Psychology, General and Applied

Chapter 2: The Realm of Psychology

Hugo Münsterberg

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The Definitions of Psychology.—We have discussed the reasons why men may turn to psychology, but we have not as yet stated what psychology really is. We have gone on without any exact definition ; we have so far left everything in the vague and indefinite form in which commonsense takes hold of it. We have spoken of inner life or of mental states or of human behavior, of observing our inner experience, of understanding personalities, of describing and explaining the processes of the mind, and we have used some other similarly general terms without even asking whether they characterize correctly the aims of the psychologist. We might just as well have spoken of the soul or of consciousness, or, to use the more scholarly term, of psychical phenomena. No one of such phrases was proposed as a definition to mark out clearly the work which the student of psychology has to take up.

Usually textbooks of psychology begin with a precise definition. We have abstained from that, because there is some danger involved in such a starting point. All astronomers agree as to what astronomy can be and ought to be; but the psychologists disagree as to the aims of psychology. Only where a consensus of opinion exists can it be right to begin at once with a definite statement of what the particular science is called to undertake. Where different views are possible we have hardly a right to go to the work with a more or less arbitrary decision that one defini-

( 8) -tion and not another is to be accepted. To discover what psychology really is, ought to be the goal of a penetrating inquiry. Various possibilities ought to be considered. The neglect of this demand has too often led to a regrettable onesidedness. It may even be that the inner life demands different kinds of scientific treatment, which may be equally justified and which may equally fall into the compass of that which the vagueness of commonsense would call psychology. Then we should have no right to say that, because one kind of psychology is valuable, therefore no other exists. There may be two or more standpoints possible in psychology, and a general definition ought to be wide enough to include them. Yes, it may be said that to reach a clear understanding as to the true meaning of psychology is a more difficult task than the solution of any special psychological problem. And it must be frankly confessed that, while modern psychology has made rapid progress in the mastery of the special facts, it has progressed only slowly toward this fundamental problem of psychology, what its aim ought to be.

This may seem to some a slow way of approach. They are anxious to come to the actual facts of mental life and to study the realities of conscious experience instead of entering into cumbersome discussions about the principles and underlying purposes of psychology. They do not want abstract theories, which seem to them a wrangling about words, but are longing for a knowledge of concrete processes and their laws. But such a desire for a hasty approach to the details is ill advised ; its hope is illusory. The uncritical rush toward the mental states cannot bring us nearer to them. We must know first what kind of facts belong to our study, and what way of approach is demanded by it. And if we do not settle these preliminary questions patiently, we cannot wonder if later we find confusion among the socalled facts.

The objects of psychology cannot be collected like flow-

( 9) -ers, which we pick, and butterflies, which we catch, and which we can bring home and show to others. Memory ideas and imaginative acts, feelings and emotions, volitions and judgments are not facts which can be picked or caught. And if we speak of them, describe them to others, and make their meaning clear, or explain them, we must have somehow settled for ourselves those problems of theory. We cannot take hold of any mental facts without seeing them through some kind of a theory, and, if we really aim toward a consistent view of mental life, we have no right to be satisfied with the superficialities of commonsense or with the dogmatic statements of an arbitrary definition : we must really examine what it means to speak of psychological facts, and how psychology is to approach them.

As to certain aims, to be sure, all psychologists agree. Here, above all, belongs their decision to abstain from any judgment of value. If the psychologist approaches mental life, he has no interest in asking whether the mental states are valuable or not. He does not care whether the will impulses in the mind are good or bad, moral or immoral, whether the imaginings of the mind are beautiful or ugly, whether the thoughts in the mind are wise or foolish, whether the emotions of the mind are holy or sinful. The dissecting botanist is interested in the ugliest weed as much as in the beautiful flower, the chemist cares for the constitution of the deadly poison as much as for that of the helpful drug. In the same way the psychologist is surely interested in the analysis of the criminal act as much as in that of the heroic deed, in the babbling of the insane mind as much as in the reasoning of the thinker, in the silliest play of the infant as much as in the highest creative processes of the artistic mind. He remains the neutral observer who understands and explains the mental events without forming a judgment on them. As soon as he begins to evaluate them he oversteps the boundaries of his

( 10) realm and is trespassing on the fields of logic, ethics and esthetics.

But so long as we only agree that the value aspect of mental life is not accessible to the psychologist, we have not settled anything as to his material. We may begin here, too, with a negative claim: the psychologist is not concerned with the outer physical objects. The processes and laws of bodies as such are never the material for a psychological study. Yet with this we are already approaching debatable ground. Some might doubt the correctness of this sweeping statement, and limit it to the inorganic world and the vegetable kingdom. They would say that, if we approach the bodies of the animals and above all the bodies of the human organisms, we have a part of the physical world before us which is of greatest importance for the psychologist. But there is no real contradiction. Nobody can doubt that the mental life which the psychologist studies is most intimately connected with the functions of the body, of the nervous system, of the brain. But while it is so firmly connected, and while the body and its functions are thus indeed of deepest import for the psychologist, the body is not itself the real object of his study. The growth of the flowers is intimately dependent upon the soil and the water and the light, and yet water and light and soil are not the objects of the botanist's study. The mental life may be dependent upon the nervous system and the brain, but it does not consist of such physical processes.

The Two Standpoints in Psychology.—The elements which we have gathered so far in order to define the aims of psychology are two. We have said that the psychologist is interested only in the inner experiences as against the outer physical world, and that he has to do with them in a theoretical way, abstaining from all judgments of value, from all liking and disliking, praising and blaming. But this is certainly still insufficient for a positive

( 11) account of his actual work, because the chief question remains : what is inner experience, what is our inner personal life? The difficulty lies in the fact that we can take account of ourselves in several ways and the inner experience may thus appear as something very different, from different standpoints. The frequent failure to discriminate them is more than anything else responsible for the confusion and the shortcomings in the field of psychology. We can take two fundamental attitudes toward the inner experience, and both are important and significant ; we have no right to prefer the one to the exclusion of the other, or, worst of all, to mix the two in a haphazard way. Those two attitudes do not start with scholarly psychology. They prevail in our ordinary life and are intertwined in our daily intercourse. We may perhaps suggest the difference at first in saying that we can try to explain mental life and that we can try to understand mental life.

If someone asks us a question, our aim is to understand what he has in mind. We try to enter into his thought and to understand his feeling about it, in order to take an attitude toward the question in answering yes or no. If we succeed, we feel sure that we have grasped everything which is in the questioner's mind. His whole inner experience has become clear to us and is completely understood. Yet exactly the same mental process of the questioner might awake in us an entirely different interest. Instead of considering the meaning, we might ask ourselves what causes these thoughts and feelings. How did those ideas enter the mind? Are they perhaps effects of some earlier experience? How do those questions arise in consciousness, and from what elements are they composed? Then we look on the other man's mind as a kind of mental mechanism, made up of a variety of mental states, the appearance and disappearance of which demand some kind of explanation. We may even explain them by brain

( 12) processes of which the questioner himself does not know anything, or by aftereffects of earlier impressions which he may have forgotten.

These two standpoints present themselves in every bit of experience. If a man commits a crime, we may be interested in understanding the motives and aims in his mind, and, if we are to judge his deed, we certainly must try to think ourselves into his mind, in order to understand his action from the inside. His emotions and his volition, his crime, everything is to be understood as the expression of his personality. Only through this do we enter into his self. Yet we might study the same criminal from an entirely different point of view; we might ask ourselves from what causes this criminal deed arose in this man. How far are his education, his life habits, his surroundings, his state of health responsible for the development of these impulses? How far did the fatigue of his brain, or the influence of alcohol, or a disease produce the abnormal impulse? What causes interfered with the mental resistance of his will ? From what source did the ideas or the memories and the hopes or fears arise, and how did they come to result in that criminal deed?

In the most trivial conversations or in the most momentous situations of life the mind with which we are dealing may in this way be to us either a self into whose purposes we enter, or a bundle of mental states which are linked together. In the same act of experience we may change between the two standpoints. The crying child may awaken our sympathy, and we naturally try to understand his pain, or his sorrow. But at the next moment we think how to distract his attention, that is, we think how to cause in his mind a new process by which the displeasure will become inhibited. To do this the child's mind must be looked on as a set of connected processes in which the effects which will result can be determined beforehand.

Yet this twofold way of looking into the neighbor's

( 13) mind shows itself no less when we think of our own mental life. We go through the world and mingle among men, each one always feeling himself as an individual personality whose feelings and ideas are his real self. Our love and hate, our likes and dislikes, our agreeing and disagreeing, our thinking of this and of that, are the acts which stand for our personal life. We live in those feelings and emotions and thoughts; we ourselves are those inner activities. And yet we may consider this same inner life as if we were spectators looking on at that procession of inner events, observing the happenings in our own consciousness. Then we give our attention to the structure of our memories and imaginative ideas, perceptions and thoughts, and even our feelings and emotions and volitions then lie before us like objects of which we become aware. Anyone who begins self observation is forced to take just such an attitude toward his inner life. He watches himself, looks out for every bit of sensation, of feeling, which he finds in his mind, in order to describe them, and if possible to explain them. A greater contrast can hardly be imagined on the one side the stream of life in which our will and feeling and thought are to us meaning and expression of our self, and on the other side the neutral taking account of the processes in our mind as if they were a spectacle which we are objectively watching.

Surely the first standpoint is the more natural one. If you and I talk with each other, I do not only take you as such a subject whom I am to understand, but I feel myself as a subject who agrees and disagrees, who likes and dislikes what you say, and who wants his own opinion to be understood. It is quite improbable that I have reasons lo watch my mental states as objects, while we are engaged in our conversation. But if I afterward begin to think about it, I may very well call back those ideas and emotions of mine and make them pass before my inner eye as mere mental happenings which come and go like the clouds

( 14) and the sunshine and the landscape outside, and I may analyze them and observe their elements, their structure, their connections and their effects. It is a somewhat artificial method : it is artificial like all analysis and dissection. It is more natural to drink the water than to analyze it in the laboratory into its chemical elements. But if we want to understand what we can expect from the water, we must determine its constitution and examine its properties. It is indeed a kind of scientific, naturalistic attitude toward our inner life, when we begin to treat it like a series of objects. But as soon as we want to foresee what effects are to be expected and what causes are at work and how the parts hang together, we cannot help choosing this artificial standpoint.

Demand for Consistency.—The psychologist has no right to indulge in any mixing of the two modes of approach. No doubt, it is always easier to be inconsistent, and the temptation to such inconsistency is great here. As long as the psychologist gives account of the perceptions and the memories, the. colors and the tones, the smells and the noises, it appears so much more convenient to describe them as various contents in the mind and to analyze them and then to turn to their explanation. On the other hand, if he has to give account of feelings and volitions and emotions, of character and temperament and judgment, it seems so much easier to take the other standpoint and to speak of their meaning and to interpret their purposes. But if we do so we can never reach a consistent and unified account of mental life, and that must after all remain the goal which the psychologist cannot give up. As long as he is to describe and to explain, ho cannot acknowledge that there is anything in the mind which does not allow such description and explanation. He must feel like the naturalist, who takes it for granted that everything in the universe is subordinated to natural laws. Correspondingly, if we are to interpret mental life and to understand it

( 15) in its meaning, then we must do justice to such a demand for every function of our mind. Our own personal life and that of our friends and our foes then comes in question only as an expression of meaning, and everything has to be looked on from that point of view.

In medieval times the astronomers tried to explain some movements of the stars by their natural laws, and some by the fact that the angels were moving the stars. We know today that no consistent view of the universe can be gained, if we mix two such different accounts. Either we interpret the processes of nature religiously as an expression of God and his angels, or we explain them through causal laws. Either viewpoint will yield us a unified aspect of the world, but we have no right to combine the laws and the angels in one scientific picture. The psychologist who makes us understand inner life by interpreting the meaning and following up the inner purposes, gives us indeed a perfectly unified view of man's mind ; and so does the other psychologist who treats mental life as a mechanism which is to be described and to be explained as a causal system. In other words, we must acknowledge a true psychology as complete only if it allows room for two different aspects of personal experience, each of which must be consistently carried through. Both kinds of psychology are justified, if they are carried through with this consistency. To recognize the difference means to do justice to both sides. Life needs both; science cannot ignore them. A complete psychology must deal with the whole mental life as a system of mental processes to be explained, and must deal in another part with the whole mental life as an expression of personality to be understood in its meaning. The two parts must supplement each other.

Causal and Purposive Psychology.—It means very little what name we give to the two aspects of psychical experience, but it means extremely much to keep them cleanly separated and to recognize distinctly the principles which

( 16) control them. We might call the one aspect objective and the other subjective. Sometimes the first has also been called a psychology of mental states and the other a psychology of the self. Again a quite characteristic choice of titles is to call the first the psychology of the content of consciousness and the other the psychology of meaning. We might also speak of explanatory psychology as against interpretative psychology. Yet we prefer the designation which points most directly to the deepest character of the contrast, and shall call the one the causal psychology, the other the purposive psychology.

To understand mental life as a system of causes and effects is indeed the most significant aim of the one kind of study ; and to understand it in its meanings, and that is, in its purpose, is the fundamental condition for the other kind. Everything else, the special principles and the special methods and the special conceptions, follows from this parting of the ways. Every further discussion ought therefore to refer to the one aspect or to the other. Hence our introduction to the total study of psychology has here reached its end, because from now on we must separate the two groups of inquiries, until they finally reach a point where they come together again. That meeting point is reached in applied psychology which speaks of the practical application of mental facts in the service of our human purposes. The selection of those purposes is a matter of purposive psychology, the mental effects to be used a matter of causal psychology. They are thus joined in that practical part which comes nearest to real life. But, until we reach it, we must be loyal to the chosen onesidedness with which we follow mental life at first only on the one, and then only on the other side.

The programme for this book is thus clear and evident. We shall speak first of the causal aspect of the mental life, then of the purposive aspect and finally of the practical aspect. Both in the causal and in the purposive

( 17) psychology we shall discuss first the general principles and methods, then the individual processes, and finally the social processes. It is necessary indeed to keep this plan constantly before our mind. Then only every detail can be understood in its right proportion. Otherwise it would be necessary to put before every paragraph of the causal psychology a danger signal which would warn the student not to take this account as the whole truth, but to remember that the purposive aspect of the same mental act is no less true and no less significant. But we trust that this is not needed. We shall resolve the personality into the elementary bits of psychical atoms and shall bring every will act into a closed system of causes and effects. But in the purposive part we shall show with the same consistency the true inner unity of the self and the ultimate freedom of the responsible personality. Those two accounts do not exclude each other; they supplement each other, they support each other, they demand each other. The last part of the purposive psychology will bring us to a height from which this inner harmony of the two aspects becomes clear. Then every feeling of contradiction will disappear, and we shall be forced to see that causality and freedom, complexity and unity, natural laws and ideals do not interfere with one another, but can be combined in an ultimate view of pulsating reality.

One of the household instruments of our psychological laboratories is the well-known stereoscope, into which two lint pictures of landscape are put. The left eye sees an ordinary photograph of a landscape from the left, the right eye the same landscape taken from the right, and either gives the incomplete impression of a flat surface. But as soon as both pictures are seen with the two eyes together, the two onesided, flat impressions disappear and Instead of them one lifelike vista of the scene is perceived with its depth and plastic fullness. We too have to draw al. first the one, and then the other picture of man's ex-

( 18) -perience, each taken from a special standpoint, each remaining onesided, flat and lifeless. But we shall see, if both are grasped together and combined in a higher unity of understanding, that they blend into one plastic view of personality, with the true depth and fullness of real life.


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