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By Stanton L. Jones
The Romance of American Psychology
The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in the Age of Experts, by Ellen Herman. University of California Press, 406 pp.; $35
How are we to account for the rise to prominence, even dominance, of psychology in contemporary American culture? Christian critics of psychology are partly right in saying that the various psychologies offer world-views that compete with Christianity. From this perspective, the rise of psychology marks the triumph of a secular faith; its practitioners are invested with the authority that once belonged to priests and pastors. Another explanation is that psychology has prospered because, in the course of its troubled and complex history, it has genuinely helped and healed countless people (here the analogue is science rather than religion, and the rise of psychology is seen in the larger context of the spectacular success of modern medicine). Alternative explanations can be complementary rather than mutually exclusive.
Ellen Herman's intriguing book, richly referenced with primary source footnotes, offers yet another complementary perspective on the striking rise of psychology to public prominence in the period between 1940 and 1975. Whereas psychology's own account of its growing influence is a story celebrating the inexorable advance of scientific understanding, Herman emphasizes the role of contingent historical circumstances. In Herman's account, war was the critical element in psychology's rise to prominence. War provided a theater within which psychology could test its skills on a mass scale. War provided access to the inner corridors of power within the U.S. government wherein broad public legitimacy could be obtained. War also created a societal context conducive to a psychological vision of the person because of the widespread perception that what human beings were doing or considering doing to each other was fundamentally irrational and explicable only by those familiar with the contours of madness.
World War I provided the ...