A Translation of Wundt's Folk Psychology

"The direct approach to a philosophy of history which aims, not to acquire a knowledge of reality from a priori concepts, but conversely, to derive ideas from reality, is a psychological account of the development of mankind" (p. 532). This is what Wundt has undertaken in his Elements of Folk Psychology [1]. He assumes a development through four stages, denominated: Primitive Man; the Totemic Age; the Age of Heroes and Gods; the Development of Humanity. Humanity is thus represented as the final stage, and not only this but also as the goal toward which development advances. "Humanity, when predicated of an individual, means that he transcends the limits of all more restricted associations, such as family, tribe, or state, and possesses an appreciation of human personality as such; in its application to human society, it represents a demand for an ideal condition in which this appreciation of human worth shall have become a universal norm" (p. 472). Now this is a goal for human development which is not reached as the result of the psychological study of man and his evolution. It is gained from the appreciation of cultural values, and the assumption that this is the natural goal of human development has no better foundation than

(534) Hegel's doctrine, which Wundt criticizes. It is necessary to preface this to distinguish between Wundt's psychological study and his philosophy of history which has no essential relation to his psychological undertaking, though his own statement implies that this theory of human evolution in society is the result of a psychological analysis.

The first three parts of the work are in part psychological and in part anthropological description. Primitive man is presented as belonging to loose groups living in monogamous families. His most important mechanical achievements were the making of fire and the invention of the bow. For both of these the author presents explanations which have varying degrees of probability but which cannot be regarded as in any sense assured. The reader is struck with the assurance with which Wundt offers them as final solutions. The same assurance goes with his account of the origin of exogamy, a subject that is still dark, though the matter of a vast and vivid controversy. The explanation that a group growing beyond its food supply would naturally divide first into two groups still loosely connected but seeking different habitats is probable enough, and this is a process that can well enough have continued till the varied clans found in the larger tribes are readily accounted for. The question that remains unanswered is why marriage must take place between members of different clans, and Wundt has no answer for this except the statement that men will naturally seek their wives among those with whom they are less familiar. It is the very fact that it is sought to explain. With a like assurance Wundt derives the beginnings of forms of decorations from the rhythmic repetition of geometric forms, which are later identified with animal and vegetable forms, an explanation of the beginnings of plastic art that is by no means generally accepted, nor does the author give convincing grounds for its acceptance. Again one finds that, though in his account of primitive man he is largely dependent upon the Veddahs, Wundt is not familiar with some of the important authorities upon these people. The book cannot then be accepted as authoritative in the field of anthropology and its interest lies rather in the psychological study given to the phenomena of mind as they appear in totemism, the ideas of the soul, the life beyond death, the appearance of a full conception of personality and its reflection in the hero and the god.

For Wundt the soul had its origin in the fear of the corpse. This fear he regards as instinctive. There is something attached to the corpse that is dangerous, that may leave it and attack or injure anyone in its neighborhood. Such a body-soul leaves the body in the form of the

(535) "soul animals": the snake -- more or less loosely identified with the worm -- the bird, or the mouse. It is their swift movements and their association with corpses which led primitive man to identify them as soul animals. Wundt calls attention to the frequency of these among totem animals, and assumes that totem belief originates with these animal forms and is only later transferred to other animals, plants, and even inanimate things, through men's attention being for various reasons centered upon them. From the supposed departure of the soul from the body with the breath comes the belief in the breath-soul, animism. The development of the idea is readily understandable. As the author points out, the two souls were accepted by primitive man without sense of contradiction. They grew out of two different emotional situations, and primitive man was without interest in logical consistency. What one fails to find in his account of this beginning of soul ideas is an analysis of what is involved in the appearance of the self in human experience, and its relation to the soul, especially the dependence of the self as an object in experience upon the social organization out of which it arises. This is indeed implied in the author's third part, that dealing with the age of heroes and gods. It is only here, the author assumes, that such full consciousness of personality is present, that the full human individual appears. Wundt recognizes that this appearance is dependent on the more highly organized form of society, which gives rise to the state, but the psychological explanation of this is insecure and inadequate. The derivation of the god from the hero is convincingly presented but here again the psychological analysis is scant.

Of particular interest are the chapters on Deity Cults, the Forms of Cult Practices, and on World Religions. Wundt fully accepts the prevalent view of the dominance of primitive magic in primitive times, and the many survivals of this in later cults reaching down to our own times. This belief in magic again is carried back to fear and its creation of more or less invisible objects and powers arising from what inspires fear, especially that which instinctively inspires fear. It develops especially about the soul ideas, in accounting for sickness and death, in the evolution of the Medicine Man, and the magician as priest. Here we find nothing that can reasonably be called religion. This according to the author can only appear when divine beings have been conceived as personalities and are able therefore to enter into personal relations with men, in assistance, retribution and later into communion. In this process the ecstatic cults played a critical part, for they were always motivated by the possession of the initiated by the god, and lead

(536) naturally to the higher forms of religious experience. These cults begin, in Wundt's opinion, with the vegetation cults, their seasons of exhilaration and their effort to stimulate fertility by sympathetic magic. The discussion of prayer, passing from its earliest form of conjuration through petition, thanksgiving, praise, penitence, and of sacrifice from the original magical meal through the different forms of offerings --peace and sin offerings, votive and consecration gifts -- and of sanctification ceremonies, is one of the best and clearest descriptions that can be found. Again, the description and analysis of redemption cults in the development of the universal religions are admirable. But the reader is aware of absence of recognition of the experience of community values, and the emotional life connected with these, as forming an essential part in the development of religion. When Wundt has once started the cult on its road of evolution from the original magic ceremony he loses the connection between it and the social life which it has mediated. The study of religion in this profounder sense, a study which is in the greatest need of psychology, is lost in the study of the cult and the god.

But with all its shortcomings the treatise leaves the reader with a sense of human development as more comprehensively and simply presented from the standpoint of psychology than from any other point of view.

Geo. H. Mead
University of Chicago.


  1. Elements of Folk Psychology. Outlines of a Psychological History of the Development of Mankind. By Wilhelm Wundt. Authorized Translation by Edward Leroy Schaub. New York: Macmillan, 1916. xxiii+532 pages. $3.75.

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