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History and philosophy

One on one... with Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University, Canada, and blogger on the history of psychology

26 December 2010

One reason I started blogging on the history of psychology Gutenberg’s movable type is grand, if you don’t have any better way to communicate. But now, we have lots of ways to communicate that are faster, that integrate different kinds of media, that are more interactive among authors and readers. Blogging is just one of these.

One book that you think all psychologists should read
Kurt Danziger’s Naming the Mind shows us how modern psychology’s basic vocabulary of intelligence, behaviour, attitude, motivation, etc does not represent timeless ‘natural kinds’ but are, instead, categories that were constructed for particular purposes at certain points in our history. Taking that message to heart, we can see that these older aims eventually fail to serve our present needs, and the categories we created in their wake may become obstacles to future progress. Be open to the possibility of radical change (but be wary of most individual radical proposals).

One cultural recommendation
The plays of Christopher Marlowe.

One challenge
History of psychology faces the challenge of figuring out the research and teaching potentials of all the new electronic technologies that are tumbling down upon us week by week. Soon we will be able to simultaneously search the contents of virtually every book and journal ever published to find out, for example, every single printed instance of the word ‘consciousness’ in history. Then we will need to develop computational methods (or learn the methods that have already been developed) for making sense this enormous mountain of data. Most historians are not prepared for that kind of change (nor are most psychologists).

One Canadian perspective on the history of psychology
The first permanent experimental psychology laboratory in the British Empire was founded at the University of Toronto in 1890 by an American (James Mark Baldwin).

One hero
I wish more people knew the work of Charles Sanders Peirce. He was a deeply flawed man, in some ways, so I would not model myself after him, but he may have been the smartest man in America just before the turn of the 20th century. He is best known today as a philosopher, but he was also a working scientist and mathematician, and he conducted, with his student Joseph Jastrow, among the first psychological experiments published in the English language (1885).

One great resource on the history of psychology
The Virtual Laboratory at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin:

One nugget of advice for aspiring psychologists
It is easy to say ‘do what you love’. But that’s the kind of thing said by people who have already been successful while doing what they love. (No one asks advice from those who’ve failed while doing what they love.) Students must monitor the relationship between what they like to do, and what the reaction is from those who will, in part, determine their futures. Be honest with yourself about others’ reactions. Then find a balance between your wants and the world’s needs that you can live with.


Web-only answers...

One alternative career path you may have chosen
I worked in technical theatre (lights/sound) for a time, and might well have gone to graduate school in theatre had it not been for the fact that the financial support for students was better in psychology.

One thing that organised psychology (e.g. the BPS / APA) could do better
Offer greater support (organisational, financial, etc.) to the specialist sections/divisions. That is where the enthusiasts reside. That is where the ‘next big thing’ will come from.

One thing that you would change about psychology
I would like it to be more intellectually expansive on both the scientific and the humanistic sides. Knowing more biology and more history, more math and more philosophy, will make us all better at what we do.

One person who inspired you
Paul Meehl, who taught us that our intuitions are only as good as our intellects can show them to be.

One problem that psychology should deal with
The deterioration of public education – primary, secondary, and post-secondary – over the past few decades is gradually setting us back significantly from what we might otherwise have achieved. I do not know that psychologists are positioned to fix this, but it is a significant cultural challenge that includes a significant psychological component.

One hope for the future of psychology
Despite frequent calls for psychology to be more unified, I think that psychology has become – perhaps always was – a kind of omnibus discipline that probably needs to break apart in order to do its best work in each area. There should be plenty of opportunities for transdisciplinary work as well, but I do not see what is served by forcing, e.g. cross-culturalists and molecular neuroscientists to compete for the same scarce resources.

One moment that changed the course of your career
Disliking my trumpet teacher as an undergraduate student, I decided to change majors from music to something else. Wanting to slip into a large department where I could anonymously get on with things, I asked the registrar what the largest department was in the university. She said, ‘civil engineering’. Thinking that was not for me, I asked what the second largest department was. She said, ‘psychology’. Here I am.

One regret
That I didn’t keep my music up.

One proud moment
Being asked to do this! Discovering that my various internet resources in the history of psychology were being used by tens of thousands of people across the world to supplement their college and university courses.