Movement and Mental Imagery

Chapter 9: The Formation of New Movement Systems Under the Influence of Problems

Margaret Floy Washburn

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Is this chapter we shall attempt very briefly to sketch an account of the way in which movement systems become broken up and new ones constituted out of old ones under the influence of purposes. That is, we shall consider the processes of thinking. And it is not primarily with the conscious accompaniments of such breaking up of old systems and formation of new ones that we shall be concerned. These conscious accompaniments will be discussed in the chapter that follows. It is rather with the mechanism of thinking than with the way it feels to think, that we have just now to deal.

The logician says that an act of reasoning is a complex act of judgment, consisting in fact of three judgments, which he calls respectively the minor premise, the major premise, and the conclusion. Thus if I reason that the weather must be cold this morning because I see steam rising from the nostrils of horses, my process of thought may be resolved into the minor premise that steam is rising from the horses' nostrils, the major premise that whenever steam thus rises the weather is cold, and the conclusion that the weather is cold to-day. It would certainly appear that the process of judgment, by which we make the assertion that a thing is something else, that A is B, must be fundamental to processes of reasoning which can thus be reduced to series of judgments.

What, then, is the essential nature of a process of judgment? We are, as has just been said, not concerned just now with the question as to the nature of the conscious processes that accompany judgment. Marbe [1] wrote a monograph whose conclusion is that there are no conscious processes which

( 175) especially characterize judgment. Our present point of attack is this: how are movement systems related and constituted when, instead of applying the verbal formula 'A suggests B,' we use the formula, 'A is B'?

When A suggests B, either the two movement systems, A and B, form part of one and the same system, so that there exist associative dispositions between them as wholes, or some movement or smaller movement system contained in A is identical with a movement or smaller movement system contained in B. In the language of the older psychology, either A and B are linked by contiguity, as having been once experienced together, or they are linked by similarity, as having a part in common. The sight of one person may suggest another with whom he is frequently met, or it may suggest some one whom he has never seen but who has a likeness to him. We get the typical cases of 'A suggests B' in unguided revery, and it may be noted that when A has suggested B its influence generally stops. Gazing at a chandelier in a hotel lobby, I find myself thinking of Galileo; the chandelier has ceased to concern me and my attention has flown to ideas connected with the beginnings of modern science.

Now, one difference between 'A suggests B' and 'A is B' is that in the latter case A does not drop out of the account. It really was the slow swinging of the chandelier to and fro that suggested Galileo watching the cathedral lamp. The movement systems succeeded each other in approximately the following order: (1) systems concerned with the chandelier as a whole; (2) systems concerned with its slow movement to and fro; (3) systems concerned with Galileo and linked, as the chandelier was, with the 'slow swinging' systems. Now, did I, in the process of making this connection, say to myself, 'That chandelier is swinging'? Or did I pass at once on to Galileo without pausing to notice the connecting link? If I said, 'The chandelier is swinging,' I made a judgment: if not, the case was one of mere 'association of ideas.' The peculiar feature of making the judgment about the chandelier would be that the

(176) movement systems concerned with the chandelier as a whole would recur for an instant. The sequence of movement systems would in this case be: (1) systems concerned with the chandelier as a whole; (2) systems concerned with its slow movement to and fro; (3) a recurrence of the systems concerned with the chandelier as a whole ('the chandelier is swinging,' not merely 'swinging' as a phenomenon ready to detach itself from this particular context;. In a judgment, a part of the movement system concerned with the subject lasts over after the rest has ceased to act (the swinging of the chandelier is attended to after the rest of it has dropped from attention). This smaller system, a component part of the subject system, is the predicate system. Its emergence and persistence is followed by a recurrence of the subject system as a whole. Thus, the sequence is 'A—B—B-as-a-part-of-A.' And the subsequent associative dispositions will be determined not only by the predicate B, but by the predicate in connection with the subject A. If in the train of revery in which I passed from the chandelier to Galileo, I had really stopped to make the judgment 'The chandelier is swinging,' my thoughts for the next instant or so would have dwelt with the phenomenon of the swinging chandelier, and not merely with swinging objects in general. I might, for instance, have wondered if it were securely hung.

Note that I spoke just now of 'stopping' to make a judgment. It always involves delay to make a judgment, because it always involves going back on one's tracks, as it were, to revive the movement systems connected with the subject of the judgment after one has passed on to the predicate systems. For this reason, judgments are most commonly made under the influence of a problem which secures the persistent influence of the subject system. Thus for example if I were a builder or an electrician, with a permanent problem of investigating chandeliers and such objects, I should be much more likely, after noting the swinging, to recur to the chandelier instead of going on to Galileo. The judgments we make in the course of a day are usually determined by our problems: if one is a painter, on

(177) going into a room one makes judgments about the pictures on the walls; if one is an electrician, one makes judgments about its lighting arrangements. Thus Watt (148) could say that determination by an Aufgabe, a problem idea, is the characteristic feature of a judgment.

Now, a process of reasoning or inference is a judgment made indirectly. When for any reason I cannot put my head outside the window and feel for myself that the weather is cold, I have to arrive at the conclusion by inferring it from some such fact as that the horses are steaming. It is self-evident that if a simple judgment means delay, a process of reasoning means a longer delay; and it would be almost impossible for so long a delay to occur without the influence of a problem idea, and, in more complicated processes of reasoning, the activity attitude.

In reasoning, as in judgment, we start of course with the subject we are reasoning about. And always in reasoning, as often in judgment, we start also with the thing we want to prove about our subject; the predicate of our conclusion. I have an interest in knowing whether the weather is cold before I begin to reason about it: if "cold" had not entered my mind there would be no reasoning about it. Professor James. calling the predicate of the conclusion P, says, "Psychologically, as a rule, P overshadows the process from the start. We are seeking P, or something like F " (57, Volume II, page 338). This means, of course, that P, the predicate of the conclusion — coldness, in the example we have been using — acts together with the subject as a problem idea. We have, then, in operation two systems of tentative movements, those connected with the subject (the weather to-day), and those connected with the predicate (cold). The outcome of reasoning is the setting into action of movement systems that are connected with both of these systems; any other movement systems will be inhibited by the persistent recurrence of these two as the problem idea. We want to continue our thinking and planning on the basis of the ascertained fact that it is or is not a cold day.


Now, surely, it may be supposed, if we have both the subject and predicate systems excited, if we are attending to the weather and the possibility of its being cold, these two systems must have old associative connections so that the processes of association can go on without any reasoning being necessary. We have experienced cold days before, and we know what can and what cannot be done on them. This is what is called proceeding on an hypothesis. But the difficulty is that these old associative dispositions do not really connect 'to-day's weather' with the predicate 'cold'; they only connect 'weather' with 'cold': If the movement systems connected with our true subject, 'to-lay's weather,' remain active as apart of the problem, the mere hypothesis that it is cold will be soon inhibited by a return to the full problem. Not until some member of the full movement system which constitutes 'to-day's weather,' a very complicated system involving much more than 'weather' in general, proves to have associative dispositions in common with 'cold,' will the delay and constant reference back to the problem cease. Until that time, while we may be saying to ourselves, "If it is cold, I'd better take a closed cab, and have more coal put on the furnace before I go," these meditations will constantly be interrupted by the recurring question, "But is it really cold?"

But what about fallacies, mistakes in reasoning? We cannot fully describe the process of correct reasoning without examining the ways in which it may go wrong. Reasoning or inference proceeds by the discovery of what the logicians call the middle term (the steaming breath of the horses, in our example), which has associative dispositions linking it with both the movement systems of the problem, the subject system and the predicate system. Now, does the correctness of the reasoning depend on the strength of these associative dispositions? Does it, in our example, for instance, depend on the number of cold days on which we have seen the horses' breath rising like steam in the air?

Not so much on the strength of these dispositions, it may

( 179) be said in answer, as on the absence of any dispositions connecting the terms of the inference with incompatible movements. It does not so much matter how often we have noticed steaming horses on cold days, provided that we have never seen this condensation of breath vapor on a warm day. If we have, it cannot be used as a trustworthy middle term. For the movement system corresponding to the subject about which we are reasoning and that corresponding to the predicate, in order to combine to determine future systems, have to form themselves into a simultaneous system. And a simultaneous system cannot contain incompatible movements. They may perfectly well enter into successive systems, but not into simultaneous ones. Therefore the existence in any effective strength of a single associative disposition representing a 'negative instance' will injure the functioning of the whole system.

Yet people do ignore negative instances, and do guide their conduct by highly fallacious reasoning? Yes; by a loss of the original and true problem idea. They forget that their reasoning is about this particular case, and not about some other case which more or less resembles it. The subject or the predicate of their reasoning, by the many ways in which older dispositions and systems can modify and corrupt newer ones, gets altered; as my memory image of the painting adapted itself to older associative dispositions. Old prejudices and even mere verbal associations exert their contaminating effect. This is especially apt to be the case if the first attempt at reasoning out the situation fails: the activity attitude is fatigued, and the easier path is taken of reasoning about something more or less like the true subject of the problem, or accepting a somewhat different predicate which is less incompatible with the subject.

That fallacies do arise by such modifications and contaminations of the subject and predicate movement systems which should act jointly as the directing or problem idea, or more accurately, as its motor basis, may be illustrated by taking examples of the typical and classical fallacies which the logicians

( 180) term respectively the fallacy of the undistributed middle term, of illicit process of the minor term, and of illicit process of the major term. Suppose a naturalist should argue that a new specimen brought in for him to examine was a bird because it had wings. His argument would be formulated by the logician as follows: "Birds have wings; this creature has wings, therefore this creature is a bird "; and the logicians would say that the naturalist had committed a fallacy known as that of 'undistributed middle term,' in that only part of the middle term, 'creature having wings,' is referred to in each premise. Now the psychological process underlying this fallacy is something like the following. The naturalist starts with attention to the specimen before him and to the idea of several different classifications for it, 'bird' among the rest. Attention to these objects involves the activity of certain movement systems; and the system corresponding to 'bird' combines with the system corresponding to 'this specimen,' to strengthen the movements corresponding to 'wings,' which form a part of the total system for 'this specimen.' But the movements corresponding to 'wings' belong also in other systems which contain elements incompatible with the 'bird' system; insects have wings. The fallacy is committed because the 'wing' system is not allowed to develop far enough to excite these incompatible movements. In other words, the middle term is not really 'wings,' but 'bird wings'; since the reasoner started with birds in his mind, it is easier and involves less delay to think of bird wings than to think of wings in general, which would recall to him the other winged creatures that are not birds, and prevent him from committing the fallacy. Here it is the strong influence of the predicate, birds, the haste, as it were, to reach a conclusion as soon as possible, that contaminates and limits the middle term system.

As an example of illicit process of the minor term, take the case of a person who argues from one specimen of a class that all members of the class are like it. A person meets an illinformed college student, and proceeds to write a letter to the

( 181) newspaper about the failure of college education. His reasoning formulates itself thus: This person is ill-informed; he is a college student, therefore all college students are ill-informed. Here the trouble evidently is that the middle term, 'this person,' has contaminated and practically substituted itself for the minor term, 'college students,' the true subject of the reasoning. The reasoner has not allowed the system corresponding to 'college students' really to develop itself; if it had, surely negative instances would have been suggested. But a little more time and patience would have been needed for the full development of the 'college student' system, and the system 'this person as a college student' is already on the field; so it is allowed to assume the functions of a minor term when its true function is that of a middle term.

Illicit process of the major term is committed when the predicate of the conclusion is contaminated and altered. Suppose that one is occupied with the question as to whether a particular piece of property is or is not exempt from taxation. The idea of its being exempt suggests the idea of church property, which is exempt; but this property is not church property. It is therefore rashly and fallaciously considered to be not exempt. The trouble here is that the system underlying 'exempt from taxation' is not allowed to develop fully; instead of becoming the 'exempt from taxation' system, it is really the system corresponding to 'church property exempt from taxation.' If it developed as it should, there would be suggested other kinds of property, such as public school property, that are exempt and that contain no features at all incompatible with the property about which one is reasoning.

In all three of these fallacies which the logicians call formal fallacies, one of the terms contaminates and alters another, which is not allowed to develop fully. In the 'undistributed middle' example, the major term contaminates and limits the middle term; in the 'illicit minor' case the middle term limits the minor term, and in the case of 'illicit major' the middle term limits the major term. In the so-called 'material fallacies,'

(182) as contrasted with these 'formal fallacies,' the contamination of the systems underlying the terms has its source in the influence of systems outside the argument; in the thinker's general habits and prejudices. Take as a single illustration an example given by Creighton of the so-called fallacy of ambiguous middle term: "Partisans are not to be trusted; Democrats are partisans; therefore Democrats are not to be trusted." "The middle term, 'partisan,"' says Creighton, "is evidently used in two senses in this argument. In the first premise it signifies persons who are deeply or personally interested in some measure; and in the latter it simply denotes the members of a political party" (?., page 160). This transformation of a term into a different term does not show the influence of any of the other terms in the argument: the influences which bring it about may be almost infinitely varied, and may include, as was said above, the thinker's habits of mind and also the influence of the situation as a whole, or of some suggestion from his antagonist in argument. As Creighton points out, the fallacy would not be very likely to occur in so simple an example as the one just given, but might easily be produced in the course of a long train of reasoning.

Fallacies, whatever their immediate cause, always have as one of their causes laziness. Correct reasoning, involving the full development of movement systems, requires more delay than incorrect reasoning, which involves a restricted and imperfect development: delay means that the activity attitude must be longer continued, and the activity attitude is fatiguing. When it relaxes, associative dispositions take the easiest way.

The whole process of creative thinking may be conceived in some such fashion as the following. The thinker has first in mind the idea of his problem or purpose. This usually involves at least two great movement systems, which are as yet disconnected. Tarde[2] says that invention always results from the interaction of two needs: two beliefs, two desires, or a belief and a desire. The essential necessity for the creative thinker is that

( 183) he shall hold in activity both these systems in their full complexity, never allowing either one to become contaminated by the other or by his mental habits and prejudices. In each of the systems every component part must be allowed in its turn to become predominant: that is, both parts of the problem must be fully analyzed. The failures in creative thinking, whether it be the formation of a scientific hypothesis, the construction of a machine, or the production of a work of art, always come from suffering a part of the problem to be neglected or falsified: some essential condition is overlooked. As the various component parts of the two problem systems come into especial activity, they find various common motor outlets, the tentative hypotheses or suggestions towards the solution of the problem. But each of these must be inhibited while the other parts of the problem systems are allowed to come into activity, until a direction of motor discharge is found which is common to them all, and a solution is reached which leaves no part of the problem out of account. Constant reference back to the problem ideas in their uncontaminated purity; the acceptance of no partial solution, no working out of a problem which is a little changed from the original one; this is demanded of successful creative thinking, and it is possible only through the persistent dominance of the problem ideas, with the aid of a persistent and recurrent activity attitude.

The difference between creative imagination and creative thought is described by Meumann (82, page 14) as consisting in the fact that for imagination, imagery is an end in itself, while for thought imagery is only a means to an end. This statement should be modified, I think; the only form of imagination where the image can be called even relatively an end in itself is aesthetic imagination, and even here it is not really the creation of the imagery that is the end. Can an image ever be an end in itself; can anything, in an organism formed for the purpose of reacting adequately upon its environment, be an end except a movement? The scientific theorist's aim is to construct a system of tentative movements that will lead to a

( 184) series of successful full movements in response to the world outside: the inventor's aim is to construct in thought a machine that will work upon the outer world. The creator in the field of aesthetics is indeed contented that his work shall have no effect in the larger movements which influence the external world: he is satisfied that his product shall continue to influence only the realm of imagery and the tentative movements upon which imagery is based. But we must remember that' the aesthetic creator seeks to produce not only imagery but the affective reaction to imagery: not merely tentative movements, but the full motor response of those pathways which lead to the movements involved in emotion. The true statement, then, of the distinction which separates, not imagination from thought, but aesthetic imagination and thought from other forms of imagination and thought, is that the problem of the creative thinker in other than aesthetic fields involves the production of movements which affect the external world; the problem of the aesthetic creator involves the production of movements which remain as it were concealed within the other human organisms who contemplate his work: the tentative movements on which their mental imagery rests, and the full but self-limited movements which constitute their emotional responses.


  1. Experimentell-psychologische Untersuchungen ber das Urteil. Leipzig, 1901.
  2. La logique sociale. Paris. 1898.

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