Gordon Allport: The 20th Century's Psychologist (Pt 2)

Caught between two cultures—Freud and the Behaviorists

… Continued from Part 1.

One of the most widely discussed books in academic circles during the Cold War was C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, published in 1959. Snow was both a chemist and a novelist. In the book, he introduces his credentials as having spent his days working among scientists and his nights cavorting with literary types. The impetus for the book was Snow’s observation that he seemed to be only one splitting his time between the two groups.

“I believe the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups,” wrote Snow. “At one pole we have the literary intellectuals, who incidentally while no one was looking took to referring to themselves as ‘intellectuals’ as though there were no others… at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all a lack of understanding.”

Though he identified with both cultures, Snow didn’t look on them even-handedly (the book’s title makes no mention of a “literary revolution”). This is because, as Snow argues, the literary culture is the “traditional culture”—taking stock of society’s already existing cultural produce—whereas scientists have “the future in their bones.” Yet both sides are equally ignorant of what the other side is up to. Snow cites a study of scientists’ reading habits, showing that few of them have any substantial knowledge of literary works. “Most of the rest, when one tried to probe for what book they had read, would modestly confess, ‘Well, I’ve tried a bit of Dickens’, rather as though Dickens were an extraordinarily esoteric, tangled and dubiously rewarding writer, something like Rainer Maria Rilke.”1 Meanwhile, most humanists couldn’t recite the second law of thermodynamics, or even define mass.2

One diagnosis Snow makes is disciplinary specialization, or at least specialization that happens prematurely. Here he points the finger at England, one of the earliest specializing countries in the world.3 In English secondary education, by the time a student hits sixteen, she is already narrowing down her studies to a few key topics. Students go into undergraduate with a monogamous commitment to a field of study, earning a bachelor’s degree in only three years and skipping over the general education requirements found in American universities. How can we expect students to respect the diversity of knowledge production if we aren’t teaching them from a broad disciplinary spectrum?

What Snow elides in addressing this problem is that it is actually two problems. One is social, the other epistemological. Snow frames the divide only as a social problem: scientists and humanists have self-segregated into two disconnected groups. Each has their own values, as well as their own language for discussing them. But just because the problem is discussable in social terms, doesn’t make it exclusively a social problem. The epistemological issue is whether these two camps in some real sense represent fundamentally different ways of going about the business of creating knowledge. To the extent that they are incommensurable, perhaps it makes sense to keep them apart. They are separate enterprises, and we wouldn’t expect their practitioners to intermingle, just as we don’t expect to see politicians and fashion designers discussing matters of trade over dinner.

Snow trained his eye on comparing the intellectual cultures of the interwar period with the premodern period. He had in mind mainly natural scientists and writers of literary fiction, which were his own areas of expertise. He didn’t look favorably on upon the literature of the modern era (any writer from T. S. Eliot on, to Snow, fell into the category of “dubiously rewarding”). But this divide wasn’t the only way of framing the “two cultures” problem during this period. As divided as any two camps in the academy of the first half of the twentieth century were the poles of thoughts in psychology: the Freudians and the Behaviorists.

That the word “Freud” denotes a body of thought as much as a singular man speaks to his influence, as well as to Freud’s ability to architect a cult of personality with himself at the center. As the poet W. H. Auden wrote in a tribute to Freud upon his death in 1939:

if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd,

     to us he is no more a person

   now but a whole climate of opinion

Sigmund Freud was a polemical figure. You were either a disciple or a detractor. Freud didn’t want it any other way. In Freud’s own telling of the history of psychoanalysis, one begins to feel as though the protagonist—Freud himself—is a previous incarnation of Donald Trump, relying on a similar set of rhetorical stratagems to move through life as a nineteenth century Viennese neurologist. In every instance, he is simultaneously the hero and the victim; he is triumphant in all his actions, yet vilified by mainstream opinion; he bears the burden of persecution, not for his own sake, but for the sake of the movement; his is a regime without peer on either side of history; and he recognizes only three categories of people: those on his side, those against him, and those who don’t exist.

For instance, Freud believed that “it is the inevitable fate of psychoanalysis to arouse opposition and to embitter people,” which in turn inspired “the conclusion that I must surely be the originator of all that characterized psychoanalysis.” Even in full context, the logical connection of the statements hangs only by a thread. Another choice line of pomposity is when Freud claimed, of his own argument: “This argument has by no means received the serious consideration it deserved, for if it had, there would have been no arguments.”

Though Freud recounts his “discovery” of psychoanalysis as a eureka-inflected moment of personal insight, it was in many ways a response to the neurological program developed by Jean-Martin Charcot, a Frenchman, widely considered to be the founder of modern neurology. In the nineteenth century, neurologists were in possession of one essential fact, with all other insights derived from profligate speculation. That fact was that the psyche—the mind, the spirit, the source of behavior, whatever one is inclined to call it—has a biological basis, specifically the brain. When presented with a tricky case of pathological behavior, they could safely locate the source of the problem between the patient’s ears. Beyond that was anyone’s guess.

The neurological basis of the psyche entails two separate points: the brain shapes behavior, and behavior shapes the brain. Like most of his contemporaries, Charcot was mostly concerned with the first point. There was one main exception: hypnosis. This was something Charcot had pioneered and practiced—an introduction of new psychological variables in hopes of causing neurological changes—and that Freud was able to observe when he studied under Charcot in autumn of 1885. (Part of Charcot’s claim as a founding father comes from the many influential students he taught; another was William James.) The psychoanalytic program of Freud took this second point to its extreme.

Having established his own practice back in Vienna, Freud soon realized that hypnosis was unnecessary. All you needed to do was get the patient talking—“free association.” Psychoanalysis was his technique for making sense of whatever the patient produced on their linguistic walkabout. Freud’s psychoanalysis had an impact far beyond psychiatry, and even psychology. But as far as the behavioral sciences are concerned, Freud introduced two major innovations.

The first was an innovation of content. This was his characterizing of the unconscious. It featured early on in his psychoanalytic writings. “The theory of repression,” wrote Freud “is the pillar upon which the edifice of psychoanalysis rests.” The notion of “repression” implies psychic depth. Where do repressed images and experiences go, if not some subterranean reservoir of mental activity?

Freud did not invent the unconscious. (For instance, Eduard von Hartmann wrote a treatise entitled The Philosophy of the Unconscious, in 1869, which Freud had read as a young man.) His contribution was to attribute to the unconscious a position of influence in the mind no one else had quite appreciated. The conscious mind—that is, the part to which we have direct introspective access—is a subjugated parcel of the untamed wilderness that is the unconscious. The culmination of this was his three-layered theory of id, ego, and super-ego. The middle layer is ego: the part of you that can be readily identified as “you.” Below that is id: a layer of instincts and impulses, the habits and desires that propel us through the current of daily life. The top layer is super-ego: your higher moral faculties, the part of you that seeks to abide by conventional mores, your conscience. There’s a lot going on in those outside layers.

Freud’s other, and probably more important, innovation was methodological. This is the “analysis” part of psychoanalysis. Freud turned investigation of the mind from an experimental science into what was essentially a literary enterprise. This turned out to be something of a move toward liberation. For the price that is paid for experimental rigor is a limit on what can be rigorously studied. There is a natural tradeoff between an experiment’s rigor (“internal validity” as it’s called it psychology) and how well that experiment describes something in the real world (“external validity”). The cleaner the experimental setup, the less likely the behavior is to resemble something humans do in their natural habitat. Psychoanalysis offered a way of talking about a much wider range of phenomenon than the experimental method allowed. Freud discussed the nature of, among much else: dreams, wit, sexuality, culture, myth, psychosis, and conversational language. The crux of Freud’s insight was that one could read a dream—or a behavioral tick, or a malapropism—like one might read a book. It could be deconstructed in terms of its symbolic motifs, analyzed, and reconstructed to reflect the formative experiences of the author. Freud approached the mind less like a set of laws, to be codified in an equation, and more like a novel, to be scrutinized for meaning.

This was the M. O. Freud established in The Interpretation of Dreams, published, in German, in 1899. The structure of each passage is: Freud presents a dream sequence, either his own or a patient’s. The dream is broken down into its component images. Connections are drawn from those components to events from real life. Then Freud fits together the puzzle of what the dream means: the goal is to put the dream sequence in relation to the events in such a way as to reveal feelings of the patient which may not be otherwise be available to them. The dream is the perfect vehicle for this process, because it’s all imagery. It is the mind’s natural form of free association, of wandering around with no particular destination. And because the dreamer doesn’t exert conscious control over the imagery of her dreams, it is the perfect place to find the kinds of things your superego might not want you to see.

For a time, Freud did actually conduct a series of experiments based on psychoanalysis. They were done in collaboration with Wilhelm Wundt, the founder of the first laboratory for experimental psychology. Wundt’s experiments were especially amenable to testing psychoanalytic theories, because they were based on introspection. Wundt would train his subjects—sometimes for hundreds of hours—to systematically inspect the content of their own thoughts. But Freud viewed these experiments as superfluous. They could only support what he had already worked out via psychoanalytic techniques.

Freud first came to America in 1909, at the invitation of G. Stanley Hall, then president of Clark University. “The introduction of psychoanalysis into North America,” as Freud saw it, “took place under particularly glorious auspices.” Namely, the auspices Freud had in mind was his presentation of himself to a crowd of potential American disciples. He recounted the day by praising his attachés and followers in attendance (this included Carl Jung, the other major figure invited by Hall and a collaborator of Freud’s at the time, as well as A. A. Brill, Freud’s obsequious underling and the main translator of his work into English), denigrating his detractors (making exceptions for their fleeting moments of clarity, during which they acted in accord with Freud’s own views), and failing to mention to everyone else. This last category included William James, who didn’t take a particularly strong stance on Freud’s work, but was nevertheless the most influential psychologist in America at the time. James died the following year.

James’s death opened a rift in American psychology. As the central figure of American psychology, James had set up a philosophy, but not a program of research. His foundational text was his 1890 Principles of Psychology. And it was just that: principles. It was full of brilliant observation and insight. But it did not make it immediately obvious what everyone was supposed to do in James’s absence. And though Freud began to enjoy greater and greater influence in America, the group that picked up the slack wasn’t the Freudians. It was the Behaviorists.

In a way, Behaviorism was also intended as a means of addressing the important phenomena that lay outside of conscious awareness. “Psychology as the behaviorist views it,” wrote John B. Watson, in a 1913 manifesto of that title, “is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior. Introspection forms no essential part of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data dependent upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness.”

This way of seeing things was presented as an alternative to psychology as everyone else viewed it— as “the science of the phenomena of consciousness.” As Watson described this position, the purview of psychology was any mental state that could be inspected by the person it belonged to. Any effect that could not be readily observed in one’s own mind was outside the psychologist’s jurisdiction. The epicenter of this school of thought was William James’ approach to studying the “stream of consciousness.” Specifically, his contemporaries referred to this approach as “functionalism,” as the goal was not just to label the contents of consciousness but to say what it is they’re doing there.

A key insight of Watson’s was the connection with animal behavior. If psychology consists only of the things drifting through the “stream of consciousness” and we cannot directly observe the mental states of animals, then we must admit there is no “psychology” of animals. Clearly, this is absurd: there’s something going in the mind of, say, a dog that counts as mentality. “It seems reasonably clear that some kind of compromise must be effected,” as Watson wrote: “either psychology must change its viewpoint so as to take in facts of behavior, whether or not they have bearings upon the problems of ‘consciousness’; or else behavior must stand alone as a wholly separate and independent science.” What puts the minds of animals and humans on the same playing field? It isn’t introspection, but observable behavior.

Whereas Freud addressed the limits of conscious states by delving into further caverns of the mind, the Behaviorists dealt with consciousness by discarding it altogether. Watson believed that consciousness was a distraction, that psychologists could continue to study it for the next two hundred years and never get clear on anything that really matters. As long as it continued to take conscious states as its primary object of study, psychology would never become a natural science. “The time seems to have come when psychology must discard all reference to consciousness; when it need no longer delude itself into thinking that it is making mental states the object of observation.”

Instead the object was behavior itself, which could be understood as a complicated dance between stimulus and response. “In a system of psychology completely worked out,” wrote Watson, “given the response the stimuli can be predicted; given the stimuli the response can be predicted… What we need to do is to start work upon psychology, making behavior, not consciousness, the objective point of our attack.” Watson’s manifesto struck a chord, and Behaviorism became the dominant paradigm in American psychology—in some ways American social science as a whole—from the 1920s through the 1950s.

For the most part, Watson’s Behaviorism really did deliver on its promises of unity, progress, and scientific rigor. But it was an approach that could also be more than a little unfeeling. One famous experiment of Watson’s was the “Kerplunk” experiment, so called because he would train rats to run at full speed down a corridor, thereby establishing a habit; then, unbeknownst to the rat, he would truncate the corridor, which the rats would continue to scamper down before discovering the presence of a new wall with an enthusiastic “kerplunk!” Another was the “Little Albert” experiment, in which Watson and his graduate student, Rosalie Rayner (later his wife), replicated a procedure, originally developed by Ivan Pavlov for use on dogs, in a nine-month-old human infant. The experimenters presented the child—“Albert”—with a rat, to which he initially showed neither special fondness nor dislike. Whenever the child reached down to pet the rat, the experimenter struck a gong loud enough to upset poor little Albert. The experimental finding was that, eventually, the child ended up not being so keen on the rat.

It was a criticism of Behaviorism that extended beyond the lab, too. John Watson’s son, James B. Watson, gave a not overly fond account of his father in an interview several years after John’s death. A defining aspect of his upbringing was a lack of physical affection: neither him nor his brother remembered ever having been kissed or held by their parents. “When I went to bed at night, I recall shaking hands with my parents or with any other guest who happened to be in the house. I never tried (nor did my brother Billy) to ever get close to our parents physically because we both knew it was taboo.”

The culmination of the account is that eventually James’s brother, Bill, by then a practicing psychiatrist, took his own life. James said of his brother’s suicide: “I admit that happens to a lot of people who are not raised by behaviorists, but I strongly believe that strict adherence to the principles established in behaviorism, particularly as advocated in some of Dad’s earlier books, tends to erode the fundamental development of the child’s ego strength and to cause a great deal of difficulty in later life… Tragically, that’s the antithesis of what Dad expected from practicing these philosophies.”

And so, in Snow’s sense, Behaviorism and Freudianism really did make up two entirely different cultures. They represented two separate strategies for the acquisition of knowledge. These strategies resulted in two distinct sets of insights and excesses. And while pretty much everyone could acknowledge their influence in name, most scholars tended to gain intimate familiarity with only one or the other.4

It takes a rare person to have one foot fully enough in each of two cultures to meaningfully contribute to both (or better yet to synthesize them). But by the time the Department of Social Relations was established, Gordon Allport was coming into his own as just such a person.

… Continued in Part 3.

Thanks for reading. I’m Cody Kommers, and this is my Substack in which I write about psychology, travel, and the science of meaningful experience. I’m a PhD student in social psych at Oxford. If you liked this piece, please consider sharing or subscribing. It’s a huge help in supporting this content. I really appreciate it.



This makes me laugh. Every time.


The second law of thermodynamics is that entropy cannot decrease within a closed system. In layman’s terms, this is why (in the absence of intervening forces) things tend to become more chaotic rather than less. The definition of mass does not at all seem like the easiest concept to master. You may recall Newton’s f = ma (force is equal to mass times acceleration). Well, the definition of mass is m = f/a. Mass is the amount of force a body is able to generate with a given amount of acceleration. Or, as Wikipedia puts it, it is—and I’m not sure it’s any more obvious what this means—“a measure of its resistance to acceleration”. I had to look up both of these.


Pre-mature specialization in European education (which, in this case, includes Britain) is a topic of special interest to me. To caricature the difference: Europeans have their career prospects already mapped out by the age of 16, while Americans are still dicking around trying to decide which topic to study by their second year of undergraduate. Given that I’m still in the dicking around phase, I find myself aligned on this one with the land of the free / home of the brave. European specialization happens way too early.


Okay, so even those they’re both, in their traditional formulations, totally antiquated philosophies… I’m actually very pro both of them. I think both Freud and the Behaviorists were right about a lot of things. Not nearly as many things as they thought they were right about. (Which is to say, everything.) But still, both were based on solid insights, which contemporary psychology is willing to discard because we now recognize how harebrained both camps really were.
Behaviorist principles are enjoying a period of vogue right now, mainly due to the success of reinforcement learning algorithms in artificial intelligence (which were originally inspired by the Behaviorist analysis of stimulus-response). But for historical reasons—mainly having to do with how Chomsky singlehandedly overthrew the Behaviorist empire with one mighty stroke of his pen—linguists have always been reluctant to pursue any line of inquire which smacks of Behaviorism. Yet I think something like the principles behind reinforcement learning is totally a part of the story of how language works.
As for Freud, he’s almost universally denounced by psychologists. I think this is to the field’s detriment. Sure, Freud was wrong about, well, pretty much everything. But the methodological innovation I mentioned above still stands. We ought to have a way to talk about things that aren’t currently amenable to scientific experimentation. Confining the entirety of our discourse to that which can be dissected in a sterile laboratory setting means that we’re missing out on the VAST MAJORITY of actual human behavior. Sure, you can be like Titchener and his crew, and make claims about being “insufficiently scientific” (though, I’d implore you: explain your work to a chemist, and see how scientific they believe it to be). But what’s the point of being so fucking scientific if we miss out on so much of the good stuff? At any rate, this position of mine goes a while toward explaining why I will never succeed as a psychologist.