E.G. Boring's approach to the history of psychology

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'The Great-Man Theory cannot be wrong. It expresses too obvious a truth about society' E.G Boring (1950) Explain and Evaluate Boring's approach to the history of Psychology.

-- Laura Hopkins (lazhop@aol.com), November 17, 2003


According to the policy of this Forum, one is not supposed to post assignments or exam questions. Still, I'll take a quick stab at this one, because I think it is important.

One of the things wrong with the "great man" theory is that it treats the "great person" (to update things a bit) as though s/he popped into existence out of nothingness. What *caused* the great person to be great? Genes? Upbringing? Social forces? *Even if* one belives that great changes in history are always brought about by great individuals (a claim about which there is much to doubt in the first place), treating that very greatness as a matter of study brings back all the competing theories of history.

Of course, it may well be, by contrast, that (many) great individuals are simply born into the right circumstances for their particular gifts to be put to use. Many have argued, for instance, that Lenin simply jumped on to the front of the Bolshevik train after it had left the station. Imagine what would have become of Napoleon had not his way been first cleared by the French Revolution. Consider how a John F. Kennedy would fair in the political climate of the US today. To bring it back to psychology, what if Wundt hadn't landed the job in Leipzig and had been forced to live out his career in Zurich (without the support to set up his lab, journal, courses, etc.)?

-- Christopher Green (christo@yorku.ca), November 17, 2003.

The material in quotes is not a quotation from Boring, 1950--perhaps this is the professor's statement? You may find it helpful to read Boring's own discussion of the Great Man vs Zeitgeist theorieson pages 744 and 745 of that text. Various other history of psychology textbook writers weigh in on this debate as well. Boring's major point is that great men are the agents of progress rather than its causes or symptoms.

-- Hendrika Vande Kemp (hendrika@earthlink.net), November 17, 2003.

Actually, it is a quotation from Boring, 1950, but not from his history of psychology textbook. The reference is: E. G. Boring (1950). Great men and scientific progress. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, v. 94, 339-351. The paper was reprinted in Robert I. watson & Donald T. Campbell (Ed.s). (1963). History, psychology, and science: Selected papers by Edwin G. Boring, Harvard University (pp. 29-49). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. The quotation appears on p. 29 in the reprint.

However, Boring's views about it should be read. For example, in the next sentence, Boring continues, "...there has been, nevertheless, for almost a century now, a growing suspicion that the theory asserts very little, since it specifies neither the attributes nor the conditions of greatness."

Boring used Napoleon and others, including Hitler, as examples of men who have "changed the course of our civilization."

-- Roger K. Thomas (rkthomas@uga.edu), November 17, 2003.

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