Psychology, General and Applied

Chapter 3: Psychological Explanation

Hugo Münsterberg

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Psychological Laws.—The aim of the causal psychologist is the explanation of the mental processes. How is true explanation possible? The physicist who seeks explanations for the occurrences in nature tries to find the processes which regularly precede other processes in experience. From the regularities which he observes he develops the physical laws and reaches through that the first stage of explanation. He knows the law that, if an electric current is closed, a certain magnetic phenomenon happens, and, if the electric current is broken, the magnetic phenomenon stops. The law allows it to be determined beforehand whether the magnetic power of the iron will appear or not. There seems to be no difficulty for the psychologist in observing such regularities also among the processes of the mind. We notice often that after one process in consciousness another process occurs. The taste of candy brings with it a certain feeling of pleasure ; the taste of cod liver oil brings just as regularly a feeling of displeasure. Moreover the feeling of pleasure, as soon as it has become a process in consciousness, awakes another process, namely the will to keep that sensation. The unpleasant feeling stirs up the will to get rid of the impression. Such regular connections can be found a thousand times in our daily life, and, if we are interested in

( 22) watching them in subtler detail, we can observe them under exact conditions.

No doubt, if we proceed with such observations, we can secure a large number of psychological laws. To mention one which we may use as a typical illustration, we may think of a law which has been known as long as psychologists have studied the human mind, a law formulated by the first great psychologist, Aristotle : the law of association. If we ever experience two things together, the ideas of the two become linked in such a way that whenever the one idea is brought to our consciousness again the other idea arises too. Everyone has observed that. We have met a man and we have heard his name, and that visual idea of his face and that acoustical idea of his name were tied together; the law of association makes it necessary that, if we meet the man again, his name comes to our mind, or if we hear the name we remember how he looks. From such a loose, vague form the psychological observation can easily be carried to very exact connections, which can be verified .only by careful studies. We shall find in the course of our work many such psychological laws which characterize the regular behavior of our perceptions and memories, our feelings and volitions. They are the condensed expressions of frequently observed uniformities in the succession of psychical contents. But can they really furnish us a true explanation, and are they sufficient for the causal understanding of our mind?

The first fundamental difficulty with an explanation of mental life through such psychological laws lies in the evident disconnectedness and incompleteness of the material in consciousness. This shows itself in a twofold form, on the one side in our perceptions, on the other side in the ideas, volitions and higher mental processes. Indeed, how could we hope to explain by any observed regularities in the mental content the appearance of the perceptive impressions. I hear at this moment the ringing of

( 23) bells, that is, the tone sensation arises in my consciousness. If I were to rely on strictly psychological explanation, I should have to seek in my own consciousness for causes which effected the appearance of this sound impression. But nothing in my mind suggested to me the coming of this sound. I did not think of bells before, which might have produced in my mind the tone sensations. My mind was filled with entirely different contents, when suddenly these tone sensations of bells broke in. Nothing which preceded in my consciousness seems to offer the least foothold for the explanation of these tone sensations. But the same is true, of course, of every visual impression which comes to my mind or of every touch, of every word which is spoken to me and of every printed line which I read. Everything enters into my consciousness as a new content for which I cannot possibly seek the causes in the preceding contents of consciousness, and for which, therefore, any explanation through strict psychological laws seems illogical.

But the other aspect of the incompleteness is no less striking : complex ideas, words, impulses, emotions, thoughts arise constantly in our consciousness without any preceding contents which could really explain their appearance. We try to think of a name, and, while we are in the midst of entirely different engagements, the name suddenly pops into our head. We were occupied with a problem, and, after we were no longer thinking of it, the solution appeared over the horizon of our consciousness. A melody arises in our mind, a fancy of imagination appears, without any noticeable cause, a mood takes control of us, we do not know why. But we can go much further. Let us think of the case of ordinary speaking. In common conversation the words come to our mind, while we are speaking them; we are generally not aware of any causes in our consciousness which determine the selection of the particular words. We hear the question and we give the

( 24) answer offhand before we discover in our consciousness any ideas which may lead to the reply. It is as if just the connecting links of thought are left out, or, rather, are hidden from our conscious awareness.

This fundamental difficulty has led to two types of theories, both of which seek to explain the coming and going of the conscious contents by agencies and processes which are not in consciousness. They leave the sphere of selfobservation in order to supply a connected chain of causes and effects. The one puts the responsibility on psychical processes which lie outside of consciousness : it is a theory of the unconscious mind or of the subconscious. The other seeks the explanation not through psychical causes at all, but turns to the brain processes of the organism, explaining the changes in the mental life indirectly by changes in the nervous system. We must examine the right and wrong, the value and the limits of both schemes of explanation. The unconscious has the first right to be considered, as it has the advantage of remaining in the world of the psychical.

The Unconscious.—Mental processes which are not contained in a consciousness are usually called unconscious. But this word is often carelessly used for processes which do not really lie outside of consciousness. Especially in the study of abnormal mental life we frequently use the term unconscious, where we actually mean that the content of an experience and the act of experience itself are entirely forgotten. The somnambulist who awakes in the morning and finds that he wrote a letter during the night, of which he no longer knows anything, is said to have written it unconsciously. But we have no reason to believe that during the act of writing he was not fully aware of his activity. He saw the letter paper as if he were in a normal waking state. The abnormal happening consisted rather in the fact that this conscious experience left no memory traces in his mind. As we are accustomed to remember

( 25) what was in our consciousness, everything which is entirely extinguished appears to us as if it never had been in our consciousness. We find the same abnormal processes in certain mental diseases or in hypnotic states and in all such cases we have no right to relegate to the unconscious that which has slipped from consciousness and which cannot be brought back.

Again we often say that something was not done consciously where we really mean that it was not done with a . full harmonious use of all mental energies. The man who is poisoned by a drug or who is in the delirium of fever or in a state of drunkenness or in the midst of an attack of mental disease may behave without selfcontrol and without the regulation by the idea of his own self. Hence he may be considered not responsible for his actions. We may even say that he has acted without selfconsciousness, but we have no right to say that he was unconscious. The content of his consciousness was chaotic, but his ideas and emotions and volitions, however disorderly, passed on just as much in consciousness as if he were in normal health.

We are here interested only in those mental processes which are really not in consciousness at all, and only these are covered by our term. Yet it is doubtful whether the word unconscious would be the most significant. It too easily suggests anything which is not conscious and that means that the whole physical universe could be called unconscious too. If we want to separate the unconscious atones on the street from the unconscious mental states in ourselves, we shall have to call these psychical processes subconscious. As the iceberg in the ocean shows only its smallest part above the surface of the water while far the largest part is below, a small part of our mental contents can be found above the surface of consciousness, while most of them remain below, subconscious.

This theory is widespread and popular, because it fits

( 26) temptingly into any purpose of explanation. But if we approach its detail, we must recognize that it does not fulfill its promises and is thoroughly unsatisfactory. The purpose is to explain the appearance of the contents of consciousness. Those who want to reach this end through the hypothesis of the subconscious believe that they find all the necessary requisites in two assumptions. First they imagine that all our experiences sink into the subconscious when they disappear from consciousness. There they are stored up and lie unused until they are brought to consciousness again. Something reminds me of a street which I passed years ago and of a talk which I had on that street corner. The picture of the houses, the phrases of our talk, come back to me. In order to explain that, I am expected to believe that those sights and those words were lying somewhere at the bottom of my mind. I never thought of them during the years which have passed ; thus they surely were not in consciousness. Yet how could I bring them back, if they had not lasted in some subconscious form. The mere lying in the subconscious, however, is not enough. Something must have selected them now and must have pushed them at this moment from the subconscious over the threshold into consciousness. There must be some activity at work or at least some interplay of the ideas ; in short, it is not enough to believe that remnants of old experiences are kept below consciousness, but the theory must demand secondly that all the time activities and processes go on in the subconscious, just as in our conscious mind. Those subconscious ideas must produce new thoughts, must start impulses to action, must select the words which we are to speak and must look out for everything which is to be done by us, and which is not proceeding in the light of our consciousness. We may examine these two sides of the theory independently.

The Subconscious Dispositions.—The first claim is the existence of those mental memory traces. All our school

( 27) knowledge which we can call back, everything which we have seen or heard, tasted or smelt, must linger somewhere in that obscure region. Such an assumption is from the start utterly fantastic. In consciousness ideas interfere with one another, feelings inhibit one another; we cannot be happy and miserable at the same time. But in the paradise of the subconscious the lion and the lamb are to lie down together. The millions of impressions and joys and pains and feelings exist subconsciously together without destroying one another. Ultimately such a hopeless theory is nothing but a crude materialism. The mental ideas are treated as if they were little balls or cubes which can be piled up, and this means that the ideas are imagined to be like physical things which last. Our inner experience demands a very different view. The conscious states are processes which take place, and when the process is ended it remains no more than the tunes of the piano remain in the piano case or the athletic movement in the muscles. We can think the same idea always anew, just as we can play the same melody on the piano or perform the same athletic feat. But we cannot imagine that the tones are hidden in the strings of the piano and the muscle movements kept in store in the limbs.

Hence it is at least an improvement, if it is claimed that not the ideas themselves remain in the subconscious, but only dispositions for the appearance of the mental processes. The mind somehow holds traces of all the French words and historical dates which we learned, but these I races are not real syllables and sounds but only slumbering dispositions out of which through the activity of the mind new copies of the old ideas can be generated. Can this really help us? If the appearance of a conscious process is dependent upon a subconscious disposition, how n re we then to explain our perceptions of the outer world?

Bear the bells ringing. The sounds enter my consciousness. Must I suppose that I have a subconscious disposi-

( 28) -tion for these bell sounds, and even for this new melody of the bells which I have never heard before. Of course, then I must have such a disposition for everything on earth which can enter into the sphere of my senses. I must have a disposition for the smell of the chemical substance which some chemist may produce tomorrow in his laboratory. All those dispositions resulting from my little personal experiences are then insignificant compared with the trillions for all which may possibly become the object of my sense perceptions.

But as soon as we take refuge in such an unlimited hypothesis, it becomes entirely useless. If there is in our mind a disposition for everything imaginable, it can no longer serve as an explanation for the particular idea which comes to our mind. Then we must have the dispositions not only for the French words which we learned, but also for the Chinese words which someone may teach us later. Yet no one would accept such a gigantic apparatus for the explaining of our sensations. It would seem so much more natural that I hear the bells because the sound waves of the bells reach my ear and stimulate my ear nerve and finally my brain, and that my brain excitement is the real cause for my hearing the sounds. We are practically relying on such a theory all the time. We do not feel surprised that even the newest color and taste and smell awake impressions in our consciousness, because they have somehow stimulated and excited our eye and brain. We do not demand a special psychological disposition besides. At any moment the perceptions of our senses can arise in our consciousness without any subconscious mental dispositions, simply through the excitation of our brain. Then is it not illogical to require such mental forerunners in the case of the memory ideas, instead of seeking here too the causes in a brain process, as in the case of the perceptions?

The Subconscious Operations.—The other function of

( 29) the subconscious was that of the selective activity, of awaking and stirring up, of inhibiting and suppressing, of linking the ideas and connecting the thoughts in order to produce those results which finally appear in consciousness. We know that many a problem is solved in our mind without our following the process step by step in consciousness. We form our decisions, we shape our plans, we get our inspirations in processes of which we know consciously only the beginning and the end, but all the necessary interplay of ideas and all the linking of motives which evidently lie between must have gone on in the subconscious. Hence the theory insists in the interest of explanation that exactly the same mental processes which go on in full selfconscious attention can proceed also in the subconscious underworld. As soon as this is granted, it seems as if all difficulties were removed. The processes below consciousness offer themselves the more conveniently as no one can know them from direct observation and anything can be ascribed to them which seems desirable for a neat explanation. The most complicated mental operations can easily be attached to such an unconscious mind. Just here, however, we are working under a complete illusion, which we must dispel.

In the interest of explanation we postulate that the same mental operations can go on subconsciously which we know from our conscious experience. But we do so before we . ask the decisive question, namely, whether even those conscious operations are really able to produce the mental effects. It may be that we are unable to explain any mental results by those processes which proceed in consciousness.

ii that case it would evidently be absurd to explain them by the same processes below consciousness. And just this is indeed the case.

The ideas which follow one another in consciousness may appear in their order thousands of times; and yet the mere fact that they occur again and again does not link them to real causes and effects. They follow one another,

( 30) but no causal necessity binds them together. Take once more the case of the association of ideas. The flower I see by the roadside brings to my mind its botanical name which I learned years ago, and if someone mentions to me the name of the flower, that brings to my consciousness the visual image of the flower, as I saw it before. I rely on that power of my memory, just as I rely on the laws of electricity which make the lamp burn when I turn the switch. Certainly my memory may not render the service at a particular time; I may have forgotten the name or the picture of the flower may have faded away or I may confuse it with a similar plant. But this does not interfere with the working of the association law, any more than the laws of electricity are to be given up because my lamp may be burnt out or the contact of the switch may have become defective. Yet there remains a fundamental difference between any such psychological connection and a physical one.

The physicist sees before him the goal of bringing all the processes in nature ultimately to mere mechanical movements of atoms. This alone gives a definite meaning to his view of the world. The mere observation of regularities is only the starting point for him. What has happened a hundred times may be different the hundred and first time. He has a right to predict the event for the hundred and first time only if he can recognize the necessity of the process ; and this is reached only if he can bring it down to mechanical movements of the smallest particles. Under the pressure of such a demand he develops his physical theories of ether waves and so on, and splits what he calls atoms at one stage into still smaller fragments like the electrons, but he can never rest until he sees somehow the connection between the mere observed regularity in nature and those necessary mechanical movements. The natural scientist may be in many fields of physics or chemistry still very far from this ideal, but it remains the guiding

( 31) star. He takes it for granted that if he knew the whole truth every change in the outer world could be explained by a mere change of position of the smallest parts. No theories, not even the new ones of the dynamic type, have really altered these scientific assumptions, as long as the theories really aimed toward scientific explanation and not to a mere purposive interpretation of nature. On this background the scientist has a right to claim that all his laws are meant as expressions of causal necessity.

The psychologist has nothing to offer which is similar. He cannot speak of such necessity in the connection of psychical facts in consciousness. This is not because psychology is still too incomplete and too far from its goal, but because this cannot possibly be the goal of psychology. It lies in the nature of the psychical objects that, however much regularity we may find in their behavior, they can never be directly linked by causal necessity. We may observe that the flower brings us its name or that the name brings the picture of the flower, but that mental impression of the flower and that mental idea of the name are simply two events which follow each other, while we have not the slightest insight into a mental mechanism which could be supposed to link them. The whole play of connection in the physical world is conceivable, because every bit of those physical objects remains and changes only its place. The candle may disappear when it burns down, but every atom of it can still be traced in the atmosphere. Of the mental objects the opposite is true. The single mental experience is an act which is going on but which does not last, which cannot be found again anywhere in the mental universe. We may have a thousand I lines new ideas of the same object, but the same idea cannot come back a second time. The same hope, the same anger, the same desire, the same decision cannot be brought to consciousness once more. If we feel and will e i t h the same intent, we must go through the performance

( 32) anew; we cannot revive the withered will of yesterday, and, where nothing lasts, we cannot conceive a really necessary connection.

This is not accidental ; it cannot be otherwise. This whole splitting of our experiences into physical things and into mental things is artificial and is not suggested by immediate experience. We do not find the flower in the field and beside that our perception of the flower in our mind. The flower which we pick there is neither that complex of atoms of which the physicist speaks nor that content of consciousness of which the psychologist speaks. It is both in one, and it is in the interest of explaining the world that we divide that impression into two parts, the physical and the mental object. We call physical the object in so far as it can be grasped in ever new experiences; it is a physical object in so far as everyone can look at it, and as we ourselves can return to it ever anew. On the other hand, we call the object mental in so far as it is given only in the one act of our personal awareness. This then involves that the physical object lasts and that its parts can never disappear from the universe, and that the psychical object can never exist beyond that one act of immediate awareness and that it can never reappear. The physical objects, accordingly, change only their positions and their movements can be traced through their necessary paths, because each particle lasts. In consciousness no mental object can be followed up, because it can never last; it has given itself out in the act in which it appears in consciousness. Hence it would be meaningless to seek a true causal connection between two succeeding mental objects, however often we may observe their succession.

But if we must acknowledge that the psychical objects which we know in consciousness cannot furnish us with any understanding of causal connection, it is evident that the subconscious mental objects would not do it either. We wanted to introduce the hypothesis that there are subconscious ideas exclusively for the purpose of furnishing a causal explanation for the mental interplay. The as-

( 33) -sumption was that those subconscious mental states might then produce the same effects as the conscious states. But as we see now that the conscious states themselves are unfit for a real explanation of causes and effects, it would be utterly useless to duplicate them in the subconscious. Even if such subconscious ideas and feelings and volitions existed, they could not contribute anything to the explanation : they would again simply follow one another without our understanding why they come and go. Such a hypothesis would be entirely useless. We must acknowledge that there is no causal necessity which directly links the changes in the world of mental objects. We know such necessity only in the physical world.

Such a conclusion must not be misunderstood. It would be absurd to misinterpret it as if it were meant to say that there cannot be necessity in our inner life. On the contrary, all our thinking and feeling and doing are bound together by ties of inner necessity. If we think logically, the premises of our thoughts bind us in forming our conclusions. Our pledge binds our will in its actions. But this inner necessity which gives real meaning to our whole life and in which our duties and obligations lie, refers to the purposive aspect of our inner experience. If we take our thoughts and wills in their meaning, then, of course, they are firmly linked together. As soon as we come to the discussion of the purposive psychology, we shall see that everything there is controlled by this inner necessity. But here we are in the midst of the discussion of causal psychology in which the ideas and volitions are not looked on as purposes which we interpret, but as objects which we find in consciousness and which we want to describe and to explain. And only for this onesided objective aspect the last word must be that there is no direct causal connection possible and that it cannot be introduced by the construction of a subconscious mental machinery.


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