What I Wish I Knew in 1950 (1997)
Abstract: In 1950 I was a graduate student doing research in the field of motivation. My work led me to doubt the existence of a separate category of motivational processes clearly distinct from other psychological processes. However, I did not suspect that this doubt might be appropriate for all psychological categories until I encountered an indigenous psychology in Indonesia that operated with an entirely different set of categories. In the course of my more recent historical research it became clear to me that psychological categories could not be regarded as natural kinds, reflecting immutable psychological distinctions, but that they were culturally bound. Psychological language is an important part of a context of construction within which psychological phenomena are constituted. Had I understood this in 1950 I would have had a better grasp of what my research meant and been more circumspect in the choice of my empirical questions and in the interpretation of my results.
Perhaps I should begin by explaining the title of this talk. The phrase "I wish
I knew that before..." is one that most of us have uttered at one time or
another "I wish I knew that this house had a leaking basement before I bought
it"; or, "I wish I knew I'd be landed on top of an all-night disco when I booked
a room at this hotel"; or, "I wish I knew that someone else had already finished
a book just like the one I was planning to write". The occasions for such
regrets are legion, some of them trivial and some rather more serious.
Certainly, not many weeks have passed when I have not said to myself, if not to
others, "I wish I
knew that before".
So why do I pick on what I wish I knew in 1950? Why 1950? Well, at a time when
millennial Angst is everywhere (even the world of computers has its own version
of it) it does not seem altogether inappropriate to mark the year of the half
century as a base line for assessing the direction of current change. Any such
assessment is of course going to be a subjectively slanted affair, and that
leads me to a more significant reason for picking 1950. In that year I was a
graduate student at the Institute for Experimental Psychology in Oxford, and I
was writing my first scientific paper, published the following year under the
title of "The operation of an acquired drive in satiated rats" (Danziger, 1951).
So I was then on the threshold of an academic career that was to coincide, more
or less, with the second half of the twentieth century.
But this threshold had more than a purely personal significance. In 1950 the
discipline of psychology was beginning to embark on a period of extraordinary
expansion and professionalization. A decade earlier psychology was still a
relatively small and predominantly academic discipline characterized by profound
ideological and national divisions. By 1950 the life of the discipline had just
taken on the form that was to characterize it for most of the remaining half
century: A global enterprise dominated by American models of professional
practice, theorizing and research.
Although I did not realize it at the time, I was doing my bit to spread the new
way of doing psychology, at least in terms of a certain style of theorizing and
research. My research was conducted within what was then still a novel framework
of experimental design and analysis of variance. My theorizing was constricted
by formalistic rules regarding the so-called hypothetico-deductive method. Time
has not been kind to these features. Although they are still quite popular in
some of the old-fashioned backwaters of our discipline, they have become, in my
opinion, rationally indefensible. But these are not the developments I want to
talk about today. There is a large critical literature in this area, and it
would be going over old ground to add to it.
I would like rather to concentrate on some other features of my work in 1950 in
order to draw attention to certain problematic aspects that, I believe, have not
been worked through in the subsequent critical literature of the discipline. The
methodological rules and strictures I mentioned a moment ago were
features of a certain style of psychological research. They were clearly spelt
out in programmatic articles and texts and were therefore relatively
straightforward targets of criticism. But, beyond these rather obvious features
there were more subtle assumptions implicit in the kind of work I was
committed to in 1950. What I want to concentrate on today are one or two of
these taken for granted, implicit, assumptions that I shared with most of my
As you may have gathered from the title of the paper I quoted, my research in
those days was dedicated to providing knowledge in the area of motivation. My
doctoral dissertation had the word "motivation" in its title, my first paper,
the word "drive". At the time I began this work I did not for a moment question
that these words each referred to a distinct aspect of an objective
psychological reality. "Motivation" referred to an area of psychological
phenomena that could be clearly distinguished from other such areas, for example
learning or emotion, and "drive" referred to a specific mechanism or set of
mechanisms that was different from other psychological mechanisms, for example,
the formation of associations.
However, quite early in my work this view received a jolt with the publication,
in 1949, of Donald Hebb's The Organization of Behaviour. In that book
Hebb explicitly rejected the distinctness of such a process as "motivation". He
wrote: "When the experimenter takes (further) steps to limit the variety of
conceptual activity that will occur in an animal he sets up a
The term motivation then refers (1) to the existence of an organized phase
sequence, (2) to its direction or content, and (3) to its persistence in a given
direction, or stability of content. This definition means that "motivation" is
not a distinctive process, but a reference in another context to the same
processes to which "insight" refers" (p.181). On Hebb's view then, the term
"motivation" no longer describes some basic and distinct aspect of psychological
reality but merely provides a convenient, though superficial, way of referring
to certain practical experimental manipulations.
Hebb's view was considered quite controversial at the time. Most American
psychologists ignored it and continued to treat motivation as a fundamental
sub-division of psychological reality, doing research on motivational
mechanisms, writing texts on so-called "principles" of motivation, and so on. My
own reaction to Hebb's approach was however quite positive. I thought that his
argument for the non-distinctness of motivational processes made a lot of sense,
and the outcome of a series of experiments I conducted at the time reinforced
this judgement. By the time I had completed my doctoral research in 1951 I was
convinced that "motivation" was one category that a system of basic
psychological principles could do without.
I also knew something else, though its significance escaped me at the time. I
knew that "motivation" was actually quite a novel term in scientific psychology.
In 1950 we were still close enough in time to the first appearance of the term
to realize that it had a very brief history. The first general text featuring
the word "motivation" in the main title, was published in 1928 by the Harvard
psychologist, L. T. Troland, (The Fundamentals of Human Motivation). In
the same year the editors of Psychological Abstracts apparently felt that
it was time to give "motivation" its own entry in their index and introductory
texts began to add a chapter on this topic to their survey of the discipline
(e.g. Dashiell, 1928; Hollingworth, 1928; Perrin, 1932). By 1936, the author of
a new authoritative volume on motivation was able to mention its use as a text
in a college course devoted to this topic (Young, Motivation of Behavior: The
Fundamental Determinants of Human and Animal Activity).
All this was not hard to discover if one conducted a normal literature search in
1950, though as the critical year 1928 receded ever further into the dim past
the recent arrival of the category of "motivation" tended to be forgotten. Yet,
before the second quarter of the twentieth century, psychology managed without
this category. You will not find an entry for "motivation" in Baldwin's turn of
the century multi-volume dictionary of philosophy and psychology (Baldwin,
1901). In other words, whatever else it is, the category identified as
"motivation" is a twentieth century category - it arose in a particular
This much I was already aware of in 1950. But my awareness had its limits. For
instance, I do not think I realized then that the term "motivation" was a
newcomer, not only within psychology, but for all users of the English language.
If you look it up in a good dictionary you will find that its general use hardly
antedates the twentieth century. The term "motive" is older, but the verbal
form, "to motivate", and the abstract form "motivation", are not documented as
having occurred before the late nineteenth century. Even then, these forms are
quite rare and the context of their use is literary rather than psychological;
there is reference to the motivation of events in a novel, for example. It is
only in the twentieth century that there occurs a veritable explosion in the use
of the verbal form "to motivate" and of abstract derivatives like "motivation".
When one explores the early twentieth century history of "motivation" one finds
that both the term and the concept were around for a number of years before
scientific psychologists adopted them. They were not in general use, but they
had currency in a very special area, namely, the growing literature on the
improvement of advertising and salesmanship, industrial efficiency, teaching
practice, and personal advancement. In that literature it was increasingly
recognized that the goals of advertisers, salesmen, teachers, and efficiency
experts could only be achieved if one knew how to play upon what individuals
wanted, what they were interested in, what they privately wished for. It was
precisely in this context that the previously obscure verbal form "to motivate"
was given its specifically modern meaning and began to be employed widely. So we
find, for example, that as early as 1917, about one half of a book directed at
ambitious managers and salesmen, entitled The Executive and his Control of
Men (Gowin, 1917), was devoted to what was called "motivating the group".
Initially, everyday terms like desire, want, interest, and also motive, were
used to represent what it was that salesmen, teachers, managers etc. had to
influence. But as the discourse of social influence grew and became more
generalized it required a general term to refer to the entire variety of
personal direction as a potential object of external influence. By the nineteen
twenties "motivation" had come to play that role. The situation was quite clear
to those who began arguing for a psychology of motivation at that time. An early
contribution to this argument, published in the Psychological Review,
begins as follows:
A rather insistent demand for an adequate psychology of motivation has always
been made by those who are interested in the control of human nature. It has
come from economists, sociologists, educators, advertisers, scout masters, and
investigators of crime; more recently it has been voiced by certain
psychologists, particularly those interested in personality and character, and
in the various applied phases of the science. (Perrin, 1923).
Early textbooks of motivation continued to show awareness of these roots in
introducing their topic. Troland (1928: 1) begins his pioneering treatise by
referring to the businessman who "wishes to know how to play on the motives of
other men so that they will purchase his goods and services". Young (1936: 2)
says disarmingly: "We all desire to influence and control human behavior - our
own and that of others", and follows this with a tale about a student who
applied "scientific motivational principles" to his work as a salesman "and
before the semester was over had won a national prize in salesmanship".
Of course, there had always been words referring to different facets of human
intentionality: wish, desire, want, will, motive, and so on. These were usually
invoked when it was a matter of accounting for one's own, or others', deviation
from the automatic, habitual patterns of action that characterize everyday life.
"Motivation", however, departed from this usage in setting up an abstract
category that grouped all the older referents together, implying that they were
all expressions of a common psychological reality which transcended all
differences among social situations and even among biological species. There
were now general "principles" or even "laws" of motivation to be discovered and
Certainly, that is what I believed when I set out on doing research for my
doctoral dissertation. By the time I had finished, as I have indicated, I was no
longer so sure. Another way of putting this is to say that I began with the
belief that "motivation" was what philosophers of science call a "natural kind",
and that I ended up doubting this. A natural kind term reflects natural
divisions among objective features of the world that exist independently of the
efforts of scientists. This is certainly how most psychologists think of the
categories they employ in their work, motivation among others.
If psychological categories are natural kinds this reinforces the status of
psychology as a natural science. If they are not, then psychology must be
regarded as a discipline whose categories are not reflections of an independent
natural world but products of social life. In 1950 I was beginning to suspect
that at least one psychological category, that of motivation, was not a natural
kind, but it had not yet occurred to me that this might have wider implications
than the field of motivation itself.
I am sure there were all kinds of reasons for this. But today I want to
concentrate on just two of them. Both involve something I did not know in 1950.
The first I have already mentioned. Though I knew that "motivation" had entered
psychology relatively recently I did not know - and never asked - where it came
from. Nor did I inquire into the circumstances of its adoption. My knowledge of
these matters is a product of much more recent historical investigation. In 1950
I would have considered this kind of information to be irrelevant to my
psychological research, just as many of my colleagues still do today. Now I do
consider it relevant. For it is the categories we necessarily employ in our
psychological work that enable us to identify what it is we are investigating.
It makes a crucial difference to the meaning of research results whether they
pertain to natural phenomena or to cultural artefacts.
Compared to what I know now, there was a second missing piece in the way I saw
things in 1950. I had become sceptical about the scientific status of
"motivation"; what did not occur to me was the possibility that there were
fundamental problems not pertaining specifically to motivation but to
psychological categorization in general. Right at the beginning of my
dissertation I had observed: "When they find themselves using the word
`motivation' some psychologists are inclined to forget that they are only using
a convenient abstraction and begin to imply a separate and distinct mechanism
called `motivation' which exists side by side with other such mechanisms, called
thinking, perception or learning." When I read over this statement now, I am
amazed that it took me so long to see that it could be read in more than one
direction, that the basic question was not just one of the separate reality of
motivation but of the separate reality of any psychological category.
For the first inkling of this possibility, however, I had to wait the proverbial
seven years. I had reached my conclusions about motivation by 1951. In 1958 I
arrived in Indonesia for a stint as a visiting professor at a large university
in Java. When I arrived to take up my duties, I discovered that a course on
Psychology was already being taught by one of my Indonesian colleagues. This was
not Western psychology, but something based on an extensive local literature
that had roots in Hindu philosophy with Javanese additions and
reinterpretations. So the students had a choice of two psychologies, one Western
and one Eastern. I thought it would be a good idea if my Indonesian colleague
and I organized some joint seminars in which each of us would explain our
approach to the same set of psychological topics, followed by an analysis of our
differences. However, I soon discovered that there were virtually no topics that
were identified as such both in his and in my psychology.
I tried various topics: motivation, intelligence, learning, and so on. But the
result was always the same. My colleague would not recognize any of them as
domains clearly marked off from other domains. He granted that each of them had
some common features, but he regarded these features as trivial or as artificial
and arbitrary. Grouping psychological phenomena in this way seemed to him to be,
not only unnatural, but a sure way of avoiding all the interesting questions.
Similarly, I could do nothing with the topics he proposed. So we reached an
impasse and the seminar series never happened.
What this taught me was that it was clearly possible to classify psychological
phenomena in very different ways and still end up with a set of concepts that
seemed quite natural, given the appropriate cultural context. Moreover, these
different sets of concepts could each make perfect practical sense, if one was
allowed to choose one's practices. My colleague and I could both point to
certain practical results, but they were results we had produced on the basis of
the preconceptions we were committed to. We knew how to identify whatever
presented itself in experience because we each had a conceptual apparatus in
place that enabled us to do this. The apparatus itself, however, seemed to be
More recently, a whole field of investigation, known as "ethnopsychology", has
grown up, which attempts to explore the way in which members of other cultures
conceptualize the realm that we categorize as "psychological". These studies
have produced a mass of converging evidence on the non-universality of some
basic distinctions that form the conceptual skeleton for our own conventions of
psychological classification. Contrary to common belief, psychological
categories do not occupy some rarefied place above culture but are
embedded in a particular cultural context.
My experience in Indonesia had left me curious about how modern western
psychology ended up with the categories that characterize it. I thought that one
day I would like to devote the kind of time to this question that it deserved. I
had to wait a long time for an opportunity to do that, but in recent years,
having nothing better to do, I did get around to it. The results of my efforts
have now appeared in a book I have called Naming the Mind: How Psychology
Found its Language, published by Sage. This text is devoted to an
examination of how and why modern psychology ended up with some of its
fundamental categories, categories like sensation, intelligence, behaviour,
learning, motivation, emotion, personality, attitude, and so on.
I think I was able to show how, at different times and in different places,
psychologically significant categories have been constructed and reconstructed
in attempts to deal with different problems and to answer a variety of
questions, many of them not essentially psychological at all. Psychological
categories were always relevant to the lives of those who used them, whether
they were ordinary people or experts. Changes in these lives were accompanied by
changes in psychological categories. Motivation, which I have been using as an
example, is not peculiar in this respect. Although it is difficult to say that
these categories represent natural kinds, what one can say is that they
represent relevant kinds (Hacking, 1999). They are relevant to the people
who use them, relevant to their concerns, their interrelationships with each
other, their possibilities of action. There are factors in their lives which
lead them to make and to emphasize certain distinctions and to ignore any number
of others. Because people's lives change psychological categories have a
Let me return now to my earlier incarnation as an experimenter. When all is said
and done, would it have made any difference if I had known in 1950 what I know
now? Would it have made any difference if I had known that, not only the
category of motivation, but all psychological categories are historical
formations, the products of changing socio-cultural circumstances? One thing I
am pretty sure of: It would not have stopped me from doing any empirical work. I
think I would still have had an interest in experimentation, but my sense of
what those experiments meant would have been different. I would have discarded
the idea that my results reflected some essential truth about the nature of
organisms. I would have recognized these results as being meaningful only within
a particular discursive framework. Instead of beginning by taking this framework
for granted I would have been aware of its historical roots, and this might well
have made me reject it in favour of some other framework. Had this kind of
knowledge been available to me it might well have made a difference to my choice
of research problem, to the way I formulated it, to my identification of the
theoretical issues for which my experiments were relevant, to the kinds of
generalization I would have been prepared to make on the basis of my
experimental results. At the very least, this additional knowledge would have
increased my range of choice. Even if I had ended up doing exactly what I would
have done in any case, I would have been doing it as a result of an
intellectually informed decision and not as a result of an automatic acceptance
of some received discursive framework. That seems to me more in accord with what
I would call a scientific approach to problems.
I think one can generalize these observations by revising an old distinction in
the philosophy of science, that between a context of discovery and a context of
justification. That distinction was introduced in the nineteen thirties by the
philosopher Hans Reichenbach as part of the conceptual equipment of logical
positivism. Reichenbach (1938) recognized that although science was essentially
a rational activity the progress of its work did depend partly on irrational
factors. However, as these latter were not amenable to logical philosophical
analysis they should be clearly separated from the truly scientific aspects of
science in a kind of waste paper basket called the context of discovery. That
way one could preserve the rational purity of science within what was called the
context of justification.
These days we know that any context of justification depends on a framework of
beliefs, traditions, choices, cognitive styles, cultural preferences, and so on,
which cannot itself be rationally justified. It is this framework which makes
the process of discovery possible. I refer to it as the
construction. The constraints that govern the choice and formulation of
problems, the conduct of investigations, and the interpretation of their
outcomes form an indispensable context for the production of scientific theories
and empirical data. Justification of the tenability of hypotheses and the
validity of results can only proceed by operating within such a context of
Half a century ago contexts of construction were largely invisible. But that has
changed and modern studies of science are very much concerned with making such
contexts the objects of scientific scrutiny. Contexts of construction have two
aspects which seem to me to be crucial. One is the practical aspect, the highly
regulated social activity of intervention which we know as the investigative
practices of science. In the eighties my own studies of the context of
construction were largely concerned with this aspect; an account of this work
appeared in 1990 in the text Constructing the Subject: Historical Origins of
Psychological Research. In the nineties I have concentrated on the second
crucial aspect of the context of construction, the discursive aspect. Let me
explain what I mean by this.
Among the instruments of psychological investigation the most basic one is often
overlooked. It is language. Without language the other instruments could not be
constructed, the results of investigations could not be described, hypotheses
could not be formulated, and investigators could not arrive at a common
understanding of what they were doing. Even a graph or a table of figures must
be verbally labelled, that is interpreted, to convey its proper meaning. A
scientific fact is always a fact under some description. The discursive
framework within which factual description takes place is as much part of
science as its hardware and its techniques of measurement. Any reference to the
"facts of the world" has to rely on some discursive framework in use among a
particular group of people at a particular time. Facts are there to be
displayed, but they can only be displayed within a certain discursive structure.
These structures provide the framework for labelling and categorizing both real
and hypothetical objects under investigation. This categorization gives objects
their identity and enables investigators to have a particular understanding of
what they are doing.
Investigators, like everyone else, live in a world that has already been
classified. What gives a particular sense to a term is its cultural and
contexts are not static entities. Being the product of human activity and
interaction, they are always in flux; they change historically. And as the
cultural and discursive context changes the categories that are embedded in this
context change too. This applies to the quasi-scientific categories of
psychology as much as to the categories of lay discourse. All psychological
categories have changed their meaning through history, as has the discourse of
which they are a part. Any effect which empirical findings have on the
conceptualization of psychological categories can only manifest itself through
the medium of psychological discourse. Therefore, to gain an understanding of
the categories in common use at present, we need to see them in their discursive
context. And that means adopting a historical perspective.
The relevance of historical studies for the discipline of psychology seems to me
to lie primarily in their potential for contributing to an understanding of the
context of construction. As members of the discipline we have all been
socialized to adopt certain prescribed practices and to communicate about our
subject in terms of a specific received vocabulary. The nature and meaning of
what we achieve depends on these practices and this vocabulary. We can certainly
go on producing effects without ever reflecting on the context of construction
that enables us to do so. But our understanding of what we are doing will be
profoundly defective. For that to be remedied an appreciation of the historicity
of our practices and our language seems to be indispensable.
So in the last analysis, what I wish I knew in 1950 is a bit more about the
historical status of the context of construction within which I was operating.
Of course, on one level this is just the old story of old age regretting the
follies of youth. But I think that my sentiments have more than a purely
autobiographical significance. As a graduate student my approach was not
altogether untypical of what one might call the nineteen fifties spirit in
psychology - a spirit of gung ho empiricism that was altogether unconscious of
the historicity of its own experimental and linguistic practices. That spirit is
still widespread, of course, and, just as in the nineteen fifties, it leads to
the pursuit of psychological ghosts.
But there have also been many positive developments, particularly in fields that have relevance for psychology. Progress in our discipline has always been peculiarly dependent on developments in other fields, physiology, statistics, and computer science, to mention only the most popular examples. I think we would benefit if we paid more attention to developments in some other fields, particularly the philosophy, history and sociology of science. In that respect we were not well served in 1950. Today, the knowledge that could free us from the shackles of psychological essentialism is there for the asking. The more we avail ourselves of it the less likely we are to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Invited address, Canadian Psychological Association meeting in Toronto, June 1997.
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