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Theory and History: An Interpretation of Social and Economic Evolution, ed. Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005).
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Psychology and Thymology
Naturalistic Psychology and Thymology
Many authors believe that psychology is basic to the social sciences, even that it comprehends them all.
Insofar as psychology proceeds with the experimental methods of physiology, these claims are manifestly unwarranted. The problems investigated in the laboratories of the various schools of experimental psychology have no more reference to the problems of the sciences of human action than those of any other scientific discipline. Most of them are even of no use to praxeology, economics, and all the branches of history. In fact, nobody ever tried to show how the findings of naturalistic psychology could be utilized for any of these sciences.
But the term “psychology” is applied in another sense too. It signifies the cognition of human emotions, motivations, ideas, judgments of value and volitions, a faculty indispensable to everybody in the conduct of daily affairs and no less indispensable to the authors of poems, novels, and plays as well as to historians. Modern epistemology calls this mental process of the historians the specific understanding of the historical sciences of human action. Its function is twofold: it establishes, on the one hand, the fact that, motivated by definite value judgments, people have engaged in definite actions and applied definite means to attain the ends they seek. It tries, on the other hand, to evaluate the effects and the intensity of the effects of an action, its bearing upon the further course of events.
The specific understanding of the historical disciplines is not a mental process exclusively resorted to by historians. It is applied by everybody in daily intercourse with all his fellows. It is a technique employed in all interhuman relations. It is practiced by children in the nursery and kindergarten, by businessmen in trade, by politicians and statesmen in affairs of state. All are eager to get information about other people’s valuations and plans and to appraise them correctly. People as a rule call this insight into the minds of other men psychology. Thus, they say a salesman ought to be a good psychologist, and a political leader should be an expert in mass psychology. This popular use of the term “psychology” must not be confused with the psychology of any of the naturalistic schools. When Dilthey and other epistemologists declared that history must be based on psychology, what they had in mind was this mundane or common-sense meaning of the term.
To prevent mistakes resulting from the confusion of these two entirely different branches of knowledge it is expedient to reserve the term “psychology” for naturalistic psychology and to call the knowledge of human valuations and volitions “thymology.”1
Thymology is on the one hand an offshoot of introspection and on the other a precipitate of historical experience. It is what everybody learns from intercourse with his fellows. It is what a man knows about the way in which people value different conditions, about their wishes and desires and their plans to realize these wishes and desires. It is the knowledge of the social environment in which a man lives and acts or, with historians, of a foreign milieu about which he has learned by studying special sources. If an epistemologist states that history has to be based on such knowledge as thymology, he simply expresses a truism.
While naturalistic psychology does not deal at all with the content of human thoughts, judgments, desires, and actions, the field of thymology is precisely the study of these phenomena.
The distinction between naturalistic psychology and physiology on the one hand and thymology on the other hand can best be illustrated by referring to the methods of psychiatry. Traditional psychopathology and neuropathology deal with the physiological aspects of the diseases of the nerves and the brain. Psychoanalysis deals with their thymological aspects. The object of its investigations is ideas and the conscious aiming at ends that come into conflict with physiological impulses. Ideas urge individuals to suppress certain natural drives, especially such as the sex impulse. But the attempts to repress them do not always succeed fully. The impulses are not eradicated, merely relegated to a hiding place, and take their vengeance. From the depth they exert a disturbing influence on the conscious life and conduct of the individual. Psychoanalytic therapy tries to remove these neurotic troubles by bringing the conflict into the full consciousness of the patient. It heals with ideas, not with drugs or surgical operations.
It is customary to assert that psychoanalysis deals with irrational factors influencing human conduct. This statement needs interpretation in order to prevent confusion. All ultimate ends aimed at by men are beyond the criticism of reason. Judgments of value can be neither justified nor refuted by reasoning. The terms “reasoning” and “rationality” always refer only to the suitability of means chosen for attaining ultimate ends. The choice of ultimate ends is in this sense always irrational.
The sex impulse and the urge to preserve one’s own vital forces are inherent in the animal nature of man. If man were only an animal and not also a valuing person, he would always yield to the impulse that at the instant is most powerful. The eminence of man consists in the fact that he has ideas and, guided by them, chooses between incompatible ends. He chooses also between life and death, between eating and hunger, between coition and sexual abstinence.
In earlier days people were prepared to assume that there was no sense at all in the exceptional behavior of neurotics. Freud demonstrated that the seemingly senseless acts of the neurotic are designed to attain definite ends. The ends the neurotic wants to attain may differ from those for which normal people strive, and—very often—the means the neurotic resorts to are not suitable for their realization. But the fact that means chosen are not fit to attain the ends sought does not qualify an action as irrational.
To make mistakes in pursuing one’s ends is a widespread human weakness. Some err less often than others, but no mortal man is omniscient and infallible. Error, inefficiency, and failure must not be confused with irrationality. He who shoots wants, as a rule, to hit the mark. If he misses it, he is not “irrational”; he is a poor marksman. The doctor who chooses the wrong method to treat a patient is not irrational; he may be an incompetent physician. The farmer who in earlier ages tried to increase his crop by resorting to magic rites acted no less rationally than the modern farmer who applies more fertilizer. He did what according to his—erroneous—opinion was appropriate to his purpose.
What characterizes the neurotic as such is not the fact that he resorts to unsuitable means but that he fails to come to grips with the conflicts that confront civilized man. Life in society requires that the individual suppress instinctive urges present in every animal. We may leave it undecided whether the impulse of aggression is one of these innate urges. There is no doubt that life in society is incompatible with indulgence in the animal habits of satisfying sexual appetites. Perhaps there are better methods of regulating sexual intercourse than those resorted to in actual society. However that may be, it is a fact that the adopted methods put too much strain upon the minds of some individuals. These men and women are at a loss to solve problems which luckier people get over. Their dilemma and embarrassment make them neurotic.
Many spurious objections have been raised to the philosophy of rationalism. Various nineteenth-century schools of thought completely misinterpreted the essence of the rationalist doctrine. As against these misinterpretations it is important to realize that eighteenth-century classical rationalism was defective only in the treatment of some subordinate and merely incidental issues and that these minor deficiencies could easily lead undiscerning critics astray.
The fundamental thesis of rationalism is unassailable. Man is a rational being; that is, his actions are guided by reason. The proposition: Man acts, is tantamount to the proposition: Man is eager to substitute a state of affairs that suits him better for a state of affairs that suits him less. In order to achieve this, he must employ suitable means. It is his reason that enables him to find out what is a suitable means for attaining his chosen end and what is not.
Rationalism was right furthermore in stressing that there is a far-reaching unanimity among people with regard to the choice of ultimate ends. With almost negligible exceptions, all people want to preserve their lives and health and improve the material conditions of their existence. It is this fact that determines both cooperation and competition among men. But in dealing with this point rationalist philosophers committed serious blunders.
In the first place they assumed that all men are endowed with the same power of reasoning. They ignored the difference between clever people and dullards, even that between the pioneering genius and the vast crowds of simple routinists who at best can espouse the doctrines developed by the great thinkers but more often are incapable of comprehending them. As the rationalists saw it, every sane adult was intelligent enough to grasp the meaning of the most complicated theory. If he failed to achieve it, the fault lay not in his intellect but in his education. Once all people have enjoyed a perfect education, all will be as wise and judicious as the most eminent sage.
The second shortcoming of rationalism was its neglect of the problem of erroneous thinking. Most of the rationalist philosophers failed to see that even honest men, sincerely devoted to the search for truth, could err. This prepossession prevented them from doing justice to the ideologies and the metaphysical doctrines of the past. A doctrine of which they disapproved could in their opinion have been prompted only by purposeful deceit. Many of them dismissed all religions as the product of the intentional fraud of wicked impostors.
Yet these shortcomings of classical rationalism do not excuse any of the passionate attacks of modern irrationalism.
Thymology and Praxeology
Thymology has no special relation to praxeology and economics. The popular belief that modern subjective economics, the marginal utility school, is founded on or closely connected with “psychology” is mistaken.
The very act of valuing is a thymological phenomenon. But praxeology and economics do not deal with the thymological aspects of valuation. Their theme is acting in accordance with the choices made by the actor. The concrete choice is an offshoot of valuing. But praxeology is not concerned with the events which within a man’s soul or mind or brain produce a definite decision between an A and a B. It takes it for granted that the nature of the universe enjoins upon man choosing between incompatible ends. Its subject is not the content of these acts of choosing but what results from them: action. It does not care about what a man chooses but about the fact that he chooses and acts in compliance with a choice made. It is neutral with regard to the factors that determine the choice and does not arrogate to itself the competence to examine, to revise, or to correct judgments of value. It is wertfrei [value free].
Why one man chooses water and another man wine is a thymological (or, in the traditional terminology, psychological) problem. But it is of no concern to praxeology and economics.
The subject matter of praxeology and of that part of it which is so far the best developed—economics—is action as such and not the motives that impel a man to aim at definite ends.
Thymology as a Historical Discipline
Psychology in the sense in which the term is employed today by the discipline called psychology is a natural science. It is not the task of an epistemological treatise dealing with the sciences of human action to raise the question as to what distinguishes this branch of the natural sciences from general physiology.
Psychology in the sense of thymology is a branch of history. It derives its knowledge from historical experience. We shall deal in a later section with introspection. At this point it suffices to stress the fact that the thymological observation both of other people’s choices and of the observer’s own choosing necessarily always refers to the past, in the way that historical experience does. There is no method available which would produce in this field something analogous to what the natural sciences consider an experimentally established fact. All that thymology can tell us is that in the past definite men or groups of men were valuing and acting in a definite way. Whether they will in the future value and act in the same way remains uncertain. All that can be asserted about their future conduct is speculative anticipation of the future based on the specific understanding of the historical branches of the sciences of human action.
There is no difference in this regard between the thymology of individuals and that of groups. What is called Völkerpsychologie and mass psychology too are historical disciplines. What is called a nation’s “character” is at best the traits displayed by members of that nation in the past. It remains uncertain whether or not the same traits will manifest themselves in the future too.
All animals are endowed with the impulse of self-preservation. They resist forces detrimental to their survival. If attacked, they defend themselves or counter-attack or seek safety in flight. Biology is in a position to predict, on the basis of observation of the behavior of various species of animals, how a healthy individual of each species will respond to attack. No such apodictic forecast concerning the conduct of men is possible. True, the immense majority of men are driven by the animal impulse of self-preservation. But there are exceptions. There are men who are led by definite ideas to choose nonresistance. There are others whom hopelessness induces to abstain from any attempt to resist or to flee. Before the event it is impossible to know with certainty how an individual will react.
In retrospect historical analysis tries to show us that the outcome could not have been different from what it really was. Of course, the effect is always the necessary resultant of the factors operating. But it is impossible to deduce with certainty from thymological experience the future conduct of men, whether individuals or groups of individuals. All prognostications based on thymological knowledge are specific understanding of the future as practiced daily by everyone in their actions and especially also by statesmen, politicians, and businessmen.
What thymology achieves is the elaboration of a catalogue of human traits. It can moreover establish the fact that certain traits appeared in the past as a rule in connection with certain other traits. But it can never predict in the way the natural sciences can. It can never know in advance with what weight the various factors will be operative in a definite future event.
History and Fiction
History tries to describe past events as they really happened. It aims at faithful representation. Its concept of truth is correspondence with what was once reality.
Epic and dramatic fiction depict what is to be considered true from the point of view of thymological insight, no matter whether the story told really happened or not. It is not our task to deal with the effects the author wants to bring about by his work and with its metaphysical, aesthetic, and moral content. Many writers seek merely to entertain the public. Others are more ambitious. In telling a story, they try to suggest a general view of man’s fate, of life and death, of human effort and suffering, of success and frustration. Their message differs radically from that of science as well as from that of philosophy. Science, in describing and interpreting the universe, relies entirely upon reason and experience. It shuns propositions which are not open to demonstration by means of logic (in the broadest sense of the term that includes mathematics and praxeology) and experience. It analyzes parts of the universe without making any statements about the totality of things. Philosophy tries to build, upon the foundations laid by science, a comprehensive world view. In striving after this end, it feels itself bound not to contradict any of the well-founded theses of contemporary science. Thus its path too is confined by reason and experience.
Poets and artists approach things and problems in another mood. In dealing with a single aspect of the universe they are always dealing with the whole. Narration and description, the portrayal of individual things and of particular events, is for them only a means. The essential feature of their work is beyond words, designs, and colors. It is in the ineffable feelings and ideas that activated the creator and move the reader and spectator. When Konrad Ferdinand Meyer described a Roman fountain and Rainer Maria Rilke a caged panther, they did not simply portray reality. They caught a glimpse of the universe. In Flaubert’s novel it is not Madame Bovary’s sad story that is of primary concern; it is something that reaches far beyond the fate of this poor woman. There is a fundamental difference between the most faithful photograph and a portrait painted by an artist. What characterizes a work of literature and art as such is not its reporting of facts but the way it reveals an aspect of the universe and man’s attitude toward it. What makes an artist is not experience and knowledge as such. It is his particular reaction to the problems of human existence and fate. It is Erlebnis [“experience”], a purely personal response to the reality of his environment and his experience.
Poets and artists have a message to tell. But this message refers to ineffable feelings and ideas. It is not open to utterance in an unambiguous way precisely because it is ineffable. We can never know whether what we experience—erleben [“to experience”]—in enjoying their work is what they experienced in creating it. For their work is not simply a communication. Apart from what it communicates, it stirs up in the reader and spectator feelings and ideas which may differ from those of its author. It is a hopeless task to interpret a symphony, a painting, or a novel. The interpreter at best tries to tell us something about his reaction to the work. He cannot tell us with certainty what the creator’s meaning was or what other people may see in it. Even if the creator himself provides a commentary on his work, as in the case of program-music, this uncertainty remains. There are no words to describe the ineffable.
What history and fiction have in common is the fact that both are based on knowledge concerning the human mind. They operate with thymological experience. Their method of approach is the specific understanding of human valuations, of the way people react to the challenge of their natural and social environment. But then their ways part. What the historian has to tell is completely expressed in his report. He communicates to the reader all he has established. His message is exoteric. There is nothing that would go beyond the content of his book as intelligible to competent readers.
It may happen that the study of history, or for that matter also the study of the natural sciences, rouses in the mind of a man those ineffable thoughts and views of the universe as a whole which are the mark of the empathic grasp of totality. But this does not alter the nature and character of the historian’s work. History is unconditionally the search after facts and events that really happened.
Fiction is free to depict events that never occurred. The writer creates, as people say, an imaginary story. He is free to deviate from reality. The tests of truth that apply to the work of the historian do not apply to his work. Yet his freedom is limited. He is not free to defy the teachings of thymological experience. It is not a requirement of novels and plays that the things related should really have happened. It is not even necessary that they could happen at all; they may introduce heathen idols, fairies, animals acting in human manner, ghosts and other phantoms. But all the characters of a novel or a play must act in a thymologically intelligible way. The concepts of truth and falsehood as applied to epic and dramatic works refer to thymological plausibility. The author is free to create fictitious persons and plots but he must not try to invent a thymology—psychology—different from that derived from the observation of human conduct.
Fiction, like history, does not deal with average man or man in the abstract or general man—homme général1 —but with individual men and individual events. Yet even here there is a conspicuous difference between history and fiction.
The individuals with whom history deals may be and often are groups of individuals, and the individual events with which it deals are events that affected such groups of individuals. The single individual is a subject of the historian’s interest primarily from the point of view of the influence his actions exercised upon a multitude of people or as a typical specimen representative of whole groups of individuals. The historian does not bother about other people. But for the writer of fiction it is always only the individual as such that counts, no matter what his influence upon other people or whether or not he is to be considered typical.
This has been entirely misunderstood in some doctrines about literature developed in the second part of the nineteenth century. The authors of these doctrines were misled by contemporary changes in the treatment of history. While older historians wrote chiefly about great men and affairs of state, modern historians shifted to the history of ideas, institutions, and social conditions. At a time when the prestige of science far surpassed that of literature, and positivist zealots sneered at fiction as a useless pastime, writers tried to justify their profession by representing it as a branch of scientific research. In the opinion of Émile Zola the novel was a sort of descriptive economics and social psychology, to be based upon punctilious exploration of particular conditions and institutions. Other authors went even further and asserted that only the fate of classes, nations, and races, not that of individuals, is to be treated in novels and plays. They obliterated the distinction between a statistical report and a “social” novel or play.
The books and plays written in compliance with the precepts of this naturalistic aesthetics were clumsy pieces of work. No outstanding writer paid more than lip service to these principles. Zola himself was very restrained in the application of his doctrine.
The theme of novels and plays is individual man as he lives, feels, and acts, and not anonymous collective wholes. The milieu is the background of the portraits the author paints; it is the state of external affairs to which the characters respond by moves and acts. There is no such thing as a novel or play whose hero is an abstract concept such as a race, a nation, a caste, or a political party. Man alone is the perennial subject of literature, individual real man as he lives and acts.
The theories of the aprioristic sciences—logic, mathematics, and praxeology—and the experimental facts established by the natural sciences can be viewed without reference to the personality of their authors. In dealing with the problems of Euclidian geometry we are not concerned with the man Euclid and may forget that he ever lived. The work of the historian is necessarily colored by the historian’s specific understanding of the problems involved, but it is still possible to discuss the various issues implied without referring to the historical fact that they originated from a definite author. No such objectivity is permitted in dealing with works of fiction. A novel or a play always has one hero more than the plot indicates. It is also a confession of the author and tells no less about him than about the persons in the story. It reveals his innermost soul.
It has sometimes been asserted that there is more truth in fiction than in history. Insofar as the novel or play is looked upon as a disclosure of the author’s mind, this is certainly correct. The poet always writes about himself, always analyzes his own soul.
The thymological analysis of man is essential in the study of history. It conveys all we can know about ultimate ends and judgments of value. But as has been pointed out above, it is of no avail for praxeology and of little use in dealing with the means applied to attain ends sought.
With regard to the choice of means all that matters is their suitability to attain the ends sought. There is no other standard for appraising means. There are suitable means and unsuitable means. From the point of view of the actor the choice of unsuitable means is always erroneous, an inexcusable failure.
History is called upon to explain the origin of such errors by resorting to thymology and the specific understanding. As man is fallible and the search after appropriate means is very difficult, the course of human history is by and large a series of errors and frustration. Looking backward from the present state of our knowledge we are sometimes tempted to belittle past ages and boast of the efficiency of our time. However, even the pundits of the “atomic age” are not safe against error.
Shortcomings in the choice of means and in acting are not always caused by erroneous thinking and inefficiency. Frequently frustration is the result of irresoluteness with regard to the choice of ends. Wavering between various incompatible goals, the actor vacillates in his conduct of affairs. Indecision prevents him from marching straight toward one goal. He moves to and fro. He goes now toward the left, then toward the right. Thus he does not accomplish anything. Political, diplomatic, and military history has dealt amply with this type of irresolute action in the conduct of affairs of state. Freud has shown what role in the daily life of the individual subconscious repressed urges play in forgetting, mistakes, slips of the tongue or the pen, and accidents.
A man who is obliged to justify his handling of a matter in the eyes of other people often resorts to a pretext. As the motive of his deviation from the most suitable way of procedure he ascribes another reason than that which actually prompted him. He does not dare to admit his real motive because he knows that his critics would not accept it as a sufficient justification.
Rationalization is the name psychoanalysis gives to the construction of a pretext to justify conduct in the actor’s own mind. Either the actor is loath to admit the real motive to himself or he is not aware of the repressed urge directing him. He disguises the subconscious impulse by attaching to his actions reasons acceptable to his superego. He is not consciously cheating and lying. He is himself a victim of his illusions and wishful thinking. He lacks the courage to look squarely at reality. As he dimly surmises that the cognition of the true state of affairs would be unpleasant, undermine his self-esteem, and weaken his resolution, he shrinks from analyzing the problems beyond a certain point. This is of course a rather dangerous attitude, a retreat from an unwelcome reality into an imaginary world of fancy that pleases better. A few steps further in the same direction may lead to insanity.
However, in the lives of individuals there are checks that prevent such rationalizations from becoming rampant and wreaking havoc. Precisely because rationalization is a type of behavior common to many, people are watchful and even often suspect it where it is absent. Some are always ready to unmask their neighbors’ sly attempts to bolster their own self-respect. The most cleverly constructed legends of rationalization cannot in the long run withstand the repeated attacks of debunkers.
It is quite another thing with rationalization developed for the benefit of social groups. That can thrive luxuriantly because it encounters no criticism from the members of the group and because the criticism of outsiders is dismissed as obviously biased. One of the main tasks of historical analysis is to study the various manifestations of rationalization in all fields of political ideologies.
The passionate quarrel of the introspectionists and anti-introspectionists refers to the problems of naturalistic psychology and does not affect thymology. None of the methods and procedures recommended by the anti-introspectionist schools could convey any information and knowledge about the phenomena which thymology explores.
Being himself a valuing and acting ego, every man knows the meaning of valuing and acting. He is aware that he is not neutral with regard to the various states of his environment, that he prefers certain states to others, and that he consciously tries, provided the conditions for such interference on his part are given, to substitute a state that he likes better for one he likes less. It is impossible to imagine a sane human being who lacks this insight. It is no less impossible to conceive how a being lacking this insight could acquire it by means of any experience or instruction. The categories of value and of action are primary and aprioristic elements present to every human mind. No science should or could attack the problems involved without prior knowledge of these categories.
Only because we are aware of these categories do we know what meaning means and have a key to interpret other people’s activities. This awareness makes us distinguish in the external world two separate realms, that of human affairs and that of nonhuman things, or that of final causes and that of causality. It is not our task here to deal with causality. But we must emphasize that the concept of final causes does not stem from experience and observation of something external; it is present in the mind of every human being.
It is necessary to emphasize again and again that no statement or proposition concerning human action can be made that does not imply reference to ends aimed at. The very concept of action is finalistic and is devoid of any sense and meaning if there is no referring to conscious aiming at chosen ends. There is no experience in the field of human action that can be had without resorting to the category of means and ends. If the observer is not familiar with the ideology, the technology, and the therapeutics of the men whose behavior he observes, he cannot make head or tail of it. He sees people running here and there and moving their hands, but he begins to understand what it is all about only when he begins to discover what they want to achieve.
If in employing the term “introspection” the positivist refers to such statements as those expressed in the last four words of the sentence “Paul runs to catch the train,” then we must say that no sane human being could do without resorting to introspection in every thought.
[1 ]Some writers, for instance, Santayana, employed the term “literary psychology.” See his book Scepticism and Animal Faith, ch. 24. However, the use of this term seems inadvisable, not only because it was employed in a pejorative sense by Santayana as well as by many representatives of naturalistic psychology, but because it is impossible to form a corresponding adjective. “Thymology” is derived from the Greek Θυμός, which Homer and other authors refer to as the seat of the emotions and as the mental faculty of the living body by means of which thinking, willing, and feeling are conducted. See Wilhelm von Volkmann, Lehrbuch der Psychologie (Cöthen, 1884), 1, 57–9; Erwin Rohde, Psyche, trans. by W. B. Hillis (London, 1925), p. 50; Richard B. Onians, The Origins of European Thought about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate (Cambridge, 1951), pp. 49–56. Recently Professor Hermann Friedmann employed the term Thymologie with a somewhat different connotation. See his book Das Gemüt, Gedanken zu einer Thymologie (Munich, C. H. Beck, 1956), pp. 2–16.
[1 ]P. Lacombe, De l’histoire considérée comme science (2d ed. Paris, 1930), pp. 35–41.