Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Development: The History of a Psychological Concept

Christopher Goodey

Despite the many debates about what psychology’s subject matter is, it holds certain basic categories in common that are assumed just to exist ‘out there’, ‘in nature’. Development is one such. Most psychologists of whatever persuasion, along with lay people in Western cultures, approach childhood, education and adult character with development as their framework. History challenges that assumption. And the implications of this for real-life practices with respect to children and certain adults are wide and deep; for one thing, it necessarily implies a deficit model of the child and of the ‘developmentally’ disabled person.

Deriving empirical results from unexamined premises can lead to going round in circles, to interpreting behaviour by what you expect to see rather than the empirical results you might actually have seen if you had examined your first principles. For example, what if babies are actually metaphysicians? After all, some developmental psychologists, Alison Gopnik for example, have discovered as much.

For me, it is history that is key. In my previous work on intelligence, history – more than sociology or anthropology – proved the best approach to monitoring and evaluating one of the basic categories used by psychologists. Conceptual history is a means for reconnecting the modern empirical science with its often unacknowledged theoretical underpinnings. Scientists undertake empirical work within a given framework; most of them have little opportunity to think about the theoretical basis of what they do. Yet scientists also agree that if there is to be progress overall, i.e. not just progress within specialist areas, they cannot be complacent, and must be able to reflect critically on taken-for-granted categories.

I wanted to show how over the past two millennia the developmental idea played a major part in the shift from religious ways of explaining human nature to secular, modern ones. For the practitioner in psychology or education, these pre-modern themes cannot be mere archaisms, because they have come to form the substance of everyday practice. For the theorist or academic researcher, a knowledge of these historical continuities is absolutely necessary, because it is the precondition of knowledge in their own sphere. And for every human being, the history of psychology as a human creation has been as much a force in our lives as our own individual ‘psychologies’, because we are its products.

The concept of development came into use in the eighteenth century, ending up in the hands of the discipline’s immediate forebears such as Galton, Binet and Piaget. But it had a prehistory. A notion as seemingly basic as the existence of a human interior, obeying the structures of linear time, is itself the outcome of previous historical contingencies rather than the description of some natural phenomenon; it has sprung from social practices instigated by medieval religion and, as my book shows, from writers such as Augustine, Calvin, Pascal, Locke, Leibniz, Malebranche and Rousseau. Beliefs about original sin, predestination, redemption and divine grace, and about how these apply to child upbringing and education, lie at the heart of the modern psychological world-view.

Development by Christopher Goodey
Development by Christopher Goodey

About The Author

Christopher Goodey

Christopher Goodey is a former lecturer in the Faculty of Arts and Social Science at the Open University and the author of A History of Intelligence and 'Intellectual Disability': ...

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