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Review of

The Psychology of Suggestion

Charles Sanders Peirce (?)

The Nation, Vol. 67, Aug. 25, 1898, 153-155.



The Psychology of Suggestion. By Boris Sidis, M.A., Ph.D., Associate in Psychology at the Pathological Institute of the New York Stale Hospitals. With an Introduction by Prof. William James. D. Appleton & Co. 1898. 8vo, pp. 386.

        An interesting book is this in more ways than one, beginning with the title-page, for it marks a stadium in the progress, both of psychology and of medicine, that the need of such an official as an "Associate in Psychology" should have been felt and filled in the Pathological Institute of the New York State Hospitals. It speaks well for that institution. It is interesting, too, to meet with so signal a vindication of the appointment as is afforded by the successful treatment of the extraordinary and interesting case of the Rev. Thomas Carson Hanna. This gentleman of superior endowments and accomplishments, when he came to himself after a carriage accident, was like one new born. He had clean lost all knowledge, all passion, all voluntary activity. He was bereft of every vestige or familiarity with everything, had no suspicion that the sounds of speech had any meaning, never thought of the persons about him as persons, had no consciousness of self as such, and did not look upon the external world as real. When, after a few weeks he had begun to use his hands, ho had become ambidextrous. His logical acumen retuned very early, while he was still in passional innocence, was asking the meaning of the simplest words, and wondering at the most everyday matters. The extraordinary rapidity with which he acquired and applied new knowledge, his keen sense of music and symmetry, and the significant fact that he learned English in a few weeks, and pronounced it well and correctly, confirmed Dr. Sidis in his first impression that the old personality had not been crushed to death, but had only been dissevered from conscious life, still in great measure swaying the newly-formed personality from the subconscious depths of being.

        In order to "tap the subconscious self," the patient was questioned about his dreams. It turned out that, besides ordinary dreams, he had "clear picture dreams," which were in reality fragments of his former life, although he did not recognize them, but thought them very strange. Thus, in one of them, he saw a house with these letters on it: N E W B O S T O N  J U N C. He had lately learned to read the word NEW; but the other letters were entirely unintelligible to him. Latent memory being thus proved, the problem was to bring it up into connection with consciousness. This was gradually accomplished by means of a method due to Dr. Sidis, which he calls hypnoidization, and which is described. At length he was brought into a condition of double consciousness, complete amnesia separating the two states. Finally, by means of a method for an account of which we are referred to a subsequent publication, the two states were run into one. "The patient is now perfectly well and has resumed his vocation." There have lately been some further reports which confirm this statement.

        The main purpose of the book professes to be to show that every man has a double personalitythe one person dominant and self-conscious, the other subordinate and unconscious. This is not a theory towards which psychologists will antecedently incline, nor will they accept the evidences here adduced as at all sufficient. That the subconscious part of the mind makes up a unitary self will not readily be admitted.

        The work is divided into three parts entitled Suggestibility, The Self, Society. The middle part occupies more than half the volume and is the centre of the author's thought. To this the chapters on suggestibility are introductory. "Suggestibility" is the Nancy word for that docility, or, if you please, that incitability, which is so exaggerated in the hypnotic trance, but of which everybody, especially an agreeable and sympathetic person, has a large share. This faculty, or state of mind, was first assigned as the main secret of the ordinary phenomenon of hypnotism as long ago as 1846 by the American itinerant lecturer Grimes. But he was not an academic person, and was naturally ignored. He proposed the word "credenciveness" as the scientific name for the incitability of which we are speaking, briefly defining it as "that conforming social propensity whose natural stimulus is an assertion," to describe all its principal effects. "Credenciveness," he says, "is the key to most of the wonderful experiments of Buchanan and Sunderland, of Braid, Hall, and Elliotson." We may add that by reducing Consciousness to the rank of a special faculty, Grimes paved the way to the modern doctrine of the subconscious mind. Modern psychology is but suffering grievously from the lack of a precise and consistent terminology. The experience of other sciences shows that the only possible basis for a universally accepted scientific terminology lies in a strict adherence to the rule that the word proposed as the scientific designation of a concept by the discoverer who first introduces that concept into science shall be adopted unless there are very solid objections to it. The word "credenciveness" is not particularly apt because it does not obviously imply a tendency to action, although it was so understood by Grimes. On the other hand, the word "suggestibility"aside from its awkwardness in seeming to substitute "facility to be suggested" in place of "facility to receive suggestions," and aside from its implying no tendency to action, but only the calling of an idea into noticeis seriously objectionable for the reason that "suggestion" was an already accepted term of psychology, and a quite indispensable one, in a totally different sense, before it was applied to hypnotic incitation. Namely, Hartley and the English associationalists, men whose own distinguished courtesy found freedom from insolence towards all philosophersnot to speak of their scientific meritsmust command the same treatment from men who really respect themselves, desired to appropriate the word "suggestion" to the calling up to the surface of consciousness of one idea by another idea associated with it. No term could be more apt; nor is it pleasing to see the terminology established by these masters hustled aside by their inferiors.

        The first part of Dr. Sidis's book, then, is concerned with the laws of credenciveness, or incitability. He argues that its general law is, "Suggestibility varies as the amount of disaggregation, and inversely as the unification of consciousness." We are glad to find he uses the term "disaggregation" and not "dissociation"; for the implication of the latter term, that the phenomenon consists solely in the abrogation of habits of association of ideas, is incorrect. Both words were used by M. Pierre Janet, to whom the recognition of the importance of the matter is due. In ordinary parlance, we call it distraction of mind. For example, an artist who eats his luncheon while he paints, and in his absorption puts his pigment into his mouth, and without remarking its bad taste, yet spits it out unconsciously, exhibits a disaggregation of consciousness. It consists in the cutting of communications between two parts of the mind which are occupied with different matters. Drowsiness and slumber are conditions of extensive disaggregation.

        The mathematical form in the phraseology of the statement we have quoted, which is repeated in all Dr. Sidis's formulations, is here and elsewhere quite meaningless, and is calculated greatly to repel all students of the mathematical sciences. If that be eliminated, there is nothing at all new in the statement, as Dr. Sidis's earnest tone of argumentation would lead one to suppose he thought there was. Everybody knows that if, while a man is writing out a check, he is carrying on a lively correspondence about a Rothschild, he may sign that name to the check instead of his own. What seems more original, in Dr. Sidis's account of the matter, is that he represents the credenciveness of waking persons and of hypnotic subjects as if they followed diametrically opposite laws, which he prints in parallel columns, thus:

    Abnormal suggestibility varies as direct suggestion, and inversely as indirect suggestion.
    Normal suggestibility varies as indirect suggestion, and inversely as direct suggestion.


But this seems to be merely an effort of exaggerated expression. Dr. Sidis would, we may hope, not himself maintain that the phenomena were really of fundamentally contrary characters; for this would subvert the whole doctrine of his book. It is merely that the hypnotic subject being in a state of extreme mental disaggregation, we can give him sharp commands without fear that they will evoke the rebellion of another part of his mind which they never reach, while because of his disaggregation sharp commands are required. With a waking person, on the contrary, not sharp command but an underhanded mode of incitement is requisite in order to avoid offending his egotistical susceptibilities. It would be quite unjust, and would show little power of weighing evidence, to say that the experiments in this part of the book are insufficient to establish a proposition so thoroughly borne out by all our experience and instinctive knowledge of human nature. We do not doubt, though, that a good many psychologists will make just that criticism.

        When, in commencing part ii., we find Dr. Sidis maintaining that what went before, the substance of which we have indicated, affords strong proof of there being "two selves within the frame of the individual," that is, that the subconscious parts of the mind are unified as if by a controlling consciousness, we are amazed at the width of his leap. But what are we to say when we find such experiments as the following put forth "facts which directly and explicitly [note the inexactitude of this word] prove the same truth"? Upon the nose of an hysterical patient who complains of blindness of one eye, is placed a pair of spectacles of which the two glasses do not both transmit the light of anyone part of the spectrum. (The author says of "complementary colors," but that is neither a necessary or a sufficient condition.) The patient is then asked to read an inscription of which every other letter is covered by the one kind of glass and the other by glass of the other kind; so that, to each eye, half the letters must be invisible. The patient, however, promptly reads the whole. This proves that the patient has a preconceived idea that she is blind of one eye, which idea, acting upon her credenciveness, leads her to say (no doubt, to herself, as well as to others) that she does not see with that eye. But in what way does this begin to show that all the subconscious parts of the mind are organized into a single self?

        When we find that all the facts adduced are equally impertinent, we begin to think that, just as Dr. Sidis overstated his own position in part i., so here in part ii. he does not really mean to say that there are just two selves in every man, but only that the conscious and subconscious parts of the mind are related to one another somewhat as the two selves of a patient with double personality. But if this is the case, he has no scientifically definite and novel proposition to enunciate; for everybody has perceived that there was some degree of analogy between the two classes of phenomena, it may be somewhat closer than has been supposed; but no contribution to science will have been made until we are informed definitely in what respect the analogy is close. Although it is not a positive contribution to science, however, the array of facts in this part of the book is striking and suggestive (it we may be allowed to use this word without being understood to mean "incitive to action").

        In part iii. the author gives a slight account of some at those mental epidemics of which several French writers, beginning with Moreau, have made admirable studies. That the mob self is a subconscious self is obvious. It is quite true, too, as Dr. Sidis says, that America is peculiarly subject to epidemic mental seizures, in fact, it may be said that democracy, as contrasted with autocracyand especially government by public opinion and popular sentiment as expressed in newspapersis government by the irrational element of man. To discover how this can be cured, as a practical, realized result, without the ends of government being narrowed to the good of an individual or class, is our great problem. Prof. James seems to think that this part is the best. We will defer to his judgment, but certainly a great subject here remains virgin ground for a writer of power.


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