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date: 04 March 2021

James McCosh: Bridge Builder Between Old and New Psychologylocked

  • Elissa N. RodkeyElissa N. RodkeyCrandall University, Department of Psychology

Summary

James McCosh (b. 1811–d. 1894) was a contributor to early American psychology, writing several books on the topic of mental science. Born in Scotland, he immigrated to America in 1868 to serve as the president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). There he promoted science and welcomed the new psychology that was emerging, even supporting his students to pursue psychology graduate study in Europe. McCosh saw faith and science as compatible and embraced theistic evolution as in keeping with Christian theology. McCosh’s psychological works (The Intuitions of the Mind Inductively Investigated; The Emotions; Psychology: The Cognitive Powers; and Psychology: The Motive Powers) were all relied on Scottish-Realist informed inductive methodology, used to map the functions of the mind and uncover mental laws. Although McCosh believed the new psychology had the potential for a dangerous materialism if wrongly interpreted, he thought the new physiological and laboratory research was valuable and worth pursuing. His last major work (Psychology: The Cognitive Powers) attempted to integrate recent physiological psychology research into his mental philosophy methods.

McCosh has traditionally been omitted from histories of psychology, but modern scholarship has noted his absence and explored the reasons for this. Scholars generally agree that there was significant continuity between the old mental and moral philosophy and the new experimental psychology in a number of respects. The new psychologists, in attempting to professionalize and define their discipline, sought to erase their dependence on earlier forms of American psychology. Thus, it is more accurate to understand neglect of McCosh not as a sign of his irrelevance or hostility to psychology but as a historical product of the emergence of a distinct American psychology. His erasure points to the new psychologists’ uneasiness with their folk American elements and their efforts to achieve scientific status as they worked to indigenize German experimental psychology. Given his actions at Princeton, McCosh is rightly understood as a bridge builder between old and new psychology.

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