Elements of Folk Psychology / Outline of a Psychological History of the Development of Mankind

Elements of Folk Psychology / Outline of a Psychological History of the Development of Mankind

Wilhelm Max Wundt
Wilhelm Max Wundt

Author: Wundt, Wilhelm Max, 1832-1920
Elements of Folk Psychology
Outline of a Psychological History of the Development of Mankind








Professor of Philosophy in Northwestern University




First published: July 1916.
Revised edition: April 1921.



The keen interest which the present age is manifesting in problems connected with the interpretation of human experience is no less a result than it is a precondition of the fruitful labours of individual scholars. Prominent among these is the distinguished author of the volume which is herewith rendered accessible to English readers. The impetus which Professor Wundt has given to the philosophical and psychological studies of recent years is a matter of common knowledge. Many of those who are contributing richly to these fields of thought received their stimulus from instruction directly enjoyed in the laboratory and the classrooms of Leipzig. But even more than to Wundt, the teacher, is the world indebted to Wundt, the investigator and the writer. The number and comprehensiveness of this author’s publications, as well as their range of subjects, are little short of amazing. To gauge the extent of their influence would require an examination of a large part of current philosophical and psychological literature. No small measure of this influence, however, must be credited to those whose labours have made possible the appearance of Wundt’s writings in other tongues. Of the English translations, we owe the first to Professors Creighton and Titchener. Succeeding their translation of the “Lectures on Human and Animal Psychology,” came the publication, in English, of the first volume of the “Principles of Physiological Psychology,” of the two briefer treatises, “Outlines of Psychology” and “Introduction to Psychology,” and, in the meantime, of the valuable work on “Ethics.”

Though Professor Wundt first won recognition through his investigations in physiology, it was his later and more valuable contributions to physiological psychology, as well as to logic, ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics, that gained for him his place of eminence in the world of scholarship. One may hazard the prophecy, however, that the final verdict of history will ascribe to his latest studies, those in folk psychology, a significance not inferior to that which is now generally conceded to the writings of his earlier years. The Völkerpsychologie is a truly monumental work. The analysis and interpretation of language, art, mythology, and religion, and the criticisms of rival theories and points of view, which occupy its five large volumes of over three thousand pages, are at once so judicial and so suggestive that they may not be neglected by any serious student of the social mind. The publication of the Völkerpsychologie made necessary a number of defensive and supplementary articles. Two of these, in a somewhat revised form, together with an early article on “The Aim and Methods of Folk Psychology,” and an additional essay on “Pragmatic and Genetic Psychology of Religion,” were published in 1911 under the title, Probleme der Völkerpsychologie. Finally, in 1912, there appeared the book which we are now presenting in translation, the Elemente der Völkerpsychologie. As regards the difference in method and character between the Elemente and the Völkerpsychologie, nothing need be added to what may be gleaned from the author’s Preface and Introduction to this, his latest, work. Here, too, Professor Wundt indicates his conception of the nature and the problem of folk psychology, a fuller discussion of which may be found both in the Völkerpsychologie and in the first essay of the Probleme.

He who attempts to sketch the “Outlines of a Psychological History of the Development of Mankind” necessarily incurs a heavy indebtedness, as regards his material, to various more specialized sciences. The success with which the data have been sifted in the present instance and the extent to which the author has repaid the special sciences in terms of serviceable principles of interpretation, must, to a certain extent, be left to the determination of those who are engaged in these specific fields. Human beliefs and institutions, however, as well as all products of art and modes of labour, of food-getting, of marriage, of warfare, etc.—in short, all elements of human culture—even though subject to natural conditions of various sorts, are essentially mental processes or the expression of psychical activities. Hence no theory relating to these phenomena is acceptable, or even respectable, that does violence to well-established psychological principles. The unpsychological character of many of the hypotheses that still abound in ethnological, sociological, and historical literature, in itself renders necessary such discussions as those comprised within the present volume. One of the very valuable, even though not novel, features of the “Elements,” therefore, is its clear exposure of the untenability of rationalistic and other similarly erroneous types of explanation.

The dependence of folk psychology, as conceived by Professor Wundt, upon general psychology—or, in this particular case, upon the author’s system of physiological psychology—will be apparent. It should not be overlooked, however, that the examination of the mental processes that underlie the various forms in which social experience comes to expression involves a procedure which supplements, in an important way, the traditional psychological methods. More than this. Wundt’s Völkerpsychologie is the result of a conviction that there are certain mental phenomena which may not be interpreted satisfactorily by any psychology which restricts itself to the standpoint of individual consciousness. Fundamental to the conclusions of the present volume, therefore, is the assumption of the reality of collective minds. For Professor Wundt, however, this assumption is not in the least of a dogmatic character. On the contrary, its acceptance is necessitated by the failure of opposing theories, and its validity is sustained by the fact that it renders intelligible a large and important body of facts. If this be admitted, it follows that folk psychology supplements not merely the methods of individual or physiological psychology, but also its principles and its laws. As yet, however, the prevailing tendency of psychologists, both in England and in America, is to retain the point of view of individual consciousness even when dealing with those phenomena which Wundt considers to be creations of the social group. That this occurs so frequently without any apparent thought of the necessity of justifying the procedure is—whether the position itself be right or wrong—an illustration of the barriers offered by a foreign language.

For the general reader who professes no acquaintance with the nature or the viewpoint of psychological science, it may not be amiss to remark that the author aims, in this book, to present, not a discussion of the philosophical validity of ideas or of the ethical or religious value of customs and institutions, but merely a descriptive account of human development. The “Elements” is an attempt to answer the question as to what beliefs and practices actually prevailed at the various stages of human development and what psychological explanation may be given of them. Such an investigation is quite distinct from an inquiry as to whether these beliefs and practices are justifiable. It is equally foreign, moreover, to the question as to whether the ideas that are entertained may be held either to bring us into relation with trans-subjective realities or to acquaint us with a truth that is, in any significant sense, eternal. However sacred or profane, true or delusional, experiences may be to the philosopher, the theologian, or the man of practical affairs, to him who is psychologizing they all alike are mental phenomena demanding, not evaluation, but observation, analysis, and reduction to mental laws. Wundt explicitly emphasizes the fact that his psychological account neither represents nor renders unnecessary a philosophy of history; similarly, it may be added, the present work is neither the equivalent nor the negation of ethics, jurisprudence, theology, epistemology, or metaphysics. Nevertheless, while the distinctions which we have suggested should be strictly kept in mind, a just appreciation of the significance of such books as the “Elements” demands that we recognize their notable value to all the various philosophical disciplines. Works of this sort succeed above all others in stimulating and sustaining a keen empirical interest on the part of philosophy, and they supply the latter with a fund of carefully selected and psychologically interpreted facts. Doubtless it is in connection with ethics and the science of religion that these services are most obvious. Even the epistemologist, however, will find much that is suggestive in Wundt’s account of the origin and development of language, the characteristics and content of primitive thought, and the relation of mythological and religious ideas to the affective and conative life. That the Völkerpsychologie may contribute largely toward the solution of metaphysical problems has been strikingly demonstrated by Professor Royce in his profound volumes on “The Problem of Christianity.”

The trials of the translator have been recounted too often any longer to require detailed mention. President G. Stanley Hall has suggested that the German proclivity to the use of long, involved sentences, loaded with qualifying words and phrases, and with compounds and supplementary clauses of every description, may perhaps be said to have the merit of rendering language somewhat correspondent with the actual course of thought. The significance of this statement can be appreciated by no one quite so keenly as by a translator, for whom the very fact which President Hall mentions causes many German sentences to be objects of despair. In the present instance, the endeavour has been to reproduce as faithfully as possible both the meaning and the spirit of the original, while yet taking such liberties as seemed necessary either to clarify certain passages or to avoid any serious offence to the English language. In a number of cases, no absolutely satisfactory equivalent of the German term seemed available. The very expression ‘folk psychology,’ for example, may scarcely be said to commend itself in every respect. Its use seemed unescapable, however, in view of the fact that the author, in his Introduction, expressly rejects the terms Sozialpsychologie and Gemeinschaftspsychologie in favour of Völkerpsychologie. Bildende Kunst has been rendered ‘formative art,’ not in the belief that this translation is wholly unobjectionable, but because it seemed preferable to all possible alternatives, such as ‘plastic,’ ‘shaping,’ or ‘manual’ art. Those who are familiar with, or who will take notice of, the very precise meaning which the present author gives to the terms Märchen, Sage, Legende, and Mythus will understand without explanation our frequent use of the word ‘saga’ and the necessity of the term ‘märchen’ in the translation. Wundt has always attached great significance to the distinctions which he has drawn between the various forms of the myth, and, more especially, to his contention that the earliest and, in a sense, the progenitor of these was the märchen. The crying need of exact definition and of clear thinking in a field so confused as that of mythology led him, on one occasion, to enter a plea for a clear-cut and consistent terminology such as that which he was attempting to maintain (vide Völkerpsychologie, Band V, Zweiter Teil, Zweite Auflage, s. 33). In this instance again, therefore, it seemed best to give to the author’s own terms a preference over words which, while more familiar to the English reader, are less suited to convey the precise meaning intended.

The most pleasant of the translator’s duties consists in acknowledging the very material assistance which he has received from his wife, whose preparation of an enlarged index for this English edition is but the last of many services which she has rendered in connection with the present undertaking.

October 1915.


This volume pursues a different method, in its treatment of the problems of folk psychology, from that employed in my more extensive treatment of the subject. Instead of considering successively the main forms of expression of the folk mind, the present work studies the phenomena, so far as possible, synchronously, exhibiting their common conditions and their reciprocal relations. Even while engaged on my earlier task I had become more and more convinced that a procedure of this latter sort was required as its supplement. Indeed, I believed that the chief purpose of investigations in folk psychology must be found in a synthetic survey. The first prerequisite of such a survey is, of course, a separate examination of each of the various fields. The history of the development of the physical organism aims to understand not merely the genesis of the particular organs but primarily their co-operation and the correlation of their functions. An analogous purpose should underlie an account of the mental development of any human community and, finally, of mankind itself. In addition to the problem of the relations of the separate processes to one another, however, we must in this case face also the broader question as to whether or not mental development is at all subject to law. This it is, therefore, that the sub-title of the present volume is intended to suggest. That we can be concerned only with outlines, moreover, and not with an exhaustive presentation of details, follows from the very fact that our aim is a synthetic survey. An exhaustive presentation would again involve us in a more or less detached investigation of single problems. A briefer exposition, on the other hand, which limits itself to arranging the main facts along lines suggested by the subject-matter as a whole, is, without doubt, better adapted both to present a clear picture of the development, and to indicate its general amenability to law, the presence of which even the diversity of events cannot conceal.

This being my main purpose, I believed that I might at once reject the thought of giving the various facts a proportionate degree of attention. In the case of the better known phenomena, it appeared sufficient to sketch their place in the general development. That which was less familiar, however, or was still, perhaps, generally unknown, seemed to me to require a more detailed discussion. Hence the following pages deal at some length with the forms of original tribal organization and of the consummation of marriage, with soul, demon, and totem cults, and with various other phenomena of a somewhat primitive culture. On the other hand, they describe in barest outline the social movements that reach over into historical times, such as the founding of States and cities, the origin of legal systems, and the like. No inference, of course, should be drawn from this with regard to the relative importance of the phenomena themselves. Our procedure, in this matter, has been governed by practical considerations alone.

The above remark concerning the less familiar and that which is as yet unknown, will already have indicated that folk psychology in general, and particularly a history of development in terms of folk psychology, such as this book aims to give, are as yet forced to rely largely on suppositions and hypotheses, if they are not to lose the thread that unites the details. Questions similar to the ones which we have just mentioned regarding the beginnings of human society, or others, which, though belonging to a later development, nevertheless still fall within the twilight dawn of history—such, for example, as those concerning the origin of gods and of religion, the development of myth, the sources and the transformations in meaning of the various forms of cult, etc.—are, of course, as yet largely matters of dispute. In cases of this sort, we are for the most part dealing not so much with facts themselves as with hypotheses designed to interpret facts. And yet it must not be forgotten that folk psychology rests on precisely the same experiential basis, as regards these matters, as do all other empirical sciences. Its position in this respect is similar, more particularly, to that of history, with which it frequently comes into touch in dealing with these problems of origin. The hypotheses of folk psychology never refer to a background of things or to origins that are by nature inaccessible to experiential knowledge; they are simply assumptions concerning a number of conjectured empirical facts that, for some reason or other, elude positive detection. When, for example, we assume that the god-idea resulted from a fusion of the hero ideal with the previously existing belief in demons, this is an hypothesis, since the direct transition of a demon into a god can nowhere be pointed out with absolute certainty. Nevertheless, the conjectured process moves on the factual plane from beginning to end. The same is true, not merely of many of the problems of folk psychology, but in the last analysis of almost all questions relating to the beginning of particular phenomena. In such cases, the result is seldom based on actually given data—these are inaccessible to direct observation, leaving psychological probability as our only guide. That is to say, we are driven to that hypothesis which is in greatest consonance with the sum total of the known facts of individual and of folk psychology. It is this empirical task, constituting a part of psychology and, at the same time, an application of it, that chiefly differentiates a psychological history of development, such as the following work aims briefly to present, from a philosophy of history. In my opinion, the basis of a philosophy of history should henceforth be a psychological history of development, though the latter should not intrude upon the particular problems of the former. The concluding remarks of our final chapter attempt, in a few sentences, to indicate this connection of a psychological history of development with a philosophy of historical development, as it appears from the point of view of the general relation of psychology to philosophical problems.

March 31, 1912.




INTRODUCTION—History and task of folk psychology—Its relation to ethnology—Analytic and synthetic methods of exposition—Folk psychology as a psychological history of the development of mankind—Division into four main periods.


1. THE DISCOVERY OF PRIMITIVE MAN—Early philosophical hypotheses—Prehistoric remains—Schweinfurth’s discovery of the Pygmies of the Upper Congo—The Negritos of the Philippines, the inland tribes of Malacca, the Veddahs of Ceylon.

2. THE CULTURE OF PRIMITIVE MAN IN ITS EXTERNAL EXPRESSIONS—Dress, habitation, food, weapons—Discovery of bow and arrow—Acquisition of fire—Relative significance of the concept ‘primitive.’

3. THE ORIGIN OF MARRIAGE AND THE FAMILY—Bachofen’s “Mother-right” and the hypothesis of an origi

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