Is psychology a respectable discipline

Helmut E. Lück: The psychological back stairs

Helmut E. Lück: The psychological back stairs. The important psychologists in life and work. Herder (Freiburg, Basel, Vienna) 2016. 320 pages. ISBN 978-3-451-61381-4. D: 24.99 EUR, A: 25.70 EUR, CH: 32.50 sFr.
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Even if in popular psychology it is often accessed via big names from the discipline's past, such as Wounds or Freud, the history of psychology is not a prominent topic within empirical psychology itself. Gap With this publication he opposes this tendency to forget the history of the discipline by presenting 44 portraits of well-known psychologists. There was "[a] one suggestion [...] the Philosophical Backstairs by Wilhelm Weischedel (1973)" (p. 10); according to the program of the treatise Weischedels, which has now appeared in more than 40 editions, the reader meets "the philosophers themselves as they are, if they are not expecting a respectable guest at the top of the front stairs" (Weischedel, 2014/1973: The philosophical back stairs. Munich, p. 9). So it is a personal, mostly biographical approach to the luminaries of the respective disciplines in order to develop their work in this way.


Helmut E. Lück received his doctorate in psychology in 1969 in Cologne and was appointed to Duisburg in 1973, then to Hagen in 1978 to establish the subject of psychology there. In 1989 he co-founded the Kurt Lewin Institute for Psychology and in 1997 the research archive for the history of psychology. His areas of expertise include social psychology and the history of psychology.

Origin background

The monograph is published by Herder Verlag without any noteworthy program on the part of the publisher. The book can be found in the category “Counseling & Psychology” alongside other unspecific publications. This shows that the situation in the subject of the history of psychology is precarious. As with theoretical psychology, there are only a few publications for the history of psychology. So writes Gap with colleagues in the “Memorandum on the Situation and Future of the History of Psychology as a Subject”: “But after a decade of profound study reforms, the curricula hardly contain any events on the history of psychology. Students of psychology are therefore usually no longer introduced to the historically well-founded discussion of their subject ”(Psychologische Rundschau, 2015, 66 (3), p. 176).


The work is divided into 44 author profiles from the history of psychology. The authors of the 19th and early 20th centuries are predominantly Germans, while the later protagonists are becoming increasingly more Americans. Each profile contains about five to 20 pages of text and is divided into sub-chapters. In its sources takes hold Gap both on the primary literature and on the biographies of the authors. Occasionally he also lets relevant contemporaries have their say. In addition, various references between the authors, in biography and work, are included.


The Started chooses Gap with some of the prominent names of the founding phase of academic empirical psychology, such as Fechner, Wundt, Ebbinghaus and Freud. Only in a few places does the author emphasize the innovative potential of psychologists on the basis of their historical and personal backgrounds. In this way, the view of the “red thread of the history of ideas” (p. 12) is opened. These are the founders of significant school orientations in psychology, the influence of which is retained in most of the following profiles of psychologists.

Without neglecting other developments in the discipline, chooses Gap the authors of the beginning of the 20th century with a focus on psychoanalysis and Gestalt psychology, following his claim that "teacher-student relationships, scientific communities and also opposing directions in psychology become more clearly visible" (p. 12).

For the authors of the Mid 20th century outlined Gap the development of the disciplinary paradigm shift with the suggestive reference to structural changes in society as a whole. The controversies between psychoanalysis, gestalt psychology, behaviorism and cognitivism occasionally come to light. From the selected profiles of the psychologists it is particularly clear that the sub-areas of the discipline have continuously diversified during this time.

The authors of the recent phase of the psychological discipline have sometimes not yet completed their phases of action, even if, thanks to decisive contributions, they can already be considered classic authors of the discipline. The protagonists of this phase are clearly first and foremost qualified by their experimental achievements and can often be characterized by certain individual experiments in their work, such as the Stanford Prison Experiment for Zimbardo or the effect of cognitive dissonance for Festinger. Lücks Descriptions are enriched by his personal perception: "The memories of the people have flowed into the descriptions here and there, but they are not in the foreground" (p. 11).


The selection of authors for an exhaustive overview of the history of a discipline which - unlike philosophy - can still be characterized by fundamental controversies in its principles is not trivial. Other authors who have recently written on the history of psychology have different emphases. Fahrberg ( calls Brentano one of the three founding fathers of modern psychology while Gap phenomenological psychology is not taken into account. Galliker ( allows the roots of the discipline to go back to the 18th century, while Gap rather at the classical beginning of experimental psychology Wundts Oriented establishment of his Leipzig laboratory. Wallach ( on the other hand, in his “Propädeutikum”, philosophy gradually merges into psychology, which is also mentioned, for example Helmholtz with his contributions to physiology as a psychologist and also various authors of clinical psychology to which Gap does not come to speak.

Lücks The criterion of selection thus remains controversial, even if its open formulation does not result in a structural problem for the publication, because he was “initially about important people in psychology. They have created a sustainable life's work, they are quoted a lot and in surveys on their importance for the subject they rank high ”(p. 10.). Further: "This book is intended to show that the history of the subject is rich in interesting academic personalities" (p. 11). The claim to an exhaustive presentation is therefore not developed, but the selection cuts the complexity of the discipline in some places and makes it appear with greater continuity and coherence than the historical controversies actually allow. The reason for this may be that the work initially aims to provide a general overview. Playful comments such as: "Wundt's work is huge, even if it is difficult to read" (p. 40), suggest that the reader should not be put off by the impressive historical complexity of the subject, which is often misunderstood. That authors like Chomsky and Vygotsky not mentioned, can therefore be justified in the fact that your contribution consisted essentially in the controversial demarcation from other positions, which to mention would have increased the complexity of the reading.

The profiles of the psychologists themselves are often first and foremost biographical and related to the solitary achievement of the respective author instead of showing their importance in the context of disciplinary controversies. The perspective is primarily that "great scientific achievement for psychology" (p. 23). The texts benefit from the author's often detailed knowledge, which allows him to criticize the contemporary reception of the classics on several occasions (see p. 172, p. 316). In addition, as in the case of the “chair dispute” (p. 36ff), Lück refers to the controversial positions of the authors.

However, the level of detail in the presentation is not homogeneous for all authors. As a Lewin specialist (see p. 194) and social psychologist can Gap in some chapters go into detail on components of theories and biographies, for example in the case of Heiders (see p. 232), while other profiles remain rudimentary. The tendency towards overreaching social psychology cannot be denied, because especially in the second half of the work the proportion of social psychological classics is disproportionately large. In addition to this preference for social psychology, there is also an inclination towards German authors, such as the mention of Sodhi motivated by the fact that "West German psychology owes him important impulses" (p. 325).

It is an exegetical concern of the author to relate the biographies of the authors to their work in a speculative and decidedly hypothetical manner. So like Tajfels Dealing with social identity was motivated by his experiences with the persecution of the Jews (see p. 352), or Ashes Interest in social influence through an anecdote from his childhood (see p. 311f). Gap says that the work of the psychologists "was of course related to the temporal circumstances, sometimes with fashions and of course with the people themselves who did research" (p. 10), and thus the examination of the biographies does not only allow an introduction , but ultimately makes a significant contribution to understanding the content.

The comparison with Weischedels Introduction to philosophy, which is imposed by the title, ultimately requires a differentiated view. So-called great psychologists of the late 19th and 20th centuries cannot simply be compared with classics of philosophy from three millennia of intellectual history, because the structure of modern science has a decisive influence on the work of the protagonists. Weischedel is able to paint a complete picture from “Thales or The Birth of Philosophy” to “Wittgenstein or The Fall of Philosophy”, while in the present presentation of psychology no intrinsic structure or a superordinate context is emphasized. Here the terms of "controversy" and "crisis" offer for Fahrberg and Galliker Starting points, but ultimately psychological work remains fundamentally different from philosophical work, because in the first case it is a (special) science that must always be measured by its principles, in the second case it is the totality of thinking in cultural history that actually makes the claim can rise to isolation.

This fundamental difference between the two subjects results in the fact that the profiles of psychologists tend to be characterized by less theory and less self-referentiality towards their own discipline than is the case for philosophers. It is therefore perfectly justified that Gap decides for a delimitation in the title. Where Weischedel speaks of “everyday life and thinking”, he writes “life and work”.


Offers for readers with and without prior disciplinary knowledge Gap a detailed introduction to the life and work of a large number of important authors in the history of psychology. The profiles allow a sketchy insight into the approach and effect of the great protagonists of young science. The author focuses essentially on the distinctive achievements and origins of the individual psychologists and only suggests the controversial contexts. The work allows access to the most influential forms of psychological research and allows the reader to understand the historical development of the discipline from the personal perspectives of its luminaries.


For readers with or without previous knowledge of the discipline, Gap offers an exhaustive introduction into the life and work of a great number of important authors throughout psychology's history. The author profiles grant sketchy insights into the great protagonists' approaches and impacts within the young science. Gap focuses on the singular psychologists' main achievements and developmental backgrounds, and solely adumbrates the controversial contexts. The book grants access to the most influential forms of psychological research and facilitates the comprehension of the discipline's historical development by its luminaries' personal perspectives.

Review by
Dr. Alexander N. Wendt
Dr./M.Sc. (Psychology), M.A. (Philosophy)
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Suggested citation
Alexander N. Wendt. Review from 01.12.2016 to: Helmut E. Lück: The psychological back stairs. The important psychologists in life and work. Herder (Freiburg, Basel, Vienna) 2016. ISBN 978-3-451-61381-4. In: socialnet reviews, ISSN 2190-9245,, date of access May 23, 2021.

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