Margins and Vitality

A good friend asked me a series of questions, which were meant to act as writing probes. One of them was: “Is psychology a dead-end or is it waiting to be born?”.

I decided to write an answer to it, because it is the only question on his list that bothered me. I sensed an urge to avoid it, and I was also inclined to see it as a personal attack. Notice this possible rephrase: Is what you have devoted your life to a dead end? Or is it a promise of birth? The question offers only two choices. Does it offer a false dichotomy? After all NOT {dead end} doesn’t equal {promise of birth}, and NOT {promise of birth} doesn’t equal {dead end}.

It is already apparent that I want to analyze the question, instead of answering it. I want to find a license to dismiss it, similar to how your question might be asking for a license to dismiss Psychology.

Notice the similarity in the way I perceive the question, and my own response to it. I feel that the questioner is asking for a license to dismiss Psychology. Or perhaps the questioner wants to confirm (or renew) a license he thinks he already has. And, when I entertain this judgment of the question, I am inclined to dismiss it. But I can’t.

I have to admit my thinking of this issue was extremely biased during my final two years in Toronto. And those were the days in which we regularly talked about Psychology, my doubts, and my strategies for overcoming the limits of the discipline. Context is important. Instead of University of Toronto, I could have been part of York University’s History & Theory of Psychology division. Had I been in a different place, in a different department, working with a different group of people, I might have been feeling differently about Psychology. I might have felt less frustrated, less critical, or less detached.

No, not necessarily. And this secondary, self-critical response comes from recalling Amedeo Giorgi’s analysis of his own position. In an autobiographical chapter, he argues against the idea that marginality is a choice we make after careful evaluation of our tradition (Giorgi, 2009). Instead of a choice, he paints a picture of marginality as destiny. The marginal figure is already marginal before coming to a full realization of the tradition. The disposition to resist, or fail to identify with, the mainstream is already there before one is able to consciously evaluate one’s tradition. It’s as if Giorgi says, “I see the problems, and I voice them out. But I am also aware that the drive behind my voice is probably supplied from somewhere other than seeing the problems themselves.” I’m telling you this to invite some degree of skepticism regarding how you might interpret my criticism of mainstream Psychology.

There is another, related way to re-think those last two years in Toronto. And to get into that I should first talk about another psychologist, Raymond Bergner. In one of his several under-appreciated papers, Bergner (1998) asks, what is it that makes an activity meaningful? He makes a taxonomy of three categories — An activity can be meaningful in three ways. It can be intrinsically meaningful (good for its own sake; not requiring any further justification); it can be instrumentally meaningful, i.e., it leads to some desired outcome (such as money, freedom, health, status, etc.); it can be spiritually meaningful. His concept of spirituality here isn’t supernatural, and it can be rephrased in terms of the concepts of character or integration. In the spiritual sense, an activity is meaningful if it fits the person’s broader sets of values and aims, or his/her superordinate intentions, as those values and aims have been evolving through the individual’s history.

So, those years I had became aware that what I was doing was instrumentally meaningful, and at times intrinsically meaningful, but it wasn’t spiritually meaningful. Why is that such a big problem? Why can’t I just enjoy the results of my work (status, career, etc.) like many others? We should consider the nature of marginality, once again, to make sense of my inability to be content with the instrumental meaning of my work.

Instrumental meaning, particularly the kind of instrumental meaning associated with academic success, exists only within a sub-cultural context, within a specific type of community. Academic success does not typically address any basic survival need, but is rather a kind of currency that can be appreciated only by virtue of membership in a cultural community. I claim that it is most meaningful at the mainstream of that cultural community, by individuals who most strongly identify with such meaning. The closer you feel to the mainstream, the more you can identify with the instrumental meaning (e.g., status), and the more that instrumental meaning can merge with your spiritual meaning. What about the marginal figure? It seems to me that the marginal figure, even when faced with instrumental success, cannot derive meaning from it. Again, we face Giorgi’s idea that marginality is destiny.

So far, I have avoided your question. I said I was inclined to analyze the question, but instead I have spent time analyzing my forthcoming answer (if I ever end up answering the question at all). I have spent time talking about why you should take my criticisms of Psychology with a grain of salt.

Moreover, if I were truly a marginal figure (as I sometimes think I am), would I still be irritated by your question? Would I still take your question as a personal attack?  My strong emotional reaction, despite my self-proclaimed marginality, is a demonstration that marginality is not a form of detachment, but a form of attachment. It is a form of affinity, a way to belong, a way to self-identify, a way to see oneself and one’s tradition. When Jacques Derrida said, “I never speak of what I do not admire”, he was responding to the misperception — that many, including Jordan Peterson, hold — that his lifework was a simply a destructive force against his tradition, whereas it was truly an effort to keep that tradition alive.

But Peterson himself holds that any tradition is always already dead. And the essence of marginality (or, liminality) might be the recognition of this lack of vitality, this frightening lack of vitality in a gigantic, organized machine that continues to move despite having no life. The promise of rebirth might be wishful thinking, but it might also be what constitutes the source of spiritual meaning.

I didn’t start by directly answering your question, because the context of the answer had to be prepared first. It would be reasonable to regard Psychology as (at least partially) dead, as much as it would be reasonable to see it as waiting to be (continually) re-born.


Bergner, R. M. (1998). Therapeutic approaches to problems of meaninglessness. American Journal of Psychotherapy52, 72-87.

Giorgi, A. (2009). Professional marginalization in psychology: Choice or destiny? In L. P. Mos (Ed.), History of Psychology in Autobiography (pp. 131-157). Springer.

Notes in Feb 2018

You might not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you. Academic politics is as unavoidable as politics in any other communal domain. Your withdrawal, your inaction, your compliance will help perpetuate existing structures, unexamined positions, and rent seekers.

academic olympics

At first glance, it may seem like the stakes are not high. Ego strokes seem to be the primary currency. But that itself is the outcome a diversion. The diversion begins when an academic sees him/herself as outside of the real world. It begins when we see ourselves as stroke accumulators. Yes, feel free to replace “stroke” with “h-index”, “citation”, or “publications”.

We ought to be more than that, but what exactly?

There is ambiguity in the identity of a scholar, and I think that ambiguity has to be embraced. If I am an agent of a specific theoretical position, e.g., responsible for defending a side in a debate, then I am a partisan. Being a partisan is relatively easy. We want to be more than that. We want to be scholars. But what is that exactly?

Forced Positions

A student stopped me on the corridor the other day, and asked: “I’m doing some research on task-switching, but I don’t know what is the relevance of this research to everyday life. How is my work relevant? How can I apply it?”

I told him, in a tone that I believed was playful and lighthearted, that there might not be any application. Basic research does not promise applicability. It’s better to accept that possibility, rather than hold on to the delusion that every experiment we conduct has a direct, important, real-life application.

Today, I saw him again. He told me he had shared my sentiment with his supervisor, and that his supervisor had strongly disagreed with my “partisan” position. Of course, he was talking about the partisan position that he had manufactured for me.

You might not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you. Your withdrawal, your inaction, your compliance might force you into positions with which you disagree. Sometimes it is necessary to take a side. Other times, it may be necessary to be able to clearly express not taking sides. It may be necessary to get out of forced positions.

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”.

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”)