I obtained my PhD in clinical psychology in my late 30s. We read Freud and Skinner and their progeny, even Wilhelm Reich famous for among other things his theory of orgone energy ( just a wee bit twinkie there as a friend would say), but no William James. For that matter I had read James in my undergraduate days in English class, not psychology. I have wondered about how his work has been relegated to literature and away from the ‘practical’. Still do. Many of his students went on to be successful but on their own, not as one of his disciples. He was quite mainstream in his day and recognized in the US and Europe as a major thinker. Maybe some of his heritage was lost in the great loss of life and social change in World War I. In any event while some scholars have appreciated James and his ideas, his work has been partially eclipsed by Freud and later on in this country, Skinner.
Now I have never been a fan of Mr. Skinner, coming of age as I did under the auspices of Noam Chomsky and the great early neuroscientists who taught me that behaviorism could in no way account for language or mind. I have since come to appreciate how Skinner’s systematic focus on behavior made possible much rigorous research on us animals but still I think of it more as a technology than a theory.
Similarly with Freud I questioned his focus on sexuality in psychological development, his denial of rampant incest and his addictions. I did learn in working with preschoolers that the behaviors he labeled as Oedipal were quite real and prevalent (and open to other interpretations). In graduate school I learned that his explication of the unconscious mind was truly a brilliant and needed step. And in the past few years, reading Alan Shore and his biological work exploring attachment and object relations and Eric Kandel’s book on the early expressionist painters in Vienna and then following up with some of Freud’s writings, I have realized that part of Freud’s impact was his very excellent writing, i.e., his place in literature.
So both Freud and James (who came along a bit earlier) were psychologists medically trained who wrote well. I learned in Robert Richardson’s book, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, that they met in 1909 when Freud visited Clark University and James went to his lectures. James thought Freud was a bit too taken with his singular and at that time at least narrow ideas. Freud criticized the current mental hygiene/positive psychology therapies as being non-scientific (whoa, more irony there than I want to discuss here now). James did get on with Carl Jung, who accompanied Freud on this trip, and they had two long talks. Richardson suggests that Jung, even then, was breaking from the Freudian brand of dogma. Here is the young Jung:
So here is a last question for today. If mental health therapies had continued with the tradition to which James was an important contributor and not focused on the ‘talking cure’ of psychoanalysis and then not reacted against that by going non-mental with behaviorism, where might we be today? Three different paradigms based upon very different views of humans as animals. I think we would have arrived sooner at a more powerful positive psychology such as espoused by Martin Seligman and others because James in the zeitgeist of his day was already on the trail.