Before Jerome Kagan was listed as the 22nd most eminent psychologist of the 20th century, just above Carl Jung, he was a professor of psychology at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
He was asked to be included in The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking, and now we know which books influenced him and why. His list is one of the longest and most comprehensive in the entire book.
In the preface to the list, he writes, “these books should generate a tolerance for others and appreciation of the power of historical contexts to create our deepest assumptions about human nature.”
Mandelbaum’s analysis of the relation between the European conception of human nature and historical events in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries helped me to understand why American intellectuals, and especially twentieth-century social scientists, were so strongly committed, until recently, to a belief in the power of the environment and the malleability of human characteristics, as well as resistant to all sentimental arguments that did not rest firmly on reason. The basis for our idealistic view of perfectible children, sculpted by education in home and school to make rationally based moral decisions in times of conflict, becomes an almost inevitable outcome of the blend of egalitarianism, evolutionism, and material science that has dominated thought since the eighteenth century.
After Virtue extends Mandelbaum’s conclusions to the domain of ethics by arguing that historical conditions determine many of the moral premises of a society. Maclntyre points out, for example, that our acceptance of the naturalness of individual rights is not a universal, for there is no word or phrase in ancient or medieval languages that refers to an individual’s right to a particular resource. This assumption is not made until the close of the Middle Ages. I learned from Maclntyre that a society’s views of right and wrong are fragmented survivals of a series of economic and political events that lead the community to treat social facts as moral imperatives. Thus, the role of history is a common theme that unites the books by Maclntyre and Mandelbaum.
A single sentence in this story by a Swedish novelist captures the idea that Maclntyre was trying to develop. After an interminably long search, a large group of dead people find God and the leader steps forward and asks him what purpose he had in creating human beings. God replies, “I only intended that you need never be content with nothing.” After reading that line I saw the meaning of the tree-of-knowledge allegory in Genesis. Human beings are prepared by their nature to believe that there are right and wrong acts, but history and the nature of the society in which persons live will determine more exactly those categories of intention and action that will be treated as moral or immoral.
Mayr’s history of biological thought over the past few centuries helped me see more clearly the relation between categories in biology and those in psychological development. Mayr notes that biology, unlike physics, deals more often with qualitative categories, rather than continua. Thus, biology is a unique science that is not easily reduced to physical concepts. Mayr understands that in biology the most useful categories are those that have been inductively derived from phenomena, rather than posited a priori. I believe that modern psychology is in a phase of development in which it can benefit from the inductive strategy that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century biologists used with such profit. Such a frame is present in Darwin’s great insight that evolution should not be viewed as a series of variations on a set of ideal types, but rather as a series of transformations on ancestors.
The central message in this ethnography of the Eskimo of Hudson Bay is that despite the fact that this culture is characterized by a continual suppression of anger and aggression, none of the systems that are typically associated with denial of anger in Western society occurs among the Eskimo. Thus, this culture provides a refutation of the Freudian hypothesis that repression of anger must lead to symptomatology. The obvious implication is that the validity of the psychoanalytic hypothesis is restricted to certain cultures. It follows, then, that there are no universal outcomes of either the suppression or expression of anger, independent of the social context.
This monograph by a distinguished neuroembryologist describes the growth and transformation of the cells that begin as a small necklace around the embryo’s spinal column and migrate to their final homes in the central nervous system of the newborn. The main point is that although all the cells are alike originally, they become transformed over their journey into structures that cannot be changed. The different transformations each type of cell undergoes is a function, in part, of the cells that are encountered on the way. This story of the migration of the neural crest cells furnishes a useful metaphor for the psychological growth of a human being, who is also transformed through the contacts he or she has in the life journey.
Summing up, before continuing with one final recommendation, he writes:
A salient theme in the six books noted above is that absolutes are hard to find in nature; most laws are constrained by particular contexts. But there must be a small number of universal relations that trace their way back to biology. The final book supplies one of these mechanisms.
This book, which I read as a young psychologist, is the one exception to the relativism contained in the first six volumes. One basic biological mechanism is that brain and mind are constructed to maximize contrasts and to improve the signal-to- noise ratio. The mind rebels against the ambiguity and relativity in nature and tries to create simple, prototypical conceptions. If one idea is a little more salient than another, the mind tends to exaggerate the former and minimize the latter. Hence, there is a biological basis for our attraction to stereotype and to single ideas that mute the gradations that are inherent in nature. As a result, we are seduced into believing in absolutes, when nature contains only families of relations among events.