German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894) is widely acknowledged as one of the leading intellectuals and scientists of his time. Originally trained as a physiologist, Helmholtz contributed substantially to the fields of mathematics, physics, acoustics, ophthalmology, and the emerging science of psychology, amongst others. Not only did Helmholtz’s research interests cover a vast array of different topics, he furthermore paired his scientific endeavors with a continuous philosophical reflection upon the nature of science and knowledge, and of human cognition in general. Helmholtz’s philosophical interests were especially salient in his theory of perception, in which he attempted to reconcile his empirical viewpoint with insights derived from the idealist philosophies of Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottlieb Fichte. This dovetailing between empiricism and (transcendental) idealism has fascinated philosophers ever since the publication of Helmholtz’s work. Although Helmholtz famously rejected Kant’s theory of space, he considered his own theory of perception as a further elaboration and empirical confirmation of Kant’s and (to a lesser degree of) Fichte’s philosophical systems. Notwithstanding the abiding philosophical interest in the nature and extent of Helmholtz’s allegiance to German Idealism, the philosophical dimension of his work has not received the attention it deserves in the historiography of psychology. Revisiting Helmholtz’s intellectual relation to transcendental idealism, however, could not only help correct and enrich simplified accounts of his psychological and epistemological position, it furthermore provides a highly interesting illustration of the hitherto poorly understood relation between (neo-)Kantianism and the dawn of scientific psychology in 19th-century Germany.
Liesbet de Kock
Deborah Brown and Brian Key
Few practitioners or researchers in psychology would think of the 17th-century French philosopher, René Descartes, as the founding father of their discipline. Yet, it is difficult to see how psychology could have emerged as a discipline in its own right without the contributions of Descartes. Descartes’ theoretical and experimental contributions to our understanding of rationality, consciousness, sensation, feeling, attention, psychological self-regulation and voluntary action, and indeed the very concept of mind that lies at the heart of his philosophy, have been pivotal to the evolution of psychology since its emergence as a special science in the 19th-century. These contributions tend to get overshadowed by the unpalatable aspects of his dualism of mind and body and his denial of animal consciousness, doctrines for which he was and still is much pilloried. However, both doctrines are relevant to understanding how from its inception the subject matter and scope of psychological investigation was framed, for underlying the Cartesian concept of mind is not one dualism but two: a dualism of mind and body and a dualism of life and mind. The mind, for Descartes, could not be theorized on its own terms without conceiving of it at least to some extent independently of the physiological processes of the human body, on the one hand, and the life functions of biological organisms, on the other. Descartes’ legacy for psychology as a discipline is thus twofold. It created the conceptual space for the concept of mind to emerge as a threshold concept in its own right, distinct from the concept of matter that defined mechanics, and it demarcated those uniquely human capacities that enabled psychology to differentiate itself from the newly emerging evolutionary biology of the 19th-century, even though it would remain more closely aligned with biology than physics thenceforth. Without both dualisms of mind and body and life and mind, it is difficult to envisage how psychology as a special science distinct from anatomy and the life sciences could have emerged, and for this the discipline of psychology owes Monsieur Descartes a considerable debt.
Gabriel Ruiz and Natividad Sánchez
Transnational historiography, which emerged in the 1990s, covers historical phenomena that transcend the boundaries of the nation-state, analyzing the processes of circulation, transformation and hybridization of scientific ideas and practices across national frontiers. When scientific knowledge flows between different countries, the ideas that emerge in one particular national context adapt to the new local contexts of their hosts, with their particular cultural, social, political and scientific traditions. In psychology, the transnational approach provides a productive theoretical framework capable of going beyond the traditional US-centered perspective that has dominated the historiography of psychology since the mid-20th century. This US-based historiography has, for example, interpreted the historical influence of I. P. Pavlov in terms of two main factors: his methodological contribution—the conditioned reflex—and the existence of a behaviorist tradition in the receptor psychology community. However, a more global analysis questions the need for these two elements and, at the same time, offers insights into the conditions that facilitated or hindered the flow of Pavlovian science beyond the United States. Thus, for example, between 1903 and 1970 the dissemination and appropriation of the Pavlovian science of conditioned reflexes took two different routes: in America, scientific aspects and factors dominated; whereas elsewhere, politics prevailed over science. This happened in countries such as China, Cuba, and Spain, with dictatorial regimes at different ends of the political spectrum, where Pavlov’s work arrived under the auspices of government programs to modernize scientific and clinical institutions. Once Pavlov’s ideas had been introduced through reform programs in each country, they were accepted or rejected depending on whether the sign of the regime in question converged with the ideology prevailing in the Soviet Union, which it did in China and Cuba, but not in Spain. In these countries, where psychology did not have strong institutional roots and behaviorism was not a dominant approach, Pavlovian ideas found a receptive audience among health professionals-doctors, psychiatrists, and clinical psychologists - keen to embrace new ideas and treatments for mental disorders. Thus, from a transnational perspective, the global repercussion of Pavlov’s ideas went far beyond the strictly methodological sphere.