Book Review | Published:

Pitfalls, blind alleys and much more

Nature volume 407, page 452 (28 September 2000) | Download Citation

Through the Rearview Mirror: Historical Reflections on Psychology


  MIT Press: 1999. 266 pp. $39.95, £26.50

John Macnamara taught psychology and the history of psychology at McGill University until his death in 1995. For those who knew him, his reflections on the history of psychology will evoke memories of his intense personal approach to his work. For those who did not know John, his affectionate survey of the interplay of psychology with philosophy and Christianity will introduce a lively intellect striving to understand how conceptions of human nature have developed over the past 2,000 years of Western thought.

Lessons from the master: could Aristotle's De anima be of help to today's psychologists? Image: LOUVRE/GIRAUDON/BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY

Macnamara begins with what some might see as an invidious comparison between psychology and physics. He argues that, whereas Aristotle's Physics may be comfortably ignored by contemporary physicists, his psychology (in De anima; ‘On the Soul’) would amply repay careful reading. Why? Because Aristotle, Plato and other great figures in Western thought not only place modern ideas in historical perspective, but would also, if taken seriously, alert contemporary thinkers to “foreseeable pitfalls and blind alleys”. A case in point is Thomas Aquinas' De ente et essentia (‘On Being and Essence’), which, according to Macnamara, “refuted the modern theory” of concepts as abstractions from perception (emphasis added).

Macnamara's view of psychology and its history is, in a very real sense, parochial. It is explicitly limited to Western psychology, and excludes conceptions of human nature in any other of the world's cultural and religious traditions. Moreover, it is explicitly limited to a narrow, though central, set of human capacities: beliefs and belief-informed desires. And finally, it is concerned with the interplay of philosophy and psychology with Christianity.

Surprisingly for a scholar of such broad interests, Macnamara barely touches on the interplay of psychological ideas with the social, political and economic issues of the times. He begins by concentrating on conceptions of learning and truth, and how people might acquire and represent these concepts. He shows that the contemporary tension between nativists, who argue that ideas may be innate rather than acquired through experience, and empiricists, who claim experiential bases for human knowledge, has surfaced repeatedly in the history of ideas, from Aristotle and Plato to the radical behaviorism of John Watson.

Curiously, he does not bring his historical survey to the present, where such thinkers as Noam Chomsky continue to argue for innate ideas and idealized (symbolic) representation against modern associationists who use connectionist networks to extract generalizations from experience. But the lessons of history, traced through 27 chapters, make it clear that some form of this debate has captured the attention of the major figures in philosophy, biology and psychology for more than 2,000 years.

And yes, even in theology. Beginning with Aristotle, and ending with the gestalt psychologists of the 1940s, who emphasized the holistic nature of perception, Macnamara takes us through the major movements in philosphy and psychology, along with a side trip to the Book of Genesis, an essay on the impact of Christianity on psychology and, in three chapters, a summary of how St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas influenced Western psychology and philosophy.

Surely, a 266-page book with 27 chapters, each a self-contained vignette, must represent the epitome of superficiality. But this would miss the point of Macnamara's argument: that even a nodding acquaintance with the ideas and debates of the past will put contemporary debates on the nature of human knowledge into perspective. He firmly believed that people who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it. Unfortunately, even those who are immersed in history may still be condemned to repeat it. I seriously doubt that even the most careful reading of the history of psychology would save contemporary workers from pitfalls and blind alleys. Even more to the point, it would neither prevent nor resolve the conflict between modern nativists and empiricists.

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  1. Sam Glucksberg is in the Department of Psychology, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08544, USA.

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