Psychology, General and Applied

 Chapter 28: The Psychohistorical Sciences

Hugo Münsterberg

 Next | Previous

Two Types of Application.— Our discussion of the possible application of psychology has so far been entirely one-sided. If we speak of applying a science, it may be with two quite different meanings. We can apply the results of a theoretical science in order to be helped in our practical endeavors, but we can also apply it in order to solve other theoretical problems. In this latter sense we apply mathematics in studying the problems of physics, or we apply chemistry in studying the physiological functions of the organism, or we apply the results of philology in order to reconstruct ancient history. No doubt we can also in this sense apply psychology, both individual and social, in the service of many other theoretical sciences. Wherever we have the products of man's activity in his prehistoric or historic life, in language and religion, in state and legal institutions, in literature and art, in customs and folk lore, we can make use of psychology in the study of the given facts.

Individual and social psychology give us the general laws of the mind. But besides them we can seek the application of these mental laws to the concrete historical facts. It is one thing to study the social-mental laws of panics or revolutions, and a very different thing to apply them to the explanation of a special historical crisis. In the midst of social psychology the historic facts—for instance, the development of a particular language or the growth of particular customs or special wars—can serve only as illustrations of the laws. They may be drawn into the discussion as well

( 353) as the cases of individual heroes or individual criminals or artists may be used as illustrations for the laws of individual psychology. But, on the whole, we can study individual psychology just as well if we refer to the feelings, emotions, ideas and volitions of Tom, Dick and Harry, as if we refer to Washington and Lincoln. The social psychologist can in the same way discuss the phenomena of the social mind without referring to definite historic events.

Hence the psychological analysis of real individual persons or of social movements does not find its place in theoretical psychology. If we try to explain historic life with the help of psychology we have an entirely new science. It is truly an application of psychology. The field for it is unlimited. Whatever has appeared in the history of mankind may be subjected to a psychological explanation either through individual or social psychology. We want to understand the origin of a definite work of art and seek the psychological motive of the artist. We want to understand a political deed and explain it by searching for the psychological causes in the mind of the statesman. We want to throw light on a crime and study the psychological conditions out of which it grew. But whether the philologist applies psychology to explain the growth of the Indo-Aryan languages, whether the ethnologist reduces to psychology the migrations of large tribes or whether the historian explains psychologically the political alliances or the military actions or the tariff discussions or the industrial movements of the last century, in all cases this application of psychology is an effort of explanation which refers to given facts.

It is evident that this stands in direct contrast to all those applications which we discussed before : the psychological endeavors of the teacher, the lawyer, the physician, the manufacturer, the social reformer, the minister and so on. We have the same contrast in the natural sciences. We said that the physiologist employs chemistry for the

( 354) explanation of the processes in the organism and that the physicist applies mathematics in the explanation of his physical events. How different when the technical chemist uses chemical knowledge in the interest of chemical industry in order to manufacture drugs or dyes, and when the engineer uses his mathematical knowledge in order to build bridges and tunnels. Physics and chemistry are applied here not to explain anything which is given, but to produce a certain effect, to attain a certain end which is desired. The first form was an application for theoretical purposes; the second for practical. The two usages of the word "applied" must be clearly separated and any vague confusion avoided. All the technological sciences are applied sciences in the second sense of the word. The architect and the civil engineer, the electrician and the physician, all need particular theoretical sciences to fulfill certain purposes. Their end is not an explanation, but the erection of a building or the construction of a machine or the curing of a patient.

In order to make the difference perfectly clear, we may use the term psychotechnics for that practical application which aims toward the realization of certain concrete ends as against that other applied psychology which simply explains the given historical facts. Then the psychotechnical sciences stand in contrast to the psychohistorical sciences. Psychotechnics is really a technical science related to causal psychology as engineering is related to physics. Psychotechnics necessarily refers to the future, while the psychohistorical sciences refer to the past. The psychotechnical endeavor may be turned in any direction in which important purposes of man are to be fulfilled. If we classify psychotechnics, we ought to divide it according to the groups of human purposes. We have a psychotechnics of education and of medicine, of law and of politics, of commerce and of industry, and so on : wherever human tasks exist in the performance of which the mind of man

( 355) plays a rôle, we have a legitimate part of psychotechnics.

Yet we may say, the psychohistorical sciences which look backward and which explain the concrete happenings in mankind are no less controlled by our practical interests. Everything which the world offers demands understanding through theory, but when it comes to an application of knowledge, we have the right to select what seems practically important and significant. From the inexhaustible mass of mental processes, we are interested only in those which are somehow linked with the development of our civilization. We have no interest in the explanation of mental happenings which had no influence on the great achievements of mankind. Just as the forward view of applied psychology in psychotechnics is confined to the regions of actual human purposes, the backward view is limited to those events which form the real history of civilization and its prehistoric preparation. The development of language and community life, of politics and law, of art and science and religion, is the central topic.

The psychologist's interests in the prospective and retrospective work are, however, not equally strong, not because the one field is more important than the other, but because the one, the psychotechnical field, belongs fully to psychology itself, while in the psychohistorical, explanatory study of civilization, the work must necessarily be taken up by the historians. The psychologist has no right to lay particular claim to it. It is the psychologist's share to advise the educator or the lawyer or the man of affairs how to make use of psychology for his practical purposes, but it is hardly the psychologist's right to undertake the psychological explanation of the political movements or of the development of languages or of religion or to make a psychological analysis of the great heroes and geniuses. As far as he studies the principles involved in the explanation, the results fall into the compass of individual and social psychology, but as far as these principles are applied

( 356) in order to explain the actual happenings, the historian alone is competent for the work.

It is certainly no infringement on the rights of social psychology, if we insist that the psychological analysis of the historic or prehistoric material in its concrete geographical and temporal setting is not a concern of the psychologist. For this reason it would be unbecoming to include here even the shortest review of the psychohistorical sciences as an organic part of the psychological system. It would be practically a review of human history from the time of savage life to the present day, a review of the development of language and customs and religions as well as of politics and economics, of law and education, of art and science. We cannot have one history written by historians and a second history written by psychologists. The psychologist cannot do more than impress on the historian that his explanations of historic events are unscientific as long as they disregard the results of scholarly individual and social psychology. The historian needs his psychology as the physicist needs his mathematics.

Historical Individuals.—This making use of psychology for the explanation of the historical processes does not necessarily involve a conscious reference to formulated psychological laws. It would generally be clumsy and pedantic, if the historian, who explains the development of a statesman in a biography or who traces the causes of a war, really spoke the language of theoretical psychology. The historian can take the most important mental connections for granted. They are furnished to everyone by the popular psychology of life, and however much scientific psychology may have to retouch such prescientific ideas, it is not probable that the leading convictions of popular psychology are entirely wrong. The knowledge that the suffering of injustice may lead to violent reactions, that in a state of excitement the members of a group are inclined to imitate one another, that love or ambition

( 357) can inhibit habitual impulses, that youth is more enthusiastic and less prudent than old age, or that race hatred can suppress sober reasoning, can be used by the historian without his consulting a psychological textbook.

On principle every explanation based on such matter of course statements is an application of psychology. The historian may the more often rely on the prescientific substitute, as it may be sufficient for his purposes to consider large units in the mind ; the psychologist would resolve them into smaller parts and ultimately into psychological atoms, but these would have no bearing on the explanation of the historical event. Yet this justified reliance on the products of popular psychology may at any moment lead to scientific error. Subtle connections may remain obscure, superficial relations may be accepted where a detailed psychological statement would show much deeper causes, references to the unexplainable springs of the personality, entirely worthless from the causal standpoint, then become substitutes for the really needed explanation. Only a thorough understanding of scientific psychology in its individual and in its social aspect can make the historian recognize where his routine psychology can render sufficient service and where the methods of theoretical psychology, and even of experimental and physiological. and pathological psychology have to be introduced.

This exact study refers as much to the individual personalities as to the groups. The laboratory psychologist today uses so-called psychograms, that is standard blanks into which the answers to hundreds of detailed questions can be filled for a particular individual. He needs such psychograms for theoretical purposes in order to analyze the inherited and acquired mental dispositions and traits of an individuality. He needs them still more for practical psychotechnical purposes, for instance, in order to foresee what mental development may be expected from a patient or a criminal or a pupil, and so on. But the

( 358) ideal analysis of the historical personality would demand such a psychogram for an individual of the past too, if his thoughts, emotions and actions, as they enter into history, are really to be explained. The historian's psychogram of his hero ought to show how far the mental traits of his ancestors and especially of his parents, the common mental features of his racial group, the influences of climate, his bodily traits and his health, his experience, his acquaintances, his reading, his education, his traveling, his economic circumstances probably shaped his mental structure. The social atmosphere in which he lived, the temperament, the character, the intelligence, the rhythm of activity, the type of attention, of memory, of imagery, the mental habits and abilities ought to be analyzed as far as the available material allows.

This psychological analysis is most fruitful in the case of historic personalities from the sphere of cultural life. The leaders in religion and art, in science and literature, demand such an explanation of their work and their influence upon mankind still more than the heroes of war and the statesmen, whose achievements are more easily explained by means of the cruder conceptions of popular psychology. It is not impossible to connect the great differences of philosophical thinkers or of pioneer scientists or of great inventors with particular features of their imagery or their attention. The imagery of the philosophers or physicists who think the universe a world of substances and those who think it a system of energies is probably always different. Thinkers who visualize and thinkers who depend upon kinesthetic and motor images must arrive at different views of the world. Historians of science have divided the great leaders into romanticists and classicists; historians of philosophy have claimed that every thinker has in his nature an element of Platonism or of Aristotelianism. He has to be the one or the other, and whether the trend of his mind goes into the more ideal-

( 359) -istic or the more realistic, direction depends upon elementary differences in the psychical dispositions. The smallest divergences of attention or of associative tendency or of emotional trend may produce the strongest contrasts of life achievement, because these minimal influences which only the psychological analysis can discover cumulate through a lifetime. A slight inclination to prefer subordinated or superordinated associations may lead to the great differences of deductive and inductive scholarly production. A variation in the psychophysical power of inhibition may make the one a martyr and the other a traitor.

Historical Social Events.—The explanation of the group processes is usually based on popular psychology too. But it is evident that the opportunities for exact psychograms of the social mind are no less abundant here. The historian must know the mental traits of a people, or a race, or of a local community in order to explain the political or social or religious or cultural reactions. The statistical data, the objective products of the past, direct observation of typical members of the group, must be used to draw the detailed mental picture. The geographical influences, the technical conditions, the economic background, the legal forms of community life, must be estimated as causes of psychological dispositions. The temperament, talent, character, and intelligence of the social group, its suggestibility and excitability, its originality and its energy, must be examined like the mental features of. a single individual. But at the same time the general results of social psychology must be applied : the laws of the formation of classes, of the growth of social contrasts, of fashions and customs, of social decay and corruption, of the influence of religion, of prosperity, of prevailing individualism or communism, of belief in liberty and of belief in loyalty, or of the influence of women and so on. The knowledge of the particular social mind and of the general psychosociological laws is equally nec-

( 358) -essary for a true explanation of a historic group process. The explanation of individuals and of masses must be constantly combined. The historian of religion must understand individual psychology to explain the development in Buddha, and social psychology to explain the spreading of Buddhism in Asia.

The historian needs psychological explanation not only for the life process, but also for the objective products of social work. The history of technic from the prehistoric tools of the savages to the most complicated machines of our factories is the history of objects which must be explained by reference to psychological conditions. A popular haphazard psychology cannot possibly fulfill this demand. The exact physiological psychology of the motor impulses must be understood. The saving of energy which the rhythmical movement makes possible, the advantage of intentional impulses which can be easily combined and the disadvantage of impulses which interfere with each other, the effects of motor impulses to the large muscles on the efficiency of the small ones, the possibility of organizing will impulses into group units and of making them automatic and many similar psychophysiological conditions must be considered, if the historian is to explain the development of technic. Or we may point to' the miracles of the church. They cannot be grouped in the system of causes and effects, if the historian knows no more about autosuggestion and heterosuggestion, about inhibition and emotion, about imagination and individual endeavors, than popular psychology furnishes.

Even this explanation of the social products must often be linked with the most detailed experimental work. The observations and classifications which are reported in the history of science cannot really be explained, unless the exact details of the sensation and perception and reproduction are carefully recorded. In astronomy, for instance, the stars were always grouped into classes which

( 361) were based on very unequal arithmetical differences of light intensity, but the psychophysical investigations of the laboratory have demonstrated the cause. The difference between two pairs of stars appears equal, if the lights are in the same relation. The history of languages shows how they changed through the psychological tendencies of the speakers and through contact with other languages in the minds of the masses. Involuntary formations of analogies, facilitations of the motor impulses, habitual associations, inhibitions of speech impulses and similar processes lead to the transformations. The student of the history of language is accustomed to collect such material and to deduce from the successive forms the principle of change which must explain the single facts. But the linguists have only begun to recognize what a great gain can come to them if they make use of psychological laboratory experiments which are devoted to these processes of association and inhibition. Experiments on the mutual interference of word ideas in their influence on the speech reaction can quickly illuminate the slow transition processes from one stage of the language to the next.

Or we may turn to the field of art. The historic account of architecture, sculpture and painting cannot explain the development, if it ignores the exact details of the effects which the artistic works produced. This involves not only the general problems of association and emotion, but even the subtlest processes of optical illusion, of color contrast, of form, of equilibrium in symmetry, of repetition. Everyone of such mental effects can be understood only if it is made independent from vague general impressions and is submitted to exact experimentation in the psychological workshop. Experiments have shown why the verse must be limited to a certain number of feet, and the stanza to a certain number of lines, why the rhyme must be at a particular place, why some feet in the verse can be replaced by others and some cannot be changed, why

( 362) the caesura must be in a certain place. The explanation of the work the great artists have created thus finds its ultimate explanation in the painstaking psychophysical experiment.

To draw an illustration from the history of music, we may think of the surprising changes in the appreciation of different tone combinations. The old Greeks considered the octave alone as the true consonance, which gave a complete feeling of rest, while the fifth and the fourth were not really restful, and the third was altogether dissonant. Four centuries after Christ the fifth and fourth were in the same class of consonance with the octave : it is the third which is now in the intermediate class, and every other interval a dissonance. In the eleventh century the major third gained a place among the full consonances, while the minor third was still forbidden; in the twelfth century the minor third was welcomed. In modern times the musical world has added the seventh to its consonances. Such developments are not explained, if they are simply historically stated. Their explanation demands an insight into psychological processes which only the experiment can analyze. The experiment can demonstrate that a persistent hearing of tone combinations really produces a change in the mental disposition, by which the feeling of consonance is shifted. Only through such psychological analysis can we comprehend why every great composer—Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Strauss, Debussy—was denounced in his own time and was welcome to the ears of the next generation. The dissonances which are often heard become actual consonances.

But whether we point to the cases in which the historian has to consult the records of laboratory experiments or to the more frequent cases where the fundamental conceptions and laws of individual and social psychology are adequate for the explanation of the historical processes, it is always the historian's work to seek for an explana-

( 363) -tion of his material. The psychologist must set forth the necessity of applying psychology—and for this reason we had to outline the situation here—but the application itself is a part of the historical sciences.

History and Purposive Psychology.—We have ignored so far one other reason why it sometimes appears as if the psychological explanation of the world's history belonged to the psychologist and not to the historian. Many historians, and surely not the worst among them, are convinced that their highest task is not the explanation, but the understanding of the past of mankind. Their historic work deals with the interpretation of the great leaders and of the nations. The meaning of a significant life and of a great movement but not the causes interest them. Such a historian is convinced that the purposive view of history alone fulfills his mission. The causal analysis of the past appears to him, therefore, as extraneous, and he has the natural tendency to relegate it to the quarters of the psychologist.

But this idea evidently takes a new character in the light of our discussions on causal and purposive aspects of the mind. We have recognized that a full account of the mental life always requires both points of view. Causal and purposive psychology appeared to us coördinated. To interpret the inner life of the statesman or thinker or poet or religious leader and to show the meaning in the thoughts and emotions of the masses, must therefore be recognized as psychological treatment too. It is an application of purposive psychology, just as the other study was an application of causal psychology. The one cannot be separated from the other and if the one belongs to the historian, the other belongs to his sphere too. The psychohistoric interest must have the same double face which our daily life experience has shown to us. The lifework of Napoleon may be psychologically explained, but it must, above all, be psychologically interpreted. We

( 364) may ask for the causes of his decisions on the battlefields, but the true pulse of history is felt still more when we study the meaning of his decisions. We may describe and explain the mass movements of the French Revolution, but we have not understood it until we interpret the meaning in the minds of those clashing groups with the help of purposive psychology.


No notes

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2