Does the History of Psychology Have a Future? (1994)
Abstract: History of psychology tends to be accorded a purely pedagogical role within the discipline rather than being seen as a possible source of substantive contributions. This reflects a type of mobilization of tradition that is characteristic of the natural rather than the human sciences. The shallow history of the scientific review helps to organize consensus while critical history represents a threat to the moral community of researchers. However, there are developments which provide a more favourable context for critical historical scholarship. These developments include the emergence of a somewhat disenchanted view of science, feminist scholarship, and the international diversification of psychology. The potential effects of critical historical studies on conceptions of the subject matter of psychology, on the understanding of its practices, and on the nature of its social contribution are briefly discussed.
To answer that question, let us apply some further institutional tests. How
many university departments of psychology would accept a doctoral thesis in
the history of psychology as grounds for certifying a candidate as qualified
in the discipline of psychology? Or let us ask how many historical studies
are accepted for publication in the standard research journals of the
discipline. Such questions only need to be formulated to illustrate the
point that tolerance for historical studies diminishes sharply as we enter
the serious business of the discipline, its scientific practice. The role
that is conventionally conceded to the history of psychology appears to be
largely limited to a pedagogical context, the introduction of undergraduates
to the discipline's view of itself. From that point of view the teaching of
the history of psychology may well be considered to be too sensitive to be
left to the historians, but for most psychologists this does not imply that
historical studies have any significant contribution to make to the science
of psychology. In that respect their position does not differ essentially
from that of most physicists. The other side of this coin is to be found in
autonomous history of science departments with their traditionally heavy
emphasis on the history of the physical sciences. The advantage of this
institutional separation of the discipline and its history is to be found in
the highly professionalized standards that prevail in historical studies of
the physical sciences. The downside is that practicing physical scientists
are probably the last people to take any notice of the work done by
historians of their disciplines.
For an altogether different model of institutionalizing disciplinary history
we have to turn to the social sciences. The history of economics probably
represents the extreme case. Historians of science ignore this discipline
altogether, but that does not mean that no work is done in it. On the
contrary, there is a venerable tradition of economists themselves, sometimes
very eminent economists, engaging in studies on the history of their
discipline. This is not an insignificant engagement. In recent years
publications in the history of economics are said to have averaged about two
hundred papers and thirty books per year, and the North American History of
Economics Society has almost six hundred members (Schabas, 1992). Courses in
the history of economics are regularly offered by departments of economics.
The situation in other social sciences is broadly similar, though in their
case historical studies may not be as well established as in the case of
economics. But the prevailing pattern is one where the history of the
subject tends to be studied by persons whose professional affiliations are
with that subject rather than with history.
Between the polar opposite models represented by physics and economics there are mixed models, to be found, for example, in biology, and of course also in our own field, the history of psychology. In the history of biology the very strong presence of professional historians of science has not eliminated historical work by a few biologists, including very prominent ones, like Ernst Mayr and Stephen Jay Gould. In psychology there is a certain tradition of intradisciplinary historical studies, but, increasingly, professional historians are also making contributions in this area. The time has come to ask whether the model represented by physics or that represented by economics is the appropriate one for psychology.
The question clearly points beyond the level of institutional arrangements.
It would be unwise to pretend that there is no fundamental divergence of
interests between the historian of science and the practicing scientist. On
the contrary, we can only get a grip on this problem by confronting the
reality of a basic division that cannot be wished away. Scientists and
historians may both be struggling with the truth, but, to adapt a metaphor
due to the historian Paul Forman, they each conduct their struggle in a
different arena. History is not the arena in which natural scientists look
for the truth; quite the contrary, they believe it cannot be found there but
rather in the laboratory. From their point of view history will at best
yield up stale truths that have been superseded.
Although this outlook is common among experimentalists, it usually remains
implicit in their practice rather than being a topic that is felt to require
much discussion. For the most explicit and articulate statements of this
outlook one has to turn, not to scientists, but to certain philosophers of
science. Since John Stuart Mills'
Logic there has existed an ideology of science which absolutizes a
particular version of scientific method and removes it from its human, and
therefore historical, context. The principles of scientific method (as
interpreted by a particular group of methodologists, of course) are regarded
as being beyond history. Their application ensures the progressive emergence
of the truth about nature. Once we adopt this ideology we must consider
ourselves as being "in a historically privileged position that permits us to
dispense with history, for we now have a correct logic of investigation" (Nickles,
1991, p.354). However, in the traditional sciences it was always recognized
that scientific method was simply a necessary but hardly the sufficient
condition for successful research. It is only in twentieth century
pseudo-science we get a more extreme version of this ideology that elevates
methodology to a sufficient condition of scientific progress.
For those who adopt this position history can have at best only an
ornamental role. It can retrace the steps by which the pinnacle of the
present was reached; it can describe the errors along the way. But in any
case it will take the conventional wisdom of the present as its standard and
judge the past by that. In other words, this will be Whig history, and
whatever it discovers about the past will be implicitly a celebration of the
present and of the steps by which it was achieved. This is feel-good history
which will never have any impact on current scientific practices. Its place
in the life of the discipline is not in the area of research or knowledge
generation but in the area of public relations through undergraduate
education or the area of professional socialization through graduate
training. These are the services which disciplinary history renders to the
discipline and which keep it alive in spite of its ultimate irrelevance to
the central scientific tasks of the discipline.
The professional historian, whose institutional base lies outside the discipline, has the good fortune of not being bound by these disciplinary constraints. Such a historian is quite likely to turn the tables on the scientists by treating their current preoccupations as irrelevant. Professional historians of science will have their own criteria of historical significance, and they are likely to be very different from those of currently practicing scientists (Forman, 1991). Being free of the corsets of Whiggism they often produce intrinsically more valuable history, but they do so at a price. The price is isolation from the community of scientists. The audience reached by historians of science is likely to consist of other historians of science, not of working scientists. So the professionalization and increasing autonomy of the history of science actually strengthens the ideology of science according to which history and the methodology of science mutually exclude each other. The historian of science and the scientist each work in their own corner without the one ever interacting with the other.
According to some historians this state of affairs is
hardly avoidable. Paul Forman, for example, has given a very sharp
formulation to the division that separates the scientist and the historian
of science. There are two "basic moral judgements" we can bring to bear on
history, he says, and he calls them "celebration" and "criticism". In
contradistinction to the celebratory historian, "the critical historian -
understanding that scientific knowledge is socially constructed, partly
within and partly outside the scientific discipline - must (instead) focus
either on social problems of science or on science as a social problem."
(Forman, 1991, p.83). This means a parting of the ways between the scientist
and the critical historian of science; for, says Forman: "The one takes
science as primary referent and source of value, the other gives priority to
society." (ibid.) Taking
science as one's primary referent means accepting the moral authority of the
scientific community and writing history in celebration of that authority.
Critical historians refuse to do this and thereby place themselves morally
outside the pale as far as the disciplinary community is concerned. They
cannot expect to be listened to, or to be taken seriously, by members of
Although Forman's analysis appears to describe the problem of the
disciplinary historian quite accurately, it is limited by its failure to
contextualize the moral and ideological aspects of the clash between science
and history. Forman has correctly identified the source of the moral
authority of the scientific community in its claim to "transcendence", its
claim to have the key to objective truth. But we also have to recognize that
this claim is grounded in the special way in which scientific communities
organize their internal life. They have perfected patterns of collective
technical practice and internal communication that transform individual
agency and authorial responsibility into the passive observation of
"objective" event sequences (Pickering, 1992). A special way of handling
history forms an integral part of these patterns.
The life of scientific communities is of course grounded in their history just like the life of other human communities. But scientific communities have developed a way of representing this grounding in a way that seems to deny it. Research publications that follow the pattern of natural science recognize the historical past out of which they grew in the form of references to the recent relevant research literature. The emphasis is on recency and relevance. Some kind of historical tradition is in fact recognized in every research paper, but, with few exceptions, the tradition is a shallow one, both in terms of time - what happened more than a decade ago is hardly worth mentioning, and in terms of domain - what is relevant is what falls within a narrowly defined research area. That way of handling history carries the twin implications that, firstly, anything worth saving from the past has already been incorporated in recent research practice, or in other words, that progress in science is inevitable, and secondly, that the definition of the relevant research area is dictated by objective factors and hence not a matter for debate.
As Gyorgy Markus (1987) has pointed out, this way of relating to its own
historical tradition, so characteristic of the literature of natural science
makes it possible for science to continue as a largely consensual
enterprise. The replacement of genuine history by a brief account of the
recent relevant research literature serves to demarcate, within predefined
research areas, a sphere of knowledge from a sphere of uncertainty and
ignorance. "In this manner the past is construed as objectively posing some
questions, to which the paper then addresses itself" (Markus, p.38).
"Natural science", says Markus, "can afford a lack of reflective historical
consciousness, because each literary objectivation immediately participates
in the articulation and interpretation of that (shallow) past which is
relevant from the viewpoint of their present activities." (Markus, p.37).
The way in which a scholarly (or any other) community relates to its own
history depends on the way in which tradition is mobilized to support an
ongoing pattern of community life. One such pattern, most successfully
developed in the natural sciences, involves the maximization of consensus
around the formulation of what is already known and what is still uncertain.
The shallow history of the research paper helps the achievement of this kind
But when we turn from the natural to the human sciences we commonly find a
very different kind of pattern. Here we are more likely to come across
fields that are structured in an agonistic manner, fields which are
characterized by deep divisions between alternative schools of thought
rather than by the achievement of a general working consensus. Typically,
such fields have a very different way of mobilizing tradition. They do so in
a manner which supports their agonistic structure. They tend to cultivate a
critical historiography of considerable chronological depth. In this way
they give maximum visibility to fundamental differences among alternative
schools of thought and highlight the availability of conceptual
alternatives. For such fields deep historical studies can have considerable
contemporary relevance and hence fall within the boundaries of the field
itself. Weber and Durkheim are still studied by sociologists, just as Adam
Smith and Ricardo are still studied by economists, whereas Galilean and
Newtonian studies are not part of physics but of an altogether different
discipline, the history of science.
The great majority of experimental psychologists relate to the tradition of
their field in much the same way as physicists. Their look at the past might
take the form of a review of the literature in a specific research area, and
perhaps they would go so far as to take time off for celebrating a few icons
on appropriate ceremonial occasions, but there is no room in their world for
a reflective or critical history. They would gladly leave anything like that
to the professional historians without any sense of having surrendered
something that might have the slightest relevance to their own research
interests. In the U.S. this attitude may be more widespread than elsewhere,
and it is certainly accompanied by a growing tendency for the history of
psychology to be taken up by historians rather than psychologists, but of
course, the same attitudes are to be found wherever there are psychological
The past and the future
Traditional work in the historiography of the discipline did little to
counteract the disjunction of science and history. Initially, the engagement
of modern psychologists with their own history took the form of producing
textbooks for didactic purposes such as those of Klemm (1914)) in Germany
and Gardner Murphy (1929), Pillsbury (1929), and, most successfully, Boring
(1929) in North America. There followed four decades of sterility during
which numerous derivative text books appeared, a little antiquarianism was
indulged in, and great psychologists "from Aristotle to Freud" were
celebrated. The crass excesses of this period were given their due in R.M.
Young's (1966) definitive critique, "Scholarship and the History of the
Behavioural Sciences". It was hardly accidental that this period was also
one in which the natural science model for psychology was at its most
pervasive. The quality of historical work was hardly improved by the
tendency, among some American psychologists, to extend the ingrained
ahistoricism of their discipline to the study of history itself, thus
replacing the study of historical change by the study of "the persistent
(read timeless) problems of psychology" (MacLeod, 1975; Watson, 1967).
However, by the mid-1970's signs of a change were beginning to appear
(Woodward, 1980). European psychology was recovering from its mid-century
depression, "behavioral science" was no longer the only game in town, and a
few critical and reflective historical studies saw the light of day. Since
then, the growth of critical scholarship has become more vigorous. Textbook
and ceremonial history have not disappeared, but the field is now a
contested one (Hilgard, Leary and McGuire, 1991). Many psychologists still
find it difficult to conceive of any way of relating to their discipline's
past in any way other than that which is characteristic of the physical
sciences. But there is also a growing body of historical studies within
psychology that follow a pattern more usually associated with the human
sciences. Conflict about the way in which the discipline is to relate to its
past is very much connected with perennial ambiguities surrounding the
status of Psychology as a natural or a human science (Morawski, 1987).
Fluctuations in the interpretation of those ambiguities must be seen against
a background of broad trends that extend far beyond the boundaries of the
discipline. One such trend involves a process that we might call the
disenchantment of science. Max Weber referred to the disenchantment of the
world, a historical process in which science played a major role. In this
process the world ceased to be an arena for miracles and spirits and for
divinely inspired moral dramas and became an arena for human calculation and
rational prediction. But while science was a major agent of this process it
was itself largely exempt from it. At a time when all other human activities
began to be looked at critically and sceptically, when all gods were found
to have clay feet, the production of scientific knowledge somehow remained
morally pure and its results untainted by their mundane origins. It was not
only the scientists for whom the moral authority of the scientific community
was unassailable, it was a whole civilization.
There is little doubt that cracks have begun to appear in this picture.
Among the general population attitudes towards scientific progress have
become more ambivalent, partly because of certain undeniably negative
by-products of scientific advance, like the possibility of nuclear war and
massive environmental pollution. Although such problems may not be directly
related to the work of science, they still serve to undermine the old belief
that only good things are to be expected from the onward march of science.
Accompanying these more general shifts of attitude, there have been
corresponding changes on the intellectual level. The emergence of a critical
history of science was itself part of this change. The historian Charles
Rosenberg has noted "the development of a critical, and even antagonistic
attitude toward the past and present role of science in the United States",
a development strongly implicated in "the growth of a more critical, and
self-consciously political, spirit" among American historians of science
(Rosenberg, 1983, p.356/7). In Europe, particularly in Britain, there has
been a vigorous growth of sociological studies of science which have
radically undermined the moral authority of science and propagated the once
shocking idea that the practice of science is a mundane human activity
governed by essentially the same principles as other forms of human work.
Doing science is seen as being as much a matter of social organization,
competition for scarce resources, social interests, rhetorical persuasion
and consensus building as many morally less respectable activities.
Another area profoundly affected by this sea change was the philosophy of
science. During the heyday of faith in the moral authority of science the
philosophy of science was largely dominated by different varieties of
positivism, the final variety being logical positivism which grounded the
purity of science in the logical purity of its language and the sensory
purity of its observations. Virtually everything that was human about
science was relegated to a so-called "context of discovery", leaving the
so-called "context of justification" as a suprahuman residue of idealized
science. Some three decades ago, this conceptual structure, which was
already beginning to totter because of its internal problems, was struck a
near fatal blow by the publication of Thomas Kuhn's book on "scientific
revolutions" (1962). In the wake of Kuhn's analysis, and the flood of
literature to which it gave rise, it became increasingly difficult to
maintain the strict separation between the timeless rationality of science
and the historically changing scientific communities that embodied and
practiced this rationality. Accordingly, the new philosophy of science began
to look to the history of science for tests and illustrations of its
All these developments tended to open up possibilities for the history of
science that had previously been marginalized. During the heyday of
scientism, when the supramundane authority of science was beyond question,
there was little for the history of science to do, except engage in
antiquarianism or celebration. But with the new scepticism and its
recognition of science as one social enterprise among others a space had
opened up that could be filled by a critical history of science. Scientific
objects came to be seen as objects with an essentially historical existence:
Most of the objects that science has dealt with in the course of its
history, objects which appear ostensibly to be the same, really bear only a
family resemblance to one another. Whether it be space, time, the starry
heavens, the forces which move bodies, or some other object of science, we
would look in vain for some shared or common meaning which might apply to
any of these objects throughout their respective histories and which as such
. . . might serve as the common and continual ground for all the scientific
theories devoted to any such object.
It was hard enough for mankind to grasp that the same time does not
tick off in all parts of the world.
It may be even more difficult to grasp that when we investigate some
scientific object, both today and as it existed in the past, we are not
necessarily speaking about one and the same thing (Hübner, 1983,
Hübner was speaking of the objects of physics. But if the objects of physics must be regarded as embedded in human history, how much more obvious is this in the case of the objects of psychology. The memory that a contemporary student of the area investigates is not the same object as that which Ebbinghaus tried to study by means of nonsense syllables, and neither of them has more than a tenuous connection with memory as understood by Aristotle (Danziger, 1990b). The individual differences that Eysenck, for example, regards as objective features of the world have virtually nothing in common with the individual differences pondered by someone like Carl Jung. The "behavior" studied by the "behavioral science" of the recent past is a very different object from that which inspired John B. Watson or Lloyd Morgan.
In the case of psychology, of course, it is not only the concepts and methods of
the discipline that undergo constant historical change, but the very subject
matter itself. Human subjectivity, the reality behind the objects of
psychological investigation, is itself strongly implicated in the historical
process, both as agent and as product. Moreover, the history of psychology and
the history of human subjectivity are not independent of one another. Changes in
the one have effects on the other. So the grounds for claiming a certain
priority for history are much stronger in the case of psychology than in the
case of the natural sciences. That means that historical studies are potentially
of much greater significance within psychology than they are within physics.
The challenge lies in converting this potentiality into reality. But that
depends on a change in the traditional metaphysical commitments shared among
psychologists and their historians. Those commitments, as I have indicated,
revolved around a naive naturalism that assumed an essential correspondence
between the latest set of psychological categories and an unchanging human
nature. Because of the foundational role which positivism and scientism played
in the constitution of modern American psychology, a historicist conception of
science will not be easily assimilated. Nevertheless, questions can now be asked
that would previously have been out of bounds. This loosening has made it
possible for a critical historical trend to develop within a generally
unpromising disciplinary framework.
Decline of insider history
Until relatively recently the historiography of psychology was essentially a
history of "insiders", that is to say, individuals identified with the group
whose history was in question. In other words, histories of psychology were
written by psychologists. But the notion of "insider history" involves more than
that, for "insiders" and "outsiders" can be distinguished on a number of
relevant dimensions. Disciplinary affiliation represents one such dimension, but
members of the discipline do not form a homogeneous community. For example,
there is a traditional hierarchy within the discipline that places so-called
hardcore experimentalists at the top and applied psychologists somewhere near
the bottom (Sherif, 1979). From this perspective, a history like Boring's, for
example, was insider history in the sense that it was written from the point of
view of an elite within the discipline, an elite of experimentalists for whom
child or social psychologists constituted lower forms of psychological life that
were tolerated only at the margins of the discipline and of its history.
For a long time, those who were marginalized tended to accept the criteria that
legitimized their inferior status. In fact, they tried to emulate their betters
by striving to become more like them, more "rigorous", more experimental, and so
on. Therefore, the traditional historiography of the discipline was not
seriously challenged from this quarter. However, in recent years there have been
numerous indications that the old disciplinary hierarchy is beginning to
crumble. The increasing autonomy and confidence of previously marginalized
sections of the discipline, the organizational splitting off on the part of
disaffected experimentalists, the proliferation of radical alternatives to
traditional scientism, all these are sure signs of the ongoing corrosion of old
certainties and old hierarchies. Among these trends some provide a more
favourable existential basis for the further development of a critical
historiography than others. Two developments are particularly significant in the
The first of these developments concerns what one might call the human geography
of the discipline. The period when scientism and positivism reigned supreme in
regulating the life of the discipline was also the period when psychology had
become to all intents and purposes an American science. For at least a
generation after the Nazi takeover in Germany psychology outside the United
States was of little account and increasingly took its lead from North America.
The historical work that bears the stamp of this period quite naturally equated
the celebration of a certain conception of science with the celebration of
psychology as an American science.
More recently, however, American hegemony in psychology, as in many other areas
of life, has come to an end. The discipline has been expanding rapidly in a
number of European countries and elsewhere, and on an international scale the
proportion of psychological research emanating from the United States has been
shrinking steadily for quite a number of years (Rosenzweig, 1984; Sexton and
Hogan, 1992). This development is now leading to a renewed interest in their own
psychological tradition among an increasing number of psychologists outside the
United States. In most cases, of course, that tradition is very different from
the course that psychology took in the United States. Major themes in the
American context, like behaviourism, are relegated to minor footnotes, and other
themes, unknown to most American psychologists, become highly significant.
Important developments for American psychology, like the cognitive revolution,
turn out to be non-events from a European perspective, because of the existence
of a local cognitivist tradition that never managed to cross the Atlantic. Many
other examples of such differences could be cited. Some of them raise rather
profound issues. For instance, the history of the relationship between
psychology and society, both on the institutional and on the cultural level,
shows a variety of patterns in different European countries, and none of them
conform to American patterns (e.g. Dehue, 1991; Geuter, 1992; Joravsky, 1989;
van Strien, 1991).
But it is not only in the first world that groups of psychologists with a
different historical agenda have been finding their voice. More slowly perhaps,
but in the long run inevitably, psychologists in East and South Asia, in Africa
and Latin America, are raising questions about their own traditions and their
relationship to the theory and practice of psychology (Moghaddam, 1987). The
more they do this the more dissatisfied they become with the parochialism of a
historiography of psychology anchored in North American and European
perspectives (Ardila, 1982). This leads to questions that are alien to
traditional histories of the discipline, including questions about psychology
and cultural imperialism, for example, or about the link between psychology and
the historical project of modernism.(Bulhan, 1985; Moghaddam, 1990; Sampson,
1991; Sloan, 1990). These developments have also led to the emergence of new
concepts that are of great interest to the disciplinary historian. The concept
of "indigenization", for example, refers to the process by which imported
psychological notions and practices become assimilated and changed by the local
social context (Adair, 1992; Church, 1987; Lagmay, 1984; Sinha, 1986). But this
is not a process limited to countries currently classified as "developing". To a
significant extent the first half century of the history of modern American
psychology involved the Americanization, i.e. indigenization, of psychological
concepts and practices originating in the very different social and intellectual
climate of Europe. The fate of the key contributions of Wundt and the
Gestaltists as well as those of Kurt Lewin and Fritz Heider illustrates this
very clearly (Antaki and Leudar, 1992;
Ash, 1985, 1992; Blumenthal, 1977; Brock, 1993; Danziger, 1992; Henle, 1980;
In a sense, modern psychology is returning to the position from which it began: a polycentric position in which there are diverse but intercommunicating centres of psychological work that reflect a diversity of local conditions and traditions (Danziger, 1991). As these centres are emerging against a recent historical background of domination by one centre, they first of all feel the need to define their own historical identity. But this quickly leads to more general questions that are also relevant to the history of the discipline in its more established centres. In particular, the broadening of historical perspective that is the result of the more recent globalization of psychology leads to questions about the conditions that affect the transcultural migration of psychological categories. Studies in this area also have great relevance for the question of the relationship between the categories of scientific psychology and culturally embedded beliefs as well as local forms of institutionalized practice.
Insofar as psychology resembles the natural sciences in being independent of
local culture its history will be perceived as being irrelevant to its current
practice and therefore appropriately relegated to professional historians. But
time and again this independence has turned out to be far more fragile than in
the case of the natural sciences, a circumstance that has enhanced the link
between historical reflection and current practice and created a role for the
disciplinary historian that is critical in more senses than one.
As long as the moral authority of the scientific community remains unchallenged
from within, history will be seen either as irrelevant, or as an occasion for
celebration. It is when that authority becomes questionable, when the
professional community is divided in some profound way that a critical
disciplinary history has a significant contribution to make. I have pointed to
the transformation of psychology from an essentially national science to an
international and intercultural enterprise as having a particularly important
corrosive effect on the monolithic nature of intra-disciplinary authority. But
of course there are other developments which are having similar effects. Among
these there is one that exceeds the others in its potential importance, and that
is the emergence of feminist critique of science.
The notions of scientific authority which legitimate the moral claims of the
disciplinary community are not only grounded in a specific cultural tradition,
they also depend on patriarchal power relationships. With the rise of
contemporary feminism these relationships have come under criticism, and in due
course this criticism was extended to the kind of science culture that they have
supported in the past (Harding, 1986; Nelson, 1990).
Like other groups who have found their own voice after being excluded
from the commanding heights of disciplinary authority, women have initiated
critical historical studies that make an important contribution to the
self-understanding of the discipline (e.g. Furomoto, 1989; Morawski,1988, 1990,
1992). Their ability to do this depends in no small measure on their success in
transcending the limitations of an earlier "feminist empiricism" that remained
unquestioningly committed to traditional assumptions about the nature of science
and its practices. With the emergence of a more critical feminist historiography
of psychology we may look to analogous developments in the historiography of
biology (e.g. Bleier, 1984; Fox Keller, 1985; Haraway, 1989; Jordanova, 1980)
and related areas (e.g. Daston, 1992) as providing some indication of what may
be expected from such contributions in the future.
The emergence of a critical historiography within the discipline of psychology suggests a modification of the sharp contrast between the perspective of scientific insiders and historian outsiders that was discussed earlier. Where the moral cohesion of the scientific community remains tight and effective scientists and historians may well represent two professional solitudes unable to communicate. But for the reasons I have indicated psychology is unable to maintain that kind of cohesion. This has meant the appearance of voices that are the voices of outsiders from the point of view of the scientific insider but that lay claim to the position of insider by virtue of their disciplinary affiliation with psychology. The increasingly polycentric structure of the field, the growing awareness of agonistic relationships within it, and the resulting loss of moral cohesion, create a more complex situation than the one allowed for by the stark opposition between scientific and historical sensibilities. It is a situation that provides a context for the development of what has been described as "the creative tension between distance and commitment" (van Strien 1993). Where the insider's engagement with the discipline's concepts and practices is combined with the moral distance maintained by the outsider one has reason to look for the emergence of a historiography that is both critical and effective.
Impact on Psychology
Traditionally, the discipline of Psychology, as we know it, has defined its
subject matter in completely ahistorical terms. Human nature was part of
unchanging nature, not part of history, and was therefore to be studied in
essentially the same way as the rest of nature, by methods analogous to those
employed in the natural sciences. But as cracks begin to appear in this image of
psychological investigation, so the question of exploring the historicity of
human functions finds a place on the disciplinary agenda (Gergen and Gergen,
1984; Staeuble 1993). Though surrounded by strong taboos for most psychologists
the study of the historicity of human subjectivity has a considerable body of
scholarship to draw on (Staeuble, 1991).
But for psychology there is a particularly intimate connection between the
historicity of the subject matter and the history of conceptions about that
subject matter. Human beings, as has often been noted, are self-defining. What
we are is expressed in the categories of psychological discourse, so that as we
change the categories we use to describe ourselves to ourselves also change.
This means that two fields of study, the history of psychological functions and
the history of conceptions about those functions, have considerable relevance
for each other. That provides the history of psychology with a potentially
significant role in the development of new fields of study, like a historical
social psychology or a historicized abnormal psychology, for example. Thus, in
Germany, the same journal, Psychologie
und Geschichte, publishes studies in the history of psychology and studies
in historical psychology.
In view of the close relationship between subject matter and disciplinary
practices it is difficult to historicize the one without historicizing the
other. Traditionally, Psychology has constructed its ahistorical subject matter
by means of ahistorical investigative and conceptual practices. Its
investigative practices were understood, not as social practices, but as
applications of timeless logical and mathematical principles. Its conceptual
practices relied heavily on the reification of recently constructed
psychological categories that were assumed to reflect the categories of an
unchanging human nature. However, it becomes increasingly difficult to resist
calls for a revision of these practices in the face of critical historical
scholarship. The demonstration that Psychology's investigative practices are
historically contingent products reflecting a limited set of knowledge interests
(Danziger, 1990) may contribute to the break-up of the discipline's
methodological gridlock. Historical studies can also provide access to
alternative ways of conceptualizing the procedures and the subject matter of
psychology. If nothing else, historical inquiry can serve to "challenge the
taken for granted and objectified realities of the present" (Gergen, 1991,
Nowhere is this more apparent than on the level of conceptual practices. Most of
the general categories used to identify the subject matter of modern Psychology,
categories like personality, motivation, depression, behaviour, emotion, and
many, many others, are in fact of recent origin, often being younger than the
discipline itself. It cannot be irrelevant to current theoretical discussion to
gain some understanding of the circumstances under which the subject matter
under discussion came to have the meaning currently assigned to it and what
alternatives this current meaning replaced (Danziger, 1993). Different
historical periods have been marked by what Gergen (1991) calls different
"psychological intelligibilities". We can hardly hope to understand the
character of our own intelligibilities without the relevant historical
As theoretical discussion gathers historical depth we might also expect a change in the social contribution of Psychology. It has sometimes been observed that the contribution which the discipline of Psychology has made to the major currents of intellectual discourse in the twentieth century has been rather disappointing. Near the beginning of the century there were high hopes that this new discipline would have a decisive impact on intellectual life and there was talk of the "psychological century". But as time went on psychologists, came to see themselves more and more as technicians offering solutions to specific problems but leaving the big questions to others. So even when there were obvious psychological aspects to major debates about such matters as the nature of power in human affairs, the decline of modernism, or the scope of scientific rationality, the contributions of psychologists tended to be conspicuous by their absence. One suspects that a measure of historical sophistication about their field would work wonders for the ability of psychologists to enrich the cultural life of their own as well as other societies. And because they would be less dependent on current fads the quality of their more technical contributions might be expected to improve as well.
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