Critical Psychology Research Paper

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The term ‘critical psychology’ has been applied to various approaches to psychology which, in the last decades of the twentieth century, typically share hardly anything more than a resistance to so-called main-stream or traditional psychology, an affinity to the moral ingredient of the Marxist critique of capitalism, and an aspiration to fight for the oppressed and the excluded.

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Critical psychologies of whatever nuance are not connected to I. Kant’s critical philosophy or to neo-Kantian approaches to psychology despite the fact that one of the authorities of critical psychology, S. L. Rubinshtein, started out as a student of neo-Kantianism in Marburg.

One division in the heterogenous stream of critical psychologies is named Critical Psychology. This is a school of psychology that chose to spell its name with capital letters; it originated in the 1970s in West Berlin, and is centered around the work of K. Holzkamp. It describes itself as being Marxist–Leninist, scientific (in a Marxist sense), and critical of what it calls bourgeois psychology. Critical Psychology will be the primary object of this research paper as it is so far the branch of critical psychology with the most noticeable degree of social coherence and of theoretical consistency.

1. Origins And Early History Of Critical Psychology

The second half of the 1960s witnessed a rapid increase in the university student population in the Western world. The resulting tension and uneasiness combined with the televised atrocities of the Vietnam war to produce an international agitation for global revolutionary changes in a world engaged in Cold War. An important factor in the student revolt, especially in Germany, and also in the formation of critical psychology and Critical Psychology, was the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, a strain of Marxism embodied by T. W. Adorno, M. Horkheimer, H. Marcuse, and J. Habermas. Especially pertinent at universities was their critique of positivism in sociology and in other social sciences, and generally of positivism in the sciences as prominently advocated by K. Popper. The positivist emphasis on the priority of observable events and empirical data over hypothetical constructs and theoretical terms was criticized as a deceptive disguise for sinister theory, especially for reactionary ideology in the service of capitalism. Therefore the key reproach against positivism was its presumed lack of scientific relevance and of relevance for social change.

The Frankfurt School was not interested in the academic discipline of psychology. But psychology students watched the positivism controversy and applied it to their own field. A student Action Committee Critical Psychology disturbed the customary serenity of the congress of the German Society for Psychology at Tubingen in 1968, and, in order to coordinate various local initiatives, students met for a singular and tumultuous Congress of Critical and Oppositional Psychology in Hanover in 1969.

The term ‘critical psychology’ appeared for the first time as a book title kritische psychologie in 1969. This is an anthology compiled by Bochum university psychology students comprising pirated texts by T. W. Adorno, W. Reich, K. Holzkamp and others, and various resolutions exchanged at the Hanover Congress and at earlier occasions. Sold in many psycho-logical institutes, it established the term as a trademark for revolt, and stepped up rebellious behavior which few university teachers could stomach. The concept of critical psychology covered a multitude of different convictions, from an engagement for the weak and the betterment of society, to the use of psychology in a Marxist class struggle, to the conviction that psychology is unredeemably reactionary and should be dumped on the dungheap of history. Views of the future of psychology varied accordingly.

Among the few university professors who engaged in extended dialog with critical psychology students was Klaus Holzkamp (1927–95), holder of a chair of psychology at West Berlin’s Free University. He had, in 1964 and in 1968, published a critique of psycho-logical experimentation wherein he denounced the lack of criteria for the evaluation of the relevance of psychological experiments for psychological theory. He tried to improve the diagnosed situation by following the constructivist philosophy of science of H. Dingler, the most prominent European proponent of operationalism.

In an invited speech at the Berlin section of the German association of professional psychologists in 1968, Holzkamp applied the concepts of technical and emancipatory relevance, which he had taken from J. Habermas, to psychology and declared emancipatory relevance superior to all other forms of relevance. Through his discussions with critical students Holzkamp was introduced to an analysis of society and its dominance relations according to Marxist lines. In his collection of essays, Critical Psychology (Holzkamp 1972), he called his change in outlook the Critical-Emancipatory Turn of Psychology. Activity at the West Berlin psychological institute was characterized by studies in the history of psychology which strove to uncover its quality as a tool of oppression in the ongoing class struggle (Geuter and Mattes 1984), and by practical engagement for the underprivileged. This approach to the practice of psychologists remained what Holzkamp later called ‘voluntaristic,’ that is, appealing to the good will of psychologists and a willful decision for partisanship for the weak and needy.

As the antiauthoritarian and nonconformist student movement slowly became organized by political par- ties and splinter groups in the early 1970s, so were the critical psychologists. At the psychological institute in West Berlin, one faction drifted into the sphere of influence of the Marxist–Leninist party (SED) ruling East Germany (DDR) and its West Berlin vassal party (SEW); another faction gathered around Beijing- oriented Maoist lines; others become Trotskyites, while a good many remained nonaligned. The psychologists around Holzkamp enlisted in the Marxist– Leninist camp. They withdrew from dialog with other factions, fashioned their own publication outlets and, to emphasize their distinctness, from the middle of the 1970s spelled their field as Critical Psychology. This group has also been known as the Holzkamp school, or the Berlin critical psychologists, despite other critical psychologists protesting that it was merely one offshoot of a much broader critical psychology unjustifiably trying to usurp the appellation and to eclipse the other approaches. The Marxist–Leninist turn has led Critical Psychology indubitably away from Adorno, Critical Theory, and the New Left.

2. Creation Of Critical Psychology

Critical Psychology defines itself as a Marxist–Leninist psychology (Holzkamp 1983, p. 27). It looks toward the writings of K. Marx, F. Engels, and V. I. Lenin for orientation, and adopts as its scientific and epistemological foundation or superstructure dialectical materialism and historical materialism. It embraces as pioneering works in this kind of psychology the publications of the historicocultural approach devised during Stalin’s reign by L. S. Vygotsky and his disciples, in particular S. L. Rubinshtein and A. N. Leont’ev. These authors were de rigueur for prefaces to be considered ideologically impeccable in the psychology of the DDR and the USSR, even though few serious scientists paid more than lip service to the ideological superstructure.

Holzkamp’s turn away from critical-emancipatory psychology towards Critical Psychology became visible with his book on Sensory Cognition (1973) where K. Marx is the most often cited author, and Das Kapital provides the model of human consciousness as dependent on and determined by the material and historical foundation of economic and social practice. Traditional psychology, now named bourgeois psychology, however, is perceived as erroneously proclaiming the independence of consciousness from this material basis.

Critical Psychology had not only an ideological superstructure, but a rarely considered material basis as well, namely the chair of psychology at the Free University in West Berlin held by Holzkamp and the power and privileges that went with it. A German university professor is a civil servant, but at the same time enjoys a very high degree of academic freedom in research and in teaching, as guaranteed by the constitution. This freedom, however, may have one limitation: A professor of psychology is obliged to train and examine future psychologists according to the canon of the Examination Regulations.

Critical psychology’s critique of traditional or bourgeois psychology had purportedly unveiled the latter’s theoretical hollowness and its practical use as a weapon of the ruling classes against the proletariat. This brought Holzkamp into a ‘dilemma’ (1973, p. 13). He could either go on teaching and training in bourgeois psychology and thereby lose his credibility as a critical psychologist, or he could stop training psychologists altogether, limit himself to criticizing psychology and face the loss of his professorship and its benefits. He resolved this ‘fatal alternative’ (1973, p. 15) in a way that he thought allowed him to preserve critical credibility and to keep the material basis as well. He devised Critical Psychology, a new brand of psychology professedly consistent with the results of the critique of traditional psychology and also suitable as a foundation for the training of future practical psychologists.

Holzkamp and his co-workers had to prove that Critical Psychology could deliver. They formed a secluded group and started out to present to the public the various areas of psychology mentioned in the Examination Regulations according to Critical Psychology.

3. Organization Of The School Of Critical Psychology

Critical Psychology organized itself as a school of psychology with defined teacher–pupil relations and clear boundaries between insiders and outsiders. Its center was the chair of psychology occupied by Holzkamp, who was surrounded by assistants, doctoral students, and students. The notable names are gathered in the reader Critical Psychology (Tolman and Maiers 1991). The West Berlin case remained unique. Critical Psychology could never gain a similar foothold in another university institute.

A series of textbooks, Texte zur Kritischen Psychologie, started to appear in 1973. It was supplanted in 1977 by another series, Studien zur Kritischen Psychologie, which appeared in the publishing house of Marxist–Leninist orthodoxy. The journal Forum Kritische Psychologie began to appear irregularly in 1975, and was turned into a biannual journal in 1977. A congress of Critical Psychology was held in the West German university town of Marburg in 1977; further congresses, now named ‘International,’ were held there in 1979 and 1984, and a fourth congress, not ‘International,’ in Berlin in 1997.

The 1980s and 1990s seem to have been a time of stagnation for Critical Psychology. But steps were undertaken to introduce an international public to Critical Psychology (Tolman and Maiers 1991, Tolman 1994). The latest developments may be followed at

4. Themes And Topics Of Critical Psychology

Work done in Critical Psychology is to an uncommon degree conceptual work. Basic categories of psycho-logy are put under scrutiny in the so-called functional-historical analysis of categories with the aim of reconstructing them under more satisfactory conditions. Psychological categories (or rather what they contain), like perception, motivation, learning, emotion, cognition, are considered in their phylogenic, historical, and ontogenic evolution. At the end of this process, newly defined or rehabilitated categories are offered for the construction of an encompassing system of psychology.

Functional-historical analysis blends two things. One is C. Darwin’s theory of evolution. It is utilized mainly for armchair paleozoology and paleoanthropology, and amplified and revised by the other constituent, Hegelian dialectics in its specific modification formulated by K. Marx, F. Engels, and later luminaries of Dialectical Materialism like G. V. Plekhanov. Functional-historical analysis therefore includes controversial Marxist tools of thought like negation in nonconceptual matters (antithesis), contradiction as causal agent (thesis–antithesis clash), or qualitative leaps or transitions (resulting in syntheses as unities of opposites, and forming the new theses for more dialectics). Such qualitative leaps are, among others, the transition from prepsychical to psychical organisms, the differentiation of special psychical functions, the evolution of learning, and the emergence of the societal nature of human beings.

These tools of thought are usually disregarded in science. It is therefore difficult for the reader not trained in their applications to follow the train of cogitations in which they are used. It is also not feasible to paraphrase them adequately in nondialectical prose, and therefore it may be fitting to let Critical Psychology speak for itself. This is a summary of the five steps of the functional-historical method according to Holzkamp (1983, p. 78):

1. Identify the real historical dimensions within the preceding developmental stage of the organisms at which the quantitative transformation in question took place; that is, determine the ‘position’ that is dialectically ‘negated’ by the qualitative transformation and thereby bring the specificity of the new developmental stage into relief.

2. Identify in the external conditions the objective alterations that constitute the ‘environmental pole’ of the inner developmental contradiction that causes the new quality to emerge. Such alternations involve a ‘moderate discrepancy’ that, on the one hand, demands ‘compensations’ from the organismic system, yet is supportable within its capacity. If it is not, the overall organism–environment system collapses, the inner contradiction is turned into an external opposition, and its antipodes will no longer be mediated as ‘poles’ in further development.

3. Identify the change in function of the relevant dimension demonstrated in step 1 as the ‘organism pole’ of the developmental contradiction and with it the origin of the first qualitative leap, that is, the development of the specificity of the new function under the altered conditions. This dialectical negation of a previously prevalent function does not determine the overall process but, in a sense, still serves to maintain the system at the earlier stage.

4. Identify the change of dominance between the earlier function characteristic of the system’s maintenance and the new function, which then determines the specifics of the system. (This change presents itself as a discontinuous reversal of the relationship between two continuously changing dimensions.)

5. Identify the ways in which the overall development of the system is restructured and assumes new direction (that is, analyze the ‘specific-secondary alterations,’ and so on) after the qualitatively more specific function has become deter-mining for the system’s maintenance. With this identification of the qualitatively new dimensional structure, in which further qualitative transformations will occur, follows a return to the first step of the analysis but at a higher level. (Tolman and Maiers 1991, p. 39f.).

Categorial analysis leads to three characteristics of the human societal mode of existence: action possibility, action potency, and subjective situation. The latter is a personal assessment of one’s own action possibilities and of where one stands in a particular objective situation. This derivation leads to a novel understanding of subjectivity and of the famous quote from Marx: ‘The essence of man is conscious activity.’

In personality psychology and psychotherapy, Critical Psychology tries to utilize Freudian psychoanalysis. After a deft functional-historical analysis of its categories and of the fumbling efforts of Freudo-Marxists, it presents itself as the Marxist alternative to psychoanalysis.

The enthusiasm of early critical psychology to investigate the history and function of psychology is not followed by Critical Psychology. There is no critical historical analysis of the fate of psychology and psychologists in the USSR, especially during the times of Stalinism and anti-cosmopolitanism when Vygotsky initiated the historic cultural approach, and Rubinshtein and Leont’ev became its proponents. Nor is the practical application of psychology in the USSR or DDR, particularly in their armed forces and secret services, examined.

5. Critique Of Critical Psychology

There have been numerous controversies around Critical Psychology, among them the following.

Holzkamp and the not yet capitalized critical psychology came under attack by H. Albert and others (Albert and Keuth 1973) who championed a Pop-perian position for psychology and the social sciences. The ensuing debate in psychology reiterated the main positions of the positivism controversy between Popper and the Frankfurt school.

Holzkamp’s turn to Critical Psychology and the associated Marxist-Leninist position provoked the criticism of other tendencies in the spectrum of critical psychology. This resulted in a number of more or less ephemeral publications, the most accessible of which is edited by Busch et al. (1979). Points of criticism were the usurpation of the name ‘critical psychology,’ the political orientation on Marxist-Leninist lines, and a perceived retrocession to bourgeois conceptions of psychology.

Disapproval of Critical Psychology by psychologists working in the DDR could not be uttered before the collapse of Real Socialism and the Soviet empire. But then they could report that party officials reprimanded their local psychologists for staying aloof from party doctrine and advised them unpleasantly to follow the ideologically blameless example of Critical Psychologists.

6. Other Critical Psychologies

It is not appropriate to call Critical Psychology German critical psychology, as Teo (1998) does. There are and always have been other critical psychologists in Germany who have no affiliations with Critical Psychology. They gathered around the journal Psychologie und Gesellschaft, which was established in 1977 and renamed Psychologie und Gesellschaftskritik in 1978. Rexilius (1988) assembled some of the non-aligned voices.

An early voice in critical psychology was that of Peter Bruckner (1922–82). From 1967, he occupied the chair of psychology at the Technical University in Hanover. There was no professional training of psychologists. Bruckner did not publish systematic treatises on his view of psychology or on standard examination topics, but he authored a Social Psychology of Capitalism (1972), and papers on political psychology and on psychoanalysis (1983). Although he had some disciples, they did not organize a school.

A comparative portrayal of three early critical psychologies, Vygotsky’s, Holzkamp’s, and K. F. Riegel’s dialectical psychology, was published by Ijzendoorn et al. (1984).

There is a recent tendency in English-speaking countries for various New Left tendencies to rally under the name of ‘critical psychology.’ Information on present trends may be found in Fox and Prilleltensky (1997), Sloan (2000), the newly launched Annual Review of Critical Psychology (from 1999), the International Journal of Critical Psychology (from 2000), or the Critical Psychology website at Psych Main WebRing.htm.

It seems to be too early to extract consensus and divergence among the positions found here, although the Marxist moral critique of capitalism appears to be a pervasive constituent, not infrequently connected with the moral part of Lenin’s critique of imperialism. The theoretical pillars of Marxism, however, like the labor theory of value, the theory of class struggle as the motor of social change, the theory of the approaching collapse of capitalism, and dialectical and historical materialism seem to be losing plausibility lately.

7. Concluding Remark

The various critical psychologies present worthwhile case study material for research in the predicament of the discipline of psychology or the dialectics between psychology as a science and as a profession. When in the twentieth century psychology was hastily metamorphosed into a practical profession, the university institutes had to be converted from pure research institutions into training establishments—and they had to somehow cope with the egregious gap between the high-minded expectations of application-minded students and the comparatively limited amount of effective tools psychology had to offer. This left many students dissatisfied and a prey of neophilism.


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  2. Bruckner P 1972 Zur Sozialpsychologie des Kapitalismus: Sozial-psychologie der antiautoritaren Bewegung. EuropaischeVerlags-anstalt, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
  3. Bruckner P 1983 Zerstorung des Gehorsams: Aufsatze zur politischen Psychologie. Wagenbach, Berlin
  4. Busch T, Engelhardt W, Geuter U, Mattes P, Schulte D 1979 Zur Kritik der Kritischen Psychologie. Psychologie, Erkennt-nistheorie und Marxismus. Oberbaumverlag, Berlin
  5. Fox D, Prilleltensky I 1997 Critical Psychology: An Introduction. Sage, London
  6. Geuter U, Mattes P 1984 Historiography of psychology in West Germany: Approaches from social history. Storia e Critica della Psicologia 5: 111–26
  7. Holzkamp K 1972 Kritische Psychologie: Vorbereitende Arbeiten. Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verl, Frankfurt am Main, Ger-many
  8. Holzkamp K 1973 Sinnliche Erkenntnis—Historischer Ursprung und gesellschaftliche Funktion der Wahrnehmung. Athenaum Fischer, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
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  11. Ijzendoorn M H van, Veer R van der, Goossens F A 1984 Main Currents of Critical Psychology: Vygotskij, Holzkamp, Riegel. Irvington, New York
  12. Kritische Psychologie 1969 Fachschaft Psychologie, Bochum University, Germany
  13. Rexilius G (ed.) 1988 Psychologie als Gesellschaftswissenschaft: Geschichte, Theorie und Praxis kritischer Psychologie. West-deutscher Verlag, Opladen, Germany
  14. Sloan T (ed.) 2000 Critical Psychology: Voices for Change. St. Martin’s Press, New York
  15. Teo T 1998 Klaus Holzkamp and the rise and fall of German critical psychology. History of Psychology 3: 235–53
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