The Mind and the Brain/Book III/Chapter II

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The Mind and the Brain by Alfred Binet
Book III: Chapter II
Spiritualism and Idealism
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Flournoy has somewhere written that the chief interest of the systems of metaphysics lies less in the intellectual constructions they raise than in the aspirations of the mind and of the heart to which they correspond. Without taking literally this terribly sceptical opinion, it would be highly useful to begin the study of any metaphysical system by the psychology of its author. The value of each system would be better understood, and their reasons would be comprehended.

This book is too short to permit us to enter into such biographical details. I am obliged to take the metaphysical systems en bloc, as if they were anonymous works, and to efface all the shades, occasionally so curious, that the thought of each author has introduced into them. Yet, however brief our statement, it seems indispensable to indicate clearly the physical or moral idea concealed within each system.


It is known that spiritualism is a doctrine which has for its chief aim the raising of the dignity of man, by recognising in him faculties superior to the properties of matter. We constantly meet, in spiritualism, with the notion of superior and inferior, understood not only in an intellectual sense but also in the sense of moral worth.

It will also be remarked, as a consequence of the above principle, that a spiritualist does not confine himself to discussing the ideas of his habitual adversary, the materialist; he finds them not only false, but dangerous, and is indignant with them; some persons even ingenuously acknowledge that they hold firmly to certain principles because they fear to be converted to materialism. I can also discern in this system a very natural horror of death, which inspires in so many people, of whom I am one, both hatred and disgust. The spiritualist revolts against the prospect of a definitive annihilation of thought, and the system he adopts is largely explained as an effort towards immortality.

This effort has led to the theory of two substances, the soul and the body, which are represented as being as thoroughly separated as possible. The soul has not its origin in the body, and it derives none of its properties from its fellow; it is a substance created in complete independence relatively to the body; the soul, in its essence, has nothing in common with matter. The essence of the soul, said Descartes, is thought; the essence of the body is extent. It follows from this that the soul, in its determinations and actions, is liberated from the laws and necessities of the corporeal nature; it is a free power, a power of indetermination, capable of choice, capable of introducing new, unforeseen, and unforeseeable actions, and on this point opposes itself to corporeal phenomena, which are all subject to a determinism so rigorous that any event could be foreseen if its antecedents were known. Another consequence of spiritualism is the admission of the immortality of the soul, which, being widely distinct from the body, is not affected by its dissolution; it is, on the contrary, liberated, since death cuts the link which binds them together.

But there is a link, and the explanation of this link brings with it the ruin of the whole system. One is forced to admit that this principle of the separation of body and soul is liable, in fact, to many exceptions. Even if they are two isolated powers, the necessities of life oblige them to enter continually into communication with each other. In the case of perceptions, it is the body which acts on the soul and imparts sensations to it; in movements, it is the soul, on the contrary, which acts on the body, to make it execute its desires and its will.

Spiritualists must acknowledge that they are at some trouble to explain this traffic between the two substances; for, with their respect for the principle of heterogeneity mentioned above, they do not manage to conceive how that contact of the physical and the mental can be made which is constantly necessary in the life of relation. By what means, have they long asked themselves, can that which is only extent act on that which is only thought? How can we represent to ourselves this local union of matter with an immaterial principle, which, by its essence, does not exist in space? The two substances have been so completely separated, to insure the liberty of the soul and its superiority over the body, that it has become impossible to bring them together. The scission has been too complete. They cannot be sewn together again.

Such are the principal objections raised against spiritualism. These objections are derived from points of view which are not ours, and we have therefore no need to estimate their value.

From our point of view, the spiritualist conception has chosen an excellent starting point. By establishing the consciousness and the object of cognition as two autonomous powers, neither of which is the slave of the other, spiritualism has arrived at an opinion of irreproachable exactness; it is indeed thus that the relations of these two terms must be stated; each has the same importance and the right to the same autonomy.[2]

Yet, spiritualism has not rested there, and, by a lamentable exaggeration, it has thought that the consciousness, which it calls the soul, could exercise its functions in complete independence of the object of cognition, which it calls matter. There is the error. It consists in misunderstanding the incomplete and, as it were, virtual existence of the consciousness. This refutation is enough as regards spiritualism. Nothing more need be added.


Idealism is an exceedingly complex system, varying much with varying authors, very polymorphous, and consequently very difficult to discuss.

The ancient hylozoism, the monadism of Leibnitz, and the recent panpsychism of M. Strong are only different forms of the same doctrine. Like spiritualism, with which it is connected by many ties, idealism is a philosophy which expresses some disdain for matter, but the thoughts which have sought to shelter themselves under this philosophy are so varied that it would be perilous to try to define them briefly.

There can be discussed in idealism a certain number of affirmations which form the basis of the system. None of these affirmations is, strictly speaking, demonstrated or demonstrable; but they offer very different degrees of probability, and it is for this reason that we shall notice them.

Amongst these affirmations there are some that we have already met with in our study of the definition of sensation; others will be newer to us.

1. Here is one which seems to arise directly from the facts, and appears for a long time to have constituted an impregnable position for idealists. It may be expressed in three words: esse est percipi.

Starting with the observation that every time we bear witness to the existence of the external world, it is because we perceive it, idealists admit that the existence of this external world shares exactly the lot of our perception, and that like it it is discontinuous and intermittent. When we close our eyes, it ceases to exist, like a torch which is extinguished, and lights up again when we open them. We have already discussed this proposition, and have shown that it contains nothing imperative; and we may very well decline to subscribe to it.

2. There follows a second proposition, barely distinct from the previous one. There should be nothing else in objects but that which we perceive, and that of which we have consciousness should be, in the fullest possible acceptation of the words, the measure of what is. Consequently there should be no need to seek, under the object perceived, another and larger reality, a source from which might flow wider knowledge than that we at present possess. This is as disputable as the preceding affirmation, and for the same reasons.

3. The third proposition is the heart of the idealist thesis. It is sometimes presented as a deduction from the foregoing, but it is nevertheless thoroughly distinct from it, and the preceding affirmations might legitimately be accepted and this new one rejected. This proposition may be expressed thus: Everything that is perceived is psychical.

It is not only idealists who subscribe to this opinion, however, and we have seen, when dealing with the definition of matter, that it is widely spread. We understand by it that the objects we perceive exist in the consciousness, are of the consciousness, and are constituted by ideas; the whole world is nothing but idea and representation; and, since our mind is taken to be of a psychical nature, the result is that everything, absolutely everything, the person who knows and the thing known, are all psychical. This is panpsychism. Flournoy, on this point, says, with a charm coloured by irony: “We henceforth experience a sweet family feeling, we find ourselves, so to speak, at home in the midst of this universe . . .”[3] We have demonstrated above that the unity here attained is purely verbal, since we cannot succeed in suppressing the essential differences of things.

4. Now comes an affirmation on the genesis of things. After having admitted that the object is an idea of the mind, one of its manifestations, or one of its moods, the idealists go so far as to say that the consciousness is the generating power of ideas, and, consequently, the generating cause of the universe. It is thought which creates the world. That is the final conclusion.

I indicated, beforehand, in the chapters on the definition of sensation and on the distinction between the consciousness and the object, the reasons which lead me to reject the premises of idealism. It will be sufficient to offer here a criticism on its last conclusion: “It is the mind that creates the world.”

This thesis strikes at the duality—consciousness and object; it gives the supremacy to the consciousness by making of the object an effect or property of the former. We can object that this genesis cannot be clearly represented, and that for the very simple reason that it is impossible to clearly accept “mind” as a separate entity and distinct from matter. It is easy to affirm this separation, thanks to the psittacism of the words, which are here used like counterfeit coin, but we cannot represent it to ourselves, for it corresponds to nothing. The consciousness constitutes all that is mental in the world; nothing else can be described as mental. Now this consciousness only exists as an act; it is, in other terms, an incomplete form of existence, which does not exist apart from its object, of which the true name is matter. It is therefore very difficult to understand this affirmation, “It is the mind that creates the world,” since to be able to do so, we should have to imagine a consciousness without an object.

Moreover, should we even succeed in doing so, we should be none the more disposed, on that account, to give assent to this proposition. Consciousness and matter represent to us the most different and antithetical terms of the whole of the knowable. Were the hypothesis to be advanced that one of these elements is capable of engendering the other, we should immediately have to ask ourselves why this generating power and this pre-eminence should be attributed to one rather than to the other element. Who can claim that one solution is more clear, more reasonable, or more probable than the other?

One of the great advantages of the history of philosophy here asserts itself. This history shows us that different minds when reflecting on the same problems have come to conceive solutions which have appeared to them clear, and consequently were possible; now, as these solutions are often contradictory, nothing shows better than their collation the distance between possibility and fact. Thus the materialists, who, like the idealists, have put forward a genetic theory of the mind, have conceived mind as produced by matter;—a conception diametrically opposed to that of the idealists. It may be said that these two conceptions, opposed in sense, annul each other, and that each of these two philosophical systems has rendered us service by demonstrating the error of the opposing system.


  1. It is, perhaps, needless to point out that by “spiritualism” M. Binet does not mean the doctrine of the spirit-rappers, whom he, like other scientific writers, designates as “spiritists,” but the creed of all those who believe in disembodied spirits or existences.—Ed.
  2. I do not insist on the difference between my conception and the spiritualistic conception; my distinction between consciousness and matter does not correspond, it is evident, to that of “facts of consciousness” and “physical facts” which spiritualism sets up.
  3. Archives de Psychologie, vol. iv. No. 14, Nov. 1904, p. 132 (article on Panpsychism).