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

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Eugene Taylor and E. B. Holt

Eugene Taylor recently passed away. For those who do not know, he was one of the world's leading experts on the works of William James, a champion of Humanistic Psychology, and a leader in integrating "Eastern" and "Western" psychology. He held positions at the Saybook Institute and Harvard Medical School. He had encyclopedic knowledge in his areas of expertise, but was also a bit of a jerk about it, insisting upon both his knowledge of the facts and his unique ability to interpret the facts correctly.  In Eugene's opinion, no more than six or seven people in history had every truly understood James's work, and the others were dead. He spoke of James's work for example, with the zeal of someone who had not only familiarized themselves with all records regarding James, but also double checked all the interpretations with James himself at an appropriate seance. Given Eugene's understanding of James's work, he might well have.

My encounters with Eugene were few, and all in the final 10 years of his life. I first met Eugene at a booth promoting the Saybrook Institute, where we talked for sometime about James and Holt. That discussion was followed by intermittent email arguments that spanned several years. When I started presenting about Holt's work at various conferences, Eugene was in the audience about half the time, and never failed to offer the same set of criticisms. Despite that, I asked Eugene to write a chapter in my book about Holt; it was one of two chapters that painted Holt in a negative light, and it took several back-and-forths with Eugene to get him to at least acknowledge some of the things Holt got right. Several have posted tributes with memories of his younger years, and those seem all uniformly positive. While my experiences of him were mixed, there is no question that his death is an incredible loss for our field. In recognition of the loss, I want to offer the following:

First, I want to announce that there will be a festschrift session in honor of Eugene at this year's APA convention. It will be held in the Division 1 hospitality suite, and hosted in conjunction with Division 24 and 26. If you are interested in presenting there, please let me know (either by posting below or contacting by email). The format has not been fully determined yet, and both academic and personal tributes will be welcome.

Second, I want to summarize his chapter on Holt, and hopefully generate some discussion of it. It must have been one Eugene's last few publications, and I am honored to have had it in my volume. We just read the chapter in my Advanced Seminar, and so my students are in a good position to offer some reflection.

Taylor, E. (2011). William James's Radical Empiricism: Did E. B. Holt get it right? In E. P. Charles (Ed.), A New Look at New Realism: The Psychology and Philosophy of E. B. Holt. (pp. 105-126). New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.


Summary of
William James's Radical Empiricism: Did E. B. Holt Get it Right?
by Eugene Taylor

After giving a brief biographical sketch of Holt, and pointing out the small number of people who truly understood James, Eugene sets out the line of inquiry: Given that Holt claims to be indebted to James and to be extending James's work, does Holt succeed? And he tells us right away that his answer will be "Not really".

William James

Next he set up James's work: The Principles of Psychology assumed a generic, positivist approach, though James admitted that eventually each special discipline needed to create its own philosophical foundation. In the years that followed he developed a "tripartite metaphysics", composed of Radical Empiricism, Pragmatism, and Pluralism. What were these three principles?

Pragmatism: This principle originated in the work of Peirce as a rule of logic,
Peirce said that if you wanted to have a complete thought, you had to consider the consequences of any idea. He did not say you had to see the actual consequences lived out; one had only to consider them to make a thought complete. In 1898, James gave a completely diff erent spin to the concept of pragmatism, however. He understood it to mean that beliefs are tested by their consequences. A person’s beliefs evolved because whatever the belief was, it was likely held because for that person it had real-world consequences.... 
James also understood pragmatism to be a method by which different competing worldviews could be compared. If two apparently incompatible systems led to the same ends, then for all intents and purposes, they were equal.... such a pragmatic conclusion forced the adherents of each to learn tolerance for different worldviews, in addition to their own.
Pluralism: This principle first appeared in The Varieties of Religious Experience, but was not developed further until A Pluralistic Universe:
The key to understanding religious experience was what [James] called noetic pluralism—visionary knowledge, the capacity of every human being to experience a transcendent state of consciousness.
While Eugene does not elaborate much on Pluralism in this chapter, my understanding of it is that: We must allow each person their own experiences of a thing, and no one's experiences get to inherently trump another. Thus, to modify an example from Dewey, when there are many horses arranged in a line, and the gambler picks the one he thinks best, the farmer picks the one he thinks best, and the coachman picks the one he thinks best, there is no proper sense in which one of them is right and the others wrong. This same logic must extend to all things, from the "best horse" to the ethical choice when facing a dilemma, to the nature of God.

Radical Empiricism: Radical Empiricism was James's way of trying to overcome the old debate between rationalism and empiricism. The fundamental weakness of the old-fashioned empiricism was that the only experiences it admitted were "sense data".
Radical empiricism referred primarily to pure experience in the immediate moment before the differentiation of subject and object. This was Peirce’s firstness, the primal condition of all phenomena as they come into the domain of a person’s consciousness before becoming associated with a label by which one is able to constantly recall each object. Thus Peirce was also a semiotician, one who dealt with words or signs. James’s claim was that nothing ever comes to us except in the immediate moment. When anything does come, we experience it through the filter of our own experience, although there is that moment when we are able to hold our categories in abeyance and examine the object in and of itself. At that precise moment, self-identity merges with the object, as consciousness reaches out and embraces what is there. Radical empiricism therefore refutes the doctrine of representation upon which all modern science is based—that there are two pencils, the one out there in my hand and the one in my mind which I am modeling. James said, no, there is only one object and that exists at the intersection between the history of that object and our autobiography at that moment.
Thus, in Does 'Consciousness' Exist?, James concludes that consciousness does not exist as a separate object of inquiry, though it does happen that particular people are conscious of particular things. This offered a "new epistemology for experimental psychology", which would allow the study of all experienced things, from chairs and horses to transcendent religious states.

E. B. Holt and Holt's works

Eugene then proceeds to a brief biographical sketch of Holt: Holt was taught by James as an undergrad, received a masters under Cattell at Columbia, then returned to Harvard for his Ph.D. William James was traveling during the latter period, and so Holt would have had little to no contact with him. in 1903 Holt became an instructor in psychology, and in 1905 was promoted to Assistant professor. During this time, Holt became close with James and the James family. In 1904 Holt visited James's vacation home in Chacorua, New Hampshire, where they discussed work at length, and James came to feel that Holt's work fit well with his. However, it was is clear Holt is not trying to clone James's work. In particular, Holt disavows pragmatism, and challenged James regarding his "theory of knowledge". Much is made of brief snippets drawn from letters and other artifacts, such as Holt's standing in the back row for the 1909 Clark University photograph with Freud.

A New Realism
 Here Eugene briefly points out that James anticipated a team of people would be needed to see his system through, and that such a team formed under the auspices of the New Realists. However, because they seemed influenced by other people besides James (including Munsterberg, Royce, MacDougall, and Peirce) Eugene insists on noting "It was not actually a Jamesean movement".

Radical Empiricism in Holt's Works
Here Eugene shows how James's work influenced Holt's, though he notes that "Holt cherry-picked from James's writings". That is, Eugene admits that there are several ways in which Holt promoted "very Jamesean" ideas (e.g. that "subject and object coalesce with each other"), but the incorporation of other influences is disconcerting, as is Holt's concern with issues that didn't particularly concern James.

Translation of Flournoy on James
Holt and William James Jr. translated Flournoy's "The Philosophy of William James". Eugene points out that this work is not a systematic treaty, but rather a "series of casual interpretations by a great intellect and a close friend." He find's Holt's translation "limited" in certain ways, and does not appreciate the review that Holt appends to the volume.

Other works
Eugene then briefly reviews Holt's other two major works. In each case he criticizes Holt for under-citation of James, and a failure to incorporate James's ideas more thoroughly (or at least more blatantly). In particluar, Eugene is displeased with Animal Drives and the Learning Process: An Essay Toward Radical Empiricism. As Eugene puts it, even in the preface to this work, "We see here no clearer example of Holt's misunderstanding of radical empiricism."

The Verdict
And what is Eugene's verdict?
After this review, one can understand my answer to the question, Did Holt get it right? To extend him at least some credit, we would have to answer with a “well, not quite.” James stood steadfastly at the crossroads of several diff erent disciplines, and as the pre-eminent example of Emerson’s American scholar—the man or woman with an original point of view... While James did have a profound influence on Tolman and Gibson, just to name a few, we do see the Jamesean infl uence seep into our own times. However, with regard to radical empiricism, Holt held no such comparable vision for
the transformation of either philosophy or psychology. He seemed to understand James’s ideas intellectually, and they were a powerful influence in places, but ultimately the core of James’s program remained just one category among many others in Holt’s own more experimentalist understanding of reality.

The verdict is fair, but odd.

From whence does Eugene think James's "profound influence" on Tolman and Gibson originated? He fails to note that the only obvious connection between them is that both were students of Holt. He also doesn't seem to have considered most of Holt's writings beyond whether or not they cited James, and how they did so. He makes much of an in-class encounter between two professors, without taking into account that it took place in an educational, rather than private, context. Ultimately, though, these are trivial issues.

The core dispute between Eugene Taylor and E. B. Holt, I suspect, is akin to one of the great divides in Christianity: What is the relationship between the old and new testament? For Eugene, James's Radical Empiricism fit intimately with James's past work, and could not be understood as a stand-alone idea. For Holt, Radical Empiricism significantly revised, and might even have overridden James's past work. Eugene read James's work as progressing forward and ever-accumulating. Holt read James's work as struggling to achieve a final form, ever-critically modifying past claims and discarding dead weight as it developed. Thus, Eugene's final assessment, that Holt understood Radical Empiricism, but failed to incorporate the larger part of James's cannon, seems like a "criticism" Holt would be comfortable with.

I hope to develop this idea into a brief paper for the festschrift, and I hope those of you who knew Eugene, if you are planning on attending APA, will consider preparing some brief remarks as well.

Again, please pass me a note here or by email if you are interested in taking part.


  1. In addition to the previously mentioned biblical parallel, I think there is also another very common issue at the heart of this debate. That issue is one of how strictly or loosely the definition of "getting it right" is interpreted. This is also present in the bible, and is rampant in political arguments today regarding the constitution. To me at least, I think it would be unfair to say Holt did not "get it right" simply because he expanded on James's ideas in a way that was not purely Jamesean. In fact if he were to just expand on these ideas in a "James 2.0" fashion, it would be a disservice to science. Progress is not made simply because people reiterate the legacy of others, but because they add their own new ideas in light of previous influences. When viewed through that interpretation, I think that Holt did indeed, to some degree at least, "get it right".

  2. I agree with trevor's assessment. If you simply memorize and recite the work of another I'd argue that that is not true intelligence or perhaps not even true understanding. It's basically simple memory. However, adding to a work and expanding on what you've been given is indeed true understanding and intelligence. It's like building a house. If you simply lay some bricks because you seen someone else do it so what. That's not a house or true understanding. What makes the house is when you put up a shell, add siding, drywall, etc. It is only when you add to those bricks that have been laid that you have true intelligence and understanding. With this I do believe that Holt not only understood James but also expanded upon the foundation James laid for him.

  3. Although I agree with Trever and Daniel's assessments, I feel the need to reiterate Eugene's contributions. It appears from what we can see, Eugene's assertions on Holt's accuracy (or lack there of) of James's work may have been largely unsupported. However, much like the lesson discussed on developing theories, taking steps, and not simply restating what has already been published; I believe it is equally important to always question our ideas, especially in this field. Eugene, even if unintentionally, performed the role of "devil's advocate". I would expect Dr. Charles would agree that his correspondence with Eugene tested his position in this debate by finding strengths and weaknesses, exposing questions, and providing him with the challenge that few sources of another nature could produce. If Holt was the car, moving toward development; Eugene was undoubtedly the traffic cone course, keeping us from going too fast and being the necessary obstacles that demanded a high and respectable level of understanding to maneuver. Even those who side with Holt's interpretations of James must recognize that Eugene's passing is a cost-full loss for our field.

  4. It is easy for one to agree that there were many complications that arose around Holt's and James' ideas of psychology. I believe that Eugene made their ideas clearer. After reading the chapter in the book and this post, it is evident that Eugene didn't necessarily agree with Holt's and James' ideas. Even though he didn't agree, he aimed to make their ideas more understandable so that people could form their own opinions. After all, opinions are a big part of thinking today. It is hard to find something other than bare facts in today's society that are not opinionated. I am not stating that Holt and James were not important members of psychology, because they were, I just believe that because their ideas and ways of thinking were developed a long time ago, they are hard to understand now. Although one of his last writings was fairly negative, I think that Taylor's views on Holt and James were correct, and his article made understanding the often times difficult ways of thinking of Holt and James easier. Eugene was a model for clear thinking, and his loss is a great one in the field of psychology.

  5. Is his dismissal of Holt (as you said, how does James get to influence Tolman and Gibson without having Holt as at least *some kind* of throughput?) borne out of a possible distaste for Holt's homosexuality? Certainly, in my own undergrad experience, my history-and-systems professor had little to say about Holt beyond the "standard course" of Holt and that Holt was "tied by his mother's apron strings."

    -Jim Jackson

  6. Jim,
    I couldn't imagine that Eugene would have been effected by that. Eugene really was as close as I have seen to a living incarnation of William James. If James was not bothered...

    Eugene felt strongly about the importance of James's legacy, and disliked anyone he saw as misrepresenting or corrupting that legacy. My guess is that Eugene didn't think Holt got James right, so, ipso facto, if Tolman and Gibson were getting something right, I guess he didn't think it was through Holt.

    I wish I knew how he would explain the connection without Holt... I suppose he would point out that they must have read James in the original at some point...

    Alas, that is a discussion I will not be able to have with him.

  7. I believe that Eugene's blatant almost disrespect for Holt and his work is more of a competitive issue rather than actual disagreement with his works. How can you put full faith in James and not support Holt? It seems impossible to me at least to not integrate both as Holt's works are in fact expansions on James. Eugene also recognizes James' influene on Tollman and Gibson, but chooses to ignore the fact that they were indeed students of Holt himself. This seems like "cherry picking" to me. The fact that Eugene accuses Holt of using influences not related to James makes no sense, because after all wasn't he trying to further expand on James' ideas? And isn't the trend of psychology today to attempt to incorporate and respect all worldview points? I tend to think that Holt is greatly underated and possibly, as Jim said above, punished for his lifestyle.

  8. In his essay featured in A New Look at New Realism, the late Mr. Taylor accuses Holt of “cherry-picking” in regard to his discussions of Freudian theory; while Holt may exhibit some preoccupation with the idea of the “wish” (at least in regard to The Freudian Wish), his close analysis of Freud’s initial ideas provide a broadening of a somewhat ambiguous concept. Similarly, Holt’s analysis and discussion of James’ ideas brings forth newer, innovative ideas. While Taylor’s criticism of Holt and his bold assertion that Holt missed the mark (particularly considering that Holt was far more intimately connected with James than was Taylor) may upset Holt’s steadfast fans, some credit must be given to Taylor for his role as a devil’s advocate. As others have mentioned in the discussion featured in the space of this blog, progress is not made if we remain satisfied with previously established ideas; even the most creative and thoughtful ideas must be torn apart, tortured, and degraded in order to test their ability to endure.
    -Brandi Billotte