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A Conceptual History of Psychology: Exploring the Tangled Web Review - A Conceptual History of Psychology: Exploring the Tangled Web
Second Edition
by John D. Greenwood
Cambridge University Press, 2015
Review by R.A. Goodrich, Ph.D.
Apr 5th 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 14)

Six years after the first appearance of A Conceptual History of Psychology, John Greenwood has seized the opportunity to develop the original work which had been promoted by its publishers as an undergraduate textbook. Revised as a scholarly volume, and suitable as a postgraduate reference, Greenwood focuses upon "continuities and discontinuities in our theoretical conceptions of human psychology and behaviour" from ancient abstract speculations to modern empirical investigations (vii). Two of the thirteen chapters are devoted to the European scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and a further eight chapters to the growth of institutionalized American and European scientific psychology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In pursuit of his goal, Greenwood rightly avoids the temptations of homogenizing his account of continuities and discontinuities. He recognizes their stops and starts and how contrasting intellectual commitments often overlapped, clearly exemplified when probing the reception of Charles Darwin on evolutionary mechanisms (185ff.) or Wilhelm Wundt on physiological psychology (238ff.).

History is more than a parlour game where we give vent to our antiquarian curiosity about the "what" and "when" of the past. As R.G. Collingwood argued in his provocative 1936 essay "History as Re-enactment of Past Experience," history equally wrestles with questions of the "how" and "why." With that in mind, the first part of this review will briefly examine Greenwood's carefully crafted volume in terms of a number of doubts a sceptical critic might mount. The second part will conclude by questioning the persistent appeal to the notion of association, one crucial example of which is never fully assessed in terms of continuities and discontinuities.

I

Sceptical readers may well be acquainted with the challenge, first issued by Quentin Skinner in his 1969 History and Theory article "Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas," that "any attempt to focus upon an idea itself as an appropriate unit of historical investigation" is tantamount to "conceptual confusion" (1969, p. 36). To believe otherwise is "a fundamental philosophical mistake"; indeed, it is little more than an "historical absurdity" (1969, pp. 37 & 7). So what does it mean to talk of a conceptual history of psychology? Although freed from disciplinary overtones—such as a political or a social history of psychology—and from regional and temporal variants of them—such as a history of eighteenth-century British or twentieth-century Russian psychology—"conceptual history" at best remains ambiguous. Are we entering a history of the concept or idea of psychology or a history of particular psychological concepts or a combination of both? As Greenwood acknowledges, he is dealing with both psychological theories and practices involving concepts such as causality and conditioning, mind and brain as well as intellectual frameworks such as the associational and the holistic, the functional and the behavioral. This occurs whilst explicating "thematic developments" of and debates about key concepts and assumptions in light of "contemporary scholarship" (5). Greenwood consistently draws upon salient intellectual and socio-political factors without presuming "a smooth or linear" progression, let alone a single, universal definition and explanation, for currently construing psychology as a "scientific study of human and animal cognition, emotion, and behavior" (4 & 16).

          Again, the sceptical critic may wonder whether Greenwood has in essence only provided readers an account of significant individuals with mere snippets about their followers, for example, Aristotle (29-39) vis à vis Galen (44, 54), Avicenna (50), Averroës (50-51), and Aquinas (52-53). Such an accusation is not simply raising the spectre of how historical accounts might be reducible to biographical discourse (which Greenwood is not beyond including, be it Pierre Abélard's affair with Héloïse d'Argenteuil or John Watson's with Rosalie Raynor (52 & 385)). It is also linked to the demand that histories ought to investigate the alternatives facing individuals and the reasons for choosing to accept, modify, or reject the stance taken by their precursors. As Collingwood expresses it in the case of reading past philosophers, the historian must not only "know the language in a philological sense," he (or she) must also:

                   see what the philosophical problem was, of which his author is here

                   stating his solution. He must think that problem out for himself, see what

                   possible solutions of it might be offered, and see why this particular

                   philosopher chose that solution instead of another (1936, p. 283).

Greenwood clearly demonstrates how this demand can be met in cases where textual evidence is plentiful, be it in the form of published monographs and commentaries or private letters and notebooks. Here, for instance, the British response to Isaac Newton's theory of universal gravitation, which those exploring the psychological sphere treated "not only as a paradigm of scientific achievement, but also as a paradigm of scientific thought" (102), is detailed in the arguments and counter-arguments of John Locke (105ff.), George Berkeley (111ff.), David Hume (115ff.), and David Hartley (123ff.) within two generations of the 1687 release of the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

          Nonetheless, sceptical readers might more cynically retort that, if the degree of textual availability underscores the extent to which Greenwood can begin to adopt a more nuanced approach, then it should not surprise us to find that he devotes his last five chapters to psychological debates in the United States, especially from William James onwards (300ff.). Moreover, that in itself does not mitigate Greenwood's tendency to chronicle the appearance of tertiary institutes and lists of those attached to them (e.g. 289-295, 298-299, 313-314, 316-317, 336, 392ff.). More pointedly, our sceptical critic might protest, would Greenwood's volume be better entitled A Conceptual History of American Psychology, one which views earlier British and German intellectuals in particular as underpinning enquiries emanating from the New World? Nowhere does this seem more obvious than when Greenwood traces the emergence the "cognitive revolution" in psychology where the influence of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky is mistakenly dismissed because English translations only began to appear from the 'sixties (469). Yet Greenwood is mindful of how American psychology came "to dominate the international pursuit of scientific psychology" over the past century (541). In fact, he concludes his epilogue with the observation that it remains to be empirically demonstrated whether or not the psychological distinctions, methods, and theories of cultures different from the American have "privileged theoretical or empirical access to the psychology and behaviour" of their own cultures (542). Furthermore, "the same may be true of American psychology" itself whose "cultural heritage of moral and political individualism," he believes, has largely ignored its own "rich social and relational dimensions" (542-543).

          Finally, our sceptical critic may nonetheless persist with an alternative way of objecting to the emphasis upon American psychology. In effect, is Greenwood ultimately guilty, in Herbert Butterfield's phrase, of the "pathetic fallacy" who, even if he is not tarred with always "abstracting things from their historical context," is nevertheless "organizing [his] historical study by a system of direct reference to the present" (1931, pp. 30-31)? Here, Greenwood succinctly counters polarised ways of thinking in terms of "primitive" and "modern," preferring instead to judge whether the significance of important past episodes "represented an advance or regression in the general development of psychological theory and practice" (4). Whilst the "pathetic fallacy" lends itself to construing the history of psychology as "approaching and approximating (idealized) contemporary theory and practice," "contextualist" history, where "each historical episode…is explicated neutrally in its own terms," also has its limits. For Greenwood, we cannot begin to determine the significance of any episode without "some working conception of the nature and potential of psychological science" (4).

II

Having highlighted Greenwood's strengths when faced with a series of sceptical doubts, let us now turn to an example of continuities and discontinuities in the history of psychology. Threaded throughout A Conceptual History of Psychology is a plethora of references to association in terms of (sensory) experiences and images, (cognitive) theories and assumptions, (correlational) laws, principles, and processes, and the like, many of which remain unindexed (cf. 546). Greenwood discusses physician-philosopher David Hartley (123ff.) as an exemplar of one "who developed the principles of contiguity and repetition that grounded the later development of associationist psychology" (96).

At first, Hartley's influence amongst his contemporaries, despite "his rather turgid prose" (126), seems to be somewhat underestimated. For example, members of the radical Joseph Johnson circle—including not only Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Priestley (126-127 & 209), but also William Godwin, Thomas Paine, Richard Price, Horne Tooke, and Mary Wollstonecraft—were aware of Johnson publishing the seminal abridgement of Hartley by Priestley in 1775 and 1790 as well as a single volume edition of Hartley in 1791.

More significantly, Greenwood's account on closer inspection appears to be reliant upon a reading of the first twelve Propositions of Part One of Hartley's two-part 1749 magnum opus. Ignored is Hartley's proposed scheme for understanding human multi-faceted development. He specifically suggested that psycho-physiological individual development emerges from a series of transformations of the affections (rather than "ideas" per se (125)) during the individual's accumulative, hierarchical associations of painful and pleasurable experiences. As Greenwood realises, Hartley begins with how "infinitely divisible" processes which "cohere together" through "frequent joint impression" or "association" generate our sense perceptions and physical actions (Proposition 11). These multi-modal interacting perceptions and actions were in turn categorized by the human cerebral and neuronal system.  However, Hartley postulates a fourfold psycho-physiological development. Firstly, development proceeds by way of synchronous and successive sets of substitutable associations. Secondly, it is first manifested by our discriminatory sense perceptions and skilled actions (perceptions and actions that are voluntary rather than automatic). Thirdly, development proceeds through interaction with physical and social surroundings. Finally, development involves ideas, that is, epistemic and semantic responses of mind ultimately generated by circumstance, memory, and speech. In other words, the mind, here, is not some reflective repository or container.  Rather, in Hartley's re-definition of mind announced at the very beginning of Part One of Observations on Man, the mind functions as a cluster or network of relations, described as that "substance, agent, principle, &c. to which we refer the sensations, ideas, pleasures, pains, and voluntary motions." Whereas sensations are those "internal feelings of the mind, which arise from the impressions made by external objects upon the several parts of our bodies," Hartley continues, "All our other internal feelings may be called ideas. Some of these appear to spring up in the mind of themselves, some are suggested by words." In short, the foundational status of sensations is, by Hartley's reckoning, already tied to "ideas and internal feelings which arise in the mind" (Prop. 86). We are to that extent both creatures of memory because "All our voluntary powers are of the nature of memory" (Prop. 90) and emotional beings because, according to Hartley, "understanding and affections are not really distinct things, but only different names" that mark the ways we constantly take "in the generation of ideas" (Prop. 87).

The transference of verbalisable emotion appears to lie at the very centre of Hartley's hierarchical conception of psychological development and with it the different ways humans orient themselves to both the world at large and themselves. In brief, Hartley categorizes six cumulative, generative kinds of "intellectual" pleasures and pains beyond sensation. He conceives them to operate as follows:

Let sensation generate imagination; then will sensation and imagination

together generate ambition; sensation, imagination, and ambition, self-

interest; sensation, imagination, ambition, and self-interest, sympathy;

sensation, imagination, ambition, self-interest, and sympathy, theopathy; 

sensation, imagination, ambition, self-interest, sympathy, and theopathy, the

moral sense (Prop. 89).

(Strictly speaking, "theopathy" or religious emotion aroused by meditation about God and "moral sense" or recognition of ultimate right and wrong are the subject of Part Two of Observations on Man.) With the six "intellectual" classes of pleasure and pain, Hartley claims that, "in an inverted order," each "will new-model" the others "till at last, by the numerous reciprocal influences of all these upon each other, the passions arrive at that degree of complexness...so difficult to be analysed" (Prop. 89).

          In conclusion, can Hartley be interpreted as one of the many influential intellectuals who conceived psychology in hierarchical developmental terms as did Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Heinz Werner last century? Certainly, all of them variously exemplify Stephen Gaukroger's seminal thesis that the emergence of a scientific culture on both sides of the Atlantic, psychology included, gradually assimilates all cognitive values to scientific ones. Perhaps by revisiting this significant Euro-American development a future edition of Greenwood's valuable conceptual history could enrich the question of continuities and discontinuities.

 

© 2016 R.A. Goodrich

 

 

R.A. Goodrich is an associate of the A.R.C. Centre for the History of Emotions (University of Melbourne) and of the A.D.I. European Philosophy & History of Ideas Research Group (Deakin University), co-edits the online refereed arts-practice journal, Double Dialogues, and co-ordinates with Maryrose Hall a longitudinal project investigating behavioural, cognitive, and linguistic development of higher-functioning children within the autistic spectrum and related disorders.


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