Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930) Biography

Mary Whiton Calkins was born on March 30, 1863 in Hartford, Connecticut, but spent most of her childhood in Buffalo, New York. Mary was the oldest of five children born to her Puritan mother and minister father. According to some sources, Calkin’s father had a great distrust of public education, and preferred educating his children by boarding them with French and German families. It is recorded, though, that Mary Calkins graduated from an established high school in Newton, Massachusetts. Calkins indicated her interest in philosophy in high school by writing a graduation essay entitled “The Apology Plato should have written: a vindication of the character Xantippi.” Johnson, 1997 & McHenry, 1995)

Calkins entered Smith College in 1882 as a sophomore, but left the following spring when her sister became ill and died. She remained home the following academic year, studying Greek and tutoring two of her younger brothers. Calkins re-entered Smith College in the fall of 1984 with senior standing and graduated the following spring with a degree concentrated in classics and philosophy. (Johnson, 1997)

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After Calkins graduation from Smith, she spent a year studying social and economic issues with a women’s organization called the Newton Social Science

Club. Calkins researched her first paper entitled Sharing the Profits (1888), during this period (Johnson, 1997). The following year, Calkins, and her family went on a journey to Europe where Calkins attended Leipzig University for a short while and studied with Wilhelm Wundt. (McHenry, 1995). The Calkins family traveled on to Greece where Mary studied Modern Greek (Johnson, 1997).

Calkins began her career in academia immediately upon her return when she was offered a position as a Greek teacher at Wellesley College. During her time at Wellesley, Calkins made her interests in philosophy known and she was recommended to fulfill the position of teaching courses in the emerging science of psychology. Calkins was appointed to the position on the condition that she study psychology for a year. Thus began Calkins search for a graduate program that would accept a woman student. Calkins was finally permitted to attend Harvard as a guest student after petitions from her father and the president of Wellesley smoothed the way (Johnson, 1997).

Calkins entered Harvard in the fall of 1890 and studied with William James. Within a few weeks after the semester began, all the other students in James’ psychology program dropped out and Calkins enjoyed the privilege of being James’ only student. With the recent publication of James’ Principles of Psychology and almost unlimited access to the author, Calkins writes that she gained “… a vivid sense of the concreteness of psychology and of the immediate reality of ‘finite individual minds’ with their ‘thoughts and feelings.’” Of James’ text, Calkins said “that each chapter of this incomparable treatise left some impress on my mind so that, to this day, I can turn with assurance to the chapter and page in which James considers this or that topic.” (Calkins, 1930). Philosophy may have been Calkins’ primary interest, but she was clearly “hooked” on psychology.

Besides studying with William James, Calkins, also in the fall of 1890, began studying unofficially with Edmund Sanford at Clark University in his psychology laboratory. (Johnson, 1997) With Sanford, Calkins began a study of dreams which concluded ” ‘in general the persons, places and events of recent sense perception’ and that the dream is rarely ‘associated with that which is of paramount significance in one’s waking experience.’” These conclusions were soon buried by Freud’s dream research, but Calkins took pride in anticipating several of Freud’s findings such as Calkins and Sanford documented that all people dream although they may not remember it upon waking. Calkins presented her report on the dream study at the first meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA) the same year.

Also while at Harvard, Calkins began her work on paired association. This was her first published work and contribution to psychology, appearing in the July, 1892 issue of the Philosophical Review. Calkins writes, “I can hardly hope ever again to be so puffed with pride” as when she found her work cited in William James’ Briefer Course in Psychology.

For parts of three years, Calkins also worked in the Psychology Laboratory of Dane Hall with Hugo Munsterberg. She continued her work in association in the laboratory and published what would have been her doctor’s thesis in Psychological Review Monograph Supplements in 1896. She was not allowed to present her thesis at Harvard nor receive her doctoral degree simply because she was a woman. Calkins was offered a degree from Harvard’s sister college, Radcliffe, but refused it (Arens, 1995). Calkins did not seem bitter over her lack of degree, writing “My natural regret at the action of the (Harvard) Corporation has never clouded my gratitude for the incomparably greater boon which they granted me — that of working in the seminaries and the laboratory of the great Harvard teachers.” She stated that this was a debt that could be acknowledged, but never repaid (Calkins, 1930).

Calkins returned to Wellesley as an associate professor in 1891, and in 1898, she became a full professor of philosophy and psychology. Calkins eventually became head of the philosophy department. Calkins is credited with establishing one of the earliest psychological laboratories in the United states, and the first psychological laboratory at a women’s college (Johnson, 1997) Even then, Calkins continued to give credit to her mentors by saying that “Actually, the laboratory was the creation of Professor Sanford, whose counsel I sought and received” (Calkins, 1930).

Calkins made several significant theoretical contributions to psychology. She tried to reconcile psychology’s deterministic views with her observations of freedom and moral worth of people she that encountered in her every day life. She argued that consciousness needed to be examined both from the objective standpoint, as a science of ideas, and from the subjective standpoint, as a science of selves. Calkins was able to satisfy this dilemma, important to her because of her religious background, by using Munsterberg’s distinction between “objectifying sciences” and the “subjectifying sciences”, and creating “the double standpoint in psychology, the theory that every experience may be treated alike from the atomistic and from the self-psychological standpoint” (Calkins, 1930, Johnson, 1997). She dubbed this theory “psychology of the self and published her first article on this topic in 1900. This theory became Calkins primary focus and she used this theory as a basis for her first book, An Introduction to Psychology, published in October, 1901. By 1909, she became less enthusiastic over the atomistic standpoint, writing that she did not question the validity of the atomistic viewpoint, she did “question the significance and the

adequacy, and deprecate the abstractness of the atomistic science of ideas” (Calkins, 1930). Over the next thirty years, Calkins continued to defend her theory of self-psychology, moving more towards philosophy in the later years as psychological trends moved toward behaviorism (Crocker & Howard, 1997) writing, “With each year I live … I am more deeply convinced that psychology should be conceived as the science of the self, or person, as related to its environment, physical and social”. As Behaviorism took hold, Calkins admits she did make the behaviorists stop and think about the two theories (Calkins, 1930).

Calkins was a prolific writer. Besides An Introduction to Philosophy, Calkins wrote The Persistent Problems of Philosophy, which went through five editions, in 1907; A First Book of Psychology in 1909 and three subsequent editions, and The Good Man and the Good, in 1918, as well as over a hundred papers in professional journals of philosophy and psychology, covering subjects including dream research, animal consciousness and memorization. (McHenry, 1995). With Calkins educational history at Harvard, and her many writings, one might think she would use her pen to advance the feminist cause. Although Calkins may have incorporated feminism in her lifestyle, she was identified herself as a philosopher and did not use her writings to support women’s issues or theories (Arens, 1995

Calkins’ work earned her many honors. In James Cattell’s American Men of Science Calkins was ranked twelfth among fifty top psychologists. In 1905, Calkins became the first woman to be elected president of the APA. Calkins was also elected president of the American Philosophical Association in 1918. She is one of three people and the only woman to hold the presidency of both the APA and of the American Philosophical Association. Columbia University and Smith College granted her honorary doctorates. Calkins was the first woman made an honorary member of the British Psychological Association in 1928 (Johnson, 1997 and Cocker,, 1997).

Outside her academic life Calkins interested herself in the Consumers’ League, the American Civil Liberties Union, pacifism, socialism, and the cause of Sacco and Vanzetti as well as being a devout Christian. One of Calkins’ students described her as “the most perfectly integrated personality I have ever known . . . Her philosophy, ethics, religion, psychology, and daily life were harmonious” (Johnson, 1997)

Calkins retired from active teaching at Wellesley in 1929 with the title of research professor, planning to devote herself to writing and hoping to spend more time with her mother. A few months after she retired, Calkins was diagnosed with inoperable cancer and she died in Newton, Massachusetts, on February 26, 1930.

Arens, Katherine, Between Hypatia and Beauvoir: philosophy as discourse. Hypatia, 09-22-1995, pp 46(30).
Calkins, M. W. 1930, Autobiography of Mary Whiton Calkins, Retrieved May 2, 2000 from the World Wide Web:
Crocker, D, & Howard, S, (1997), Retrieved May 2, 2000 from the World Wide Web:

Freberg, L. (2000) Lecture Notes, Retrieved May 2, 2000 from the World Wide Web:
Johnson, D., Calkins, (1997) Mary Whiton, American National Biography Online. Retrieved from California State University Library data base on May 1, 2000.
McHenry, Robert (ed.), (1995) Calkins, Mary Whiton, Her Heritage: A Biographical Encyclopedia of Famous American Women, Retrieved May 2, 2000 from the Electric Library Data Base,

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