The study of mind and behavior

Principal Metaphors

Psychology is more a “meta-discourse” than a “discourse.” For our purposes, and for reasons developed below, it might be conceived as an umbrella notion that reaches across virtually every discourse represented on this site. Consequently, it is impossible to home in on a single cluster of metaphors.


The word psychology appears to have emerged in the mid-1600s. It was derived from the modern Latin term psychologia “the study of the soul,” which was likely coined in the mid-1500s. Regarding modern meanings, the shift in meaning toward “the study of the mind” has been traced to the mid-1700s, and the emergence of the academic domain of “Psychology” unfolded in the late-1800s.


As noted above, Psychology is simultaneously a tightly focused academic domain concerned with the study of mind and behavior and a loosely structured network of discourses that are associated by virtue of a shared interest in mental phenomena. It turns out that, in both senses, Psychology is “all over the map” – for many reasons, including the necessarily paradoxical nature of its focal interests:
  • Psychological Universals (Walter Lonner, 1980s) – those mental features, traits, or phenomena that are experienced and recognized across all cultures. Psychological Universals constitute a core postulate of Psychology – which, in essence, is founded on the seemingly incongruous realizations that (1) all humans are similar and (2) all humans are different.
From its beginnings as a domain of scientific inquiry, there has been debate over the proper focus of study for Psychology:
  • Act Psychology (Intentionalism) (Franz Brentano, 1880s) – an approach to Psychology that focuses on the individual act (e.g., perception, mental representation, judgment, emotion, intention) as the proper focus of study – as opposed to the contents of consciousness
  • Content Psychology ­(Wilhelm Wundt, 1880s) – associated with the early influences of Structuralism, an attitude in Psychology that focuses on consciousness, including its contents, the relationship between those contents and experience, and introspective methods to study consciousness
In consequence, the field of Psychology is characterized by vibrant debates over both the content and the methods that define the domain. Regarding content, the poles are the debate are defined by:
  • Contentual Objectivism – the conviction that the content of Psychology should be observable and measurable behavior
  • Contentual Subjectivism – the conviction that the content of Psychology should mind, cognition, consciousness, and other phenomena that may or may not be directly observable
Regarding methods, the poles are the debate are defined by:
  • Methodological Objectivism (Robert Watson, 1950s) – the conviction that research (and research methods) in Psychology can and should be verified (e.g., through replication) by other researchers
  • Methodological Subjectivism (Robert Watson, 1950s) – the conviction that much of research in Psychology cannot be replicated – and, hence, the expectation that all research should be verifiable is not always appropriate
Attitudes that have been established between such poles of opinion include:
  • Empirical Psychology (Scientific Psychology) – the attitude in psychological research that relies on direct observation and experimental method. Subdiscourses include:
    • Experimental Psychology (Hard Psychology)– an approach to research associated with Empirical Psychology that relies on formal experiments conducted in laboratory or laboratory-like settings
    • Soft Psychology – a term, usually used within Empirical Psychology (and esp. within Experimental Psychology) as a criticism of those branches of Psychology that do not always embrace Empiricism with the same rigor and enthusiasm
  • Rational Psychology – an attitude in psychological research that relies on rational, deductive thought as its principal means to make sense of its phenomena of interest. Associated constructs include:
    • Speculative Psychology – a perspective on a psychological matter that is rooted in conjecture rather than empirical evidence
  • Metapsychology ­­(Signmund Freud, 1910s) – attentiveness to the assumptions that underlie and infuse any Psychology.
  • Philosophical Psychology – an attitude in psychological research that, for the most part, looks beyond matters of theory building and data gathering to engage with matters of worldviews, epistemologies, ethics, and so on in efforts to understand the relationship between theorical frames and practical actions
  • Statistical Psychology – in superficial terms, the use of statistical methods to gather and interpret data on cognition and behavior. More profoundly, Statistical Psychology is an instantiation of Probabilism (see Empiricism) in the academic study of humanity.
Predictably, very different attitudes and conceptions are represented among the theories generated in different branches of Psychology. The following contrast is especially cogent:
  • Factor Theory – a type of theory in which the phenomenon at hand (e.g., personality, intelligence, learning, etc.) is described in terms of discrete and measurable components. See, for example, Factor Theory of Intelligence (under Medical Model of (Dis)Ability), Factor Theory of Personality (under Personality Types Theories), and Factor Theory of Learning (under Behaviorisms).
  • Field Theory – a type of theory in which the phenomenon at hand (e.g., personality, intelligence, learning, etc.) is described in terms of patterns of evolving relationships among associated forms and across levels of organization. See, for example, Field Theory of Intelligence (under Social Model of (Dis)Ability), Field Theory of Personality (under Identity Discourses), and Field Theory of Learning (under Gestaltism).
With regard to the many foci of contemporary Psychology, the following are among discourses addressed on this site that have the word “psychology” in their titles (along with the entries where they can be found). The list is indicative of the range of interests in contemporary Psychology, but in no way exhaustive:


Relevant commentary can be found in the above sections of this entry. Re-emphasizing key points: Psychology is more a “meta-discourse” than a “discourse”; there are multiple, very diverse meanings, emphases, and attitudes associated with the word “psychology,” owing in part to historical branchings in intepretation; versions and subdiscourses of Psychology show up everywhere on our map.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

All over the map

Status as a Theory of Learning

The formal academic domain of Psychology is much more often seen and defined in terms of the study of mental phenomena – e.g., dynamics of learning, cognition, personality. That is, the definitions tend to me in terms efforts to interpret learning – and so, in terms of the contents of this site and in specific, with specific reference to the academic domain, Psychology might be construed as more about learning than teaching.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

A striking realization when examining the list of discourses that have "psychology" in their names (see above) is that many of those discourses land in the upper region of the map. Thus, in contrast to the point asserted in the previous subsection, there would seem to be grounds to assert that Psychology (writ large) might appropriately be construed as being as much about teaching as about learning.

Status as a Scientific Theory

We’ve coded Psychology as amber on our main map, indicating that the meta-discourses cannot be considered fully scientific. That assessment is based on considerations of all discourses that invoke the word, and the map below provides considerably more nuance. Many branches of Psychology are fully scientific, by our working definition. Others are decidedly unscientific.


  • Act Psychology (Intentionalism)
  • Content Psychology
  • Contentual Objectivism
  • Contentual Subjectivism
  • Empirical Psychology (Scientific Psychology)
  • Experimental Psychology (Hard Psychology)
  • Factor Theory
  • Field Theory
  • Metapsychology
  • Methodological Objectivism
  • Methodological Subjectivism
  • Philosophical Psychology
  • Psychological Universals
  • Rational Psychology
  • Soft Psychology
  • Statistical Psychology
  • Speculative Psychology

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Psychology” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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