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  1. Mind, Body, and Culture: American Psychology before William James
  2. [Figure 43] In the 138 years that separated the Elementa Philosophica (1752) of Samuel Johnson [see figure 43] from William James's Principles of Psychology, a rich and surprisingly large corpus of material bearing directly on psychological issues was published in America. Prior to 1890 when the Principles first appeared, over 350 authors had contributed more than three times that many works to a rapidly growing psychological literature. While the vast majority of this corpus was probably unknown to James, the fact remains that it helped to create a uniquely American climate of opinion with regard to the nature of mind, relations between body and mind, exceptional mental states, mental health, and mental disease. And James, quintessential American mind that he was, came to intellectual maturity breathing the air of that climate.

    A detailed analysis of American psychology would lead us far afield and well beyond the limits of the available space. Fay (1939) has made a helpful start on the process; but his account focuses exclusively on mental philosophy and covers the work of only about 60 of the 350 or so individuals whose writings could potentially be included in such a study. Here, to illustrate the depth and interest value of this literature and to provide evidence of the extent to which psychological ideas had permeated American culture by the end of the 19th century, we will focus briefly on a small number of authors whose works still warrant perusal and whose ideas touched directly on issues of mind or mind and body.

    Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), Puritan theologian and philosopher, was born in East Windsor, Connecticut, and studied philosophy, especially Locke's Essay, at Yale under Samuel Johnson. Even before his graduation in 1720, Edwards's psychological interests had led him to compose a short note on "the Mind." In 1729 he assumed the ministry at Northampton (for an interesting account of Edwards's life during this period, see Tracy, 1980); and there, for 20 years, he wrote and preached strict Calvinism. In 1748, he was dismissed from Northampton in a dispute with parishioners and moved to Stockbridge. At Stockbridge he composed A Careful and Strict Enquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of Will, Which is Supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency, Vertue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame [44], which appeared in 1754.

    Edwards's Enquiry, which was widely read and debated, reflects the idealism of Puritan Platonism and the empiricism of Locke in a mixture not unlike that of Berkeley's immaterialism. Just as the human intellect is the passive recipient of impressions and ideas from God, will is the passive recipient of motives or moral causes presented to it by the understanding. The action of the will is fully determined by these causes; and since these motive causes are given by God, human will is divinely determined. Freedom is merely the absence of impediment to action.

    [Figure 44] Benjamin Rush (1746-1813), physician, patriot, signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born in Philadelphia and educated at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). From 1766 to 1768 he studied medicine under William Cullen at Edinburgh, where he was exposed to the faculty psychology of Reid. Returning to the Colonies in 1769, he assumed a Professorship in the College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania). As a physician, he is best known for his theoretical and therapeutic innovations in psychiatry [see figure 44]; but under the influence of the Scottish tradition and the physiological associationism of Hartley, he also elaborated and taught his own version of physiological psychology to several generations of American students (for an autobiographical account, see Rush, 1948).

    On the 27th of February, 1786, at the urging of Benjamin Franklin, Rush gave the American Philosophical Association's Annual Oration, published as An Enquiry into the Influence of Physical Causes upon the Moral Faculty [45]. Having defined the moral faculty in the manner of the Scottish philosophers as "a power in the human mind of distinguishing and chusing good and evil" (p. 1), Rush made a sharp distinction between moral action and moral opinion or conscience; and, in an extended series of analogies to the intellectual powers, he endeavored to show that physical causes such as size of the brain, heredity, disease, fever, climate, diet, drink, and medicines among others can affect the exercise of the moral faculty. Almost 50 years before Prichard's (1835) introduction of the term "moral insanity," Rush proposed the terms "micronomia" and "anomia" for the partial or weakened action and total absence of the moral faculty respectively and suggested that such defects fall within the purview of the psychological physician.

    [Figure 45] Joseph Parrish (1779-1840) [see figure 45], physician, was born in Philadelphia, studied medicine under Caspar Wistar and received the M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1805 with an Inaugural Dissertation on the Influence of the Passions upon the Body [46]. This exceptional little treatise went well beyond the general psychosomatic notions of the period to classify the passions into two categories on the basis of their physiological effects and therapeutic possibilities: those that increase the force of the heart and arteries and therefore act as stimulants; and those that depress the body, producing a sedative effect. Used appropriately and in a dosage adapted to the strength of the patient, the passions could, Parrish argued, be effectively employed as mental remedies.

    Joseph Buchanan (1785-1829), physician, educator, inventor, lawyer, journalist, was born in Washington County, Virginia, moved to Tennessee in 1795 and Kentucky in 1804. His formal education consisted of 14 months of elementary and secondary school and one year at Transylvania University which nonetheless awarded him a Bachelor's degree based on his personal program of study. At Transylvania, he was introduced to the work of Erasmus Darwin, Hume, Locke, and Hartley by Dr. Samuel Brown, under whom he also studied medicine (see Adams and Hoberman, 1969, for a brief account of Buchanan's life and work).

    Under the stimulus of a promised professorship in a Medical School at Transylvania that never became a reality, Buchanan compiled a series of lectures elucidating his views on physiological psychology. These he published in 1812 as The Philosophy of Human Nature [47], a work that is unquestionably the most original American contribution to psychology before William James. Printed on the American frontier only a year after Bell's private circulation of the Idea of a New Anatomy of the Brain, 8 years before Brown's Lectures, 12 years before Purkyne's Beobachtungen, and 14 years before Müller's articulation of the doctrine of specific nerve energies among others, Buchanan's Philosophy of Human Nature was a remarkable anticipation of later developments in associationist psychology, visual phenomenology, and sensory-motor psychophysiology.

    Among many original contributions, Buchanan seems to have been the first to articulate the Law of Exercise usually attributed to Thomas Brown: "Every action, or process of excitement," he wrote, "becomes more easily excited in proportion as it is frequently and forcibly performed" (p. 71). His treatment of sensation drew on reports of the phenomenology of his own visual experiments. "Excitement," he asserted, "is proportionate to the stimulus and the excitability; and ... is facilitated by repetition" (p. 92). "Every process of sensual excitement has a tendency to continue after the stimulus is removed; and this tendency is proportionate to the remaining quantity of excitability, and the violence of the preceding stimulation" (p. 96). Finally, in agreeing with those who contend "that mind is merely an organic state of matter" (p. 3), defining "excitability" as "that property of organized matter ... which is the source of all its spontaneous or proper motions" (p. 51), and delineating a notion of "stimulus" as "a change in the influence exerted on the vital substance by external agents" (p. 58), Buchanan sketched out the conceptual prerequisites for a sensory- motor associationism before Bain or Spencer had even been born.

    Thomas Cogswell Upham (1799-1872), philosopher and educator, was born in Deerfield, New Hampshire, and educated at Dartmouth College and Andover Theological Seminary. In 1824, three years after graduating from Andover, Upham was appointed Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy at Bowdoin College, where he remained until his retirement in 1867. The results of Upham's lectures at Bowdoin were embodied in the Elements of Intellectual Philosophy [48], a text which, in its numerous incarnations and editions, dominated the American scene for fifty years.

    The first thirteen chapters of Upham's Elements appeared in a preliminary printing in 1826, followed in 1827 by the full text. In this first edition, Upham resisted the temptation to provide a classification of the mental operations. By 1831, however, when he expanded the work to two volumes under the title Elements of Mental Philosophy, he had adopted a two-fold classification in terms of intellect and sensibilities. After 1834, when he published his Treatise on the Will, Upham moved to a tri-partite classification; and this system was laid out in its final form in 1869, in the Elements of Mental Philosophy; Embracing the Three Departments of the Intellect, Sensibilities, and Will.

    Generally eclectic in his orientation, Upham drew the major inspiration for the first edition of his textbook from Locke and Reid, turning more heavily to Brown in later editions. His treatment of will reflected an attempt to reach a compromise between an ontological pre- determinism inherited from his Calvinist ancestors and the evidence of consciousness as to mental freedom. Indeed, Upham's most important contribution to American thought and culture may have been the extent to which he introduced generations of American students to the exploration of human conscious experience as a source of psychological understanding.

    [Figure 46] Catherine Esther Beecher (1800-1878), daughter of Lyman Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Beecher, writer and educator [see figure 46] who almost singlehandedly created the 19th century ideology of the American woman as professional homemaker, teacher, and guardian of the nation's morality, was born in East Hampton, Long Island and educated at Miss Pierce's School in Litchfield, Connecticut. In 1823, after her fiancé drowned in a shipping disaster (see Sklar, 1973 for a brilliant biography of Beecher), she and her sister Mary moved to Hartford to open a female seminary.

    At Hartford, for the benefit of her students, she prepared and printed the anonymous Elements of Mental and Moral Philosophy, Founded Upon Experience, Reason, and the Bible [49]. Seeking an answer to the question "What must we do to be saved" and a guide to the interpretation of the Bible in the laws of the mind, Catherine Beecher became one of if not the first to apply psychological analysis directly to theological topics. Unsure of the reception that her work would receive, she had the book printed, bound, and sent to the leading theological lights of the day for their critical commentary. Unfortunately, her fears were justified and the reaction (perhaps prompted as much by the book's female authorship as by its content) was sufficiently critical that Beecher withdrew her book from circulation. Never actually published or sold, Beecher's Elements is one of the very rarest books in the history of American psychology.

    [Figure 47] Amariah Brigham (1798-1849), psychiatrist [see figure 47], was born in New Marlboro, Massachusetts, studied medicine with Dr. Edmund C. Peet, and opened his own practice in 1821 in Enfield, Massachusetts. In 1828/1829, he spent a year traveling and attending lectures in England, Scotland, France, and Italy. Two years after his return, he moved to Hartford where he came into contact with Eli Todd, superintendent of the Hartford Retreat. Brigham's psychiatric views reflected a combination of his own introduction to moral (psychological) treatment in the writings of British and French alienists and Todd's practical approach to treatment of the insane (see Carlson, 1956, for a brief overview of Brigham's life and works).

    In 1832, Brigham published his Remarks on the Influence of Mental Cultivation upon Health [50]. At the time, fear was growing that the human nervous system was ill-adapted to cope with the increasing complexity of "modern" life and that, as a result, insanity was on the increase. Brigham's work was the first published contribution to mental hygiene compiled for popular consumption. Written to stem the "growing tide of insanity," it provided the average reader with advice on the proper education of children, the importance of physical health, the dangers of excess mental excitement, and the need for improved education of women. For the first time, the importance of maintaining mental health became part of the American cultural ideal.

    Charles Poyen Saint Sauveur (dates unknown) was a disciple of Puységur and self-proclaimed Professor of Animal Magnetism who arrived in America from France in 1836. Nothing of his early life seems to be known. What is known of his career in America comes almost entirely from his Progress of Animal Magnetism in New England [51], published in 1837. Upon his arrival in America, Poyen began to tour New England, lecturing and giving demonstrations of animal magnetism. Bringing volunteers from the audience to the stage, Poyen frequently succeeded in inducing trance and eliciting the usually associated phenomena. While the circus-like atmosphere of these mesmeric entertainments was hardly calculated to add to the scientific credibility of mesmerism, Poyen's lecture-demonstrations, as Fuller (1982) has suggested, did effectively stimulate "the public's imagination with novel 'facts' about human nature" (p 19).

    As stage mesmerism spread, it became part of a much broader American cultural movement away from established religion and toward an esthetic religiosity that stressed the achievement of inner harmony through self development, exploration of the heretofore hidden powers of the human mind, and transcendental contact with higher spiritual planes and powers (God, the ether, magnetic fluid, cosmic vibrations). Swedenborgianism, Universalism, and spiritualism, which from its 1848 beginnings in Hydesville, New York had gathered over eleven million adherents by the 1870s, found in mesmerism a congenial and presumably scientific construal of mind in relation to a higher sphere. Mental healing (Christian Science, New Thought), which had its origins in the work of Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (see Fuller, 1982, for an excellent account of these developments), also derived indirectly from Poyen, since it was Poyen's stage demonstration in Belfast, Maine that first interested Quimby in mesmerism. By the late 1870s, psychical phenomena, spiritualistic séances, hypnotic trance states, and mental healing were familiar phenomena to most educated Americans.

    Elizabeth Ricord (1788-1865) was born on Long Island and educated privately. From 1829 to 1840, the year in which she published her Elements of the Philosophy of Mind, Applied to the Developement of Thought and Feeling [52], Ricord served as Principal of the Geneva Female Seminary in Geneva, New York. Her Elements consisted of material, much of it derived from the work of Victor Cousin, that had been gathered by Ricord for her lectures in mental philosophy (see Scarborough, 1992, for further discussion of Ricord's life and work).

    What makes Ricord's work virtually unique for the period is her expressed concern with gender differences in character, especially a perceived lack in women of habits of patient attention. This she ascribes to the fact that: "The first perceptions of their minds are directed to the minutia of domestic concerns ... the system adopted for their education has in a measure cut them off from the studies that help to form character ... the time allotted them in the pursuit of science, has not been sufficient to establish such settled habits of thought, as might in after life help them to resist the vagaries of fantasy" (p. 134). Ricord, like Beecher, was dedicated to raising the status of women through education; and, like Beecher, she made the study of the mind a starting point for that effort.

    Laurens Perseus Hickok (1798-1888), generally considered to be America's first systematic philosopher, was born in Bethel, Connecticut and educated at Union College, where he served as Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy from 1855-1866 and as President from 1866 to his retirement in 1868. The fundamental principle on which Hickok based his philosophical system was the essential compatibility of rational and empirical modes of thought. Whereas ideas are tested in the empirical domain by their experimental consequences and in the rational domain by their internal coherence, properly carried out, both methods will lead to the same facts and principles and neither approach should be neglected in favor of the other. In keeping with this principle, Hickok published both a Rational Psychology (1849) and, in 1854, an Empirical Psychology [53]. This later work, a full-scale introspective study of the workings of the human mind, served, with the work of Upham, to introduce several generations of students to the study of the phenomena of consciousness.

    [Figure 48] Noah Porter (1811-1892), clergyman, philosopher, educator [see figure 48], was born in Farmington, Connecticut and educated at Yale, where he became Clark Professor of Moral Philosophy and Metaphysics in 1846 and President in 1871. Prior to 1853, Porter's psychology was drawn largely from the Scottish mental philosophy then dominating the American scene. A winter's study in Berlin, 1853/1854, however, brought him into contact with Friedrich Adolf Trendelenburg, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, and contemporary German thought. Upon his return, he set to work on grounding epistemology in scientific psychology, a program that led in 1868 to the publication of The Human Intellect [54], a book which Blau (1967) has called "the best work on psychology in English before William James" (p. 413).

    In The Human Intellect, which is dedicated to Trendelenburg, Porter provides an extensive review of British associationism and German philosophical psychology, including Herbart's doctrine of consciousness. To these, he adds summaries of Weber's experiments on touch, Müller's theory of sense perception, and Lotze's theory of local signs. Although, in keeping with the period, Porter was unable to conceive of psychology as an experimental science, dependent as it must be on the introspective analysis of consciousness, he was nonetheless the first American philosopher consistently to treat the data from physiological experiment as ancillary to the introspective enterprise.

    Edward Hammond Clarke (1820-1877), physician and educator, was born in Norton, Massachusetts, educated at Harvard College, and received his medical degree at Philadelphia in 1846. After extensive travel and the establishment of a private practice in Boston, Clarke was appointed Professor of Materia Medica at Harvard Medical School, a position he retained until his return to private practice in 1872, five years before his death.

    At his death, Clarke left unfinished a manuscript dealing with the nature and origins of visual hallucinations analyzed in terms of a thoroughly associationist, physiological psychology grounded in the work of Bain, Carpenter, Ferrier, and Wundt, among others. Prepared posthumously for publication by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Clarke's manuscript appeared in 1878 under the title Visions: A Study of False Sight (Pseudopia.) [55].

    In Visions, Clarke articulates a number of fundamental premises: that visual hallucinations must be understood in terms of the process of normal vision, that normal vision involves reflex, automatic actions of complex sets of nervous connections localized in the higher centers of the brain, and that under "abnormal conditions, stimuli originating in the brain, without the presence of any external object, may excite any of the centres of the visual apparatus, and set the process of vision going from that point" (p. 220). On the basis of these premises, he provides a physiological account, remarkably modern for the period, of a class of psychological phenomena -- visual hallucinations -- that were of interest to a wide audience. In this regard, Clarke reflects the common preoccupation of the period with abnormal mental states and their physical underpinnings.

    George Miller Beard (1839-1883), physician, was born in Montville, Connecticut, graduated from Yale in 1862 and New York's College of Physician's in 1866. Upon receipt of his degree, he decided almost immediately to specialize in diseases of the nervous system. In 1868, he initiated a course of lectures on nervous diseases at New York University, and a year later, in 1869 in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, he published the first description of neurasthenia, the disease that was to make him world famous. This was followed in 1880 by A Practical Treatise on Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia) [56], an extended consideration of the symptomatology, nature, and treatment of this new disease entity.

    [Figure 49] Gathering a potpourri of some three dozen physical and mental symptoms (including insomnia, hyperaesthesia, pain, tinnitus, headache, inability to control the attention, mental irritability, hopelessness, and morbid fears), Beard characterized neurasthenia as a "functional" nervous disorder. By this he meant simply to express his faith in the unity of the disease and in the eventual identification of an underlying organic pathology. Heavily dependent on the metaphors of the day, Beard conceptualized neurasthenia as a diminution or even complete failure in the power of the nervous system viewed as a closed circuit energized with a fixed quantity of nervous force. Individuals hereditarily underendowed with a supply of nervous energy might, under the varied and pressing demands of 19th century life, suffer in effect from a kind of circuit overload. Treatment, tailored to the individual, typically included some combination of diet, rest (with or without isolation) or work, massage, hydrotherapeutics, laxatives, cathartics, counter-irritants, internal medications, mental therapeutics, and galvanotherapy [see figure 49].

    "Within a decade of Beard's death in 1883," as historian Charles Rosenberg (1962) commented, "the diagnosis of nervous exhaustion had become part of the office furniture of most physicians" (p. 258). Concern with the peculiar problem of the relationship between mind and the function of the nervous system was no longer restricted to philosophers and scientists. Neurasthenia had joined hypnotic trance phenomena, mediumistic spiritualism, hallucinations, insanity, mental health, psychical phenomena, mental healing, and the nature of mind and will as given in consciousness as common currency among educated Americans. It was within this cultural context that William James set out in 1878 to write the Principles of Psychology.


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    Wozniak, Robert H. "Mind and Body: Rene Déscartes to William James";
    Bryn Mawr College, Serendip 1995
    Originally published in 1992 at Bethesda, MD & Washington, DC by the National Library of Medicine and the American Psychological Association.

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