The Standpoint of Psychology


Creighton, J. E. “The Standpoint of Psychology.” The Philosophical Review 23, no. 2 (1914): 159. https://doi.org/10.2307/2178721


THE problem of the standpoint of psychology is a perennial one. Here at home, it has been under almost constant consideration for a quarter of a century; the presidential addresses delivered before the Psychological Association have frequently contributed to its discussion; it has already been considered in a joint session of the two associations present today; and it is a subject that will doubtless occupy the mind of our successors as long as interest in the nature of mind continues. It might at first sight appear that this question is one that concerns psychology only, that the problems involved belong solely to the technique of that science and are to be decided exclusively by considerations of convenience and utility in the course of its detailed procedure. It is undoubtedly true that it is impossible to prescribe in advance the methods to be employed in any inquiry. The mode of hypothesis which may be found essential at any particular point, and the provisional abstractions to be adopted, are questions that can be determined only in the light of the special problems under investigation. But it is possible to make a distinction between such problems of special method and the question regarding the general aim and standpoint of a science. In the case of the physical sciences, the general standpoint and logic of their procedure is definitely formulated in the series of propositions that we know as the mechanical theory. In developing consistently this standpoint, these sciences abstract from all individual differences and qualities, reducing physical phenomena to relations existing between quantitative units. This mode of inquiry has for its object the precise formulation of certain general aspects of the material world that are regarded as fundamental for the purpose in hand. The result is found to apply to particular physical things with sufficient accuracy facer practical purposes, but it is not, and is not intended to be, a direct description of individual things.


Now when we approach the problem of psychology, there are two questions that may fairly be raised, which are not at all questions regarding special method or technique. Would results analogous to those obtained in the physical sciences satisfy the interests and legitimate demands of psychology? That is, have we a right to ask from psychology anything more than an exact account of the general conditions of mind expressed as quantified terms and relations? The second question is whether the difference between mental life and physical reality is of such a character as to render an identical, or even closely analogous mode of treatment impossible in the two cases?


In attempting to answer the first question, I think it must be admitted that a genuine interest leads us to demand a formulation of the general nature or conditions of mentality, and also that this formulation shall be expressed in the most accurate terms possible. The purpose of such laws, assuming that they can be obtained, would seem to be identical with the laws of the physical sciences: they are primarily instruments for the control and prediction of behavior. But quite apart from the question whether general psychological laws can be applied to individual cases with anything approaching the certainty that obtains in the case of physical laws, it cannot be maintained that psychology has no other interest or goal. The primary psychological interest, I venture to believe, seeks to understand individuals, our own mind and those of others; and to understand individuals is to know them from the inside as centers of experience. When, on the other hand, we speak of the 'phenomena' of the physical sciences, the word connotes precisely the fact that the objects dealt with are not taken to possess any inside center at all: their ‘value,' is extrinsic to them, being derived from the initial assumptions and hypotheses of the inquiry. Now, assuming for the present that general laws of the same type as those of the natural sciences can be obtained in psychology, it is important to clearly recognize that here as their abstraction is the price 'that has been paid for the exact form of the result. In psychology, moreover, we appear to leave out of account just what is most essential and significant: we abstract from all individuality and treat the person as a series of phenomena. It is worth noticing in this connection that from this point of view the central principle, the self or ego, is excluded by a prior consideration, not on empirical evidence. There cannot be any such principle, just because the standpoint is committed in advance to deal only with existences or 'phenomena' of the type already described.


Now, at a later point I shall raise the question whether any such a natural science of mental states is possible, whether all such assumed general psychological laws are not at bottom cases of physiological uniformities. Whatever may be the answer to this question, I am here insisting that laws of this type donor exhaust the possibilities or satisfy all legitimate demands of psychological inquiry. There is a form of intelligibility of a different type from that afforded by the logic of the natural sciences. That the latter type of uniformity alone can form the basis of science was, indeed, the assumption that led Kant tohis limitation of knowledge to phenomena. But the historical significance of Kant's work consists precisely in the fact that he made evident the necessity of categories that lay outside his own formal table.1 The same logical assumption also underlies Bergson’s sharp contrast between Reason and Intuition. But against any such theoretical limitations of 'knowledge' or 'logic ‘as Kant and Bergson assert, one can always point in reply to the form of intelligibility actually attained in history and the kindred group of sciences, in other words, to the achieved logic of the century that has elapsed since Kant's death. It is an anachronism, then, to maintain that a science of psychology demands the discovery of uniformities of the same type as those of the natural sciences. To comprehend the world of mind, the realm of experience, is to discover the universal in the form of individualized experience. And such a universal cannot take the form of a quantitative uniformity, or abstract concept. What is sought from this point of view is the 'idea' or concrete form of the mind,' a form of universal that permits of and indeed presupposes different opposing yet mutually complementary individuals expressing themselves in diverse purposive systems. Moreover, this ' idea ' of mind as a concrete universal is not a formula that has eliminated time, or that refers only to a cross section of mind at a particular moment, as is true of the ' natural science 'type of uniformity. It is concrete in the sense that it looks before and after, comprehending the 'idea' that unites the different stages of a developing process. It is insight in terms of such a living mind that is presupposed in most of our concrete dealing with our fellow men. It is explanation from this point of view alone renders history intelligible to us. Moreover, it would appear that psychology of this individualized form is needed both as a guide to educational practise and to the efforts directed towards social improvement. Whenever and wherever the interests in human relationships, the 'phenomenal' or 'natural science ‘categories are incapable of expressing what we want to know; only a psychology of real human beings can afford light or practical guidance in this type of inquiry.


It appears necessary, therefore, to recognize that there may be two, or even several distinct methods of investigating the mental life, the standpoint and procedure in each case being determined by the purpose that underlies and guides the investigation. The question of course still remains as to whether all these are to be called 'psychology,' and if not, which form of inquiry may with best right claim the name. Miss Calkins has long contended for the 'double standpoint' in psychology; ankle has lately suggested the possibility that psychology may lead the future be divided into two branches, one type being more closely connected with the physical sciences, and the other belonging more distinctly to the mental sciences. 1 It is evident that no complete agreement on this whole subject has yet been attained; but it would nevertheless appear that we have reached a stage in the discussion where there is something approximating to consensus of opinion on certain important points. The discussion has led us to see that the natural science standpoint has no exclusive or superior claim as a method of studying the mental life. And, secondly, it has impressed upon us the necessity of clearly recognizing the aim and purpose of the different modes of inquiry in order to avoid the errors that arise from a confusion of categories. Moreover, I think that we demand more emphatically than formerly that the results obtained by any method shall have some concrete significance. To decide what constitutes concrete significance may be a point upon which it would be difficult for us all to agree; but we do recognize that psychology, like all the other sciences, has a social responsibility for the character of its results. These agreements would seem to constitute a long step in advance; indeed, something like a new era in the history of modern psychology. The second question that I have proposed concerns the possibility of an existential science of psychology, that is, a science based on the ideal of intelligibility that obtains in investigations of the phenomena of external nature. What does a natural science of mind presuppose? It presupposes that mind is an existential mode of reality, a stream of actually existing conscious processes or states, temporal though not spatial phenomena, which can be found embodied at a particular moment in a form as definitely assignable as that which belongs to the objects of the physical world. This general mode of thought, together with the notion of elements, and the type of analysis which this notion carries with it, are all included in the doctrine of psychology as a natural science. As is well known, the term that plays the major role in this type of system is sensation, so that it is customary to speak of this account of mind as sensationalist psychology. Now, without referring to any of the special difficulties to which this standpoint gives rise or dwelling upon the fact that there are fundamental disagreements among those who hold it as to how the elements and relations of the mental life are to be represented, it seems possible to question the whole set of assumptions on which the standpoint rests. Psychologists have a favorite method of discounting results that differ from their own: they suggest that these are evidently 'logical' constructions rather than genuine psychological observations. Now something may be said on occasion both for observation and for logic; but does either one or the other support the doctrine of mental states as modes of existence?


If appeal is to be made to observation, the question is whether introspection actually discovers an inner world of existing phenomena. This question is not a new one, but in one former another has been raised on many sides. In a paper read before the Philosophical Association three years ago Professor Woodbridge argued against the common view of the reality of sensations. And a similar view was suggested by Professor. E. Taylor in the joint discussion between our Association sat Cambridge eight years ago. Mr. Taylor, while maintaining the affiliation of psychology with the natural sciences, said: “If we are to hold rigorously to the distinction [between individual and over-individual objects], must we not at least lay it down that there is no such a thing as the psychology of cognition since the immediate objects of cognition (sense qualities, physical things, memory images, universal concepts)are all uber individuelle objekte, while, as to the unique processes by means of which individuals cognize these objects, it may at least be doubted whether careful introspection reveals certain evidence of their existence; i. e., it may be that what we call the psychology of cognition is a mere temporary stepping-stone to the cerebral physiology, on the one hand, and the logic, on the other, of a more scientific future."


The point of the objections that are being brought against the natural science type of psychology, as I understand them, is directed against the account of mind in terms of existing inner processes or objects. The reality, not of the mental life, but of its alleged existential modes, is called in question. Existential science, it may be maintained, finds its limits in the physiology of the nervous system; since the most careful observation fails to find any world of inner objects that can be analyzed and related as are the objects of the physical order. The life of mind is a realm of judgment, value, and appreciation, a life of activity and interpretation. The description of the mind in terms of psychical objects is a pure fiction, the result in part of carrying over and duplicating internally the various attributes and aspects of external objects, and in part of representing the phases of our internal experience in symbols analogous to those which we employ in describing these objects. This criticism of the ordinary psychological standpoint goes farther than the contention of Bergson that the inner life has been distorted by the assimilation of time to space; it separates in a still more radical way the life of mind from outer objects by denying the relevancy in the former sphere of the entire existential point of view. That is, Bergson does not go farther than to maintain the continuity and non-mechanical character of the mental life, leaving it to be conceived as still possessing some kind of a temporal mode of existence. But the reality of the appreciative life does not base itself upon existences of any sort, whether continuous or discontinuous. To be in consciousness is eon ipso to be judged, interpreted, used. There is therefore no meaning in the metaphor of an existing state or image as a necessary prius, or 'bearer ‘of a meaning. Meaning is not a secondary intention, as it were, of the mental life: experience when taken directly and concretely is itself made up of purposes and values. It is of course impossible here to do more than indicate the nature of the issue. Butane must admit that psychology has no longer an unchallenged right to the claim that introspection reveals an inner world of existing states of consciousness. The evidence of the professed expert or trained observer is called in question and cannot be regarded as conclusive in itself. What is at issue is clearly something that cannot be determined by bare observation; it is a question of categories, or of the standpoint of interpretation, and this can be settled only by a comprehensive view of the nature of experience as a whole.


It is, however, maintained by some that the logical interests of science require that the purposive life shall be broken up into a series of internal objects and described from the existential point of view character of concrete mental life than Professor Muensterberg. Yet he maintains that the psychologist is required by a logical necessity to transform the world of values and meanings into a series of inner individual objects that can be described and determined from the existential point of view. Now a few years ago I was inclined to accept this doctrine of Professor Muensterberg, both because it seemed satisfactory in itself, and also because, as it appeared to me, it afforded a practical distinction and modus vivendi for philosophy and psychology. At present however, I feel inclined to question not dogmatically, but inquiringly both the necessity and the value of this particular mode of transforming the concrete experience. I was long ago convinced that there is no path from the purely existential standpoint to that of values, from psychical states to logical or ethical appreciations; and I therefore have never been able to regard the natural science account of mind as an actual description of the concrete experience of individual life. It is, however, possible, and often necessary to pass from the concrete to the abstract, i.e., to adopt abstract analysis as a means to further concrete intelligibility; but it is necessary to repeat, the transformation into abstract terms can never be an end in itself: it is justifiable only when the process of abstraction serves to promote understanding and to facilitate control. No one can doubt that analysis of some sort is indispensable to scientific understanding of the mental life; but is it necessary to adopt the existential form of analysis? Why assume that understanding demands everywhere the same unvarying form of result? Moreover, when one has once recognized that the concrete character of mind manifests itself in terms of value, how is it possible to break this life up into terms so radically different in nature? For the transition from the one mode of reality to the other cannot be accomplished by any ordinary process of abstraction. The passage is not affected by simply selecting and omitting certain elements; but it is, as Professor Muensterberg names it, a 'transformation,' a passage into another genus.


I find further grounds for doubting whether the transformation of the mental life into terms of existence is really indispensable in the fact that Professor Muensterberg does not bestow upon the constructed series of inner objects the full rank and efficiency of an existential order. That is, he demonstrates, very convincingly, I think, that the scientific conception of causality can have no application to this order of psychical objects. Causal explanation must be found outside of the psychological objects in the corresponding brain events. It seems pertinent to ask; Why, then, construct this order of psychological objects? It would seem that we are compelled in the last resort to go to brain events, to brain physiology, for the final statement of the laws of a psychology that has been assimilated to the methods of the physical sciences. What advantage is there, then, in interpolating psychical states or existences between the physiological processes and actual experience?1 I cannot at present see why one may not look to the cerebral physiology of the future for an account of the general existential conditions of mentality in non-individualized form. It is in terms of brain physiology, I am inclined to believe, rather than in terms of states of consciousness, that the natural science of the mental life is to be written. It is undoubtedly true that such a science of brain physiology cannot be constructed without observation of the concomitant changes and modifications of consciousness. It might therefore properly enough be named physiological psychology, or psychological physiology. Whatever name is applied to this mode of inquiry, it is of fundamental importance to distinguish its method and purpose from what I have called concrete psychology. The one mode of inquiry is directed toward the discovery of the universal in its abstract generality, expressible in quantitative terms; this is the method of knowing things from the outside, as phenomena, or modes of existence. The other type of investigation, working, as it were from within, seeks to comprehend its subject matter in terms of a different kind of universal, a concrete individualized universal that expresses itself in the form of purposes and ideals.


In discussing this subject, it should not be forgotten that psychology of the latter type is something more than an unrealized proposal. The great historical systems of psychology have in the main been written from this standpoint, and many of the most fruitful psychological investigations of our own time have been obtained by the employment of these internal categories. The whole series of works that have appeared on social psychology, and on the psychology of language, myth, and religion are concerned with individualized forms of experience.


Moreover, even insofar as this type of psychology remains an unrealized program, it yet is seen to represent a genuine need of concrete knowledge. For the demand for psychological insight is just a demand to understand the values and purposes of ourselves and others, and the functions through which these are realized. Reference has been made frequently to the service that psychology is able to render to medicine, and especially to nervous pathology, and it has been claimed, I think, that it has been able to render this service because it has adopted the form of a natural science. Even if this claim is quite justified, however, the fact should not be overlooked that in so far as psychology has limited itself to the abstract point of view its results have declined in significance, not only for philosophy, but for history and the whole group of humanistic sciences. It should not be forgotten that the standpoint determines the nature of the results: if one sows abstractions, one must reap abstractions.


Psychology has had to pay a heavy price for its independence of philosophy in the decline of genuine human interest in the character of the results which it has attained. Nevertheless, I believe that since our discussion at Cambridge, eight years ago, psychologists have become increasingly aware of the relation of their science to humanistic fields of inquiry, and of the responsibilities that such a relation entail. And, as a consequence of this new emphasis and interest, psychologists are likely in the future to rank themselves with the humanists rather than with the representatives of the natural sciences. Even at the present time we have a considerable number of psychological treatises whose affiliations, both as regards subject matter and method of analysis, are with philosophy and the historical sciences.

There are two difficulties which are often urged against the possibility of a personal or individualized type of psychology. On the one hand, doubts have been expressed regarding the attainability of scientific analysis from this point of view. And, secondly, it is asked how it is possible to delimit such a type of psychological inquiry, how it can be differentiated from the various philosophical disciplines like logic and ethics, or even from the social and historical sciences. I will refer only briefly to these questions.


That every science must employ analysis is undoubtedly true. But it is equally true that analysis is not an end in itself, that not every or any mode of analysis is a step toward intelligibility. Analysis, to be helpful, must be significant; and it is significant only when it is guided by a synthetic purpose or idea of the conditions of intelligibility in the specific field of inquiry. Now it is often said that the strength of the 'natural science ‘psychology lies in the definiteness of its analytic procedure. This alleged definiteness is, however, a result of the existential point of view that is adopted by this inquiry, and merely expresses the fact that the psychical elements and terms are pictured in aquas-material form. The essential question is as to the mode of synthesis, the mode of intelligibility, to which this analysis leads up. We have already seen that the ' natural-science' synthesis expresses itself in terms of abstract general laws, and that psychology is compelled to recognize another task, that of rendering intelligible the inner appreciative life of the individualized form of experience. In fulfilling this task, then, psychological analysis must be set forth in terms of the activities and functions through which the individual expresses, maintains, and develops his life. Analysis, from this standpoint, distinguishes and describes the system of means and instrumentalities which the self employs in solving its various practical and theoretical problems. The problems of mind at its primary level concern the maintenance of life and the control of bodily movements. Since the mind is continuous with the principle of life, the maintenance of life is, as it were, its primary end, and bodily movements and adjustments are its indispensable instruments. The living body, from this point of view, is not a complex of bodily existences, but a teleological instrument, an implicit individual, that is realized through the development of consciousness. It is because of the consciousness of life and mind, and because it is life that thus sets the first problems for mind, that the analysis of the biological functions affords the essential clue to the analysis of mentality at this stage. If the interest in psychology were limited to these more elementary functions, the psycho-physical organism might, rightly enough, be taken as the unity in the terms of which psychological analyses are to be expressed. But the development of mental life involves transcendence of the ends set by the living body, and the creation of a scale of values that have no direct reference to the well-being of the bodily life. Moreover, the process of mental development leads to a point where the direction of bodily movements is not the sole, or even the most characteristic, function of mind. The main emphasis of the address that Professor Judd delivered as President of the Psychological Association a few years ago was directed to show that the development of mind reveals a continuous creation of ends and means, in which, and by means of which, its functions take on a new form and significance. Terpsichore-physical life is taken up and used as an instrument in far as it is capable of rendering service; but life which has attained its individualized form in self-consciousness has created language and is concerned primarily with problems that transcend the psycho-physical level.


It does not seem to me that this fact has always been borne sufficiently in mind by those who have employed the psychophysical method of analysis. In describing the functions of mind that belong to its more highly developed stage by means of terms and analogies drawn from the earlier level, there is, I think, a certain advantage. In this way the continuity of life and mind are rightly emphasized. But the disadvantages arising from a failure to recognize differences as they appear are equally obvious. The employment of the same terms carries with it the tendency to overlook the fact that, in the process of development itself, a new type of problem has been evolved, and that one is therefore not confronted with an unchanging type of situation. For example, there is something analogous to biological habit in the higher mental life, but this is also different in important respects from biological habit; or again, it must not be forgotten that terms like 'adjustment' or 'activity,' if employed to describe phases in the solution of an intellectual problem, are not to be allowed to commit us in advance to pragmatism by the importation of their more usual connotation. By interpreting functions exclusively at the level of bodily movements and adjustments fundamental differences and distinctions are obscured.


On the main issue, then, I agree with the position taken by Miss Calkins, that psychological analysis is most concrete and adequate when it is expressed in terms of a self. Such a conception may well include, as she suggests, all that is valid psyche-physical functionalism, while at the same time avoiding the tendency to interpret what is specifically characteristic of mind by means of biological categories. It appears to me, however, that Miss Calkins, as she proceeds, tries to combine two incompatible standpoints. Having reached in her argument the functional point of view of a self, she turns her back upon the categories and form of analysis which this view involves and insists that the account of mind must still be written, at least impart, in terms of existential elements. The main purpose of the self-psychology thus seems to consist in introducing new elements, which are indeed more pervasive and ubiquitous than those commonly recognized by psychologists, but which are still, like the latter, existential structural units. It is new elements, not a new point of view, that one finds at the end of her series of articles in the Journal of Philosophy. Or at least there is a failure to realize how completely the concept of the self transforms the natural science standpoint. This appears clearly, I think, from the statement in the concluding article of the series. “This proposed description of consciousness, in terms of the characters of the conscious self," Miss Calkins writes, "cannot take the place of the so-called structural analysis of consciousness into elements. On the contrary, the structural analysis, which is common to all forms of psychology, must supplement the description peculiar to self-psychology. From the structural standpoint, consciousness, though conceived as self, is regarded (spite of its inherent relatedness and persistence) as if in artificial isolation from surrounding phenomena, and as if momentary. The results of the analysis of consciousness, thus conceived, are the so-called elements of consciousness."1 Another passage in the same article states that "the analysis into elements is an analysis of the self's consciousness when the self is conceived without reference to other selves or to its own past or future."2But what meaning can be given to a self that is thus reduced to a mere punctum stans, a bare existence? What is the necessity, one is bound to ask, of making such an abstraction, and how in detail does the abstract form of analysis subserve intelligibility in this case? I am not maintaining that what Miss Calkins calls structural analysis is never necessary or useful; but I do hold that from the point of view of a self-psychology it is not tube regarded as an end in itself, coordinate with the other form of analysis. It has a meaning and justification only as an instrument, a temporary abstraction that is demanded by the interests of the concrete analysis, and the results of which must be translated into the terms of the main inquiry. Thus, for example, if one were to undertake to analyze the character of any form of thinking, it would doubtless be necessary to introduce as a subordinate part of the main procedure what might be called a structural examination of the mental imagery involved. But this examination would not constitute an independent inquiry: it would be significant only when, by annulling the temporary abstraction, it was again included as a subordinate, though integral part of the main body of results. The self, if it is to furnish a fruitful concept for psychology, must be regarded as something more than a point of reference. Miss Calkins's main difficulty seems to arise from the fact that, in her view, the self remains on the sensational, existential plane. It cannot, therefore, attain to genuine universality. As an appreciative self, indeed, it is not thus isolated and particularized, but looks before and after, and stands concretely united to a real world of persons and things. But it would seem as if Miss Calkins believes that the self, in order to validate its claim to reality, must be capable of being found by the type of introspection that seeks and finds only modes of existence. The whole question of what introspection actually yields is, of course, involved in the present discussion. Miss Calkins has insisted that introspection affords us knowledge of various kinds of relations, and reality feelings, thus extending the possibilities usually assigned to it; but she fails, I think, to look at the universal and objective aspects of mental life, evidently assuming that whatever is real must be embodied in some particularized existential form, and that it is this that gives us assurance that it is no mere creation of the fancy. This, however, is to subordinate the appreciative standpoint to the existential, which is, I think, quite opposed to the real spirit of her contention.


There is another point of great importance in connection with the question of the analysis of experience which I can the more readily pass over with a mere mention because it is likely to receive attention from other speakers who are to follow and who are more competent to discuss it. That is the question of the value and character of the psychological analysis affected by comparative and historical studies of the objective manifestations and products of mind. It would appear that the tremendously important results that are obtainable from these sources are contributions to the psychology of the appreciative individualized form of mind, rather than to an analysis in terms of structure. If this be true, the resources of analysis that the former has at its command are almost infinite and may well compensate for the greater difficulty of applying experiment from this point of view. As is well known, however, experimentation has already been successfully employed as an instrument for effecting this type of analysis in certain fields, so the dividing line is not that between an experimental and a non-experimental psychology.


There remains the objection that such a type of psychology as I have been discussing would have no definite limits or boundaries, that it would lose itself in philosophy, or in history. Perhaps no better protocol for the discussion of this question can be found than Bacon's reminder that the distinctions of the sciences must not be conceived as absolute gulfs and divisions, but only as veins and markings in one continuous body. Division of labor and distinction of categories are, of course, essential to progress in scientific work; but at the present time it is perhaps even more important to seek for some principles of integration and unity. I believe that not only psychology, but all the sciences, require to be humanized and rendered concrete, as Bacon and Comte pointed out, by being brought into relation to the life of humanity. When dissociated from philosophy and history they are no better than dead branches severed from the parent trunk. It is inadvisable, then, to fix absolute divisions or to attempt to determine the limitations of the different sciences on purely formal grounds. If the conception of unity and supplementation is preserved as the guiding idea, this will itself operate as a principle of division of labor. A formal or a prior delimitation of the different sciences is lacking in the flexibility and capacity for adjustment that is demanded by the changing conditions and relationships of a growing body of truth. In particular, it is essential that the connection between philosophy and psychology that has in recent years been somewhat weakened should be restored and strengthened.1 A close intimacy and a constant give-and-take association is essential to the fruitful development of both these subjects. This is not the place to attempt any account of the division of labor that seems to be called for at the present time. The lines of division will, as I have said, grow out of and be determined by the demands of this close association, probably taking new directions from time to time as the inquiry advances.


3 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All