Sunday, December 28, 2014

William James College



William James

“By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness. I say of every action whatsoever, and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government.” Jeremy Bentham An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789


The Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology (MSPP) is rebranding as William James College. I am a professor there.

Founded in 1974, MSPP is a freestanding institution that offers professional degrees in psychology.  I teach in the PsyD program in clinical psychology. The PsyD is a professional degree, a doctorate with a focus that differs from the PhD “scientist-practitioner” or Boulder Model offered by research universities.

Victor Raimy, a teacher of mine at The University of Colorado, Boulder, authored the 1949 proceeding of the Colorado conference that became the format for accreditation and training in clinical psychology. By the late 1960’s, psychologists felt secure enough in their empirical foundations and trainable techniques that another model was proposed that focused on training practitioners rather than scientists. Deep in the Rockies, the Vail Model of the clinical psychologist as “practitioner-scholar” was established in 1973. MSPP was founded shortly after.

I spend much of my time working with students who will devote their professional lives to the practical application of psychology rather than the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Although their training is different, the same is true for most PhD students. Very few PhD clinicians end up as scientists and academics; instead, like their PsyD peers, they work mostly in a clinical role.

PhD students are selected by their graduate programs more on the merit of their potential to become competent scientists than their promise as clinicians and therapists. This makes them normatively different from many of my William James students though they usually end up with the same sort of jobs and practices. In my role as a clinical supervisor, I’ve worked with students from both training backgrounds and the difference is clear, at least to me.  The PhD students are sensitive to the quality and rigor of the theories that inform their work. The PsyD students are generally less concerned with their scientific foundations and more focused on whether the work they do is effective and helpful. In time, with adequate supervision and good will, both groups consolidate their identities as clinicians or apply their skills to other pursuits. 

I'm happy MSPP is rebranding as William James College. The new name dovetails with MSPP’s slogan, “meeting the need….making a difference”. I’ll take liberties with “making a difference”, since I’ve never been exactly clear what it means, but I have some idea why William James might approve.

James, the philosopher-psychologist, helped create and promote a school of American pragmatics that profoundly influenced those whose perspectives on psychology involved both social application and scientific clarity. This vision informed John Dewey’s utilitarian philosophy of education where teachers and schools are agents of social progress. And James' gift for ordinary language descriptions of complex psychological phenomena should serve as a gold standard for behavioral and social scientists of any stripe. 

James’ own education in pragmatics had at heart at least two themes. One was the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham presented though John Stuart Mill.  Bentham and Mill’s utilitarianism concerned the value of maximizing total benefit or happiness while reducing suffering.  (I’m not sure why Bentham and Mill described this in the language of utility, but they did. Then again, I’m trained as a scientist-practitioner and not as an historian or philosopher).

A second line of James’ thought came from Charles Sanders Peirce’s pragmatics and conceptualization of knowledge: To ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might result
Charles Sanders Peirce
from the truth of that conception—and the sum of these consequences constitute the entire meaning of the conception”
(1905).

William James made Peirce's pragmatics central to his teachings. Here’s William James from his 1906 Lecture, “What Pragmatism Means…" where he extrapolates Peirce.

"….I wish now to speak of the pragmatic method. The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable.  Is the world one or many?  Fated or free?  Material or spiritual? Here are notions either of which may or may not hold good for the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right…..

…..It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere – no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere, and somewhen. The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one."

Jeremy Bentham Stuffed at UCL
I opened this entry with a quote from Jeremy Bentham. Bentham was significant in founding London University, now University College London, where the radical idea of a secular and progressive institution took hold. London University was the first British university where students were admitted without regard to religious belief or gender.  

This brings me back to “meeting the need....making a difference" and the mission of my institution.  Implicit in the eduction of the psychologist is the reminder that "the good" involves a policy of maximizing happiness (while minimizing suffering), and that knowledge is informative only when it makes a difference in behavior.

And that’s what I want  of my students: A socially aware concern with human well-being and an understanding that to know something is to know how to do something with that knowledge. Something good. 

I like the sound of William James College.