The History of Psychology: Fundamental Questions

By Margaret P. Munger | Go to book overview

24
MAX WERTHEIMER
also in the form of directly presented mental processes. If we try to imagine an idea as persisting beneath the limen of consciousness, we can as a matter of fact only think of it as still an idea, i.e., as the same process as that which it was so long as we were conscious of it, with the single difference that it is now no longer conscious. But this implies that psychological explanation has here reached a limit similar to that which confronts it in the question as to the ultimate origin of sensations. It is the limit beyond which one of the two causal series,— the physical,—can be continued, but where the other,— the psychical,—must end; and where the attempt to push this latter farther must inevitably lead to the thinking of the psychical in physical,—i.e., material,—terms.We conclude, then, that the assumption of a mental substance different from the various manifestations of mental life involves the unjustifiable transference of a mode of thought necessary for the investigation of external nature to a sphere in which it is wholly inapplicable; it implies a kind of unconscious materialism. The consequences of this transference follow at once from its nature; the true value of our mental life is in jeopardy. For this value attaches simply and solely to the actual and concrete processes in mind. What can this “substance” do for us, a substance devoid of will, of feeling, and of thought, and having no part in the constitution of our personality? If you answer, as is sometimes done, that it is these very operations of mind that go to make up its nature, and that therefore mind cannot be thought or conceived without them, why, then the position is granted: the real nature of mind consists in nothing else than our mental life itself. The notion of “operation” as applied to it can only mean, if it has any admissible meaning at all, that we are able to demonstrate how certain mental manifestations follow from, are the effects of the operation of certain other mental manifestations. Physical causality and psychical causality are polar opposites: the former implies always the postulate of a material substance; the latter never transcends the limits of what is immediately given in mental experience. “Substance” is a metaphysical surplusage for which psychology has no use. And this accords with the fundamental character of mental life, which I would have you always bear in mind. It does not consist in the connexion of unalterable objects and varying conditions: in all its phases it is process; an active, not a passive, existence; development, not stagnation. The understanding of the basal laws of this development is the final goal of psychology.
NOTES
1. For other proofs of the untenable character of the neo-phrenological localisation-hypothesis, drawn chiefly from the phenomena of normal and pathological disturbances of memory, I may refer the reader to my Essays, pp. 109 ff. (Leipzig, 1885).

24
MAX WERTHEIMER

Max Wertheimer (1880–1943) left his chair in philosophy and psychology at the Universi-
ty of Frankfurt in 1933, one of many European scholars who were forced to flee their
homelands with Hilter's rise to power. Wertheimer attended Charles University in his na-
tive city of Prague, where he became intrigued by Christian von Ehrenfel's critique of Wil-
helm Wundt's (p. 296) elemental approach to perceptual experience. Wertheimer contin-
ued at the University of Berlin and received his Ph.D. in 1904 from the University of
Wurzburg. He conducted graduate work with Oswald Kulpe and Karl Marbe on the use of
word-association tasks to detect criminal guilt or innocence. Wertheimer was involved
with a number of different laboratories over the next several years, supported by his father,
a college administrator in Prague, and his mother an accomplished violinist who also en

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