Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/February 1882/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 20‎ | February 1882

EDITOR'S TABLE.
THE PRACTICAL STUDY OF MIND.

THE progress of knowledge and inquiry is every day bringing into clearer practical contrast the two methods of studying mind: that which regards it as an abstraction, known only in consciousness, or the metaphysical method; and that which regards it as the endowment of an organic structure by which mental phenomena are determined, or the physiological method. The former refuses to recognize the corporeal substratum of mental effects as essential to its inquiries; the latter holds it to be the foundation of mental science. Both resort to introspection, or the study of psychical processes in consciousness, as a legitimate source of knowledge; but, while the metaphysician will go no further, the scientific psychologist holds that the material conditions of mind are of supreme importance to the understanding of its laws. To the metaphysician the brain is a thing of but little interest, which lie contentedly leaves to the phrenologist, or he avoids it as opening the dangerous way to materialism; the mental physiologist is attracted to brain-studies because they open the way to the largest, truth, because they elucidate the conditions of mental action, connect mind with character, explain individuality, and disclose the laws of improvement on the hitherto neglected side of human nature. Let us here note some of the differences in the practical bearings of these two methods.

If we take the phenomena of mental growth—certainly of great importance—we find that the metaphysician can give us but little help in treating it. Growth is primarily a biological conception, yet mind grows. But mental physiology, or objective psychology, taking into consideration the vital conditions, can deal rationally with psychical development. The subject of mental growth is at the root of education. To the metaphysical teacher, ventilation, exercise, clothing, and diet, as they are material concernments, are of but indifferent moment; while to the well-instructed psychological teacher they are the fundamental conditions of successful work. He knows that he can only cultivate the mind in accordance with the laws of the organism of which it is a part. To the metaphysician, mind is an independent entity in an upper sphere of being; to the mental physiologist, it is the activity of an organized mass of nerve-cells and filaments, charged with blood and carrying on processes of thinking and feeling under the laws of nutrition. If the organization is low, or perverted by hereditary taint, or if the blood is thin or impure, so that the nutritive processes are sluggish or enfeebled, he understands that the bodily growth will be hindered, and mental action correspondingly lowered in vigor.

Another illustration of the contrast of the two methods is furnished by the phenomena of insanity. To the metaphysician in all the metaphysical ages insanity was a sealed book, and by that method would have so continued to the end of time. And this, for the reason that the metaphysician can not or will not recognize in any adequate degree the dependence of psychical effects upon physiological conditions. He refuses to see that it is the brain which, in its health, carries on all the normal operations of mind. He will not have the mental and the corporeal united. He will not degrade the dignity of his subject by mixing it with base material considerations. Hence, of diseased mind and the causes and laws of its morbidity, he knew nothing, and could know nothing. It is to the physician, and not the metaphysician, to the anatomist who studied the structure of the brain, and to the physiologist who studied its functions, and the pathologist who studied its diseases, that we owe all our knowledge of that most practical of all subjects, irregular and abnormal mental action.

And now we have another interesting illustration of the contrast of these two methods of study exemplified in the able work on suicide of Dr. Morselli, noticed in our December number. It is there shown by multitudinous proofs, and it was illustrated in our notice, that the phenomena of suicide observe a regularity to which we give the name of law. But more than this, it is proved that suicidal regularity has an orderly variation—corresponding to variations of external condition—climate, season, country, age, sex, race, cultivation, and social circumstances. The question is, What is the nature of the relation? Nobody will pretend that it is accidental. Is it not, then, dynamic and causal?

Now, the metaphysician can do nothing with the problem, because his method of studying mind excludes the corporeal order. To him mind is an abstraction, mysteriously related to matter, but not coerced by it. Mind, he maintains, is free; matter is enslaved by law. Men accordingly kill themselves because they choose to—because they are free agents and depraved beings. On this view the facts can not be explained, and no science of the subject is possible. But, on the other hand, if we take all the elements of the subject into account, if we regard man in the light of common-sense as a unified being, and all mental effects, whether healthful or morbid, as determined by organic conditions, we are then able to understand why the laws of suicide answer to the laws of external phenomena. We can then see how suicide, though a mental phenomenon, may be due to physical causation. When we consider man as a sensitive organism, so delicately constituted as to be acted upon in a thousand ways by the complex and ever-varying forces of nature, it creates no surprise to find that the averages of self-destruction can be predicted from year to year, and even from month to month, in any country and at any season. If we put the concrete brain in the place of the abstract mind, the subject, though closed to metaphysics, is opened to science. For the brain, the most susceptible part of the organism, is liable to be disturbed and morbidly affected both by physical conditions and passional strains. No man now denies that insanity is a corporeal fact—a derangement of the action of the material organ of feeling and thought. We know that suicide is a marked accompaniment of the cerebral disorder of insanity. So marked, indeed, is it that, even where there is no other evidence, it is often held by coroners' juries that the act of suicide presumes mental derangement. But the morbidities of the brain have an infinite series of gradations. Their obscure initiations take the form of cerebral weakness, debility, exhaustion, accompanied it may be by discouragement, depression, and weariness of life, which may impel to suicide, or go on to confirmed melancholia. When we can sufficiently escape from metaphysical prejudice to regard mind as practically but brain activity, dependent upon healthy nutrition and all that that implies, it will mark an epoch in the progress of the science of human nature.

 

 
A NEW FEATURE.

We last month began a department under the title of "Entertaining Varieties," intended to be a modified form of the feuilletons which have served to increase the popularity and consequently the usefulness of many European periodicals. It will consist of readable miscellaneous fragments of all sorts, but it is not intended to limit it to mere fugitive things, as it may afford a place for continuous papers of a light and entertaining kind.

We are already able to promise something of this sort; and intend very soon to commence the publication of a series of sketches of peculiar interest, entitled

THE MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON;
or,
TRAVELS AND ADVENTURES OF HAKIM BEN SHEYTAN.
translated by f. l. o., with notes by the translator.

Many strange things have latterly come forth from the recesses of Africa, but nothing more remarkable than these curious revelations. The new chronicle may be very apocryphal, but it is sure to be amusing, and will probably prove also instructive. Hakim Ben Sheytan, we are informed, was a Mussulman doctor of Tripoli, who accompanied a military expedition to the interior of Africa, and by some mischance, straying from his party, found himself in a country inhabited by a curious race, called the Monakas, or the Monga Fants, a people distinguished by their wonderful proficiency in mechanical arts, but still more by their preposterous domestic habits, their singular ideas, and their strange superstitions. The curiosities of Monakistan rival the wonders of Houyhnhnm Land, and the narrative of the explorer abounds with incidents and graphic descriptions as well as with scientific intimations that throw a suggestive light upon the origin of the follies and vices of civilized life. The translator is widely known as an original, vivid, and fertile writer, who has the secret of making science attractive, and we venture the prediction that his work will mark a new stage in the history of entertaining literature.