Gerard Heymans (1857-1930), the father of Dutch psychology, was too far ahead of his time, with his use of empirical methods and statistics, to gain recognition in Europe, although his work was valued in the United States. Hence it is no coincidence that the first scholarly biography to be devoted to Heymans had to wait eighty years after his death. Heymans started out as a philosopher but found that psychology was the subject where he could really apply his ideas. Kars Dekker will be awarded a PhD for this belated biography on 23 June 2011.
Heymans’ law, the gist of which is that a strong stimulus reduces responsiveness to other sensory perceptions, is well known in the United States but completely unknown in Europe. This is due not so much to Dutch disregard of our great scientists as to the fact that Heymans in particular had the misfortune to live at a time when psychology was not fashionable in the Netherlands, let alone his empirical approach to it. As his biographer Kars Dekker puts it, ‘Some of his scientific work failed to attract attention in Europe, it was never documented. He was regarded more as a philosopher. After he died his successors did not continue his work either. It was not until the 1950s that the hypothetico-deductive method, a blend of empiricism and rationalism, conquered European psychology.’
Heymans investigated the psychological differences between men and women using statistical correlations, thus laying the foundations for research into gender differences. His psychology of women is regarded as one of the few more or less unprejudiced studies from that era. His approach, using research methods such as questionnaires and statistical techniques – common practice nowadays – made him the first scientific psychologist in the Netherlands, confirmed by the fact that he was awarded a grant for the first laboratory of experimental psychology in 1892.
Heymans was born in 1857 in the Frisian village of Ferwerd and studied in Leiden, where he gained his PhD in Economics (known as ‘staathuishoudkunde’ at that time). He went on to take another PhD in philosophy with a thesis on ethics. In 1890 he settled in Groningen, having been appointed Professor of Philosophy and Psychology (‘zielkunde’). In the early part of that period he published two standard works, Die Gesetze und Elemente des wissenschaftlichen Denkens (The laws and elements of scientific thought) and Schets eener kritische geschiedenis van het causaliteitsbegrip in de nieuwere wijsbegeerte (Outline of a critical history of the concept of causality in recent philosophy). He remained at the University until 1927, where he was a popular professor.
Heymans was not only a psychologist, he also took a keen interest in world affairs. He intervened in the Dreyfus affair in France, for example, in which a Jewish officer was unjustly convicted of espionage. Soon after the First World War he and astronomer J.C. Kapteyn wrote an open letter to the academies of the allied countries and the United States of America calling upon them to show some sympathy for their former enemy Germany.
Heymans had the misfortune that although his scientific approach to psychology had already gained acceptance in the United States, it had not in Europe, where dinosaurs such as Freud, Jung and Wundt stood in the way of statistics and empiricism with their much more introspective approach. Hence the fact that his successors – Henri Brugmans in psychology and Leonard Polak in philosophy – did not continue his work. It took twenty years for European psychology to be won over to a statistical approach, for which Heymans was never given credit.
Having attended junior secondary technical school, Kars Dekker (Onstwedde, 1950) moved on to pre-university school as a mature student and then studied experimental psychology at the University of Groningen. From 1988 to 1990 he worked as a researcher at the Verkeerskundig Studiecentrum (Traffic Study Centre), as well as teaching and conducting research for a multicultural institute. He came across the name ‘Heymans’ early in life, as the pre-university school he attended was the Noordelijk Avondcollege, which used the town’s former Heymans Lyceum as one of its premises. The man and his work continued to fascinate him to such an extent that he eventually decided to write a biography of Heymans in his spare time.
Contact: Kars Dekker, via the Communication Office, phone 050-363 4444, email: communication rug.nl
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