The history of psychological categories

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  • support the conventional presumption that modern psychological terms describe natural

    The question of the historical or natural constitution of basic categories in the sci-ences is of great importance to historians and philosophers alike. It is certainly

    E-mail address: (R. Smith).

    Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 36 (2005) 5594

    Studies in Historyand Philosophy ofBiological andBiomedical Sciences$ - see front matter 2005 Published by Elsevier Ltd.kinds. 2005 Published by Elsevier Ltd.

    Keywords: Psychology; Historiography; Natural kinds; Mind; Memory; Emotion

    1. IntroductionRoger Smith

    119021 Moscow, Obolenskii per. 266, Russian Federation

    Received 27 January 2004; received in revised form 18 June 2004


    Psychological terms, such as mind, memory, emotion and indeed psychology itself,have a history. This history, I argue, supports the view that basic psychological categories refer

    to historical and social entities, and not to natural kinds. The case is argued through a wideranging review of the historiography of western psychology, rst, in connection with the eldsextreme modern diversity; second, in relation to the possible antecedents of the eld in the

    early modern period; and lastly, through a brief introduction to usage of the words soul,mind, memory and emotion. The discussion situates the history of psychology within alarge historical context, questions assumptions about the continuity of meaning, and draws

    out implications for the philosophical and social constitution of psychology and the psycho-logical from the existing literature. The historical evidence, this paper concludes, does notThe history of psychological categoriesdoi:10.1016/j.shpsc.2004.12.006

  • central in understanding the nature of psychological knowledge. There is no doubt

    that the majority of scientists, in this respect close to common opinion, take it for

    granted that terms such as mind, perception, memory and emotion denote nat-ural kinds.1 In the same way, people think it unproblematic to use psychology todenote a natural class of events in the world, though in this case the word clearly alsodenotes a discipline or occupation.

    Common usage, however, skates over a number of questions of great range and

    depth. At their centre is the complex issue of reexivity. Many writers on psychol-

    ogy, as well as philosophy and the social sciences, have drawn attention to this,

    which is a family of issues rather than one delimited topic.2 By reexivity, I invoke

    two claims. Firstly, that it is always possible, in any reasoning or body of thought, to

    nd presumptions which that reasoning or body of thought cannot itself justify.

    There are always unfounded presumptionsin the claim which I am now making

    56 R. Smith / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 36 (2005) 5594as in any otherand we can, reexively, make these assumptions the focus of in-quiry.3 Secondly, that knowledge of people changes the subject matter; whatever

    knowledge touches it immediately causes to move.4 When we develop our knowl-edge of human beings, we do not just change knowledge but potentially change what

    it is to be human. It follows that psychology is not only the study of human think-ing, feeling, acting, and interacting: it has itselflike the other human sciences

    brought into being new ways of thinking, feeling, acting, and interacting.5 It is thusnot chance but a matter of deep philosophical concern that psychology denotesboth state and discipline: the state and the discipline are bound in a reexive circle.6

    In my view, questions of reexivity are not at all restricted to the human sciences (let

    alone unique to psychology), but here I want to take up the matter only in relation to

    psychological categories, and only in certain ways.7

    Starting from these reexive claims leads to conclusions at odds with the belief

    that the evolutionary past, or indeed one god or another, has laid down a xed hu-

    man nature. A reexive approach treats psychological categories as historically con-

    stituted, while the biological view treats them as givens, natural kinds. To engage indebate between these positions is to enter a mineeldand there certainly are more

    than just the polarised views that I have just described. My (relatively) circumscribed

    1 For historical and sociological approaches to psychological kinds, see Danziger (1990a); (1997), esp.pp. 181194; Kusch (1999).2 Related to the human sciences, see: Giddens (1979); (1993), pp. 185186; Gouldner (1970); Gruenberg

    (1978); Morawski (1992); Richards (1987); Sandywell (1996), pp. 151.3 I draw on the conclusions, for example, of Putnam (1981), p. 52: Objectsdo not exist independently

    of conceptual schemes. We cut the world into objects when we introduce one or another scheme of

    description.4 Foucault (1970), p. 327.5 MacIntyre (1985), p. 897.6 Graham Richards has drawn attention to this double signication, proposed to label the discipline

    Psychology (big P) and the state psychology (little p), and explored implications for writing the historyof the eld: Richards (1992a), pp. 16; (2002), pp. 610.7 I do not, for example, consider the reexive relation of methodology and substantive claims aboutpsychological processes, or the reexive recreation of the self through technology.

  • purpose here is to comment on what dierent arguments imply for historical writing

    about psychology. I do, as I must, take a position. It is a logical implication of the

    present argument that all historians take a position: there are no neutral, transcen-dental, descriptions of being human. I suggest that it is possible for even very basiccategories in which we understand being human to change. Whether they have, inhistorical fact, so changed is a matter for historical research. But historical writing

    R. Smith / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 36 (2005) 5594 57should not presume that psychological terms, including psychology itself, describenatural kinds. This argument goes against common sense, the working assumptionsof most natural scientists and the belief of more than a few empirically minded


    It is possible to turn debate about reexive arguments into concrete historical

    questions through the study of psychological terminology. If the psychological stateand the psychology discipline are parts of one reexive circle, then we must under-stand the creation of specically psychological ways of thought in connection with

    the creation of psychological states. The history of this is visible in language. The

    social psychologist Kurt Danziger made this specic suggestion in order to study

    the historical constitution of psychological objects and these objects social nature,including the psychological person.8 At this point, the history of psychological cat-

    egories opens out into the enormously complex question concerning the sources of

    the modern individual and of modern individualism. I will not go into this here.

    What can be said briey is that it appears impossible to write linear histories of glo-bal notions of what a person is. Historians, by and large, have turned away from at-

    tempts to write the history of abstract notions of the individual in order to study

    ways of shaping particular notions of the self and the individual.9 Though muchmore wide-ranging than most studies, even the philosopher Charles Taylors Sourcesof the Self concentrated on three historical episodes shaping what he regards as the

    distinctively modern view of what makes a person.10 What psychologists and histo-

    rians of psychology have contributed in this eld is important arguments for, and

    research on, historical psychology.11 Historical psychology denotes the historyof (changing) psychological states as a source of psychological knowledge. Interest

    in this eld grew out of Marxian and sociological theories of the political, economic

    and cultural roots of the inner world, following early work in the sociology ofknowledge as well as by such pioneers as Nobert Elias and Zevedei Barbu.12

    I will use historical writing to question assumptions about the historical continu-

    ity of basic psychological categories. To the extent that this questioning succeeds and

    describes the history of categories, it will support the conclusion reached by a num-

    ber of analytic philosophersthat statements have meaning by virtue of their placewithin a historically developing story.13 It is a very signicant point, countering the

    8 Danziger (1990a, 1997, 2002); (2004), pp. 220222. See Brock (2004), pp. 610.9 See Heller, Soma & Wellberg (1986).10 Taylor (1989).11 Staeuble (1991, 1993).12 Elias (1978); Barbu (1960).

    13 Hampshire (1960), pp. 1718; MacIntyre (1981), p. 194; Taylor (1989), p. 47.

  • still widespread view that historical knowledge is perhaps interesting but, in the last

    analysis, expendable. I want to add weight to the argument that our historical

    knowledge is essential to a capacity to make meaningful statements about the

    world.14 What we say about a persons psychology, I argue, makes sense in the lightof the history of the language that we use.15

    This paper, however, is a historiographic and not philosophical discussion of the

    dierent positions historians of psychology have actually taken, whether implicitly

    or explicitly. Standard histories of psychology presuppose that people have always


    2. Th


    58 R. Smith / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 36 (2005) 5594sion to carry it out, began in the late nineteenth century, following German

    example. Textbooks read as if this is the case, and many of them until recently relied

    on the authority of the American psychologist and historian of psychology, E. G.

    Boring.17 Boring located a founding father and a founding moment in Wilhelm

    Wundts establishment of teaching and research in experimental psychology at Leip-zig University in the 1870s and 1880s. Nonetheless, at second glance, it is obvious

    that historians do not agree about this at all.

    14 I write about these philosophical claims in a forthcoming book, Being human, history, and the sciences.

    This expands various attempts to explain the nature and purposes of the history of the human sciences:Smith (1997a, 1998, 1999, 2001).15 I should perhaps add that I do not attempt to discuss the empirical claim, which most psychologists

    think well founded, that there are psychological capacities which all people share (e.g. capacities of

    perception). My argument is about whether it can be said that all people from ancient to modern times

    meant the same thing when they wrote in ways which moderns identify as psychological.16 Danziger (1990b), p. 336.

    17 Boan apparently clear-cut question: when does the discipline of psychology begin?

    e modern origin of psychology

    rst glance, it looks as if historians and psychologists generally agree: experi-al research on the mind, and the development of a specialist academic profes-exhibited psychological states, that there is a basic unchanging core of such statesand that most cultures from ancient to modern times have recognised and had a lan-

    guage for this. Given these presuppositions, it is natural to view the modern disci-

    pline of psychology as the institutionalised, objective study of the domain of

    reality presented in these states. It is also natural to use contemporary terms to de-scribe past beliefs. In Danzigers pointed words, however:

    The use of contemporary terms strongly suggests that the objects of currentpsychological discourse are the real, natural objects and the past discourse nec-essarily referred to the same objects in its own quaint and subscientic way.What this organization of historical material overlooks is the possibility thatthe very objects of psychological discourse, and not just opinions about them,have changed radically in the course of history.16

    But research on change in the very objects of psychological discourse turns out tobe dauntingly complex, both conceptually and historically. I shall therefore startring (1950).

  • Boring had a particular vision of what psychology should be, and he wrote his

    book because he feared that psychology was in danger of taking a dierent path.18

    His history, though in some respects admirably wide, took its plot from an ideal

    of scientic rather than practical psychology. The social fact, however, was that psy-

    chology, when he wrote, was many dierent things; this has remained the case.


    the ex

    has co

    R. Smith / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 36 (2005) 5594 59history that needs investigation. Because it did not always exist, we have to fallback on modern conceptions of the psychological for the criteria that willenable us to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant material from the past.21

    Whether these criteria would include or exclude his Indonesian interlocutors theo-ries in psychology is an open question.

    Even if we describe as psychology only what goes on under that name in the West,we face a protean monster. If we restrict it further to what is called the discipline ofpsychology, the monster is still enormous. Graham Richards, himself a psychologist,

    referred to the chronic pluralism of the discipline.22 There are indeed professionalbodies for psychology, both national and international, but they are huge (the

    APA, the American Psychological Association, founded in 1894, has more than

    110,000 members or aliates) and diverse (the APA has fty-ve divisions represent-

    ing dierent interests). At times, some psychologists have invested considerable intel-

    lectual eort in the elaboration of a theory, or of a methodology, able to unite theeld and create a unied science. Those who did this hoped to show that the diversity

    of actual psychological activity is a reection of the diversity of human life and not a

    18 Kelly (1981); ODonnell (1979).19 E.g. Joravsky (1989); Rose (1999), pp. 910; Shamdasani (2003).20 Danziger (1997), pp. 15.21 Ibid, p. 14.

    22 Ricor superstition. Danzigers own conclusion was more subtle and positive, andperience became a starting point for an empirical, historical search for what

    me to count as psychology. As he commented:

    Clearly, psychological is itself an example of a psychological category with aThe staggeringwidth or inclusiveness of psychology provokes comment.19 It is com-

    mon practice to refer to Tibetan psychology, Hindu psychology, the psychology of

    Plotinus, medieval psychology and so on, all in contrast to modern Western psychol-

    ogy. But what is the common subject matter? Danziger recorded his shock, in Indone-

    sia, of failing to nd common ground between indigenous and imported psychologies;

    even the most basic categories, such as mind, soul and self, diered.20 In such circum-

    stances it is dicult to say what makes the two bodies of thought both psychology.The answer seems to be that convention divides up the world in a certain way, andtheWestern convention is that psychology, however loosely, describes a class of phe-nomena in the world which is really there. Hence other people, as well as western psy-chologi...