Textbook histories

'A History of Modern Psychology' by Per Saugstad (Cambridge University Press; Hb £115), and 'Our Minds, Our Selves: A Brief History of Psychology' by Keith Oatley (Princeton University Press; Hb £24); reviewed by Adrian C. Brock.

Per Saugstad and Keith Oatley, neither specialists in the history of psychology, both wrote their books in retirement. There is a long tradition of psychologists taking an interest in the history of psychology after they retire, presumably because they have become aware of the passage of time. There is also a long tradition of amateur historians of psychology that dates back to Boring (1929) and beyond.

While Saugstad’s book is described on the cover as a ‘global’ and ‘comprehensive’ history of psychology, it covers only a few European countries and the United States (Brock, 2006), featuring the usual figures such as Helmholtz, Wundt, Galton, James, Pavlov, Binet and Freud. Oatley’s book, on the other hand, differs from other textbooks. It is organised around topics rather than psychologists and their theories, and takes an interdisciplinary approach. Oatley suggests that ‘psychology is better not kept as a separate science, but rather that it needs to be integrated with other disciplines’. He puts this view into practice by incorporating discussion of artificial intelligence, anthropological research, and the work of literary figures like Shakespeare, Coleridge and Chekhov.

There is a market for this non-specialist literature because, as surveys have shown (e.g. Brock & Harvey, 2015), most psychologists who teach the history of psychology are not specialists either and can more easily identify with a textbook written by someone in a similar position. The authors tend to present broad overviews of psychology that reflect their particular approach to the subject. Non-specialist books often contain the same mistakes (Thomas, 2007) because they are based mainly on other textbooks rather than historical research. This is why historians of science like Kuhn (1970) refer to a specific genre of ‘textbook history’ that is different from historical scholarship.  

There are alternatives. Textbooks by respected historians of psychology in North America include those by Fancher and Rutherford (2016), Pickren and Rutherford (2010) and Walsh, Teo and Baydala (2014). As for British authors, there are the textbooks of Richards (2010) and Smith (2013) – the latter an eminent historian of science. These books meet the professional standards that are taken for granted in other areas of psychology, yet sometimes neglected in the history of psychology.

- Reviewed by Adrian C. Brock, honorary research associate at the University of Cape Town

Boring, E.G. (1929). A history of experimental psychology. New York: Century.
Brock, A.C. (2006). Introduction. In A.C. Brock (Ed.), Internationalizing the history of psychology (pp. 1-15). New York: New York University Press.
Brock, A.C. & Harvey, M. (2015). The status of the history of psychology course in British and Irish psychology departments. European Yearbook of the History of Psychology, 1, 13–36.
Fancher, R.E. & Rutherford, A. (2016). Pioneers of psychology (5th ed.). New York: Norton.
Kuhn, T.S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Pickren, W.E. & Rutherford, A. (2010). A history of psychology in context. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley.
Richards, G. (2010). Putting psychology in its place: Critical historical perspectives (3rd ed.). London: Routledge.
Smith, R. (2013). Between mind and nature: A history of psychology. London: Reaktion Books.
Thomas, R.K. (2007). Recurring errors among recent history of psychology textbooks. American Journal of Psychology, 120, 477–495.
Walsh, R.T.G., Teo. T. & Baydala, A. (2014). A critical history and philosophy of psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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