Controversies on Crisis in Psychology

Controversies in Crisis in Psychology (1897–1933)

Annette Mülberger

Scientists spend most of their time doing research. But sometimes they stop and reflect on their discipline. In talks, textbooks or general introductions scientists present their own field of expertise to students and the lay public. Usually a broad description of the present day situation is offered, sometimes even enriched with a historical perspective. Generally, this type of text draws a coherent and harmonic picture of the discipline, presented in very positive terms. But sometimes talks and texts of this genre contain critical reflections about the past and present situation of the field, addressing theoretical and methodological problems. In her project Annette Mülberger studied this second type of text, dealing with crisis diagnosis and discussions surrounding the historical situation or evolution of a discipline put forward by scientists.

Thomas Kuhn (1962/1970) claimed that every scientific revolution is preceded by a crisis of a dominant scientific paradigm. He also took it that states of crises are hardly, if ever, acknowledged by scientists. In other words, Kuhn’s concept of “crisis” is not an actor’s, but an observer’s category. But what if “crisis” does figure as an actor’s category? What are we to make of the scientific crises diagnosed by scientists themselves? In what contexts do such diagnoses occur? There are indeed historical cases in which a crisis was diagnosed by scientists. Perhaps the strongest instance of this can be found in psychology from the late nineteenth century until the 1930s. The first author, who in 1897 raised an alarm, was Rudolf Willy. Many other texts stating a crisis in psychology followed. Authors as varied as Constantin Gutberlet, Alfred Binet, Nicolai Kostyleff, Hans Driesch, Mary Whiton Calkins, Karl Bühler, Wilhelm Wirth, and many others all found the notion of “crisis” something worth discussing. In the late 1920s, the discussions about crisis reached a first peak defined by a notable increase of frequency and intensity.

The questions pursued were twofold. First, what do the actors mean by "crisis"? Secondly, what arguments do they propose for or against a diagnosis of crisis in psychology? The examination of arguments led to the need to take into account basic issues raised in relation with the crisis diagnoses in psychology, including the problem of defining psychology as natural or human science. Different epistemological ideals about psychology as science are confronted with one another in these crisis debates.

The discussion and historical analysis of arguments requires the inclusion of voices from both sides, the defenders of crisis diagnosis and their opponents, and in connection with general reflections made by psychologists about their discipline. Annette Mülberger's interest was historical and historiographical, concentrating on how the evolution and present status of psychology is perceived by psychologists themselves at a certain time.

Funding Institutions

Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona