Theory & Psychology: Debating Historiography in Psychology

The most recent issue of Theory & Psychology includes a several brief pieces on historiography in psychology. Contributions from Daniel Robinson (above), Kurt Danziger, and Thomas Teo debate the proper approach to the historiography of psychology, as well as the relationship between the history of psychology and the philosophy of psychology. Article titles, authors, and abstracts follow below. Join in on the discussion in the comments.

“Historiography in psychology: A note on ignorance,” by Daniel N. Robinson. The abstract reads,

A persistent theme in books and essays concerning the history of psychology suggests something amiss in tracing that history to ancient sources. Authoritative writers on the subject reject any intimation of continuity from classical to modern perspectives. Nonetheless, writers of textbooks identify the ancient world of philosophy and science as wellsprings of issues still alive within the discipline. To some, this tendency is attributed to simple ignorance. The controversy here is based on a failure to appreciate the relationship and the differences between continuity and recurrence, as well as an undisciplined application of terms far too protean for the intended purpose.

“Psychology and its history,” by Kurt Danziger. The abstract reads,

During its relatively short history as a distinct discipline, psychology was accompanied by a historiography that projected the idea of psychology back to ancient times when such an idea did not in fact exist. As the modern discipline proliferated into a collection of weakly connected sub-disciplines, the textbook image of psychology’s ancient essence suggested that, in spite of the current messy reality, the subject had an unchanging core object that had always been there to be recognized. Earlier, that object was the psyche, later it was “human nature,” and more recently, the principles of human cognition. However, historiography plays a more useful role within the discipline when it takes the current multiplicity of psychological objects as its point of departure and explores the social context of their emergence. This entails a historical analysis of the language used to define, describe, categorize, and modify psychological objects.

“Agnotology in the dialectics of the history and philosophy of psychology,” by Thomas Teo. The abstract reads,

It is suggested that Robinson’s (2013) arguments are based on a less than clear articulation of the relationship between the history and philosophy of psychology. After tackling the relationship between these two subdisciplines and conceptualizing them in a dialectic relationship from a programmatic point of view, consequences for writing and reading works in the history and philosophy of psychology are examined. Lessons learned from the reflections suggest that there are inherent conflicts between the two subdisciplines, that the history of psychology needs to reflect on its implicit assumptions as well as on relevance, and that the substance of philosophical psychology can be improved when an historical perspective is taken. Consequences for a critical history and philosophy of psychology are discussed.

“A word more …” by Daniel N. Robinson. The abstract reads,

Psychology’s place is secure within the history of ideas even if systematically overlooked by those who would professionalize intellectual inquiry. At base the controversy featured here is between a misplaced positivism and the humanistic project of History. Exercises in the sociology of knowledge are not paths to understanding but departures from those paths.

Articles can be read online here.

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About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a doctoral student in the History and Theory of Psychology program at York University. Her dissertation explores the early history of questionnaires in American psychology.

One thought on “Theory & Psychology: Debating Historiography in Psychology

  1. As I wrote on my Google+ :

    I’m not sure why some have been so bullheaded about these questions. To those who bother to do more than survey the works of Plato and Sigmund Freud, Socrates’ (or Plato’s, as the case may be) “Reason, Will, and Passion” ought to be clear enough as an (if not THE) inspiration for Freud’s “Superego, Ego, and Id,” just to point to one of the more obvious connections. And let’s not kid ourselves; Freud was familiar with the works of Plato, so even if the Socratic view of the psyche were not a conscious inspiration for the Freudian view of the psyche, the former would nevertheless have been an subconscious inspiration for the latter (vide, e.g., the court finding that George Harrison had allegedly “subconsiously lifted” three chords from “He’s So Fine” for his hit “My Sweet Lord,” which I consider a far less justified verdict than my own verdict on Freud and Plato here stated). Well and truly hath Philosophy been named “Queen and Mother of the Sciences.” Obviously, my stance is closer to that of Daniel Robinson than that of Kurt Danziger (although I believe Robinson did not go back far enough, settling for Aristotle when he could have gone back to Aristotle’s Master, Plato, and thence, theoretically, to Plato’s Master, Socrates).

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