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THE FOUNDATIONS OF NORMAL AND ABNORMAL PSYCHOLOGY

Boris Sidis, Ph.D., M.D.

1914

 

CHAPTER III

THE DEFINITION OF THE PSYCHIC PROCESS

         The definition thus far given of psychic life is rather of a negative character. We defined the psychic phenomenon in opposition to the physical phenomenon. Physical phenomena are in space, psychic phenomena are not spatial. Now a negative definition may to many prove rather unsatisfactory. It is, therefore, desirable to define psychic phenomena in more positive terms.

        It is now the tendency to define the physical process in social terms and the psychic process in terms of individual cognition. A physical phenomenon is defined as one common to many minds, while a psychic phenomenon is an object of an individual consciousness. I think that such a view of the external physical object, as that which is common to many minds in contrast to the psychic or that belonging to an individual mind only is incorrect from a purely psychological standpoint. Psychologically considered the characteristic trait of a physical object is not that it is common but that it is external. The tree yonder is to me a physical object, not because it is common to many minds, but because I perceive it as external, the sensory elements of the perception carry with them external objectivity.

        The social perception of an object may be one of the criteria of external reality, but certainly not the only one, and surely not the chief one. In perceiving an object I do not consider it as a physical object, because I know that it is common to my fellow beings, but because the very psychic process of perception gives the immediate knowledge of externality. An object is considered as physical, not because of its social aspect, but because of its perceived external aspect. Had my perception of the house yonder been a hallucination, I would have still seen it as external and therefore regarded as a physical object; and should this hallucination furthermore be confirmed by the testimony of all my other senses, should I be able to touch it, press against it and feel resistance, knock myself on it and feel concussion and pain, and have a series of tactual and muscular sensations by walking into it and around it, and should I further have this hallucination of all the senses every time I come to this identical spot, the object would be to me an external physical object, and no amount of social contradiction could and would make it different. Regarded from a psychical standpoint an object is considered as physical, not because it is common to other minds, but because it is projected as extensive and external to mind. Not community, but extension, externality is the psychological criterion of the physical object.

        It is true that community of object is one of the criteria of external reality, but it is certainly not true that the community of the object gives rise to the perception of externality. It may, on the contrary, be claimed, and possibly with far better reason, that it is the object's externality that gives rise to its community.

        The child in its growth learns to discriminate between things and persons. Persons move, act, make adaptations, while things are moved, acted upon, adapted to; persons initiate movements, things do not; persons are prime movers and it is to them that one has to look up in the satisfaction of needs and in the acquisition and use of things. As against persons things are contrasted as impersonal. Gradually the child learns to include himself within the class of persons, his hopes, wishes and desires come in contact, as well as in conflict with those of other persons, and he learns more and more of inner life and activity with which he finally identifies all personality. Personality is more and more stripped of the thing aspect until the inner mental life, especially in its will aspect, remains as its sole characteristic. Persons are willers, and it is these wills which are of the utmost importance for the child to learn as the fulfillment of his will depends on them. He then learns to class himself within the category of willers; he himself is a willer. Impersonal things, falling outside and being contrasted with the class of willers, are conceived as independent of persons.

        Moreover, while from the very nature of the case each willer bears to things a direct relation, his relation to other willers is only to be established through things. Wills come in contact not through the mere fact of willing, but through their relations to things. Coming in direct relation with things, things alone give direct experience, experience in its first intention. In other words, only things give rise to sensation or rather perception; hence sensory life with its time and space experience giving rise to externality is the criterion of the universe of things, conceived as independent of will. Only thing is external, will is not. Wills, however, can come in relation through things, and only through the same things; the universe of things must be a common one to all the wills, if these wills are to come into relation at all. In other words, the physical universe, genetically regarded, is external not because it is common, but it is common, because it is external.

        The definition of the physical object as that which is common to many minds and of the psychic object as that which is present to one mind only is not acceptable, since it postulates the result of complicated epistemological reflection and psychological research, still very doubtful in themselves, at the very outset of the science of psychology. It may be that the world is nothing but consciousness and that the physical universe is nothing but the social object of many minds; still all this belongs to the domain of epistemology and metaphysics. The psychologist deals with phenomena and not with the "really existent." Standing on the ground of psychology the psychologist has no right to reduce the physical world to psychic terms; in fact, such a procedure would undermine his science, as all distinction between psychic and physical facts would become obliterated. For if by an "object" common to many minds we mean an object external to those minds, then we gain nothing at all by introducing the "many," it is just this "external" that has to be defined; if by the "common object" we mean an object psychic in its character, but only of a social nature, then we reduce the physical unLverse to consciousness and thus identify physical and psychic processes. Such identification is an obliteration of the opposition between the psychic and physical facts, an opposition with which the psychologist must set out, if he is to place psychology in the hierarchy of natural sciences. The psychologist must postulate the existence of an external physical world, just as the geometrician postulates space or the mechanician matter and motion.

        It is the task of the epistemologist and metaphysician to inquire into the nature of that physical world whether it really exists independent of consciousness. Without, therefore, going into metaphysical considerations, I think it is best to define the physical phenomenon as the object or process conceived as being independent of consciousness, while the psychic object or process is one that is conceived as being directly dependent on consciousness. It seems to me that this definition has the merits of being positive as the one given by the representatives of the idealistic school; it has not the defects of bringing in irrelevant metaphysical and epistemological considerations; and it has furthermore the advantage of being fully in accord with the data and postulates of psychology.

 

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