When should the history of the US begin?  Or phrased differently, what starting point should a historian choose, when writing a history of the US?

 a)      At the time when the North American continent was just distinguishable from others?

b)      At the time when the native peoples were the only residents?

c)       In 1773, with the Boston Tea Party?

d)      In 1869, during Reconstruction?

e)      In 1950?

A case can be made for all of these, depending on the taste of the historian and the needs of the reader.  An ecologist might find roots in (a); an American Exceptionalist, possibly searching for a 'first birth' of freedom, in (c).  Germans, for very good reason, declared 1945 'Year Zero': a recent history by that title (Ian Buruma's Year Zero) takes that phrase as a metaphor for all of the upheavals that occurred worldwide in the aftermath of the Second World War.

In 1950, Edwin Garrigues (E. G.) Boring (1886-1968), then America's premier historian of psychology, left little doubt in the reader's mind as to his view of the sources of psychology.  The endpapers of his book A History of Experimental Psychology, front and rear, were imprinted with a map of Germany in its Wilhelmine borders,  and on it red dots indicated the centers of German learning, its Universities, west to east, including Leipzig, often venerated as the shrine of psychology's founding in the Laboratory of Wilhelm Wundt.

Readers of my new book History of Psychology 101 will find no Wundt in the index nor anywhere at all in the text, although the most important of those psychologists who adapted Wundt’s psychology for the American market, Münsterberg and Titchener, make cameo appearances.  This is because, while one's times and birth are no choice, the history one tells is a choice. I've chosen to start, as it were, with Reconstruction, or rather, the new construction of the current US psychological coalition — theoretical psychology, applied psychology, and psychotherapy — in the reorganization of the American Psychological Association in the year zero: 1945.  (Actually, there's a Prelude in 1909 to demonstrate just how similar to today's psychology was the psychology of that era, and I start the ball rolling with the introduction of 'operationalism' in 1927, at which point there is little which needs to be added to the picture to compare psychology then and now.)

Leaving out Wundt may seem, perhaps, like telling the story of the US without mentioning George Washington.  But it is now 65 years since the second edition of Boring's text went to print, and there really isn't any need to reiterate the story of our German beginnings [1]: read Boring or the even better historians of Wundtian psychology who have come after him if you're not convinced.  I've chosen to focus instead on a psychology up and running.  Psychologists had, by 1950, all the tools we work with today to approach, to try to understand, and to attempt to predict and control humanity.  I hope to show that psychology's use of these tools over the past few decades has had variable, even good, effects on individuals and society. I want readers to see the continuities over the past eighty years in psychology's search for emotion, consciousness, and the brain. I aim to portray a psychology that progressed from the laboratory to activism and which has channeled that activism to becoming a proponent of health as a cultural value.  I want my students to know how much psychology interacts with and is shaped by political and cultural concerns.  I want them to appreciate, as well, how much the psychological coalition partakes of the unstable character of any political body.  I want to provide a context for students to locate and understand their current interests in, say, the relation of psychology to social media, the management of obesity, or the psychotherapy of depression. Above all I want to elevate our estimation of our recent past, our own times, times which are at least as important, and in terms of their radical revaluations of human interpersonal and intercultural relations possibly more important, than any preceding eras. But at the very least, I hope I've provided a good field guide to the various species of psychologists during the most recent period of their evolution.

 

 

Footnotes

(1) Nor, for that matter, were they all German.  Equally good cases could be made for an English, French, or a general continental European origin of modern psychology, and Boring made most of them as well.