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William H. Sheldon’s Psychology and the Promethean Will: Some Historiographic Observations

October 29, 2009 

By: Stephen Gatlin

That an oversized reprint of William H. Sheldon’s Psychology and the Promethean Will (1936) should re-surface in this century is both felicitous and perturbing: the former because Sheldon was one of the shrewdest American psychologists of the twentieth century; the latter because his new publisher, Kessinger, deals in, as their advertising trumpets, “rare mystical reprints”. It is not surprising on one level that any effort on the part of a psychologist and medical doctor to be genuinely holistic—to integrate, in this instance, religion, medicine, and psychology after the fashion of William James—should meet with such a fate.

Holism, as intellectually challenging as it can be, places Sheldon in a spurious scientific and historiographic position in these latter days.  That Sheldon’s stimulating, timely, and altogether pragmatic observations in Promethean Will should now be associated as it were with alchemy, divination, and telepathy indicates something crucial and affecting about the historiography of medicine and psychology today.  These disciplines (or sub-disciplines) are apparently not inclined to take Sheldon’s holism seriously, if the ilk of Sheldon’s new publisher means anything.  I, for one, am inclined to think it does.  Even as Promethean Will was a profoundly reactionary “value-base” for all of Sheldon’s massive researches in human constitution during the 1940’s and 1950’s, the book (his first) never received any press whatsoever from those mainstream (mostly behaviorist) psychologists who reviewed Sheldon’s “somatotypy” during these years.  It was just as if Sheldon the man and philosopher and religionist harbored no inter-disciplinary ambitions, whatever.  Sheldon’s personhood was itself elided.

In other words, Sheldon’s human physique studies stood or fell qua science, while his “modernist impulses” (which were always in truth inseparable from his scientific researches) were entirely ignored.   As I have argued elsewhere, this all-too-common stroke of scientism and presentism—both in mid-century and now—has made for an assessment of Sheldon’s psychology that is as politically correct as it is historically vacuous.  Because, to paraphrase Stephen J. Gould, we have not regarded Sheldon’s risky and provocative observations on human personality as part of a gutsy, exciting, and very human enterprise—what sociologists of science now call a robust “sociality”—we are often left with an impoverished view of early twentieth-century psychology and the sometimes “unsavory” culture in which it lived and moved and had its being.

Here is, withal, a vulgar historical and scientific “internalism” that we witness with this re-publication. Sheldon deserves better than to be relegated to the astrological margins.  Thanks to the inter-disciplinary efforts of Science and Technology Studies in this country, we are now in a more favorable position to impugn this lingering positivism, which no philosopher of science worth his salt now believes, but which persists with a vengeance in the re-publication of Psychology and the Promethean Will we have before us.

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