Tuesday, June 16, 2015

William McDougall, F.R.S.

From the L.R. Reeve papers (see A.J. Balfour).

I repeat my belief that H. G. Wells is the most quoted writer in my reading life, but the late
William McDougall*
William McDougall, F.R.S., must surely be the most mentioned author in the realms of British psychology. The great Lancastrian's name is also prominent in educational and social psychology, not only in Great Britain but in Europe, America and Australia.
The well-known behaviourist Watson may be in the running for supremacy in America, for I believe his reputation is growing, and probably Freud's profile is becoming blurred. McDougall however, has a substantial following in the United States, partly because he was lured across the Atlantic to Harvard University, then to Duke University, Durham, N.C., and due to his authoritative well-written publications. Moreover he was a magnificent lecturer: a man whose attractive voice, commanding presence and deductive powers were irresistible to most people. When I wrote about W. H. R. Rivers and his two assistants, William McDougall and C. S. Myers joining an expedition to the Torres Straits in 1898, I could have added that each of the three men deserved first-class honours in Elocution.

Having asserted that McDougall's reputation is so strong I have to admit that in 1969 Professor Hearnshaw of Liverpool, stated that the great psychologist's influence has almost if not completely vanished. I have no figures to fortify my theory, but if Hearnshaw is right how is it that recently one of McDougall's publications, An Introduction to Social Psychology once out of print, has been reprinted and re-published? Besides, did Hearnshaw forget America? Furthermore, did any other Englishman do more to establish British psychology on an experimental and physiological basis? Before I leave the three young adventurers I must refer to the fact with which I agree, that Rivers and McDougall were both critical of some of Freud's conclusions on the human race. Although I saw Myers scores of times in London, I never knew his opinion of the notable Viennese psychoanalyst. Usually his contributions in my hearing concerned industrial psychology.
As for McDougall's credentials as a learned man, his many years as a student remind me of Sir Oliver Lodge's nine years of hard study in London, for I can mention at least three universities where the former was a learner. He studied at Weimar, Manchester, and at Cambridge where he specialized in Medicine. At one period he devoted his attention to the experimental laboratory at University College, London, and he was once engaged in the Readership of Psychology at Oxford.
Meanwhile, possibly because he had a large family, he was writing psychological books in excellent prose, such as Physiological Psychology, and Psychology and Science of Behaviour. I think he was the best writer in his fraternity, and had he decided on journalism alone, he would have been in the company of giants of the press. His publications would have been as irresistible to me as those of Harold Nicolson, Frank Swinnerton, Ivor Brown or J. B. Priestley. With a new book by either of them I am lost to any other attraction for several hours. I believe that McDougall was the type of man who would have been a leader in any vocation; and while his greatest pride was to be a Fellow of the Royal Society, he must have felt a glow of gratification to be President of the psychological section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Although I have no knowledge of his honorary decorations, i should have liked to view the numerous confirmations of his distinctions in the realms of high intelligence.
Perhaps my greatest appreciation of him was because he seemed to be the best teacher of the various theories ennunciated by Freud, Watson the Behaviourist, Jung, Eder, William James, Janet, Ernest Jones, Ferenzi and other psychoanalysts. None could explain their theories better, or was quicker in pointing out the weak points in their processes of thought. Nobody was more appreciative of Freud's exhaustive experiments, and no one quicker to pin-point his faults, one of which being Freud's failure to acknowledge the important quality of purpose in the human character.
Probably during his final visit to England, he again delighted the British Psychological Society with an effective lecture. Before being called upon by the chairman, his happiness and that of some of his old colleagues to be together again was obvious, but on this occasion the pleasure was tempered by his introductory remark that his hearing had suddenly collapsed and he therefore hoped we should be able to hear him quite well. He need not have been anxious, for his voice was as clear and attractive as ever.
I associate three particular characteristics with McDougall: the precision of his lectures; his clever interpretations of various theories; and his refusal to venture any conclusion without a thorough examination of any experiment.
“We bent over backwards to be certain before we announced our final judgment,” he once declared to us when describing a certain test of a theory.
Once again I agree with Miss May Smith that McDougall was the greatest British psychologist of his era; and as for my English theory about America I believe that certain people may take precedence for a time, but ultimately the most quoted names of learned men will continue to be William James, Nicholas Murray Butler, and William McDougall.

*Duke University Archives. From Duke Yearlook's Photostream, Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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