Can psychology escape language?

That language is inescapable is an idea widely explored by seminal philosophers, semioticians and anthropologists. Freud was evidently inspired by some of them when he developed psychoanalysis at the turn of the 20th century. Vygotsky, in the Soviet Union, conceptualized language as being inherently linked with socially-constructed human though. Many decades later, Watzlawick and his colleagues rightfully argued that it is impossible not to communicate. These, and many other theoretical and methodological contributions have emphasized the key role of language to understand mind and behaviour, both at individual and collective level. Language is key, for example, to understand the workings of ideology: hegemonic symbols and meanings, and their potential for naturalization and normalization of oppression.

Even those who critique the occasional – and not so occasional – excesses of post-modern relativism might agree with two fundamental ideas proposed by Wittgenstein: incommensurable languages-games are all around us; and meanings vary depending on the way we use words in real life interactions.

The discipline of psychology claims to study mind and behaviour. But, is it seriously examining how culturally constructed symbols and meanings shape (inter) subjectivity? And a more dangerous question: is the discipline considering its own ideological function in the contemporary context of globalization? The way Ignacio Martín-Baró explored these issues in the 1980s was truly inspiring. Psychologists, he thought, need to “deideologize” everyday life, instead of collaborating – directly or indirectly – with the justification of social oppression by adopting an allegedly neutral role. Many contemporary critical thinkers agree with this view, framing the subject from diverse academic gazes. I recently had the pleasant experience of attending lectures by two of them: Ian Parker and Slavoj Žižek. I asked both a relatively similar question: if language is inescapable, then is it possible to make a critique to psychology without utilizing psychological language? Using psychoanalytical terms, for example, would not fully achieve this, as psychoanalysis is actually the “mother” of all psychologisation (see de Vos, 2012). I agree with the answer proposed by Ian Parker: “psy” language can be used reflexively and “tactically”, as a “tool to open up” hegemonic, unexamined assumptions around psychology and other “psy” disciplines. The same reflexive and strategic use applies, I would argue, to any linguistic code, including the use of medical, anthropological, sociological, or political language.

What seems to be clear is that language is, after all, unescapable: it builds our identity, mind and behaviour, and continues to shape them permanently. As put by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano:

“scientists say that human beings are made of atoms, but a little bird told me that we are also made of stories”

Yes, of course we are made of atoms, molecules, and brains. This is an obvious truth. But maybe, just maybe, it is language, meaning and culture which hold the key to understand a fundamental dimension of who we are. To take language seriously may help psychology – and other disciplines – to unpack what is it that makes us think, feel and behave in certain ways, in the context of our particular moral and political worlds. What would you say?

Some resources:

Capella, M., & Andrade, F. (2017). Hacia una psicología ecuatoriana: una argumentación intergeneracional sobre la importancia de la cultura y la glocalidad en la investigación [Towards an Ecuadorian Psychology: An Intergenerational Argument about the Importance of Culture and Glocality in Research]. Teoría Y Crítica de La Psicogía, 9, 173–195.

de Vos, J. (2012). Psychologisation in times of globalisation. London, New York: Routledge.

Gondra, J. M. (2013). A Psychology of Liberation for Central America: The Unfinished Work of I

gnacio Martin-Baro (1942-1989). Spanish Journal of Psychology, 16.

Parker, I. (2015). Handbook of critical psychology. London, New York: Routledge.

Žižek, S. (2017). The courage of hopelessness. London: Allen Lane/Penguin books.

Picture – British manuscript (circa 1300). Diagram of the brain based on Avicenna´s five cells scheme, which included “common sense”, “judging” and “imagination”, all inherently linked with language and meaning.

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