The Human Soul and the Scientific Prepossession


To the philosopher, who views life under the aspect of eternity, and whose sense of humor is undisturbed by the solemn platitudes of the popular magazine or the authoritative pronouncements of an up-to-date daily press, nothing, I think, should seem more characteristic of our day, or more interesting as a feature of a supposedly critical age, than the scientific prepossession. By the scientific prepossession I mean that conception of present thought according to which, after centuries of darkness and superstition, — animistic, anthropomorphic, theological, metaphysical, — we have now, in the view of the world known as ‘modern science,’ emerged into the clear, if sober, daylight of hard and naked fact. Briefly, it is the prepossession that all ages have been ages of prepossession except our own; that all former ages have viewed the world through the medium of human prejudices, from which we, happily, are free.

One may find the prepossession in evidence at any gathering of natural scientists, and especially in their afterdinner speeches; in which they find a never-failing amusement in recalling how our ancestors believed that the magnet ‘attracted’ the iron, and that nature ‘abhorred’ a vacuum; as if nature, like ourselves, were actuated by likes and dislikes. That, possibly, every age has seemed modern to itself, and its knowledge modern knowledge; that to itself every age may have seemed to live in the light of simple fact after a darkness of ancestral superstition — by such reflections their enjoyment is untroubled. Nor are they disturbed by remembering that the science of our own day is committed to a comprehensive theory of evolution. To suggest that our descendants may smile at ‘modern science’ as we now smile at mediæval scholasticism, seems shocking and scandalous. In the evolutionary theory of modern science it appears that all things in life are subject to the change and decay of evolution, except modern science itself: whatever else may change, the scientific point of view must be regarded as final.

And, doubtless, because the point of view of science is the point of view of simple fact — such is the scientist’s understanding of the scientific prepossession. Before undertaking to exhibit the prepossession in its recently perfected form I shall venture to explain, therefore, what is meant by simple fact. If we place before us any human action, any state or condition of human life, we shall see that two very different questions may be asked about it. One is, how does it feel? The other is, how does it look? How does it feel to play tennis or drive an automobile; and how does it look — to one who has never had the experience? How does it feel to be grown up, to wear evening clothes, to be president or professor, to be a parent, to be married, or to be in love; and how does it look? Doubtless, the last case will serve to suggest that how it looks is often very different from how it feels. No one will question this who remembers how it felt to be young, to be ambitious, and to be in love, and who notes how it looks now.

Let me call these two views of life the inside and the outside view: philosophers prefer to call them ‘subjective’ and ‘objective.’ Common sense, however, in its view of human life at least, insists upon using both. Do you wish to know the truth about life, what it really signifies to be a child or a parent — or to be a millionaire or a daylaborer? Then it is not sufficient to ask the mere observer of childhood or parenthood, while ignoring the children or parents themselves. Nor, on the other hand, is it sufficient to question the child or the parent; for neither child nor parent can from his exclusively inside view tell you all that childhood or parenthood implies. Common sense insists that both views of life be consulted, even if they tell a different story.

Before we ‘ got ’ modern science — a very recent conversion, by the way, in the whole history of thought, since a really organized modern science is scarcely two generations old — it was assumed that the distinction of inside and outside applied, not to human life alone, nor merely to human and animal life, but to every existing thing. We need not go back to the primitive man, who assumes that the river which drowned his friend bore him a grudge. Aristotle, who was not precisely primitive, can seemingly conceive of nothing, be it a man or a dog, a chair or a river, as quite real, — as being all there, so to speak, — unless, in addition to its material structure, seen from the outside, it is also the embodiment of an idea, or a purpose; unless, that is to say, it has an inside as well as an outside. To Aristotle the hard, material fact, which in our day is so easily accepted as selfexistent, was as abstract and as unreal as a door with only one side or a triangle with no sides. And how lately the Aristotelian way of thinking has become antiquated, we may gather from the deference paid to ‘the wisdom of nature’ until a generation ago, and not wholly lacking to-day in scientific medical practice. Even the eighteenth century, skeptical and sophisticated, found difficulty in conceiving of an order of nature from which, as a whole, thought, or design, could be absent. Nor am I certain that, if we come to the twentieth century and question the motives of the up-to-date physical scientist speculating in atoms, electrons, ions, or what not, we may not find that his quest for the ‘inner constitution of nature’ is, after all, in plain terms, simply an effort to comprehend how the natural processes feel, within themselves, as distinct from how they look, to us.

But here the natural scientist cries, ‘God forbid!’ Behold, then, the scientific prepossession. Common sense tells us that human life, at least, has both an outside and an inside. Aristotle teaches that this applies to all things whatsoever that are concrete and real. The scientific prepossession consists in an exclusive emphasis upon the outside, affirming that no other side exists. This is what the scientist means, then, when he tells us that the scientific point of view is the point of view of simple fact. The primitive man assumed, quite naïvely, indeed, that, like himself and his human neighbors, everything in the universe has two sides; that of the stars, for example, you may ask, not only what a star looks like, but what it means to be a star. The scientific prepossession began by denying the inner view, first, to the stars, then, to all of what we call inanimate nature; presently, to the lower forms of animate nature; and now it proposes, as a final step in the extension of science, to deny the inner life to you and me.


It is this final stage in the development of the scientific prepossession, together with the steps immediately preceding, that I propose now to exhibit as it appears, written large, in the science of psychology; that is to say, in the application of experimental methods, by means of apparatus often highly complex, to the study of the human mind. ‘The science of mind’ — or suppose we say, ‘the science of the soul’: in the mere juxtaposition of terms I seem to detect a humorous incongruity. Yet surely we are not entitled to object to experimental methods if they will tell us something. One might suppose, however, that the best way to study the mind is to converse with mind; that experimental methods would tell us nothing about the mind except so far as we are able to give the results a mental interpretation; and therefore that, in order to study the mind, one must first of all have a rich experience of mind — in other words, a broad and sympathetic appreciation of literature, a cultivated and instructed taste, and, above all, a thoughtful experience of life.

Not so, however, the science of psychology. No one ever thinks of demanding these things from the ‘expert psychologist.’ Scientific psychology is the outcome of the depressing discovery that, while in other fields of inquiry men were engaged in making brilliant discoveries and in piling fact upon fact, our knowledge of the mind remained in the region of doubt and of interpretation. The question was hardly raised whether the mind — or, as I prefer, the person — is not, of all things in our universe, the most delicate and inscrutable, and therefore the last to be made — if ever—transparently clear. What was noted rather was that, in other fields of inquiry, — in physics, chemistry, and biology, for example, — discoveries were made as the result of scientific method, aided by laboratory apparatus. Hence, it was concluded, for a real science of psychology, the important thing is not a deep experience of mind on the part of the scientist, but scientific method, supported by ingenuity in the invention and use of apparatus. Given the scientific method, no vital experience of the subject-matter is necessary. You press the button and the method does the rest. A compositor needs no appreciation of literature to produce a page of good poetry; just as little does the scientific psychologist need a personal experience of mind.

Thus is mind banished from the psychological laboratory. For it is equally unnecessary that the subject of psychological experiment be endowed with mind. As a recent writer has remarked, in entering the psychological laboratory you check your soul at the door. The rules of scientific method, indeed, forbid the admission of the soul; for to admit the soul would mean that you intend to understand your subject as he feels to himself — by sympathetic appreciation; and sympathetic appreciation, as we have seen, is the method employed by unscientific primitive man. Thus it comes about that, while the professors of other laboratory subjects are eager to secure beautiful specimens, in the psychological laboratory you rarely find a subject chosen for his intelligence. Any featherless biped will do, and if it happens to be of subnormal intelligence, so much the better.

Nor does an inspection of laboratory methods suggest a need of intelligence. The typical thing is to measure a man’s reaction-time, that is, to find out how quickly he can respond to a signal by pressing a button, using for this purpose an elaborate system of electric keys, magnets, and wires, in connection with an electric clock. The apparatus is fascinating; but after getting the results, you know as much about the man’s mind as you knew before. Or you harness him to another apparatus equally delicate and ingenious, for recording the variations of his bloodpressure upon smoked paper. While thus harnessed, you give him doses of pleasure or of pain; you tell him a funny story, or perhaps a sad one; and with each change of stimulus you note a simultaneous change in the line recording his blood-pressure. But what kind of changes goes with funny stories and what kind with sad ones, the apparatus seems not yet to have shown. Or perhaps you apply to him the ‘sensory tests,’ to determine his sensibility to differences of color, pitch, odor, weight, or what not; or the tests of ‘motor-coordination,’ that is, of manual dexterity.

For these typical psychological experiments not only is activity of mind unnecessary, — since the most that the subject has to do is to say which of two things is bigger, — but it is a positively disturbing influence. If the subject stops to think, the result is thus far vitiated. In the general conception of scientific method the purpose of experiment, as distinct from mere observation, is to eliminate disturbing conditions; as applied to psychological experimentation it seems that the purpose is to eliminate the presence of mind. Thus, if you were shooting at a mark with a rifle, you would make it a point to find out before each next shot where your last shot had hit; otherwise you could not shoot intelligently; nor, moreover, would the result be regarded as a test of your marksmanship. But in psychological tests knowledge of the last shot is strictly forbidden, and you are forbidden even to speculate about it. For here the purpose of a repetition of shots is to strike an average, and the computation of averages requires that each shot be fired under the same conditions — obviously, the conditions of ignorance.

But if by chance mind happened to enter the psychological laboratory, it could not remain there. Upon this point, crede experto. I have spent many hours acting as subject in the psychological laboratory. I have countless times lifted each of a pair of weights, one after the other, and reported whether the second was heavier or lighter. I can testify that, after a few minutes of this kind of exercise, all that remains of the mind is a conviction that it can make no possible difference whether the second is heavier or not; with perhaps a dull wonder as to how many of the tests are yet to come. Indeed, I should be ready to propose, as a measure of social economy, that we utilize our more hardened criminals as psychological subjects, if this were not certain to be forbidden on the constitutional ground of ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’

The scientific psychologist consoles himself with the reflection that, if the facts discovered in the laboratory are not very exciting, they are at any rate ‘scientific facts.’ One phase, indeed, of the scientific prepossession is the belief that a fact is not fully a fact unless it is discovered in the laboratory; or, at least, by an expert scientist in his official capacity. Psychological laboratories have been in operation for thirty years or more; and for more than twenty years I have been searching for one fact worthy of consideration, — for one ‘discovery,’ so to speak, as measured by what they call a discovery in other sciences, — for one such fact discovered in the psychological laboratory which did not repeat what we already knew, or which required a laboratory for its discovery.

Several years ago I thought I had found a little one. A distinguished psychologist, in a public lecture which I attended, was explaining the value of the psychological laboratory. We all know, he said, that imagination may be mistaken for reality, but it required the laboratory to show with scientific certainty that reality could be mistaken for imagination. I can give only a rough outline of the experiment reported. The subject is seated facing a screen of ground glass, behind which, unknown to him, there is a projectionlantern, and in the middle of which, if I remember correctly, there is drawn a circle of a few inches diameter. He is told to look at the circle and to imagine that it is red. Presently the area of the circle begins to be tinged with red; and since he is unaware of the fact that a projection-lantern is being operated behind the screen, he takes this reddish tinge to be the product of his imagination. Thus we prove, by scientific method, that reality may be mistaken for imagination.

I will admit that, as I walked home after the lecture, I felt that I had received a demonstration. The ‘discovery’ was not precisely awe-inspiring, but did it not amount to a vindication of scientific method? How could one have unearthed such a fact except in the laboratory? Then I suddenly remembered. A few evenings before, it had happened that my wife, who was sitting in my study reading, had laid down her book, assumed an attitude of listening, and then, taking up her book again, had remarked to me with a smile that she was so accustomed to listening for the baby’s cry that she often heard him cry in imagination when in fact he was quiet. Whereupon, having just imagined the same thing myself, and doubting that we could both be victims of imagination, I opened the door and discovered that the infant was really crying. Here, then, it was demonstrated, in the heart of the household, with no apparatus except a baby, yet with all the scientific rigor that one could reasonably desire, that reality may be mistaken for imagination. And what is more, it was shown — to my own amusement, after taking the matter so seriously — that the mistaking of reality for imagination is a most commonplace experience, likely to occur in any case where the object in question is rather faintly perceived.

Indeed, for the student of mind who keeps the eyes of his mind open, there are a hundred facts to be got from ordinary intercourse with men, for one to be ‘discovered,’ with elaborate ingenuity of apparatus, in the psychological laboratory. Such facts count for nothing, however, with the scientific psychologist; they are not ‘scientific’ facts. Possibly not; yet I cannot help thinking of the very correct sportsman portrayed in Life, who explained his failure to bring home snipe by the fact that he ‘had n’t his sniping-coat on.’


About fifteen years ago, when it began to appear that the scientific method was paying no dividends, an attempt was made to boost the stock by applying the method to the study of mind in animals. Here, again, it would seem that, if we would grasp the psychology of animals, wo must, so to speak, converse with animals. We must live with them; and we must not only note what they do, but we must strive to understand their motives. We must try to see the animal from the inside. To the scientific psychologist, however, any sympathetic study of animals is mere nature-faking. His own method may be illustrated as follows. He desires to know, for instance, whether the dog is capable of discovering that red lights point in the direction of food and of freedom, while white lights point nowhere; and how long it will take the dog to find out. Accordingly, he places the dog in a ‘maze,’ consisting of a complicated arrangement of paths marked by red and white lights. If the dog follows the red lights, he will find food and relief at the end; but the white lights will only keep him forever in the maze. Perhaps, however, the dog is indifferent to the investigation. To overcome this difficulty the psychologist used to starve him. Latterly, I believe, he prefers to carpet the floor of the maze with electric wires, by means of which he may give the dog a gentle hint, in the form of a shock, whenever the animal seems disposed to give up the task. In the end he finds out how long it takes the dog to learn that red lights contain the promise of relief; and then, so far as the mind of the dog is concerned, he knows just as much as before.

Now for a companion-picture. Imagine with me the dogs of my college town assembled in a psychological congress for the purpose of learning how long it will take a man to discover that a given series of scents — which mean, probably, only a little less to the man than colors to the dog — leads to safety and freedom, while other scents will only lead astray. Let us assume, then, that our canine congress has marked the town with a maze of olfactory paths, one path, the path of freedom, being marked by a series of odors of oil of cloves, the other paths, which only return upon themselves, marked by odors of mint, wintergreen, asafœtida, or what not. Then suppose that you are one of my fellow citizens on your way home some late evening, indulging, in the quiet of the night, in philosophical meditation. Suddenly you find a pack of dogs (the investigating committee) at your heels. Their threatening attitude starts you on a run. Whenever you are disposed to halt, for the purpose, perhaps, of trying conciliation, one of them gives you a nip in the leg. Let me ask how soon you would expect to discover the path marked by oil of cloves, or to grasp its significance, and what value a test conducted under those conditions would have as a measure of human intelligence. For my own part, I believe that the test would demonstrate that the dog is more intelligent than the man; for in point of fact the dog does eventually discover the way out, and I cannot conceive that the man would ever discover it.

What does the dog think about animal psychology? Of course, I cannot say with certainty, but I can relate a strictly true story. Several years ago I strolled into the laboratory-room of a pupil and friend who was conducting such an investigation as I have just described, under the guidance of the professor of psychology; and on his desk I saw a book which appeared to have been gnawed by rats, the upper half of all the pages having been destroyed. In response to my curiosity, I learned that my friend, after putting his cocker spaniel through the maze, had taken the dog to his home. As soon as the dog entered the house, he made for the book-shelves and with his paw scattered a whole shelf-full of books over the floor. Then, selecting the book I had seen, he proceeded to chew it to pieces. It was the standard textbook on animal psychology.

I have introduced the reference to animal psychology because it marks a definite stage in the process of applying the scientific prepossession to the study of human life. Animal psychologists were not long in discovering that they learned nothing to speak of about what the animal felt or thought. But they had embarked upon a programme and established a science. Therefore they said, ‘What difference does it make? If we cannot study the animal mind, we may at least study the animal behavior; and behavior is, after all, the more definitely scientific fact. Accordingly, by animal psychology we shall hereafter mean animal behavior; “mind,” in other words, shall be simply “ behavior.” What shall we say, however, of human psychology and the human mind? May we say that the human mind is likewise nothing but behavior ?5

So far from being disturbed by this turn of the argument, the psychologists — at least, a now considerable school of them — welcomed it with joyous relief. Why not? Is not this precisely the conception that we need to make psychology a full-fledged science? For years we have been pretending to study the human mind; yet in point of fact we have never found anything in our laboratories but human actions. And what else is there to observe there? Let us therefore announce boldly that psychology, whether human or animal, is a study simply of behavior.

Shall it be admitted, however, that psychology is not a study of mind — in other words, that, the existence of mind being conceded, the scientific psychologist confesses an inability to grasp it? Here again the psychologist proved equal to the occasion. Science, he now explains, is a study of realities, and the only genuine realities are the scientific realities — those reached by the application of scientific method. But scientific method, when applied to the human mind, discovers nothing but human behavior. Behavior is therefore all that is real in ‘mind.’ What we call the human mind is the behavior of the human body — that and nothing more. Mind, in the sense of an inner, personal, spiritual experience, must be laid away, along with the immortal soul, among the discarded superstitions of an unscientific past.


Thus has the mind been abolished by act of Parliament. And not only for the psychological laboratory, but for human society and the human race. In this behavioristic psychology we behold the perfected beauty of the scientific prepossession. The scientific prepossession began by saying that the only thing real about the heavenly bodies is how they look; it ends by saying that this is the only thing real about you and me.

To be sure, not all the behaviorists are as simple-minded as their theory of mind. The logically more sophisticated have provided an avenue of retreat through a private definition of ‘behavior.’ There are others, however, who take the behavioristic conception in all its native simplicity. According to them, your behavior is simply and solely what other persons are able to observe; and how you look, not to yourself, but to the world — that is all there is of you.

One of the more diverting of these has been able to combine his own view with that, of the Viennese psychologist, Sigmund Freud, scientific interpreter of dreams and professional misinterpreter of human life — himself an enchanting illustration of the scientific prepossession. The idea common to both is that the ‘expert psychologist’ knows much more about any man than the man can possibly know of himself—not only with regard to his external actions and his past history, externally speaking, but also with regard to what we should call his motives and feelings, but what the behaviorist would define simply as what he is going to do. Thus, according to Freud himself, if I am unfortunate enough to forget your name, it means that I look upon you with hatred or contempt — and this in spite of my assured conviction that my feeling toward you is one of unqualified affection and respect; according to our Freudian behaviorist, it means that I am on the way to do you an injury. And thus, again, — to make use of one of the latter’s most beautiful illustrations, — if I meet you at the railway station and desire to know whither you are bound, it would never do simply to put the question to yourself. It means nothing that you think you are bound for Boston, for what you think is not real. The thing to do is to consult the external evidences of your ‘ behavior’; to begin, perhaps, by ransacking your pockets or your traveling-bag — as if you were intoxicated; or perhaps to call a private detective to find out what you have just been doing; or, best of all, to call in an expert psychologist, if one happens to be handy, and ask him to make a scientific interpretation of your action and speech. You may then discover, to your surprise, that, instead of being bound for Boston, you are on your way to the Panama Canal.

Doubtless the time is coming, before we are through with the prepossession, when all domestic and social intercourse will be made luminous and transparent by the presence of expert psychologists. In those fair days social intercourse will be untroubled by falsehood or insincerity, or even by genial exaggeration. For — You are just about to tell your best story, or to utter a polite excuse, when the psychologist interposes: ‘I beg your pardon, sir, but since you are not a Freudian, let me say that you are unwittingly making the most intimate revelations.’ This sample of expert advice I quote from our Freudian behaviorist.

If, then, you question the propriety of the term ‘prepossession,’ I shall ask how it strikes you to find yourself treated as a merely external, natural fact — really only what other persons see and never what you yourself feel. And if you still object that, at any rate, no prepossession is implied in applying the idea to external nature, then I may ask, Why this prejudice against nature? I will own that I share the prejudice. Yet when I sit down ‘in a cool hour,’ I find myself asking whether it is not a very peculiar world in which some things, such as men and animals, exist, not only as perceived by others, but also as felt by themselves, while other things, such as mountains and trees and solar systems, — or whatever the demarcation of the individual may be, — exist only as they are perceived by others. Is it not a strange logic which permits us to ask both how it looks and how it feels to be a man, but of the things of nature forbids us to ask more than how they look — to others?

And if you point to the fundamental absurdity of explaining nature by the analogy of human motives, then I shall ask how else we are to make nature intelligible. And I may also ask whether, in blissful unconsciousness, modern science may not be guilty of just this kind of interpretation. From the developed scientific standpoint the only real facts in nature are the mechanical facts, and the only true explanation a mechanical explanation. Is it, then, impertinent to remark, with Bergson, that man himself is a mechanic? Nay, that the scientific man is the mechanical man par excellence? At any rate, it seems that, as compared with art and philosophy, science is nothing if not practical.

So much, however, for the scientific prepossession as it finds expression in the science of psychology. If space permitted, I might go on to show that this is only one of several points at which the prepossession touches human life. I might point, for example, to the great biological prepossession, which teaches that the only real thing about man is that he is an animal species. And as an illustration of this prepossession I should summon the scientific apostle of eugenics, who, as a scientific test for determining a desirable marriage, proposes that we ignore the tastes of those to be married and study the procedure of the stock-farm. Since the appearance of the biological prepossession a couple of generations ago, it seems that human life has become mainly a process of reprod action, and right living a matter of right reproduction.

Or I might point to the biological cult of the ‘ strong man,’ which teaches that, since biological evolution is a competition for existence, therefore war is the proper business of human life; according to this prepossession, the real objection to an international league for peace, is not that it is impracticable, but that it is unbiological. Or I might point to the somewhat similar economic prepossession which teaches that economic laws are to be obeyed as sacred even if we should find it both useful and possible to ignore them.

All of these prepossessions find their logical expression, however, in the cult of scientific management and scientific efficiency, which, I should say, represents the real German propaganda in this country for a generation past. Every one has his own theory of the war. To me it seems that if the war has any deep-lying significance, it is a war of humanity against the scientific prepossession.