“The First Modern Battle for Consciousness”

The latest issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, 14(11), includes an article by David Berman and William Lyons that examines “the first modern battle for consciousness.”

Here is the abstract:

This essay investigates the influences that led J. B. Watson to change from being a student in an introspectionist laboratory at Chicago to being the founder of systematic (or radical) behaviourism.  Our focus is the crucial period, 1913-1914, when Watson struggled to give a convincing behaviourist account of mental imaging, which he considered to be the greatest obstacle to his behavourist programme.  We discuss in detail the evidence for and against the view that, at least eventually, Watson rejected outright the very existence of mental images.  We also discuss in detail whether or not Knight Dunlap was the crucial influence on his eventual rejection of mental images.  Finally we consider whether Watson’s rejection of mental images was bolstered by some personal incapacity as regards imaging or whether his rejection was more like a form of ‘ideological blindness.’

Two related resources are also included below.


  • Berman, D. & Lyons, W.  (2007).  The First Modern Battle for Consciousness: J.B. Watson’s Rejection of Mental Images.  Journal of Consciousness Studies, 14(11), 5-26.

See also:

  • Daniels-McGhee, S. & Davis, G. A.  (1994).  The imagery-creativity connection.  Journal of Creative Behavior, 28(3), 151-176.

Reviews perceptions of imagery through history, from Plato to 20th century psychology and education. The psychology of W. Wundt (1894) contrasted with the imageless mind of the Protestant Reformation, but the behaviorism psychology of J. B. Watson (1928) and Skinner (1972) once again discounted the imagery process. R. Holt (1964) heralded the resurgence of interest in imagery by providing a definition of imagery and a taxonomy of types of images. The creative process and its relation to imagery are discussed, and a model of imagery-based creative processes is presented. The phenomena of cross-modal images, or synesthesia, is described. Levels of imagery-creative interaction, and their implications for teaching, are given. It is concluded that educators should beware of reducing possibilities for imagination and creativity by limiting learning experiences to the verbal-propositional.

  • Hamanaka, T.  (1997).  The concept of consciousness in the history of neuropsychiatry.  History of Psychiatry, 8(31, Pt3), 361-373.

Discusses the historical development of the concept of “consciousness”. The modern term goes back etymologically to the Roman “conscientia” and further the Greek “syneidesis”. These and other ancient notions, however, having been employed exclusively with religious or ethical implications (i.e., in the meaning of conscience), did not appear at any time in the medical literature of the Graeco-Roman age. The introduction of the concept of consciousness into Japanese medicine and related disciplines, and its development in British, French, and German psychiatry is highlighted. A series of negative or rather conservative attitudes toward the concept of consciousness are also noted, having begun with (neo)-behaviourism in psychology (J. B. Watson 1913, B. F. Skinner 1938) and as another example, in that of cognitive science (e.g., Z. W. Pylyshyn 1984) which regards the concept of consciousness as the most difficult enigma. It is concluded that neuropsychiatry, modifying a formulation of Boring (1933), would never have come into being if it were not for the problem of consciousness, whatever objectivists, behaviorists–operationalists, and biologists–might have said about it.

About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

2 thoughts on ““The First Modern Battle for Consciousness”

  1. Online journal of
    Social Practice / Psychological Theorizing
    Special theme issue

    Guest Editors: Adrian C. Brock and Johann Louw


    Adrian C. Brock (University College Dublin)

    Psychological practices and ideology: The South African case
    Johann Louw (University of Cape Town &
    Kurt Danziger (York University/University of Cape Town)

    Curing the Dutch disease? The Disability Insurance Act (DIA) and the psychologization process in the Netherlands.
    Ruud Abma (Utrecht University)

    The research relationship in English-language European psychology journals: Forty years of American investigative practice?
    Richard Walsh-Bowers (Wilfrid Laurier University)

    Is there a ‘self’ in self research? or, How measuring the self made it disappear
    Scott Greer (University of Prince Edward Island)

    Statistics and the art of legitimation: The strange case of ‘ n Ach’
    Adrian C. Brock (University College Dublin)

    Mythologized history of psychology as social practice: The uses of ‘environmentalist hegemony’ narratives
    Andrew Winston (University of Guelph)

Comments are closed.