Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario
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Elements of Folk Psychology

Wilhelm Wundt 
Posted July 2001



The word 'Volkerpsychologie' (folk psychology) is a new compound in our [the German] language. It dates back scarcely farther than to about the middle of the nineteenth century. In the literature of this period, however, it appeared with two essentially different meanings. On the one hand, the term 'folk psychology' was applied to investigations concerning the relations which the intellectual, moral, and other mental characteristics of peoples sustain to one another, as well as to studies concerning the influence of these characteristics upon the spirit of politics, art, and literature. The aim of this work was a characterization of peoples, and its greatest emphasis was placed on those cultural peoples whose civilization is of particular importance to us -- the French, English, Germans, Americans, etc. These were the questions of folk psychology that claimed attention during that period, particularly, to which literary history, has given the name "young Germany." The clever essays of Karl Hillebrand on Zeiten, Volker und Menschen (collected in eight volumes, 1885 ff.) are a good recent example of this sort of investigation. We may say at the outset that the present work follows a radically different direction from that pursued by these first studies in folk psychology.

Practically coincident with the appearance of these earliest studies, however, was a radically different use of the term 'folk psychology.' The mental sciences began to realize the need of a psychological basis; where a serviceable psychology did not exist, they felt it necessary to establish an independent psychology [p. 2] foundation for their work. It was particularly in connection with the problems of philology and mythology, and at about the middle of the century, that the idea gradually arose of combining into a unified whole the various results concerning the mental development of man as severally viewed by language, religion, and custom. A philosopher and a philologist, Lazarus and Steinthal, may claim credit for the service of having introduced the term 'folk psychology' to designate this new field of knowledge. All phenomena with which mental sciences deal are, indeed, creations of the social community. Language, for example, is not the accidental discovery of an individual; it is the product of peoples, and, generally speaking, there are as many different languages as there are originally distinct peoples. The same is true of the beginnings of art, of mythology, and of custom. The natural religions, as they were at one time called, such as the religions of Greece, Rome, and the Germanic peoples, are, in truth, folk religions; each of them is the possession of a folk community, not, of course, in all details, but in general outline. To us this fact has come to appear somewhat strange, because in our age these universal mental creations have already long transcended the limits of a single people. Though this is true, it does not imply that the folk community is not really the original source of these mental creations. Now, in the works of Lazarus and Steinthal and in the Zeitschrift fur Volkerpsychologie und Sprachwissenschaft edited by them and appearing in twenty volumes from 1860 on, the conception had not as yet, it is true, received the precise definition that we must give it to-day. Nevertheless, a beginning was made, and the new venture was successfully launched along several different lines. Some uncertainty still prevailed, especially with regard to the relation of these studies to philosophy, and as to the method which psychology must follow when thus carried over into a new field. It was only gradually, as the psychological point of view gained ground in the special fields of research, that this condition was improved. To-day, doubtless, folk psychology may be [p. 3] regarded as a branch of psychology concerning whose justification and problem there can no longer be dispute. Its problem relates to those mental products which are created by a community of human life and are, therefore, inexplicable in terms merely of individual consciousness, since they presuppose the reciprocal action of many. This will be for us the criterion of that which belongs to the consideration of folk psychology. A language can never be created by an individual. True, individuals have invented Esperanto and other artificial languages. Unless, however, language had already existed, these inventions would have been impossible. Moreover, none of these languages has been able to maintain itself, and most of them owe their existence solely to elements borrowed from natural languages. How, again, could a religion have been created by an individual? There have, indeed, been religions whose founders were individual men: for example, Christianity, Buddhism, and Islamism. But all these religions rest on earlier foundations ;they are elaborations of religious motives arising within particular folk communities. Thus, then, in the analysis of the higher mental processes, folk' psychology is an indispensable supplement to the psychology of individual consciousness. Indeed, in the case of some questions the latter already finds itself obliged to fall back on the principles of folk psychology. Nevertheless, it must not be forgotten that just as there can be no folk community apart from individuals who enter into reciprocal relations within it, so also does folk psychology, in turn, presuppose individual psychology, or, as it is usually called, general psychology. The former, however, is an important supplement to the latter, providing principles for the interpretation of the more complicated processes of individual consciousness. It is true that the attempt has frequently been made to investigate the complex functions of thought on the basis of mere introspection. These attempts, however, have always been unsuccessful. Individual consciousness is wholly incapable of giving us a history of the development of human thought, for it is conditioned by an earlier history concerning which it cannot of itself give us any knowledge. [p. 4] For this reason we must also reject the notion that child psychology can solve these ultimate problems of psychogenesis. Among cultural peoples, the child is surrounded by influences inseparable from the processes that arise spontaneously within its own consciousness. Folk psychology, however, in its investigation of the various stages of mental development still exhibited by mankind, leads us along the path of a true psychogenesis. It reveals well-defined primitive conditions, with transitions leading through an almost continuous series of intermediate steps to the more developed and higher civilizations. Thus, folk psychology is, in an important sense of the word, genetic psychology.

In view of the general nature of the task of the science, objection has sometimes been raised to its being called folk psychology. For, the study is concerned, not merely with peoples but also with more restricted, as well as with more comprehensive, social groups. Family, group, tribe, and local community, for example, are more restricted associations; on the other hand, it is to the union and reciprocal activity of a number of peoples that the highest mental values and attainments owe their origin, so that, in this case, folk psychology really becomes a psychology of mankind. But it is self-evident that, if it is not to fade into indefiniteness, a term such as 'folk psychology' must be formulated with reference to the most important conception with which it has to deal. Moreover, scarcely any of the proposed emendations are practicable. 'Gemeinschaftpsychologie' (community psychology) may easily give rise to the misconception that we are concerned primarily with such communities as differ from the folk community; 'Sozialpsychologie' (social psychology) at once reminds us of modern sociology, which, even in its psychological phases, usually deals exclusively with questions of modern cultural life. In an account of the total development of mental life, however -- and this is the decisive consideration -- the 'folk' is the most important collective concept and the one with which all others are associated. The 'folk' embraces families, classes, clans, and groups. These [p. 5] various communities are not excluded from the concept 'folk,' but are included within it. The term 'folk psychology' singles out precisely the folk as the decisive factor underlying the fundamental creations of the community.

When this point of view is taken, the question, of course, arises whether the problem thus assigned to folk psychology is not already being solved by ethnology, the science of peoples, or whether it ought not to be so solved. But it must be borne in mind that the greatly enlarged scope of modern ethnology, together with the increased number and the deepened character of its problems, necessarily precludes such a psychological investigation as falls to the task of folk psychology. I may here be allowed to refer to one who, perhaps more than any other recent geographer, has called attention to this extension of ethnological problems -- Friedrich Ratzel. In his treatise on anthropography and in a number of scattered essays on the cultural creations of peoples, Ratzel has shown that ethnology must not only account for the characteristics and the habitats of peoples, but must also investigate how peoples originated and how they attained their present physical and mental status. Ethnology is the science of the origin of peoples, of their characteristics, and of their distribution over the earth. In this set of problems, psychological traits receive a relatively subordinate place. Apparently insignificant art products and their modifications may be of high importance in the determination of former migrations, fusions, or transferences. It is in this way that ethnology has been of valuable service to history, particularly in connection with prehistoric man. The central problem of ethnology concerns not only the present condition of peoples, but the way in which they originated, changed, and became differentiated. Folk psychology must be based on the results of ethnology; its own psychological interest, however, inclines it to the problem of mental development. Though of diverse origins, peoples may nevertheless belong to the same group as regards the mental level to which they have attained. Conversely [p. 6] peoples who are ethnologically related may, psychologically speaking, represent very different stages of mental culture. The ethnologist, for example, regards the Magyars and the Ostiaks of Obi as peoples of like origin. Psychologically, they belong to different groups: the one is a cultural people, the other is still relatively primitive. To the folk psychologist, however, 'primitive' always means the psychologically primitive -- not that which the ethnologist regards as original from the point of view of the genealogy of peoples. Thus, folk psychology draws upon ethnology, while the latter, in turn, must invoke the aid of the former in investigating mental characteristics. The problems of the two sciences, however, are fundamentally different.

In fulfilling its task, folk psychology may pursue different methods. The course that first suggests itself is to single out one important phenomenon of community life after another, and to trace its development after the usual pattern of general psychology in its analysis of individual consciousness. For example, an attempt is made to trace the psychological development of language by the aid of the facts of linguistic history. This psychology of language is then followed by a study of the development of art, from its beginnings among primitive races down to its early manifestations among cultural peoples, at which point its description is taken up by the history of art. Myth and religion are similarly investigated as regards the development of their characteristics, their reciprocal relations, etc. This is a method which considers in longitudinal sections, as it were, the total course of the development described by folk psychology. For a somewhat intensive analysis this is the most direct mode of procedure. But it has the objection of severing mental development into a number of separate phases, whereas in reality these are in constant interrelation. Indeed, the various mental expressions, particularly in their earlier stages, are so intertwined that they are scarcely separable from one another. Language is influenced by myth, art is a factor in myth development, and customs and usages are everywhere sustained by mythological conception. [p. 7] But there is also a second path of investigation, and it is this which the present work adopts. It consists -- to retain the image used above -- in taking transverse instead of longitudinal sections, that is, in regarding the main stages of the development with which folk psychology is concerned in their sequence, and each in the total interconnection of its phenomena. Our first task; then, would be the investigation of primitive man. We must seek a psychological explanation of the thought, belief, and action of primitive man on the basis of the facts supplied by ethnology. As we proceed to more advanced stages, difficulties may, of course, arise with regard to the delimitation of the various periods; indeed; it will scarcely be possible to avoid a certain arbitrariness, inasmuch as the processes are continuous. The life of the individual person also does not fall into sharply distinct periods. Just as childhood, youth, and manhood are stages in a continuous growth, so also are the various eras in the development of peoples. Yet there are certain ideas, emotions, and springs of action about which the various phenomena group themselves. It is these that we must single out ii the content of folk psychology is to be classified, with any measure of satisfaction, according to periods. Moreover, it should be particularly noticed that, in starting our discussion with primitive man, as we naturally must, the term 'primitive' is to be taken relatively, as representing the lowest grade of culture, particularly of mental culture. There is no specific ethnological characteristic that distinguishes this primitive stage from those that are more advanced; it is only by reference to a number of psychological traits, such as are indicative of the typically original, that we may determine that which is primitive. Bearing: in mind this fact, we must first describe the external traits of primitive culture, and then consider the psychological factors of primitive life.

Of the second period in the development of civilization, we may safely say that in many respects it represents a newly discovered world. Historical accounts have nothing to say concerning it. Recent ethnology alone has disclosed [p. 8] the phenomena here in question, having come upon them in widely different parts of the earth. This period we will call the totemic age. The very name indicates that we are concerned with the discovery of a submerged world. The word 'totem,' borrowed from a distant American tongue, proves by its very origin that our own cultural languages of Europe do not possess any word even approximately adequate to designate the peculiar character of this period. If we would define the concept of totemism as briefly as possible, it might perhaps be said to represent a circle of ideas within which the relation of animal to man is the reverse of that which obtains in present-day culture. In the totemic age, man does not have dominion over the animal, but the animal rules man. Its deeds and activities arouse wonder, fear, and adoration. The souls of the dead dwell within it; it thus becomes the ancestor of man. Its flesh is prohibited to the members of the group called by its name, or, conversely, on ceremonial occasions, the eating of the totem-animal may become a sanctifying cult activity. No less does the totemic idea affect the organization of society, tribal division, and the forms of marriage and family. Yet the elements that reach over from the thought-world of this period into later times are but scanty fragments. Such, for example, are the sacred animals of the Babylonians, Egyptians, and other ancient cultural peoples, the prophetic significance attached to the qualities or acts of animals, and other magical ideas connected with particular animals.

Totemic culture is succeeded -- through gradual transitions -- by a third period, which we will call the age of heroes and gods. Initial steps towards the latter were already taken during the preceding period, in the development of a rulership of individuals within the tribal organization. This rulership, at first only temporary in character, gradually becomes permanent. The position of the chieftain, which was of only minor importance in the totemic age, gains in power when the tribal community, under the pressure of struggles with hostile tribes, assumes a military organization. Society thus develops into the State. War, as also [p. 9] the guidance of the State in times of peace, calls out men who tower far above the stature of the old chieftains, and who, at the same time, are sharply distinguished from one another through qualities that stamp them as typical personalities. In place of the eldest of the clan and the tribal chieftain of the totemic period, this new age gives rise to the hero. The totemic age possesses only fabulous narratives; these are credited myths dealing, not infrequently, with animal ancestors who have introduced fire, taught the preparation of food, etc. The hero who is exalted as a leader in war belongs to a different world a world faithfully mirrored in the heroic song or epic. As regards their station in life, the heroes of Homer are still essentially tribal chieftains, but the enlarged field of struggle, together with the magnified characteristics which it develops, exalt the leader into a hero. With the development of poetry, the forms of language also change, and become enriched. The epic is followed by formative and dramatic art. All this is at the same time closely bound up with the origin of the State, which now displaces the more primitive tribal institutions of the preceding period. When this occurs, different customs and cults emerge. With national heroes and with States, national religions come into being; and, since these religions no longer direct the attention merely to the immediate environment, to the animal and plant world, but focus it primarily upon the heavens, there is developed the idea of a higher and more perfect world. As the hero is the ideal man, so the god becomes the ideal hero, and the celestial world, the ideally magnified terrestrial world.

This era of heroes and gods is finally succeeded by a fourth period. A national State and a national religion do not represent the permanent limits of human striving. National affiliations broaden into humanistic associations. Thus there begins a development in which we of the present still participate; it cannot, therefore, be referred to otherwise than as an age that is coming to be. We may speak merely of an advance toward humanity, not of a development of humanity. This advance, however, begins immediately with [p. 10] the fall of the barriers that divide peoples, particularly with regard to their religious views. For this reason, it is particularly the transcendence of the more restricted folk circle on the part of religions that constitutes one of the most significant events of mental history. The national religions -- or, as they are generally, though misleadingly, called, the natural religions -- of the great peoples of antiquity begin to pass beyond their original bounds and to become religions of humanity. There are three such world religions -- Christianity, Islamism, and Buddhism -- each of them adapted in character and history to a particular part of mankind. This appears most clearly in the contrast between Christianity and Buddhism, similar as they are in their endeavour to be world religions. The striving to become a world religion, however, is also a symptomatic mental phenomenon, paralleled externally by the extension of national States beyond the original limits set for them by the tribal unit. Corresponding to this expansion, we find those reciprocal influences of cultural peoples in economic life, as well as in custom, art, and science, which give to human society its composite character, representing a combination of national with universally human elements. Hellenism and the Roman Empire afford the first and, for Occidental mental development, the most important manifestations of these phenomena. How immense is the chasm between the secret barter of primitive man who steals out of the primeval forest by night and lays down his captured game to exchange it, unseen by his neighbours, for implements and objects of adornment, and the commerce of an age when fleets traverse the seas, and eventually ships course through the air, uniting the peoples of all parts of the world into one great commercial community! We cannot undertake to delineate all aspects of this development, for the latter includes the entire history of mankind. Our concern is merely to indicate the outstanding psychological factors fundamental to 'the progression of the later from that which was original, of the more perfect from the primitive, partly under the pressure of external conditions of life and partly as a result of man's own creative power.