In Praise of Marginality (1992)
When I was asked to contribute to these proceedings my first reaction was to decline. Celebration is not much my style. There are others who can speak with much greater authority on the subject of Cheiron-Europe and certainly on the subject of Psychology in the Netherlands. Besides, there is the uncomfortable question of what exactly it is that we are celebrating. Is it simply survival – the stark fact that after ten years Cheiron-Europe is still around, that after a hundred years Psychology in the Netherlands has a presence that cannot be ignored? That may well be, but surely a banquet, rather than a talkfest, would provide the most appropriate context for the celebration of survival. Of course, we don’t simply want to celebrate survival as such; we want to celebrate a successful survival, one that is based on real achievements. But the celebration of achievements is a risky business. Either the achievements in question are unambiguous, something on which everyone agrees, in which case their celebration is likely to produce boredom, or the achievements are questionable, in which case one must wonder whether they ought to be celebrated at all.
But if we are to celebrate neither survival nor achievement, then what should we celebrate? Perhaps we can get closer to an answer to that question: Is the conjunction of Cheiron-Europe and Psychology in the Netherlands merely a matter of external convenience, or is there some meaningful link between the two? Do they have anything in common, apart from the personal union represented by our gracious host and several others present here? I think we can come up with a simple answer to that question without indulging in long speculation. Something that Cheiron-Europe and Psychology in the Netherlands have in common is that they are both relatively small. Cheiron-Europe is small in comparison to the professional associations of the disciplines with whose history it is concerned; Psychology in the Netherlands is small in comparison to Psychology in North America or even Germany. Perhaps then the most appropriate motto for these proceedings should be: Small is beautiful, a motto, incidentally, that used to be heard a lot more often a few years ago than it has been recently. Well, I do not believe that “Small is Beautiful” would have been such a bad choice, although taking pride in a matter of mere size is undoubtedly a bit superficial, if not to say juvenile. Let us see whether we can get beyond the simple fact of smallness to something more significant that may perhaps be associated with being small.
At first it
seems that being small has certain disadvantages.
If you are big and powerful you can afford to be self-sufficient and
independent. For many years
American Psychology has taken very little notice of psychological work done in
other parts of the world. And in
the heyday of German Psychology, during the early part of this century, very
little notice was taken of work done in
various times during its history Psychology in the Netherlands has had to come
to terms with influences emanating from major centres like Germany and the US,
not to speak of other significant centres, like France and the Soviet Union.
This position at the crossroads did not inhibit creativity, quite the
contrary, it seems to have stimulated it; and marginality has also entailed the
extra bonus of a more flexible perspective and a critical sensitivity to
fundamental issues. Of course, I am
not suggesting that Dutch psychologists were complete strangers to dogmatism and
superficiality, but when one looks at a century of Dutch Psychology as a whole
it does seem that there was relatively more mobility of orientation, more
openness of viewpoint, and more fruitful critical dialogue than in those centres
of psychological inquiry that were culturally more parochial.
But how does
all this relate to the historiography of psychology and therefore to Cheiron-Europe?
I link the two because in practice Cheiron-Europe has always been
dominated by the historiography of psychology.
Now, we only need to contrast the hundred year span of Psychology in the
Netherlands with the ten year span of Cheiron-Europe to realize that we are
dealing with different orders of time.
Although there were some significant individual contributions to the
history of psychology even in the nineteenth century, the field has existed as a
recognizable sub-discipline, with its own journals, associations and scholarly
networks, for less than a generation.
In other words, it is a field that has emerged during a particular period
in the history of psychology as a discipline, a period that is now drawing to a
close. This was a time during which
the discipline of Psychology was dominated by developments in a single country,
For a time, at
any rate, twentieth century psychology seemed to have a well defined
geographical centre. One could
still produce histories of what had happened at the periphery, but such
histories were clearly identified as purely local in significance, histories of
British, German, Dutch, etc., psychology.
Only American histories could dispense with this qualification and make a
serious, though usually implicit, claim to represent the history of psychology
This state of
affairs was particularly favourable to certain tendencies that afflicted purely
disciplinary histories in any case.
It made it easier to structure the history of the discipline in terms of a
continuous subject, a normative core development, in relation to which dissonant
elements could be treated as special cases subject to unique local influences.
It made it particularly easy to complete the marginalization of many
trends that did not fit in with the perspectives of mainstream American
psychology. It made it possible to
play down the pervasiveness and the significance of fundamental disagreements
and therefore to represent the core history of the discipline as the product of
an immanent and progressive evolution.
For example, the more recent emphasis on cognition can be represented as
progress in relation to the behaviourist phase that preceded it, but only if one
adopts an American rather than a European focus.
years the relative decline of American influence within the discipline
has become increasingly evident, a decline that is of course not unconnected
with similar developments taking place on other levels.
The emergence of significant loci of disciplinary growth, not only in
At the same
time, the study of international cross-currents has replaced older
unidirectional accounts and has given a special significance to locations, such
as the Netherlands, which were at the centre of such cross-currents.
The shift to a
polycentric understanding of the history of the discipline has proved to be
highly compatible with a second major development, namely, the increasing social
contextualization of historical accounts.
Although the sources of this development lie outside the area of
disciplinary history, it was bound to be favoured by the declining credibility
of accounts that privileged one historical line over others.
As long as the model of centre and periphery prevailed it was easy to see
developments at the periphery as subject to local social influences, while the
centre represented universal values or even rationality as such.
As already noted, centre and periphery were as much conceptual as they
were geographical, so that certain core areas of the discipline, usually
involving particular methodological commitments, were left untouched by mundane
social life. With the end of
privilege, both on the geographical and the conceptual level, this position
becomes untenable, and all parts of the subject come to be seen in terms of
their social relationships.
impossible to ignore the fact that for most of the present century the path of
European psychology was very different from that of North American psychology.
But how are we to interpret this?
By representing American psychology as the home of “science,” while
regretting that (continental) European psychology, in spite of its promising
beginnings, succumbed to various extra-scientific, philosophical and ideological
influences? That kind of
interpretation has not lacked appeal, especially in reference to developments in
recent polycentric, historiography of psychology has helped to reveal the
cultural bias inherent into this approach.
As long as disciplinary histories are in the business of privileging
certain approaches or certain locations they tend to elevate their subject
matter above its context and to favour immanent principles of development, be
they of the rational-technical or cultural variety.
More recently, however, there has been a tendency to see all disciplinary
developments, including the formerly privileged ones, as first of all local
developments, embedded in local situations.
development, together with the general growth of strong disciplinary centres
outside the USA, has led to the formation of a number of nationally organized
groups devoted to the study of the history of psychology, for example in
Germany, France, Britain and Canada.
This is a very welcome trend, but it has its limits.
Although the historiography of psychology must reflect the polycentric
nature of the discipline, there is always the danger that a conclave of scholars
grouped around purely local interests will fall victim to parochialism.
It would be disappointing if the upshot of these developments were merely
the replacement of one big hegemonic, yet ultimately parochial, story by a
number of little parochial stories.
Often, the most significant features of a local situation only come into view
when one compares it to other situations.
A local perspective is good at dissecting and describing local
variations, conflicts, and changes over time, but it often fails to notice the
things that do not change, the things that everyone takes for granted.
To get beyond these limitations we need a comparative perspective, one
which uses insights gained in one situation to raise questions about another.
present period Cheiron-Europe provides a forum that is uniquely placed to
support the development of such a perspective.
By bringing together scholars representing a variety of local interests
it creates conditions which favour both a deepening of local analysis and the
emergence of insights that are of more than local significance.
Its place lies at the margins of centres of local inquiry, but it is this
very marginality that provides it with a unique and valuable role.
In this respect there is an analogy between the position of Psychology in
the Netherlands and the position of Cheiron-Europe, and perhaps it is because of
this that Dutch psychologists have played such an important role in the
relatively brief life of Cheiron-Europe.
They are used to being at the intellectual crossroads, and of course that
is exactly what Cheiron-Europe represents, an intellectual crossroads situated
somewhere between various centres and marginal to all of them.
But such a situation, as I have tried to indicate, has advantages as well
as disadvantages. Those who meet
other travelers at the crossroads and listen to their stories can expect to be
relieved of some of the burden of parochial biases and to continue on their way,
not only knowing a little more about the big wide world, but perhaps ready to
see their local concerns through different spectacles.
the marginality of Psychology in the Netherlands and the marginality of Cheiron-Europe
I would like to end my hymn by making brief reference to yet a third
marginality, that of the modern historian of psychology, whether a member of
Cheiron-Europe or not. The work of
the historian is marginal to that of the modern psychologist because the latter
thinks of himself as a scientist who looks for truth in the laboratory and not
in history. From this point of view
history can merely offer up stale truths that have been superseded by modern
research. The scientific
psychologist feels himself to be in a historically privileged position because
he is convinced that he is in possession of the one sure method for getting at
the truth. History is tolerated
only insofar as it celebrates the steps by which this pinnacle was reached.
professional historians have their own criteria for judging historical
significance, and they are unlikely to coincide with those of the scientist.
Taking science as one’s primary referent means accepting the moral
authority of the scientific community and writing history in celebration of that
authority. On the other hand, the
professional historian, in the words of a prominent historian of science, Paul
Forman, “understanding that scientific knowledge is socially constructed, partly
within and partly outside the scientific discipline, must focus either on social
problems of science or science as a social problem”.
Of course this means that the historian will not have much of an audience
among practicing scientists, but his or her professional affiliations are not
with them anyway.
is whether it is possible to bridge this gap, whether there is a space at the
margins of science and history that can be usefully filled by historians whose
professional affiliations are not with history but with a particular scientific
discipline. Such persons would have
the difficult task of persuading at least some of their scientific colleagues of
the relevance of historical studies, while rejecting the progress-celebrating
role that these colleagues would like to assign to them.
Of course, historians of psychology are not the only people who have ever faced such a task and solved it successfully. In fact, most disciplines provide us with examples of individuals whose critical historical studies gained widespread recognition within their own scientific community. To mention only the most eminent, we might think of Ernst Mach and Henri Poincare in physics, or, if we want to be more contemporary, of Ernst Mayr and Stephen Jay Gould in biology. And of course, such figures have numerous counterparts in the social sciences, particularly in economics, which is the most mathematical of the social sciences.
Now, it is true that during the last half century the physical sciences have cut their ties with their own history and no longer recognize their own historicity. And we all know of psychologists who suffer from terminal physics envy, and who would like to imitate the physical sciences in this as in many other respects. But I do not think we should accept this kind of pathology as setting the norm for our discipline. At a time when the historicity of all knowledge is increasingly taken as a given in virtually all fields outside physical science psychologists need to be reminded that the historicity of their subject matter obliges them to pay their dues to history, whether this coincides with their dream of science or not. And who else will remind them, if not those marginal people who straddle the boundary between psychology and history?
Talk at the celebration of one
hundred years of Psychology in the Netherlands and ten years of
(the predecessor to ESHHS), Groningen University,