Historical psychology claims that the mind has a history, that is, that our ways of thinking, reasoning, perceiving, feeling, and acting are not necessarily universal or invariable, but are instead subject to modifications over time and space. The theoretical and methodological foundations of this movement were laid in France by psychologist Ignace Meyerson in his book Les fonctions psychologiques et les œuvres, published in 1948. His program stressed the active, experimental, constructive nature of human behavior, spanning behavioral registers as diverse as the linguistic, the religious, the juridical, the scientific/technical, and the artistic. All these behaviors involve aspects of different mental functions that we can infer through a proper analysis of “works,” considered as consolidated testimonies of human activity. As humanity’s successive achievements, constructed over the length of all the paths of the human experience, they are the materials with which psychology has to deal.
Meyerson refused to propose an inventory of functions to study. As unstable and imperfect products of a complex and uncertain undertaking, they can be analyzed only by avoiding the counterproductive prejudice of metaphysical fixism. Meyerson spoke in these terms of both deep transformations of feelings, of the person, or of the will, and of the so-called “basic functions,” such as perception and the imaginative function, including memory, time, space, and object.
Before Meyerson the term “historical psychology” had already been used by historians like Henri Berr and Lucien Febvre, a founding member of the Annales school, who firmly envisioned a sort of collective psychology of times past. Meyerson and his disciples eventually vied with their fellow historians of the Annales school for the label of “historical psychology” and criticized their notions of mentality and outillage mental. The Annales historians gradually abandoned the label, although they continued to cultivate the idea that mental operations and emotions have a history through the new labels of a “history of mentalities” and, more recently at the turn of the century, a “history of emotions.” While Meyerson and a few other psychologists kept using the “historical psychology” label, however, mainstream psychology remained quite oblivious to this historical focus. The greatest efforts made today among psychologists to think of our mental architecture in terms of transformation over time and space are probably to be found in the work of Kurt Danziger and Roger Smith.