Neuropsychology | Readings


Weeks 1-3: Emotion

Rolls, E. T. (2000). Précis of The brain and emotion. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 23, 177-191.

Lindquist, K. A., Wager, T. D., Kober, H., Bliss-Moreau, E., & Barrett, L. F. (2012). The brain basis of emotion: a meta-analytic review. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 35, 121-143.

Lane, R. D., Ryan, L., Nadel, L., & Greenberg, L. (2015). Memory reconsolidation, emotional arousal, and the process of change in psychotherapy: New insights from brain science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 38, 1-64.

Weeks 4-6: Social Interaction

Cook, R., Bird, G., Catmur, C., Press, C., & Heyes, C. (2014). Mirror neurons: From origin to function. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37, 177-192.

Feldman, R. (2017). The Neurobiology of Human Attachments. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21, 80-99.

Preston, S. D., & De Waal, F. B. (2002). Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 25, 1-20.

Weeks 7-9: Perception and Memory

Kravitz, D. J., Saleem, K. S., Baker, C. I., Ungerleider, L. G., & Mishkin, M. (2013). The ventral visual pathway: an expanded neural framework for the processing of object quality. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17, 26-49.

Luck, S. J., & Vogel, E. K. (2013). Visual working memory capacity: from psychophysics and neurobiology to individual differences. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17, 391-400.

Hasson, U., Chen, J., & Honey, C. J. (2015). Hierarchical process memory: memory as an integral component of information processing. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19, 304-313.

Weeks 10-12: Personality

Depue, R. A., & Collins, P. F. (1999). Neurobiology of the structure of personality: Dopamine, facilitation of incentive motivation, and extraversion. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22, 491-517.

Depue, R. A., & Morrone-Strupinsky, J. V. (2005). A neurobehavioral model of affiliative bonding: Implications for conceptualizing a human trait of affiliation. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28, 313-349.

Jung, R. E., & Haier, R. J. (2007). The Parieto-Frontal Integration Theory (P-FIT) of intelligence: converging neuroimaging evidence. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30, 135-154.

Systems & Theories | Readings

Weeks 1-2: Groundwork

Noë, A. (2017a). Strange tools: Art and human nature: A précis. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research94, 211-213.

Noë, A. (2017b). Art and entanglement in strange tools: Reply to Noël Carroll, A.W. Eaton, and Paul Guyer. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research94, 238-250.

Green, C.D. (2015). Why Psychology isn’t unified, and probably never will be. Review of General Psychology, 19, 207-214.

Bergner, R.M. (2010). What is descriptive psychology? An introduction. In K. Davis, F. Lubuguin, & W. Schwartz (Eds.), Advances in Descriptive Psychology, Vol. 9 (pp. 325–360). Ann Arbor, MI: Descriptive Psychology Press.

Hibberd, F. (2014). The metaphysical basis of a process psychology. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 34, 161-186.

Weeks 3-5: Methodology

Gozli, D.G. & Deng, W. (in press). Building blocks of psychology: On remaking the unkept promises of early schools. Integrative Psychological & Behavioral Science.

Tafreshi, D., Slaney, K. L., & Neufeld, S. D. (2016). Quantification in psychology: Critical analysis of an unreflective practice. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 36, 233-249.

Michell, J. (2013). Constructs, inferences, and mental measurement. New Ideas in Psychology, 31, 13-21.

Giorgi, A. (2013). Reflections on the status and direction of Psychology: An external historical perspective. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 44, 244-261.

Wertz, F. J. (2014). Qualitative inquiry in the history of psychology. Qualitative Psychology, 1, 4-16.

Smedslund, J. (2009). The mismatch between current research methods and the nature of psychological phenomena: What researchers must learn from practitioners. Theory & Psychology19, 778-794.

Smedslund, J. (2012). The bricoleur model of psychological practice. Theory & Psychology22, 643-657.

Smedslund, J. (2012). What follows from what we all know about human beings. Theory & Psychology22, 658-668.

Week 6: Behaviour

Bergner, R.M. (2016). What is behaviour? And why is it not reducible to biological states of affairs? Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 36, 41-55.

Gozli, D.G. (in press). Behaviour versus performance: The veiled commitment of experimental psychology. Theory & Psychology.

Marken, R. S. (2009). You say you had a revolution: Methodological foundations of closed-loop psychology. Review of General Psychology, 13, 137-145.

Week 7: Person

Bergner, R.M. (in press). What is a person?  What is the self? Formulations for a science of psychology.  Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology.

DeYoung, C.G. (2015). Cybernetic big five theory. Journal of Research in Personality, 56, 33-58.

Lamiell, J. T. (2000). A periodic table of personality elements? The” Big Five” and trait” psychology” in critical perspective. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 20, 1-24.

Weeks 8-9: Goals

Hommel, B. (2015). Between persistence and flexibility: The Yin and Yang of action control. In: A.J. Elliot (ed.), Advances in Motivation Science, Vol. 2 (pp. 33-67). New York: Elsevier.

Brandtstädter, J., & Rothermund, K. (2002). The life-course dynamics of goal pursuit and goal adjustment: A two-process framework. Developmental Review, 22, 117-150.

Powers, W. T. (1998). Making Sense of Behavior. New Canaan, CT: Benchmark. (Read chapters 1-3)

Pressing, J. (1984). Cognitive processes in improvisation. Advances in Psychology, 19, 345-363.

Week 10: Games

Berne, E. (1964). Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships. (Read chapter 5)

Goffman, E. (1956). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. (Read chapter 1)

Billig, M. (1996). Arguing and thinking: A rhetorical approach to social psychology. Cambridge University Press. (Read chapter 2)

Weeks 11-12: Meaning

Peterson, J. B. (1999). Précis of Maps of meaning: The architecture of Belief. Psycoloquy, 10, 1-31.

Bergner, R. M. (1998). Therapeutic approaches to problems of meaninglessness. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 52, 72-87.

Bergner, R. M. (2005). World reconstruction in psychotherapy. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 59, 333-349.

Interview with Raymond Bergner

Dr. Raymond Bergner is a Professor of Psychology in the Clinical and Counseling Psychology Program at Illinois State University. He received his PhD in 1973 from University of Colorado – Boulder, where he joined the movement known as ‘Descriptive Psychology’ (for an introduction to this framework, see Bergner, 2010). He has been a member of the Editorial Board of Advances in Descriptive Psychology (volumes 1-10) and the President of the Society for Descriptive Psychology (1984-2004). He has also been a psychotherapist since 1973. Dr. Bergner has published extensively, not only on clinical topics, but also on philosophy of science and conceptual questions that underlie psychology. His recent writing on the concepts of behaviour (Bergner, 2016), personhood and self (Bergner, in press) have a broad scope and an accessible style. I would highly recommend them, especially to students who are interested in philosophy of psychology.

Davood Gozli: Thank you for agreeing to this exchange, Professor Bergner. I’d like to begin by saying that I was very much struck by your 2016 paper in the Journal of Theoretical & Philosophical Psychology (“What is behavior?”).  I read it during my stay at Leiden University, very soon after its publication, and it was one of the articles that redirected my own work toward a theoretical-critical path.

Let me start by asking you about the role of philosophy in psychology. One of the oldest distinctions in philosophy is the distinction between appearance and reality (e.g., Plato’s allegory of the cave, atomism of Democritus, Kantian noumena-versus-phenomena, etc.). It seems that this distinction continues to play a role in psychology, in the sense that the first decision made, often implicitly, and the decision that has the most overarching impact on what a psychologist does subsequently, is whether he/she trusts the world as it appears. Would you agree that this question plays an important role in psychology? And where does Descriptive Psychology stand in relation to this question?

Raymond Bergner: Thank you, Davood, both for inviting me to this interview and for your kind words about my JTPP article.  Let me approach the elements of your question one at a time.

First of all, regarding the role of philosophy in psychology, there is so much to say but let me just say what for me are a few central things.  First of all, psychology has to be among the most careless (and uncaring) disciplines when it comes to conceptualizing their core subject matter.  Over and over you look at personality texts in which the authors tell you in the first chapter that they can’t tell you what personality is, and abnormal texts where they tell you they can’t define “mental disorder” or “abnormal”. And this is pandemic in the field.  Philosophy, and in particular conceptual analysis, has so much to offer but psychologists are both ignorant of this and disdainful of philosophy in general. Beyond this, and only in passing, philosophy can be so helpful in (a)  thinking logically about  empirical findings (e.g., if brain area X “lights up” when you think obsessive thoughts, what does this mean?); (b) questioning the efficient causality based “billiard ball” model present in so much experimental psychology; and (c) questioning the whole model of a person as, in the words of E.O. Wilson, a “marvelous robot…wired (neuronally) with awesome precision” (1988, p. 53).

Regarding the second part of the question, the matter of appearance vs. reality, the phenomenal world seems to me to be inescapably the world of psychology — that is, the world we act and feel in terms of.  I act on, not noumena or “things in themselves”, but on toasters and remarks and chocolate bars and jokes and red lights. I believe that most Descriptive Psychologists would share this view. 

DG: I cannot resist asking you about Peter Ossorio, the person who initiated the Descriptive Psychology movement during the mid-1960s. Could you tell us a little about him and his work? 

RB: Dr. Peter G. Ossorio was the creator and founder of the discipline of Descriptive Psychology, which he characterized as “a set of systematically related concepts designed to give formal access to all facts and possible facts concerning human behavior” (2013, p. xx). What DP primarily attempts to do is to provide the kind of precise, systematic, and comprehensive conceptual framework that is a pre-empirical requirement for the adequate conduct of psychological theorizing, research, and application. One might compare it to Newton’s creation of a new conceptual system, which was pre-empirical and necessarily preceded his formulation of empirical laws.

Ossorio joined the faculty of the University of Colorado, Boulder in 1961, where he taught psychology for over 30 years. He was renowned as a teacher and clinical supervisor and directed over 50 dissertations at the University.

His publications are extensive, and form the core conceptualization of Descriptive Psychology. It has given professionals around the world improved intellectual leverage to achieve advances in the fields of artificial intelligence, astronomy, business, computer science, education, psychology, spirituality, and elsewhere. He was invited to 18 US and foreign universities to share his discoveries and inventions. He also did cutting edge research through his various businesses, including the Linguistic Research Institute, Ellery Systems, and Global Commerce Systems.

Dr. Ossorio was born in Los Angeles on May 4, 1926 and died at his home in Boulder, Colorado, on April 24, 2007.

DG: Could you tell us a little more about your personal experience of working with Dr. Ossorio? 

RB: I had the opportunity to hear many presentations from Dr. Ossorio and to speak with him in person many times.  If there is one primary impression I derived from all of this, it was that I so often came away from these encounters with a sense of “I never thought about this topic this way, this way is so much better than what I have ever encountered in mainstream academic psychology”.

DG: A general question about the relationship between schools of thought in psychology and great thinkers. It’s often the case that a distinct school is associated with the perspective of a single individual. Is this something we have to accept about psychology? That a style of thinking is associated with a particular person (or a group of people). If so, do you think the thinkers’ biography plays a role in understanding his/her ideas?

RB: Yes, I agree that very often major schools of thought are associated with one primary founder or pioneer, but I do not see this as a problem in any way.  There is nothing in principle to prevent others from both using the framework in question and from building upon it (“on the shoulders of giants” as the saying goes). For myself, while an individual’s biography may often play a role, the most important thing for me is the ultimate product.  In the end, it is the quality of the Beethoven symphony, or of Einstein’s theory of relativity, or of Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” that is the important thing.

DG: Related to the perspective of psychologists, I previously encountered the idea that academic (scientific) and practicing (clinical) psychologists represent almost two different cultures of psychology (e.g., corresponding to two entirely different sets of problems). Given your expertise and experience in both, what is your view of this divide? And, do you see the divide as a failure of academic psychology?

RB: I do see two different cultures to a significant but not total degree.  One I would term the “science culture” that focuses on themselves as scientists and that views clinicians as individuals all too ready to draw conclusions on anecdotal evidence and too little concerned with empirical findings.  The other, the “clinical culture”, sees the science culture as hopelessly in the grips of a benighted model of persons as essentially determined organic robots, and as essentially unproductive of much in the way of useful new ways to enhance actual clinical practice.

DG: A question about your recent articles in JTPP. I sympathize with your position against the eliminative-reductive approach. You argue against the biological reductionism in your 2016 paper (“What is Behavior?”). And, in your most recent paper (“What is a Person?”), you contrast your point of view against, among others, the constructionist (which is another form of reductionism) view of the self. Nevertheless, one advantage of the reductive/eliminative approaches is their simplicity and elegance. Do you think the non-reductive method of description might result in conceptual redundancies, including multiple concepts that partially overlap, or concepts that could be derived form each other? Should this be a concern at all?

RB: Regarding eliminativist positions to begin with, to me they are nonstarters.  To make the claim that consciousness does not exist is akin to making claims such as that the world does not exist or that “I am not thinking the thought I am thinking.”  The old Chinese proverb, “If you want to know about water, don’t ask a fish”, comes to mind.  We are “swimming” in consciousness. 

Regarding other reductive positions, they may be simple, but I don’t see them as elegant. Essentially, if you can’t account for obvious evidence, you are inadequate.  You can get from the known properties of H2O to the known properties of water; this is what entitles you to make the reductive claim that water reduces to H2O.  You cannot get from the known properties of brain events qua brain events to the known properties of consciousness such as intentionality (their inherent “aboutness”), subjectivity (their experiential or “what it’s likeness” quality), and transparency. So you can scream reductionism all day long, but until you  can produce the goods, admit that you are just uttering what  at present must be considered at best a far-fetched IOU.

DG: Another possible concern regarding Descriptive Psychology is the relation between attributes (of, e.g., persons or behaviour). Outlining the set of attributes does not necessarily tell us about how the attributes might be related (or unrelated) to each other, both in a specific instance or in general. In this regard, do you consider experimentation as a complementary next step to description?

RB: No, the analysis is not of a sort that one would submit to empirical study.  To draw an analogy, doing such a study would be like a book keeper saying the following: “In the world of book keeping, to order and classify the phenomena, we need the concepts of “profit”, “loss”, “debt”, “accounts receivable”, and so forth; let’s do a study to see how these are related”.  We wouldn’t do this.  It’s a conceptual system.  We already know what distinctions these concepts are drawing and how they are conceptually related one to another. By way of a second analogy here, Newton would never have done a study to see if “forces” were capable of “accelerating” bodies.  Same for the Descriptive concepts.

DG: As a final question, I’d like to ask you about some of your recommendations (granted that these recommendations are always biased and selective), with regards to books, individual scholars, scholarly societies (for theoretical psychology), and journals.

RB: Well, I will stick pretty much here to the Descriptive world, which is what I know best.  To get a sense of Descriptive, my first recommendation would be the 2010 article cited below, “What is Descriptive Psychology?” It is designed to try to bridge to the DP point of view from a mainstream or just a commonsense point of view.  Beyond that, I would recommend the primary final book by Peter Ossorio, “The Behavior of Persons” (2006 hardback; 2013 paperback), and the works of DP authors such as Mary Roberts, Joel Jeffrey, Tony Putman, Wynn Schwartz, and Keith Davis.  Finally, going outside of DP, Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations” (1953) is very helpful, as is work by philosophers such as John Shotter, P.M.S. Hacker, Rom Harre, and Stephen Toulmin.

DG: Thank you very much, Professor Bergner.


Bergner, R. (2010). What is descriptive psychology? An introduction. In K. Davis, F. Lubuguin, & W. Schwartz (Eds.), Advances in Descriptive Psychology, Vol. 9 (pp. 325–360). Ann Arbor, MI: Descriptive Psychology Press.

Bergner, R.M. (2016). What is behaviour? And why is it not reducible to biological states of affairs? Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 36, 41-55.

Bergner, R. (In press). What is a person?  What is the self? Formulations for a science of psychology.  Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology.

Ossorio, P.G. (2013).  The behavior of persons.  Ann Arbor, MI: Descriptive Psychology Press.

Interview with Jan Smedslund

Jan Smedslund is a Professor Emeritus at University of Oslo, Norway. He began his research career with experimental work on cognitive development. His collaborators include Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner. During 1967-8, he turned away from experimental work and began working on conceptual and foundational issues in psychology (Smedslund, 1991b). In 1988 he published Psycho-Logic, a later edition of which was published in 1997 as The Structure of Psychological Common-Sense. Psycho-Logic is the project of explicating and systematizing the structure of common-sense psychology in terms of a set of interconnected axioms. It has roots in the work of Fritz Heider. The justification and scope of the project is outlined in a target article in Psychological Inquiry (Smedslund, 1991a). Smedslund continues to write, in a clear and compelling manner, about the limits of experimental psychology and alternative ways of conceiving the task of psychologists (e.g., Smedslund, 2012, 2015, 2016). He is also a practicing clinical psychologist.

Davood Gozli: After reading your work, I began asking what would be the most minimal, most strongly defensible, way of describing experimental psychology, and what I have settled on is a view of it as a form of abstract art. I use the word abstract not in the sense of general or widely-applicable, but in the sense of removed or maybe deprived. This is because experimentation typically requires taking away what is present and relevant in everyday situations. The research outcome, therefore, takes the form of links between variables within an abstract situation. This seems like a defensible characterization, and anything beyond it cannot be taken for granted. What do you think of this view?

Jan Smedslund: In my publications I have tried to show that the domain of psychology is very inhospitable to experiments because of characteristics such as irreversibility, infinite numbers of determinants, social interactivity, and impossibility of impersonal objectivity. I cannot offhand give a simple comment to your formulation, due to the complexity of the issues involved. Given some interpretations it certainly seems to have merits.

DG: The meaning of words in psychological research is often very different from their meaning in ordinary language. For a student who is interested in a psychological topic, there is always the danger of falling prey to a bait-and-switch trick: the student’s interest leads him/her to a lab and after years of work s/he realizes that there is not much in common between his/her original interest and what goes on in the lab, except for a set of words. Why do you think this bait-and-switch happens so often and at such a wide disciplinary level?

JS: Contemporary research methods are the outcome of a prolonged effort to make psychology “scientific” (fulfilling requirements of objectivity, replicability, etc.). Since this does not really work, due to the characteristics of psychological phenomena, it is almost unavoidable that there will be a gap between a student’s personal and practical interests and the misguided work in a lab.

DG: Many departments of Psychology are now populated with neuroscientists, physiologists, health scientists, statisticians, and perhaps a few psychologists. Do you see this, in any way, as a failure of psychologists in protecting what is unique about psychology? Do you see this as a danger to the future of psychology?

JS: Yes, this trend seems to be a consequence of the misplaced aspiration to be “scientific”. The future is uncertain because of the widening gap between academic research and psychological practice, and because the latter needs a different kind of foundation. Today there are two kinds of psychologists – the researchers and the practitioners.

DG: Most experimental psychologists, myself included, begin our careers not with a study of clear thinking and argumentation, but as research assistants. The problem is that a research assistant does what s/he does uncritically. It is an instance of inheriting a tradition without fully understanding the tradition. And, I think part of that inherited tradition is the skill of neglecting, and maneuvering around, criticism. I am interested in educating students who are more critical of what is happening today in academic Psychology. What are your thoughts in this regard?

JS: The problem of how to train students has several aspects. In academic psychology, I have led many seminars with only one rule: The sessions were to have no preset agenda, the participants were free to introduce questions and problems that occupied them and that were then discussed in the group. This appears to be the only way of gradually improving the quality of arguments and establishing the attitude expressed in the sentence “it ain’t necessarily so.”

In training practitioners, the focus is on two closely related attitudes – the (motivational) commitment to the ethics of the professional role and the (cognitive) adoption of the not-knowing attitude. The practitioner must be “decentered” (Piaget’s term) and maintain a balanced view of own values and concepts and those of the client. It is impossible to describe these matters in a few words. However I envisage a training process without emphasis on statistics, design, methods and techniques. One must train to encounter new clients in a personal way with a thoroughly absorbed reflective background and in a clearly defined professional context. To be a psychologist is, in Yalom’s terms, encountering and trying to be of help to one’s “fellow travelers”.

DG: Please tell us about your experience and strategies in communicating your ideas (e.g., publishing articles, debates with colleagues, etc.).

JS: My strategy has been to engage in dialogues, preferably with those who disagree with my views. But, while trying to learn from others, I have still followed my own road.

DG: In my upcoming course on Systems & Theories in Psychology, I have planned a lecture on Psycho-Logic. I also considered including Peter G. Ossorio, and perhaps the Discursive movement (e.g., Edwards & Potter, 1992). Do you have any other recommendations for myself and the students for improving the course?

JS: A few names occur to me: Fritz Heider’s classic book, George Kelly’s books on “personal constructs”, Ken Gergen’s recent book “Relational Being”, Anna Wierzbicka’s books, my own (2004) book “Dialogues about a New Psychology”. There are so many! (It also depends on the background of the students and their aspirations).

DG: Are there psychology Journals that you would recommend for those who are critical of the mainstream?

JS: Theory & Psychology, Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, New Ideas in Psychology, etc.

DG: I am grateful for your work. And, thanks for this exchange.


Smedslund, J. (1991a). The pseudoempirical in psychology and the case for psychologic. Psychological Inquiry2(4), 325-338.

Smedslund, J. (1991b). Psychologic: A technical language for psychology. Psychological Inquiry2(4), 376-382.

Smedslund, J. (2012). The bricoleur model of psychological practice. Theory & Psychology22(5), 643-657.

Smedslund, J. (2015). The value of experiments in psychology. In Sugarman, Martin, & Slaney (Eds.), The Wiley Handbook of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology: Methods, Approaches, and New Directions for Social Sciences, 359-373.

Smedslund, J. (2016). Why psychology cannot be an empirical science. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science50(2), 185-195.

Philosophical History

A review of Martin Farrell’s “Historical & Philosophical Foundations of Psychology“, Cambridge, 2014.


July 24, 2015

The brief summer course is coming to its end and it is an appropriate time to write about the book I used as the only required reading for the course. Choosing the book was not easy. When I was the teaching assistant for the course, the instructor used Thomas Leahey’s History of Psychology: From Antiquity to Modernity (7th edition), although I soon realized that there was no real required reading aside from the lecture slides. The students could do well in the course without ever opening the book. I did not want to adopt that strategy. And, after some consideration, I decided to switch from Leahey’s book to a new and more reader-friendly book. Leahey’s text is remarkable, but it is not a beginner’s textbook. Particularly for a 6-week summer course, it is a little too dry and a little too encyclopedic. There was also Raymound Fancher’s book, Pioneers of Psychology, which Jay recommended. Michael Wertheimer also refers to Fancher’s text as the best of its style. There was also Graham Richards’ Putting Psychology in its Place, which despite its corny title had Michael Billig’s stamp of approval. A Critical History & Philosophy of Psychology, by Walsh, Teo, & Baydala, was another great book that I used in a few of my lectures, but I could never expect the students to read such a massive book in full.

Dan Robinson’s Intellectual History of Psychology also seemed very appealing, but I did not choose it because I did not want to include material prior to the 17th century. Not this time. Robinson’s text, nonetheless, instilled in me the desire to continue looking for a philosophical history of psychology. There is something about the philosophical style that makes it antithetical to the encyclopedic style. It encourages in-depth, critical, and comparative thinking, even when it is not explicitly critical and comparative. The philosophical style also circumvents the defeatist attitude common in cultural or political approaches to the history of psychology. At the same time, it does not become overly “whiggish” — Focusing on the philosophical dimension of psychology reveals a serious challenge to the assumption of constant and continual progress, in a way that cannot be revealed by focusing, for instance, on the neuroscientific dimension of psychology.

Furthermore, I wanted a text that would allow me to go on my own occasional tangents and communicate some of my own thoughts to the students. [Throughout the course, I have come to believe in the collaborative nature of the relationship between the teacher and the text.] The more I looked around, the more I saw the appeal of Farrell’s text. It is a beginner’s text. It is inviting and engaging. It is well organized. The philosophical approach is, indeed, the biggest appeal of this volume. History and philosophy are mixed together so well that the end result does not feel like a mixture at all. It feels like one single outlook. One specific way of examining the history of psychology.

July 25, 2015

Why do I believe in the importance of telling a philosophical history of psychology? As natural-scientific psychologists, we have been trained to raise an eyebrow when faced with philosophical consideration. We have been trained to think that no amount of metaphysical systematization could replace the illuminating force of an empirical finding. We have been shown that some of the most intelligent philosophers across history were misguided due to their reliance on pure speculation, intuition, and thought experiments in the absence of evidence. Recall how George Mandler, in the first pages of his History of Modern Experimental Psychology claims to have left out all considerations that could be regarded as “metaphysical”. We have been trained to avoid the proverbial armchair and stick to our lab work. Farrell’s book gives students a chance to be aware of [and to re-examine] this mindset. It demonstrates that any given program of research in psychology, from its very beginning, has already given answers to philosophical questions.

Side note: I believe what Mandler meant by “metaphysical” were issues related to God, free will, and immortality of the soul. This would not be a fair definition, however, thanks largely to “the old man of Königsberg“, who discarded these issues from the domain of metaphysics, giving it freedom to attend to its two proper subject-matters — ontology [the questions of existence] and epistemology [the questions of knowledge], both of which have relevance to psychology.

July 26, 2015

Farrell’s book has a good organization, which I followed closely throughout the course with minor deviations. It begins with philosophy of science (the rise of logical positivists in early 20th century and their major critiques, including Popper, Lakatos, Kuhn, & Feyerabend). The treatment of logical positivism could certainly expand, perhaps into a separate chapter [at present, logical positivists share the first chapter with Karl Popper]. I say this because Farrell returns to positivism in Chapter 12 [Titchener]. A more extensive treatment of positivism at the outset of the book would create a better context for the rest of chapters, particularly those related to philosophy of science, structuralism, and behaviourism. If you use Farrell’s volume as textbook, I would encourage you to supplement your lecture notes [on logical positivism] by looking at Chapters 2-3 of William Bechtel’s Philosophy of Science. The chapters are available for free online.

In contrast, the treatment of Paul Feyerabend [the most radical anti-method philosopher of science, and the author of Against Method] could be shortened. Although Feyerabend’s core message is worth serious consideration, his arguments are not very strong. The argument based on Galilei’s refusal to take evidence into account — assuming it is historically accurate — is just a weak appeal to authority.

Feyerabend argues that, at the time of Galileo’s trial, the weight of evidence and argument was actually on the side of the Ptolemaic theory of the stationary Earth. (p.59)

This reminds me of the — questionable — story about Charles Darwin changing his mind about his theory of evolution while lying on his deathbed. Who cares what Darwin thought on his deathbed about evolution? Who cares if Galilei chose to ignore evidence?

There are two indications that suggest Farrell is, indeed, taking Feyerabend’s side. First, he ends the discussion of philosophy of science with Feyerabend without a critical evaluation of Feyerabend. Second, throughout the rest of the book he rarely returns to the topic of philosophy of science, as if the discussion has ended conclusively in the first three chapters. This does not seem appropriate for a textbook of such a scope. Philosophy of science deserves explicit foreground role in almost all the chapters, most notably in chapters on Freud, Wundt, Titchener, behaviourism, and cognitive psychology. Feyerabend does not represent a successful end to debates on philosophy of science, and he should not be regarded as such.

July 27, 2015

Following the chapters on philosophy of science, the book then takes us back in time, to 17-19th century philosophy of mind, and afterwards [after a brief and shallow dip into psychoanalytic thought] begins the story of Psychology as a discipline. We encounter Wundt, Titchener, James, Dewey, the behaviourists, and the cognitive movement. The book finally ends with some of the recent revisions of, and reactions to, cognitivism. The selective treatment of topics is one of the main reasons why I liked this book. Covering a small set of topics allowed the coverage to be extensive and engaging. We read about Freud in relation to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche; we read about Helmholtz and Wundt in relation to Kant; we read about Spinoza in relation to Fechner’s psychophysics; we read about Brentano in relation to gestalt psychologists; and, we read about Dewey in relation to Hegel. The book effectively demonstrates the unavoidability of philosophy, lending support to the maxim that if you think you are avoiding philosophy, then you are probably doing philosophy poorly.

Although the connections and continuities across psychology and philosophy are generally demonstrated effectively, there are points where the connections would benefit further explication and exploration. For example, the link between Berkeley’s theory of vision could be (a) contrasted with the Lockean view of vision and (b) compared with the recent sensorimotor theory of O’Regan & Noë (2001). Darwin’s notion of instincts could be explored further in connection with Freud’s ideas. John Locke’s philosophy of mind could also be explored in connection with cognitivism [something I could not appreciate before reading Michael Billig’s Hidden Roots]. The contribution of the Würzburg school and the experimental investigatins of Ebbinghaus deserve discussion in relation to Wundt’s original vision of psychology.

A connection that I had a difficult time understanding was that between Brentano and the Gestalt movement. During the lecture on Gestalt psychology, I confessed to the students that I was not entirely convinced whether Brentano belongs to the history of Gestalt psychology. I then invited the class to provide me with a persuasive argument defending Farrell’s decision to include Brentano in the context of Gestalt psychology. One student sent me the following argument: The impact of Brentano on von Ehrenfels is really the indirect impact of Aristotle on von Ehrenfels. Aristotle famously made the distinction between the four kinds of αἴτιος (cause), which include the distinction between substance and form. The substance-form distinction is analogous to von Ehrenfels’s distinction between simple sensation and gestaltqualität. In addition to his emphasis on descriptive method, therefore, Brentano passed Aristotle’s thoughts onto von Ehrenfels. I am still not entirely convinced, but it does seem like a fair argument.

The inclusion of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche is a nice touch, and in fact I covered chapters 7 [Schopenhauer & Nietzsche] & 10 [Freud] in the same lecture. I further supplemented the lecture notes on psychoanalysis by consulting Walsh et al.’s Chapter 9, which is much more substantive than Farrell’s brief [and rather uncritical] survey of Freud. I particularly followed Walsh et al. in their inclusion of Jung, Lacan [both disagreeing with Freud’s characterization of psychoanalysis as a natural science], Karen Horney [who brought a strong social dimension to psychoanalysis], and the common critiques of psychoanalysis.

July 28, 2015

If the book were to expand to include humanistic psychology, while staying true to its original style, then we would probably see the inclusion of [not only] Rogers, May, and Maslow, [but also the philosophical forerunners] Kiergkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre. We would also encounter another dimension of Nietzsche that is hidden in the present edition of the book. Let me be clear, I am not criticizing Farrell for not including humanistic psychology. I am also not engaging in futile thought experiments about potential variations in the book we are discussing. If you bear with me for another few paragraphs, you will discover that I am in the process of making a point. To bring the point to light, let us leave humanistic psychology and consider another more prominent branch of psychology — social psychology.

The history of social psychology is much less straightforward than that of humanistic psychology, particularly with regard to its philosophical forerunners. This is essentially because there is more than one way to define social psychology. And, I suspect there are more ways to define social psychology than there are ways to define “individual” psychology. Who should we include? Thomas Reid? George Herbert Mead? Aristotle? Should we bring in the political dimension of social psychology? The moral dimension? The emotional dimension? Should we choose the intellectual trajectory that ends at the contemporary experimental social psychology? Or, should be choose the trajectory that arrives at, for instance, discursive psychology? Or, social neuroscience? A close consideration of this issue makes it clear that the history we study is, in part, a consequence of our decision about the present. Our view of the present-day psychology shapes what we include and exclude in our history.

Farrell’s text ends with a chapter on neuroscience, modularity, and embodied cognition. These, therefore, are those segments that Farrell identifies as present-day psychology. These are the endpoints of the narrative. Locke, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Freud, and Wundt are, therefore, all considered in a narrative that ends with neuroscience and embodied cognition. Is it fair to assume that Nietzsche or Locke would be treated differently in a history of social psychology or in a history of humanistic psychology? Is it fair to assume that we would encounter a different Nietzsche in those narrative? This aspect of history is worth addressing in the book. Once again, I am not criticizing the selectivity of Farrell’s scope. I am pointing out the importance of addressing [explicitly] the type of history he constructs. The history we construct does not simply include and exclude individuals and topics. It gives specific roles to the individuals that are included. Roles that are meaningful in light of the direction in which the history appears to have unfolded. As Wertheimer disclaimed in the beginning of his Brief History of Psychology, there is no such a thing as the definitive history of our discipline. Each history is a product of a series of choices. And awareness of those choices would benefit our investigations.

July 31, 2015

In closing, I recommend Farrell’s book, particularly to students of cognitive psychology. It is, as I said, an excellent beginner’s text. It is effective in awakening the philosophical consciousness that the reader would carry with him/her in future readings of history. Although course instructors who choose it as course textbook would have to rely on supplementary material, that is a small cost for giving students an engaging and enjoyable book.

Interview with Michael Wertheimer

Michael Wertheimer is Professor Emeritus at University of Colorado Boulder. He obtained his PhD from Harvard University in 1952. He has published hundreds of articles and is the author of several books, including “A Brief History of Psychology (5th ed.)“, and “Max Wertheimer & Gestalt Theory“. Professor Wertheimer also coedited the first four volumes of the series “Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology” (published by APA & Earlbaum). He has been president of four APA divisions (General Psychology, Teaching of Psychology, Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, & History of Psychology). He has received two national awards for the teaching of psychology and, in 2000, APA’s Division 26 presented him a “lifetime achievement award for sustained, outstanding, and unusual contributions to the history of psychology.”

Davood Gozli: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Professor Wertheimer. I would like to begin with a question about your thoughts on the history of psychology. Given that history of psychology is typically not a major interest to experimental psychologists, I am very interested in learning how and why history became important to you. What triggered your extensive inquiries into the history of psychology?

Michael Wertheimer: What first triggered my interest in the history of psychology as an undergraduate student was Professor Robert B. MacLeod’s fascination with the topic.  He shared a draft of a text on the subject, which an older colleague of mine (Mary Henle) and I later prepared for publication after his death [“Persistent Problems of Psychology“, Duquesne University Press, 1975].  My interest was further encouraged by my serving while a graduate student as a teaching assistant to Edwin G. Boring’s undergraduate history of psychology class at Harvard; Boring’s texts were essentially the standard sources on the history of psychology (especially experimental psychology) back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and have continued to be highly respected ever since. Additional encouragement came from Professors Karl Muenzinger and O. J. Harvey, fellow faculty members at the University of Colorado.  And the early realization that my father was the founder of a significant school of psychology, Gestalt theory, made me curious about the evolution of that school–and of others.  My early interest in  both philosophy and psychology as an undergraduate student doubtless also played a role.

DG: The first person who is mentioned in your book, A Brief History of Psychology, is Karl Muenzinger (1885-1958), who traced the origins of psychology in terms of eight distinct intellectual trends. Please tell us a little about Muenzinger and your experience in his class?

MW: Karl Muenzinger was a spell-binding lecturer who used a variety of effective gimmicks to assure the attention of each student in his large lecture classes (e.g., asking a review question at the beginning of a lecture, then asking a specific student in the class of 60 or 70 students by name to answer the question).  And I found his identification of the five scientific and three philosophical trends that culminated in the emergence of experimental psychology a refreshing and creative approach to trying to understand where psychology came from; it was different from any previous account of psychology’s history that I had encountered.  I greatly enjoyed Muenzinger’s course on history, which I sat in on, and on which I took copious notes, when I first joined the faculty of the University of Colorado in 1955. And I was most grateful to him for having, as department chair, offered me the job at Colorado; he also became a good friend.  Then shortly before his death he encouraged me to turn my notes on his course into the beginnings of a text on the history of psychology; the result is the book that was first issued in 1970 and was recently reissued in its fifth edition.

DG: Early in the book you state that “there is no such a thing as a definitive or unchanging history” (p.16) and that our concerns about the present and the future shape the way we approach the past. That means there are concerns about the present and the future of our discipline that motivates an interest in its history. From your standpoint, what are some of those concerns?

MW:  The major concern is the realization that the current state of the field, which at first appears almost natural and inevitable and is taken for granted as clearly and forever the correct one, is temporary and will change over time, as every past perspective has been.  Every viable discipline changes substantially over time.  And while for a fairly long period there was the conviction that psychology must somehow be viewed as a unified, integrated discipline, there have always been major rifts within the field–schools, applied vs. basic orientations, practice vs. pure research, and now even the reluctance of many who used to be called psychologists to use that term to describe themselves; they’d rather be called behavioral scientists, cognitive neuroscientists, specialists in visual attention, mental health practitioners, etc.  Will psychology continue to exist as a separate, distinct field in the future?  Or will it, like philosophy several centuries ago, splinter apart into a variety of specialties? I suspect, as detailed in the last chapter of my brief history, the latter is more likely.

DG: Reading your book, I recognized that you had taken every opportunity to offer a unified, big-picture view of historical movements within the discipline. However, at other times, your descriptions made the non-unified nature of psychology very salient. And I wondered whether you did so intentionally. Regardless, would too much organization and unification be inaccurate and unfair to the history of psychology?

MW: The back-and-forth on whether psychology was, is, or can be a unified field wasn’t intentional, but I’m intrigued that you would have noticed that. I do agree that too much unification would be inaccurate and unfair to the actual history of psychology.  But possibly that might even contribute to its inherent interest!

DGYou quote Sigmund Koch in your discussion of the disciplinary fractionation of psychology. Another frequently cited statement by Koch has to do with his views on methodology and subject-matter: “at the time of its inception, psychology was unique in the extent to which its institutionalization preceded its content and its method preceded its problems.” (Koch, 1959). Would you agree with Koch’s position that (at least in the case of the major schools) psychologists were too early in their commitment to a set of methods?

MW: I would agree with Koch that psychology too early committed itself to a set of methods (as well as institutions, contents, and problems). That’s basically a large part of what generated the (perhaps unnecessary) conflicts among the schools.

DG: Another striking aspect of your book is how professionally it is written. The personal stories, the scandals, and the gossips are left out (e.g., in the case of Sigmund Freud), or at most hinted at (e.g., in the case of John Watson). Is this a reflection of your view that the professional stories should be considered in separation from the personal stories?

MW: Thank you for your kind comment about “how professionally” the book is written.  I’m delighted you found it so.  And yes, I do believe that while there is a place for personal stories in the writing of some history, the history of a discipline should be focussed on its intellectual history and its intellectual context.  I decided to use this same orientation in the final draft of the biography of my father (leaving out a lot of material I had discovered about his life which, as his son, I found fascinating, but which I believe is not an appropriate part of a scholarly account of the founder of the Gestalt approach).

DG: I am currently reading “Max Wertheimer & Gestalt Theory”, which you co-authored with Dr. Brett King. Please tell us a little about the significance of this book.

MW: I’m flattered and delighted that you’re currently reading the biography of my father. I hope you’re enjoying it!  As the preface indicates, this work was some 60+ years in gestation; the final published version happens to be a sixth complete draft, in a way my swan-song magnum opus.

DG: In your view, who are some of the forgotten or under-appreciated figures in the history of psychology?

MW: There are many under-appreciated or undiscovered figures in the history of psychology, but several professional history periodicals are beginning to deal with this problem–Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, History of Psychology, Isis, etc.

DG: What are some of your favorite books on the history of psychology?

MW: Among my favorite books are E. G. Boring’s History of Experimental Psychology and his Sensation and Perception in the History of Psychology,  Gardner Murphy’s Historical Introduction to Modern Psychology. R. B. MacLeod’s book, Raymond Fancher’s works, etc.

DG: As the last question, what advice would you give to graduate students of psychology, especially those in pursuit of a scientific-academic career?

MW: I would advise them to specialize in some currently hot research area such as behavioral genetics, cognitive neuroscience, visual attention, etc., and to avoid clinical or counselling psychology, both of which strike me as still not having the sound empirical, scientific basis they need.  And make a strong effort to become an effective teacher. With modern online teaching developments, the traditional role of tenure-track faculty members will change drastically before long, and institutions can no longer hire run-of-the-mill lecturers who can’t inspire enthusiasm in their students.  Also, learn how to acquire outside funding for your research; this has become a major criterion for hiring, retaining, and promoting faculty members at most institutions that aspire to a reasonably good reputation.  It’s probably even more important than a substantial publication record in prestigious periodicals; nowadays the perhaps somewhat cynical assertion is not “publish or perish” but “publish and perish” if you don’t also have a green thumb when it comes to getting substantial outside financial support for your research program.

DG: Thank you for your recommendations. I am very grateful for your work. And I thank you for this interview.

Also read (1) Historical Gestalts: A Review of Michael Wertheimer’s Brief History of Psychology (5th edition).

Also read (2) Kurt Michael’s (2006) interview with Michael Wertheimer, “What I Think I May Have Learned—Reflections on 50 Years of Teaching”.

Historical Gestalts

A review of Michael Wertheimer’s “A Brief History of Psychology”  (5th edition). Psychology Press, 2012.

June 20, 2015

If you read the previous letter, you might remember that I mentioned starting Wertheimer’s book on the plane from Tampa to Toronto. Once I was back in Toronto, I had to focus most of my energy on finishing my dissertation (which is now completed). Although writing the dissertation was very demanding, reading history-of-psychology material remained a consistent part of my daily routine. I finished Wertheimer’s book and I am excited to begin reviewing it for you. Due to time constraints, I will have to write it in multiple fragments.

June 24, 2015

Anyone who attempts writing a comprehensive history of psychology is a hero of mine. To appreciate Wertheimer’s task, imagine sharing your life story with a friend. Where would you begin your story? Would you begin with your own birth or would you begin with your parents or even earlier? Would you begin with the cultural climate? Would you begin by mentioning some important events around the time of your birth? How would you order the events? Would you go through a timeline of events, properly ordered in a sequence? Or would you go back-and-forth in time in order to do justice to each separate theme of your life? Even an individual life contains multiple stories. How would you decide what to eliminate? What information would you eliminate and what would you keep-but-summarize? There are so many decisions involved. And those decisions are involved in any attempt in writing a history of anything. The decisions have consequences for the kind of story you tell. And they have consequences for how your listener experiences your story.

Wertheimer’s volume begins with highlighting the importance of these decisions as they relate to the history of psychology. There is no such a thing, he argues, as the definitive history of psychology. The history we read is the outcome of countless decisions. Of course, this does not mean the decisions are arbitrary. The decisions are made consciously and intentionally. They are grounded in a set of criteria, but the criteria are subject to bias and subject to change.

I should first point out the important distinction between giving a brief account and a selective account of the history of psychology. The selective style is dominated by elimination, while the brief style is based on summarization. A selective history enables in-depth focus and extensive treatment of a few topics, while a brief history enables access to the bigger picture(s) that include, not only more topics, but more comparisons between the topics. In this sense, Wertheimer’s volume is aptly titled. It covers an impressively wide range of topics central to the history of psychology, although it covers most of the topics rather briefly. The interested reader is given many potential lines of exploration. Above all, the wide scope of the volume enables a big-picture view of the discipline.

What is the benefit of having a big-picture view of Psychology? The benefit has to do with the way each individual topic is treated with a mindfulness of the larger context. Similar to the logic of Gestalt Psychology, the whole of the history of psychology is distinct from, and has primary over, individual stories. Let’s take Wundt (1832-1920) as an example. One could simply discuss the experimental work of Wundt and move to the next chapter. Given that Wundt’s experimental work played a more dominant role in the next generation of professional psychologists, this might seem like a fair decision. It is not difficult, however, to make an argument for the inclusion of Wundt’s cultural psychology. The point is not only that Wundt’s cultural psychology should be included for its own sake. There is a more subtle point. Namely, a fair treatment of Wundt’s experimental psychology would require inclusion of his cultural psychology, because the latter would clarify, through contradistinction, the scope of the former. It would clarify Wundt’s intentions and philosophies of the two psychologies.

The dominance of Wundt’s experimental psychology — and its emphasis on the study of perception — had consequences for the image of the discipline and for future intellectual movements within psychology. Because of Wundt’s emphasis on perception, Gestalt Psychologists were also viewed as primarily concerned with perception, even though the core members of the Gestaltist movement were concerned primarily with thinking. Accordingly, Max Wertheimer’s paper in 1912 on perception of apparent motion, as well as Kurt Koffka’s 1922 review paper on perception, found a home in the mainstream much more easily than other aspects of Gestalt Psychology. Here, Michael Wertheimer demonstrates the point that intellectual movements should be considered in relation to each other, instead of being treated separately. This is not always in the service of unifying the movements in a single story but, as is in the case of Wundt and the Gestaltists, in the service of appreciating genuine differences (in scope and subject-matter) that exist between the movements.

Another good example is the case of Structuralism. Structuralism was relatively less effective in gathering and maintaining supporters and, therefore, is typically dismissed in histories of psychology. There is, however, more to Structuralism than a failed school of thought. Wertheimer shows the important role of Structuralism in the history of psychology — The other early 20th century American psychological movements, including Functionalism and Behaviorism, defined themselves largely in explicit contrast to Structuralism. It is clear that James Angell could not have written his papers, which established the standpoint of Functionalist Psychology so well, had it not been for Titchener to occupy the contrary position. Indeed, it is conceivable that had Structuralism not been a part of early 20th century American Psychology, students of William James would have invented their own version of Structuralism.

June 25, 2015

I was pleasantly surprised to read about Franz Brentano (1838-1917) in this book, and I believe the comparison between Brentano’s psychology and Wundt’s experimental psychology was done fairly and effectively. Discussion of the systematic and crucial experiments is interesting and important for students with an interest in philosophy of science. The inclusion of figures like Brentano reveals to the interested students the vastly different forms that psychology can take on different philosophical grounds.

Wundt’s “Physiological Psychology” and Brentano’s “Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint” were both published in 1874. Years later, Titchener would make the following statement about the two thinkers: “The student of psychology, though his personal indebtedness be also twofold, must still make his choice for the one or the other. There is no middle way between Brentano and Wundt.” (1921; The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 32, p. 108). Although Titchener’s position might be exaggerated, Brentano’s style of psychology represents an important complement to Wundtian experimental psychology.

June 26, 2015

Let’s go back to the beginning of the book. The first person who is mentioned in Wertheimer’s text is one of his mentors, Karl Muenzinger (1885-1958), who traced the origins of psychology in terms of eight distinct intellectual and technological trends. These eight trends (or dimensions) stay with us throughout the text and provide a set of evaluative heuristics to examine each intellectual movement. In effect, Wertheimer breaks down each school of thought into separable dimensions. This analysis makes apparent, for instance, that Structuralism and Behaviorism — schools that otherwise drastically differed from each other — shared several common philosophical assumptions, including atomism. This is the (anti-Gestaltist) assumption that understanding complex psychological phenomena is possible through understanding their constituent elements (“atoms”).

Although the elements of Behaviorism and Structuralism were not the same, both schools made the promise of one day providing a systematic and comprehensive science of psychology that would rest on an understanding of those basic elements. Furthermore, both schools promised the eventual unification of psychology with the rest of the life sciences by the eventual discovery of the physiological correlates of their psychological elements. One could, in addition, argue (as Raymond H. Wheeler did in a series of five articles in 1925) that the strong position of the two schools with regard to exclusion of each other from the subject-matter of psychology was also grounded in a dualism that they shared in common. After all, how could one argue for the exclusion of either the mind [as the behaviourists did] or behaviour [as the structuralists did] from the scope of psychology without adhering to their sharp distinction? Considering these shared assumptions is important for anyone who is interested in examining why these schools of thoughts failed to unify the discipline. 

June 28, 2015

In part IV of the text, Wertheimer considers the future of psychology and demonstrates how examining the discipline’s past can sharpen our vision of the present-day state of psychology. He states that, “[p]sychology as an integrated diversified umbrella discipline might have had its heyday in the middle of the 20th century, but that heyday appears to have passed. […] People identify with particular subfields and not with broad, general psychology anymore.” (p. 242) Does this undermine the attempt to understand the discipline, including the author’s own project? No. Once again, we should remember that understanding any subfield of psychology would benefit from an understanding of the larger context that includes other subfields. Contrast is as important as similarity. And apparent similarities can be as deceiving as apparent differences. Wertheimer’s volume demonstrates these points numerous times and, consequently, justifies studying the history of psychology.

June 29, 2015

Today, I walked into my first “History of Psychology” class. Sixty students are enrolled in the class, which is a surprisingly high number for a summer course. I am excited about teaching the course and I do hope it will be a good learning experience for the students. Having read Wertheimer’s textbook was an important part of my preparation, and I am sure I will return to it several times during the course. I certainly recommend this book to my students, especially to those who already have some background in the subject. The chapters devoted to Wundt and Gestalt Psychology are particularly strong and I would benefit from re-reading them.

To emphasize, once again, I see the major strength of the book to be in its insightful examination of each intellectual movement in relation to the intellectual and cultural context, in relation to other movements within psychology, and in relation to the set of eight general dimensions that could be applied to any psychological movement or sub-discipline. Wertheimer’s text is a great contribution that would raise the awareness of students not only about psychology’s past but its present and its possible futures.

Postscript: Here is my interview with Michael Wertheimer.

Interview with Michael Billig

Michael Billig is a professor of social sciences at Loughborough University, Leicestershire, UK. He is the author of several books, including “Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences”, “Freudian Repression: Conversation Creating the Unconscious”, and “Arguing and Thinking: A Rhetorical Approach to Social Psychology”. There are also a few interviews that are available online (here is one example), but I could not find any that were intended specifically for young academics. The following interview, therefore, is intended first and foremost for graduate students in the social sciences.

Davood Gozli: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Professor Billig. Given that many of my colleagues in experimental psychology may not be familiar with your work, let’s begin with a general question. How would you describe your approach to psychology? What are some of the goals that have been motivating your work?

Michael Billig: I am not sure that I have an ‘approach’ in the sense which that word tends to be used. I don’t have a set theory or methodology with which I approach various topics. However, I do tend to approach topics, which interest me, with a similar style. I tend to become interested to the point of obsession in a particular topic, often because I want to find out about something that I do not know much about. As a start I read as widely as I can about the topic. In effect this has often led me to read more social scientific, historical and philosophical works than purely psychological works. In consequence, my work tends not to fit a neat disciplinary framework and certainly not the framework of experimental psychology. However, I am also interested in the ways that people use rhetoric and language generally, and I often find myself investigating psychological problems through the close examination of rhetoric. In this regard my analyses are often qualitative, but I don’t see doing qualitative or quantitative analyses as a matter of principle.

DG: I learned a lot from your book, “Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences”. Even though I knew about Thomas Kuhn’s notion of the disciplinary matrix, I became aware of it in a much more personal way after reading your book, and noticed some of the ways the disciplinary matrix affects my own practices. Please tell us about what motivated the writing of this book.

MB: I give a short account in the opening chapter of the book. I recount how, as a postgraduate student, I had great difficulty in understanding, let alone use, the technical concepts of experimental social psychology. I would try to translate them into the sort of simple English that I understood and how sometimes, as I turned the big words into ordinary words, the meaning seemed to disappear. At the time, I found that I lost confidence and wondered whether I could ever become a ‘proper’ academic. Over the years, the difficulty has increased rather than decreased, but now I don’t feel it to be a sign of failure. I wanted to write a book that analysed why so many academics in the social sciences – and I include psychology in the social sciences – use big words and what is wrong with using big words, when smaller ones will suffice. I did not want to write a book that just complained about academic language: I wanted to write a book which analysed current rhetorical practices and to show exactly what is wrong linguistically with such practices. To this end, I needed to engage in discursive and linguistic analyses.

DG: In the present time, writing and publishing are – for good or ill – necessities for academics. In such a condition, how can we begin to increase the relevance, accessibility, quality of our writing? Are there any specific writing exercises that you endorse?

MB: It is often assumed that technical writing is more precise than ordinary language. In my view, the reverse is often the case, especially when it comes to writing about human actions. If you use currently fashionable technical phrases, which typically are nominal phrases, you often do not have to make your meaning precise – you just take a phrase which sounds precise but may be used in all manner of imprecise ways. If you use simpler language to describe actions, you often have to stipulate exactly what you mean – stipulating who did what and how. I would not advocate specific writing exercises but would urge all young academics to write as simply as they can, using, for example, active verbs rather than passive sentences.

DG: Your own writing is extraordinary. You write in a clear, engaging, and persuasive way. In my experience, many of the writers who take a critical stance against the mainstream psychology are rather difficult to read. Is obscurity part of the disciplinary matrix of the critical approaches or is that a coincidence?

MB: There are some social scientists who believe that ordinary language is ideologically compromised and that to be critical of conventional ways of thinking, you have to use special language. Hence some social critics have used tortuous language. However, I think that their position is wrong on two counts. Today, many of those who wield social and economic power use specialist language to reinforce their power, rather than ordinary language. You only have to think of management jargon. In these conditions, the language of ordinary people may not be so ideologically conservative. Second, language is not a set matrix of meanings which are imposed upon the users of the language. We use language to argue, to criticize and to say ‘no’. And it is self-regarding and erroneous to think that only those equipped with special, critical terminology can do these things.

DG: On the topic of critical psychology, in several places you have made the observation that a critical approach can give rise to a disciplinary matrix of its own, with its own new terminology, textbooks, and a body of literature that becomes increasingly insulated, reducing contact with the original target of the critique. Should critical approaches regard disciplinarity as an obstacle?

MB: Yes they should aware that a ‘critical approach’ can become a new orthodoxy, which students have to learn uncritically. William James stressed the importance of being undisciplined. In my experience, the best way of avoiding being orthodox is to read widely. If you just read what everyone else in your discipline or sub-discipline is reading, then you will, as likely as not, end up thinking like everyone else. But if you read eclectically, then you have a chance of acquiring a distinctive set of ideas.

DG: Your book, “The Hidden Roots of Critical Psychology: Understanding the Impact of Locke, Shaftesbury, and Reid” tells a captivating story of three philosophers who remain surprisingly relevant to the field of psychology to this day. How did you discover Shaftesbury? And how did that discovery lead to the writing of the book?

MB: Prior to writing ‘Hidden Roots’ I wrote a book on humour and I came across Shaftesbury through my reading about different theories of humour. Shaftesbury had written about the importance of humour, and stressed that he did not mean vulgar humour but the humour to be found in gentleman’s clubs. I mocked this snobbish attitude. But then I read a bit more and realized that I had been unfair to Shaftesbury – not least because he was not referring to ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ in the modern sense. I had a guilty conscience for mocking him so easily. And the more I read about him and by him, the more I appreciated his originality and depth. So, ‘The hidden roots’ was really an apology but it was an apology which I enjoyed making.

DG: Aside from Shaftesbury and Reid, who are some other forgotten figures in the history of psychology?

MB: Yes although they tend to be figures forgotten by the history of psychology, often because they formulated psychological ideas which were not taken up by psychologists or found their way unnoticed into the thinking of major, better known, later figures. Abraham Tucker is one such figure. He was an eighteenth century English thinker, who lived a very intellectually isolated life. He was ignored in his own day and by later generations. His book The Light of Nature Pursued, however, formulated a view of the mind which in many respects anticipated ideas to be found in William James, including the key idea of consciousness being like a stream. I wrote an article in praise of Abraham Tucker in Theory & Psychology three or four years ago. I’m sure that there are many other neglected delights to be found.

DG: What are some of your favorite books? And, what is your favorite Michael Billig book?

MB: Over the years I have enjoyed and been influence by many different books. I have loved reading William James’s Principles of Psychology and many of Freud’s works, especially his Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis and his Studies on Hysteria. I was greatly influenced by Hannah Arendt, especially Eichmann in Jerusalem, which changed the way I thought about the social world, and by Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. It has been wonderful to have been paid to read. But that has meant being able to read works that have not been enjoyable to read. The most extreme example is that I read Mein Kampf when I was studying fascism.

Favourite books are those one reads and re-reads. I don’t read and re-read my own works.

DG: Do you have any other general advice for the young academics who will read this interview?

MB: Be brave and do things for their own sake rather than because you think they will be useful for your ‘career’. Above all try to read widely. By reading widely, you can ‘meet’ some extraordinary thinkers.

DG: I am grateful to have discovered you and your work. And I thank you for this opportunity.


Also read: Inheriting the Past (A Review of Michael Billig’s “The Hidden Roots of Critical Psychology: Understanding the Impact of Locke, Shaftesbury, & Reid”)

Inheriting the Past

A review of Michael Billig’s “The Hidden Roots of Critical Psychology: Understanding the Impact of Locke, Shaftesbury, & Reid”.

May 17, 2015

I am beginning to write this review during my stay in Treasure Island, Florida. I am scheduled to give a talk at the Vision Sciences Society’s (VSS) annual conference on Tuesday morning — two days from today — but I have not been preparing for that talk. Instead, I have been obsessing over this book by Michael Billig. Today, I finally finished it. I got out of bed, made coffee, stayed on the couch like a zombie until I reached the end of the book, and began thinking about writing this review as I stepped into the shower.

Finding this book was itself an interesting chance events, which had to do partly with meeting Thomas Teo. During the past fall, I had to read, review, and discuss Teo’s book “The Critique of Psychology: From Kant to Postcolonial Theory” as coursework for a graduate level seminar on history of psychology. Thomas Teo joined that session and heard us discuss his book. After the class, I approached him and asked if he could give me some guidance for further reading on critical psychology. He graciously agreed. I was naively hoping for a short list of 3-5 books, perhaps ordered by their importance. Instead, I received a long list of close to a hundred books, ordered alphabetically. I went through the list feeling defeated under the heavy burden of “homework” for what I considered a fancy hobby. Among the list of authors I recognized one name — Michael Billig. I had just finished reading “Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences”, which was a book that you had brought to my attention.

A quick note on “Learn to Write Badly”. I strongly believe this book is a must-read for students of psychology. The book made a very strong impact on me and it deserves a review of its own. For now, I would just say that there is a special kind of trust for a writer that is formed after reading a great book. The kind of trust that makes it very easy to decide to read the author’s other works. The kind of trust that is generalized, raising your baseline level of optimism for other writers and other books. I felt that trust after reading “Learn to Write Badly”. Therefore, choosing “The Hidden Roots” out of Teo’s long list was easy.

Why is “The Hidden Roots” so important? A more specific question that I feel better equipped to address is why this book is so important for students of cognitive psychology. The reason has to do with the scope of cognitive psychology. It has to do with the “blindspots” of cognitive psychology. It has to do with what — of psychology — is included and what — of psychology — is excluded in this scope. It has to do with a debate regarding the importance of what is included and excluded. It has to do with the underlying assumptions of psychology about what it means to be human. “The Hidden Roots” tackles these issues by bringing to life a story from the forgotten past of psychology, and by showing how that story remains unfinished and the debate remains unresolved.

The past is never finished. As new intellectual challenges arise, so our view of the past. Sometimes it is necessary to ask what the conventional views are overlooking: what is being concealed today by the histories that have been regularly told? (l. 42)

The book is particularly important for those who are sensing that “something is missing” about the picture of the human mind that is painted by cognitive psychology, but cannot fully articulate what it is that is missing. Cognitive psychology has made the big promise of understanding the nature of human thinking and the sources of human behaviour. Its connection to other disciplines, such as computer science, linguistics, and neuroscience further gives us the impression that the nature of the mind is going to be grasped sooner or later. “It’s only a matter of time”.

At a deeper level, the promise of cognitive psychology is compelling for the same reasons that John Locke’s view of the human mind was compelling. They are both compelling because of the intuitive appeal of two underlying assumptions — individualism (that an individual, taken out of his/her social, cultural, and historical context can be the subject of psychological investigation) and elementism (that the mind of the individual subject can be understood through investigating sub-personal psychological “objects” or processes, i.e., the psychological elements). Pointing out these two assumptions and their consequences is one of Billig’s important accomplishments in the book.

May 20, 2015

… Writing this review was interrupted by the busy conference schedule. My talk went quite well, despite not having rehearsed it very much. My colleagues and fellow travellers listened to me practice the night before the talk and gave me some helpful suggestions. Jason Rajsic in particular was the cause of many improvements, for which I am grateful. Anyways, back to our topic…

As you know, I took a course on early modern philosophy during my undergraduate at Trent. Unfortunately, the course was very dry and uninspiring, and was one of the reasons I decided not to go for a double-major in philosophy and psychology. In retrospect, I believe the course lacked a truly historical dimension. Instead of considering the philosophers’ historical, social, cultural, and personal contexts, we read a set of primary texts. Again, in retrospect, I believe it was not a coincidence that our instructor was enamoured with the present-day cognitive neuroscience, to the point that the work of Antonio Damasio found its way into the lectures on Descartes and Hobbes. Was Shaftesbury mentioned? Not once.

My experience in that early modern philosophy course taught me an important lesson: Learning about the past can seem like a completely futile endeavour, if we believe that the past is simply a less advanced version of the present. I particularly found reading Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” to be an irritating and useless experience. The book seemed like an unnecessary way to think and talk about what I was already thinking and talking about in my psychology courses. The course eventually ended and I very strongly felt I would not have anything to do with Locke for the rest of my life. It was reading Billig’s “The Hidden Roots” that opened my eyes to the importance of Locke. I now understand what makes reading Locke so irritating today, especially for someone who is decently-versed in cognitive psychology.

Present psychologists will supposedly recognize parts of their own activities in the distant parent’s work. But other parts ensure that the parent belongs to a pre-disciplinary generation. Locke remains an ancestor – a framed portrait gazing from the wall – rather than a distinguished colleague. Thus, the paternal label suggests a complex pattern of recognizable similarities and differences, points of identification and points of difference (l. 421).

Locke’s ‘way of ideas’ is fundamentally consistent with the contemporary cognitive psychology, while at the same time appearing painfully primitive and, consequently, unnecessary to read. It is the kind of writing that discourages students from studying history of psychology. Side note: While in a conversation with someone at the conference the other day, I mentioned that I would be teaching history of psychology during the summer. His response was, “could you have chosen anything more boring?” A question like this is rooted, unfortunately, in a prevalent misunderstanding of the potential role of history. “The Hidden Roots” effectively challenges this misunderstanding.

May 22, 2015

… I am back in Toronto. I was reading Michael Wertheimer’s “A Brief History of Psychology” on the plane, and noticed an interesting connection. In the “Brief History”, Wertheimer refers to the decline of the Greek civilization after Alexander the Great, and two philosophical responses to that crisis — Epicureanism and Stoicism (p.25). It is interesting that the same two responses returned during the Enlightenment period, perhaps in response to the crisis of faith. Billig describes how Stoicism returned in the works of Shaftesbury and Reid, while Epicureanism returned in the hands of Gassendi and Locke.

At present, we remember our Epicurean forerunners better, not because they were more important, but because they are more similar to us.

What really caught the imagination of seventeenth century thinkers were not so much Epicurus’s ethical and aesthetic teachings. It was his atomism. Epicurus had taken from Democritus the notion that the world was comprised of small, indivisible units of matter […] (l.969).

In light of the Epicurean elementism, what is supposed to be the stoic alternative? Even though it is not quite straightforward to derive a philosophy of psychology from stoic philosophy, it is true that certain ways of approaching psychology are incompatible with the stoic mindset. And this is due to stoic ethical and social sensibilities. Billig, through the study of Shaftesbury and Reid, shows us how adopting a stoic mindset renders certain ways of approaching psychology trivial, while rendering others as misguided.

The stoic reaction was simple. If you search for ever smaller units, you will come up with discoveries of increasing triviality. Epictetus expressed this stoic impatience with atomism as a principle of exploration: ‘What does it signify to me … whether the universe is composed of atoms or uncompounded substances, or of fire and earth?’ What really matters, he continued, is to know ‘the essence of good and evil, and the proper bounds of the desires and aversions’ (l.1512).

By shedding light on the hidden half of the Locke-Shaftesbury debate, Billig shows at the same time (a) the limits of a Lockean psychology, and (b) how far the scope of psychology could reach if it is liberated from individualism, elementism, and the desire to found a “system” upon a set of irrefutable premises. What was missing in Lockean psychology was a relevance to ethics, social conduct, social bonds, personal identity, dialogue, ideology, or aesthetics.

Shaftesbury was attracted to stoic philosophy as a guide for moral self-improvement. He wrote in his Regimen that if philosophical thinking is to mean anything, then it must be ‘a matter of practice’. The purpose of his studies was ‘my own amendment’ and there was little value in ‘those speculations’ that did not lead to ‘my amendment’ (l. 1486).

What is it about the past that illuminates the present so uniquely? What is it about learning about the Epicurean metaphysics, the Lockean ‘way of ideas’ that illuminates so effectively the underlying philosophical assumptions of my own work in cognitive psychology? I don’t completely understand. Mind you, it is not my goal to undermine my own discipline. It is my goal to be aware of its scope, its limits, its reach, and its blindspots as much as possible. And I have come to believe that such an awareness is not possible without considering what we have inherited from the past. We have not inherited ideas. We have inherited debates and oppositions of ideas. To regard only one side of those opposition alone would be a failure to truly inherit the past. What we belong to is not a single line of development, but a series of dialogues. To continue along a single line of development is to deny the true meaning of what we do.

I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in philosophy of psychology. In fact, unlike Teo, I would recommend only this one book to students of cognitive psychology, knowing that appreciating this book would lead them to further research and perhaps dozens of other books. After reading this book, the student would either have to change what he/she is doing, or to acquire a completely new and enriched awareness of his/her own practice.

At any rate, I am looking forward to our meeting tomorrow. Thank you, once again, for bringing Michael Billig to my attention. I am also grateful for Thomas Teo for sending me his list of readings. And I will let you know if I make any further progress on that list.


Read More: Interview with Michael Billig