An interesting clash of historiographic sensibilities has cropped up of late on the Wikipedia entry on the history of psychology. (Disclaimer: about 6,000 words of that entry were written by me last year.) Over the past few weeks, one user who uses the name “Jagged 85” has been adding large amounts of material on what he calls “medieval psychology.” What he means by this, specifically, are instances of Islamic science and broader social practice that seem to roughly correspond to topics and practices that we, in the present and in the West, regard as being a part of the discipline of psychology. For instance, he makes the following claims:
The first psychiatric hospitals and insane asylums were built in the medieval Islamic world in the 8th century….
The concepts of mental health and “mental hygiene” were introduced by the Muslim physician Ahmed ibn Sahl al-Balkhi (850-934),….
in the 1010s, the Iraqi Arab scientist, Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) introduced the experimental method in several areas that are now part of experimental psychology….
Avicenna was a pioneer of psychophysiology and psychosomatic medicine. He recognized ‘physiological psychology’ in the treatment of illnesses involving emotions….”
Even Muhammad himself is cited as an “important medieval Muslim psychologist.”
Meanwhile, a number of other users have objected, and are attempting to minimize this material. For instance, one user who goes by the moniker “Famousdog,” has written “As I have repeatedly stated on other pages presenting this same material: this definition of psychophysics is wrong and al-Haytham did nothing of the sort!”
For the professional historian, Jagged 85’s attributions smack of presentism: the imposition of modern epistemic categories and values on the actions of people from the distant past; people who did not share our categories and values and who may well have been up to quite different kinds of projects despite their superficial similarity to our own. There was no discipline of “psychology” in medieval Islamic times, and the individuals cited, whatever their intentions might have been, could not have been aiming to advance such a discipline.
On the other hand, it seems relatively obvious that Jagged 85’s aim, quite laudable in its own right, is to bring about a greater exposure to, and appreciation of, the activities of the great scientists of the medieval Islamic world.
The dispute brings out one of the great problems of Wikipedia and other user-created resources of this sort. Authors with differing agendas (and perhaps only a modicum of knowledge) will clash over what is to count as a legitimate contribution to a particular topic. Does al-Haytham, interesting as his optical work was, deserve a prominent place in an entry on the history of psychology? Or should such a discussion, more properly, be confined to an entry on “medieval Islamic science,” with only a bare mention of him and a link in the “history of psychology” entry? For the relatively uninitiated reader, does including al-Haytham’s work in the “history of psychology” entry serve more to clarify the origins of psychological science, or does it lead to confusion about what, for the historian, constitutes the legitimate boundaries of the term “psychology”? Although Wikipedia offers virtual spaces for such debates to be sorted out and settled, there is little obvious way to persuade partisan advocates that their insights are not appropriate on (what may well appear to them to be) arcane historiographical grounds (e.g., “turf wars”). By the same token, few serious historians of science are going to be convinced that the aim of “spreading the word” about, e.g., non-Western science trumps the imperative to carefully situate historical events in their relevant historical contexts, rather than uprooting and distorting them for political ends. And who has the time for all this negotiation anyway?
Ironically, this dispute comes on the heels of a column by Yale graduate student Sage Ross in the latest issue of the Newsletter of the History of Science Society exhorting historians of science to contribute to Wikipedia as a way of helping to correct persistent public myths about the scientific past (e.g., that the world was widely believed to be flat in Christopher Columbus’ time). Ross writes that “tapping into the enthusiasm of talented history buffs and history-minded scientists has been the most rewarding part of working on Wikipedia.” For many historians of science, however, attempting to persuade unreceptive (and often self-righteous) activists of the import of professional historical sensibilities and of the dangers that flow from ignoring them, is not an enjoyable experience, and the prospect will likely to lead many scholarly historians to maintain their distance from the site.