Prospects of a Historical Psychology (2003)
The project of a historical psychology must be distinguished from the history of
psychology and from psychohistory. Unlike the latter, it conflicts with the
assumption that what psychology studies is an ahistorical human nature. Although
human psychology is deeply historical the discipline of psychology bears the
imprint of its relatively recent origin. Historical psychology does not address
an imaginary unity but explores the transformations of specific objects posited
in discourse and targeted by intervening practices. Memory is taken as an
example of such an object, some of its most salient features having been subject
to historical change. Its history illuminates the background of current
Some years ago I wrote a paper whose title asked the question: “Does the History of Psychology have a Future?” (Danziger, 1994). That question provoked a certain amount of controversy, as I had rather hoped it would. Today I would like to begin by asking a somewhat related question, namely: Does historical psychology have a future? This time I am really going out on a limb. Whereas the history of psychology is at least a recognized, if marginal, topic within the discipline, historical psychology has usually been regarded as being quite beyond the pale for any self-respecting psychologist.
At least, that is the state
of affairs in North America, where this year marks the thirtieth anniversary of
Ken Gergen’s (1973) plea for a historical social psychology, a plea that has
been cited an enormous number of times, but that has never, as far as I am
aware, led to any actual research in the field. The edited book on historical
psychology (Gergen & Gergen, 1984), which followed a decade later, fell on the
same stony ground. In
On the whole though, the
prospects for historical psychology seem rather bleak, to say the least. It is
my view, however, that this bleakness is not quite deserved, that in our
wholesale neglect of this field we may have thrown out the baby with the bath
water. In other words, I think that, though the project of a historical
psychology is undoubtedly problematic, there are certain kinds of historical
studies that are quite capable of making a contribution to the discipline of
psychology and should be pursued by psychologists.
I will develop my argument
in two parts. In the first part I want to look at reasons for the exclusion of
historical psychology. I am quite sympathetic to some of these reasons, and I
will advance some considerations for avoiding the pitfalls that have beset the
field in the past. In the second part I want to discuss the possible relevance
of historical psychology for contemporary psychological work. To do this I will
draw on my own studies of the history of memory.
But I before I go any
further, I should explain that by historical psychology I do not mean
psychohistory, a field dedicated to the interpretation of historical events,
often the lives of particular individuals, in light of current psychological
theories. Erikson’s (1958, 1969)
classical studies of Luther and Gandhi would be examples. Psychohistory assumes
the universal, trans-historical validity of some contemporary psychological
concepts, perhaps the concepts of psychoanalysis or some other system.
Historical psychology, on the other hand, would try to question contemporary
psychological concepts in the light of historical evidence.
There is little doubt that
most psychologists, and probably most historians, feel that anything like
historical psychology is the business of history, not of psychology. People
trained as psychologists are not equipped to handle historical evidence and
should stay away from it. There is much to be said for this argument, and
undoubtedly much of the primary research will continue to be done by historians.
But this does not provide a valid reason for psychologists’
ignoring of historical information.
Consider an analogous case: Psychologists usually leave the technical conduct of
neurophysiological investigations to physiologists, but no one would
conclude from this that they should therefore ignore neurophysiological
information. This unequal treatment of history and physiology suggests that
there is more involved than merely the principle of maintaining a strict
segregation between disciplines.
If disciplinary boundaries
have to be rigorously protected against
historical incursions, whereas snuggling up to neurophysiology is treated
with indulgence, the implication is that psychology has a much greater affinity
for some disciplines than for others. Where psychology is counted among the
natural sciences information from related natural sciences will be regarded as
more relevant to its concerns than information from a human science like
Whether we define psychology
as a natural, a social, a human, or a historical science has implications for
the way we regard its subject matter, or, to use a more accurate term, its
objects of investigation. A natural science investigates natural objects, that
is, objects regarded as part of the natural order, objects whose characteristics
conform to universal regularities and whose properties are independent of human
beliefs and practices. Insofar as psychology is defined as a natural science the
assumption is that its objects are of this type, and that means they are
essentially unaffected by human history.
Regarded as a working
hypothesis this position is not altogether unacceptable. In practice, however,
it has not been treated as a hypothesis but as something that is self-evidently
true and beyond question. To a very large extent psychology
has investigated its subject matter
as though it belonged to an ahistorical human nature. This may have produced
results, but the assumption of ahistorical validity remains only an assumption
until it is tested against relevant evidence. The relevant evidence in this case
would have to be historical, and that leads one straight to the subject matter
of historical psychology. In other words, the scientific grounding of the belief
that historical psychology is redundant would itself require evidence from
historical psychology. This does not appear to offer a sound basis for rejecting
In Europe, and especially
in Britain, skepticism about the prospects of historical psychology has taken an
altogether different form. There is no rejection of the entire field because of
a belief in the natural, ahistorical, nature of
psychological processes, but there are worries that the field is
unmanageable, that it has no clear boundaries, that there are no acceptable
criteria by which one might define its subject matter (Richards, 1987; Smith,
1988). These kinds of concerns are based on the conviction that matters
psychological are in fact deeply historical, in other words, a position that is
exactly the opposite of experimentalist ahistoricism. But if one believes in the
deep historicity of psychology one
faces the dilemma that, in one sense, almost everything in human history
pertains to psychology, yet, in another sense, almost nothing does, except
during the last century or two. Psychology’s status as a natural science, and
hence its commitment to certain methodologies, impose fairly clear limits on its
territory. But if we were to drop these restrictions and regard all the
historical expressions of human nature as fair game, then historical psychology
would certainly become a field without boundaries and without discipline.
It is also argued that the
discipline of psychology is itself a historical formation, a way of regarding
the world and a way of acting that is a product of a particular historical
context, and a relatively recent one at that. If that is so, then we are not
entitled to inflict this modern psychological perspective on times when it did
not exist. Doing so would amount to a distortion of the historical facts. But in
that case historical psychology lacks legitimacy if it is pursued beyond the
most recent period of human history.
If one accepts that such
arguments should not be lightly dismissed, and I do, does that spell the death
knell of anything like a historical psychology? If one does not wish to flounder
in a field that is totally amorphous, nor end up as a crude presentist, are
there any lines of work that might constitute an acceptable form of historical
psychology? My answer is a cautious yes because I believe that the implications
of the critique need not be entirely negative.
In the first place, one
must not expect historical psychology to be a unified field: no grand schemes
for the social evolution of the human mind à la Wundt (1912), nor problematic
constructions of cultural history, such as the unique “mentalities” attributed
to different ages by some historians (Lloyd, 1990). I see the field rather as a
collection of studies tracing the historical background of specific
There are areas where this
approach to historical psychology has been relatively successful, child
development and abnormal psychology in particular. A considerable literature on
“the history of childhood”, some of it contributed by psychologists, has used
historical evidence to probe the universal validity of
concepts developed in the context of contemporary realities, including of
course the contemporary understanding of the concept of childhood itself (see
e.g. Kessel and Siegel, 1983; James and Prout, 1990; Niestroy-Kutzner, 1996). In
the field of abnormal psychology there are many relevant studies in the history
of psychiatric diagnosis, including hysteria (Micale, 1995), schizophrenia
(Boyle, 1990), post-traumatic stress disorder (Young, 1995), multiple
personality (Hacking, 1995), and many other conditions (Peeters, 1996; Borch-Jacobsen,
2001). Useful studies have also been devoted to the historicity of categories of
human emotion (Harré, 1987; Stearns & Stearns, 1988).
These kinds of
investigation avoid becoming bogged down in a field without boundaries by
limiting themselves to the history of specific psychological categories taken
from current psychological practice. The historicity of these categories is then
explored by tracing their antecedents. The metaphor of genealogy (Foucault,
1977) nicely expresses the simultaneous attention to historical continuity and
discontinuity which characterizes these studies. A genealogy traces
intergenerational continuity, but this continuity implies anything but
intergenerational identity. Each generation is unique though tied to the others
by a historical bond.
Viable studies in
historical psychology also tend to be non-Cartesian, that is, their subject
matter is treated as neither part of the natural world nor a matter of
subjective experience. These studies are concerned rather with discursive
objects not found in the natural world but constructed by humans through the use
of language and other semiotic devices. Psychological categories have a human
history only as discursive objects and as markers defining the targets of human
For example, in my own
recent work I have been concerned with the history of a venerable psychological
object, namely memory. Discussions of the nature of memory go back to the
philosophy of Ancient Greece and a readily identifiable corpus of writings on
memory extends from those early times to the present. Those texts provide a
basis for the development of a historical psychology of “memory” as long as we
do not expect them to tell us more than they are capable of telling us. They
cannot, for example, tell us about the subjective experience of people who lived
a long time ago, as some early versions of historical psychology claimed. As
long as we restrict ourselves to the material and discursive practices involved
in the production of textual evidence we are on relatively firm ground. What
texts offer the historical psychologist are discursive realities. The history of
these is neither a history of natural objects, nor a history of subjectivities,
but a history of discursive objects.
I now want to address the
question of whether historical psychology has anything to contribute to
contemporary psychological research. Many psychologists might well agree that
historical psychology is a legitimate field of scholarly interest though they
would see it as a field without the slightest relevance for current work in
psychology. This assumes that the break between scientific and pre-scientific
psychology is absolute. But this is simply untrue.
For example, a
juxtaposition of the modern and the ancient literature on memory reveals an
amazing continuity in explanations of how memory works.
From Plato to theories of information processing these explanations have
relied heavily on the metaphor of storage (Carruthers, 1990; Danziger, 2002). In
trying to understand how they were able to recall things they learned or
experienced in the past people have always made use of analogies from storage
devices, especially information storage devices, with which they were familiar,
from wax tablets to books and libraries to computers. That metaphor has played a
major role in theories about memory right up to the present is uncontroversial.
Prominent memory researchers have explicitly recognized this (e.g. Roediger,
1980) and a few years ago metaphors of memory were even a subject for extended
discussion and comment in Behavioral and
Brain Sciences (Koriat & Goldsmith, 1996). But memory is probably not a
special case, and antique metaphors are likely to have played an equally
important role in other areas of psychology (Leary, 1990).
continuity operates not only on the level of ideas and concepts, but also on the
level of practice. Psychological practices, including research practices in
particular, do not exist in some hyperrational space outside of culture. No,
they are very strongly influenced by the culture in which they arose and the
culture which maintains them in being. These cultures have historical roots,
which means that psychological practices have historical roots.
To go back to memory, we
note that since ancient times people have not only theorized about its nature,
they have also tried to intervene in its operations. For more than two thousand
years there have been systems of memory improvement or mnemonics, and in times
when external memory aids were far less adequate than they are today these
systems were accorded far greater respect than we accord them today. Systems of
memory improvement have been described and discussed for many centuries.
Traditionally, a distinction was made between
artificial memory, which was memory
operating with the help of deliberate mnemonic procedures and
natural memory, which was memory
operating without these aids.
Mnemonic procedures and the
experimental procedures of memory research have something in common in that both
employ deliberate, planned interventions in the spontaneous operations of
memory. Where they differ is in the primary purpose of these interventions –
practical improvement in the case of mnemonics and better knowledge of the
nature of memory in the case of research. This obvious difference in purpose
entails obvious differences in the process of intervention. However, one cannot
intervene in the spontaneous operations of memory in the abstract. One can
theorize about memory in the abstract, but in practice, whether in an experiment
or in a course of memory improvement, one is obliged to make use of one or other
kind of content: word lists, rhymes, stories, pictures of faces, or whatever.
The choice of content is potentially unlimited, so it makes sense to ask why one
kind of content is chosen rather than another. Many factors are at work here,
including considerations of technical feasibility and convenience. But typically
these technicalities only enter the picture after the field of options has
already been narrowed down by other factors. One of these is tradition. Those
who intervene in the operations of memory typically do not do so in isolation.
They either belong to a community of scientific investigators who all use
similar kinds of content, for example, nonsense syllables or word lists; or they
are part of a collection of experts
on mnemonics who, historical evidence tells us, have copied from one another
since time immemorial.
both cases the force of tradition imposes a certain inertia when it comes to the
choice of content for improving either memory itself or knowledge about memory.
But traditions are not unchangeable. Eventually, nonsense syllables lost their
popularity and, over a much longer time span, the content of mnemonic systems
changed too. No doubt, both continuity and discontinuity in practices of memory
intervention depend to some extent on simple pragmatic factors. For example,
both nonsense syllables and certain mnemonic procedures were abandoned because
it gradually became clear that they just didn’t do what they were supposed to do
– eliminate meaning in the case of nonsense syllables. But this is not the whole
story. The content on which memory intervention procedures rely is not
culturally neutral, and for that reason, if for no other, it is liable to be
affected by broader cultural changes.
For example, a striking
feature of the first century of scientific memory research was the ubiquitous
use of verbal stimulus material.
Towards the end of that period memory for other kinds of material gradually came
in for more attention, but in the words of one researcher, “up until the early
1960s, students of memory had been resolutely and single-mindedly concerned with
verbal materials” (Snodgrass, 1997, p.202; see also Bower, 2000, p.25). Why was
this? In answering this question it is hardly possible to overlook the fact that
the concentration on verbal materials was established at the very beginning of
memory research and became a tradition that later investigators could not
ignore. They needed to link their work to previous work in the field, and that
meant using verbal materials, unless they were prepared to launch a far reaching
critique of the whole approach, which did eventually happen, though with only
But how was this fixation
on verbal memory able to flourish in the first place? Here broader cultural and
historical factors become relevant. For example, it is significant that a
concentration on verbal materials was already a feature of the mnemonic systems
that were popular around the time experimental memory research made its
appearance. In this respect there was a certain continuity between the mnemonic
and the experimental way of intervening in spontaneous memory processes. Both
were primarily interested in verbal memory and relied on materials that were
most often verbal in type.
A historical psychologist
would want to pursue this matter further. Mnemonics, as I have mentioned, has a
long history, and one does not have to go too far back to find that the focus on
verbal memory is historically a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact, verbal
memory, though clearly recognized as a specific form of memory, was generally
downgraded in the classical texts on what was known as “the art of memory”. That
only began to change in the eighteenth century. In earlier times there was far
more emphasis on the mnemonic importance of imagery and of spatial relationships
than on verbal mnemonics. When one adopts a wider historical perspective, one
has to face the possibility that the verbal bias of much modern memory research
may be essentially a continuation of a long term trend in the cultural meaning
of memory. By opening up this kind of perspective historical psychology could
help to counter the effects of cultural-historical bias on the direction of
empirical research. In areas like memory, historical studies can draw attention
to potentially interesting aspects that have been neglected, excluded, or
rendered invisible by current fashion.
Let me cite another
example. As I have indicated, cultural-historical bias invades experimental
research through the medium of the materials used to study one or other
psychological domain. In the case of memory research there is one feature that
is even more pervasive than the use of verbal content and that shows little sign
of being on the way out. I am referring to the use of printed stimulus
materials. When such materials are used it means that the memory being studied
is memory for content that has been given a lasting form by a process of
inscription. This means that there is always a definitive version against which
anyone’s memory performance can be compared. This is the kind of memory that is
paramount in educational and scientific contexts but in many everyday situations
memory cannot possibly work like that. When two of us remember a common
experience that was not recorded we may or may not agree on what really
happened, but the question of memory accuracy cannot be decided by reference to
a definitive version because there isn’t one. Memory then operates in a
different way, becoming an intrinsically social rather than an individual
performance, perhaps through the co-construction of an agreed upon version
(Edwards & Potter, 1992).
In preliterate societies
this is the way all memory must operate, and among illiterate people this must
surely remain the dominant form of memory. But until relatively recent
historical times there were no societies in which the majority of the population
was not illiterate, and even now, of course, a large part of the world’s
population remains in that state. Remembering information recorded in a
definitive text and remembering unrecorded information have coexisted for many
centuries. But their relative valuation has changed. Plato, for example, was
quite derisive about the value of remembering written texts, and in Roman times
the whole topic of mnemonics was subsumed under the study of rhetoric, that is,
memory improvement was assumed to be in the service of public speaking. That
began to change in the Middle Ages when accurate memory of holy and then legal
texts was highly prized. With the spread of printing and secular education
accurate remembering of all kinds of texts became increasingly important. A new,
largely verbal, mnemonics supervened whose aim it was to facilitate the accurate
regurgitation of itemized factual information recorded in printed sources. This
very special form of memory became the ideal and was increasingly equated with
memory as such. That provided the cultural context in which the earlier
psychology of memory developed and from which it derived its unspoken
presuppositions. By offering an insight into the historical contextualization of
particular research approaches a historical psychology, for instance of memory,
should provide an antidote to the common vice of substituting one part of a
psychological domain for the whole.
One final example of the
relevance of a historical psychology of memory for current work: Most
psychological studies of memory, and particularly neuropsychological studies,
appear to be designed and interpreted as though the seat of memory were entirely
within the individual. Yet everyone knows that this is not true. Not only is
remembering an activity that is frequently performed in concert with others, but
it also depends on the information that is stored in things, in books, filing
cabinets, computer memories, and so on. Effective remembering is often the
product of a system that includes both objects and humans as its components.
Historical studies are useful adjuncts to the study of such systems because they
provide evidence of relationships between internal and external memory that are
no longer available for inspection today. It can be shown, for example, that
historical developments in the display and arrangement of written material on a
page served mnemonic functions. There was constant interaction between the
technology of external memory and the way people used the memory in their heads.
Let me conclude with a
general observation: The prospects for a viable historical psychology ultimately
depend on an end to the unhealthy division between the disciplines of psychology
and history, a division that reflects the opposition between two sets of
prejudices, those of naturalism and of historicism. Naturalism naively assumes
that any entity which happens to be the target of current psychological
research, theory or intervention must be a natural phenomenon that has always
been there waiting to be discovered. Naturalism goes hand in hand with
presentism which essentially junks history and values it only insofar as
anticipations of the present can be read into it. Historicism, on the contrary,
insists on taking the past on its own terms and emphasizes the discontinuities
between past and present. Therefore it would limit the history of psychology to
the modern period of scientific psychology.
It is possible, however, to
steer a course between presentism and historicism without suffering shipwreck.
Presently existing psychological objects must provide a base from which
historical inquiry departs and to which it returns. But the present is not
privileged in other ways. It does not represent the final truth but simply
another point in a temporal order that guarantees its imminent obsolescence.
Instead of judging the past in the light of the present historical psychology
needs to interpret the present in the light of the past. It then becomes, in
Foucault’s famous phrase, a history of the present.
Many of the objects which modern psychology targets and investigates did not emerge de novo when the first psychological laboratories were founded. Their pre-scientific history opens up questions which are not being asked though they should be asked. For example, were there historical changes in the operation of human memory, and if so, what were the factors involved in such changes? That is the kind of question which, though important and legitimate, is likely to vanish in the deep gap that currently exists between the disciplines of history and psychology. It is however exactly the kind of question that would fall within the province of historical psychology if we had one.
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