Born: 1811, Farmington, CT, USA Died: 1894 Nat: American Ints: History of psychology, philosophical psychology Appts & awards: Clark Professor of Moral Philosophy and Metaphysics, Yale, 1846-71; President, Yale, 1871-86; Hon. DD, University of Edinburgh, 1886
At first glance Porter was an archetypal US mental and moral philosopher of the kind to which the ‘New Psychologists’ of the 1880s and 1890s (and most disciplinary historians prior to the 1980s) expressed so much antipathy. Closer examination of such works as Human Intellect and The Science of Man versus the Science of Nature, however, reveals that he was fully cognizant of the contemporary European work of figures such as Wundt, Fechner and Bain. Far from rejecting the German introspective experimental school, Porter, and other mental and moral philosophers of the period, actually saw it as an ally, since they read its message as a defence of the autonomy of psychology against the reductionist and physiological orientation of the evolution-influenced British school. Human Intellect is a complex and, in places, sophisticated work in which such issues as the nature of psychological language, the requirements of scientific introspection and the goals of the discipline are all treated. Porter's opposition to evolutionary and physiological trends was no mere blinkered dogmatism but argued in considerable depth. He argues quite subtly (especially in The Sciences of Nature versus the Science of Man) that, given the foundational position of the human intellect in the generation of scientific knowledge, its own operations cannot themselves be understood within the terms of concepts drawn from specific fields of scientific endeavour. His image of the ‘Intellect’ is of an ascending hierarchy of ‘powers’ from sensation up to reason, but to this fairly orthodox sequence he added a differentiation between ‘natural consciousness’, shared by all, and ‘reflective’ or ‘philosophical’ consciousness, the prerogative of but a few and attainable only by special dedication and discipline. A crude ‘energy-distribution’ model is invoked to explain this. Belief in God and the validity of seeking final causes are, he argues, conclusions which the rational, reflectively conscious person must eventually draw despite the pitfalls and temptations of scepticism. His system thus remained subordinated to a broader moral and religious agenda.
As President of Yale, Porter earned a reputation for adamant conservatism, resisting all measures for university reform. He also earned a regular place in the footnotes of works on the history of evolutionary theory for banning William G. Sumner from using Herbert Spencer's Sociology as a texbook. His best-known cultural role was as editor of successive editions of Webster's Dictionary. As far as psychology is concerned, however, the validity of the stereotyped image is further undermined by the fact that, following the establishment of friendly informal relations, he invited G.T. Ladd to Yale to take over his courses in 1881. Ladd's own theoretical position, moreover, bore many affinities to Porter's.
Human Intellect and its abridgement for long remained the most important menial and moral philosophy course textbooks in US colleges and universities. Along with that of James McCosh, Porter's case should, if nothing else, alert us to the risk of a too facile condemnation of the pre-‘New Psychology’ US tradition, and a too easy acceptance of the notion that the 1880s saw a radical break with this. Furthermore, Porter showed himself conscious of certain theoretical problems related to the reflexive nature of the discipline and the nature of psychological language which are only now resurfacing, even if his religious convictions prevented him from exploring and resolving these in a manner which would be acceptable today.
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