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Book Forum: History of Psychiatry   |    
Evolving Perspectives on the History of Psychology
SCOTT WETZLER, PH.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:1800-1801. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.159.10.1800
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Bronx, N.Y.

Edited by Wade E. Pickren, Ph.D., and Donald A. Dewsbury, Ph.D. Washington, D.C., American Psychological Association, 2002, 608 pp., $39.95 (paper).

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When people think of psychologists, they usually refer to applied psychologists—clinical, counseling, school, or organizational psychologists—rather than the academic who taught their introductory psychology course in college. Yet the origins of psychology are more closely tied to those academics than the applied types who are so prevalent today. This interesting history of psychology, edited by Pickren and Dewsbury, illustrates that modern psychology did not spring full-blown out of Wilhelm Wundt’s head in 1879 when he established a laboratory for "experimental introspection" in Leipzig, Germany. The origins of psychology, as well as its subsequent course of development, are very much tied to particular historical eras and the personalities and interests of particular individuals.

Wundt defined psychology as a science to be differentiated from philosophy, specifically, German idealism, spiritualism, and metaphysics. His was a "pure" discipline based on experimental methods and natural or social scientific principles. When William James imported Wundtian psychology to the United States, he expanded its theoretical reach but diluted its scientific methods. Unlike Wundt, James established it in academic departments of philosophy and tried to build a bridge between psychology and the nation’s popular obsession with spiritualists. It was left to G. Stanley Hall to create the necessary infrastructure to make psychology a legitimate academic discipline: scientific peer-reviewed journals, a scientific society (i.e., the American Psychological Association), and separate degree-granting academic departments of psychology. Hall was also the first to recognize Freud’s contribution and invited him to give the famous lectures at Clark University, where Hall was president.

Application of psychological knowledge didn’t begin until World War I, when psychological tests (e.g., to measure intelligence) were developed and validated to assess military recruits. Then, during the Depression, high rates of unemployment among psychologists led them to seek positions in nonacademic settings, such as schools and businesses. The explosive growth of applied psychology occurred only in the last 50 years, since World War II. The subdiscipline of clinical psychology was developed in response to the need for staff at Veterans Administration hospitals to care for the huge number of psychiatric inpatients. This demand led the federal government to provide substantial funding for jobs and training for clinical psychologists to do therapy and assessment. Thus was born the contemporary practicing psychologist, who bears little resemblance to the academic experimental psychologist.

Despite the inherent tension between the science and practice of psychology, the father of clinical psychology, David Shakow, laid out a curriculum based on a scientist-practitioner model that has been used to train tens of thousands of Ph.D. clinical psychologists. Shakow applied the same scientific standards to clinical psychology that the experimentalists applied to "pure" psychology. His approach has been criticized for underemphasizing science, since the majority of clinical psychologists become independent practitioners. This split between scientists and practitioners culminated in the secession of academic psychologists from the American Psychological Association, which they felt was too dominated by applied types.

In one of the more interesting chapters in this volume, Lawrence Smith describes how behavioral psychology’s attempt to predict and control behavior, as exemplified by John Watson and B.F. Skinner, reflects a technological ideal of science derived from Francis Bacon. Even these so-called pure scientists were seduced by the wish to apply their findings. One section of the book describes the application of psychology in the public interest, including the powerful influence Kenneth Clark’s research on racial identity had on the Brown v. Board of Education judicial decision leading to school integration. The Supreme Court had such confidence in the merit of Clark’s psychological findings that they were willing to make this momentous decision.

Most striking to me is how psychologists have always necessarily been located in their historical era. For example, during the Depression, many psychologists were quite activist and leftist. Another chapter describes the insidious anti-Semitism of E.G. Boring, one of the century’s most important experimental psychologists. Another describes Yerkes’s racist theory of inherited intelligence. What Evolving Perspectives on the History of Psychology makes clear is that psychology is just as racist, sexist, and influenced by historical events as any other field.

As a reader who never took an introductory psychology course, I found this book to be new and surprisingly engaging. Understanding the history of psychology is truly relevant to the issues I struggle with as a clinical psychologist in an academic medical setting. Its 27 chapters are somewhat uneven but generally of high quality. Beginning with a section on historical approaches, the editors are cognizant that history cannot be recounted with a single voice. I was particularly engrossed by two chapters by Thomas Leahey: one on paradigm shifts in psychology and another on historical misunderstandings; by Sheldon White’s chapter on G. Stanley Hall’s developmental psychology and the beginning of the child study movement; and by Layli Phillips’s recontextualizing of Kenneth Clark.

The editors provide brief helpful introductions to each section, especially welcome since these chapters were compiled from previously published material. Although I might quibble with certain omissions (e.g., personality psychology is limited to a discussion of Gordon Allport, ignoring Henry Murray, Robert White, and David Rapaport), in general this volume surveys most important areas of psychology. It is next to impossible to define a unified psychology in view of the numerous subdisciplines, as exemplified by the 52 divisions within the American Psychological Association.

In sum, although many of these discussions might seem esoteric to the average clinical psychiatrist, I would hope that psychiatry might also want to trace its intellectual history in part to the history of psychology.

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