Psychology and Philosophy: Related But Different


The truth is that psychology and philosophy do have an origin story together. But they do have distinct differences.

Now, this topic was touched on in a previous post, but here is a more in-depth look at understanding the origins and differences of psychology and philosophy. Before going any further, let’s define both psychology and philosophy.

The American Psychological Association defines psychology as:

face silhouette with gears“The study of the mind and behavior. The discipline embraces all aspects of the human experience — from the functions of the brain to the actions of nations, from child development to care for the aged. In every conceivable setting from scientific research centers to mental healthcare services, “the understanding of behavior” is the enterprise of psychologists.”1

As for philosophy, the Florida State University, Department of Philosophy website defines it as:

“Quite literally, the term “philosophy” means, “love of wisdom.” In a broad sense, philosophy is an activity people undertake when they seek to understand fundamental truths about themselves, the world in which they live, and their relationships to the world and to each other. As an academic discipline, philosophy is much the same. Those who study philosophy are perpetually engaged in asking, answering, and arguing for their answers to life’s most basic questions. To make such a pursuit more systematic academic philosophy is traditionally divided into major areas of study.”2

The website goes on further to explain the major areas of study for philosophy to be:

  • Metaphysics: the study of the nature of reality.
  • Epistemology: the study of knowledge, what we can know and how we can know it.
  • Ethics: the study of the moral principles that impact right and wrong behavior.

To begin, it is probably safe to say that philosophy came before psychology and it probably started with the first human wondering, “Why are we here and where did we come from?” But when it comes to the formal recognition of the start of philosophy, that is a little tougher to pinpoint and has been vigorously debated over history.

“If philosophy is understood simply as the study of metaphysics and epistemology, of logic and ethics, of aesthetics and politics, or of any of these “branches” separately, then the onus of tracing her provenience becomes considerably lighter. We know, for example, that the Milesians, led by Thales, were making important investigations into nature as early as the seventh century B.C.; eastern teachers and prophets such as Lao-Tse, Confucius, and the Buddha were contemplating moral ideals and concepts during the sixth century B.C. The pre-Socratic philosophers (Heraclitus, Empedocles, Parmenides, Zeno) followed with their formulations and speculations, and in the wings were three of history’s most prodigious philosophical minds (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle).”2

It is relatively easy to see the connection between philosophy, the study of the nature of life, and psychology, the study of the mind, its behavior and function. And one could argue that there cannot be one without the other, but before jumping to hysteria about that comment, think about it: the act of questioning or studying the nature of life and reality (philosophy) is a result of one’s brain performing a function – and the study of how the brain functions and the resulting behavior is psychology. While this may be an extreme oversimplification, it is this kind of overlap that blurs both philosophy and psychology together and separates them at the same time.

Understanding the differences and similarities between philosophy and psychology helps in understanding what motivates us as human beings. Both subjects impact our behavior and how we react to life around us.

PsyD vs. PhD: What’s The Difference?

In exploring the academic pursuit of a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree and a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree, both PsyD and PhD doctorate programs train students to be licensed psychologists. And, while both degrees lead to becoming licensed psychologists, their areas of interest differ.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines the focus of PhD and PsyD degrees as follows:

“PhD degrees are intended for students interested in generating new knowledge through scientific research (i.e., setting up experiments, collecting data, applying statistical and analytical techniques) and/or gaining teaching experience. PhD graduate students receive substantial training in research methods and statistics in order to independently produce new scientific knowledge and are often required to produce a dissertation to demonstrate research competency. Students enrolling in PhD programs may also be interested in pursuing professional careers in applied work — such as health services, counseling in school settings and consulting in businesses and organizations in addition to research and academic work.”4

“The focus of PsyD programs is to train students to engage in careers that apply scientific knowledge of psychology and deliver empirically-based service to individuals, groups and organizations. Most programs require students to write a thesis or dissertation, and students may use quantitative or qualitative methodologies to demonstrate how psychological research is applied to human behavior.”4

It is interesting to note that the PsyD degree has only been available since the 1970s when it was created as an alternative to PhD degrees, which have been around since the middle ages.5 Students who were more interested in providing psychological services to those in need, now had their own category of study.

So, when it comes to philosophy and psychology, it is easy to see how they are intertwined. And while technically, they both seek to help human beings better understand themselves and ultimately be healthier and happier, they each have their own approaches or a means to an end.