Wilhelm Wundt's Warning About Reities

Wilhelm Wundt's Warning About Reities

I coined the word "reity" to refer to the modern social science propensity for coining abstract nouns to represent theories that govern social phenomena, much as the late Roman Empire created gods overseeing every last process. There are lots of terms people have coined for the same thing: reification fallacy, fallacy of misplaced concreteness, vicious abstractionism, etc. Alfred Korzybski quipped, "The map is not the territory" and "Whatever you say a thing is, it isn't". Nassim Nicholas Taleb proclaimed, "idiots think in labels". This problem is not new, but convention agrees to ignore it for the sake of progress. More recent gadflies like Kenneth Kendler have been pointing out that psychiatry constructs have no etiological basis in reality. ​Wilhelm Wundt, the original experimental psychologist, expressed a similar caution in one of his texts, after describing various psychological faculties (an older term for what we call psychological functions today):

It is probable that the mental faculties stood originally not merely for different parts of the field of internal experience, but for as many different beings; though the relation of these to the total being, the mind or spirit, was not conceived of in any very definite way. But the hypostatization of these concepts lies so far back in the remote past, and the mythological interpretation of nature is so alien to our modes of thought [ed. imagine the animosity he would have had for neuromythography!], that there is no need here to warn the reader against a too great credulity in the matter of metaphysical substances. Nevertheless, there is one legacy that has come down to modem science from the mythopoeic age. All the concepts that we mentioned just now have retained a trace of the mythological concept of force; they are not regarded simply as -what they really are- class designations of certain departments of the inner experience but are oftentimes taken to be forced, by whose means the various phenomena are produced. Understanding is looked upon as the force that enables us to perceive truth; memory is the force that stores up ideas for future use; and so on. On the other hand, the effects of these different 'forces' manifest themselves so irregularly that they hardly seem to be forced in the proper sense of the word; and so the phrase 'mental faculties' came in to remove all objections. A faculty, as its derivation indicates, is not a force that must operate, necessarily and immutably, but only a force that may operate. The influence of the mythological concept of force is here as plain as it could well be; for the prototype of the operation of force as faculty is, obviously, to be found in human action. The original significance of faculty is that of a being that acts. Here, therefore, in the first formation of psychological concepts, we have the germ of that confusion of classification with explanation which is one of the besetting sins of empirical psychology.

I think the problem goes further than classification vs. explanation, because we often issue tautological explanations for phenomena using the classifications, in the sense of economist Joan Robinson's droll observation about the magic force of utility:

Utility is a metaphysical concept of impregnable circularity; utility is the quality in commodities that makes individuals want to buy them, and the fact that individuals want to buy commodities shows that they have utility.

Is this nihilism? No, it's selling off our obsolete possessions because we have have sighted a new intellectual continent to settle. The mind's components are to be found in clusters of neurons sharing molecular fingerprints, time of birth, exposure to morphogen gradients. There are also emergent phenomena, of high-dimensional torii, nested rhythms in the signal-separation-optimal golden ratio, rate and phase coding, and the modulation of neurotransmitters and receptors. That the general public cannot follow us in our exploration is irrelevant; the archetypes are a form of science communications that balances clarity with epistemic humility. Liberated from the constraints of those legacy mental process ontologies, we can finally start to look for the mind in the brain instead of our navels.

About the author
Steven Florek

Steven Florek

Steven Florek is the creator of neuromythography and founder of Neuromemex.

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