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Lecture IX: Psychology an Independent Science

In the two previous lectures I have discussed the attempts which have been made to interpret the characteristic phenomena of perception and the rest of conscious behaviour in terms of either a soul independent of a material body, or of a material body in part of which the physical and chemical phenomena are accompanied by consciousness, or of a higher form of mere life. I endeavoured to show that none of these interpretations is consistent with observation of conscious behaviour.

What we actually observe in conscious behaviour, both in ourselves and others, is the behaviour of persons, with all around them, both in order of space and order of time, that pertains to their personality and is of value to them. We can of course leave the characteristic peculiarities of conscious behaviour out of account, and regard persons from a purely physical and chemical point, as weighing so much, as yielding certain amounts of various proteins and other chemical substances, distributed in a certain way, and as in various ways continuously converting potential into kinetic energy. This mode of regarding persons is of great practical use for engineering and other purposes, but tells us nothing, however far we may extend it, regarding the distinctive characters of conscious behaviour, as was shown in the last lecture.

We can also regard conscious behaviour as that of an individual self-existent, but immaterial soul or subject, in contact with a surrounding physical world. This mode of regarding conscious behaviour is very familiar. It has come down to us along with the Newtonian conception of visible and tangible reality, and is embodied in the old-fashioned psychology; but the facts are inconsistent with it, as was pointed out in the seventh lecture. We cannot distinguish a soul from either a physical environment or the interest which surrounds it both spatially and temporally. Both perception and voluntary action are unintelligible on the animistic interpretation of conscious behaviour.

We may also regard conscious behaviour from a merely biological standpoint as the embodiment of a whole which realizes itself actively, but blindly, or without regard to past and future happenings, in the spatial relations and mutual influence of its parts. Here, again, we have a conception which is of much practical value, and is indispensable in Medicine, but is still incapable of representing the distinctive character of conscious behaviour, which implies wholeness extending over temporal as well as spatial relations, so that past, present, and future happenings express progressive wholeness and not mere aimless maintenance. Conscious behaviour implies looking both forward and backward in time, so that continuity or consistency with the future and past is expressed in the behaviour.

Since, therefore, we cannot separate a psychical element from what is visible and tangible, or since our world is the world which we perceive, we have no alternative but to regard visible reality as expressing, however imperfectly, the spatial and temporal wholeness which is implied in conscious behaviour. This means that the world of our experience is a world which expresses or embodies psychological or spiritual activity. As mere individuals we certainly do not make that world: we find it there with our individual selves belonging to it, a world of what is of interest and value; and we cannot, except by a process of artificial abstraction, separate the objects perceived from their interest and value. Thus the whole of our perceived world, including all that for our immediate practical purposes we interpret abstractly in terms of scientific conceptions, is a world of interest and values, however imperfectly that world seems to be realized.

As I pointed out in Lecture VI, interest and values are not merely the interest and values centred in individual persons. Interest and values are bound up with our association or fellowship with one another and extend over our and their spatial and temporal environment, so that they are common interest and values. Since, moreover, they extend over time they are projected backwards in history and forwards progressively into the future. They thus partake of what is eternal.

From the standpoint of the Newtonian philosophy of Nature, history is a mere description of successive unconnected events occurring in self-existent independent bodies. If the actual world were a world of mechanical chaos, its history would mean no more to us than this description. Since, however, the actual world is a perceived world of interest, the events of its past and future are not outside those of the present. The present summarizes the past, and is a development of it, just as the future is a development of the present. The interest which is embodied in present conscious behaviour is not limited in time, any more than in space. Interest in the past and future is an essential part of interest in the present.

Just as we can by a process of abstraction regard the perceived world as a world of mechanical chaos, we can also regard it abstractly as a world of mere life, asserting itself blindly, so that, although, as in the Newtonian world, the present is indirectly the outcome of the past, there is no immediate oneness of past, present, and future events. The introduction last century of the conception of organic evolution as a blind process in Nature has greatly strengthened the tendency to interpret both history and present conscious behaviour from this standpoint, which is that of biology.

If we adopt this biological standpoint, the interest and values of the present seem to be only temporary passing phases in history, without any evident element of progressive continuity. They have their time and pass away, just as do species. The values and interest embodied in religious, scientific, and philosophical beliefs, ethical standards, artistic ideals, political ideals, appear as if they were constantly changing in the blind course of organic life; and behind what each generation regards as “authority” there appears to be no element of progressive continuity, any more than in the variety of the forms of life thrown up, and afterwards superseded, in what seems to be the blind course of organic history. This conception of history has become very familiar in recent times, particularly in its applications to religious and ethical beliefs. When these beliefs have been represented as “supernatural” revelations, or have been ostensibly based on anything else than direct interpretation of experience, the demonstration that their development can be traced backwards in human history has naturally been interpreted as meaning that they possess no real authority. Similarly, when conscious behaviour has been attributed to the influence of a soul independent of the body, the demonstration that it is impossible to separate the influence of a soul from that of the living body has very naturally led to the idea that conscious behaviour is in no way different from what we interpret as mere blind organic behaviour.

As I have already remarked, there is a fundamental distinction between what we interpret as blind organic behaviour and what we interpret as the conscious behaviour which expresses interest and values. The authority of belief embodying interest and values is based directly on our experience, and this experience refers backwards as well as forwards in time, so that our interpretations of the past are inseparably united with our interpretations of the present. It is only in so far as we treat our ethical, scientific, and religious beliefs as if they were not essentially based on what we can at any time verify from our developed experience that their authority seems to be undermined by historical investigation or by the demonstration that mind and body are inseparable. The knowledge which deals with conscious behaviour cannot be described in terms of anything else than unity which extends progressively in the form of interest or value over time, and so cannot be regarded as having originated in time from what is not itself.

With the help of the scientific abstractions which we make use of for various practical purposes, but which, since our world is a perceived world, represent only partial aspects of its reality, we can project perception indefinitely far as regards both space- and time-relations. The further we do so, however, the more evident does the abstract character of this projection become. To a greater and greater extent we lose contact with detailed interest and value, so that finally nothing of interest remains except the practical value which is ordinarily attached to the mode of scientific abstraction itself.

Psychology must be regarded as a branch of knowledge which deals, not with the relatively abstract aspects of experience dealt with by the mathematical, physical, and biological sciences, but with the more concrete experience which is that of conscious behaviour and the interest and values expressed in it. Since interest and values are expressed in relations of time as well as of space, psychology is distinct from biology, and must be regarded as an independent branch of knowledge or science. Since, moreover, the abstractions which are made use of in the mathematical, physical, and biological sciences are outcomes of human interest, we must regard the latter sciences as being psychological in their origin, and thus fundamentally dependent on psychology, in spite of their abstract character.

The word “psychology” recalls the conception of a soul distinct from the body, and is to this extent unsatisfactory, since we cannot separate body and soul. It has been suggested that in order to avoid this defect some such word as “personology” might with advantage be substituted for the word “psychology.” In his recent book General Smuts has given approval to this suggestion. The word “personology” is, however, a hybrid one, and it seems on the whole better to keep to the well-established word “psychology,” though on the distinct understanding that its retention does not imply retention of the doctrine that body and soul can be separated, or that consciousness is a mere inert accompaniment of what is abstractly interpreted as physical or biological activity. On the same understanding we can use the word “spiritual” as equivalent to the word “psychological.”

When we define psychology as the branch of knowledge which deals with conscious behaviour as such, and when we also take into consideration that conscious behaviour cannot be treated as something pertaining to mere individual and separate persons, and that persons cannot be separated from their environment in space and time, it becomes evident that psychology represents a very widespreading branch of knowledge. It covers, in fact, all that is included in what are often called the humanistic sciences, which deal with the various manifestations of conscious human activity, as we meet them, not merely in individual, but also in social life. Hence it covers the principles embodied in ethics, in social and political science including law, in history, anthropology, literature, and all varieties of art, and in educational science. Just, however, as biology is divided up into a number of more or less separate branches, so the domain of psychology is divided up into many separate branches, and it is at first sight difficult to recognize their fundamental unity, as dealing directly with various values in which conscious behaviour manifests itself.

This difficulty arises, as it seems to me, from lack of clear recognition that psychological observation is concerned with values which are the expression of conscious behaviour. If we attempt to base psychology on the assumption that conscious behaviour is just a series of physical changes or physiological activities accompanied by consciousness of them, there appears to be no special bond of unity between the humanistic branches of knowledge. The mere fact, for instance, that we are conscious of social or political duties, or of what appeals to us in literature and art, or that history records the conscious strivings of mankind, seems to make no objective difference to the actual facts. In the three preceding lectures I have tried to show that the actual characteristic facts of conscious behaviour cannot be described otherwise than in terms of the maintenance and continuous development of unity of interest which extends over time as well as space. This means that the interest and values with which the humanistic branches of knowledge deal are not only objective interest and values, but represent something different in kind from the objective reality which can be attributed to what we call either physical or biological phenomena.

It is psychology in the sense of science which deals with the characteristic facts of conscious behaviour that seems to me to be the only real kind of psychology. By disregarding these characteristic facts we can of course construct a psychology which is only biology in disguise, or, if the distinctively physiological element is left out, only physics in disguise. Psychology of this variety seems to me irrelevant except in so far as it brings with it some contribution to physiology, or brings physiology or physics to bear in some useful manner. It ignores the characteristic facts of conscious behaviour, as I pointed out in the last lecture. It is, in fact, not psychology at all. Animistic psychology fails in a different direction, which has already been pointed out.

The Newtonian conception of visible and tangible reality has become so impressed upon the modern world that we have great difficulty in realizing that anything visible or tangible can be real or permanent except what we interpret as matter or energy, or an immaerial soul with a self-existence similar to that of matter; but on the view of conscious behaviour which I have put forward the visible and tangible experience which is interpreted in psychological terms has at least the same claim to reality and permanence as the matter and energy of the Newtonian interpretation. Appeal to observation seems to justify both interpretations, and both interpretations appear, so far, to be possible, but in their proper places. In the case of characteristic conscious behaviour, and the values perceived and maintained in that behaviour, it is, however, only the psychological interpretation that can be applied

The experience realized in every-day conscious behaviour is not merely of the nature of passing whims or blind responses to physiological stimuli. We eat, drink, and keep ourselves warm, not merely in response to the stimuli of the moment, but as part of the behaviour which develops our permanent and organized interest. If this interest, whether it can be regarded as our own individual interest or interest which we share with others, implies that we should at any time not eat or drink, or keep ourselves warm, we act in accordance with it, and not in response to the stimuli of the moment. Our interest is in immediate relation with the society in which we live, with our and its past history and anticipated future, and with the lasting values expressed in our perceptions and conscious actions. We cannot describe conscious behaviour in terms of anything but an active and developing unity of interest, extending over relations of time as well as of space. This is so in the case of the most ordinary perceptions and actions, just as much s in the case of unusual or specially noteworthy ones. An attempt to live a conscious life of mere immediate response to the stimuli of the moment could not be conceived in detail. We are what we are in virtue of the interest which encircles us in time as well as in space.

Our ordinary perceptions and conscious actions thus connect us directly with all the humanistic branches of knowledge, since these are embodied in what we perceive or do. Understanding of our fellow-men, including their history, their ideals and failings as revealed in literature and art, and their ethical principles, together with custom and its embodiment in law, enters directly into our perceptions and actions. Understanding of our spatial environment in its embodiment of interest enters also into these perceptions and actions, since interest is not limited in space. All the tools, devices, and arts which help us to control our environment in our own interest enter likewise into our perceptions and actions, so that when we see things we also see how to mould them in our interest. Prominent among the devices comes the application of abstract scientific principles, in the use of which only part of what is perceived is taken into account—for instance, relations of number, extension, bulk, weight, energy, or biological wholeness.

These scientific principles have all originated as devices for realizing or maintaining human interest. Thus they must all be regarded as psychological in their origin. In themselves, however, they treat perceived experience from an abstract standpoint from which no immediate account is taken of interest and values. For this reason they do not belong, except in their origins, to the humanistic or psychological sciences.

In the mathematical sciences the abstraction from actual perceived experience is greatest. The data of experience are treated as simply outside one another in time or space, without regard to any unity which may be manifested in their space- or time-relations, or to qualitative or other differences. Ordinary mathematical interpretations are generally regarded as simple and certain. This is only the case, however, on the tacit assumption that all reference to anything else than relations in time and space has been left out of account. It is just on account of this omission that the practical applicability of mathematical reasoning is so wide.

It has often been claimed for mathematics and physical science that they are exact sciences, while biological and humanistic knowledge are only descriptive. This claim cannot be upheld. It is only in so far as mathematics and physics disregard essential aspects in experience that they appear to be exact. It seems to me that if a comparison is to be made, the biological and humanistic sciences come quite as near to exactitude as do the mathematical and physical sciences. Exactitude in biological interpretation, or exactitude in literary, artistic, or historical interpretation or scholarship, is quite as real as mathematical or physical exactitude, and penetrates deeper into our actual experience.

In the physical sciences the data of experience are ordinarily treated as if they could be referred to a world of things existing separately from one another as regards spatial relations, and continuously in time with regard to their substance and energy only. Since these data all belong to the unified world of perception, they cannot be actually separable; but it is only when we recollect that they are perceived, and endeavour to apply physical conceptions to the actual data of our perceived experience of life and conscious behaviour, that the artificial character of the physical treatment becomes quite clearly evident. Over a great part of our experience the physical treatment seems to correspond well with what we take to be actual observation.

In the biological sciences the data of experience are treated on the assumption that organic unity as regards space-relations is present in them, each item in this unity presupposing the other items, and thus being essentially a part of the unity, but not part of a unity extending also over time-relations. Life continues, just as, on the physical plane, matter and energy continue; but events in life history show no continuity. Here, again, the assumption seems to correspond with a large part of our experience; and its abstract character does not become evident until we compare it with our perceived world as a whole, and realize that perception, as part of conscious behaviour, implies unity extending over time-relations as well as space-relations.

When we take into account the fact that the world of our experience is a perceived world, and that perception is no mere mechanical process in which a perceiving subject is passive or, to use a favourite expression, “plastic,” but is a part of conscious behaviour, it becomes evident that psychological or humanistic knowledge, which deals with conscious behaviour and the values in which it is embodied, is the most fundamental knowledge. It is also the proper gateway to the more abstract sciences, since these have their origin and justification in human needs. It follows that the basis of a sound education must be humanistic, and that even the teaching of abstract sciences such as mathematics or physics should, through the history of these sciences or in other ways, be connected with human interest. Dogmatic short cuts may conduce to success in examinations, but hardly to real education, though often that comes later by more natural means.

At first sight it might appear as if this view of the relative positions of the sciences, and of education, were inconsistent with successful practice, as well as with sound theory. The humanistic side is often not very prominent in which is ostensibly taught at good schools or universities; and it may seem to be almost absent. Education, however, starts at home from infancy, and the most lasting humanistic lessons which are received by precept and example are those of childhood. A good school or good university is pervaded by humanistic influences; and in learning to understand one another and their teachers the scholars or students are learning the psychology which is the most indispensable subject to them in future practical life.

The view to which this course of lectures has so far led is that the knowledge represented in the psychological or humanistic group of sciences is not only differentiated clearly from other kinds of scientific knowledge, but is the most fundamental variety of scientific knowledge. To very many persons of the present generation the most fundamental variety of knowledge seems to be that represented in traditional physical science. The reason why I cannot accept this view is that, however useful such knowledge may be, it is based on abstractions which are not consistent with either biological or psychological phenomena; whereas there is not necessarily any similar inconsistency about psychological knowledge, however imperfect such knowledge may be.

I am well aware that at the present time this is neither a usual nor a popular point of view. It is contrary to what takes itself to be common sense to throw doubts on the nature of what is known as physical reality. Moreover, in placing psychological interpretation above physical interpretation are we not making Man the measure of the Universe—Man, a tiny inhabitant of an insignificant planet which would never be missed from the Universe if it disappeared!

Such arguments tacitly take for granted the Newtonian conception of the visible Universe; they belong to the time before Hume and Kant: the time when a soul appeared to be a thing confined within a brain existing in a Newtonian world, or else to be nothing but a succession of flashes of consciousness in such a brain. We cannot go back to these old conceptions. As Kant showed, the whole universe of our experience is the domain of psychological activity, so that it is impossible to localize psychological activity either in space or in time: it pervades them, and if this were not so they would be nothing to us. Our conscious existence is no mere existence here and now. The sooner we cease to be dazzled and confused over psychological questions by the Newtonian philosophy, the better will it be for all of us.

When we realize what is implied in the fact that our universe is a perceived universe it becomes evident that what may be called General Psychology is a very wide-reaching subject, affecting directly or indirectly our conceptions of all the sciences. For this reason it, along with Logic, which deals generally with the forms assumed by knowledge in the various sciences, is commonly taught and studied as a part of Philosophy. If we could separate the influence of a body from that of a soul, or if we could treat the phenomena of conscious behaviour as dependent on physiological processes in the brain, psychology would become a much more limited subject; but, as I have maintained in the previous lectures, such treatment of conscious behaviour is not possible unless we abstract from, or leave out of account, what is specifically characteristic of conscious behaviour.

If there were such a thing as perfect knowledge, there would be no need for the imperfect knowledge which is based on abstractions; but in dealing with human behaviour, as with other phenomena, we must often be content with imperfect or abstract knowledge. Hence we can usefully treat human behaviour from a physiological or even physical standpoint. This treatment is that of “physiological psychology.” As a physiologist I am perhaps naturally inclined to claim it as a part, and a very important and interesting part, of physiology. In any case it seems to me to be something different from psychology in the proper sense. This deals generally with the characteristic features of perception and conscious behaviour of every kind, and these features cannot be described in terms of physiological conceptions.

No one can have a firmer belief than I have in the usefulness and indeed indispensability of physiology; but at the same time I am thoroughly convinced of the limitations attached to physiological interpretation of human behaviour. At present there is what seems to me an exaggerated idea among the general public, not of the importance of psychological knowledge, for its importance can hardly be overestimated, but of the importance of mere physiological or even physical treatment of human behaviour. The scientific knowledge which deals with experience from the psychological standpoint seems to be the most fundamental variety of scientific knowledge; but this knowledge ceases to have the same fundamental character when it is only treated from a physiological or physical standpoint, or from an animistic standpoint.

At the end of this lecture I should like to emphasize the conclusion that psychological knowledge is not only different in kind from other sorts of scientific knowledge, but has an appeal no whit less cogent, and is at the same time more general in its interpretation of our experience.