Spotlight on Past Presidents
Sigmund Koch — psychology’s antihero
By Andrew J. Schwehm and John D. Hogan, PhD
Every profession needs someone to keep it humble, especially when it is a young profession. For psychology, Sigmund Koch (1917-96) was that someone. An earnest promoter of psychology’s scientific method and procedures early in his career, he spent the latter part of his career questioning them. In his maturity, he tried to redirect the discipline’s questions from behaviorist practices to areas of human mentality and functioning. Through the use of scathing and passionate critiques and wit, Koch became one of psychology’s “most trenchant critics and most skeptical, yet ultimately hopeful, prophets” (Leary, Kessel, & Bevan, 1998, p. 316).
Early Life and Education
Koch was born on April 18, 1917, to Desider and Helen Koch. He was raised in New York City, along with his two sisters, Adrienne and Vivienne, both of whom became highly regarded in their respective fields of history and literature. Koch himself had a great love of literature. As a teenager, he hoped to be a poet; in fact, he won a national poetry competition. He also served as editor of the literary section of his high school newspaper and founder of an independent magazine (Leary et al., 1998).
He began his undergraduate career at New York University (NYU) as a philosophy major. Eventually, he added a second major in psychology because he felt the field could use logical-empiricist cleansing. Although his love of literature and poetry would not turn into his career, he would return to the arts later in his life.
Koch graduated from NYU in 1938 with a bachelor’s degree followed by a master's degree from the University of Iowa in 1939 under the direction of Herbert Feigl, the Austrian philosopher and a member of the Vienna Circle. During his time at Iowa, he worked with Kurt Lewin and Kenneth Spence. After receiving his master’s degree, he left for Duke University under the belief that he would be working with Wolfgang Köhler. This never happened, but Koch stayed at the university to receive his doctorate degree in 1942, under the mentorship of Karl E. Zener. He remained in Durham for the next 22 years, eventually becoming a full professor.
Theory, Scholarship and Professional Accomplishments
Koch’s magnum opus came in 1952 during his tenure at Duke. He was approached by the American Psychological Association to compile and edit a work that would be a midcentury status report on the discipline. This work, titled “Psychology: A Study of a Science” (Koch, 1959-63), was a six-volume series that brought together the best minds in the field. Each author contributed a chapter to the volume. Koch hoped to write a seventh volume in the series titled “Psychology and the Human Agent,” but this never materialized. Koch became known worldwide for “The Study,” as it was nicknamed, giving him credentials to continue to challenge the field.
Koch spent the remainder of his career using “brisk analyses and a biting wit to critique those who sought insight into the human condition by, as he described it, watching rats negotiate mazes” (Freeman, 1996). Koch’s goal was to turn the mainstream, behaviorist psychological theories of his time into a more humanistic approach — even though he was once a strong proponent of behaviorist ideas. Koch saw psychology as the missing link between the natural sciences and the humanities. Much of his criticism can be summed up in a few sentences: “The hope of a psychological science became indistinguishable from the fact of psychological science. The entire subsequent history of psychology can be seen as a ritualistic endeavor to emulate the forms of science in order to sustain the delusion that it already is a science” (Koch, 1973).
Although his own theory was constantly evolving and he was prone to taking one argument only to debunk it years later, Koch was never one to bite his tongue when it came to criticism of his own profession (or himself). In his 1977 invited address at the APA convention in San Francisco, Koch stated, “Psychology is populated by a vast hyper-sufficiency of heroes but as yet not a single anti-hero... It is important that someone step in to fill the anti-heroic void in psychology. I herewith submit my credentials” (Koch, 1977). This term “anti-hero” is one that appears frequently in Koch’s writings. He desired, in his own self-deprecating way, to play the role of the villain who came to the rescue of a field that was in many ways stuck in a quagmire of its own theory and inability to define itself. He proposed that explanations of human activity should shift from the exterior state (behaviorism) to the dynamics of organism-environment interaction (Franklin, 2001).
While Koch was undoubtedly best known as a critic of the field, his affinity toward the arts from high school and college never left him. In the last part of his career, he turned his focus to psychology as it relates to humanities. From 1964 to 1967, he served as the director of the Program in the Humanities and the Arts for the Ford Foundation in New York City. In this capacity, he directed funding to support a variety of arts, including orchestras, conventions and public and private lectures, many of which followed Koch’s own viewpoint of an interdisciplinary approach to the arts and sciences. During this time, he found an urge to understand the creative mind. In 1986, under the guidance of the Boston University Aesthetics Research Project (funded in part by Boston University and the Ford Foundation), Koch undertook arguably his most in-depth work (Franklin, 2001). This project centered on research conversations with distinguished creative minds — including Arthur Miller, Toni Morrison and Richard Wilbur, among others — and ran over a two-year period with eight-hour long conversations with 16 artists. In the conversations, he explored aesthetics and the creative impulse/process as a method for understanding how the mind worked, something that Koch long-admired. These questions were part of Koch’s attempt to bring psychology one step closer from a science to a humanity as part of his search for a “deeper human context” (Koch, 1985). In these conversations, he found that creativity had a number of common characteristics across all fields such that the self disappears when creating art. Koch concluded that anyone is capable of reaching such a state but “few have learned to husband them for creative purposes, and some do not even note the difference between this condition and their more usual goal-oriented daily striving” (Koch, 1999, p. 47).
Although this would be Koch’s last great undertaking, his work of advancing psychology did not stop. Koch returned to work as a full professor at the University of Texas (Austin) in 1967 before moving to his final destination at Boston University from 1971 until his death in 1996. He was the president of APA’s Div. 10 (Division of Psychology and the Arts) from 1968-69. In 1978, Koch was elected president of two divisions of the APA: Div. 1 (now the Society for General Psychology) and Div. 24 (now the Society for Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology), the latter for a second time. Koch was influential in an assessment of the state of psychology in 1979 on the 100th anniversary of Wundt’s lab, organizing lectures that included over 40 individuals to assess developments in their divisions and what the future would bring. During this time, he also continued his antiheroic work of critiquing the idea that psychology was a singular science, including a well-known article in Psychology Today (Koch, 1969) titled “Psychology cannot be a coherent science” and other articles and presentations that argued for the pluralistic nature of psychological studies previously discussed (Leary et al., 1998).
Koch died on Aug. 10, 1996, at the age of 79. The word of his death began spreading just at the start of the annual APA convention in Toronto, and a memorial service took place with speeches from a number of individuals in a variety of fields expressing gratitude for Koch’s contributions to the arts and sciences.
Koch will forever be remembered as a maverick who helped move psychology out from being dominated by behaviorists to a discipline that looked at human mentality and functioning from a multitude of viewpoints. His name will likely be remembered in psychology as a hero rather than the antihero he saw himself. In 2006, Div. 24 of the APA created the Sigmund Koch Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology. This award is given annually to recognize the scientific contributions of an early career psychologist in theoretical or philosophical psychology.
Franklin, M.B. (2001). The artist speaks: Sigmund Koch on aesthetics and creative work. American Psychologist, 56(5), 445-452.
Freeman, K. (1996, August 13). Sigmund Koch, Psychologist And Philosopher, Dies at 79. Retrieved March 12, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/1996/08/14/us/sigmund-koch-psychologist-and-philosopher-dies-at-79.html.
Koch, S. (Ed.). (1959-1963). "Psychology: A Study of a Science" (Vols. 1-6). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Koch, S. (1969). Psychology cannot be a coherent science. Psychology Today, 14(3), 64-68.
Koch, S. (1973). The image of man in encounter groups. The American Scholar, 636-652.
Koch, S. (1977, August). "Vagrant Confessions of an Asystematic Psychologist: An Intellectual Autobiography." Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, San Francisco, California.
Koch, S. (1985). "The Nature and Limits of Psychological Knowledge: Lessons of a Century qua 'Science'." In S. Koch & D. Leary (Eds.), "A Century of Psychology as Science" (pp. 75-99). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Koch, S. (1999). "Psychology in Human Context: Essays in Dissidence and Reconstruction." Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Leary, D.E., Kessel, F., & Bevan, W. (1998). Sigmund Koch (1917–1996): Obituary. American Psychologist, 53(3), 316-17.