Concept-wass And Psychic Life
( Originally Published 1899 )
CONCEPTS are ideas formed in the mind from sense impressions by thinking, reflecting, reasoning,etc. Soul life is concept life. The stream of consciousness at any moment of our existence consists of concepts, and without concepts there is no consciousness. By means of the several sense channels a great variety of impressions from the outer world is brought into the mind as material from which to form ideas. When we think of all the objects that pass before the open eye in the course of a day, a year, a life time; of all the sounds that stream into the ear; of all the odors and tastes that come in contact with their appropriate nerves; of all the tactile impacts that occur over the entire area of the sensitive skin; and when we remember that each one of these innumerable nerve excitations leaves its impression in the respective centres to be called up at any moment into a distinct concept in the process of conscious thought, we begin to realize how vast and how varied in the average life is the store of material for concepts.
The individual concepts starting from sense perceptions, do not stand in isolation, but each one is related directly to others of the same group, and indirectly to all the rest. No single concept either does or can stand alone, just as no single sense impression can be disconnected from others. The concepts constitute a numerous family, between each member of which there is a natural bond of connection. This is the second great fact that comes to view in our study of psychic life. A third fact immediately follows, namely, that every related concept modifies, and in turn, is modified, by its correlative concepts. To this related and reciprocally modifying body of concepts the name concept mass is given, a name very popular among German psychologists, especially those of the Herbartian school. It means the sum total of all the concepts, conscious and subconscious, in their correlated condition, that a soul at any stage of its existence possesses. The word mass in the 'compound denotes more than simply a great number, a promiscuous collection; it denotes also the relationship between the individual members of the collection.
Perhaps, at no moment in the history of a soul can it be said that its life consists in one single and unmodified concept, soul life consists always in a concept mass. Pure, that is, unmixed, sensations and concepts have no existence in reality. Sensations and concepts as psychic phenomena never appear in their primitive isolated character, but always in their apperceived, i. e., modified state. Soul life from the beginning is a complex life and all its phenomena are complex. Practically psychology has to do with concept mass. The interrelations of ideas and the mutual modifications which ideas undergo when coming in contact with other ideas, are a subject exceedingly interesting and instructive, and, from an educational point of view, highly important. Many great problems of psychic life here take their rise and find their solution. If at any moment we have a certain concept mass, with such and such consistent ideas, making up a particular aggregate experience, what effects will be produced if now new ideas come in?
In general, the old will modify the new, and the new in turn will modify' the old, but not in the same degree. The old ideas, other things equal, are far more powerful than the new, because they are firmly established, rooted, as it were, in a coherent concept mass, while the new ones come in as individuals, not yet fortified by a network of relationships. The new entering concept on first thought appears to have the advantage, in that, on account of its novelty, it gains greater attention, especially if it is a sense perception, whereas the older concept mass needs time in which to assert itself; but the fact is different. The older concepts, on account of their many sided connections in the web of concept-series, are able to attract to themselves more and more assisting concepts, and so finally assimilate and absorb the newer.
Many important educational consequences flow from these primary facts of psychic life. The process of gaining knowledge implies more than simply bringing new facts into the mental storehouse; gaining knowledge is a process of assimilation of new ideas in a growing concept mass. This implies that the successive items of instruction to be worth anything, to be of real value in soul culture, must be brought into their normal thought relations in the mind of the pupil. To do this it is necessary for the teacher to study the individual lives of his pupils, find out the exact state of their concept life, their needs; then he must adapt his instruction to the case in hand. The hit-or-miss way of giving instruction is psychologically wrong and does not accomplish its end, besides being an injury to the pupil. The intelligent teacher will manage to get acquainted with the inner life of the pupils, will try to look out at things from their point of view, find out their prejudices, their likes and dislikes, their native reactive tendencies; then he will suit his instruction to the needs of the case, he will put each new fact into its right relation with other facts already there, he will seek to coordinate and organize the items of knowledge in the pupil's mind, just as the forces of nature organize the mineral elements in the growth of a vegetable or animal body; like the maker of mosaics, he will select and shape and polish each minutest block with special reference to the place it is to occupy, he will bring each separate piece into right relation with others in respect to form and color, and thus the process will go on until the picture is finished, a thing of beauty and a joy forever. In this way the new facts that come into the pupil's experience will have an advantage from the start, and so may reasonably be expected to bear good fruit; otherwise they would lie loose, so to speak, in the mind, as seeds cast upon the surface of the ground.
If the older concepts are wrong or defective, as will likely be the case with the untrained pupil, it is the business of education to correct or improve these. Our psychology suggests a rational way of doing this. The older concepts already in the concept mass absorb the newer, but in doing so they are themselves modified; the newer in being absorbed yield something of permanent value to the growing mass. Hence the importance of conveying only such ideas as are full of life and vigor; the more strength they have, the greater will be their power to modify the old and faulty ones. We know how deeply rooted old prejudices and wrong notions are, and how difficult it is to remove or modify them. It is always dangerous to tear out as by force any given erroneous ideas in a person's concept mass, and the reason is not far to seek. The wise teacher will therefore use other methods to accomplish his purpose. The parable of the tares suggests an interesting application of our principle. In reply to the disciples' question, whether they should go and remove the tares, the Savior said: "Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them." At the foundation of this utterance lies our principle of apperception, as it has been called by some. If the Great Teacher recognized this principle of mind in dealing with error among men, so also should every other teacher.
Upon this doctrine of apperception, as we have unfolded it above, rest the facts of association, memory, etc. The laws of habit are also grounded in it. Indeed, almost every psychological and educational principle rests on this doctrine concerning concept mass. The study of psychic life in whatever form cannot proceed intelligently without reference to it at every step. In moral and religious training it is of vital importance. In the light of this principle is seen the wisdom of prepossessing the mind of youth with a body of sound moral principles and religious teachings. Hence the value of teaching children from their earliest days Bible passages, sacred hymns, patriotic sayings, useful maxims, sound principles, etc.; these make up a permanent and solid concept mass in which character shall take root and grow. Hence also the wisdom of putting the better class of music into the hands of beginners, of implanting true art principles as early as possible. If these beautiful and useful plants can be made to grow and get a good start in the minds of the young, they will gradually absorb and render harmless many a noxious weed that may come into the soil later on. Let the pure love of art send its roots deep down and all through the child's concept mass, then there will be a good foundation for a right artistic education, then will the unfolding soul life be rich and interesting and beautiful. In the light of this principle, it makes much difference what kind of pictures we view and admire, what music we hear, what scenery we look upon, what ideals we cherish, what companions we associate with, what operas and theaters we patronize, what literature we read, what songs we love, in short, what new concepts in any way come into our minds to take their place in our permanent concept mass. In this our character stands rooted, from this the stream of consciousness is supplied with ideas, in this consists our practical soul life.