Tag Archives: historiography

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, Continue reading

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New Issue of History of the Human Sciences: Historians in the Archive

A new issue of History of the Human Sciences is now online. The October 2013 release is a special issue on the topic of “Historians in the Archive: Changing Historiographical Practices in the Nineteenth Century.” As described by guest editors Pieter Huistra, Herman Paul and Jo Tollebeek in the introduction, the issue  “explores the influence that archives, in a classic, institutional sense, exerted on the practices of 19th-century historiography. How did the archival turn affect historians’ working manners? How contested was this archival research imperative, with its underlying autopsy principle? And how did it spread geographically, in and outside Europe?” The seven articles that comprise the issue include pieces on the persona of the archival historian, the use of state archives, and the role of debates about testimony in the archival turn. Full titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.

“Historians in the archive: An introduction,” by Pieter Huistra, Herman Paul, and Jo Tollebeek. The abstract reads,

Historians in the 19th-century were not the first to discover the importance of source materials kept in archival depositories. More than their predecessors, however, scholars working in the historical discipline that the 19th century saw emerge tended to equate professional historical knowledge with knowledge based on primary source research, that is, practically speaking, on knowledge gained from source material that was usually kept in archives. While previous scholarship had paid ample attention to the methods that 19th-century historians employed for the study of such archival material, to the epistemologies they developed in tandem with these methods and to the institutions they created for the study of archival records, this special issue explores the influence that archives, in a classic, institutional sense, exerted on the practices of 19th-century historiography. How did the archival turn affect historians’ working manners? How contested was this archival research imperative, with its underlying autopsy principle? And how did it spread geographically, in and outside Europe?

“Inventing the archive: Testimony and virtue in modern historiography,” by Kasper Risbjerg Eskildsen. The abstract reads, Continue reading

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To APA or not to APA?

Thoughts on having read (half of) Stanley Fish’s 2011 book, How to Write a Sentence:

Long ago, in order to seem more “scientific,” the discipline of psychology decided to adopt (and rigorously enforce) a staccato, just-the-facts writing style. We drill it into our students in nearly every course, using a multi-hundred-page writing manual that everyone is expected to own and use. Indeed, in some courses, knowledge of APA style seems to loom more important even than knowledge of the psychological topic (cognition, personality, social, etc.) that is supposedly being taught.

It was originally intended, I suspect, to be a kind of anti-style in which “things” would be the only persuasive factors at work, all rhetorical techniques having been banished to the not-entirely-trusted realm of “words,” so that the reader would not be confused by the eloquent flourishes of crafty belle-lettrists of times past (or of the humanities present). This justification is, of course, ridiculous. A spare, telegraphic writing style is every bit as much a style as an elaborately ornamented one; giving the appearance of reporting “just the facts” is every bit as much a rhetorical technique — viz., one intended to be persuasive beyond the mere quality of the content — as is one that displays erudition through the most startling verbal gymnastics.

My question, then, is what important insights has psychology, the discipline, made it difficult or impossible to express by cleaving so strictly to this particular style, rather than allowing a wider range of writing styles to exist side-by-side in the discipline?

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Essay: “‘Foolishness’ needs closer examination”

“‘Foolishness’ needs closer examination,” wrote Christopher Goodey (2004) in Medical History, 48(3). Why, yes, I thought. It does. And it seems especially apropos to revisit this topic today: through his delving into the past, we may well find a more interesting interpretation of contemporary pranksters’ April tomfoolery.

As Goodey points out, “foolishness” is often equated with a kind of “mental deficiency.” (Early texts describing it are now read by doctors as having anticipated modern diagnoses.) And the origins of April Fools’ Day could be read in this way too: on the earliest appearance of the day in English literature — as the 32nd of March — Chaucer’s (1392) cockerel Chanticleer was tricked into being eaten by a sly fox, who was then in turn tricked into letting his dinner escape (in the Canterbury Tales).

But did the origins of April Fools’ Day, in the Middle Ages, reflect this contemporary understanding? Has “foolishness” always been the opposite of “intelligence”?

Goodey suggests that the answer to this question is, simply, “no.” It is misleading, he shows, to reduce one to the other.

The idea of an intelligence peculiar to the human species… arrived only after logic-based methods started to be used to define essences of species, i.e. with the birth of modern biological classification in the eighteenth century. An ability for abstract thinking was perceived as universally human only when political and ecclesiastical élites were challenged over their divine right to prescribe the abstract principles known as “common ideas” to the rest of the population, and individuals started getting ideas by themselves. (p. 290)

In other words, the notion of intelligence as we think of it today is a relatively modern invention. As a result, we cannot read its meaning — or its opposite — into the texts of earlier writers.

Yet, it is the case that many contemporary April Fools’ Day pranks assume the mental deficiency of their targets (i.e., they assume their audience is “stupid”). Having accepted Goodey’s invitation to examine the notion more closely, however, I now suggest that this need not be the case.

Instead, I suggest that “stupid” pranks can be understood as reflecting a fundamental presentism. Recognizing this, and applying Hacking‘s notion of “the looping effect,” there then also seems to be a way out: contemporary pranksters have been led, by this misunderstanding of historical sources, to act differently than they might have otherwise.

Delving still more deeply, it seems that historicist readings of “foolishness” — and thus also of April Fools’ Day — may well be more subversive (and more interesting) than is usually thought at present. As Goodey points out:

Erasmus’s Praise of folly and Brant’s Ship of fools both use foolishness allegorically to attack political and ecclesiastical élites. (p. 292)

We are thus led to wonder: Were Chanticleer and the fox both actually stupid? Or did Chaucer use their foolishness to afford a commentary on a larger issue?

Thus, to close: if you pranked someone today, did your prank assume they were stupid? Or were you subverting something larger?

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Bibliography: Historiography of Psychology

This post is written by Michael Pettit, York University and is part of a special series of bibliographies on topics in the history of psychology.

Making (and reading) these kinds of lists is fun but always tricky. The problem is not so much what to include but exclude. The following gives you a snapshot of how I conceive of the “greatest hits” in the history of psychology (rather broadly construed) over the past fifty years. The list consists entirely of books: this reflects my graduate training if not necessarily my current reading habits. Most authors get only one book. The thought of Michel Foucault definitely has shaped this historiography profoundly, but the response among historians has been quite nuanced and sophisticated. This list of books includes work by historians, sociologists, philosophers, anthropologists, alongside psychologists, demonstrating how interdisciplinary the field has become. An important question to contemplate at the current moment is whether there are new, untapped historiographic directions offered by this tradition or whether we require a new starting point for debate?

Foucault, M. (1966/1970). The Order of Things. New York: Vintage.

Ellenberger, H. (1970). The discovery of the unconsciousness. New York: Basic Books.

Foucault, M. (1978). The history of sexuality: An introduction. New York: Vintage.

Young, R. M. (1985). Darwin’s metaphor: Nature’s place in Victorian culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Digby, A. (1985). Madness, morality and medicine: A study of the York Retreat, 1796-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

O’Donnell, J. M. (1985). The origins of behaviorism: American psychology, 1870-1920. New York: New York University Press. Continue reading

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CFP for funded neurohistory workshop in Munich

Smail's bookThe Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society is sponsoring a workshop on neurohistory to be held in Munich in June. Broadly speaking, they are calling for papers to engage the following theme: “How can neuroscience help us understand the past?”

This interest follows Daniel Lord Smail‘s book of 2008, On deep history and the brain, which asked questions about when “history” ought to be conceived as having begun and also appealed to the brain as a way to reach behind the texts that typically inform historical research. This new workshop follows his lead:

  1. What ideas and methods have neuroscientists developed that historians can use to shed a new light on the past (and vice versa)?
  2. What new research questions can neuroscience suggest for historians (and vice versa)?
  3. What are the biggest challenges in developing neurohistory as a field, and how can they be overcome?
  4. How might neurohistory shed light on the interaction between people and their environment, in both the past and the present?

For those interested, the organizers are asking for participants to pre-circulate a short (1000 word) position paper, participate in a two-day workshop (6-7 June 2011), and then revise their paper for publication (in Rachel Carson Center Perspectives). Continue reading

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Historiographic essay: “Whither history?”

In her presidential address to the American Historical Association, Gabrielle Spiegel (pictured right) equated the problematic ungroundedness of postmodern histories with the psychological impossibility of feeling grounded following the Holocaust:

Both for those who survived and for those who came after, the Holocaust appears to exceed the representational capacity of language, and thus to cast suspicion on the ability of words to convey reality. And for the second generation [those who inherited the wound but did not experience its infliction], the question is not even how to speak but, more profoundly, if one has a right to speak, a delegitimation of the speaking self that, turned outward, interrogates the authority, the privilege of all speech. (Spiegel, 2009, p. 7)

It is for this reason, Spiegel suggests, that the historians who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s became suspicious of their ability to represent truth. Not only were the events of the Holocaust fundamentally indescribable to any adequate degree, but the language itself seemed stricken to silence. There were simply no words to describe the reality. Only grammars — conjugations of understood essences — retained their capacity to convey; to construct meaning.

Pretensions of intellectual objectivity died at Auschwitz. Or rather, argues Spiegel, they died following innumerable failed attempts to describe what it was like to have been there. And this had a fundamental impact on what it meant to do history.

the emergence of poststructuralism under the sign of the linguistic turn bespoke the end of the confident, optimistic era of European Enlightenment with its faith in the continual progress of human history under the aegis of scientific learning and methods and, not least among them, scientific history. (Spiegel, 2009, p. 8 )

A new call was thus raised; rather than celebrating individual events or actors, context became king. For thirty years, social and cultural histories reigned.

But there has recently been some disgruntlement.  Analyses of language and its constructions are beginning to sound hollow. Continue reading

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Review of On Deep History and the Brain

The most recent issue of Isis contains a fascinating review by David Sepkoski of the book On Deep History and the Brain by Daniel Lord Smail (U. California Press, 2007). In essence, the book argues that historians should look past history to evolutionary pre-history (especially of the brain) in order to understand otherwise mysterious historical movements. To quote form the review:

Drawing on recent cognitive psychology, Smail argues that neurochemical states in the brain—the production of hormones in response to stimulus or stress, for instance—can explain historical phenomena otherwise obscure or unintelligible to traditional historical methodology. The centerpiece of this argument is an examination of “teletropic” and “autotropic” behaviors in humans—respectively, behaviors in which humans either regulate the stimulus-response patterns in others (as a form of dominance or control) or produce them in themselves (as a way of seeking pleasure or relief from stress). This is indeed a provocative—even revolutionary—argument, and perhaps Smail is giving us a glimpse of a fundamentally new way of joining history, biology, and psychology. Continue reading

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The history of British psychiatric histories

The British Medical Association concedes to the introduction of the National Health Service in a satirical print from 1946. (Wellcome Library, London)In an article made freely available by the Social History of Medicine, 21(3), Martin Gorsky examines the history of the published histories on the British National Health Service (NHS). Of particular interest to readers of AHP will be the changes he charts for psychiatry.

A central theme of psychiatry in the NHS is the shift since the 1960s from institutional to community care. This is not a process which scholars have viewed as liberating or humane, nor is there consensus on the cause. Some, such as Freeman and Jones, regard the old asylums as essentially benign institutions whose demise was due to the unhappy conjunction of Conservative cost-cutting and wrong-headed anti-psychiatry doctrines. The claim that new anti-psychotic drugs explain ‘decarceration’ is dismissed by Scull, who argues that the fiscal stresses of welfare capitalism fell first on unproductive ‘problem populations’; Moncrieff’s recent assault on the ‘myth of the chemical cure’ undergirds the argument that it was economics, not effective pharmacotherapies which explain deinstitutionalisation. Empirical studies have complicated the picture, for example tracing 1950s antecedents to community care, early therapeutic optimism attending chemotherapies, and peculiar local factors which first favoured small psychiatric units in district general hospitals rather than asylums. There is general agreement, however, that community care has been a disappointment, although it remains moot whether this was due to political complacency or to ‘calculated neglect’ in the interest of preserving resources for the acute sector. (pp. 449-450)

This article exemplifies “the other” meaning of historiography: it is a history of histories, rather than a discussion of historical method.

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Lakatos for intellectual historians?

KuukkanenIn a recent issue of History and Theory, 47(3), Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen (pictured left) sought to defend intellectual history. In an email sent earlier this year, Brian Fay — the journal’s executive editor — described the article thus:

Some historians, such as Arthur Lovejoy of the great chain of being fame, have claimed that intellectual history is about unit-ideas, but critics have countered that there are no such units that cut across historical epochs; they propose, instead, that it is linguistic entities that are the object of study, or they wonder whether the whole notion of intellectual history isn’t a non-starter because there is nothing stable enough to count as the object of such a history. To these critics Kuukkanen responds that we should accept ideas and concepts as the basis for an intelligible history of thought — so his is a return in a way to Lovejoy — but that we have to be more sophisticated than Lovejoy about what this means. He proposes that concepts and ideas are comprised of a core and a margin, and that conceiving of them in this way solves a number of problems that Lovejoy’s original formulation could not.

Although I am sympathetic to Kuukkanen’s goal, his remedy looks to me like little more than an application of Lakatosian philosophy to history. Continue reading

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