Commentary Magazine


The Proper Study of Men

To the Editor:

. . . In reviewing Milton Rokeach’s The Three Christs of Ypsilanti: A Narrative Study of Three Lost Men [June], George P. Elliott expends his considerable energies from the first paragraph on, in charging up the reader’s adrenalin. But as for what the book contains—one remains uninformed. In describing what Rokeach “did to these madmen,” “without their knowledge or permission,” Elliott uses various tricks of rhetoric: “Wonderful,” “yes, indeed,” “My God!” “Alas,” and here and there the exclamation point. He peppers the review throughout with value terms and various gibes and sneers, . . . not only against Rokeach but also against science generally and psychology as a science in particular. . . .

Implicit in this scoffing is an issue with which psychologists have long been familiar. Are men to study themselves? They have directed their curiosity at ants, algae, the distant stars, the dung beetle. But the area closest to them, their essential selves, is to remain a dark continent, unexplored, to be left entirely to the artistic temperament. Mr. Elliott reminds us that Cervantes knew all about it. True, and so did a few others. And were we all—or more of us, at least—Cervantes, Aeschylus, Dostoievski, Shakespeare, then a science of the human personality would not be necessary. But since such superb intelligences are so extremely rare, . . . something can be said for methodical approaches, for observations made under conditions of intellectual control. . . .

Mr. Elliott’s very positive and finalistic judgment of Rokeach’s book is that “as a scientific explanation of the human psyche, it is awful.” A reviewer is, of course, obligated to state his honest judgment, but I find no evidence that Mr. Elliott, a writer of fiction, poetry, essays, and book reviews in literary magazines, is equipped to sit in judgment on science or on psychology.

This letter is not in support of Rokeach’s book, which I have not seen, nor is it in defense of Rokeach, whom I do not know personally. But Elliott directs his scorn also at “. . . another behavioral scientist named Norman Cameron.” I do know Cameron well. He has devoted a lifetime both as psychologist and psychiatrist to a careful, conscientious study of psychopathology. What sets Elliott up as an authority on Norman Cameron?

This review is an example of the abandon that characterizes the “romantic” temper in literature: egotistic, self-vaunting, and rationalized by a school of philosophy in which the world is self-centered and the individual is the Absolute. . . . About what Rokeach actually tried to do in this book we obtain only spotty information nearer the end of the review than its beginning. First, the verdict—off with their heads!—the evidence afterward. The reader acquainted with the field under investigation will slough off a review of this kind. . . . Where it can do harm is to the layman who seeks dependable guidance about ideas with which he has a limited acquaintance and of which he would like to know more.

Samuel J. Beck
Department of Psychology
University of Chicago
Chicago, Illinois

_____________

 

To the Editor:

George P. Elliott’s incredible review of The Three Christs of Ypsilanti compounds, rather than clarifies, the fallacies of Dr. Rokeach’s approach. Rokeach, as the fourth “God,” is an irrelevant misconception: his shoddy scientific method is his biggest failure, although his motivations may be noble.

The careful investigator tries to extract data in a manner which enables him to predict and control (and thus, in part, to understand) specified behavior patterns. Assembling elementary data (which do not seem to interest Mr. Elliott) is a central objective of experimental psychology; it is only by this method that a scientific knowledge of human behavior will ever be realized.

Dr. Rokeach and many fellow social psychologists pursue the impossible task of attempting to analyze highly complex human behavior patterns with only an imperfect knowledge of the simpler (component?) units of behavior. By skipping conceptual stages, they fail as rigorous scientists.

But I am afraid that the stricter scientific psychology would inflame Mr. Elliott’s ire even more than Dr. Rokeach’s analysis. Mr. Elliott’s apparent interest in abstruse complexities will not bring us closer to understanding the simplest realities.

Michael Terman
Department of Psychology
Columbia University
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

In his incredibly pompous critique, . . . George P. Elliott expresses the common sophomoric bromide that social scientists waste a lot of time questioning things that most of us take for granted. . . . Since Mr. Elliott spends a lot of space lecturing us about the beliefs of the scientist (in lieu of actually describing Rokeach’s book), he must know that it is part of the belief system of all scientists to question all “truths” regardless of how obvious they may seem, . . . including such well-known truths as the flatness of the earth, the revolution of the sun around the earth, and the intellectual inferiority of Negroes. Elliott justifiably credits Dante with a brilliant insight—but to a scientist this insight takes the form of an interesting hypothesis. The fact that Elliott happens to believe it is true does not, in and of itself, place it beyond the domain of scientific inquiry. I wonder if Elliott has the perspicacity to appreciate the irony of his accusing Rokeach of playing God while, in the same breath, placing himself upon Olympus as the arbiter of what social scientists should and should not take for granted.

Elliot Aronson
Department of Psychology
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, Minnesota

_____________

 

Mr. Elliott writes:

Professors Aronson, Beck, and Terman are offended that the report of an experiment by a reputable social psychologist has been subjected by a non-scientist to standards other than scientific.

The Three Christs of Ypsilanti was subtitled “A Narrative Study of Three Lost Men” and was published not as a learned monograph for the profession but in good part as a story for the general public: among other things the book is a work of literature subject to literary judgment. Moreover, since it advances a theory of epistemology, it is subject to philosophical judgment as well. (For a cogent satire on the epistemological muddle and foolishness of a great deal of writing by psychologists, see “The Circumnavigation of Cognition” by Benbow F. Ritchie, professor of psychology at the University of California, in the Psychological Review for May 1953.) Whether my judgments on the literary and philosophical issues are good or bad, they are relevant to the book, and my not being a scientist has no bearing either on them or on my right to them. Storytelling and epistemology are not scientific enterprises.

But these are lesser quarrels. The graver one is ethical. Dr. Rokeach’s experiment broke no laws, injured none of the subjects physically, and was intended to gather data of possible use to psychological theory and practice. The moral question is: Ought the actions of a psychologist during the performance of such an experiment be subjected to moral scrutiny? My three critics implicitly answer: No, these actions must be judged by scientific criteria. This attitude strikes me as having less in common with defending humane inquiry than with guarding a mystery cult, with high priests protecting the sanctity of their rites from violation by the profane.

My position is that the ways people connect with one another are of universal interest and concern, and ought not to be considered the exclusive domain of any one group of men (for example, theologians) or of any one mode of treatment (for example, storytelling) . The moment a man employs institutional power to confront three delusional Christs with each other, in his presence, and without their prior knowledge, he has performed an action which is subject to the criteria of moral judgment no less than to those of scientific method.

It is quite possible to argue that this act (of an ethical nature not uncommon in contemporary psychological experiments) is justified because it purposes a greater good attainable by no other method. I would argue generally that such acts are not so justified, and I did argue specifically that they were not justified in Dr. Rokeach’s case because he demonstrated in his story a lack of that self-knowledge necessary to anyone, especially to a scientist of the mind, who undertakes an operation of such delicacy. But any arguing on the subject presupposes the possibility of making moral assumptions shared by both parties to the argument. To maintain, even implicitly, that the actions of Dr. Rokeach during his experiment are exempt from moral criteria, because they were performed by a scientist in the discharge of his duties is intellectually inadmissible. It is to make a coffin of scientific method, pull the lid down on yourself, and lock it from the inside.

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.