Psychology, General and Applied

Chapter 25: Practical Relations

Hugo Münsterberg

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Understanding.— The elementary social relation between soul and soul is the act of understanding. We know that our interest here is not concerned with the causal problem of the transmission from one man to another. To the purposive psychologist it makes no difference whether one speaks and the other hears, or one writes and the other reads, one cables and the other receives the cablegram, one writes five centuries before Christ and the other reads twenty-five centuries later. The real act of understanding consists of two elements. We perform the same act which another performed, experiencing its full meaning; and yet at the same time we refer this act of ourselves to the self of the other. The soul of another man is to us an interrelated system of such acts of meaning which we understand, but which we grasp as acts not our own.

To be sure, in understanding our neighbor's acts we must think of the world from the point of view of his body. The place and time of. his organism with its sense organs and its muscles determine the selection of things toward which he takes his attitude. But these attitudes in their genuine purposiveness constitute the personality which we try to understand. In absorbing those acts, in sharing their meaning, we nowhere leave the strictly purposive system : the other men do not become objects to us, and their functions are neither causes nor effects. The

( 330) objects remain. to them as to us the material for attitude. They are things to be used or to be rejected, real only as material for the purposive subject. The world which consists of our fellowmen is not a fragment of the outer world ; it is an independent, genuine world which we understand in performing our purposive acts of emotional, intellectual and practical apprehension. We understand the pain and joy, the remembrance and thought, the plan and decision and deed of our fellowman.

The inner experience becomes much more complex, if a new act of ours builds a new purposive superstructure and affirms or denies a relation of sameness between our own attitude and that attitude of ours which we refer to the other man. Then we come to the act of sympathy or lack of sympathy with his feelings, of agreement or disagreement with his thoughts, of willingness or unwillingness to accept his decisions. From this starting point the purposive psychologist has to trace all the complex emotional organizations of acts which refer to acts which are them-selves related to acts. Gratitude and envy, friendship and hatred, pity and fear, desire for social honor and condescension, trust and distrust, love and disgust, are such systems of acts, which can be understood only if it is acknowledged that every act points beyond itself and that every meaning binds one experience to another. They can be grasped only by disentangling the subtle acts which enter with their reference to acts in the world of fellow-beings. Nothing whatever can be gained for this true understanding by any explanation. They have meaning, not causes.

Interpretation.— Another large group of purposive structures which grows from the simple understanding of the fellow-being comprises the acts of interpretation. Their aim is to develop the meanings which are involved in the purposive acts of another. The feeling of the crying child is easily understood. The expression of the child's

( 331) thought may need some interpretation, as we may misunderstand his true motives and purposes. Tho thought of the politician may need much more complex interpretation, as his words may not directly suggest every-thing which is in his mind. The interpretation of a poem may bring to our mind feeling acts of the poet which he has not expressed by the meaning of the words, but by the choice of the sounds, by the rhythm, by the rhyme. But the interpretation may entirely abstract from the acts of the individual who expressed himself and may unfold the meaning of the expression with reference to any subject who apprehends the act. The. lawyer interprets a law without necessarily grasping those intentions which the originator of the law had in mind, and the philologist interprets a work of literature without necessary reference to the writer's own purposes. A scientific theory stands before the world and demands interpretation quite independent of the aims of the thinker who created it. Finally, every step in the interpretation of acts of others may lead to the grasping of intentions which allow new acts of agreement or disagreement, of approval or disapproval, of sympathy or antipathy.

Social Intercourse.— The psychology of understanding and of agreement or disagreement is the psychology of the elementary social experiences. Their combinations and developments lead to the manifoldness of practical inter-course, of coöperation and antagonism in every field of human interest. The submission and aggression, the sub-ordination and superordination, the organization and di-vision of activity can be traced, just as in causal social psychology; and yet everything has here an entirely different significance. No physiological changes and no reactions and no mental processes as effects of such influences are any longer in question. Will reaches out to will, purpose joins purpose, subjects help and hinder subjects.

Of course practical life may create situations where the

( 332) submission of another man or his aggressiveness cannot be understood as an expression of his soul. We do not grasp it by entering into its meaning. We therefore seek its causes and we may find them in a disturbance of his brain which stirs up the aggressive emotion or in the hypnotic state which causes the submission. But in such a case we have really left the purposive world. The other individual is no longer a subject to us, and has become an object. The act of the insane person does not appeal to our under-standing, but to our effort to treat the patient and accordingly to explain the abnormal process. The conceptions of purposive psychology cannot have value beyond the -world in which the meaning of subjects is expressed. The buyer and seller in the market, the teacher and pupil in school, the judge and criminal in court, the employer and work-man in the factory stand fundamentally in this subject to subject relation. It is theoretically possible to give a full account of all mental acts involved in their dealings with-out leaving the path of interpretation.

The total report of the business transaction or of a class-room hour, of a legal trial or of a technical discussion, of a political gathering or of a religious ceremony, can be much more accurately given in these terms of understanding and agreement than in any descriptions of causal psychology. This description, if it were carried out with ideal perfection, would also leave no particle of the transactions unaccounted for. The millions of psychophysical processes would finally cover every subtle thought and feeling. But the decisive difference would be that in this causal description the processes would be analyzed into elements which were never experienced as such, and that the di-visions and the combinations would be controlled by explanatory interests entirely foreign to the experiencing subjects of those practical events. The purposive psychologist might need just as many elements in tracing the subtlest meaning and intention in all the acts which are

( 333) held together in the participating souls. But his whole analysis would remain in immediate contact with life it-self. He would resolve the complex intention into partial intentions which were really felt by the subject, however little they may have come to isolated apprehension. His analysis would move in the dimension of life and his combinations would be controlled by comprehensive acts of the subjects themselves.

This is the reason why the historian must speak the language of purposive psychology, if he grasps the true humanistic meaning of historic life. It is certainly interesting to bring the development of mankind, from savage life to the highest differentiation of to-day, into the thought forms of natural science and to explain the actions of the leaders and of the masses from a biological point of view. But however subtle the dissections of the causal psychologist may be, the spark of the historic spirit is extinguished. The life of history, political as well as cultural, must be understood as the purposive influence of souls on one another. The mere fact that events have occurred does not raise them into the realm of history. We may speak of the history of the stellar system or of the earth or of the plant life on its surface, but in a deeper sense they have no history, as long as we do not interpret them by a bold philosophy of nature as the unfolding of a world of meaning. The physical objects are in the eyes of the true historian only the means of help and of resistance to the purposes of the subjects. Even where natural events intrude into the historical interplay, the real historic significance lies in the change of attitude of the subjects. In short, they, too, must be understood with reference to their importance for a world of meaning. The whole economic, political and cultural stream of civilization flows through the realm of purposive reality.

We have emphasized the purposive significance of all which is an external expression of meaning. The bodily

( 334) movement, the gesture, the spoken, the written, the printed word are not physical things or physical processes, but are appeals for the understanding of their meaning. In a true historic spirit this interpretation must be carried further. Then the work of our minds, the tool, the instrument, the machine are bearers of meaning, too, and so are the fruit which we harvest and the house which we build. This reaches its widest importance when we expand the view to the historic institutions which hand down the traditions of mankind. The purposive meaning of millions is condensed in school, and church, and court. The will of communities lives embodied in the flag and the hymn and in any symbol of historic import.


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