Kritische Psychologie: psychology from the standpoint of the subject

Motzkau, Johanna and Schraube, Ernst (2015). Kritische Psychologie: psychology from the standpoint of the subject. In: Parker, Ian ed. Handbook of Critical Psychology. New York: Routledge, pp. 280–289.


German (or German/Scandinavian) Kritische Psychologie emerged in the context of intellectual and political struggles at the Free University in former West Berlin during the 1960s and 1970s (see Osterkamp and Schraube 2013 for an overview; Maiers 1999; Mørck and Huniche 2006; Tolman 1994). While based on a number of topical contributions (including Dreier 1980; Haug 1987; Holzkamp 1973; Osterkamp 1976; Tolman and Maiers 1991; Schurig 1975), Klaus Holzkamp’s (1927–1995) work played a pivotal role for Kritische Psychologie. Its philosophical foundation is informed by historical dialectical materialism, and, specifically, builds on ideas developed in Marx’s social theory and theses on Feuerbach concerning human subjectivity and practice (coining practice research), as well as the cultural-historical activity theory of Vygotsky, and above all, Leontiev (a legacy which has been taken up in various other alternative psychologies as well, cf. Engeström 1987; Hedegaard and Chaiklin 2005; Wertch 1991). Whilst the term ‘Kritische Psychologie’ is used widely in this context, it is problematic.
First, it is too generic, creating the impression this was a homogeneous approach (it was a heterogeneous and collective endeavour from the start), or indeed the only critical psychology in Germany; second, it implies that the approach as such is limited to German language context, which is not true; and third, and most importantly, the prefix ‘Kritische’ might suggest an anti-psychological vision which, is precisely not what Klaus Holzkamp et al. had in mind. This Kritische Psychologie is an attempt to rescue psychology from itself by redefining psychology as a historically developed theory about subjects as societal beings (based on the concept of the societal nature of human existence), and to reconstitute it as a psychology for and about these subjects. In this way it sought to overcome the problems caused by traditional psychology’s mapping of the abstract and external scientific ‘third-person’ perspective onto its object of study by establishing a ‘Psychology from the Standpoint of the Subject’ (PSS). This is why in this chapter we will refer to PSS instead of ‘Kritische Psychologie’ (Tolman 1989) or ‘German Critical Psychology’ (Markard and Reimer 2013).

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