Great Psychologists and Their Times: Scientific Insights into Psychology's History

By Stam, Henderikus J. | Canadian Psychology, August 2003 | Go to article overview

Great Psychologists and Their Times: Scientific Insights into Psychology's History


Stam, Henderikus J., Canadian Psychology


DKAN KEITH SIMONTON. Great Psychologists and Their Times: Scientific Insights into Psychology's History. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2002, 335 pages. (ISBN 1-55798-896-X, US$49.95 Hardcover).

James McKeen Cattell was an inveterate, obsessive tabulator. He studied physical and mental measurements by counting everything from height, weight, lung capacity, "keenness" of sight, discrimination of pitch and reaction time, memory, imagery, and the association of ideas. For him, mental tests and measurements would show the "constancy of mental processes, their interdependence, and their variation under different circumstances" (1890/1961, p. 860). All of these exact measurements, he hoped, would allow people to "learn to reduce their judgments, observations and beliefs to exact measurements . . . [and] will bring about an extraordinary change in their attitudes in religion, politics, business and the affairs of life" (1928, p. 351.) In the final years of the 19th century, Cattell, like E. B. Titchener at Cornell and E. W. Scripture at Yale, believed that every psychical element could be reduced to questions of quality, intensity, duration, and sometimes clearness or extent. Most important was the discovery that such tasks reduce the influence of subjectivity, allowing the investigator to map the parameters of the tasks into norms. The timing and force of elementary intellectual operations were all that was required for a science of mental measurements (Stam, 1999).

Historically, however, these are forgotten measurements; vast quantities of numbers with little or no function save arguing for the capacity to measure and the attempt, to construct an early applied psychology devoted to the use of techniques inspired by Galton's laboratory in London (cf. Danziger, 1990). Despite this extensive collection of data, it is Cattell's contemporary, William James, we are more likely to remember today. The breadth and depth of James's writings on psychology and his concerns about the nascent discipline display a much greater understanding of the problems of consciousness (a stream, James wagered), measurement (James was skeptical), and the practicality of this knowledge in a real world. The book under review would have us believe that we do not quite know whether James deserves his eminence since we do not "know how much of the eminence variance remains beyond [our] reflective grasp... William James may really deserve his high status... but we don't know for sure" (p. 63). This one example sums up the pleasures of reading this book as well as its serious limitations. For like Gattell, Simonton is in the business of collecting a great deal of data that, again like Cattell, sometimes appears to come to naught. I shall return to James below.

To make the case more clearly, Cattell too endeavoured to understand "eminence," a problem he seemed to have come to appreciate while under Galton's tutelage. The latter had published a book entitled Hereditary Genius in 1869 in which he had attempted to demonstrate the importance of inheritance to the development of physical or mental abilities. Cattell, wanting to expand and improve upon Galton, saw this as a natural extension of his applied techniques, for "it would be eminently serviceable if we should seek, not only to measure the individuals about us, but to apply measurements to men and women and events in history" (1928, p. 351). This tradition of measuring eminence has been with us ever since and Simonton has to rank as one of its most skilled practitioners. Having written books such as Genius, Creativity, and Leadership (1984), Greatness (1994), and Origins and Genius (1999), he now turns his attention to psychology, accumulating in one volume a series of studies, some of which were previously published elsewhere, and organizing the whole into a single volume on eminence in psychology.

This is not a typical work on the history of psychology but prides itself as a work based largely on "historiometric methods" (with some results of psychometric studies included). …

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