Difference between psychology and philosophy

Until the end of the 19th century, the notions belonging to psychology and philosophy were so connected that few authors bothered to point out the differences that existed between these two branches of knowledge. However, from the work of experimentalists such as Fechner, Helmholtz and Wundt, psychology managed to establish itself as a discipline with its own objectives and methods (Audi, 2004). Even so, the limits and the nature of the connections between these two subjects are still topics of discussion in the academic field. On the other hand, said lack of clarity has generated confusion in people not versed in the matter; which, in turn,It has been used by opportunists to distort certain philosophical postulates and present them as the basis of pseudo-therapeutic practices .

Due to the above, it is important to know how to identify the differences that exist between psychology and philosophy; since despite the fact that these disciplines have common interests, they point to different objects of study , and are developed from their own methodologies.

Conceptual differences between psychology and philosophy

To understand the differences that exist between psychology and philosophy it is necessary to know what these terms mean.

definition of psychology

Psychology is a science that is constantly being redefined, due to the emergence of new research technologies and the formulation of new theoretical approaches. However, it is possible to define it in a general way as the scientific study of behavior and mental processes (Morris, Maisto, Ortiz, 2005). According to the APA, this discipline is interested both in solving the mysteries posed by the mind and human experience, and in the efficient application of the knowledge obtained to obtain practical and therapeutic ends (American Psychological Association, 2013).

The study of the mind involves the analysis of processes such as consciousness, perception, motivation and creativity, as well as the relationship of these functions with specific biological structures. In addition, psychology also analyzes the correspondence that exists between these phenomena and the environment in which individuals operate (Matsumoto, 2009).

definition of philosophy

Like psychology, philosophy is not an easy discipline to define. This, because their interests have been transformed, diversified and limited over the centuries. However, in a very broad sense, this can be understood as the set of knowledge that seeks to establish through reason, the principles by which knowledge of reality is organized and guided, as well as the meaning of human action ( Royal Spanish Academy, 2020). It is possible to affirm that the objective of philosophy is to understand how things, in its broadest sense, come together in the broadest possible sense of the term (Sellars, 1963).

Historical relationship between psychology and philosophy

Not only did philosophy and psychology develop jointly and interdependently throughout history, but for many years their boundaries were unrecognizable, making it difficult to distinguish their differences. 

Before the rise of modern science, the term philosophy was used to name any type of knowledge; existing fields such as metaphysics , natural philosophy and moral philosophy , which preceded specialized studies on physics, chemistry, biology, economics, law, sociology or psychology. Aspects such as decision-making, emotions and the nature of subjective life, topics of current interest for psychology, were studied without there being clear limits between the different types of knowledge, and often through rational speculation or speculation. contemplation (Audi, 2004; Harper, 2017).

It was not until the end of the 19th century, when the work of the German experimentalists achieved that psychology was recognized as an autonomous discipline; giving rise to the creation of university departments, laboratories and specialized publications that, through experimental methods , sought to make this area of ​​knowledge acquire the formality of a science (Audi, 2004).

In the early 20th century, behavioral psychologists such as John Watson proposed that the connection between psychology and philosophy should be broken by abandoning introspective methods to become a purely objective experimental branch of the natural sciences (Watson, 1913). However, after the emergence of cognitive science in the 1950s, cooperation between the two disciplines increased due to the increase in topics of common interest, as well as a methodological change in philosophy, which paid more attention to empirical studies. (Audi, 2004).

Specific differences between psychology and philosophy

The differences that exist between psychology and philosophy are of a conceptual, methodological and practical nature . To better understand these distinctions it may be useful to show them from the following comparisons:

  • Psychology has defined objects of study : behavior and mental processes; while philosophy is interested in only one type of knowledge, focusing its attention on the way in which this knowledge is acquired and organized, as well as the way in which it is related to reality.
  • Psychology, like all experimental science, must start from an established notion of reality to understand the phenomena it studies . Philosophy develops models of thought that allow us to interpret reality.
  • Psychology uses specific experimental methods to study specific psychological phenomena; meanwhile, philosophy is concerned with analyzing the validity and meaning of such methods through the philosophy of science.
  • Psychology is a scientific discipline that requires understanding its study to be practiced. Beyond its academic nature, philosophy, as a search for and generation of knowledge, does not require specific training, so everyone would be competent in it, being part of very diverse individual and social expressions.
  • Psychology is interested in the development of concrete solutions to specific problems ; while philosophical problems are not empirical problems, and in many ways their posing is more important than their resolution.
  • Psychology tries to find answers , while philosophy seeks to generate questions.

(Jaspers, 1949; Sellars, 1963; Cosacov, 2005; Lorenzano, 2016; Harper, 2017).

The meeting points between philosophy and psychology

Despite their clear differences, philosophy and psychology are linked at many points in academia. An example of this is moral psychology , which is a sub-area that is responsible for studying the development of moral opinions in the lives of individuals.

On the other hand, within metaphysics there is the so-called philosophy of mind , in charge of analyzing mental phenomena and the way in which they fit into the causal structure of reality. To do this, he examines psychology‘s claims about mental processes through the philosophy of psychology ; as well as the common sense interpretations that are popularly formulated about said psychological phenomena, from philosophical psychology .

In the same way, dimensions such as freedom of will, identity or irrational phenomena are addressed by both disciplines, although from different points of view (Audi, 2004).

Why understand the differences between psychology and philosophy?

The differences between psychology and philosophy are quite clear. Unfortunately, the fact that these distinctions are not known to many people has been the cause of a great deal of confusion and abuse in the field of academic and clinical psychology.

The clearest example of this situation can be found in the increasingly frequent tendency to take a certain philosophical position out of context to present it as a proven reality. With this, an attempt has been made to justify a large number of methodological approaches and therapeutic strategies. In this way, procedural devices are created whose base is not found in scientific research or the verification of results , but in simple ideas that resonate in the heads of those affected by the harmony of their postulates, and not by the effectiveness of their methods. .

On how many occasions have the names of Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche or Heidegger been used to justify pseudo-therapeutic practices , mixing fragments of their thought with pseudo-scientific notions or incompatible philosophical positions, just to validate the unreasonableness of their methods? Or, how many times have the principles of a certain culture or people been appropriated and distorted to mix them with Western practices, and thus generate a product that is easy to sell to desperate people or the idle public?


In this case, knowledge is the most powerful weapon against this kind of abusive practices. Knowing how to distinguish between these two disciplines may seem, at first glance, a faculty of little use. But living in a world where false promises of ‘eternal happiness’ bombard us from all sides, knowing the difference between a subjective interpretation of reality and empirically proven knowledge can be a resource that preserves us from disappointment and the deceit.

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