What Do Whigs Have To Do With History of Psychology?

The 2013 December issue of the journal Theory & Psychology saw a forceful exchange between Kurt Danziger and Daniel N. Robinson on the nature of psychology’s disciplinary history. For those unfamiliar with the names, both are eminent scholars in (among other things) history of psychology. The exchange boils down to Danziger accusing Robinson of creating a romanticized history of psychology, tying the discipline down to Ancient Greek philosophies.  What Danziger cannot forgive in such a way of writing history of science is the idea of a concept that stays the same throughout history, and then finds its way into psychology. For example (Danziger, 2013, p. 835): “This understanding of psychology’s history has always relied on the belief that the concept of ‘human nature’ represents some historically unchanging essence guaranteeing continuity, no matter how great the gulf that appears to separate the present from the remote past.” Robinson, in turn, answers with two articles in the same issue defending his position with insinuations that Danziger and his supporters are not familiar enough with Aristotle’s body of work to mount such a criticism. His repartees, sans the scholastic posturing, can be summed up well with the sentence (Robinson, 2013a, p. 820): “It is worth noting in order to make clear that the past can be highly instructive without being causally efficacious.”

Their discussion can be interpreted, on the abstract level, as a discussion between a historian seeing the history of a discipline as a continuity of ideas and practices (i.e. progress), while the other sees it as a series of histories with their own contexts, definitions of concepts, and a lack of evident continuity from one episode in the history of science to the next.

With such an exchange, the question naturally arises: Who to side with? Instead of an attempt in answering that, I would suggest to use Danziger’s and Robinson’s discussion as a great starting point for getting to know more about history of science.

The discussion (Danziger, 2013; Robinson, 2013a; Robinson, 2013b) is exemplary of two ways of writing science that have developed in the twentieth century.

The first approach is what is usually labeled as presentism or Whiggish history. Trudy Dehue (1995, p. 17) describes it in the following way: “Whig histories support the identity of the field and they underpin the contemporary ideas with the foundations of a long tradition.” They create a sense that a scientific discipline has its roots in the work of a few intellectual forefathers, and more importantly, that there is a clear progression throughout the history of the discipline to the current state. Whiggish histories, as such, proclaim the current state of a scientific discipline as the end-result of a process that lead closer and closer to the higher standards of scientific practice. These higher standards are then by definition what scientists contemporary to the historian adhere to. Bert Theunissen (2001, p. 148) simply puts it as: “[t]he past was judged according to modern criteria.”

This style of writing history, I would dare say, is what psychology students most commonly perceive as the history of their discipline. It is the glorious narrative in which the pioneers of the field get better at approximating the definition of what proper psychological research should be. From Wundt’s first laboratory, to Skinner’s implementation of rigorous scientific method, to the cognitive revolution opening the black box of the mental. This history of psychology is a sophisticated and insistent march of progress. The particular steps in this march are usually looked down at as the precursors to legitimate scientific standards of today. The actors in the previous episodes of disciplinary history are ‘serious’ scientists as long as they foreshadow the modern state of the discipline. When they fail to behave according to the standards of scientific practice contemporary to the historian, they are seen as amateurs still unfamiliar with the ‘proper’ way of research.

An approach like that in writing history was heavily criticized during the last decades, and this brings us to the second way of writing history of psychology, and science overall.

An exponent of this kind of criticism is Kurt Danziger. He proposes a different way of conducting historical studies of scientific disciplines, in particular, of psychology. In the preface of his book Constructing the Subject, Danziger (1990, p. vii) describes this approach as the one which “does not adopt its framework of issues and presuppositions from the field that is the object of study but tends nowadays to rely heavily on questions and concepts derived from studies in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science.” The history of a scientific discipline, then, has to embed it within the contexts of its time. This kind of history (Dehue, p. 18) “does not regard the development of a scientific field as an autonomous process, but as a steered, or even ‘also steered,’ by ‘external’ (‘social,’ ‘contextual’) factors.” It tries to understand the historical developments in their context, and even if the questions posed by the historian come from a contemporary perspective, the answers are generated by analyzing the very forces (cultural, economic) which exerted their influence on the discipline and its members at that point in time.

By extension, a non-Whiggish history of science becomes more than a chapter at the beginning of a textbook glorifying the great names or previous successes of psychology. Writing history, seen in a non-Whiggish manner, constitutes a field that has its own life and its own raison d’être.  Such history of science is not in the function of celebrating the progress of the scientific method, but contextualizing science’s past and establishing its rationality within the historical setting. It is not a spokesperson for the legitimacy of science; but the investigator into how that legitimacy was constituted over and over again.

It becomes a dynamic field that has a lot to offer to our understanding of science, and to the understanding of specific disciplines like psychology. It offers an inquisitive position which encourages us to think about the features of science that we take for granted instead of indoctrinating students with the glory days of past times. Through a critical view on various historical episodes of science, it makes such a perspective possible for the contemporary state of the discipline too. Not in the sense that it necessarily offers continuity from the past to the present; just that in teaching us how to investigate science in a certain context in the past, it builds our critical attitude toward contemporary science too. After all, the current way of doing research is just the latest installment in what we loosely (and desperately) try to define as science.

However, non-Whiggish history of science always runs the risk of losing itself in postmodernist deconstructions and relativism. If pursued ad nauseam it completely uproots the study of history through “[t]he denial that historical writing refers to an actual historical past” (Iggers, 1997, p. 118). Not only denying history, the all-out relativism easily spirals into the complete denial of any legitimacy of science, like in the work of Paul Feyerabend (1975/1993). Such a relativist position is an engaging perspective for a philosopher, but for a student-soon-to-be-a-practicing-scientist who has to work in this uprooted field? For such a student, it is a potential burden and deterrent from entering the field in the first place.

Coming back to our intellectual duelists from the start, Robinson and Danziger, I do not believe either of them can be labeled as ‘Whiggish’ or ‘postmodern.’ Their positions are far more sophisticated than these didactic straw-men I have drawn above. However, their discussion can serve as an instructive exemplar of differing opinions on how to write history of science. Writing history of science is not a clear-cut gathering of ‘historical facts’ (whatever those might be) and compiling them in a timeline, but a task of interpretation and critical analysis.

Seen like this, history of science is one of the approaches in exploring the fundamentals of science – alongside philosophy and sociology of science. However, if you plan a future academic career as a researcher in psychology, beware. Questioning the dogmas you were trained in might set you on a rocky path of doubting the basic precepts of what you think defines science. I would quote a historian of science (Theunissen, 2001, p. 147) as a cautionary note for psychology students reading this: “Scientists engaged in research have to believe in scientific progress. Why else would they return to their laboratories every morning if not to obtain a better insight into the workings of nature and to lift another corner of the veil that covers her? Historians of science, on the other hand, aim to understand the past.” Doubt, in the end, is potentially the end of motivation – but I also think it is the basis of an informed and well-thought out position on what science is and what scientists do.

In other words, beware: History of science might shake the fundamentals built into the introductions of your textbooks and loosen the firm belief in scientific progress that has been carefully instilled in you throughout your studies. It just might make you a better scientist too. Hopefully a Whigless one.

Proceed on your own responsibility.


Danziger, K. (2013). Psychology and its history. Theory & Psychology, 23(6), 829–839. doi:10.1177/0959354313502746

Danziger, K. (1990). Constructing the subject: Historical origins of psychological research. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Dehue, T. (1995). Changing the Rules: Psychology in the Netherlands, 1900-1985. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Feyerabend, P. K. (1975/1993). Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge. London: Verso.

Iggers, G. G. (1997). Historiography in the twentieth century: from scientific objectivity to the postmodern challenge. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Robinson, D. N. (2013a). Historiography in psychology: A note on ignorance. Theory & Psychology, 23(6), 819–828. doi:10.1177/0959354313499426

Robinson, D. N. (2013b). A word more… Theory & Psychology, 23(6), 852–854. doi:10.1177/0959354313506797

Ivan Flis

Ivan Flis is a PhD student in History and Philosophy of Science at the Descartes Centre, Utrecht University; and has a degree in psychology from the University of Zagreb, Croatia. His research focuses on quantitative methodology in psychology, its history and application, and its relation to theory construction in psychological research. He had been an editor of JEPS for three years in the previous mandates.

More Posts