A History of Modern Experimental Psychology: From James and Wundt to Cognitive Science

By Stout, Dale | Canadian Psychology, May 2008 | Go to article overview

A History of Modern Experimental Psychology: From James and Wundt to Cognitive Science


Stout, Dale, Canadian Psychology


A History of Modern Experimental Psychology: From James and Wundt to Cognitive Science, by George Mandler. The MIT Press, 2007, 287 pages. (ISBN: 978-0-262-13475-0, US $34.00 Hardcover)

Reviewed by DALE STOUT

DOI : 10.1037/0708-5591.49.2.179

George Mandler, a longtime researcher in the area of memory and cognition, has gathered together his notes and selected bits from previous publications to assemble a new book cast as a brief history of the emergence of cognitive psychology. The book is more an outline of a history than a textured account of cognitive research in historical context. His approach produces a double effect. For most historians of psychology the book will be disappointing because much of what is addressed by Mandler has been more extensively dealt with by a number of historians, the most obvious being Mitchell Ash's (1995) Gesfalt Psychology in German Culture, 1890-1967. For those cognitive scientists less attentive to the work of historians, this book draws with a few broad strokes a tradition of objections to associationism in its various manifestations. This is where Mandler is best, arguing that holism was not only well grounded in an experimental tradition, but the form of its challenges to associationism's fixation on elements and connexions keep recurring. In this respect the book serves to deepen curiosity about the issues and, through the use of his reference list, broadens our reading of the subject. It is because Mandler is a seasoned researcher that his sense of direction through a vast literature is welcomed.

Mandler admits to being "whiggish" (presentist) in his historical orientation and he is true to his word. The first four chapters cover old ground in every sense of the word. His treatment is like that of textbook histories and though he claims in his introduction to provide "sketches of the influence of larger social forces on the psychological enterprise", his "whiggish" narrative limits this exploration. Though Mandler inserts commentary on German and American society, he leaves the reader to decide on the nature of social content in the scientific productions of Wundt, James and the assembly of Gestalt Psychologists portrayed in his book. Mandler's choice to list and set forth brief descriptions (like those of the "Congress of the German Society for Psychology" from 19341938) provides direction but leaves little content for a sustained and developed reflection. A book like David Lindley's (2007) Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science proves to be a more satisfying approach. He too emphasises German science in the first half of the 20th century but because he blends narratives of cultural uncertainty with the experiments and the mathematics of uncertainty in physics, his text leaves a more lasting impression.

Mandler's book is best in the middle chapters. Here he works his suggestion that it is the shift away from the centrality of consciousness that provides the ground for cognitive science. Mandler argues that it was 'imageless thought,' those states of "consciousness inaccessible to further analysis," that proved to be the wedge that split associationist theory. Since these states of imageless thought could not be reduced to elements, any kind of analysis of the connectivity of elements was scientifically misplaced. The imageless thought project therefore initiated the removal of consciousness because it challenged the reliance of associationism on introspection to determine conscious elements.

Mandler draws attention to the unconsciousness nature of thinking as it was developed out of the Wurtzburg labouratories. As mentioned above, much of this history has been set out in richer detail. What recommends Mandler's treatment is its brevity and his ability to keep the reader focussed on the "unanalyzable" in the thinking process. So we have "consciousness of a rule" without having the "steps in mind", or the consciousness of "intention" without having the "meaning content in mind".

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