Mary Whiton Calkins

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Mary Whiton Calkins (March 30, 1863 – February 26, 1930) was an American philosopher and psychologist. She is particularly famous for having been denied a Ph.D. degree from Harvard University, due to being a woman, and yet becoming president of both the American Psychological Association and American Philosophical Association. In fact, her contributions to these fields made her worthy of the position.

In her early work in psychology she developed the paired-associate technique for studying memory and founded the first experimental psychology laboratory at Wellesley College where she served on the faculty for four decades. She published prolifically both in philosophy and psychology, her greatest interest becoming the study of self. Calkins is deservedly remembered for her accomplishments in pioneering the path of women as successful scholars and researchers.


Mary Whiton Calkins was born on March 30, 1863, in Hartford, Connecticut, the eldest of five children. Her father, Wolcott Calkins, was a Presbyterian minister and she spent her early childhood in Buffalo, New York. In 1881, her father accepted the pastorate of a Congregational church in Newton, Massachusetts, about 12 miles west of Boston.

Although devoted to her family, Mary left home in 1882 to attend Smith College. On completing her undergraduate degree in classics and philosophy, she traveled with her family to Europe for more than a year. When they returned her father helped her secure a position at Wellesley College as a Greek tutor. Soon after she was offered a position teaching psychology, with the requirement that she study for one year in a psychology program. Despite difficulties due to her gender, Calkin was permitted to study with Edmund Clark Sanford at Clark University, and to attend seminars at Harvard University taught by William James and Josiah Royce, although she was not admitted as a student at either institution.

She returned to Wellesley in 1891, where she began teaching psychology and established the first experimental psychology laboratory at a woman's college. However, she recognized her need for further study and after further special petitions was allowed to conduct research in Hugo Munsterberg's laboratory, again not as a registered student. Although she completed all the requirements for the Ph.D., and her committee, including such eminent scholars as William James, Josiah Royce, and Hugo Munsterberg, were unanimous that she satisfied the requirements, the Harvard authorities refused to grant her a doctorate.

She returned to Wellesley and a career of teaching, research, publishing, and service to the academic community. In 1902, she and three other women who had completed graduate work at Harvard, were offered Ph.D. degrees from Radcliffe College, since women were not eligible for Harvard degrees. Calkins declined, noting that despite the "inconvenience" of lacking a Ph.D. she would not take the easier path of accepting one from Radcliffe where she had not studied (Furumoto 1980).

In 1905 Calkins was the first woman elected to serve as president of the American Psychological Association, and in 1918 for the American Philosophical Association. She received honorary doctorate degrees from Columbia University and Smith College, and in 1928 was elected to honorary membership in the British Psychological Association.

Calkins never married, devoting her time and energy into her career as teacher and researcher. In 1927 she retired from Wellesley after a career there of 40 years. She died of cancer on February 26, 1930.


Mary Whiton Calkins started her career as a Greek instructor at Wellesley College, but with an undergraduate background in philosophy. When approached to join the philosophy department teaching the new field of psychology she accepted and furthered her studies in both fields. She established a psychology laboratory at Wellesley, the first psychology laboratory at a woman's college. As well as teaching, she conducted research and published prolifically in both philosophy and psychology.


Her philosophy was expressed in her books, The Persistent Problems of Philosophy (1907) and The Good Man and The Good (1918). She believed that the universe contained distinct mental realities, and, although the mind was from a lower level of existence, it emerged from that level to one higher that answered to new special laws. This level of reality was ultimately personal, consciousness as such never existing impersonally. She asserted that the universe was mental throughout, and whatever was real was ultimately mental and therefore personal. She concluded that the universe was an all-inclusive self, an absolute person and a conscious being.


In her early research as a psychology student in the laboratory of Hugo Munsterberg, Calkins conducted experiments on associationism. During this work she invented the technique of paired-associates which she used for testing the effects of factors like frequency, recency, and vividness on memory. She found that frequency was the most significant (Calkins 1894, 1896). However, she realized that it was the method that was of greater significance than the results (Calkins 1930). Indeed, this technique has continued to be used in the study of memory to this day.


Surprisingly, given that psychology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was becoming increasingly the study of externally observable "behavior," Calkins moved away from that experimental path into the increasingly unpopular study of self. As noted in her autobiography, written just prior to her death in 1930, Calkins stated:

I must treat more respectfully four major interests of my first decade of work in psychology—interests which still persist. These are: the study of association; the conception of the psychic element; the doctrine of relational elements of experience; finally, and most important, the conception of psychology as science of self with which I contrasted atomistic or idea-psychology, the study without reference to any self, of successive experiences. Both conceptions of psychology, I maintained, are valid and useful; but I deprecated strongly the tendency of psychologists to alternate irresponsibly between one and the other (Calkins 1930).

She first presented this "self-psychology" in 1900, "having worked it out with the thoroughness and care appropriate to a proposed departure from the classical (Wundtian and Titchenerian) system then dominant in American psychology" (Heidbreder 1972).

Calkins (1930) attempted to trace the origins of her idea of the self. She credited William James for his idea of the stream of consciousness, and James Mark Baldwin and Josiah Royce for the social nature of the self. She also noted that initially she was influenced by Hugo Munsterberg regarding the view that every experience be treated both from the atomistic and the self standpoint, later abandoning the atomistic position in favor of self psychology.

She explained three concepts fundamental to the conception of self: "that of the self, that of the object, and that of the self's relation or attitude toward its object" (Calkins 1930). For Calkins, the self was essentially indefinable because:

to define is to assign the object to a given class and to distinguish it from other members of the class; and the self is sui generis and therefore incapable of definition (Calkins 1915).

Although not definable, the self can be described as:

a totality, a one of many characters... a unique being in the sense that I am I and you are you... an identical being (I the adult self and my ten-year-old self are in a real sense the same self)... a changing being (I the adult self differ from that ten-year-old)... a being related in a distinctive fashion both to itself and its experiences and to environing objects personal and impersonal (Calkins 1930).

She described the self's relation to objects in terms of "attitudes," which fall into three groups:

Receptivity, activity, and compulsion.

The self is always receptive, but in different ways. Sensations are always received, sometimes emotions are involved, and often relationships between objects are noticed. The self is often active, wishing (unassertively) or willing (assertively) particular activities. The self is sometimes conscious of being compelled by people or by things, such as being blown by a strong wind or ordered to move by a police officer.

Egocentric and allocentric.

The self may focus on itself or on others in the environment. These are not mutually exclusive as the self can attend both to itself and to its object, with the element of sympathy coming into play.

Individualizes and generalizes.

The self may individualize objects when perceiving, imagining, and thinking. Alternatively it may generalize in categorization and concept formation.

Having set out this description, Calkins admitted that it appeared "as non-essential and dull as the Homeric catalogue of ships or the roll of 'gentlemen with very hard names' in the Books of the Chronicles" (Calkins 1930). Yet, she remained convinced that this was the path necessary to study human beings, and in particular social psychology. She rejected the Behaviorist efforts as incapable of this:

With superb inconsistency these behaviorist overlook the fact that loyalty and responsibility, jealousy and kindness, domination and submission, truthfulness and being shocked, are not the qualities of bodily processes nor of electron-proton aggregates. To state this criticism more generally: on the behavioristic theory, no distinction is possible between social and non-social behavior and its objects. For the behaviorist conceives psychology as the study of reacting bodies, that is, of moving physical objects, and from this point of view there can be no basal difference between a human being and a plant or a tool; all are alike moving bodies. ... I am brought back in this fashion to my initial assertion that social psychology is inevitably personalistic psychology. And this drives home the conviction that a scientific pursuit of personalistic psychology is imperatively needed today for the grounding and the upbuilding of the still unsystematized and eclectic disciplines roughly grouped as the social sciences (Calkins 1930).


Mary Whiton Calkins is best remembered today for Harvard University's refusal to grant her a Ph.D. because she was a woman. She was offered a doctorate from Radcliffe College, but she turned it down. Efforts were made by a group of Harvard alumni in 1927, and a group of students at Kalamazoo College in Michigan in 2002, to have Harvard award her the degree posthumously.

Calkins is deservedly remembered for her accomplishments in pioneering the path of women as successful scholars and researchers. She invented a technique for memory research that has been used ever since. She resisted the emerging mainstream Behaviorism, and developed a coherent and well-thought out self psychology.

Major publications

  • Calkins, Mary Whiton. 1892. "Experimental Psychology at Wellesley College." American Journal of Psychology. 5, 464-271.
  • Calkins, Mary Whiton. 1894. "Association." Psychological Review. 1, 476-483.
  • Calkins, Mary Whiton. 1896. "Association." Psychological Review. 3, 32-49.
  • Calkins, Mary Whiton. [1901] 2007. An Introduction to Psychology. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 0548200912
  • Calkins, Mary Whiton. [1907] 1925. The Persistent Problems of Philosophy. Brooklyn, NY: AMS Press Inc. ISBN 0404590926
  • Calkins, Mary Whiton. 1908. "Psychology as science of self. I: Is the self body Or has it body?" Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods. 5, 12-20.
  • Calkins, Mary Whiton. 1910. A First Book in Psychology.
  • Calkins, Mary Whiton. 1915. "The self in scientific psychology." American Journal of Psychology. 26, 495-524.
  • Calkins, Mary Whiton. [1918] 2007. The Good Man and The Good: An Introduction To Ethics. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 0548164002
  • Calkins, Mary Whiton. 1930. "Autobiography of Mary Whiton Calkins" History of Psychology in Autobiography. Worcester, MA: Clark University Press. Retrieved July 25, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Furumoto, L. 1980. "Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930)." Psychology of Women Quarterly. 5, 55-68.
  • Heidbreder, E. 1972. "Mary Whiton Calkins: A discussion." In Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. 8, 56-68.
  • Kimble, G.A., M. Wertheimer, and C. White (eds.). 1991. Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. ISBN 0805811362
  • Palmieri, P.A. 1983. "Here was fellowship: A social portrait of academic women at Wellesley College, 1895-1920." History of Education Quarterly. 23, 195-214.
  • Scaroborough, E. and L. Furumoto. 1989. Untold Lives: The First Generation of American Women Psychologists. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231051557

External links

All links retrieved November 7, 2022.


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