Interview with Jan Smedslund

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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”)