Psychology’s Recovery of its Proper Projects and Methods


  • Rom Harré


The contrast between a psychological and a biological study of a superficially similar phenomenon can be illustrated with the ‘cough’. The word is used generically for an explosive expulsion of air that clears the pulmonary passages. But this common meaning is set into two radically different conceptual and empirical frameworks. Imagine you are at a concert – Yo Yo Ma is approaching one the most delicate passages in the Elgar Cello concerto and you become aware of a mounting discomfort in the chest and a well nigh irresistible pressure to cough – eventually you cannot control it any more. This is the 'cough' in a biological framework of mechanisms and concepts. Consider this case – you are at the open door of colleague’s study and you see that she is earnestly advising an undergraduate. Rather than barge in you cough discretely to attract her attention. In the first case you, the person, have lost control of a biological mechanism, while in the second case you, the person, used a biological mechanism for a psychologically intelligible purpose. In the first case the cough has no meaning. In the second case its meaning is or ought to be clear. Note too, that different cultures may have different uses for the cough, just as different cultures have different uses for the smile.