Workshop 3: Alan Collins, ‘Subjects in the early history of experimental psychology’

Alan Collins (Psychology, Lancaster University) introduced himself as a historian of psychology and opened his talk with apologies for the lack of originality of his paper, stating that familiarity is his main fear. Collins continued by describing the emergence of the experiments on human consciousness, both in the late 19th century Germany and in the USA. He explained that experiment is a badge of modernity and ‘constructing the subject’ (Danziger, 1990) is a common method in psychology.

Firstly, Collins used Scripture’s quote in arguing that: “It is to the introduction of experiment that we owe our electric cars and lights, our bridges and tall buildings, our steam power and factories, in fact, every particle of modern civilization that depends upon material goods.  It is to the lack of experimentation that we must attribute the medieval condition of the mental science.”  (Scripture, 1895:24-25). He proceeded in claiming that experimentation is not the sole method of psychology – only one of its ‘investigative techniques’ (Danzinger, 1990). Here, Collins introduced some diverse emergencies in multiple places and disciplines, such as medicine and case; psychic/spiritualist phenomena; observation of children; mental tests and questionnaires. 

Next, Alan Collins referred to the work of Wundt explaining the shift from anatomy, structure and examination to physiology, function and experimentation (controlled observation). This transformation from structure to the emphasis on change and manipulation was accompanied by changes in the use and perception of: space and instruments, community and social organization, students and academic export, as well as growing importance of reports and journals.       

Thereafter, Collins turned to an object of enquiry, arguing that it was from the start constrained by beliefs about what the mind is capable of doing. Consequently, he described how individual, private consciousness became proper object of human scrutiny through many developments in sciences. Here, he pointed out to the significance of making it measurable in the context of  Helmholtz experiments from 1860s – thought as taking time (the reaction time was affected by knowledge – people were slower to respond when not knowing that knee will be touched). Therefore, it was acknowledged that thought has got duration and is not instantaneous. Collins also described justifying and developing a technique through self-observation (introspection) and some usual objections (Hume, Kant, Michotte, Dilthey etc.). Importantly, in this context he drew a distinction between observation and perception (where internal distinction is possible), explaining that philosophy was working towards the notion of perception for a considerable time, whereas experimentation depended on it.

Concomitantly, Alan Collins spoke about inner perception and experimentation, where manipulating physical materials (‘stimuli’) and immediate reporting from ‘subject’ are required. Collins explained that the working assumption was a possibility of a repetition of the experiments where subject is understood as an instance of the universal or generalized (and 6-8 people studies were enough). He continued in describing that the aim of these experiments were laws of psychic causality where standard conditions to replicate conscious experience were at the forefront.

Further, Collins described consequent restrictions such as necessary social division of labour. Here, he pointed out to the need for the types of stimuli that could be used (relatively simple i.e. Wundt) and types of response (understood predominantly in terms of immediate reaction times). Collins emphasized that subject required in such studies had to be conscious and adult human. He also illuminated the fact that all this led to a limited scope of the study – Wundt argued that this was the only amenable experimental method and it was not possible to look at complex issues of memory or language.

Consequently, Alan Collins quoted James McKeen Cattell:

“The relation of sensation to the stimulus and the time taken up by mental processes are the two subjects in which the best results have been achieved by experimental psychology.  These results are important enough to prove those to be wrong who with Kant hold that psychology can never become an exact science.” (1886:63),

talking about the division of experiment between the manipulator, the reactor, the signal and the responder. Collins emphasised that the roles of ‘experimenter’ and ‘observer’ were not fixed at that time but fluid, and Wundt acted as occasional observer but hardly ever as experimenter. He also pointed out that observer was generally perceived as that of a higher status within the experiment as his consciousness was seen to reveal the universal knowledge.

Following, Collins referred to experimental striving for perfection in replicating all aspects of experiment. He explained that Wundt regarded experimenter as a source of contamination and unfortunate necessity leading him to awareness of the problematic and approval of the idea that “with the right kinds of instruments [the observer] could carry out these experiments on his own”  (Kusch, 1995). Further, it was perceived to be moral as well as experimental issue where observer must have autonomy and free will. Hence, Wundt was against the idea of hypnosis in experimental procedures: ‘‘hypnosis is a state in which the ability to exercise one’s free will is removed …. [And] the least moral of all possible relationships between humans is that in which one human being becomes a machine at the hands of another.” (Wundt, 1892, in Kusch, 1995). Here, Alan Collins pointed out the irony of this approach given now current and many earlier metaphors of mind of subject and use of things like computer simulations, where experimenter is replaced by machine.

Hence, Collins explained that observer was seen as free from influence of others and   for Wundt other models of experiment gave too much authority to experimenter (n.b. not anti-elitism). Here, observer was required to hold certain qualities and had to: be trained, be somewhere between attention and relaxation, be knowledgeable and informed and be regular in one’s habits.

Collins illustrated his claims with a quote from James McKeen Cattell’s (Leipzig diary, letters & journal reports): “The two subjects [Berger and Cattell himself] on whom the determinations were made had already much practice in psychological work. They were in good health and lived regularly, not even using coffee. The experiments were made every morning (except Sunday) from eight to one o’clock. After each series of 26 reactions, a considerable and constant interval elapsed before the same  subject again reacted. The subject held his attention as constant as possible, and was not disturbed by the presence of others in the room.” (Cattell, 1886, Mind). Hence, subject was meant to be part of the elite, very healthy and educated about the experiments he is participating in: creating not a very good sample for the generalizations of the whole of the population.

Talking further about perfection, replicability and precision Collins pointed to the varying history of the status of the subject within the history of experimentation. He illustrated the eroding the status of the observer where the instrument began to take the importance of its own (degree of expertise operating the instrument more regarded that that of the observer). Collins emphasised however that this lead to problems from precision and variation in findings: challenge of individual difference to notion of psychic constants and psychic laws. He stressed the arising importance of the expertise in experimenter to use instruments, referring to the ‘triumph of the aggregate” (Danziger, 1990) and introduction of statistical tools.

Further, Collins stated that “the yield of his [Wundt’s] experimental program was actually rather limited.  One could accept this with good grace and restrict the role of the experimental psychologist [and the experimental subject] to that of a competent craftsman in a small number of specialised areas that lack major intellectual or practical significance.”  (Danziger, 1990:39) referring to Wundt’s descriptions of experimental psychology as “the nursery school for the psychologist”.

Concomitantly, Alan Collins spoke about changes, translations and problems arising from Wundtian approach. He agued that this new method did not travel as precision led to the erosion of the status of the observer and created problems instead of solving them, raising the challenge of individual difference. This however, did not lead to the rejection of the experiments as such. Collins explained that an emphasis on the psychology explicitly being a science that can be involved in engineering was endemic in the US culture at the time (in particular concerning topics areas such as pedagogy and behaviour i.e. Hall). Here, experiments were no longer limited to consciousness and aggregates of behaviours were seen as representative of collective. Collins also pointed out that in the US setting laboratory made groups consisted of interchangeable (often industrial) subjects which were seen as inferior, manipulated and in some part of self untouched and stable. Alan Collins described how this related directly to a different moral order linked to a sense of obligation and issues of employment.

Finally, Alan Collins provided some brief reflections on the role of the subject in the early experimental psychology. Firstly, he referred to the work of Wundt where producing appropriate members of the elite and importance of the observer were at the forefront. Secondly, he described a methodical and systematic in habits (experimenter not subject) shift to the importance of role in pedagogy visible, for example, in the work of Hall. Further, Collins argued that this transformation appeals to democratising effect in terms of appreciation of manual labour. Consequently, he claimed that experiment required and reinforced assumptions about mind and consciousness where methods and subject were mutually constitutive. In conclusion, Alan Collins referred to a different psychological models for mind, social order, objects,   methods and tools but also laboratory and laboratory work.



Firstly, some questions were posed about the relative status of the experimenter and the observer. Here, arguments were made about  experimental psychologists using the physiological methods and the relationship that this created. It was pointed out that assuming the physiology was done in animals, where superiority of the experimenter preceded mentioned developments. Hence, a question was posed of how far was it a apart of the system or particular to individuals that the situation was replicated. Here, a reference was made to Wundt’s work with animals and his arguments around preserving the autonomy of the individual.

Secondly, the issues around the emigration of the experimental model to the US lab were discussed. In this context a particular focus was given to the hands on involvement in the experiment and the role of the laboratory technician. It was argued that in the biological and physical sciences there is a hidden history of the role of lab technician, who is sometimes more highly prized that the apparatus itself.

Thirdly, professionalization outside the lab (especially in military) was debated. It was pointed out that the story of mental testing movement is the most impressive in this context regarding its pragmatism and design. It was concluded that mental testing is much more important to understanding of psychology that the laboratory experiments.

And finally, the issue of different trajectories was considered. Here, history of the shift in the emphasis on the small number of lab objects to the statistical massive number was discussed. Further, history of the nature of the subject as an observer of the statistical analysis was debated, describing the shift from mechanical perspectivity to the world as a laboratory.