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Haiku for the history of psychology

Published originally at Mindwise

It is a truth universally acknowledged that it is easier to write a long essay than it is to write a short one. To make a long essay short, you have to make decisions about what to leave out. This means sacrificing things you wanted to say: you have to “kill your darlings,” as we discuss in my master writing skills course.

At the same time, however, constraints can also serve as a catalyst for creativity. They can force you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise have done, but which in retrospect you are glad to have done. And the tightest constraints are afforded by formal structures; in this case, a particular kind of poem—haiku.

Haiku are known for their 5-7-5 syllabic style. The best ones also include a kireji: a juxtaposition, which in English usually comes via punctuation. The other rules, like the use of a seasonal reference (kigo), are less often seen in modern writing. But if they can be included, it’s nice to include them.

So that’s what I did during the Christmas break. (Seasonal reference!) 

For fun, I decided to write about the History of Psychology in this super-constrained way. It was a personal challenge, as well as something to distract me from the wait between parties. And it was a nice way to reflect on my field.

Because I tend to chafe against arbitrary rules, though, the length of each set of interconnected poems below was provided by Twitter: 280 characters. And rather than reflecting directly on the seasons, the subject of these haiku is our discipline’s history. (If the present is the Summer, then these are about the Spring.) In addition, I have tried to keep the juxtaposition of imagery. This, though, was mostly done across the haiku in each Twitter-length set rather than within individual poems.

The first set provides a gloss of one of my lectures from the first-year half-course that introduces history to all new bachelor students in psychology. I hope you will find it familiar:

Wundt was grandfather

of experimental psych—

among other things

that were forgotten,

like Völkerpsychologie,

but should not have been.

Titch’ner imported

a mistaken mirror, and

Watson responded.


was born from American


Because these are examples of academic writing, each haiku in the set could also be supported by references. I actually included one implicitly in the third: “mistaken mirror” refers to Thomas Leahey’s (1981) classic essay by that title, published in the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences.

I also wanted to refer to Watson’s (1913) Behaviorist manifesto, in the final haiku, but couldn’t get “manifested” to fit. (Too many syllables.) Instead, I had to go with “was born.” So I lost the reference, and the implicit was turned to allusion for those who know this material best.

Here’s another set that I hope those who took my version of the history course will recognize:

Binet and Simon

invented a test to keep

“slow” kids in French schools.

Bourneville wanted

them referred to asylums

because they were “sick.”


with teachers then won the day

for psychology.

After export, though,

their metric helped justify


This is effectively a poetic abstract of my 2013 article with Serge Nicolas that was published in Intelligence: “Sick? Or slow?” The subject then also provides a nice transition, through Michael Wertheimer’s brief note (again in JHBS) about whether Piaget had worked with Binet.

Piaget never

worked directly with Binet.

Because he was dead.

Still, he did work in

the Binet Lab. Just without

a supervisor.

This is how he could

ask the children why their wrong

answers were correct.

At issue was their

justification, not their

age or competence.

Because I was simultaneously revising a new essay about how Piaget’s early background informed his later interests, for a special issue of History of the Human Sciences (appearing in press presently), I then continued the theme:

This was his int’rest:

kids’ development as a

proxy for knowledge.

But his doctorate

was a catalogue of Swiss

snail species-groupings.

That was followed by

a second doctorate on

how humans value.

He never finished.

Instead, he became the “stage

theory” guy we know.

I wrote several others as well. These, though, suffice to make my larger point: constraining your writing is both limiting and freeing. You can say a lot with a little. Indeed, another “twitterstorian of psychology” joked that I seemed to be writing a textbook entirely in haiku. But why not? If you know something well, it’s much easier to choose which parts to highlight and which others to leave out.

Of course, the games we play on holiday don’t always have to be so serious. Still, it’s playing that makes the game easier; practice makes perfect, as they say. And as I continued to follow the constraints, I noticed that the world began to present itself more poetically. So I turned self-reflective:

During the writing

of my dissertation, I

also wrote haiku.

Now that I’ve started

again, just for fun, I find

that it’s hard to stop.

Is it a stroke? Or

an affectation? And will

it get me tenure?

I think not. Alas.

I’ll get back to my research.

(Publish or perish!)

Do you have ideas for your own haiku? Why not share them in the comments.

Featured image credit: Ayu Nabila, 2016, at Wikimedia Commons (CC4)

Categories: Blogging History Mindwise Writing

J. T. Burman

JEREMY TREVELYAN BURMAN, PhD, is tenured Senior Assistant Professor (UD1 with indefinite contract) of Theory and History of Psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. The primary focus of his research is Jean Piaget, but he is also interested more generally in the formalization and movement of scientific meaning—over time, across disciplines, between languages, and internationally. To pursue these interests, he uses methods borrowed from the history and philosophy of science (esp. archival study) and the digital humanities (esp. network analysis).

Selected recent major works
Burman, J. T. (in press). The genetic epistemology of Jean Piaget. In W. Pickren (Ed.), The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of the History of Psychology. Oxford University Press.

Burman, J. T. (2020). On Kuhn’s case, and Piaget’s: A critical two-sited hauntology (or, on impact without reference). History of the Human Sciences, 33(3-4), 129-159. doi:10.1177/0952695120911576

Burman, J. T. (2019). Development. In R. J. Sternberg & W. Pickren, eds, The Cambridge Handbook of the Intellectual History of Psychology (pp. 287-317). New York: Cambridge University Press.

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