Philosophic Implications of Organismic Psychology

Jacob Robert Kantor

THE circle is the most perfect of figures. So taught the ancients. But times have changed. Nowadays our most familiar circles are vicious ones. Of this species there is no more striking example than that which symbolizes the relation between psychology and philosophy.

In the beginning was philosophy.[1] The germs of modern psychology are embedded in a dualistic philosophical background. On the one hand is thought, and on the other extension. Howsoever our Renaissance forebears have rationalized this duality, our intellectual heritage has brought us the undesirable division of the world into the physical and the mental.

Here lies the beginning of our vicious circle. As a consequence of this dichotomy of the world, traditional psychology has been conceived as the science of psychic phenomena. It is still held, though with wavering assurance, that psychology deals with states or processes which are in principle different from other phenomena. For one thing, they exist in time but not in space. In general they otherwise partake of attributes and qualities not found in physical things.[2]

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But let us indicate the flowering of these dualistic germs in present day psychology. Any natural object Wundt thinks can be looked at from two standpoints. "A stone, a plant, tone, a ray of light, are, when treated as natural phenomena, objects of mineralogy, botany, physics, etc. In so far, however, as they are at the same time ideas, they are objects of psychology."[3] So stones and plants are ideas, that is to say, complexes of sensations, to wit, psychic stuff or process.

Here is the completion of our vicious circle. Despite the fact that this total misconception of nature has originated in the philosophical realm of our intellectual economy, such traduction of nature, which is the scandal of psychology, is seized as a prop by the philosopher to support his misconstructions of the nature of reality. Fortified with such metapsychology, the philosopher calmly maintains in his intellectual armory, conceptions concerning the spiritual nature of the world. Thus the existence of all forms of supernatural things, whether regarded as belonging to the realm of nature or of value, is presumed to be guaranteed by the science of psychology.

Now it is our thesis that psychology need not at all constitute a point in such a vicious circle. It need not at all be impregnated with metaphysical germs which are later cultivated into spiritual abstractions. As a science, psychology is exclusively concerned with concrete natural phenomena. To the psychological science based upon an entirely naturalistic foundation, we give the name organismic.


Organismic psychology begins as the study of some actual event, a reflex response, say, or a belief. Its subject matter is the interaction between an organism and

(199) the specific objects with which it comes into contact. Notice that no assumptions are made concerning mind and body; or, perhaps it is more correct to say that such assumptions are decidedly ruled out. Organismic psychology approaches its subject matter in the same way as did the Galilean type of physicist. That physicist, let us recall, threw overboard the Aristotelian assumptions concerning forces in things in order to formulate a description of what actually happens when a body falls. The result was a formula of the interaction of two bodies under certain definite conditions. Similarly in psychology, all descriptions and laws must be based upon observations of the organism in contact with other organisms or things.

Considering all types of contacts of these two interacting things, one may formulate a series of happenings which may then be regarded as definite characteristics of psychological events. Thus, for example, we have the characteristics of variability, modifiability, delay, integration, inhibition, and differentiation.[4]

Objects which interact with other objects on this plan we call psychological organisms. What the organisms do we call psychological responses, while the activities of the other things in the interaction we call stimuli functions. Consciousness, or the mental, are then names for kinds of facts which answer to behavior descriptions categorized under such symbols as we have just indicated. Upon the basis of the differing interactions of things, the field of psychology is differentiated from that of biology, physics, and the other special sciences.

Observe now that instead of psychology providing aid and comfort to those who would dichotomize the world into mental and physical substances or processes, it does quite the opposite. Organismic psychology not only leaves no room for such conceptions, but excludes them from the

( 200) domain of scientific description. The terms mental and physical lose their metaphysical connotations. They refer merely to different kinds of natural events.

Before proceeding further, let us pose an important question. Does organismic psychology leave anything out of account? Emphatically not. Can it handle thinking, Ideals, desire, ideation, and believing? Most assuredly. And we may add that to treat such activities as concrete interactions between organisms and other things means that we can really understand them.[5] In this connection we submit that there has never yet been made a description of a mental state, sensation, or idea, which does not come down to a description of some kind of interaction between organisms and objects. Everything with which psychology has to do comprises such responses to objects.[6] Ideas, beliefs, reasoning and every other form of psychological fact constitute such interactions. Some psychological interactions include crude responses such as walking, talking, and running. They are crude because to a great extent they are dependent upon the biological structures of the organism. Others involve more subtle actions because they are less dependent upon the structures of the organism, and more dependent upon stimuli objects and the historical connection of the organism with them.

So far as concerns scientific psychology, therefore, no place is left for psychic substances or processes. These are contrived abstractions developed through linguistic processes, namely, propositions, and thus constitute merely references of linguistic or verbal actions. We have already sufficiently pointed out that such abstractions or interpretations have their sources not in actual observations of things but in historical traditions.

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What are the consequences? What of those who believe that to do away with the psychic is to deprive ourselves of values? What, upon this basis, becomes of faith and hope? The obvious answer is that, as scientific or philosophical students, our purpose is to pursue the facts before us no matter whither they may lead us. After all, we might question what kind of faith and hope can be founded upon the shifting sands of false knowledge and false ideas?

But all this is rather general. Let us turn to a more definite statement of organismic psychology. For this purpose we will consider briefly two crucial types of phenomena, namely perceiving and imaging.


The organismic psychologist studies perceiving as the activity of an organism on the one hand and an object on the other. The observation consists in taking account of what actually happens between the two interacting things. Now one of the results of such an observation is that the organism reacts differently to different kinds of objects. We may say that different objects produce different effects upon the organism. Essentially, this means that it differentiates between diverse things according to their different qualities or properties.

Upon the basis of numerous observations, we can isolate a series of differential qualities to which the organism responds. For example, by changing one single quality of an object, letting all the others remain the same, we find that the reactions are correspondingly different. Thus is drawn up the large list of qualities to which organisms are sensitive or respond differently.

The important point to notice is that the qualities are in no sense dependent upon the organism for their existence, but they belong to the object. Colors, sounds, and

( 202) odors are factors in the existence of objects just as the power or capacity of the organism to respond differently to those objects, is a function or quality of the reacting organism. These qualities are analyzed out of things by the psychologists, on the basis of the differential responses of the organism, in the same sense that the physicist analyzes out of them atoms and electrons. These qualities are not states of mind projected, or made, into objects.

This last proposition holds even when the thing reacted to is the organism itself. It is a commonplace, of course, that the organism can react to itself. But unfortunately this fact has led to serious misinterpretations. The belief in mental states or qualities feeds upon the fact that a pain reflex is a reaction to a condition existing on the surface of the reacting organism. For, in this case, the organism's interaction with an object is not so obvious. This belief blossoms when the pain reaction is one which involves a contact of the organism with something contained within its own bodywall, such as a toxin or an organism attacking and destroying tissue.

Such is the perceptual response in its simplest and most primitive form. In so far as we can describe the event as one in which an object merely produces an effect upon an organism, the action is not primarily cognitive. But in more complicated perceptual interactions the elementary effect produced upon the organism has a further consequence. In other words, another definite reaction follows upon the perceptual response. The organism may reach for the object or perhaps run away from it. In this situation, the distinctly perceptual response may be regarded as a preliminary phase of a response pattern. The observer may then label it as a cognitive action or a cognitive phase of the behavior pattern. No doubt the more overt cognitive [7] forms of behavior may be regarded as

( 203) having been evolved from the subtle and covert non-cognitive sensing responses.

A more complex evolution of perceptual reactions follows other and more numerous contacts of an organism with things and events. Generally speaking, the organism then acquires more and more complex reaction systems to things as it explores their various properties. Through the contacts of organisms with things, the latter take on stimulational functions arousing the reactions the organism has built up.

But organisms are not limited in their perceptual responses to what may be called the inherent properties of things, that is to say, structural qualities. They also respond to objects on the basis of properties circumstantially acquired. Because in a previous contact with a stone, the child was injured, that object takes on injurious properties for that individual. Stimulational properties of things thus acquired, we may regard as endowed, or attributed to things. Such perceptual reactions we may also call evolved responses. A simple process of evolved perception and attributed properties may be demonstrated in the conditioned reflex experiment. The pitch and timbre of a sound originally call out simple auditory discrimination responses which are named from the qualities of the sound. But if the sound has been reacted to simultaneously with a visual reaction, to a piece of meat, say, the organism, after a number of such experiences may respond to the sound not only by auditorially discriminating its qualities, but also by a glandular secretion response. Hearing the sound may then be followed or accompanied by secreting saliva.

Can we find here a basis for psychic qualities'? By no means. The qualities attributed to things by organisms are not sheerly arbitrary endowments. They are limited and conditioned not only by the natural qualities of things but also by the circumstances of the organism's contact with them.

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Current thinking about perception has sought a source for psychic processes also in the relationship between an organism and its stimuli objects. True enough, the function of the qualities of objects in arousing differential reactions on the part of organisms does not operate unless the organism is there and prepared to perform the response. This does not, however, mean that the qualities of the object are in any sense dependent for their existence on the reacting organism. This selective reaction to the qualities does not create them.[8] No more so than the microscope or telescope creates the micro-organisms or the stars through which alone they are visible, or calls out visual reactions in observers.

Perceptual reactions obviously involve much more than the surface fact of interaction between two objects. It is necessary further to analyze the nature of the two interacting things. Thus, for example, the colors of things and their odors can be described or explained in terms of chemical and physical properties. Copper, iron, and nickel compounds contribute to the existence of different colors.

On the side of the organism, we must examine the biological structures and functions. To be a sensing or perceiving organ ism, the object must have a cellular organization, as is not the case in a crystalline substance. Moreover, these cells must be organized in particular ways. Indeed the cellular organization of organisms lies at the basis of the different kinds of sensitivity which we find in animals located at different points of the evolutionary scale.

Furthermore, certain conditions are necessary for the interactions to take place besides the existence of the two interacting things and their properties. For example, in the case of reacting to visual qualities, light must be present as a medium. This is a necessary condition for the

( 205) possibility of contact between the two interacting factors. The medium, too, may be a factor in the distortion of the qualities of objects so far as the organism is concerned, as : in the notorious case of the stick that appears bent in the water. In the changes introduced by media, in the w ay t things are reacted to perceptually, lies another condition responsible for the notion that the qualities of things are really mental processes and exist in the "mind" the organism.


Because imaging is the most recondite form of reaction and the most difficult to study, it has for long been the strong-hold of the psychic. Now we propose that the phenomena of imaging do not present us with any conditions which are in principle different from those of perception or any other type of psychological activity. Above all, we must inveigh against the procedure of hypostasizing as a mental state, some quality or condition of the organism performing a subtle reaction. This is apparently what has happened. Just as in perception the qualities and conditions of things are hypostasized as states labeled  sensations, so in the case of imagery the actions of the organism are hypostasized as images.[9] All this of course through the instrumentality of verbal symbols.

What then are images? The answer is that they constitute one variety of implicit behavior. What are called images are thus responses performed to adjustment objects through the medium of some substitution stimulus. This is of course obvious when we are dealing with verbal or kinaesthetic imagery, as well as when we are concerned with those implicit reactions which are really incipient overt acts. The latter are illustrated by the fist clench

( 206) - ing, and frowning reactions evoked by some stimulus substituting for the anger-arousing person or event.

Now the really difficult form of imagery, is the visual-auditory type. These are vestigial responses. They represent the remains of actions previously performed to certain objects. Vestigial images may well be called remnants of more overt forms of behavior. In these cases, the individual verbally supplies the qualities of things with which he has been previously in contact.

Certain hallucinatory responses admirably illustrate this form of imagery. One of the most striking of these is the case in which one "smells" the perfume that is "released" from a bottle of pure water when one expects it. Hearing the absent voice of a loved one is another case in point. Imaginally "sensing and hearing" things of all sorts can thus be accomplished by repeating, in part, the responses one performs in the presence of those things. The mechanism here is the same no doubt, as in attempting to identify an affective quality portrayed or "expressed" in a photograph by reproducing the gesture or facial attitude. It is common knowledge that images present us only with degrees of reactional difference as compared with perceptual responses. For the perceptual reaction, being a semi-implicit response, involves responding to things that are only in part in contact with the organism.[10]

We conclude our suggestion concerning organismic psychology with one point strongly insisted upon. In no sense does it leave vacancies nor does it shy away from the facts of thinking, purpose, conscience, intelligence. The point, rather, is how shall such phenomena be taken care of ? Shall we assume that these terms represent processes or energies which are in principle different from all the other things with which natural science deals? Or, should

( 207) we regard these as phenomena which have their part in the total series of natural and observable facts?


Science treads a path that is not only difficult but dangerous. Difficult is its path because things are recondite. Events are resistant to study. The dangers lie in formulating descriptions. All too frequently we describe things, not so much according to the way they are constructed or the manner in which they act, but rather as they are traditionally conceived. Descriptive categories in other words, are all too frequently derived from social beliefs rather than from observation [11] and from social prejudices rather than from events.

Thus, instead of definitely describing scientific events as particular kinds of interactions of things, we isolate specific features of the situation and crystallize them as substances.[12] Instead of descriptions of different events, physical, biological and psychological, we are left with misconstructions of linguistic processes. In this way we create matter, life, and mind.

Where so many circumstances conspire to freight our thinking with illicit abstractions it is unwise to trace their persistence to a single condition. So far as psychology is concerned it is quite impossible to say it is this or that circumstance that keeps the psychic going. However, we may be quite certain that one of the mechanisms that operates here, is the confusion of the description of a thing with some existence. We give an illustration of such a confusion. We observe an organism reacting with maize

( 208) by consuming it. Such an interaction we may quite properly describe as the ingesting and digesting of food. So far our description is exact and valid. Let us go on. Food is something which depends upon an organism. At this point the description begins to fail.[13] Here the thing described (maize) is being absorbed in the description. We are in danger here of forgetting that what we are really examining is an interaction between an organism and maize. If we agree that food depends upon the organism for its existence, then we must grant that the organism depends just as much upon food for its existence.[14] It would be much more exact to speak of food (eaten maize) as depending upon an interaction. The confusion here consists of using a name (food) for an object (maize) which exists in relation with some other object (organism), to create the presumption that that object (maize) is dependent upon that other object (organism) for its existence.

The description may be further nullified. We may change our description from "depends upon" to "creates." Does the organism create food except in an arbitrary descriptive sense? Surely this is only a verbal expression. The term food is only a descriptive factor for part of an interactional event. It. is a name for maize when ingested or digested. But the foots is still maize. The present feeding event cannot exist without it. Moreover, the term maize now describes. something which is not and need never be an ingested or digested something, but an object with a particular size, mass, shape, and with definite chemical properties. Maize in this sense cannot be regarded as dependent upon or created by the devouring organism. Its existence depends upon another system of facts entirely; to wit, planting, cultivating, plant evolution, etc.


When does the organism create the food`? When it, selects maize as its food`? At this point obviously, the qualities of objects have as much to do with the matter as the organism. In order that they should do so they must already exist. No organism ever creates food except from edible ingredients. And surely these ingredients do not depend for their existence upon the organism. Is the creation the transformational process of digestion? But obviously this is as much destruction as creation. Both of these processes too, depend as much upon the object as upon the organism.

Description as an actual phenomenon is an action performed by a person with respect to an object or event. Now when we confuse our description with the event, the latter loses its character as a fact in nature and becomes according to tradition, something in the mind of the describer. Since mind as an entity is not an acceptable notion, the thing described becomes transformed into a psychic state or mental process.

But here we have two gross errors. In the first place, there is no justification for claiming that the event described is actually the event. The event described is only a perceptual, ideational, or verbal reaction to that event. Unlike the food case, there is not even here any transformation in the properties of the event.

In the second place, let us emphasize once more that performing a reaction, as we have already pointed out, involves no psychic material. Thinking is doing some-thing with respect to a stimulus object. It is a subtle form of behavior but not a psychic process. We must not con-fuse words with actions, things, or events.[15]

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We come to the denouement. What is the final result for philosophy of our examination of organismic psychology? Summarily stated it is as follows. Not only does it leave no room for spiritistic materials in intellectual enterprises, but it definitely rules them out. There are no psychic facts in nature nor is it necessary to invent them for purposes of interpreting any kind of phenomenon.

This means in effect that philosophy has no basis on which to speculate concerning the world in general. For it is the spiritistic type of conception which has always been the basis for such thinking. It has only been through a process of crystallizing abstractions that the absolutistic philosophy could become established and exist. It is by such means that all absolutisms have been brought into the world.

The scheme is simply this. Subtle behavior is regarded as psychic. Instead of looking upon thinking, reflection, etc., as organismic reactional contacts with things they are made into unique processes existing beyond the world of actual things. Things are material. Thought is psychic. Thus, at once, a dualism. Added to this is the confusion of actual things with the observation of them. The natural world then becomes dissolved in a spiritistic solution. Through a variety of dialectics all sorts of absolutes are then created.

On the other hand, to reject such thinking means to do away with almost the whole structure of traditional philosophy. What then becomes of all the traditional values? The obvious answer is that they just naturally disappear. We might add that it is no great loss when abstractions based upon invalid psychological conceptions are discarded. But too many people are interested in these things, is the protest. The retort obvious is to ask whether it is the function of philosophy to supply

( 211) wants which are derived from traditional anthropological prejudices. Why should the philosopher conceive of himself as the purveyor of proofs for the existence of things to which faint hearts aspire? If philosophy is the kind of enterprise that has to do with verbal abstractions such as we have been indicating, there is simply no room in the intellectual world for it.

What remains? Shall we say that the philosophical function is merely to utter methodological warnings to the special sciences? Philosophy on this basis would be fairly well reduced to a negative sort of enterprise. There would be little work left in the world for it to do.

No, there is still another view. Philosophy is an enterprise identical with science. Both operate upon the same phenomena with the same general purpose. As phases of an intellectual enterprise, both philosophy and science have the purpose of discovering the existence of facts and interpreting them. Both phases operate exclusively with the natural world as it actually exists.

But how shall we define the relationship between the two? In our opinion this can be done upon the basis of attitude and function. The philosophical phase is more general, the scientific more limiting. Science is interested more in knowledge, philosophy more in understanding. The philosopher is concerned with the logic, the ideas, the significance of things, while the scientist is interested more in the manipulation of particular facts, in techniques.[16]

Scientific investigation, like tragedy, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Accordingly, to illustrate the inseparable and reciprocal attitudes and functions of the philosopher and scientist we indicate three points of contact between them.

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(A) In the first place, no contact with phenomena can go on without an ideational background. It is indispensable therefore to be cognizant of what presuppositions underlie our scientific work. Here the critical attitudes of the philosopher come into play. It is illuminating to study in the history of science, the fettering of workers by tradition, such as theological dogmas. Does not the biologist date the beginnings of his science from his emancipation from theological dogmas, from ideas of creation and fixity? But there are other barriers to free investigation. There are social, political and economic prejudices and pitfalls. Then, too, there are the evil influences of scientific and academic schools. It is a form of social flattery, that only the middle ages were dominated by authority. The reflective thinker must be constantly on his guard against authority of famous teachers and of his own established views. Then there are the conventions arising from experimental techniques. Experimentation must be based upon the technical conditions of a particular period. So the danger exists that they will prejudice our attitudes. And finally we are prone to be satisfied with immediate results, without regard to their sufficiency or quality.

(B) How are the philosophical and scientific attitudes and functions related during the course of scientific investigation? Here the philosophical attitude inclines more to the study of the hypothesis, while the scientific is concerned more with observational conditions. Hypotheses must be such as to guard the specific details of an investigation (which has already been organized without prejudice) against more specific invalidating complications. Furthermore, the richer the outlook and the greater the reflective capacity of the observer, the more valuable the investigation and the more suitable the observational technique and apparatus. Some problems require very different treatment than others. In some cases, one requires more reflection and less apparatus; in others

( 213) the opposite is true. It would be a futile sort of investigation in which one would attempt to investigate certain facts in a way that is only suitable for others. While results may be obtained in almost any manner, they will not be of equal importance.

(C) After eliciting facts, we must interpret them. It is the philosophical function to add evaluating competency to the rigidity of scientific observation. To illustrate: the complexity and difficulty of phenomena make it necessary for us to set snares for seizing hold of them. Now this means that our experimental studies must be limited in character and that the facts thus elicited must depend upon the nature of the technique involved. Our facts, then, are partial facts and contain only so much of the phenomena in question as can be got hold of through this particular apparatus. Thus, in order that our physics be definite and certain, it has been made quantitative and technical. Physics has therefore, evolved with a definite bias against qualitative facts.

Here reflective processes are required to relate as closely as possible, the elicited aspects of a phenomenon with others derived in experiments, as well as with other features of the same phenomenon, that may not now be subject to the same form of investigation. In biology, for example, experiments must be organized on the basis of definite facts already elicited. Thus, physiological phenomena are treated as physical and chemical. Undoubtedly this results in indispensable information. But obviously the conditions of such experiments are such that only part of the facts are elicited. And here it is the function of the philosophical phase of science to point out this truth and to guard zealously against assuming that our description of the chemical phase of the phenomenon we have elicited, absorbs the whole fact. Accordingly, it is this philosophical or logical aspect of science which eschews such unsatisfactory and vitiating

(214) controversies as those of absolute mechanism versus vitalism.[17] Neither of these is anything but a mode of describing data, and we may easily determine that they do not serve their function well.

To turn now to the psychological field. For certain purposes we might regard psychological facts as only definitely explained when we relate them with certain physiological facts. To turn around, however, and say that our physiological description thus elicited exhausts the psychological phenomenon, makes our science a liability rather than an asset. So it happens, that by attempting to correlate physiological happenings with psychological facts which include the former, we come to a universal interpretation of psychological phenomena as the functions of some biological organism. Thus is born the conception that the brain is the organ of psychological phenomena, and the subtler processes which one does not regard as the operation of the total organism, are somehow located in, and made dependent upon the brain. In view of the cult of brain worship which has arisen in consequence, we cannot urge too strongly the importance of an adequate philosophical attitude.

Our space is exhausted. Psychology we may regard as one of the special sciences which constitutes certain points on the intellectual circle which includes philosophy; so we have suggested that it should be based on facts unbiased by a false philosophy. On the other hand, a theoretic science or philosophy based upon rigidly observational sciences cannot be other than a rational human enterprise. Our circle, therefore though it be not perfect, because of the difficulty of phenomena, will certainly not be vicious.


  1. Not even a vicious circle really has a beginning or an end. But we may descriptively select or construct these parts.
  2. Can a science be founded upon a theory concerning the general nature of the world?
  3. Outlines of Psychology, p. 2. As it happens for Wundt, all things may be regarded as in the final analysis spiritual, categorized as experience.
  4. Cf. Kantor, Principles of Psychology, 1924, VOL I.
  5. A word of warning. Organismic psychology must not be confused with the form of behaviorism which makes psychological phenomena consist exclusively of physiological processes put into action by purely biological stimuli.
  6. Including, of course, things, processes, events and persons.
  7. The term cognitive no doubt symbolizes a sort of non-performative action. Thus in a pain reflex when the action is a definite performance we think of the response as a minimally cognitive one.
  8. We take it that it is this dependence or creative circumstance that mentalizes things, though some current writers, in spite of making qualities of things depend upon organisms, eschew the terms psychic and mental as descriptions of such qualities.
  9. So we might interpret the conventional doctrine. The proponents of as doctrine, however, describe imagery just like perception or sensation, on the basis of qualities abstracted from things. Thus throughout the mentalistic tradition images are presumed to be connected with sensations. They are picturesquely referred to as decaying sense.
  10. Located in a genuine middle ground between imagery and perception are the positive and negative after-images. The latter in so far as they involve conditions in the organism may be compared with perceptual activity involving stimulation changes inside the body wall.
  11. At bottom, of course, observational activities also are infected with tradition.
  12. As a matter of detail, it appears that material and physical abstractions are derived from the chemical or cellular organizations of things; while force, life and the mental symbolize the function or behavior of a thing.
  13. For we assume that maize is referred to, otherwise the proper description would be, the organism cats the maize.
  14. We speak here of relational dependence. So far as biological dependence is concerned one might say that the organism depends upon the maize but the maize never upon the organism.
  15. In this connection we submit that the whole philosophical disc ussion of essences and data revolves mostly about words. Essences have no other existence than as words or symbols. Data are things to which a person can react in ways additional to the verbal response. It is through the peculiar use of words here indicated that all sorts of abstract realisms and spiritualisms are born. Psychic or mental stuffs or processes belong to the category of things which exist only as words.
  16. At certain points obviously both types of attitude and function are found in the same person; but in more complicated situations, a single individual may incline more to one type than to another.
  17. These are some of the many process abstractions comparable to the series of psychic and materialistic substances.

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