The Fundamental Laws of Human Behavior


Max Meyer

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The speech function serving as a generalizing function. Abstraction a kind of generalization. Advantages of the written language in generalization for individual use and for communication. Science the sum total of all generalizations which mankind has tested and collected. Written symbols becoming a class of (artificial) objects to which man learns to respond as formerly he learned to respond alone to the objects of nature. Arithmetic. The generalization "force" in mechanics: a creation of man like all other generalizations. Advantage of handling words rather than things. Danger of speculation.

WE have already discussed speech, but only as an instance of temporally complex sensori-motor activity. We shall now discuss the speech function as that nervous function upon which the distinguishing features of human as compared with animal life are based. Science is justly regarded as the chief characteristic of modern human life. Since generalization and abstraction are the foundations of science, we shall have to show by concrete examples what nervous activities are meant when we speak of generalization and abstraction.

(1) A child, in the presence of such things as bread, fruit, edible roots, meat, impressing his eye, (Sa, Sb, Sc, Sd in Figure 52) learns to pronounce the word "food" (Mw in Figure 52). The nervous function is simply a variation of response. A new response takes the place of those

(212) which at first succeeded these stimuli and which are indicated in the figure by the dotted lines leading to motor points without lettering. Instead of handling the things


in accordance with his previous instincts and habits, he speaks the word which is used by older people as the common name of these things. (2) On the other hand, when the child's ear is struck by the sound of the word "food" (Sw in Figure 53), he learns to respond, if otherwise than by saying "food" (Mw in Figure 53), exclusively by


such muscular activities as are adapted to the preparation for eating of bread, fruit, edible roots, meat, and similar articles and to their consumption by the mouth (Me, Mf, Mg, Mh). This is also simply a variation of response. The word heard —in any of the nervous functions bringing

( 213) about the responses of handling these things—takes the place of the things seen, indicated in the figure by the dotted lines starting from sensory points without lettering. From now on, whenever the word has struck the ear, the muscles which co-operate in properly handling these things get ready to work rather than other muscles to handle other things which also impress the eye at the time. The nervous paths serving the latter impressions are at a disadvantage in not being "cleared for action" by the sound of the word exciting the ear.

Under (1) we mentioned the speech movement enouncing the word food, under (2) the speech sound of the word food striking the ear. It is plain, then, since the sound of the word strikes also the own ear of the person enouncing it, that the motor response of speaking and the resulting excitation of the ear becomes a double link inserted between the mere sight of the article of food and its proper handling.

Sight of thing ———————————–—––—————> handling

Sight of thing ——>speaking ——>sound of word ——> handling

This insertion of a new link into the chain of functions seems an unnecessary, uneconomical complication due to the individual's experience, so that experience in this case would be harmful rather than useful. It would indeed be an undesirable superfluity of nervous and muscular activity, were it not for the fact that the inserted link is practically the same however different the visual appearances of the articles of food—they are all called by this name — and however different the ways of handling and preparing them before putting them into the mouth — they are all called out by the same word food. The insertion between two nervous processes—let us call them A and B—of such a link of activity, always identical in spite of untold variations of A and of B, is exactly what we call, in another

( 214) terminology, in that of logic, generalization. All the visual appearances of things eatable, on the one hand, and all the motor responses of eating (including therein the necessary preparations), on the other, are held together by, are, so to speak, under the command of, a single, though originally not, quite simple, biological function of the speech reaction class. We understand immediately why in the nervous life of animals there can be little, if any, generalization since animals do not possess speech.

Let us imagine another instance. I, being still an inexperienced child, am occupying a definite position. Another being, animal or human, is occupying another position, more or less distant from mine. I have a solid article, no matter of what kind, in my hand, or between my teeth, or in a pocket, or beneath my feet. A certain stimulation —easily imaginable and therefore needing no definition— causes me to perform such a motion that the article is transferred from its place near me to a new place near the other being. While my own motion, as well as the article changing place, impresses my eye, or directly after this impression, the word "give" happens to be spoken in my environment. I imitate the sound and thus learn to respond to the situation of an article being transferred by my own motion from me to another being, by saying "give." But I also learn to respond to the auditory impression "give" by such a motion transferring an article from me to another being. Here, the sum of the motor excitation "give" and the sensory excitation "give" (briefly speaking the speech function "give") is—not, as in the former case of "food," a link inserted between the plain sensory impression of a thing and the motor response of properly handling it—but a seemingly superfluous representative of that whole nervous process which has as its issue the motion transferring an article.

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Transferring —————————————————————–> transferring continued

Transferring ——> saying "give”——> sound of "give"——> transferring continued

This representative, accompanying its constituent, would indeed be an unnecessary complication of nervous activity, were it not for the fact that the additional function is practically the same however different the manner of motion transferring the article in question: by stretching out the hand, throwing, kicking, dropping from an elevated place, rolling down a hill side, not to mention sending it by a messenger, by mail, or by any other device of modern transportation. This establishment of a definite function identical in spite of untold variations of the sensori-motor activities which it represents—they are all called giving—is obviously also a generalization. Or, in the terminology of logic, it is an abstraction. Abstraction, then, is a special case of generalization—generalization, not with reference to objects, but with reference to relations (spatial transference, in the instance discussed).

The difference between the biological functions in ordinary generalization and in this special kind of generalization, abstraction, might be described thus. In ordinary generalization the object handled is of main significance. The manner of handling it is of importance only in so far as the object is distinguished from objects of a different class by the proper mode of handling it, for example, "food" is an object to be eaten by the responsive animal. In abstraction the mode of handling is of main significance. The object itself is important exclusively in so far as, if there were no object whatsoever, no handling of it could have occurred.

The purpose of our present discussion is not to give a lesson in logic. Our intention is to show briefly, but conclusively, that practically no generalization or abstraction is possible without speech, and to make clear by concrete examples what is meant biologically by such terms

( 216) as generalization and abstraction. In order to make the significance of the speech function for the nervous activity of the individual living body—over and above the social significance of speech as a mere system of signals for cooperation in actual. labor still clearer, let us make a third application. to a concrete case of human life.

A child, having had both the speech experiences above described of "food" and of "give," happens to meet another person, say, a beggar, who addresses him with the words "food, give." The natural consequence is, first, that the child looks about until his eyes are arrested by an article belonging to the class of "food," say, a piece of bread. Then he approaches the bread and would now respond to its sight simply by the most firmly established habit, by taking and eating it, had his ears not been stimulated by the sound of the word "give" too. So he responds to the total stimulation of sound and sight by giving the piece of bread to the other person. Similar occurrences take place quite frequently in the child's life; but the words heard are not always only food and give. Now and then the address will be "food, give, hungry." Thus the child learns, by what we have called a variation of response, to react to the word "hungry" in the same way as to the sentence (if these two words may be called a sentence) "food, give. " He learns to react to the word hungry by looking about for edible things, taking hold of them, and transferring them to the other person. What a wealth of possible actions is thus placed under the control of the single word "hungry"! The fully experienced human being, hearing this word, looks about until an edible thing strikes his eyes. But if his eyes do not perceive anything eatable, Other activities follow. He may put his hands into his pockets to search for food. He may walk home in order to find food there. He may open

( 217) his chest or cabinet, take money from it, and go to the store where food is for sale. Or he may go out to Ids fields, cut his wheat, and store it away under the roof of a barn in order to be able to give food at a later time when the sound hungry may strike his ear again. Not having any wheat mature on his fields, lie may take out his horses and implements and plow the ground on which wheat is only to be sown. He may attend, as a student, an agricultural college where he learns how to grow wheat most successfully on his farm. He may vote in favor of his government spending money for the support of such a college. Further think of the innumerable possible activities which make provision for the transportation of the food from place to place, from the producer to the consumer! To enumerate even those activities which are more directly controlled by the word hungry, would require a volume. Of the activities which we have mentioned, some are rather remotely dependent on the abstraction "hungry". The more remotely they are dependent on it, the more numerous, of course, are the other abstractions on which they are also—more or less directly—dependent, so that, then, the actual motor response becomes more and more the resultant of many components, of all the activities controlled by all the abstractions.

We have thus far spoken of the word "hungry" only as denoting a sound, stimulating the ear and controlling by means of the nervous paths diverging from the ear a vast number of highly complicated motor responses. We said above, that the word hungry was often heard together with the words food and give. At such a time it must have been imitated by the child in question. Thus the pronunciation of the word hungry has become one of the possible motor responses to the total situation. It is plain, however, that the same word, hungry, is also heard

( 218) in other situations, especially frequently at the time when the subject together with the other members of the family takes one of his regular daily meals. At that time the sensory points of the stomach are likely to be excited by the physiological condition which is called hunger. Accordingly, the subject learns to say "hungry" in response to the sensory excitation of hunger. Whenever he responds thus, he produces the sound of the word, and this sound impresses his ear. Most naturally, then, the total (motor and subsequently sensory) speech function of the word "hungry" becomes an intermediate link between the sensory excitation of hunger and that vast number of responses mentioned above, all serving, with greater or lesser directness, to dispel hunger not only in others but in himself.

What, then, is the value of abstractions to man? They serve to make ready, instead of the simple reflex or instinct corresponding to the stimulation, an enormous number of complex motor responses among which a selection is made by the other sensory factors of the situation and the motor tendencies of the abstractions belonging to them. This complex nervous activity, which is the distinguishing feature of man's life as compared with that of animals, is made possible by the acquisition of speech.

In this development, now, of generalized (abstract) nervous functions an enormous step in advance is made when mankind invents script. Not only can the written language except for the greater brevity of speech than of writing in the functions described above almost completely take the place of the spoken language; it can even accomplish much that is denied the spoken language. First, it enhances preservation of the individual's generalizations (including his abstractions) for his own later use. Secondly, it removes practically all limits of space and time from

( 219) communicating one individual's generalizations to other individuals.

As to the preservation of any generalization for the individual's own use, it is plain that, as long as generalization is mediated only by the spoken language, it depends exclusively on the properties of his own nervous system. Just so long will the generalization persist, as a path of low resistance, established by the speech function, leads from the sensory points of, say, hunger to a common central point, and another one from a common central point to that vast number of responses previously indicated. But such a path of low resistance can continue to exist only if it is constantly re-established, so to speak; for we know that a path whose resistance has been lowered by individual experience tends to resume gradually its original high resistance. After the individual has acquired—by a simple variation of response—to the sight of the written word the same manifold possibility of responding as to the sound of the same word, the time limit of preserving the generalization depends no longer on the delicate properties of his nervous system, which is so easily influenced by new experiences as well as by normal and abnormal physical processes like fatigue and disease, but on the physical properties of the material on which he has written the word. It is true that, quite recently, one has learned by phonographic records to preserve even the spoken word. But the limitations of this method are obvious, and, whatever may be its significance for the future, in the past at least the individual has had to depend for the preservation of his generalizations on the written word, the memorandum-book. Of course, we use here and in the following the term "word" in a very wide sense, including therein all written symbols of any kind, especially those of mathematics, even all kinds of geometrical drawings, and

(220) the diagrams and symbolic letters of physics, chemistry, and all other sciences.

Secondly, we stated that by the substitution of the written for the spoken word communication of the individual's generalizations to other individuals has transgressed almost all limits of space and time. As we read a letter despatched from the opposite side of the globe, we learn what generalizations were most powerful in the nervous system of the individual who signed the letter, at the time—weeks ago—when it was written. As we peruse the book of an author long since deceased, we learn what generalizations of his own he thought desirable to communicate to his contemporaries and those who were to live after him. As we uncover the tombs of the Egyptian kings, we learn what generalizations chiefly determined their actions thousands of years ago, while they were preparing for the common destiny of all individual life, for death. Posterity, opening our books, may learn what generalizations affected our nervous system so strongly that, in addition to using them in our individual life, we had them reproduced in the printer's office. Thus all mankind becomes a unit, spatially and temporally. The individual's experiences are no longer useful to him and to the few people of his direct environment alone. All other individuals of the present and future may profit by them. Thus only, mankind becomes in the world of animal life that power the vastness of which nothing perhaps testifies as much as the existence of poetry and religion. But to the growth of this power neither poetry nor religion contributes directly. Its systematic furtherance is the task of science. Science is the sum total of all those generalizations which the experience of mankind has invented, selected, and collected as the most useful for the control of the muscular response called forth by sensory excitation.


The statement of the last sentence calls for further elaboration since the work of a scientist, especially to those not very familiar with it, seems to be altogether different from that of the ordinary man, say, the farmer plowing his field,—seems to belong to a category of activity other than that of motor (muscular) response to sensory excitation.

When, in the evolution of civilization, the writing of words and other symbols of generalization has firmly established itself in a sufficiently large group of men, in a tribe or a nation, the written symbols become a special class of important objects to which, however artificial their origin, man has to learn to respond in order to be successful in the struggle for life, as formerly he had to learn to respond to those objects alone which have their origin in nature. Moreover, young people selecting a class of objects to which to devote their lives as specialists may now not only select from the natural objects, but may choose even this class. Their life work, then, consists in responding to written symbols by writing symbols and, of course, also by pronouncing than, as in oral teaching. The scientist's work, aside from experimenting, that is, testing the value of his generalizations by skilful appeals for an answer to nature, consists in combining, on writing paper, symbols already existing into new groups and inventing for each group of generalizations which has been demonstrated by experiment to be a useful combination of symbols, a new name, that is, a new symbol of generalization. All this is, clearly, motor activity in response to sensory excitation. The only distinguishing features are these, that the scientist's motor activity does not require muscles of any great strength, and that it does require an enormous amount of learning, of variations of response, before it can begin to be of any value to humanity.

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Let us take an example from the most ancient of all the sciences, which, notwithstanding its age, is still and will always be the foundation of all others,—from arithmetic. No one doubts that the most ancient symbols for larger and smaller groups of things were diagrams of familiar objects. The Roman numerals V and X, for example, are diagrams of one hand with fingers spread out and of two hands united in opposite positions at their wrists. Even if these diagrams, originally, signified only a quantity portable in one hand and a quantity portable in both, they would already be generalizations, for many are the things or substances which can be carried by hand. If not at once, at a, later period, these diagrams came to signify five and ten. They are then a step further removed from natural experience; they have assumed to a further degree the meaning of a generalization (or, if you prefer, of an abstraction). When a person counts, up to five or any other number, he enounces in regular order one of the words of a series which he must previously have learned, while he removes to a position of repose, say, with his finger on the table, or with his turning eye in the subjective field of vision, just one more each time of the objects counted. The series of words spoken in doing this (that is, the series of numbers) is a generalization since it represents innumerable different manners of successively removing the objects, only two of which (by the finger and by the eye) have been mentioned above. When written symbols like our Arabic figures are substituted for the spoken words, new generalizations are made possible. What is the significance of the plus sign? If we write it in 7+8, we invite the reader to count a group of seven things of his own choice and another group of eight as if they were only a single group of countable things. The plus sign, then, is a generalization for any kind of sensori-motor

(223) activity arranging the things as if they were a single series and counting them thus. The minus sign is a generalization of a similar kind. In 7-4, for example, we express the question: How many times more do you count after 4, till you enounce 7? The minus sign, then, is a generalization for any kind of sensori-motor activity arranging the things of one series as if they were two series. The multiplication sign presupposes the experience of the plus sign. By writing 3X7 we invite the reader to perform the work of adding 7 plus 7 plus 7. Modern mathematics has greatly increased the number of such generalizations, think only of logarithms, not to mention higher mathematics. Yet by degrees they can all be reduced to the relatively simple sensori-motor activity of counting a series of things.

Another example of a scientific generalization might be taken from mechanics. Remember the formula ½mv2, generally used in measuring our experience of "force." Man, in his intercourse with nature, learns how to resist moving objects and also how to utilize the motion of objects (a hammer, for example) for his own purposes. He learns that lie has to exert more muscular energy if the object resisted is Heavier, and also that his work is more effective if lie uses a heavier tool. He generalizes his experiences of resistance to objects and of work by the aid of objects—experienees to which he has already given the general name of'' force" — by pronouncing the word" mass" in order to express their quantitative aspect. In writing this word he abbreviates it by writing simply m. By further experience man learns that he has to exert more muscular energy and also that his work is more effective, if the object in question moves more quickly. These experiences, i n addition, he generalizes in writing by uniting the symbols "mass" and "velocity" in a single

(224) formula, connecting them by a sign of multiplication. At our present time, however, one does not write simply m x v, but, m x v2, multiplying v with itself. This is done because the formula m x v2, in algebraic relations with other formulas expressing other important experiences with heavy bodies, is in general more convenient. Still, this greater convenience was only gradually recognized by scientists. Two hundred years ago the question was debated in heated controversies between the most distinguished scientists whether the symbol my or the symbol mv2 was a more useful tool of generalizing human experience, or, as they expressed it, talking as if force were a measurable thing among the other objects in nature, instead of a mere generalization invented by man—" whether force was proportional to velocity or to the square of velocity. "

At present the latter formula is generally preferred, but slightly modified by the addition of the factor %. This simplifies again the algebraic operations, for the formula ½mv2 can be put down directly as equal to a certain other very important formula of mechanics. The usefulness of the equation thus formulated is the only reason why our scientists have become accustomed to using exclusively the formula ½mv2 in their generalizations of the quantitative aspect of the qualitative generalization of "force. " (We may mention, by the way, that the use of the equation in question gradually brought about a change of name of the generalization ½mv2, so that it is nowadays called "work" in the text-books of physics.)

Force, therefore, is by no means, as some speculative philosophers would make us believe, a reality given by nature, and truly measurable only by a single formula, but a mere abstraction created by man to suit his needs, and expressed by that combination of algebraic symbols

( 225) which best suits his needs, practical and theoretical,—an abstraction from experiences so varied and complex that without this generalization we could not respond to the quantitative aspect of any one of them with any definiteness, we could not measure them.

In school and all through life we find ourselves compelled to respond to traditional audible and visible symbols of generalization as well as to the situations presented by nature. We gradually learn to respond to these kinds of stimulations most successfully: we acquire scientific habits. An example of a habit of responding to symbols of generalization—or rather an example of a large group of such habits—is the multiplication table. To the phrase "seven times nine" we at once add, by habit acquired, the word "sixty-three," without having first to do any counting, thus saving a large amount of time. In a similar way one learns, long before he acquires the multiplication table, to combine words into sentences and sentences into periods, and to draw conclusions expressed in further sentences, without first having to devote time and energy to perceiving the things which are meant by those generalizing words and sentences. The enormous advantage of substituting this handling of words for the cumbrous handling of things is clear enough, but the danger of speculation is clear too,—the danger of combining words and of thus drawing conclusions, that is, of expecting the things to agree with the last group of words manufactured by us, for no better reason than this, that we know our succession of sentences to have been constructed according to the rules of grammar, syntax, and logic. This danger does not exist in the case of the multiplication table. Here, in our most elementary quantitative generalizations, things always agree indeed with our conclusions.

(226) But our purely qualitative generalizations are so inexact that the things, when we perceive them, often turn out to be quite different from what we, guided only by our habits of handling words, expected to find them.


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