The Lyonnais teacher’s answer key
In the text under study, the philosopher and mathematician Cournot addresses the theme of scientific knowledge, more particularly that which has as its object the human mind: psychology. The term comes from the Greek psychè which designates the soul and logos, which means reason, study. His thesis is that psychology based on inner observation cannot satisfy the conditions of objectivity of science.
A science is a knowledge which establishes from factual observations, laws valid for the entire experience. For example, Newton, observing the position of the stars in the sky, establishes that the attraction of bodies varies according to the product of their mass, and inversely according to the square of their distance. Is a similar approach possible in psychology?
On the one hand, I can have access to the facts of consciousness through introspection, but it must be recognized that this means of access is specific to me, singular, and therefore unfit to serve as a foundation for a scientific theory (which goes beyond the singular to reach the universal).
On the other hand, if I refuse introspection, it seems that I am blocking my only access to understanding the human mind. Therefore, the question is: is introspection a scientific method? The challenge is twofold: it concerns the status of psychology in particular, and of science in general.
The text is constructed according to four moments
First of all, Cournot establishes that the observation, must be able to be reiterated under identical conditions to be scientific (From “so that an observation” to “which inevitably affects our empirical determinations”). However, this is not enough: there must also be no interference between the observing subject and the observed object (From “It is also necessary” to “observed fact”). These two conditions of scientific observation being posed, Cournot will show that empirical psychology lacks objectivity (from “Nothing like” to “works of nature”), and that it cannot take its place in the procession of science (end of text).
Initially, Cournot determines the conditions of a scientific observation: it must be repeatable under identical circumstances.
This methodological observation is based on a certain idea of science.
The scientific method proceeds by hypotheses and experiments. The experiments confirming the hypothesis. Cournot is a contemporary of Claude Bernard, who in 1848 identified the glycogenic function of the liver. While washing the liver of a dog killed after eating, Claude Bernard finds that his liver contains sugary blood. But to be sure that this sugar is produced and not simply stored by the liver, the scientist decides to clean the liver and test its sugar level a few hours later, the liver having been deposited in water. The experiment confirms the hypothesis: a few hours later, there is again sugar in the liver. One could quite imagine a control experiment in which a dog would have been sacrificed without having it eaten before: there would have been no sugar, or not as much, in the jar. This method, called ceteris paribus (all other things being equal) is fundamental in science, it guarantees the reproducibility of the results, and therefore the value of the theory which explains them.
This methodological observation is based on a philosophical principle: the induction, or passage from a quantity of general observations to a universal law. By repeating an experiment a certain number of times, I observe that an event A is always followed by an event B. For example, when nickel, iron, silver are heated, they expand. From this constant conjunction, I induce a necessary causality: I pass from “B always follows A in my experiments” to “A causes B in general”: from “in the experiment the dilation always follows the heating of the metal” to ” heat is the cause of the expansion of metals”. Thus, science works by passing from a certain (even large) finite and particular number of observations to the elaboration of universal laws.
Secondly, Cournot rules out a possible problem: the objectivity of the experiment comes from the fact that it is not parasitized by the experimenter, which guarantees the truth of the results.
For the experience to be objective, the observer must not interfere with it. Indeed, one could quite imagine an astygmatic astronomer who would see the stars in a form not circular but elliptical. The experiment which consists in pointing the telescope, let us say on alpha of the centaur, would be reproducible all other things being equal. It would give this result which is as constant as it is disconcerting: a star can have the shape of an egg, and not of a sphere. However, we would then typically be in the case ruled out by Cournot: the information received would be more information about the subject making the observation than about the object of this observation.
The aim of scientific observation is therefore to arouse “confidence in the constancy and in the intrinsic truth of the observed fact”. “Constant”, the fact observed repeatedly can found an induction, on the basis of the principle that the same causes produce the same effects. What is a true fact? It is a fact which is well established, which is distinguished from an illusion or an error of observation. There is a hint in the text, which allows for the fact of illusion or error of observation. To be sure that what is observed depends on the observed object and not on the observing subject, there is only one method: to vary the observers. Let’s go back to our example of the astygmatic astronomer. It will suffice to repeat the observation by different observers to see that Alpha Centauri is not ovoid, but spherical. In other words: the truth comes from the objectivity of observation, that is to say from the conformity of what is said, “the star is round” to what is, the real form of the star. This truth emerges not from an isolated observer subject (who could be astygmatic) but from the comparison of observations made by several subjects: “the confidence […] in the intrinsic truth [objective] of the observed fact” is therefore intersubjective.
On the strength of these first two moments, Cournot opposes in a third time, more polemical, to empirical psychology.
The observations obtained by introspection, which form the basis of this theory, are neither repeatable because “fleeting”, nor independent of the observer, because “essentially variable with individuals”.
Cournot’s observation on the fleeting nature of our ideas shows that it is very difficult to repeat the emergence of a thought, all other things being equal. The recourse to the thought of Nietzsche can clarify this point : “a thought comes when it wants, and not when I want” (Beyond Good and Evil, §17). We are never quite in control of the associations of ideas that we make, of what takes place on the stage of our consciousness. The causes of the emergence of any idea are so numerous that it is in reality impossible to isolate them in order to be able to reproduce this emergence “all other things being equal”. In other words, an idea is the hazardous product of the encounter between a multitude of chains of causes, a chance that cannot be reproduced experimentally: if I think of a canary on the morning of January 12 at 9:26 am, it may be because that the dress of the one I’m walking next to has a yellow detail, that I saw a wildlife documentary on January 6, that I like birds. But who tells me that this same yellow, seen a week later, will not remind me of a daisy? As we can see, the excessive complexity of psychological facts prevents their reiteration “all other things being equal”, and thus their understanding under universal laws.
In addition, “the role of observer and subject of observation”, the observer and the observed being identical in introspection, there is a paradox specific to scientific introspection. When I observe something, I acquire a memory of that thing. This memory enriching my memory transforms me and alters me. Also, the one who observes himself is transformed by this observation: is it then really him whom he observes? There is no independence between the subject and the object of the observation. In doing so, it is impossible to distinguish between what we are right to observe, and what is only due to the illusion of the subject who observes. Let’s take another example from earlier: it was enough to vary the number of observers of Alpha Centauri to overcome the problems of subjectivity (the possible visual defect). But precisely, since introspection can only be carried out by a single person, it is impossible to overcome the subjectivity of the observer.
Empirical psychology cannot therefore satisfy the conditions of science because its experiments are not objective and capable of giving us universal laws, but subjective and singular.
In a last moment, Cournot broadens the question to all of the sciences by showing that what gives confidence in a scientific theory, it is the agreement of the greatest number as to the reality of the facts which compose it.
It is necessary here to distinguish the data according to their origin: whether they come from an internal sense (introspection) or from the external senses (the five senses).
If empirical psychology cannot be a science, it is because one is never obliged to find in oneself the observation made by another, who practices introspection. Also, the discoveries “made by a philosopher in the depths of his conscience” have value only for those who find them in themselves. The third moment of the text had shown that these observations could only be found by very great chance in other people. Also, it is unlikely that the theories of these empirical psychologists can be called scientific.
Conversely, the other sciences give observations that can be verified by the greatest number, because they depend on the five senses, and therefore reliable. Indeed, contrary to the internal sense, the five senses do not necessarily act on the perceived object, which allows the independence of the subject and the object, as well as the reiteration of the experience, all things being equal by somewhere else.
Cournot’s argument, which applies at the end of the text to all the sciences, is the following: with the number of witnesses to a fact, increases the confidence that I can place in the observation that they make of it. In other words, the probability that an induction is true increases with the number of people who realize it, as much as the probability that it is false decreases. Cournot here, because he trusts in the senses, and in the agreement of many on the data of science, is what is called a realist.
In conclusion, this text criticizes the claim of certain philosophers to base psychology on introspection. Such a basis is not possible because it does not make it possible to reiterate the experience identically, nor to go beyond the subjective point of view. The other sciences, such as physics or biology, are precisely based on such repetition, and such going beyond, since they function by induction. We can have confidence in these sciences because everyone can reproduce their observations, using the appropriate instruments; the more people confirming these observations, the more likely they become. We can see in this text as a prefiguration of the thought of Karl Popper, who, at the beginning of the 20th century, will also criticize psychology, that of Freud this time, on the grounds that it is irrefutable and therefore unscientific, because We cannot oppose it with an experience that would contradict it.
 Here, a reference to Hume and the problem of induction would be valued.
 Not required for the baccalaureate: Cournot’s enemy in this text is in fact John Stuart Mill.
 The use of Nietzsche is not required for the baccalaureate, but it is an example of a link that could be made. We can at this time make a link with Freudian psychology, of course, with certain texts by Bergson on consciousness, following what has been seen in class during the year. The whole thing is to show a bit of philosophical culture, a certain ability to connect the dots.
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Metropolis of Lyon. Bac de philo 2022: discover the corrected text of Cournot by a professor from the Rhône
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