Why Stanford Didn't Become a Hotbed of American Functionalism

Christopher D. Green
Department of Psychology
York University

Toronto, Canada
christo@yorku.ca

Presented at the June 2006 meeting of
Cheiron: The International Society for the History of Behavioral and Social Sciences
Sarah Lawrence College,
Bronxville, NY.

You could be excused for saying in response to the title, "Lots of schools didn't become functionalist hotbeds -- why should I wonder why Stanford, in particular, didn't, any more than I would wonder why Yale, Nebraska, or Washington didn't. The quick answer, though virtually unknown today, is that Stanford almost did. This paper is the story of how this almost-happening almost happened. I tell the story in an unusual mode: I describe the details in the order I discovered them myself rather than, as is conventional, in the order they happened. I make no apology for this, other than to say that I think the story unfolds more interestingly this way. All of the documentary detail the professional historian requires is included and the relevant background --intellectual, institutional, biographical, and (as it turns out) tectonic -- is brought into play as needed.

While digging through the papers of Edward Bradford Titchener at the Cornell Archives in October of 2004, I came across a letter dated 12 February 1906 from David Starr Jordan, then president of Stanford University (Jordan, 1906b). In essence, it asked Titchener to provide an evaluation of James Rowland Angell's suitability for the position of professor of philosophy at Stanford. This struck me as most curious on a number of counts. First, Titchener and Angell were something of professional rivals, having been on opposite sides of the structuralism-functionalism debate for about a decade at this point in time. Although, as I had learned poring through Titchener's letters that day, relations between them were always cordial, asking for the opinion of a candidate's intellectual rival, so to speak, seemed unusual. Might Jordan, prodded by someone else to hire Angell, have been trying to make a "back door" case against Angell by soliciting information from his antagonists? Second, James Angell's older cousin, Frank Angell, had held the psychology position at Stanford since 1892, just one year after the school had opened its doors. Might Frank have been pushing Jordan to appoint his cousin to the philosophy position? What is more, Frank Angell's original position had been at Cornell, where he founded, in 1891, the laboratory that Titchener now oversaw. Might Frank, who had, back in 1892, recommended Titchener for the post he now held (Schurman, 1892), have suggested that Jordan ask Titchener about his cousin, expecting the return of his long-before professional favor? Third, James Angell's intellectual mentor, John Dewey had left the University of Chicago for Columbia just over a year before, following several disputes with the school's president, William Rainy Harper. This left Angell  -- along with George Herbert Mead and James Hayden Tufts -- more or less in charge of the "Chicago School" that Dewey had first assembled about ten years earlier. Perhaps Angell did not want to be left behind "unprotected" in the remains of a department already regarded as troublesome by the school's administrative powers and was looking to "jump ship" as well. If cousin Frank could arrange for a philosophy position at Stanford, so much the better.

As it turned out, none of my initial speculations about what was going on turned out to be correct. In some ways, it turned out to be much more interesting and, if Jordan had been successful, Stanford might well have become one of the functionalist centers of country. As it turned out…. Well, you'll see.

Upon my return home from Cornell, I wrote to the Stanford Archives to find out if they had any record of Titchener having written a letter of reference for James Angell to Jordan. They did, and soon sent me a photocopy. Its contents were quite astonishing:

Dear Dr. Jordan:--

I am sorry to say that I cannot write the kind of letter you ask for. For one thing, I am not an expert in philosophy: my philosophical reading, though wide, has been for psychological ends; I stand altogether outside the current streams and schools of philosophical thought. For another thing, Angell has written, so far as I know, very little upon philosophical topics; so that I can give at best only a very general impression of his abilities in this direction.

If my opinion under these circumstances is worth having, I should say that Angell must be regarded at present as an amateur in philosophy. He has apparently been influenced by Dewey and his pragmatism, to some extent. He had tended away from experimental detail towards psychological generalization. His psychological training might lead him to take a more impartial view of philosophical systems than is usual with the professed philosophers. On the other hand, I imagine that he would have all his technical work to do, if he took charge of a philosophical department. And I have no knowledge of his possession of that tact and temperament which seem to be as essential to successful work in philosophy as they are in natural science. I know him to be able, industrious, and sane and moderate in his opinions; and I am much attached to him personally. I should be glad to seem him in a good position, doing congenial work. But the question is whether he would be able to influence your undergraduate students, and to make a mark in philosophy on behalf of the university. I think you would be running a real risk, on both these issues, if you took him.

I have written this with perfect openness, and with a good deal of hesitation. Please remember that my opinion is limited both by my own temperament, which is not philosophical, and by my scanty knowledge of Angell's philosophical work. --

What I have myself always wished for in America is a philosophy which should knit on to science, and should satisfy the scientific mind. So far, the philosophies of this kind which are offered us seem to be weak, especially on the epistemological side. The one man who has seemed to me competent to help us here is Dr. E. A. Singer, jr., of the Univ. of Pennsylvania. He has the equipment and the good-will; but I am afraid he is too academic to come down to the level of the laboratory man. It might, however, be worth your while to make enquiries about him.

Yours sincerely,

E. B. Titchener (Titchener, 1906)

So, if Frank Angell were looking for a favor from Titchener, he certainly didn't get one. If, on the other hand, Jordan were looking for someone to torpedo Angell, he'd clearly found his man.

There was nothing left to do but visit the Stanford Archives themselves to find out (1) who had suggested Angell to Jordan in the first place, (2) whether Angell had ultimately been offered the job, (3) if so why he had turned it down (since I already knew that he stayed in Chicago until 1921 ultimately serving as acting president of the university), and (4) who was finally hired into Stanford's philosophical chair. And there was one more matter to consider: had the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 18 April 1906 -- just two months after Titchener's letter -- played any role in these event? Last year's Cheiron meeting at Berkeley gave me the opening I needed.

First, I looked for letters from Frank Angell to Jordan suggesting that James Angell be considered for the philosophical chair. I found none. Not that Angell didn't write to Jordan. He did. But virtually all the letters were about sport. Frank Angell, in addition to being the psychology professor, was also Stanford's Faculty Director of Athletics, for which he has a field named after him to this day. Should we play baseball against teams as "ill-mannered" as that fielded by the University of Washington?, he asked President Jordan. No, the events of the other night were most unseemly (Jordan, 1906d). Should we play varsity rugby next year?, he asked President Jordan. Yes, because the eastern schools have not yet developed a "thoroughly satisfactory" version of American football (Jordan, 1906h). And so forth.

Next, I looked for letters from William James, having learned that he spent the winter semester of 1906 as a visiting professor at Stanford. There were many. Although, I did not find a letter specifically suggesting Angell, I did find one, apparently solicited by Jordan, in which James detailed the good and bad points of both Angell and James' own former student Ralph Barton Perry, considered as candidates for the philosophy chair (James, 1906a).  James' letter was considerably more complimentary, describing Angell, contrary to Titchener, as having "an eminently philosophic mind" and complimenting him on his natural "charm" and "humor." "Of Angell's [contemporaries]," James wrote, "no one occurs to me… as distinctly better" (James, 1906a, pp. 2, 3). Interestingly, it was dated four days prior to the letter Jordan had sent to Titchener asking for his evaluation of Angell. In the end, James recommended hiring two philosophers to cover the broad range of the discipline, and suggested that Angell and Perry might complement each other well. He went on to list a number of other senior people who might be able to anchor the new department: George S. Fullerton, F. J. E. Woodbridge, or John Dewey, all then of Columbia, or even his own Harvard colleague and friend, Josiah Royce.

I wondered if Jordan had solicited other recommendations for Angell as well, but was unable to find relevant letters from the likes of John Dewey, Josiah Royce, Hugo Münsterberg, George Herbert Mead, George Herbert Palmer, James Hayden Tufts, Jacob Gould Schurman, William Rainey Harper, G. Stanley Hall, George Trumbull Ladd, James Mark Baldwin, James McKeen Cattell, F. J. E. Woodbridge, George Howison or other "likely suspects."

Stanford had not had a professor of philosophy since the school's opening in 1891. (Although Frank Angell's position was intermittently titled "psychology and philosophy," few philosophical courses outside of psychology were offered.) In the early 1890s, the position had been offered to Josiah Royce, who was originally from California, but Royce decided to stay at Harvard, where he had already been for a decade at that point. With the death of Leland Stanford Sr. in 1893, the school's purse strings fell to Mrs. Stanford who, for over a decade, pursued a steady course of building up the university's physical, rather than its intellectual, infrastructure.  No philosophical position was tendered. With Jane Stanford's death in 1904, Jordan sought to redress the imbalance, and so was keen to open and then fill a philosophical position (Jordan, 1906j). 

How, exactly, his attention came to be focused on Angell is not made clear from the existing documentary record. As early as November 4, 1905, however, Jordan had written Angell saying that he would like to, as he put it, "have a little talk" with him in Chicago the following week.  On January 30, 1906 -- more than a week before he had James' letter of recommendation in hand -- Jordan wrote to Angell that he had formally nominated him for the position and that the Board of Trustees would meet in about three weeks' time to consider the matter, and outlining possible salary arrangements (Jordan, 1906a). On February 19, he wrote Angell again, saying that the Trustees would meet the following week to consider the philosophical chair and telling him openly that if they were unwilling to meet Angell's demand of $5,000 per year, he would be likely to recommend Perry instead. Titchener's letter was written the following day, February 20. It is not clear whether it made it into Jordan's hand before the Trustees meeting of February 23. It seems unlikely but, in any case, the Trustees unanimously confirmed Perry for the chair in philosophy at the much lower salary of $3,500. He asked Perry to consult with James on his impressions of Stanford, a request, which as we shall see, may have served to undermine his own aims.

Although it took more than two weeks, Perry finally declined the offer, saying that his "prospects" were better at Harvard (Jordan, 1906f). Jordan immediately declared that he would "now move on to Dewey" (Jordan, 1906e), but told James that $5,000 was the "most that we could offer to Dr. Dewey, or even to the Angel Gabriel" (Jordan, 1906i). James (see Jordan, 1906k), perhaps foreseeing the likely outcome of this course of action more clearly than Jordan, suggested that he might consider less senior individuals such as Addison W. Moore of Chicago, the man who co-authored with Angell the study that, ten years earlier, had resolved the nasty reaction time dispute between Titchener and Baldwin and, simultaneously, helped to launch the functionalist movement in psychology (Angell & Moore, 1896), or possibly Walter Marvin of Princeton who, along with Perry, would later become a member of E. B. Holt's group of James-inspired New Realists (Holt, Marvin, Montague, Perry, Pitkin, & Spaulding, 1912) .

Jordan was determined to have a "first rate" man, however, and virtually offered the chair to Dewey outright in a letter of March 23, pre-empting a dinner engagement with Dewey in New York that they had already arranged for April 8 to discuss the matter (Jordan, 1906g; Dewey, 1906). The dinner went ahead as planned. It is not known what, exactly was said, but in a letter of April 16, Dewey formally declined the offer (see Jordan, 1906l).

It is probably just as well that he did, for just two days later, on April 18, the San Francisco bay area was hit with one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history, severely damaging parts of the Stanford campus. In a hand-written post-script to his letter acknowledging Dewey's refusal, just 5 days after the Great Quake, Jordan confessed, in light of the new challenge of rebuilding the university, "I may let the chair of philosophy rest for the present."

The day immediately after the quake, William James, still at Stanford, wrote Jordan a most extraordinary letter. Having spent the past semester teaching at Stanford, he told Jordan, apparently for the first time, of a broad "demoralization" among his faculty about "rebuilding" because for the previous decade, under Mrs. Stanford's direction, building, rather than education, had been the primary commitment. Now, rather than being able to shift focus, the building project looked as though it were going to be started all over again. James recommended that Jordan announce a "new departure" for the university -- a plan to rebuild only what was absolutely necessary, which, he believed, would lead to an instant recovery of the faculty's morale and that their loyalty to Jordan himself would, as he put it, "blaze up vehemently" (James, 1906b).

The following year, Jordan gave up his determination to hire a "first rate" philosopher. He also seems to have ignored James's secondary recommendations of Addison Moore and Walter Marvin. Instead, he hired Henry Waldgrave Stuart, the philosophy professor at Lake Forest College near Chicago. Stuart had earned his BA at the University of California and his PhD at Chicago, where he had contributed a chapter to Dewey's Studies in Logical Theory (1903). He remained at Stanford until the late-1930s but never rose in stature to the levels of Dewey, Angell, or even Perry.

Had Jordan "landed" Angell, Stanford would have become, along with Chicago and Columbia, one of the primary centers of psychological functionalism in America. Had he managed to attract Dewey, it would have become one of the country's main centers of pragmatic philosophy. Jordan, however, was unable to convince his Trustees to deliver up the money required to induce such individuals to give up their careers in already-established institutions for the relative wilds of the west coast. It would not be until the 1950s that Stanford began to acquire a first rate philosophy department.


References

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Dewey, J. (Ed.) (1903). Studies in logical theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dewey, J. (1906, April 7). [Letter to D. S. Jordan]. D. S. Jordan Papers. (SC 058) Series I-A, box 49, file 488. Special Collections and University Archives. Stanford University, Stanford CA.

Holt, E. B., Marvin, W. T., Montague, W. P., Perry, R. B., Pitkin, W. B., Spaulding, E. G. (1912). The new realism: Coöperative studies in philosophy. New York: Macmillan.

James, W. (1906a, February 8). [Letter to D. S. Jordan.] D. S. Jordan Papers. (SC 058) Series I-A, box 48, file 480. Special Collections and University Archives. Stanford University, Stanford CA.

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Jordan, D. S. (1906b, February 12). [Letter to E. B. Titchener]. E. B. Titchener Papers (#14/23/545), Box 1, 1905-1906 folder. Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, Cornell University Libraries, Ithaca, NY.

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Jordan, D. S. (1906k, March 23). [Letter to W. James]. D. S. Jordan Papers. (SC 058), Series I-AA, box 17, vol. 34, p. 370. Special Collections and University Archives. Stanford University, Stanford CA.

Jordan, D. S. (1906l, April 23). [Letter to J. Dewey]. D. S. Jordan Papers. (SC 058), Series I-AA, box 17, vol. 35, p. 113. Special Collections and University Archives. Stanford University, Stanford CA.

Schurman, J. G. (1892, June 20). [Letter to E. B. Titchener]. E. B. Titchener Papers (#14/23/545), Biography File. Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, Cornell University Libraries, Ithaca, NY. (Original in Jacob Gould Schurman Letterbooks, Vol. 1, pp. 302-303, #3/4/6).

Titchener, E. B. (1906, February 20). Letter to D. S. Jordan. D. S. Jordan papers (SC 058). Special Collections and University Archives. Stanford University, Stanford CA.