By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Culture and Consumption
Progressives and the Culture of the Twenties
II. The Descent of Man
One of the most substantial assaults on these foundations had begun in 1909 in Worcester, Massachusetts. At the behest of eminent American psychologist and president of Clark University G. Stanley Hall, controversial Viennese psychologist Sigmund Freud -- the "Darwin of the mind," as one contemporary labeled him in 1913 -- and his young protégé Carl Jung came to America that year to give five lectures at Clark on his theories of psychoanalysis. An early American proponent of Freud's theories of sexuality and the unconscious, Hall had written favorably of his guest in his own 1904 study Adolescence -- a two-part work one notable reviewer deemed as being "chock-full of errors, masturbation, and Jesus" and written by a "mad man." Freud himself thought President Hall was "something of a Kingmaker," and, indeed, those 1909 lectures, well-publicized by Hall and attended by such esteemed American minds as William James, became the launching point for Freud's later meteoric ascendance in the United States.1
After Freud returned home to the Old World, his standard was taken up by a New York-based psychoanalyst named A.A. Brill, who, since 1907, had made popularizing Freud's writings his raison d'etre. After translating several of Freud's works into English, Brill published Fundamental Conceptions of Psychoanalysis in 1921, which was a summary of his introductory class lectures on the subject at NYU. "The unconscious according to Freud," Brill explained in the first of these, "includes all the psychic manifestations of which the person is not aware. It is made up of psychic processes which have been crowded out of consciousness from the very beginnings of childhood; they are the primitive impulses that have been inhibited and sublimated in the development of the child. The child is originally a primitive being; it is like a little animal, and as it gradually gives up the gross animal instincts, it represses them."2
As such, Brill explained, "an occurrence in one's life, at the age of fifty, for instance, may be traced back to some childhood repression; there is always some subtle and intimate connection in our present emotional experience with something that occurred in the past." In other words, men and women were not beings motivated by reason, but rather by their own unconscious desires. They were seething cauldrons of ancient repression, and thus fundamentally irrational creatures.3
By the start of the Twenties, education in American had taken the Freudian turn, through books like Wilfrid Lay's The Child's Unconscious Mind, published in 1919. It was time for educators, Lay argued, to "accept the fundamental postulate of the new psychology and frankly admit the existence in each and every human of an unconscious (sometimes called subconscious and sometimes co-conscious mentality.) This implies not only that each of us has mental states that never enter consciousness but also that these unconscious states are not only states or conditions or dispositions, arrangements of something inert, but are activities, energies or groups of forces which are operating by mechanisms of which only the special student knows anything definite at all. The ordinary person knows practically nothing of the detailed workings of these activities." As such, in the words of education historian Lawrence Cremin, "[t]eachers were urged to recognize the unconscious as the real source of motivation and behavior in themselves and their students. The essential task of education was seen as one of sublimating the child's repressed emotions into socially useful channels."4
While not relying on a strictly Freudian analysis, New York State Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo explained how the same subconscious impulses affected the law in his influential 1921 book, The Nature of the Judicial Process, which helped to foment the "legal realism" movement. "[T]he whole subject matter of jurisprudence," Justice Cardozo asserted, "is more plastic, more malleable, the molds less definitively cast, the bounds of right and wrong less preordained and constant, than most of us, without the aid of some such analysis, have been accustomed to believe."5
This was because, Cardozo argued, there was a "creative element in the judicial process" -- when "the judge assumes the function of a lawgiver" -- that often played out when deciding a case where the development of the law seemed at a critical juncture. In these moments, the judge determined the case not just based on precedent or even on reason, but on "forces which they do not recognize and cannot name, [that] have been tugging at them -- inherited instincts, traditional beliefs, acquired convictions." "Deep below consciousness are other forces, the likes and the dislikes, the predilections and the prejudices, the complex of instincts and emotions and habits and convictions, which make the man, whether he be litigant or judge." Like it or not, Cardozo argued, "[n]o effort or revolution of the mind will overthrow utterly and at all times the empire of these subconscious loyalties." At best, a good judge could be trained to be aware of his own fallibility, to help "emancipate him from the suggestive power of individual dislikes and prepossessions" and "broaden the group to which his subconscious loyalties are due."6
And education and the law were not alone. By the beginning of the Twenties, Freudian ideas and language were spreading like wildfire throughout the entirety of American culture. "Whereas psychoanalysis is as wonderful a discovery in mental science, as let us say, the X-Ray in surgery," A.A. Brill warned his readers in 1921, "it can be utilized only by persons who have been trained in anatomy and pathology…It cannot cure cancer, it cannot make an adjustable citizen out of a defective 'radical,' it cannot return an errant young husband to a neurotic elderly lady…in fine it cannot make a normal person out of an idiot, and does not give a philosophy of life to a person who has not brains enough to formulate one himself."7
But the floodgates had opened, and, as historian William Leuchtenburg notes, "[i]n the years after the war, psychology became a national mania…People talked knowingly of 'libido,' 'defense mechanism,' and 'fixation,' confused the subconscious with the unconscious, repression with suppression, and dealt with the torturously difficult theories of Freud and of psychoanalysis as though they were simple ideas readily grasped after a few moments' explanation." As a result, Freud's influence was felt everywhere. Among the books hitting the stands at the time, Leuchtenberg points out, were the Psychology of Golf, the Psychology of the Poet Shelley, and the Psychology of Selling Life Insurance. Former progressive heroes like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were now retroactively diagnosed in print as being "chilled, under-sexed valetudinarians." "If there is anything you do not understand in human life," novelist Sherwood Anderson proclaimed in his 1925 novel Dark Laughter, "consult the works of Dr. Freud." Which one could now do through mail-order catalog, via titles such as Psychoanalysis By Mail, Psychoanalysis Self-Applied, Ten Thousand Dreams Interpreted, and Sex Problems Solved. "[J]ust one person in fifty has any glimmer of what sex is," one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's flapper protagonists complains in 1920's This Side of Paradise. "I'm hipped on Freud and all that."8
Old-line progressives watched this proliferation of Freudian ideas with a combination of bewilderment and disgust. Asked about the failure of progressivism in 1926, Charlotte Perkins Gilman complained of "the radicals I know" who now "wallow in Freudian Psycho-analysis, which has the combined advantages of wide popular appeal in its subject matter, an imposing technology, and profitable use of business." Pondering the same question, Norman Thomas declared "[i]t is this generation which rather than a few individuals is most at fault. We have replaced creation with introspection and laugh at the Victorians upon whose stock of ideas we still draw without as yet having added one great new organizing principle or basic concept of our own."9
Even as Sigmund Freud's theories of the self were entering the popular consciousness, the work of another psychologist, John B. Watson, was also gaining adherents. As a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, Watson, writing his 1903 thesis on the ability of rats to learn a maze, had been struck by the experiments of Ivan Pavlov, who had shown that, through conditioning, he could make a dog salivate merely by ringing a bell. Soon thereafter, Watson began to apply the same hypotheses to humans. Most notoriously, he and his graduate student Rosalie Rayner successfully conditioned an eleven-month-old child, "Little Albert," to be terrified of rats by clanging on a steel bar behind his head every time a white rat (or, sometimes, a bunny) was produced. Watson thought this experiment proved that fear was as potent as the sex drive in conditioning, thereby proving Freud wrong in some details. He mused that when Albert grew up and was scared of fur coats, some wrong-headed psychoanalyst would wrongly try to find a sexual basis for this phobia. As it happened, Albert never did grow up. Never unconditioned from this phobia, he perished from hydrocephalus at the age of six.10
In his 1914 work Behaviorism, Watson argued that his field was the only real and scientific form of psychology, since other schools, focusing on "consciousness," were really just looking for the soul. "[T]he old psychology," he argued, "is dominated by a kind of subtle religious philosophy…No one knows just how the idea of a soul or the supernatural started. It probably had its origins in the general laziness of mankind." But once one stopped focusing on introspection and focused solely on scientifically verifiable stimulus and response, psychology became a real discipline. And that discipline showed fear to be a powerful, if not the most powerful, influence in a human's life. "An examination of the psychological history of people," Dr. Watson contended, "will show that behavior has always been easily controlled by fear stimuli. If the fear element were dropped out of any religion, that religion would not long survive."11
As William Leuchtenburg notes, it was "not until its third edition in 1925 that behaviorism -- the idea that man was nothing but a machine responding to stimuli -- took the country by storm." By then, Watson -- responding to some errant stimuli himself -- had been forced out of his teaching position at Johns Hopkins as a result of an illicit affair with Rayner. Instead, he had found a new home with the J. Walter Thompson ad agency, where he had begun attempting to put his theories into practice.12
Continue to Chapter 10, Pt. 3: The Problem of Public Opinion.
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. Gay, 209. A.A. Brill, Fundamental Conceptions of Psychoanalysis (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1921), 14-15.
4. Wilfrid Lay, The Child's Unconscious Mind: The Relations of Psychoanalysis to Education (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1920), 4. Noggle, Into the Twenties, 175.
5. Benjamin N. Cardozo, The Nature of the Judicial Process (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1921), 160.
6. Cardozo, 11, 160-166, 175-176.
7. Brill, iv.
8. Leuchtenburg, The Perils of Prosperity, 165, 168. Brown, 38. Zeitz, 56. Allen, Only Yesterday, 79.
9. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "Where are the Pre-War Radicals?" The Survey, February 1, 1926. Norman Thomas, ibid.
10. Kerry W. Buckley, Mechanical Man: John B. Watson and the Beginnings of Behaviorism (New York: Guilford Press, 1989), 87, 122-124. Hall P. Beck,. et al, "Finding little Albert: A journey to John B. Watson's infant laboratory," American Psychologist, Vol 64 (7), October 2009, 605-614.
11. John B. Watson, Behaviorism (New York: People's Institute, 1924), 3-5.
12. Leuchtenburg, Perils of Prosperity, 163, 197.
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