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Sir Fredrick Bartlett (1886 - 1969). An Intellectual Biography


Frederic Charles Bartlett, the second son of a middle-class family, was born on 20th October 1886 in Stow-on-the-Wold (Gloucestershire). He attended primary school in his home town, and when he was of age to start secondary education, his family's plans of sending him to public school (there was no local grammar school in town) had to be abandoned because of a pleurisy attack he suffered at age 14, which forced him to stay at home for a long period of time. As a result of this convalescence he was self-educated in his first readings, helped out by his father and the town minister, who had quite a large private library. Also, it was at this stage that he started to develop one of his life-long passions - cricket. (Oldfield, 1972).

When the time came for him to start his university education, he decided to follow a correspondence course through The University Correspondence College which, while dependant on the University of London, was located at Cambridge. As Bartlett himself said (Bartlett, 1936), his first readings in Psychology were the works of Stout (1896,1899, 1903) and the famous article Ward wrote for The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1886). He also read Myers's Manual on Experimental Psychology (1909), and went as far as to perform, in his own home, some of the experiments there described with materials he prepared himself. At the same time he also developed a keen interest in politics.

He graduated (B.A. in Philosophy) in 1909 with First Class Honours, which granted him an invitation as a tutor in all fields of philosophy at The University Correspondence College (Oldfield, 1972). His work as a tutor did not hinder him in obtaining the degree of Master of Arts in 1911 through London University with a distinction in Sociology and Ethics. In spite of this, his major interest at the time was focused on Logic. In fact, his first publications concentrated on this subject (Bartlett, 1913, 1914).

Bartlett then decided to start studying again as an undergraduate at Cambridge. His admiration for William Halse Rivers´s work and his interest in Anthropology were the reasons for his entering St. John´s College to read Moral Science. Rivers, who had temporarily left aside his studies of Physiology and Psychology of Sensations for the sake of Anthropological reasearch, advised him to work on Psychology as a means of preparing himself methodologically for working in Anthropology. There he also had the privilege of having James Ward as a professor in the last course he gave before retiring at age 71. The students attending this course had to carry out four hours a week of experimental laboratory work. This is how Bartlett encountered Charles Samuel Myers, who at the time directed the Cambridge Psychology Laboratory, and also Cyril Burt, who acted as laboratory assistant. Bartlett took over this latter post when Burt resigned on 1914. By that time he had already graduated in Moral Science with a distinction. Bartlett himself said (1957), when going through his notes from those days, that his work referred to Helmholtz, Hering, Wundt, Blix, Goldshleider, Von Frey, G.E. Müller, Kraepelin, the School of Würzburg, and Wilhelm Stern and "a little, a very little, of the new psychology of mental tests, and of Jung's form of word associations. It was Germans, Germans all the way, and if we were going to stick to psychology, then to Germany sooner or later we must all surely go to" (1956, p.83).

In order to fully acknowledge Bartlett's intellectual training and early interests, it would be wise to take a look at his environment in these years. The scene at Cambridge at the time seems to have been especially interesting. This was when Russell and Whitehead worked together at Trinity College preparing their "Principia Matematica", and when young Wittgenstein started his studies with Russell. There was also J.M. Keynes starting work at the University, where he would later be professor until his death in 1946. At that time the Cambridge a School of Literary Criticism was being born which was undoubtedly influenced by all these thinkers. To sum up, it was a liberal environment in which you could find a constant and fluent exchange of knowledge and ideas between people from very varied fields. There is no indication of there being a connection between Bartlett and the "Trinity College Group". Nevertheless, his circle of friends, acquaintances and colleagues from a wide range of different fields (mathematicians, historians, philologists, literature students) seem to have helped him keep an open-minded view of his work in Psychology. Bartlett´s friendship with Norbert Weiner, among others, was formed at this time. It was Weiner who provided the suggestion for which the idea of the serial reproduction method emerged. He later used this method keenly and extensively (Bartlett,1957, Oldfield, 1972).

The beginning of World War I had a strong impact on the Cambridge scene. Rivers and Myers, being medical doctors, joined the armed forces. Bartlett was not admitted for recruitment due to his former illness, so he remained as deputy head of the Laboratory during Myers absence. That same year, 1914, was when he began his experiments on perceiving and imagining. During these experiments his attention was drawn towards the way the participants used their memories. While discussing this issue with Ward - who he regularly met in order to comment on his investigation - he found out about Jean Philippe's experiments (1897) in which pictorial material was presented to the subjects who had to repeatedly reproduce it after certain lapses of time. This method would be the one followed by Bartlett, varying the materials and giving longer periods of time in between each required reproduction (Bartlett, 1932, 1957).

These very experiments formed the base for his thesis, presented in 1916 in order to be accepted as a fellow, which he attained 1917. His thesis was the result of a confluence between an anthropological and a psychological approach in which one can see a great deal of influence from Rivers, (especially from Rivers' work on conventionalisation, 1912) and also from Haddon (1894). His purpose was to explore the psychological mechanisms in which certain cultural forms - both figurative and narrative - are transformed when passing from one cultural form to another, until they conform to the conventions of the group that imports them. During this process the imported material might loose its initial representative figure, ending up in an arbitrary or conventional symbolic state. His intention in these experiments was precisely to retrace this process and find the psychological determinants through experimentation with individual participants and, later, with groups. Some parts of these experiments were immediately published (Bartlett, 1916b), while some other parts were to follow in subsequent years (Bartlett, 1920a, 1921) and used for later reflections on the same problems (1925, 1927a). In these later publications he specifies the elaboration process of the materials gathered during World War I, which were to be used later in Remembering. During this same period Bartlett continued with his philosophical concerns. He joined the Aristotelian Society in 1915, the same time A.N. Whitehead did, to which he contributed some papers soon after (Bartlett, 1916c, 1917, 1918).

When the war ended Myers came back to continue as head of the Laboratory and was promoted to Reader in Experimental Psychology, while Rivers focused mainly on writing, drifting away from educational and experimental activities. By that time they jointly succeeded in the establishment of a diploma in Medical Psychology financed by the Medical Grants Fund.

1922 was a year of important events in Bartlett's life. The first of these concerned his relationship with Myers and the Laboratory. That year Myers gave up his academic life quitting his place as head of the Laboratory and founded the National Institute of Industrial Psychology. When leaving he made a personal financial donation and also gained the support of the Industrial Health Research Board and the Medical Research Council. These resources made it possible to expand the number of members of the department to three lectureships: Psychopathology, Experimental Psychology, and Animal Behaviour. Bartlett then took on the direction of the Laboratory and the lectureship in Experimental Psychology. During this period he was to dedicate himself to consolidating and expanding the activities at the Laboratory, and to exploring one of his earliest interests: that of Social Anthropology. Another important event of 1922 was the unexpected death of W.H. Rivers.

As Broadbent points out (1970), it is from this year onwards that Bartlett led Psychology at Cambridge, as the Senior Lecturer. It was during the rest of the 1920´s that Bartlett dedicated a very important part of his efforts to the building up his department in order for it to take on a significant role in the University.

His teaching activities during this period logically included Experimental Psychology, and so he published a manual on this subject, with Myers' collaboration (Myers & Bartlett, 1925). He also taught a course entitled Psychology & Primitive Culture which constituted the basis of a book, bearing the same title (Bartlett, 1923). It was around this time when he lectured on a course in the application of psychology to military problems, which resulted in another book under the title Psychology & the Soldier (1927b).

As mentioned by Bartlett himself (Bartlett, 1957), conventionalisation continued to be his main concern at the time. The materials he produced (Bartlett, 1920a, 1920b, 1921, 1924, 1925) were later compiled and reinterpreted in Remembering. He then also wrote an essay entitled "A Contribution to the Experimental Study of Conventionalization Processes" which would later be included in Remembering. He went as far as to sign a contract with Cambridge University Press to publish a book on the same topic, of which he even wrote a few chapters (although he later destroyed them because of his dissatisfaction with them).

In 1920 and 1923 respectively, a Philosophy congress and the 7th Congress of Psychology took place. This allowed Bartlett to meet personally among others, Boring, Koffka, Köhler and Michotte, developing with the latter a long-lasting friendship. John Watson, who had the intention of attending, could not in the end go to these congresses because of circumstances that lead to his divorce and resignation from John Hopkins University. In 1924 Bartlett became the editor at the "British Journal of Psychology", and continued in this task until 1948. During the 1920's his relation with Henry Head intensified - they got acquainted through Myers and Rivers. They regularly got together in London, where they discussed portions of the manuscript of Aphasia and Kindred Disorders of Speech (Head, 1926), which Head was writing at the time as a result of his experience with soldiers injured during World War I. They also discussed Bartlett's work in this period, which, as mentioned before, consisted of repeated series and processes of conventionalisation. These discussions would strongly affect the later development of Bartlett´s ideas on the concept of schema which had already been advanced in Myers's Manual of Experimental Psychology (1911) (cfr. Oldfield and Zangwill, 1942a, p.283, footnote 1).

Both of Bartlett´s reviews of this book (1926a & b) represent, according to Oldfield and Zangwill (1942b), a first re-elaboration of this concept, which originally pertained to Head. Bartlett himself points out that in his opinion the book was extremely important to the future development of psychology.

In 1929 he travelled to South Africa where he gave a talk as President of the Psychology Section of the British Society for the Advancement of Science. This talk shows Bartlett's view on the different schools of psychology existing at the time, such as behaviourism, the Gestalt, Spearman's and Jaensch's theories; It furthers his earlier criticism of behaviourism (Bartlett, 1927c; Bartlett & Smith, 1920). Taking advantage of his stay in South Africa, he decided to travel into the interior of the African continent to gather some cross-cultural material he would later use in Remembering and several other works.

In 1931 Cambridge University created a Chair of Experimental Psychology which was awarded to Bartlett. The following year he published Remembering (1932), without doubt his most important work in print. It is a compilation and synthesis of his previous work to which he added Henry Head´s concept of schema, which allowed him re-interpret some of his previous data.

At this stage Bartlett began to receive a good deal of recognition and honours for his work. In 1930 he became an associate member of the French Society of Psychology. In 1932 he was nominated as a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1937 was named Doctor honoris causa by the University of Athens. For the rest of this decade Bartlett focused on trying to achieve a synthesis between Psychology and Anthropology that would allow Social Psychology to be re-established on a new and solid basis. For this purpose, together with colleagues from other disciplines, a series of meetings were held twice a year from 1935 to 1938, which gathered together psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists, with the purpose of establishing a methodological basis, rather than a doctrinal one. The Study of Society: Methods and Problems (Bartlett, Ginsberg, Lindgren & Thouless, 1939a), a collective volume to which Bartlett contributed a chapter, was an outcome of these activities.

It was during these years when Bartlett got increasingly involved in research on Applied Experimental Psychology. In 1935 the Medical Research Council had decided to create a lectureship at the Cambridge Laboratory of Industrial Psychology. Such work was principally closely orientated towards the armed forces. Around that same period he started to act as a consultant for the RAF, as a member of the Air Ministry´s Air Personnel Research Committee.

The onset of hostilities of World War II drove the Cambridge Laboratory to direct their activities towards the war effort. It was then when Kenneth Craik joined the Laboratory, first as an assistant researcher, and then as the first director of the Applied Psychology Unit (established in 1944), which was also sponsored by the Medical Research Council, and dedicated to Psychological research applied to military problems. It was thanks to Craik's assistance that Bartlett advanced his work in new directions which had been scarcely developed until then, such as bodily skills - a matter that had long interested him because of his affection for cricket and tennis developed in his youth (Oldfield, 1972). However, Bartlett never came around to writing a monograph that explained his theoretical ideas about this matters - his Ferrier lecture before the Royal Society (Bartlett, 1943) is one of the summaries that best fit this purpose. Bartlett's contribution to this field during the war and the following years are of considerable importance, resulting from demands from both British and American institutions.

During the war he was awarded various important distinctions. In 1941 he was made C.B.E, and in 1943 he was given Baly and Huxley´s medals from The Royal Society. In 1948 he was knighted Sir Federick Bartlett. He received doctorate honoris causa from several universities, namely Princeton (1947), Louvain (1949) and London (1949) and visited the United States where he showed his skill as a psychology critic, commenting on the path psychology was taking there at that time (Bartlett, 1947).

Broadbent (1970) is of the opinion that the years after the war were the most outstanding in Bartlett´s biography. He was already 60 years old, yet he found enough energy within him to develop a line of investigation on complex human abilities that produce in each new situation a new and perfectly adapted sequence of movements. It is along these lines where his previous interests mixed with Kenneth Craik's previous developments.

A highpoint of his work at this time was the preparation of his monograph Thinking (1958). Oldfield (1972) points out that for a long time Bartlett had considered the possibility that the methods he used in Remembering could be adapted to certain types of thinking processes. This becomes obvious if one looks through Bartlett's bibliography during the late 1920's and especially in the 1930's (e.g., Bartlett, 1925, 1927a, 1937, 1938, 1939b). Such is the case of tasks where open ended stories were presented to participants who had to complete the story in the most plausible way. This phenomenon of 'completion' appears even unconsciously, and sheds light on how schemas, as a way of organising past experience, lead one towards constructive and predictive processes (1938). His fascination for sport and corporal abilities are also incorporated to the experience of constructive thinking as a practical activity. The result was a set of experimental studies on thinking.

In 1952 he retired from his chair and was given the Royal Medal and also the Longacre Award of the Aeromedical Association. Following his retirement he received recognition from the research community. His collection of Honoris causa doctorates increased with new ones from the Universities of Edinburgh (1961), Oxford (1962) and Padua (1965). He was also elected foreign associate member of the North American National Academy of Science, the North American Academy of Arts (1959), and the American Philosophical Society, was made honorary member of the national psychological societies of Sweden (1952), Spain (1955), Switzerland (1956), Turkey (1957) and Italy (1963), also of the International Experimental Psychology Society (1958), and President of the British Psychological Society in 1950. He died on 30th September 1969 at the age of 82 after a short illness.

-- Alberto Rosa, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain