Historical dimensions of psychological discourse
As a child of modernist culture, psychological science has treated historical inquiry with little more than tolerant civility. Psychology has been an enterprise struggling to develop a compelling rationale, seeking to establish productive paradigms, and desirous of the respect of more established sciences. From its vantage point, the discipline had no history worthy of extensive attention.
Further, because of its newly fashioned commitment to empiricism, preceding scholarship of the mind was necessarily impaired. In an important sense the past was a shroud to be cast away. Psychologists might scan the preceding centuries in search of interesting hypotheses, but the results would most likely confirm the widely shared suspicion that contemporary research was far superior in its conclusions. To be sure, there were reasons for sustaining a small cadre of historians, but their task was ancillary to the scientific project itself.
Theirs was primarily to chronicle the progress of the science, along with the deeds that would secure for posterity the contributions of the visionaries and achievers.
Although psychology as a discipline has remained robustly committed to 1930s conceptions of its nature as science, historically oriented psychologists have ceased to be content with their role as company scribes. Rather, as the conceptions of science and of history have evolved more generally in academic culture, historical psychologists – joined by psychologically oriented historians – have vitally transformed the view of their mission. And this newly emerging view of historical analysis has dramatic implications for the conception of psychological science and its future. At their extreme, contemporary arguments reverse the positions of master and servant.
Rather than scientific research serving as the originating master of knowledge, to which history must necessarily be the servant, we find that historical analysis furnishes the necessary prerequisite for any form of sophisticated psychological inquiry. On these grounds, scientific theory cannot extricate itself from history; rather, psychological understanding is itself a servant to historical and cultural processes. Without a reflexive understanding of historical context, the field moves aimlessly into the future.
To appreciate the force and implications of such views, it is useful to consider three important lines of contributing inquiry: the erosion of empiricist foundationalism, the social construction of knowledge, and ideological critique.
List of contributors
1 Psychological discourse in historical context: An introduction
Part I Disciplining psychological discourse
Part II History as culture critique
Part III Early antecedents
Part IV Lived history
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