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3. Conception and Understanding

1. Cognition From Without and Cognition From Within

We explain a phenomenon when we trace it back to general principles. Any other mode of explanation is denied to us. Explanation in this sense in no way means the elucidation of the final cause, the ontological basis, of the being and becoming of a phenomenon. Sooner or later we must always reach a point beyond which we cannot advance.

Thus far we have been unable to succeed in grasping in any way the relationship that exists between the Psychical and the physical. We are not at present in a position to provide any explanation of it in terms of general principles. Hence, in spite of the unity of the logical structure of our thought, we are compelled to have recourse to two separate spheres of scientific cognition: the science of nature and the science of human action.

We approach the subject matter of the natural sciences from without. The result of our observations is the establishment of functional relations of dependence. The propositions concerning these relationships constitute the general principles by which we explain the phenomena of nature. Once we have constructed the system of these principles, we have done all that we can do. In the sciences of human action, on the other hand, we comprehend phenomena from within. Because we are human beings, we are in a position to grasp the meaning of human action, that is, the meaning that the actor has attached to his action. It is this comprehension of meaning that enables us to formulate the general principles by means of which we explain the phenomena of action,

One will best appreciate what is accomplished by this approach to human action, which comprehends its meaning, if one contrasts to it the attempt of behaviorism to view the behavior of men from without, in accordance with the methods of animal psychology. The behaviorists want to abandon the endeavor to grasp the conduct of man on the basis of its meaning. They want to see in him nothing but reactions to definite stimuli. If they were to carry out their program rigorously, they could do nothing but record the occurrences that have taken place at a particular time. And it would be impermissible for them to infer from what has occurred at a particular time anything concerning what might have occurred in other previous cases or what will take place in the future.

As a rule, the situation to which man consciously reacts can be analyzed only with concepts that make reference to meaning. If one chooses to analyze the situation without entering into the meaning that acting man sees in it, the analysis will not be successful in bringing into relief what is essential in the situation and decisive of the nature of the reaction to it. The conduct of a man whom another wants to cut with a knife will be entirely different depending on whether he beholds in the intended operation a mutilation or a surgical incision. And without recourse to meaning, there is no art by which one can succeed in analyzing a situation like that arising in the production of a supply of consumers' goods. The reaction of conscious conduct is, without exception, meaningful, and it is to be comprehended only by entering into its meaning. It is always an outgrowth of a theory, that is, a doctrine that connects cause and effect, and of the desire to attain a definite end.

Only by deceiving itself could behaviorism reach the point where it would be in a position to say anything about action. If, true to its resolve, behaviorism were completely to renounce the attempt to grasp meaning, it could not even succeed in singling out what it declares to be the subject matter of its research from all that the senses observe of human and animal behavior.1 It would not succeed in marking off its function from that of physiology. Physiology, Watson maintains, is concerned in particular with the behavior of the parts of the animal; behaviorism, with the behavior of the whole animal.2 Yet surely neither the reaction of the body to an infection nor the phenomena of growth and age are to be classified as "behavior of the parts." If, on the other hand, one chooses to regard a movement of the hand as an instance of behavior on the part of the "whole animal," one can, of course, do so only on the view that in this movement of the hand something becomes operative that cannot be attributed to any particular part of the body. This something, however, can be nothing else than "meaning" or that which begets "meaning."

Whatever results behaviorism has attained in the observation of the behavior of animals and children it owes to the—of course, concealed and denied—smuggling in of teleology. Without it, all that behaviorism would have been able to accomplish would have remained nothing more than an enormous compilation of cases occurring in a given place and at a given time.

  • 1. Cf. Bühler, Die Krise der Psychologie (Jena, 1927), p. 46.
  • 2. Cf. Watson, Behaviorism (New York, 1924), p. 11.