Popular Science Monthly/Volume 78/May 1911/The Search for the Soul in Contemporary Thought


BY Professor G. T. W. PATRICK


THE history of the soul appears to be the history of a vanishing quantity. It has indeed come now to have hardly more than an anthropological interest.[1] In recent text-books of psychology the word "soul" does not occur and the word "mind" seldom or not at all. "Psychology without a soul" is no longer a reproach but a truism. "The soul," as a prominent psychologist recently said, "is as dead as the dodo."

Kant represents the turning point in the history of the soul concept. From Plato to the pre-Kantian dogmatists, the current of philosophic thought through Plotinus, Augustine and Descartes brought the soul into clearer and more definite outline. It was a pure spiritual being, an entity, a real thing, constituting human personality. It was furthermore, an active being, a synthetic creative power, unifying and harmonizing the elements of knowledge. Finally it became a substance, a thinking substance, so picturesquely concrete and definite that it could even be located in a certain corner of the brain.

It is Kant who is supposed to have begun the serious unsettling of these very rigid foundations, but the net results of the Critiques is to establish the doctrine of the soul more firmly than ever. To be sure, the scholastic substantial reality of the soul, its simplicity and immortality, are beyond the ken of theoretical reason, but despite this mild skeptical innovation Kant enlarges the original, creative, synthesizing power of the mind beyond all suspicion. Human personality, indeed, belongs to the realm of "things in themselves," possessing both freedom and immortality.

While this lofty theory of the soul has been perpetuated in German and English idealism, nevertheless it is Kant's skeptical attitude as regards this subject that under the influence of modern empiricism has finally prevailed. Psychology, being a natural science, has nothing to do with Kantian noumena. Experience gives us a stream of thoughts, feelings and memory images, but no souls. German materialism, English associationism and American empiricism have all united in suppressing the soul. The late Professor James taught that there is not only no evidence of its existence, but it is a useless conception, its place being adequately supplied by the passing thought or feeling. "Souls," he says, "have worn out both themselves and their welcome."[2]

It would seem, therefore, to the initiate in contemporary psychology that the soul concept is obsolete or at the best obsolescent.

To the more careful student, however, this conclusion turns out to be rather hasty. Further study leads him to a series of interesting discoveries which shake his faith in his first impression. His first trouble may come when he opens Professor Eucken's recent book, "The Problem of Human Life," and reads on page 551, "Man's soul is a fact. Who can deny it? It is indeed the fundamental fact which must take precedence of all others." As he reads further in continental thought, he finds that the evanescence of the word "soul" from contemporary psychology is a phenomenon belonging largely to England and America alone. The Germans freely use the word Seele. His second discovery is that, while radical empiricists are carefully explaining that psychology is a natural science and as such has only to do with facts and the only facts are the passing thoughts, feelings and volitions, this attitude is only a measure of extreme caution on the part of a science which has suffered much in the past from its unhappy entanglements with metaphysics and theology and he finds that philosophers, biologists, sociologists and even these same empirical psychologists in their philosophical moods have very little hesitation in positing some theory of the soul to explain facts thrust upon them in their several fields of investigation.

His third discovery is that the psychology of the day has not so much dispensed with the soul concept as substituted merely another word for it, that word being "consciousness." He finds indeed that "consciousness" is very much in vogue. The word stares at him from every page of the text-books which studiously avoid the "soul" and the "mind." Current psychological journals abound in articles examining into the nature of consciousness, extolling its psychological, sociological and even cosmic significance. We are indeed confronted with the following interesting situation: While on the one hand, the soul has lapsed from psychological science and the psychologist is busily engaged in studying processes and behavior, on the other hand there never was a time in the history of science when from every quarter came so many assurances that consciousness is a biologic, psychologic, social and cosmic factor of the most profound importance.

Our inquiring student, therefore, will naturally ask how the concept of consciousness differs from the old concept of the soul, whether the new one is better than the old, and, if so, whether, after all, the loss of the soul is serious if something better has come to take its place.

If we turn to the standard text-books of psychology, we find that the word "consciousness" is often loosely used and has a variety of meanings. More commonly it is used in one of two meanings. It means first "the mind's awareness of its own processes,"[3] or "the immediate knowledge which the mind has of its sensations and thoughts."[4] In this sense it is a kind of subject-object consciousness and involves distinction, contrast, polarity, and may have arisen in the process of evolution in the stress and tension experienced by an organism in adjusting itself to new and adverse situations.[5] In the second sense, however, "consciousness is identified with mind, and 'conscious' with 'mental.'[6] Mind and consciousness mean the same thing. To be conscious is just to have a mental process. Now it is in this second sense, as we are told, that the word is correctly used in psychology.[7]

It would seem then that we have merely a new word for the old thing, for it is clearly stated that the word "consciousness" when correctly used means just the same as the word "mind" and to be conscious is to have a mental or psychical experience. Consciousness is just a comprehensive word to designate all sorts of "psychical" processes, such as thoughts, feelings, volitions, impulses, pains and pleasures. Now the word "psychical" is wholly orthodox in modern psychology. It is sometimes used in a broader sense than the word "mental" and is expressly applied to any phenomenon which is subject matter of the science. But the English word "soul," corresponding to the Greek ψνχή is the noun correlative with the adjective "psychical." Consciousness, therefore, when "correctly" used, is not the consciousness indicated by the etymology of the word nor the subject-object consciousness of Locke, Dugald Stewart and historical psychology, but just a new word, a synonym for soul, having an old form and another meaning.

Now the reason why a new word was needed is simply this. The words "soul" and "mind," owing to their metaphysical and theological associations, have become obnoxious. The word "soul" in particular suggests something over and above our mere inner experiences, some "substance," which may perhaps leave the body and be "immortal." Interest in "immortality" has waned and the notion of "substance" adds nothing to our notion of psychological phenomena. Hence, owing to quite fortuitous reasons, the good old Saxon word "soul," which has indeed a much more spotless history than the word "consciousness," has been sacrificed. This perhaps was inevitable, but it is unfortunate that the new word is one having rightfully another meaning, leading to endless confusion and misunderstanding. Psychologists themselves deplore the ambiguities of the word "consciousness." "There is no philosophical term at once so popular and so devoid of standard meaning. How can a term mean anything when it is employed to connote anything and everjrthing, including its own negation?"[8] "For the sake of clearness, terms like mind and psychosis will be substituted for 'consciousness,' owing to its ambiguity."[9] Of consciousness Avenarius says, "It would be better to give up entirely so treacherous a term."[10]

In the following illustrations of the emphasis placed upon consciousness in recent science, it should be remembered, then, that the word is used either as quite synonymous with the older words "mind" and "soul," or else, as is quite commonly the case, it is used in the sense of an indefinite, not wholly known, psychic factor of life and progress. In this latter sense the word soul, if it were permitted to use it, would be still more appropriate. The careful reader in contemporary psychological and biological science will make the further interesting discovery that the word "consciousness" is also used in the original and more proper sense, as subject-object consciousness or self-consciousness, and that it is usually so used by those writers who are engaged in showing that consciousness is an evolutionary product of life and organization, while, on the other hand, those now numerous writers and investigators who believe that consciousness is a primitive datum or deep underlying force of life, organization and progress, use the word in one of the other two senses just mentioned.

Let us take, then, a few illustrations of the emphasis which recent science is putting upon consciousness as a world factor of primary importance. Let it be borne in mind that until recently there were few outside the ranks of idealistic philosophers to dispute the prevalent belief that mechanical laws are sufficient to account for every phase of human life, including mental and moral phenomena; that at certain stages of organic evolution consciousness appears as a kind of byproduct and has no agency in the life drama itself, and that it is not necessary to take any causal account of it in explaining life in its physiological, psychological or social aspects. With this view compare that of many representative present-day psychologists who hold that consciousness, although itself perhaps a product of evolution, has become a factor in evolution of the very first importance, changing not only the very face of the earth, but changing the direction of evolution itself. One writer says:

I believe we need to work further on this problem of evolution until we see that in its consummation organic evolution passes into a form of adjustment in which the inner world with its conscious pattern for changes in the outer world is more important than any form of objective selection which can be discovered. . . . Consciousness is the essential fact in human life, as I have attempted to show. What man does with his environment depends upon consciousness. That phase of individuality which is important enough to change the type of evolution certainly can not be described as non-existent or as merely resolvable into its elements.[11]

Some day the historian of thought will write it down as one of the curious fallacies of immature science that certain physiologists, biologists and even psychologists were satisfied to call their own personalities mere by-products, without essential significance in the world, just because they did not find consciousness capable of description in the regular scientific formulas adapted for the discussion and explanation of external reality. One hardly knows how to find phrases in which to answer those who hold consciousness to be less real and potent than physical forces."[12]

These writers refuse to limit the idea of causality in such a way as to exclude the conspicuous fact that the mind is a veritable cause. By its peculiar and exclusive power of ideal reconstruction of experience, it becomes a tremendous new force in the world, bending material forces to its will, first picturing then realizing ever higher marks in science, art, literature, justice and the progress of civilization in general. Consciousness certainly is potent, and if potent, then, according to pragmatism, true and real.

Thus far, then, it begins to appear that, even granting that consciousness may be a product of evolution, nevertheless its potency and hence its reality might become the ground for what may be called a re-discovery of the soul. But there is a tendency not only to recognize the reality and potency of consciousness, but to carry it farther and farther back in the evolutionary process, if not to make it a primitive datum. The old "orthodox" descent, starting with chance variation and natural selection and coming down through simple irritability and sensory-motor reflexes, till finally consciousness is evolved, no longer satisfies either psychologists or biologists. Many believe that all so-called reflex acts, including instincts, were once conscious acts. The fact that conscious actions tend to become automatic might, however, easily be misunderstood. It does not point to any displacement or impoverishment of consciousness. Such apparent displacement "is for the sake of its own inherent ends, being the conditio sine quâ non, of its further extension and enrichment."[13] Human development does not seem to be in the direction of instincts exhibited by bees and ants, but in quite another, namely, that of self-reflective intelligence.[14]

Something, then, more or less of a psychical nature, call it soul, call it consciousness, call it sensibility, call it vital impulse or vital force, or call it merely a psychic factor of progress, has been a primary factor in organic evolution. "Life has preceded organization" and "consciousness was coincident with the dawn of life." It has been a kind of "primum mobile" of organic structure. Something like "effort" has preceded upward changes.[15] Consciousness is not a function of organization and is not an epiphenomenon. It is a bionomic factor of the utmost importance. It is of the highest use in adapting organism to environment. It changes the direction of energy. It intervenes between sensation and reaction in the realization of ends, "A frank unbiased study of consciousness must convince every biologist that it is one of the fundamental phenomena of at least animal life, if not, as is quite possible, of all life." "Consciousness is a conspicuous, a commanding factor of adjustment in animals."[16]

Whether consciousness is thought of as a form of energy comparable with heat and electricity,[17] or as an independent dimension of reality,[18] or as some original and primary correlative of energy,[19] nevertheless it is certain that it is a reality, a potency, a factor second to none other, physical or metaphysical.

Even the biological laboratory is offering a suggestive support to the soul hypothesis. If one chooses to accept the theory, as old as the history of thought, that something of a psychical nature bridges the gap, still unspanned by natural science, between the organic and.the inorganic, his belief gains new and unexpected support from recent biological studies. So much scorn has been cast upon the theory of vitalism that its recent renewal by a whole school of able German biologists is exceedingly significant. Driesch bases his vitalistic conclusions upon the most careful and long-continued laboratory researches. He discards the machine theory of the origin of life.

No kind of causality based upon the constellations of single physical and chemical acts can account for organic individual development; this development is not to be explained by any hypothesis about configuration of physical and chemical agents. . . . Life, at least morphogenesis, is not a specialized arrangement of inorganic events; biology, therefore, is not applied physics and chemistry: life is something apart, and biology is an independent science."[20]

By giving to this elemental directive factor the name "entelechy" and by applying to it in its formative aspect the further name "psychoid," Driesch implies and indeed repeatedly affirms not only its reality, but its analogy with what we call the psychical.

Näageli's "Vervollkomnungsprinzip," or inherent factor tending towards progress in evolution, Noll's "Morphæsthesia," or feeling for form which plants are said to possess, Korschinsky's "special tendency to advance," Cope's "archæsthetism," "the inherent driving force," "the inner law of development," "the inner directive force," of other biologists,[21] all have a strangely psychological sound. It is of course true that these positions are vigorously contested by biologists of the orthodox schools, who speak of the "recrudescence" of vitalism. But protests such as the above against the sufficiency of mechanical laws to account for progress in evolution are becoming so many and from such high sources that no psychologist who would postulate a psychic factor of progress, constituting, it may be, the soul of plants, animals and man, need any longer hesitate for fear of censure from the biological camp.

But if vitalism is objectionable, it should be remembered that the choice is by no means between that and the sufficiency of the Darwinian theory of chance variation and natural selection. The number of biologists who accept neither of these solutions of the evolutionary problem is of course very great. If one accepts, for instance, the mutation theory of de Vries, it should be remembered that the difficulties of explaining the cause of the adaptive variations upon which Darwinism depends are greatly increased in explaining the cause of the sudden and rapid mutations in the system of de Vries. In general one may say that the belief in orthogenesis, or development in certain definite directions, has to a considerable extent superseded Darwin's theory of development, and with the increasing belief in orthogenesis comes an increasing demand for some yet unknown factor determining the direction of development, and while there are many theories proposed to account for such development without the introduction of any teleological or psychic factor, nevertheless it appears that those who wish to renew the time-honored hypothesis of some such factor are now heard with increasing respect.

From facts such as these we see not only that many workers in science are busily engaged in the search for the soul, but also that the prospects are reasonably good that they will find it.

But let us return to the psychologists. Another aspect of the tendency to glorify the mind and to give to it, or to some part of it, or to something like it, a leading role on the stage of events is seen in the voluntaristic movement. The voluntarists do not necessarily hold to any old-fashioned notions of the will as real. The tendency in voluntarism is a part of the general tendency to believe that processes are more real than things. Our volitions, therefore, being obviously processes, movements, springs, are better types of psychical reality than sensations or ideas. So on every side we find emphasis laid upon will, impulse, instinct, inner activity, mental initiative and attention. "Inner activity" is spoken of in the case of the lowest animal organisms and even of plants. In studying animal behavior, we learn that the earliest movements are not mere reflexes, but a series of "trial movements of the most diverse character and including at times practically all the movements of which the animal is capable."[22] Likewise the reflex mechanical theory fails to account for the "tropisms" of plants. Although few biologists would explain the "tropisms," or perhaps even the "trial" movements of the microorganisms as psychical, nevertheless it is admitted that they are forms of inner activity and not reflexes, and it is hard for psychologists not to associate them with such human phenomena as attention, impulse and initiative. The suggestive term "restlessness" has been used to characterize these simple forms of self-activity.[23] Something like an eternal restlessness seems to be present in every form of living matter from the microorganism with its incessant "trial" movements to the adult human being with his exhaustless aspirations. It manifests itself in the variations and mutations of plants and animals, in the "try, try again" movements of the creeping child, in the play of youth,[24] in the inner stirrings, passionate longings and ceaseless, activities of the adolescent, and in the inventions, explorations, ambition and progress of the mature man of culture. Despite every effort of naturalism to explain the power of voluntary and sustained attention, the apparent freedom of the will, and the art impulse, there remains in these phenomena an unexplained residue which apparently depends upon this inherent principle of self-activity.

The term "restlessness," however, suggestive as it may be, does not quite rightfully express the character of this profound principle of inner activity which eludes all scientific analysis. It is something more than restlessness and something less than aspiration. All attempts to account for progress, whether cosmic or human, without the assumption of some such deep psychic factor, have failed. There is apparently in man, as in nature, a spring of progress, an upward and forward impulse, an effort, a ceaseless striving, a will to produce always a more perfect form, a better function. It is this tropic, restless, aspiring force, this psychic factor of progress, that prompts us evermore to invent a new way, a shorter cut, a better method, and leads to the steady and inevitable raising of moral and political standards. To speak of this factor as a "force" or "energy" is merely to use a category taken from material science. To say that it is "teleological" and works towards "ideals" is to interpret it in terms of narrow human experience. It matters little what we call it, but if we call it "mind" or "soul," it suggests no longer a "substance," no static quantity, nor yet just the sum total of our conscious life—but rather a sort of bubbling spring, a profound source, from which upwells the entire organic world, culminating now in the whole mass of human achievement and aspiring to some ever higher conscious or unconscious goal.

  1. Compare Crawley, "The Idea of the Soul."
  2. James, "A Pluralistic Universe," p. 210.
  3. Titchener, "A Text Book of Psychology," p. 17.
  4. Dugald Stewart, quoted by Titchener, loc. cit.
  5. Compare Bawden, "The Psychological Theory of Evolution," Journal of Comparative Neurology, Vol. XL, No. 3, p. 263.
  6. Titchener, op. cit., p, 18.
  7. Idem.
  8. Perry, "Conceptions and Misconceptions of Consciousness," Psychological Review, Vol. 11, p. 282.
  9. Crawley, "The Idea of the Soul," p. 58.
  10. "Am besten wärs man gäbe einen so verfänglichen Ausdruck ganz auf." Quoted by W. T. Bush, Journ. Phil., Psych. and Sci. Meth., Vol. 11., p. 561
  11. C. H. Judd, "Evolution and Consciousness," Psychological Review, Vol. XVII., 2, pp. 90, 93.
  12. C. H. Judd, "Psychology," p. 62. Compare Edward M. Weyer, "A Unit Conception of Consciousness," Psychological Review, XVII., 5, p. 318.
  13. Norman Smith, Philosophical Review, Vol. XVII., p. 334, reviewing Mitchell's "Structure and Growth of the Mind."
  14. Compare Bergson, "L'evolution créatrice," Chapitre II.
  15. Cope, "Primary Factors of Organic Evolution," p. 508 ff.
  16. Chas. S. Minot, "The Problem of Consciousness in its Biological Aspects," Science, N. S., Vol. XVI., No. 392, pp. 17, 19.
  17. Compare Ostwald, Monist, Vol. 17, p. 514, and Grunewald, "Zur Energetik des Lebens," Annalen der Naturphilosophie, IX., 237.
  18. Compare Boodin, "Consciousness and Reality," Journ. Phil, Psych, and Sci. Meth., Vol. V., No. 7, p. 173.
  19. Compare Minot, loc. cit.
  20. Driesch, "The Science and Philosophy of the Organism," 1907, p. 142. Compare G. Wolff, "Beiträge zur Kritik der Darwin'schen Lehre."
  21. See Kellogg, "Darwinism To-day," pp. 277, 278.
  22. Jennings, "Behavior of the Lower Organisms," p. 280.
  23. Royce, "Outlines of Psychology," Chaps. VII. and XIII.
  24. Idem, p. 319.