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William Kessen (1925-1999)

William Kessen was born in Key West, Florida, in 1925. Kessen's many honors included memberships in the Society of Experimental Psychologists and the American Academy of Arts of Sciences. The only child of a ship's engineer and a homemaker, his journey toward Yale began as a bespectacled youth who declared himself a Roosevelt liberal. The first in his family to attend college, Kessen entered the University of Florida in 1941 to study history and acting. Drafted into the war when he was eighteen, Kessen served as a clerk-typist and read voraciously during his thirty-four months of service. After the war, and supported by the GI Bill, Kessen completed his undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of Florida. On his shifting interests toward psychology, Kessen wrote that he "became convinced that the ills of the world were not to be tackled by legal or historical strategies, but by empirical and psychological ones" (1991, p. 287). Kessen went on to Brown University to pursue masters and doctoral degrees with Gregory Kimble, who remains a leading expert on classical conditioning. At Brown, Kessen met his "best and truest friend," Marion Lord. They fell in love and married in 1950. Following Kimble to Yale, Kessen's 1952 fifteen-page dissertation entitled "Response Strength and Conditioned Stimulus Intensity" was carried out in the tradition of the eminent behavioral psychologist Clark Hull.

During his graduate tenure at Yale, many prominent social scientists, including Neal Miller, John Dollard, and Robert Sears, joined in an effort to integrate Ivan Pavlov and Sigmund Freud by transforming Freudian concepts into a behaviorist framework. At the same time, psychoanalyst Kaethe Maria Wolf came to the Yale Child Study Center after having worked with developmental psychologists Charlotte Buehler and Jean Piaget. Large and powerful ideas surrounded Kessen when he chose to do postdoctoral work with Wolf. She introduced Kessen to the complexities of Freud and Piaget during the heyday of behaviorism before her untimely death in 1957. In the years to come, Kessen would pursue at least three distinct paths in psychology—all broke new ground and generated young colleagues. Immediately after his doctorate and with the first stirrings from the cognitive revolution, Kessen turned from rats to babies, first probing their earliest sensory and perceptual development, and later their changing place in culture and history. Kessen created and maintained a prestigious infant laboratory from the 1950s through the 1970s. He and many widely recognized students did pioneering studies of the visual development of human babies, focusing much on infant eye movements in response to different shapes, colors, and sizes. Studies of olfactory and taste preferences of young babies also left their marks in the literature. As time passed, questions of structure and context of child development grew more pressing. His "historico-conceptual" line was never far from sight.

In 1959 Kessen, together with his other lifelong friend, George Mandler, published a philosophical treatise The Language of Psychology. It was a deep and incisive treatment of logical positivism, the reigning philosophy of science at the time. Shortly after the book's publication and with the end of the "Age of Theory," Kessen and others abandoned the logical positivistic vision of psychology as a science. In June 1959 the Social Science Research Council invited Kessen and other distinguished developmental psychologists to form the Committee on Intellective Processes Research. Included in the several conference reports of the Committee were five Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), including one edited by Kessen and Clementina Kuhlman entitled The Thought of the Young Child. These were groundbreaking conferences that helped American psychologists become familiar with the still unfamiliar work of Jean Piaget. In his own report, "Stage and Structure in the Study of Children," Kessen incisively explored the many and sometimes ambiguous meanings of "stage" and "structure" in developmental psychology, focusing on the works of Piaget and Freud.

In 1970 Kessen was lead author on the definitive guide to infancy research published in Carmichael's Manual of Child Psychology. Five years later, he publishedChildhood in China, in which he gathered together observations made while leading a state department delegation to study early education in China.

Kessen's decisive turn toward exploring the historical and cultural context of both children and child psychology may be marked by his 1979 article "The American Child and Other Cultural Inventions" in American Psychologist. Based upon his presidential address to Division 7 (Developmental Psychology) of the American Psychological Association, Kessen argued that both children and child psychology emerge from and are defined by the contours of social change, intellectual currents, and institutional arrangements. The child, having been redefined as culturally and historically variable, was not a stable object of study; neither was the concept of development (beyond certain kinds of biologically driven growth) a source of scientific certainty. Thus child psychology could not and should not attempt to attain the older positivistic ideal of stable and universal truths. Kessen continued to publish a string of historical and philosophical essays, including the 1990 Heinz Werner lectures, published by Clark University Press, in which he challenged some of the most basic assumptions of developmental psychology. The essays leave the reader with vexing questions about the meaning of development itself.

Kessen traveled widely inside and outside academe. In addition to his travels in China, he joined delegations to the Soviet Union, Norway, and Czechoslovakia. With his family he spent two glorious years in Tuscany (their "second home"), studying early education in Italy. Kessen held numerous administrative positions, including chair of the Department of Psychology as well as Secretary for Yale University. He was a charming, lively, and insightful conversationalist who moved easily between the policy world in Washington and the philanthropic worlds centered in New York and Chicago. Although not one to easily shed his scholastic circumspection, Kessen retained a quiet but wise stance on political issues related to children, families, and government. Kessen taught generations of students; he was a great and magnanimous teacher, beloved by both undergraduate and graduate students. Without seeming to meddle, Kessen nurtured generations of students with his grace, insight, wisdom, compassion, and good humor.

Kessen died on February 13, 1999, in New Haven, Connecticut. At the time of his death he held the Eugene Higgins Chair of Psychology and Pediatrics at Yale University. He is survived by his wife, their three daughters, triplet sons ("six spectacular children"), and numerous grandchildren.


Publications by Kessen

Mandler, George, and William Kessen. The Language of Psychology. New York: Wiley, 1959.

Kessen, William, and Clementina Kuhlman, eds. Thought in the Young Child: Report of a Conference with Particular Attention to the Work of Jean Piaget, vol. 27 (2, Serial no. 83): Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 1962.

The Child. New York: Wiley, 1965.

Kessen, William, Marshall Haith, and Phillip H. Salapatek."Human Infancy: A Bibliography and Guide." In Paul H. Mussen ed., Carmichael's Manual of Child Psychology, 3rd edition. New York: Wiley, 1970.

Kessen, William, ed. Childhood in China: The American Delegation on Early Childhood Development in the People's Republic of China. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975.

"Rousseau's Children." Daedalus 107, no. 3 (1978):155-166.

"The American Child and Other Cultural Inventions."American Psychologist 34 (1979):815-820.

Bronfenbrenner, Urie, Frank S. Kessel, William Kessen, and Sheldon H. White. "Towards a Critical Social History of Developmental Psychology."American Psychologist 41 (1986):1218-1230.

Kessen, William, and Emily D. Cahan. "A Century of Psychology:From Subject to Object to Agent."American Scientist 74 (1986):640-649.

The Rise and Fall of Development. Worcester, MA: Clark University Press, 1990.

"Nearing the End: A Lifetime of Being 17." In Frank S. Kessel, Marc H. Bornstein, and Arnold J. Sameroff eds., Contemporary Constructions of the Child: Essays in Honor of William Kessen. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991.

"Avoiding the Emptiness: The Full Infant." Theory and Psychology3, no. 4 (1993).

Emily D. Cahan

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 5