Tomkins began studying consciousness at a time when it had been subordinated by both behaviorism (in favor of observable action) and psychoanalysis (in favor of the unconscious). In the preface to the first volume of AIC, he remarks that his affect theory “is not primarily focused on what is current knowledge. I have sought to explore new territory. It is my intention to reopen issues which have long remained in disrepute in American Psychology: affect, imagery and consciousness” (1:vii). In part III, we survey the kinds of methods (personology, psychology of knowledge) and intellectual precedents (cybernetics, psychoanalysis) that shape Tomkins’s account of consciousness, and we finish, where Tomkins finished, with his expansive understanding of the human being as a minding system built through the dynamic and changing coassembly of affect and imagery and consciousness.
We begin with two anecdotes.
Story one. Gordon Allport, the American psychologist who pioneered quantitative research on personality, is en route from Constantinople to Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is 1920, and Allport is just twenty-two years old. He is returning from a teaching position in Constantinople to take up a fellowship at Harvard that will underwrite his graduate study in the relatively new discipline of psychology. He will go on to serve in the Department of Psychology at Harvard until his death in 1967. In 1920, Allport is stopping in Vienna to see his brother. He has also taken this trip as an opportunity to write to Sigmund Freud and ask for an appointment. And Freud has agreed to see him. Allport arrives at Freud’s house and is ushered into his office: “He did not speak to me but sat in expectant silence, for me to state my mission. I was not prepared for silence and had to think fast to find a suitable conversational gambit” (The Person in Psychology, 383). Allport’s conversational opening is a story about a small boy whom he had observed in the tram on the way to Freud’s house. This boy seemed to have “a conspicuous dirt phobia. He kept saying to his mother, ‘I don’t want to sit there . . . don’t let that dirty man sit beside me.’ To him everything was schmutzig” (383). Freud listens to this story, fixes his “kindly therapeutic eyes” upon the socially anxious Allport, and asks, “And was that little boy you?” (383).
Story two. Sometime in late 1937 or early 1938, a month or two before the Anschluss, Henry Murray, the newly appointed director of the Harvard Psychological Clinic, meets Freud in Vienna. Murray reports that the invitation came from Freud himself and that as soon as he arrives at Berggasse 19, Freud asks why he (Freud) didn’t get an honorary degree at the Harvard Tercentenary, whereas Jung did. Murray explains that the Department of Psychology had nominated four psychologists for this honorary degree, ranking Freud first, followed by Carl Jung, Pierre Janet, and Jean Piaget. Nonetheless, someone (perhaps Edwin Boring, the chair of the department) had decided that Freud would not be interested in this award, especially after the honorary degree bestowed by Clark University in 1909. Moreover, given the state of his health, it was felt that Freud would be unlikely to attend. Murray recalls that “we were told he’d never come; so we didn’t invite him. And what did he care, a great man like that, and a little place in Cambridge, Mass?” (“Interview with Henry A. Murray,” 324). After this explanation is provided to Freud, the two men move on to other matters: “We changed the topic right away. And we had a lot of things to say, interests in common. He showed me all around the room. We talked about Egyptians” (325).
The relation between academic psychology and psychoanalysis, particularly as it manifested in the parochial setting of Harvard University in the 1930s and 1940s, was formative for Tomkins’s theorization of affect and consciousness. When Silvan Tomkins arrived at Harvard in 1935 as a postdoctoral fellow in philosophy, Allport and Murray were already well established as researchers in the Department of Psychology, and their various affiliations and disidentifications with Freud and Freudianism were entrenched. Within two years, Tomkins had transferred his position, and his affections, from philosophy to psychology. He took up a position at the Harvard Psychological Clinic in 1937, moving into an intellectual environment where the relevance of psychoanalysis to a newly institutionalized, disciplined, and Americanized psychology was being fiercely debated. Some faculty in the department vociferously rejected Freudianism. The behaviorist-turned-neurophysiologist Karl Lashley, for example, felt that the Freudian theory of libido had been postulated without regard for certain important physiological facts:
The problem of motivation is far more complex than the Freudians would have us believe and its solution is to be sought in the investigation of many related fields: the analysis of specific instinctive responses, the neural basis of emotions, the mutual influence of habits, the total integration of all such systems of reaction. (“Physiological Analysis of the Libido,” 202)
Allport built a theory of personality that borrowed from psychoanalysis but remained largely untouched by its more radical claims:
I am now appropriating [the psychoanalytic term ego] to signify the recentering that is taking place in psychological theory. (“The Ego in Contemporary Psychology,” 453)
Other faculty turned to psychoanalysis to treat significant personal issues but found it imperfect:
Now, four years after the close of the analysis, I find myself quite uncertain as to whether it has made any important change in me. (Boring, 10)
While Murray was perhaps the most faithfully psychoanalytic of these Harvard men, his engagement with Freudianism was defiantly heterodox:
Psychoanalysis stands for a conceptual system which explains, it seems to me, as much as any other. But this is no reason for going in blind and swallowing the whole indigestible bolus, cannibalistically devouring the totem father in the hope of acquiring his genius, his authoritative dominance, and thus rising to power in the psychoanalytic society, that battle-ground of Little Corporals. No; I, for one, prefer to take what I please, suspend judgment, reject what I please, speak freely. (“What Should Psychologists Do about Psychoanalysis?,” 157)
While being closest, personally and professionally, to Murray and to the psychological–psychoanalytic synthesis that Murray fostered under the name “personology” at the Harvard Psychological Clinic (“My debt to Henry A. Murray is great. It was his work that turned me back to the study of psychology” [Thematic Apperception Test, viii]), Tomkins nonetheless seems to have valued aspects of these other critiques of psychoanalysis that circulated around Cambridge. Like Lashley, Tomkins developed a capacious understanding of many different fields that might bear on the question of motivation. His friend and colleague Irving Alexander notes that in these early years at Harvard, Tomkins “read widely and mastered large literatures in psychology, an achievement which would become clearly evident in volume 1 of Affect Imagery Consciousness” (“Silvan S. Tomkins,” 253). Like Allport, Tomkins felt that conscious motivations were important in understanding human psychology. Like Boring, he went into analysis, although Tomkins felt that his treatment was successful. While others might have been tempted, or coerced, into aligning themselves more fully with one or other of these intellectual camps, Tomkins seems to have taken in a number of very different critiques and uses of psychoanalysis, and he built a theory about the motivating influence of the affects that was independent of all these figures, even Murray.
Of course, beyond these internecine disputes about psychoanalysis, there were other scholars in Cambridge who had established emotion as an object of study well before Tomkins’s arrival. William James’s philosophy of emotion and Walter Cannon’s studies of the neurophysiology of emotion must have been known to Tomkins, and as we have noted in earlier chapters (see chapter 2 and the interlude on Tomkins and Darwin), this work was influential on his theory of affect as it emerged in the decades following his time at Harvard.
Tomkins worked at the Harvard Psychological Clinic for a decade (from 1937 to 1947), a period he would later represent as his “golden years” (Alexander, “Silvan S. Tomkins,” 253). His first publications from the clinic demonstrate a methodological approach to disciplinary psychological knowledge that would be amplified and intensified in his later work (i.e., critical but nonetheless deeply engaged and inquisitive). These early publications were three papers, printed as a series in the Journal of Psychology in 1943, that report on the different kinds of verbal responses that subjects had to an electric shock that was administered when they made a mistake in a learning experiment: “reminded me of an electric chair”; “is this supposed to make me cautious?”; “I like the shocks”; “I’m scared, sweating all over”; “I’m sure I’m going to taste the shock this time”; “felt as if a shark or some animal were biting you”; “this experiment is stupid” (“An Analysis of the Use of Electric Shock,” 287–88). One only has to listen to the responses of these subjects, Tomkins argued, to realize that “an electric shock is all things to all men” (285). At this time, with behaviorism in the ascendancy in U.S. psychology, the shock was taken to be a standard (psychologically uncomplicated) experimental stimulus that could be used to punish rat and human alike. Tomkins’s interpretation of his data was a rethinking of this presumption. A classical learning paradigm that employs electric shock will elicit all manner of different reactions (fear, anxiety, pleasure, aggression, pride): “the shock probably always means something quite idiosyncratic which the subject rarely verbalizes and which the experimenter even less often understands” (288).
What seems important, in terms of thinking about Tomkins’s later work on affect, is that these papers are not an outright rejection of the use of shock as a stimulus. They are neither simplistically antibehaviorist nor piously pro-psychoanalytic. Rather, these papers argue for a more complex interpretive approach to the experimental situation: how does a shock (or the threat of shock) activate different psychological needs and incite different responses from experimental subjects? Might an intensive engagement with a small number of subjects provide insight into the psychological power of a shock? Tomkins isn’t so much picking sides in the intellectual battles between behaviorists and psychoanalysts and physiologists, between methods of experimentation and methods of association, as he is mixing together what each method might be able to contribute to an understanding of motivation and mind.
Most of Tomkins’s work at the Harvard Psychological Clinic was devoted not to the elucidation of behaviorist paradigms but to the construction, validation, and use of projective techniques. Projective tests attempt to quantify the more open-ended free associations of a psychoanalytic or therapeutic encounter; they search for unconscious or unknown motivations that may not be available to be verbalized directly by a patient. These tests typically ask patients to talk about an ambiguous visual image (here the well-known Rorschach images are exemplary), and their responses are coded and scored to give a picture of the patient’s cognitive, ideational, and emotional state: “an individual confronted with an ambiguous social situation and required to interpret it was likely to reveal his own personality in the process” (Thematic Apperception Test, 3). Murray and Christiana Morgan developed a projective test called the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) at the clinic during the 1930s. It became a core component of the clinic’s personological method and a widely used and well-validated test. The TAT is composed of a series of images depicting enigmatic situations: for example, in one card, a boy is looking at a violin lying on a table, his head in his hands (is he despondent? focused? bored? contemplative?). The patient is shown a series of picture cards like this and asked to create a dramatic story. With his wife, Elizabeth, Tomkins wrote an important scholarly guide to the TAT (The Thematic Apperception Test: The Theory and Technique of Interpretation) and began research that would lead to the standardization and publication of his own projective test in 1957 (The Tomkins–Horn Picture Arrangement Test).
While working at the clinic, Tomkins had not yet focused on the question of affect specifically, but he certainly began honing a technique for reading and remodeling disciplinary psychological knowledges and their relation to psychoanalysis that will underwrite his theory of affect in later decades. That work owes much to Murray’s personological framework that invests in the intensive study of one individual by a variety of psychological methods: experimental, observational, projective, statistical, physiological, biographical, psychoanalytic. Mixing the genres of psychological research (the case history with measures of galvanic skin response, tests of hypnotic suggestibility, the telling of dramatic stories, and observations of the construction of dramatic scenes with toys, for example), Murray’s personology strives for a kind of epistemological holism:
The prevailing custom in psychology is to study one function or one aspect of an episode at a time—perception, emotion, intellection or behavior—and this is as it must be. The circumscription of attention is dictated by the need for detailed information. But the psychologist who does this should recognize that he is observing merely a part of an operating totality, and that this totality, in turn, is but a small temporal segment of a personality. (Explorations in Personality, 4)
We see three major ways in which Tomkins’s affect theory is aligned with Murray’s personology: their textual styles are akin, they have similar methodological ambitions, and they are both intensely engaged with Freudianism even as they cast doubt on some of Freud’s central claims. Many of these likenesses can be tracked in Tomkins’s contribution to a symposium, late in life for both men, on Murray’s personological system. Indeed, much of what Tomkins writes in this short piece about Murray could, with little in the way of adjustment, be said of Tomkins himself: “the most salient feature of his thought is its conjoint scope and depth. It is not only a system; it is a very complex system that decomposes, grounds, and embeds the personality into overlapping systems of many dimensions” (“Personology Is a Complex, Lifelong, Never-Ending Enterprise,” 608).
As Tomkins directly addresses Murray and his work, the differences between the men often fade, suggesting an ideo-affective intimacy between them. For example, as Tomkins quotes Murray’s critique of Freud’s theory of repetition compulsion, the cadence of Murray’s writing seems to mirror Tomkins’s own:
This might be pretty nearly the whole truth if the genetical program, with its potentialities, ceased to operate at puberty; if the subject were not easily bored . . . if the human environment, parents, teachers, and peers were unanimous in their support of the same beliefs, codes, manners, political sentiments, and tastes; if the person were not ambitious to emulate successively the more impressive performances and deeds of others, if . . . if . . . if . . . If it were not for these and other self-realizing, novelty-seeking, ambitious, proudful, imaginative, and creative dispositions in human beings, all of us would stagnate with learned incapacities and a few enthralling memories of infantile attachments. (610–11)
In this same piece we also see similarities between Tomkins and Murray in their fondness for taxonomies that tend to drift away from any tightly constrained structure. This is a tendency we have noticed not only in Tomkins’s published writing but also in his unpublished notes archived at the Center for the History of Psychology—pages and pages and pages of yellow legal notepaper taken up with classificatory lists and taxonomic rumination.
Tomkins remained in touch with Murray in the years after he left Harvard for Princeton, CUNY, and Rutgers. Their written correspondence appears to be sparse, and Tomkins lays the blame for this on both men. What is notable in the correspondence that has survived in archives is the ways in which Tomkins mixes together Freudian and personological and affective claims in news about his professional and personal lives, and (as with some of the published work) the lines between Tomkins and Murray and Freud begin to blur. For example, there is a long letter in 1961 that recounts Tomkins’s recent near-drowning experience. This letter calls on Freudian notions of childhood experiences (“for the first five years of my life my mother would not let me out of carriage”), along with affective interpretations of the drowning event (“I was not frightened, to my surprise as I think of it now, but ashamed”). Moreover, despite Tomkins’s career-long dedication to building a theory of affect away from the confines of Cambridge, Massachusetts, he often seems to be unable to draw a clear line between this work and Murray’s, and indeed between himself and Murray. In the final letter from Tomkins held in Murray’s papers, we see an ongoing ambivalence toward Murray (drawing near out of love, yet at the same time offering sharp psychological interpretations of Murray that then turn into moments of self-analysis and rumination about his own career). Contacting Murray in the year before he (Murray) died, and seemingly in response to Murray’s final physical decline and a gift of some kind from him, Tomkins writes,
Your letter so saddened me. I loved your gift but I love you more—do not leave us—verweile doch. From an excess of Satanic pride our communication has been fitful and oblique, but the clock keeps ticking. It tolls for you and for me. Your letter began my mourning. It forced me to confront what the world and my world will be when I cannot reach you. So I must reach you now. I cannot let you go without knowing that I understand your unholy blend of Satan and Prometheus. Some years ago I asked you, artlessly, what you would make of a Rembrandt who would not exhibit his paintings. I pretended not to know, but I knew then and I still know how guilt and shame shackle mortals who would steal the sacred fire to illuminate the world. And how it feels to have labored and struggled to give it shape and utterance, over a lifetime, and to confront the possibility that time will run out before the task is done, and done well enough. And how it feels to confront the probability that even if it were done there might be more to understand. There is no other psychologist of your scope and depth and passion. I was reminded of that upon re-reading the poem you wrote about me several years ago. Only recently have I come to understand in myself what was so clear to you so long ago. I have only, recently, in my 70th year been able, through self analysis, to defeat the albatross of my neurosis. Never really thought it possible—but year by year the burden was lightened until one night a few months ago I woke from a numinous dream immediately emancipated from a life long guilt I had carried all those years, truly unconsciously. Before that was possible I had to confront terror, distress, rage and shame—all formidable—nonetheless masking the deeper secret of guilt.
It is the lifting of that neurosis which prompts me to communicate my deep love for your spirit and your nobility. It was that neurosis, as well as your own, which prohibited our friendship. I regret that so much and the hour is late but not too late to tell you that I understand you, appreciate your uniqueness and love you. I never will forget you.
Henry Murray has recounted the story about meeting Freud in a number of places. We draw our opening anecdote from James Anderson’s interview with Murray (“An Interview with Henry A. Murray on His Meeting with Sigmund Freud”). Paul Roazen records the same story (“Interviews on Freud and Jung with Henry A. Murray in 1965”). Anderson’s interview, Irving Alexander’s biographical sketch of Tomkins, and Rodney Triplet’s essay (“Harvard Psychology, the Psychological Clinic, and Henry A. Murray: A Case Study in the Establishment of Disciplinary Boundaries”) have provided important historical background for our account of Tomkins’s time at Harvard. It is worth noting that psychology, as an institutionalized field of inquiry at Harvard, began in 1876 when William James was appointed an assistant professor of psychology. However, for many decades, psychological research at Harvard was housed inside the Department of Philosophy. For a period, the department carried the name the Department of Philosophy and Psychology, making Tomkins’s defection from philosophical research to psychological research less of an institutional leap than it might appear today. The disciplines of philosophy and psychology were formally separated at Harvard only in 1934, just prior to Tomkins’s arrival in Cambridge. Triplet gives a detailed historical account of the intellectual, class, personal, and institutional politics at stake in the splitting of the department and the establishment of the Harvard Psychological Clinic.
Irving Alexander reports that Tomkins was in a seven-year analysis with Ruth Burr (a London-trained member of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society) for the treatment of “a severe reading block” (“Silvan S. Tomkins,” 254). Our research into Ruth Burr has not uncovered any further information about his treatment with her. At a memorial for Tomkins at the American Psychological Association in August 1991, Brewster Smith (a colleague at Harvard) tells of living in a group house with Tomkins in 1941: “of the people in the house, five including Silvan were under psychoanalysis at the time” (video recording held in the Silvan S. Tomkins Papers at the Drs. Nicholas and Dorothy Cummings Center for the History of Psychology, University of Akron).
Tomkins’s three early papers on the phenomenology of electric shock are “An Analysis of the Use of Electric Shock with Human Subjects,” “Experimental Study of Anxiety,” and “An Apparatus for the Study of Motor Learning under Threat of Electric Shock” (this last copublished with Henry Gerbrands).
The two letters from Tomkins to Murray described here can be found in the Henry A. Murray Papers at the Harvard University Archives (HUGFP 97.6, box 22, Murray, Henry A., Correspondence: General—T-U 1910–1986, Folder: 1960–1987 T). In 1963, Murray wrote poems for each of the contributors to The Study of Lives: Essays on Personality in Honor of Henry A. Murray (White, 1963) which had been presented to him on the occasion of his seventieth birthday. His poem for Tomkins, titled “Graves (S. T.),” is contained in a volume titled Leaves of Green Memories that is held at the Drs. Nicholas and Dorothy Cummings Center for the History of Psychology, University of Akron.