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

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Briefer Course, Revised (Part 2)

Given that Holt is known to be the most philosophically sophisticated of the early behaviorists, it may seem sacrilegious that he was considered to revise one of James's texts.  James is widely revered, where he is revered, for his deep and dynamic descriptions of experience, such as his discussions of the stream of consciousness; he is also well known for the James-Lang theory of emotion; and behaviorists are supposed to be ill-equipped to deal with "experience" and "emotion". Given that Holt's goal was to create a book that connected with James's later, and lesser known, works, however, the situation might not be as grim as it initially seems. As I have argued elsewhere, James's work can be seen as a proto-behaviorism, with the implications mostly hidden in his early textbooks. What modifications would Holt have made to the premier textbook of the time? What framework would the students of the next two decades have been presented with?
We can gain hints of this from Holt's other works. These works include a fascinating mix of claims about psychology and claims about how to do psychology and philosophy. It is clear that Holt felt obligated to continue his work in the spirit of James's broader life:

Holt included six direct quotes from James in Concept of Consciousness (1914). The most notable "facts" from those included: From James's essay "Sentiment of Rationality" Holt noted that we must find our facts in experience, and from Essays in Radical Empiricism, he noted James's complete rejection of conscious stuff, and any clean divide between the subjective and objective. The most notable spiritual invocation was:
Philosophy… is not the free play of the creative imagination, however nicely logical, loosed from all mundane reference; it is, as Professor James has said, not a ‘clear addition’ erected on high over the plain of our mortal experience, not “a classic sanctuary in which the rationalist fancy may take refuge from the intolerably confused and Gothic character which mere facts present.” Philosophy is grounded in these facts, it is everywhere knit close to the mundane fabric… these facts are the concrete whole of experience, and conspicuously though by no means pre-eminently that domain that is called the physical world. (p. x-xi)
Similar sentiments of James are invoked in The Freudian Wish (Holt, 1915). In this, the first English language book on Freud, Holt states that:
[For] Freud… conscious thought, is so little complete as to be scarcely any index to a man’s character or deed. This is Freud’s doctrine of the unconscious… conscious thought is merely the surface foam of a sea where the real currents are well beneath the surface. It is an error, then, to suppose that the ‘secret behind’ a man’s actions lies in those thoughts which he (and he alone) can ‘introspectively survey.’ We shall presently see that it is an error to contrast thought with action at all.
But what are we to do when ‘thought’ has receded to so impregnable a hiding place? We are to admit, I think, that we have misunderstood the nature of thought, and predicated so much that is untrue of it, that what we have come to call ‘thought’ is a pure myth. We are to say with William James: “I believe that ‘consciousness’… is the name of a nonentity, and has no right to a place among first principles. Those who still cling to it are clinging to a mere echo, the faint rumor left behind by the disappearing ‘soul’ upon the air of philosophy.” This is the key note of his Radical Empiricism, the principle that of all those which he enunciated was dearest to him; and it is his final repudiation of dualism.  (p. 88-89)
Obvious bits from Animal Drives and the Learning Process Vol. 1 (Holt, 1936) are few, though the subtitle of the book is An Essay Toward Radical Empiricism. The book was mostly about physiology, and it is totally unclear what Holt thinks any of this has to do with James. I'll avoid any hermeneutics, and just point out that the never-delivered second volume was clearly supposed to bring the philosophy home.

The only source left to get hints from is Holt's final work, a chapter from a book commemorating the 100th anniversary of James's Birth (1942). The chapter is entitled: William James as a a Psychologist. And... as luck would have it... this chapter both explains what the heck was going on in Animal Drives, and gives a glimpse of what the revised chapters for Briefer Course would have looked like. The article is constructed out of quotes from James's work, with transitions and supplementation provided by Holt (and thus, in form, it matches the description of the missing Briefer Course chapters). The gist of the article goes something like this:

James was not one to shun contradiction; he laid the facts bare, and when they seemed to lead to trouble, he faced the trouble head on. The one outstanding contradiction of psychology is this: The mind seems dependent on the body while the mind seems independent of the body. This seeming contradiction has lead psychologists and philosophers to try to divide the turf. But James insisted the problems cannot be divided, he insisted that the problem of knowledge is identical with the problems of physiological psychology.
James’s later philosophizing calls for a reconstruction of psychology, but he did not live to accomplish this. Such a psychology must dispense with consciousness stuff, or mental substance; it must be dynamic and recognize the continuous flow of the brute fact, reality; it must distinguish lucidly between this continuously flowing “unverbalized life” and the static, detached, named entities known as “concepts”; and it must show how the mental content is identical with the objects known, that is, with such parts or aspects of them as are known. (Holt, 1942, p. 45-46)


Well, a bit more work to do, but that is an outline of the material I am going to try to get through in the talk on Saturday. I hope to give the impression that Holt's failure to pull of his revision of James's textbook lead to psychology missing out on something big. Not only was it a missed opportunity to keep James in the classroom, but it was also a missed opportunity to get the field thinking about behaviorism in a much more sophisticated and adventurous way.


  1. I didn't realize that consciousness skepticism had such formidable proponents. Had the rewrite been completed, might that be a majority opinion?

    Thanks for the historical insight.


  2. That is a great question. I don't know if consciousness skepticism would be the majority opinion today. I do, however, think the position would be much better understood.

    Presumably, if nothing else, there would not be such strong tendencies to treat 'mental things' as substances. That is, our psychology would use a lot more verbs (e.g. remembering) and a fewer nouns (e.g. memory). Though it seems like a small change, I think it leads people to ask quite different questions.

  3. Well, that's interesting. My initial reaction was that "memory" is one of the few nouns that I'd prefer, but given that I envision an active process, "remembering" does seem more descriptive. Good example!!