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President’s reflections on the Austin mid-winter meeting

It is now just over one month since, on March 1-3, our Society’s Third Biennial Mid-Winter conference took place in Austin, TX. As sitting President of the Society, I had the privilege of welcoming attendees to that conference, and I used the opportunity to offer a bit of historical perspective on our collective interest in that territory of our field that lies at its interface with philosophy. In what follows here, I revisit the comments I made in Austin for those members who were unable to attend the conference.

For historical reasons, the territory just mentioned has offered quite a bit of intellectual elbow room over the past century to those willing to venture out into the vast open spaces left behind by the positivistic-empiricistic dust storms that, to most psychologists, seemed to leave nothing in their wake worth salvaging. As John Watson proclaimed in 1928, the world had, by then, seen its last great philosopher. Working our territory has brought its rewards, to be sure, but it can be lonely toil, and the company of others with an appreciation for all of this can be very important, hence the formation of the Society as the 24th division of the American Psychological Association nearly 50 years ago, in 1963. The fact that today, in the year 2012, our society remains one of the very smallest of the nearly 60 APA divisions speaks volumes about the size of the gap that is still seen to exist between the proper concerns of psychology and those of philosophy.

It is now nearly a full century since, in 1913, the mythical founder of experimental psychology, Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), published his little monograph titled Psychology’s Struggle for Existence (Die Psychologie im Kampf ums Dasein), in which he prophesied that were philosophy and psychology to complete the divorce toward which they then seemed inexorably headed, philosophy would lose more than it would gain, but psychology would be damaged the most. Speaking as a 21st century psychologist, I am fully convinced that psychology has, indeed, suffered greatly for having taken such distance from philosophy, and it is for just this reason that I have suggested a theme of ‘renewing the relationship’ between psychology and philosophy for the program of our annual meeting coordinate with the larger APA convention, which will be held next August in Orlando.

Partly because I cited the aforementioned publication by Wundt in my formal statement of our Society’s program theme for the Orlando convention, I’ve been re-reading the work recently, and have been struck once again by its contemporary relevance. Allow me to cite here just one example of this. In the passage under consideration, Wundt is discussing what the implications of a divorce of psychology from philosophy would be for the conduct of doctoral examinations in psychology, and is pointing out the difficulties that would result from the existence of widely disparate schools of thought within the field. How, he asks, could a student coming from doctoral training at a university dominated by one school of thought, e.g., associationism, fairly be examined by a professor at a university dominated by another school of thought, such as the ‘apperception’ school or the psychology of thought processes (i.e., the Denkpsychologie)? He saw no imminent prospects for the emergence of even half of the consensus that would be needed in order to provide a common basis for such an examination, and he then continued as follows:

“What would be left over [for the examination] after one has left out just that material that for the doctoral candidates is the most interesting and the most important for a general education in psychology? Should one be content with learning by heart a few numbers and some more or less ambiguous, if not openly contested, empirical laws? The more general questions, and hence the ones that for an education in psychology are the most important, are so closely connected with epistemological and metaphysical positions that it is inconceivable that they will at some point disappear from psychology. It is precisely this that shows clearly that psychology belongs to the philosophical disciplines, and this will remain so even after the transformation of psychology into an independent discipline. In a psychology divorced from philosophy, philosophical considerations will be latent, and so it is possible that psychologists who will have abandoned philosophy, and whose education in philosophy is therefore deficient, will be projecting those considerations, but only through an immature metaphysical perspective. As a result of such a separation, therefore, no one will suffer more than psychologists – and, through them, psychology. If philosophers now complain, incorrectly, that psychology has become merely a technical rather than a purely scientific discipline, that could become even more — and more disturbingly – the case, . . . and the time will truly have been reached when psychologists will have made themselves into skilled workers, and, at that, of a kind not the most useful.” (Wundt, 1913, pp. 23-24)

With Wundt’s observations fresh in my mind as I was reading through the abstracts of the papers and symposia that made up the program in Austin, I found yet further confirmation for our collective realization of the need for and value of philosophical considerations within psychology. That is what our Society has always been about, and it is that agenda that we went to Austin to pursue further. I judge the meetings to have been a rousing success.

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