Classical Texts in Psychology
(Return to index)
Professor Titchener's View of the Self
First published in Psychological Review, 5, 401-408.
Posted February 2005
My object is to discuss Professor Titchener's view of the self -- as revealed in his 'Outline of Psychology.' I wish to do so in as positive and non-controversial a spirit as possible, working toward a positive psychology of the self, through what I most respectfully beg to call the limitations of Professor Titchener's treatment. The positive value, to be sure, of professor Titchener's 'Outline' is entirely unaffected by what I shall say. His book in the dearest and most instructive book upon the newer psychology that I, at least, know of. Were it my business to teach experimental psychology, I should try to do so through its use. And were I meantime reviewing the book, I should devote several paragraphs to the enumeration of such elements of positive value as I am capable of seeing in it.
In regard to the self, there are two lines of treatment in the book, one of positive presentation, and another of discussion of hypotheses. The first is indicated by way of summary, on pp. 287-292: the self is the "sum total of conscious processes which run their course under the conditions laid down by bodily tendencies." The second in the denial that there is any psychological evidence of 'a mind behind mental processes,' or of 'a mental activity above or behind the stream of conscious processes,' or of 'a mental continuity and coherence.' My contention in regard to the first part, in regard to Mr. Titchener's purely positive treatment of the self, is that it is all good enough as far as it goes, that it must all be incorporated into a complete psychology of a self. It may (although I shall question even this much) represent the point of view of psycho-physics, but it doer nor completely represent the point of view of psychology (and Professor Titchener's volume is called an 'Outline of Psychology'). In regard to the second point, the discussion of hypotheses about the activity and nature of the self, I beg to remark: (A) Is not the very fact that Mr. Titchener in his 'Outline ' has felt himself called upon to discuss theories about the ultimate nature of the self, itself a fact of psychology, or even of psycho-physics? And [p. 402] is not the belief that humanity has in the active and permanent character of the mind a thing that Mr. Titchener's positive psychology cannot account for? (B) While Mr. Titchener's contention that questions about the ultimate nature of mind cannot be answered until 'we have brought together the facts of psychology and the facts of other sciences,' is a welcome admission as coming from a psychologist, and one that ought to be proclaimed, as it were, 'from the house-tops,' it cannot be said that he himself has incorporated this admission into his psychology. Why is psychology alone unequal to the task of setting forth the nature of mind? Surely, because it sees or encounters some things in mental processes that cannot be explained as mere processes. Professor Titchener's procedure and conclusions place ethics and logic, and aesthetics and metaphysic in the ridiculous position of building up theories of mind 'in the air,' on ground which is no ground, on ground whose merest existence is denied by psychology, the basal mental science, the science that enumerates the facts of mind, and from which other mental sciences consequently borrow. I am aware that Professor Titchener has chosen his subject out of the various divisions of psychology -- anthropological, social, comparative, and so on -- the psychology of aesthetics, the psychology of ethics, etc. Describe it as we will, his subject is psycho-physics. On the ground of psycho-physics he finds in 'mind' nothing but sensations and affections, expressly denying a 'third' element, such as 'activity' or an 'ultimate ' mind or 'will' working from within outwards, conditioning mental process. I differ from Professor Titchener in so far as I think that, even along the lines of psycho-physics, we do come upon mental activities or a tertium quid different from sensation and affection, a selfhood that psycho-physics itself cannot explain, but is compelled to assume. Psycho-physics must confess to philosophy that has discovered some things in the psycho-physical mechanism which cannot be explained as sensations or affections, or any combination of sensation and affection, which cannot be explained by empirical psychology with the help of biology (as Mr. Titchener uses it). I know and see that Mr. Titchener is an exact scholar. I know that he himself again and again says and implies that, of course, sensations and 'affections' are never encountered as such, pure and simple and self-existent. I know that he expressly says and implies that the simplest working element in experience is the 'idea,' etc. My contention is that he has not made enough of this admission and of other admissions which he must consequently make. To do so would give a different tone and color to his book. [p. 403] Were he now to reconsider the point, it might perhaps have some effect upon his future 'Principles of Psychology,' in two volumes, which we shall look for from him.
I do not wish to enter upon the question of how far Mr. Titchener's mere language about the self is sometimes (as on pp. 287-8) perfectly satisfactory, or as to how far it sometimes indicates a willingness on his part to have us add on to his account of the self, facts which we may learn from other sciences and from philosophy. And I repeat that the didactic part of his book is occupied with the attempt to show how sensations and affections and tendencies constitute the working-life of the normal mind, or self, and that for this alone we ought to be grateful to him. But I object, in the name of psychology and philosophy and experience, to his practical contention that from the standpoint of psychology there is in the self nothing other than sensation and affection. I think that introspection makes us aware of an activity in the self which is not explained by Mr. Titchener's psychology of effort and attention and voluntary movement, and that there is in us a feeling consciousness of selfhood, or the realization of (as Aristotle puts it) an inward operative (formal or final) purpose which is not expressed by his biological self, his 'sum of tendencies.'
Some of my reasons for proclaiming his account of the self to be faulty,
even from the standpoint of psychology alone, are as follows: (1) His analysis
of effort or conation (intended by him for a deliberate and complete induction)
is not an analysis of effort at all. It
is an analysis of desire. "I do long to go to
(3) Mr. Titchener distinguishes the 'activity-inference ' from the 'activity-experience.' It is true that much that we affirm about the of the self (in itself or in attention) is inferential. It is true, as Titchener insists, (α) that we have no experience of the release of a voluntary movement, and (β) that active cannot be distinguished apart from passive attention, and (γ) that all attention is partly determined by factors and elements outside immediate experiences. And it is good to have these things explained. I agree with Bradley that the current use of the concept of mental activity is a 'scandal'; it tends to perpetuate error and ignorance and false educational methods. But I still believe, with a great many psychologists and philosophers, in the activity-experience. It is the experience that [p. 405] gives rise to the inference and not vice versa, as Titchener implies. As we read Titchener we see how 'psycho-physical process' is moulded by 'tendencies' and 'dispositions' and 'associations.' But Titchener forgets that psycho-physical process has itself moulded tendencies and dispositions and associations, and that, as Stout says, it "is 'self-determining' in a double way: (1) in so far as it initiates the changes on which its propagation depends; (2) inasmuch as the brain substance, in which these changes take place, has been rendered capable of them only through previous psyche-physical processes in which it has taken part." Because mental activity is conditioned by all the laws and conditions of the universe, it is none the less mental activity; on one showing of things it may be passivity, on another it is none the less activity. Titchener will not call it both active and passive; he insists that it is passive, consisting merely of sensation and affection. If attention involves the 'idea' it involves apperception and judgment and the so-called higher mental processes, control, etc. Ribot finds that will as choice involves judgment. In choice we affirm a certain experience (perhaps a future state of feeling) to virtually belong to the self, to be bound up with it, to be the ideal self (as different from the present self), to be bound up with the real self. But, as Stout contends, we cannot think of the self without affirming it. There is thus an active, or judging, or self-asserting self bound up with the higher forms of attention.
(4) Mr. Titchener does not think of this self that affirms itself,
because he is concerned in the main with the psychological self, and leaves out
of count the 'moral self' and the 'epistemological self' and the 'ideal self'
-- things that, e.g.,
Mackenzie recognizes in his Mind articles upon Bradley's view of activity. He refers, indeed, to these other 'selves,'
but his procedure makes us feel that none of them has any psychological basis,
there being, in his eyes, no activity, but only 'tendencies' bound up with the
self. Now, they have, all of them, a psychological
basis. One thing alone in attention would prove this -- the time or
duration experience, in which a present element of our experience is
denied, and a possible future element is
affirmed. I think that the mere
time-experience in attention, the waiting, the 'intention,' actually brings
along with it a judgment experience, an appercipent
or ideal self that affirms and asserts itself.
The self as 'ideal,' of course, lies 'ahead' of us,
and not 'behind' us, as does the merely [p. 406] 'biological' self of
Titchener. But the higher self or the higher forms of attention are just as
much aspects of the attention or volition process as are the simplest forms of
reaction to stimulus from without. Ideal
ends are sometimes sought and realized at the expense of the lower or
biological self. In the higher forms of
attention the self affirms itself as action. And this is matter of psychology.
Psychology must allow for the activity experience. (5) Many important elements
or phases of the self that are distinctly matters of observation or experience,
and that are noticed too by other psychologists, are omitted by Mr. Titchener. Wundt in his Psychology seems to speak of will as
the highest kind of psychical formation and of willing as the fundamental fact
of mind, things that we naturally expect from the emphasis laid upon apperception
both in the Logik and the Physiologische Psychologie.
He says that the feeling of activity which accompanies willing is closely
associated with "an
immediate feeling of the interconnection of all individual psychical
experiences." Titchener gives no
definite or extended recognition to this immediate feeling of activity or of
the interconnection of all separate psychical experiences. Nor does he allow for that conscious control
of he reflex and automatic and semi-automatic activities of our life which is
an undoubted psyche-physical fact, and which seems, as Lloyd Morgan puts it, to be accompanied by a psychical feeling of activity
altogether above the ordinary strain feelings of mere muscular 'effort.' (This 'effort,' to be sure, is evidently just
the compound of sensation and affection that Titchener finds it to
be.) (6) I find the same absence of
unity in Professor Titchener's conception of the biological self that I do in
his conception of the psychological self. Foster in his Physiology refers to an ultimate tendency of
living matter to act from within outwards, to act in a way that cannot be
explained by mechanical or reflex action. There is a self-preservation nisus in the life of
a biological organism which may be said to constitute its unity, to make it
more than the mere sum of tendencies. And,
similarly, there is in psychical life an effort after the unification of our
experience, after the assertion of an ideal or personal or enduring self. If
this effort is not to be called activity I do not know what to call it.
Professor Lipps, of
(7) Mere 'presentationism,' as Ward and Laurie, Andrew Seth, and many others insist, is not a complete psychological account of the self. That is, the sensation and affection that we can objectively see in so-called 'activity' and 'attention' are not all that psychology tells us about the self. The persistency of the notion or illusion of a 'spectator' or self, for which all mental processes occur and which unifies all mental states, is of itself evidence that there is psychological fact beneath it. If the self were merely the creation of an inference it would not be the belief that it still is; it would disappear. It is contrary to all that we know about the workings of nature to suppose that she would perpetuate the existence of a mere 'epiphenomenon' as a 'consciousness' whose function is not activity -- guidance, interference, in our life. (8) Another reason for Mr. Titchener's inadequate account of the self is his inadequate treatment of feeling. Feeling is not merely the subjective side of sensation that he makes it out to be. Feelings are excited by inward as well as by outward activity, and certain feelings, such as those of sex and the sociological fact of imitation, point to an inward activity and unity of the psycho-physical mechanism that are evidence of an active or organic or unifying self or will in man. Should not 'emotions,' too, be referred to the self as well as to 'objects?' Are there not emotions that are peculiarly 'personal' or 'subjective,' ·i.e., whose existence implies that of an active self, or a mind that persists through 'process'? (9) The phenomena of 'the unconscious' or of unconscious action are, it would seem, overlooked by Mr. Titchener. These phenomena all point to an inward activity in the organic self that is at least as ultimate as are sensations and affections. The first and simplest sensations are, as Schneider points out, sensation-impulses. Indeed, from [p. 408] the biological point of view, our senses of sight and hearing and taste and smell are the creations or developments of the life-preservative efforts of the organism, of efforts that emanate from within. (10) Mr. Titchener's psychology of consciousness is defective. Consciousness is not the 'sum of mental processes': it is the awareness of these processes as a sum. Consciousness is not a 'cross-section of mind.' It is the active feeling of our life as a unity, which enables us to look upon any part of our experience as a part or 'cross-section.' (11) Mr. Titchener forgets (what Wundt remembers in his Psychology) that a psychical formation is a very different thing from the elements that constitute it or the properties of these elements. He explains the highest psychical formations from their lowest elements; it is equally important for psychology to explain the lowest elements from the point of view of the highest psychical formation, such as control and conduct and self-affirmation. Mr. Titchener does not allow for his admission (p. 5) that in the 'origination and continuance' of mental processes we 'are ourselves necessarily concerned.' In these words he admits the 'we,' the 'I' to be fact psychological. (12) In conclusion, Mr. Titchener's treatment of metaphysic might be discussed. My time-limit, however, forbids this. As to his own philosophy, he is always insisting that mind is nothing apart from its processes. He does not allow for the fact (the unique thing in psychology) that psychological happenings and processes are nothing apart from an active, unifying, synthetic self. 'Self' is doubtless a 'mystery' -- an 'ultimate' -- but there are psychological manifestations of its reality.