You Do not Stand Alone

Reflections on: Natsoulas, T. (2005). The Varieties of Religious Experience considered from the perspective of James’s account of the stream of consciousness. In R. D. Ellis & N. Newton (Eds.), Consciousness & Emotion: Agency, Conscious Choice, and Selective Perception (pp. 303-325). John Benjamins Publishing.


In a brief address, published in Psychological Review in 1943, E. L. Thorndike attempts to acknowledge the contributions of William James to psychology. On the  first page of the article, he claims that the contribution is restricted to the Principles of Psychology. Whatever was published after 1890, Thorndike claims, was either a reformulation of what was already contained in the Principles or a contribution to philosophy. He then points out the one exception: The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).

“Though treasured by all serious students of religion, this dealt with narrow problems of a specialized field. The influence of James on psychology means essentially the influence of the Principles of psychology.” (Thorndike, 1943, p.87)

This judgment is still with us as the dominant view of the contributions of James.

Before starting to discuss your work, let me begin on a more personal note. I’ve been reading “The Intellectual Life”, by Antonin Sertillanges (1920), after a friend recommended it to me. Among other things, I am taken by the conviction and confidence with which Sertillanges writes. When I shared this impression (mixed with a bit of envy) with my friend, he tried to explain to me some of the possible sources of this conviction. In addition to being a Dominican priest, Sertillanges stood within an immense intellectual tradition — with the central figure being Thomas Aquinas — who provided him with a collective narrative in addition to his own personal life history. Laying claim to that tradition was most likely a major source of conviction and confidence.

When you — reflecting on William James — refer to religious experiences, I think of the role of such collective cultural edifices to which Sertillanges had a clear and strong access. Or perhaps I should say edifices on which he relied and through which he navigated. I’m going to stay with this phrase “cultural edifice” because it opens up useful analogies. A physical edifice, such as the building in which I am at this moment, serves many functions. It can be a frame of reference — I am sitting in my office on the third floor of the building, next to several other Psychology offices. I know where I am, in relation to (and thanks to) the building coordinates. Further, the building is support — the floors under me prevent me from falling down and the ceiling above me protects me from the heavy rain. It can be structure and constraint — the walls prevent me and my colleagues from walking/looking into each others’ offices. Aren’t cultural edifices similar? Don’t they provide a frame of reference, support, structure, and constraint? A cultural edifice is, among other things, a system of propositions. A proposition affords belief, but it also affords support for further beliefs (by implications), similar to how the floor under me supports standing. I think this is in line with your Gibsonian reading of Varieties. What I became aware of while reading your paper is the inevitable consequences of such a cultural edifice in terms of sensory and affective experience, given that these are essential attributes of any experience. Even though those edifices themselves do not possess sensory and affective qualities, they provide support for experiencing such qualities.

While reading, I kept wondering: Should a psychologist sidestep the question of ontology when it comes to the topic of religion? Is it possible to sidestep the question? Categories of experience take their distinctions in part on the basis of our shared inter-subjective reality. Concepts such as paranoia and hallucination can help emphasize this point. And yet, we also cannot refute the sense/reference distinction (Frege). So perhaps religious experience is something we ought to explore in the sense of an experienced event, as opposed to the event itself (reference). Going back to my example of a physical edifice, perhaps it’s more important to discuss how I think of/use the building, how I actualize the potentials in the building (or the potentials that arise from myself and the building), rather than stressing the nature of the building itself.

I am unsure whether you wanted to completely sidestep the question of ontology. Perhaps, part of your intention (and James’s) is to point out that ontology may not be the only (or the most interesting) aspect of this topic.

Reflecting on your paper, Sertillanges, and cultural edifices made me think about my own motive behind building these signposts here. Since this is my first letter to you, let me elaborate on this point a little. I’m trying to discover (and claim) my tradition. A few days before leaving Toronto, I had coffee with one of my teachers and told him about my doubts about having a public and non-scholarly writing space. I said I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d be doing with it. I knew I had a goal, but the nature of the goal, or my perception of it, was fuzzy and unclear. He responded: You’ll be creating a space in which certain expressions are possible. If it wasn’t for this space, I would have never approached Fiona, Ray, or Jan. I wouldn’t have read and incorporated their works into my thinking. At the very outset of the book, Sertillanges says: You do not stand alone. Hasn’t this been one of the themes ever since I wrote that review of The Hidden Roots of Critical Psychology? The structure that I have been trying to create here is now supporting the writing of this letter to you.

In writing, I am attempting to enact the sentiment of not standing alone, as a message (meditation) for myself, to those I am writing about, and to those I am writing for. I’m trying to maintain a space in which certain expressions/experiences are possible, but I am far from being the sole source of those expressions. I attempt to point toward a set of possibility (if not a specific desirable future). Possibilities for psychologists (if not for Psychology) that are worth considering. Possibilities that are grounded in a tradition that I’m trying to better understand (and perhaps even claim as my own).

I use the word “maintain”, as in maintaining a habit, consciously. You pointed out James’s distinction between mystical and religious experiences which he made despite the similar qualities of the two kinds of experience. I believe the key to their distinction can be expressed in terms of habits. In other words, the difference between mystical and religious experiences is not in the ends but rather in the means. If the same end can be achieved both by means of inhaling nitrous oxide and by means of inheriting and maintaining a cultural edifice, the similarity of ends can only be in their sensory quality, rather than in their cognitive attributes or their meaning. I think of Raymond Bergner’s (1998) taxonomy of meaning (intrinsic, instrumental, & spiritual). For the drug user the “mystical” experience has intrinsic value, whereas for the religious person it has “spiritual” value. It stands — and acquires meaning — within an existing structure of propositions and practices. It stands, furthermore, within a community of individuals who share those propositions and practices (I think of the way Marx brought into focus the religious nature of participation in a capitalist system).

When I started reading your chapter, I expected to read a deconstruction of the religious/non-religious dichotomy of experiences. Now I don’t think that was your goal. But the deconstruction seems worth exploring, primarily because certain features run through both sides of the dichotomy: sensations and affects (qualia), about-ness (Brentano), concepts (Kant), conviction, presence/absence (Husserl), anticipation of what comes next (how what is currently absent might be disclosed after an action), sympathy (to see a hill/person is to recognize to possibility of being seen from the hill/by the person), etc. Such a deconstruction would not necessarily reduce the “spiritual” domain into the material reality, but would perhaps bring spirituality back to the everyday domain. More importantly, it might afford ways of discussing the topic that are open to both religious and non-religious people. The reason why I think you did not aim at such a deconstruction was your emphasis (based on James’s) on unique attributes of mystical/religious experience (pp.320-321). But I am not convinced whether these attributes — at least when taken individually — are uniquely religious.

Let me end this by saying that I enjoyed reading the chapter, not only because of your clear and stimulating writing, but because of the bridges to a great line of thinkers (James, Gibson, etc.). Those thinkers left behind a cultural edifice that is worth exploring, understanding, and preserving. It is, in part, by virtue of that edifice that we do not stand alone.

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.