Philosophy and Psychology


Philosophy comes from the Greek words "philo" and "sophia" which means "love of wisdom" and so is concerned with vast universal questions such as the meaning of life, truth, morals, beauty, knowledge, the mind, language and explaining reality for all of creation.

Psychology comes from the Greek words "psyche" and "logos" which mean, respectively, "soul or mind" and "study". Therefore, psychology means the study of the soul and mind and is concerned with understanding the mind and human behaviour ie how individuals receive and interpret the information that comes to them through the senses, exploring what is happening in the mind and how these processes relate to action and function.

Philosophy studies the “whole” whereas psychology studies one aspect of the whole: humans and their behaviour. There is overlap, but they use different methods of study: philosophy uses experience and discussion: psychology uses quantitative and qualitative research.

There are many areas of psychology: social, forensic, environmental, organisational, educational, behavioural, developmental, community, occupational, sports etc. They all study how humans think, and behave in these settings ultimately to improve the well-being of people.

The focus is on the overlap with philosophy and clinical psychology based on practical experience having the privilege of working in the NHS with children and adolescents’ mental health and their families/carers for 30 years and more recently independently since retirement and 34 years as a student of practical philosophy.

One definition of clinical psychology is “integrating science, theory and practice to understand, predict and  alleviate maladjustment, disability and discomfort as well as to promote human adaptation, adjustment and personal development” (APA 1991) ie a practical approach using behavioural and talking therapies and interventions to reduce suffering of humans and increase happiness.

The field of Clinical Psychology integrates science, theory, and practice to understand, predict, and alleviate maladjustment, disability, and discomfort as well as to promote human adaptation, adjustment, and personal development.


1. Philosophical principles are the foundation of psychological theory and interventions:

  • to distinguish what is in our power from what is not in our power
  • one’s attitude to events is key to one’s happiness
  • happiness is to be found internally, not in external events
  • happiness is accepting the present moment as it is


Early Stoics –outlining ways of being to promote happiness

Epictetus- quotes from The Enchiridion

"People are disturbed not by events that happen to them, but by their view of them."

“It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters”.

“Train ourselves to be happy by challenging our thinking, developing calm rational thinking skills and understanding what we can control and what we cannot control”.


 “You have power over your mind, not outside events, realise this and you will find strength “

Marcus Aurelius- quotes from Meditations

“The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts”.

"Very little is needed to make a happy life, it is all within yourself in your way of thinking”.

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth”.

“You have power over your mind- not the outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength”.

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment”.


 “Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draws it”.

More Modern Philosophers:

Dalai Lama XIV

“Happiness is determined more by one’s state of mind than by external events.”

“By changing our outlook towards things and events, all phenomena can come friends or sources of happiness”.

“We don’t need more money, we don’t need greater success or fame, we don’t need the perfect body or even the perfect mate. Right now, at this very moment, we have a mind, which is all the basic equipment we need to achieve complete happiness”.

Eckhart Tolle. The Power of Now

“The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking, separate them from the situation which is always neutral. It is as it is. All rigidity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry- all forms of fear are caused by too much future and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness and all forms of non-forgiveness are caused by too much past and not enough presence”.

Psychologists/Psychotherapists -outlining ways of thinking and acting to promote happiness and reduce mental illness

Individuals struggle to switch off  the internal monologue, and so develop habitual thought patterns (Negative Automatic Thoughts, cognitive distortions) which are often negative. Over time they become attached to them and believe they are what they think. The inability to escape the relentless thoughts blocks being present and can lead to mental health issues. The need to respond to this situation led to research in these areas. This mirrors philosophical principles that how we think and feel about what happens to us impacts as much as or even more than those external events themselves..

Development of Psychology Theory/Research/Therapy

The first wave

B.F Skinner is one of the founders of Behavioural therapy (BT) and focuses on changing behaviour to impact on wellbeing.

The Second Wave

Albert Ellis founder of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy - a philosophical based approach emphasising individuals have capacity for creating their own happiness. He said whenever he was disillusioned with psychological therapy he went back to read Epictetus’s works.

“People and things do not upset us, rather we upset ourselves by behaving that they can upset us”.

“Too many people are unaware that it is not the outer events or circumstances that will create happiness, rather it is our perception of events and ourselves that will create, or uncreate, positive emotions”.

Aaron Beck founder of cognitive therapy (CT) and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). This is based on the theory that the way individuals perceive a situation is more closely connected to their reaction than the situation itself. Individuals’ perceptions are often distorted and unhelpful, particularly when they are distressed. CBT helps people identify their distressing/dysfunctional thoughts and evaluate how realistic the thoughts are. Then they learn to change their distorted thinking. When they think more realistically, they feel better. It is focused on the present- not past or future.

“Reality is not so much what happens to us; rather, it is how we think about those events that create the reality we experience. In a very real sense, this means we create the reality in which we live”.

Martin Seligman a founder of positive psychology and the study of pursuit of happiness which focuses on human strengths. He advocates happiness stems from people learning to think constructively about the past so they gain optimism and hope for the future and, as a result, gain greater happiness in the present using gratitude and forgiveness and being in the present.  His theory and therapy emphasise humans discover the value within themselves and the value of a meaningful life most easily when they act in a way that is in keeping with 6 virtues common to all cultures : wisdom and knowledge, courage, love and humanity, justice, temperance, spirituality and transcendence. This links psychology directly with ancient philosophers’ virtue theories. He suggests using our unique strengths to contribute to the happiness of fellow humans leads to a deep sense of fulfilment and happiness. It reconciles two conflicting views of human happiness, the individualistic approach, which emphasises that we should take care of ourselves and nurture our own strengths, and the altruistic approach, which tends to downplay individuality and emphasizes sacrifice for the greater purpose.

“Use your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are”.

“Habits of thinking need not be forever. One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last 25 years is that people can choose the way they think”.

Third wave

This complements previous therapies, but the focus is on how a person relates to internal experiences, rather than the content and in general is more holistic, including a spiritual element. Mindfulness is a significant part of these therapies, based on ancient Eastern philosophies as well as acceptance of unwanted thoughts and cognitive diffusion (stepping back and seeing thoughts as just thoughts) to elicit change in the thinking process.

Steven Hayes founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

Jon Kabat-Zinn one of the founders Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)

The collaboration of philosophy and psychology is best demonstrated in action when the Dalai Lama and Aaron Beck met together to have a meeting of minds in 2005.  



2. Philosophical principles are the basis of the process of talking therapies:

Homer Iliad

“Speak out and hide it not within if you want the doctors to help you must reveal the wound”

Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy

 “Will you first let me discover your state of mind and test it with a few simple questions ? That way I can discover the best method of curing you”.

Creating a safe calm space where concerns of the world are put to one side and the therapist is there to serve the client. Within this protected space trust emerges and there is an opportunity for a connection to form, where sometimes the therapist “disappears” and the need becomes apparent. This is refreshing for both.

It is positive that understanding oneself and the search for happiness is still a current desire for humanity. One indication of this is psychology currently being one of the most popular A-level and degree subjects in the UK.

Linda Perry April 2022