is incomplete without realisation in the entire soul-experience and the unity of all our being with that which we realise. It is the science of Yoga to know and the art of Yoga to be unified with the Highest so that we may live in the Self and act from the supreme poise, becoming one not only in the conscious essence but in the conscious law of our being with the transcendent Divine whom all things and creatures, whether ignorantly or with partial knowledge and experience, seek to express through the lower law of their members. To know the highest Truth and to be in harmony with it is the condition of right being, to express it in all that we are, experience and do is the condition of right living. (p. 358)

To sum up, postmodern thought is qualified as being nihilist in nature and purpose. As it is apparent, it is not a negative nihilism; rather if properly interpreted posits and envisions a bright future for mankind. It would be very unsettling, anxiety provoking and tumultuous in the beginning but then the quest for knowledge has never been and never can be a smooth exercise. It warrants looking into ourselves and examining closely and intricately our biases, prejudices and assumptions. My experiences of life suggest that it is quite a painful proposition but it is inevitable as we gradually move towards a global culture and a pluralistic society. What postmodernism anticipates is the popularity of Eternal Religion or the Perennial Philosophy among the academicians on a large scale. At the same time, it puts an additional pressure on mankind to change their ways by orienting themselves towards the non-ordinary levels of existence if they do not want to be cheated by charlatans claiming to be the possessors of supernatural powers. The study of consciousness is the future of psychology. In my opinion, this will happen in what Sri Aurobindo calls as the Spiritual age. In his all-encompassing spiritual vision, the Spiritual age is preceded by the Subjective age and the by an age dominated by anarchist thoughts. Since Postmodernism has already heralded the age characterized by the anarchist and nihilist thoughts, the possibility of the study of a greater psychology through the yogic methodology is only a matter of time.


I would like to express my heart-felt gratitude to my teacher Suneet Varma, Ph.D., for having introduced me to the ideas of postmodernism, and for having given invaluable comments on an early draft of this paper. I would also like to thank Jorge Ferrer, Ph.D. and Bahman Shirazi, Ph.D. for their encouragement and editorial assistance. My special thanks to Mr. Rajiv Malhotra, who made the participation in the conference possible by having funded the travel.

This paper is dedicated to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, who have transformed my life.


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