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What Is Metapsychology?

By Emily Daw
Updated Feb 10, 2024
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Metapsychology is the study of the mind beyond the usual strictly scientific bounds of psychology. Sigmund Freud first used this word to refer to speculative or philosophical inquiries about psychology. In the later 20th and early 21st centuries, some psychologists argued that metapsychology was too speculative to be a fruitful area of study. Others, however, incorporated its ideas into a form of client-centered therapy, also known as person-centered therapy.

Freud, who is considered by some to be the father of modern psychology, defined metapsychology as the most abstract elements of the study of the mind. His famous theories about the Id, Ego and Superego, or the three "selves" that govern identity, form a part of metapsychology since they cannot be proven by empirical scientific study. Likewise, much of Freud's theorizing about the unconscious mind falls more into the realm of philosophy of the mind, rather than scientific inquiry.

Many later practitioners of psychology believed that the work of Freud and other metapsychological speculators, while historically significant, was not objective or verifiable, and therefore not a profitable method of studying the mind. These psychologists sometimes argued that metapsychological views about the way the mind works are too far removed from either the empirical study of psychology or its practical applications in counseling to be useful. According to some, the Id, Ego and Superego might be interesting theories, but their existence has little to no bearing on practical psychology since they cannot be tested.

Behaviorist models, whose practitioners were particularly suspicious of metapsychology, dominated much of the field of psychology the middle of the 20th century. This branch of psychology studies primarily human behaviors, especially as influenced by rewards and punishment. Other types of psychology, on the other hand, found more profit in the more abstract elements of metapsychology.

The field of applied metapsychology developed in the 1980s as a form of client-centered therapy. This type of therapy draws on Freudian and metapsychological viewpoints to help patients both with external behavior and with internal, non-empirical well-being. Proponents of applied metapsychology say that it is especially useful in assisting patients to work through traumatic life experiences in order to experience an improved quality of life. It is known as client-centered rather than therapist-centered because it consists primarily of the client talking about trauma in his or her own way, rather than of the therapist setting specific goals for the client's behavior.

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