A drawing entitled “The entire brain, more or less, is at work in a man who uses language“ by William James. On the right of the picture: a hand writing the word “John” on a paper. From the left of the picture, various abstract lines lead to the hand.

Psychologism. History of a Suspicion in the Literary Field of the Early 20th Century

In the late 19th century, the Kaiserreich’s array of university disciplines underwent considerable reconfiguration. How psychology and (German) literary studies in particular should relate to one another was a much discussed question. Figures as varied as Wilhelm Wundt, the literary historian Alfred Biese and advocates of a “Literatur-Wissenschaft” that sought to be different from both literary history and philology argued for a psychologization of literary studies in the sense of the empirical natural sciences, associating with it words such as “fact,” “objectivity,” “law” and “method.” Alongside this, a psychological foundation of the humanities was introduced, prominently represented by Wilhelm Dilthey in the context of the distinction made in the philosophy of science between the natural sciences on the one hand, and the humanities and cultural studies on the other. In the early 20th century, then, a tension worthy of investigation unfolds. In the field of literary research, “psychologism” functioned as a proxy accusation and ideological chameleon, with which different actors devalued different things. But at the same time, affirmative references to psychology continued to play a major role in literary studies, for example in the formation of academic concepts.

This dissertation aims to make a valuable contribution to the (discourse) history of German studies, the history of the theory of the humanities, and the history of interdisciplinarity. It investigates the relationship between literary research and psychology for the period roughly between 1880 and 1930, thereby assuming a perspective that comes from literary studies and looking primarily to where the sources refer to this relationship as “psychologism.”

The overarching thesis and goal of the dissertation is to, for the first time, describe “psychologism” as a relatively independent discourse of literary research in the early 20th century. How, with what purposes and with what effects was “psychologism” mobilized as suspicion and reproach in the literary field between 1880 and 1930? What value judgements about (groups of) literary texts were attached to it? What were readily available criticisms with which the allegation was effectively amalgamated? What role did the term “psychologism” play in the making of the literary history epoch “modernity”? And what traces did it leave in the scholarly language of present-day literary studies?

Fig. above: The entire brain, more or less, is at work in a man who uses language,” in: William James: Principles of Psychology 1, 1890. p. 56f.

Head researcher(s): Diba Shokri


Diba Shokri

  • “[E]ine Art Experiment in unserer Phantasie.” Selbstbeobachtung in Literaturwissenschaft und Psychologie um 1900, in: Scientia Poetica 25.1 (2021), 143–174