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Calkins, Mary Whitonfree

(30 March 1863–26 February 1930)
  • Deborah Johnson

Calkins, Mary Whiton (30 March 1863–26 February 1930), psychologist and philosopher, was born in Hartford, Connecticut, the daughter of Wolcott Calkins, a Protestant clergyman, and Charlotte Whiton, a social activist. The close-knit family included two daughters and three sons, and Mary remained devoted to her family and its Christian values her entire life.

Calkins received her early education in Buffalo, New York, where her father served as pastor of the North Presbyterian Church from 1866 to 1880. A graduate of Yale University and Union Theological Seminary, Calkins’s father made sure that his children were well educated. As a child, Calkins learned easily and eagerly and displayed broad and unusual intellectual interests. In 1880, when her father assumed a Congregational pastorate in Newton, Massachusetts, Calkins entered Newton High School. Her graduation essay, “The Apology Which Plato Should Have Written,” a vindication of the character of Xanthippe, displayed the singular character of her interests.

In 1882 Calkins entered Smith College as a sophomore. Her undergraduate studies were interrupted when her younger sister Maud became critically ill and died that spring. Grief-stricken, Calkins remained at home during the 1883–1884 academic year, studying Greek and tutoring two of her younger brothers. She returned to Smith in 1884 with senior standing and graduated in 1885 with a concentration in classics and philosophy. The following year she spent studying on her own and exploring social and economic issues with a group of women who formed the Newton Social Science Club. Research for her first publication, Sharing the Profits (1888), a work that reveals her strong sense of social justice and her commitment to progressive social policies, was undertaken that year.

In May 1886 Calkins traveled to Europe with her family and spent time in Paris and Leipzig and several months in Greece, where she visited historical sites and studied modern Greek. When she returned to the United States, she was offered and accepted a position teaching Greek at Wellesley College, near her family’s home, a position she held for three years. Calkins proved to be an enthusiastic and engaging teacher, but her deep and abiding interest in philosophy drew her away from classics. A colleague in the philosophy department learned of Calkins’s desire to study philosophy further and recommended her as the appropriate person to offer courses in the new science of psychology. Wellesley’s president made the appointment on the condition that Calkins study the subject for a year. Calkins experienced some difficulty locating a graduate school that would welcome a woman, but, assisted by a petition from her father and a letter from the president of Wellesley, she was finally permitted to attend classes at Harvard University.

In October 1890 Calkins began attending seminars with William James, who had just published his monumental text Principles of Psychology (1890), and with Josiah Royce, who was formulating his own variant of absolute idealism. During that year she also carried out experimental investigations with Edmund C. Sanford from Clark University. In addition to preparing her for a new position at Wellesley, her studies laid the groundwork for her lifelong work in experimental psychology, theoretical psychology, and philosophy.

Calkins returned to Wellesley in 1891 as instructor in psychology, and she opened the first psychological laboratory at an American women’s college. She incorporated experimental work into the undergraduate curriculum; a number of the studies completed in the laboratory were published in psychological journals during the 1890s. Eager to pursue further study of the new science, Calkins sought advice from Royce, James, and Sanford about the most appropriate places for a woman to study. She seriously considered going abroad to study with Hugo Münsterberg at the University of Freiburg, but she shifted her plans when Münsterberg was imported to teach experimental psychology at Harvard in 1892. Calkins once again petitioned Harvard for permission to attend classes, and for the next three years she worked with Münsterberg, James, and Royce at Harvard while continuing to teach at Wellesley.

Calkins had become interested in the association of ideas while studying with James and chose to investigate the influence of frequency, recency, and vividness on the durability of associations in Münsterberg’s laboratory. While conducting this research, she invented a technical memorizing method still widely employed in memory research—the method of paired associates. In 1895 she presented her theoretical and experimental work on association at an unofficial doctoral defense. Her committee, comprised of the members of Harvard’s philosophy department, unanimously recommended her for the Ph.D., but Harvard refused to award the degree because Calkins was a woman.

Although Calkins never lost her interest in experimental psychology, she turned the laboratory work over to a younger colleague, Eleanor Gamble, in 1898. That same year she was promoted to professor of philosophy and psychology, and for her remaining thirty-one years at Wellesley she taught courses in philosophy and seminars in psychological theory and supervised research in both disciplines. Most of her books, including An Introduction to Psychology (1901), The Persistent Problems in Philosophy (1907), A First Book in Psychology (1909), and The Good Man and the Good (1918), were written with her students’ needs in mind.

Calkins made significant theoretical contributions to psychology. Philosophically astute, she noticed the tension between the deterministic view of human functioning provided by scientific psychology and the freedom, individuality, and moral worth of the individuals she encountered in her daily life. The dilemma was particularly acute for Calkins, who was a deeply religious person. Münsterberg’s distinction between the “objectifying sciences” and the “subjectifying sciences” was the key that helped Calkins reconcile her work in atomistic psychology with her commitment to the value of the individual person. 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. This “double entry” bookkeeping approach was presented systematically in her first textbook An Introduction to Psychology, and it was explored more fully in her Der doppelte Standpunkt in der Psychologie (1905). By 1909 she had shifted to a “single entry” approach, stating that although she did not deny the validity of the objective standpoint, she had come to “question the significance and the adequacy, and deprecate the abstractness of the atomistic science of ideas” (preface to A First Book in Psychology). She later wrote, “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” (Murchison, pp. 41–42).

Calkins’s most enduring work, The Persistent Problems in Philosophy, combined a clear exposition of leading philosophical positions with a critical evaluation of their merits. Her careful examination of the texts of great philosophers served to persuade Calkins of the merits of Royce’s personal idealism. In subsequent works she developed her own doctrine of “personalistic absolutism,” based on her study of G. W. F. Hegel, F. H. Bradley, and Royce. This position was a form of idealism because, she argued, the universe is completely mental in nature; it was personalistic because every mental existent is a self or “a part, phase, aspect or process of a self”; and it was absolutistic because the universe “literally is one all-including … self of which all the lesser selves are genuine and identical parts” (Adams, pp. 202, 209).

Calkins’s contributions to psychology and philosophy earned her many honors. In James McKeen Cattell’s American Men of Science (1903), Calkins was ranked twelfth among fifty top psychologists. She was the first woman elected president of the American Psychological Association (1905) and president of the American Philosophical Association (1918). Having been denied the doctorate by Harvard in 1895, she was given honorary doctorates by Columbia University in 1909 and by Smith College in 1910. Calkins’s work was recognized internationally, and in 1928 she was made an honorary member of the British Psychological Association.

In addition to her intellectual work, Calkins found time to support progressive social causes like the Consumers’ League and the American Civil Liberties Union. She was a pacifist and a devout Christian who frequently voted the Socialist party ticket. One of Calkins’s students described her as “the most perfectly integrated personality I have ever known. . . . Her philosophy, ethics, religion, psychology, and daily life were harmonious” (In Memoriam, p. 24). Calkins retired from Wellesley College in 1929, planning to devote herself to writing and hoping to spend more time with her mother. Inoperable cancer was discovered in the fall of that year and she died in Newton, Massachusetts.

Equally eminent as a psychologist and a philosopher, Calkins advocated a personalistic approach to psychology and philosophy. Although her personalist position was never widely accepted in either discipline, she provided a counter voice that forced her opponents to rethink their own positions. Later in her career, she was comforted by signs of renewed opposition to atomistic psychology and increased interest in the study of the whole person. As one of the clearest expounders of Hegelian idealism, she would have derived satisfaction from her contribution to the dialectical development of thought in philosophy and psychology.


A small collection of Calkins’s papers are held at the Wellesley College Archives. Her autobiographical sketch in Carl Murchison, ed., A History of Psychology in Autobiography, vol. 1 (1930), provides her account of the development of her psychological career as well as a clear statement of her self psychology. For a detailed account of Calkins’s philosophical position, consult her chapter, “The Philosophical Credo of an Absolutistic Personalist,” in Contemporary American Philosophy, vol. 1, ed. George P. Adams (1930). For accounts of Calkins’s life and contributions to psychology, see Laurel Furumoto, “Mary Whiton Calkins (1863–1930),” in Women in Psychology: A BioBibliographic Sourcebook, ed. A. O’Connell and N. F. Russo (1990); and Furumoto, “Mary Whiton Calkins (1863–1930): Fourteenth President of the American Psychological Association,” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 15 (1979): 346–56. In Memoriam: Mary Whiton Calkins, 1863–1930 (1931) contains a biographical sketch by her brother Raymond Calkins and a tribute to her work in philosophy by Edgar Sheffield Brightman. Obituaries are in the Boston Transcript and the Boston Globe, 27 Feb. 1930.