New HoP: “Active Touch” Pre-Gibson, Health Psych & S. Africa, & Digital History

James Gibson (left) and Julian Hochberg. Ecological Optics conference, Cornell University, 1970. (photo: Sverker Runeson)

The May issue of History of Psychology is now online. Articles in this issue address the (lack of) health psychology in post-apartheid South Africa , the concept of “active touch” before the work of James Gibson, the Lvov-Warsaw School of historical psychology, and the teaching of the history of psychology in Spain. Two further articles contribute to the digital history of psychology: John Benjamin offers a Zipfian analysis of the anglophone vocabulary of psychology, while Michael Pettit argues for caution in using the Google Books Ngram Viewer as a means of assessing cultural change over time. Full titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.

“Psychology and health after apartheid: Or, Why there is no health psychology in South Africa,” by Jeffery Yen. The abstract reads,

As part of a growing literature on the histories of psychology in the Global South, this article outlines some historical developments in South African psychologists’ engagement with the problem of “health.” Alongside movements to formalize and professionalize a U.S.-style “health psychology” in the 1990s, there arose a parallel, eclectic, and more or less critical psychology that contested the meaning and determinants of health, transgressed disciplinary boundaries, and opposed the responsibilization of illness implicit in much health psychological theorizing and neoliberal discourse. This disciplinary bifurcation characterized South African work well into the postapartheid era, but ideological distinctions have receded in recent years under a new regime of knowledge production in thrall to the demands of the global market. The article outlines some of the historical-political roots of key trends in psychologists’ work on health in South Africa, examining the conditions that have impinged on its directions and priorities. It raises questions about the future trajectories of psychological research on health after 20 years of democracy, and argues that there currently is no “health psychology” in South Africa, and that the discipline is the better for it.

“Pre-Gibsonian observations on active touch,” by Armin Wagner. The abstract reads,

James J. Gibson’s (1962) now-classic “Observations on Active Touch” demonstrated the superiority of active over passive touch in object discrimination tasks and thereby exposed the paradigmatic limits of preceding research. Before Gibson, according to the received view, the sense of touch had been treated as a mere receptive channel, ignoring the hand’s explorative movements. This article challenges this common narrative by juxtaposing Gibson’s article with research published in the German-speaking parts of Europe between the early 19th and mid-20th centuries. The concept of “active touch” did not originate from Gibson’s paper alone, nor should earlier appearances of the term be treated simply as exceptional cases. On the contrary, throughout the 19th century, the concept facilitated fundamental theoretical, cross-disciplinary discussions and ultimately evolved into an object of experimental study on its own.

“The Lvov-Warsaw School: The forgotten tradition of historical psychology,” by Amadeusz Citlak. The abstract reads,

This article is an attempt to reconstruct the psychological achievements of the representatives of the Lvov-Warsaw School of historical psychology, virtually forgotten and unknown in the world’s psychological literature. Kazimierz Twardowski (1866–1938), founder of the school, developed a philosophical and psychological program on the basis of (among other things) the theory of actions and products, including the research program that is now included in the thread of historical psychology. His student, Wladyslaw Witwicki (1878–1948), developed the cratism theory (the theory of power) on the basis Twardowski’s assumptions, providing an alternative to Alfred Adler’s theory of striving for superiority while also declaring it a few years before Adler. The consequence of Witwicki’s theory and the methodological assumptions was the creation of psychobiography: the first nonpsychoanalytical psychobiography of Socrates (Witwicki, 1909, 1922) and the psychobiography of Jesus Christ (Witwicki, 1958). The school’s activities weakened for political reasons, particularly the outbreak of the First World War. The members of the school dispersed after 1918, and they lost international connections with the world of science. Their significant achievements in the field of psychology remained unknown to psychologists for nearly a century. In this article, I would like to present the school’s unique but unfinished program of reconstructing mental life through the psychological interpretation of cultural products (literature, arts, diaries), and its value for the practice of research in historical psychology. This program required additional development, but because of the war this never happened. Some of the school’s theoretical findings and the first attempts to apply them have still significant value and show us the originality of Lvov-Warsaw School psychology.

“The digital history of the anglophone vocabulary of psychology: An exploration using Zipfian methods,” by John G. Benjafield. The abstract reads,

The digital humanities are being applied with increasing frequency to the analysis of historically important texts. In this study, the methods of G. K. Zipf are used to explore the digital history of the vocabulary of psychology. Zipf studied a great many phenomena, from word frequencies to city sizes, showing that they tend to have a characteristic distribution in which there are a few cases that occur very frequently and many more cases that occur very infrequently. We find that the number of new words and word senses that writers contribute to the vocabulary of psychology have such a Zipfian distribution. Moreover, those who make the most contributions, such as William James, tend also to invent new metaphorical senses of words rather than new words. By contrast, those who make the fewest contributions tend to invent entirely new words. The use of metaphor makes a text easier for a reader to understand. While the use of new words requires more effort on the part of the reader, it may lead to more precise understanding than does metaphor. On average, new words and word senses become a part of psychology’s vocabulary in the time leading up to World War I, suggesting that psychology was “finding its language” (Danziger, 1997) during this period.

“Historical time in the age of big data: Cultural psychology, historical change, and the Google Books Ngram Viewer,” by Michael Pettit. The abstract reads,

Launched in 2010, the Google Books Ngram Viewer offers a novel means of tracing cultural change over time. This digital tool offers exciting possibilities for cultural psychology by rendering questions about variation across historical time more quantitative. Psychologists have begun to use the viewer to bolster theories about a historical shift in the United States from a more collectivist to individualist form of selfhood and society. I raise 4 methodological cautions about the Ngram Viewer’s use among psychologists: (a) the extent to which print culture can be taken to represent culture as a whole, (b) the difference between viewing the past in terms of trends versus events, (c) assumptions about the stability of a word’s meaning over time, and (d) inconsistencies in the scales and ranges used to measure change over time. The aim is to foster discussion about the standards of evidence needed for incorporating historical big data into empirical research.

“The history of psychology course in Spanish psychology curricula: Past, present, future,” by Mauricio Chisvert-Perales, María J. Monteagudo-Soto, and Vicenta Mestre. The abstract reads,

Since the university education of psychologists began in Spain in 1954, the history of psychology course has been included in the curriculum. In the first few years, only half of the curricula offered the course. From 1973 to 2007, the universities’ organization and regulation underwent successive reforms that involved changes in the curricula, decreeing specific national guidelines for each degree and establishing a minimum set of common required courses, called core courses, including the history of psychology. In 2007, the European Higher Education Area was set up, transforming the 5-year bachelor’s degrees into 4-year degrees and eliminating the required guidelines, with each university being able to define the content of their curricula. The Dean’s Conference for Psychology agreed on some recommendations related to core courses, which continued to include the history of psychology and were adopted by the majority of the universities. In 2015, the government established a new national regulation that makes it possible for each university to voluntarily reduce the length of the bachelor’s degree to 3 years. Some psychology historians believe that this hypothetical reduction in the length of the degree, along with the already existing general tendency to prioritize applied or practical courses over basic or fundamental ones, could produce an appropriate scenario for the disappearance of the history of psychology course in some universities.

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.