Psychology, General and Applied

Chapter 1: The Interest in Psychology

Hugo Münsterberg


Naïve Interest in Psychology.—Long before we turned to any scientific psychology, we all were interested in the traits of mental life. To be sure, we watched our material surroundings and were captivated by the happenings of outer nature, before we became aware of the processes in our inner life. But, after all, everybody noticed early whether his memory worked well or badly, how his attention sometimes failed him, how he was able or unable to think out a problem, haw fear or hope, and joy or anger, arose in him. He may have been startled by the wonders of his dreams or by the play of his imagination ; he may have thought about the limits of his personal talents or about the special gifts of his mind; he may have felt conflicts between his resolutions and his will. In short, the naïve curiosity which turned first to toys and tools, to stones and plants, later turned to memory ideas and fancies of the imagination, to feelings and excitements, to acts of desire and of volition, to talent and intelligence. They cannot be found without: the attention must turn inward to observe them. But at the same time we knew and

( 2) watched the inner life of the other people around us. We became aware of the varied behavior of men and followed their expression, we tried to understand their peculiar ways and became interested in the display of emotions of those with whom we were in contact. This interest in the behavior of other beings extends to dog and horse and bird.

All such naïve observing of our own mental life and of that of our friends satisfies the natural desire for knowledge, even if the knowledge is not useful for any practical ends. Yet the practical life drives us steadily toward such observation, too. We do not want merely to take notice of the curious fact that something which we did remember has slipped from our memory, or that the solution of a problem suddenly rushes to our mind, or that our attention wanders away during a lecture, or that our liking was stronger than our will. We want to understand still more how much we can trust our memory and our attention and our will, and how we can train our mind or how we can suppress an unwelcome emotion. Above all, we want to look into our neighbor's mind for our practical purposes. How will he behave? His friendliness or his unkindness, his carefulness or his negligence, his good or his bad memory, his humor or his character, may be matters of deep concern to us. We try to foresee how another's mind will work just as we try to foresee how the physical instruments and the chemical substances will help or hinder us.

At first all this remains unconnected, and does not shape itself into any general idea of mind and mind's action. But it easily leads further from mere curiosity to an earnest interest. The haphazard knowledge of human behavior becomes broader, we notice regularities which occur in our mental life, we get a clearer insight into its limitations, and we may be led to a common sense theory about the nature of that inner being. We begin to think about the relation of the mind to the body, of freedom and re-

( 3) -sponsibility, of the inheritance of mental qualities, of the life of the mind after death. In the same way our observation of mental life in the interest of practical purposes becomes deeper and wider. The manifold purposes of civilization demand this from us. We cannot bring up children or teach them in classrooms without carefully watching their mental qualities and without trying to foresee how their minds will work in new situations. We cannot deal with criminals in the courtroom without trying to analyze the motives which impel them. Nor can we be in politics without thinking about the ideas and impulses, the character and the abilities of the public men. We cannot be interested in industrial problems and social questions without giving attention to the mind of the workingman, to his fatigue and to his feelings, to the strain on his attention and, to the satisfaction of his desires.

Theoretical interest and practical demands alike lead us in this way at first to a naïve, and then to a deliberate, watching of mental life, and by this to the gate of psychology. We need only to make the observation more painstaking and careful, more extended and systematic, and we are in the midst of psychology. Of course as soon as we aim toward such deliberate study of the mind, we shall apply more reliable methods than a mere occasional watching of events in our inner life or in the behavior of our neighbors. The botanist, when he examines the plants, can no longer be satisfied with the way in which the friend of nature strolls through the woods and the meadows, picking the flowers which he likes along the path ; he seeks definite kinds of plants, dissects them and studies them under his microscope. The psychologist, too, will make himself independent of mere chance, will collect his data from the widest fields of human experience, will produce mental processes at will in order to examine them, will provoke all kinds of mental behavior in man and animal, will compare the mental characteristics in adult and child, in

( 4) man and woman, in normal and diseased persons, in different races and under different conditions of life. He will repeat and repeat his observations, will disentangle the complex inner states and will seek the elements from which they are composed, and he, too, will use subtle instruments and carefully adjusted apparatus to discover the real facts. But with all this refinement of method and with the expansion of the outlook, the original interest does not change its character, but only its strength and seriousness.

Scientific Interest in Psychology.—The motives which may lead us to the systematic study of psychology are as manifold as the naïve interests. First of all, we want to understand the working of the mind, the laws which control its processes, the conditions under which it works, the effects which it produces; we want to understand the inner ties between our mental states, their meaning, the elements which enter into them. This theoretical science will branch out into special sciences which deal with child psychology or pathological psychology or animal psychology or the psychology of individual differences. Moreover the study cannot be confined to single individuals. Their mental life is combined in social action. If we are to understand mental life, we must follow up the working together of human minds from the simplest contact in a friendly talk to the firmest connections in a life of mutual devotion, from the narrowest circle of the family to the widest circle of the civilized nations. The behavior of the social group and the laws of the social mind and the meaning of the social impulses thus fall no less into the compass of psychological interest.

But, as on the level of simple commonsense, so now on the higher level of science, we cannot remain merely theoretical. The practical demands take control of our endeavors. This is not meant in a trivial sense of mere selfish usefulness. Those practical motives with which we may approach the study of psychology are of service to

( 5) the highest tasks of cultured society. The aims of education and justice, of health and social reform, of industrial enterprise and esthetic achievement, make it daily more necessary to understand the mental factor which enters into the social practice. The engineer must recognize that the mind of the workingman is no less important for the final industrial outcome than the machines. The lawyer cannot confine his interest to the legal problem; he must understand the working of the minds of all who figure in the court, the defendant and the plaintiff, the witness and the jury. The teacher of our modern days knows that an understanding of the mind of the pupils is worthy of the same scholarly effort which is devoted to the content of instruction. The physician is aware that his drugs and his remedies must be supplemented by carefully adjusted influences on the mind of the patient.

The application of psychological knowledge, however, may not be limited to the practical tasks to be fulfilled. We may apply psychology for the understanding of the life around us and of the life which has passed away. With the interest of the historian we may try to analyze the psychological processes of the events of earlier times. The personalities of the heroes and the movements of the masses, the leaders in politics and in war, in religion and in art and in every unfolding of civilization may be brought nearer to our understanding by the application of psychology. The great wars and revolutions, the growth of nations and their decay, the development of religions and arts, the changes in the language and customs, all may be explained with the help of psychological knowledge.

We desire to know and to understand the working of the mind with the theoretical interest with which we study the stones and the stars. We feel the practical interest which makes us master the mental reality to use it as a tool for the purposes of civilization. Yet these are not the only motives for such a study. The interests which

( 6) lead toward the pursuit of scholarly psychology may arise from a still deeper source. We want to understand the problems of inner life and of human behavior, because we feel, at first vaguely, that they are intimately connected with the ultimate questions of our life reality. To understand the science of our mind then no longer means to acquire some little specialistic knowledge, as if we were to learn a chance chapter of natural science or history, but it means insight into the last meaning of our total existence : what are we, and whence do we come? Is our will free in its decisions, or is it dependent upon the actions of the brain? Is our mind really controlling our body, or are our mental processes only accompanying the currents in the nervous system? And such questions lead at once to those of freedom and responsibility, and further on to the deepest problems of duty and morality, and ultimately of religion. Or again we may turn to psychology under the pressure of other philosophical doubts. We seek truth and beauty and morality in the belief that these ideals have a lasting value of their own; must not our loyal belief be undermined by the understanding that such thoughts of ideals are merely processes in individual minds, and thus dependent upon the psychological laws? How can these ideals be valid for us personally, how can they be binding for mankind, if they are nothing but the passing states of our mind, like memories and dreams? The deepest concerns of our soul are here involved.


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