Psychology in Social Relations

Robert H. Gault
Northwestern University

My subject might be made to include nearly everything under the sun in human behavior and for that matter in lower animal behavior too. For it requires little introspection or other observation to convince us that much of our thinking, our feeling, and reactions of other sort are colored by the conscious presence of other people, whether it be symbolic, real, or imagined. This real or imagined presence, the symbolic presence of other folk in the literature and arts they have created—all these make a difference in my thinking, my feeling, and in many other forms of behavior. All this behavior therefore bears the social stamp. It seems as if the give and take among individuals were incited by our own consciousness of other people or of what in my mind stands for other people. Not only is this so, but in the course of all my ingoing and out-coming among others of my kind and in the course of my association with their civilization, their arts, etc., I ultimately develop unconscious social dispositions. These may be very complex like those of the professional man or woman. By dint of them too, as a matter of course, a difference is wrought in my behavior. In all these "of-course" cases of semi-mechanical professionalized action behavior seems at the time not to be a product of social interaction, though genetically it is so. What I mean is this: The young man who enters the medical school is at first moved by vividly conscious considerations, but, in the course of years of study in college and of practice as a physician in his community, he develops a professional unconscious disposition through social relations with instructors, colleagues, and patients by reason of which he, as a matter of course, behaves professionally in a particular instance today. He no longer requires the vividly conscious con-

( 735) -sideration to guide and control him in his community relations. A second nature has come into court. Its genesis is social. This suggests a type of unconscious source of social action to which we shall have to recur later. Thus it may be seen at the outset that our criterion of the social quality of behavior is not necessarily the presence of a conscious motive. But to this we shall come anon.

At this point let me state what I propose for this paper. I shall in the first place mention a group of outstanding phenomena which students of the psychology of social relations are interested in describing and explaining, and in the second place I shall discuss two problems that by common consent are regarded as the large problems of social psychology. I shall but briefly point to the methods by which they have been approached, and to some results of investigation.

As to the phenomena; there are the crowd, the audience, and the mob—simple forms of group manifestation in which individuals are in physical proximity and in a state of blind expectancy of something not yet well defined, but that is assumed to be on the point of coming to pass; or in a state of attention directed systematically to the successive phases of a problem as they are presented by a speaker and reacted to by his hearers with enthusiasm or otherwise; or in which the members of the group are in a state of intensive unthinking activity as in the mob. In all these relations the individual behaves differently when he is alone, apart from the group, and the crowd, audience, or mob is therefore assumed by many students—notice that I say assumed—to be in its psychological quality more than the sum of its parts, or at least different from the sum of its parts.

Another phenomenon that occupies much space in the literature is the great wave of religious enthusiasm that now and then seizes a community and results in numbers of conversions. The famous Kentucky revival is a case in point. The political campaign resulting in a public opinion; the fashion; the economic craze like the rush for western lands, etc.; all these and many more are social psychological phenomena of first magnitude, and such men as Gustav Le Bon have discussed them—especially the crowd—very entertainingly. But when all is said and done it has amounted to

( 736) little more than a description of certain successive occurrences from an objective viewpoint, save for the fact that again and again the much-abused terms "suggestion" and "suggestibility" and "imitation" are introduced as representing an explanatory principle. They appear in Le Bon's mind to symbolize so many drivers, each upon a high box and bearing a long whip, or so many contemporary captains in a regiment of soldiers—a regiment that but for them would be a standing, not an active, military force. In this respect Le Bon and others like him resemble an older generation of psychologists who habitually invoked the "faculty" of memory and the "faculty" of reason, the "faculty" of this and of that, as if the mind of man were chopped up into an array of small kingdoms or a hierarchy of states in a confederation. An erroneous conception, to be brief. Still other phenomena of the psychology of social relations are customs and conventionalities and public opinion; their development and again their break-up under the influence of the inventor of devices and of theories; conflicts among customs and conventionalities, and their settlement by discussion, authority, and other means. Again, such products of social inter-course as literature, history, government, law, and crime have been treated by such scholars as Nordau, and Low, and Bryce, and Gabriel Tarde among others, as—from one prominent angle—social psychological phenomena.

With this confessedly incomplete catalogue of the phenomena which social psychology tries to describe and explain, let us turn now to the next point, namely a statement of the problems of social psychology—that is, a statement of the questions that must be answered before an intelligent description of phenomena can be attempted. Of course, in every field main and subordinate problems become vastly involved and create the impression of a great number of fundamental problems, where in reality there may be but few. In this lecture I do not attempt to be exhaustive to the last detail, but to touch only the high points. I shall be con-tent here to limit my discussion to the main features of two great problems, which, in my opinion, are the backbone of all together, and to indicate the methods by which they are met or by which we have tried to meet them, and something of the results of investiga-

( 737) -tion. Once these problems are understood, I believe that we should be in a fair way to go after the phenomena that I have mentioned.

There is the problem of the motives or the springs of social action. What are they ? Here I ought to repeat what I intimated at the outset: that psychology is concerned, not only with the various forms which consciousness assumes; it is by practically common consent a study of a certain unconscious background as well. This fact could not be inferred from the term "psychology" itself—a term which in its new dress would have startled the students of a generation or two ago.

Of these motives, I mention first the instincts, or the native unlearned tendencies toward reaction analogous to reflexes and habits. As a matter of fact, we know little of the human instincts. And really, why should we know much of them—save by inference from the study of lower animals ? In all the history of the study of human kind not more than five or six children have been systematically observed and described during the period from infancy to the age of five or six years, and, furthermore, in most of these few cases the descriptions and observations were made by parents or other near relatives who presumably were fond of the objects, and who also, it may be presumed, obedient to the anthropomorphic tendency, have read into their small fry their own real or imagined excellent qualities. The psychological construction of the youngster then, as it appears on paper, becomes something in the nature of a wish fulfilment.

But let me take a little time for the discussion of the instincts, or what have been heretofore habitually described as instincts. Obviously it is of no small importance--this question of the natural springs or motives of human action and especially of social action.

The literature on this subject confuses by the formidable list of so-called instincts that it presents. One author names twenty-four, and it would be a simple matter to cull as many more from here and there. But the disposition today among those who have given most attention to the experimental study of the question among lower animals is that there are but few instincts, properly speaking, and that these are less specific than generalized. They

( 738) are natural dispositions that determine within wide limits what habits we shall develop, assuming that circumstances are favorable.

It is well known that such highly mechanical simple performances as the reflex eye-wink and the knee-jerk are variable under experimental control. Sufficient data on this point are available in the experiments by Swift and Yerkes. But if the simple reflex is variable, we are prepared to believe that the complex, generalized instinct is so too at least in equal degree, at any rate if we describe the instinct as a very much involved and closely knit group of reflexes. Such a description is current.

At this point I am going on to show, by citing two rather crucial experiments, that even the singing of birds is a highly modifiable instinct, or, as I prefer to believe, a complex habit built upon a generalized instinctive basis. We have been in the way of believing that these song reactions are each and all thoroughly grounded instinctive acts peculiar to each species, and, moreover, that they are social instincts. That they contribute to the social relations among birds there is no doubt. In my discussion of these experiments I am of course at the same time pointing to one of the methods by which the problems of the psychology of human social relations are indirectly approached.

Such birds as the robin, bobolink, and oriole when reared in the fields develop songs that are characteristic of their species respectively. Without training, however, it appears that no characteristic song would develop. Scott, of Baltimore, segregated orioles before they had heard the songs of their species, and kept them in isolation for several years. They became good singers, and their earlier vocal utterances were similar to those of the free birds of their kind. During certain seasons they sang almost incessantly. "It was now a loud clear series of notes of great brilliancy, poured forth in such rapid succession as to be like that of the house wren in the intervals, and lasting about as long as the warble of the wren. Except for the rattle, which was now and then a part of the repertoire, this song has nothing in it to remind one of the song of the Baltimore oriole as heard in New York, Massachusetts, or at any other point where the birds occur." When orioles six days of age were shut up with adults that had been brought up in isola-

( 739) -tion, they began at the proper age to sing the songs of their companions. When birds belonging to fifteen or sixteen other species were brought together and reared within hearing of one another's voices, more or less modification of songs occurred. Some birds resisted these social influences more than others. The robin and the wood thrush each developed a song that was not original. A red-winged blackbird crowed repeatedly during two months in the year in imitation of a bantam rooster.[2]

A second experiment of similar import was made by Conradi, who undertook to put a group of English sparrows to school. Canaries were elected to serve as schoolmasters. The sparrows, were reared in the same room with the canaries and were isolated from others of their kind. The regular sparrow chirp developed at the proper time, but the birds soon lost this expression and assumed the peep that is characteristic of the young canary. At the age of three and a half months one of the sparrows "constantly chimed in with the canaries in his own fashion, giving a low note followed by a few high ones, with now and then some slur-ring from a high to a low note similar to those that the canaries have in their overtures. He joined the canaries freely for a few days, when he became ill and was silent for a week." A fortnight later he resumed the foreign language. In general the song in the mouth of the sparrow resembled the confusion of notes that filled the room when the three canaries were singing together at their best. Other sparrows observed under similar conditions much more closely approximated the Galli-Curci of birddom. When these birds had been trained by the canaries, they were returned to their own nation and kindred, where they soon fell from borrowed grace almost, but not quite, to the level of that feathered mediocrity whose notes slap us on the ears in the early morning hours. Their voices, however, remained more musical than those of untrained sparrows, and when they were returned again to the canary environment they soon regained what they had lost.[3]

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Observations of this sort go far to justify the hypothesis that all our instincts are undefined motives and that what appear to be specializations are habits resting upon an instinctive basis—habits that are developed by repeated responses to environmental stimuli. While they are motives and do contribute to social behavior, their contribution is more as a broadside than as a discharge directed at a specific point; more as the great swell of the ocean shoreward than as the trained precise race against the mill wheel. From the unconscious wells of our personality they help to determine what sort of activity will prove attractive to us. The emphasis that some students place upon definite instinctive tendencies is a confusion of the unlearned instinct with the acquired habit.

In contrast to these unlearned, unconscious, instinctive sources of social action, I now turn to an analogous unconscious type of motive, namely, the acquired dispositions such as the occupational or professional second nature—a very substantial social motive. It seems to be almost as unbreakable as the instinctive source. Once a person has got well started upon his occupational career, the broad character of his social relations is well-nigh determined for life. You can't make an up-and-down preacher of a forty-five-year-old physician. Professional scholarship at the same age cannot be made to mix with real estate promotion. And the professional determination is so complete because of the fundamental, positive character of the motives. They are in the unconscious. The passing emotions, images, ideas, even our thought-out purposes and ambitions, in fact all those conscious elements in our mental life thatare over and over again described as motives for this philanthropic act, and motives for that bit of criminal behavior, are but symptoms that are suggestive of the very roots of motives whose lair can be ferreted out only by the aid of special diagnostic procedure.

It will be obvious to some that I am here identifying the motive with what is technically known as the "complex" or a system of complexes, the theory of which has commanded the absorbed attention of the makers of recent psychological literature. In Germany it is bound up pre-eminently with the name of Sigmund Freud, and in our own country, with those of William A. White, Smith Ely Jelliffe, Morton Prince, and others.

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I believe that I can with sufficient accuracy characterize in the following manner the theory of the complex, and so prepare us for appreciating its connection with the problem of motives in social relations.

You and I forget a great many of our past experiences as far as ability to recall them voluntarily is concerned. But the effects of those experiences upon our make-up are not wholly lost. Many of the mathematical formulas that I once learned and used even with a considerable degree of facility I cannot possibly recall. Yet with very little effort I can relearn the formulas and re-acquire the facility. This and scores of instances of like sort can mean but one thing: that some organization of traces of those early experiences remains over in my constitution. This organization is an acquired mathematical complex, and I believe that it is by reason of such complexes or dispositions as this, if you please, that I am capable of an intelligent interest in certain types of mathematical problems today, and that it is because of the same or similar complexes that some of us on occasion solve a problem even during our sleep. By reason of analogous but much more elaborate complexes the trained physician simply as a matter of course, without consciousness of why or wherefore, turns to professional thoughts and acts. The grouchy man enjoys a new and bright outlook upon the world for a brief space of a day or so after having been suitably manipulated in the hypnotic trance—though he cannot recall the events that occurred in the trance—or simply as a matter of course, obedient to an impulse from within, he will go to the library at four o'clock tomorrow to borrow a book, provided that in the hypnotic trance he was told with sufficient emphasis that he should do so. Neither in this case will he recall the events that occurred in the trance. An organization of traces of the emotional, perceptual, and all other experiences that were had in the trance state—an unconscious lot of traces—is responsible for the "of-course-ness" of this behavior and for the behavior itself. Indeed, I may describe the function of this organization in such instances as intelligent because the behavior is adaptive or appropriate to the surrounding conditions. These cases are convincing arguments for the reality of unconscious complexes whose functioning gives color to our

( 742) conscious processes and shape to our behavior. I need not go farther in this connection than to say that the literature of psycho-analysis is crowded with demonstrations that the residua of forgotten experiences of early life are responsible for many fears, repulsions, and attractions of later years. If all this is true, we are here knocking at the gates which should disclose the roots of personality itself. This is the theory of the complex.

The bearings of the theory upon our thought concerning the psychology of everyday social relations are already apparent. "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he"; and furthermore, as a man thinketh in his heart and doeth, so he will become. The task of the schoolmaster is not a hopeless one, assuming that he can stimulate even without the mechanical application of the birch; this notwithstanding the dicta of certain students who tease an alleged determination of character from a survey of family histories, and notwithstanding the educational pessimist who teaches that the schools can do no more than to find and throw out the incapable.

Furthermore, I for one cannot read such reports as the West Side Studies or surveys from New York City, which, by the way, are illustrations of the fact that we can give literary quality to our descriptions of sordid back-street conditions, without the conviction that the youngsters who grow up in the districts described are day by day, because they are reacting to the worst instead of the best, having built into their constitutions those professional complexes—I may say—which find expression in ruffianism and generally anti-social conduct as a matter of course. It is a case of acquired, unconscious, fundamental motives, analogous to those that keep you and me in our respective professional courses. It is not necessarily a case of the widely heralded natural feebleness of mind.

I have now spoken of instincts and of acquired complexes as motives and have suggested the methods by which they are studied: in the one case chiefly indirectly by way of observations upon lower animals, and in the other by means of psycho-analysis uncovering, as it often does, the roots of social attitudes. This latter method has in the main been applied to abnormal cases, but I see no reason why a safe inference may not be drawn as to normal individuals

( 743) in normal social relations. Indeed, this is accepted specifically by some experts in this type of diagnosis.

Another approach to the problem of the social motives is illustrated in the work of those who analyze the products of human social intercourse, especially those of primitive men and women, on the hypothesis that an analysis of these objects will reveal the qualities of men that were responsible for the development of given forms of language, literature, art, law, etc. Whatever qualities have made these products possible, they are assumed to be effective still in giving the impulse to human interaction. And so the social products are analyzed and compared. Languages and arts; courts and laws; myths and legends and religious rites are solicited—and perhaps we may say even tortured---for their contribution of a line or a syllable, and if few direct paths lead from legend and carving to the minds of primitive folk, it is easy and fascinating to weave a web of symbolisms until every phrase in the story and every curve carved in wood is a symbol of something that it does not say but of something that we wish it would say. One who has anything of the spirit of the adventurer in psychologizing must be fascinated by the shifting scenes the method reveals. But there is great doubt whether it all leads to aught but, at best, a view of a few of the qualities that were possessed in common by men of the period when the myths and legends and art were being produced and accepted.

Let me recite a single illustration of the method of approach that I have in mind. I take it from a monograph by Drs. Rank and Sachs on the Significance of the Psychoanalytic Movement for the Mental Sciences, the chapter on "Myths and Legends."

The legend of the Two Brothers—a Teutonic product--is essentially similar to the Egyptian legend of Anup and Bata and also to the well-known Greecian myth of Eros and Psyche. To develop such a similar product the primitive folk among whom it arose, widely separated as they were and without means of communication, must have been moved by similar motives; they must have had common motives or dispositions or potentialities that could express themselves in similar social products. Just what these motives are, is to be discovered by a careful analysis of the

( 744) myth or what not. In the case of the legend of the Two Brothers, the wild animals accompany and protect the wandering huntsman; the rabbit finds the root of the tree of life and restores the head of the huntsman that has been severed from his body by the jealous town marshal. All this may be interpreted as expressive of an anthropomorphic disposition by reason of which primitive man, and we ourselves too, are projected into the objects of animate and inanimate nature. There is the devouring dragon in the legend, who lays his toll upon the city, requiring each year one maiden, the fairest of all within the gates; this year the daughter of the king must be offered. The demand of the dragon may be interpreted as symbolic of a deep-rooted dread of natural forces that baffle primitive understanding, of savage beasts against which there arc no effective weapons, of disease for which there is no remedy. The maiden daughter of the king of the city falls in a faint in the chapel where the dragon was to meet and devour her, and she remains in this condition while the huntsman hews off the monster's heads; and this has been interpreted as a symbol of the maiden's desire to lose her individuality in that of a husband. In like manner an analysis of various forms of artistic expression purports to tease out for us other fundamental human motives, all of which working together are assumed to be responsible for primitive social action. One has but to observe that numerous interpretations may be put upon many alleged symbolic expressions to arouse the suspicion that one man's guess is as good as another's. Yet the method cannot lightly be frowned down.

This completes what I shall say of the problem of motives and the methods of ferreting them out. Before I go on to speak briefly of the second of the two great problems of social psychology which I have undertaken to discuss, let me suggest further that, in view of what has been said concerning motives, the social, psychological phenomena mentioned earlier should be seen in a new light. Imitation, which Tarde spelled with capitals, has been taken in the rear. We imitate instinctively, to be sure, but it is true in a much larger sense that we should imitate very little indeed were it not that our acquired system of complexes renders certain situations sufficiently attractive to be imitated. That is why we imitate a national hero

( 745) rather than the spineless mummy in the next block. Suggestibility, which in so much of the literature appears to be conceived as the great independent doer of all sorts of things, might be invoked until doomsday were it not for sensitive sets of unconscious complexes which determine responses that seem to be consequences of one's own unprodded initiative. Your sly suggestions could not set me mad for a moose hunt if deep in the foundations of my being there were no residua of uncounted wishes for the hunt. The promotion of western agricultural lands will not succeed unless appeal is made to people who have the agricultural motive, but who are not expressing it satisfactorily. Nor will it succeed permanently unless, once the 'easterners arc safe upon the new land, they are surrounded by such institutions as schools and churches, which will give outlet to other motives that have heretofore in the old home found avenues for building and expression. Conventionalities, such as the unthinking or unreasoned attitude that most of us assume toward democracy, law, religion, certain forms of amusement, etc.; our tastes and our customs or collective ways of doing things—you and I for the most part drift into these attitudes by reacting to those around us and, as in the case of most of our prejudices, we awake with a start some day, if at all, to find that we have them. And there is the spirit of the age! As a matter of course a bit of scientific exploration in the direction of the North Pole is approved by the mass of the people of our generation and nation just because it is projected in the name of science. Each of us was born and has grown up in an atmosphere in which scientific ideals are taught and practiced, and, of course, the roots of our personality and consequently the attitudes we assume through life, our likes, and dislikes, take shape accordingly. The spirit of the age is the expression of such unconscious complexes as are held more or less in common by the people of our time. All these and others are, you may say, unofficial formulations of community-life relations, and a little later along comes statute law in an attempt at making official formulation. But neither the official nor the unofficial can cover each and every individual case. At best, each is a compromise. Your conventionalities are not shared by every other person in your community. You will obey the statute law

( 746) as a matter of course, without a question of its fitness, because it expresses sonic of the deepest motives in your nature. Your neighbor just as automatically disobeys it. The city ordains that all hotel managers shall instal metal sinks in their kitchens. One of them instals his, and as soon as the inspectors have turned their backs he rips them out and restores the old wooden ones for the sake of his silver, china, and glass. Not only does he do this, but he tells us of the incident at the University Club, in Evanston, on a Saturday night, just as if he were describing his method of buttoning his coat. He is not defying the law, he is neglecting it—all the worse for him. He is living out one of the dominant complexes or motives in his unconscious, and it happens to be a non-social motive. Perhaps, parenthetically, the reason for the real or alleged disregard for law in America, or in any other state, is to be found in hasty legislation which is even a trifle in advance of the crystallization of those motives which lie at the bottom of our unofficial social formulations.

I now come to the second large problem of social psychology which I have chosen to approach. It is the problem of social unity. And I am thinking here more of unity among contemporaries than with predecessors and successors, though in a certain sense the problem is the same whether we are thinking of unity among con-temporaries only or among all ages. We have a sense of belonging together. As a member of a closely knit family no one of us can consider plans for his future without reference of some sort to others in the family. It is impossible for him to dissociate himself from them. The same is true in a measure of members of a club, school, church, or neighborhood. If we could fully describe the conditions in which this sense of unity develops, we should at once arrive at the principle of racial, national, and international solidarity. Then we should be able, not only to tie knots in the throats of European cannon, but, without the formulation of treaties, to guarantee immunity against future wars. We could not only do this, but we could dispense with the police and all their kind.

Under the inspiration of the evolutionists society has been described as an organism and, moreover, as an organism with a

( 747) mind in control and a consciousness all its own. Such is our anthropomorphic disposition. Whether there is any such mind or consciousness is outside the province of scientific method to determine. Certain it is, I believe, that the phenomenon—this sense of belonging together—in which we are interested does not require the assumption of such a mind. And in fact the organism idea has almost completely lost its vogue.

Why do I have a sense of unity with others in my family and community ? I believe that it is in part an instinctive reaction to others of my sort—a case of like attracting like—but it is much more than that. I have had a hundred and one experiences in common with others around me, and in the course of it all I have observed repeatedly the reactions of each of these people to the things that I say, and so I have observed my reactions to the behavior of each of my associates, and, finally, I have again and again observed and compared the reactions of us all to the same set of stimulations. One result of all this is that in the absence of my associates I can image their behavior in response to mine. Perhaps I may be able to have a fairly accurate prevision of their reactions as they will occur a year or more hence, in which they express approval of what I am doing notwithstanding that they are now opposing me. And what but this is the far-seeing educational statesman like Manasseh Cutler and his ilk, whose heart beats with that of generations succeeding his own, who will respond profitably to his ideal of state- and nation-supported education which was to find its initial impulse under his hand in the great Northwest ? What but this is the great artist with an ideal wrought in marble, canvas, or verse in the faith that, though it is now unappreciated, it will nevertheless sway the generations of the future into accord with him? His is a social attitude. If you will pardon me once again--the boy of '61, training upon the village green, has a lively sense of his unity with hundreds of thousands of others like himself, because in his mind's eye he sees them doing as he is doing upon the meadows from the Atlantic to the Pacific, all in response to the same call from headquarters at Washington. If he had so little acquaintance with others of his sort as to be unable to cherish such a set of images, he would be an isolated drudge with

( 748) a stick in his hand rather than a part of a great throbbing brother-hood in arms.

And so each of us has in himself the conditions that make for the sense of social unity. There is no necessity to invoke for this purpose an additional social mind. We become community-minded, nationally minded, and pray God we may yet become internationally minded by dint of the same mental processes as those that are operating in the make-up of the artist, the statesman, and the boy of '61.

Certainly the law of automatization obtains here as elsewhere, and in process of time and experience social unity rests upon an unconscious rather than upon a conscious foundation. The sense of belonging together then arises just as automatically as our feeling of recognition when we confront our own reflection in the mirror. The best citizen is he who votes at the primaries, not because he has an image of others voting if he votes or refraining if he refrains, but as a matter of course. The best soldier is he who attends to the duties of his profession, not because of a vivid realization of his relations to others, but as a matter of course. Fortunately this automatic condition has not an unlimited course. There is always an inventor of devices or of theories at hand to take the luxury of self-satisfaction and ease out of life by prodding at our foundations, perchance to overturn here and there, and so to create a new basis for conventions and customs and new foci for unities.

From what has been said here it should be apparent that all those conditions and devices that facilitate communication and mutual understanding contribute in their way to the solution of these two problems of social psychological relations. Uniformity of race and language; facile communication by mail and other means; common commercial interests; permanent boards of arbitration, etc.—all these contribute to broad, clear, deep, and common motives, mutual understanding, and hence to the sense of social unity.


  1. From a public lecture delivered at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, March 8, 1917.
  2. W. E. D. Scott, see several articles on songs of birds by this author in Science, XIV (1901), 178; XV (1902), 178; and XIX (1904), 154, 957.
  3. 'E.Conradi, "Song and Call Notes of English Sparrows When Reared by Canaries," American Journal of Psychology, XVI (1905), 190.

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