Long Past, Short History: The Case of Memory (2008)
Abstract: For Hermann Ebbinghaus, an early experimentalist usually credited with introducing the popular contrast between psychology's long past and short history, the distinction had to be made because psychologists had finally embarked on a path of cumulative progress by means of empirical investigations. However, Ebbinghaus did not invent the distinction so much as change its emphasis in a way that hid continuities between long past and short history. To illustrate: the history of memory reveals significant links between the experimental period and its predecessor, not only on the conceptual level, where ancient metaphors survive, but also on the level of practice, where there was a long tradition of systematic intervention in the operations of memory that provided material for modern approaches. Exclusive reliance on the particular discontinuity emphasized by Ebbinghaus also tends to obscure other peculiarities of the modern period that may be equally important historically.
I thought today might be a good opportunity for reflecting
on a centenary, a centenary that I am sure will be news to many of you. Not that
I think we really need another centenary – we’ve got too many of them already -
but this one happens to be of
rather special interest to historians of psychology.
So what centenary do I have in mind? Well, admittedly it’s
a rather modest centenary. It doesn’t mark the birth of a great personality or
of a laboratory but rather the birth of a slogan. It so happens that a
catchphrase you all know made its first public appearance in 1908. Here it is:
Psychology has a long past but
only a short history (Ebbinghaus, 1908).
These were the words with which Ebbinghaus began his
popular general textbook of psychology. As we know, they were the words of a
slogan that quickly acquired a life of its own, often repeated, most famously by
E.G. Boring two decades later. The words functioned as a declaration of
independence for the new scientific psychology intent on breaking any links with
the preceding era of mere speculation.
Clearly, for Ebbinghaus, and his followers, the new
autonomy of experimental psychology had profound implications for the
historiography of the discipline. On the first page of his 1908 text he goes on
to explain what he means: Before the advent of modern psychology, he says, there
was no “lasting progression”, no “progressive development” in the subject. A
basic structure, laid out long ago by Aristotle, had lasted right into the 19th
century without real change. That was psychology’s long past – a time without
progress. But now that psychology had become scientific it had finally acquired
a history, by which Ebbinghaus meant a story of change and cumulative
In the early years of the 20th century, the
distinction between psychology’s long past and short history had a provocative
aspect because 19th century books on psychology’s past had had no
hesitation in presenting this past as a history. But once experimental
psychology had established an irreversible institutional presence historians of
psychology faced a problem:
What exactly forms part of psychology’s “long past”? What
defines the boundaries of such a field? Before the 18th century, at
the earliest, there was no generally recognized conception of psychology as a
distinct subject area in the way we understand it. How then do we decide what
belongs to psychology’s past and what does not? As one professional historian
Histories of psychology…possess
no rational criteria of inclusion or exclusion (Smith, 1988).
As long as we restrict ourselves to the more recent history
of empirical psychology we are on relatively firm ground:
we can use professional and institutional criteria to decide what is part
of our topic and what is not. But once we go further back, those criteria become
useless. In practice, what gets included in or excluded from psychology’s long
past becomes essentially a matter of convention. Of course, we can always give
an anachronistic psychological meaning to any and all reflections about human
experience. But this leaves so vast a field that we might well ask:
Then of what would History of
psychology not be a History?
Does this mean we should just forget about the long past
that is claimed for psychology and concentrate on its short history? Certainly,
this is justified for many specific investigations. But if we never took a
broader perspective modern psychology would begin to look like the result of
some immaculate conception, which it wasn’t. So what do we do about that long
One good reason why
psychology’s past is so hard to pin down derives from the fact that psychology
itself is not so much a unified subject as a loose assembly of topics and
approaches that is constantly changing. The very notion of
A history of psychology
implies an internal coherence that isn’t there. One cannot expect history to
supply the unity which the subject itself lacks. So we have to adopt an approach
to the history of psychology that is based on the recognition of multiplicity
rather than the myth of unity.
For the more recent
history, this approach is evident in studies that trace the development of
various content areas and of diverse professional and investigative practices.
But psychological concepts also have their multiple, though interlinked,
histories. The meaning of psychological research and practice is framed in terms
of specific categories, such as motivation, intelligence, behaviour, attitude,
personality, each of which has its own identifiable history. Some years ago I
tried to trace some of those histories in a book I called
Naming the Mind (1997). It turned out
that virtually all of these categories only acquired their current psychological
meaning in relatively recent times. Their history was co-extensive with the
history of modern psychology. They might have had a past, but it certainly was
not a psychological past. The break between their pre-psychological meaning,
often moral or theological, and their psychological meaning was quite sharp. So
apparently Ebbinghaus had been vindicated.
But then I asked myself whether there might be other
categories for which this break was less pronounced. Very quickly, memory
presented itself as a likely candidate. Unlike most of the terms in the modern
psychologist’s vocabulary, memory has a truly ancient lineage. Plato and
Aristotle engaged in speculations about memory that attracted comment and
discussion right up to the present day. Ancient Roman writers addressed the
subject of memory as part of their discourse on rhetoric, a topic they took very
seriously. Monastic authorities of the Middle Ages added their own
interpretation of the nature and uses of memory. During the Renaissance there
was an outburst of writings devoted to memory, and over the centuries there was
also speculation about a physical basis for memory. In the late nineteenth
century, memory becomes an object of investigation for modern science.
I won’t pretend that it was only this remarkable history
that aroused my interest in memory. Such an interest can safely be regarded as
one of the symptoms of old age. The day comes when you have to admit to yourself
that your memory isn’t what it used to be. For me, that day came around the time
I was becoming intrigued by the issue of psychology’s long past and short
history. So academic and personal motives converged nicely to send me off on
what became a decade-long search for memory and its history. The outcome of that
search was a book, Marking the Mind: A
History of Memory (
I would like to use my remaining time to share with you
some of the things I found out about memory that seem to have a bearing on the
relationship between psychology’s long past and short history. As one would
expect, there is both continuity and discontinuity in this relationship. Much of
the discontinuity is fairly obvious, and there is no need for me to go over
familiar territory: the features that make the modern scientific approach to
memory different from what went before. Let me rather mention some of the
historical continuities that show the break between scientific and
pre-scientific to be not quite as sharp as it is often made out to be. After
that, I will briefly mention one of the less obvious aspects of discontinuity.
One widely recognized link between ancient and modern ideas
about memory is their common dependence on metaphor. Whenever people have tried
to come to grips with the nature of memory they have found it virtually
impossible to avoid the use of metaphors, especially metaphors of storage, of
We make search in our memory
for a forgotten idea, just as we rummage our house for a lost object…We turn
over the things under which, or within which, or alongside of which, it may
possibly be (James, 1890).
But this is just one example among an uncountable number
stretching over many centuries. At the end of the seventeenth century, John
Locke referred to memory as ‘the storehouse of our ideas’. Well over a thousand
years earlier, the storehouse metaphor had been celebrated by
experiments did not mean escaping from an age-old metaphorical tradition,
because it was difficult to describe what experiments told us about memory
without having recourse to metaphor. When trying to explain the way memory
worked, 20th century psychologists regularly invoked storage
metaphors, as people had been doing for about two thousand years. This
historical continuity was no secret (Roediger, 1980), and metaphors of memory
were sufficiently topical to be discussed in journals such as
Behavioral and Brain Sciences (Koriat
and Goldsmith, 1996).
What accounts for the
longevity of storage metaphors? Why do they seem so natural? Is there something
that supports these metaphors’ persistence? I think we can find a clue to the
answer in the fact that physical storage was only an extension of earlier and
persistent references to another kind of storage, the storage of symbols.
If we go way back to
the earliest examples of storage metaphors we get to Plato’s suggestion that we
should think of memory as analogous to making impressions on wax. Why wax? Not
only because of its physical properties, but because in Plato’s time tablets
coated with wax were commonly used as writing surfaces, and it was specifically
the impressions made in writing that were to be regarded as analogous to memory
It seems to me that the conjunction of
memory with sensations, together with the feelings consequent upon memory and
sensation, may be said as it were to write words in our souls (Plato).
Plato was only the
first in a long line of authors who depicted memory as a kind of inner writing.
It’s an analogy that runs like a red thread through the history of memory and is
implicitly acknowledged in more recent theories of symbol storage.
Memory storage is a
metaphor, yes, but it is based on something more than a mere analogy. It is
based on a real peculiarity of human memory, the fact that people do their
remembering in interaction with memory aids. These aids, whether they be marks
on stone, letters on wax tablets, or programmable silicon chips, serve as an
external memory that greatly magnifies the scope of whatever internal memory
capacity humans may be endowed with. By the time people began to speculate about
a memory inside them, that internal memory had already become quite dependent on
an apparatus of external memory that kept on growing. It is hardly surprising
that this visible apparatus always supplied the models for conceptualizing the
operations of an invisible memory usually located inside our heads. Metaphors of
memory were usually derived from the technology of memory, and as that
technology developed, so the metaphors changed their concrete form, from wax
tablets to books to computer programs. But technological developments only
delivered improved variants of the operation of symbolic inscription that
remained the basis of external memory. As long as people made use of an external
memory based on technologies of inscription they had an ever present source for
metaphors of internal memory.
Our visible success in
building up the apparatus of external memory should not make us forget that
there is a long history of attempts at developing a technology of internal
memory. In ancient
So it is not
altogether true to say that the past only speculated about memory, whereas
nowadays we practice planned interventions in its operations and scrutinize the
results. In fact, since ancient times, theorizing about memory was
accompanied by planned attempts to intervene in its operations. We have to add
mnemonics, the technology of internal memory, to the factors that link different
periods in the history of memory.
Just like the technology of external memory, the technology
of internal memory underwent considerable change in the course of time. From
Roman times until the Renaissance period visual imagery remains, not the only,
but the most favoured tool for memory training. To get some idea of how this was
supposed to work, let us look at two illustrations from a widely used book on
memory training published in Venice in 1533 (Romberch). Imagery was to be used
in two steps. In the first step you establish a stable background image that you
can conjure up at any time. This background image should have several distinct
locations or “places”, such as the chapel, barber shop, etc. of the village used
as a background in the first illustration.
Then, in the second step, you mentally place images of
various concrete objects at specific spots in the background image. These
concrete images are chosen so that they will remind you of particular topics you
want to address during your speech, sermon, or argument. While speaking, you
take a mental walk through your background image and come across your previously
chosen topics one by one in a pre-determine sequence. The main point to note
about this example is the way the whole process assumes that people already have
or can easily acquire great facility in forming and manipulating visual imagery.
I am sure you have all been wondering how anyone could
actually believe that such a cumbersome procedure, which seems to impose extra
demands on memory, could function as a memory aid. Yet, procedures of this kind
were taken very seriously over many centuries, even by individuals about whose
considerable memory skills there is no doubt, for example St. Thomas Aquinas.
How does one explain this?
One thing we do know. The popularity of imagery as an aid
to memory training takes a nose dive after the end of the 16th
century. By the mid-18th century the most successful manuals on the
art of memory were emphasizing altogether different systems of mnemonics that
privileged purely verbal methods. Some historians have linked this to the rise
of Protestantism and the Puritan suspicion of imagery in general: the truth is
in the word, not in ‘graven images’. There was a drive to dump religious imagery
– iconoclasm, a call to smash the images. In some influential circles this was
generalized to human thought: serious thinking, scientific thinking, is
incompatible with the analogical thinking encouraged by imagery. It has been
suggested that this constituted a kind of “inner iconoclasm” (Yates, 1966). Be
that as it may, the point I want to emphasize here is that the technology of
internal memory, like that of external memory, is not static but is subject to
Perhaps we should regard the more recent switch to
empirical investigations of memory phenomena as, among other things, a further
development in the technology of internal memory. Historically, concern with
memory always had a speculative, theoretical, aspect and a practical,
interventionist, aspect that often influenced each other. This continued after
the introduction of empirical methods.
Certainly, memory discourse changed after the introduction of modern methods of
investigation. But the change was not absolute; there were elements of
continuity. Quite generally, mnemonic procedures and the procedures of
memory research resemble one another in that both involve deliberate, planned
interventions in the spontaneous operations of memory. More specifically, the
most favoured materials during the
first century of memory research strongly resembled the kind of material that
had become prominent in post-Enlightenment mnemonics. I have just mentioned that
in the history of mnemonics we can observe a significant break around the 17th
century when the old preoccupation with visual imagery is replaced by a new
focus on verbal elements and the associative links between them. When memory
research made its appearance in the late 19th century it showed the
same preference for verbal or quasi-verbal content over imagery that had become
common in modern mnemonic systems and the same tendency to present this content
in the form of lists of discrete items to be memorized.
It seems the
relationship between psychology’s long past and short history may be more
complicated than Ebbinghaus had imagined it would be. In the case of memory,
which was after all the topic on which his reputation was founded, there are
inconvenient facts which make one skeptical about his simple scheme. There are
continuities which bridge the break between ancient past and recent history, and
there are previous historical breaks which, from a broader perspective, may be
as important as the break in Ebbinghaus’ lifetime.
My point is that the
change from long past to short history involved more than the adoption of
empirical methods. I do not want to question the importance of that adoption,
but taking a longer term view enables one to see that the more recent period has
links to the past that are rendered invisible by insisting on a complete break.
Any exclusive focus on the advent of experimentation also obscures
other differences between the more
recent and the more remote past that deserve at least equal attention. I don’t
really have time to go into this, but I would like at least to point to one of
these other differences to give you an indication of what might be involved.
One profound change began at roughly the same time as the break between psychology’s long past and short history, that is to say, the latter part of the 19th century. When one has been following memory discourse over the centuries one becomes aware of an unmistakable change of focus at that point. Within a relatively few years there is a surge of interest in the negative aspects of memory, forgetting and memory pathology. In the past, there had been plenty of interest in memory but almost no interest in forgetting. The conviction that to understand memory one must pay attention to its failures and malfunctions is specifically modern. So when psychologists began to follow Ebbinghaus in studying memory by analyzing forgetting they were being more revolutionary than they perhaps realized. The more general fascination with memory pathology that starts in the 19th century and gathers momentum in the 20th is absolutely distinctive for the modern period.
Where does all this
leave the distinction between long past and short history? Not altogether in the
dust, because in many respects things did take a radically new turn around the
time that modern psychology made its appearance. But this was not the beginning
of history any more than 1990 was the end of history, as was once claimed.
Ebbinghaus may have been a bold scientific innovator but history was not his
strong point. He thought the history of modern psychology would become a story
of cumulative progress, where facts would put an end to a long past of
conflicting speculations. Well, that is not quite what happened. If anything,
the switch to empirical methods increased controversy. Experimental research had
too many unrecognized ties to the past and to the broader historical context to
provide the answers that would make interpretive controversy obsolete.
At this point I can
reveal that Ebbinghaus did not invent the distinction between
psychology’s past and its history, he changed its meaning. If we turn to what
would have been a standard text in Ebbinghaus environment, Max Dessoir’s
History of Modern German Psychology,
republished six years before Ebbinghaus’ book (Dessoir, 1902), we already find
the distinction between a past and a history, though it has a different
significance. Ancient Indian psychological thought, according to Dessoir, forms
part of modern psychology’s past, but it is not part of its history because
there is no historical link between the two. History implies a continuous
connection between past and present:
A historical connection exists
when the past continues to affect the present (Dessoir, 1902).
Dessoir’s text dealt mainly with philosophical psychology, a topic that Ebbinghaus thought was no longer relevant to what experimentalists like himself were doing. By introducing the contrast between psychology’s long past and short history Ebbinghaus was emphasizing the break that had recently occurred within western psychology, whereas Dessoir had focused on the continuity. A century later, it may at last be possible to appreciate both points of view.
Keynote address, Cheiron (International Society for History of the Social
and Behavioral Sciences) meeting in Toronto, June 2008.
Danziger, K. (1997).
Naming the mind: How psychology found its language. London: Sage.
Danziger, K. (2008).
Marking the mind: A history of memory. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Dessoir, M. (1902).
Geschichte der neueren deutschen Psychologie.
Ebbinghaus, H. (1908).
Psychology: An elementary textbook.
James, W. (1890)
Principles of psychology.
Koriat, A. and Goldsmith, M. (1996). Memory metaphors and
the real-life/laboratory controversy: Correspondence versus storehouse
conceptions of memory. Behavioral and
Brain Sciences, 19, 167-228.
Plato (1963). The
collected dialogues of Plato, (
Richards, G. (1987). Of what is history of psychology a
history? British Journal of the History
Romberch, J. (1533).
Congestorium artificiosae memeoriae.
Smith, R. (1988). Does the history of psychology have a
subject? History of the Human Sciences, 1,
Yates, F. A. (1966).
The art of memory.