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date: 21 June 2021

The Concept of Crisis in the History of Western Psychologyfree

The Concept of Crisis in the History of Western Psychologyfree

  • Martin WieserMartin WieserSigmund Freud Privat Universität Berlin, Department of Psychology


With roots that range from medicine to politics, to jurisdiction and historiography in ancient Greece, the concept of “crisis” played an eminent role in the founding years of Western academic psychology and continued to be relevant during its development in the 19th and 20th century. “Crisis” conveys the idea of an imminent danger of disintegration and breakdown, as well as a pivotal turning point with the chance of a new beginning. To this day, both levels of meaning are present in psychological discourses. Early diagnoses of a state of “crisis” of psychology date back to the end of the 19th century and focused on the question of the correct metaphysical foundation of psychology. During the interwar period, warnings of a disintegration of the discipline reached their first climax in German academia, when many eminent psychologists expressed their worries about the increasing fragmentation of the discipline. The rise of totalitarian systems in the 1930s brought an end to these debates, silencing the theoretical polyphony with physical violence. The 1960s saw a resurgence of “crisis literature” and the emergence of a more positive connotation of the concept in U.S.-American experimental psychology, when it was connected with Thomas Kuhn’s ideas of scientific “revolutions” and “paradigm shifts.” Since that time, psychological crisis literature has revolved around the question of unity, disunity, and the scientific status of the discipline. Although psychological crisis literature showed little success in solving the fundamental problems it addressed, it still provides one of the most theoretically rich and thought-provoking bodies of knowledge for theoretical and historical analyses of the discipline.


  • History and Systems of Psychology


The etymological root of the concept of crisis in ancient Greek, κρίσις‎ (“decision or choice,” from κρινω‎: “part, separate, disconnect”) referred to a short (“critical”) period of time when an ultimate decision had to be made that required a choice between irreversible consequences, or a climax which could either result in the total destruction or a new beginning. In Hippocratic medicine, κρίσις‎ described the turning point of a disease, from which either recovery or death would follow. In military contexts, the concept referred to the tipping point of a battle. Aristotle used the term to describe political judgments concerning important public affairs (Koselleck, 1995). This meaning of “crisis” as a moment that determines all subsequent events is still prevalent in modern academic psychology, for example, in the works of Erik Erikson (1959), who described the development of the human personality as a series of eight “psychosocial crises” that every individual is supposed to master during the course of life. Since the 1970s, the popular concept of “midlife crisis” is used somewhat similarly (Schmidt, 2017) in the sense that it refers to nothing intrinsically extraordinary or pathological, but a necessary (or at least common) stage of development that involves a chance for further growth, but also a risk of mental deterioration and social relegation. In clinical-psychological contexts (e.g., in psychological crisis intervention), the concept of crisis usually has a more negative connotation, as it is traditionally used in this context to describe extraordinary and often life-threatening experiences that can pose a serious threat for mental health and cause various symptoms of traumatization (e.g., mood and sleep disorders, flashbacks, etc.).

Within the broad spectrum of all different (and sometimes contradictory) meanings of “crisis,” this work focuses on the genesis and development of this concept as it was used and discussed in Western academic psychology. A state of “crisis” of the discipline was called out almost on a regular basis through the history of psychology (beginning even before psychology was established as an independent academic discipline), but the denotation and connotation of what this “crisis” means has shifted repeatedly. It is not in the scope of this article to cover all variants of psychological crisis literature that came up in all the different psychological schools, currents, or subdisciplines. Instead, it provides the reader with a broad overview and critical understanding of the historical development and rhetorical function of psychological crisis literature as far as it was concerned with the state of psychology as a whole.

Early Diagnoses of a “Crisis” in Academic Psychology

One of the first academics who saw the young and rapidly growing field of experimental psychology in a state of crisis was the Swiss philosopher Rudolf Willy, a student and follower of Richard Avenarius. Almost 20 years had gone by since Wilhelm Wundt established the first institute of experimental psychology in Leipzig, yet Willy saw psychology still “lying deeply in the fetters of speculation even today” (Willy, 1897, p. 79). For Willy, the main obstacle of contemporary psychology was the fact that psychological research was still laden with metaphysical presuppositions and ideas. Because “experience and metaphysics . . . do not just exclude, but even negate each other,” as Willy argued, the prevalence of metaphysics in psychological research would inflict “infinite damage” (Willy, 1897, p. 80) to psychology. Willy did not just address Wilhelm Wundt, but also attacked other influential psychologists such as Carl Stumpf, Johannes Rehmke, Theodor Lipps, and Franz Brentano. Two years later, Willy published the first book about the “crisis in psychology” (Willy, 1899), wherein he proposed the solution of the “metaphysical-methodological crisis” of the discipline by turning toward the empiriocriticism of Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius, a position that, according to Willy, would enable psychologists to overcome the pitfalls of dualism and materialism by only accepting “pure experience” as psychology’s foundation (cf. Mülberger, 2012).

As was mentioned in the introduction, the Greek word Κρίσις‎ referred to an objective process heading toward a deciding turning point as well as a subjective judgment or decision (as it is performed by a judge, a politician, or a military leader). Although the latter has been commonly described as a “critique” since the 17th century (Röttgers, 1995), a close relationship between both concepts still lingers on. In the preface of his eminent work “Critique of Pure Experience,” Willy’s teacher Avenarius declared that it was Kant’s understanding of critique that led him toward the recognition of a crisis in philosophy: “It was critique that became crisis for me.” However, Avenarius’s “crisis” conveyed a much more positive outlook than that of his student: “Perhaps it also helps somebody else to a pleasant [wohltätig] crisis, or helps him out of one that is unpleasant” (Avenarius, 1888, p. XIII). In the case of Avenarius, it was critique that led him to a crisis, whereas Willy’s critique was supposed to reveal and heal a crisis that already existed before. The “critical” revelation was supposed to lead the way out of the crisis: “By acknowledging the crisis, the crisis will disappear” (Willy, 1899, p. 5).

Wilhelm Wundt, however, played the ball right back to Willy and Avenarius, as he accused them of following a “peculiar metaphysical method” of their own, a method that, in Wundt’s perspective, is blinding out its own premises. He described empiriocriticism as “primarily a metaphysical system in which criticism plays a rather small role” (Wundt, 1898, p. 2). Meanwhile, the philosopher and theologian Constantin Gutberlet expressed his amusement as he observed “the truly delightful spectacle when various representatives of empiricism all accuse each other of metaphysics.” Despite the sarcastic remarks, Gutberlet bemoaned the fact that “philosophers use metaphysics, the most sublime, most necessary and most certain of all sciences, as an insult with which one believes to be able to attach a flaw to one’s opponent” (Gutberlet, 1898, p. 121). In this way, the first debate on psychology’s crisis shifted from the question of whether or not there is metaphysics within psychology toward the problem of which kind of metaphysics should be acceptable, a question that—unsurprisingly—did not reach any consent.

Willy’s first diagnosis of a metaphysical and methodological crisis of academic psychology fell into an era of increasing disassociation between philosophy and psychology, a separation that was not always carried out in mutual consent (cf. Kusch, 1995). Although Wilhelm Wundt vehemently argued that psychology was better off under the umbrella of philosophy (Wundt, 1913), Neo-Kantian philosophers such as Wilhelm Windelband publicly polemicized against experimental psychologists who would “keep their distance from the big problems of life, the political, religious and social questions,” while focusing on small-scale methodological problems to “prove that some people need more time to remember something than others” (Windelband, 1909, pp. 92–93). This dispute between psychologists and philosophers culminated in the publication of a manifesto in the famous philosophical journal Kant-Studien in 1913. More than one hundred eminent philosophers from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland demanded the establishment of distinct chairs and faculties for empirically oriented psychologists to prevent them from taking away those from “real” philosophers (“Eine Kundgebung,” 1913). Although many, if not most, psychologists certainly would have also welcomed the creation of independent psychological chairs and institutes, it did take another 30 years until academic psychology gained independence on the level of the university: In 1941, in the midst of World War II, a National Study Program for Psychologists was established for the first time in German history (Geuter, 1988). Between that time and Willy’s first declaration of psychology’s crisis, the institutional status of the discipline was far from secure, and the recurring emergence of psychological crisis literature can be interpreted as a clear sign of this disciplinary insecurity.

In the meantime, psychological crisis literature began to emerge in France (Binet, 1911; Chazottes, 1902; Kostyleff, 1911; Rageot, 1908) and Italy (De Sanctis, 1912; De Sarlo, 1914). Kostyleff’s book La crise de la psychologie expérimentale treated the topic most extensively. He was less worried about metaphysical problems than the fact that experimental psychology began to branch out into an increasing number of rivaling schools. The solution, in Kostyleff’s view, was to be found in the Russian “objective psychology” of Bechterev, a branch of experimental psychology that heavily drew on the reflex as the basic unit of psychological investigation. Neither Kostyleff’s suggestion nor the other contributions provoked much of a debate, as the diversity of psychological schools was rather welcomed than worried about in most parts of French and Italian academia (cf. Carson, 2012; Proietto & Lombardo, 2015). Yet, Kostyleff’s book was the first one that explicitly identified the undirected growth of the discipline as the most urgent problem of modern psychology.

The Rise of “Crisis Literature” in the Interwar Era

After the loss of World War I, a new type of crisis literature became particularly popular in interwar Germany. As the academic elite of the once so prestigious German universities feared to lose their public reputation and moral high ground between the rising working class and influential corporate leaders (cf. Ringer, 1969), the cause for moral “degradation” was found in modern-day technology and their spiritual equivalents, mechanicism and materialism. In 1913, the industrialist, politician, and later foreign minister Walther Rathenau published Zur Kritik der Zeit [On the critique of time] (Rathenau, 1913), and five years later Zur Mechanik des Geistes [On the mechanics of the mind] (Rathenau, 1918). Both works presented a radical critique of the disintegration of modern capitalist mass societies. Although Rathenau still saw a possible escape from moral deterioration and materialism in the neo-romantic utopia of an “empire of the soul,” other authors showed a much more pessimistic attitude in regards to the future of the industrialized Western societies: Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes [The decline of the West] (Spengler, 1918) became immensely popular after World War I, and Max Weber’s famous lecture “Wissenschaft als Beruf” [Science as a Profession] from 1917 (Weber, 1922), wherein Weber saw the potential of science to provide any moral guidelines for living, were widely discussed in Germany. Edmund Husserl’s unfinished last work from 1936, “The crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology” (Husserl, 1970) also lamented that philosophy had been replaced by specialized small-scale disciplines and the philosophy of positivism, which resulted in a disconnection between science and the pre-theoretical, subjective “lifeworld” of everyday life. Popular writers such as Ludwig Klages (1929) criticized the “disintegration” of the personality and the loss of traditional values in modernity. This critique was based on his contrasting of the primal “soul” and “character” on the one side and the modern “mind” or “intellect” on the other, a position which fervently condemned cold-blooded scientific rationalization and mechanization of all areas of modern life. Psychology and psychological concepts played a central role in this collective “search for wholeness” (Harrington, 1996), although it often remained unclear how it was supposed to do so.

While many cultural critics turned to psychology in search of a resort from the dark sides of modernity, psychology struggled more and more to find itself. Even before the turn of the century, Wilhelm Dilthey (1894) had attacked experimental psychology as a misguided endeavor that “disintegrated” the “structured wholeness” of the person. Herrmann Ebbinghaus (1896) countered Dilthey’s attack and defended the natural-scientific, “explanatory” approach within psychology, as he saw no need for Dilthey’s proposal of a second, “descriptive” psychology based on the arts and humanities. Thirty years later, the philosopher and pedagogue Eduard Spranger repeated Dilthey’s argument and claimed that “psychology has again entered a stage of the most severe upheavals of its foundations; indeed, it almost seems as if a division into two psychologies should result from it” (Spranger, 1974, p. 1). When psychoanalysis entered the arena and new psychological currents or schools emerged in North America (functionalism and behaviorism), Germany (Gestalt psychology in Frankfurt and Berlin, holistic psychology in Leipzig, “thought psychology” in Würzburg), and the Soviet Union (reactology, reflexology, and cultural-historical psychology), a common and integrating conceptual and methodological foundation of psychology seemed to be further away than ever before.

It was against this historical background of a rising distrust against modernity, as well as the proliferation of different psychological schools, theories, and methods, that Karl Bühler published his eminent paper “The Crisis of Psychology” (Bühler, 1926), which was extended into a book one year later (Bühler, 1927). Bühler’s book starts out with the famous words: “Never before have there been so many psychologies, so many approaches on their own, together at the same time. One is sometimes reminded of the story of the tower of Babel” (Bühler, 1927, p. 1). In contrast to Willy, Bühler did not find the root of psychology’s crisis in misguided metaphysical presuppositions, but in the multitude (and contradiction) of psychological theories and methods. However, psychology’s crisis, in Bühler’s perspective, was not necessarily a sign of its demise:

A quickly acquired and still unresolved wealth of new ideas, new approaches and research opportunities have provoked the critical [krisenartig] state of psychology. It is . . . not a crisis of decay, but of construction, an embarras de richesse.

(Bühler, 1927, p. 1)

After the downfall of association psychology at the end of the 19th century, Bühler argued, psychology lost its common foundation while it was also growing rapidly. Bühler’s answer to the “unresolved wealth of new ideas” was his theory of the “three aspects of one object.” In Bühler’s framework, “experience” (which is investigated via experimentally controlled introspection), “conduct” (as it is observed by the behaviorist) and the “objective mind” (the material results of collective interaction that are reconstructed by interpretative psychology) are interpreted as three “aspects” of one object, that is, the human psyche. According to Bühler, the three “perspectives” (experiential, behavioral, and interpretational) should not be understood as approaches that exclude one another, but rather as complementary: “Experience, behaviour and cultural products are largely independent variables, and yet somehow they belong together and constitute a higher unity” (Bühler, 1927, p. 64). In Bühler’s view, psychology’s crisis should be interpreted as an inducement to find a common language for these three perspectives. However, as open and conciliatory as Bühler’s attempt to integrate different perspectives might appear, it did not accept all psychological currents alike, as he rejected and excluded the psychoanalytic perspective in the same book.

Reactions to Bühler’s analyses differed considerably. Wilhelm Wirth, a former assistant of Wundt in Leipzig, contested Bühler’s diagnosis of a crisis and emphasized the “steadiness of the development of our science” (Wirth, 1926, p. 110). The pedagogue and psychoanalyst Siegfried Bernfeld agreed with Bühler’s diagnosis but located psychoanalysis in the center of—and not apart from—competing psychological schools and currents: “They all have to distance themselves from psychoanalysis . . . but the truth . . . is that psychology is unthinkable without Freud” (Bernfeld, 1931, p. 177). Franz Scola from Prague praised Bühler’s scholarly and thoughtful analysis of contemporary psychology but refuted the idea that psychology should integrate different “aspects,” as he considered only one psychological perspective as necessary. Psychology, as Scola argued “is constituted solely by the aspect of internal perception; and in view of the object ‘psyche’ appearing under this aspect, the question of a unity of our science behind the three ‘aspects’ is unnecessary” (Scola, 1931, p. 174).

Published in the same year as Bühler’s monograph, Hans Driesch’s book Basic Problems of Psychology: Its Crisis in the Present started out with the assertion that “no science is as ‘problematic’ today as psychology” (Driesch, 1926, p. 1). The most important unresolved “basic problems” were, in Driesch’s view, the problem of the relationship between body and mind, the problem of the unconscious, the question of parapsychology, and the problem of general laws of the mind. Driesch strongly advocated for the integration of vitalism and “holistic biology” to resolve these “basic problems.” In his view, these problems were caused by the prevalence of mechanistic presuppositions in academic psychology. Mechanicism—a legacy of association psychology, as Driesch emphasized—could not explain the existence of activity, structure, sense, and meaning in the human psyche. Although the eminent Gestalt psychologists Kurt Koffka agreed with Driesch that there is a crisis in psychology, and shared his critique of mechanicism and association psychology, he strongly rejected Driesch’s proposed neo-vitalist solution. Koffka emphasized that “Driesch does not speak for psychology. Psychology’s crisis . . . can only be overcome through research, like the natural scientist does it” (Koffka, 1926, p. 586). Koffka’s concept of “natural science,” however, differed from a traditional view insofar as it was supposed to include “wholeness” and “structure” in its vocabulary (cf. Ash, 1995).

In the meantime, unbeknownst to and independently from Bühler and Driesch, a young Russian psychologist had formulated his own perspective on the problematic state of psychology: Lev Vygotsky’s essay “The Historical meaning of the Crisis of Psychology” (Vygotsky, 1997) was also written in 1927. To surmount the fragmented state of the discipline and the confusing variety of its methodologies, Vygotsky argued, psychology needed to leave “idealist” philosophy behind and rest its foundations on dialectics and historical materialism. Just as Bühler, he interpreted the crisis as a chance for the discipline to mature and grow. In contrast to Bühler, however, he rejected the idea of synthesizing existing approaches and schools, as he emphasized their incompatible conceptual and epistemological foundations. In Vygotsky’s view, only a completely new, systematic, materialist, and practically oriented foundation could help psychology become a proper science. Although Vygotsky’s essay remained unfinished and was first translated to English only 70 years after it was written (Vygotsky, 1997), it still stands as a key text on the theoretical foundation of cultural-historical psychology (Slunecko & Wieser, 2014) and its critique of Western academic psychology (Hyman, 2012).

It seems remarkable that so many authors agreed that psychology was in a problematic state during the interwar era, yet absolutely no consent could be reached as to what caused the crisis or how it could be solved. One outstanding aspect of the crisis literature of the interwar era was that all authors used the diagnosis of a crisis to push their own agenda on how it could be overcome, while accusing competing schools or currents as incapable of identifying the “real” causes or the proper solution of the crisis. Ten years after Bühler published his book on the topic, his assessment was much more pessimistic than before:

If you look at contemporary theoretical psychology, you get a picture like I drew it 10 years ago in the “crisis.” Not one, but many psychologies stand side by side and against each other. And whoever wants to unite them grasps with horror that it is not possible, because there is a discrepancy between concepts . . .

(Bühler, 1969, p. 180)

The first heyday of psychological “crisis literature” did not put forth any consent on how the crisis could be overcome, but it certainly did motivate and bring together a large group of psychologists and philosophers from different schools and currents to critically reflect on the methodological and epistemological presuppositions of their discipline. Even representatives from early applied psychology (“psychotechnics,” as it was called then) joined the discussion and reflected on the consequences of psychology’s crisis for the profession (Juhàsz, 1929).

Finally, not arguments, but violence brought an end to the first phase of crisis literature in Europe: After the rise of National Socialism, about a third of psychologists were killed, detained, or expelled from German and Austrian universities, and those who stayed either adapted their theories and practices to the new political and ideological agenda (Ash, 2002) or remained silent. After racist and political persecution and ideological Gleichschaltung eradicated most of the blooming intellectual landscape, the Austrian psychologist Peter Hofstätter added the last comment to the first chapter of psychology’s “crisis.” While the war raged over the continent, Hofstätter saw psychology’s only chance for survival in the adaption to the new “spiritual attitude [Seelenhaltung] of the nation” and the readjustment toward the “primate of the practice” (Hofstätter, 1941, p. 573; cf. Gundlach, 2012). Although debates on psychology’s foundations were silenced and theoretical work was mostly confined to racial psychology, characterology, and holistic psychology [Ganzheitspsychologie], applied psychology flourished. In the Wehrmacht, psychologists offered their services to select high-ranked officers and specialists (Geuter, 1988). In the war industry, industrial psychologists helped to select forced laborers, women, and prisoners; and in clinical contexts, the first “counselling psychologists” were trained during the war (Cocks, 1997). In the face of omnipresent violence, as it seems, the question of how to deal with the plurality and contradictoriness of psychological knowledge had solved itself.

“Crises” and “Revolutions” in the 1960s and 1970s

After the end of World War II, it did not take long until a new generation of psychologists saw the need for a structural renewal, if not a revolution, of their discipline. The starting point for the next wave of psychological crisis literature was in North America, where critical evaluations on the methodological, theoretical, and (lack of) practical dimensions of psychology had been debated since the founding years of the “New Psychology” at the end of the 19th century. As early as 1892, William James had expressed his doubt that “psychology as it stands to-day, is a natural science, or in an exact way a science at all.” Instead, he “wished, by treating Psychology like a natural science, to help her to become one” (James, 1892, p. 146). However, in North America, the concept of crisis did not play such an important role in the debates between structuralism, functionalism and behaviorism as it did in Europa at the same time. Even John Watson’s “behaviorist manifesto,” which presented one of the fiercest attacks on the goals and methods of experimental psychology ever to be published (Watson, 1913), saw many shortcomings of the discipline—but not a crisis. During the “Golden Age” of behaviorism and operationalism in U.S.-American psychology, which lasted approximately from the 1920s to the 1950s, most experimental psychologists found their day-to-day task in the observation and control of animal behavior, and little concerns about the foundations of the discipline were raised (although behaviorism was not as homogenous as it is often presented in retrospective, cf. Leahey, 2001).

The 1960s saw a rapid change of the intellectual and psychological landscape, a turnover which was mirrored by a new wave of crisis literature in psychology. Several reasons for this resurgence can be named: First off, the 1960s saw a rise of diverse protest movements in North America, such as the anti-Vietnam War movement, the civil rights movement, second-wave feminism, the antipsychiatry movement, hippie culture, and many other variants of counterculture. As divergent as these groups and their goals might have been, there was one thing they had in common: they were strongly opposed to the social norm of “adjustment” as the ideal for mental health and social well-being. Many of these movements, such as the movement for “human potential” (which was centered at the Esalen-Institute in California) showed a strong interest in psychological topics and practices. However, the dominating branches of experimental psychology (classical and neo-behaviorism as proposed by Clark Hull and B. F. Skinner) and psychoanalysis (dominated by ego psychology, which focused on defense mechanisms and the strengthening of the ego against the id) had little to offer for these movements. Well-established psychologists and psychotherapists who worked for the government and big corporations were identified as a part of the oppressive establishment. As “architects of adjustment” (Napoli, 1981) who worked in powerful institutions such as psychiatric wards, prisons, or schools, they were seen as psychological assistants of an oppressive system. Calls for a “revolution” of societal order and thinking were taken up by psychology students who were dissatisfied with the ideals of control and adjustment. They searched for a different kind of “revolutionary” psychological knowledge, a knowledge that was not designed around the problems of social control of adjustment.

Secondly, besides cultural uprisings, technological progress at the dawn of the cold war made behaviorism and its “slot-machine” model of the human organism look helplessly outdated. Concepts of cybernetics (Wiener, 1948) and information theory (Shannon, 1948) such as “input,” “output,” “feedback,” “storage,” and “filter” became immensely popular in the natural and social sciences. The interdisciplinary “Macy Conferences,” which were held in New York from 1946 to 1953, played an important part in this context, as they brought together proponents from many different disciplines, with the aim of formulating a universal science of the structure and functions of the human mind (Bowker, 1993). As cybernetics used the same language to analyze and describe technological, biological, and social “feedback systems,” it transgressed traditional disciplinary boundaries and fueled the hope for an objective and computable language that described mental processes. Calls for a cognitive “revolution” within psychology would not have been possible without the rise of cybernetics, information theory, and computing machines, and the hopes that were connected with these technological innovations in the 1960s.

Thirdly, the new outlook of psychology’s crisis was strongly influenced by the physicist and historian Thomas Kuhn, whose study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was widely discussed immediately after its publication in 1962. Based on his historical analysis of the development of physics, chemistry, astronomy, and biology, Kuhn interpreted scientific progress as a process that passes through different stages: In a pre-paradigmatic state, different currents and schools of thought are competing with each other, aiming to expand their scope while trying to usurp their competitors. After one school manages to dominate the field and reach a “paradigmatic” state, the stage of “normal science” commences. In this stage, most proponents of a discipline follow (and teach their students) a coherent set of concepts and methods while working on commonly recognized problems (or “puzzles,” as Kuhn calls them) that have not been solved yet. At a certain stage, however, unexpected results or “anomalies” are discovered through this graduate process of “puzzle solving.” If the anomalies prove to be reproducible and incompatible with the existing paradigm, alternative explanations are sought. As the search for a solution to the persisting unsolved “puzzles” advances, some scientists come up with radically new solutions and completely different perspectives. These new solutions often put doubt on the first principles, the established methods, or even the definition of relevant “problems” of the existing paradigm. In this way, the discovery of anomalies can lead to a struggle between different explanatory frameworks—the discipline now has entered the short, but ground-breaking stage of “crisis.” As the dominance of the old paradigm is broken, the “crisis loosens the rules of normal puzzle-solving in ways that ultimately permit a new paradigm to emerge” (Kuhn, 1996, p. 80). Ultimately, the crisis leads to a scientific “revolution,” Kuhn argues, a radical change in the scientific worldview. This process is also described in terms of a “Gestalt switch” by Kuhn: “At times of revolution, when the normal-scientific tradition changes, the scientist’s perception of his environment must be re-educated—in some familiar situations he must learn to see a new gestalt” (Kuhn, 1996, p. 112). In contrast to Karl Popper’s theory of falsification, Kuhn proposed a model of scientific progress that does not gradually accumulate knowledge over time by testing one hypothesis after the other, but repeatedly shifts through phases of “normal science,” “crises,” and “revolutions.” Following Kuhn, an accumulation of knowledge in a traditional sense is only possible within a paradigm. As soon as this paradigm is left behind, however, all the “puzzles” that were once regarded as “solved” might need to be looked at again. The “incommensurability” of different paradigms prevents a simple transfer or accumulation of knowledge between different paradigms.

Kuhn’s notions of “crises” and scientific “revolutions” not only resonated with the broader cultural climate of the 1960s in the United States but also coincided with the rise of a new generation of American and British psychologists (such as Donald Broadbent, Ulric Neisser, George A. Miller, Jerome Bruner) who aimed to transgress the conceptual and methodological boundaries of behaviorism by drawing on cybernetics concepts and imagery (Wieser & Slunecko, 2013). To justify their breaking with the discipline’s past, some proponents of cognitive psychology adopted Kuhn’s terms and declared that a “cognitive revolution” was taking place in psychology (Palermo, 1971; Segal & Lachman, 1972; Weimer & Palermo, 1973; Buss, 1978; Dember, 1978). Although Kuhn was skeptical whether contemporary psychology could be defined as a “paradigmatic” science (which would be a necessary ingredient for a revolution taking place), and although there were no widely accepted unsolved “puzzles” or “anomalies”—at least in the eyes of behaviorists, who dominated the field in the United States until then—Kuhn’s positive notions of “crisis” and “revolution” (which were pictured as the true motors of scientific progress) seemed to perfectly match with the needs and goals of cognitive psychologists at that point in time:

Participating in a scientific revolution at the same time as a political one unified personal and professional lives, heightened the romantic sense of making epochal change, and made the changing times that much more exciting. Surely, it was satisfying to attack tenured old fogies, supported by a scholarly reference to “Kuhn, 1962.”

(Leahey, 1992, p. 315; see also Green, 2004)

Although Thomas Kuhn’s work still stands as a classic of its own, it was also strongly criticized for its unclear use of the concept of “paradigm” and challenged by historians and philosophers for other reasons as well (cf. Lakatos & Musgrawe, 1970). Cognitive psychologists mostly ignored the debates about the weaknesses of Kuhn’s analysis (and his kinship to logical positivism, cf. Friedman, 1999), as they preferred to interpret his description of scientific progress as an instruction on how to turn psychology into a proper science (Driver-Linn, 2003). It still remains somewhat paradoxical that psychology’s textbooks speak of the “cognitive revolution” of the 1960s (as if it was unanimously clear that there had been a “revolution”) while skipping the question whether there had been any “crisis” in a Kuhnian sense beforehand. A classic example of this narrative can be found in the 2014 reprint of Ulric Neisser’s Cognitive Psychology from 1967. In it, the author does not mention the concept of “crisis,” but heavily draws on the idea of the historical necessity of a revolution in the 1960s: “The cognitive movement was a scientific revolution and Cognitive Psychology became the rallying cry for the cognitive revolution. In the 1950s and 60s, Psychology needed a scientific revolution. In Kuhnian terms, the field was ready” (Hyman, in Neisser, 2014, p. xv).

Not all psychologists agreed with the rhetoric of the “revolution” of the 1960s and the uncritical reproduction of this narrative in the following decades. As early as in 1972, Neil Warren lamented the “idle chatter in loose Kuhnian terms about psychology these days” and pointed out that the “vague, varied, and cavalier usage of the concept of paradigm bears little relation to Kuhn’s original conception” (Warren, 1972, p. 1196). Jerome Bruner (1990) and Jean-Pierre Dupuy (2009) argued that the revolution did happen, but it had lost its scope and former critical orientation. Worst of all, the cognitive turn failed to integrate subjectivity and the key category of “meaning” into psychology. As Bruner argued, it “had been diverted from its originating impulse by the computational metaphor” (Bruner, 1990, p. 33). Despite these critical voices, the narrative of the “cognitive revolution” seems to have taken a life on its own since the 1970s, disconnected from Kuhn’s later work as well as all other debates about his work in philosophical and historical departments. Spreading into almost every textbook of experimental psychology, the idea of a scientific “revolution” of the 1960s seems to have become a matter of identity for mainstream Western psychology. However, the concept of “crisis” sensu Kuhn, defined as a necessary precondition for a “legitimate” scientific revolution, was soon forgotten in psychological circles. But if there were no unexpected anomalies, no behaviorist “puzzles” waiting to be “solved” by cognitive psychologists, if there was no crisis—why would there have been a “revolution” in the first place? One answer to this question was suggested by Thomas Leahey (1992), who argued that the recurring narrative of the cognitive “revolution” merely served a rhetorical purpose, a narrative that provided cognitive psychology with a legitimizing “origin myth.” In Leahey’s eyes, there never was a real shift of paradigms, but just the continuation of a social technology of prediction and control that was just dressed up in a new cybernetic guise.

The Infinite Quest for Unification

Although Kuhn’s concept of crisis received less attention in psychological discourses than his ideas of a scientific revolution, this does not mean that psychological crisis literature completely diminished after World War II. In fact, the psychological textbooks and journals from the second half of the 20th century are overfilled with diagnoses of a discipline in crisis and conflict. One particularly outstanding strain of the theme is an heir of C. P. Snow’s famous Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” which was held at the University of Cambridge in 1959. Trained as a physicist and working as a novelist, Snow bemoaned and criticized a widening cultural gap between the two “cultures” he knew very well: science and technology on the one side, and the arts and humanities on the other. The natural sciences not only decided the outcome of both world wars, Snow argued, they also determine the structure and development of all aspects of modern living. Most “literary intellectuals,” however, do not seem to be interested at all to get to know even the most basic principles of physics, biology, chemistry, or engineering. Between the scientist and the literate, Snow saw an increasing “gulf of mutual incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding” (Snow, 2012, p. 4). Snow’s warning that “when those two senses have grown apart, then no society is going to be able to think with wisdom” (Snow, 2012, p. 50) was primarily addressed toward the British education system. He proposed a reform of the training of policymakers, as their education should include elements of both fields of knowledge. Snow’s critique of the “cultural” divide in education and academia was also recognized in psychological circles. “In psychology,” as Kimble noted, “these conflicting cultures exist within a single field, and those who hold opposing values are currently engaged in a bitter family feud” (Kimble, 1984, p. 834). Based on his own studies, Kimble found a strong divide between believers of determinism and indeterminism, objectivism and intuitionism, elementarism, and holistic thinking. These and other dualisms supposedly separated humanistic and scientific psychologists. They demarcated an epistemic and moral division that Kimble also saw in connection with a widening gap between experimental researchers and clinical practitioners.

Snow and Kimble were not the only ones who were worried about the divide between different fractions in Western academia. In his address as president of the American Psychological Association of 1957, Lee Cronbach discussed a methodological schism in psychology: “Two historic streams of method, thought, and affiliation which run through the last century of our science” (Cronbach, 1957, p. 671)—experimental psychology, which studies isolated variables in an artificial and controlled environment, and correlational psychology, which analyses “data from Nature’s experiments” (Cronbach, 1957, p. 672). For Cronbach, the methodological divide between experimenters and “correlators” presented a threat to psychology’s progress, for as long as these two methods could not be combined, psychology would be unable to ask “the question we really want to put to Nature, and she will never answer until our two disciplines ask it in a single voice” (Cronbach, 1957, p. 683). As the inventor of “Cronbach’s alpha,” he was not just a pioneer in developing methods for evaluating the reliability and “construct validity” of psychological tests. Cronbach’s quest for the systematization of research instruments and the evaluation of quantitative methods was a common interest of all psychologists who were part of the movement of logical positivism and operationalism. This movement had its roots in the “Vienna Circle” which formed in the middle of the 1920s and became particularly influential in the English-speaking world after most of its members (e.g., Rudolph Carnap, Herbert Feigl, Otto Neurath, and Edgar Zilsel, among many others) emigrated to the United States in the 1930s (Stadler, 2004). Many experimental psychologists who were seeking admission into the Olympus of the natural sciences were drawn to the logical positivist idea of an integration of their discipline into one grand scheme of a “unified science,” a universal body of knowledge that was supposed to be built solely on empirical data and logic. Obviously, a multitude of psychological currents, schools, theories, and methods obviously therefore represented an obstacle if psychology wanted to be part of a “unified science.” In 1932, Carnap expressed the hope that “every sentence of psychology may be formulated in physical language” (Carnap, 1932–1933, p. 107). For a short period in the history of U.S.-American psychology, during the golden age of behaviorism, it seemed like experimental psychology was actually coming closer to this ideal. The works of Egon Brunswik, who presented the idea of psychology as a science of “objective relations” (Brunswik, 1937; cf. Wieser, 2014) or Clark Hull’s Principles of Behavior (Hull, 1943) represent two of the most ambitious attempts of an alliance between logical positivism and psychology, searching for one grand theoretical scheme that would encompass all of experimental psychology and connect it to the other natural sciences (cf. Smith, 1986).

Serious attempts to unify psychology under the umbrella of one grand neo-behaviorist theory were mostly abandoned after the death of Hull in 1952 and the rise of cybernetics in the years to follow. Although physicalism lost most of its traction for psychological theorizing, the wish for unification of psychology still lives on, especially (but not solely) in communities where logical positivism still has a strong influence. Arthur Staats, for instance, repeatedly bemoaned the “crisis of disunity,” a crisis that he described as an overload of “unrelated methods, findings, problems, theoretical languages, schismatic issues, and philosophical positions” and which, if unresolved, would “continue to grow” (Staats, 1991, p. 899). Staats interpreted the “chaos” of psychological knowledge as a typical characteristic of a premature science. What was direly needed, in Staats’ view, was a theoretical framework to help psychology grow together and transition to a state of unity, a model which he found in his philosophy of “unified positivism.” Neither empirical data nor methodological innovations could resolve the crisis of disunity: what was needed was a concerted effort to formulate a cohesive “interlevel framework” between different fields of study, a collective theoretical effort that required its own infrastructure, organization, and—last but not least—recognition in academic psychology (cf. Staats, 1983, 1999). In a similar vein, Kimble proposed his own attempt to formulate a universal “framework that aims to bring the incoherent discipline of psychology together.” This theoretical framework was built on the principle that psychology must be a “science of behaviour,” which he understood as the “expression of three latent potentials—cognition, affect, and reaction tendencies” (Kimble, 1994, p. 510). Following Kimble’s analysis, Jason Goertzen (2008) declared that “there is a crisis in psychology, and it should be understood in terms of . . . philosophical problems which generate the fragmentation of the discipline and its knowledge” (Goertzen, 2008, p. 834). For Goertzen, the disunity of the discipline is only a “symptom” (not the disease itself) that is caused by a long list of unresolved philosophical and epistemological problems (e.g., the relation between body and mind, the nature of subjectivity and its relation to the ideal of objective knowledge, etc.).To address these problems, Goertzen suggested bringing together “psychologists of diverse persuasions in order to jointly tackle the fundamental tensions” Goertzen, 2008, p. 846).

Staats’, Kimble’s, and Goertzen’s analyses represent only three selected examples out of an ever-growing list of suggestions on how to approach psychology’s supposed crisis of disunity. An outstanding characteristic of the late-20th-century variant of crisis literature is that its rhetoric is often even more dramatic than works of the interwar era, in many cases drawing a devastating image of the “inconsistent, nonconsensual, faddish, disorganized, unrelated, redundant” (Staats, 1991, p. 910) state of psychological knowledge, “an array of bits and pieces without an organizing theme” (Kimble, 1994, p. 510) that is unable to face its “fundamental, serious points of tension” (Goertzen, 2008, p. 832). As alarming as these diagnoses might appear, the reactions to them varied considerably. Baars (1984), in answer to Staats’ analysis, argued that psychology has overcome its disunity after the cognitive turn, and therefore the crisis has been resolved. Stam (2004) argued that, although “profound metaphysical problems” remain unsolved, two common features have kept most of psychology’s subdisciplines stable, at least on an institutional level: a common methodology (psychometrics and statistics) and the vocabulary of functionalism (defining mental and behavioral processes as “variables”). Although these authors saw unity (at least on some levels) already at hand, others embraced the plurality of the discipline and saw it as strength, not a weakness, of psychology. Dixon (1983) grasped disunity as an “important precondition of scientific progress” (p. 337), and Bower (1993) emphasized the “inevitable consequence of increasing specialization of knowledge as our science matures” (p. 905). Others did see the growing fragmentation of psychology as problematic but considered it to be unresolvable on an academic level. Howard and Simon Gruber (1996) did acknowledge that psychology is in a crisis, but interpreted this state as an inevitable symptom of much more fundamental and bigger problems (e.g., pollution, global warming, and nuclear armament) that humankind faces at the dawn of the 21st century. Sigmund Koch, one of the most consistent writers on the topic (e.g., Koch, 1969, 1971, 1981, 1993, 1999), argued that all attempts of unification are doomed to failure because of philosophical and epistemological problems that ultimately cannot be resolved. Psychology, as Koch argued, should therefore rather be named “a collectivity of studies of varied cast” (Koch, 1981, p. 268) or simply “psychological studies” (Koch, 1993). David Bakan (1996) argued that psychology did fall into a state of crisis for political reasons: it lost its subject matter, its method, and its mission, and forgot its humanistic mission. Although it was formerly designed to “to enlighten and liberate” (p. 335) through education and empowerment, it became a social technology of control and adjustment.

Our list of examples from psychology’s crisis literature is far from complete (cf. Goertzen, 2008, and Green, 2015, for an overview of recent discussions) and, for lack of space, does not elaborate on diagnoses of crises of individual subdisciplines (e.g., the crisis of U.S.-American social psychology in the 1970s, cf. Israel & Tajfel, 1972; Elms, 1975; Faye, 2012) or recent debates about the quality of psychological data and experimental methods (e.g., the “replication crisis,” cf. Maxwell, Lau, & Howard, 2015). For our context, it suffices to point out that, from the very beginning, debates on psychology’s crisis have been as fragmented and polyphonic as the discipline itself. Many (but not all!) discussants agree that the diversity of psychological currents represents an obstacle for the progress, coherence, and scientific status of the discipline, but there is very little consent on the suggested causes of the crisis (be they epistemological, methodological, institutional, or social and political) or how the crisis is supposed to be overcome. This disagreement seems to increase the tensions that psychology’s crisis literature aims to solve, and thereby reinforces the seemingly eternal circle of diagnoses, proposed solutions, critique, and disagreement.

Psychology—Forever in Crisis?

It is probably not by accident that it was during the interwar era when the growth of the discipline became increasingly problematic in the eyes of many of its proponents. Academic psychology began to institutionally detach itself from philosophy, develop several different methodological approaches, and spread out into the sphere of applied sciences. Although practitioners usually seem to be less worried about the diversity of psychological currents, their colleagues in, academia tend to see an imminent collapse of the discipline approaching, a collapse that could only be avoided if its representatives finally managed to seriously address the “real” causes of the crisis. However, despite over one hundred years of crisis literature, the variety of psychological currents continuously increased, both in the academic and the applied sphere.

Although skeptics may argue that institutional growth is not a sign of scientific success per se, and truth does not necessarily come closer when more scientists try to find it (especially if they do not have the right means to do so), it can hardly be denied that psychology’s crisis literature did not achieve much of a success to stop the branching out of different psychological schools and currents. One reason for this failure might be found in the fact that, since the very first calls of crisis, discussants often followed their own agenda when attempting to “solve” the crisis, promoting their theory or model as an all-in-one “solution” to all of psychology’s problems (for a recent example, see Henriques, 2011; for a critique of this attempt, see Goertzen, 2013). Unsurprisingly, these “partisan” (Green, 2015) efforts are often perceived as a threat by members of competing schools or currents and are therefore usually either silently ignored or openly rejected. Therefore, psychological crisis literature often aggravates the problems it tries to solve (Wieser, 2016). The persisting diversity of psychological schools and currents and the absence of any agreement on the very basic concepts, methods, and problems of psychological research seem to prevent the establishment of any kind of “overarching” or “independent” standpoint that would facilitate a description of psychological problems from a “neutral” perspective. For instance, Staats lamented that his plea for “unified positivism” was labeled by one “partisan” reviewer as “behavioristic,” whereas in his own view it represented “a general philosophy of science with no theoretical position” (Staats, 1999, p. 9). Another example would be Karl Bühler’s attempt to unify psychology with his theory of “three aspects of one object” (Bühler, 1927)—which was constructed to unify three grand theoretical perspectives into one scheme, but explicitly excluded psychoanalysis. A cynical commentator might say that the only moment when the crisis was “solved” and unification was achieved was after the rise of National Socialism in Germany or under Stalin in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) (cf. Joravsky, 1989)—but obviously, it wasn’t arguments, but violence, that silenced all voices that did not agree with the enforced conformation of the discipline. From a historical point of view, it seems like it was ideological, political, and/or economic pressure—and not the exchange of arguments—that succeeded in the unification of the discipline—but only for as long as the pressure was strong enough to prevent the theoretical proliferation.

The seemingly eternally recurring topic of psychology’s crisis has led some authors to use the expression of a “perennial” (Giorgi, 1992, p. 48) or “chronic” crisis, or declare that crisis had become “endemic” (Koch, 1999, p. 92) to psychology. As was mentioned in the beginning of this paper, the concept of “crisis” was primordially used to describe a short, decisive turning point (e.g., of a disease or during a battle), so talking about a “chronic” crisis might appear somewhat paradoxical. However, this expression may not only tell us something about the defeatist attitude that has spread within the debate; it could also help us to critically reflect on the different (and often contradictory) expectations toward psychology, both from inside the discipline as well as from the outside (cf. Sturm & Mülberger, 2012). From this perspective, the concept of crisis may be regarded as a fruitful historical category that has proven to be quite productive through the history of psychology: when entering the arena, contributors to psychology’s crisis literature are often forced to explicate and clarify methodological and epistemological assumptions that usually remain hidden or implicit in day-to-day empirical research. Therefore, the enormous and ever-growing body of crisis literature represents a unique treasure of critical debate within academic psychology—it may be the only problem that the majority of all psychologists have ever agreed on. Psychologists who follow the positivist idea that the discipline does not deserve to be called a “proper science” unless it has achieved conceptual and methodological unification might not be happy with the prospect of a never-ending crisis. But, as was mentioned in the beginning, the Greek word “κρίσις‎” did not just include the risk of an end that is nearing—it also described a chance that was opening up for further development. For historiographers and theoreticians of psychology, the chance of psychology’s crisis lies in its rich body of theoretical debates, methodological reflections, and epistemological critique, a body that still awaits to be fully reconstructed.


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