Just try not to mind the time lapses

The History of Psychology
March 26, 2004

Psychologists date the origins of psychology from various events, but the consensus is that as a discipline it emerged in the middle of the 19th century. It is a surprise, therefore, to encounter Plato, Hippocrates, Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas in a book titled The History of Psychology .

In the preface, the author argues that the book "provides the words of the philosophers, theologians and early scientists that contributed to the development of psychology". Hmmm. I had not realised psychology had such a glorious past.

That said, this is an interesting collection. The first section is closely followed by Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Hume and Kant, more conventionally recognised as developing the philosophical base of the discipline.

Subsequent readings cover virtually every significant early psychologist, including Fechner, Ebbinghaus, Pavlov, James, Galton, Freud, Wundt, Werthheimer, Titchener, Watson, Tolman, Hebb, Skinner (and Chomsky, of course), Piaget and Bartlett. As a history of psychology up to about 1960, it is an excellent collection.

After that date, the reader could be forgiven for thinking that all psychology other than cognitive psychology had more or less died out. There are readings from Neisser, J. J. Gibson, McLelland and Ramachandran dealing with visual perception and information processing, but no hint of the existence of any other psychology.

In some ways, the inclusion of this handful of modern writers weakens rather than strengthens the book. Had it stopped at 1960 or thereabouts, it would have represented a sound collection of readings covering the development of the discipline to that point. But bringing it "up to date" in such an unbalanced way highlights its weaknesses.

There is more to psychology than cognitive research. What is really missing is the attempt to connect the influence of the early writers with the modern discipline, through either selection or narrative. The fact that the early psychologists were so much more in touch with everyday experience than many of their successors in experimental cognitive psychology emerges from the readings, as do holistic attempts to understand the mind.

Those influences may not have been reflected in mainstream experimentalism, but they left their mark on other areas of psychology. An up-to-date set of readings could easily encompass the outcomes of these influences. There are plenty of possibilities: Fodor on brain mapping and modularity, Rogers and Maslow on the self, Tajfel and Moscovici on social psychology; Savage-Rumbaugh and Marler on the animal mind spring immediately to mind, and many others.

Nobody will find a book of readings perfect unless it reflects their own teaching preferences. This book, understandably, reflects the preferences of its editor. But it is a strong collection, and there is a great deal of insight to be gained from reading what those famous names said. I would recommend it as supplementary reading, but I would want something a bit more in touch with modern psychology as a course text.

Nicky Hayes is visiting lecturer in psychology, Bradford University.

The History of Psychology: Fundamental Questions

Author - Margaret P. Munger
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 514
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 0 19 515154 2

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