Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Classics in Psychology

I have been teaching the course History and Philosophy of Psychology at the university for the last three semesters. Although I can never claim to be an authority on the subject, many of the issues covered are of great interest to my academic inquiry and personal curiosity. Most importantly, having spent many hours reading classical works in psychology; books written by Freud, Jung, James, Skinner, Maslow, Rogers, and Frankl, during my undergraduate years, I realised how important it is to read the original works of these luminous figures to have a better grasp of their scholarly ideas and thoughts. Textbooks attempt to compress and summarise thus what we often get are simplistic views that do not do justice to the complexity and sheer enormity of the thoughts of these great thinkers.

Take Freud for example; a man whose colourful background is matched only by his colourful ideas. In an earlier posting, I gave my views on why Freud will always be an important component in any psychology syllabus. That had to be argued because Freud is by far the most vilified figure in critical psychology. It’s fine to argue against his ideas but I certainly find personal attacks against him (drug addict, sex-maniac etc) distasteful. And I’m very sure anyone who has read any of Freud’s original work, though may still disagree with his ideas thereafter, would at least appreciate his detailed and sophisticated arguments.

In teaching History and Philosophy of Psychology, I have asked my students to read the classical works in psychology and compare their impression and understanding upon reading these primary sources with what they have understood about the same issues from their readings of contemporary textbooks. I am happy to note that some of the reviews and analyses produced were quite impressive. Most notably are the more fair and mature analyses from the Islamic perspective. Rather than cliché statements that these ‘Western’ psychologists are secular, atheist, anti-religion etc without ever trying to understand what they meant in the first place, I was very happy to note that some students were able to express intellectual arguments and even concede that some of these ‘Western’ psychological ideas are in fact Islamic.

Islamization of knowledge as propounded by both Al-Attas and al-Faruqi was never about labelling knowledge as Islamic or un-Islamic. It is a meticulous process of understanding and mastering a particular field of study as prerequisite before any attempt to criticise and challenge it. One cannot criticise something that one does not understand. The great Muslim scholar Al-Ghazali was a strong critic of Greek philosophy and he was able to do that with credibility due to his undisputed knowledge of philosophy. That therefore is the standard that we should aspire to achieve.

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