A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Briefer Course, Revised (Part 1)

I am currently revising a Cheiron talk from two years ago (time flies), to present at EPA this coming Saturday. This was planned, in part, to force me to work on the paper, probably for History of Psychology or the Journal of the History of Behavioral Sciences. The subject matter is the long-pursued effort to revise William James's Psychology: A Briefer Course, which reigned for more than 20 years as the most commonly used textbook for introductory psychology classes.

William James published Psychology: Briefer Course in 1892, which quickly became the standard text for introductory psychology courses. The book provided a modified and condensed version of his more widely known The Principles of Psychology (1890), supplemented with additional information on physiology. Both texts remained in standard use in psychology classes for decades, and are still published and read today. Based on the frequency with which both are quoted at the start of contemporary academic talks, it is mainstream psychology views these works as emblematic of William James’s legacy to psychology. However, James’s views shifted significantly in the decades after the publications of these books. The philosophy of radical empiricism that James created later in his career (e.g., James, 1912) would, at the least, have demanded a significant revision of many of the ideas presented in his mid-career textbooks, and at the most would have caused the outright rejection of significant content. While we know some of the history of how The Principles came to be (King, 1993), and we can readily examine the differences between that volume and Briefer Course, we know little about how the books would have been further modified in light of James’s later insights. This knowledge is lacking because James never revised the books, and the one significant attempt to revise the text in line with James’s later ideas never fully materialized.
The late 1890’s and early 1900’s saw an influx of introductory psychology textbooks into the market (Fuchs, 2000). These new texts undoubtedly cut into the revenues of the James’s estate and the publisher. Following James’s death Edwin Bissell Holt, a protégée of James, and a close family friend, was authorized by the publisher and the estate to produce a revision of Briefer Course. The publisher, and the family, sought an update of James’s 1892 ideas, to make them current with the two decades worth of findings in psychology; they wanted something to extend the life of the book by keeping it competitive in terms of content. Holt, however, had a different understanding of the request for revision. Rather than updating the book to be more consistent with current psychological theory, his loyalty to James lead him to understand the request as one of updating the Briefer Course to be consistent with the James’s writings since the time of initial publication. In other words, he sought to write the revision James would have done, if he were still alive. This also meant writing the book in line with Holt’s current thinking (especially Holt, 1914), as James had encouraged Holt’s work, and asserted that it fell within the radical empiricist approach. Most importantly, this lead Holt to view James’s later work as a protestant-style New Testament, i.e., as overriding much of James’s earlier work, rather than as providing minor augmentation.
What did this revision look like? Alas, the revision was never completed. Further, no surviving copies of the partial revision are known. Speculation as to the nature of the revision can be gathered from the correspondences between the interested parties. Some of the planned changes were widely agreed upon: For example, Holt felt that knowledge in that area of physiological psychology had increased significantly since the initial edition, and was changing so fast that he would either have to make sections unwieldy (and soon-to-be outdated), or remove it entirely. The latter course was agreed upon, with suggested supplemental texts to be listed. However, the most massive change posed a major stumbling block: Holt saw radical empiricism as rejecting consciousness, and so intended to write a Briefer Course with no consciousness! As he told James’s son, Harry (1920):
I shall have to do this if I revise the work at all: - firstly, because that will present the only picture of psychology which would be a true one: secondly, because I am convinced that if Mr. James were revising the work himself his first care would also be to make it utterly "radical empirical.” Whether I should do this in the way that he would have done it, I cannot know. For he left no directions as to how to take "consciousness" out of psychology: and no hints, beyond the general animus of his later work on Pragmatism and Radical Empiricism.“

This would require the complete rewriting of the first several chapters of the book. Drafts of at least three of these chapters were produced, consisting largely of excerpted sections from James’s later publications. Needless to say, this was not a simple update to keep instructors using the text, and the publisher grew increasingly skeptical.
The situation was complicated by Holt’s personal as well as professional loyalty to the project. Holt several times initiated arguments over monetary compensation, arguing that financial formulae being offered compensation him too generously, and were not generous enough to James’s estate. Further, he refused to adjust his writings based on any principle other than fulfilling the obligation he felt to James. The flavor of the interactions is well represented in a different letter from Holt to Harry (4/1/12):
I would not for H. H.&Co. touch the text-book in question nor any other, for the sum which they mention nor for any sum which they could possibly afford to name. As often enough comes about, the motive is incommensurate with the money value. Any commercial arrangement between the Publishers and me is, then, out of question; for whatsoever sum I might accept would commit me formally to the declaration that for that sum I was willing to revise the W.J. Text-Book.... My willingness, and eagerness, to do this work is wholly a matter between your Father and me. So far as I might explain this to anyone now living, it would be to say that 'tis in order that the revised form may be the closest possible to what he would have done of he were here. And assuredly if anyone occurred to me whom I thought more likely to carry out that aim, I should apprise you at once and step out myself. Well then, for reasons of my own, which concern nobody else whomsoever, I undertake to act as mouth-piece, and nothing else.

Meanwhile, the estate and the publisher fended off requests by other authors interested in creating a revision, and this process stretched out over more than 8 years. Had the Briefer Course been revised, it would have provided a novel view of how James’s later work related to his earlier work. Whether or not it would have significantly changed our views on James, it would have altered our views on Holt, and would have kept James’s work in the classroom for another generation of psychology students. The revised Briefer Course may be one of the History of Psychology’s lost great works. 

Fuchs, A. H. (2000). Teaching the introductory course in psychology circa 1900. American Psychologist, 55, 492-495.
King, D. B. (1993). Evolution and revision of The Principles. In M. E. Donnelly (ed.), Reinterpreting the legacy of William James. (pp. 67-75). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Holt, E. B. (1914). The Concept of Consciousness. New York: Macmillan
James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology. New York: Holt.
James, W. (1892). Psychology: The Briefer Course. New York: Holt.
James, W. (1912). Essays in Radical Empiricism. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Archival documents gathered from the James Family, Henry Holt, and Lowell archives at Harvard, the Munsterberg archives at the Boston Public Library, and the Henry Holt archives at Princeton. 

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