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Defining the twentieth century by its key achievements is clearly difficult: the discoveries of atomic energy, antibiotics, instrumentation for the exploration of the moon and the planets of the solar system, would obviously come to the mind first. The twentieth century, however, is also marked by psychology and psychoanalysis that have shaped our view of ourselves in a subtle, yet profound way. Our previously unrecognized "unconscious drives" are part of our everyday culture, to much a deeper extent than atomic energy. The century of psychoanalysis is so much different from the preceding ones that its influence on our cultural heritage is difficult to recognize: it changed our views so profoundly that we can hardly imagine doing without. Psychology revolutionized the education of children, sexuality and ethics much beyond its empirical and scientific merits.
Rom Harré has collected the different psychological theories developed during the XX century in a very readable, yet rigorous, exposition and his book is noteworthy for completeness and concision; perhaps at times it becomes too concise and one would like he had written more. He recognizes in XX century psychology no less than ten different approaches, and succinctly discusses the writings of least two authors of each, making this 280-pages book quite dense. The classification of the different approaches is somewhat personal: e.g. psychoanalysis is not a group by itself, but is classed together with Kraepelin's psychiatry, while the Gestalt is classed under the "psychology of perception". As a consequence, the book is not a classical manual of the history of psychology but an original critical analysis; readability is improved but some familiarity of the reader with the subject matter is presumed. The book is rewarding but demanding.
Harré's position is balanced: he has no difficulty in praising less known authors (e.g. Vygotsky) and in criticizing towering figures like Jean Piaget and Sigmund Freud. There is a discernible and appreciable effort in Key Thinkers in Psychology to overlook fame and success and to stick to the effective merits of each theorist. Indeed each author is presented in a stereotyped manner that includes a short biography and a discussion of his/her major contributions; no space is dedicated to the success and diffusion of the theory or to its impact on society. Some of the weaknesses of psychology are clearly exposed: many theories such as behaviourism, psychoanalysis and Piaget's developmentalism originated from beautiful ideas and experiments that were generalized beyond reason and used as the basis of whole systems, e.g.:
"... Skinner adopted an almost messianic ambition to redesign the human world and to redeem its evils by the universal application of the techniques of operant conditioning." (p.18)
"... psychopathology required a system for classifying the phenomena and a powerful set of explanatory concepts, reaching into the underlying and often unobservable causes of mental troubles. Kraepelin provided the former and Sigmund Freud believed he had provided the latter." (p.263)
Key Thinkers in Psychology is intriguing because it presents to the reader so many different, and often conflicting, theories. This is a great merit of its author who keeps a balanced view of the history of modern psychology, and stimulates his readers with open problems rather than soothing them with partial and unreliable answers. Yet, Harré's political correctness makes the book a collection of sketches, devoid of a clear logical thread. In the absence of a widely accepted theory, the field is fragmented into several different approaches and the reader would expect at least some comment on the reasons why psychology has not found a unifying view as chemistry or physics have. Harré does not venture into a global perspective, but the impression one gets is that there is no agreement on which phenomena need to be explained by psychology and how they are to be classified: each author painfully finds his way through a complex world of psychological phenomena and ends up with his own classification, that is not shared by others. One might perhaps remember and extend to individual psychology Jacques Monod's idea that biology is a historical science (because mutations arise casually and shape the further evolution of biological systems), to which the usual generalizations of chemistry and physics cannot be applied. Although this point is not explicitly stated by Harré, it comes out quite clearly in several points of the book, e.g. the comparison between Gordon Allport and Raymond Cattell.
Why so many of the authors cited and praised by Harré are almost unknown to the general public, whereas the best known ones are criticized, at times quite harshly? This is perhaps the strongest merit of this unconventional book and the point where it becomes more demanding for the reader. Harré implicitly poses this question but leaves the answer to his readers. He never goes as far as explicitly observing that his preferred authors are sound scientists who refuse to generalize and to simplify their discoveries to make them more palatable to the general public, and that psychology is a difficult science in which theorizing has often exceeded measurements and discoveries. In Key Thinkers in Psychology facts are plainly stated and conclusions are let to emerge almost by themselves, without the help of the author, who never renounces his scheme to allow himself more space to discuss his own views.
© 2007 Andrea Bellelli
Andrea Bellelli has an MD and a degree in psychology, and teaches biochemistry in the Medical School of the University of Rome, Italy.