February 2023 HHS: Drive Theory, Positive Psychology, and More

The February 2023 issue of History of the Human Sciences is now available. Titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.

“Maps of desire: Edward Tolman’s drive theory of wants,” Simon Torracinta. Abstract:

Wants and desires are central to ordinary experience and to aesthetic, philosophical, and theological thought. Yet despite a burgeoning interest in the history of emotions research, their history as objects of scientific study has received little attention. This historiographical neglect mirrors a real one, with the retreat of introspection in the positivist human sciences of the early 20th century culminating in the relative marginalization of questions of psychic interiority. This article therefore seeks to explain an apparent paradox: the attempt to develop a comprehensive theory of ‘why … we want what we want’ in the 1940s by esteemed American ‘neo-behaviorist’ psychologist Edward Tolman – a proponent of a methodology famous for its prohibition on appeals to unobservable mental phenomena. Though chiefly known today for his theory of ‘cognitive maps’, Tolman also sought to map the contours of desire as such, integrating Freudian and behaviorist models of the ‘drives’ to develop a complex iconography of the universal structures of motivation. Close attention to Tolman’s striking maps offers a compelling limit case for what could and could not be captured within an anti-mentalist framework, and illuminates an important precursor to theories of motivational ‘affect’ in the postwar cognitive and neurosciences. His work upsets a standard chronology that centers on the ‘cognitive revolution’ of the 1960s, and points to the significance of psychoanalysis to an earlier turn to cognitivism. Tolman concluded his theory pointed ‘in the direction of more socialism’ – a reminder of the politically labile anti-essentialism of behaviorism’s commitment to mental plasticity.

“Sin embodied: Priest-psychiatrist Asser Stenbäck and the psychosomatic approach to human problems,” Eve-Riina Hyrkäs. Abstract:

Combining theological and medical perspectives is indispensable for the historical study of the interconnections between mind, body, and soul. This article explores these relations through the history of Finnish psychosomatic medicine, and uses published and archival materials to examine the intellectual biography of the Finland-Swedish theologian turned psychiatrist Asser Stenbäck (1913–2006). Stenbäck’s career, which evolved from priesthood to psychiatry and politics, reveals a great deal about the tensions between religion and medicine, the spiritual and scientific groups that impinged upon psychosomatic medicine, and ideas on how health and Christian morality were interconnected. The biographical approach is adopted to unearth the values encoded in medical concepts, and through this, to point towards another, underexplored dimension of the health–religion relationship. In addition to their emotional aspect, religious doctrines are intended to organise life and give it meaning. Stenbäck’s ideas tied these experiential and normative spheres together by defending an irrationalist substratum of the world in the secular age of medicine. His work illustrates how the inner experience of faith can become both medically and politically purposive. It is worth combining these perspectives in historical research as well in order to better understand how the theological, medical, and political worlds are in dialogue when it comes to human problems.

“Religion and civilization in the sociology of Norbert Elias: Fantasy–reality balances in long-term perspective,” Andrew Linklater. Abstract:

Many sociologists have drawn attention to the puzzling absence of a detailed discussion of religion in Elias’s investigation of the European civilizing process. Elias did not develop a sociology of religion, but he did not overlook the importance of beliefs in the ‘spirit world’ in the history of human societies. In his writings such convictions were described as fantasy images that could be contrasted with ‘reality-congruent’ knowledge claims. Elias placed fantasy–reality balances, whether religious or secular, at the centre of the analysis of how societies have dealt with collective fears that arise in response to largely uncontrolled conditions. He located religious orientations within a broader framework of analysis regarding fantasy–reality balances in the first human groups and in current state-organized societies. Elias stressed how balances changed in ‘civilized’ societies with the rise of the natural sciences. But his writings emphasized the continuing influence of fantasy images in technologically sophisticated societies, particularly in the context of national and international power struggles. His analysis of how fantasy images acquired considerable influence under conditions of fear is important for studies of social responses to global challenges including climate change. Connections with Weber’s sociology of religion point the way to theoretically informed empirical research on balances between fantasy and reality-congruence in a tumultuous and unpredictable era.

“Cybernetics in the Republic,” Michele Kennerly. Abstract:

Plato’s Republic lurks in cybernetics, a word popularly attributed to US American mathematician Norbert Wiener (1894–1964). In his accounts of how he came up with it, however, Wiener never mentions Plato, though he does note it was formed from the ancient Greek word kubern?t?s (navigator). Among the earliest popular books about the cybernetics craze are three published in France, and their authors show a special interest in the origin of cybernetics. In something like learned rebukes to Wiener, all three books credit Plato with significant use of kubern?-based terms. This article presents evidence, one, that Wiener knows well he has chosen a word with a Platonic history and, two, that Wiener deems the technical and social climate of ancient Athens (and of the Republic) instructive only as an anti-model for the mid-20th-century United States and so does not feel compelled to associate cybernetics with Plato. Instead, Wiener focuses on the challenges cybernetics and automation pose for his own engineering-oriented, capitalist, multiracial, democratic republic. Wiener’s decisions not to use Plato as an authorizing force and not to put ancient Athens on a pedestal merit recognition, since subsequent writers link ancient Athens with cybernation via a presumption that cybernation will enable and fully democratize the sort of leisure activities, including thinking and participation in public life, deemed by some to be emblematic of ancient Athens.

“For or against the molecularization of brain science?: Cybernetics, interdisciplinarity, and the unprogrammed beginning of the Neurosciences Research Program at MIT,” Youjung Shin. Abstract:

It was no accident that the first neuroscience community, the Neurosciences Research Program (NRP), took shape in the 1960s at MIT, the birthplace of cybernetics. Francis O. Schmitt, known as the founding father of the NRP, was a famous biologist and an avid reader of cybernetics. Focusing on the intellectual and institutional context that Schmitt was situated in, this article unveils the way that the brain was conceptualized as a distinct object, requiring the launch of a new research community in the US. In doing so, this article moves beyond the dominant narratives on the triumph of molecularization of the brain at the beginning of neuroscience. Instead, it argues that what brought researchers together in the name of neuroscience was not just a molecule but an aspiration to develop biological theories of the brain/mind, which resonated with biologists in a postwar context and was materialized through support for basic research. The article highlights the tension over the computerization and molecularization of the brain, which shaped the interdisciplinary gathering of neuroscientists in the context of growing interest in basic research. Thereby, this article reveals the rise of theoretical concerns in brain science that reflect the distinct desires and concerns of biologists in the US at an intellectual and institutional level. By revisiting the launch of the NRP with a focus on Schmitt, the article sheds light on the historical contingencies in launching the new community as neuroscience in the US and their meaning for the locality and transiency of (inter)disciplinarity in brain science.

“Against well-being: A critique of positive psychology,” Luciano E. Sewaybricker and Gustavo M. Massola. Abstract:

More than two decades after his seminal paper ‘Subjective Well-Being’, Ed Diener wrote that he substituted happiness with well-being to obtain scientific credibility. Are the arguments echoed in positive psychology rigorous enough to justify this substitution? This article focuses on the historical examination of the word happiness, covering the lexical universes of ancient Greek, Latin, and English, seeking to identify the connections between them. We found that arguments for such substitution are sustained by a fragile appreciation of the semantic depth of happiness. Although it favors quantification, the current understanding of well-being obliterates the plurality of the debate about happiness and the recognition of other ideals of life. Thus, we conclude that well-being and happiness are semantically close, but conceptually, metaphysically, and empirically distinct, demanding, as objects, particular investigations.

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.