Psychology Month Profile: Dr. Jim Cresswell and Dr. Thomas Teo, History and Philosophy of psychology

Dr. Jim Cresswell
Dr. Jim Cresswell
Dr. Thomas Teo
Dr. Thomas Teo

Dr. Jim Cresswell and Dr. Thomas Teo, History and Philosophy of Psychology

The History and Philosophy of psychology is long, broad, and a truly enormous field of study. A lot of it involves ‘big-picture’ thinking. We spoke to Dr. Jim Cresswell and Dr. Thomas Teo about how they see the ‘big picture’.

About Dr. Jim Cresswell and Dr. Thomas Teo

History and Philosophy of Psychology

“Think about zombie movies and zombie shows – zombies are literally subhuman. You can kill a zombie, you can mistreat it completely, they don’t have any rights. In fact, you have a duty to kill a zombie because they’ll take our way of life away.”

Dr. Thomas Teo is a faculty member in the Historical Theoretical and Critical Studies of Psychology program at York University. He has been active in the advancement of theoretical, critical, and historical psychology throughout his professional career. He started out with an interest in the history of racism, worked on the relationship between psychology and racism, and on the question of the degree to which scientific psychology can be a form of violence – which Dr. Teo refers to as ‘epistemological violence’ (epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge). Recently, he has been studying the re-emergence of ‘fascist subjectivity’, based on subhumanism and racism, and the idea of cultural supremacy that we can find in the West.

“Whereas racism can be based to a certain degree on science, for instance using numbers and graphs, the notion of people being subhuman can’t be. Subhumanism - think about zombies - is strictly a visual ontology [the branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of being]. You just “see” and know what a zombie is and you don’t need a scientific explanation for that. And it is like this for some people when they see, say, migrants coming to the border. They run, the “caravan”, they walk on foot with suitcases through snow to the border, to a place where they can’t gain “regular” access. It appears to be  “abnormal” behaviour, deviant from how ‘regular’ Americans or Canadians behave,. It shows visually that ‘they’ are not like ‘us’, that that are a class of subhumans. You can mistreat them, separate them from their families, throw them into cages.”

Dr. Teo suggests that, in fact, throwing them into those cages is a way to make them appear even more ‘subhuman’ to the general public. This stems from a long tradition of dehumanizing other people by portraying them as filthy, parasitic, dishevelled and desperate. Which is exactly how migrants will look after being kept in cages at the border without showers or soap or decent food, for weeks or months on end. He goes on,

“I’m basing this argument on two sources, one of whom is an American writer [Lothrop Stoddard] who wrote about the ‘underman’ which included ‘inferior races’, poor people, communists and Bolsheviks. The second source is an education manual by the SS in Nazi Germany that published a booklet with the actual title ‘Subhuman’. There was very little text; they just used pictures that contrasted human with subhumans: German versus Soviet soldiers; proper German versus Jewish mother; German versus degenerate art. It’s all visual, we can see that the ‘subhuman’ doesn’t have the characteristics of a full human being. They look to be in shambles, dirty, disorganized. It also means that anyone can become a subhuman. Not just Blacks and Jews but anyone who is an enemy of Germany – Churchill and Roosevelt were included. The concept of the ‘subhuman’ is a very malleable concept.  This concept of the ‘subhuman’ does not just mean that you’re less than others, it also means there is an imperative to do something about you. If you are a parasite, a cockroach, a rat, “I” have to exterminate you or remove you.”

Dr. Teo speaks a lot about ‘subjectivity’, suggesting the field of psychology needs to focus in this area a little more in order to make sense of the enormous amount of information we have gleaned from empirical studies over the decades. For example,

“We divided subjectivity into thinking, feeling, and willing. Then we divided thinking into attention, perception, cognition and memory. Memory can be divided into short-term, long-term, episodic memory. Then you look at how one small aspect in a subdivision of a subdivision relates to another small aspect. And it’s very difficult to relate this back to the whole, to a first-person perspective (subjectivity)”

Looking at the big picture is a mantra of those who work in the area of history, theory, and philosophy of psychology. Dr. Jim Cresswell is a professor at Ambrose University, and the Chair of the CPA’s History and Philosophy Section. In addition to his work in history and theory, his areas of expertise are social and cultural psychology, and immigration and adjustment in the context of community-based research. He too talks about the necessity of looking at the bigger picture.

“Psychology as a discipline is having to grapple with post-colonialism, which means talking about subtle but ubiquitous systemic biases against marginalized people of all sorts. We don’t exactly have the cleanest track record in psychology, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that we don’t have a lot of training in thinking about what our theories mean in terms of big picture issues like systematic discrimination. We’re often focused on supporting the individual and doing empirical work in the present moment, but psychologists find themselves in a kind of cultural milieu where a focus ‘just on what the science or data say’ about the individual is not cutting it like it used to. We need to grapple with how and why our empirical efforts worked really well for certain populations, but quite badly for others.”

Although these interviews were conducted several months ago, a lot of what Dr. Cresswell and Dr. Teo said at the time resonates particularly loudly today, especially for those ‘other’ populations who are having a pretty bad time with the recent abhorrent invasion of the Ukraine by Vladimir Putin, and the fascist-style propaganda and disinformation campaigns that have accompanied it. Dr. Teo describes ‘fascist subjectivity’ this way:

“You can have fascist politics with authoritarianism and disinformation and propaganda, and so on. Fascist subjectivity is an individual dimension. If I believe that wealth should not be shared with ‘the other’, and I provide racist or sub-human arguments or feelings for that, then I am entering fascist subjectivity. It is based on the idea that wealth should exclude ‘the other’ or that wealth can be extracted from ‘the other’. In classic fascist subjectivity I can go into other countries and extract wealth from ‘these people’ because they are inferior, they are sub-human, they are parasites. They even can be exterminated if they become a burden”

The global pandemic of the past two years is another example of society’s attitude toward human life. Dr. Teo makes a distinction between those who are dehumanized to the point where extermination is no big deal, and those who are dehumanized to the point where their deaths are no big deal – though the two are clearly two sides of the same coin.

“We have ideas about ‘kill-ability’ and ‘die-ability’. In classical Nazism, Jews are killable, so are Gypsys and homosexuals and enemies, and so forth. Because they are inferior races, or sub-human, they don’t have the same status that we have and there’s no problem with killing them. Die-ability is a more interesting concept, because it moves us from a more classical fascist subjectivity to its re-emergence in our time, where it applies also to liberal democracies. We have debates in this culture, especially during the pandemic, where people say the elderly might be die-able, people with pre-existing medical conditions might be die-able, people in prison and precarious workers are die-able. People have provided economic arguments for the die-ability of many of their fellow citizens: ‘If you want to maintain your way of life, and our economy, then we have to accept that certain people will die.’

In Canada, we have seen that for a long time. Indigenous people were considered killable, and an argument could be made that in many parts of the States Black people are still understood as killable, without consequences. Currently, in liberal democracies we really need to discuss the problem and reality of die-ability, the softer version of kill-ability in a fascist subjectivity.”

That subjectivity – based on a philosophy of big-picture thinking and overarching theories that attempt to connect a variety of schools of thought to one another – is not new. Dr. Cresswell says that psychology in its early years started out with a keen focus on subjectivity, but has drifted over the past century away from this kind of big-picture thinking. Only recently has a concerted effort been made to meaningfully bring this philosophy back into psychology.

“Early psychologists, James, Hall, and Piaget – to name a few – were about 100 years ahead of their time in terms of thinking about topics such as subjectivity, research, and pluralism. Behaviourism and cognitivism that came later moved away from some of that early thinking, which was broader and more systematic. When you go back and look at some of these early writers, you find a lot that’s pertinent to the discipline of psychology’s current context.

Psychologists in the 20th century largely focused on empirical work and shifted away from the theory that underlies that empirical work. The cultural turn started in the 90s brought about a conversation concerning the possibility that our work could be ethnocentric. The result is a recent shift where we’re now starting to pay attention to the theory that informs our research and what we think our observations mean.”

Although not ‘philosophers’ by the strictest definition, both Dr. Teo and Dr. Cresswell certainly speak more philosophically than do most psychologists. As students of history, they are also students of the evolving philosophy that informs the discipline today. As with big-picture thinking, Dr. Cresswell says that philosophical thinking in the realm of psychology started more than a century ago.

“It’s probably more accurate to look at figures such as Sigmund Freud, or William James, as theorists who outlined presuppositions about how to examine the world. In contrast, consider how first- and second-year textbooks will talk about them as researchers who have been disproven in the progress of science. We tell students that they can move on past them without raising questions about what counts as science according to whom it counts. This message is a bit of a problematic stance to take. If you take cognitive theory and examine behaviourism or psychoanalysis from your cognitive paradigm, behaviourism or psychoanalysis will always be ‘disproven’. If you look at cognitive theory through a lens of behaviourism or psychoanalysis, cognitive theory will always fail. My point is that we have to teach students to deal with background paradigms that set the conditions for our empirical work. So when a textbook says we’ve moved on past this or that, they’re actually missing the fact that psychology doesn’t have a clear progressive development as a unified discipline. We actually have multiple disciplines within it and we have to recognize there are different paradigms, which means training students on how to think about history and theory.”

There has been an uptick in interest of late to go back to some of the periods where these ideas rose to prominence – particularly, the turn of the 20th century, the 1960s, and the 1990s. I know, thinking of the 1990s in terms of ‘history’ might be a little disconcerting for some. Like, Alanis Morisette released Jagged Little Pill just a few months ago, right? (It was in fact 26 years ago today that she won a Grammy for that album. She is now 47.) Dr. Cresswell says that yes, indeed the 1990s are part of history.

“Consider Wilhelm Wundt, who’s credited with structuralism and the creation of the first psychological laboratory. Half of his work was about völkerpsychologie, which is basically the ‘psychology of the community and people’. There is value in going back to such cultural theory. Another body of literature that we see in history and philosophy today is the continental critiques and philosophy. People like Foucault and  the phenomenologists who partly enabled a birth of post-colonial thinking that largely happened worked outside the discipline of psychology, but there is value in understanding such theory in a milieu where we have to grapple with systematic injustice.”

The field of psychology is remembering, and learning from, its own history. Something we as a society should probably be doing a lot more as well. I’m reminded of another historic moment in pop culture, also from the 1990s – 1994, to be precise. A protest song released in memory of Johnathan Ball and Tim Parry, two men who were killed in the Warrington bombings carried out by the IRA the previous year.

“But you see, it's not me
It's not my family
In your head, in your head, they are fighting
With their tanks, and their bombs
And their bombs, and their guns
In your head, in your head they are crying”

  • The Cranberries, Zombie