The Missing Theory II: Further Musings on the Development of a New Zeitgeist for Clinical Psychology

By Wynne, Louis | Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview
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The Missing Theory II: Further Musings on the Development of a New Zeitgeist for Clinical Psychology


Wynne, Louis, Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry


Clinical adult psychology can be rejuvenated and liberated from its dependence on psychiatry by pursuing a new zeitgeist free of operationist thinking and the hypothetico-deductive analysis of its data. Such a new zeitgeist would emphasize the paramount importance of language in human behavior, as well as the cogency of an existential-theatrical approach that has its roots in the works of the 16th-century humanists rather than, as now, in the works of Newton and Descartes 100 years later.

Keywords: hypothetico-deductive research; zeitgeist; theater; existentialism; operationism

Modern psychology is generally thought to have begun in the late 19th century with the essentially simultaneous work of William James in 1875 and Wilhelm Wundt in 1879. Clinical psychology, with which we will be chiefly concerned in this article, did have significant precursors before World War II (Routh, 1996), but it was that calamity that provided the context within which it, for what I will suggest was a mere 30 or 40 years, could thrive.

Psychology wanted more than anything else to be scientific, and it took its direction, as it has in every decade for the last 100 years, from the intellectual fashion current in the exact sciences. Early psychologists actually performed what we now would call single-case experimental designs, but after the publication of Fisher's The Design of Experiments in 1935, it soon became de rigeur for all doctoral dissertations and papers submitted to the preeminent journals, for example, the Journal of Experimental Psychology and the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, to be based on the analysis of variance of groups of subjects. Hence, the prime requirement for the PhD candidate in experimental psychology was mastery of, for example, The Design and Analysis of Experiments in Psychology and Education (Lindquist, 1953).

Clinical psychology imposed similar requirements on its graduate students and those who would submit papers to its journals. Case studies were tolerated in clinical psychology journals, but tolerated was indeed le mot juste for their editors' attitude toward departures from the experimental design norm.

The philosophy of science ascendant in the exact sciences in the 1930s was the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, and it was imported into the United States under the name operationism by P. W. Bridgman. Stanley S. Stevens, author of the widely used Handbook of Experimental Psychology, published in 1956, promoted it actively among his colleagues at Harvard, where he was a professor, and at places more remote such as the University of Iowa.

It was the merging of operationism with the hypothetico-deductive model and the analysis of variance that made and, I argue, doomed modern clinical psychology. Other subspecialties of psychology will have to assess the damage to their own bailiwicks for themselves.

Operationism is the view that scientific reality emerges from sets of specified operations. A favorite example in the 1950s was manifest anxiety, but the concept of intelligence will be more familiar to readers of EHPP. Intelligence is that "thing" that emerges when one submits a subject to a set of operations that include the Digit Span and Vocabulary subtests of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-III.

The hypothetico-deductive model, under which essentially all research in psychology still labors, is the view that knowledge is secured by (a) formulating hypotheses regarding the relationship between empirical variables; (b) designing experiments to test those hypotheses by arranging groups of experimental subjects to be amenable to analysis of variance (or, now that computers have helped us compound the error [no pun intended] of our ways: MANOVA); (c) rejecting the null hypothesis at a given level of confidence (e.g., p < .05); and (d) making the statistical inference that there really is a difference between the experimental groups on the empirical variable(s) measured.

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The Missing Theory II: Further Musings on the Development of a New Zeitgeist for Clinical Psychology
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