Mary Calkins

Noted for her contributions to experimental psychology, personality theory and philosophy, Mary Calkins (1863-1930) strove to reconcile structural and functional psychology.

She created the paired associate procedure, established one of the first psychology labs in the United States, and studied emotions, dreams, color perception, memory, and the attributes of sensation.

Born in Hartford (Connecticut), Calkins grew up in Buffalo (New York) and graduated high school outside of Boston (Newton, Massachusetts). Her father was a minister and very interested in the education of his children. Mary, the eldest of five, entered Smith in 1882, graduating in 1885 with a double major in philosophy and classical languages. 

After graduation, Mary and her family took an extended tour through Europe. Upon her return in 1887, Calkins tutored Greek at Wellesley, not far from the family home. In 1895, she accepted a faculty position and remained at Wellesley until her retirement in 1927.

In opposition to the behaviorism of the time, Calkins conceived a theory of “self-psychology.” She emphasized self as an active participant in the creation of one’s psychological reality. According to Calkins, self is not a passive receptor of sensations but an active expression of will.

In philosophy, her system of “personalistic absolutism” builds on Josiah Royce’s religion of loyalty and on Hegel’s absolute truth. According to this view, we are a part of the universal mind (logos), which gives both moral and natural order to the universe. The mind is the true reality and the highest good is a person’s devotion to a cause. Although scientific description of the natural order is valuable, it is secondary to the appreciation of the truth beyond ourselves and our loyalty to the world-wide community.

Although Calkins completed the work for a Ph.D., she was never formally admitted as a student at Harvard (which was a men’s college at the time) and was never granted a degree. Although allowed to “sit in” on lectures, even this informal arrangement was met with opposition from the administration. In 1902, Calkins was offered a PhD from Radcliffe, the women’s college associated with Harvard) but declined.

In a time when women were not highly valued for their intellects, Calkins was surprisingly successful. Although she invented the paired-associate technique, Titchener tried to claim credit for it. Although she pioneered a psychology of self, Allport (who at first gave her credit for her ideas) didn’t cite her contributions. And yet Calkins not only served as president of the American Psychological Society but also was elected president of the American Philosophical Association. In addition to her theoretical contributions, she established one of the first experimental psychology labs in the country. And perhaps most telling, her general psychology textbook was widely used, even at universities that would not have accepted her as a student.

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