An interesting ride
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- Chernoff, N.L. Metascience (2010) 19: 333. doi:10.1007/s11016-010-9334-2
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George Mandler’s pioneering role in and lasting impact on the twentieth century development of experimental psychology are not equalled by many. Born in Vienna, exiled to America in 1938, educated at Yale and founding psychologist of the University of California (San Diego) Psychology Department, Mandler’s significant contribution in the cognitive revolution (or, as he prefers, “miniparadigm shift”) of the 1960s is certainly an important part of the historical record in the discipline (see Mandler’s 2002 autobiography Interesting Times: An Encounter with the twentieth Century). In this text, Mandler attempts to present the reader with a culturally and politically contextualised examination of how experimental psychology culminated in the cognitive revolution. However, he frequently reverts to personal views on such broad topics as the value of philosophy as a discipline and the importance of postmodern thought. The role of these digressions in his controversial reconstruction of behaviourism as a ‘‘blip’’ in the greater arena of psychological theorising limit this text’s value as a convincing historical account.
The book is from the outset (and clearly stated by the author as such) a “whiggish” history of science. Mandler sees inquiry into past research and events as a mechanism for tracing the origins of our current state. Beginning with a chapter on the history of philosophical inquiries into the content and structure of the mind, Mandler ambitiously attempts to place the entire history of philosophical writings on the topic as a linear progression of thoughts and theorists beginning with Aristotle’s conception of the mind “as soul” and culminating in the present-day understanding of mind as brain function.
Mandler sees philosophical ideas as being couched in “mystical language” and confused by lack of a common definition for what constitutes the “mind”. To illustrate this statement Mandler turns to dictionary definitions instead of present day philosophical debate. This approach highlights Mandler’s ignorance of many vivid present-day philosophical debates such as Andy Clark & David Chalmers’ theory of embodied cognition (‘The Extended Mind’, Analysis 58: 10–23, 1998), which is heavily integrated with cutting-edge scientific research including psychological research.
Mandler makes his bias towards experimentalism immediately clear and portrays early writings on the relationship between the mind and body as “best called metaphysical”. He describes the move away from this line of enquiry as a hard fought battle with a discipline “reluctant to relinquish its grip on the field”. Mandler laments that while the insights of early figures such as Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Hartley, Mill and Bain were conveyed with “a disarming sense of comprehension” they were ultimately doomed by their attempts to observe themselves instead of using a laboratory setting.
Having covered this nonexperimental period of enquiry, Mandler moves onto describe the experimentally based work of Wilhelm Wundt and William James. This chapter provides a thorough review of James’ (1890) Principles of Psychology as well as covering biographical details of both careers. The book proceeds from there with a brief chapter covering the social context of psychology in nineteenth and twentieth century Germany and America. Mandler’s chapter on “The discovery of the unconscious” focuses on the “Würzberg school” and traces their experimental observations of ‘imageless’ thoughts. This chapter is notable for its alternative approach to explaining the genesis of a concept which is usually dominated by Freud’s landmark work on the subject.
The book maintains its aim of providing equal coverage of European and American developments with the next chapter covering the period when the two diverged as America adopted Behaviourism and European researchers focussed on Gestalt psychology. Mandler’s inclusion of his earlier work on the effect of Nazi policies on German psychology during World War II is the most valuable section of this book. Mandler’s careful analysis of the annual meeting minutes of the German Society for Psychology between 1933 to 1945 demonstrates how the Nazi party gradually took over the society and used psychology as a means of propagating their political agenda and persecuting Jewish academics. Mandler traces how key figures (Koffka, Köhler and Wertheimer) in the Gestalt psychology movement immigrated to America and took up positions in universities. However, Mandler fails to elaborate on this information with large sections diminished to lists of various figures’ biographical information and important dates.
Having explained how psychology moved from a German-centred discipline to its new home in America, Mandler then proceeds to dismiss the importance of behaviourism by claiming that America was just a faction of the discipline. This argument is unconvincing and the author does not adequately engage with the wider history of psychology literature which is almost unanimous in its placement of behaviourism as a major aspect of the history of experimental psychology.
The remainder of the book covers events that occurred over the course of Mandler’s own career. Here the author chooses two “case histories” where he discusses a series of landmark conferences in the 1950s and 1960s that, he claims, were responsible for ushering in the cognitive revolution. In keeping with his earlier conception of behaviourism as a regional trend, Mandler presents these conferences as sparking a ‘shift’ instead of (more commonly used) ‘revolution’. This claim allows him to trace a direct linear story from Gestalt psychology to cognitive psychology and other present day methods.
Mandler’s last remarks address current topics of reductionism, connectionism and the effect of postmodern thought on psychology (which he holds as being minimal and able to be addressed with more culturally aware research methods). While certainly valuable as the assessments of a dominant figure in the field, these comments lack the historiographical rigour needed to provide convincing perspective. Mandler concludes with “it’s been an interesting ride”, a phrase which echoes his autobiography title but is perhaps less applicable to a history of the field.