|Interview With Professor Michael Pakaluk
By Genevieve Pollock
ARLINGTON, Virginia, 6 OCT. 2009 (ZENIT)
In an institute founded only
a decade ago, scholars are gathering in a quest to remedy an age-old
problem: the disintegration of psychology and philosophy, science and
Michael Pakaluk is one of these scholars, a philosophy professor who
teaches at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences.
He is the author of many scholarly articles and several books, including
the Clarendon Aristotle volume on books VIII and IX of the Nicomachean
Ethics (1998), and "Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics: An Introduction"
(Cambridge, 2005). His most recent book, "The Appalling Strangeness of
the Mercy of God," is forthcoming with Ignatius Press.
In this interview with ZENIT, Pakaluk speaks about an integration
project currently under way at the institute, which is bringing together
psychology, philosophy and theology in both a theoretical and practical
ZENIT: What is the project of "integration" that is being pursued at the
Institute for the Psychological Sciences?
Pakaluk: "Integration" at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences
means simply the study of psychology with confidence in the harmony of
faith and reason.
Clearly, that sort of "integration" can be sought within any discipline,
although it is most important
and potentially the most fruitful
in areas such as philosophy and psychology, which deal with fundamental
realities for human life.
John Paul II once remarked in an address to psychiatrists that "by its
very nature, your work often brings you to the very threshold of the
If one adds to this, as an additional premise, the famous statement of "Gaudium
et Spes" that "it is only in the mystery of the incarnate Word that the
mystery of man is brought to light," it follows by a kind of syllogism
that psychology is unavoidably integrative in this sense.
ZENIT: If that's what "integration" means, why is the Institute for the
Psychological Sciences unique? Isn't integration what every Catholic
psychology program should be attempting?
Pakaluk: When people used to praise Mother Teresa for being a "living
saint," she would downplay this and insist that she was only doing what
any Christian should be doing.
Likewise, although people praise the Institute for the Psychological
Sciences for its uniqueness, it's correct to say
that we are only attempting to do what every psychology department in a
Catholic university should be doing.
And yet these psychology departments are not doing that. If you don't
believe me, go to the Web sites of the well-known, historic Catholic
universities, and see how the psychology departments there describe
I was shocked when I tried this the other day for a very famous
university. First, the Web site gave a very inadequate definition of
psychology, as "the science of human behavior." Then, in the three-page
description of the program, one could find not a single word about
Christ, man as made in the image of God, the Church, or the Christian
understanding of the human person. Not a single word.
I then checked every biography of the 20 or more professors in the
department, where they described their interests and their research
and, again, not a single word about the Catholic faith.
It wasn't that the professors weren't relating psychology to other
areas. One professor's research related psychology to multiculturalism;
another connected psychology with work on hormones; another looked at
relationships between psychology and feminism; and so on. So they
endorsed the principle that psychology is profitably integrated with
But apparently the view of the human person which has been developed in
Catholic thought is not one of those areas.
Here's a good way of grasping what the Institute for the Psychological
Sciences is like. I've known or been a part of seminars held during the
summer, where Catholic graduate students and professors in some academic
discipline come together for a week or two to discuss connections
between the Catholic faith and their discipline.
Invariably, the participants say with great excitement that these were
among the most invigorating and interesting weeks in their lives
where all kinds of new ideas were suggested in a spirit of true creative
At the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, we aim to make that
sort of conversation the rule and not a rare exception.
ZENIT: It sounds like the integration pursued at the Institute carries
along with it a distinctive view of the human person. Can you say more
Pakaluk: Yes, at this institute we reject any sort of reductionism,
which holds that a human being is "nothing but" an animal or a
biological machine; and we affirm in contrast that we have free will and
a distinctive power of rationality.
We reject that human beings are autonomously individualistic and hold
instead with Aristotle and the ancients that we are by nature relational
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we reject Cartesianism, which
holds that a single human being is in fact a composite of two distinct
substances, a body and a mind, and hold that it is important always to
see the human person as embodied.
We believe that it is important for a clinician not merely to have
expertise in particular sciences of man
such as neurology and ethology
but also to acquire an understanding of human nature itself, of the sort
that perhaps only skilled novelists attain today, if they are really
Walker Percy writes something about this: "The proper study of man is
man, said Pope. But that's a large order, especially nowadays, when
there is no such thing as a study of man but two hundred specialties
which study this or that aspect of man."
One aspect of integration, then, is to arrive at a grasp of the whole
reality of the human person by arriving at a grasp of human nature.
ZENIT: Is this integration only theoretical, or is it practical as well?
Pakaluk: Yes, of course, just as Christianity is dogmatic but also
implies a way of life, and a way of relating to others.
It should be said that the clinical focus of the Institute for the
Psychological Sciences assists this project of integration: The goal of
clinical practice is the mental health of the whole person who is the
client; thus, the whole person and not some fragment needs to be taken
Integration even calls for a new way of pursuing science and putting it
to practical work. When I teach "The Abolition of Man" to students here
at the institute, I point out the passage in Lewis's third lecture where
he calls for a "new Natural Philosophy," which is such that "when it
explained it would not explain away," and "whose followers would not be
free with the words only and merely
and I tell them that at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences we
are attempting to study one natural reality, at least, in this way.
ZENIT: The Institute for the Psychological Sciences is celebrating its
10th anniversary this year. That's an important milestone, and yet the
Institute has a relatively short history, considering the fact that
psychology has existed for hundreds of years. Why have Catholics, it
seems, been so slow to take up this task of integration?
Pakaluk: It's true that some Protestant programs in psychology, such as
at Fuller Theological Seminary, have been speaking of "integration" now
for several decades. Yet it's not that Catholics in contrast have been
Recall that generally for the learned world, until relatively recently,
psychology was regarded as a branch of philosophy. Psychology acquired
an autonomy only through the development of empirical methods which
seemed to be distinctive to it; and also, curiously, on account of the
influence of Freudianism, which held that the unconscious, because of
its non-rationality, was precisely not tractable by philosophy.
Catholic thinkers could hardly embrace the view of human beings endorsed
by behaviorism, which was the direction that empirical psychology was
taking, or Freudianism, and so the traditional view that psychology is a
branch of philosophy survived longer in Catholic circles.
This view was demolished, however, when in the '60s Thomism was for
better or worse rejected by Catholic universities as the main organizing
framework for knowledge. Since then there has been a "disintegration" of
psychology and philosophy
which the Institute for the Psychological Sciences has lately tried to
ZENIT: Your own expertise is in classical philosophy, especially
Aristotle's ethics. How does your expertise fit in with what the
institute is trying to do?
Pakaluk: The connection between Aristotle's ethics and clinical
psychology might seem remote.
Yet actually Aristotle's ethical theory proves to be highly relevant to
An entire new movement in clinical psychology, called "positive
psychology," is based essentially on a view of the virtues similar to
that found in Aristotle: It maintains that psychologists, to their
detriment, have paid too much attention to mental illness, and not
enough attention to the modes of human flourishing
which can provide a kind of safeguard against mental illness.
Also, Aristotle's theory of friendship corresponds to a deficiency in
Thomistic "rational psychology" as traditionally expounded. Thomism is
excellent at identifying the "constitution" of human nature
its powers, habits, and operations
but, frankly, it is deficient in discussing those things that are most
important for mental illness, that is, development and relationships.
One might also add that one aspect of the integration sought at the
Institute for the Psychological Sciences is between ancient and modern;
certainly the institute wishes to take account of the classical view of
psychology as "the study of the soul."
ZENIT: Are Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas something like the official
philosophers of the institute?
Pakaluk: No, we have no official philosophers, and we are definitely
Aristotle and Aquinas are important, but Augustine and Edith Stein no
less so, and then too we encourage students to take what they can from
less systematic, more intuitive thinkers such as Victor Frankl, Walker
Percy, and even G.K. Chesterton.
When all is said and done, perhaps the most important philosopher for us
is Karol Wojtyla, insofar as his "Love and Responsibility" provides what
I think is the best single example of the sort of integrative approach
we are aiming at.
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On the Net:
Institute for the Psychological Sciences: http://ipsciences.edu/