Hyper-Loops or Ten Minute Musings from the Rocking Chair
Kurt Danziger's Remarks on receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the section for History and Philosophy of Psychology at the annual meeting of the Canadian Psychological Association, Toronto, June 3, 2011.
First, let me express my appreciation
for an award that is particularly dear to me, coming as it does from colleagues
with whom I have shared so many interests and concerns over so many years.
Unfortunately, the physical limitations of old age prevent my active
participation in gatherings, such as today's, at which these interests and
concerns continue to be discussed. But that does not mean that they are no
longer important to me, and I thought I might return to your midst in spirit by
using this opportunity to share some musings about a rather significant problem
that has been with us since the formation of this section. It is the problem of
our somewhat precarious existence within the discipline of psychology.
I am sure nobody here needs convincing
that there is indeed a problem. Everyone will have encountered colleagues who
are at least puzzled by our claim to have a legitimate home within the
discipline, not to mention other colleagues who explicitly reject this claim.
Many of us have encountered pressures to restrict our presence, whether in the
area of teaching or research. Some of us, including myself, have discussed the
problem in print, but there has been no resolution; from what I hear, the
problem seems to have become more acute over the years.
Our legitimacy within the discipline may
be questioned for various reasons, but here I want to concentrate on one reason
that is very frequently encountered, namely, the apparent irrelevance of our
work for contemporary psychology, for the questions psychologists are interested
in and for their day to day work in grappling with these questions. On our part,
the natural response has been to point to the historical continuities that do in
fact link the present to the past.
But we would not be able to construct
such a response if our historical studies were not informed by certain
metahistorical perspectives. Pure history can only tell us what happened once
upon a time. To point out a link between past and present you have to adopt a
perspective that incorporates both the time of the past and the time of the
present. It is possible to do this quite superficially, for example on the basis
of a continuity of place. You can reveal perhaps that "William James slept
here". Unfortunately, some of what passes for history of psychology has not gone
too far beyond this level.
More interesting links between past and
present require a more significant perspective than continuity of place. One
example would be a metaphysical perspective that posits transhistorical
entities, such as ideas, which persist over time. There are other ways of
constructing interesting historical relationships, but they all require the
adoption of some philosophical, or at least theoretical, perspective. That is a
major reason for linking history with theory or philosophy on a pedagogical and
an institutional level. It is what many of us had in mind when we set about
establishing the programme at York and also this section of CPA. The "and" that
occurs between history and either theory or philosophy was not meant to indicate
a merely additive connection but one that was intrinsic.
But we have to recognize that when we
pursue these kinds of studies within a department of psychology we open up a
pretty deep gap between what we do and what our colleagues normally do. That gap
has to do with the objects of our scientific attention. What most of us share
with our mainstream colleagues is a commitment to the subject-object distinction
that is foundational for both the natural and the human sciences. The whole
enterprise depends on the distinction between a group of subjects, who are
specially qualified experts, and a set of separate objects investigated by those
experts. The objects range from physical particles to the movement of human
populations, but the distinction between physicists, demographers, or
psychologists and the objects of their investigation remains fundamental.
The objects investigated by mainstream
psychologists are psychological reactions and attributes of, usually human,
individuals who may be students, members of clinical populations, children or
what have you, but in any case, not psychologists. Contrast this with the
situation of those who specialize in the history/theory of psychology. The
objects of their studies are usually other psychologists and the products of
their work rather than members of the lay public. This rather fundamental
divergence in our objects of study may be sufficient to lead to a certain
Mainstream psychologists are not
accustomed to finding themselves in the position of objects for scholarly
investigation – they expect to be the subjects that guide such investigations.
True, in most cases contemporary psychologists become the objects of scientific
regard only by implication: the direct objects of investigation are their
forebears, the people who founded their fields and established traditions of
work that have survived. But when your clan history becomes an object of study
your own historical identity is no longer something to be proudly taken for
granted but an object vulnerably exposed to someone else's analytical
dissection. This is not a comfortable situation.
And that brings me to the crux of my
argument. In the human sciences subjects, that is investigators, and their human
objects are linked by loops of mutual influence that are unknown in the natural
sciences. This can happen on an interpersonal level, when it becomes part of the
social psychology of psychological experiments, or it can happen on an
institutional or sub-cultural level, as in the case of a sub-discipline that
potentially takes the entire discipline as its object. We know that in
experimental situations we encounter both acquiescence and resistance (as in
cheating or non-cooperation) among those who are objects of investigation. But
of course experimenters also modify their approach in response to their
scientific objects, or as we misleadingly call them, their experimental
subjects. That is why we have pilot studies.
Now how do these loops of mutual
influence play out on the level of disciplinary culture? One big difference
between the two levels involves a reversal in the relative power of subjects and
objects. In experimental situations those who conduct the investigation have
considerable power, those who are the objects of investigation much less. By
contrast, those who wish to take aspects of disciplinary culture as their object
of study have little power in relation to representatives of that culture. Among
the latter, reactions of acquiescence are therefore less likely than those of
resistance. These can take the form of challenges to the legitimacy of
sub-disciplines such as ours, disagreements about sub-disciplinary boundaries,
and so on.
How do we meet these challenges? In the
past, I have suggested we rely on the fact that psychology is not in fact a
unified discipline but rather a fairly loose set of rather diverse
sub-disciplines, some of which may even see us as an ally. Today I want to
allude very briefly to another aspect of this problem, the pedagogical aspect.
Traditionally, historical perspectives
were permitted a certain role in the psychological training curriculum, even
when research founded on such perspectives was denied any real legitimacy within
the discipline. Our teaching role was perhaps the source of what little strength
our voice did have. I know that this tradition is fading, but before all trace
of it is lost, it might be a good idea to pay more attention to pedagogical
issues in our fight for survival.
When I say "pedagogical issues" I am not
only thinking of classroom teaching but broader issues involving the formation
of professional identities in psychology both now and in the past. Here we might
well benefit from some recent trends in science studies that have switched from
questions about the production of scientific knowledge to questions about the
production of scientists. How are skills transferred from one generation of
experts to another? How are professional norms internalized? What can we learn
from an examination of divergent pedagogical cultures? What do changes in the
style and content of textbooks tell us about their users? These kinds of
question have not received the attention they deserve in studies of the history
and theory of psychology.
Quite apart from their intrinsic interest and importance, I could imagine that such studies might help to build bridges between historians and practitioners in relatively new ways. For pedagogical practice in the training of psychologists depends much less on precise scientific knowledge than on historical experience, theoretical perspective and normative preference. And those are issues for which the expertise of members of this section can hardly be regarded as irrelevant.