Tag Archives: Titchener

Titchener & Scientific Objectivity in Isis

The latest issue of Isis, the official journal of the History of Science Society, features an article on the importance of scientific objectivity in Edward Bradford Titchener’s experimental psychology. The piece, authored by Christopher Green, extends the analysis of scientific objectivity made by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison in their recent book on the subject.

“Scientific Objectivity and E. B. Titchener’s Experimental Psychology,” by Christopher D. Green. The abstract reads,

Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s recent book on the history of scientific objectivity showed that, over the course of the nineteenth century, natural scientists of many stripes became intensely concerned with the issue of the distorting influence that their own subjectivities might be having on their observations and representations of nature. At very nearly the same time, experimental psychology arose specifically to investigate scientifically the nature and structure of subjective consciousness. Although Daston and Galison briefly discussed some basic psychological issues—especially the discovery of differences in human color perception—they did not strongly connect the widespread European concern with scientific objectivity to the rise of experimental psychology. This essay critically examines the theoretical and empirical activities of the experimental psychologist who most energetically strove to discover the structure of subjective conscious experience, Edward Bradford Titchener. Titchener’s efforts to produce an objective study of subjectivity reveal important tensions in early experimental psychology and also serve to situate experimental psychology at the center of an important intellectual struggle that was being waged across the natural sciences in the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century.

Pictured at the right is Titchener’s plan for his psychology laboratory at Cornell University (click to enlarge).

E. B. Titchener’s Brain on Display

The preserved brain of early psychologist Edward Bradford Titchener (1867-1927) is currently on display as part of Cornell University’s Wilder Brain Collection. Titchener, a British citizen who completed his doctorate in psychology with Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig, accepted a position at Cornell in 1892 and remained at the university for the rest of his career. At Cornell, he served as chair of the Department of Psychology and as head of the university’s psychology laboratory. From these positions, Titchener promoted his system of structuralism, which emphasized the use of introspection as a method of psychological investigation.

The Wilder Brain Collection, which features Titchener’s brain, was begun in 1889 by former Civil War surgeon Burt Green Wilder, an animal biologist and founder of Cornell’s Anatomy Department. WIlder’s desire to collect brains was not atypical for this time. As described in a 2005 article on the Widler Brain Collection in the New York Times,

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were the “golden age” of brain collecting…

One force behind the effort was a desire to drive religion from the field of science. Another was a belief, inherited from Franz Joseph Gall, the 18th-century founder of phrenology, that different parts of the brain served different functions.

Even if experts could not tell people apart by their cranial bumps, the theory went, if science closely compared one brain with another it would eventually be clear why one person differed from another, why one was a genius and another a criminal. The brain would reveal the person.

According to Cornell University’s newspaper, The Chronicle Online,

Wilder wanted to see if differences could be detected in size, shape, weight and amount of convolution between the brains of “educated and orderly persons” and women, murderers, racial minorities and the mentally ill. Eventually, it was concluded that such differences could not be detected, at least not by the naked eye or any 19th-century tools.

At its peak, the collection had at least 600 specimens, perhaps as many as 1,200, including human and animal brains as well as some body parts and fetuses. By the time Barbara Finlay, professor of cognitive and brain science, took over curating the collection in 1978, most of the specimens — many more than 100 years old — were dried up. All but 70 were purged; the eight selected for display, including Wilder’s, were chosen because they had biographies to go with them. The rest are stored in a cramped Uris Hall basement closet.

The full Wilder Brain Collection display is pictured directly above, while Titchener’s brain in pictured in the image on the top right. All images are courtesy of Jennifer Bazar.

Objectivity reviewed in Isis

ObjectivityIn the first issue of the one hundredth volume of Isis, Martin Kusch provides an extensive review of Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity (pictured right).

Objectivity is the long-awaited expansion of Daston and Galison’s influential 1992 paper, “The Image of Objectivity,” into a hefty book-length investigation. Undoubtedly, Objectivity will be required reading for anyone in the history, sociology, and philosophy of science for years to come. This is because the book not only throws a striking new light on the last two hundred years of science, art, and philosophy; it also outlines and exemplifies a provocative, bold, and historically as well as philosophically sophisticated approach to the history of thought more generally. In its scope and ambition Objectivity reminds one of classics in the Annales school, like Philip Ariès’s L’homme devant la mort, or of Michel Foucault’s Les mots et les choses. It is likely that Daston and Galison’s chef d’oeuvre will prove equally influential. (p. 129)

For those interested in discussing how some of the ideas in Objectivity can be applied to psychology, AHP‘s own Chris Green will be presenting such a paper at the forthcoming meeting of Cheiron at Penn State: it is entitled, E. B. Titchener and the New History of Objectivity. 

For more information about Cheiron, the international society for the history of the behavioral and social sciences, click here. Also, get the updated conference program here.