Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/July 1891/Hoffding's Outlines of Psychology


THE translation of Höffding's Psychology which is now offered to English readers is not from the original Danish, but from the German translation. Dr. Höffding has, however, taken a cordial interest in the preparation of the English edition, and accepts it as adequately representing the original. The work contains seven chapters, of which the first four are general and introductory. Chapter I, on the Subject and Method of Psychology, shows that the author is in close sympathy with the English school in making analysis precede synthetic speculation. And in this connection we noted with interest a marginal reference to another work of Prof. Höffding, that on The English Philosophy of our Times (Copenhagen, 1874; German translation, 1889). We have consequently given much heed to his occasional remarks upon the contrast between the German and English schools, of which we give the following as examples:

The English school devotes attention rather to the elementary real side of conscious life, to the manner in which the mental structure is raised by the combination of fundamental elements; the German school, on the contrary, attends more to the connection and unity which from beginning to end are the marks of consciousness. . . . German psychology has often exhibited a tendency to approach metaphysics; English psychology, on the other hand, has approached the mechanical sciences, and has transferred analogies from them to the conception of mental phenomena.

Chapter II treats of Mind and Body; Chapter III, of the Conscious and Unconscious; Chapter IV is a short one on the Classification of the Psychological Elements; and the remainder of the volume contains three long chapters on the Psychology of Cognition, the Psychology of Feeling, and the Psychology of the Will. His evident familiarity with all the schools of philosophy and with the evolution of mental science in all times and countries gives a characteristic breadth and adequacy to his views upon disputed questions.

In his chapter upon Mind and Body Prof. Höffding discusses the relation between these two different provinces of experience. Using the word mind in the sense of consciousness—as a collective term for sensations, thoughts, feelings, and resolutions—he asks what experience teaches as to the connection of consciousness with that other province of experience whose content is what moves in space. His standpoint is purely empirical or phenomenal. He regards the subject from the psychological and not from the metaphysical point of view. It is with him a question of science rather than of philosophy, and this circumstance gives especial interest to his views. We have had abundant philosophical disquisition upon this subject, and it is refreshing to be told by a man of science just how the case stands as a matter of knowledge.

Although psychology is not a part of philosophy, yet Prof. Höffding teaches that philosophical thought, as a form of mental activity, lies within the sphere of its observation. Without making any assertions about the absolute nature of mental life, or whether such a nature exists, psychology can bring a knowledge of mental phenomena, of their mutual relations and their laws of development, as a contribution to the general conception of the universe; and such a conception, framed in accordance with experience, should be able to clear the point of view and to correct many prejudices.

In treating of the Interrelation of Mind and Body, Prof. Höffding accordingly examines briefly, but with care and penetration, the hypotheses that have been framed to explain the connection between conscious life and the life of the brain. He proceeds entirely from the point of view of experiential psychology, and with no reference to a final philosophy—believing that we only reach the metaphysical point of view when experience has been thoroughly explored and its tendencies have been determined.

We give the following extended extract from Prof. Höffding's work, both on account of its intrinsic interest and as an example of his style and mode of treating the subject. Allowing due weight to all the facts brought forward concerning the relations of mind and body, he says: "Only four possibilities can be conceived: (a) either consciousness and brain, mind and body, act one upon the other as two distinct beings or substances (dualism);

(b) or mind is only a from or a product of the body (materialism);

(c) or the body is only a form or a product of one or several mental beings (idealism or monistic spiritualism); (d) or, finally, mind and body, consciousness and brain, are evolved as different forms of expression of one and the same being." In examining these several possibilities Prof. Höffding repeats that, whichever we may prefer, we can adopt it only as a provisional hypothesis and not as a final philosophical or metaphysical theory; our only concern being to learn what is the view of experiential science.

He enters upon the subject of dualism by asking: "Does an excitation of a sense-organ, when transmitted to the brain, pass into sensation? Does our will set the body in motion? What is the relation between states of consciousness and brain processes? The ordinary notion is that the mind acts upon the body and the body upon the mind" He has elsewhere sagely remarked that the popular mode of apprehension is distinguished from the scientific in being a compound of experience and metaphysics, and we have here such an instance. But his own clear and guarded statement is as follows:

That we feel this immediately seems to be contradicted by the want of agreement as to the existence of a mind distinct from the body, and by the fact that it is only indirectly that we have come to know with which part of the body the mind is more particularly connected. We can not maintain that the bodily process causes the mental process, because the bodily process (the state of brain connected with sensation) does not itself become an object of consciousness. And if physiology could give a scientific explanation of the condition of the brain that ensues when I am struck by a stone, the feeling of pain aroused in me would not be included in the physiological explanation. Physiology explains a material process by means of other material processes. Its assumptions can not include a case in which one member of the causal relation shall be spatial and the other nonspatial.

Nor does the doctrine of the persistence of energy support the idea of a causal relation between the mental and material. "The doctrine of the persistence of energy is a purely physical doctrine. Such an extension would imply the possibility of finding a common measure for the mental and material. Now, what denominator is common to a thought and a material movement, or what common form serves for both? Until such a common form can be pointed out, all talk about an interaction between the mental and material is, from a scientific point of view, unjustified. So long as we confine ourselves to the material we are on safe ground, and so long as we confine ourselves to the mental we are on safe ground; but any attempt to represent a transition from physical to psychological laws, or conversely, brings us face to face with the inconceivable. The causal concept can not be employed to connect two factors which have no common measure. Again:

"If the relation between mind and body, or consciousness and brain, is a causal relation, there must be a difference of time between the process in the brain and the act of consciousness. This, however, is contrary to the view suggested by physiology. The aim of modern physiology is to conceive all organic processes as physical or chemical. Where it has attained to a comprehension of anything in the region of organic life, this has in every case been by the tracing back of organic phenomena to physical and chemical laws. If, then, there is a transition from physiological function to psychological activity, from body to mind, physiology, at any rate, working with its present method, can not discover it.... So far as we can speak of final results in the physiology of the brain, it is represented as a republic of nerve-centers, each with its function and all in interaction; but there is nothing to indicate the possibility of the physiological process breaking off at any point to pass into a process of a wholly different kind." But in framing our hypotheses we may not enter into conflict with leading scientific principles. "And, in modern natural science, the doctrine of energy is such a leading principle. If, therefore, an hypothesis is in conflict with such a doctrine, the fact tells at once decidedly against it."

Here follows a brief account of the doctrine of interaction as it appeared in the writings of Descartes, who, it is said, gave clear and distinct form to the current doctrine which helped greatly to lay bare its weak points. "To Descartes, therefore, belongs the credit of having set the problem of the relation of mind and body. For to the current notion in its vaguer form there is no difficulty in this relation. With legitimate heedlessness, the practical usage of speech ignores theoretical difficulties. Ordinary language no more regards the fact that physiology and psychology are opposed to the notion of brain and consciousness acting on one another than it respects the doubt of Copernicus as to the sun really moving round the earth. Moreover, the practical usage of speech has been formed under the influence of a partly spiritualistic, partly materialistic metaphysics."

Materialism.—The case is made clearer when one of these two factors is, without more ado, struck out.

And since the perception of the external material world takes the leading part in our ordinary ideas, while our inner self-consciousness is with difficulty educated to a like clearness and distinctness, it is perhaps the most natural thing to identify materiality with reality, and to conceive of the mental as an effect of the material. Modern materialism usually treats the mental as a function of the material. It has found a solid basis in the doctrine of the persistence of matter and energy and in that of physiological continuity. As a method of natural science it is unanswerable. But it is another affair when the method is converted into a system. It has a perfect right to treat all changes and functions of the organism, and in particular of the brain, as material; but it goes further when it maintains that the phenomena of consciousness are only changes and functions of the brain, and in this consists its encroachment.

Prof. Höffding alludes to the position of Carl Vogt, who in his time gave great offense by declaring that "as contraction is the function of muscles, and as the kidneys secrete urine, so, and in the same way, does the brain generate thoughts, movements, and feelings." In Vogt's comparison, "doubtless the chief emphasis is to be laid on the secreting activity and not on the product. The principle, however, remains the same. Among cautious physiologists with some philosophical training, the doctrine that conscious activity is a function of the brain may be sometimes met with." But the strict physiological use of the term function must contradict such a doctrine. To say that contraction is the function of the muscle, only means that it is a certain form and a certain condition of the muscle in movement. It is just as material when functioning as when at rest. The conception function (in the physiological sense) implies, just as much as the conception matter or product, something presented as an object of intuition in the form of space. But thought and feeling can not be pictured as objects in space, or as movements; we get to know them, not by external intuition but by self-perception and self-consciousness. That which has not the properties of the material can not be the form of activity of something which is material. Activity of consciousness and cerebral function always come to be known through different sources of experience. The encroachment of materialism consists in the fact that it effaces this essential distinction.

Materialism has never observed that, even if all its assertions are admitted to be just, it yet overlooks something which gives rise to a new and for it a terrible problem—namely, the circumstance that movement in space is known to us only as an object of our consciousness. For the theory of knowledge such notions as consciousness, idea, and intuition lie deeper than such notions as matter and movement. For this reason an absolute and decided materialism was possible only in ancient times, before the awakening of more deeply penetrating philosophical reflection. Democritus is the only consistent materialist. None of the modern materialistic writers can speak with the calm and the certainty with which Lucretius in his majestic verses sets forth the doctrine of Democritus. Modern materialists for the most part confess that, even if we can reduce everything to matter, yet we can not know what matter is in itself. Thus La Mettrie, Holbach, Cabanis, not to speak of the wild and rambling inconsistencies of the most recent writers (Büchner, Moleschott).

But the objection here urged against materialism is not its desire that conscious life shall accept as the only reality something which is given only as an object of consciousness, and can be represented only through the activity of consciousness; but rather that the facts impel us to the result that materialism offends against the conceptions derived from experience itself.

In treating of monistic spiritualism as the third possible hypothesis, we must always hold fast the distinction between an empirical and metaphysical way of looking at things. Very many confusions relative to the problem before us are the result of overlooking this distinction. Monistic spiritualism is the view according to which the mind is a mental (geistige) substance, and the mental is the only reality; everything material, all movement in space, is but an outer form of a mental life. It is based on the impossibility of explaining the mental by the material, and on the fact, partly overlooked, partly undervalued, by materialism, that our conception of matter is a mental product, and that apart from our conception of it we do not know what matter is. Thus the mental is a presupposition on which all thought rests; and a reasonable hypothesis is formed only by the reduction of the less known to the better known. The mental is properly the only thing fully intelligible to us, for in it we have not only a knowledge of outward circumstances and relations, but a knowledge also of the thing itself. . . .

But, supposing all this to be true, it is not to the point. For, if it be granted that everything is mental, and that nothing exists except thoughts and ideas, there still remains a distinction between ideas of material movement and ideas of phenomena of consciousness; and thus again arises the problem how these different sets of ideas, which have arisen in accordance with experience, are to be combined. The problem for psychology is empirical, and is independent of the metaphysical. We do not ask whether mind or matter is most fundamental; we inquire in what way mental and material phenomena are connected in that experience which every system of metaphysics consciously or unconsciously presupposes.

The fourth possibility, the identity hypothesis, regards the mental and the material worlds as two manifestations of one and the same being, both given in experience.

If it is contrary to the doctrine of persistence of force to suppose a transition from the one province to the other, and if nevertheless the two provinces exist in our experience as distinct, then the two sets of phenomena must be unfolded simultaneously, each according to its own laws; so that for every phenomenon in the world of consciousness there is a corresponding phenomenon in the world of matter, and conversely. The parallels already drawn point directly to such a relation; and it would be an amazing accident if, while the characteristic marks repeated themselves in this way, there were not at the foundation an inner connection. Both the parallelism and proportionality between the activity of consciousness and cerebral activity point to an identity at bottom. The difference which remains in spite of the points of agreement compels us to suppose that one and the same principle has found its expression in a double form. We have no right to take mind and body for two beings in reciprocal interaction. We are, on the contrary, impelled to conceive the material interaction between the elements composing the brain and nervous system as an outer form of the inner ideal unity of consciousness. What we in our inner experience become conscious of as thought, feeling, and resolution, is thus represented in the material world by certain material processes of the brain, which as such are subject to the law of the persistence of energy, although this law can not be applied to the relation between cerebral and conscious processes. It is as though the same thing were said in two languages. . . .

In the mental as in the material world we hold fast the law of continuity. The identity hypothesis regards both these worlds as two manifestations of one and the same being, both given in experience.

The two languages in which the same thought is here expressed, we are not able to trace back to a common original language. So long as we keep strictly to experience, one province is presented as a fragment while the other extends to infinity. The doctrine of the persistence of energy makes the material world into a totality which we can never measure, but in which the fate of the individual forms and elements can be traced. The mental world has no corresponding law to exhibit. Mental elements come and go in experience without our being able to point to an equivalent. The fact that mental states can not be measured like physical energies and chemical substances is, in itself, sufficient to frustrate the hope of our finding a mental parallel to the doctrine of the persistence of force. But, in addition to this, even the fundamental conception of a mental existence puts difficulties in the way. Material existences can pass one into another, so that the energy lost in one is preserved in the other. The doctrine of the persistence of energy shows us the unity and eternity of Nature during the coming and going of all material beings; but mental existence, as has been seen, has for its fundamental form, memory, synthesis; and synthesis presupposes individuality. The material world shows us no real individualities; these are first known from the psychological standpoint, from which inner centers of memory, action, and endurance are discovered. If now we conceive of the individual mental elements (sensations, thoughts, feelings, etc.) as capable of being transposed to other combinations, like chemical atoms, it would follow that they might have an existence apart from a definite individual consciousness—a supposition which our account of consciousness shows to be absurd. Sensations, thoughts, and feelings are mental activities which can not persist when the definite individual connection in which they occur has come to an end. . . .

The theory to which we are here led is not a complete solution of the problem between mind and body. It is only an empirical formula, an indication of the manner in which the relation presents itself provisionally, when, following the hint of experience, we take heed of the close connection between the mental and the material, and the impossibility of a reduction of the one to the other, together with the difficulties attending the notion of a transition from the one to the other. Concerning the inner relation between mind and matter, we teach nothing; we suppose only that one being works in both. But what kind of being is this? Why has it a double form of manifestation; why does not one form suffice? These are questions that lie beyond the realm of our knowledge. Mind and matter appear to us as an irreducible quality, just as subject and object. We therefore postpone the consideration of the question, since it is evident that it lies in reality far deeper than has been usually supposed. But the empirical formula with which we conclude does not exclude a more comprehensive metaphysical hypothesis.

  1. Outlines of Psychology. By Harold Höffding, Professor at the University of Copenhagen. Translated by Mary E. Lowndes. London and New York: Macmillan & Co., 1891. 375 pages, small octavo. Price, $1.50.