Interview: Special Issue on “Crisis” in Psychology

AHP is please to present an interview with Annette Mülberger (left) and Thomas Sturm (right), editors of a fantastic forthcoming special issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences on the long history of crisis declarations in psychology. The issue is the culmination of a larger research project on crisis debates in psychology. Although the issue itself has not yet been released, the articles comprising it can now be accessed online in their entirety. Read on to discover how the issue came to be, which crisis declarations are addressed in the issue, why such declarations matter, and much more!

Titles, authors, and abstracts to the issue’s articles follow below the interview.

AHP: Can you tell Advances in the History of Psychology’s readers, briefly, about the topic of this special issue of Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences?

Annette: The topic is the manifold crisis declarations and discussions psychology has seen – and partly suffered – since the late nineteenth century. It’s a topic that has not been studied very systematically by either philosophers or historians of the field. Instead, some psychologists have dealt with it, pursuing reflections on the methodological or theoretical or practical problems of psychology.

AHP: How did the issue come to be?

Thomas: The topic was originally Annette’s idea. I needed about three seconds to accept the project because of its potential for integrating historical and philosophical investigations, something I think is necessary. Not always, but often. The topic also presented an occasion for me to work on the Viennese psychologist and philosopher Karl Bühler and his student Karl Popper, a relation I had found interesting. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences is a great journal for such a topic. The editors accepted our proposal quickly.

AHP: Who are the contributors to the issue?

Thomas: An international group of historians and philosophers of psychology, of course. Next to ourselves, these are Christian Allesch, John Carson, Cathy Faye, Uljana Feest, Horst Gundlach, Gary Hatfield, and Ludmila Hyman. We looked deliberately for people who had, in their previous work, shown sensitivity to both disciplines. Needless to say, some contributions put a little more weight on the historical than the philosophical dimensions, or the other way around. We had to push each other to give sufficient weight to both aspects, and that was instructive for all of us – and even fun.

AHP: What instances of crisis declarations in psychology do the articles in the special issue address?

Annette: The contributions begin with the first explicitly so-called declaration of a crisis in psychology by the nowadays mostly unknown Swiss philosopher-psychologist named Rudolf Willy, stemming from 1897 and followed by a whole book in 1899. Willy undertook a thorough critique of the dominant psychology of his time, especially Wilhelm Wundt’s. This was followed some ten years later by another now scarcely known author, the French-Russian psychologist Nicolas Kostyleff. The second half of the 1920s may be called “the Golden Age” of crisis declarations. The diagnosis became so widespread that in 1926, Bühler wrote that one could even read in the newspapers about a crisis in psychology. Hans Driesch, Bühler himself, and Lev Vygotsky, or Gestalt psychologists like Koffka or Kurt Lewin published on their diagnoses of crisis, usually also presenting therapeutic proposals alongside. Husserl’s famous The Crisis of the European Sciences from 1936 also stems from this background – a fact ignored by Husserl scholars. In the 1940s and 1950s, further declaration appeared, among them one written by Peter Hofstätter and published in a German National Socialist journal. New declarations followed, some referring only to subfields of psychology. One of them was social psychology where crisis statements became virulent in the 1970s.

AHP: One of the major contributors to our understanding of crises in science is Thomas Kuhn. Can you tell us about Kuhn’s understanding of “crisis” and how his views do and do not fit with the various crises that have been identified within psychology?

Thomas: In today’s science studies, the concept of crisis is firmly associated with Kuhn’s theory of the development of what he called “mature” sciences. It is not clear whether he thought psychology belongs to this class or not, but many scholars have discussed the possibility of applying his theory to psychology. This is a spell we want to break. Three points may to be mentioned here: First, for Kuhn, most revolutions are anticipated by a crisis of a dominant scientific paradigm; and, conversely, crises are often resolved by those revolutions. Second, he also maintains that scientists hardly, if ever, acknowledge states of crisis in their field. Kuhn’s notion of crisis is not that of an actor’s category, but a historian’s or analyst’s category. Third, in his view the “core” of a crisis in science lies in the fact that large amounts of observed discrepancies exist between theory and phenomena, or data, which lead to what he called a “technical breakdown” in normal scientific puzzle-solving.

Annette: The declarations and discussions that we deal with show not only that scientific psychologists themselves did often claim that their field is in a state of serious crisis but also that the crisis did not always consist in severe clashes between data and theory only. Moreover, while sometimes – as in Binet or Kostyleff – they already claimed that the crisis has to be overcome by a revolution, not all declarations made these strong assumptions. While Kuhn historicized scientific knowledge, he treated his own categories as if they stood outside of history. They did not.

AHP: Do the crisis declarations that have taken place with respect to psychology share any common features? Is there something about psychology as a discipline that facilitates seeing the field as “in crisis”?

Annette: Most view the crisis as having a positive potential. But there are important differences between the declarations. They concerned, first, the contents of the declarations: What did authors see as the major cause or causes of the crisis? How to overcome them? Second, the declarations also differed as to the dimensions of the (perceived) crisis: Was it temporary or permanent? Was it progressive or fatal for psychology? Third, one has to note what function the declarations had for their authors. On the one hand, some used ‘crisis’ as a catchword for directing the reader’s attention to problematic aspects of the field. In doing so, they typically tried to promote their own research agenda. On the other hand, those same authors frequently expressed concern about the current state and future of the field. Most crisis declarations called for change, referring to both the problems and potentials of the situation. In this sense they do have similarity with Kuhn’s view that crises could lead to new and potentially progressive developments in science. But, naturally, not all crisis declarations were successful. Some philosophers tried to help psychologists – but failed, because their view was dismissed as non-expert (as for Driesch, but also for Husserl). Others received more acknowledgements for their diagnosis and proposed solution (like Bühler) because they invested philosophical arguments reasonably close to the psychological state of the art or to fundamental problems that actually troubled many researchers.

AHP: Why is it important to discuss the various crisis declarations that have been made with respect to psychology? What can we learn about the discipline and its history from examining such declarations?

Thomas: The first important thing is that the various crises declarations and discussions in psychology reveal that there isn’t the one single persistent problem or a set of persistent problems. The problems that Willy said cause the crises of psychology were different from those pointed out by Bühler, Vygotsky, Driesch, Husserl, or current psychologists. For instance, while Bühler saw the crisis in terms of a fragmentation of methodologies representative for three different psychological schools (introspective psychology, behaviorism and the approach of hermeneutics or the Geisteswissenschaften), Driesch saw a major cause also in deep ontological dilemmas of the mind-body relation. He also, like the Gestaltists, complained that scientific psychology so far had proved to be unable to deal with the phenomenon of meaning. Kurt Lewin, again, argued that psychology’s crisis was due to having an inadequate conceptual framework. He claimed that psychology was undergoing a transition from an “Aristotelian” framework (a framework of value-laden concepts that classify things along historical and geographical lines, directed at formations and phenotypes, and leads to mere regularities) to a “Galilean” framework (one that uses value-free concepts that classify things along causal-genetic lines, is directed at processes and genotypes, and leads to strict scientific laws). Again, social psychologists in the 1970s struggled with entirely different methodological problems – for instance, in many social psychological experiments subjects exercise self-impression management, or submit willingly to the authority of the experimenter, even in questionable tasks. Then there were also societal and political demands that psychological research be practically useful.

Annette: We hope that the present volume paves the way for taking crisis declarations more into account when studying the large-scale development of the field. Models of major shifts as well as divisions in the history of psychology ought not be merely developed from the outside, as has been done by psychologists and historians of psychology who use Kuhn’s theory or closely related alternatives. A model like Kuhn’s should be regularly contrasted with what is expressed by insiders and contemporaries, or with their perceptions of crisis (and revolution) in psychology. Now, to avoid misunderstandings, we do not claim that one should take the actors’ crisis declarations at face value. They must be viewed with a critical eye at least. Nor we do not contend that the historian and philosopher can speak of crises in psychology only when actors themselves acknowledge them. But given that not few of those who declared such a crisis developed their views based on thorough philosophical reflections, sometimes with a close understanding of the state of the art, and that some statements even had an effect on the course of psychology’s history, it would show blindness to ignore them further.

AHP: Would you care to speculate about the significance of examining crisis declarations within psychology for our understanding of crises in science more generally?

Thomas: Of course, we make these claims primarily for the case of psychology. However, in our introductory essay we point to similar cases of crisis discussions in other disciplines like physics, medicine, etc. It appears that Kuhn overlooked a large number of crisis declarations in other disciplines as well, including “mature” ones. Philosophers as diverse as Heidegger and Popper and Husserl already took up these debates, and reflected on them on more general levels. To be fair, they did not produce a complex theory like Kuhn’s. But in the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, it is time to reflect on his categories.

AHP: Is there anything else about the special issue that you would like AHP’s readers to know?

Annette: There is still much work out there! On the one hand, we couldn’t cover all crisis discussions. For instance, it would be worthwhile to analyse more closely Kurt Lewin’s interesting articles touching on the topic. His diagnosis and therapies are really quite different from the ones we cover. Additionally, in the twentieth century there were crisis discussions in areas like psychoanalysis, psycho-techniques or developmental or clinical psychology. On the other hand, we suggest a study of the textbooks which have the tendency of presenting the nice face of science, imposing coherence and harmony, in contrast to the crisis texts, which reflect critically and polemically on fundamental issues. It would be interesting to consider both, asking about the dynamics that appears between them. And we certainly need more in-depth studies of how the crisis declarations affected the actual course of psychology – or why, if they did not, they failed to do so.

Thomas: I’d like to know more about what a positive model of the factual dynamics of psychology might look like that does justice to the diversity of the actual historical relations between philosophical thinking about psychology and psychological research itself. I know many will say that that’s perhaps an impossible task. But without setting such a task the history and philosophy of psychology will probably develop even more into the self-contained exercises that they already are.

Annette Mülberger is Professor for the History of Psychology, researcher at the Centre for History of Science (CEHIC) at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and former president of the European Society for the History of Human Sciences (ESHHS, 2003-2007). Right now she is working on the application of psychological methods (tests) in Spanish Schools at the beginnings of the 20th century. Among her publications are “Teaching psychology to Jurists (…)” (History of Psychology, 2009), “Spanish experiences with German psychology (…)” (Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 44, 2), and a chapter on the experience of the exile in the biography of the Spanish psychiatrist and psychologist Emilio Mira y López (Barona, El exilio Científico Republicano, 2010). Among her further journal publications are, among others, contributions to History of the Human Sciences and Dynamis.

Thomas Sturm is Ramón y Cajal Research Scholar at the Department of Philosophy at the Autònomous University of Barcelona, working on Kant’s philosophy and on topics in the philosophy of mind and psychology. He has previously worked at the Universities of Marburg, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. Among his publications are Psychology’s Territories (ed. with Mitchell G. Ash) 2007), Kant und die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (Kant and the human sciences, 2009), and (with Gerd Gigerenzer) “How (far) can rationality be naturalized?” (Synthese, 2011). He has also contributed to American Journal of Psychology, Erkenntnis, History of the Human Sciences, History of Psychology, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, Kant-Studien, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, or Zeitschrift für Sozialpsychologie.

Title, authors, and abstracts for the articles included in the special issue follow below.

“Husserl’s Crisis as a crisis of psychology,” by Uljana Feest. The abstract reads,

This paper places Husserl’s mature work, The Crisis of the European Sciences, in the context of his engagement with—and critique of—experimental psychology at the time. I begin by showing (a) that Husserl accorded psychology a crucial role in his philosophy, i.e., that of providing a scientific analysis of subjectivity, and (b) that he viewed contemporary psychology—due to its naturalism—as having failed to pursue this goal in the appropriate manner. I then provide an analysis of Husserl’s views about naturalism and scientific philosophy. Some central themes of the Crisis are traced back to Husserl’s earlier work and to his relationship with his teacher, Franz Brentano, with whom he disagreed about the status of “inner perception” as the proper scientific method for a phenomenological analysis. The paper then shows that Husserl was well aware of at least one publication about the crisis of psychology (Bühler’s 1927 book), and it teases out some aspects of the complicated relationship between Husserl and members of the Würzburg School of thought psychology: The latter had drawn on Husserl’s writings, but Husserl felt that they had misunderstood his central thesis. I conclude by placing Husserl’s work in the wider context of scientific, cultural, and political crisis-discourses at the time.

“Has psychology ‘found its true path’? Methods, objectivity, and cries of ‘crisis’ in early twentieth-century French psychology,” by John Carson. The abstract reads,

This article explores how French psychologists understood the state of their field during the first quarter of the twentieth century, and whether they thought it was in crisis. The article begins with the Russian-born psychologist Nicolas Kostyleff and his announcement in 1911 that experimental psychology was facing a crisis. After briefly situating Kostyleff, the article examines his analysis of the troubles facing experimental psychology and his proposed solution, as well as the rather muted response his diagnosis received from the French psychological community. The optimism about the field evident in many of the accounts surveying French psychology during the early twentieth century notwithstanding, a few others did join Kostyleff in declaring that all was not well with experimental psychology. Together their pronouncements suggest that under the surface, important unresolved issues faced the French psychological community. Two are singled out: What was the proper methodology for psychology as a positive science? And what kinds of practices could claim to be objective, and in what sense? The article concludes by examining what these anxieties reveal about the type of science that French psychologists hoped to pursue.

“Bühler and Popper: Kantian therapies for the crisis in psychology,” by Thomas Sturm. The abstract reads,

I analyze the historical background and philosophical considerations of Karl Bühler and his student Karl Popper regarding the crisis of psychology. They share certain Kantian questions and methods for reflection on the state of the art in psychology. Part 1 outlines Bühler’s diagnosis and therapy for the crisis in psychology as he perceived it, leading to his famous theory of language. I also show how the Kantian features of Bühler’s approach help to deal with objections to his crisis diagnosis and to aspects of his linguistic theory. Part 2 turns to Popper’s dissertation, completed in 1928 under Bühler. I analyze Popper’s disapproval of Schlick’s physicalism in psychology, as well as Popper’s attempt to extend Bühler’s Kantian strategy to the domain of the psychology of thinking. In conclusion, I indicate how these approaches to the crisis in psychology differ from Thomas Kuhn’s notions of crisis and revolution, which are still all too popular in current philosophical discussions of psychology.

“Koffka, Köhler, and the ‘crisis’ in psychology,” by Gary Hatfield. The abstract reads,

This paper examines the claims of the Gestalt psychologists that there was a crisis in experimental psychology ca. 1900, which arose because the prevailing sensory atomism excluded meaning from among psychological phenomena. The Gestaltists claim that a primary motivation of their movement was to show, against the speculative psychologists and philosophers and Verstehen historians, that natural scientific psychology can handle meaning. Purportedly, they revealed this motivation in their initial German-language presentations but in English emphasized their scientific accomplishments for an American audience. The paper finds that: there was a recognized crisis in the new experimental psychology ca. 1900 pertaining especially to sensory atomism; that the Gestaltists responded to the crisis with new experimental findings and theoretical concepts (Gestalten) that challenged atomism; in both languages, they raised problems of meaning and discussed the contest with speculative psychology and philosophy only after presenting their scientific case; that they introduced phenomenological observations on meaning and perceptual organization into their psychology but did not develop a theory of meaning or solve philosophical problems; that they argued “philosophically,” that is, using abstract, conceptual arguments; and that this aspect of their cognitive style was not received well by some prominent members of their American audience.

“Wundt contested: The first crisis declaration in psychology,” by Annette Mülberger. The abstract reads,

When reflecting on the history and the present situation of their field, psychologists have often seen their discipline as being in a critical state. The first author to warn of a crisis was, in 1897, the now scarcely known philosopher Rudolf Willy. He saw a crisis in psychology resulting, firstly, from a profuse branching out of psychology. Adopting a radical empiriocriticist point of view, he, secondly, made the metaphysical stance of scholars like Wilhelm Wundt responsible for the crisis. Meanwhile, the priest Constantin Gutberlet responded to the claim of crisis arguing, on the contrary, that the crisis resulted from research that was empirical only.

Throughout the discipline psychologists felt troubled by a widespread sense of fragmentation in the field. I will argue that this is due to psychology’s early social success and popularization in modern society. Moreover paper shows that the first declaration of crisis emerged at a time when a discussion of fundamentals was already underway between Wundt and the empiriocriticist Richard Avenarius. The present historical research reveals the depth of the confrontation between Wundt and Willy, entailing a clash of two worldviews that embrace psychological, epistemological, and political aspects.

“American social psychology: Examining the contours of the 1970s crisis,” by Cathy Faye. The abstract reads,

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, social psychologists diagnosed their field as suffering a state of disciplinary crisis. The crisis was a multifaceted one, but issues of methodology, social relevance, and disciplinary, philosophical, and theoretical orientation were the primary areas of concern. Given that these issues have been prominent ones throughout the history of the social and behavioral sciences, it becomes necessary to look to the immediate context of the 1970s crisis to understand how and why a disciplinary crisis came to be diagnosed. The present analysis suggests that the crisis reflected the larger crisis in American society and also drew on the language of crisis prevalent at the time. Employing this language may have offered the field a method of making sense of, reframing, and redirecting internal and external critiques of the discipline.

“Vygotsky’s Crisis: Argument, context, relevance,” by Ludmila Hyman. The abstract reads,

Vygotsky’s The Historical Significance of the Crisis in Psychology (1926–1927) is an important text in the history and philosophy of psychology that has only become available to scholars in 1982 in Russian, and in 1997 in English. The goal of this paper is to introduce Vygotsky’s conception of psychology to a wider audience.

I argue that Vygotsky’s argument about the “crisis” in psychology and its resolution can be fully understood only in the context of his social and political thinking. Vygotsky shared the enthusiasm, widespread among Russian leftist intelligentsia in the 1920s, that Soviet society had launched an unprecedented social experiment: The socialist revolution opened the way for establishing social conditions that would let the individual flourish. For Vygotsky, this meant that “a new man” of the future would become “the first and only species in biology that would create itself.” He envisioned psychology as a science that would serve this humanist teleology.

I propose that The Crisis is relevant today insofar as it helps us define a fundamental problem: How can we systematically account for the development of knowledge in psychology? I evaluate how Vygotsky addresses this problem as a historian of the crisis.

“Bühler revisited in times of war—Peter R. Hofstätter’s The Crisis of Psychology (1941),” by Horst Gundlach. The abstract reads,

During World War II in 1941, the psychologist P. R. Hofstätter added an article to the debate on the crisis of psychology in a distinctly Nazi academic journal. After introducing Hofstätter and the journal, the core elements of his diagnosis and therapy recommendation beneath the National-Socialist-verbiage will be expounded. Hofstätter, a student of Karl Bühler’s, ties on to his teacher’s crisis well-known publication, but perceives the crisis in a broader perspective and connects it to the decline of theology and of pastoral guidance. Hofstätter’s central, new aspect is the practice of psychology without which he sees it doomed. A central feature of psychological practice should be secular, non-therapeutic guidance of individuals. Various contextual facets are illuminated, Hofstätter’s thwarted attempts to get a university position, the recent establishment of psychology in Germany as a discipline teaching professionals, the abolition of German military psychology, the battle for the Berlin university chair of Wolfgang Köhler.

“Hans Driesch and the problems of ‘normal psychology.’ Rereading his Crisis in Psychology (1925),” by Christian G. Allesch. The abstract reads,

In 1925, the German biologist and philosopher Hans Driesch published a booklet entitled The Crisis in Psychology. It was originally published in English and was based on lectures given at various universities in China, Japan and the USA. The “crisis” in psychology of that time, in Driesch’s opinion, lies in the necessity to decide about “the road which psychology is to follow in the future”. This necessity refers to five “critical points”, namely (1) to develop the theory of psychic elements to a theory of meaning by phenomenological analysis, (2) the overcoming of association theory, (3) to acknowledge that the unconscious is a fact and a “normal” aspect of mental life, (4) to reject “psychomechanical parallelism” or any other epiphenomenalistic solution of the mind-body problem, and (5) the extension of psychical research to new facts as described by parapsychology, for instance. Driesch saw close parallels between the development of modern psychology and that of biology, namely in a theoretical shift from “sum-concepts” like association and mechanics, to “totality-concepts” like soul and entelechy. The German translation of 1926 was entitled Grundprobleme der Psychologie (Fundamental Problems of Psychology) while “the crisis in psychology” forms just the subtitle of this book. This underlines that Driesch’s argumentation—in contrast to that of Buehler—dealt with ontological questions rather than with paradigms.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.

3 thoughts on “Interview: Special Issue on “Crisis” in Psychology

  1. Thanks for this fascinating interview about an exciting new project. I suspect that a number of these contributions will appear on my syllabus next time I teach the grad history of psychology course. I particularly like the very non-North American perspective on what some of the historical fault lines of discipline have been. Great stuff!

  2. Thanks, this looks very interesting. While a lot of History of Psychology is unbalanced in favour of North American material, this issue appears to tilt too far toward the European side. It would be nice to have an even-handed examination. To complete the coverage, it would be good to have a discourse on crisis narratives in psychology today, eg. the important concerns raised by J. Schooler about statistically-based psychology in general.

Comments are closed.