The story of psychology begins in ancient times. As a self-conscious formal discipline, psychology is little more than a century old, but the subject matter captured the human imagination long before psychology became a science. In our journey, we will travel back thousands of years to visit the epic work of philosophers and scientists who wrestled with issues that continue to fascinate modern psychologists. Examining the work of early scholars on topics such as memory, emotions, dreams, perception, brain activity, learning, and mental disorders adds scope and richness to our understanding of psychology.
Our story will be more compelling if we examine problems associated with the study of history itself. A number of questions come to mind. What is history? Can the historian offer anything more than opinion? Why study history at all? Developing sensitivity to such philosophical questions makes for a more stimulating intellectual journey.
The study of history is an important pursuit and numerous arguments have been proposed about why we should investigate it (see Wertheimer, 1980a). Let’s take a look at a handful of the more compelling arguments.
In his book The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud (1927/1961c) observed that “the less [we know] about the past and the present the more insecure must prove [our] judgment of the future” (p. 5). We live in a world of spatial, cultural, and temporal dimensions. We enrich our spatial sensitivities by traveling to other countries or studying geography. We enrich our cultural sensitivities in studies of subjects such as anthropology, comparative religion, and sociology. If we hope to live in a broader time frame, we engage in historical studies.
In a way, history is memory. Just as there is a freedom that comes with a healthy and functional memory, so there is an intellectual freedom that comes with a broad historical perspective. In a later chapter on humanistic psychology, we’ll explore the value of living in the present moment, but an exclusive emphasis on the past, the present, or the future could result in a naïve, uninformed, and isolated temporal prison. We live most fully in the here and now if we have a rich knowledge and memory for past events that contributed to the present. To neglect the past or to fail to think about the future is to impoverish the present.
Robert I. Watson (1966), a historian of psychology, once remarked that psychologists, of all people, should seek to avoid “subjugation to influences of which [we are] unaware” (p. 64). Historical studies promote perspective, integration, context, and sensitivity to the fact that everything is in a complex environment of other things. Knowledge of the history of a discipline such as psychology helps us overcome the narrowness of specialization (Benjamin & Baker, 2009).
When we study history, we are humbled by the genius, the effort, and the creative insight of previous thinkers. Helson (1972) reminds us that in history “student[s] may meet better minds in the literature than any [they] may have contact with in person” (p. 116). We may also encounter minds that have worked through problems we assumed were fresh or original. History all too often reveals that our innovative idea is a rediscovery of something known long ago. History can teach humility.
When we have an understanding of history, we are less likely to fall prey to grandiose notions, utopian dreams, and schemes that promise more than they deliver. Psychology has suffered its share of unworkable schemes, including mesmerism, phrenology, craniometry, and even some modern therapies. History teaches us to be wary of the big claim, the single method to end all methods, and the one and only definition. Helson (1972) cautioned against easy acceptance that our future lies with a solitary panacea, such as “computer models of brain function, or that there is only one psychophysical law, or that trend analysis is the last answer to statistical treatments” (p. 116). Historical knowledge counsels against the glib acceptance of the latest fad or inflated idea. Jaynes (1973a) pointed out that history may help us “liberate ourselves from the persuasions of fashions” (p. xi). At the very least, we can hope that historical knowledge will make us less gullible (Goodwin, 2005) and that historical thinking will extend into other questions in our lives.
Henle (1976) pointed out that most of us find it difficult to see our errors or question our assumptions. She argued that human cognition is often resistant to criticism and prone to a degree of inertia or self-preservation. According to Henle, knowledge of history “gives us distance not only from our immediate objective, but from our own thinking” (p. 16). History heightens awareness of the errors of others, but also keeps us thinking straight. As Henle warned in the quotation that opened this chapter, if we are blind to the lessons of history, then we will be doomed to solve the same old problems again and again.
The term historiography has multiple meanings. In a narrow and literal sense, it refers to the writing of history, including techniques and strategies for investigating specific content areas. The term also encompasses philosophical questions about history and historical method (later, we will review some philosophical questions encountered in historical studies). A third meaning of historiography refers to the characteristics of a body of historical writings. For example, historical accounts of psychology have sometimes neglected the contributions of women, scholars from outside the United States (Burman, 2015), and other cultural minorities, and these systematic omissions and distortions carry consequences at every level of history education (Loewen, 2007). Fortunately, critical awareness of our biases has led to research that addresses how psychology has profited from the contributions of women (see Bohan, 1992a, 1992b; Gavin, 1987; O’Connell & Russo, 1983, 1988, 1990; Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987), African-American psychologists (see Guthrie, 2003; Phillips, 2000; Sawyer, 2000), and Hispanic psychologists (see Martinez & Mendoza, 1984), among others.
We will now examine questions and issues about history and historical method. What is history? What is historical consciousness? Can historians be objective? What is objectivity?
Gilderhus (1992) suggests that peoples in traditional societies often lacked historical consciousness because immediate survival was their primary concern. Even so, survival depends on memory along with an awareness of time-based events. Temporal awareness clearly has survival value. Historical consciousness grows partly from beliefs in the significance of pivotal events in religion, politics, or science. In Hebraic literature, for example, people are encouraged to remember events associated with their delivery from Egyptian bondage. In more recent history, phrases such as never again, lest we forget, 9/11, and united we stand serve as reminders of the horrors of the Holocaust or the sacrifices of war and terrorism.
Gilderhus (1992) observed that historical consciousness in Greek times grew out of attempts to separate history from mythology. The legendary Greek historian Herodotus (hi RAH duh tuhs) (c. 484–c. 425 BCE) became the first to attempt a comprehensive history of the world. Documenting contemporary episodes as well as past events, he traveled widely, made extensive notes, and gained access to eyewitness testimony whenever possible. Herodotus described physical and psychological ailments (Pridmore, 2014), and he wrote history with an emphasis on natural rather than supernatural causes.
The naturalistic approach to history was extended in the work of Thucydides (thoo SIHD ih deez) (c. 460–c. 401 BCE). Remembered for his classic History of the Peloponnesian War, a classic still emphasized in military science education (Wither, 2010), Thucydides documented the war between Athens and Sparta from 431 to 404 BCE. Thucydides had a passion for accuracy and for naturalistic explanations stripped of theological overtones. Aware of previous attempts to write history in terms of miracles, mysteries, and divine purposes, Thucydides insisted on discovering positive facts and presenting them in a naturalistic context. Faith in the accuracy of historical writings creates respect for written histories and may foster historical consciousness. We turn now to one of the most fundamental and challenging issues in historiography—the problem of defining history.
Historical consciousness is more than knowledge of specific histories such as the history of the American Civil War, the history of a country, or the history of an academic discipline such as psychology. At a minimum, historical consciousness includes a sensitivity to the great range of philosophical problems associated with the writing of history, an endeavor to approach history with both critical and appreciative orientations, awareness of the dynamic ever-changing nature of historical inquiry, and an attempt to approach every subject historically (Viney, 2010). American philosopher and psychologist William James (1911) argued that “we give humanistic value to almost anything when we teach it historically. Geology, economics, [and] mechanics are humanities when taught with reference to the successive achievements of the geniuses to which these sciences owe their being. When not taught in this way, literature remains grammar, art a catalogue, history a list of dates, and natural science a sheet of formulas and weights and measures” (pp. 312–313).
In popular usage, the term history
sometimes denotes the chronology of events that provides a raw material for the historian. The term also refers to stories we tell about our past. Dictionary definitions typically emphasize both meanings (i.e., history as a chronology of previous events and history as a narrative or interpretive study of the past). History has both empirical and explanatory components. The empirical
component includes data such as unpublished letters; newspaper and Internet accounts; audio, video, or digital recordings; and official documents. The explanatory
component refers to the efforts of historians to make sense of data. Additional perspectives about history are provided in Table 1.1
So, how are we to define history? Let’s begin with the idea that history has an empirical component. That is, real events that took place in the past can enter our present experiences through records. The empirical component can also include eyewitness accounts or personal experiences for more recent events. For instance, where were you on September 11, 2001? If you remember, chances are the episode is vivid in your memory. Events such as the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center resonate, in part, because they provide a way of aligning ourselves with the yardstick of history.
The task of the historian is to become acquainted with as much data as possible. Data collection may include interviews, traveling to archives to examine unpublished letters and documents, and reading old newspapers. After collecting data, the historian must engage in an interpretive study. Such study includes examining contradictions, discriminating between what is relevant and what is not, and assigning weights to different bits of evidence. In a way, the process is like working on a complicated jigsaw puzzle when we know in advance that there will always be missing pieces.
The working definition of history suggested here is as follows: History is the interpretive study of the events of the human past. The definition assumes empirical and explanatory components in the work of a historian.
Table 1.1 Some Perspectives on the Nature of History
|History as Subjective Study |
|We read history through our prejudices. |
|What is history but a fable agreed upon. |
—Napoleon I (Bonaparte)
|History as a Record of the Past |
|History is not history unless it is the truth. |
|History as Cyclical |
|History repeats itself; that’s just one of the things that’s wrong with history. |
|The Importance of History |
|Who cannot give an account of three thousand years remains in the darkness of inexperience. |
|The less we know of the past, the more unreliable our judgment of the present and future. |
|The Value of History |
|If I have seen farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants. |
|History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life, and brings us tidings of antiquity. |
|[W]ithout history there can be no psychology. |
|A Presentist View of History |
|Let the past serve the present. |
|A Historicist View of History |
|We cannot escape history. We … will be remembered in spite of ourselves … The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the last generation. |
If we agree that history is the interpretive study of the human past, we nevertheless encounter the problem of the faithfulness or truthfulness of our interpretations. Abraham Lincoln (1856/1950) said, “History is not history unless it is the truth” (p. 149). But how can we be assured that a historical narrative is an accurate reflection of the landscape of the past? The question of objectivity is a critical issue in the philosophy of history. Historians do not usually make direct observations. Even if they did, there is no...