Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers - Calkins, Mary Whiton (1863–1930)
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Calkins, Mary Whiton (1863–1930)

Calkins, Mary Whiton (1863–1930)
DOI: 10.5040/9781350052444-0169

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Mary Whiton Calkins was born on 30 March 1863 in Hartford, Connecticut, and died on 26 February 1930 in Newton, Massachusetts. she was one of five children; her father was Wolcott Calkins, a Protestant clergyman educated at Yale University and Union Theological Seminary, and her mother was Charlotte Whiton, a social activist. She received her early education in local schools in Buffalo, New York, where her father was a minister of the North Presbyterian Church from 1866 to 1880. Her education was supplemented with private lessons in German. In 1880 her father became a clergyman at a Congregational pastorate in Newton, Massachusetts, and Calkins enrolled in Newton High School. Her graduation essay was entitled, ‘The Apology Which Plato Should Have Written.’ As a vindication of the character of Xanthippe, this essay displayed Calkins’s early commitment to women’s struggles.

In 1882 Calkins was admitted to Smith College with an advanced standing as a sophomore. The following year, Calkins’s only sister Maud became suddenly ill and died. The emotional impact of the death forced Calkins to take a leave of absence from college. She spent the following academic year of 1883–4 at home studying Greek and tutoring her two younger brothers. She returned to Smith the following year with senior standing, and graduated with her BA in 1885 with a concentration in classics and philosophy. The next year, she actively participated with her mother in the Social Science Club of Newton, a group of local women who studied economic and social problems. Her first book, Sharing the Profits (1888), was the culmination of the research undertaken during that year. In 1886 her family embarked on a sixteen-month trip to Europe, during which Calkins met Abby Leach, an instructor in Greek at Vassar who asked Calkins to accompany her on a trip to Greece. Calkins accepted the offer and continued her travels when her family returned to the United States.

Calkins earned her MA from Smith College in 1887. Soon after, she began as a tutor in Greek at Wellesley College, the institution at which she remained for the rest of her career. Soon after Calkins arrived at Smith, Wellesley’s philosophy department was planning expansions into new fields of psychology, and they offered Calkins a position in psychology on condition that she undertake a year of training in the discipline. Deliberating over the best institution at which to prepare, she decided upon Harvard University. Though the university refused to admit women formally, pressure from Calkins’s father and the President of Wellesley succeeded in securing for Calkins informal permission to attend graduate seminars. Studying under Josiah Royce and William James , Calkins had the privilege of being the sole student in a seminar held by James just after the publication of his Principles of Psychology. She also studied psychology under Edmund C. Sanford at Clark University.

She finished her informal study at Harvard and began as an instructor in psychology at Wellesley in 1890. She held the position of instructor in psychology from 1890 to 1894. In addition to teaching, she established a laboratory within Wellesley’s psychology department, which was the first established at a woman’s university, and one of the first established in the United States. She sought advice from Royce, James, and Sanford about places to undertake formal graduate study in psychology, and seriously considered studying under Hugo Münsterberg at the University of Freiburg. Further plans were suspended when Münsterberg accepted a position teaching experimental psychology at Harvard in 1892. Petitioning Harvard again, Calkins received permission to continue her informal study under Münsterberg in addition to James and Royce, while she continued her teaching duties at Wellesley. She incorporated the experimental ideas that she learned at Harvard into the curriculum at Wellesley; in turn, her instruction of students and laboratory work at Wellesley aided her further study at Harvard. Her article ‘Experimental Psychology at Wellesley College’ (1892) reflects this process of interchange between teaching and learning.

In 1895 Calkins unofficially presented and defended her dissertation, ‘An Experimental Research on the Association of Ideas,’ before the faculty of the philosophy department at Harvard, which included James, Royce, Münsterberg, and George Santayana . She passed her oral defense with distinction. The faculty sent a letter to Harvard’s President notifying him that she had fulfilled all of the requirements for her degree. For the next twenty-eight years, various faculty and alumni requested, to no avail, that Harvard confer a degree upon Calkins. Though Radcliffe College attempted to offer Calkins a PhD in lieu of Harvard’s refusal, she turned it down on principle because she did not undertake study at that institution. She received an honorary degree of Litt.D. from Columbia in 1909, and an LLD from Smith College in 1910.

Calkins was promoted from instructor to associate professor of psychology in 1894. She was promoted again in 1896 to the position of associate professor of philosophy and psychology, which she held until 1898. As a professor of both philosophy and psychology, Calkins noticed the different focuses regarding the person within each field. Whereas psychology focused on the determined aspects of the person, philosophy focused on the freedom of the person. Calkins’s initial resolution to this dichotomy was derived from Münsterberg’s distinction between the objectifying sciences and the subjectifying sciences. From 1901 to 1905, Calkins drew upon this distinction in her recommendation that the study of the person utilize both sciences in a manner that keeps each science in check. She called this process a ‘double entry’ approach. In 1909, Calkins revised her recommendation in favor of a ‘single entry’ approach of the subjectifying sciences. While she did not negate the validity of the objective sciences, she was weary of their atomism.

Calkins’s contributions within psychology were significant. In addition to inventing a memory technique of paired associates still employed within memory research today, she published voluminously. Publications in psychology include a monograph supplement in Psychological Review entitled ‘Association: An Essay Analytic and Experimental’ (1896), An Introduction to Psychology (1901), Der Doppelte Standpunkt in der Psychologie (1905), and A First Book in Psychology (1909). In addition, she published over fifty articles and reviews in the area of psychology alone.

Calkins was promoted from associate professor to full professor of philosophy and psychology in 1898, a position which she held until she retired in 1929. Though Calkins maintained an active interest in psychology throughout her career, in 1898 she passed her laboratory work on to a newer colleague, Eleanor Gamble. At this point, Calkins’s own metaphysical system of ‘personalistic absolutism’ became a prominent focus. The chief influences of Calkins’s metaphysics were G. W. F. Hegel, F. H. Bradley, and Royce. As an idealistic personalism, her metaphysics was idealist insofar as it held that all realities within the universe were comprised of mind; it was personalistic insofar as it held that all realities were a self or aspect of a self. Her metaphysics held that one all-inclusive Absolute Person comprised the lesser mental selves of the universe within it.

In addition to her numerous publications in psychology, Calkins published much in philosophy as well. Her books in philosophy include The Persistent Problems of Philosophy (1907), and The Good Man and The Good: An Introduction to Ethics (1918). She also edited volumes of Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. Important articles include ‘The Personalistic Conception of Nature’ (1919) and ‘The Philosophical Credo of an Absolutistic Personalist’ (1930).

Calkins received many honors throughout her life in the fields of psychology and philosophy. In American Men of Science (1903), James McKeen Cattell ranked Calkins twelfth among the nation’s top fifty psychologists. She was the first woman elected President of both the American Psychological Association in 1905, and the American Philosophical Association in 1918 (and only William James and John Dewey have also held both presidencies). In addition, she was granted honorary membership in the British Psychological Association in 1927. During that year, Calkins also gave two lectures on conceptions of meaning and value at Bedford College of the University of London. She retired in 1929 from teaching at Wellesley to a research professorship, with the intent of writing more and spending time with her mother, but soon died the next year.


‘Association: An Essay Analytic and Experimental,’ Psychological Review monograph suppl. no. 2 (February 1896).

An Introduction to Psychology (New York, 1901).

Der Doppelte Standpunkt in der Psychologie (Leipzig, 1905).

The Persistent Problems of Philosophy: An Introduction to Metaphysics through the Study of Modern Systems (New York, 1907; 5th edn 1925).

A First Book in Psychology (New York, 1909; 4th edn 1924).

The Good Man and The Good: An Introduction to Ethics (New York, 1918).

‘The Personalistic Conception of Nature,’ Philosophical Review 28 (1919): 115–46.

‘The Basis of Objective Judgments in Subjective Ethics,’ in Proceedings of the Sixth International Congress of Philosophy , ed. Edgar S. Brightman (Cambridge, Mass., 1926), pp. 408–14.

‘The Philosophical Credo of an Absolutistic Personalist,’ in Contemporary American Philosophy: Personal Statements , ed. G. P. Adams and W. P. Montague (New York, 1930), vol. 1, pp. 197–218.

Other Relevant Works

Calkins’s papers are at Wellesley College .

Sharing the Profits (Boston, 1888).

Ed., The Metaphysical System of Hobbes (Chicago and London, 1905).

Ed., Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Chicago and London, 1905).

‘A Reconciliation Between Structural and Functional Psychology,’ Psychological Review 8 (1906): 61–81.

‘Self and Soul,’ Philosophical Review 17 (1908): 272–80.

‘Psychology as Science of Self,’ Journal of Philosophy 5 (1908): 12–20, 64–8, 113–22.

‘Henri Bergson: Personalist,’ Philosophical Review 21 (1912): 666–75.

Ed. with J. McCormack, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, and Selections from A Treatise of Human Nature , by David Hume (Leipzig, 1913; La Salle, Ill., 1958).

‘The Self in Scientific Psychology,’ American Journal of Psychology 26 (1915): 495–524.

‘A Personal Idealist’s Concern for Psychology,’ The Personalist 5 (1924): 7–11.

‘Critical Comments on the ‘Gestalt Theorie’,’ Psychological Review 33 (1926): 135–58.

Ed., Essay, Principles, Dialogues, with Selections from Other Writings , by George Berkeley (New York, 1929).

‘Autobiography of Mary Whiton Calkins,’ in History of Psychology in Autobiography , vol. 1 (Worcester, Mass., 1930), pp. 31–62.

Further Reading

Amer Nat Bio, Amer Phils Before 1950, Appleton’s Cycl Amer Bio, Bio Dict Psych, Bio 20thC Phils, Cambridge Dict Amer Bio, Dict Amer Bio, Encyc Psych, Nat Cycl Amer Bio v13, Pres Addr of APA v2, Proc of APA in Phil Rev v40, Who Was Who in Amer v1, Women Phils

Furumoto, Laurel. ‘From Paired Associates to the Self: The Intellectual Odyssey of Mary Whiton Calkins,’ in Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology , ed. G. Kimble, M. Wertheimer, and C. White (Hillsdale, N.J., 1991), pp. 57–72.

In Memoriam: Mary Whiton Calkins, 1863–1930 (Wellesley, Mass., 1931).

Magg, P. ‘The Personalism of Mary Whiton Calkins,’ The Personalist 28 (1947): 44–53.

Munk, W. ‘Samples of the American Feminine Mind: Focus on Mary Whiton Calkins as Philosopher,’ Review Journal of Philosophy and Social Science 2 (1977): 170–82.

Onderdonk, Virginia. ‘Mary Whiton Calkins,’ in Notable American Women 1607–1950 , ed. Edward T. James (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), pp. 278–80.