Letter 1: 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