Born: 1861, Columbia, South Carolina, USA Died: 1934, Paris, France Nat: American Ints: Developmental psychology, educational psychology, history, personality and social, philosophical and theoretical psychology Educ: BA Princeton University, 1884; MA Princeton University, 1887, PhD Princeton University, 1889; Hon. DSc University of Oxford, 1900; Hon. DSc University of Geneva, 1909; Hon. LLD University of Glasgow, 1901; Hon. LLD South Carolina College, 1905 Appts & awards: Instructor in French and German, Princeton University, 1886-7; Professor of Philosophy, Lake Forest University, 1887-9; Professor of Logic and Metaphysics, Toronto University, 1889-93; Professor of Psychology, Princeton University, 1893-1903; President American Psychological Association, 1897; Professor of Philosophy and Psychology, Johns Hopkins University, 1903-9; Advisor, National University of Mexico, 1909-13; Professor, L'École des Hautes Études Sociales, Paris, 1919
Baldwin represents the rather interesting case of a researcher whose early career neatly tracked the empirical path that American psychology took during the years bridging the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but who then seemed to revert to the more philosophical interests and approaches of an earlier time. He gained an early reputation as a peripatetic laboratory builder, founding the experimental psychology laboratories in Toronto (1889), Princeton (1893) and Johns Hopkins (1903), and also as an experimentalist with work on reaction time ‘types’ and visual illusions, topics which were then representative of the everyday output of the typical psychological laboratory. He had also published translations, introductions and surveys on the new empirical psychology, including its sensory and experimental bases and its history.
However, in 1903, and apparently echoing the despair of William James at the seeming inability of any laboratory to tackle really serious psychological questions, Baldwin's adherence to the empirical enterprise appeared to wane in favour of a more philosophical and sociological approach to psychology. Even during his apparently more conventional period, in fact, Baldwin was exploring areas of psychology and approaches to it which were actually far from conventional. Thus we see that his important and challenging writings on child development and social psychology predate 1903, while much of his work on what is now termed ‘genetic epistemology’ overlaps his last years in Princeton and then at Johns Hopkins. Baldwin was essentially a philosopher for whom the new and vigorous form of empirical psychology seemed to offer a promising way forward, both for philosophy and psychology. Alas, that was not to be, and his abrupt departure from the American academic scene in 1909 pretty well marks the end of his creative involvement with American psychology.
What exactly were Baldwin's views on psychology? Although many commentators have assumed that he was a developmental psychologist as that is understood today, he was really moved only by deeper philosophical issues, particularly ones concerned with the relationship between the acquisition and form of knowledge. This lead him to an epistemology which mixed individual development with nineteenth-century evolutionary concepts. The main thrust of this work is captured by Baldwin's notion of the ‘circular reaction’, which posits a continuously adapting and reciprocal interaction between the organism and its environment. From this, Baldwin evolved a form of developmental social psychology even more radical than that adopted by near contemporaries such as G.H. Mead and Cooley: ‘the individual is a social outcome not a social unit’. Thus, epistemology was described as a ‘social heritage’ and thinking as a selective process drawing on such a socially defined knowledge base. Perhaps the most ambitious exploitation of this notion is to be found in his last major work, published between 1906 and 1915, which modestly attempts to recast logic and rhetoric in psychogenetic terms.
Baldwin became a neglected figure in psychology long before his death in 1934. However, the discipline's recent unease over its conceptual and philosophical foundations has returned his ideas to the centre stage.
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