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Mentalism in Psychology, belief in the soul, and why it is a problem

Mentalism in Psychology, belief in the soul, and why it is a problem

May 26, 2024

Allan Paivio in the 1970s coined the concept of mentalism to refer to the use of the introspective method as a basic technique of scientific psychology. Subsequently, the term would be applied to any current of this discipline that focuses on the analysis of mental processes unobservable in an objective manner, such as traditional cognitivism.

In this article we will talk about the origins and historical development of mentalist psychology , including its most recent manifestations. As we will see, in this sense it is fundamental to understand the central role played by the behavioral paradigm throughout the 20th century.

  • Related article: "Dualism in Psychology"

Defining the concept of mentalism

The term "mentalism" is used in psychology to refer to the branches of this science that focus their efforts on the analysis of mental processes like thought, feeling, perception or emotion. In this sense, mentalism is opposed to the currents that primarily study the relationships between observable behaviors.


In this way we could include very different theoretical orientations within mentalism. The ones that are most commonly associated with the term are the structuralism of Wilhelm Wundt and Edward Titchener, the functionalism of William James and contemporary cognitivism, but psychoanalysis or humanism could also be seen as mentalism.

The word was popularized by the cognitivist psychologist Allan Paivio, known above all for his contributions in the field of information coding. This author used the concept "Classic mentalism" to refer to structuralist and functionalist psychology , who studied consciousness through the introspective method and subjectivity.


One of the most characteristic aspects of the proposals that are qualified as mentalists is that they oppose the understanding of psychological phenomena as a pure by-product of physiological processes , considering that this vision has a reductionist nature and obvious relevant aspects of reality.

For most mentalists, thought, emotions, sensations and other mental contents are in some way tangible. In this sense, we could understand the mentalist perspectives as successors of the Cartesian philosophical dualism , which is related in turn to the concept of the soul and which has influenced Western thought in a key way.

  • Related article: "The valuable contributions of René Descartes to Psychology"

From the introspective method to cognitivism

In its beginnings as a scientific discipline (late nineteenth and early twentieth century) psychology oscillated between the mentalist pole and the behaviorist. Most of the proposals of the time were located in one or other of the extremes, their authors were identified or not with the mentioned perspectives; in this sense the hegemony of the introspective method was key .


The birth of behaviorism as we understand it today is attributed to the publication of the book "Psychology as seen by the behaviorist" by John B. Watson, which took place in 1913. The father of behavioral orientation defended the the need to study exclusively the observable and objective aspects of the behavior of human beings.

In this way Watson and other classical authors such as Ivan Pavlov, Burrhus F. Skinner and Jacob R. Kantor they opposed those who conceptualized psychology as the study of consciousness . Within this category we find both the structuralists and the functionalists as well as the followers of psychoanalysis, who dominated psychology for decades.

The rise of behaviorism led to a reduction in interest in psychological processes, and in particular in consciousness. However, from the decade of the 1960s onwards, what we nowadays call "Cognitive Revolution" began to take shape, and that consisted simply in a return to the study of the mind through more objective techniques.

In the second half of the 20th century, cognitivism coexisted with radical Skinnerian behaviorism, the most successful variant of this perspective; however, it is clear that the "new mentalism" was much more concerned than the classic one because of objectivity . This trend towards integration with the scientific evidence as a basis has been maintained to this day.

Mentalism today

Despite the apparent opposition between the mentalist and behavioral perspectives, today we find combinations of both types of approach very commonly. As they have developed and have obtained solid empirical bases, the two theoretical currents have approached more or less spontaneously .

The most characteristic manifestation of modern mentalism is probably cognitive neuroscience. The object of study of this discipline are mental processes (including, of course, one's conscience); however, it is based on much more advanced and reliable techniques than introspection, such as brain mapping and computational modeling.

In any case, it is a debate that will not be resolved in the near future because it responds to a nuclear dichotomy : the one that occurs among psychologists who believe that this science should be dedicated above all to the study of observable behaviors and those that highlight the role of mental processes as entities susceptible of analysis in themselves.


Where Does Your Mind Reside?: Crash Course Philosophy #22 (May 2024).


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