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Psychology, Philosophy, and Wisdom

Mountains drawing

Interview with Dr. Stephen Palmquist, Department of Religion and Philosophy, Hong Kong Baptist University

Tammie: What led you to study and teach philosophy?

Stephen: A complete answer to this question would occupy a whole book--or at least a lengthy chapter. I'll give you an abbreviated version, but I warn you, even in the form of a "nutshell" it's not going to be short!

Before going to college, I had never thought of studying or teaching philosophy. During the first year of my B.A., many new friends told me they thought I would make a good pastor. With this in mind, I decided to major in Religious Studies. From the middle of my junior year until the end of my senior year, I also served as a part-time youth minister in a local church. Seeing how churches work from the inside made me think twice about my original plan. After graduating, I realized that there were only a handful of occasions when I really enjoyed being a youth minister and those were the few times when one of the youth had an "aha" experience while talking with me. It then struck me that learning about and encouraging others to have such experiences was (is) my true calling. On the assumption that university students are much more open to having such experiences than the average church-goer, and knowing that in any case "church politics" can often work against those who tend to stimulate such experiences, I decided to set a new goal of becoming a university professor.

While I was serving as youth minister, I also took two classes, called "Contemporary Marriage" and "Love and Sex in Contemporary Society", which aroused my interest in this topic. The fact that I was newly married when I took these classes made them especially relevant. Due to my utter disagreement with the theories of love endorsed by the teacher of the former class, I failed the first test. But after an exchange of lengthy letters debating the quality of my (essay) answer to the main test question, the teacher agreed to allow me to skip all further tests in his class, including the final exam, and to write one long (40-page) paper instead. I ended up extending that project through the following summer and writing over 100 pages on the topic "Understanding Love".


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My college education was so fulfilling that I felt ready to live a life of learning without going through any additional formal education. However, I knew I could not get a job as a university teacher without having a higher degree, so I applied to do a doctorate at Oxford. I chose Oxford not because of its reputation (which I think is largely over-rated), but for three very specific reasons: students can go directly from a B.A. to a doctorate without first obtaining a Masters; students are not required to attend any classes, do any coursework, or take any written exams; and one's degree is based entirely on the quality of a written dissertation. I wanted to develop and perfect my ideas on love without being distracted by other requirements, so when I found out about the Oxford system, I thought "I might as well get a degree while I'm at it!" Fortunately, I was accepted by the Faculty of Theology.

I chose Theology because I had been a Religious Studies major in college and because the only philosophy class I had taken as an undergraduate was a required Introduction class that was extremely unenlightening--so much so that I had not yet realized that my own interest in what I now call "insight" was slowly transforming me into a philosopher. No sooner had my first supervisor read the paper I had previously written on love than he informed me of a major problem: my theory of love was based on a specific theory of human nature, yet I had largely ignored a 2500 year tradition of writing on the latter subject. When I asked what that tradition was, my supervisor answered: "philosophy".

In response to this revelation, I spent my first year at Oxford reading the original writings of 25 major western philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Heidegger and Wittgenstein. Of all the philosophers I read, only Kant seemed to express the kind of balanced and humble point of view I believed was correct. But when I began reading the secondary literature on Kant, I was shocked to discover that other readers did not think Kant was saying what I understood him to be saying. By the end of my third year, when my thesis was already two-thirds written, I decided the issues relating to Kant were so important that they had to be dealt with first. So, much to my supervisor's surprise, I changed my topic to Kant, and put love-and-human-nature on the back burner indefinitely.

By the end of my seven years in Oxford, I was convinced (thanks to my studies of Kant) that I am a philosopher and that teaching philosophy would be the best way for me to fulfill my calling to encourage others to learn to have insights for themselves. Ironically, I had no degree in philosophy and had only ever taken one philosophy class. The odds were against me. But Providence smiled upon me at just the right time, and I was offered an ideal position teaching in a Religion and Philosophy Department at a university in Hong Kong, where I still am twelve years later.

Tammie: You coined a new term, "philopsychy." What does this mean and how might it better serve us?

Stephen: The word "philopsychy" is simply a combination of the first half of the words "philosophy" and "psychology". The word "philo" means "love" in Greek, and "psychy" means "soul". So "philopsychy" means "love of the soul" or "soul-loving".

I coined the word for two reasons. First, I noticed a significant degree of overlap between the interests of some philosophers and some psychologists--namely, those in both disciplines who view their scholarship as a means of increasing self-knowledge. The second reason is that many philosophers and psychologists practice their discipline in ways that actually work against the ancient "know thyself" maxim. In the twentieth century we have witnessed the strange phenomenon of philosophers (literally "wisdom-lovers") who no longer believe in "wisdom" and psychologists (literally "ones who study the soul") who no longer believe human beings have a "soul". Instead, the former see their task as nothing more than (for example) performing logical analysis on word usage, while the latter see their task as nothing more than (for example) observing people's behavior and assessing it in terms of empirical principles such as stimulus-and-response.

The new word is needed to enable the former type of philosophers and psychologists to distinguish themselves from those who do not believe in ideals such as wisdom-loving or soul-studying. It also has two secondary implications.

First, the word will prove to be especially useful to people like me, who find themselves interested in both philosophical and psychological methods of gaining self-awareness. Second, it can also be put to use by anyone who wishes to gain self-knowledge, even if they are not professional philosophers or psychologists.

Many (if not most) members of the Philopsychy Society, for example, fall into this category. There are scientists, scholars of religion, poets--you name it. Anyone who believes the path to self-awareness requires "care for the soul" (one's own and others') and is committed to developing a deeper understanding of how this works can be referred to as a "philopsycher".


Tammie: You've asserted that the work of both philosopher, Immanuel Kant, and psychologist, Carl Jung, are in many respects Philospychic, I'm hoping you might elaborate on that.

Stephen: I first became aware of and interested in Jung's psychology while I was studying in Oxford. I became good friends with a priest who had studied Jung's writings in depth. As I shared with him my growing interest in Kant, he shared Jung's ideas with me. We both soon realized that the two systems have many deep values in common, even though they deal with very different aspects of human life. In his youth Jung actually read a considerable amount of Kant's writing and accepted Kant's basic metaphysical principles as the philosophical foundations of his own psychology. There is plenty of evidence for this; but the relevant passages are scattered so evenly throughout Jung's voluminous writings that they are easily overlooked by most readers.

In a nutshell, Kant and Jung are both philopsychers because they both have (1) a deep interest in both philosophy and psychology and (2) a desire to apply their insights in these fields to the task of self-knowledge. They both exhibit "soul- loving" tendencies in so many ways that I couldn't hope to give an exhaustive summary here. But a few examples should suffice to clarify the sort of thing I'm thinking of.

Kant's philosophical project was motivated to a large extent, I have argued, by his interest in the phenomenon of "spirit-seeing". He saw a direct analogy between a mystic's cla rel="nofollow" href="http: to have an objective experience of a spiritual world and a philosopher's cla rel="nofollow" href="http: to construct a system of metaphysical knowledge. Kant believed human beings have souls, but thought it is a dangerous illusion to think this can be proved. Kant's first Critique, where he develops this view in most detail, is sometimes interpreted as a rejection of metaphysics; but in fact, it is an attempt to save metaphysics from an overly logical (unloving) approach that cla rel="nofollow" href="http:s to establish scientific knowledge of God, freedom, and the immortality of the soul. By demonstrating that we cannot know the reality of these three "ideas of reason" with absolute certainty, Kant was not rejecting their reality; rather, as his second Critique makes clear, he was attempting to transform metaphysics from a head-centered discipline to a heart-centered discipline. In this sense, the overall character of Kant's philosophy can be seen to be soul-loving.


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Jung says he read Kant's 1766 book, Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, at "just the right time" in his own development. He was training to be a psychiatrist at a time when medical students were indoctrinated into a reductionistic, deterministic, and naturalistic way of understanding disease. Yet he had a firm belief in the soul. Kant's philosophy helped Jung to maintain an intellectually honest (heart- centered) belief in metaphysical ideas that were being rejected by many of his colleagues. As a result, he developed a psychology that did not seek to reduce the soul to something non-metaphysical, such as sex (as in Freud's psychology).

Jung's psychology is more philosophically-informed than Freud's (and the systems developed by many other psychologists, such as Skinner). Like Kant, he is a philopsycher because his scholarly research and the system he developed honor the mystery of the human soul. Love thrives on mystery, but is vanquished by cla rel="nofollow" href="http:s to absolute, scientific knowledge.

Tammie: You've written that, "first, wisdom requires us to recognize that there is a boundary between our knowledge and our ignorance...Second, wisdom requires us to believe it is possible, despite our necessary ignorance, to find a way to break through this very boundary line. ..Finally, then, the new lesson is that we only really begin to understand what wisdom is when we recognize that, even after we succeed in breaking through our former limits, we must return to our original home. However, there is a crucial difference between our original state and our state when we return: for we now have some awareness (even if we cannot call it "knowledge") of both sides of the boundary..." Your observations really resonated with me and I thought of Joseph Campbell's myth of the "hero's Journey" as I read. I was hoping you could elaborate a bit more on the journey that might lead one to a greater awareness of "both sides of the boundary."

The passage you quote is from the opening chapter of Part Three in The Tree of Philosophy. In that chapter I am trying to provide the reader with some insight into what it means to pursue (or "love") wisdom. The key is to recognize that wisdom is not something predictable, something we can know in advance like the outcome of a mathematical calculation or of a simple scientific experiment. Socrates went to great pains to emphasize that the wisest stance human beings can take is to admit that we do not know what wisdom entails in any given situation. His point (in part) is that if we already possessed wisdom, we would not need to love it. Philosophers who cla rel="nofollow" href="http: to possess wisdom are actually not philosophers (wisdom-lovers) at all, but "sophists" ("wisdom"-sellers, where "wisdom" must remain in quotes).

Because wisdom isn't predictable, I'm reluctant to say much about how my conception of wisdom can lead a person to greater awareness. What I can say is that in The Tree I give three extended examples of how this might work: scientific knowledge, moral action, and political agreement. In each case there is a "traditional" interpretation that sets up a "boundary", giving us genuine assistance in understanding the topic in question; but it is transcended by another philosopher who believes the boundary, if made absolute, does more harm than good. My argument is that the wisdom-lover will take the risk of going beyond the boundary in search of wisdom, but will not regard limitless wandering as an end in itself. Returning to the boundary with the new insights obtained is, I argue, the most reliable way to search for wisdom.

You may have noticed that in Part Three I never actually explain *how* to "return to the boundary" in each case. When I come to this part in my lectures, I tell my students that I have deliberately left out such an explanation, because each of us has to work this out for ourselves. Wisdom-loving is not something that can be put into "kit" form. Neither is insight. We can prepare ourselves for it; but when it hits us, insight often comes in a form we never would have expected beforehand.

Respecting boundaries while at the same time being willing to risk going beyond them when necessary is a key concept of philopsychy as I understand it. Philopsychers (soul-lovers) will therefore not only be scholars, but will be people who attempt to put their ideas into practice. Kant and Jung both did this, in their own very different ways. So do I. But just how each philopsycher does this is not something that can be generalized.


Tammie: From your perspective, how do you define wholeness as it relates to human beings?

Stephen: Wholeness is not something that can be defined. Or at least, a definition would end up looking so paradoxical that nobody could possibly make sense out of it. That's because the definition would have to include all opposites (all conceivable human qualities) within it. Instead of talking about how wholeness can be defined, I prefer to talk about how wholeness can be achieved--or perhaps more accurately, "approached".

As a philopsycher, I see wholeness (the goal of all wisdom-seeking) as a three-step process of self-knowledge. The first step is intellectual and corresponds to the kind of self-awareness philosophy can help us to obtain; the second step is volitional and corresponds to the kind of self-awareness psychology can help us to obtain; and the third step is spiritual (or "relational") and corresponds to the kind of self-awareness we can only obtain by reaching out to others and sharing ourselves in acts of loving communion. Two of my books, The Tree of Philosophy and Dreams of Wholeness, are based on the lectures I used to give for two classes I regularly teach that a rel="nofollow" href="http: to help students to learn the first two steps. I plan to write a third book, probably to be entitled The Elements of Love, that will be based on the lectures I am giving in a course I am now teaching for the first time on the four philopsychic issues of "Love, Sex, Marriage, and Friendship".

Erich Fromm expressed a basic philopsychic principle when he said: "Only the idea which has materialized in the flesh can influence man; the idea which remains a word only changes words." In the same way, human beings cannot achieve or even approach wholeness merely by reading books. Philopsychers are scholars (or any thoughtful human beings) who are keenly aware of the need to put their words into practice and to draw their words from their practice. This suggests a good metaphorical way of answering your question: for a person who is genuinely on the path to wholeness, the "word" will be "made flesh".


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Stephen Palmquist is an Associate Professor in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Hong Kong Baptist University in Kowloon, Hong Kong, where he has taught since earning his doctorate from Oxford University in 1987. Prior to that he completed a B.A. at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. In addition to compiling various computerized reference works and publishing approximately forty journal articles (mostly on Kant's philosophy), he is author of Kant's System of Perspectives: An architectonic interpretation of the Critical philosophy (University Press of America, 1993) and the first of three projected sequels, Kant's Critical Religion (forthcoming). In 1993, Palmquist set up a publishing company, Philopsychy Press, with the a rel="nofollow" href="http: of "spreading the truth in love" through the support of scholarly self-publishing. In addition to assisting other scholars in publishing their work, he has used this imprint to publish four of his own books: The Tree of Philosophy: A course of introductory lectures for beginning students of philosophy (three editions: 1992, 1993, and 1995), Biblical Theocracy: A vision of the biblical foundations for a Christian political philosophy (1993), Four Neglected Essays by Immanuel Kant (1994), and Dreams of Wholeness: A course of introductory lectures on religion, psychology, and personal growth (1997). Palmquist is also the architect of an award winning web site, featuring special sections on Kant and self-publishing, in addition to etexts for most of his writings and a more detailed biography . The site supports an internet-based organization for author-publishers, the Philopsychy Society, as well as a page describing Palmquist's books in more detail and an online order form.

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APA Reference
Writer, H. (2008, November 27). Psychology, Philosophy, and Wisdom, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 16 from https://www.healthyplace.com/alternative-mental-health/sageplace/psychology-philosophy-and-wisdom

Last Updated: July 18, 2014

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