Crisis Debates in Psychology

Crisis Debates in Psychology

Thomas Sturm

This was a joint project with John Carson (Michigan), Uljana Feest (Berlin), Ludmila Hyman (Berlin), and Annette Mülberger (Barcelona).

Thomas Kuhn claimed that every scientific revolution is precipitated by a crisis of a dominant scientific paradigm; and, conversely, that every crisis is resolved by a revolution. He also took it that states of crises are hardly ever acknowledged by scientists themselves. In other words, Kuhn’s concept of “crisis” is not an actor’s, but an observer’s categoryBut what if “crisis” does figure as an actor’s category?

There are indeed historical cases in which a crisis was diagnosed by scientists, philosophers, and other commentators. Perhaps the strongest instance of this can be found in psychology from the late nineteenth century until the 1930s. It involved a reaction against the high expectations connected with the new psychological laboratories, institutes, journals, societies, and research practices established since the 1870s. Many had hoped that these new frameworks would bring psychology upon the path of an experimental and, thereby, proper science. However, soon these expectations were met by doubts and criticisms. Beginning with Rudolf Willy in 1899, one of the main ways in which these worries were articulated was as the “crisis in psychology.” In the following decades, authors as varied as Karl Bühler, Mary Whiton Calkins, Hans Driesch, Edmund Husserl, Kurt Koffka, Nicolai Kostyleff, Karl Popper, Lew Vygotsky, and a group of Marxist psychologists in Berlin, to name but a few, all found the notion of “crisis” something worth discussing. The diagnosis became so widespread that, in 1926, Bühler could write that “one can now even read it in the newspapers that there is a crisis in psychology.” The diagnoses and suggested therapies for the apparently critical condition of psychology diverged sharply. They included proposals for basing psychology upon an extended version of reflexology (Kostyleff), for an orientation of psychology towards vitalism (Driesch), for an integration of the divergent approaches then existing in psychology by means of various methodological tools and arguments (Bühler, Vygotsky), and Marxist requests for a new psychology that would also solve the crisis of society (Vygotsky, Rühle et al.).

Until this project, a thorough analysis of the crisis debate in psychology was missing. This project aimed at providing such an analysis, exploring both the historical contexts and the current relevance of the debate. For instance, to figure out whether it makes a difference whether “crisis” is an actor’s concept, comparisons between different contexts are a useful tool: one might compare how psychology developed after the crisis debate in contexts where the diagnosis had/had not been made, or where the diagnosis had been rejected. This connects to various further questions: In what contexts—intellectual, scientific, and social—did scientists and philosophers come to think that there was a crisis? What were the causes of and reasons for the experience of the crisis? Was the diagnosis of a "crisis" expressive merely of academic worries about experimental psychology, or did it also relate to broader social concerns? What fundamental problems—conceptual, methodological, theoretical—did the authors detect? What solutions did they suggest? What kinds of crisis were diagnosed in other disciplines at the time? What effects (if any) did the diagnoses and therapies have upon the development of psychology—and its relevance for neighboring disciplines, such as philosophy, or for society as a whole? What can we learn about the possibilities and limits of scientists to deal with situations of crisis? Finally, what concepts of crisis emerge from answers to such questions?

The project members presented at an MPIWG workshop (October 2008) and at conferences in Dublin (ESHHS/Cheiron meeting, July 2007) and Pittsburgh (HSS/PSA meeting, November 2008).