Angell, James Rowland

views updated May 17 2018

Angell, James Rowland



James Rowland Angell (1869–1949), psychologist, educational administrator, and public-service counselor, came from New England stock. His father, James Burrill Angell, a direct descendant of Thomas Angell, who went to Rhode Island in 1636 with Roger Williams, was at various times professor of modern languages at Brown University, editor of the Providence Journal, president of the University of Vermont, president of the University of Michigan for 38 years, and U.S. minister to China, 1880–1881, and to Turkey, 1888–1889.

His mother, Sarah Swope Caswell, was a descendant of Peregrine White, the first white child to be born to the Mayflower Pilgrims. She was the daughter of Alexis Caswell, an eminent mathematician, astronomer, president of Brown University, and charter member of the American Academy of Science.

The first two decades of James Angell’s life were spent at the University of Michigan, where his father had become president when James was three years old. His home environment was distinctly academic. The Angell home was visited frequently not only by local faculty members but also by such widely eminent persons as Andrew White, Matthew Arnold, and Grover Cleveland.

In high school Angell took a conventional classical course; in college his major interests were logic, philosophy, and psychology. “But the psychology,” he wrote in his autobiography, “instantly opened up a new world, which it seemed to me I had been waiting for, and for the first time I felt a deep and pervasive sense of the intellectual importance of the material I was facing. … With that experience began my real intellectual life, which ultimately led me on into my profession” ([1932] 1961, p. 5).

Psychology. After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1890, he spent three years in graduate study of psychology and philosophy—one at Michigan, under John Dewey and James Tufts; one at Harvard, under William James and Josiah Royce; and one in Germany, mainly under Friedrich Paulsen at Berlin and Benno Erdmann at Halle. It was during these years that psychology was gradually becoming differentiated from philosophy and developing into an experimental science. About a dozen psychological laboratories had been started in the United States, mostly in the eastern states, but the expanding western universities were eager for well-trained experimental psychologists.

In 1893, before he had finished his work for a doctorate at the University of Berlin, Angell received an invitation from the University of Minnesota to become an instructor in psychology. His duties included teaching experimental methods and founding a psychology laboratory.

The following year Dewey, who had become chairman of the department of philosophy at the University of Chicago, brought Angell there as assistant professor of philosophy in charge of the psychology courses and a psychological laboratory. He was instantly in close contact with many of the distinguished scientists and scholars whom President William Rainey Harper had assembled. Being associated with such men as A. A. Michelson and R. A. Millikan in physics, Jacques Loeb in physiology, and H. H. Donaldson in neurology reinforced AngelFs determination to bring the newly emerging science of psychology up to the highest experimental standards and to draw maximum support from cognate sciences; his background in philosophy and his contacts with philosophers like Dewey, J. H. Tufts, and G. H. Mead strengthened his belief that the science of psychology should be grounded on a broad conceptual foundation.

Psychology based on such a foundation became known as “functional psychology,” and Angell became its chief formulator and exponent. This formulation is most clearly expressed in his presidential address before the American Psychology Association in 1906 (Angell 1907). All mental processes and phenomena, such as perception, attention, memory, imagination, and thought, are viewed as products of organic evolution and, like all other similar products, perform certain functions for the survival and well-being of the organism. They are best understood by observing what they accomplish and the environmental conditions under which their various functions are performed. Thus, psychology is inevitably and intimately linked with the biological and social sciences and should have as its object the study of how humans and other animals adjust to, cope with, and modify the environments in which and by which they live.

All scientific activity has as one of its goals the harnessing of scientific knowledge to the solution of man’s problems of survival and welfare. There is, therefore, no sharp dividing line between “pure” and “applied” science. The task of pure science is to provide basic understanding of the nature of man and his environment, and that of applied science is to direct this understanding to the control of the environment.

Angell’s place in the history of psychology is well established (Boring 1929). He was one of the pioneers in organizing laboratory courses, in standardizing experimental procedures, in developing appropriate apparatus, and in systematizing the objectives and content of a growing young science. Although the term “functional” has largely disappeared, its point of view and basic principles are commonly accepted and taken for granted. Angell and his many distinguished students did not set out to establish a school of thought or a logically tight system, but rather to develop principles, methods, and objectives that have since permeated the whole of psychology.

Educational administration. Angell’s career as an educational administrator began in 1911, when he succeeded George E. Vincent as dean of the faculties of the University of Chicago, a position then next in rank to the president. This position brought him into first-hand contact with all of the administrative problems of a large university. During the year 1918/1919 he served as acting president of the university.

His next position of importance was that of chairman of the National Research Council in 1919–1920, which brought him into close relation not only with the most distinguished scientists in all fields but also with many outstanding industrialists. It was during this year that he delivered a famous paper entitled “The Organization of Research” to the twenty-first annual conference of the Association of American Universities (Angell 1920). This paper contains his view on the “reproductive processes of science,” that science, like the human mind, is a product of evolution and grows by a process of proliferation and selection. This conception of science guided his efforts to promote research when, a year later, he became president of the Carnegie Corporation and when, two years later, he was appointed the fourteenth president of Yale University.

His administration at Yale, from 1921 to 1937, was characterized by the phenomenal financial and physical growth of the university. Angell also took an active part in the shaping of educational policies. Many distinguished scholars and scientists were added to the faculty; residential colleges for undergraduates were adopted; a new undergraduate school of engineering was created, as well as new departments of anthropology, linguistics, government and international relations, and drama; and the Institute of Human Relations, an interdisciplinary research center, was established. According to Angell, one of the university’s major objectives was to study human behavior in all its aspects.

Public service. Angell reached Yale’s compulsory retirement age of 68 in 1937. But being in good health, he decided to accept a position as educational and public service counselor to the National Broadcasting Company. He began by making a comprehensive study of the educational and cultural possibilities and public responsibilities of broadcasting in both Europe and the United States. He then drew up a plan for what he called “publicservice programming,” which would include not only educational programs but programs in the fields of social and economic problems, current events, music, drama, and religion.

Angell has been characterized as a man of profound wisdom and breadth of vision. He never embraced the extreme views of progressive education of his mentor, John Dewey, or the excessive behaviorism of one of his most distinguished students, John B. Watson. Angell’s contributions to the social sciences are recorded not only in his books and articles on psychology and his many addresses and papers (1937) written while he was in educational administration, but also in the many deeds by which he advanced both the science of psychology and the art of education.

Mark A. May

[For the historical context of Angell’s work, see the biographiesDewey; James; Mead.]


(1904) 1908 Psychology: An Introductory Study of the Structure and Function of Human Consciousness. 4th ed., rev. New York: Holt.

1907 The Province of Functional Psychology. Psychological Review 14:61–91.

1920 The Organization of Research. Pages 27–41 in the Association of American Universities, Journal of Proceedings and Addresses of the Twenty-first Annual Conference. Chicago: The Association.

(1932) 1961 James Rowland Angell. Volume 3, pages 1–38 in Carl Murchison (editor), A History of Psychology in Autobiography. New York: Russell.

1937 American Education: Addresses and Articles. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.


Boring, Edwin G. (1929) 1950 A History of Experimental Psychology. 2d ed. New York: Appleton. → See pages 554–558 on Angell in the 1950 edition.

Heidbreder, Edna 1933 Seven Psychologies. New York and London: Century.

James Rowland Angell

views updated May 14 2018

James Rowland Angell

James Rowland Angell (1869-1949) was a pioneer in the development of psychology in America and a leader in higher education.

James Rowland Angell was born May 8, 1869, in Burlington, Vermont, to James Burrill and Sara (Caswell) Angell. His father was president of the universities of Vermont and Michigan and his grandfather was president of Brown University. The Angell home was an academic environment visited by distinguished faculty and guests including Grover Cleveland, Andrew White, and Matthew Arnold. Angell's life was further enriched by travel. His family spent a year and a half in China, where his father served in a diplomatic post, and later traveled around the world.

Academic studies were not taken seriously by the young Angell until he read John Dewey's text on psychology during his sophomore year at the University of Michigan. That experience began an intellectual life which would lead him into the profession of psychology. After graduation (1890) he spent three years in graduate study. The first year he remained at the University of Michigan, receiving a master's degree in philosophy under the direction of John Dewey, a renowned philosopher. The second year he studied at Harvard with William James, a prominent psychologist, and graduated with a master's degree in psychology. The third year he traveled to Germany to further his psychology studies. At the end of that year his doctoral thesis was accepted at the University of Halle, contingent on a revision to improve its German. But instead he accepted a teaching position in psychology at the University of Minnesota. Soon after his arrival in Minnesota, he married his fiance of many years, Marion Watras. They had two children.

Teaching and Research (1893-1914)

One of Angell's chief delights was working with students. Beginning with his first teaching assignment at the University of Minnesota (1893), he worked long into the nights, seeking to perfect his teaching talents. Using the Socratic method, he developed questions that provoked thinking and continued interesting the students. The next year, as an assistant professor of philosophy and psychology at the University of Chicago, he developed a psychology laboratory where he and graduate students collaborated on experimental research. During his years at Chicago he assisted over 40 doctoral students in psychology, a number of whom later became leaders in psychology (e.g., John B. Watson, an originator of behavioral psychology in America). Angell encouraged his students to study with other professors, particularly recommending minors in philosophy, biology, and education.

In the field of psychology, Angell is viewed as an early originator of functionalism, one of two major competing schools of thought during this period. Seeking to develop psychological principles and to advance the discipline, Angell applied the philosophies of James and Dewey in his laboratory. While his scholarly contributions to psychology have been eclipsed by later works of others, he was a pioneer in standardizing experimental procedures, developing apparatus and laboratory courses, and systematizing the principles of a new science. In addition to scholarly articles, he published two popular texts: Psychology (1904) and Chapters from Modern Psychology (1912). He was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1908, the youngest person to have received that honor. During these years at Chicago he developed one of the more prestigious psychology programs in America.

Educational Administration (1912-1937)

As a professor Angell had to supplement his salary by teaching evenings and summers. So he welcomed the opportunity to enter college administration. In 1911 he became dean of faculties. Although he continued editing a psychology monograph series (1912-1922), his work in psychology virtually ended.

Functionalism, losing its chief spokesman, quickly faded in prominence. A leave of absence (1919) allowed him to assume chairmanship of the National Research Council and to oversee the fundraising for and construction of a new building for the National Academy of Sciences. The following year he returned as acting-president at Chicago, to be followed by the presidency of the Carnegie Foundation. Then in 1921 he accepted the presidency at Yale University, the first non-Yale graduate since 1766 to receive that honor.

In his autobiography, Angell raises some doubts as to his success at Yale; however, his alumni, students, and faculty often felt otherwise. During his tenure there the social life of students changed with the division of the university into smaller resident colleges; the curriculum and faculty were expanded with the addition of new programs of nursing and drama and the founding of the Institute of Human Relations; the campus was completely rebuilt with 35 new buildings; and the general financial situation improved—in particular, the endowment quadrupled. In sum, under Angell's leadership, Yale was transformed from a small liberal arts college to a "true" university.

After retiring from Yale in 1937, Angell accepted an appointment as educational counselor to the National Broadcasting Company. He was director of the New York Life Insurance Company, a trustee of the American Museum of Natural History, and a member of the Rockefeller Foundation. He died in Hamden, Connecticut, on March 4, 1949.

Further Reading

A brief autobiography by Angell is in Carl Murchison, ed., A History of Psychology in Autobiography, III (1936). A biographical essay by Walter S. Hunter, emphasizing his psychological research, is in National Academy of Science, Biographical Memoirs, XXVI. A student's perspective of Angellis found in Maynard Mack's "Portraits from a Family Album," Yale Literary Magazine (Nov. 1931). A brief biographical sketch and several republished, complete obituaries are in Yale Alumni Magazine (April 1949). His Chapters from Modern Psychology (1912) is written for the general audience. A collection of his speeches and essays on education may be found in Higher Education (1938). Two critical books which comprehensively describe his tenure at Chicago and Yale are: The Chicago Pragmatist by Darnell Rucker (1969) and Yale: The University College, 1929-1937, vol. II, by George W. Pierson (1955). □

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