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  1. The 17th and 18th Centuries: The Epistemology of Mind
  2. The 19th Century: The Epistemology of the Nervous System
  3. Mind, Brain, and the Experimental Psychology of Consciousness

The Rise of Experimental Psychology

7. The 17th and 18th Centuries: The Epistemology of Mind

According to the received view (Boring, 1950), scientific psychology began in Germany as a physiological psychology born of a marriage between the philosophy of mind, on the one hand, and the experimental phenomenology that arose within sensory physiology on the other. Philosophical psychology, concerned with the epistemological problem of the nature of knowing mind in relationship to the world as known, contributed fundamental questions and explanatory constructs; sensory physiology and to a certain extent physics contributed experimental methods and a growing body of phenomenological facts.

In one version of this story that can be traced back at least to Ribot (1879), the epistemology of the 17th and 18th centuries culminated in the work of Kant, who denied the possibility that psychology could become an empirical science on two grounds. First, since psychological processes vary in only one dimension, time, they could not be described mathematically. Second, since psychological processes are internal and subjective, Kant also asserted that they could not be laid open to measurement. Herbart, so the tale goes, answered the first of Kant's objections by conceiving of mental entities as varying both in time and in intensity and showing that the change in intensity over time could be mathematically represented. Fechner then answered the second objection by developing psychophysical procedures that allowed the strength of a sensation to be scaled. Wundt combined these notions, joined them to the methods of sensory physiology and experimental phenomenology and, in 1879, created the Leipzig laboratory.

While there is undoubted truth in the received history, like all rationalizing reconstructions, it tends greatly to oversimplify what is an exceptionally complex story. Within the past 20 years, as primary resource materials have become more widely available and as larger numbers of historians have entered the arena, the received view has been amended many times. Within the context of this exhibit catalogue, it will not, of course, be possible to address this complexity. The reader who is interested, however, is referred to the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences and to Bringmann & Tweney (1980), Danziger (1990), Rieber (1980), and Woodward & Ash (1982) among others.

Because so many psychologists are at least broadly familiar with the lines of Boring's story of the rise of experimental psychology, because the story has been so frequently retold in the many other textbook histories, and because it is a much more complex tale that it at first appears, this section and the two to follow will sketch only the barest outlines of the intellectual developments that led from Locke to Kant, from Bell to Müller, and from Fechner to Wundt. Psychologists who have not read Boring are strongly encouraged to do so. Despite its limitations, it is still the point of origin from which much of contemporary scholarship proceeds; and, perhaps even more importantly, it is the history of psychology that has become part and parcel of American psychology's view of itself.

[Figure 28] Since we have already discussed Descartes and briefly touched on Leibniz, we can pass directly to the founder of both empiricism and associationism, John Locke (1632-1704) [see figure 28]. Locke was born in Wrington, Somerset, England. reared in a liberal Puritan environment, and educated at Christ's Church, Oxford. His Essay Concerning Humane Understanding [27], dated 1690 but actually published in 1689, like much of the rest of 17th century philosophy, is a reaction to Descartes. Unlike Spinoza, who attacked the mind-body dichotomy metaphysically, Locke moved the discussion into the purely psychological realm of experience, contrasting inner sense (the mind's reflective experience of its own experience of things) with outer sense (the mind's experience of things). While Bacon (1605) and Descartes had both raised the question of the method suitable for attaining knowledge, Locke, from his empiricist perspective, was the first to propose the epistemological question of the limits of knowledge.

Employing a very general notion of "idea" that incorporated a disparate set of entities among which modern psychologists would distinguish perceptions, mental images, and concepts, Locke concerned himself with both the certainty of our ideas experientially attained through reflection or the inner sense and the truth of our ideas insofar as they depend on the outer sense. After Locke, it would be possible to emphasize either the vivid character of the ideas transmitted by the outer sense or the intuitive certainty of the inner sense. The former view would lead to the sensationalism of Condillac [see 30], the later to the intuitional realism of Reid and the Scottish school of faculty psychology [see 31]. In the 60 or more years intervening between Locke and Condillac, however, others, most notably George Berkeley and David Hartley, also made use of notions contained in Locke's Essay.

[Figure 29] In the Essay on Humane Understanding, Locke had distinguished between primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities such as solidity or extension are completely inseparable from the bodies in which they inhere and are simply perceived by the senses. Secondary qualities are the powers inherent in objects to produce sensations in the perceiver such as color, odor, or sound. The colors, odors, and sounds, however, do not themselves inhere in the objects. Berkeley's "immaterialism" [see section III] was simply the notion of secondary qualities expanded to include primary qualities and taken out of objects and placed in God.

George Berkeley (1685-1753) was born at Kilkenny, Ireland and educated at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1709, he published his first book, Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision [28, see figure 29]. Although Berkeley did not explicitly discuss his immaterialism in the New Theory, it was everywhere implicit in his views and combined with a proto-associational view of the importance of connections between ideas, it provided him with the basis for a theory of the perception of distance which became a prototype for later associationist accounts. For Berkeley, distance is not immediately perceived by vision. Rather, when "the mind has, by constant experience, found the different sensations corresponding to the different dispositions of the eyes to be attended each with a different degree of distance in the object...(and) there has grown an habitual or customary connexion between those two sorts of ideas, ... distance ... is ... the idea ... immediately suggested to the understanding" (parag. 17). Here, among other things, Berkeley anticipated the "context theory" of meaning popular in associationist accounts almost two hundred years later.

[Figure 30] David Hartley (1705-1757) was born at Luddenden, Halifax, England and educated at Jesus College, Cambridge. In 1749, he published his two-volume Observations on Man [29, see figure 30]. While the general principle of association was in use long before Hartley and the phrase, "the association of ideas," can be traced to the Appendix of the 4th edition of Locke's Essay, it is with Hartley, as Young (1970) tells us, that "the association psychology first assumed a definite form and a psychological character not wholly derived from epistemological questions. Hartley was the first to apply the association principle as a fundamental and exhaustive explanation of all experience and activity ... Moreover he joined his psychological theory with postulates about how the nervous system functions. His sensations were paralleled by vibrations ... or 'elemental' particles in the nerves and brain ... In relating the phenomena of sensation, ideation, and motion to the nervous system he lays down the principles of physiological psychology which Ferrier would later combine with the concept of cerebral localization" (p. 95-97).

Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715-1780) [see figure 31] was born in Grenoble, educated in theology at Saint-Sulpice and at the Sorbonne, and ordained to the priesthood in 1740. Of the two sources of knowledge in Locke, sensations transmitted through the outer sense and reflection through the inner sense, Condillac focused exclusively on the former. His Traité des sensations [30], published in 1754, was designed to show that external impressions through the outer senses, taken by themselves, can account for all ideas and all mental operations. Using the famous example of a statue endowed with no other property than a single sense, smell, he attempted to derive attention, memory, judgment, imagination, the whole of mental life. Condillac's views are, clearly, the most extreme form of the tabula rasa perspective. Like all tabula rasa views, no matter how powerful the correlative principle of association, Condillac's extreme sensationalism runs afoul of the obvious fact of variation (species differences, individual differences) in biological constitution.

[Figure 31] In direct contrast to Condillac, Thomas Reid (1710-1796) chose to emphasize Locke's inner sense, building on the simple notion of reflection to develop an elaborate theory of the intuitions and faculties of the human mind given by its fundamental constitution. Reid was born near Aberdeen and educated at Marischal College. Initially influenced by Berkeley, his antipathy to the implicit assumptions in Hume's Treatise of Human Nature (1739) turned him away from both Berkeley and Hume and toward the reformation of philosophy. His major work, An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense [31], was published in 1764, the year in which he accepted appointment as Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow.

In the Inquiry Reid articulated the basic intuitional postulate of the "common sense" philosophy on which the Scottish faculty psychology was to be built. Intuitions are native tendencies to mental action, aspects of the fundamental constitution of the human mind which regulate the conscious experience of all human beings from birth. Because intuitions require the presentation of appropriate objects in order to be called forth in mental action, the Scottish philosophy is a realism. Intuitions do not project the mind into reality, they allow the mind access to it. Although intuitionalism is a nativism of psychological process, it is a methodological empiricism in that inquiry into the nature and existence of natively given principles of mind takes place by induction from observed facts in self-consciousness. It was this view, coupled with Reid's (1785,1788) later analysis of specific faculties that dominated 19th century academic American mental philosophy. It was also indirectly from Reid that Gall obtained the original list of 27 powers of the mind that guided his attempt to map the localization of function in the brain.

[Figure 32] Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) [see figure 32] was born, lived, and died at Königsberg, in East Prussia. It is said that in the entire course of his life, he never traveled more than forty miles from the place of his birth. The suggestion from Ribot that 18th century philosophy culminated in the work of Kant was probably not an unreasonable one; although it might be an even fairer appraisal of Kant's influence to say that 19th and 20th century philosophy followed Kant much as the earlier philosophy had followed Descartes. Kant's indirect influence on scientific psychology was therefore enormous. His direct contributions, although admittedly more circumscribed, were also of considerable importance.

One such contribution, as we have already noted, was Kant's defining the prerequisites that would need to be met for psychology to become an empirical science. Another consisted of a bonafide psychological treatise, Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht [32], published in 1798. Long ignored, probably in part because of its pronounced sympathy for a soon to be discredited physiognomy, the Anthropologie is, nonetheless, a fascinating little book. Here Kant analyzes the nature of the cognitive powers, feelings of pleasure and displeasure, affects, passions, and character in the context of a denial of the possibility of an empirical science of conscious process. The Anthropologie went through two editions during Kant's lifetime and several later printings and helped to define the context within which not only Herbart and Fechner but phenomenologically oriented physiologists such as Purkyne, Weber, and Müller worked to establish the science of conscious phenomena that Kant was unable to envision.


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Wozniak, Robert H. "Mind and Body: Rene Déscartes to William James";
Bryn Mawr College, Serendip 1995
Originally published in 1992 at Bethesda, MD & Washington, DC by the National Library of Medicine and the American Psychological Association.

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