New at HHS: Collingwood’s critique of psychometrics, John Lilly and the control of ‘human agents’

Two articles now in press at History of the Human Sciences may interest AHP readers. Details below.

On ‘modified human agents’: John Lilly and the paranoid style in American neuroscience,” by Charlie Williams. Abstract:

The personal papers of the neurophysiologist John C. Lilly at Stanford University hold a classified paper he wrote in the late 1950s on the behavioural modification and control of ‘human agents’. The paper provides an unnerving prognosis of the future application of Lilly’s research, then being carried out at the National Institute of Mental Health. Lilly claimed that the use of sensory isolation, electrostimulation of the brain, and the recording and mapping of brain activity could be used to gain ‘push-button’ control over motivation and behaviour. This research, wrote Lilly, could eventually lead to ‘master-slave controls directly of one brain over another’. The paper is an explicit example of Lilly’s preparedness to align his research towards Cold War military aims. It is not, however, the research for which Lilly is best known. During the 1960s and 1970s, Lilly developed cult status as a far-out guru of consciousness exploration, promoting the use of psychedelics and sensory isolation tanks. Lilly argued that, rather than being used as tools of brainwashing, these techniques could be employed by the individual to regain control of their own mind and retain a sense of agency over their thoughts and actions. This article examines the scientific, intellectual, and cultural relationship between the sciences of brainwashing and psychedelic mind alteration. Through an analysis of Lilly’s autobiographical writings, I also show how paranoid ideas about brainwashing and mind control provide an important lens for understanding the trajectory of Lilly’s research.

The fashionable scientific fraud: Collingwood’s critique of psychometrics,” by Joel Michell. Abstract:

In his review of Charles Spearman’s The Nature of ‘Intelligence’ (1923), R. G. Collingwood launched an attack upon psychometrics that was expanded in his Essay on Metaphysics (1940). Although underrated by friend and foe alike, Collingwood’s critique identified a number of defects in the thinking of psychometricians that subsequently became entrenched. However, his main complaint was that psychology generally (and, by implication, psychometrics) was a ‘fashionable scientific fraud’. This charge was inspired by his more general views on logic and metaphysics, which, however, as I argue, are logically unsustainable. Ironically, other elements of his philosophy – his ‘fallacy of calculation’ and concept of ‘scale of forms’ – are relevant to psychometrics and tip the scales in favour of his otherwise unwarranted charge.

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.