Obituary: Professor D. W. Harding
Monday 03 May 1993
D. W. HARDING was a brilliant and complex man who both helped to establish psychology as a respectable scientific subject, and made a lasting impact on contemporary literary criticism, through his insight into the way in which the inner struggles of the creative artist found expression through words in significant poetry.
As a psychologist Denys Harding never aligned himself with any one school of thought, his outlook was always eclectic. In England, more than elsewhere, the rift between dynamic and empirical psychology that developed in the 1950s was almost total for more than three decades. The Psycho-analysts were virtually excluded from the universities, and the Behaviourists came to dominate academic psychology. Holding to the more humanistic middle ground, Harding did not 'fit' the prevailing academic scene. In recent years there has been a degree of convergence, but it happened too late for Harding to receive the recognition be deserved. It was left to an American psychologist, AH Maslow, to identify him as 'the best psychologist in England', but it was his students who benefited most from his breadth of mind and incisive intelligence.
In 1945, at the age of 39, he was appointed to the newly established Chair of Psychology at Bedford College, London, and he remained there for 28 years. The department was tiny, with an academic staff of two, half a dozen honours students and no postgraduates; most of the teaching was inter-collegiate. His book Social Psychology and Individual Values (1953) derives in part from the lectures he gave in those early days.
Over the years, the department changed and developed: although it remained quite small, the number of academic staff increased, it acquired a respectable postgraduate element and increasingly good laboratory facilities. These changes were in line with those going on in other psychology departments, but there were unique features: for example, a visiting psychiatrist ran a weekly dynamic psychology group (of the kind that would now be called self-awareness training) and a small pre-school play group provided the opportunities for child-observation which Harding believed to be an essential element in an undergraduate course.
He was a gifted teacher, at his best in small tutorial and seminar groups, where he encouraged students to think clearly and independently. The most remarkable quality about the department in those years has been the high proportion of its graduates who have had outstandingly successful careers in psychology and elsewhere.
Denys Harding was born in 1906, the youngest of three children. He was educated at Lowestoft Secondary School and Emmanuel College, Cambridge. From 1928 until 1933 he worked for the National Institute of Industrial Psychology - a formative experience from which he retained an interest in occupational psychology for the rest of his life.
In 1933 he began his career as an academic psychologist, lecturing at LSE until 1938; he was a senior Lecturer at Liverpool University in 1938-45 and for some of those years also taught at Manchester University. In 1941 his first book on psychology was published: The Impulse to Dominate. He never spoke about his war service (1941-44) - having signed the Official Secrets Act, he abided by it. Outside London University, from which he retired in 1963, Harding undertook other tasks within the field of psychology; during the years 1944-48 he was Honorary General Secretary of the British Psychological Society; from 1948 to 1954 he edited the British Journal of Psychology (General Section). He was a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and a Chartered Psychologist.
At Cambridge, Harding had studied both English Literature and Psychology and thus established his own pattern of scholarship; from his undergraduate days onwards he was as interested and involved in literary studies as he was in psychology. His excellent book Experience into Words (1963) demonstrates the richness of this dual intellectual engagement. Although his academic work never fell narrowly within the boundaries of one discipline, he always earned his living as a psychologist, and that is where he made his major contribution through his teaching. It is ironic that he is more likely to be remembered for his association with FR Leavis and the Scrutiny group than for his work in psychology. In the field of literary studies he belonged to a recognisable movement; it is much more difficult to identify his place in psychology.
Denys Harding and his wife Jessie had been at school together. They were married in 1930: her death last year brought to an end an exceptionally close partnership that had lasted more than 60 years. In spite of that, Harding retained to the end his vigorous interest in his work and in his many friends. During the years of his retirement he lived in the heart of the Suffolk countryside he loved so well. Although his terrifying gander, Oedipus, was long dead, Harding still enjoyed the company of the small flock of geese (Oedipus' remote descendants) who roamed the garden, and of a last, beloved cat. In a letter written less than a month before he died, he said that he had just had an article accepted for publication and was working on a book; for relaxation, he had recently finished reading Gibbon.
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