Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

An American Science of Feeling: Harvard's Psychology of Emotion during the World War I Era

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

An American Science of Feeling: Harvard's Psychology of Emotion during the World War I Era

Article excerpt

Early American academic psychologists repeatedly noted that their understanding of emotion was weak. William James's foundational text of 1890, The Principles of Psychology, judged that "the emotions have been so ignored" in favor of "cognitive and volitional performances" that the feelings seem "among the problems of the future." Inquiry into the "laws of affection," Robert Yerkes still observed in 1911 in his Introduction to Psychology, "is less advanced along strictly scientific lines than is that of sensation, perception, ideation, and the various aspects of cognitive consciousness."1

Commentators explained the neglect of affective experience by both the difficulty of the subject and limitation of their methods. Emotions were too diffuse to be examined in any particular sensory or brain locus, and if experimenters turned their attention inward to analyze their own feelings, the sensations seemed to evaporate under the gaze of their reason. Laboratory apparatus designed to measure reaction times and problem-solving might have been adapted to test feelings as well. A British psychologist in the 1920s recorded his subjects' physiological responses to various words by using a galvanometer.2 American experimenters, however, did not follow suit. Their inclination to do most what they did best threatened to leave behind a substantial branch of earlier mental philosophy. Josiah Royce wrote in his Outlines of Psychology (1903) as if every reader would recognize "the usual distinctions of Feeling, Intellect, and Will."3 The five senses traditionally belonged to the affective faculty, and researchers continued to study them. But when the same psychologists behaved as if emotion defied current science, their disregard of feeling represented a historic turning point in American study of the mind.

Psychologists at Harvard University, however, were an exception. They pictured animals and humans as purposive, social, and organic in the sense that physical and mental activities were intertwined. This holistic and dynamic emphasis kept emotion in view. At other research universities, intelligence, often conceived as conditioning, came to dominate experimentation. A 1950 survey of articles published since 1911 in two American psychology journals devoted to animal-human comparisons reported that learning was the subject of more than half of the papers, while fewer than four per cent focused on "emotional reactions." This skewed emphasis was not limited to animal studies. An overview in 1940 similarly sorted articles in fourteen journals between 1888 and 1938 into thirty-two categories and devised multiple headings containing the words "mental processes," but no grouping identified with feelings, although the coauthors cited "the physiology of emotion" as a subordinate interest.4 The disinclination of Harvard psychologists to conceive of individuals as solitary and to treat mental life as easily divisible into component parts preserved an interest in emotion and also deviated from their discipline's emerging norm.

They took this perspective because they applied the synthetizing habit of inherited philosophy to the new science of psychology. In this sense their approach was tradition-minded. The Harvard psychologists separated administratively from the Philosophy Department in 1934, a late date in the American academy considering Columbia University's appointment of the first specialized professor of psychology in 1891.5 While their peers produced "experimental articles conforming to current standards rather than to their personal tastes," in the words of the same 1940 assessment, the Harvard scholars explained mental phenomena in broad contexts and unashamedly idiosyncratic ways.6 Philosophically, they were neither unified as a group nor self -consistent over time; idealism, pragmatism, and materialistic naturalism were all represented. They shared an analytical approach, however, that deviated from the microscopic orientation of laboratory science. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.