E. B. Holt Resource Page

I hope this page will become the primary web resource for information on or related to Edwin Bissell Holt, a lost figure in the history of psychology. More info will be available soon.


Quick Facts

Holt was a pivotal figure in the history of psychology, who was largely forgotten in the turmoil created by in the fights between the neo-behaviorists of the 30's and 40's and the cognitive revolution thereafter. He is pivotal because of his role in teaching and mentoring students during his time at Harvard (1900-1918) and Princeton (1926-1936). In particular, at Harvard, he was the de facto head of human research, and anyone who did research in the lab was overseen and mentored by Holt. For his own part, Holt was a successful researcher of visual phenomenon, and the most philosophically sophisticated of the behaviorists (or so sayeth Boring). His most well known soundbite in that arena was his cross-section theory of consciousness.

Why is Holt relevant today? (coming soon)

What else should Holt be known for? (coming soon)

Why isn't Holt better known?

What are Holt's works? (coming soon)

What are the key works written about Holt? (coming soon)



Why isn't Holt better Known

Holt's lack of a reputation through the last half-century has many causes.

  1. In writing Holt's obituary, Langfeld lamented that Holt's first book came 10 years to early and his last book came 10 years to late. The first book, "The Freudian Wish" was the first English language book on Freud. In particular it tried to take the basics of Freudian theory (a theory about why people act the way they do) and explore both its physiological implications and the ethical and moral implications. In today's language, it placed Freud's insights at the behavioral level of observation, and explored the implications of that work for the levels of analysis above and below. The last book, "Animal Drives and the Learning Process" is an aggressive attempt to tackle the physiology of behavioral development writ large. Had Holt put out the his Wish ten years later, after the dust had settled in the emergence of behavioism and Freud was a little more mainstream, it would have had mass appeal. Had Holt offered out his Animal Drives ten years earlier, it would have taken its place as one of the great neo-behaviorist works. Timing was a part of the problem.
  2. Holt was theoretically uncompromising and socially marginalized. Holt was in academia as a search for the truth, and thought that truth must be put first at all costs - in particular it must be put before academic gamesmanship. The 'professionalization of philosophy' (as Bruce Kuklick called it) disgusted Holt, and the fact that Harvard so rewarded it made Holt disillusioned with Harvard, and his colleagues. Also, Holt preferred the company of other men. He was certainly the most prominent homosexual psychologists in the 20th century, at a time when that created significant difficulty. More than that, however, his preference was true regardless of sexual orientation; he was at his most productive, and most happy, when surrounded by his bachelor friends. As they married off and had families, he was increasingly socially - and thereby professionally - isolated. I have been asked quite a few times how Holt's homosexuality affected his work, and the answer is that I do not know, and I suspect Holt is the type of guy who's work was not much affected by such things. However, I am confident in claiming that Holt's homosexuality created much social and professional frustration, and it is likely that it negatively impacted at least some of his peers opinions of him and his work. (Incidentally, Jim Jackson gave me a brilliant read of Langfeld's Obituary in which Holt's homosexuality was implicitly key.) In any case, Holt's personality was undoubtedly part of the problem.
  3.  Holt was rarely properly acknowledged. This is likely the biggest problem Holt had in terms of creating an enduring reputation. His role in the Harvard lab was such that today it would inevitably have led to acknowledgement, or more likely authorship, on hundreds of papers. That aside, even his most obviously influenced students rarely acknowledged his influence. A) Edward Chase Tolman, now famous for maze learning in rats and as one of the most important early 'cognitive' psychologists, originally came to prominence for his 'purposeful behaviorism'. His writings along these lines are clearly the result of Holt's influence, but Tolman neglects to mention him. To be far, Tolman barely cites anyone, and the connection would likely be obvious to any readers of the time, but for modern readers that doesn't help.  B) Floyd Allport, famous as a founder of social psychology, wrote a highly successful textbook that had at its core Holt's unpublished lecture notes (or so sayeth James J. Gibson). Holt had taught the first Social Psychology class at Harvard, with Allport as a student. Allport took over the class the following year. Again, no acknowledgement. The list goes on. A lack of explicit recognition in his day is part of the problem. 
  4. Interest in a unified field of psychology has become passe. Sam Parkovnick likes to explain what William James and Holt were up to by saying that they were working on a 'meta-theory' of psychology. That is, they were working on the deeper stuff that had to be true for any of psychologies theories to make sense. Part of the reason people lost interest in Holt's work was that they lost interest in the context that the work best fits into - striving for a general theory of psychology. Because of that, Holt's work gets lost, or seems inappropriately placed, if we try to categorize it into today's specialties. Take The Freudian Wish, it is not clearly appropriate in a list of books on learning theory, nor social psychology, nor developmental psychology, nor physiological psychology, nor personality psychology, nor cognitive psychology... because it is all of those things at once, showing them as intimately intertwined. The changing interests of the field, and the lack of faith that psychology can be unified is part of the problem.

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