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The challenges of writing a history of international clinical psychology

by Donald K. Routh

Florida Gulf Coast University, USA

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One thesis of this paper is that the work of Theodule Ribot (1839–1916) is relevant in several ways to the later development of what we now know as international clinical psychology. A second theme is that this is only one difficulty involved in writing the history of this domain.

As the founder of the “new psychology” in France, he communicated to those in his own country the new psychological research and writing going on in England, Germany, and elsewhere. As an innovator within the French tradition of medical psychology, he wrote on disorders of memory, introducing an important concept of retrograde amnesia in which brain damage has greater effects on recent than on remote memories (now called “Ribot’s Law”). In some of his later writings, he introduced the influential concept of “anhedonia” or the loss of interest in activities that give pleasure, crucial to our contemporary understanding of disorders such as depression (Nicolas & Murray, 1999). Ribot’s contributions to psychology are, however, not as well known as they might be because of noteworthy bias of influential historians of psychology such as E. G. Boring.

Historians and psychologists in the history of psychology

The conventional date for the origin of modern psychology, called at the time the “new psychology,” is 1879, when Wilhelm Wundt’s laboratory was founded at the University of Leipzig in Germany. For English-speaking readers, the most influential historian of psychology, so defined, is Edwin G. Boring of Harvard University. His History of Experimental Psychology (Boring, 1950) dominated the topic from the publication of its first edition in 1929 until the mid-1960s. The history of psychology was at first written and taught primarily by individuals trained in psychology (including Boring) who as historians were self taught. Only in recent years have a number of professional historians taken up the study of the history of psychology.

Do psychologists and historians approach the history of psychology in systematically different ways? First, the training of psychologists emphasizes the scientific literature of only the most recent decade or so. Thus, they might be inclined to portray the past as a series of anticipations of present views (“presentism”). The classic essay of the anthropologist-historian George W. Stocking, Jr. described some problems of “presentism” in the historiography of the behavioral sciences (Stocking, 1965). Stocking’s paper elaborated on the distinction originally made by Herbert Butterfield in a 1931 book on The Whig Interpretation of History. It seems that Whig politicians were quite ready to praise a particular revolution of the past, but only if it had been successful. Thus, their account of the past glorified the present and what appeared to lead up to it. Historians, in contrast, seem to be taught to describe the past more for itself (“historicism”).

Second, psychologists writing the history of their own field might be expected to focus on the unfolding of the literature of psychology itself (“internalism”). In doing so, they should benefit from their knowledge of quantitative methods and experimental design. In contrast, those trained in history might be expected to have the opposite bias. Thus, they might focus on the influence of external events such as wars and political and social trends, in their portrayal of the history of psychology (“externalism”). The typical historian might also have less background in quantitative and experimental domains. It is one argument of the present paper that such biases as presentism and an exclusively internal focus were more characteristic of the earlier days of the history of psychology.

Since the 1960s, the history of psychology has come together as a cohesive scholarly domain, with organizations such as Division 26 of the American Psychological Association (now named the Society for the History of Psychology) and Cheiron, the International Society for the History of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. The field sponsors several well-recognized scholarly journals, including the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, History of Psychology, and History of the Human Sciences. The Archives of the History of American Psychology were established during the 1960s at the University of Akron, and a similar center was founded in Passau, Germany. There are now various formal doctoral programs in the history of psychology in the United States (e.g., at the University of New Hampshire), in Canada (e.g., at York University), and in Europe. Other doctoral programs focus more broadly on the history of science, including the social sciences. These organizational developments have included the emergence of a working consensus as to how either psychologists or historians should carry out their historical work in this field. These norms have effectively overshadowed the previous differences in the effects of professional training in either psychology or history on scholars concerned with the history of psychology. Of course, there remain certain psychologists whose amateur efforts at writing the history of psychology violate these norms, just as there remain certain historians who fail in this field because of inadequate psychology background.

Edwin G. Boring: A dominant influence in the history of psychology

It may be difficult for today’s students to realize how influential E. G. Boring was in his time as a historian of psychology. The author took a history of psychology course as an undergraduate in the late 1950s, and Boring’s book was the only text. The author took a history of psychology course in a clinical psychology program in graduate school at a different university in the 1960s, and again, Boring’s book was the text. These experiences were typical of many psychology students at the time, and not only in the United States. Only after the author personally began to engage in writing and teaching in the history of psychology in the 1970s and afterwards did he realize that interpretations of the field quite different from those presented by Boring’s book were plausible.

First, there is the question of why Boring’s book featured the history of experimental psychology. The truth was that when he wrote it, he was engaged in a polemical battle to emphasize experimental approaches to the field as contrasted with the type of applied (including clinical) psychology that threatened to take over entirely after World War I (O’Donnell, 1979). Boring had been trained by the experimental psychologist Edward Titchener at Cornell, who was the author of the most influential laboratory manuals and had founded a group called, “The Experimentalists” as an alternative to the American Psychological Association. Boring was brought in to head psychology at Harvard in the wake of a previous emphasis on applied psychology by Munsterberg and had the goal of regaining a “pure” focus there. Indeed, during Boring’s time at Harvard, the Department of Psychology split in two, with the “biotropic” experimental psychologists remaining and the “sociotropic” applied psychologists, including the clinical psychologists, forming a separate Department of Social Relations.

In any case, in his history book, Boring gave the foreground to experimental psychology and de-emphasized other approaches. For example, he gave six chapters to developments in experimental psychology in German-speaking countries but relegated the work of Theodule Ribot, the founder of modern psychology in France, to a few paragraphs. The reason was, as Boring clearly said, Ribot was not an experimentalist. This de-emphasis occurred despite the fact that (as stated above), it was Ribot who introduced the “new psychology” in England and Germany to his colleagues in France, and established a French-language psychology journal. As already stated, Ribot could also be regarded as a pioneer in the clinical area in that he wrote influential books on diseases of memory, personality, and volition based on clinical observations (rather than experiments). These books were published in the 1880s, long before Lightner Witmer founded the world’s first “psychology clinic” at the University of Pennsylvania in 1896. Boring also tended to neglect the extensive non-experimental part of Wilhelm Wundt’s writings (for example, Wundt’s many books on cultural psychology) in favor or his work based on laboratory research. As it was later realized, Boring portrayed Wundt somewhat inaccurately as a “structuralist” much like Wundt’s student Titchener (Boring’s mentor). In terms of the present paper, Boring’s book could also be characterized as “presentist,” for example in giving what was perhaps undue emphasis to the history of research in psychophysics, the type of work still being done at Harvard by Boring’s well-known student, S. S. Stevens.

Finally, Boring’s book concentrated on matters “internal” to philosophy (e.g., the writings of Descartes), physiology (e.g., Helmholtz’s measurement of the speed of the nerve impulse), and psychology, as opposed to the influences of external social and political events on the field. Interestingly enough, it was in part such external events (the post-World I era, leading to the boom in applied psychology) that led Boring to write the book in the first place to combat this trend. It was also fortuitous that the book was first published in 1929. The collapse of the stock market that same year initiated the era of the Great Depression, when jobs in applied psychology declined precipitously and writings in more “basic” areas such as experimental psychology began to seem relatively more attractive again to the whole field. Boring’s History of Experimental Psychology thrived under these circumstances and in a second edition continued to do so right through the post-World War II boom in psychology.

Training in psychology alone may be insufficient for a historian of psychology

Thomas H. Leahey did a scathing review entitled, “History Without the Past” criticizing a particular book on the history of psychology for some of the above sins, notably presentism and a lack of attention to social context (Leahey, 1986). The editors of the book and many of its chapters were among the most distinguished individuals in psychology; yet, in trying to write the history of their own specialty areas they demonstrated themselves to be naïve historians to the extent that the book was an embarrassment to readers sophisticated in the history of psychology. It is thus clearly no longer possible for psychologists to do such sloppy scholarship with impunity.

Training in history alone may also be insufficient for a historian of psychology

Of course, it is not only psychologists who can violate the contemporary norms of the history of psychology. Napoli, writing about Architects of Adjustment, knew his American history and was very familiar with journalistic sources (Napoli, 1981). But he inadvertently demonstrated his lack of knowledge of the research literature of clinical psychology. Thus, his book proved to be of limited value to the present author in trying to write a history of that specialty (Routh, 1994). Katherine Pandora’s book, Rebels within the Ranks (Pandora, 1997), dealt with the history of personality and social psychology (specifically the work of Gordon Allport and of Gardner and Lois Murphy). Pandora is a trained historian of American science and shows familiarity with the Allport and Murphy papers in various archives. On this basis, she presented an intriguing analogy between their work in psychology and that of Franklin D. Roosevelt in politics during the same era. However, she seems to be less aware of the general research literature of personality and social psychology. Thus, her work on Allport should be supplemented by reading the recent book of Ian A. M. Nicholson, Inventing Personality (Nicholson, 2003).

The contemporary history of clinical psychology

At this time, the history of clinical psychology is benefiting from the work of scholars with quite adequate background in both history and psychology. As an example, James H. Capshew received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in the history of science with a dissertation on the effects of World War II on psychology. A version of this was published as his book, Psychologists on the March: Science, Practice, and Professional Identity in America, 1929–1969 (Capshew, 1999). It made wide use of governmental archival sources as well as the psychological literature of the time. World War II had an unparalleled impact on psychology, largely transforming it from a strictly academic discipline to one also concerned with mental health problems and clinical practice. During and after the war, the U.S. government poured unprecedented amounts of money into psychological training and research. Capshew is a professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University. There he is involved not only with colleagues in history and philosophy but is engaged in fruitful collaboration with those in the Department of Psychology. He was in fact a co-author of a book on the history of that Department.

The history of international clinical psychology

An adequate history of international clinical psychology has yet to be written. Part of such a history will clearly include the involvement of certain French psychologists in the study of psychopathology in the 19th century even before Witmer’s Psychology Clinic was founded in the U.S. Besides Ribot, the focus of the present paper, these would clearly include other influential scholars such as Alfred Binet and Pierre Janet.

A second facet of the history of international clinical psychology is the development of the field formally identified as “clinical psychology” after World War II, particularly in the U.K. and in the Scandinavian countries, as part of their newly developing national health systems. To write such a history, one would need to be familiar with several European languages, with the research literatures in psychology in these countries, and with government and other archival materials relevant to these developments.

Finally, the history of international clinical psychology will need to take a world-wide focus, necessarily including fluency in many world languages, psychological literatures, and pertinent archives. International clinical psychology began to be organized as such when the International Association of Applied Psychology (IAAP) began its Division of Clinical and Community Psychology. The presidents of that Division, each of whom is expected to serve four years, include Sheldon Korchin and Stanley Sue of the U.S., Fanny Cheung of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Victoria del Barrio of Spain, the present author, and now Juan José Sánchez-Sosa of Mexico. The International Society of Clinical Psychology (ISCP), founded by the present author in 1998 at the meeting of the IAAP in San Francisco, has developed its own cadre of leaders, including Sánchez-Sosa, Lynn P. Rehm, Gloria Gottsegen of the U.S., Consuelo Barreda-Hanson of Australia, John Norcross and Susan F. Swierc of the U.S., and now N. Kumaraswamy of Brunei Darussalam. The author looks forward to the emergence of historians who can contemplate doing this task properly. As this paper has made clear, they will need disciplinary breadth in terms of the fields of history and psychology, command of multiple languages, and access to world wide archives. It should be one of the goals of ISCP to facilitate communication among clinical psychologists in different countries sufficiently to make the writing of such a broad history possible and indeed necessary.


Boring, E. G. (1950). A history of experimental psychology (2nd ed.). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Capshew, J. H. (1999). Psychologists on the march: Science, practice, and professional identity in America, 1929-1969. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Leahey, T. H. (1986). History without the past. Contemporary Psychology, 31, 648-650.

Napoli, D. S. (1981). Architects of adjustment: The history of the psychological profession in the United States. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press.

Nicholson, I. A. M. (2003). Inventing personality: Gordon Allport and the science of selfhood. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Nicolas, S., & Murray, D. J. (1999). Theodule Ribot (1839-1916), founder of French psychology: A biographical introduction. History of Psychology, 2, 161-169.

O’Donnell, J. M. (1979). The crisis of experimentalism in the 1920s: E. G. Boring and his uses of history. American Psychologist, 34, 289-295.

Pandora, K. (1997). Rebels within the ranks: Psychologists’ critique of scientific authority and democratic realities in New Deal America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Routh, D. K. (1994). Clinical psychology since 1917: Science, practice, and organization. New York: Plenum.

Stocking, G. W., Jr. (1965). On the limits of “presentism” in the historiography of the behavioral sciences. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 1, 211-218.

Author Notes

This paper was presented at the meeting of the International Society of Clinical Psychology in Beijing, China on August 9, 2004.

Click here for more information on the ISCP meeting.

Appreciation is expressed to Marion W. Routh and to Eric Strahorn for comments on preliminary drafts.

Correspondence should be addressed to:

Donald K. Routh, 20131 Seagrove St., #402, Estero, FL 33928-7661, USA.
Tel: 239-949-1667
E-mail: drouth @ miami . edu

[Please note: E-mail address contains added spaces to reduce spamming.]

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