Psychology, General and Applied

Chapter 23: Meaning

Hugo Münsterberg

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Meaning in Practical Life.—The discussion of immediate experience and of the soul has brought us into the neighborhood of philosophic problems and this might easily reënforce the idea that the purposive mind is something vague, intangible and fictitious. The mind, as causal psychology describes it, appears concrete, real, and therefore practical, but the purposive acts which are not even linked with particular brain states seem to lie outside of all true experience, like some higher, spiritual energy, which can be reached by intuition only. But this is a complete misunderstanding. Nothing is more real, and nothing comes nearer to our actual life than the purposive aspect of our own mind and of those of our friends. In actual intercourse we do not doubt it, and only when we come to theorize we suddenly fancy that only the things which can be handled are real. We have gone so thoroughly into the school of natural science that we have almost lost confidence in the reality of everything which cannot be found among the objects.

But we need only the simplest practical experiment. We need only to exchange a word with our neighbor : he may say, "good morning," and I answer, "how do you do." His words and my words have meaning for me long before I can think of his or my content of consciousness. But we might make a much more objective test. Through five thousand

( 311) years the literature of the world has been filled with the story of the human mind. Histories have told us about the struggles of mankind, thousands of biographies and autobiographies lie before us, hundreds of thousands of aphorisms and epigrams, verses and proverbs, have thrown I light on the subtle thoughts and emotions of men and women; and yet, if we sift this inexhaustible supply of observations, we find hardly one contribution to causal psychology in a hundred contributions to purposive psychology.

We may open a political paper or an economic treatise, a discussion on the trivial questions of the day or on the great issues of the parties, and we will find man's ideas and wishes, feelings and judgments, treated exclusively as nets which have a meaning for the self which experiences them, but not at all as contents of consciousness. They are interpreted, and secondarily appreciated or criticized, but they are not described as complexes of sensations or explained from underlying brain processes. The reader who wants to understand what one or another political candidate has in his mind asks for a mental reality which is completely understood as soon as its meaning is grasped, while nothing significant would be added, if the ideas of the politician were resolved into their mental atoms or explained scientifically from their causes. There is nothing to be explained in them, because our political interest in them refers to their inner life from a point of view from which we understand all as soon as we interpret it.

This aspect of inner life is also the only one which interests the novelist. The persons whom he delineates are never described as scientific phenomena, but set before our imagination as selves whose inner actions we are to understand by entering into their meaning. Whenever the author begins to describe the inner states of his hero in the manner of the causal psychologist and to explain his intentions from associative mental and psychophysiological

( 312) causes, his ambition for realism carries him beyond the limits of true fiction! It is a characteristic fact that no state of mind has been so often depicted in literature as that of love between man and woman, and that nevertheless the causal psychologist has as yet hardly touched this problem of love emotion. The explanatory study of it has only begun. What the poets celebrate is always love as a purposive act of the soul. The literary critic, too, who speaks of the psychological truth of the drama on the stage has in mind not the correctness of psychological description or explanation, but the genuineness and lifelike reality of the personal intentions of the characters. In short, mental life as the meaning of selves is not something more remote than the psychophysical phenomena : on the contrary, it is the most concrete, most immediate and most personal material which life offers to us.

Problems and Methods.—If we turn to the results which a thorough study and scholarly treatment of this material have yielded so far, they seem in pitiful contrast to the claims on which we have insisted. We called it not only the most immediate and most natural experience, but also the most significant way of looking on man. To treat man as an object, as causal psychology must always do, is much less important than to acknowledge him as a subject and to understand his meaning. But almost every scholarly effort has served so far the upbuilding of causal psychology. In earlier periods the interest in the human mind was essentially under the control of philosophy. The nature of the soul was the object of the discussion, while the study of the detailed mental facts had not come into its rights. The human ideas, emotions and actions were studied more from the point of view of logic, ethics, esthetics and metaphysics than from that of an original interest in the functions of the individual. On the other hand, when this new endeavor to study the special facts of the mind awoke, the natural sciences were at the height

( 313) of their success, and their suggestive power forced the naturalistic method on the empirical psychologists. The study of mental details at once became the study of the mind from a causal point of view, and all the experimental schemes were made subservient to the explanatory attitude. The abundance of new discoveries along this line held the attention of the psychologists. So it happened that the other possible direction to detailed analysis became almost entirely neglected. It is true that even the experimental work sometimes slipped into this other groove. Especially in the study of thought, judgment and apperception the experiments which were intended to seek objective description and explanation unintentionally raised the more natural question of inner meaning and purposive interconnection of the acts. But on such chance occasions the changing of the point of view leads only to confusion and to unjustified mixing of results.

The situation itself does not suggest the usual neglect. The careful research with all the aid of experimental and comparative methods may just as well be devoted to the purposive aspect of mental life.. Laboratory work in this line would have an entirely different starting point, and would not be concerned at all with sensations, but would probably begin where the causal psychologists have ended, with the analysis of thoughts and emotions. This science of the purposive behavior of the soul may bring together in future just as many special facts as our handbooks of causal psychology can marshal today. At present it would be a vain undertaking to present even in outline the facts of purposive psychology. We shall, therefore, confine ourselves to a statement of the problems and their bearing.

Like causal psychology, which deals with the elementary contents and leads from there to the associations and reactions, and finally to the connection of the individuals in the social organism, purposive psychology, too, ought to begin with the elements and build up the totality of cul-

( 314) -tural life. But the element is here certainly not a sensation; the element is the simplest act which cannot be resolved any further into still more elementary purposive activities. The indivisible acts of liking or disliking, affirming or denying, selecting or avoiding, believing or distrusting, each understood as a meaning, constitute the experience of the self. We then have to ask how they are connected and what they create.

Every reminiscence of causal ideas must be excluded. The connection and creation are themselves strictly purposive. One act links itself to another by its meaning, and in the creation acts are internally combined in a new act of wider significance. The analysis and discrimination of all possible single acts, the whole variety of possible interconnections and the whole manifoldness of new creations forth the substance of the individual soul psychology. At this point begins the purposive social interrelation of various selves. This social part in an ideal-purposive psychology plays a much larger rôle than in causal psychology. The social connection of the individuals is, from a causal point of view, rather secondary. The chief interest is naturally directed to the study of the individual. From the point of view of purposive psychology the relation of one individual to another appears much more in the foreground. The sensations and their associative combinations in man can be conceived without any reference to other psychophysical organisms. But the meaning, even of the most elementary act, leads almost necessarily to other individuals who are expected to understand it. The purposive man is, first of all, a member of a purposive community. The psychological analysis of these interrelations from man to man must begin with the act of understanding a self, and must then examine all the other practical relations which build up the historical and cultural community. It must finally lead to the study of the ideal acts which the individual

( 315) performs, not with reference to one or another chance person, but to the totality of possible individuals who share with him the ideal of building up a valid world of truth and beauty and morality.

The Pointing to an Opposite.—The first step ought to be a characterization of the acts themselves. We cannot be expected to describe them, as that would make them objects. We should become disloyal to our purposive task. But we can emphasize a characteristic contrast between every act and every mere content of consciousness. An act always points to its opposite; a content of consciousness never has an opposite. This difference is ultimately that between subject and object. As long as we move in the compass of causal psychology we can arrange a series, for instance, from the highest to the lowest tone, and can call the two ends opposites, but it is evident that the high tone contains in itself no opposition to the low tone. Even the case of the feelings is not different. We can form a series from the strongest pleasure to the strongest displeasure, and this series leads through a point of indifference, a feeling of neutrality. But this mere passing through a neutrality zone does not transform the two end groups of the series into opponents. Pleasure and displeasure as contents of consciousness are not more opposed than warm and cold. The series of temperature sensations which lie between these two end points also leads through an indifference point.

Even the volitions, considered as mental phenomena, are simply existing facts of which we become conscious, but which do not point beyond themselves and therefore cannot point to any opposite volition. Wishing and declining are two mental states which simply exist and play a certain rôle in the chain of psychophysical events but are, in themselves not antithetic. We saw that the causal psychologist is nevertheless able to introduce an element of opposition into his account of the feelings and will acts. He links

( 316) them with the motor processes of the brain which may be antagonistic to each other, inasmuch as the impulse to one action inhibits and prevents the impulse to certain other actions. But even that surely is not a real inner contrast. It is nothing but an interference of results.

On the other side we cannot imagine a purposive act the meaning of which is not a negation of an opposite purpose. As a mental phenomenon our dislike is as complete in itself as the color blue or green : as an act our dislike is the protest against the liking. It refuses the liking and rejects it, as the liking repudiates the disliking. If we affirm a judgment, we object to its denial, and if in a negative judgment we refuse the acknowledgment of its content, by that we turn against the affirmation. Our love shuts off our hate, and our hate banishes our love.

There may be complex states in which hate and love toward the same person are combined, but then one aspect is loved and another is hated. In the same way we may find ourselves in a complex subtle state in which we will an end and yet do not will it. But here, too, our will and our opposition do not really refer to the same goal. As far as the same end is concerned, we may fluctuate between willing and not willing it, but in the act in which we will it we intentionally object to the not willing and vice versa. The inner antagonistic relation to an opposite is the one fundamental trait which characterizes every particle of the material of purposive psychology.

The Affirmation of Sameness.—We may further characterize the act as the establishing of a relation of sameness between two objects of experience. The connection which the act creates is accordingly not a relation between the self and his object. The self does not exist outside of the act itself. In acting, in establishing the relation between two objects, we know our self. The acting is the self, and the self posits its reality in the act. If the relation were one between the self and the object, the self

( 317) would be falsified into an object like a substance which has the same kind of existence which a thing has. The self consists of the acts, and the acts are the setting of a relation of sameness between two objects.

Let us think of the simplest case, the perception. But let us exclude entirely every reminiscence of physiological psychology. If we speak the language, of immediate experience, a perception is the act by which we establish a relation of sameness between an object given to us as individuals and an object which is independent of any particular individual, which means that it is a part of the real physical world. The act of perception stands in contrast, for instance, to an act of imagination in which our individual object is not related to an independent physical world, but where an entirely different relation of sameness is established for it, the relation to a world of satisfaction. Every act of perception is a belief which would be meaningless without this possible relation of our personal object to an object which lies beyond us, the overpersonal, real thing.

In the act of memory we create such a relation of sameness between the object before us and the real object of the past. In our conceptions as a first step we establish such an equation between words and essential elements of the perceived or remembered or imagined realities. In our formulated judgments we posit such a relation between words and relations of objects. In our desires and volitions we demand the sameness of an anticipated end and its realization. In our feeling of pleasure or displeasure the present object is related to its continuation or discontinuation. In our attention the object of one act is held to be the identical object of the next act. And in every one of these cases the real meaning of the act is that we insist on this relation of sameness. We grasp an act of the soul by imitating internally the affirmation or denial of this relation of identity.

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We have spoken here of objects between which the acts establish relations. But this again must not be construed as if those objects were the mental contents of the causal psychologist and of the physicist. The objects which the psychological or the physical scientist knows are simply objects of awareness, entirely detached from any subjective will act, independent of subjective attitude. The objectivity of their existence lies in their freedom from the will of the subject. But the objects of which we speak in the system of purposive psychology are those which we know from our immediate life experience in which nothing can be detached from our will, because we are never merely passive spectators, but are always active and attentive and selective. The objects in our real world are our means and our goals. We have to do here only with liked and disliked, with ßt and unfit objects; we select them or we reject them, we attend to them or we disregard them, we leave them unchanged, or we transform them, but we are never simply aware of them.

Moreover these objects are never in ourselves. We traced the process by which the causal psychologist must treat the individual objects as if they were contained in the individual himself. Those ideas are packed into the mind to be contents of man's individual consciousness, because in the causal world the whole psychophysical organism is the individual which is contrasted with the world. For purposive psychology this would be meaningless. The self is never anything but this act of affirming the relations. All the objects between which the relations are established are only material for the self, but can never be contained in it. To ask where those individual objects to which the self refers exist is an illogical question, because we have recognized that the .relation between the purposive self and its objects is not one which refers to space. It is a question of meaning and purpose only, and every question as to the where or the when or the why in the causal sense is a concession to the interests in natural science. A true purposive psychology moves in a dimension in which such a naturalistic question is meaningless.

From a purposive point of view the objects are never a part of the mental life. They are merely the material to which the mental life refers. As soon as the objects are inclosed in the

( 319) purposive system the standpoint of the empirical subject is left mid that of the absolute subject is substituted. The subject who has the objects of its purposes in itself is a world soul, but no longer an individual man. Psychology speaks of the life of I ho individual. The objects which are its means and aims, the things and the symbols to be used are not in the subject but are only used or rejected. The acts which affirm and deny the relations are the only contents of selfhood.

Each act establishes an equation between two objects. The two sides of the equation are expressed in different contents, but as a mathematical equation expresses the sameness of the two sides in quantities, the act of the soul establishes the sameness of two objects in vital concerns. If I remember a landscape, the idea of the landscape of which the causal psychologist makes so much does not exist as a content of the purposive soul at all. I do not remember a landscape in myself. My act takes hold of that landscape, and the real function of my soul is the belief that the landscape as I grasp it is identical with the landscape through which I traveled in my childhood days. If I form a judgment, the content judged upon is not in myself. My act is the affirmation of the judgment by which I posit the sameness of the situation as I grasp it n rid the objective world which demands my action. Wherever the soul is at work it claims that one content is the same or is not the same as another.

This actual proceeding from one to the other is what gives to the acts of the soul their purposive character mud at the same time the reference to an opposite. From f lie standpoint of objective observation those contents alone can be found, and that real act disappears, because it can never be an object. If we look into a photographic camera we see the scenery projected on the ground glass, and everything lies side by side in the flat picture. But if a light point outside in the world moved toward our camera or- away from it, we should be unable to see the change

( 320) of distance on our ground glass. It can picture for us only that which is spread from left to right, but it cannot give us that other dimension in which something may move from a near to a distant point. The causal psychologist describes to us all which can be found on the ground glass : the purposive psychologist is interested only in that which moves in the other dimension toward the real objects of life.

In causal psychology we found a formula which covers all volition processes. We saw that every time the perception of the end is anticipated by the idea of the end. In other words, the causal psychologist also characterizes the intentional processes by a certain sameness of two contents. But as he lacks the possibility of characterizing that inner relation, he cannot do otherwise than to describe them as two successive contents of consciousness externally connected by sensations of bodily movements. The purposive psychologist reestablishes the inner relation. The will is the energy to make the two one. Here the idea does not precede its realization, but it points to it. Their sameness is affirmed : that alone is the act of the soul, and no act of the soul is anything but such a will activity which insists on the sameness of two contents or denies it.


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