Ruth Leys

Ruth Leys

Professor Emerita of the Humanities
Academy Professor, Johns Hopkins University

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Research Interests: The history of 20th- and 21st- century psychiatry, psychoanalysis, cognitive psychology, the cognitive neurosciences, and the philosophy of mind

An intellectual historian trained in the history of science, Ruth Leys is the Henry M. and Elizabeth P. Wiesenfeld Professor Emerita of the Humanities in the Department of Comparative Thought and Literature. Her work focuses on the development of the human sciences from the late 19th century to the present. Her publications include: an examination of the struggles by leading psychiatrist Adolf Meyer and psychologist Edward Bradford Titchener to define psychology as a science in the early 20th century; a genealogy of the concept of trauma from the late 19th century to the present; a study of the role that notions of survivor guilt and shame have played as dominant emotions in the West; a history of the debates that have shaped the approach to the science of the emotions since WW2; and a history of recent controversies over the existence of newborn imitation.

Her latest book concerns a famous experiment (1996) by Yale psychologist John A. Bargh which appeared to demonstrate that exposing, or “priming,” subjects to words associated with old age unconsciously and automatically caused them to walk more slowly on leaving the lab. But in 2012 Bargh’s experiment was shown to be unreplicable. In response to that development, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman warned that he saw a “train wreck” coming if Bargh and his colleagues did not confront the doubts that had been raised about the robustness of priming research. When Bargh and his colleagues failed to do so, Kahneman declared that priming research was “effectively dead.” Anatomy of a Train Wreck: The Rise and Fall of Priming Research (2024) documents the history of the theoretical and empirical assumptions guiding priming research from its origins in the early 1980s to the present “replication” crisis in the psychological sciences.


Anatomy of a Train Wreck: The Rise and Fall of Priming Research (forthcoming December 2024, University of Chicago Press)

Newborn Imitation: The Stakes of a Controversy (Cambridge University Press, 2020)

The Ascent of Affect: Genealogy and Critique (University of Chicago Press, 2017) 

Translated into Chinese as 情感的演化: 20世纪情绪心理学简史 (Wuhan, China: Huazhong University of Science & Technology Press, 2020)

From Guilt to Shame: Auschwitz and After (Princeton Press, 2007)

Trauma: A Genealogy (University of Chicago Press, 2000)

From Sympathy to Reflex: Marshall Hall and his Critics (Garland Publishing, Inc., 1991)

Defining American Psychology: The Correspondence Between Adolf Meyer and Edward Bradford Titchener, coedited with Rand B. Evans (Johns Hopkins Press, 1990)

Articles & Book Chapters (selected)

“Post-Psychoanalysis and Post-Totalitarianism,” in Psychoanalysis in the Age of Totalitarianism, eds, Matthew ffytche and Daniel Pick (Routledge, 2016), pp. 239-278.

“‘Both of Us Disgusted in My Insula’: Mirror Neuron Theory and Emotional Empathy,” #5 (Spring 2012).

“The Turn to Affect: A Critique,” Critical Inquiry 37 (3) (Spring 2011): 434-72.

Discussions of My Work

“The Ascent of Affect.” Commentaries by Clive Barnett, Felicity Callard, Phil Hutchinson, and James Russell with a reply by Ruth Leys. # 20, December 29, 2019.

“Navigating the Genealogies of Trauma, Guilt, and Affect: An Interview with Ruth Leys.” University of Toronto Quarterly 79 (2) (Spring 2009): 42-65.