Presentism in the Service of Diversity?

Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen)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.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

31 thoughts on “Presentism in the Service of Diversity?

  1. Chris,

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. I’ve found that editors in general (and Jagged85 in particular) are receptive to historiographical argument with respect to balancing content within an article, and with respect to tempering the frequent presentism of articles that aren’t based on the work of historians of science. Other editors tend to take quite a bit more liberty with content that isn’t carefully attributed to secondary sources (as in the case of your additions to “History of psychology”), but still, it comes down to your question: “And who has the time for all this negotiation anyway?”

    I argue that these are fights worth fighting, except in the most contested instances where different groups all claim expertise (e.g., “scientific method”). You can’t expect a passive audience on Wikipedia any more than you can expect a passive audience in the classroom. But we have to balance to work involved (not trivial, but not a Sisyphean project either) against the readership of solid Wikipedia representation, which is orders of magnitude larger than most historical scholarship in books or journals. These are fights worth fighting, unless we really are content to talk amongst ourselves and our captive classroom audiences.

    Yours in discourse,

  2. I raised some of these same issues with Chris when he first went at refining the Wikipedia article on the history of psychology. My solution to the problem has been to challenge Boring’s framework (no one among us has been really bold enough to even broach that yet), which is that the history of psychology is the history of the laboratory, or a definition of scientific psychology based on German psychophysics and English mental testing, or a science that conforms to the larger history of Western science. Psychology, in my opinion, is both an art and a science. All a science can do, however, is generate more of itself. By confining psychology to a definition of only that which is measurable, academic psychologists have increased their precision at measurement at the expense of relevance to the larger totality of human experience and are not really the players on a post-modern world they fancy themselves to be. As a result, depth psychology and the psychotherapeutic counter-culture have taken up more expanded definitions of psychology, particularly those based on non-reductionistic and anti-positivist epistemologies. This means that if there is more than one defintion of psychology in common currency, then there must be more than one history. Chris’s rewrite of the Wikipedia article, good and important tho’ it is, cleaves to the ‘only one history’ version of the argument, however.

    I was just talking about the different streams of psychology within our own culture–experimental, clinical, and experiential, and their separate traditions as well as historic overlaps. Now the Islamic scholars have stepped in and added their correction to the implicit idea that there is only one psychology and one history of it by adding their own events and personalities drawn from Islamic science, which is discordant with Chris’s underlying assumption that only scientific psychology as defined by Westerners is in possession of what is real.

    The solution seems quite simple and that is to label the history of psychology that now stands on Wikipedia as White, Western, culture bound, and representative only of the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, Western European, and Anglo-American definition of reality–a more historically accurate statement about what is there, which also preserves it in its present form as written. That said, dominant tho’ it is, Chris would have to acknowledge that, in exchange for standing just as he wrote it, his version is just one more indigenous psychology along with Islamic science, Hindu psychology, Buddhist psychology, Afro-centered systems, Confucian or Taoist views, etc. not the end-all and be-all of what we shall allow to be called psychology everywhere by everyone for all time.

  3. I think that the issue of there being different strands of psychology in the Western tradition (e.g., experimental, clinical, humanistic) is distinct from the issue of there being non-Western traditions in the study of mind, soul, spirit, etc. While I am sympathetic to the former, I think that calling the latter forms of “psychology” is simply a historical error. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Africans, etc. — ancient Greeks, for that matter — do/did not have a discipline called psychology. Their epistemic categories are/were structured differently from those in the West (e.g., physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc.) and to label as forms of psychology the portions that seem superficially similar to those we collect under the term “psychology” is, I think, to distort them and falsely assimilate them to a system of knowledge that is alien to their origins. It is, in essence, a cross-cultural analog of presentism. They should, instead, be presented in the contexts of their own cultural origins, rather than being forced into Western categories like “psychology.”

    But all of this is way beyond the typical Wikipedia entry. I added to what was a very poor entry some of what I know of the history of experimental psychology. That is not to say that what I wrote constitutes the whole of the history of psychology, by any means. If others, such as Eugene, would like to add material on the other strands of the history of Western psychology, or begin other entries that do so (there is a limit to how long Wikipedia entries can get), I would welcome their contributions.

  4. Hi Chris,

    I think it’s an interesting article. Since you’ve invited me to have a read, I think it’s only right that I at least leave a reply. I personally don’t think I’m qualified to argue with you on this topic, but I’ll just leave a few comments regarding those edits I made to the article a few weeks ago.

    As far as I know, there is no single definition for psychology. I am aware that my own understanding of psychology is limited compared to that of a professional psychologist, but the definition I had in mind while making those edits was simply the study of mental processes and behaviours. Under this broader definition, I think the earlier ancient and medieval traditions do merit inclusion in the history of psychology article, in much the same way earlier pre-experimental scientific traditions are included in the history of science article.

    Also, I didn’t at all mean to suggest that Muhammad was an “important medieval psychologist” but was referring to the other ones that I listed after him. I was simply stating that Muhammad discussed mental illness. I didn’t really spot this mistake earlier, so thanks for bringing it to my attention. I’ve now changed it to “medieval thinker” instead.

    Jagged 85

  5. I think this is a fascinating discussion. And it’s certainly welcome. At Wikipedia, however, the standard solution would be to cleave the “history of psychology” article into separate linked-to sub-pages while preserving the body of what’s accepted in the discipline and supportable in the literature. This has the advantage of keeping down length, while at the same time encouraging the proper placement of all contributions without fomenting reversion wars and generally annoying the experts who are trying to help.

    It seems to me that the ideal page Chris was attempting to create reflects the disciplinary norms of what we call “History of Psychology.” The ideal page Jagged_85 was trying to create, in contrast, reflects the collectivity of things readers might identify as psychological in our history. Hence, in the reference, we point to all of the various things a reader might be looking for while explaining briefly why many of them must be held separate from the disciplinary history of Psychology: because not doing so would be presentist, normatively anachronistic, certainly colonialist, possibly jingoistic, and generally disrespectful of the cultures in which those ideas arose.

    The way we do things now is neither necessarily “the right way” nor is it the way “they ought to” have been done. (Indeed, despite appearances to the contrary, I believe this rather strongly; my explanation of my choice of including the word “Advances” in the name of our blog can be found here.) In short: we ought to treat the different histories differently, without reducing everything that looks familiar to fit within our contemporary framework.

    I support Wikipedia as part of the future of reference material, but I also recognize that it has problems. (Some of these have been bad enough, on exactly the same issues we’re discussing, to cause its fractioning: for example, the relevant Citizendium pages are linked to in the main AHP page’s sidebar.) Yet, in my opinion, some of these problems can be easily overcome. If, in this case, we provide indented hatnote blurbs linking to pages examining historical mind-, brain-, and behaviour-related ideas while preserving the History of Psychology page as a reflection of the norms in the discipline, then it seems to me that all interests could be fulfilled. (Otherwise, you would have to address the problem of where to draw the line in determining what these categoricals mean. Psychology as the study of “brain” and “behaviour” or “soul,” “anima,” “vis,” etc.? That’s a rabbit hole from which a reference article could not escape.)

    The same could be said about the timeline of historic inventions. (Although there is an article cited for the claim, historians of psychology don’t typically include Avicenna or Alhazen in the chronology of developments in the discipline we study; on this basis, I would argue that they are not part of the disciplinary lineage and should only be included in the reference as hatnotes.)

  6. It seems to me that a related question is what “counts” as the history of psychology. Much of the Islamic section seems concerned with treatment of mentally ill patients, i.e. clinical psychiatry. Isn’t this part of the history of psychology? If not, why not?

  7. Chris seems to have this one absolutely nailed. I just post to note that no one has mentioned the term “actor’s categories” yet. While we shouldn’t feel constrained to only discuss science in actor’s categories, in this case it’s probably useful. Arabic-Islamic science did not have a category “psychology”, but, they, and modern psychology, share in a long and very explicitly coherent tradition surrounding the question of “mind” (and “soul”, etc., as you point out). The upshot of this is that Wikipedia has pages dedicated to “mind” as well as “theory of mind” in which discussions of the contributions of individuals such as Avicenna and co. would fit right in, without burdening them with all the connotations of the modern term “psychology”.

    I’m dealing with this issue in an “Intro to History of Science” course I’m teaching at the University of Maryland right now. My predecessor teaching this course dedicated weeks to “Science in India” etc…, but I’m not, because I’m specifically framing the course as a “history of the modern scientific enterprise”, not studies of systematic inquiry into the natural world. Those are two very different courses, but since I have a semester to do 500 years of history (plus background), I’ll take any chance I can get to narrow the scope a little.

  8. But clinging to the standard view of how psychology is to be defined, which I consider to be in error, makes of historians mere copyists. It then becomes an identity problem–you cannot give up that outmoded 19th century definition of psychology based on Newtonian mechanics without putting your identity as a member of the science-establishment in jeopardy. So you cannot consider that psychology may actually be both a legitimate art and a legitimate science at the same time. But to cleave only to psychology as a science is not an example of scientific objectivity, is it. After all, it was Prof. Skinner who said, “I didn’t like psychology the way I found it, so I made it over to suit myself.”

  9. The official policy at Wikipedia is not to include original research in reference material. Making an argument that Psychology is improperly defined, leading to actions pursuant to a remedy at Wikipedia (rather than in the journals) to redefine it, is therefore not acceptable under their policy.

    But that’s not to say that such an argument should not take place. It’s just not acceptable at Wikipedia. The proper place for such a discussion is in the peer-reviewed academic journals, which can then be cited in context as part of the reference.

  10. Jagged 85 says “the definition [of “psychology”] I had in mind while making those edits was simply the study of mental processes and behaviours.” Herein lies precisely the difference between scientists writing about the history of science and historians writing about it. For the psychologist, there is a sense in which anyone anywhere writing about the mind or specific mental processes is doing “psychology.” The historian, by contrast, takes the view that scholarly disciplines are a certain kind of historically-situated social structure, in which a group of individuals self-consciously assemble and articulate a set of problems as being closely-enough related to each other that they constitute what might be termed an “intellectual kind” (an analog to a “natural kind”). In short, they are of a piece with one another. “Psychology” didn’t really come together in this way until the mid-18th century, in Central and Western Europe.
    Identifying specific “firsts” is always a tricky historical business, but an important step in this development was when Christian Wolff made the distinction between rational and empirical psychology, and then Denis Diderot adopted this distinction and spread it to much of the rest of Europe through his Encyclopédie. (Of course, the term “psychology” already had a relatively long European history at that point, but I would argue that the theological “psychology” of Goclenius, etc. was not really part of the same discipline as that which emerged in the mid-18th century.) Soon after, Kant rejected psychology (along with chemistry) as a “proper” science but, in doing so, solidified its status as a coherent discipline. By the early 19th century “psychology” was a state-sacntioned school topic in some of the German states. By the 1870s, Wundt was doing experimental studies of the topic and writing textbooks about it. The rest, as they say, is history.

    Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) was not any part of these developments. Important and interesting as his work was in its own right, he was part of a quite different intellectual tradition; one in which “psychology” was not a disciplinary category. He wrote on optics (but so did Newton, and no one considers him to be a “psychologist”). And lest anyone be inclined to accuse me of excluding him for being a Muslim, I take roughly the same line with Plato and Aristotle. Although they wrote quite a lot about the psuche (which is related to, but not really the same as, the modern “mind”), what they wrote was not “psychology” in any meaningful sense; it was philosophy. This is not to say that they deserve no mention whatever in an entry about psychology’s history, but I don’t think they deserve much more than a mention, because they were all members of what might be called “pre-psychological” intellectual universes.

  11. “Knitting Clio” says (in her full comment, which appears on her own blog, linked in the comment immediately above) that she “should note that a certain kind of presentism is at work in Chris’ blog in that he starts from the point of view of what ‘counts’ as psychology today, and then works backward to the field’s roots in 18th century laboratory science.”

    I have responded in full on her blog, but I will quote the most pertinent portion of my reply here: “This does not, to my mind, partake of presentism, which imposes modern categories and values on the past. Rather, I attempt to identify boundaries for what is properly, historically called “psychology.” The proof, contra your claim, that I am not simply imposing today’s “psychology” on the past is that I would follow the same approach if I were studying a discipline that does not exist today, e.g., alchemy. I would identify a group of people who self-consciously assembled a set of problems that were seen to be “of a kind” and placed them under the term “alchemy.” Thus, e.g., ancient Egyptian “magicians” could not really be said to be alchemists, even if they were trying to, e.g., turn base metals into gold because they were part of an entirely different intellectual tradition from the medieval European alchemists, even if their ultimate goal was superficially the same as that of the medieval European alchemists.”

    In all fairness, I have myself verbally finessed this principle in the past (in the book Early Psychological Thought: Ancient Accounts of Mind and Soul, co-authored with Philip Groff). In the inroduction, I talk a little about the problem of using the phrase “ancient psychology” because there wasn’t any. There were, however, various parts of metaphysics, ethics, and investigations of nature (I hesitate to say “natural science” in this context), that were about various terms that bear a genealogical relation to mind and behavior: psuche (psyche), nous (noos), logistikon, thumos, epithumeikon, ate, dianoia, etc. The phrase “psychological thought” was used to gather this assortment together under our term psychology, without attributing the term (or concept) to them. I’m not certain I am as sanguine about that little verbal “sleight of hand” now as as I was when I produced it a decade ago.

  12. I think I understand your position more clearly now. What you say in your last paragraph is probably the same sort of dilemma faced by historians trying to write for a popular audience on Wikipedia and elsewhere.

  13. I have found this discussion very interesting. I feel that historians of the human sciences are particularly wary of the problem of presentism due in large measure to the conviction among many that there exists a looping relationship between the science and the objects of study where people grow into the scientific categories. Hence the subject of the history of psychology is not a stable, transhistorical entity, but an ever changing one. On this reading of the history, having a delineated, disciplinary scientific authority matters. On the other hand, many people in the history of psychology are quite skeptical of the current scope and definition of what constitutes the discipline. I wonder if some of these debates should be brought into the wikepedia article. Footnoting the influential work of Graham Richards and Roger Smith that explicitly dealt with what the “subject” of the history of psychology is might bring readers outside the specialty into the conversation and make clear the worries about anachronism. The wiki entry might also have a section that discusses pre-disciplinary historical developments that have yet to make it into the canon and a discussion that acknowledges that certain historians want them in and explains why others feel the need to exclude them. I guess what I am saying is perhaps an article on the history of (modern, experimental) psychology needs a more explicit explanation of how its object of study is delineated and a recognition that such a delineation is a topic of active discussion within the scholarly domain. The wiki entry ought to reflect the debate that is taking here and not reduce the various stances taken into an unproblematic unity. Vive la difference.

  14. I guess I better justify myself, since I appear to have been quoted… I’m a psychophysicist and I became interested in Ibn al-haytham when I saw an article by Omar Khadleefa arguing that al-Haytham should be considered the “founder” of psychophysics (this article also argued that he founded psychology as a whole, but I will stick to my area of expertise, as should we all ;-). This article has been re-published, quoted and cited on many Muslim, Persian or Arab websites (perhaps underlining the confusion over al-Haytham’s ethnicity) and the sole motivation for the wide dissemination of this, rather poor, article seems to be to reassure the Muslim/Persian/Arab/etc. world that “they/we” are better then “us/them.”

    The fact is that (regarding psychophysics) Khaleefa’s paper is scholarly bankrupt. He clearly doesn’t have a clue what psychophysics is and how it fits into the larger discipline of psychology. Other authors such as Nick Wade or Ian Howard (both vision scientists) know exactly where Ibn al-Haytham fits in the history of psychology. He studied optics, and yes, made many important contributions to this science, including some inspired theorising regarding other, more psychological aspects of vision. However, the water is muddied by the fact that he also presented material from his translations of Ptolemy (binocularity) and commentaries on the work of Galen (anatomy) in such a fashion that many readers of his work think, erroneously, that it represents his original research. To acknowledge this is is NOT to undermine his legacy, but to simply to insist upon scholarly rigour when recording the history of ideas.

    Eugene Taylor describes the history of psychology present on Wikipedia as “White, Western, culture bound, and representative only of the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, Western European, and Anglo-American definition of reality”. Unfortunately, Jagged 85s edits reflect the polar opposite (and equally detestable) standpoint: His posts are outrageously “Islamo-centric” and, yes, presentist. Al-Haytham did not “elucidate Hering’s Law of Equal Innervation.” He simply pointed out that the eyes move together. Aristotle pointed this out a thousand years before him, and Ptolemy had even explained why this may be useful. On this particular point, al-Haytham’s contribution was simply to state it far clearer than had been done so before (an important contribution in itself – more people read Dawkins that Darwin).

    However, I am wholeheartedly in favour of the Wikipedia project and, far from being a “problem,” I believe that this discussion demonstrates its value. Jagged 85 may have gone a tad too far in one direction (exemplified by his addition of articles such as “Muslim psychology” that simply promote “psychological” ideas from the Islamic sphere at the expense of other views), but as more people discover and contribute to Wikipedia, I believe the balance will be restored.

    One final note: I currently have an article in press with the journal Perception (, which enumerates the many problems in Khaleefa’s analysis of al-Haytham’s contributions to vision and psychophysics specifically. It should be out in the next few months.


  15. I won’t comment on the motivations of the original wikipedia article or any of its detractors. But I have published an encyclopedia entry (a very long one) on the history of modern psychology. I started with Kepler’s theory of optics, not because Kepler was a psychologist in any contemporary sense, but because I felt that the audience for such an entry (in a multi-volume “History of Science” encyclopedia) would likely benefit from hearing about how well-known natural philosophers tried to deal with questions of perception in Early Modern Europe.

    I sense that Ibn al-Haytham’s optical theories were extraordinarily important in much the same way (Sabri and Huff would agree on this), and that his theories were also influential beyond the limits of the Islamic world (as was much Islamic science). In both instances, historical study of these theories can tell us something about the structures of the knowledge at that time, in that place.

    Are they part of the history of psychology? I would rather turn the question around and ask what the purpose of a disciplinary history of psychology is in the first place. The answer has been framed (correctly, I think) by folks like Richards & Smith, as Mike suggests. It’s to give psychology students and practitioners the sense of being part of a grand tradition. That’s no more or less ‘presentist’ than including non-Western scholars as part of the grand tradition.

    We should challenge (and I’d say, abandon) the disciplinary project at every available opportunity. This doesn’t mean expanding the hagiography to include non-Western, non-male ‘contributors to the relentless advance of our glorious field’. It means showing how and in what way theories of mind, brain, or behaviour were part of and contributed to structures of knowledge, culture, or what have you. Hence the title of Richards’ book, “Putting Psychology in its Place”.

    Of course, this historicist position itself depends upon a presentist argument (one borrowed from social history); namely, that there is no consensus on what “progress” actually means.

  16. As a Wikipedian, I think Mike Pettit’s comments are right on the money — the debate on the definition of the field should absolutely be included within the article, with appropriate citations.

    If there is a significant amount of content to be written about the debate, it can be spun off into a separate article, summarized in History of psychology in accordance with Wikipedia:Summary style.

  17. Kenton Kroker’s comments are basically what I was trying to say in my blog post except he does a much better job of explaining the issues! I would add that the same historiographic questions came up in the history of medicine starting about twenty years ago, as the field moved beyond educating medical students in the grand tradition of western medicine and began to incorporate issues and methodological issues raised by social and cultural historians.

  18. Hi Famousdog,

    I am not qualified to argue with you on the topic of psychology or psychophyics (to be honest, I never realized you were a psychophyscist before), but I do feel the need to justify myself after the assertion you’ve made about me being “outrageously Islamo-centric” and the examples you gave to justify this assertion, i.e. my edit regarding Ibn al-Haytham elucidating the “law of equal innervation” and my creation of a “Muslim psychology” article.

    Firstly, I was not the one making the claim that al-Haytham elucidated the “law of equal innervation”, but it was Ian P. Howard (who you mentioned to be reliable) who made that claim, and it was on his authority that I reported it in the article. There is no way for me to personally verify this, as I am not a psychologist, nor was I aware about Aristotle, Ptolemy or Galen having any similar theories in antiquity.

    Secondly, most of the content in what is now “Islamic psychology” was originally in the “Early Muslim sociology” article. It was only because the psychological content was taking up too much space in that article that I created a seperate article for it. Like I explained above, the definition of psychology I had in mind while creating the “Muslim psychology” article (and editing “History of psychology”) is simply the study of mental processes and behaviours (which has been studied since antiquity).

    Now that I’ve made that clear, I amm actually quite glad that you’ve written a rebuttal to Khaleefa’s article. I’ll be sure to read it once it’s published, and maybe even cite it in Wikipedia?

    Jagged 85

  19. Apologies if you took offence, but I did not call you “outrageously Islamo-centric”, I was referring to your edits on Wikipedia, which undoubtedly are to the outside observer (and on Wikipedia, we are all outside observers!).

    To address your first point, I have the utmost respect for Ian Howard, and his writings introduced me to this topic. However, I would council you against things “on authority”. Just because somebody publishes in an academic journal doesn’t make them an authority, and even if it did, you should always question authority 😉 as I did when I read Khaleefa’s article.

    With regards your second point, I see what you are trying to do, but the whole enterprise seems a little divisive. Much of the material in the “Muslim psychology” article appears to be philosophy re-branded as psychology with the benefit of “presentist” hindsight. People have been pontificating and cogitating over the nature of the mind since the dawn of time. These ruminations do not necessarily qualify as psychology, although they may be important precursors.

  20. Ross also contributed a related opinion column to Spontaneous Generations, the new grad-journal at the University of Toronto. Get the column here.

  21. The point of an encyclopedia article on the “history of psychology” is to help modern readers find information on anything they think might fall under that heading, whether they take a broad view or narrow view. Visual perception is taught in modern “Intro to Psychology” classes, so it’s perfectly appropriate that early “optics” and parts of “natural philosophy” are included.

    It’s perfectly fine to include under the same title multiple academic traditions with different names or even different cultural backgrounds, if the actual problems they studied overlap. Or alternatively to give specific traditions their own articles (with prominent cross-references) when there’s lots of content and it’s helpful to readers to present a chunk of history that isn’t intertwined with other related traditions. Readers just need to be informed when people who thought of themselves as doing unrelated work, or who had no academic links between them, or whose disciplinary relatedness is disputed, are discussed in the same narrative.

    Sometimes anachronisms are misleading and should be avoided or carefully explained – for example, to avoid referring to “natural philosophers” as “scientists” knowing that they did not use the modern scientific method. But in the end, a name is just a name. Drastic changes in practice and method don’t necessarily result in name changes. So Wikipedia articles need to be careful to point out both name changes and changes in substance over time.

    A lot of times people seem to get wrapped up in arguments about names
    and definitions. These seem silly to me, when it makes so much more
    sense to present a complex world with wrinkles included, and let people make up their own minds (if they care) about who is “in” and who is “out”.

  22. This little tempest in a teapot seems to have more to do with Western revisionism than any true academic endeavor.

    For instance, the wikipedia article on the renaissance implies that it occurred spontaneously, bursting from Florence and spreading over much of Europe. While this is true, the renaissance has it’s origins in Muslim-dominated Spain and Sicily. Islamic thought, particularly in medicine and the arts, flowed North and woke Europe up from the terrors of the dark ages, the ideas being embraced by a nascent class of artisans and merchants.

    I do find that wikipedia in general uses a very Western-centric perspective of history, which is unfortunate given the global nature of the project and it’s massive potential which I am afraid will likely not be fulfilled.

  23. A postscript: the Wikipedia community banned Jagged 85 for misrepresenting sources he was using

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