Recounting the real history of psychology: All 3 of them

Eugene Taylor doesn’t hesitate to be provocative.  “(T)hree of the most dreaded plagues in the history of scientific psychology,” he writes in the very first sentence of his new book, “have been conceptions of personality, models of the unconscious, and systems of psychotherapy.”

Throughout psychology’s history, Taylor’s new volume reminds us, there has been a movement to classify psychology as a natural science, and this movement has insisted that psychology is no more and no less than what can be “verified” in the experimental laboratory. 

As a result, this movement has tried to replace “personality,” which can’t be experimentally proven, with measurable “attributes”;  it’s tried to replace the unconscious, which is stubbornly unsystematizable, with conditioning;  and it’s tried to replace psychotherapy, which happens with individual people in unrepeatable conditions, with drugs.  The result is not “psychology” as most people think of it, but it’s the “official” psychology of the history books.

“Since psychology wants to pretend that it’s a science, the history of psychology has turned into the history of experimental psychology,” Taylor says.  “The proponents of experimental psychology were comparing themselves to Newtonian physics in the 19th century.  They’ve stayed with that epistemology through this day, which is why I say the experimentalists have kept us in diapers.”

However, “What was not examined by the experimentalists is often more interesting than what is.” Taylor has published in his new book to set the record straight. 

The Mystery of Personality: A History of Psychodynamic Theories, shows that there are, in fact, three “histories of psychology”:  the history of the experimental “scientific” psychology, (which has tried to crowd out the others);  the history of psychology as therapy – “applied” psychology, in which therapists advanced the understanding of how to help patients;  and the history of psychodynamic theory:  the history of questions like “what is a person?”   “What is the personality?”  “What does it mean to be psychologically healthy?”


Rather than coming together as one history, they each have their own set of giants, heroes, and pivotal moments – often unknown to (or rejected by) the others. 

“The current histories of depth psychology basically say ‘well, there was Charcot and there was Freud,’” Taylor remarks.  “That’s not exactly the case.  We attempted to try and straighten out the record there, and provide the rest of this often overlooked history.”

As a result, The Mystery of Personality includes chapters on Charcot;  Freud;  the “Freudians”;  the “neo-Freudians”;  Jung and the spread of his ideas;  Adler;  “personality theory at Harvard”;  the “Pastoral Theologians of New York” (including Joseph Campbell and Abraham Maslow);  Existential-Humanistic and Transpersonally oriented depth psychology; and neuropsychology – among others. 

Put it all together, Taylor says in his epilogue, and you can’t help but come away with the idea that psychology as a whole is coming full circle:  back to questions of personhood and personality that exalt the individual experience, rather than try to wish it away.

“Now that we’re in an era of the neuroscience revolution, the big question is one they’ve avoided all these years:  the relationship between the brain and the mind.  The relationship between our scientific theories of consciousness and direct experience,” Taylor says.  “Back in the 1890s, William James developed a uniquely American approach to functional psychology on the mind and body, one that violated most of the boundaries that were being developed in the disciplines.  Frankly the culmination of the neuroscience revolution comes to work done by James in the late 19th century.”

It’s a historical irony that requires an understanding of psychology’s history to appreciate. 

To purchase The Mystery of Personality: A History of Psychodynamic Theories, click here