Holt, Edwin B.

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Holt, Edwin B.



Edwin Bissell Holt (1873–1946) was an American psychologist-philosopher, an erudite scholar, a brilliant and graceful writer, a man of strong likes and dislikes in his opinions and social relations, and a thinker who had more influence than prestige, being more often followed than quoted.

Philosophically Holt was a radical empiricist, building enthusiastically on the foundation laid by his admired teacher William James. By 1908, when Holt had completed his Concept of Consciousness (although he did not publish it until 1914), he had accepted James’s belief that the unit of nature is not an atom or a sensation, but a relation, and that consciousness is all those relations in which the nervous system makes possible responses of the living organism to particular objects in its environment. To such general views James gave the name “radical empiricism,” and in 1910 Holt and five other philosophers laid down a program for what they called the New Realism; this became the title of a book that they published together in 1912. In it Holt’s essay on illusion and error made his views clear. In 1915 he published The Freudian Wish (1915a), which became his most influential book, in part because it continued the fight against consciousness as Cartesian unextended substance, but chiefly because it fitted into the positivistic and physicalistic trend in psychology, which led from earlier materialistic and objective psychology to the behaviorism that was founded by John B. Watson in 1913. Holt gave behaviorism a philosophical sophistication which Watson was incapable of providing.

Holt’s insight into the nature of consciousness connected him not only with behaviorism but also with the emergence of dynamic psychology. Holt took from Freud the word wish and employed it as the unit of his realistic monistic psychology, the relation of response that explains mind. To express this dynamic relation Holt in 1931 adopted the term drive. Dynamic psychology has now become the psychology of human nature, and its achievements, which are many, represent the success of the protest against the dualism of German intro spective psychology, which initiated the experimental movement. Holt played a significant part in this development.

About 1920 Holt began to write Animal Drive and the Learning Process, intending it as a revision of William James’s classic Principles of Psychology, but that task proved impossible even for Holt’s brilliance. Instead, more than a decade later Ani mal Drive came out as a psychophysiological text that explicated the importance of radical empiricism for psychology.

Holt was born in Winchester, Massachusetts, went to school in Winchester, entered Amherst College for a year in 1892, and then transferred to Harvard, where he received the a.b.magna cum laude in 1896. After a year at Harvard graduate school, he volunteered for the army in the Spanish-American War, coming back to academic life with a virile and picturesque mode of speech that characterized him ever after. There followed a year abroad at the University of Freiburg, an a.m. from Columbia University, and then a ph.d. from Har vard in 1901. At Harvard, William James and Hugo Müsterberg stimulated him most; the latter made Holt first an instructor and then assistant professor, a position Holt held until his resignation in 1918. While Münsterberg lived—he died in 1916—Holt was his adjutant in the laboratory, helping the graduate students with the research that Munsterberg put them on, maintaining the apparatus in apple-pie order, and leading an exper imentalist’s life, not a philosopher’s. However, he did not publish much experimental work of his own. On coming into a considerable inheritance in 1918 he decided to resign from Harvard, sticking to his decision in spite of the offer of a full professorship and the directorship of the psychological laboratory.

For the next eight years Holt lived in many places, reading, discovering that it was too late to revise James’s Principles, starting to write the book that eventually became Animal Drive, and finally publishing it in 1931. Meanwhile, he had gone to Princeton in 1926 to spend ten years as visiting professor, where he taught a much-liked semester-course on social psychology and worked on a second volume of Animal Drive, He retired, however, without finishing the work.

Edwin G. Boring

[For the historical context of Holt’s work, see the biographies ofJamesandMÜnsterberg. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeDrivesandMotivation.]


1912 The Place of Illusory Experience in a Realistic World. Pages 303-373 in Edwin B. Holt et al., The New Realism: Cooperative Studies in Philosophy. New York: Macmillan.

1914 The Concept of Consciousness. New York: Macmillan.

1915a The Freudian Wish and Its Place in Ethics. New York: Holt.

1915b Response and Cognition. Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods 12:365-373; 393–409.

1931 Animal Drive and the Learning Process. Vol. 1. New York: Holt.


Boring, Edwin G. (1929) 1950 A History of Experimental Psychology. 2d ed. New York: Appleton. → See especially pages 645 ff., 661 ff., and 718 ff. on Holt.

Carmichael, Leonard 1946 Edwin Bissell Holt: 1873–1946. American Journal of Psychology 59:478–480.

Edwin Bissell Holt. 1932 Volume 3, pages 238-239 in Psychological Register. Worcester, Mass.: Clark Univ. Press; Oxford Univ. Press. → A bibliography of 30 items.

Langfeld, Herbert S. 1946 Edwin Bissell Holt: 1873–1946. Psychological Review 53:251–258.