Ideas Galore

If psychology at the turn of the century were to be depicted in terms of intellectual leadership, then several individuals would be needed to represent this pluralistic science. it would be accurately represented via the diverse works of Edward B. Titchener, William James, and G. Stanley Hall.

Although all three psychologists shared a dedication to creating a scientific psychology, they differed significantly in what each meant by the word scientific and what the intellectual foundation of this “psychology” would be. British-born Edward B. Titchener (1867-1927) trained in Germany with Wilhelm Wundt, and while working at Cornell University modeled much of his conception of scientific psychology after chemistry. All mental events, according to Titchener, consisted of some combination of a finite number of basic sensation-elements. These elementary sensations are connected to form complex ideas and perceptions. Titchener’s psychology made no room for ideas about volunteerism (either free will or apperception); rather, mental processes were nothing more than combinations of elemental sensations. The scientific task of the psychologist was to use rigorous methods of introspection to record and catalog these basic sensations, which ultimately could be explained reductionistically— by discovering the physiology of sensations. Titchener’s vision of psychological science was that of a pure science, one unconcerned with application or relevance to everyday life.

American-born William James (1842-1910) studied chemistry and medicine at Harvard University, where he remained as a professor for most of his career. For much of his life James was committed to a natural science model of psychology. His conception of science, as well as his understanding of psychological life, was founded on pragmatism, a distinctly American philosophical position claiming that beliefs were never certain but were deemed veridical if they produced successful action. Influenced by Darwinism as well, James held that beliefs evolve and that it is the function, not the content, of mental events that constitute the proper subject matter of psychology. According to James, consciousness and the will had evolved and were central components of mental life. His Principles of Psychology (1890) outlined a discipline based on these premises as well as on the claim that psychology should be practical, encompassing studies of the self, consciousness, will, emotions, attention, and automatic functions. His psychology, then, was volunteeristic and rejected mechanistic and reductionist models of the mind. Accordingly, James encouraged the use of various research methods that ranged from a phenomenological approach to introspection to experimental and comparative techniques.

G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924), also an American, received the first Ph.D. degree in psychology in America. He was committed to establishing a scientific psychology that was diverse in theory and method and that would effectively illuminate and guide human activities. Among Hall’s efforts to foster this psychology was the founding of the American Journal of Psychology in 1887 and the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1892. His conception of human nature was informed largely by evolutionary theory and, in particular, the notion that individual development recapitulated racial evolution. For Hall, scientific psychology encompassed all features of mental life, from intelligence and emotions to morality and religion. He addressed these and other subjects in popular as well as scientific articles. His own work along with that of his students displayed the use of diverse methods of inquiry, including experimentation, tests, questionnaires, case studies, and history. This intellectual magnanimity resulted too in his appreciation of the work of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939): Hall invited and hosted Freud’s only visit to America (1909).

These three psychologists merely intimate the pluralism of psychology at the beginning of the century. To their projects could be added John Dewey’s (1859-1952) efforts to extend psychology to the engineering of a progressive education, James McKeen Cattell’s (1860-1944) work to place psychology among the natural sciences. Edward L. Thorndike’s (1874-1949) dedication to the psychology of learning, and Hugo Munsterberg’s (1863-1916) projects to explain consciousness without will and to apply psychological knowledge to business and the courtroom. These are but a few of the innovative psychologists who committed their careers to the “new psychology” in America.

This eclectic spirit of growth was not to last long, and with U.S. entrance into World War I psychologists had cause to reconsider and reorient their researches. However, the war alone is not responsible for the ensuing constriction in scientific activities: An atmosphere of intellectual pluralism initiated controversies over perspectives and interpretations of experiments, and therefore the discipline’s maturation as a legitimate science required a certain consolidation of practices. After the war, American psychologists had a new understanding of the science, particularly its place in society. These researchers resumed their scientific investigations with a heightened and critical self-consciousness about their intellectual differences.