Somewhat to my surprise, listening to Edith Packer’s Nine Lectures on Psychology and the Mises Institute’s Home Study Course in Austrian Economics of late has inspired some thinking about basic relationship between philosophy and those two special sciences. My preliminary view is that the epistemological relationship is basically the same in both cases, but substantially different from the relationship between philosophy and biology, chemistry, and physics.
With the sciences of biology, chemistry, and physics, philosophy establishes the basic method of inquiry, namely the logical processing of empirical facts. Philosophy does offer some substantial detail about that practice, including the need for integration and reduction. Yet it offers no detailed instructions for scientists, not even the need for and value of experimentation. (That’s too specialized, I think.) Philosophy can also veto certain scientific theories for contradicting established philosophic truths, usually the axioms. However, within the general metaphysical and epistemological framework offered by philosophy, these sciences largely proceed based upon a wealth of empirical observations, such as apples falling to the earth, salt dissolving in water, and plants growing toward the sun.
In contrast, both psychology and economics heavily depend upon a wide range of philosophic principles, including those in ethics (for psychology) and politics (for economics). Psychology relies upon a philosophic understanding of the nature and purpose of consciousness, including the survival value of reason, the source of emotions, the basic capacities of consciousness, the locus of free will, and so on. Economics relies upon a philosophic understanding of the nature and purpose of production and trade, including the harmony of rational interests, the role of reason in production, and life as the standard of value. In other words, the foundational principles of psychology and economics, not just its methodology and boundaries, are established by philosophy.
A basic task of both psychology and economics is to elaborate upon those foundational philosophic principles, sometimes with the help of empirical research. Yet the major value of the field seems to be negative — in the sense of considering aberrations from the ideals set by philosophy. So psychology is largely focused on identifying, explaining, and treating defects such as defense mechanisms, neuroses, phobias, etc. Similarly, economics is largely focused on understanding the effects of forcibly preventing individuals from freely producing and trading, such as by price controls, government monopolies, and regulations. Thus philosophy sets the proper normative standards for both psychology and economics, but then the good specialists in those fields offer us a far richer understanding of how to achieve those normative standards — and what to expect if we don’t.
This understanding of the different relationship between philosophy and the special sciences explains some interesting differences between the “empirical sciences” of biology, chemistry, and physics and “philosophic sciences” of psychology and economics. The empirical sciences are much older (as distinct disciplines) than the philosophical sciences — perhaps because they require less in the way of philosophic foundation. Perhaps the philosophic sciences are more susceptible than the empirical sciences to the lunacy of philosophy for the same reason. (Obviously, the empirical sciences can and have been corrupted by philosophy. My point is simply that they were not so quickly corrupted.) The differences between these kinds of sciences also explains why the divisions between philosophy and economics and psychology are less clear-cut than those between philosophy and biology, chemistry, and physics.
So that’s my preliminary account. Tear it apart, if you please!