Magda Arnold and the Human Person: A Mid-Century Case Study on the Relationship Between Psychology and Religion
Rodkey, Elissa Nicole
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The life of Magda Arnold (1903-2002)—best known for her pioneering appraisal theory of emotion—spanned the 20th century, and she witnessed the rise and fall of many of the major “schools” of psychology. Arnold had an unusual perspective on these theories of psychology, due in large part to an event that occurred in 1948: her conversion to Roman Catholicism. Throughout her life, but especially following her conversion, Arnold rejected reductionistic theories of the human person, instead articulating theories which emphasized human agency and telos, and which held up the human experience as the primary source of psychological knowledge. Arnold’s conversion significantly affected her career, as she made professional sacrifices to teach in Catholic institutions and was open about her religious identity in her academic work at a time when Catholic scholars were suspect. Arnold’s conversion also shaped her psychological thinking—she later credited her conversion and resulting exposure to scholastic philosophy with inspiring her appraisal theory. Arnold’s involvement in psychology (1935-1975) roughly corresponds with a period in academic psychology in which there was very minimal investigation of religious topics (1930-1976)—they were generally considered taboo or unscientific. Yet the majority of American consumers of psychology remained religious in this period, and applied and popular psychology addressed their interests. Arnold’s life contributes an important perspective on this period, highlighting how one psychologist of faith responded to the pressures of an increasingly secular psychology by rejecting the apparent conflict to affirm the fundamental compatibility of faith and science. As such Arnold’s life is a useful contribution to the growing literature on the “complexity” perspective on the relationship between science and religion (as opposed to the traditional “conflict” perspective). Arnold was also aware of her own perspective as a religious psychologist and emphasized experimenter subjectivity in her work—offering a critical perspective on psychology that anticipated modern critiques of scientific objectivity. As a result Arnold contributes to discussions of reflexivity and objectivity in psychology, by drawing on her writings about the role of basic assumptions in science, and by considering her life to see just how her personal beliefs shaped her science.