The Frontal Cortex

Neglected Psychologists

Mixing Memory’s post on the undeserved obscurity of Franz Brentano got me thinking. What other great scientists of mind are modern neuroscientists neglecting?

My own vote goes to William James. While his Principles of Psychology are often mandatory reading in Intro to Psych courses – not bad for a 19th century textbook – few neuroscientists grapple with his philosophical writings. That’s a shame, because they are often more relevant than his Principles. Take this quote from his late essay “Psychical Research”:

“This systematic denial on science’s part of personality as a condition of events, this rigorous belief that in its own essential and innermost nature our world is a strictly impersonal world, may, conceivably, as the whirligig of time goes round, prove to be the very defect that our descendants will be most surprised at in our boasted science, the omission that to their eyes will most tend to make it look perspectiveless and short.”

This is typical James: eloquent, pluralist, anti-reductionist. He stands proudly for a science of experience even when everyone else is still entranced by psycho-physics and the measurement of nerve reaction times. Unfortunately, the whirligig of time has only made neuroscience more impersonal, more convinced that experience can be explained away in terms of neural correlates. I don’t know what a Jamesian science of experience would look like – neither did James – but it sure sounds cool. If I were teaching an Intro to Psych course, I’d make my students memorize a list of James’ pithy aphorisms. If nothing else, it would teach them how to turn a pretty metaphor.

My other vote for most neglected psychologist/philosopher is John Dewey. (I’ve got a weak spot for pragmatists.) His “Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology” dismantled behaviorism before it even existed. Also worth noting are his theories of learning (they anticipate the discovery of mirror neurons) and his theory of emotion.

(This post will also allow me to plug one of my favorite websites)

But if you were teaching Intro to Psych, what old-time psychologist would you make your students read?


  1. #1 Katherine Sharpe
    June 28, 2006

    About a year and a half ago I stumbled, almost literally, over the work of Karen Horney. I pulled her book ‘Neurosis and Human Growth’ off of a library shelf (I was looking for a book nearby) just because it looked old and strange, and I noticed her name: ‘what kind of a woman would be writing a pshychology book, and what kind of psychology book would she be writing, way back then?’ I asked myself.

    I checked the book out of the library and was barely able to put it down. Horney, who was born in Europe (Germany?), earned an MD there, and did most of her work and writing in the United States in the 1930s and ’40s, is one of the mothers of psychodynamic therapy as it’s now practiced. It’s no doubt an oversimplification, but I think there’s also a grain of truth in it, to say that she made Freud usable, by taking some of his better insights and running with them, and getting rid of or downplaying his more sexist and/or sexualized ideas (not a whole lot on the Oedipus complex in Horney, from what I’ve read so far).

    Anyway, reading the book, I did have that sensation of wanting to make everybody else read it, too. ‘We’d all understand ourselves and others so much better!,’ I thought.

    I’d love to have the experience of teaching the book, and seeing how students reacted.

  2. #2 Chris
    June 28, 2006

    To answer the question first, I try to get everyone to read Frederic Bartlett’s Remembering. It’s treatment of memory is way ahead of its time, and is still relevant for schematic memory research, stereotype research, and much more.

    Also Kurt Lewin. He’s becoming popular again among goal researchers, but his work could have a much wider impact on contemporary psychology.

    Now on to James. I often joke that everything we’re finding in cognitive psychology today can be found in James. He had an amazing mind, and was an excellent writer as well. I wish more psychologists would read him (including his philosophical writings).

  3. #3 Jake Young
    June 28, 2006

    I love Principles of Psychology by James, but if you are looking for something short to get a sense of his writing style Pragmatism is sheer genius.

    I love his debunking the Allegory of the Cave.

    I also agree that James has what most scientists lack — a deep sense of the real. He lived psychology and explained it in ways that everyone could understand.

  4. #4 vijucat
    June 29, 2006


    Karnen Horney, “Neurosis and Human Growth”. I picked it up for $4 in New York from a street-seller of 2nd hand books near Central Park. The clarity of description of the various dynamics and convolutions of delusion, neurotic pride, and the resulting alienation from reality is superb. Truly original.

  5. #5 Free Operant
    June 30, 2006

    Two candidates: For clinicians, Alfred Adler. He still has some of the best childrearing advice around.

    For experimental psychologists, I always liked Edward Tolman, because he anticipated modern cognitive approaches. He also refused to sign a loyalty oath during the McCarthy era, went to court, and won.

  6. #6 John Kubie
    July 3, 2006

    1. I don’t think James is ignored, but I agree more attention should be paid.
    2. I got totally lost in the Dewey citation on emotion. But I don’t think you can talk about emotion without involving the ANS.
    3. With psychology being redefined in neuroscientific terms, Cajal gets my vote as a neuroscientist who made the critical contribution to thinking about the fundamental processing unit, the neuron.
    4. Hebb both for his synapse and the cell assembly.
    5. Von Helmholtz is astonishing.

  7. #7 mirc
    August 15, 2009

    To answer the question first, I try to get everyone to read Frederic Bartlett’s Remembering. It’s treatment of memory is way ahead of its time, and is still relevant for schematic memory research, stereotype research, and much more.. Thankss

New comments have been disabled.