Ajdukiewicz's Papers


The Psychophysical Nature of Humans
["Postepowanie czlowieka" (Human activity) in Ajdukiewicz (1985) vol. 1, pp. 317-324].

[This article appears courtesy of Axiomathes, n. 1, 1995, pp. 31-37]


1. Humans as psychophysical beings

In the first sections of this book (1) on human perceptual functions, we confine ourselves to a unilateral reflection concerning human functioning. Human psychic life is not wholly composed of perceptual functions; humans not only perceive, recollect, understand etc., but are happy or sad, desirous, wishful, decision-making. Psychic life has not only an intellectual side, i.e. one composed of perceptual functions, but also an emotional, affectional side, and another of will, which consist of all conscious aspirations. All these functions, intellectual and emotional, together with the will, meet and interpenetrate in concrete human life.
Yet all these psychic functions do not exhaust the whole of the function in which human life consists. Besides this psychic side, life also has a bodily, a physical side. Humans, as persons performing both psychic and physical functions, are psychophysical beings. Physical and psychic functions meet in concrete human life, and engender complex functions having both physical and psychic aspects; these are termed psychophysical functions.
The internal connections pertaining to these functions so integrate physical and psychic elements, that it is impossible to understand either in isolation. All human conscious activity or behaviour is psychophysical functioning; besides bodily function, a psychic component is included. In the psychophysical activities of everyday life, this component is so tightly integrated that it cannot be properly understood in abstraction from the act as a whole.
In the following chapters of this book, we will concentrate on these phenomena of psychic life underlying human activity; keeping in mind this parallelism of psychic and physical, we will not attempt to analyse this in abstraction from the whole phenomenon of human life.

2. Psychic and physical phenomena

We are generally able to tell physical phenomena from psychic phenomena, when presented with any concrete phenomenon. Yet it is difficult to present in a general way the characteristic features of psychic phenomena which distinguish them from physical ones.
Some hold that psychic and physical phenomena differ, in that physical phenomena must be spatially and temporaly determinate, whereas psychic ones are determined only temporally, but not spatially. My thought processes take place at a certain time, but do not occupy any point in space, no more than do my joys and my sorrows. They happen at some time, but are not somewhere. To say that thoughts are in the head, or joys and sorrows in the heart, is to speak metaphorically, or to identify thought with nervous processes in the brain; in this latter case, the word "think" identifies not a psychic phenomenon, but a physical one. Thoughts and affections meaning by these words psychic phenomena and not any physiological processes corresponding to such phenomena are not in space, but only in time.
The second cardinal difference between psychic and physical phenomena depends, some hold, on the fact that physical phenomena can be perceived by any number of observers, while psychic phenomena are perceived only by the one person who experiences them. Only I can perceive my joy; others can but guess at it, on the basis of my facial expression, my statements and my external behaviour. The same is true of the colour impression I experience when I look at e.g. the grass in my front yard. One can perceive (internally) only one's own psychic phenomena; those of others are generally inaccessible we can only guess.
The contrary is true of physical phenomena. The motion of the train, the burning of the coal, the falling of the water in the waterfall etc. can be perceived not only by one person; all are available to many people.
The abovementioned feature of psychic phenomena, that they are perceived only by the person who experiences them, is called the private or intrasubjective (intra = inside) character of psychic phenomena. Physical phenomena, in contrast, have a public or intersubjective character.
It should be noted that not all share the opinion that psychic phenomena are given exclusively to the perception of the person who experiences them. Some hold that psychic phenomena, like physical ones, can be perceived in various aspects. They refer to physical phenomena e.g. the running of the horse can be perceived in the aspects of sight and hearing; the same, they hold, is true of psychic phenomena. One who experiences joy, for example, perceives it in its internal aspect; someone else, seeing the laughing face of a cheery person, perceives not only an expression, but also joy in its external aspect. We cannot do more than mention this view here.
Let us now discuss a third feature which differentiates psychic and physical phenomena, one which is regarded as the most essential feature of psychic phenomena. The subjectivity of psychic phenomena claims that these phenomena can exist only as contents of someone's consciousness i.e. only when consciously felt or experienced by someone. Physical phenomena, in contrast, are objective, i.e. are not contents of consciousness, but can exist independently of anyone's consciousness. Joy, sorrow, reflection, impression and other psychic phenomena can exist only as contents of some consciousness i.e. only when someone experiences them. The rocking of the trees, the rain, the beating of the heart, the motion of the intestines and all other physical phenomena can be objects of consciousness, i.e. can be focus of our attention, but cannot become the contents of our consciousness, i.e. the thing which is consciously experienced.
In saying that psychic phenomena can exist only as contents of someone's consciousness i.e. as something consciously experienced, we do not wish to claim that psychic phenomena exist only when someone perceives them or thinks of them. Such a way of thinking about the existence of psychic phenomena leads to paradoxical consequences: if each such phenomenon requires for its existence to be perceived by the person who experiences the phenomenon, then every such phenomenon requires for its existence an infinite chain of other, parallel phenomena.
If a given phenomenon "a" must be perceived in order to exist, this means that it requires another psychic phenomenon s(a), for which s(a) is the perception of the phenomenon a. This being a psychic phenomenon, it must also be perceived i.e. it dictates a phenomenon s(s(a)), s(s(a)) must be perceived in the act s(s(s(a))), etc. ad infinitum.
If we say that psychic phenomenon can exist only as consciously experienced, we do not mean this such that the existence of a psychic phenomenon presupposes the existence of another psychic phenomenon having that first phenomenon as its object. Psychic phenomena can exist without being perceived in any special act; we may not think of them at all, yet we remain conscious of them in a certain way.
In experiencing e.g. in my fear in the moment that I see that my train is crashing I do not think at all about my fear, but only about what is happening around me, how to save myself and what will happen to me. Though my fear is not the object of my consciousness, it is experienced in a highly conscious way. This example clearly illustrates the two senses in which we can be conscious of something. We are conscious of things and events in the physical world, because we turn to them in thought.
In contrast, we are conscious of our own psychic phenomena because we experience them; we need not turn to them consciously in thought, though we can be aware of them in that way. Like the candle's flame which illumines the object and is lit itself, though not lit by itself or by any other light. This shows the two ways in which we can be aware of phenomena: one, that we think about phenomena, we see them, we remember them etc.; the other, that we experience them. Psychic phenomena need not be the objects of thought (of perceptions etc.) in order to exist, but they do require this second form of awareness: they must be consciously experienced.
The degree or intensity of consciousness with which we experience psychic phenomena can be greater or less. Sitting in the theater, watching the action on the stage, I simultaneously collect a great number of perceptual impressions from the beams of light arriving at my eyes, sound impressions heard from the stage, the impression of the pressure of my clothes on my body, of the pressure of my feet on the floor, with thoughts of my everyday troubles etc. From those many psychic phenomena occuring in me, I experience fully consciously only those directed toward the action on the stage; others are experienced half-consciously, as it were. We say of the phenomena which are subject to the focus of our consciousness that we are at that moment paying attention to them, or that they occupy the center of our consciousness; of the objects of half-conscious experiences, we say they are at the margins or outskirts of consciousness. Psychic phenomena experienced at the center of consciousness are experienced closely, but we must realize that these closely experienced psychic phenomena are not the objects of our attention. We pay attention to the objects to which these closely experienced phenomena refer, not to the phenomena themselves.
Psychic phenomena experienced vaguely do not distinguish objects for our consciousness as vividly as those phenomena experienced more carefully. In the abovementioned situation, where we closely watch the action on the stage and vaguely collect visual, aural etc. impressions, objects offstage are not separated from their surroundings by our consciousness; determinate perceptions in which we are aware of these objects in our consciousness are not created, but realized as an undifferentiated, obscure horizon. From where I sit, hard at work, I collect various impressions: visual, of pieces of furniture; aural, the sound of the clock, the hum of the traffic in the street etc. All these impressions, vaguely experienced, do not create an act of perception in them. I do not realize that furniture stands around me, the clock is moving, cars are driving by. The collected impressions create one undifferentiated whole; they create a background for closely experienced psychic phenomena.
Sometimes, certain psychic phenomena experienced half_consciously at the edges of consciousness leave certain clear traces in immediate memory. These traces can later be elevated to the center of our attention; owing to this, we can realize in memory details which we had not originally noticed from a remembered situation. One can e.g. hard at work, fail to notice the striking of the clock at the horizon of consciousness, where the corresponding impressions are collected. Yet later we can realize in memory that the clock struck, or even to count how many times it struck.
Usually trace of vaguely experienced psychic phenomena in memory is too weak or too short-lived to take over the center of our attention. In such cases, in the moment after the experience, we remember nothing about any phenomena experienced at the margins of consciousness. We remember nothing of the majority of vaguely experienced impressions which create an undifferentiated background for the phenomena found in the centre of our attention. Despite this, it often happens that these half-conscious phenomena exert an influence on the course of our consciousness, as if they had been intently experienced and rememebered.
For instance, I walk along the street, leaving my thoughts free rein. The themes I consider change often. I cannot say what factors led me to think now about one thing, before about something else. Often the course of my thought is surrounded by half-consciously experienced impressions which I cannot even remember. For instance, I went by the hunting supply shop. I paid no attention to it at the time, and any impressions which I received were so dimly conscious, that if someone asked me if I had passed by such a shop, I would have to answer that I did not know. Despite this, these impressions could become the first link in a chain of associations in which my consciousness remembered my hunting trip not long ago. These and other facts often show how, to explain the course of fully conscious psychic phenomena, we must take into account phenomena we do not even realize we are experiencing.
The necessity of accepting psychic facts which we do not even realize we are experiencing leads some to talk about so-called "unconscious" psychic phenomena. Sometimes psychic phenomena are experienced with so little intensity of consciousness that we do not even realize them at the time we are experiencing, and later cannot remember in a way worthy of the name.
Yet some understand unconscious psychic phenomenon as certain processes which are not experienced consciously, even to the smallest degree. Those who hold this about unconscious psychic phenomena enlarge this notion beyond the range of consciously experienced phenomena, and obviously will not agree that conscious experiencing is the characteristic feature of psychic phenomena. Those who follow this notion should understand psychic phenomena as those phenomena experienced consciously (to a greater or lesser degree) along with any unknown phenomena which produce effects similar to those produced by phenomena experienced consciously. This second kind are hypothetically accepted to explain the course of conscious processes in cases where appeal to consciously experienced phenomena is not enough.
A definition identifying psychic notions with synthetic ones cannot be refuted from a formal standpoint. Yet it should be remembered that, given such an identification, no further relation can be identified between the notions of psychic and physical phenomena. How is it possible to identify unconscious psychic phenomena (i.e. such unconsciously experienced phenomena as are accepted to explain the course of non-self-explanatory conscious phenomena) which have effects on the physical or psychic world similar to those of consciously experienced phenomena. Even some physical phenomena, e.g. nervous processes in our brain, can have effects similar to those of certain conscious psychic processes. If unconscious psychic phenomena are reduced to their similarity in effect to certain conscious processes, then it appears that certain physical phenomena can be called unconscious psychic phenomena.
It is also questionable whether it is necessary to appeal to unconscious psychic phenomena, if in every case we can appeal, with the same result, to psychic phenomena experienced at an appropriately low level of consciousness.
Let us examine a few cases in which some thinkers find the need to accept unconscious psychic phenomena. For example: someone who is busy does not pay attention to the striking of the clock, yet can later realize that the clock struck, or even how many times it struck. The proponents of unconscious psychic phenomena claim that a given person who knows how many times the clock struck without consciously counting must have counted unconsciously. Yet one can explain the same fact on the basis that impressions based on the clock striking were collected vaguely, yet in remembrance, these moments from the margins of consciousness can be recollected and elevated to the center of attention. Another example: a woman says of her sick husband that he was at the doctor to ask about his diet. By mistake, she says, not: "The doctor told my husband that he can eat and drink whatever he wants", but "the doctor told my husband that he can eat and drink whatever I want".
To explain this verbal mistake, which is cited in a collection of many similar mistakes, the Viennese psychologist Freud accepts the hypothesis that the woman had an unconscious conviction that she would be the one to decide about her husband's diet, and that unconscious thought distorted her words. Yet it is not difficult to state that, even if we would explain this mistake similarly, we could also do so by appeal to the woman's half_conscious thoughts. The idea of unconscious psychic phenomena play a great role in a psychological theory of the abovementioned thinker, Sigmund Freud, called psychoanalysis. That theory was postulated by Freud, who also was the first psychiatrist to show the effectiveness of a related method of therapy for the treatment of certain nervous diseases or difficulties. Freud holds that certain major traumas, along with certain desires condemned by morality, are absented from consciousness. These experiences and desires do not disappear altogether from the soul, but fall into the so-called unconscious. Such absented psychic states, called by Freud complexes, do not appear in the light of consciousness, but represent the powers holding the greatest influence on the course of conscious processes. The symptoms of such influence are, under normal circumstances, seemingly accidential verbal mistakes, forgetfulness etc. For Freud, these symptoms are not accidential, but can be understood when seen as a defence against the realization of these traumatic experiences. One forgets those things which hold a relation to the unconscious complex and which could call it into consciousness; one even changes sentences, replacing with other words any connected in their sense with the unconscious complex. Guarding the complex is some [unconscious] censor which prevents the complex from becoming conscious. Yet the censor grows less vigilant in sleep, and releases desires abstracted from consciousness in the form of the dreams above the threshold of consciousness, not literally, but in the forms of certain symbols or metaphors. Also objects of art express, according to Freud, the unconscious complexes of their authors, but again they are expressed here only symbolically or metaphorically. Such is the influence of the unconscious on consciousness in normal cases. In pathological cases, that influence can be much more painful, and can appear in the form of phobias, perversions, neuroses or even in the form of partial paralysis etc. The treatment of such illnesses goes as follows: the physician guesses what complex is hidden in the patient's consciousness, and actualizes this complex. The analysis of the patient's dreams is the method of looking for such complexes. Through dreams, through the analysis of mistakes, forgetfulness etc., the physician finds the patient's unconscious desires disguised, in symbolic form. Hence the designation of the theory as a whole: "psychoanalysis".

[Translated by Ryszard Puciato]

1. The paper was originally published as a section of [Ajdukiewicz 1938] (R. P.).



[Ajdukiewicz 1938] K. Ajdukiewicz, Propedeutyka filozofii [Propedeutics of philosophy], Lwów.
[Ajdukiewicz 1985] K. Ajdukiewicz, Jezyk i poznanie [Language and cognition] ,Warszawa, PWN [Polish Scientific Publishers], 2 volumes.


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