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The revolt against materialism in English psychology, 1875-1910 MacDonald, Donald Alexander

Abstract

The accepted view of Late Victorian psychology suggests that it avoided a commitment to a scientific framework because of the influence of Idealist philosophy. This study represents an attempt to show that both moral considerations and the recognition of the positive role which the human mind plays in organizing sense data favoured the abandonment of certain assumptions inherent in Positivism and Naturalism. In essence, the problem faced by Late Victorian psychologists was how to explain consciousness as a natural phenomenon. The most important sources of information used in this study were the text books of James Ward, James Sully and G.F. Stout. In addition, their articles on psychological topics, published in academic journals, were of considerable value; and in particular, the British journal, Mind proved useful. In an address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Thomas Henry Huxley presented the "doctrine of conscious automatism," which described human behavior as a result solely of external sensations without the intervention of consciousness. The psychologist, James Ward, attacked the materialist influence upon psychology and Naturalism in general. Ward took the position that the laws of science were only mathematical generalizations and thus were not always applicable to single instances. Evolution, he believed, gave evidence of the workings of a Supernatural Power. In man, the influence of the Power was shown by a need to fulfill a moral ideal. Another Late Victorian psychologist, James Sully, tried to adhere more firmly to the Positivist tradition. Following a suggestion of Herbert Spencer's, Sully tried to explain morals as the end product of mankind's evolutionary development. The final psychologist treated in this study, George Frederick Stout also recognized the importance of subjective factors in a man's perceptions and judgments. Stout adopted Avenarius' theory that all thought served as a form of biological adjustment to the environment. In this way, Stout showed how consciousness could be studied as a natural phenomenon.

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