Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

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History of Psychology: A Sketch and an Interpretation
Volume I

James Mark Baldwin (1913)


Introduction: Racial and Individual Thought.

IN writing a historical sketch, the writer's first duty is to make clear what he is writing about. And while a definition of psychology, in its relations to other sciences and to philosophy, would be open to debate, still the general field that it includes is plain. Like all science, psychology is knowledge; and like science again, it is knowledge of a definite thing, the mind.

How mind in turn is to be defined is not here and now our task, but rather to trace the ways in which it has been defined. A history of psychology is nothing more nor less than a history of the different ways in which men have looked upon the mind. We are going to trace the ways in which man has historically thought about or attempted to understand the soul, mind, or spiritual principle.

It is only to put this a little differently, to say that the subject matter of psychology, when it is historically traced, is the way or ways in which men have thought about the "self"; for the self is always what mind more or less clearly means. As we shall see, this meaning is crude enough when it starts out, the self that the mind means. In the early periods, it is [p. 2] simply the significance attaching to things as not being dead or inanimate. Deadness or lack of animation was overlooked in primitive times; all things were found to have a mysterious sort of agency similar to that of personal agents and actors. All beings fell in one class; everything was looked upon vaguely as having an anima or indwelling soul. But when differences began to be discerned, and things were classified by their properties and behaviour, then the momentous and compelling distinction came between objects that were really selves or conscious beings, and those that were merely dead or inanimate things. Once come, this distinction made psychology as such possible.

The development of the meaning attaching to the personal self, the conscious being, is the subject matter of the history of psychology. The problem of psychology is the interpretation of minds or selves, and all of its subordinate problems are those pertaining to the several parts of this great whole meaning, the self; so the history deals with the course of development of this interpretation.

We may say in brief, therefore, that the science of psychology reflects the ways in which the human mind has been able at various epochs to apprehend or interpret itself; and that the history of psychology is the history of the modes in which these attempts at interpretation have taken form. It is the history of the more or less systematic forms of reflection upon self-consciousness.

I say reflection upon self-consciousness, because it will not do to say self-consciousness simply, without further explanation. All adult human beings are conscious of self in some sort, and so were primitive men -- endowed with the ability to judge objects to be different [p. 3] from and remote from themselves. But such consciousness, or self-consciousness, is not itself sufficient; it must pass into reflection. Not only to be conscious of self, but to have some sense, impression, or idea of what the self is, is necessary to give the "interpretation " which is available for history. This means that the self must take in or apprehend that it is thinking of itself in a certain way. Let us illustrate.

Suppose we say, as we must, that the early Greek philosophers, Thales and the others, did not have a refined or clear view about the self; that is, that their psychology was crude and undeveloped. This means that if one of them had been called upon to explain what he understood the self to be, he would have given what we would now call a vague and insufficient reply. He would have pointed to some fluid and subtle physical agent, saying that the self or mind was like that. He would not have distinguished between mind and matter. But he would still have been personally self-conscious. He would have distinguished between himself and things, and between himself and other selves. His limitation would have been that he could not mean by the self what later thinkers could mean; he could not interpret it as they did. When he talked about self, describing the fact of his own self-consciousness, it would have been in terms showing that his thought on the subject was crude and lacking in essential distinctions.

It will be of interest to define our topic in this way; for when we consider that it is the human self that each of the great thinkers sought to understand and interpret to his fellows, we see that their attempts, taken in their succession, will show the progressive development of what we may call racial or social self-consciousness. [p. 4] They will show, each in turn, the type of thought about the self which is fixed in a society or race as its understanding of its own nature and faculties. A distinction must be made, indeed, when we interpret human institutions, between those customs, rights, etc., which are spontaneous, due to gregariousness, natural imitation, tradition, etc., and those which are due to deliberate co-operation, thought, interpretation of nature and man. These latter reflect directly the way individual men are at the time thinking about and interpreting the self, one another, nature, God. The history of religion, for example, is a history, just as that of psychology is, of the ways in which men have interpreted self-conscious beings-in this case super-human spirits: God, or the gods-and religious institutions vary with these interpretations. The deity cannot be thought of as more refined or more moral than the interpretation of the self at the time will allow. If the self consists of "thin vapour," then God as a self must be thin vapour also. The social interpretation shown in institutions follows upon that of the individual thinker; it cannot anticipate the latter nor can it surpass it.

Our history, then, becomes valuable as showing the stages in the evolution of racial self-consciousness. All along we find that social life -- religion, politics, art -- reflects the stages reached in the development of the knowledge of self; it shows the social uses made of this knowledge.

An analogy is current between racial evolution and individual development; we hear of the "childhood" of the race, and of its growth from childhood to mature manhood. We now see that there is more in this than mere analogy or a popular figure of speech. [p. 5] When men are thinking of themselves simply or "childishly," and are building upon such thoughts institutions of like simple and childish character, then there is a real childhood of the race. And when, with the development of finer thoughts and interpretations of personality, institutions and racial things in general grow more complex and refined, then we may say, in more than a figure, that the race is growing up into maturity. It suggests itself, indeed, that in social evolution we may see a re-statement of the great stages of individual development; that individual thought may show stages which recapitulate those of racial evolution -- a parallel similar to the "recapitulation" recognised by biologists in the evolution of organisms. The individual's development in consciousness of self recapitulates, we should then say, the evolution of self-conscious reflection in the human race.

Such a problem becomes complicated when we deal, as we do in the history of psychology, with the development of reflective self-consciousness; for we are not writing a history of human institutions, but of a human science and its effect on institutions. To get any advantage from such a principle, we should have to discover that the racial stages in the interpretation of the self, culminating in the scientific and philosophical interpretation, have been unrolled "concurrently," or in the same serial order, with the stages of development of individual self-consciousness.

Put in this way, the problem becomes for our purposes the following: Do the racial ways of thinking of the self, seen in the theory or science of the mind known as psychology, show results of a progressive character which are in nature similar to those reached by individual thought?-and this despite the fact that [p. 6] these racial thoughts occur in the minds of single men, who are themselves full-grown and reflective? That is, to put the question concretely, why do we find Thales, himself adult and reflective in thinking about the self, to represent so simple and crude a stage of racial interpretation? -- and what is the rule of progress in succeeding epochs, whereby later representative thinkers achieve higher and more refined results? Is it the same rule of progress as that shown by the individual's growth from crude to mature self-consciousness?

In answer to this, we may say that the facts, on the side of the individual, upon which the parallelism is based, are clear. We find the facts of the development of the individual's consciousness of self sufficiently well known. The child, as recent genetic psychology has shown, is entirely dependent upon society for the materials of his thought of self; his thought is dependent upon the thoughts already current in his social circle. He absorbs what society already thinks; and his originalities, in the way of further refinement, are slight. He imitates social "copy," and absorbs social tradition. The character he has in being a self, at whatever stage of development, and the character he gives to the self, in his thought about it, are different things. Just as, in the case of Thales, we say that the philosopher had a mind full-grown for reflection, but was still dependent upon society and its institutions for the material of his thought; so also the maturing child's thought of self, at each stage, is what he gets from his social environment, and makes use of to the extent of his ability. The philosopher and the child each uses the social sources of knowledge to the best of his ability. But however great his ability neither [p. 7] the one nor the other ca-n create something out of nothing.

The reason of the close concurrence between the individual's progress and that of the race appears, therefore, when we remember the dependence of each upon the other. The individual can think in this way or that only provided the race in the midst of which he lives already thinks, or thinks "toward," the same result; and the racial thinking in this way or that is only what it is because earlier individuals have thought in this way or that. So we should expect no great departure on one side or the. other from lines of thinking which are common to the two. The individual equips himself socially before he thinks independently; and society thinks progressively only as individuals are its mouthpiece.

To whatever extent this idea may be finally justified, it is an extremely attractive one. Here are two great movements, one that of the individual growing constantly more competent to understand himself and to communicate what he understands; and here is society, made up of a series of generations of individuals, doing precisely the same thing and doing it upon precisely the same mass of materials. It is On the surface likely that the series of critical periods in both, marked by new modes of accommodation and due to new crises of a natural, moral, and political sort, would show a general serial correspondence.

To the writer it has been surprising to see how closely the gropings of the thinkers who represent the racial undertaking, the philosophers, are explained for the historian by comparison with the gropings of the individual's struggle to achieve a full reflective self-consciousness. The crises are the same, the problems [p. 8] and embarrassments the same, the solutions the same. In a later chapter,[l] the matter is carried further. Our present purpose is simply to justify the use we make of the analogy in various places as we proceed. Further details of the concurrence itself will appear in the light of the sketch of the individual's progress given in the later connection.

Adopting a preliminary division of the entire history, in accordance with this guiding principle, we find the great epochs in the history of thought about the mind to be as follows --

1. The Period of Pre-historical and Pre-logical Interpretation, occurring in primitive peoples, mystical and emotional in its character. It is the period of "psychosophy,"[2] preceding psychology. It corresponds to the early a-dualistic and practical period of the child's apprehension of the self.

2. The Ancient or Unscientific Period, covering the development of Greek thought, which we may call the "Greek Period." It corresponds to the unreflective stage of the child's thought of self, the period of the origin of dualism. It is unreflective in the sense that in this period the view of the self is not exact or critical, not the subject of distinct definition, but remains incidental to the larger view of the world or nature taken as a whole. It has three sub-periods: the "projective" or Pre-socratic, the "subjective " or Socratic, and the "objective" or Aristotelian. In Plato, the motives of "ejection" and æsthetic reconciliation are present, mediating the transition from Socrates to Aristotle. [p. 9]

3. The "Mediæval" or "Substantive" Period, so named from the fact that in it the great distinction arose between mind and body as different and distinct substances. It culminated in the explicit dualism of Descartes. It corresponds to the stretch of development of the individual which culminates in a similar dualism. Historically, this allowed of the separation of the problems of mind from those of body, and justified the rise of Psychology, the science of mind, in distinction from Physics.

4. The Modern Period, or the epoch of reflective and scientific interpretation. It corresponds to the development of the individual's reflection in which the self is both objective matter and subjective principle. The subject and object selves are distinguished. Mind and body become presuppositions of reflection: spheres of reference for all sorts of experience. Psychology as a science develops its peculiar body of knowledge and its exact methods of investigation.

These great divisions will constitute the Parts of our study, the last period being subdivided into two. The further justification of this division and its corroboration, as being a fair way of utilising the concurrence of racial and individual thought, will appear as we proceed.[3]

It results from this general plan that we are not to catalogue or even to report single theories or discoveries simply as historical facts. It is rather the conception entertained of the mental life as a whole -- its principle, and its relation to the body, to the world, and to God -- that we are to trace out. This gives us a single problem and a central one; the various solutions being [p. 10] presented in their actual genetic and historical order. Of course, the great discoveries of this thinker or that should be mentioned; but in each case they are kept subsidiary to the theory of the mental principle itself. That is, we are concerned with the science itself, its subject matter and method, not primarily with the detailed results of observation.


[1] Chapter VIII of Vol. II.

[2] A term used by Dessoir, Geschichte der Psychologie (1911; Eng. trans., 1912).

[3] For the detailed filling out of this scheme the Tables of Contents (Vols. I, II) may be consulted.