BORN FREE: WILLIAM JAMES AND THE FIRST AMERICAN ACADEMIC PSYCHOLOGY PROGRAM
“PSYCHOLOGY...THAT NASTY LITTLE SCIENCE” --William James
The intention of this post is pretty straightforward: To explore the philosophical position that the essence of being human is the faculty of freewill rather than strictly a biologically determined part of a larger sociologically determined whole –in other words; a bit of light entertainment, which the reader will hopefully find enjoyable and amusing...much like a romantic comedy.
I have chosen as a starting point or “seed” (if you will), the true story of how the first American Psychologist began his professional life as an artist, fell into a decades long bout with major depression (with concomitant, persistent suicidal ideation), made a choice to commit himself to the philosophical idea that he was free, i.e., that he possessed freewill and could use it to do and become and achieve anything that he wished to. He then went on to earn his M.D. at Harvard Medical School, decided that the whole idea of practicing medicine was ridiculous, traveled to Germany and studied with the first group of experimental psychologists (a new branch of science in German Universities beginning in the 1870's), returned to Harvard with one of the best and brightest graduates of the first doctoral program in experimental psychology (to run his laboratory), started the first psychology department in the college of science at Harvard, proceeded to “quit psychology” when his brightest graduate student was denied her Ph.D. because she was a woman (Mary Whiton Calkins), and finally ended his career as a professor of philosophy at Harvard –where he is co-credited along with Charles Pierce with developing a particularly American system of philosophy known as Pragmatism.
From the time that he “quit” psychology until his death...whenever anyone would ask him about psychology and all of the things that it had become; he always used the following rejoinder: “AH PSYCHOLOGY...THAT NASTY LILLTLE SCIENCE!”
BUT HOW ABOUT SOME CONTEXT FIRST: -- the “Strange Intoxication” that Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution was producing in the “Collective Subconsciousness of the American Identity” in the second half of the 19th century:
One of the “consequences” of the publication of Darwin's theory will (no doubt) “go into the books” as one of the wackiest and dangerous episodes in American history: “The Expatriation of the British self-proclaimed “Darwinian Philosopher” (whatever that means) Herbert Spencer to the United States and his subsequent transformation into an American Legend.”
Specifically, the core concept of Spencer's Philosophy; which he termed “Social Darwinism” became the most popular “theory of everything” in the United States beginning in the late 1880's and continuing until...(it depends where, in America you live, your ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and if you intend to vote for Donald Trump for President or not); it is still INCREDIBLY BIZZARE that this happened, as Spencer had no formal education, and was an actual philosopher only in the sense that The Wizard of Oz was an actual wizard...
- Took the key elements of Darwin's scientific approach (which Darwin intended as a forensic analysis of a “crime scene“ comprised of “clues” such as evidence for the existence of species of plants/animals in the fossil record which no longer seem to be with us), and proceeded to:
- Transform it from its intended tool for forensic investigation in biology, into a predictive science designed to determine which species that are currently with us have the “right stuff” to exist in the future as something other than clues in the fossil record, and which species don't.
- Transform Darwin's forensic concept of “survival of the fittest” into a predictive concept (which just happened to be) congruent with the American geopolitical doctrine of Manifest Destiny.
This notion (conveniently) “achieved” some other objectives:
- Provided an explanation (rationalization) for the failure of ethnic minorities to succeed, justified the rejection of non-European immigrants as acceptable national policy, and allowed successful American pioneers to believe in their own self-efficacy and to devote oneself to developing an internal locus of control. As mentioned earlier, the equivalent contemporary notion is expressed in the ubiquitous phrase of “having the right stuff”.
Spencer foresaw a future utopia in which only the “best” would survive, but only if:
- The natural course of evolutionary change were allowed to proceed unfettered. In particular, he was critical of interventions by government or other agencies or institutions that insisted on assisting the less able. Spencer argued that the environment naturally provides equal opportunity; the government doesn't have to substitute artificial "equal opportunity" programs. Spencer's ideas were delivered in a system he called “Synthetic Philosophy”.
It was at the height of America's initial infatuation with Herbert Spencer that William James returned from Germany to found the Department of Psychology at Harvard University (yikes).
James was influenced by Darwin, unfortunately for him however, was that in the United States, to many, this meant (mistakenly) that he was also influenced by Spencer.
The irony in this is that James DID BELIEVE IN FREEWILL..however, this was not a result of his “joining the cult of Spencer” –it didn't even happen in the United States! It was the result of an epiphany he had while studying Psychology in Germany following his decision to abandon the practice of medicine. It happened when he was alone in his room at a boarding house in Leipzig Germany where he had decided to commit suicide...moments earlier.
James had been reading a book by the French Philosopher Charles Renouvier, when he came across Renouvier's definition of “the illusion of freewill”; and (James later wrote) it was as if this was the “final straw” --he needed to end his life and his suffering immediately.
What Renouvier had written (and James had just read) was this: “The definition of freewill is the sustaining of a thought because I choose to –even though I may easily have other thoughts...it is therefore nothing but an illusion.”
James put the book down and was preparing to hang himself when he had his epiphany: “HEY RENOUVIER...YOU ARE AN IDIOT...HOW THE HELL DO YOU KNOW THAT IS AN ILLUSION? I SAY IT IS NOT AN ILLUSION! FOR THE NEXT YEAR I CHOOSE TO SUSTAIN A SINGLE THOUGHT (even though I may easily have other thoughts); AND –THE SINGLE THOUGHT I CHOOSE TO SUSTAIN IS THIS THOUGHT:
“I have freewill. I am completely free to do and say any damn thing that I want to and nobody and no force in nature can stop me.”
Within two months he was sailing back to the United States...filled with a sense of enthusiasm about his new mission –starting a Department of Psychology in the College of Science and Medicine at Harvard University.
When William James taught his first Psychology course in the 1875-1876 academic year, he simultaneously attended his first lecture in Psychology as he saw it (i.e., his own!). He had concluded that the Germans weren't doing it right.
James proclaimed that Psychology should be a the study of one and only one aspect of Darwin's “forensics”...that aspect being the human mind. What is it about the human mind (indeed the minds of all non-extinct animal species) that differentiates it from the minds of animal species that can only be found in the fossil record...that have become extinct (in other words, what purpose has the mind served, in our survival, in our adaptation to our environments...and what couldn't the minds of the extinct species do to escape extinction).
Despite not being an experimentalist in any sense of the word, James sought funding for equipment and established a laboratory in experimental psychology at Harvard and spent 12 years writing the classic “The Principles of Psychology” (1890) for the new science (still a best seller and available at Barnes and Nobel for 12 bucks in paperback!).
Always a conundrum, he then disavowed interest in psychology (following the “Mary Whiton Calkins incident”) and disputed the value of experimental work, and for a time was viewed by jealous peers as an embarrassment to Psychology and even an impediment to its growth (ya gotta love it...hee hee).
James's ultimate legacy as one of the three greatest figures in Psychology are due to the quality of his writing, his espousal of pragmatic philosophy, and his delineation of psychology's subject matter and goals in The Principles. He identified the goal of psychology as the study of people as they adapt to the environment. In addition, he argued that the function of consciousness is to permit and facilitate that adaptation. James's psychology was biological (Darwinian) and he argued that intellect is influenced by physiology and that human wants and needs affect reason and not the reverse (pretty cool… and rebellious for an intellectual). James coined the term stream of consciousness and described other characteristics of consciousness as always changing, cumulative, selective, and having a purpose.
His theories continue to be cited in chapters in introductory psychology textbooks worldwide; thus one might easily speculate that every psychology student in America has been exposed to James's work.
© Gerald Hecht, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Gerald Hecht with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.