Date of Award

Winter 1989

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

David Leary


The concept of pleasure is acknowledged by historians of psychology as one of psychology's principles. Because the details of the concept's development are not well known, however, diverse views of pleasure's place in the history of psychology arise. Some historians see pleasure or hedonism as issues which were important only in psychology's distant past. Others believe that pleasure, understood as a conscious and valuable personal experience, vanished from psychology's conceptual vocabulary during the behaviorist period. Some have equated pleasure only with behavioristic theories and with psychoanalysis, two systems which have characterized pleasure as unconscious. These views, along with tendencies within both psychology and culture toward the devaluation of pleasurable experience, have led psychologists and historians of psychology to treat pleasure as an element of psychology's background, rather than as an interesting concept in its own right.

The historical analysis presented here affords evidence that, against the background of "unconscious" pleasure during the 20th century, a distinct psychological phenomenology of conscious pleasure has emerged. Continuously since the time of William James, American psychology's aesthetic and philosophical traditions have blended with Gestalt psychology, behaviorism, physiological psychology, motivational and cognitive psychology, clinical psychology, and psychological aesthetics in describing pleasurable experience and explaining its causes. This developing concept of pleasure as a complex phenomenal experience has been complemented by American psychologists' promotion of pleasure as a desirable social goal, both within and outside of the psychological community. Beyond this, the history of the concept of pleasure as conscious experience speaks to psychology's "crisis of disunity." Psychology's pleasure concept emerges as a coherent entity from several diverse psychological specialty fields. Current psychological eclecticism may be a precursor of impending conceptual unity, rather than increasing fragmentation.