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Edwin B. Holt

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Edwin B. Holt

Edwin Holt
Born (1873-08-21)August 21, 1873
Winchester, Massachusetts
Died January 25, 1946(1946-01-25) (aged 72)
Rockland, Maine
Fields philosophy and psychology
Institutions Harvard University
Princeton University
Alma mater Harvard University
Doctoral advisor William James
Doctoral students Harold H. Schlosberg
Edward C. Tolman
Known for New Realism

Edwin Bissell Holt (August 21, 1873 – January 25, 1946) was a professor of philosophy and psychology at Harvard from 1901–1918. From 1926–1936 he was a visiting professor of psychology at Princeton University.

Holt was born in Winchester, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard in 1896 and received his Ph.D., also from Harvard, in 1901. His mentors in Harvard were William James, Hugo Münsterberg, and Josiah Royce. After his retirement, Holt moved to Tenants Harbor, Maine, with his long-time male companion, George X. Bernier. Holt died in Rockland, Maine, in 1946, and is buried in Winchester, Massachusetts.

Kuklick (1977) has suggested that Holt's retirement from Harvard was due to various causes. First, Holt shared William James' concerns and criticisms of academia, and resented the fact that academic life had by his time turned into a quest for personal glory and prestige, rather than an honest quest for knowledge. Second, members of his intellectual group of friends, which included Robert Yerkes, Herbert S. Langfeld, and Ralph Barton Perry, left Cambridge or withdrew for familial reasons. Heft (2001) has also suggested that Holt's homosexuality might have generated some further conflicts in the Cambridge of the beginning of the century. Finally, Kuklick argued that Holt had assumed the care of his aging mother, which decreased his social interactions, and was likely the reason why Holt turned down an academic offer from the University of Manchester. Holt quit Harvard immediately after her death.

His doctoral dissertation was in the area of perception, under the direction of Münsterberg. Around 1910 he started with others the philosophical movement of new realism, as a response to Royce's criticisms of William James' views on realism. After attending Freud's famous lecture in Clark University in 1909, Holt was highly impressed with psychoanalysis, which influenced his book The Freudian Wish. His most famous work was published in 1931, Animal Drive and the Learning Process: An Essay Toward Radical Empiricism, which presented his views on learning and development.

Holt's psychology was related to the behaviorism of Watson, but his views about behavior were broader and more philosophically oriented than Watson's, including for instance notions such as goals, purposes, and plans, clearly observable in the actions of organisms. For Holt, then, behavior is purposive and goal directed, a notion that influenced directly the theorizing of one of Holt's most famous students, Edward C. Tolman.


  • "The Place of Illusory Experience in a Realistic World." in The New Realism. New York: Macmillan (1912).
  • The Concept of Consciousness. New York: Macmillan (1914)
  • The Freudian Wish and Its Place in Ethics. New York: Holt (1915)
  • Animal Drive and the Learning Process. New York: Holt (1931).


  • Carmichael, L. (1946). Edwin Bissell Holt: 1873-1946. American Journal of Psychology, 59, 478-480.
  • Heft, H. (2001). Ecological psychology in context: James Gibson, Roger Baker, and the legacy of William James's radical empiricism. NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Kuklick, B. (1977). The rise of American philosophy: Cambridge, Massachusetts 1860-1930. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Langfeld, H. S. (1946). Edwin Bissell Holt 1873-1946. The Psychological Review, 53, 251-258.

External links

  • Internet Archive
  • Works by Holt on the Mead Project, URL accessed August 21, 2006
  • Obituary, American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 59, No. 3 (Jul., 1946), pp. 478–480, URL accessed August 21, 2006

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