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
the May 2006 meeting of the
Canadian Society for the History & Philosophy of
©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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
With Peirce and Morris out of the way, Hall's career blossomed.
First, he founded the first experimental psychology research laboratory in the
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.
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
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
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
Next comes the
laboratory on the list, ironically, is that of
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
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.