The Society a century ago
The Society a century ago
Elizabeth Valentine on the British Psychological Society of 1908 –?membership, meetings, publications and perennial issues
In 1908 the British Psychological Society had 54 members, only four of whom are known to have been women; today there are almost 47,000 members, of whom over 35,000 are women. There was a Committee of seven people and a couple of officers. Charles Myers was Secretary (William McDougall deputising when necessary), W. H. Winch was Treasurer and Charles Spearman audited the accounts. The Society elected five new members that year:
- Dr Leslie MacKenzie, medical member of the Local Government Board of Scotland (one wonders how often he was able to attend meetings);
- Mr Henry Sturt, author of Idola Theatri;
- Dr A. Wolf, assistant lecturer of philosophy at University College;
- T.W. Mitchell, MD, ‘author of a paper on the appreciation of time by somnambules’; and
- Mr A. Westermarck, PhD, Professor of Sociology, University of London.
These people illustrate the multidisciplinary nature of the membership and the credentials needed for admission to the Society.
Four meetings were held, all in London and on Saturday afternoons: two at University College and two at King’s College (which then had a psychology department, transferred to Birkbeck College during WWII). (The possibility of holding a summer meeting in Edinburgh was discussed by the Committee but later dropped.) Typically, there would be about a dozen members and a couple of visitors, and very few women. After preliminary business, typically two research papers were read and discussed, with a break for tea in between and an informal dinner afterwards, sometimes at Pagani’s restaurant in the Strand.
At the January meeting, there was just one long paper, by W.H. Winch. A founder of the experimental approach to education, he was in the middle of generous leave of absence from his post as Inspector for the London School Board (later the London County Council), which enabled him to carry out psychological experiments in schools.
He was the first full-time, if unofficial, applied educational psychologist in Britain (Sharp & Bray, 1980). His paper ‘The function of images’, subsequently published verbatim (Winch, 1908), was in response to a ‘friendly challenge’ from Carveth Read at the Society’s previous meeting. Winch argued against images having a function in mental processes, referring to empirical evidence, and protesting that ‘images’ were often not clearly distinguished from sensations or thoughts and their ‘potency over-estimated’.
In March, the Society welcomed an overseas visitor: Professor James Leuba, from Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, the first college in the USA to offer women graduate education to PhD level. Leuba had opened one of the first psychological laboratories in the USA there shortly after his appointment in 1898. Originally from Neuchâtel in Switzerland, he undertook a doctorate with G. Stanley Hall at Clark University, on what became his main interest: the psychology of religion. In A Psychological Study of Religion: Its Origin, Function, and Future, he attempted to provide a physiological and psychological account of mystical experience, pointing to analogies with certain drug-induced states. No doubt his paper to the Society on ‘Intoxication in relation to religion’ was along these lines.
After tea, Alexander Shand, founder member and first Secretary and Treasurer of the Society, gave an account of ‘Displeasure’, an element in his major work, The Foundations of Character (Shand, 1914). Educated at Eton and Cambridge, and a qualified lawyer, Shand had no need of an academic post. Myers (1936) tells us that ‘he was a most attractive speaker and raconteur, deliberate, and usually tolerant and diffident, yet surprisingly combative when justly aroused to anger’ (p.324). It was Shand who was responsible for organising the dinners. According to Edgell (1947) he was ‘one of the most beloved figures of the early days’; he ‘possessed all the charm of the Victorian gentleman and was a perfect host’ (p.115).
In May, there were two papers on ‘The application of psychology to education’, surprisingly not by Winch but by William Brown from King’s College London and Maurice Keatinge, Reader in Education at Oxford. Brown (whose paper was subsequently published: Brown, 1910) argued for the application of correlation coefficients to the psychological analysis of processes involved in school subjects, a method he himself applied to mathematical ability later in the year (and subsequently reported on to the Society). Keatinge, the author of Suggestion in Education (Keatinge, 1907) was a pioneer of the use of source material in the teaching of history. His Studies in the Teaching of History (Keatinge, 1910) was full of practical examples, ‘almost always still worth using today’ (McAleavy, 1998). He thought such an approach would contribute to the development of critical thinking and moral maturity.
At the meeting in November W.H. Winch delivered another paper, ‘On conation and mental activity’, subsequently published (Winch, 1909), in which he discussed a paper by his former teacher, the philosophical psychologist, G. F. Stout (Stout, 1906).
After tea, Edward Bullough, from the University of Cambridge, spoke on ‘A working hypothesis for aesthetic experiments with colour combinations’ (see Bullough, 1910). In his study, participants were asked to provide aesthetic judgements about pairs of colours and to provide reasons for their judgments. Pinkerton & Humphrey (1974), following up on some of this work, admit that there is still no adequate explanation for these ‘synaesthetic’ effects, e.g. Bullough’s idea that colours have weights. On the basis of his data (Bullough supplied equations but carried out no statistical analysis), he distinguished four ‘perceptive types’: objective, physiological, associative and ‘character’. Bullough was responsible for a substantial body of work on the psychology of aesthetics, and it was at his instigation that an Aesthetics Section was formed in 1922. It lasted until 1937, the only Section of the Society to fold.
Publications and other matters
In 1906 the Society had decided to purchase a number of journals, to be circulated to those who expressed an interest in receiving them. As can be imagined, this was a constant source of problems with members failing to pass on journals to the next person on the list. In November the Committee agreed that efforts be made to recover missing journals. The initial idea of auctioning the journals, once they had been circulated, was dropped in favour of forming a permanent collection. Thus accommodation for them had to be found, preferably in London but accessible to members. Some people asked that journals be posted to them on request. After exploring various possibilities, it was decided to house the collection at King’s College, with William Brown as Librarian. This formed the basis of the Society’s reference library, now housed in the University of London Library.
At that time the British Journal of Psychology, edited by James Ward, was separate from the Society. Several people thought it would be desirable to establish formal relations between the two. This goal was not achieved until 1914, owing to the difficulties of assigning editorial and financial responsibility. Ward was willing to consider any proposal provided that the Society was willing to undertake entire financial responsibility for the journal from its beginning!
Also that year a special committee was appointed to inquire into the adequacy of existing tests for colour blindness; it was agreed that a new list of members and rules be printed; and that if possible steps be taken to place the funds of the Committee in a deposit account at a bank.
Two major changes in the Society over the last hundred years are in its size and gender composition. But many of the topics discussed in 1908 are still the subject of research investigation. Does this mean they are questions of perennial interest or that little progress has been made (or both)? One thing that has not changed is the commitment to using empirical evidence to tackle theoretical issues and practical problems.
- Elizabeth Valentine is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London, and an Honorary Research Fellow at UCL. [email protected]
Brown, W. (1910). Educational psychology in the secondary schools. Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, 7, 14–18.
Bullough, E. (1910). The ‘perceptive problem’ in the aesthetic appreciation of simple colour-combinations. British Journal of Psychology, 3, 406–447.
Edgell, B. (1947). The British Psychological Society. British Journal of Psychology, 37, 113–132.
Keatinge, M.W. (1907). Suggestion in education. Adams & Charles Black.
Keatinge, M.W. (1910). Studies in the teaching of history. Adams & Charles Black.
McAleavy, T. (1998). The use of sources in school history 1910–1998: A critical perspective. Teaching History, 91, 10–16.
Myers, C.S. (1936). Obituary notice. Dr A.F. Shand, 1858–1936. British Journal of Psychology, 26, 323–324.
Pinkerton, E. & Humphrey, N. (1974). The apparent heaviness of colours. Nature 250, no. 5462, 164–165.
Shand, A.F. (1914). The foundations of character. Macmillan.
Sharp, S.A. & Bray, A.P. (1980). W. H. Winch: A founder of the experimental approach in education. British Journal of Education Studies, 28, 34-45.
Stout, G.F. (1906). The nature of conation and mental activity. British Journal of Psychology, 2, 1–15.
Winch, W.H. (1908). The function of images. Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, 5, 337–352.
Winch, W.H. (1909). Conation and mental activity. Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, 6, 477–485.
On methods and silences
It cannot be often in recent years that three of the pivotal figures in the growth of critical social psychology have attended the same conference. But this year Mick Billig, Ken Gergen and John Shotter all attended the History and Philosophy Section’s conference at Oxford. Their presence set the tone: in his invited address Gergen discussed how to develop an enriched view of human interactions, Shotter presented ideas on relational information, and Billig participated in a group discussion of his new book The Hidden Roots of Critical Psychology. Together with papers on Bakhtin, existentialism, and dialogue, these talks highlighted the underappreciated overlap between many of the central issues in critical social psychology and those in more recent, specialist writings in history of psychology.
One area of potential shared concern is methods, and this was readily apparent in Geoff Bunn’s argument that discourse analysis can be part of the armoury of the historian – a line also pursued by Peter Lamont last year. In a lively discussion, the general consensus appeared to be that while there is no single, identifiable and uniquely historical method, accepting this is not the same as accepting that there is not a legitimate and defensible expertise in ‘doing history’. While colleagues in history departments take this as a given, it is not always the case within psychology.
Talk of discourse, relational being, dialogic philosophy and the culture of narcissism – all present this year – can give the impression that there is no room for conventional history or, for that matter more traditional forms of philosophy. But there is always room for
a thumping good story, something epitomised by Liz Valentine’s rich and engaging talk on the complex personal and institutional relations between Jessie Murray, Julia Turner and the Medico-Psychological Clinic. These names deserve to be more familiar to readers: their lives and achievements shed light not only on their times but on our own.
From one often ignored story, to the significance of absences and silences in psychologists’ writings: Peter Hegarty pointed out how Lewis Terman deliberately avoided writing about the sexual practices of gifted adolescents not because they were irrelevant but because to do so would have compromised presentation of such children as the ‘embodiment of goodness’. Silence has its functions. Imagine then Terman’s dismay when, in 1948, Kinsey claimed that more educationally able men (sic) tended to masturbate more. And how can you possibly follow that with anything except silence?
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