Talks to Teachers on Psychology



IN the general activity and uprising of ideal interests which every one with an eye for fact can discern all about us in American life, there is perhaps no more inspiring or promising feature than the fermentation which for a dozen years or more has been going on among the teachers of our land, in whatever sphere of education their functions may lie. The renovation of nations begins always at the top, amongst the reflective members of the state, and spreads slowly outward and downward. The teachers of this country, one may say, have its future in their hands. The earnestness which they at present show in striving to enlighten and strengthen themselves is an index of the nation’s probabilities of advance in ideal directions. The outward organization of education which we have in our United States is perhaps, on the whole, the best organization that exists in any country. The state school-systems give a diversity and flexibility, an opportunity for experiment and keenness of competition, nowhere else to be found on such a scale. The independence of so many of the colleges and universities; the give and take of students and instructors between them all ; their emulation and their happy organic relations to the lower schools ; the traditions of instruction in them, evolved from the older American recitation-method (and so avoiding on the one hand the pure lecture-system prevalent in Germany and Scotland, which considers too little the individual student, and yet not involving the sacrifice of the instructor to the individual student, which the English tutorial system would seem too often to entail),—all these things, (to say nothing of that coeducation of the sexes in whose benefits so many of us heartily believe), all these things, I say, are most happy features of our scholastic life, and from them the most sanguine auguries may be drawn.

Having so favorable an organization, all we need is to impregnate it with geniuses, to get superior men and women working more and more abundantly in it and for it and at it, and in a generation or two America will lead the education of the world. I must say that I look forward with no little confidence to the day when that shall be an accomplished fact.

No one has profited more by the fermentation of which I speak, in pedagogical circles, than we psychologists. The desire of the school-teachers for complete professional training, and their aspiration toward the professional spirit in their work, have led them more and more to turn to us for light on fundamental principles. In these few hours which we are to spend together, you look to me, I am sure, for information concerning the mind’s operations, which may enable you to labor more easily and effectively in the several schoolrooms over which you preside.

Far Be it from me to disclaim for psychology all title to such hopes. Psychology ought certainly to give the teacher radical HelpAnd yet I confess that, acquainted as I am with the height of some of your expectations, I feel a little anxious lest, at the end of these simple talks of mine, not a few of you may experience some disappointment at the net results. In other words, I am not sure that you may not now be indulging fancies that are a shade exaggerated. That would not be altogether astonishing, for we have been having something like a “ boom ” in psychology in this country. Laboratories and professorships have been founded, and reviews established. The air has been full of rumors. The editors of educational journals and arrangers of conventions have had to be industrious and busy, and on a level with the novelties of the day. Some of the professors have not been unwilling to coöperate, and I am not sure even that the publishers have been entirely inert. “ The new psychology ” has thus become a term to conjure up portentous ideas withal ; and you teachers, docile and receptive and aspiring, as many of you are, have been plunged in an atmosphere of vague talk about our science, which to a great extent has been more mystifying than enlightening. Altogether it does seem as if there were a certain fatality of mystification laid upon the teachers of our day. The matter of their profession, compact enough in itself, has to be frothed up for them in journals and institutes, till its outlines often threaten to be lost in a kind of vast uncertainty. Where the disciples are not independent and critical-minded enough (and I think that if you teachers in the earlier grades have any defect, — just the slightest touch of a defect in the world, — it is that you are just a mite too docile), we are pretty sure to miss accuracy and balance and measure in those who get a license to lay down the law to them from above.

As regards this subject of psychology, now, I wish at the very threshold to do what I can to dispel the mystification. So I say at once that in my humble opinion there is no “ new psychology ” worthy of the name. There is nothing but the old psychology which began in Locke’s time, plus a little brain and sense physiology, and with the addition of a few refinements of introspective detail for the most part without adaptation to the teacher’s use. It is only the fundamental conceptions of psychology which are of real value to the teacher, and they are far from new. I trust that you will see better what I mean by this at the end of all these talks.

I say, moreover, that you make a great, a very great mistake if you think that psychology, being the science of the mind’s laws, is something from which you can deduce definite programmes and schemes and methods of instruction for immediate schoolroom use. Psychology is a science, and teaching is an art; and sciences never generate arts directly out of themselves. An intermediary inventive mind must make the application, by using its originality. The science of logic never made a man reason rightly, and the science of ethics (if there be such a thing) never made a man behave rightly. The most such sciences can do is to help us to catch ourselves up and check ourselves, if we start to reason or to behave wrongly, and to criticise ourselves more articulately after we have made mistakes. A science only lays down lines within which the rules of the art must fall, laws which the follower of the art must not transgress ; but what particular thing he shall positively do within those lines is left exclusively to his own genius. One genius will do his work well and succeed in one way, whilst another succeeds as well quite differently; yet neither will transgress the lines.

The art of teaching grew up in the schoolroom, out of inventiveness and sympathetic concrete observation. Even where, as in the case of Herbart, the advancer of the art was also a psychologist, the pedagogics and the psychology ran side by side, and the former was not derived in any sense from the latter. The two were congruent, but not subordinate. And so everywhere, the teaching must agree with the psychology, but need not necessarily be the only kind of teaching that would so agree, for many diverse methods of teaching may equally follow psychological laws. To know psychology, therefore, is absolutely no guarantee that we shall be good teachers. To advance to that result we must have an additional endowment altogether, a happy tact and ingenuity to tell us what definite things to say and do. That ingenuity in meeting and pursuing the pupil, that tact for the concrete situation, though they are the alpha and omega of the teacher’s art, are things to which psychology cannot help us in the least.

The science of psychology, and whatever science of general pedagogics may be based on it, are in fact much like the science of war. Nothing is simpler or more definite than the principles of either. In war, all you have to do is to work your enemy into a position from which the natural obstacles prevent him from escaping, if he tries to ; then to fall on him in numbers superior to his own, at a moment when you have led him to think you far away ; and so, with a minimum of exposure of your own troops, to hack his force to pieces, and take the remainder prisoners. So, in teaching, you must simply work your pupil into such a state of interest in what you are going to teach him that every other object of attention is banished from his mind ; then reveal it to him so impressively that he will remember the occasion to his dying day ; and finally fill him with devouring curiosity to know what the next steps in connection with the subject are. There would be nothing but victories for the masters of the science, either on the battlefield or in the schoolroom, if they did not both have to apply their principles to an incalculable quantity in the shape of the mind of their opponent. The mind of your enemy, the pupil, is working away from you as keenly and eagerly as is the mind of the commander on the other side from the scientific general. Just what the enemy wants and thinks, and what he knows and does not know, are as hard things for the teacher as for the general to find out. Divination and perception, not psychological pedagogics or strategy, are the only helpers here.

But if the use of psychological principles thus be negative rather than positive, it does not follow that it may not be a great use, all the same. It narrows the path for experiments and trials : we know in advance that certain methods will be wrong, so our psychology saves us from mistakes. It makes us, moreover, more clear as to what we are about. It gives us confidence in respect to any method which we are using to know that it has theory as well as practice at its back. Most of all, it fructifies our independence, and it reanimates our interest, to see our subject at two different angles — to get a stereoscopic view, so to speak, of the youthful organism who is our enemy ; and whilst handling him with all our concrete tact and divination, at the same time to be able to represent to ourselves the curious inner elements of his mental machine. Such a complete knowledge as this of the pupil, at once intuitive and analytic, is surely the knowledge at which every teacher ought to aim.

Fortunately for you teachers, the elements of the mental machine can be clearly apprehended, and their workings easily grasped. And as the most general elements and workings are just those parts of psychology which the teacher finds most directly useful, it follows that the amount of this science which is necessary to all teachers need not be very great. Those who find themselves loving the subject may go as far as they please, and become possibly none the worse teachers for the fact, even though in some of them one might apprehend a little loss of balance from the tendency observable in all of us to overemphasize special parts of a subject when we are studying it intensely and abstractly. But for the great majority of you a general view is enough, provided it be a true one ; and such a general view, one may say, might almost be written on the palm of one’s hand.

Least of all need you, as teachers, deem it part of your duty to become contributors to psychological science, or to make psychological observations in a methodical or responsible manner. I fear that some of the enthusiasts for childstudy have thrown a certain burden on you in this way. By all means let childstudy go on, — it is refreshing all our sense of the child’s life. There are teachers who take a spontaneous delight in filling syllabuses, inscribing observations, compiling statistics, and computing the per cent. Child-study will certainly enrich their lives. And if its results, as treated statistically, would seem on the whole to have but trifling value, yet the anecdotes and observations of which it in part consists do certainly acquaint us more intimately with our pupils. Our eyes and ears grow quickened to discern in the child before us processes similar to those we have read of as noted in the children, —processes of which we might otherwise have remained inobservant. But let the rank and file of teachers be passive readers, if they wish, and feel free not to contribute to the accumulation. Let not the prosecution of it be preached and imposed on those to whom it proves an exterminating bore, or who in any way whatever miss in themselves the appropriate vocation for it. I cannot too strongly agree with my colleague, Professor Münsterberg, when he says that the teacher’s attitude toward the child, being concrete and ethical, is positively opposed to the psychological observer’s, which is abstract and analytic. Although some of us may conjoin the attitudes successfully, in most of us they must conflict. The worst thing that can happen to a good teacher is to get a bad conscience about her profession because she feels herself hopeless as a psychologist.

Our teachers are overworked already. Every one who adds a jot or tittle of unnecessary weight to their burden is a foe of education. A bad conscience increases the weight of every other burden ; yet I know that child-study, and other pieces of psychology as well, have been productive of bad conscience in many a really innocent pedagogic breast. I should indeed be glad if this passing word from me might tend to dispel such a bad conscience, if any of you have it, for it is certainly one of those fruits of systematic mystification of which I have already complained. The best teacher may be the poorest contributor of childstudy material; and the best contributor may be the poorest teacher, — no fact is more palpable than this.

So much for what seems the reasonable attitude of the teacher toward the subject which is to occupy our attention.


I said a few minutes ago that the most general elements and workings of the mind are all that the teacher absolutely needs to be acquainted with for his purposes. Now the immediate fact which psychology, the science of mind, has to study is also the most general fact. It is the fact that in each of us, when awake (and often when asleep), some kind of consciousness is always going on. There is a stream, a succession of states, or waves, or fields (or of whatever you please to call them), of knowledge, of feeling, of desire. of deliberation, etc., that constantly pass and repass, and that constitute our inner life. The existence of this stream is the primal fact, the nature and origin of it form the essential problem, of our science. So far as we class the states or fields of consciousness, write down their several natures, analyze their contents into elements, or trace their habits of succession, we are on the descriptive or analytic level. So far as we ask where they come from, or why they are just what they are, we are on the explanatory level.

In these talks with you, I shall entirely neglect the questions that come up on the explanatory level. It must be frankly confessed that in no fundamental sense do we know where our successive fields of consciousness come from, or why they have the precise inner constitution which they do have. They certainly follow or accompany our brain states ; but if we ask just how the brain conditions them, we have not the remotest inkling of an answer to give. And on the other hand, if we should say that they are due to a spiritual being called our soul, which reacts on our brain states by these peculiar forms of spiritual energy, our words would be familiar enough, it is true, but I think you will agree that they would offer little genuine explanatory meaning. The truth is that we really do not know the answers to the problems on the explanatory level. I shall therefore dismiss them entirely, and turn to mere description. This state of things was what I had in mind when, a moment ago, I said there was no “ new psychology ” worthy of the name.

We have thus fields of consciousness, — that is the first general fact; and the second general fact is that the concrete fields are always complex. They contain sensations of our bodies and of the objects around us, memories of past experiences and thoughts of distant things, feelings of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, desires and aversions, and other emotional conditions, together with determinations of the will, in every variety of permutation and combination. In most of our concrete states of consciousness all these different classes of ingredients are found simultaneously present to some degree, though the relative proportion they bear to one another is very shifting. One state will seem to be composed of hardly anything but sensations, another of hardly anything but memories, etc. But around the sensation, if one consider carefully, there will always be some fringe of thought or will, and around the memory some margin or penumbra of emotion or sensation.

In most of our fields of consciousness there is a core of sensation that is very pronounced. You, for example, now, although you are also thinking and feeling, are getting through your eyes sensations of my face and figure, and through your ears sensations of my voice. The sensations are the centre or focus, the thoughts and feelings the margin, of your actually present conscious field. On the other hand, some object of thought, some distant image, may have become the focus of your mental attention even whilst I am speaking, — your mind, in short, may have wandered from the lecture ; and in that case, the sensations of my face and voice, although not absolutely vanishing from your conscious field, may have taken up there a very faint and marginal place. Again (to take another sort of variation), some feeling connected with your own body may have passed from a marginal to a focal place, even whilst I speak.

The expressions “ focal object” and “ marginal object,” which we owe to Mr. Lloyd Morgan, require, I think, no further explanation. The distinction they embody is a very important one, and they are the first technical terms which I shall ask you to remember.

In the successive mutations of our fields of consciousness, the process by which one dissolves into another is often very gradual, and all sorts of inner rearrangements of contents occur. Sometimes the focus remains but little changed, whilst the margin alters rapidly. Sometimes the focus alters, and the margin stays. Sometimes focus and margin change places. Sometimes, again, abrupt alterations of the whole field occur. There can seldom be a sharp description. All we know is that, for the most part, each field has a sort of practical unity for its possessor, and that from this practical point of view we can class a field with other fields similar to it, by calling it a state of emotion, of perplexity, of sensation, of abstract thought, of volition, and the like.

Vague and hazy as such an account of our stream of consciousness may be, it is at least secure from positive error, and free from admixture of conjecture or hypothesis. An influential school of psychology, discontented with this haziness of outline, has tried to make things appear more exact and scientific by making the analysis more sharp. The various fields of consciousness, according to this school, result from a definite number of perfectly definite elementary mental states, mechanically associated into a mosaic or chemically combined. According to some thinkers, — Spencer, for example, or Taine, — these resolve themselves at last into little elementary psychic particles or atoms of “ mind stuff,” out of which all the more immediately known mental states are said to be built up. Locke introduced this theory in a somewhat vague form. Simple 舠 ideas ” of sensation and reflection, as he called them, were for him the bricks of which our mental architecture is built up. If I ever have to refer to this theory again, I shall refer to it as the theory of 舠 ideas.” But I shall try to steer clear of it altogether. Whether it be true or false, it is at any rate purely conjectural; and for your practical purposes as teachers, the more unpretending conception of the stream of consciousness, with its waves or fields incessantly changing, will amply suffice.


I wish now to continue the description of the peculiarities of the stream of consciousness by asking whether we can in any intelligible way assign its functions.

It has two functions that are obvious : it leads to knowledge, and it leads to action.

And can we say which of these functions is the more essential ?

An old historic divergence of opinion comes in here. Popular belief has always tended to estimate the worth of a man’s mental processes by their effects upon his practical life. But philosophers have usually cherished a different view. 舠 Man’s supreme glory,” they have said, 舠 is to be a rational being, to know absolute and eternal and universal truth. The uses of his intellect for practical affairs are therefore subordinate matters. ' The theoretic life ’ is his soul’s genuine concern.” Nothing can be more different in its results for our personal attitude than to take sides with one or the other of these views, and emphasize the practical or the theoretical ideal. In the one case, abstraction from the emotions and passions and withdrawal from the strife of human affairs would be not only pardonable, but praiseworthy ; and all that makes for quiet and contemplation should be regarded as conducive to the highest human perfection. In the other, the man of contemplation would be treated as only half a human being, passion and practical resource would become once more glories of our race, a concrete victory over this earth’s outward powers of darkness would appear an equivalent for any amount of passive spiritual culture, and conduct would remain as the test of every education worthy of the name.

It is impossible to disguise the fact that in the psychology of our own day the emphasis is transferred from the mind’s purely rational function, where Plato and Aristotle and what one may call the whole classic tradition in philosophy had placed it, to the so long neglected practical side. The theory of evolution is mainly responsible for this. Man, we now have reason to believe, has been evolved from infra-human ancestors, in whom pure reason hardly existed, if at all, and whose mind, so far as it can have had any function, would appear to have been an organ for adapting their movements to the impressions received from the environment, so as to escape the better from destruction. Consciousness would thus seem in the first instance to be nothing but a sort of superadded biological perfection, — useless unless it prompted to useful conduct, and inexplicable apart from that consideration.

Deep in our own nature the biological foundations of our consciousness persist, undisguised and undiminished. Our sensations are here to attract us or to deter us, our memories to warn or encourage us, our feelings to impel and our thoughts to restrain our behavior, so that, on the whole, we may prosper and our days be long in the land. Whatever of transmundane metaphysical insight or of practically inapplicable æsthetic perception or ethical sentiment we may carry in our interiors might at this rate be regarded as so much inessential superfœtation, part of the incidental excess of function that necessarily accompanies the working of every complex machine.

I shall ask you now — not meaning at all thereby to close the theoretic question, but merely because it seems to me the point of view likely to be of greatest practical use to you as teachers — to adopt with me, in this course of lectures, the biological conception, as thus expressed, and to lay your own emphasis on the fact that man, whatever else he may be, is essentially and primordially a practical being, whose mind is given him to aid in adapting him to this terrestrial environment.

The reasons for which I do this can be simply stated.

First, human and animal psychology thereby become less discontinuous. I know that to some of you this will hardly seem an attractive reason, but there are others whom it will affect.

Second, mental action is conditioned by brain action, and runs parallel therewith. But the brain, so far as we understand it, is given us for practical behavior. Every current that runs into it from skin or eye or ear runs out again into muscles, glands, or viscera, and helps to adapt the animal to the environment from which the current came. It therefore generalizes and simplifies our view to treat the brain life and the mental life as having one fundamental kind of purpose.

Third, those very functions of the mind that do not refer directly to the environment, the ethical utopias, æsthetic visions, insights into eternal truth, and fanciful logical combinations, could never be carried on at all, unless the mind that produced them also produced more practically useful products. The latter are thus the more essential, or at least more fundamental, results.

Fourth, the inessential 舠 unpractical ” activities are themselves far more connected with our behavior and our adaptation to the environment than at first sight might appear. No truth, however abstract, is ever perceived, that will not probably at some time influence our earthly action. You must remember that when I talk of action here, I mean action in the widest sense. I mean speech, I mean writing, I mean yeses and noes, and tendencies “ from ” things and tendencies “ toward ” things, and emotional determinations ; and I mean them in the future as well as in the immediate present. As I talk here, and you listen, it might seem as if no action followed. You might call it a purely theoretic process, with no practical result. But it must have a practical result. It cannot take place at all and leave your conduct unaffected. If not to-day, then on some far future day, you will answer some question differently by reason of what you are thinking now. Some of you will be led by my words into new veins of inquiry, into reading special books. These will develop your opinion, whether for or against. That opinion will in turn be expressed, will receive criticism from others in your environment, and will affect your standing in their eyes. We cannot escape our destiny, which is practical ; and even our most theoretic faculties contribute to its working out.

These few reasons will perhaps smooth the way for you to my conclusion. As teachers, I sincerely think it will be an amply sufficient conception for you to adopt, of the youthful psychological phenomena handed over to your inspection, if you consider them from the point of view of their relation to the future conduct of their possessor. You should regard your professional task as if it consisted essentially in training the pupil to behavior ; taking behavior, not in the narrow sense of his manners, but in the very widest possible sense, as including every possible sort of fit reaction on the circumstances into which he may find himself brought by the vicissitudes of life. The reaction may often be a negative reaction. Not to speak, not to move, is one of the most important of our duties, in certain practical emergencies. ” Thou shalt refrain, renounce, abstain ! ” This often requires a great effort of will power, and, physiologically considered, is just as positive a nerve function as is motor discharge.

William James.

  1. The matter of this and of the ensuing papers, together with other similar matter, has been delivered by me offhand for several years past at various teachers’ institutes and summer schools. Since repetition stales at last, I have decided to say good-by to it finally, by writing it down for the readers of The Atlantic. And inasmuch as simplicity and practicality can be its only possible merits, I have preserved in the writing, as best harmonizing with these characters, the original didactic and colloquial form.