Edwin G. Boring

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Edwin Garrigues Boring (October 23, 1886-July 1, 1968) was an American experimental psychologist and one of the most influential leaders of the discipline from the 1920s to the 1960s. Boring later became one of the first historians of psychology. So respected and influential was Edwin Boring that Robert Yerkes once dubbed him Mr. Psychology.

Boring's work may not have itself have uncovered great secrets of human nature and so directly contributed to our understanding of ourselves as human beings. However, his contribution was a great foundation for others to advance such pursuits. Boring's own research was very much focused on the physical aspects of human behavior, studying sensory and perceptual systems. Originally an electrical engineer by training, he was strictly scientific in his approach, which allowed psychology to separate from philosophy, a necessary step in its development. In his own way, Boring attempted to unify an ever diversifying field, solidifying its scientific status, and presenting a picture that was comprehensible and of interest to all people. For the study of human nature is surely of interest to all.


Edwin Garrigues Boring was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1886. He grew up in a matriarchal Quaker household.

As a child, Edwin was fascinated by electricity and decided to study electrical engineering at Cornell University, where he received a master's degree in 1908. For one of the few electives in the engineering program, he selected Edward B. Titchener's psychology course. Boring found Titchener's lectures "magic" and was motivated by Titchener's praise for his examination paper.

After a year of factory work at Bethlehem Steel and another year teaching science in the Moravian Church school, Boring returned to Cornell in 1910 for an A. M. degree to augment his teaching credentials. Boring was soon drawn to psychology by the course of Madison Bentley. Boring became a devoted student and lifelong admirer of Edward B. Titchener and a member of Titchener's laboratory group, as was his future wife, Lucy Day.

Boring's dissertation topic, assigned to him by Titchener, was on sensory processes in the alimentary tract, but he also carried out work on schizophrenia and other psychological problems during his graduate student career.

After receiving a doctorate in 1914, Boring spent four additional years as an instructor at Cornell. In 1918, Robert M. Yerkes asked Boring to assist with the US Army's testing work, and Boring became chief psychological examiner at Camp Upton, Long Island. Later, Boring worked directly under Yerkes and played a major role in preparing the massive Army Report. Boring remained cautious about the interpretation of intelligence tests for the rest of his career.

In 1919, G. Stanley Hall offered Boring the position of professor of experimental psychology at Clark University. Three years later, in the midst of political controversies at Clark, he was invited to Harvard University. He taught at Harvard from 1922 until his retirement in 1957. He became the director of the psychological laboratory from 1924 to 1949 and the chair of the psychology department, which was not formally separated from the philosophy department until 1934.

While he was director of the psychological laboratory at Harvard University, Boring's goal was to free psychology from its status as a subsection of the department of philosophy. He emphasized the use of the experimental method to investigate psychological questions rather than the tools of philosophy. Boring was successful and established an independent department of psychology. In 1945, under Boring's direction, the divisions of "experimental and physiological psychology" were separated from those of "social and clinical psychology."


Edwin Boring's work entitled Physical Dimensions of Consciousness (1933moved beyond the dualism of Edward Titchener and bridged structuralism and behaviorism using "monistic physicalism" as a guiding priciple. This theory was conceptually related to the "operationism" of Percy Bridgman, which Edwin Boring had not yet read.

Of Boring's many students at Harvard, the most influential of all was S. S. Stevens. Together, they promoted "operationism" and thereby changed the vocabulary of American psychology. Stevens and other students collaborated with Boring on studies of sensation and perception, and Boring's best known series of experiments dealt with the moon illusion. Working with A. H. Holway, Boring showed that this illusion depends on the position of the eyes in the skull. Boring's heavy administrative responsibilities left him little time for experimental work; nevertheless, he managed to write a summary of the field, Sensation and Perception in the History of Experimental Psychology (1942).

Edwin Boring's work on the nature of scientific activity was wide ranging; it included papers with Alice Bryant on the status and career difficulties of women in psychology. These papers were published in the 1940s. It was Edwin Boring who introduced psychologists to Geothe and Herder's concept of Zeitgeist and used it as an organizing theme for his discussions of creativity, "great man" approaches to history, scientific change, and historiography.


Edwin G. Boring was a discipline builder. He is best known as the foremost historian of psychology through his History of Experimental Psychology (1929) and its 1950 revision. Although heavily criticized for presenting Wilhelm Wundt through a "Titchenerian" lens, Boring's History was the classic in the field. Used by nearly all graduate students through the 1960s, it shaped the way in which psychologists viewed their emergence as a science and helped define the scope and goals of experimental psychology. In addition to this text, Boring published on the history of psychology throughout his career. Many of these widely read papers dealt with the psychology of science, with social and cultural factors in scientific development, with the history of method, and with problems of scientific communication.

Edwin Boring worked tirelessly for the organization and promotion of psychology. He was the president of the American Psychological Association in 1928, and was named Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology in 1956. He served as secretary of the Ninth International Congress of Psychology in 1929, and honorary president of the Seventeenth International Congress of Psychology in 1963. He was the founder and the first editor of the highly influential journal of book reviews, Contemporary Psychology.

Presenting psychology to the general audience was also important to Boring. With Herbert Langfeld and Harry Weld, he authored a series of widely used introductory textbooks. Boring was one of the first to present a psychology course on public television as the 1957 Harvard Lowell Television Lecturer. In 1959, the American Psychological Foundation awarded him a gold medal for his achievements as an experimentalist, teacher, critic, theorist administrator, popularizer, and editor.

Major publications

  • Boring, E. G. 1927. "Edward Bradfors Titchener" in American Journal of Psychology. No.38. 489-506.
  • Boring, E. G. 1929. A History of Experimental Psychology. Irvington Pub.
  • Boring, E. G. 1933. Physical Dimensions of Consciousness. Century.
  • Boring, E. G. [1942] 1977. Sensation and Perception in the History of Experimental Psychology. Irvington Pub. ISBN 9780891979333
  • Boring, E. G., Herbert Sidney Langfeld, and Harry Porter Weld. 1948. Foundations of psychology. Wiley.
  • Boring, E. G. 1950. A History of Experimental Psychology (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 9780133900392
  • Boring, E. G. 1967. History of Psychology in Autobiography. Irvington Pub. ISBN 9780891972167

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Brennan, J. F. 1982. History and systems of psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
  • Campbell, D. T. and Watson, R.I. (eds.). 1963. History, psychology, and science: Selected papers of E. G. Boring. New York, NY: Wiley.
  • Cerullo J. J. 1988. "E. G. Boring: Reflections on a descipline builder" American Journal of Psychology, No. 101.
  • Hindeland, M. J. 1971. "Edward Bradford Titchener: A pioneer in perception" in Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. No. 8.
  • Leahey, Th. H. 1991. A History of Modern Psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Leahey, Th. H. 1979. "Wundt and after: Psychology’s shifting relations with the natural sciences, social sciences, and philosophy" Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 15.
  • Rosenzweig, S. 1970. "E. G. Boring and the Zeitgeist: Eruditione gesta beavit" Journal of Psychology, No. 75.
  • Sabat, S. R. 1979. "Wundt’s physiological psychology in retrospect" American psychologist, 34.
  • Titchener, E. B. 1899. "Structural and functional psychology" in Philosophical Review. No. 8
  • Titchener, E. B. 1925. "Experimental psychology: A retrospect" in American Journal of Psychology. No. 36
  • Titchener, E. B. 1972 (1929). Systematic psychology: Prolegomena. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801491320
  • Winston, A. S. 1998. "The defects of his race ... E. G. Boring and antisemitism in American Psychology, 1923-1953" History of Psychology. No. 1.
  • Wundt, W. 1907. Principles of Physiological Psychology. New York, NY: Macmillan.
  • Wundt, W. 1912. An Introduction to Psychology. London: George Allen.

External links

All links retrieved September 21, 2017.


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