Mental Testing and the Structure of Society

Lecture 20.  October 30 and November 3.

Afterthoughts.  We have looked at the small beginnings of mental testing in the work of Galton and Binet.  However, it would not be long before mental testing became involved in large scale projects to remake society in ways that would have been familiar to Plato: The building up of an intellectually meritocratic ruling elite.

Forethoughts.  The first use of intelligence tests to sort masses of people into ability groupings came in WW I.  Led by then President of the APA, Robert Yerkes (a distinguished comparative psychologist) psychologists developed the Army Alpha (for literate conscripts) and Beta (for illiterate conscripts) IQ tests.  These tests sorted men into A, B, C, D, and F categories.  The “A” men went to officer candidate school, “B” and “C” men into the regular army, and “D” and “F” men were washed out.  

This use of IQ testing to sort people by ability aided the development of Galton’s plans for what he dubbed eugenics, the controlled breeding of human beings along the lines of what was done with horses and agricultural products.  Galton hoped to use IQ tests to identify the brightest minds of each generation and encourage the smart to marry the smart with social recognition and government grants of money upon marriage.  This kind of eugenics is known as positive eugenics.  In the US in the early 20th century positive eugenics led to exhortations to “sow only fit seed” and holding Fitter Family contests at state fairs.  Negative eugenics involves attempting to prevent the “unfit” from having children, and in the same period IQ tests were often used as the basis for institutionalizing and/or sterilizing “unfit” men and women in the US and elsewhere, including most notoriously Nazi Germany, but several Scandinavian countries as well.  A useful resource for eugenics in the US is Also see D. Kevles, In the name of eugenics: Genetics and the uses of human heredity, Harvard University Press, 1998.

The Army tests also led to the SAT, the Big Test (N. Lemann, The Big Test: The secret history of the American meritocracy, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999) most Americans take and fear, because it does seem to sort people into certain life tracks, exactly as in Plato’s Republic.  James Bryan Conant (1893-1978), scientist and president of Harvard University, set out to destroy what he called the “Episcopacy” and the SAT was his weapon.  The “Episcopacy” were a group of families, largely Episcopalian, who for generations led American business and government.  Conant saw this as undemocratic, and wanted America to be led not by a quasi-aristocratic inherited elite but an elite of merit, of intelligence.  He inspired and guided the construction of the SAT to be a socially usable measure of intelligence that could be used by elite universities to choose their students by merit rather than by family tree.  The troublesome possibility exists, however, that merit and breeding may merge.  If possessors of high IQ are thrown together in their 20s, they will tend to marry one another, and if IQ is heritable, then their children will do well on SATs and go to elite schools, as will their grandchildren, great grandchildren and so on.

On the other hand, research on successful entrepreneurs (e.g., T. Stanley, The millionaire mind, Andrews McMeel, 2001) suggests that the qualities making for business success are more personal than intellectual.  I once had an email exchange with a journalist who wrote about this topic for the Washington Post.  She said that her favorite license plate was one on an expensive sports-car that read “LOW SATS.”

The fact remains, however, that psychology and its tools have a great deal of power in the modern world.

Published in: on November 16, 2008 at 8:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

Variations on the Cartesian Paradigm: Dualism and its Place in Science

Lecture 14.  October 7 and 13.

Afterthoughts.  The second aspect of the Cartesian Paradigm to which I want to draw special attention is its substantial dualism, the claim that body and mind (or soul) are separate things: res extensa and res cogitans.  Dualism as such, of course, is not new.  The Bronze Age Greeks were dualists to a degree, Pythagoras, Plato, and the Neoplatonists were dualists.  Aristotle was a dualist, but not a substantial dualist, because he did not say that soul was a thing.

What made Descartes’ dualism different from these earlier substantial dualism lies less in his conception of the soul, than in his conception of matter.  The Scientific Revolution was developing a powerful, detailed, and new conception of the material world as a machine, and thus Descartes proposed that animal and human bodies are likewise machines.   Human beings, then, must be seen as machines inhabited by souls that interact with them, raising the problems of interaction noted in the Lecture 12 post.

What emerge in the eighteenth century are alternatives to Cartesian dualism, along with alternatives to his conception of consciousness (Lecture 13 post).  There are 3; in each, one aspect of Descartes’ own dualism is rejected as an illusion.  The first to emerge is psychophysical parallelism, which we discussed in class in connection with Leibniz.  Parallelism retains the separation of mind and body (it’s a dualism), but says that the apparent interaction between them is an illusion: Mind and body are synchronized, like 2 synchronized swimmers, but, like the swimmers, they are not causally connected.

The other two alternatives are monisms, which means that they say only one thing exists, the mind or the body, but not both.  One form of monism is idealism, which we find in different forms in Berkeley and Kant. In ontological idealism, the material world does not exist — though there are many, many variations on idealism.  They will not concern us much, because the more influential form of monism in psychology, especially American psychology, and in contemporary thought more broadly, is materialism.  We have met materialism in Hobbes, La Mettrie, and in the French naturalists of the Enlightenment Project.  Materialists hold (like the atomists) that only matter and space exist in reality, that there is no soul, and that therefore the mind (and the appearance of mind-body interaction) is some sort of an illusion.

Forethoughts.  Together with the problems regarding the privacy of consciousness and the accuracy of introspection, Cartesian materialism helped push psychology towards behaviorism.  Parallelism, which was quite popular among psychologists of the founding generation, says that while mind exists, it does not do anything.  Materialism says that mind is an illusion.  Thus to define psychology as the study of the mind — and remember, in the Cartesian version mind = consciousness — is to define it as the science of something pointless or as the science of nothing at all.  As we will see, evolution adds a new aspect to the problem of mind and consciousness — is it adaptive?  The Cartesian paradigm concerning mind and consciousness, already present as psychology’s working framework, is pre-set to answer, “No, it’s not.”

Psychology Disenchants the Human World

Lecture 10.  September 23 and 29.


Hence, it means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted [de-magified]. One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service. This above all is what intellectualization means. This process of disenchantment, which has continued to exist in Occidental culture for millennia, and, in general, this ‘progress,’ to which science belongs as a link and motive force.

Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation” (1918)


Weber was one of the most important social thinkers of the twentieth century.  He was very concerned about the effects of the application of reason to all spheres of life, an application resulting in what he elsewhere called the “iron cage” of reason and bureaucracy.  The talk I just quoted was given by Weber to German college students in 1918.  Members of his audience felt especially disenchanted just then.  What had started for them as a romantic, noble, cause — World War 1 — had ended in European horror and German defeat.  Their newly unified (1871) empire had been replaced by what seemed to many a bland, bourgeois, unexciting, unambitious democracy, known now to history as the Weimar Republic.

Weber was addressing an important theme in the history of science, the creation of a new social role, that of scientist, and what might and should be expected of scientists and their new institution, science.  Organized science is the epitome of the application of reason, and the Scientific Revolution had created a triumphant picture of the world as a machine knowable by reason, whose movements could be precisely calculated and technically controlled.  The problem for many people, including especially, as he notes several times, the youth in Weber’s audience, was that science was invading human relations, too, reducing them to rational calculation and technical adjustment.  They deeply resented this, and Weber discussed what science can and cannot offer as a replacement for religion, feeling, and mystery — enchantment — in living a flourishing life.  The answer was, very little.

The profound questions raised by Weber are of great importance for the history of psychology as an institution, because psychology (especially in the United States) is the central science through which the discipline of reason and technocracy have been brought to bear on everyday life.  Your life has been sorted by numbers from the Apgar test applied when you were but seconds old, to the SAT test you took in high school, to usage data collected from your most recent Google search, and conclusions about your behavior and life’s prospects calculated by equations.  Priests used to offer guidance on negotiating life’s vicissitudes, now scientifically-trained psychologists do.  This is Weber’s iron cage.

Forethoughts.  Science will make its move from the heavens to the earth, from the planets to people, during the 18th century and the Enlightenment Project of the philosophes, the topics of the next 2 lectures.  All will question, some will reject, and a few will seek to erase, what they see as the irrational institutions that had controlled Europe up to then, unreflective aristocratic tradition and revelatory religion. 

Published in: on October 6, 2008 at 4:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Psyche and Purpose

Lecture 8.  September 16 and 22.

Afterthoughts.  Aristotle is important for us in his treatment of two of the things we take for granted in psychology.  The first is the existence of a psyche, or soul, as discussed in class and in earlier posts; the second is purpose.  I remarked that positing the existence of a soul-thing would create problems for psychology, because how soul as a non-material entity interacts with the body as a material entity will prove deeply puzzling.  Aristotle’s analysis of the soul-body relationship offers a way out.  He agrees with intuition and Plato that we need to distinguish soul and body, but disagrees that we need therefore to separate soul and body.  

Plato’s postulation of transcendental Forms existing apart from their earthly copies is called the doctrine of “the separability of the Forms,” and we learned in class that Aristotle rejected it, and replaced it with his form (note the lower case) vs. matter distinction, in which form is defined as what individuates an object — defines what it is — rather than as a thing separate from matter.  Thus according to Aristotle, but not Plato, form cannot exist without embodiment.  Applied to psychology, the soul is the form of the body, and cannot exist without a body.  Moreover, his discussion of the types of soul indicates that he defines soul as biological processes, not immaterial things; for example the animal soul consists in sensation and movement.  It is important to observe that Aristotle does not say the soul carries out these functions, because that would lead to dualism.  Instead, the soul is these functions in a living body.  When life ceases, the functions, and the soul, cease, too.  

In certain respects Aristotle’s theory of the soul-body relation is similar to that of modern information-processing psychology, which says that the human mind is a set of computational functions carried out by the brain similar to the way a computer program is a set of computational functions running in a computer (mind is to body as program is to computer).  Indeed, on this “functionalist” theory of mind and body, it’s logically possible to figure out what program code constitutes your personality and then load the code into a computer, which would then be mentally identical to you (see this famous paper, “Where am I?” by philosopher Daniel Dennett: .)  In fact, some folks in AI hope to achieve immortality that way (  For a criticism of the idea that Aristotle was a functionalist, see ).

The other taken-for-granted concept, purpose, is closely linked to soul.  In saying that the soul is the form of the body, Aristotle says that soul is the final cause of the body, both the purpose for which living bodies exist (the proper end of living tissue is to perform the functions of the soul) and the giver of purposes to the body (the soul is, as it were, the body’s CEO).  As I said in class, the history of science, however, is marked by the erasure of purpose from nature, including living things and human beings.  Although Aristotle was committed to purposive explanation in all the sciences (even physics), by making purpose a concept for conscious reflection, he began its downfall.  Only when something is remarked upon can it become a topic of conversation and argument.  Aristotle began the conversation about purpose.

Forethoughts.  Christianity’s commitment to dualism meant that Aristotle’s functional definition of the soul would not catch on in European thought, even when Aristotle’s philosophy and science were assimilated into the university curricula of the high Middle Ages.  However, his treatment of the workings of the soul were accepted, but an attempt was made to see them as workings of the immortal divine soul of Plato and Christian religion.  This will soon lead, as we shall see, to two related problems.  The first is called by philosophers the homunculus [“little man”] problem.  Because the soul is the essence of who you are, it is tempting to think of the soul as a mini-you living in your head, giving the body orders.  But who is in the head of the mini-you?  a mini-mini-you?  with a mini-mini-mini-you inside, and so on absurdly ad infinitum?  A further difficulty arises when theologians and medieval natural philosophers had to identify the Christian soul with Aristotle’s rational soul (more technically, with Aristotle’s passive mind, or agent intellect, but that is not important here).  Memory is important to your personal identity; without it you would literally not know who you are.  But because memory is part of the animal sensitive soul, Christian doctrine has to exclude it from immortality.  It then follows that if only your rational soul is immortal, then you cannot have personal immortality, only immortality as pure thought without sensation, movement, or memory of your life on earth.  These issues will loom large for Descartes, arguably the most influential philosopher-psychologist of all.

Published in: on September 22, 2008 at 4:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

Contemplation, Intuition, and Action

Lecture 6.  September 9 and 15.

Afterthoughts.  In some respects, the most important legacy of Socrates to Western thought and to psychology was his insistence on being able to explain one’s actions.  No matter how virtuous one’s behavior might be, one was not truly virtuous unless one could give an account of what virtue was.  Giving an account was theoria in Greek, which more precisely meant contemplation rather than doing.  The tension between contemplation/theory and action/productivity is an important one in understanding the ideas, values, and problems of the Western tradition of which we are a part, and will play an important role in the history of science and psychology as well.   This tension has many aspects, one of which begins to appear in the thought of Plato, which we took up later in the lecture.  

Recall that although Greeks posited the existence of a soul, or breath of life, few posited the existence of a soul that constituted one’s personal essence and that could and would continue to exist outside the body. Plato, however, in his Theory of the Forms posits not only the existence of an immortal, transcendent, personal soul, but also the existence of a transcendent world of Forms that is perfect, unchanging, and the true home of the soul — the Reality he points to in Raphael’s School of Athens.  His teacher’s theoria becomes contemplation of the Real world of the Forms, detached from the inferior world of Opinion about material things that are imperfect copies of the Forms.  Socrates wanted people to think about living well in the world in which we act, but Plato turns our concern to a world in which we do not live and in which we do not act (because we do not have bodies), the World of the Forms.  I said in earlier lectures that for the ancient Greeks virtue was arete earned by action, but that this concept of virtue would change into the Christian one of a state of being anyone might possess.  Plato makes a key move to the modern conception of virtue as a state of being (remember the tension between Being and Becoming), because virtue for Plato is contemplating and grasping the Form of the Good, which can be done by the soul alone without bodily action.  More flippantly, for Plato, “Soul good; Body bad,” a thought Socrates, and other non-dualist Greeks, could not have thought.

Forethoughts.  As I said, the contemplation – action tension will be an important theme of the course; for example, it’s one reason why experimentation comes so late to science.  In our next lecture, when we finish Plato, we will see some of its implications for politics and psychology.  

Contemplation of the Good, for Plato, is the ideal way to live, and in his Republic the ultimate rulers are philosopher-kings whose education is devoted to contemplating the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.  Action in the Greek sense — political action — is left to the Guardian’s inferiors and subordinates, the Auxiliaries, who protect and manage the Republic.  The mass of people belong to the most inferior class, the Productive Class, incapable of political action, and stuck with mere material production, as far from the Empyrean realm of the Forms as possible.

In Plato’s model of personality, the same trio of values and roles continues.  Personality is a chariot pulled by the Spirited Soul and the Desiring Soul under the direction of the Rational Soul.  The Rational Soul, observe, is pure contemplation — it knows (or should know) the Good  — but it is incapable of action or of production.  It somehow — and in that “somehow” is buried many of the puzzles of the psychologies of motivation, decision making, and even cognitive neuroscience — must command the body’s lesser souls to follow the path of virtue.  Can it?  Or is asking this question a fundamental mistake brought on by Plato and later Descartes, the mistake called by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, Descartes error?  If soul and body are one, then worrying about how they interact, and constructing theories about their interaction, are misbegotten projects from the get-go, and the get-go was long ago in a universe far far away, but remains ours nevertheless.

Published in: on September 17, 2008 at 5:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

History of Psychology: Rationality and Science

Lecture 2 (August 26 and 27).

Afterthoughts.  A key point in considering the special issues and controversies in history of science is science’s claim to be a uniquely rational enterprise. As we will learn, rationality — being able to give a coherent, logical, and understandable explanation of and justification for one’s beliefs and actions — is a critical idea in the history of the West.  Indeed, being rational defines one’s status as a free, adult, human being.  If a person is deemed irrational they may be confined in an institution, have someone else placed in charge of their affairs, or found not guilty of a crime.  The success of the scientific revolution led the leaders of the Enlightenment Project (which we will get to in a few weeks) to see science as providing solutions to problems of human living that had not been solved by politics, tradition, or religion.  In the same vein, in the twentieth century a very influential group of philosophers of science, the Logical Positivists, tried to distill the essence of scientific rationality into a set of methods that could be applied to any area of human endeavor, exerting a tremendous influence on psychology from the middle of the century onward.  (We won’t get to them in this class, but they can be found in the text).  The considerable public authority of psychology and psychologists today derives in large part from psychology’s claim to be a science.

Traditional (“Old History”) history of science tended to support science’s unique image by following the approaches I discussed in class.  However, the “New History” of science undermines science’s special status, by showing that change in science is often caused by factors outside scientists’ control and about which they often have little awareness: In short, scientists are not Vulcans, they are human beings, and the history of science is not separable from the rest of history.  In our first class, I talked about how a goal of this class is questioning assumptions we take for granted; the special status of science-as-rationality-embodied is one of them; I also said that this can be disturbing (Socrates was put to death for doing it). So, it is unsurprising that history of science is sometimes seen by scientists themselves as dangerous, and the teaching of history of science as akin to Socrates’ weakening of the moral values of the youth of Athens.  They fear that learning about history of science may be bad for the training of young scientists, that the history of science should be rated X (S. G. Brush (1974). Should the history of science be rated X? (Science, 183, 1164-72))  So you can tell people your history class is x-rated!.

An example of exoteric and esoteric reading of a modern work of art — Star Wars — can be found at  Darth Vader is the hero, not the villain in this Struassian reading.

Forethoughts.  In the next lectures I will be describing world history at the most abstract level.  The important points to pay attention to are how human nature (the subject matter of psychology) has been itself an important determiner of the course of human history, and then how psychology as a social institution has been shaped by — and shapes — by the broader processes of social and cultural change.

Welcome to the History of Psychology blog

This blog is primarily for students in my history of psychology classes at Virginia Commonwealth University, but I will comment on related topics, too.  Regular blogging will begin August 20, 2008.

Each class-related blog will contain Afterthoughts about the day’s or week’s classes and Forethoughts about upcoming classes.

Published in: on August 17, 2008 at 7:01 pm  Comments (2)