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

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

E.C. Tolman's Biography, and the end of PsychCritques

I recently completed what will be my last review for PsycCritiques, the online journal that succeeded the print Contemporary Psychology, which itself ran from 1956-2004 (founded by Edwin Boring). The book was a good one:


By David W. Carroll

I say it will be my last review, because over the summer I learned that the journal is shuttering at the end of this year. That is very unfortunate for the field, and while APA claims it will be doing something to create an outlet for book reviews, it would have been a much better service to the field to revitalize the existing vehicle. Given the circumstances, I'm going to paste the whole review below:
The Path Through the Maze of Tolman’s Life
Compelling stories typically revolve around contradiction; for Edward Chace Tolman, the seeming contradiction is between a man who deeply felt that “everything important in psychology” can be covered by a thorough analysis of how rats behaved at a choice point in a maze (Tolman 1938), and a man deeply concerned with uniquely human problems. Carroll’s timely biography of Tolman attempts to resolve this contradiction, showing how Tolman’s interest in rats was never independent of his interest in humans, and showing that his interest in social justice and humanitarian issues was a consistent trait, rather than a late-emerging phenomenon. Fortuitously, this biography has arrived to keep Tolman’s legacy in our minds during the very same year that Tolman Hall, which has held Berkeley’s Psychology Department for half a century, is scheduled for demolition. This book will appeal to a wide range of readers interested in the history and theory of psychology, and perhaps beyond that to those interested in the broader intellectual milieus of the eras through which the narrative passes, including the history of social activism within academia.  
Tolman is important both to the field of psychology, to the history of academia, and – in at least one instance – to the history of his country. It is a rare feat, which only a few other psychologists could be said to have achieved. Tolman held a central position in two important phases of the history of the field: He was a prominent behaviorist; as one of the three great “neo-behaviorists,” he fought the tide of Watsonian reductionism, to help kept texture and depth in the study of behavior. He later served as a key inspiration for much of the “cognitive revolution,” and as such both his old and new work continued to influence the field long after behaviorism had been declared passé. Seemingly separately, shortly before retirement, Tolman also lead a group of faculty in their fight against the McCarthy era loyalty-oath craze. When California’s Supreme Court ruled such oaths unconstitutional, they were deciding in the case of Tolman vs. Underhill. David W. Carroll’s book covers those major parts of Tolman’s life well, but it’s strength lies in what is added on top of that: A solidly researched narrative of the intellectual and cultural context in which Tolman and his ideas developed. This not only shows the continuity between the above referenced parts of Tolman’s life, it also adds considerably to the professional and personal morals that can be gleaned.
Central to that narrative is illuminating Tolman’s continuous interest in bettering the state of human affairs. Influenced strongly by his Quaker grandmother, Tolman intervened (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) on behalf of colleagues facing social injustice throughout his career, especially over issues such as anti-Semitism. He was also involved in several field-specific and several broadly-academic organizations dedicated to social causes. Most notably, he was a founding member, and one time president, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI). It is easy to view these efforts, which collimated in his refusal to sign the anti-communist loyalty oath, as unrelated to his interest in rats, but Carroll argues convincingly that we should not view it that way.
Tolman’s interest in psychology can be traced back to his interest in helping to better people’s lives, and the appeal of behaviorism can be understood – in part – as a function of the zeitgeist that science was a solid method for improving the human condition. Even when engaging in hard-science experimental work, under a behaviorist impetus, Tolman latched on to the version of behaviorism that sought depth and complexity in the behavior of animals. During that phase, he studied the ability to orient towards certain aspects of the world, to learn and develop, and to choose between behavioral options. This was the “New Realist” version of behaviorism, inspired by William James’s later work, and pushed for by a group that included key James’s disciples, Edwin Bissell Holt and Ralph Barton Perry (Charles, 2011a). The human concern can be seen in key later works of Tolman, for example when he backed up each logical point in his argument for the importance of academic freedom and tenure with solid data about the conditions under which rats experience peak learning and performance (Tolman, 1954).  
            If there is one weakness in the book – and reviewers are obligated to find at least one, are they not? – it is my feeling that there are deeper places to explore regarding Tolman’s turn from his original New-Realist flavored “Purposive Behaviorism” towards his latter more cognitive orientation. The former held strongly that terms like “choice” and even “hypothesis” referred to characteristics of behavior observable under certain (arrangable) conditions. Tolman later viewed those terms as referring to “intervening variables,” and still later he viewed those terms as referring to internal processes. Carroll agrees with Smith’s (1986) argument that Tolman’s initial was working within an American Philosophy tradition, growing out of Charles Sanders Peirce’s Pragmatism, rather than out of Vienna-Circle Logical Positivism, as has been asserted by others. A rare treat in the book is how accurately and respectfully Carroll treats the intellectual lineage from Peirce, to James, to Holt and Perry, to Tolman. While this set up allows Carroll’s narratives to improve quite a bit on past efforts to explore Tolman’s transition, one cannot help but feel there is more to be uncovered. Why, when his position was being challenged in earnest, did Tolman turn to operationalism, instead of doubling down on pragmatism? And what problems would such a shift be expected to create in a theory otherwise originating within the pragmatist tradition? Some sense of that is certainly gleaned in this book, but a biography can only do so much regarding such issues of theory. Should future work on the topic come into being, and I hope it does, I have no doubt it will be strongly grounded on the foundation Carroll has provided.    
            Tolman’s life and work crosses the major divisions that are still visible in the field of psychology, and as such his biography illustrates at least one method of straddling the divides. That said, he was a man never satisfied to simply drift along with the mainstream ideas of his time. If he were somehow still around, one wonders, might he not have spent the last few decades drifting away from his more cognitive outlook? Would he have moved towards the burgeoning movements closer to his original stance, such as embodied cognition and enactivism, or towards movements such as ecological psychology, which explicitly came from a Jamesian-Holtian starting place similar to where Tolman began? (Heft, 2001, Charles, 2011b) To even wonder such things, however, requires knowing and understanding quite a bit about Tolman’s work, about how that work fit into certain happenings in the field, and about how that work drove the field forward. It is no small endorsement to note that Carroll’s book will provide the reader with sufficient background in Tolman-the-man, Tolman-the-researcher, and Tolman-the-thinker, to allow him or her to consider such ideas.
Charles, E. P. (2011a). A New Look at New Realism: The Psychology and Philosophy of E. B. Holt. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers (an affiliate of Rutgers University Press).
Charles, E. P. (2011b). Ecological psychology and social psychology: It is Holt or nothing! Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Sciences, 45, 132-153.
Heft, H. (2001). Ecological Psychology In Context: James Gibson, Roger Barker, and William James's Radical Empiricism. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Smith, L. D. (1986). Behaviorism and Logical Positivism: A Reassessment of the Alliance. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press
Tolman, E. C. (1938). The determinants of behavior at a choice point. Psychological Review, 45, 1-41.
Tolman, E. C. (1954). Freedom and the cognitive mind. American Psychologist, 9, 536-538.


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