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.

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.

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