The Nature of the Psychical

B. H. Bode

IN undertaking to discuss the topic selected by the committee for this occasion I wish to take advantage of the enabling clause which states that "no restriction is placed upon the freedom of participants in the discussion to attack the general problem by any methods which seem to them suitable— provided only that they establish some definite connection between their contribution and the recent reflection of others upon the subject." The "recent reflection of others" which I propose as my theme is the drift of neo-realistic speculation towards behavior as the key to the mystery of consciousness, and my special task will be an elaboration of the implications that seem to be contained in this tendency or point of view.

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An approach to the problem of consciousness from the side of behavior is confronted at the outset with the necessity of choosing between two alternative modes of procedure. On the one hand, we may undertake to mark off the significant and differentiating features of the behavior called conscious by assigning to it a character that makes it qualitatively or generically different from other forms of behavior. On the other hand, we may attempt to minimize or rule out significant differences of this kind and attempt to place the distinctiveness of conscious behavior in the kind or the range of objects to which the organism responds. The latter mode of procedure is plainly involved in Holt's doctrine that consciousness consists of a certain cross-section of the environment, which is selected or marked off by a "specific response"of an organism, the specific response being defined as "a reaction which is definably distinct from its reaction to any other entity whatsoever.'' [2] Why the response in question is limited to the behavior of organisms is not altogether clear, since the reaction on gunpowder to the spark or of the anvil to the descending hammer would seem to be quite as specific as that of living organisms. Waiving this question, however, we encounter the more serious difficulty that the specific response apparently need not be a response to an object at all. The specific response is no doubt a response to something, but there is a significant difference between response to a mechanical stimulation, such as ether-waves, and response to a perceived object. This difference, it is evident, does not correspond to the distinction between the agency immediately affecting the sense-organs and some other more remote agency in the series of causes leading up to the final stimulation. To go back of the immediate stimulation in the series of causes would lead into an infinite regress, and any selection of a cross-section or set of objects as the object of response would be purely arbitrary. Conscious behavior, in so far as it is conscious, is not response to a causal agency at all. It is not response to something that precedes the response in the temporal order, but is response to an object or situation that is simultaneous with the response. The object of the response is something now present, and not something of an earlier date. On the other hand, the response, in a ease of mechanical reaction, appears to be a response to a causal agency and nothing more. There is no response to an object, as distinct from causal agency, save as an object is conveniently provided by an obliging bystander. That is, the response to an object is to all appearances quite different from the response of mechanical reaction, and it is precisely this differ-

( 290) - ence which must be emphasized and defined if we are to obtain a significant definition of conscious behavior.[3]

In support of the view that conscious behavior is of a distinctive kind it is possible to cite statements by other neorealistic writers, though at the risk, perhaps, of being reminded that even the devil can quote Scripture to his purpose. "Content of mind," says Perry, "must be defined as that portion of the surrounding environment which is taken account of by the organism in serving its interests. "[4] In Marvin's language, "If an animal's reaction can be accounted for wholly by the chemical-physical effect of an object acting upon it, we should regard the reaction as a mere tropism. or reflex. But if we could show that color, as color, or some relation between color and things implied by color (e. g., a red flag as a sign of danger) controlled the reaction, we should have to call it conscious."[5] The statement that an organism. "serves its interests" or that it reacts to "color as color" or to something "implied" by the color means either that the behavior is not mechanical or else that it is interpreted in terms of the aims and motives of an outside observer. The "interests" or the "something implied" are either not present at all in the sense suggested by the language of the quotations or they are present as future contingencies which have become concerned in giving direction to present behavior, which is to say that the behavior in question differs in an important respect from the mechanical behavior of purely reflex responses.

That conscious behavior differs in a significant way from. other modes of response is suggested further by a consideration of the different ways in which the organization of the response is secured. In the case of reflex behavior the organization is provided by circumstances or agencies that date back to a remote past. The ability to execute adaptive movements of a reflex kind is a part of the equipment with which we are endowed from the start. In conscious behavior, on the other hand, the form of organization is dependent upon the exigencies of the moment. When the need arises, different and relatively independent forms of response or systems of discharge are brought together so as to constitute a unified form of behavior which will further the adaptation of the organism. These forms of response which furnish the material for the organized total response

( 291) may have been acquired during the lifetime of the individual, and they may be responses either for complex objects, such as houses, trees, and automobiles, or for qualities like colors, sounds, and smells. Taken by itself each of these forms of response is presumably a physiological unit, like the reflex are, but in the experiential situation it is associated with other such units so as to form a more complex total response. The form of organization for this total response is not determined by a mechanism antecedently provided, but has a peculiar flexibility, so as to suit the needs of the occasion. The process of organizing the different systems of discharge into a unified mode of response is directed towards the end of securing adaptation. That is, the activity is neither predetermined by inherited structure nor left to the mercy of chance association. The activity has a destiny and an aim, which means that there is present some sort of selection from among alternative associations or courses of action. In writing a letter, for example, or in untangling the line of our fishing-rod, we are somehow controlled by an end, and at no point is it possible to withdraw this control and leave the completion of the act to the mechanism of the bodily reflexes. The organization of the activity must be provided for continuously and is nowhere laid down before-hand by inborn connections within the nervous system. It is this organization of relatively independent systems of discharge, and not specific response as such, which constitutes the characteristic feature of conscious behavior.

This contrast between conscious and reflex behavior, it will be observed, presupposes the familiar doctrine that consciousness has its origin in the state of inhibition or tension which arises when a stimulation calls forth a number of conflicting responses. A new form of behavior appears, precisely because the mechanism of the reflexes has proved insufficient for purposes of adaptation. A new principle of organization or a new mode of procedure has accordingly become necessary; and this new principle consists essentially in a mode of organization that is directed or controlled with reference to an adaptation that is still to he secured. But if a future adaptation is to determine the character of behavior, it is necessary to take account of the meaning or adaptive value that the nascent activities would have if they were released and allowed to run their course. Regarded merely as mechanical reactions, these nascent responses are more or less on a par and constitute an equilibrium of forces. From the standpoint of possible or future adaptation, however, they may be widely unequal. The possible future result of our acts, therefore, must he brought into the present so as to provide the conditions for behavior that has reference to these results; and this peculiar transfer of the future into the present is accomplished in the conscious

( 292) situation. The various systems of neural discharge which enter into the given situation and which have become severally organized as a result of previous happenings, are, in a sense, a record of the past, but by virtue of this fact they are likewise a forecast of the future. The flame, for example, which has once burned the fingers, the rock which has once inflicted a bruise, the lump of sugar which has once gratified the palate, work a change in the nervous system, so that similar objects are greeted with a different organic response on all subsequent occasions. When the flame or the rock is again presented, the organism acts as though it were suffering the corresponding kind of injury, before the injury has actually been inflicted; and in a similar way the act of eating is rehearsed before overt action begins. By thus keeping a record of the happenings which it undergoes, the nervous system is able to report in advance, as it were, what may be expected of objects when they recur. The flame is something that will burn the fingers, the rock is something that will bruise, the sugar is something that will furnish nourishment. The perceptions corresponding to these inhibited reactions embody the adaptive value which these nascent activities would have if they were completed; they forecast the possibility of future stimulations and thus transcribe or translate into terms of present fact the conditions which must be taken into account for further adjustment. The perceived object, accordingly, is the environment in the guise of a condition for further activity. Generalizing this result, we may say that all consciousness is behavior directed or controlled by the environment with reference to a future result or a future adaptation,

As long as the individual is concerned with familiar objects or qualities, conscious behavior is able to proceed with a minimum of attention. We avoid obstacles in our path or seat ourselves on a chair with little effort in the way of determining more in detail the conditions that must be taken into account. Similarly the pencil on the table is picked up for purposes of writing, is put into the pocket, or is pushed aside, according to the nature of the occasion, but none of these possibilities is surveyed with care before the act takes place. Yet the perceived object, as determined by the character of the neural response, embodies certain possibilities or alternative forms of behavior, since otherwise the response would have the fixed character of reflex activity, and perception would not occur. Since consciousness is by hypothesis dependent upon the presence of conflicting responses, some transformation of the object or situation is necessary, some act of attention must occur. The precise nature of the situation must be determined more adequately, and this need may result in a more or less elaborate scrutiny. Before using the pencil to write, for example, we may pause to note its length and to observe whether it

( 293) has been sharpened properly. The same process may, of course, occur as a result of idle curiosity and with no thought of using the pencil for writing. In this event the pencil controls behavior by holding out a promise of release to certain activities of eye and hand. In any case the object or situation controls behavior by bodying forth the results of activities which are as yet in abeyance. And this interpretation applies equally, though perhaps less obviously, to qualities like colors and sounds. The process by which we learn to see colors is a process that involves a progressive building-up of complex forms of response. But the colors doubtless feel different from the start, which means that the different stimulations set off specific reactions. As an example of such specific reaction, in exaggerated form, I may cite the classic instance of the red rag and the bull. These reactions may tend to heighten or to lower organic activity, i. e., these activities would be good or had if permitted to run their course. It is in reactions of this kind, presumably, that we may expect to find a clue to the explanation of the esthetic qualities of colors. In the course of time a more or less elaborate form of response is built up for a given color, as in the ease of more complex objects; and this response has embedded in it a host of associations, so that the perceived color furnishes the organism with a handle, so to speak, to a considerable range of further possible adaptations. In the case of memory there is a partial reinstatement of a previous response, but this reinstatement is of necessity fragmentary and determined by the circumstances of the moment. The earlier situation is not reinstated in all detail without modification; and, moreover, the recollection is tinged by association with events which happened subsequently, but which were future to it at the time. So far this description applies pretty directly to other experiences as well; the peculiar quality of pastness is perhaps due to a conflict between the physiological tendency towards total recall and the activities of the present moment, which is reflected in the experience of the event as irrecoverable, as past and gone. As long as we are on the plane of remembering, the present situation is necessarily different from the previous one; the greater our success in recalling the past the more complete is our failure to reinstate it. At any rate, recollection, like perception, apparently embodies or forecasts the outcome of nascent responses and thus shares in the function of exercising control over further behavior.

The nature of this control has already been indicated. To give attention is to respond to a result more or less dimly foreshadowed at the present moment; the situation as given needs to be enlarged or transformed, and this opens the way for the response of eye or ear or reflective thinking. Conscious behavior, accordingly, is a constant search for new stimulations or a progressive transformation of the

( 294) given situation so as to remold it nearer to the heart's desire. As contrasted with reflex action, conscious behavior is essentially experimental; its method is, at bottom, the method of trial and error. In listening to a noise, for example, the given fact which directs farther behavior is indubitably a noise, but the precise character of the noise, as the noise of a passing street-car or the rumble of distant thunder, is still a matter for further determination. The reference of the noise to a source is temporarily suspended; the noise as heard is held on probation, as it were, pending the outcome of further listening. As a consequence there arises a contrast between what is given and what is still uncertain; and this contrast, it seems, is the basis of the distinction between the object and the mental or psychical. As Dewey has pointed out, the psychical in this sense is correlated with "intra-organic events, adjustments within the organism, that is, adjustments of the organism considered not with reference to the environment, but with reference to one another."[6] The psychical or subjective is not a distinct entity or existence, but is a necessary incident, phase, aspect, or "moment" of all conscious behavior. It is a name for any fact or set of facts with reference to its status as material for more complete determination in the interests of adjustment.

In conclusion I may add that the position so briefly and dogmatically outlined is in entire agreement with the view that the problem of consciousness must be attacked through a consideration of the facts of behavior. If, however, a consideration of these facts is to be significant and enlightening, it is the difference rather than the likeness between conscious behavior and mechanical or reflex reaction that must be emphasized and interpreted. And this difference, as I have ventured to urge, lies in the reference to future results or ends. An interpretation along these lines enables us to avoid the pitfall of historic dualism and gives promise of securing to intelligence its rightful place in a world where ends or purposes are genuine and distinctive factors in the processes by which living organisms maintain themselves and convert the resources of a changing environment to their use.



  1. Read at the meeting of the American Philosophical Association, Columbia University, December, 1916.
  2. The Concept of Consciousness, p. 180
  3. The tendency to rule out significant differences is characteristic of Holt's entire treatment. Thus the temporal order becomes just an instance of the logical, timeless activity of the neutral entities; error is explained as just a case of conflict or interference; and volition is a law and nothing more. With all allowance for the ingenuity of treatment, there is considerable ground for the suspicion that our problems are solved by being huddled out of sight.
  4. Present Philosophical Tendencies, p. 300.
  5. A First Book in Metaphysics, p. 262.
  6. Essays in Experimental Logic, p. 227. Cf. also Dewey, "Perception and Organic Action," this JOURNAL, Vol. IX., p. 645; and Mead, "The Definition of the Psychical," Decennial Publications of the University of Chicago, Vol III.

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