Classics in the History of Psychology

An internet resource developed by
Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

(Return to index)


History of Psychology: A Sketch and an Interpretation
Volume I

James Mark Baldwin (1913)


CHAPTER II.

Primitive Thought: Psychosophy.

THE history of a science may be conceived in a broader or a narrower sense, according as we place greater or less emphasis on the word "science." If we mean science in the strictest sense, the science which is developed through exact observation and experiment, often called "positive" science, the history is in all cases very brief and very definite. But if we include the more or less scientific and pre-scientific conceptions and interpretations of the subject under consideration, which have been entertained and taught, history becomes at once more extended and more vague. Astronomy was preceded by astrology, geology by cosmogony, chemistry by alchemy, medicine by magic, theology by theosophy; and in each case, the rise of positive science has meant the transition from vague mystical and metaphysical interpretations of the things observed to the sober and disinterested endeavour to discover facts and formulate laws.[l]

Psychology more than any other science has had its pseudo-scientific no less than its scientific period. The occultisms, spiritisms, mysticisms, psychic magics, pseudo-religious "isms" of all times, ancient and modern, and of all races, oriental and occidental, have [p. 12] claimed the right to call themselves psychological. Each makes pretence to a certain way of thinking of or interpreting the mind, soul, spirit -- whatever the spiritual principle is called. Each shows us how a period-a succession of men -- has understood and endeavoured to explain its own mental being and activity. "This is the sort of thing we souls are," say equally the sorcerers, the ghost-seers, the religious prophets, and the speculative thinkers. "We are animated bodies," "we are warm air," "we are astral presences," "we are indivisible atoms," "we are ghosts in migration," "we are the seeds of things," "we are fallen gods," "we are pure spirit" -- all these and many more are types of psychosophic opinion which have at one time or another gained currency and played their part in practical and social life. They are only by indulgence entitled to be called science.

Modern psychology, the science proper of psychology, gives us, it is true, only another interpretation. But it is based upon sounder data, acquired by safer methods, and confirmed by broader induction and experimentation. Still, taken as a whole it sums up what we think, and think we have a right to think, about the soul or self. The knowledge of science takes the place of the guessing, conjecture, superstition, speculation of the pre-scientific views; but still, like them it is an interpretation of mind; a statement of what, do the best it can, the human mind understands itself to be.

This consideration justifies us in taking the broader view of the history of psychology. The narrower scientific interpretation of mind plays an important theoretical rôle; but it is doubtful whether it is to-day as influential practically as the mystical unscientific [p. 13] views which arose earlier and dominated human thought for long ages.[2]

The philosophical historian seeks to discover the rule of progress in the historical movement as a whole; to see why certain views arose before others and after still others -- the entire series exhibiting the growth of man's knowledge and opinion about his own nature. If we call each view entertained at any time an "interpretation" of the mind, our question then is this: Has there been any continuous evolution of interpretation? -- is there a primitive type, followed by a more rational and refined type, this in turn perhaps succeeded by the scientific type?-are there genetic steps or stages arising in a continuous historical order, in the development of the human understanding of the human mind?

The historian is here confronted by a problem which has exercised both psychologists and students of social evolution. On the philosophical side, one thinks at once of the famous "law of the three stages" of Auguste Comte, according to which human thought, racially considered, passes in order through three stages, called by him the "theological," the "metaphysical," and the "scientific." Apart from the details, it is conceded by later writers that Comte's conception was a remarkable first attempt to treat the historical progress of human thought as proceeding according to law: a law by which the interpretation of the world unfolds genetically. He actually pointed out the three supposed stages of this progress.[3] Such attempts as [p. 14] that of Comte rest upon the characteristics of the various epochs of thought as actually shown in history. A more speculative endeavour to interpret genetically the entire historical movement of human thought is seen in Hegel's philosophy of history.[4]

It is evident, however, that such an attempt, if it is to be comprehensive, should not confine itself to those more systematic and explicit views of the world and the soul to which one may give the names science, metaphysics, and theology. All these considered as such show the results of reflection, or of thought thrown into more or less articulate form. As we shall see below, in its beginnings among the Ionians, philosophy was already somewhat reflective and aimed at being logical. Early religious mysteries and rites tended to take on a measure of rational formulation in dogmas. Accordingly, it is necessary to take the question farther back; to inquire into the types of belief which lie in the darker periods, before the rise of those logical formulas in which spontaneous belief seeks to justify itself. The characteristics of primitive and pre-historic knowledge and culture -- considered as showing crude first interpretations of nature and man -- should be investigated. They are genetically preliminary to the logical and reflective types of thought.

In this task the work of the anthropologists is directly available. 'They have attained a constantly clearer understanding of the modes and results of early racial thought -- the thought of primitive man. Later on we are to take account more fully of the results. Here we may note especially the distinction emphasised in the recent work of Lévy-Bruhl,[5] who, following the [p. 15] leading of recent genetic psychology, separates primitive thought, as being "pre-logical," from the "logical" thought of civilised man. The primitive precedes the reflective; the pre-logical, the logical. If we admit that there is a stage of interpretation so primitive that it may be called pre-logical, then this period is to be recognised as coming before any sort of intentional speculation.

The results of this procedure are in striking agreement with those of the later researches in genetic psychology. Work in mental development has shown the great stages through which the normal individual mind passes in growing up to maturity. The safest and most striking distinction is that between the pre-logical period, in which the individual remains logically undeveloped, and the logical, in which the reflective powers are fully matured. The characteristics of the pre-logical are made out with sufficient clearness to serve at least the negative purpose of indicating what the individual at this epoch cannot do.[6]

These indications confirm the idea already suggested of a general analogy, if not an exact parallel, between the two sorts of development, the individual and the racial. The individual mind goes through a continuous growth from infancy to maturity, certain stages of which are so marked as to be well designated by certain terms. Racial thought has also gone through a continuous evolution, the stages of which present striking :analogies to those of the individual development.

In reaching actual results, the British school of anthropologists was first in the field.[7] The outstanding [p. 16] principle of explanation of this school is that of "animism," the primitive man's reading of soul into nature. All nature to the savage is living, resourceful, dynamic, semi-personal; and as such it is capable of good or ill to man. The recognition of the facts of animism, however, lost much of its value as the well-founded discovery it was, through the inability of these writers to conceive of the "soul" save in one way -- after analogy with the civilised man. The "ejected" souls, the souls with which primitive man animates nature, could not be of different grades or modes -- souls in which this or that faculty might be undeveloped, this or that interest predominant -- because the ejecting agent himself, the savage, was looked upon as having always one and the same sort of mind. The genetic idea of a real evolution of mind, and of its products in social life, as seen in racial history, even when formally accepted, could not be fruitfully applied in the absence of a functional and dynamic conception of mental operations.[8]

In Germany, the beginning of a racial or folk-psychology was early made by Waitz and Steinthal.[9] A series of later publications of lesser importance are summarised in the treatise on folk-psychology by Wundt.[10] In this work the rich resources of modern research in ethnology and psychology are made use of for the interpretation of primitive thought and institutions. [p. 17]

It is in France, however, that a school of thoroughly genetic sociology and ethnology has been founded. Starting out from Positivist premises, the French writers have considered primitive culture from a purely objective and collective point of view. An early work by Espinas on primitive invention[11] (technology) traced the origin and development of practical discovery and invention, emphasising the social and religious motives in the practical life of early societies. This direction has been pursued by the later French investigators, who have formulated the principle of "collective representation," "représentation collective." According to this principle, primitive life is dominated by a body of essentially collective thought, usage, and authority, which replaces the individual types of thought and association reached by the analysis of the British school.[12]

The result is a view which, while too "positivist," in the narrow sense of Comtean, to be called psychological, nevertheless reacts upon the theory of savage mind and thought, and meets half-way the results of social psychology. The mass of "collective representation," another name for "tradition" broadly understood, replaces and prevents individual thought, to such a degree that a. real distinction has to be made between primitive and civilised mental processes. Savage thought is "pre-logical," over against civilised thought, which is "logical." Pre-logical primitive thought is "mystical," emotional, practical, dominated by the interests of social community and utility while logical thought is formal, theoretical, and objective, [p. 18] ruled by the laws of contradiction, consistency, and proof.

This outcome is further sharpened by the formulation of the "law of participation," announced by Lévy-Bruhl as the most general principle of organisation to be found in primitive thought. According to this law, all objects and persons "participate" in the mystic meaning authorised by the collective representation or group-tradition, such as that of the totem-animal of the tribe. In virtue of this common participation, objects and persons lose what we should call, in our logical modes of thinking, their singular identity, their local and temporal position, their self-hood, etc. They interpenetrate one another. All logical and objective distinctions as such go by the board; the savage thinks in terms of the larger unity of the mystic meaning and presence. Animism is a phase of this participation of personalities inter se.

Not only does primitive man not think logically, we are told; he cannot. He is pre-logical in his individual capacity no less than by virtue of the compulsion of the social milieu. He cannot "perceive" through the senses merely, nor judge identities by logical rules; the faculty of cognition as such is rudimentary: at the best it is held under by the collectivistic interests embodied in him as well as operative upon him.

It is held, by critics of the school, that this view overlooks important distinctions, one in particular. The fact that tradition hinders the individual savage from thinking logically by no means proves that he cannot think logically. The whole question of the relation of social meaning or tradition to individual endowment comes up. The results, socially considered, might be just what they are if human endowment, considered [p. 19]for itself, had not changed at all since prehistoric times. It is the social factor, the tradition, that has slowly changed, constantly allowing the logical faculty, which is always present in man, to develop more fully and express itself more adequately.[13]

Apart from the question as to what a given mind might or might not do in other and different social conditions, the essential point made by the collectivist school still holds good; the point that, as a fact, the thought of primitive man is collective, mystical, and pre-logical. The very emphasis on the social which is made in the definition of thought as collective takes the problem out of the domain of speculation as to the extent of early human endowment, and places it in that of social fact.[14]

The question of the relation of individual endowment to racial attainment gets, however, a new form of statement from the results of recent studies in social psychology.[15] For it is evident that if we take a radically collectivistic point of view, we cannot adopt the distinction with which the biologist serves himself between the factors of individuality represented by "endowment" and "environment," the latter understood in terms of the physical environment. The [p. 20] biologist finds the processes contributing to endowment to end at birth, that is, when the child is physically separated from its mother; and the psychologist generally calls this the beginning of independent mental life also. But if there be factors of mental life which appear only in social conditions, as social psychologists assert, and if these conditions become effective, as they do, only after physical birth, then the mental endowment of individuality must be said to complete itself only much later. Even for biologists, physical birth is an unsatisfactory place at which to locate the beginning of "nurture," as distinguished from "nature"; for pre-natal life is in many respects subject to influences from the external as well as from the uterine environment.

A purely physiological criterion in biology would have its counterpart in a purely psychical one in psychology; and this would place the mental birth, the beginning of the mental individual, defined as the social unit, at the epoch at which the individual achieves consciousness of his individuality, that is, at the rise of self-consciousness.

Putting the matter more generally, we may say that if the independent physical life is properly said to begin at physical birth, because then the formative influences necessary to physical independence cease to operate, we should say that independent psychic life begins only when there is a similar release of the mind from essentially formative social influences. Only then does the person take on his full mental character, becoming a fellow among fellows, as the body does when it becomes physically independent.[16] The person begins to know himself to be a self among selves. [p. 21]

Whatever the exact force of this point may he, in a field in which the distinction between endowment and acquired modification is vague at the best, we may still say that the birth of the body is no point at which to locate the birth of the fully endowed mind. The mind develops in society after birth, as the body does in the mother before birth. Many of its essential organs, indeed we may say most of them-sensation being the principal exception-are absent at physical birth. They are not merely undeveloped, but as psychic organs they are absent.

This truth, I suggest, tends to justify the position of the French writers referred to above. It shows the impossibility of determining individual mental endowment apart from social conditions. The task is as futile as that of determining physical endowment apart from pre-natal conditions would be. On the contrary, we are led to the view that a collective form of mental life precedes the individual form. How the individual can think is best seen in how he actually does think in the social conditions in which he finds himself.

The presumption, then, is in favour of a theory of radical collectivism for the period of racial culture corresponding to the pre-logical period in the individual. This is established, indeed, by the facts collected by recent observers of primitive societies. It gives raison d'être to all those forms of illogical and irrational psychosophy by which the science of psychology was preceded, and which will always remain a thorn in its side. Socially established superstitions, occult rites, [p. 22] mystic appearances, religious wonders, animistic and spiritistic realities, systems of "new thought" and "Christian science" -- these do not make appeal to logic or recognise the demand for objective proof. They rest in collective representation; or they are sanctioned by tradition; or they represent types of affective value; or they make appeal to emotional and gregarious habits of mind. In short, they represent and find their refuge in practical interests in behalf of which they continue to scout the claims of the theoretical.[17]


[1] The exact requirements of the positive science of psychology are stated later on ; see Chap. IV of Vol. II.

[2] It is curious that while scientific knowledge has effectively overcome mystic and occult views in other provinces, in this field the latter have not surrendered, but have maintained themselves without great change.

[3] See the recent excellent treatment of the question by Höffding in La Pensée humaine, pp. 109 ff., who applies to the stages the terms "Animism," "Platonism," and "Positivism."

[4] Hegel, Die Philosophie der Geschichte (trans. in the "Bohn Library ").

[5] L. Lévy-Bruhl, Les Fonctions mentales dans les Sociétés inférieures (1910).

[6] See the detailed treatment of the writer's Thought and Things, Vol. I (1906), where this use of the term "prelogical" was suggested, and the Preface to Vol. III (1911) of the same work.

[7] See E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture (1871); J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, 2nd edition (1900).

[8] See the criticisms of the British school, somewhat overdrawn, M. Lévy-Bruhl, in the work just referred to.

[9] Th. Waitz, Die Anthropologie der Naturvölker (1870-1877) ; H. Steinthal, Mythus und Religion (1870).

[10] W. Wundt, Völkerpsychologie (1900-1909). This work is less effective because of the writer's tendency to abstract classification and schematism. See also the author's condensation of the work in one volume, Elemente der Völkerpsychologie (1912).

[11] A. Espinas, Les Origines de la Technologie (1897), a work not sufficiently appreciated in English-speaking countries.

[12] Their results have appeared in the annual Année Sociologique, and in the works of the editor, E. Durkheim, and his associates.

[13] This point is well put by F. Boas in The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), who adds the consideration also, that in respect to many of our civilised interests we are still about as pre-logical and mystic in our modes of thought as the most primitive savage.

[14] A claim pressed to the point of reducing all the " normative" to the level of "descriptive" sciences; as is the substitution of a science des murs for morale, the derivation of logical categories from rules of social usage, etc.... It may be added that all evolutionists agree that the mental was at some time pre-logical in its capacity; it remains so in the animals. Whether then the logical arose in pre-human or only in pre-historic times, is a secondary matter.

[15] See the résumé given in Chapter VI of Vol. II under the heading of "Social Psychology."

[16] There seems to be in the growth of social independence no crisis similar to that of birth in the physical life. At birth part of the entire environment -- the physiological part-is radically shaken off, while the physical part proper remains. The nearest thing to this, on the mental side, would seem to be the achievement of the consciousness of self, as described by the students of social psychology (see Chapter VII of Vol. II, below).

[17] The limits of space forbid any adequate consideration of the particular forms of psychosophic interpretation. Certain of them are noted below in passing-the Orphic mysteries, the belief in transmigration, the recognition of demons, etc. The subject must remain in our treatment merely preliminary to the main topic.