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Hugo Münsterberg

The Aim of Psychology

Psychotherapy (PartI: The Psychological Basis of Psychotherapy)

Published on: Saturday 20 October 2007

Hugo Münsterberg, Psychotherapy, Moffat, Yard and Company, New York, 1909.



The only safe basis of psychotherapy is a thorough psychological knowledge of the human personality. Yet such a claim has no value until it is entirely clear what is meant by psychological knowledge. We can know man in many ways. Not every study of man’s inner life is psychology and the careless mixing of different ways of dealing with man’s inner life is largely responsible for the vagueness which characterizes the popular literature of psychotherapy. It is not enough to say that a statement is true or not true. It may be true under one aspect and entirely meaningless under another. For instance, a minister’s discussion of man’s energies may be full of deep truth and may be inspiring; and yet it may not contain the slightest contribution to a really psychological knowledge of those energies, and would mislead entirely the physician were he to base his treatment of human energies on such a religious interpretation.

Can we not look from different standpoints even on any part of the outer world? I see before me the ocean with its excited waves splashing against the rocks and shore, I see the boats tossed on the stormy sea and I am fascinated by the new and ever new impulses of the tumultuous waves. The whole appears to me like one gigantic energy, like one great emotional expression, and I feel deeply how I understand this beautiful scenery in appreciating its unity and its meaning. Yet would I ever think that it is the only way to understand this turmoil of the waters before me? I know there is no unity and no emotion in the excited sea; each wave is composed of hundreds of thousands of single drops of water, and each drop composed of billions of atoms, and every movement results from mechanical laws under the influence of the pressing water and air. There is hydrogen and there is oxygen, and there is chloride of sodium, and the dark blue color is nothing but the reflection of billions of ether vibrations. But have I really to choose between two statements concerning the waves, one of which is valuable and the other not? On the contrary, both have fundamental value. If I take the attitude of appreciation, it would be absurd to say that this wave is composed of chemical elements which I do not see; and if I take the attitude of physical explanation, it would be equally absurd to deny that such elements are all of which the wave is made. From the one standpoint, the ocean is really excited; from the other standpoint, the molecules are moving according to the laws of hydrodynamics. If I want to understand the meaning of this scene every reminiscence of physics will lead me astray; if I want to calculate the movement of my boat, physics alone can help me.

As long as we deal with outer nature, there is hardly a fear of confusing the various attitudes; but it becomes by far more complex when we deal with man and his inner life. We might abstract entirely from æsthetic appreciation or from moral valuation, we might take man just as an object of knowledge; and yet what we know about him may be entirely different in accordance with our special attitude. Each kind of knowledge may be entirely true, and yet true only from the particular standpoint. Let us consider two extremes. If I meet a friend and we enter into a talk, I try to understand his thoughts and to share his views. I agree or disagree with him; I sympathize with his feelings, I estimate his purposes. In short, he is for me a center of aims and intentions which I interpret: he comes in question for me as a self which has its meaning and has its unity. The more I am interested in his opinions, the more I feel in every utterance, in every gesture, the expression of his will and his purposes; their whole reality for me lies in the fact that they point to something which the speaker intends; his personality lies in his attitude towards the surroundings, towards the world. Yet I may take an entirely different relation to the same man. I may ask myself what processes are going on in his mind, what are the real contents of his consciousness, that is, what perceptions and memory pictures and imaginative ideas and feelings and emotions and judgments and volitions are really present in his consciousness. I watch him to find out, I observe his mental states, I do not ask whether I agree or disagree; his will is for me now not something which has a meaning, but simply something which occurs in his inner experience; his ideas now have for me no reference to something in the world, but they are simply contents of his consciousness; his memories now are for me not symbols of a past to which he refers, but they are present pictures in his mind; in short, what I now find is not a self which shows itself in its aims and purposes and attitudes, but a complex content of consciousness which is composed of numberless elements. I might say in the first place that my friend was to me a subject whom I tried to understand by interpreting his meaning, and in the second case, an object which I understand by describing its structure, its elements, and their connections.

Both ways of looking on man are constantly needed. We might alternate between them in any experience. In the heat of argument, my friend will certainly be for me the subject with whose meanings I try to agree or disagree, whose emotions carry me away, whose ideas open the world to me. Yet in the next moment, I may notice that his ideas were shaped and determined by certain earlier experiences; that they linked themselves in memory according to certain laws of mental flow; that the vividness of his ideas made him overlook certain impressions of the surroundings; and that may turn my attention to an entirely different aspect of his inner life. His feelings and emotions, his volitions and judgments now have for me simply the character of processes which go on and which are observed, which coincide and which succeed each other, which fuse and overlap, and which are composed of smaller parts. My interest is now no longer in the meaning and intentions of this self, but it belongs to the structure and the connections in this system of mental facts. At first, I wanted to understand him by living with him, by participating in his attitudes, and by feeling with his will; now I want to understand him by examining all the processes which go on in his consciousness, by studying their make-up and their behavior, their elements and their laws. In one case I wanted to interpret the man, and finally to appreciate him; in the other case I wanted to describe his inner life, and finally to explain it. The man whose inner life I want to share I treat as a subject, the man whose inner life I want to describe and explain I treat as an object.

I might express these two standpoints still otherwise. If my neighbor is to me a subject, for instance, in the midst of an ordinary conversation, he comes in question only with reference to his aims and meanings: whatever he utters has a purpose and end. I understand his inner life by taking a purposive point of view. On the other hand, the man whose inner life is to me an object can satisfy my interest only if I understand every particular happening in his mind from its preceding causes. I transform his whole life into a chain of causes and effects. My standpoint is thus a causal one. No doubt in our daily life, our purposive interest and our causal interest may intertwine at any moment. I may sympathize with the hopes and fears of my neighbor in a purposive way, and may yet in the next moment consider from a causal standpoint how these emotions of his are perhaps affected by his fatigue or by some glasses of wine, or by a hereditary disposition, or by a suggestion; in short, at one time I look out for the meaning of the emotion as a part of the expression of a self, and at another time for the structure and appearance of the emotion as a part of a causal chain of events. In both directions I can go on with entire consistency, and there cannot be any part of inner experience which cannot be fully brought under either point of view. How far we have a right to mix the two standpoints in practical life, we shall carefully examine; but it is clear that if we want to understand the true meaning of the study of inner life, we have no longer any right carelessly to mix the two standpoints without being conscious of their fundamental difference. We must understand exactly what the aim of the one and of the other is, and where each has its particular value; science certainly has no right to throw together such different views of life. And now this may be said at once: the causal view only is the view of psychology; the purposive view lies outside of psychology.

Such a separation does not at all aim to indicate that the one view is more important than the other, or that the one has more scientific dignity than the other; both yield us truth, and both may be carried from the simplest and most trivial observations of daily life to the highest elaborations of scholarship. To those who are inclined to give all value and all credit only to the strictly psychological view, it may be replied at once that surely our most immediate life experience is carried on by the non-psychological attitude. If we love our family and like our friends, and deal with the man of the street, we are certainly moving in a world of purposive reality. We try to understand each other, to agree and to disagree, to be in sympathy and antipathy, without asking how those volitions and feelings and ideas of other people are built as mental structures, and from what causes they arose; we are satisfied to understand what they mean. In the same way with ourselves. We live our lives by hinging them on our aims and purposes and ideas, and do not ask ourselves what are the causes of our attitudes and of our thoughts.

This purposive view has in no respect to disappear if we move on from our personal intercourse to a scholarly study of reality. The historian, for instance, who tries to understand the will relations of humanity, is the more the true historian the more he sticks to this purposive view of man. The truth which he seeks is to interpret the personalities, to understand them through their attitudes, to make their will living once more, and to link it by agreement and disagreement, by love and hate, with the will of friends and enemies, groups and parties, nations and mankind. It is only a loose popular way of speaking, if this purposive analysis of a character is often called psychological. In a stricter sense of the word, it is not psychological. If the historian really were to take the psychological attitude, he would make of history simply a social psychology, seeking the laws of the social mind, and treating the individual, the hero, and the leader, merely as the crossing-point of psychological law. For such a psychological view the mental life of the hero would not be more important or more interesting than the mental life of a scoundrel, and the psychology of the king would not draw his interest more than the psychology of the beggar. The historian has to shape all that from an entirely different standpoint: his scientific interest depends upon the importance of men’s attitudes and actions, and such importance refers to the world of purposes.

In the same way, we have to stick to the non-psychological point of view whenever man’s life, his thoughts and feelings and volitions, are to be measured with reference to ideals; that is in ethics and æsthetics and logic, sciences which ask whether the volitions are good or bad, whether the feelings are valuable or worthless, whether the thoughts are true or false. The psychologist does not care; just as the botanist is interested in the weed as much as in the flower, the psychologist is interested in the causal connections of the most heinous crime not less than in those of the noblest deed, in the structure of the most absurd error not less than in that of the maturest wisdom. Truth, beauty, and morality are thus expressions of the self in its purposive aspect.

We can go one step further. Those who narrowly seek every truth only in the scientific understanding, ought to be reminded that this seeking for causal connections is itself, after all, only a life experience which as such is not of causal but of purposive character. "Life is bigger than thought." In the immediate reality of our purposive life we aim towards mastering the world by a causal understanding, and for this end we create science; but this aim itself is then a purpose and not an object. The first act is thus for us, the thinkers, not a part of the causal events, but a purposive intention towards an ideal. Therefore, our purposes have the first right; they represent the fundamental reality; the value of causal connections and thus of all scientific and psychological explanation, depends on the value of the purpose. Causal truth can be only the second word; the first word remains to purposive truth. From this point of view we may understand why there is no conflict between the most consistent causal explanation of mental life on the one side, and an idealistic view of life on the other side; yes, we can see that the fullest emphasis on a scientific psychology—which is necessarily realistic and, to a certain degree, materialistic—is fully embedded in an idealistic philosophy of life, and that without conflict. And we shall see how this consistency in sharply separating the psychological view from the non-psychological, secures much greater safety for true idealism than the inconsistent popular mixing of the two principles, where scientific psychology is constantly encroached upon by demands of faith and religion, and where faith and religion seem constantly in danger of being overturned by new discoveries in physiological psychology. We may, indeed, remove from the start the mistaken fear that a consistent causal aspect of life leads to injustice to the higher aims and ideal purposes of mankind. If we want to have psychology,—and that means if we want to consider the mental life in a system of causes and effects,—we must proceed without prejudices, and without side-thoughts.

From a psychological standpoint our own mental life and that of our neighbor, that of the man and that of the child, that of the normal and that of the insane, that of the human being and that of the animal, are to be considered as a series of mental objects. They are to be analyzed, and to be described, and to be classified and to be explained, just as we deal with the physical objects in the outer world. How are these objects of the psychologist different from the objects of the physicist, from the pebbles on the way and the stars in the sky? There is only one fundamental difference and all other differences result from it. Those outer objects which we call physical, are objects for everybody. The star which I see is conceived as the same star which you see, the table which I touch is the table which you may grasp, too. But every psychical object is an object for one particular person only. My visual impression of the star, that is, my optical perception, is a content of my own consciousness only, and your impression of the star can be a content of your consciousness only. We both may mean the same by our ideas, but I can never have your perception and you can never have my perception. My ideas are enclosed in my mind. I may awaken in your mind ideas which have the same purpose and meaning, but they are new copies in your mind. We both may be angry, but your anger can never be my anger, and your volitions can never enter my mind. Every possible psychical fact thus exists in one consciousness only, while every physical fact exists for every possible consciousness.

The psychologist’s final task is to explain the appearance and disappearance, the connections and sequences of these mental objects, the contents of consciousness. But before he can start on explanation of the facts, he has to describe them, and describing means analyzing them into their elements and fixating those elements and their combinations for an exact report. Such descriptive work is in a way preparatory for the further task of real explanation; yet it is in itself important, complicated, and difficult. Of course, it may be easy to separate the complex content into some big groups of facts, to point out that this is a memory idea and this an imaginative idea and the other an abstract idea, and this a perception and that a feeling, this an emotion and that a volition. But such clumsy first discrimination does not go further, perhaps, than does the naturalist’s, who tells us that this is a mountain and that a tree, this a pond and that a bird. The real description would demand, of course, an exact measurement of the height of the mountain and the geological analysis of its structure, or an exact classification of the tree and the bird, with a complete description of their organs, and in each organ the various tissues have to be described, and in each tissue the various cells, and the microscopist goes further and describes the structure of the cell. Certainly in the same way the psychologist has to go on to resolve every one of those complex structures; he has to examine the mental tissues and the mental cells of which a volition or a memory idea or a perception are composed. And while he cannot use a microscope for these mental elements, yet his studies may cause elements to appear which the naïve observation remains entirely unaware of.

Perhaps he finds in his consciousness the perception of the table before him which lingers for a little while in his mind. He finds no difficulty in analyzing it into color sensations and tactual sensations; and yet he is aware of so much more in it. The table, for instance, has form for him and he may find that these form perceptions involve the sensations of the eye movements which he makes from one corner of the table to the other; he may find that if the idea lasts in him, he becomes aware of the time by sensations of tension; he finds that in his perception of the table lies an idea of its use, and he discovers that that is made up of elements which are partly memory reproductions of earlier impressions, partly sensations of movement impulses; he also finds that the table feels smooth, and he discovers by his analysis that this impression of smoothness results from a special combination of tactual sensations and movement sensations; and again those movement sensations he analyzes further into sensations of muscle contraction and sensations of pressure in the joints and sensations of tension in the tendons. Before a zoölogist has completed his description of a bird in the landscape, he has given account of hundreds of thousands of things; but before the psychologist would complete the enumeration of the mental elements which enter into the seeing of the table, he would have to give account of by far more psychical elements. Every point in the surface of the table has its own light value, perhaps different in its quality and intensity and saturation, in its hue and tint and shade from the next one, and at whatever point of the table’s edge our attention is directed, each one involves numberless shades in the vividness of all the other points and numberless mental relations of space perception among the various parts of the table. In the thorough analysis of the describing psychologist, every single idea, and in the same way, every single emotion or feeling or judgment becomes complex like a living organism, an aggregate of thousands of mental tissues, and yet made up from "the stuff that dreams are made of."

But there is one particular difficulty which makes the psychological description so much harder than that of the physicist, and which gives rise to many disagreements and discussions in psychological literature. The psychologist has not only to tear the complex into pieces and thus to seek the elements, but he has to fixate those elements for the purpose of communication, as, of course, a scientific description demands that he be able to give account to others of what he experiences. The physicist has no difficulty whatever in that line because, as we saw, the world of physical things is the world which all men are sharing together. Every element which I find in it, I can show to every other person, and if I cannot show that particular thing, because I cannot yet carry the mountain to another place, then I can at least measure it, as we share those standards of space. Thus natural science has in its objective measurements the possibility of describing every part of the physical world. The psychical world, on the other hand, is as we saw, the world which is private property. Every effort at description is thus entirely in vain as long as our mental facts cannot somehow be linked with physical happenings. If I say that I have in my mind sweetness or sourness, or bitterness or saltness, I cannot carry any understanding to anyone else and therefore cannot give any description until I have agreed that I mean by sweetness the sensation which sugar gives me, and by saltness the sensation of salt. The sugar and salt I can point out to my neighbor and only in that way I understand what he means if he says that he tastes salt and sweet; otherwise I should have no means whatever to discriminate whether that which he calls a sweet taste sensation is not just what I call headache. Where no such direct relation for a physical thing is known, description of the mental element would remain impossible. Of course, every perception of the outer world, all our seeing and hearing, and touching and tasting, offers us at once such definite connection between the inner experience and a piece of the physical universe. Our own organism is also such a piece of physical nature: just as I describe my tasting or touching, I may describe the perception of my arms and legs or my inner organs. Thus everything which is material of perception gives us a handle for a real psychological description. Psychology usually calls the elements of these perceptions sensations. Whatever is composed of sensations is thus describable.

On the other hand, no other way of description is open. If there were mental states which are composed of other elements than sensations, they would necessarily remain indescribable; we could not grasp them because they would not have any definite relation to the common physical world. We might say, for instance, that our mental content is made up of sensations and feelings, but if such feelings were really entirely different from sensations, they would have to remain for all time mysterious and unknown. We could not compare notes. The feeling which I call joy may feel just like the one which you call despair. The consistent development of modern psychology and its emancipation from vagueness and superficial analysis became possible only through the fact that such recourse to indescribable elements has become unnecessary. Modern psychology has been able to demonstrate more and more that the same elements which constitute our perceptions are also the elements of the other contents of consciousness. In other words modern psychology has recognized that the volitions and emotions and feelings and judgments, and the whole stream of inner life, are made up of sensations. Millions of sensations in all degrees of vividness and clearness, of intensity and fusion, in endless manifoldness of rhythms and relations constitute their whole content. It is a discovery quite similar to the one which chemistry made when it found that the same elements which are part of the inorganic substances are also the only possible elements of the organic world.

From a strictly psychological standpoint, the ideas and the not-ideas contain thus nothing but sensations. Their grouping, their shading, their combination, their succession decide whether we have before us a perception or an imagination, a volition or an emotion. What are we ourselves then for the psychologist? Evidently we ourselves belong also to the inner experiences which we know; and psychology has succeeded in analyzing this idea of our own self just in the same way as it analyzes our idea of the moon. In this analysis, psychology finds its idea of the self as a content of consciousness crystallized about the sensations from the body. Every one of our bodily activities is represented in our consciousness by movement sensations, and these sensations form the core of the complex aggregate which develops into the idea of ourselves. Organic sensations from our inner organs, pain sensations and pleasure sensations fuse with the movement sensations, and the whole complex shapes itself slowly into the idea of the personality of the self in contrast to the idea of other personalities. We ourselves are for ourselves a complex combination of sensations; and yet all our feelings and emotions and volitions are only a part of it. Psychology thus necessarily considers those experiences of feeling and will and character simply as changes in the midst of that central experience of personality which is itself made up of bodily sensations. Each bit of will and emotion must be decomposed into its finest elements. There is no passing mood, and no floating half-thought in our mind, no dream and no intuition, no slightest change of attention, no instinct and desire which cannot be analyzed thus into its sensation elements or rather which must not be analyzed, if we are to describe it at all, and that means if we are to give a psychological account. Psychology is endlessly far from this ideal to-day. It has been claimed, not without justice, that psychology has reached to-day only the level which physics attained in the seventeenth century; but psychology must insist that its ideal lies in this direction. No one takes a real psychological view of the human mind who does not understand this endless complexity of the material, and who does not see that even the simplest mental state practically presents a most complex problem to scientific analysis. The physician who really aims towards scientifically exact influence on the human mind has reached the first step of his preparation as soon as he understands that the content of consciousness is composed of hundreds of thousands of elements. To treat the mind as if there were only a few large pieces, one thing called memory and one thing called will and one called emotion and so on, is as if a surgeon were to perform an operation, knowing that there are arms and legs, but not knowing the ramifications of the nerves and blood-vessels which his knife may injure. Yet the description of these complex facts is only the beginning of psychology. We saw that the real aim is their explanation.

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