'Story of Psychology' is a complete tour

August 24, 1993|By Peter Gorner | Peter Gorner,Chicago Tribune

In a field marked by "diversity and incoherence," Morton Hunt stands like a beacon of reason. He has been thoughtfully explaining behavioral science to lay people for 40 years.

This is his magnum opus.

"The Story of Psychology," steeped in lifelong insight, meticulously researched and never failing to entertain, brings together the giants who over the last 2,500 years have sought to unravel the mysteries of the human mind.

What an amazing cast of characters Mr. Hunt presents: Augustine, Aquinas, Hume, Kant, Locke, Hobbes, Freud, Descartes, William James, Pavlov, Piaget, Skinner, Wundt and a host of others.

As personalities, he notes, they included, "solitary ascetics and convivial sybarites, feverish mystics and hardheaded realists, reactionaries and liberals, true believers and convinced atheists."

They were all impressive, even awesome, human beings. And they all asked the same questions:

How do we acquire knowledge? Do we have free will? Is human nature the product of inborn tendencies, or of experience and upbringing? Are we innately good or evil? How does perception work? Does the mind rule the emotions, or vice versa?

Landmark experiments have tried to come up with answers. They range from that of the Egyptian King Psamtik I in the 7th century B.C., who isolated children while trying to discover an innate language ability, to Stanley Milgram's startling finding in the 1960s that normal people will inflict pain on others if ordered to do so by authority.

Of the rules of behavior discerned by psychologists, Mr. Hunt points to Piaget's observations on stage development, the sequence in which children acquire language, the spontaneous human tendency toward categorization, the penchant for social loafing, as among the fruits of research.

But other behavior patterns, he shows, have proven valid only when deduced in culturally similar settings.

These include the definitions and development of masculinity, feminity, love and jealousy; the tendency to conform to the majority; obedience to authority; the use of logic in reasoning, and the development of feelings of kinship and belonging.

Overall, Freud comes off very well in these pages. According to Mr. Hunt, many key aspects of psychoanalytic theory have withstood the test of time. In his assessment, Mr. Hunt covers the recent Jeffrey Moussaief Masson controversy over the seduction theory.

In the first years of his use of psychoanalysis, Freud believed he had made a great discovery: Many children, especially girls, were sexually abused by relatives or even their fathers.

Later, Freud concluded that these were childish fantasies that, cloaked by memory, took the guise of reality. Masson has claimed that Freud deliberately backed away from discovery because it was harming his career.

Today, evidence is mounting of a far larger incidence of sexual abuse of children than previously suspected. Did Freud lie? Was right the first time?

Hunt believes that Freud was right both times: Much of what his patients said must have been fantasy, but the incidence of real abuse was far higher than Freud came to believe.

The stuff Mr. Hunt knows, he really knows. "The Story of Psychology" is a magnificent traversal of an infinitely fascinating landscape by one of the great science writers of our time.


Title: "The Story of Psychology"

Author: Morton Hunt

Publisher: Doubleday

Length, price: 762 pages, $29.95

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