A Psychologist’s Philosophy Evaluated After Fifty Years: Troland’s Psychical Monism

by Charles Hartshorne

Charles Hartshorne taught at the University of Texas where he was Ashbel Smith Professor of Philosophy. He had a distinguished career at several other universities, particularly the University of Chicago and Emory University. His most recent book, Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method, was published by Open Court.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 236-241, Vol. 30, Number 2, Fall-Winter, 2001. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Hartshorne states that Leonard Thompson Troland was wrong about all theoretical problems being scientific ones. All of Troland’s ethical views derive from science, but Hartshorne does agree with him that in an ultimate world-view the key science is not physics but psychology. Only psychology can deal with the inclusive form of reality, the concrete as such.

[Editor’s note: Leonard Thompson Troland (1889-1932) received the Ph.D. at Harvard in 1916 and taught there until his death. In addition to the work mentioned in Hartshorne’s opening paragraph, Troland was co-author (with Daniel F. Comstock) of The Nature of Matter and Electricity (1917), and author of The Present Status of Visual Science (1922), The Mystery of Mind (1926), and The Fundamentals of Human Motivation (1928). He also published articles on psychical research, world peace, panpsychism and optics. He was co-inventor of Technicolor movies and a unit of retinal illumination, the troland, was named for him. Hartshorne presented the following paper on Friday, April 1, 1983 in a “Presidential Papers session of the meeting of the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology in Atlanta, Georgia. Hartshorne was President of this Society in 1965. His Presidential address, referred to in the opening paragraph, was titled “Arm Chair and Laboratory: A Philosopher Looks at Psychology,” was presented at the meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, April 15-17, 1965. See Newsletter, Division 24 of the American Psychological Association 2, no. 3 (1968): 1-4. (I wish to thank Professor Wayne Viney at Colorado State University for providing information on Troland and Professor James Pate, Archivist for the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology, for providing information on Hartshorne’s presentations at that Society.) — Donald Wayne Viney]

My first course in psychology was at Harvard, about 1921, under L. T. Troland, whose magnificent [Principles] of Psychophysiology [1929-32] made it possible for me, in writing The Philosophy and Psychology of Sensation, 1934, to deal in considerable detail with the state of sensory psychology at that time. In my address to this society in 1965 1 defended a view of the ultimate philosophical bearings of psychology. In one important respect this view coincided with Troland’s. He called it psychical monism. By philosophers it is often called panpsychism. I prefer Troland’s term, but I also like to use a simple “psychicalism,” parallel to physicalism or materialism.

I did not derive the view from Troland but had it before I went to Harvard or knew anything of Troland. However, he helped me to clarify it. I agree with him that there are three basic options concerning the relations of the physical and the psychical: dualism, which is the common sense view, and the one that has been prominent in philosophy throughout its history and, in more or less subtle forms, is still widely held; physicalism or materialism, to which scientists and philosophers now incline; and psychicalism. With Troland I agree that dualism is not satisfactory and that matter as natural science presents it is an abstract and, as he says, an “empty” concept. It treats as inessential in principle what philosophers call secondary qualities, such as colors or sounds (as directly intuited, not as mere wave lengths); or olfactory and gustatory qualities, or qualities of warm and cold, or pleasure and pain. Also qualities of value, sometimes called tertiary. What Troland saw and many, both scientists and philosophers, seem unable to see, is that what physics substitutes for these qualities is not some positive alternative on the same level of concreteness. On that level physics gives us nothing at all. Wave lengths and chemical formulae are descriptions in terms of spatio-temporal-causal shapes or structures; as experienced such shapes or structures are always filled in. Thus a blue circle is different experientially from a red circle, not merely in spatio-temporal terms but in qualitative ones. Physics simply omits these qualitative terms as such, rather than replacing them by others. What physics adds is a more adequate way of identifying structures so as to take time into account as well as space and to indicate causal relations between structures here and now and structures there or then.

On the most concrete level physics is an agnostic science. It does not pretend to know what concretizes mere spatio-temporal-causal structures to make them full actualities. It does not pretend to know even what distinguishes matter from mind, for it does not deal with mind as such, except when the physicist turns philosopher or psychologist. If psychologists are austerely behavioristic, then they too are agnostic in the same sense as physicists. Troland thought this a mistake. So did and do I. We are supported by the leading contemporary philosopher of science, Karl Popper. Most philosophers, past and present, would I think agree with us. If physicalism is not the answer, is dualism? Or is that a cop-out?

We do not scientifically know matter as concrete reality; if matter is only what physics characterizes. What fills out the abstractions of physics and chemistry, makes them more fully definite, are the so-called secondary and tertiary qualities. Troland saw that physics generalizes and renders more accurate and adequate our ideas of the spatio-temporal-causal structures of nature but is unable, for its purposes, to generalize and render more accurate and adequate our ideas of quality and value. In psychology we do confront quality or value as well as structure. For values are dynamic factors in behavior; witness Skinnerian principles of pleasure as positively and pain as negatively reinforcing. Troland’s view of motivation seems to me to anticipate Skinner’s.

The difficulty is this: the qualities directly given to us are, it seems, only qualities of human experiences, not of canine, whale, bird, or insect experiences. These seem hard or impossible to get at. In this is no evidence whatever so far as Troland or I could or can see, that there are not qualities or values in the animals referred to. Ignorance is not to be turned into negative knowledge of the things ignored. Either then we confess our total ignorance at this point or we try to conceive, at least in some limited respects, what it would be like to see as a bee, smell as a dog, or hear as a bird. If this procedure is to constitute knowledge, all the structural and behavioristic evidence must be carefully taken into account.

I tried to do this in my book on bird song called Born to Sing [1973] It turned out that in the process I discovered behavioral facts not previously noted in the literature and gave intelligible explanations of many behavioral facts hitherto left unexplained. Example, why do the many members of the parrot family of birds show in captivity outstanding capacity to imitate sounds, although no one had observed them imitating sounds in the wild? Arguing that it was poor biology to suppose no natural use for a capacity so well-developed and widely distributed in the family, I presented a theory as to what that natural use could be. Shortly thereafter a species of parrot was observed doing what my hypothesis called for. Parrots do imitate in the wild, but in a manner easily overlooked by casual human observers. So, here as so often, facts had been inadequately observed because theory was inadequately developed.

I also posited primitive aesthetic feeling in songbirds for their singing, and showed that well-known facts about singing behavior, and some facts I observed that were previously unobserved, were explicable by this hypothesis. So far this is the only explanation that has been offered. Here also a too austere behaviorism inhibited observation, rather than helped it. Troland’s basic idea is entirely in conformity with all this. He thought, as I did and do, that there were feelings, experiences in the most general sense, on all physical levels from atoms to single cells, and in the metazoan animals. As for multi-cellular plants I am not sure of his view, but mine is that without nervous systems the feelings are probably felt only by the cells, not by an entire tree, for instance. Troland was aware that any feelings on the simpler animal levels, and still more on subanimal levels, must be extremely different from ours. The analogy becomes remote in these cases. But then the spatio-temporal-causal structural or behavioral analogues that physics thinks of on these levels are also only remotely analogous to humanly perceptible shapes, motions or behaviors. What is meant in physics by space and time is difficult to grasp in application to particles or atoms.

The reason our ability to know feelings other than our own is far less than our ability to know spatio-temporal-causal structures other than our own is that the only way to know a quality definitely is to sense, intuit, or feel it oneself. And then, for all we know, it fails to give the qualities non-human animals sense or feel. Structures, in contrast, can be conceptually grasped without concretely intuiting them. They can, in a sense, be conceptually created by manipulating abstractions. Geometry and algebra show how this can be done. We define a circular curve by a mathematical formula. But how something feels is not definable conceptually in any such manner.

My philosophy significantly overlaps Troland’s, as he recognized on my doctoral exam. It also overlaps largely with the views of a great geneticist, Sewall Wright, the greatest scientist I have known well.

In philosophy, psychology, biology, and physics, psychicalism is the position of a minority. But I regard this as an elite minority and am not abashed by the majority on this point. For I fail to find careful reasoning on the majority side and there is much careful reasoning on my side, from Leibniz to Troland, Whitehead, Wright, and some others.

I cannot here and now go into the aspects of my philosophy that do not overlap but really conflict with Troland’s views. I mention only that he seems to have been a determinist in the strict sense, which I regard as a serious mistake, and that he has no rational way, in my opinion, of dealing with the essential religious questions, though he does discuss them, or with the sense in which the universe as a whole has psychical quality. But the double rejection of dualism and materialism seem common to us. We are both psychical monists in the same sense.

On one point I am not quite clear. Troland used to say that our human awareness or consciousness somehow arises from the psychical qualities of the brain cells. The cells, he said, have sciousness but we have consciousness. The full development of this in my or Whitehead’s system is that each cell (or some still smaller unit) feels in its own little way, and my or your feeling is my or your comprehensive feeling of their little, localized feelings. Feeling is thus essentially social, as Whitehead says, it is always feeling of feeling. It is in some degree sympathetic. Apparently Troland did not quite see this. What it means is that human feelings are not the only ones we directly experience. Subhuman cellular feelings are no less directly, though indistinctly, given or intuited. Indistinctly, because otherwise we should know all about the cellular structure of the brain by direct intuition. The cellular feelings are “human” only in the sense that they are confined to human nerve cells, but they are the feelings of single-celled creatures just the same. So ‘other mind’ than one’s own is no mere postulate (as Troland seems to hold) but is actually given. It is, however, a rather primitive level of mind that is given to each of us, additional to our own level. In my form of theism God intuits all feelings analogously to our feeling of cellular feelings, except that God feels the feelings distinctly and universally. I once knew a German Freudian psychiatrist who held that we are to God somewhat as our cells are to us.

Troland was scornful of philosophers for their inability to really solve problems. For him all theoretical problems were scientific ones. I do not agree with this and find his ethical views, for example, all too crude. But I do agree with him that, for an ultimate world-view, the key science is not physics but psychology. For only psychology can deal centrally with the inclusive form of reality, the concrete as such. A generalized comparative psychology, including ethology as study of the behavior, and in principle more than the behavior, of all natural individuals, including animals as high level cases, would embrace physics as a special case — the study of the behavior of the lower levels of physical (in themselves psychical) systems, where the qualitative and value aspects of experience or feeling can for most purposes be neglected.

Between physics and psychology is biology, partly derivative from both but also contributory to both, by the way it explains the origins of modes of behavior and feeling in the evolutionary process whereby species survive, expand, and develop new branches, or offspring species. I claim that my theory of sensation is more truly biological than the accounts given in most text books on the subject, for it makes the sensory qualities adaptive in their very natures, as pain motivates us to avoid bodily injuries and pleasure to engage in wholesome or species promoting activities. Skinner’s idea of reinforcement seems anticipated in Troland’s hedonic principle.

With all his limitations in partly falling to understand relations of science and philosophy, I regret not only Troland’s premature death but also the fact that Volume III of his great lifework exits only in microfilm of a not fully polished version. This is obtainable from the Harvard library. My account of his psychicalism is mostly taken from that version, plus a few recollections of his lectures or conversation.

I do not know who in this country, since William James, has had a more interesting comprehensive philosophy than Troland of what he was doing as a psychologist, and also of what he was doing as a human being.

My book on sensation of nearly fifty years ago is one of the not very numerous interdisciplinary studies linking psychology and philosophy since William James. The psychology may not be as good as the philosophy and I can see some flaws in both aspects. But a few years ago a psychologist of some distinction said that the book was well ahead of its time on some problems.