Obituary: Professor Norman Hotopf

David Martin
Monday 13 December 1993 00:02
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William Hugh Norman Hotopf, psychologist: born London 18 June 1914; researcher, Medical Research Council 1938-41; staff, Directorate for the Selection of Personnel 1941-44; researcher, Psychological Laboratory, Cambridge 1946-7; Lecturer in Psychology, London School of Economics 1947-64, Reader 1964-74, Professor 1974-79 (Emeritus); married Jill Passant (three sons); died London 15 November 1993.

THE PSYCHOLOGIST Norman Hotopf made an important contribution both to the understanding of the function of consciousness and that of literary comprehension.

He was born in 1914 and started his education at Bradfield College. After a period in Germany (whence the family originally came), he was at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, from 1934 to 1938, reading History and changing to Moral Sciences. His early work for the Medical Research Council, from 1938 to 1941, had to do with personnel selection, initially for school-leavers and then for the armed forces. Hotopf designed the intelligence test later adopted as the basis for psychological selection throughout the Army. After being commissioned in 1941, he focused particularly on officer selection and sensory-motor tests for tank and anti-tank units. He was invalided out in 1944 and suffered some impairment from tuberculosis from 1944 to 1946, including the loss of a lung.

As a psychologist at the London School of Economics, from 1947 to 1978, Hotopf worked on a theory of the function of consciousness, in particular visual illusions and slips in speaking and writing. Typical of his extremely precise approach was a series of papers published from 1972 on the Poggendorff Figure, investigating visual illusion. Hotopf's interest in slips arose on account of the clues they offered to the basic processes of word production. He systematically collected omissions, transpositions, anticipations, and analysed types of relationship between intention and error, eg spoonerisms, calling Jim when you want Tom, saying turpentine for Serpentine. The approach was not psychoanalytic, though Hotopf did himself undergo analysis.

Hotopf's principal academic work was Language, Thought and Comprehension (1965). A minor aim of the book was the elucidation of the work of IA Richards as a literary critic and educational theorist, but the major aim was to present a case-study of how an author was comprehended and the way he carried out his thinking. Hotopf had already studied how well letters to newspapers were comprehended, deploying a theory of visual perception, and this theory he redeployed on Richards and on the understanding of him by critics. In addition Hotopf related his approach to Richards's own approach to comprehension. The aims of Hotopf's book were convoluted, but the result was work of considerable intellectual beauty as well as passionate integrity.

Norman Hotopf's mind was singularly well-ordered and capacious. He had a very wide range of reference, and interest in music, literature and the arts. His qualities of intellect were reflected in a person who was scrupulous, unemphatic in speech and demeanour, and gently humorous. His wife, Jill, and his family remember him as loving husband and father, and his colleagues as exemplifying the best in the academic vocation.

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