What Difference Would It Have Made to the History of Psychology if the Johns Hopkins Philosophy Department had not Imploded in the Mid-1880s?

Christopher D. Green
Department of Psychology
York University

Toronto, Canada

Presented at the May 2006 meeting of the
Canadian Society for the History & Philosophy of
York University
, Toronto, Canada

©2006 Christopher D. Green

This paper is the odd one out in this session in a number of ways. My fellow panelist are speaking on the history of biology, on intellectual counterfactuals, and attempt to draw philosophical lessons from the case they describe. By contrast I am speaking on the history of psychology, on an institutional counterfactual, and only attempt to discern the implications of the change I entertain for the future of psychology alone. As such, it eludes Greg Raddick’s 2x2 table of realism, anti-realism, inevitabilism and contingentism. There is no specific “discovery” at issue here. Instead, the focus is on the early developments and character of the discipline of psychology itself – when and where its major institutions were formed, the kinds of methods and approaches it favored.  Still, I hope it remains interesting to you.

In 1878, William James, then a young assistant professor of physiology at Harvard, was invited to give a series of lectures at Johns Hopkins University. The motives that lay behind this invitation were not entirely honorable. JHU president Daniel Coit Gilman was on the lookout for potential professors of philosophy who could satisfy two competing imperatives:  being able to contribute to the scientific, research-oriented, and largely secular ethos being established at the new university while not inflaming the surrounding Baltimore religious community with public declarations (or even intimations) of radical positions such as materialism or atheism.

James' lectures were a landmark in American philosophy, arguing that consciousness would not have come into being if it did not serve an evolutionary function, one which rendered the organism better able to survive and reproduce than its non-conscious competitors. In effect, this enabled one to endorse both man's "higher nature" and man's "natural evolution" without conflict and, in the process, made James a very popular public figure. Despite the success of his lectures, James did not want to leave the comfortable confines of Cambridge for the uncertainties of Maryland's upstart school. Instead, he recommended that Gilman hire James' longtime friend, Charles Sanders Peirce. Gilman agreed and, in 1879, appointed Peirce to a lectureship in philosophy.

By almost any standards one cares to name, Peirce was a genius. The son of the Harvard professor of mathematics, Peirce joined the US Coast Survey at the age of 20 to work in the areas of geodesy and gravimetry and over the next 30 years achieved international fame in those fields.  Peirce's Coast Survey position took him to Europe several times, where he made the acquaintance of luminaries such as Augustus DeMorgan, William Stanley Jevons, and W. K. Clifford. He also worked on star magnitudes in the Harvard observatory, publishing the only monograph of his career on the topic in 1878. In the early 1870s he co-founded the Cambridge Metaphysical Club, led by Chauncey Wright, probably America's most ardent devotee of Darwin's theory of natural selection. Other members of the club included the very young William James and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. It was in the Metaphysical Club's discussions that Peirce developed pragmatism, the philosophy for which he is now best known.

Just as certainly as Peirce was a genius, however, he was also an extremely difficult individual. Erratic, impatient, prone to outbursts of verbal abuse, he offended many who crossed his path. He once even described himself as being “vain, snobbish, incivil, reckless, lazy, and ill-tempered” (cited in Menand, 2001, p. 159). Among those most incensed by his behavior were Harvard president Charles William Eliot (who effectively banished him from the Crimson campus), and the noted mathematician Simon Newcomb, Director of the US Naval Observatory’s Nautical Almanac Office in Cambridge. A former student of Peirce's father, Newcomb viewed the son as a spoiled brat and repeatedly blocked Peirce's attempts at academic advancement. Newbcomb played a crucial role in the Peirce's Johns Hopkins saga, as we shall see.

Although Gilman ultimately accepted James' recommendation to hire Peirce, he was not one to put all his eggs in one basket. He also gave an instructorship to one George Sylvester Morris, a Hegelian philosopher from the University of Michigan who was blocked from the professorship in philosophy there. Instead, he was stuck in a languages position. Morris' hope, like Peirce's, was to eventually obtain the as-yet-unfilled Johns Hopkins professorship in philosophy. Morris, however, did not fit well with the JHU emphasis on science. Morris' main interest in science was to recast it in a Hegelian mold, rather than to recast philosophy in a scientific one.

Peirce and Morris, though different in character and interests, got along well. Each gathered a group of like-minded students to himself. Peirce's most notable was probably Joseph Jastrow, future Wisconsin psychology professor and future president of the then-not-yet-formed American Psychological Association. In 1884, Jastrow and Peirce co-authored one of the first American-published works of experimental psychology, a work that drew on Peirce's superior knowledge of probability to attack Gustav Fechner's dominant approach to the topic of psychophysics. Morris' most important student was John Dewey, who hardly needs any introduction here. Peirce set up a new Metaphysical Club at Johns Hopkins, at which students and faculty delivered papers, many of which went on to become publications in their own right. Everyone seemed to agree that Peirce's work at JHU was exceptional. President Gilman assured him in 1883 that he could commit to a two-year lease on a Baltimore house (Behrens, 2005). He was fully expecting a permanent appointment. As a result, he married his second wife in April of that year, just two days after the divorce papers came through from his first wife, from whom he had been separated for several years.

Apparently, however, neither of these men -- Peirce or Morris -- was entirely to Gilman's liking for early in 1883, he hired a third philosophy instructor, Granville Stanley Hall. Hall had started out as a theology student at Union Seminary in NY, where he had first met the slightly older Morris. After graduating, Hall took a short philosophical study tour of Germany. Upon his return to the US, though, Hall was only able to secure a literature position at a small Ohio college. He soon quit this job and took a PhD at Harvard under the supervision of William James, and then returned to Germany for advanced study in physiology, experimental psychology in Wilhelm Wundt’s seminal Leipzig laboratory, and the new discipline of pedagogy. Monetary issues forced him home again, but this time a series of lectures that he gave in Boston on pedagogy drew Gilman’s attention, who offered him a lectureship at Johns Hopkins.  Like Perice and Morris, Hall soon drew promising students as well. James McKeen Cattell, later longtime president of the AAAS and owner of the journal Science (among many others), came to study with Hall (though Hall’s duplicitous dealings with him led him to soon quit JHU for Wundt’s Leipzig lab).

Although in the fall of 1883, Peirce appeared to have the inside track for the sole philosophy professorship, things rapidly went downhill. In December 1883, Peirce's old nemesis, Simon Newcomb let slip (or so he said) to a powerful and devoutly religious JHU Trustee, that he had heard that Peirce had been living with his new wife in New York prior to their having formally married. The Trustee demanded that Gilman dismiss Peirce and, over the next few months, Gilman and the Board proceeded to do exactly that, though not in quite so many words, and Peirce was out. He would never again hold an academic appointment. Morris, meanwhile, finally won the Michigan philosophy professorship that had long been his first choice, and headed west again, with his protégé, John Dewey, in tow. To everyone’s surprise, the newcomer Hall was given the professorship for which Perice and Morris had labored for the previous several years.

With Peirce and Morris out of the way, Hall's career blossomed. First, he founded the first experimental psychology research laboratory in the US. In 1885 he was invited to become a founding Vice President of the American Society for Psychical Research and then, in 1887, using a large donation from an acquaintance he had made on the ASPR’s Board, he founded the American Journal of Psychology (which, interestingly, never published any psychical research). The following year he abandoned Johns Hopkins -- leaving its philosophy department in disarray and its psychology laboratory closed – to take up the presidency of the newly-founded Clark University in Worcester, MA. In 1892 Hall founded the American Psychological Association and became its first president.

It was not all onward and upward for Hall, however. He treated his Clark faculty so poorly, that they were "easy pickins" when William Rainey Harper, president of the newly-founded University of Chicago, went on his infamous "raiding" tour of American universities in 1892. Two-thirds of Clark's faculty quit, half of those going to Chicago (Ross, 1972, p. 227). Hall’s exclusionary editorial policies at the American Journal so irritated his psychological colleagues that they founded a competing journal, Psychological Review, in 1894. Still, Hall managed to maintain his self-proclaimed leadership of American psychology. He launched three other journals, published major works on adolescence and senescence (terms he was responsible for bringing into the popular vocabulary), engineered the 1909 Clark conference at which Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were first introduced to America, and, in 1924, was elected to a second term as president of the American Psychological Association, a feat only accomplished to that point by William James.


Now I turn to the counterfactual part of this paper. What if Hall had not won the Johns Hopkins professorship? Then it seems unlikely that he would have been in a position to found the lab, found the American Journal, be selected for the Clark presidency, found and preside over the Association, etc. But if Hall hadn't founded the lab, then who would have founded the first American experimental psychology research lab? And who would have founded the first journal and national Association for experimental psychology?  And if, as the president of Clark university, he hadn't been treating his faculty so badly, what impact would that have had both on Clark, and on the early University of Chicago (from which Harper drew many of his faculty members)?

Looking at the question from the "other end," so to speak, what would have happened at Johns Hopkins if one of the other instructors -- Peirce or Morris -- had won the professorship? And what would have happened if the Johns Hopkins philosophy professor, whoever it was, had stayed over the long term, building a program, rather than leaving for greener administrative pastures elsewhere within a few short years? How would Johns Hopkins psychology have rated in terms of prominence and influence among the various other psychology programs in the US that were just forming at the time?

Let us begin with Hall. With a Harvard PhD under James' supervision and a short stint in Wundt's laboratory, it seems likely that Hall would have ultimately landed a position somewhere else. This was a time of enormous growth in experimental psychology and an ambitious man with good training was bound to find a job. Looking at a chronological list of the earliest American psychology laboratories (Garvey, 1929), after Hall's John Hopkins lab came the University of Pennsylvania lab, founded by Hall's estranged student, James McKeen Cattell. Cattell was the son of a Pennsylvania college president, and there is little doubt that his position at Penn came of connections in "high places."  This would have made it difficult for Hall to win the Pennsylvania chair. 

Next comes the Indiana laboratory (founded by William L. Bryan) and the Wisconsin laboratory (founded by Joseph Jastrow). Bryan was already a professor at Indiana when he founded the laboratory, eventually becoming the university's president, so there was no position there for Hall to win.  The Wisconsin position is more interesting because Jastrow, in actuality, concluded his PhD under Hall's supervision. However, he had been working very successfully with Peirce before Hall's arrival, and presumably would have stayed with Peirce if Peirce had stayed at Johns Hopkins.  If Hall and Peirce were competing for the same position at Wisconsin, it seems likely that Hall would have won, being nearly 20 years Jastrow's senior. Would Hall have taken a position at Wisconsin in 1888? At age 44, he would surely have felt his chances at a good career slipping away, and almost certainly would have, even though it was much more remote than even his earlier unhappy stint in Ohio. If he had ended up at Wisconsin, would Hall have been able to have approximately the same influence on the field? Madison would have been a difficult place for Hall to launch the various institutional coups that marked his actual career. Without ready access to the eastern establishment, he would not have had, for instance, the donation that allowed him to start the American Journal, and he would not have been close enough to the action to successfully launch the Association. Jastrow was, however, able to coordinate psychology's efforts at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Might the ambitious Hall have asserted himself and taken over those duties? At 150 miles distant, Madison is not an obvious place from which to manage events in Chicago. The public psychology lab at the Fair was Jastrow's brainchild from the start, and he may well have volunteered to do it from wherever he ultimately "landed."

The next laboratory on the list, ironically, is that of Clark University, where Hall actually did become president and his former student, E. C. Sanford, founded the psychology laboratory. Although it is tempting to speculate that Hall would have been keen to win the psychology professorship at Clark, in his home state, if he had not been president, it is not clear such a position would have existed had Hall not been there as president to push the question. Psychology was a very new discipline in 1888 and not first on the list of needs of new universities. Still, a philosophy professorship would have existed. Whether Hall would have won that would have been entirely dependent on the Clark president’s philosophical priorities. If he had, he might have been in a good position, both socially and geographically, to begin founding the various institutions that marked his actual career. If so, would his career have unfolded similarly?

We are now two years past the time at which Hall actually founded the American Journal. He would have needed a few years (as he actually did at John Hopkins) to set up a working lab that was generating sufficient material to fill a journal (he ran the American Journal almost like an in-house organ). By that time he might well have been "scooped" by another American. Who? James McKeen Cattell and James Mark Baldwin founded the Psychological Review in 1894. Without another journal in existence, one or both might well have done so a year or two earlier, making it difficult for Hall to beat them to the punch. As for the founding of the American Psychological Association, much of this was made possible by the status afforded Hall by his presidency of Clark University. It is questionable whether he would have had the clout to successfully launch such a venture without that elevated position. A national association would likely have formed at some point in the mid-1890s, but many of the others who ultimately populated the founding APA Council would seem to be as likely candidates as the somewhat denuded Hall I've sketched here -- the elder statesmen: James at Harvard and George Trumbull Ladd at Yale; the young bucks: James McKeen Cattell (who had moved Columbia in 1890), or James Mark Baldwin (who moved from Toronto to Princeton in 1893); even George S. Fullerton of Pennsylvania who actually presided over the preliminary meeting of the APA and hosted the first annual meeting in 1892.

Now, finally, what about the other side of the coin? How would Johns Hopkins have fared had the professorship not gone to Hall? It seems clear that Peirce would have probably prevailed over Morris. If not, we have the interesting scenario of Dewey staying in Baltimore as Morris' instructor, but Morris probably not dying in 1889 at age 48 and, in the process, handing Dewey a major professorship. Dewey would probably have traveled elsewhere when a major position opened, but it is impossible to say where. In reality, Dewey took over Morris’ professorship at Michigan, and began to assemble there the members of what would become, in the mid-1890s, the famed “Chicago School.” Without the Michigan professorship, that would likely have been impossible. Moreover, it seems that there can be little doubt that the social, economic, and political situation specific to Chicago in the mid-1890s had a tremendous impact on Dewey's philosophical development. Even if he had gathered the same individuals together elsewhere, it seems unlikely that the "Chicago School" would have been what it was, without Chicago itself.

In any case, let us assume that Peirce won the Johns Hopkins professorship. Let us further assume that he didn't destroy himself in some other way through his own bad behavior. Indeed, his actual performance at Hopkins in the early 1880s indicates that he had finally matured a bit and was able to get along somewhat better with both colleagues and students -- perhaps now that he no longer had his father's protection, he could see better by just how thin a thread his privileged life hung. Peirce's Metaphysical Club seemed to be working brilliantly. Indeed, 1883 saw the publication of his Studies in Logic by Members of the Johns Hopkins University which was favorably reviewed by no less a logical luminary than John Venn in the journal Mind. The following year saw his seminal article with Jastrow on psychophysics in Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences.

With students around him as promising as Jastrow, not to mention the logician and psychologist Christine Ladd Franklin and the physiological psychologist Henry Herbert Donaldson (who I have not yet had the opportunity to mention), Johns Hopkins was on the verge of being the dominant school in which to study psychology in the entire United States. Indeed, in the mid-1880s, the only real competition was William James at Harvard, and James' distaste for experimental work was rapidly leaving Harvard's program lagging behind. Hugo Münsterberg would be hired in 1892 to salvage Harvard's laboratory, and its psychological reputation. The boom years for psychology laboratories in the US were the early 1890s, no fewer than 16 being established between 1890 and 1893. But Peirce at Johns Hopkins was nearly a decade ahead of the game. (Of course, JHU did not have an official laboratory until Hall's arrival, but Peirce was already publishing experimental research conducted there. Indeed, even after leaving JHU, he continued to publish occasionally on the topic of color vision.)

What is more, with Peirce's superior mathematical and logical skills (possibly the best in the US at the time) and with his strong connections with other areas of natural science, American experimental psychology may have developed rather differently from the way it did. Virtually no major figure in American psychology had as extensive training in natural science. Again and again psychologists’ scientific credentials came under fire. By contrast, whatever else one might think of Peirce, his credentials as a scientist were never in question. What is more, his pragmatic philosophy would not have had to wait until being revived by William James in the early 20th century to become well-known. It would have been publicized in its own right from Peirce himself, rather than indirectly through James' more "tender-minded" interpretation. Indeed, Peirce's stricter pragmatism might well have become the dominant philosophical position of psychology itself had Peirce gained and held a position of pre-eminence in the field.

Finally, there is the question of the way in which American psychology, in fact, unfolded. As it was, a particular interpretation of reaction time data from Wundt's Leipzig laboratory became the source of a major conflict between Cornell's E. B. Titchener (who fancied himself the defender of the true Wundtian faith) and the evolutionist and developmentalist James Mark Baldwin (who urged that psychology cast its net more broadly, studying such non-canonical groups such as animals, children, and the insane). The split came to be entrenched when Dewey and his protégé, James Rowland Angell, by then at Chicago, intervened in the dispute, and Titchener dismissed their position as being a premature "functionalism," while his own position sought to understand mental "structures," such as sensations, images, and feelings. Thus were born the first two major schools of American psychology. It would have been interesting have heard Peirce's contribution to this debate, especially since functionalism and (Dewey's version of) pragmatism are often thought to walk hand in hand.

Now, of course, these historical "what if" games are full of traps. One can continue to say "let us suppose…" until one gets whatever result one happens to fancy. In this particular case, however, I would argue that the future of American experimental psychology really was on a knife-edge in 1883. This is due to the number of significant disciplinary institutions that came into being at the hands of G. Stanley Hall in the decade immediately following his appointment to the Johns Hopkins chair. This is balanced against the truly astonishing (but mostly squandered) potential that seems to have been represented by Charles Sanders Peirce. One can, I think, reasonably speculate that if things had turned out a differently for this one professorship at this one school, the future of the entire discipline would have turned out, in some ways, remarkably differently.