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Psychology’s Lost Location – Between “Word” and “Flesh”

Part One

Etymological Treasure Hunting

Words and ideas have histories – and when an individual strives to understand the human condition, via history, the history of ideas, religious thought, philosophy, literature, psychology, science, etc., and reaches a certain maturity of knowledge and understanding, even the very words and ideas, their origins and histories, also come to need to be comprehended. This includes the ideas and concepts with which one thinks and understands as well! Many of the words in this small essay, written in the English language in 1997 Anno Domini, have their own deep, interesting and important stories. Indeed, while etymological history may seem distant and uninteresting to more than a few – many words contain secrets, treasures of meaning and insight relating to mankind, the world, history, nature, etc. And “psychology” is one such word!

Consisting obviously enough of a combination of psycho and logy, it derives via New Latin psychologia, from the Greek psukhe and logia. And thought the word “psychology” is widely known and used in the world today; it was unknown to the Greeks themselves! In fact this word – so popularly used now regarding “human nature”, human “psychology” – was created in Germany in the 1500s, and first appeared in print in a Latin text four hundred years ago, in the 1590s. In English the word first appears in a 1653 translation of a discourse by a Dutch physician. And its use, in the sense of a “study or science of the human mind”, is first found in English in 1748 in the works of David Hartley (British philosopher, 1705–57) – after it had already been established in German in this sense by the philosopher Christian von Wolff in his works during 1732–1734. The word was not in fact much used in English until the mid-1800s, when it gradually came to replace “mental philosophy”, and to join the expression “human nature”.

While obviously the human “psyche” existed before the word “psychology” was coined, and there were very deep ideas and systems of the human being’s inner life which used other words, ideas and languages (Greek, Latin, Hebrew, or one of the Germanic languages); the context in which the word “psychology” began is essential for properly understanding its meaning in regards to the human being, and human history.

But it should be recognized that this original context is not widely known and attended today – a lack which diminishes the understanding of its intended meaning. (As the word did not begin in the early mysterious mists of Indo-European time, but rather was a comparatively-recent human creation, its meaning was specific and intentional.) Like many of the ideas and words in our intellectual life and culture today – which surround us via books, newspapers, radio, television, computers, conversations, the shared sum of ideas and words used in daily life and reflection – the origin of the word “psychology” is symptomatically known of and worried by few of the millions who use it. Even the majority of practicing “psychologists” – be they “clinical” or “experimental”, etc. – are also commonly unaware of it definitive origin. (“Psychologist” was first used in 1727 in Bailey’s Dictionary to mean a “student of the soul”, and then, in 1817, in Coleridge’s writings, as a “student of the mind”.)

In a place like California – the intellectual and culture life of which has, fortunately or unfortunately, for good or for ill, affected not only Russia, but the entire world (consider Levi’s blue jeans, Hollywood’s TV and films, “hippie”, Disneyland, many so-called “new age religions” and sects, etc.) – there is a widespread chaos due in significant part to the broad and “intellectual’s” ahistorical ignorance regarding the intellectual history of mankind, “Western” or other. As I mentioned in “California’s Kaleidoscope of Cosmologies” (English, No. 23, 1996), there is an impossible plurality, diversity, and confusion, as to the ideas of man and world there. Marxist-Leninism was the official ideology of the Soviet Union; California never in its short history had such a shared, or enforced, Weltanschauung – and the “American Creed” of Jefferson is of quite a different character.

This incredible diversity in California includes the words, ideas, and systems regarding the “psychology” of man: spirit, soul, mind, body, psyche, self/Self, Higher Self, lower self, self-esteem, self-affirmation, self-control, self-realization, self-love, (self-etc.), consciousness, subconscious(ness), super-conscious(ness), “I”, ego, super-ego, mind/body, brain/mind, feelings, emotions, passions, intuition, inner voice, heart, thought, reason, thinking systems, belief systems, inner child, unconditional love, etc., are often used in various concocted diverse and often contradictory “psycho-cosmic systems”, but often (though not always) with little knowledge understanding or concern of the culture words’ or ideas’ origins. (As a friend once described it: California’s variety and is like a very, very wide, but very, very shallow lake!) One often hears, for example, the “body and soul” spoken of (the word “soul”, by the way, has a very deep and interesting Germanic origin!), or “body, mind and spirit”, or sometimes a short list is just named in any order that occurs. Participating in the diversity and complexity of California’s culture is really like being inside of a mental kaleidoscope (an invention and word from 1817) of broken ideas – no small challenge for any serious mind who attempts to understand the culture around them there!

I myself struggled with these conditions for about two decades there, and historical research – including etymology – was one of the essential ways I attempted to come to an understanding of the incredible diversity of ideas, theories, psychologies, systems, religions, sects, beliefs, etc., etc., etc., which one daily encounters in life there. In order to understand the culture and intellectual life in California, one must for example have a substantial knowledge of the main ideas of all the major “Eastern” religions; aboriginal, prehistorical shamanism; American nineteenth-century “spiritualism”; in additions to the West’s own history. (A demanding task for understanding the meeting of East and West in California!) And California is really just an exaggerated state of such tendencies as are to be found, often less focused and varied, in increasingly widespread parts of the USA.

One successful day at the University of California at Berkeley, in my historical research, I located an article – in the field of what is called the “history of psychology” – on the origins of the word “psychology”. Immediately it clarified much of the confusion and chaos around me concerning these aspects of Californian life; and revealed how vague and unclear most people there were (and are!), when they used and said the word “psyche” or “psychology”.

Pneumatology, Psychology, Somatology

The word “psychology” was coined in German-speaking Central Europe in the 1500s, apparently by the scholar Melanchthon (Phillip Schwartzerd, 1497–1560). (He taught Greek at Wittenberg, and later was a famous colleague of the Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546); and the name by which he is known in history is a Greek translation of his German name which means “black earth”.) “Psychology” was used, at least when it appeared in print – and this is crucial for understanding the word and idea – as the middle term between two other created words: pneumatology and somatology. Classifying the sciences, human knowledge, the human mind, and the various parts of the natural world, was popular among scholars during these times, and pneumatology, psychology and somatology were a part of this tendency. Pneuma is Greek for what in English is now called “spirit” (which itself derives from the Latin spiritus); soma is Greek for “body” (the Latin is corpus, from which we have English corpse). “Logy” is generally understood, during the past three or four centuries, to mean “study or science of” something, be that astro-logy, bio-logy (in German in 1802, in English in 1819), or many others. So that pneuma/spirit, psyche/soul (in Latin anima), soma/body, is the hierarchical tripartite system of man in which the word “psychology” had its origin and meaning. The spirit, pneuma, is the highest, “divine” part of man – whether “fallen” and corrupted or not; then beneath it is the “psyche”, which is itself “above” the “body”, and mediates between the two. Pneumatology – study/science of the spirit; psychology – study/science of the soul of man; somatology – the study/science of the physical body of man. The creator of these words was articulating a complete study/science of the human being, based on the ancient idea of man being “spirit, soul, and body”. This idea, of a tripartite man, can be found more or less clearly articulated in the spiritual and mythic sources of not only “Western Civilization”, but in most all of the ancient “spiritual systems” of Mankind’s varied cultures.

While the majority of people today would probably most immediately associate the word “psychology” with Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) – who coined the word Psychoanalysis in German in 1896 (it first appeared in English in 1906) – in fact he personally, in his psychological system, rejected all “occult” ideas and vocabulary relating to the human being, and that includes the “spiritual” element in relationship to which the word “psychology” was originally created! In common with the nineteenth-century’s materialistic views of, for example, human history of Karl Marx (1818–1883), of human society by August Comte (1798–1857), and of nature and matter by Ludwig Büchner (in his book Kraft und Stoff, 1855; Force and Matter), Freud rejected the traditional claims of man as being spirit, soul and body. Sexuality and the bodily urges – the soma – became the main forces and motivators of the human being; spirit, like religion, was rejected as illusion – the “psyche” was based on the body’s urges, needs, desires, etc.

Part Two

“Body and Soul” and Pop-psychology

Today, in much of the intellectual life of the West, a seldom-conscious ignorance of the original meaning, sense and context of the word “psychology” has had great affects on the ways that people, as well as psychiatrists (psychiatry from 1846, psychiatrist from 1890), attempt to understand the inner life, the inner “psychology” of Man. So that the lack of knowledge of the origin and history of the word “psychology” is not just of mere antiquarian interest; the word and its “understanding” affects the vocabulary and “psychological systems” with which millions of people attempt to understand themselves, others, and “human nature”! In a place like California the conditions are chaotic (like an American “Tower of Babel”) – where there is virtually no deep, long cultural history or tradition; where every religious, philosophical, etc., system in the world in human history has flooded in at one time or other (usually announced as “the Truth” finally arrived in the lost West); and where self-styled “gurus” and “new age” teachers have even created many of their own “psychological systems” de novo! For example, many aspects of the inner life of man which are properly related to the level and character of pneuma are often called “psychological” (or even “physical”, bodily by others). (Psychosomatic first appears in English only in 1863.) Confusion reigns there, and in many other places in the USA, or the West – especially those places in the world that imagine that California is some clear beginning of a new age of spiritual light!

One often hears in the USA various ahistorical, plausible but mostly ephemeral “psycho-systems” by Americans with which they attempt to understand themselves, the world and life which are little more than verbal encouragement systems. Consider this characteristic California advertisement for “psychological counseling”:

Selfhood Without Justification

Recollecting the Scattered Light of Awareness

Freedom is freedom from the need to justify what we are. The absence of the need to justify myself is the only real silence of mind. Coming to understand how and why we each acquired this need is the means by which this can be laid aside, so that once again we are free to be what we are. For a long time the self lives in exile, struggling with the world for permission to return. When we are finally exhausted with the unhappy effort of being what we are not, we realize – often to astonishment – that our true self is returning from exile without permission. . . .

While the ad’s “psychology” is not void of meaning and sense, it is rather a sort of verbal identity system, than any deep “psychology” of man. And there are literally thousands of such new pseudo-psychological systems in California! Their authors seem often to have experienced or discovered some portion of the inner life of man, and then blow it up into a complete “psychological system”.

Yet the ahistorical ignorance and confusion affects not only popular culture, and what is called “pop-psychology”, but also the work of “scholars” (even those for whom “scholarship” is not merely their job sub specie scientiatis). For example, it is very common to hear or read of the human being spoken about as being “body and soul”. In such a “system” the ancient and traditional idea of pneuma, the “spirit”, is not even mentioned – forgotten, abandoned. Consider the inexcusable instance of this by a Christian writer, who writes about the history of Christianity – in fact Orthodox Christianity – and who does not even have a clear distinction of the tripartite conception of the human being, which St. Paul for example clearly revealed when he divided humanity into those of pneuma, psyche, and soma. In the book The Orthodox Church, Timothy Ware (Archimandrite Kallistos) writes:

Kallistos Ware (born Timothy Ware), an English bishop within the Eastern Orthodox Church
Kallistos Ware (born Timothy Ware), an English bishop within the Eastern Orthodox Church
. . . But the balance between mind and body is redressed in another ascetic writing, the Macarian Homilies. . . . The Macarian Homilies revert to a more Biblical idea of man – not a soul imprisoned in a body (as in Greek thought), but a single and united whole, soul and body together. Where Evagrius speaks of the mind, Macarius uses the Hebraic idea of the heart. The change of emphasis is significant, for the heart includes the whole man – not only intellect, but will, emotions, and even body. (p. 74) [Italics in original.]

This popular Western book on Orthodoxy Christianity touches very deep themes – e.g. whether the “heart” or the “mind” is the center (the “Image of God”) in Man – but does so in such an inadequate manner (he reduces both Christian and Greek complexities – to a more simplified “religious” understanding?), that it would require pages to critique and correct. But his limited conception is clear – “mind and body”, “soul and body”. This (apparently) religious reduction simplifies the deeper and fuller history – and simply omits “spirit” as a definitive part of man. Or, relating to confusion in these questions, take these examples of pop-psychology from a popular, quarterly advertisement magazine, named “Common Ground”, from the San Francisco Bay Area (known by many in the USA simply as “the Bay Area”), wherein hundreds and hundreds of varying spiritualies, psychologies, etc., etc., are listed as “Resources for Personal Transformation” [italics added!]:

“When mind, body, emotion and spirit are in agreement, our lives have a forward motion and self-healing is a continual process. If you are stuck in a struggle with addictive, self-defeating habits you need help getting unstuck. Eating disorders, phobias, chronic stress with related body symptoms, compulsive controlling of self and others, low self-esteem, and dysfunctional relationships are common signals of the need to listen . . . to your more authentic self.”

“We offer a comprehensive and integrated Intuition Training Program for people who want to be soul motivated rather than personality/ego driven. Learn how to distinguish the goals and communications of your Soul/Higher Consciousness from the reactions and objectives of your personality/ego.”

“Bodynamics [sic] theory views a person’s emotional issues in terms of a new concept of character structure, psychomotor development, and personal history, which are imbedded in the muscle system of the body.”

“To discover that everything about us is God – heart, mind and body – this is our purpose on Earth! To realize only we have placed limitations upon ourselves and now it is time to come home to our divinity – Love, Joy, Light, Power, and Freedom unlimited.”

“Huna is the ancient Hawaiian wisdom which combines spirituality with healing and empowers us to achieve integration of our three selves: mental, emotional, and spiritual. This integration reveals the truth in each of us.”

“Core Healing is the integration of the Extraordinary into the ordinary life. It creates an opening to your inner wisdom, integrates your mind, body and soul, connects you with your True Self, Essence and Love, establishes a personal relationship with God….”

Conditions in California are so far from being coherent and integrated – rather they tend towards atomization – that, as I have written before, each person tends towards creating their own cosmology, as these three advertisement extracts give indication of, with their varying “psychologies” of man.

“Near-Death Experiences” or Brain Chemical Reactions?

Anyone who studies the earliest sources and records of what would come to be called “Western Civilization”, cannot but tend to agree with Plato (who, with his Socrates, is seen as the nascence of the West), in his dialogues: e.g. Philebus 16 c-d, Politicus 271 a-b, Phaedo 274e, Laws IV 713e, wherein he writes that the first men, the ancients, were closer to the Gods and a knowledge of the true reality of the world (than the men of his time). One has only to look at the idea of man, of human society, and the “psychology” of man, in the earliest records e.g. the texts of the Occidental-Iranian Zend Avesta, or the Rig Veda’sPurusha Sukta” to see how interwoven the idea of man is within the spiritual cosmos. Consider these two portions of the famous “Purusha Sukta” (10.90) the “Hymn of Man”, about the “Primal Man”:

Tantric representation of Purusha
Tantric representation of Purusha

1. The Man has a thousand heads, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet. He pervaded the earth on all sides and extended beyond it as far as ten fingers.

2. It is the Man who is all this, whatever has been and what-ever is to be. He is the ruler of immortality, when he grows beyond everything through food.

3. Such is his greatness, and the Man is yet more than this. All creatures are a quarter of him; three quarters are what is immortal in heaven.

4. With three quarters the Man rose upwards, and one quarter of him still remains here. From this he spread out in all directions, into that which eats and that which does not eat. ...

11. When they divided the Man, into how many parts did they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his two arms and thighs and feet?

12. His mouth became the Brahmin; his arms were made into the Warrior, his thighs the People, and from his feet the Servants were born.

13. The moon was born from his mind; from his eye the sun was born. Indra and Agni came from his mouth, and from his vital breath the Wind was born.

14. From his navel the middle realm of space arose; from his head the sky evolved. From his two feet came the earth, and the quarters of the sky from his ear. Thus they set the worlds in order.

Now, on the other end of history, at the close of the secularized, second millennium AD, the developed “pneumatology” of the ancients – historical sources of the idea of Man as “microcosm” – wherein the spiritual, psychological and physical “parts” of the entire human being have sometimes seven, sometimes nine, sometimes twelve elements, is met by the tendency to understand all of the human being’s inner “psychology” as the exclusive result and culmination of matter: the brain, or perhaps the genes. From the ancient “pneumatological” view of man and world, to an increasingly “somatological” (neurological or genetic) anthropology of man today; from the heights of the spirit apparent in the texts of the Occidental-Iranian Zend Avesta or the Oriental-Hindu Rig Veda, to advancing brain research and the “Genome Project”. From the ancient traditions, the “psyche”, the “psychology” of man, was understood to be a child of pneuma; now, in the 20th century, the “psyche” is often seen to be a mere manifestation of the body’s brain (and its chemistry), or genes. “Psychology” and “human nature” in such a view is increasingly seen as a mere product of matter – “somatology”. Not a particularly flattering idea of man!

Spirit or brain matter? The question is very deep, troubling, and unresolved – and it has already been considered before in earlier American Reflections in relation to Dante’s and Darwin’s anthropologies, and the desolate scientific vs. the spiritual cosmos (See English, No 44, 48, 1995, No 25, 1996). Of course many Doctors of Medicine and research scientists today claim that the inner psychology of man is a mere product of the brain – that the ancient “pneumatology” and all such ideas are childish, fanciful illusions, or chemical hallucinations. (Many Doctors nonetheless believe in “God”!) Yet at the same time there are many people who, spiritually-inclined, would fundamentally disagree. Neurological research has shown conclusively that the brain dramatically controls and affects the human being, sometimes physically, sometimes mentally. Whereas – and Russians know this from the translated book by Raymond Moody on “life after life” – many people, including while their bodies are being operated on in a hospital, have reported experiencing a state of consciousness and existence quite independent of their bodies – the so-called “near-death” or “out-of-body experience”. During the past year, during a BBC interview on this theme, a brain specialist said that all such reported experiences were merely the results of the brain’s chemical reactions; in other words, that all such reported experiences (the white light, the tunnel, being outside and above one’s own body, angelic beings of light, feelings of euphoria, peace and joy, etc.) are chemical illusions. Such experiences, which those who have experienced them most often describe as the most profound of their lives, are more understandable when the “psyche” of the person is seen to be “beneath” the individual’s pneuma; yet they are said by some scientists to be nothing more than the psychological effects of chemical reactions of the soma, the body’s brain. Spirit or brain matter?

Part 3

The Mystery of Man: “And the Word Became Flesh”

The term “psychology” was first used when describing man (from mens- to think) as a tripartite being of “spirit, soul and body” – pneumatology, psychology, somatology. And, as I have mentioned, even this is a diminishment of the more complex and subtle systems of man – wherein the entire being of man is held to consist of seven or twelve elements. Here one meets such ideas as “etheric body”, “astral body”, etc., and often at least 3 higher, purely “spiritual” elements to man (a higher “trinity” in some microcosmic systems– e.g. in the ancient Iranian texts: daena, manas, baodah, in Hinduism known as manas, buddhi, atman). I recall the scepticism with which I in America first heard of these strange and foreign terms – in contrast to my school education and religious training – of such other “bodies” in man. Preposterous fictions I said, in my naive sceptical ignorance. But as I over the years in my studies researched these concepts and their history, I found that they were not the fictitious creations of the modern California spiritualists and pop-psychologists, as I had initially believed. One finds such “microcosmic” systems – “pneumatologies” of man – implicitly or explicitly in the oldest texts and lores at the sources of “Western Civilization” and in its history as well. One could look at the entire idea of man in the Zend Avesta (to which Henry David Thoreau, in the chapter “Reading” of his Walden, said mankind should attend); or the ancient “School of Alexandria” (2nd to 4th centuries AD; cf. Clement of Alexandria, Origen); or the West’s Neoplatonism; Hermeticism; Florentine Neoplatonism (e.g. Ficino); Cabbalism; et al.

The “perennial pneumatology” – more or less explicit in these traditions – was profoundly different and deeper than the scientific, post-Enlightenment “psychology” we generally meet and think of today. And the ancient “pneumatology” of man in the Zend Avesta – when, as Plato said, men were closer to the Gods – must be contrasted to the idea of man and human “psychology” at, for example, the Harvard Medical School, where “psychology” is by many scientists of course seen as brain- or gene-based – in a word: “somatology”.

Spirit or matter?

The “Christ” is a part of this deep problem, of “spirit” vs. “matter”; for the Christ was said to be the Word, the Logos, the Spirit, Pneuma, become . . . matter, soma, “Flesh” (John 1:14). If the brain scientists’ view of “spirit” today is true, then the Descent of the Dove into Jesus at his Baptism by John the Baptist, His Transfiguration, and most all other important and “divine” aspects of the life and death of Jesus Christ are of course fictitious nonsense. And – see St. Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15, 35–58 (especially 38–50) – the “Risen Body” (soma pneumatikon) of the Resurrected Christ, is inextricably interwoven with the ancient “pneumatology” of man. Now this is all theological and “pnematological” nonsense to those modern “neurologists” (a word from 1832) who find human “psychology”, spirit, and “near-death experiences” (pneuma) to be purely manifestations of chemical reactions of the brain.

“Psychology” today is lost between the oft-abandoned or unknown ancient “pneumatology”, and modern brain research (or genetics) – between “the Word”, the Logos, and the “Flesh”. Religion (and deeper spiritual “pneumatological systems”, East and West) say pneuma; modern sceptical physical science says soma. Most people have their own personal tendencies to believe one way or the other.

In our time few would say that science’s discoveries are purely illusions; contrariwise, the claims of “spirit” (e.g. those reporting “near-death” and out-of-body experiences”) often seem much less certain to us – though many people (including the great majority of Americans – 93%) believe that spirit is real and true, in the mystery of Man and world. The mystery of Christianity (from Greek chriein to anoint, on the head) Golgotha (“the place of the Skull”) and of the Resurrection (soma pneumatikon) are still alive and real unto our day!

Incision Knives and Spirit

It is interesting to consider a serious discussion of this problem by the second and third Presidents of the United States of America: John Adams (1735–1826) and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) respectively, when they were both in retirement. Over the years of their personal correspondence (these letters are available in The Adams–Jefferson Letters, ed. Cappon, 1959/1987), they seriously worried and considered the problem of “spirit” and “matter” – frankly, learnedly, personally. These letters are very rich and interesting, and the following are merely short extracts from their exchanges over the years related to questions of spirit and matter. [Spelling and punctuation has been somewhat modernized.]

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, January 8, 1825:

Marie Jean Pierre Flourens
Marie Jean Pierre Flourens

. . . I have lately been reading the most extraordinary of all books, and at the same time the most demonstrative by numerous and unequivocal facts. It is Flourens’ [Marie-Jean-Pierre Flourens, French physiologist, 1794–1867] Experiments on the Functions of the Nervous System in Vertebrate Animals [1824]. He takes out the cerebrum completely, leaving the cerebellum and other parts of the system uninjured. The animal loses its senses of hearing, seeing, feeling, smelling, tasting, is totally deprived of will, intelligence, memory, perception, etc., yet lives for months in perfect health with all its powers of motion, but without moving but on external excitement, starving even on a pile of grain unless crammed down it’s throat; in a state, in short, of the most absolute stupidity. He takes the cerebellum out of others, leaving the cerebrum untouched. The animal retains all it’s senses, faculties and understanding, but loses the power of regulated motion, and exhibits all the symptoms of drunkenness. While he makes incisions in the cerebrum and cerebellum, length-wise and crosswise which heal and get well, a puncture in the medulla elongata is instant death, and many other most interesting things, too long for a letter. Cabanis [Marie-Jean-Pierre, (1784–1867)] had proved, from the anatomical structure of certain portions of the human frame, that they might be capable of receiving from the Creator the faculty of thinking. Flourens proves that the cerebrum is the thinking organ, and that life and health may continue, and the animal be entirely without thought, if deprived of that organ. I wish to see what the spiritualists will say to this. Whether, in this state, the soul remains in the body deprived of it’s essence of thought, or whether it leaves it as in death, and where it goes? His memoirs and experiments have been reported on with approbation by a committee of the Institute, composed of Cuvier, Bertholet, Dumeril, Portal and Pinel. But all this you and I shall know, when we meet again in another place [i.e. after death], and at no distant period. In the mean time, that the revived powers of your frame, and the anodyne of philosophy may preserve you from all suffering, is my sincere and affectionate prayer.

Th. Jefferson

Of the 380 preserved letters of Adams and Jefferson (dating from 1777–1826), this is the next to last letter by Jefferson to his friend Adams. Adams’ reply (below) was followed by four more short letters – before they both died on July 4, 1826 – after which they both believed that their spirits would “meet again in another place”.

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, January 22, 1825:

. . . As to the decision or your author [Flourens], though I wish to see the book, I look upon it as a mere game at push-pin. Incision knives will never discover the distinction between matter and spirit, or whether there is any or not. That there is an active principle of power in the Universe is apparent, but in what substance that active principle of power resides, is past our investigation. The faculties of our understanding are not adequate to penetrate the Universe. Let us do our duty which is to do as we would be done by, and that one would think, could not be difficult, if we honestly aim at it.

John Adams

The Continuing Question

The etymology of the single word “psychology”, is related to very deep ideas and problems of Mankind – which it was only possible to touch upon in this essay. Yet these ideas bring one into relationship with the deeper questions of man, the mystery of Man – which still lives on in our mundane time. Many scientists (including “psychologists”) do their work, unrelated and unconcerned with the problems of “pneumatology”; many spiritual believers (as in casual California) are perhaps even reluctant to learn the facts and discoveries of the physical scientists and brain researchers (which Jefferson knew an early example of in the work of Flourens, Cabanis, et al.) The majority of Americans (93%) tend towards the “spiritual” in their ultimate beliefs, no matter how little, or confusedly, they may know its history.

John Adams – who helped write the Declaration of Independence – believed that the “faculties of our understanding are not adequate to penetrate the Universe” and solve such questions of “spirit” and “matter”. Whether “incision knives” (now electronic microscopes and laser knives) will ever discover the distinction between “spirit” and “body”, the very word “psychology”, in its historical location between pneuma and soma, is in fact itself a sort of spiritual question to man – living inwardly somewhere between . . . “Word” and “Flesh”.

Etymological information was gained from The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology (1988, USA) and Dictionary of Word Origins (John Ayto, 1990, UK).


Other words derived or based on psyche and their dates of first use in English:

psych – 1917

psychedelic – 1957

psychic – 1871

psycho – 1936

psychodrama – 1937

psychohistory 1934

psychopathology – 1847

psychopath – 1885

psychosis – 1847

American slang:

psycho-babble – date unestablished (but recent)

“psych up” – date unestablished (but recent)

“psych out” – date unestablished (but recent)

First published in the magazine English, #30-32, August 1999.