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The Nature and Principles of Psychology

Boris Sidis

Read at the American Medico-Psychological Association in New York, May 25, 1899.

American Journal of Insanity, 1899, 56, 41-52.


        As I glance over the announcement of the many subjects to be brought before your attention and look at the long file of the names of lecturers, all with medical titles, I cannot help feeling grateful to you for the honor you have bestowed on me, a mere psychologist, by your kind invitation to read a paper on any subject in my line of work. Such an invitation is to me an event, a sign of radical changes going on in the undercurrent life of the medical world. Medical men and especially alienists seem to observe less strictly the law "not to admit an alien into the congregation of the Lord," and are willing to listen even to a psychologist.

        Being under the delusion that to read a paper meant to lecture, I prepared a rather extensive series of lectures, "On the nature and principles of Psychology," and discovered but too late, that one was not allowed to tax your patience for more than twenty minutes. I was rather displeased at first, but after I thought the matter over, I came to the conclusion that the twenty-minutes' rule was a wise one, dictated, no doubt, by bitter experience.

        Seeing that time is precious, I decided to read the introductory chapter only, and dismiss the rest in the same summary fashion as the biblical historian deals with the deeds or misdeeds of some scriptural Ahaziah or Jehoshaphatit is all written in the book of Chroniclesin the present caseit is all to appear in the "Archives."

        The paper is divided into six chapters:

        The first chapter "Psychology and the Medical Profession," the one I am going to read to you is introductory in its nature. The second chapter treats of "The Scope of Psychology"; the third of "The Sources of Psychology"; the fourth of " The Chief Hypotheses of Psychology"; the fifth of "The Data and Postulates of Psychology"; the sixth of "The Theory of the Moment-Consciousness" in its relation to the phenomena of association, dissociation and their physiological correlative retraction and expansion with an account of psychopathological work done at this Institute and substantiating these theories.

        And now as to the relation of Psychology to the children of Æsculapius.


        Psychology and medical science were for centuries as far from each other as heaven from earth. Psychology was considered by the practical mind of the physician as ideal philosophical wisdom, which may be regarded with distant awe, but which cannot possibly be of any earthly use in the affairs of ordinary life. This relation can no longer be maintained. On the one hand the imperative necessity of treating insanity, and the investigation of abnormal mental life in general and the recent researches into the more complex nervous and mental troubles such as the different forms of aphasia and amnesia forced medical science into psychology, and on the other hand the growth of the scientific spirit, the development of physical and biological sciences forced psychology into the pathways of concrete sciences. Both have benefited by the change. Medicine from being a practical art regulated by the rule of thumb and dominated by the fetishistic faith in extracts and tinctures is now gradually freeing itself from the shackles of traditions and is rapidly becoming scientific.

        Medical men are no longer afraid of anything mental, they no longer fear hypotheses and theories, the ferments and products of rationalizing scientific thought. They realize that hypotheses are not will-o'-the-wisps, but guiding stars; that theories are keys fashioned by the human mind to open the mysteries of nature; and that all science, in fact, is fashioned and moulded in the crucible of theoretical reflection. Phenomena must be rationally examined, experimented upon and scientific theories worked out, based on the broad foundation furnished by the acquisition of' physical and biological sciences. In short, medical men have come to realize the necessity of a rational scientific comprehension of the phenomena with which they deal. Psychology from hovering in the clouds of metaphysical reflection has descended into the laboratories and is now demonstrating its truths by means of instruments and experiments. The psychologist has donned the apron of the laborer and has turned his theories to practical account. Medical science become more theoretical and psychology more practical. The chasm that separated the psychologist from the physician is bridged over by the medical study of nervous and mental diseases and by the scientific spirit that is now rapidly taking possession of the profession.

        These, however, are not the only factors that have forced the medical profession into the arms of psychology; other factors have been at work and have perhaps been far more powerful, far more effective. The striking manifestations of subconscious life, the strange phenomena of hypnosis and the practical utility of psychopathic methods in the hands of the judicious practitioner were by the labors of such men as Braid, Liebault, Bernheim, Forel, Charcot, Janet and Sollier, forcibly brought before the attention of the medical profession.

        The knowledge of subconscious phenomena is not new, in fact it dates far back into antiquity. The ancient civilized nations, the Chaldeans, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Persians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks, were familiar with the upheaval of subconscious activity, they even knew of hypnosis and estimated, if not overestimated, its practical utility. The phenomena were, however, relegated by them to the province of the supernatural and to the present day the superstitious fear of subconscious activity and especially of hypnosis, still lingers among the vulgar.

        In ancient times the knowledge of mental life and psychotherapeutic methods along with other germs of science were in the' hands of the priests. There is in the British Museum a tablet, found at Thehes, that represents a priest hypnotizing a patient. The biblical story of the "brazen serpent," that cured those who gazed upon it, points in the same direction. Cures by hand-manipulations strikingly similar to the modem methods of hypnotism were performed in the temples of Isis, Osiris, and Serapis. In the Greek temples of Æsculapius diseases were cured by having the patient fall into deep sleep in the sleeping chamber near the shrine of the God of medicine. Enormous sums of money were paid by the patients for such cures which were regarded as supernatural, mysterious, divine.

        The apparently strange phenomena of subconscious life could not possibly, in the infancy of science, be investigated and analyzed into their constituent elements; they were therefore considered as supernatural or the manifestation of some God; they were connected with the mysteries of religion, and were essentially" faith cures," miracles.

        This condition of things continued throughout the middle ages with the only difference that the phenomena, regarded in ancient times as work divine, were now ascribed to the agency of evil spirits or of the devil.

        With the decay of blind religious faith and with the rise of the modern rationalistic spirit, miracles, faith cures with all the real phenomena that underlie them, valuable as they are in themselves, fell into disrepute. Medical men with their practical common sense tried their best to keep clear of faith and mysteries. In opposition to the claims of the priest-craft as to the possibility and actual occurrence of "miraculous divine healing," the medical profession rejected in a body all kinds of " faith cures " among which were phenomena of the most vital importance to medicine in general and to science in particular. The very existence of subconscious phenomena was emphatically denied as being but a fake of lying priests and delusion of vulgar superstition.

        Meanwhile the rejected phenomena continued to manifest themselves; they did not disappear because of having been repudiated by the medical profession and exorcised by learned incantations or quasi-scientific formulae. Time and again have these outlawed phenomena risen from their obscurity and have obtruded themselves on public notice, but only again and again to meet with the same fate of being thrust aside, neglected and persistently denounced as fakes and delusions. It is not so very long since a man of science in speaking of hypnotism gave utterance to the exclamation: "Even if these phenomena were true, they ought to be suppressed!" and this simply because they seemed to him to interfere with the symmetry of his scientific principles.

        The scientific world of the 16th century ridiculed Copernicus' De Revolutionibus Orbis" and the learned men of orthodox science in conclave assembled solemnly declared: "Terram non esse centrum Mundi nec immobilem, sed moveri motu etiam diurno est item proposltio absurda." New ideas will always meet with the opposition of the crowd, even if the crowd be scientific. When Pythagoras discovered his famous theorem of the right-angle triangle he offered a hecatomb, a sacrifice of one hundred oxen; since that time, when a new discovery is made, all the oxen tremble.

        In spite of the bitter opposition, however, the facts could not be suppressed. Nature cannot be exiled, it streams through every pore of our being, and neglected in one shape appears transformed in another. The physician was just the one to stumble in his practice on these repudiated facts which puzzled him the more, the more medical book knowledge continued to denounce them. Medical men could not long be blinded by prejudices. Phenomena that could not possibly be overlooked even from a purely clinical standpoint forced themselves on their attention, I mean functional diseases in general and those known  under the appellation of hysteria and functional psychosis or psychopathies in particular. In these diseases the physician is confronted by motor derangements, by sensory anomalies, and even trophic disturbances induced by no "organic" cause. They are frequently induced psychically and what is more, they are psychically cured. Hypnotic and allied psychic phenomena were rediscovered, brought out from their obscurity, were closely studied, rationally systematized on the basis. of already accumulated scientific acquisitions, clearly and concisely demonstrated before the medical profession, and were finally acknowledged by the world of science.

        From a psychological standpoint it is interesting to note how often a word, however unintelligible, fetches the fancy of the crowd, no matter whether that crowd be scientific or vulgar. As long as the phenomena of' the subconscious order were not gathered within the fold, as long as they were running wild so to say, the facts were ignored and contemned, but no sooner did authorities recognize their existence by finding a label for them, than the sceptical disbelief and disdain changed to deep interest and credulity. The label "suggestion" did yeoman serviceit fetched the crowd and inspired the sceptics with faith.

        No sooner were those "fake phenomena" recognized by science than they were found to be so common and so dangerous that many European countries had to enact special laws for their regulation. Thus the fact that serious physiological disturbances could be induced and cured psychically is now slowly but surely bringing the best minds of the medical profession into close relations with the science of psychic life.

        I must confess that in this respect the psychiatrist has gone far in advance of his step-brother, the neurologist. The psychiatrist is making himself thoroughly acquainted with the most fundamental principles of psychology and is not even afraid of pushing his investigations into the regions of philosophy and epistemology. This is certainly a good sign, for it is always useful for a true scientist who wants to expand the limits of his science to examine occasionally the very instrument by which science is fashioned. Such a procedure, in fact, is for the true scientist sometimes indispensable. It is the psychiatrist, such as is represented by Kraepelin and his school, who specially insists on the great value of the cultivation by the medical profession of psychology and its various branches for the better understanding of psychomotor life, both in health and disease. In this country and abroad the psychiatrist greets with delight all' attempts to incorporate psychological investigation in psychiatric research work. It is enough for me to remind the members of this Association of a paper to this effect read before them by Dr. Eskridge last year. So earnestly does the psychiatrist realize the need of psychological knowledge that he finds it necessary even to instruct the attendant in the asylum in the rudiments of this science, a praiseworthy example of which is represented by the little psychological manual written for asylum attendants, by Dr. Burr, the Secretary of this Association. It is the psychiatrist who is making endeavors to raise the young science of psychopathology on the broad basis of psychology and biology; and it is once more the psychiatrist who in the person of Prof. Ziehen is not scared' by the philosophical aspects with which the psychologist. and I say fortunately for him, must necessarily be acquainted. Prof. Ziehen has written his "Leitfaden," and has recently followed it up by an attempt of a more or less thorough discussion in epistemology, or the science of Knowledge, in his pamphlet "Psychophysiologische Erkenntnisstheorie."

        Meanwhile the neurologist in the insane pride of the all-importance of his research-work refuses to make himself acquainted with the broader and deeper aspects of psychology, and is on that account still clinging to the old long-abandoned psychological doctrine of independent metaphysical sensory entities, idols, images, apparitions, sensory doubles and ghosts of sensations imprisoned in separate cells, entombed in their respective graves or centers, in different regions and localities of the cerebral cemetery, and capable of miraculous resurrection. The chaotic associative dance of those images, sprites and hobgoblins, holding high carnival in revivalism, constitutes according to the neurologist the essence of mental activity. I always wondered as to the sources of the neurologist's psychology, none are ever mentioned unless it is a round gameone borrows from the other.

        The neurologist ridicules the psychologist, the psychopathologist, the psychiatrist, as living on unsubstantial ethereal ambrosia, not suspecting that he himself is feeding on the crumbs from those very tables. How many of the neurologists who write essays and text-books on the different forms of aphasia, amnesia and other mental ailments ever heard of Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Reid, Cabanis, Hartley, Herbart, James Mill, J. St. Mill, Bain, Galton and others. Those who did hear of them simply disdain to glance into such philosophical, metaphysical "bosh," and much less to quote them as authorities. The result is that the neurologist but too often offers us, with a naive but self-contented air, amusing psychological dogmas for which he has justly drawn upon himself the anger of Wundt who stigmatizes the neurologist's queer metaphysics of "aphasia psychology" as " revived phrenology." "The assumptions," says Wundt in his Outlines of Psychology, "that visual, tonal and verbal ideas are stored in special cortical cells, are not only the results of the grossest physiological misconceptions, but they are absolutely irreconcilable with psychological analysis of these functions. Psychologically regarded, these assumptions are nothing but modern revivals of that most unfortunate form of faculty psychology known as phrenology."

        Fortunately representatives of the younger generation of neurologists are freeing themselves from those deficiencies and are paying their tribute to psychology and especially to the newly-rising science, so much attacked by some neurological old fogies, I mean the science of psychopathology as represented by the French, German and English writers, such as Ribot, Janet, Binet, Fere, Sollier, Bernheim, Liebault, Dessoir, Meyers, Gurney, James and others, and in which our Pathological Institute had also the honor to participate.

        This new spirit in the camp of the neurologist is voiced by Doctor Peterson, the President of the N. Y. Neurological Association in his inaugural address which one has to hail with enthusiasm, and from which I proceed to make the following quotations:

        "We who are students of the phenomena presented by the normal and by the disordered nervous system, while we realize the enormous progress made in our province during the last twenty years, still feel that we stand but in the half-light of discovery, and that there extend far out before us innumerable pathways leading into unknown regions, wherein shines the dim and fitful light of new truths to be attained .  .  .  .  .  .

        "Yet, though some of these paths may not be open to us all, there is at least one of the roadways leading into the realms of the mind which anyone of us may follow. It lies in the direction of the better clinical examination of our cases from the standpoint of psychology.

        "The neurologist may garner a vast number of extremely valuable data by the application of some of the principles and apparatus of the new physiological and experimental psychology to the investigation of his cases of organic brain disease. These patients have rarely, if ever, been carefully studied in relation to their mental phenomena. We cannot yet tell what lacunae may not be thereby discovered in the psychic unity of the affected individual. Our studies of aphasia have been remarkably deficient as regards their psychic side.

        "In the investigation of the functional disorders of the brain, also, there are fine conquests to be made by means of recent psychological methods.

        "While the neurologist has much to gain by following the psychological path in the study of neurological cases, far more vast is the expanse that opens out to physicians in reformatories, prisons, institutions for idiots and asylums for the insane, if they travel the new road, under the new guidance, in the dawn of the new day.

        "When I look back upon three years spent in asylum work without light or guide, it seems to me that, aside from some practical gain in methods of management of patients and a certain familiarity with types of insanity acquired, I traversed a somewhat barren waste. It would be an inestimable privilege to live again through such opportunities, to be awake and not asleep, no longer benumbed by the slumbrous psychiatric dissertations of that day." .  .  .  .  .  . 

        "Ever since I observed the splendid facilities for study in some of the foreign psychiatric clinics, it has seemed to me a misfortune that not one of our large cities on this side of the water is provided with such a center for psychological investigation. The psychological laboratories attached to some of our universities, dealing, as they do, with the normal mind, can never hope to accomplish as much in the way of new discoveries as similar foundations associated with clinics for nervous diseases or asylums for the insane, where is gathered together an abundant morbid matter upon which to draw for the solution of many a psychic riddle. For it is true that most of our knowledge of normal functions of the human body, physiological or psychological, has been gained through investigations conducted when these functions were perverted or destroyed by disease."

        Dr. Peterson might have also added that "psychological and neurological research would prove itself specially fruitful along the lines of the subconscious and functional psychopathies."

        Not afraid of being called an enthusiast, Dr. Peterson with the true courage of a pioneer calls the attention of the medical profession to the rich region lying open with limitless horizon before every physician who has to do with morbid minds, with abnormal mental life in his private practice, or in special institutions, if he but follow the new paths.

        Such is Dr. Peterson's earnest plea for the study of the psychological sciences by the medical profession in general and by psychiatrists and neurologists in particular, and we sincerely hope that the best medical men are in full accord and sympathy with Dr. Peterson's ideas.

        It is true that some physicians with a limited stock of intelligence, a species from which no profession is free, sneer at all psychological research work and parrot-like repeat the word "imagination" as an explanation for phenomena that lie beyond the ken of their comprehension, and outside the province of their text-books. By the term "imagination" they seem to indicate a something which is essentially delusive in its character, a mere nothing, and with the dignity of people proud of their "doctor's" degree they can afford to look down on the poor creatures who busy themselves with such foolish "imaginary" things, with mere "nothing." It is interesting to observe that the consideration of how "nothing" can possibly produce any effects at all never occurs to their minds, but then mind itself is for them "imagination," mere "nothing." A "nothing" that alleviates suffering, that annuls pain like an anæsthetic, a "nothing" that , may bring in its wake, or have as its concomitant serious disturbances, grave diseases, is certainly a wonderful species of nothing. Fortunately this type of men forms but a very small minority of the medical profession, it is a type that is now rapidly dying out, and will soon become a historical curiosity. Now it is certainly plain to the medical man, who has a good scientific training, and happily the majority of them do have one, as the profession now imperatively requires it, that the word "imagination" used as an explanation of the whole field of functional psychosis, the phenomena of hypnosis, the manifestations of the subconscious and also the methods of psychotherapeutics based on these phenomena1 is simply a term that indicates an abyss of ignorance. The psychophysiological processes that underlie functional diseases must be carefully studied, faithfully investigated before an explanation can be given of their nature. To be satisfied with a word is certainly not a sign of scientific intelligence. Where thoughts fail da stellt sich zu rechter Zeit ein Wort hinein.

        How often men stultify themselves with phrases, void of all sense, we can see from the following account of functional neuroses taken from a German authority whose work is a standard text-book in the medical colleges of this country and abroad.

        "If the normal exertion and inhibition of the will-power be broken down, so that unreasonable will-stimuli are created and reach the muscles we have hysterical convulsions, contractures, or cramps. If there are present in the consciousness images of awaited or feared objects, and if these images be intensified by the conditions of the disease into true subjective irritations of consciousness, we shall have hysterical pains and neuralgias." This piece of scientific speculation, as to its lucidity reminds one of the definition of love given by a Platonist: "Love is the ideality of reality of a part of the totality of the Infinite Being."

        In spite, however, of all this confusion in the camp of the neurologists one thing remains true, and that is, that the majority of the medical profession which consists of men possessed of an inquisitive and scientific turn of mind is, through means of functional psychoneurosis, brought to the portals of the temple of psychology. Especially is this the case with the specialist in mental diseases. Daily is he confronted by phenomena, the source and mechanism of which can only be understood in the light of psychological analysis.

        It is to be hoped that the time is not far off when every medical college of high standing will institute courses in psychology  and psychopathology.

        A few words must be said here of those medical men, who are still suffering from phrenophobia, who are afraid of "thought." Psychology takes one into deep waters, psychology is philosophy they say, and advise their friends to keep at a distance from psychological knowledge. Thus a well-known neurologist in an address before a medical association warned the profession against the dangers of psychology, and another neurologist advised in good faith the director of a well-known scientific institution to steer clear of all psychology, as it is pernicious to all solid work, it neither spins nor weaves, it is mere moonshine, dealing in flimsy material such as our dreams are made of, it is nothing but mere thought." A psychic fact is something that cannot be put in any hardening fluid, nor cut into slices, nor put on slides, nor stained, nor put under the microscope and then represented in so many figures and pictures. In short, it is mere thought. And what is thought? Metaphysics! Cells and stains, that is real science!

        Now psychology is by no means the same as philosophy, still the field of psychology is wide, and while on the one hand it extends far into the domains of physiology and pathology, it at the same time closely borders on philosophy, and the psychologist must also be somewhat of a philosopher, in order to comprehend clearly the phenomena he deals with, and do good, efficient work. But even if psychology had much to do with philosophy, there is no reason why medical men should be afraid of it. Psychology, and especially that part of it that deals with abnormal mental life, has proved to be practically useful, and philosophy is certainly not dangerous. Philosophy is after all only clear thinking, and is there any special reason why medical men should not be clear thinkers? Surely, thought is an ally, not a foe. Medical men ought to remember the golden saying of Hippocrates, the father of medicine:

Ιατρός γάρ φιλόσοφος ισόθεος.

"Godlike is the physician who is also a philosopher."



1. I take here the opportunity to point out the fact that neither is hypnosis the whole of psychopathology nor is therapeutic hypnotization the whole of psychotherapeutics. Psychopathology covers the whole domain of abnormal mental life and hypnotization is but one of its many methods of study and treatment.


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