Saturday, 20 September 2014

Herbart's Psychology

This post summarises Herbart's contributions to philosophical psychology and his critique of Fichte's Idealism. The contrast with Hegel comes out particularly in their differing responses to Fichte. We draw from Marcel Mauxion's La Métaphysique de Herbart (1894). Above is an image of Herbart's Psychology as a Science (1824-25). We conclude our series of posts on Herbart with a link to a remarkable piano sonata which he composed in 1808.

Chapter 7
Herbart’s Psychology 

We have now concluded the strictly metaphysical discussion. In addition to this, Herbart seeks to establish his doctrine through his psychology by:
  • demonstrating the possibility of knowledge in general
  • demonstrating the possibility of metaphysical knowledge, in particular 
  • refuting idealism. 
Herbart undertakes to refute idealism in the 4th part of his Metaphysics, the ideology (Eidologie). We deal with this in a separate section below.

All this evokes the Kantian project more than Hegel, though there is also considerable psychological content in Hegel's system. Herbart's psychology shows the mind rising from representation to more universal and abstract ideas and knowledge. It shows how the order of thought reflects the order of things. 


Herbart expounds his views in two main works, the Textbook of Psychology (1816) and Psychology as a Science (1824-25). The second is the longer. In these he uses an a priori method and applies mathematics to psychic phenomena. In general he was impressed by the use of mathematics in science and by contemporary French mathematicians. 

He thought that representations suppress each other (sich einander aufheben). He thus considers them as forces, thus as susceptible of measurement. Ideas (Vorstellungen) may be opposed by degrees, may weaken or vanish, be replaced by others, and reappear. The will too makes itself felt, or the force of the ideas present in it. Hence he conceived the idea of a mathematical psychology. Its followers include Drobisch, Volkmann and Volkmar. However, it has also had its opponents. What can be measured, Herbart thinks, “are the variations of certain quantities, and these quantities themselves as variable, without determining them completely.” (166) He thus uses almost entirely infinitesimal calculus. He mixes observation with theory, leading some to accuse him of too much theorising. However, Drobisch testifies:
“If one eliminates all that is metaphysical or mathematical from Herbart’s psychology, there still remains an abundant mass of fine and exact psychological remarks, of clear and ingenious conceptions, which throw a fresh light on the ordered sequence of psychic life. That is why this psychology could become so important and of such fruitful application in pedagogy; that is why it could, by extending itself, give birth to the psychology of peoples [Völkerpsychologie] and contribute to linguistics.” (166-67)

Opposition of ideas: statics and mechanics of the mind

We have seen in a previous post that Herbart supposes a simple, substantial soul existing in relation with other simple beings in such as way as to give rise to representations.. He says:
“Psychology bears some analogy to physiology: it constructs the mind from series of representations, as the latter does life from fibres.” (167)
The soul then is simple and immutable. No theory of faculties can be derived from this. The distinction of a power and its exercise is also incoherent. Hegel also rejects it in light of his theory of mental unity, as did his contemporary James Mylne in Scotland. Herbart traces the theory of faculties back to Wolff and attributes many of Kant’s errors to it. Explanation in terms of faculties amounts to nothing.

The same applies to the derivation of secondary faculties from primary ones and to disputes of the senses against imagination, memory against understanding, reason against passion. Herbart is quite explicit in objecting to "faculty psychology".

Representations themselves are not forces, but they may become so by opposition to other representations. There is no opposition (Widerstand) between representations of different orders – sounds and smells, colors and tastes, for example, but this does exist between those of the same nature, e.g. red and blue color, sweet and bitter taste.  Even here there is a matter of degree: red is more opposed to blue than to violet, for example. This opposition may reduce some representations to tendencies (Streben): they are obscured (verdunkelt) by others.

There is a “statics” that studies a supposed state of equilibrium; and a “mechanics” that studies the rise and fall of representations. His development of this is described in T. Ribot's Psychologie allemande contemporaine. A central idea here is that of the threshold of consciousness. At this threshold, a tendency is realized by the least action that affects it. It may fall further below this threshold – which is to say that a greater action would then be required to raise it to consciousness. It attains degrees of clarity as it rises further above the threshold of consciousness. Ribot reproduces some of the simplest of Herbart’s calculations. For example, we may not be conscious of the sound of each wavelet on a shore, but conscious of the sound of the seashore as a whole. To become conscious of representations already in consciousness, there must be an act of apperception. Mauxion concludes:
“We see by this that the unconscious plays a considerable and unequivocal role in Herbart’s psychology under two different forms. There are representations that are in the soul as simple tendencies, that is to say, totally unconscious; and there are representations that, whilst being in consciousness, are not apperceived, and these are what Leibniz called “small perceptions”.” (171)

Composition and fusion of ideas; mediate and immediate reproduction

Experience teaches that ideas can be united in various ways. This also follows as a possibility from the unity of the soul. Herbart distinguishes unities of composition from those of fusion. The ideas of objects are examples of the former. The relation of notes in a scale is an example of the latter. In composition, ideas of different orders are combined. In fusion, it is ideas of the same nature.

This account is more precise than the “association of ideas” as conceived by David Hume and JS Mill. In addition, the theory of mental unity is not found in associationism. Associationism also resorts to habit as an explanation, which is inexplicable without a permanent subject (material or mental).

Herbart also distinguishes mediate and immediate reproduction. Immediate reproduction corresponds to association by resemblance. An idea resembles a previous idea and revives it in the mind. There are degrees of resemblance.

For mediate reproduction, we suppose two ideas, P and R, of the same nature, which have fused subliminally. These may awaken each other subliminally, with time being a factor in the degree to which this happens. One letter of the alphabet tends to waken its neighbours in the mind, for example. Herbart has a formula containing the variables at play.

In general, Hegel covered some of this ground in his Berlin lectures in the 1820s on subjective mind.

The Affections and Volitions

We now turn to the task of reconstitution of the contents of the mind. Herbart wrote:
“The affections and desires are not attached to representation in general at all, but always have their origin in certain determinate representations.” (173)
They arise in determinate situations in other words, though this is not wholly independent of representation. Sensations may be relatively pleasant or painful – for example a harmonious or discordant wound. Herbart wishes to generalize this to all sensations.

Suppose an object reminds us both of a friend and his death. We have a painful feeling. Such affections give rise to desires, as affections lead us to identify desirable but unrealized situations. The will is a particular form of desire, i.e. where realization of the desire is considered. Napoleon as Emperor had will; on St Helena he had desires.

There is no place in this for free will. The mathematical method precludes it, as does the logical method in Spinoza. However, Spinoza is simply fatalist, whereas Herbart’s monadological principle gives the soul some independence. This comes out in relation to Herbart’s critique of transcendental freedom. He endorses only an “inner freedom” – a freedom of perfection, where the will is in harmony with the idea of the good and with aesthetic-moral judgement. The illusion of a freedom beyond this arises when we decide to act, but a desire arises and we are nonplussed. In such a situation, we feel reason and desire fight each other. Whilst we thus consider ourselves free of either, in fact our action is the complex result of opposed forces.

The forms of space and time

These are central to Herbart’s realism. He denies their a priori character. What we experience is concrete extension and duration. The infinity of space and time is a later addition of thought. Infinitude is a scientific concept.

Starting with extension, Herbart distinguishes an extended ideation from an idea of extension (ein räumliches Vorstellen und das Vorstellen des Räumlichen). Sight and touch may result in an idea of extension. Sensations here are also intensive. Movement is necessary. For example, a double movement of the eye (back and forth) can identify spatial points. Continuity is introduced by thought: we can always imagine a midway point between any two given points.

There must be a plurality of simple beings. Physiology supports this analysis. Herbart then discusses surfaces in the third dimension, but poorly, thinks Mauxion. He then turns to duration. Here we cannot repeat a movement, but we can recall the beginning and end of a temporal series. Here too there can be a recurrence of items in a series and hence a general idea forms.

What then, of abstract time and space? An object moving against a background gives an idea of space. The possibility of motion suggests empty space. Similarly, in a music concert, all instruments may go silent for a time, save one. Mauxion refers to Ribot for an expansion of Herbart’s theories. Lotze was a critic of them. One objection was that his account presupposes space. This he denied – only a “co-existent plurality” of simple beings is presupposed. What is given is basically interpreted in an empiricist manner.

Concepts, judgements and categories

Neither are the Kantian categories a priori, according to Herbart. He wrote:
“The mind is originally a blank slate, with no kind of life or representation: consequently it contains neither innate concepts nor disposition to form them; but all concepts without exception are a product of time and experience.” (188) 
Kant’s categories are thus only a distant product of psychic mechanisms. To demonstrate this requires a theory of the formation of concepts. Mauxion says:
“For Kant, universality is an essential character of concepts. For Herbart on the contrary, there are particular and individual concepts as well as general concepts.” (189)
Hegel in the Phenomenology appears to agree with the view attributed to Kant. He argues in the Introduction that even “this” and “here” are universal, leaving aside the question of names.
What is distinctive of the individual is the absence of ideas of determinate particulars in space and time. if we suppress the clothing, position, etc of a particular man, we have a particular, individual concept of this man.

When we see an object again, our first idea of it is reproduced and fused with our current idea. The third and fourth times there is perhaps a succession of images, but soon thereafter this ceases, or happens only confusedly. What is identical is retained and image approximates to a concept. This does not explain pure concepts though. Herbart asks:
“How would it be possible to eliminate the specific differences of blue, red, green, etc to form the generic idea of color?” (190-91)
Pure concepts are logical ideals, which he likens to moral ideals.


He also relates judgements back to psychic mechanisms. Suppose that I have seen red, white and yellow roses. When I see a red rose, the idea of rose arises as determinable (das Bestimmtbare) and color as determining (das Bestimmende). Hence arises the judgement “The rose is red.” So too we may ask “What is that?” and answer “It is a bird.” Often language is involved and we choose our words.

A series of positive and negative judgements may lead to a definition. Universals function only as abbreviations. They fall short of the ideal that would realize them, but are of practical use. This goes against other views:
  •  Plato’s ideas
  •  Scholastic realism about universals
  •  Descartes’ innate ideas
  •  Kant’s a priori concepts.
There are no a priori concepts, or intuitions, according to Herbart.


The categories too are greatly elaborated products of psychic mechanism. Hence Aristotle sought them in language, which is the collective result of such mechanisms. We will return later to his critique of Kant, to whom he prefers Aristotle.  Herbart gives his own table of categories, arranged in the diamond-shape format used by Kant. I can’t reproduce this in a post, but here is a list:
1. The Thing (Ding)
  • The given
  • The thought
2. Property (Eigenschaft)
  • Quality, quantity (determinate)
  • Unity, totality
  • Whole and parts
  • Indeterminate quantity
  • Plurality (in and out of a whole)
3. Relations (Verhältnisse)
  • Place and situation
  • Image and object
  • Likeness
  • Possession, action, passion
  • Tendency, self-determination
4. Negation (Verneintes)
  • Opposition, change
  • Possibility, mutual exclusion
Thing and negation come first, then what and how something is (i.e. property and relation).

The Idea of Self

The idea of the self is a problem for empiricism, for it is not an “immediate intuition.” Herbart recalls that Fichte himself thinks most men would reject his notion of the self as an “identity of subject and object”. In popular thought, the body makes up a large part of the idea of self. People say “I wish to be buried” here or there for example.

Descartes separated the feeling, thinking and willing self by an effort of thought. Fichte makes a yet higher abstraction. An empirical synthesis would have to explain this progression of ideas.

In the start of his Anthropology, Kant notes that children at first speak of themselves in the third person. Herbart adds that they do not at first speak of will (central to the Fichtean idea). The idea of our body arises from sight, touch and bodily feeling and develops towards the idea of a person. The body becomes an extended idea of spatial representations. Bodily feeling indicates something not only extended. It is the common place of images (Bilder), an inner world; and similarly with desires. Thus arise egoism and the idea of self. Bodily change and the idea of death (which the world of representations might last) give us the idea of soul. The world of ideas becomes the preponderant part of the idea of self. The self of philosophers encapsulates this in the ideas of subject, powers, object.

Herbart criticizes Kant for having neglected the categories of inner apperception. Once again, I cannot reproduce the diamond-shape diagram that Herbart draws from the Critique of Pure Reason in this post, but here they are one after the other:
1. Sensation
  • Sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell
2. Knowledge
  • Perception, understanding, thinking, believing
3. Will
  • Desire, rejecting, hoping, fearing
4. Action
  • Self-movement, making, giving and receiving, seeking and finding.
Particular categories are formed before more general ones. We slowly distinguish sight from colors seen, for example. We identify the same self behind the various senses. This is the common philosophical idea of the thinking, feeling, acting self. From there, Fichte in the Wissenschaftslehre takes the step of noting that the self is revealed particularly in acting, in which it is the first term of a series that produces effects in the world. Thus Fichte’s idea of the self is of a subject-object. [This is the title of a chapter heading in Hegel's Science of Logic.] For Fichte, subject and object are one. We pause to look at two metaphysical questions:

Man and animal

If we reject the idea of “faculties” (reason, intellectual intuition, etc), the gap between man and animal breaks down. There is no predetermined nature of the soul by which the course of human development is determined. Thus animal are raised in status. To those who say only man is intelligent, Herbart says: “Beobachtet die Hunde!” ("Observe dogs!") Thus psychology should become comparative, rather than purely an anthropology.

Thus too the differences between races can be identified as differences of degree. Ethnic psychology developed mainly in the school of Herbart, as did the necessity of introducing historical considerations into psychology.

Herbart attributes human superiority to three causes: the hand, speech and the length of infancy. Anaxagoras said that man thinks because he has hands. He can observe objects and use tools.

Mauxion thinks that Herbart underestimates the reliance of thought on names. [This is a common French thought since Condillac.] Nonetheless, he rates language highly in an ancillary role. It is a means of communication, but liberates us from our present concerns and from narrow horizons. It does not originate in convention, for convention presupposes language. Nor does the state originate in a social contract. Language originates in natural exclamations.

Much knowledge is acquired in childhood. The richest parts of the earth have truncated childhood and thus have developed less culturally. Physiology explains more than original psychic differences of a metaphysical cast.

The Union of Soul and Body

We might think that Herbart would subordinate psychology to physiology, but he does not do so. The soul as a simple being is present in the brain, but its extent varies (Lotze takes up this idea). Life and thought are due to providence in the last resort. Vital force is a consequence of bodily organization. Herbart rejects the construction of higher organism from brute matter. This he equates with the idea of “absolute becoming” which he rejects on metaphysical grounds.

Chapter Eight
The Refutation of Idealism and the Theory of Knowledge (Idéologie)

Metaphysics provided psychology with the idea of the soul as a simple substance whose acts of conservation are representations. Psychology in turn shows how knowledge arises from these representations without a priori synthesis, through their mutual juxtaposition and relations. Empirical, scientific and metaphysical knowledge all arise in this way. Psychology also confirms Herbart’s realism, which he has already argued for on metaphysical grounds (see previous posts) – i.e. the contradictions in the idealist concept of selfhood.

What Herbart refutes in his refutation of idealism is the idealism of Fichte, which arises from the rejection of Kant’s thing-in-itself. Fichte supposes an absolute self, grasped by intellectual intuition. Fichte makes the self a ground of both existence and cognition. Herbart objects that a) the idea’s origins in psychic mechanism have already been explained and b) it is in itself contradictory and absurd. In the Wissenschaftslehre, the Self is identity of subject and object. It is, Herbart thinks, a pure form, arrived at by abstracting from particular determinations. The notion of “intellectual intuition” is required, because the empirical origin of the notion is not understood.

Herbart thus has two objections to the pure subject-object. Firstly, the self must be given in consciousness, but that cannot be as pure form without content. Both subject and object require content.

Secondly, the form itself is contradictory, for two things distinct in nature are identified. What is the object of self-consciousness? I represent my self as an itself. What then, of this “itself”? It is the first self comprised of its mirroring selves. Thus there must emerge an infinite regress. Herbart argues this by substitution. However, this infinite regress is not found in experience. Hence our idea of self must be of something determinate.

Now consider the self as subject. What them is the subject of self-consciousness? The Self is given as object, but to whom? Thus there arises an infinite complexity of representations, though as with the object, the subject would have to be fully determined. The whole essence of the subject lies in an act – i.e. that of representing itself. But the identity here is of condition and conditioned.

What if the object is a reality? Then the subject and its representation of the object arise, like seeing ourselves in a mirror. Such reflections take away the ground if Fichtean idealism, thinks Mauxion.


What then, must realism do? It must show the possibility and legitimacy of the knowledge it claims. This we have already done. The matter of knowledge is sensation. Our sensations are subjective, but produce the idea of absolute position. As for form, sensations are given in groups and this produces the idea of things. Their spatial form has the same character as the intelligible space we attribute to the simple beings.

Concepts are abbreviations of fused ideas. The universal’s value is what it leads us to in the individual. Universals save us from starting every case again from the beginning – i.e. through universal propositions. This analysis is very similar – down to the verbal expression –as J.S. Mill.

The stuff of knowledge is relation: “We live amongst relations and have no need of anything more.” (222-23). We cannot know things other than through relations. Advance in knowledge is to replace sensible with intelligible relations and to refine empirical concepts.

[Mauxion continues with an analysis of Herbart's relation to Kant in a separate book. However, this would be out of place on a blog concerned - albeit tenuously in the current instance - with Hegel.]

Finally, Herbart had a very developed interest in music. According to Henry & Emmie Felkin (Herbart, Science of Education. Boston: Heath, 1902, 2) in 1808 he composed a "sonata of merit". Here is a performance: