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”.

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