The Present Problem of General Psychology

Updated: May 14

Ward, James. “The Present Problems of General Psychology.” The Philosophical Review 13, no. 6 (1904): 603.

“THE psychology of our day needs reforming from its very foundations," said Professor Lapps not very long ago, and indeed proposals for its radical reconstruction are being offered us on every side. Psychology must be thoroughly atomistic and structural, says one: it should be altogether functional, says another. For some it is the central philosophical discipline; for others it is but a department of biology. According to one view, it is merely a descriptive science; according to another, it is explanatory as well. Plainly, then, one of the present problems of psychology is the definition of psychology itself. Yet even this has been denied. " It is preposterous at present to define psychology," says a recent critic of such an attempt on my part, “preposterous to define psychology save as Black long-ago defined philology: as its own reward. It is in a process of rapid development. It has so many lines and departments that if it could be correctly described to-day, all the definitions might be outgrown to-morrow. There may be a grain of truth in this somewhat extravagant contention. But if we could define what is common ground for us all to-day, we might leave to-morrow to take care of itself. This common ground we call 'General Psychology,' and the assumption upon which, I take it, we are here proceeding is that the concepts of this general psychology are presupposed in the many special departments which we speak of as experimental (or physiological),comparative, pathological, etc., and further that these concepts will be presupposed in whatever new developments of the science the future may have in store.

To ascertain, describe, and analyze the invariable factors of psychical life, consciousness, or immediate experience is, I presume to be agreed, the main concern of general psychology. “I find myself in a certain situation, which affects me pleasantly or painfully, so that in the one case I strive to prolong the situation and in the other to escape from it." So, in ordinary language we might describe a moment of our own experience. How much of this is essential? If we are to leave any place for genetic or comparative psychology, it is said, we must answer: What is found as distinct from the finding, in other words, a self or subject cognitively and conatively related to an objective situation in which it is interested. Such a subject we should say was conscious, but not self-conscious. In order to find myself feeling, in order to know that I feel, I must feel. But I may feel without knowing that I feel. In order to know that I am, I must be, but I may be without having any knowledge-of that fact. In short, the advance to self-consciousness is said to presuppose mere consciousness. Here, then, the irreducible minimum is the functional relation of subject and object unmentioned, a duality in which the subject knows, feels, and acts, and the object is known and reacted to. But at this lower level of experience, at which the subject's functions are not immediately known, have we not a relation with only one term? And that is surely a contradiction. At the higher level where consciousness of self is present, where, that is to say, the subject and its functions are known, we have indeed two terms, but both are then objective, for self as known is certainly objective. Weave two terms now, but so far, the essential distinction of subjacent objects can no longer be maintained. So far as both terms are known or objective the distinction lapses, it is allowed; but even in self-consciousness the 'I am knowing' Kant's pure Egoism still distinct from 'the Me known' Kant's empirical or phenomenal Ego. Very good, but then in that case, it is rejoined, we are back at the original difficulty. You talk of this duality of experience, but it is still, it seems, at bottom a duality with only one known term. At the best your pure Ego or subject is -a metaphysical notion of a soul or something that lies hopelessly beyond any immediate verification.

Now this disjunction: Either in consciousness 'content of consciousness’ and then objective, phenomenal, presentational, ultimately sensational; or out of consciousness, and then empirical hypothetical, and unverifiable, this disjunction, I say, constitutes a difficult problem, which at the present time demands the most thoroughgoing discussion. But instead of thinking out the problem, psychologists seem nowadays content for the most part to accept this disjunction. Some, whom we may call 'objective' psychologists, also known as 'presentationists,' confining themselves, as they suppose, to what is empirically 'vent,' to whom 'given' and how received, they do not ask, regard the facts of experience as a sort of atomic aggregate completely dominated by certain quasi-mechanical laws. In conformity to these laws, laws, that is, of fusion, complication, association, inhibition, and the like, the elements of the so-called 'contents of consciousness' differentiate and organize themselves; and what we call the duality of subjective and objective factors is the result. The Herbartian psychology, if we leave its metaphysical assumptions aside, as we well may, is still the classic example of this type. This is the psychology which most easily falls into line with physiology and is apt in consequence to have a materialistic bias. Another school, which may we call 'subjectivist,' or perhaps 'idealist,' recognizes indeed the necessity of a subject from the outset whenever we talk of experience, but recognizes it, not because the actual existence of this subject is part of the facts, but because psychical phenomena, it is said, are unthinkable without a substratum to sustain their unity. This is the psychology that still notwithstanding the brave words of Lange cannot get on without a soul. I call it 'idealist,' because it tends to treat all the facts of immediate experience as subjective modifications, after the fashion of Descartes, Locke, and Berkeley. The hopeless impasse, into which the problem of external perception leads from this standpoint, is a sufficient condemnation of subjective idealism. Further, and this I take to be the main lesson of Kant's 'Refutation of Idealism’ such bare unity of the subject will not suffice to explain the unity of experience. Ina chaos of presentations, without orderly sequence or constancy, we might assume a substantial unity of subject; but it would be of little avail, as the facts of mental pathology amply show. Returning now to the presentationist standpoint, the one obvious objection to that is its incompleteness. As I have elsewhere said, it may be adequate to nine tenths of the facts, or better perhaps to nine tenths of each fact, but it cannot either effectively clear itself of, or satisfactorily explain, the remaining tenth. No one has yet succeeded in bringing all the facts of consciousness, as Professor James thinks we may, under the simple rubric: "Thought goes on." Impersonal, unowned experience, a mere Cogitator, is even more of a contradiction than the mere Cogito of Descartes.

But of late there have been attempts to mediate between these antitheses, so that, to use Hegelian phraseology, their seeming contradiction may be aufgehoben. Noteworthy among such attempts is the so-called 'actuality theory' of Wundt, already more or less foreshadowed by Lotze. There is, I fear, a certain vagueness in Wundt's view, due perhaps to his general policy of noncommittal; at any rate, I am not sure that I understand him. I prefer, therefore, to suggest what seems to me the true line of mediation in my own way. A relation in which only one term is known, it is said, is a contradiction. Yes, for knowledge it certainly is. But the objection only has force if we confound experience with knowledge, as the term ' consciousness ' makes us only too ready to do. If, however, experience is the wider term, then knowledge must fall within experience and experience extends beyond knowledge. Now we may perhaps venture without fear of metaphysical cavil, to maintain that being is logically a more fundamental concept than knowing. Thus, I am not left merely to infer my own being from my knowing in the fashion of Descartes’s “Cogito, ergo sum." Nor would I even say that the being supposed to be known, the object, is in fact only inferred, as Descartes was driven to suppose. Objective reality is immediately ‘given' or immediately there, not inferred. But now I am not going on to say that the subjective reality also is immediately given, is immediately there, as Hamilton and others have done. There is no such parallelism between the two: that would note our quest, but only throw us back. The subjective factor in experience then is not datum subrecipients: it is not 'there’, but 'here,' whereto 'there' is relative.

And now this receptivity is no mere passivity. It is time to discard the ancient but inappropriate metaphor of the stylus and tabularize. The concept of pure passivity or inertia is a convenient analytical fiction in physics, but we find no such reality in concrete experience. Even receptivity is activity, and though it is often on-voluntary, it is never indifferent. In other words, not mere receptivity but conative or selective activity is the essence of subjective reality; and to this, known or objective reality is the essential counterpart. Experience is just the interaction of these two factors, and this duality is a real relation antecedent to, but never completely covered by, the reflective knowledge we come to attain concerning it. It cannot be resolved either into mere subjective immanence or into mere objective position. The identification of its two terms equally with their separation altogether transcends experience; their identification is sometimes said to lead to the Absolute, and their separation, we may safely say, leads to the absurd. A subject per se and an object per se are alike, not so much unknowable as actually unreal. A psychical substance, to which experience is only incidental, is an abstract possibility of which psychology can make no use; but for every experience an actual subject to which it pertains is essential, so surely as experience connotes presentation and feeling and impulse. If we are to be in downright earnest with the notion of substance, we shall probably find that Spinoza was right, and there is only one. But though we stop short of regarding the subject of experience as a substance, it is, I think, a mistake to speak of it as a phenomenon. If the actual subject of experience is to be a phenomenon, it must be such for some other experience; and one experience may, of course, have phenomenal relations to another. But as I cannot be my own shadow, so there is a like inconvenience as Kant humorously put it in my being wholly the subject and yet solely the object in my own experience. Just as little as we can identify centre and circumference, organism and environment, because the one implies the other: just so little can subject and object be identified, because the one implies the other. The real contradiction then lies not in accepting, but in denying, this dual relation, one term of which is being subject and the other a certain continuity of known object. For psychology the being of this subject means simply its actual knowing, feeling, and striving as an Ego or Self confronted by a counterpart non-Ego or not self: the two constituting a universe of experience, in which, as Leibniz held, activity is the fundamental fact.

But this subjective activity itself furnishes us with another problem, and one of the acutest at the present time. Bradley some years ago, went so far as to call the existing confusion concerning this topic the scandal of psychology. Quite recently, however, views have been propounded that make the old confusion worse confounded. One distinguished psychologist, whilst seemingly accepting entirely an analysis of experience such as I have just endeavored to sketch and admitting its validity within the moral sciences, or as he terms them, nevertheless regards subjective activity as lying altogether beyond the purview of psychology, because it can neither be described nor explained. Another, starting from a diametrically opposite standpoint, finds subjective activity, or psychical energy, essential to the explanation of any and every experience, but finds it actually experienced in none. According to his view, it belongs entirely to the unconscious processes underlying the contents of consciousness or experience: in these contents as such there is no working factor, but only the symptoms or phenomenal accompaniments of one. A 'feeling of activity' he allows, has place within those contents; but it is only a feeling, it is not activity. A necessity of thought, he holds, constrains us to affirm the existence of real physical activity, power, or energy; though we never actually experience it, because it resides ultimately in the 'world ground,' and how experience proceeds from this is ineffable. Yet a third psychologist thinks that he has disposed of subjective activity by maintaining that introspection discovers non causal laws. In agreement with the first author mentioned and in opposition to the second, he regards all psychological connections really psychophysical.

Efficaciousness, as he calls it, he derides as a 'mere bauble.' The vitally important thing inexperience is a certain teleological quality or significance which the talk about capacity to accomplish the causal production of deeds does but obscure. Self-activity he proposes to regard, “from the purely psychological point of view," as the conscious aspect or accompaniment of a collection of tendencies of the type which Loeb has called 'tropisms,' or movements "determined by the nature of the stimulus and of the organism." In brief, we have in three recent writers of mark three conflicting positions:

(1) Subject activity is a fact of experience, but psychology cannot deal with it, because it is neither describable nor explicable.

(2) Subject activity is not a fact of experience, but it is a transcendent reality without which psychology would be impossible.

(3) Subject activity is neither phenomenal nor real: the apparent originality' or 'spontaneity' of the individual mind is, for psychology at any rate, but the biologist’s ‘tropisms.'

I cannot attempt to fully discuss these views here, but I trust I have described them sufficiently to show that the scandal of which Bradley complained is still a stumbling-block in the way of psychological advance. On one or two remarks I will however venture. In the first place these authors seem entirely to ignore the distinction between immanent action or doing and transcendent action or effectuating: the former directly implies an agent only, the latter a patient also. Nor do these authors appear to distinguish between the so-called logical principle of causation or natural uniformity and the bare notion of cause, Urschel, as active. They must of course be well aware that these distinctions exist; and we are therefore left to conclude that they regard them as invalid; for otherwise these distinctions have surely an important bearing on the problem before us. Theos-called logical I should prefer to say epistemological principle of causal connexon has two forms: (I) Given a certain complex of conditions A, then a certain event B must follow, as we say in the more empirical sciences ; and (2) The cause is quantitatively equivalent to the effect, as we say in dynamics. Into neither of these does the notion of activity enter at all : the inductive sciences find no place for it and the exact sciences haven need of it "Causation" as one of these writers says," 'marries only universals '. . . and universals conceived as the common object of the experience of many." On this point they seem to be all agreed, and we also shall probably assent. Very good; but if so, they argue, must you not admit that this causation has no place in individual experience? Granted, but then comes the question: Does the fact that I find no laws within my individual experience, but only a succession of unique events, eo ipso preclude me from experiencing immanent activity, and convict me of contradiction when I talk of myself as a real agent? Quite the contrary, as it seems to me: precisely because I am an individual agent or Ego with an equally individual counterpart Non-Ego is my experience unique : were it in fact from end to end but the outcome of universal laws or deducible from such, as the psychophysical theory implies, then certainly all efficient activity would be as absent from it as from other mere mechanisms. It is just this uniqueness and seeming contingency, which defy mechanical explanations, that conative activity explains. True, this activity is itself indescribable and inexplicable in other terms. But to say this is only to say that it is our immediate actual being, that we cannot get behind or beyond it, cannot set it away from us or project it.

To admit this that for immediate experience leaves as the first of these writers does, and yet to eliminate it from psychology in order with the help of psychophysics to convert psychology into a natural science, is surely a desperate procedure, the motives for which it is hard to conjecture. To turn out of the science, in order to separate it from the, is like giving a dog a bad name, taking away his character, in order to hang him.

With the views of the second writer I have personally much more sympathy. There is here no heroic inconsequence to bring psychology into line with mechanism at any cost; but a serious metaphysical problem, perhaps the most fundamental of all problems, that, namely, of the Absolute One and the Finite Many, seems to have biased him in the treatment of the problem before us. For the Finite Many he conceives that we are necessitated to postulate a transcendent 'real' as substratum and they figure as phenomena, dominated and determined by the law of causality, and this in precisely the same sense, whether they are psychical or physical. For the Absolute One, the World-ground, however, there is no transcendent, no substratum; here the causal becomes the teleological, and we have pure actuality. The Absolute, in short, is a World-consciousness. But, if so, we naturally ask at once, must there not be a correspondence between this absolute consciousness and phenomenal consciousness which does not exist between it and the physical phenomena, over which the law of causality is supreme? Or, if there is no such correspondence, whence do we derive this concept of actuality, which in absolute purity is predicated of the One? I admit the utter disparity between the finite and the Infinite, but may there not be degrees of reality, and may not the continuity of these be infinite? Such degrees of reality our author recognizes. If this progressive development is to mean anything, it surely must imply an experienced efficiency and not merely a higher reality, of which there is no immediate experience, which in truth is never 'found.' How there can be a finite actuality, which is yet not pure actuality; in other words, how I can be for myself more than phenomenon and yet not absolute reality, we cannot say. But our author, as I have already observed, acknowledges that even the procession of phenomena from the Absolute. But surely, if either way the problem of the One and the Many is insoluble, it is better to accept that alternative which does not seem in direct conflict with our actual experience?

The third writer too finds a justification for his position in philosophical views to which he refers as "elsewhere in part already set forth." I do not propose to follow him in search of these, but only to question the possibility of explaining the initiation of new forms of behavior by means of the biological doctrine of tropisms. This question leads us to a new problem. The idea of tropism is due, I believe, to the botanists. Certain plants flourish only in the full sunshine, others only in the deepest shade: the first the botanist would call positively, the second negatively, heliotropic. In like manner certain animals seek the light while others shun it; and their behavior Loeb would describe in the same fashion, that is to say, as due respectively to positive and negative heliotropisms: and, like some botanists, he looks solely to the physical and chemical properties of the several protoplasms concerned to explain this difference. Instincts, again, are for him but complexes of tropisms; and so throughout. The striking diversities in the habitats and behavior of animals, equally with the like diversities among plants, he regards as resting at bottom on the physics of colloidal substances. A satisfactory development of this branch of physics Professor Loeb is expecting "in the near future." I very much doubt if there is a single physicist who shares his confidence, and shall be surprised if this physics of the near future does not prove to be that sort of hylozoism which Zollner and Haeckel have championed, and which Kant long ago declared would be the death of natural philosophy or physics proper. For hylozoism in so many words attributes to matter a certain sensibility incompatible with the absolute inertia essential to matter in the proper sense of the word. Such sensibility implies a psychical factor operative throughout organic life; whereas, if biology is to be reduced to physics in the strict sense, such a factor is then and there altogether excluded. Philanthropy and misanthropy, likes and dislikes of all sorts, everything we call conative in short, will fall into line with other physical ‘polarities' or tropisms, and psychology and biology so far from working together must each give the other the lie. Either way, then, it is important to consider how far psychology can explain the bewildering variety of forms under which life now appears. Structure and function are undoubtedly correlative, but which is the determining factor? At one extreme we have the answer suggested by the conception of the formative principle, which we find in Aristotle, Leibniz, Lamarck, and other vitalists; at the other we have the answer of Lucretius, Loeb, and the neo-Darwinians. According to the one, function is primary and determines structure; according to the other, structure is primary and determines function. In the first, what I have called subjective selection, the selection of environment by the individual would be important; in the other, natural selection and 'the physics of colloidal substances would be everything. For the one, subjective initiative will be real and effective; for the other, it will be illusory and impotent. Among ourselves subjective selection shows itself in the choice of a career, and in the acquisition of the special knowledge and skill which entitle a man to be called an expert or a connoisseur. It would surely be regarded as extravagant to maintain that human proficiencies in all their manifold variety were the outcome solely of physical conditions and natural selection, and that they were altogether independent of subjective initiative and perseverance. The spur of competition may be necessary to urge a man to seek new openings and to try new methods, but the enterprise and the inventiveness are due, nonetheless, to his spontaneity and originality. Now it seems to me reasonable to assume that the like holds in varying degree among lower forms of life, that here too it is through subjective selection that the poet's words are fulfilled.

So, and not by calling the one negatively, the other positively heliotropic, I would explain the fact that the owls and the moths, for example, are active by night, while the hawks and the butterflies are active by day. And similarly, in innumerable other cases. No doubt plant life raises a difficulty. Here there is adversity at least as great as that which we find in the animal world, and here again there is as striking a differentiation of special environment. Can we refer this to anything psychical or subjective, or must we here at last fall back solely on 'fortuitous' variation of structure and natural selection? This is a perplexing and, in some ways, a crucial question. On the whole, it seems safest to assume with Aristotle a certain continuity between life and mind, the psychical and the organic. Anyhow, the higher we ascend the scale of life, the more the concept of subjective initiative and adaptation forces itself upon us ; and, till the chemical theory of life which Professor Loeb awaits is forthcoming, the principle of continuity forbids us to dogmatize as to the limits within which subjective selection is confined and beyond which tropisms take the place of conations.

Passing now from the subjective factor in experience to the objective factor, we are confronted by a new problem in the recrudescence of atomistic or sensationalist psychology that we find amongst us to-day. "Atomism in psychology must go wholly," it was said some twenty years ago by a writer much given to dicta. But atomism has not gone; on the contrary, in certain quarters it is advocated more strenuously than ever. It is easy to see the causes for this, but hard to justify it. These causes lie partly in the influence of analogy, partly in a natural tendency to imitate. The order of knowledge, it is said, is from exterior to interior, and accordingly the whole history of psychology and its entire terminology is full of analogies taken from the facts of the so-called external world. The ancient species sensibiles, the impressions of Locke and Hume, the adhesions, attractions, and affinities, in a word, the mental chemistry of Brown and Mill, are instances of this. Again, the tendency of the moral sciences to imitate the methods of the more advanced physical sciences is shown in the dominance of mathematical ideals from Descartes up to Kant, as in the Ethics of Spinoza, the theological demonstrations of Clarke, and the formalism of the Leibniz-Wolffians. When a gifted mathematician and physicist in our own day, W. K. Clifford, turned his attention to the facts of mind, he at once broached a psychological atomism of the extremist type. It is indeed only natural that the wonderful grasp which the atomic theory has given of the physical world should have provoked anew the emulation of psychologists to proceed on similar lines. Moreover, the structure of the brain when superficially regarded as a congeries of isolated neurons encourages a like attempt. And yet the moment we regard the brain functionally and not the brain merely, but the whole organism the atomistic analogy fails us at once. Functionally regarded, the organism is from first to last a continuous whole; phylogenetically and ontogenetically it is gradually differentiated from a single cell, not compounded by the juxtaposition of several originally distinct cells. There is in this respect the closest correspondence between life and mind; one of the best things Herbert Spencer did was to trace this correspondence in detail. If a chemical theory of life is for the present improbable, aquas-chemical theory of mind is more improbable still. The individual subject we must regard so it seems to me as rapport with a certain objective continuum characterized by indefinite plasticity, or possibility of differentiation, retentiveness, and assimilation. The progress of experience, alike in the individual life and in the evolution of mind as a whole, may then be described as one of continuous differentiation or specialization; diffused and simple changes of situation giving place to restricted and complex ones, vague presentations to definite ones. But under all, the objective unity and continuity persists, and whenever reach a mere aggregate or manifold of chaotic particulars, such as Kant assumed to start with.

Yes, but to describe experience as progressive differentiation and organization on more or less biological lines is mere antihistory, the psychological atomist objects: it is only description, not explanation. But then psychology, or more exactly its subject-matter, individual experience, is historical; that is to say, though psychology is not biography but science, does not narrate but generalizes, yet its generalizations all relate to individual experience as such ; and here what we may call the historical or biological categories, teleological categories, in other words, are surely supreme. It is remarkable how long the physical or atomistic bias has prevailed in human thought, but happily at length modern ideas of evolution have secured a jester recognition of the claims of the historical: I may refer in passing to the admirable philosophical expositions of these claims which we owe to Professors Wideband and Rickert. And surely it maybe contended that an orderly and coherent account of the development of individual experience, one exhibiting its rationale, soot speak, is better entitled to be called explanatory than any theory can be that sets aside the essential features of experiences life in order to make room for the categories of mechanism and chemism, which are inadequate and inappropriate to the living world. As I have just said, such attempts are natural enough, but they are also naive, and their inaptness becomes increasingly manifest as reflection and criticism deepen. At the outset men talk of thoughts as if they were isolated and independent existences, just as they talk of things; nay, ideas are then but offprints or copies of things. Locke's 'simple ideas,' for example, are pretty much of this sort: as simple and single they come, and as such they are retained save as they may be afterwards variously compounded and related. True, for Locke such compounding and relating was 'the work of the mind,' the result, that is to say, of subjective interest and initiative. But soon the inevitable further step was taken: the 'compounding and relating' of these isolated and independent elements was transferred by Hume to certain 'natural' processes, and then connected by Hartley with brain vibrations; and thus the supremacy of psychological atomism was assured for a century or more. But it is the first step that costs, as the French say, and that is what we have to challenge. The disorderly, unrelated aggregate of simple sensations is a pure chimaera, an Undoing. If genetic and comparative psychology prove anything, they prove this. The earliest phases of experience are as little chaotic and fragmentary as are the earliest forms of life. In the so-called 'contents of consciousness' at any moment, the psychologist may distinguish between field and focus, what is perceived and what is apperceived, and may allow that, as we descend in the scale of life, this distinction is less pronounced or even disappears altogether ;but discontinuity he never reaches, either in the objective or in the subjective factor of experience. And when similar situations recur, the new is not ranged beside the old like beads on a thread but the one is assimilated and the other further differentiated ;and so there results a growing familiarity and facility, as long as such situations awaken interest at all. Presentations, in short, have none of the essential characteristics of atoms, they may come to signify things but never to be them, and the growing complexity of psychical life is only parodied by treating it as mental chemistry.

How, then, it may reasonably be asked, do I propose to account for the long predominance of associationism and for the recent revival of psychological atomism in a modified form? For instance, it has been said that the so-called 'laws' of association are for psychology what the law of gravitation is for physics; surely, they must be of substantial importance to make extravagant claims even possible? Yes, as I have allowed, they deal with nine tenths of the facts. A man at forty is a bundle of habits, we say; and a bee seems to be such a bundle from the first. Again, the poet exhorts us to rise on stepping stones of our dead selves to higher things. Now it is solely in the wide region of already fixed, already organized, experience that associationism finds its province. It can deal with so much of experience as is already grown, formed, and so far, in a sense, dead; with what has become reflex, “secondarily automatic,“ to use Hartley's phrase, more or less mechanical. But here as little as elsewhere can the mechanical account for itself; these psychical ‘quasi-mechanisms' have to be made, and the process of making them is the essential part of psychical life. Presentations do not associate themselves in virtue of some inherent adhesiveness or attraction: it is not enough that they “occur together," as Bain and the rest of his school imply. They must be attended to together: it is only what subjective interest has integrated that is afterwards automatically reintegrated. Were association a purely passive process so far as the experient is concerned, it would be difficult to account for the diversities which exist in the organized experiences of creatures with the same general environment; but subjective selection explains this at once.

But the plasticity of the objective continuum, upon which this process of organizing experience depends, opens up a whole group of problems, which I may perhaps be permitted briefly to mention, though they may seem to belong to psychophysics rather than to general psychology. How are we to conceive this plasticity? J. C. Scaliger is reported to have said that two things especially excited his curiosity, the cause of gravity and the cause of memory, meaning thereby, I take it, pretty much what we are here calling plasticity. Had Scaliger known what we now know about heredity, his curiosity would have been still more keenly excited. The facts of heredity have led biologists again again to more or less hazy but withal interesting speculations concerning ‘organic memory,' as Hering has called it; 'organic memoranda' would perhaps be a better name. Memoranda, however, imply both the past and the future presence of mind, of experiencing subject, though they may exist as materialized records independently of past writer or future reader. Heredity treated on these lines commits us to a more or less poetical personification of nature; it is nature, the biologist supposes, who makes, and equally it is nature, he supposes, who uses these organic memoranda. The continuity of life as the biologist is wont to regard it renders such a view possible. But of any corresponding psychical continuity we not only know nothing, but what else we do know leads us to regard it as inconceivable. We have, then, continuity of life between parental and filial organisms, and yet complete discontinuity between parental and filial experiences. But is there after all complete discontinuity even between the two experiences? Yes, we incline to answer, the more we consider feeling, attention, initiative, the individualizing aspect of experience, or the higher and later phases of it in which these are most pronounced. No, we are tempted to answer, the more we consider the instinctive and inherited aptitudes which constitute most of what is objective in the lowest forms of life, and the beginning of what is objective in all forms. May it not be said that we here come upon the problem of the One and the Many in a very concrete form, and that it is as intractable for psychology as is the more abstract, perhaps more legitimate fort, in which it presents itself to metaphysics?

Simpler and less intractable is the somewhat cognate problem of subconsciousness. We hear of subconscious sensations as well as of subconscious memories or ideas: here I refer only to the latter. They are sometimes spoken of as traces or residua; sometimes as 'dispositions,' psychical or neural or both; the one term implying their actual persistence from the past, the other their potentiality as regards the future. The nature of this potentiality is what chiefly concerns us. Even here there must be something actual if we are to escape the absurdity, with which in this very connection Leibniz twitted Locke. Disposition is a somewhat ambiguous term. It means primarily an arrangement or collection, as when we talk of the disposition of stones in a mosaic or of troops in a battle. But it usually carries a second meaning, which however presupposes, and is consequential on, the first. Every actual combination entails a definite potentiality of some sort and usually several, one or other of which will on a certain condition become actual. Sometimes this condition is something to be added, sometimes it is something to be taken away. A locomotive with the fire out has no tendency to move, but with ' steam up ‘it is only hindered from moving by the closure of the throttle-valve or the grip of the brake. Now presentational dispositions may be assumed to be of this latter sort, to be, that is to say, processes or functions more or less 'inhibited,' the inhibition being determined by their relation to other presentational processes or functions. This, of course, is the Herbartian view. In this view the use of the term ' subconscious 'is justifiable, as long as the latency is relative and not absolute. But if we regard the so-called dispositor merely structurally, if such inexpression be allowed, if, in other words, we suppose all functioning tube absent, then there seems no warrant for the term 'subconscious/nor yet for such a phrase as 'physiological disposition/meaning tendency, and still less for that of 'psychical disposition ‘or tendency. But on the physiological side, at any rate, it seems reasonable to assume the persistence of a certain neural ' tone 'or activity: what is known as ' skeletal tone ' or muscular tonicity is indeed evidence of such persistence. Yet from the psychological side there comes the supposed fatal objection : It is surely incredible that all the incidents of a long life and all the items of knowledge of a well-stored mind, that may possibly recur, are continuously presented in the form and order in which they were originally experienced or acquired. But no advocate of subconsciousness has ever maintained anything so extravagant. Subconsciousness implies what Leibniz called involution or the existence of what, taking a hint from Herbart, I have ventured to call the ideational tissue or continuum. Though the explicit revival of what is retained is successional, recurs, so to say, in single file, yet a whole scheme, in which a thousand ideas are involved, may rise towards the threshold together; and, conversely, in the case, say, of a play which we have followed throughout, there is a like involution when at the end we express our opinion of it. It is a mistake then to suppose that all the impressions that have successively occupied our attention persist item for item in that multum in parvo apparatus which with due reserve we may call our ideational mechanism. But of their subconscious persistence as thus assimilated and elaborated there is, I think, abundant evidence. If such subconscious continuity be denied, we can accord to voluntary attention no more initiative in the revival and grouping of ideas than belonged to non-voluntary attention in the reception of the original impressions: the immediate determinants of both alike would be physical stimuli. And apparently to judge by their terminology some psychologists believe this to be the case. This whole topic of the growth and development of reminiscence and ideation has been too much neglected, largely in consequence of the spurious simplicity of the atomistic psychology; particularly its crude doctrine that ideas are mere copies or traces of impressions, its adoption of a physiological hypothesis, now seriously discredited, viz., that the seat of ideas is the same as the seat of sensations, and its failure adequately to distinguish between assimilation and association, or to recognize the wide difference that exists between the processes which it describes as association through contiguity and association through similarity. We owe much, I think, in the treatment of this topic to Professor Hoff ding’s article, especially to his distinction of ‘tied' and 'free' ideas, a distinction, however, which I find Driesch had previously drawn. I regret that there is no time left for further remarks on this problem.

Among other problems particularly deserving of consideration, I should like at least to mention the genesis of spatial and temporal perception ; the whole psychology of language, analytic and genetic; psychical analysis, objects of a higher order, the so-called Gestalt-qualities, in a word, the psychology of intellection generally. All of these, including the topic of ideation previously mentioned, lead up to what might be termed epistemological psychology, the psychology, that is, of universal experience on its individualistic side. Perhaps other members of this congress may see fit to broach one or other of these problems. But I confess that those on which I have enlarged somewhat, the definition of psychology, the nature of subject activity, and the criticism of the atomistic theory, seem to me now fundamentally the most important. I wish I had been able to deal with them in a way less unworthy of my audience.

3 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All