The Echoes of the Mind (9-24) Johann Friedrich Herbart

Johann Friedrich Herbart

Desire relates to objects and feeling to states. Feeling and desiring are changeable conditions of concepts. ~ Johann Friedrich Herbart

German philosopher and psychologist Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776–1841) occupied the university position that Kant had vacated with his passing. While an initial admirer of Kant, Herbart became more compatible with Leibniz’s point of view.

Herbart agreed with Kant that psychology could never be an experimental science. But Herbart thought that mentation could be expressed mathematically. In that sense psychology can be a science.

Psychology cannot experiment with men. So much the more carefully must we make use of mathematics. ~ Johann Friedrich Herbart

The reason Herbart believed that psychology was beyond experimentation owed to his considering the mind as an integrated whole, and thus not subject to the fractionation which would be the basis of any experimentation. Herbart anticipated gestalt psychology.

Herbart opposed faculty psychology and physiological psychology, both quite popular in the day. Faculty psychology is the view of the mind as a collection of modules, or faculties. Physiological psychology was the empiricist take of psychology as an adjunct to physiology. Both faculty psychology and physiological psychology were major contributors to cognitive psychology, the current mainstream school of psychology.

The work of psychology is to make the total of inner experience comprehensible, while it is the work of the philosophy of Nature to accomplish the same in regard to outer experience. ~ Johann Friedrich Herbart


Concepts are received through the senses, preserved by the memory, reproduced by the imagination, and anew combined. (Herbert used the term vorstellungen, which translates alternatively as concepts, ideas, or representations.) ~ Johann Friedrich Herbart

Herbart’s investigation of the mind focused on concepts. He pondered how confusion was avoided, as the mind is assailed with innumerable ideas through the course of a lifetime. Herbart figured there must be some mental organizing principle. He also wanted to account for the notion that concepts exist in perpetuit: an echo of Platonic forms, which Herbart was well acquainted with.

Herbart coined his apprehension of concepts from empiricists and Leibniz. He viewed ideas as the remnants formed from sensory impressions: an empiricist conception. Like Leibniz, Herbart assumed that ideas – like monads – were imbued with a life of their own. As such, concepts were like Newton’s particles of matter: buffeted about and subject to laws of association. Simple ideas combined to form more complex ones.

Herbart had compatible concepts agglomerated into an apperceptive mass: those concepts which hold one’s attention. Additional ideas enter the apperceptive mass only if they are compatible. A concept that presents conflict will be resisted and exiled.

The peculiar striving of concepts for representation never appears immediately in consciousness. Also, the gradual sinking of concepts cannot be perceived. ~ Johann Friedrich Herbart

Herbert recognized the subconscious as the source of mentation. Herbart thought that concepts which lost their attentive footing by lack of association or loss through conflict were weakened, and so sank below the “threshold of consciousness.” This followed Leibniz, in considering concepts slipping beyond awareness, like “petite” perceptions that don’t register in the conscious mind unless their situational context is willfully recalled.

Herbart believed that ideas were indestructible in the personal sense. A concept’s passing simply meant that it slipped below the threshold of conscious awareness, into the storage locker for dismissed ideas, reposing in a “state of tendency.” Repressed ideas bide their time, waiting for the opportunity to rise back to consciousness as part of a new apperceptive mass which entertains similar repressed ideas. Herbart viewed this schema as a mechanism of mental conflict management.

Concepts become forces when they resist one another. ~ Johann Friedrich Herbart

Wilhelm Wundt took his cue about apprehension from Herbart. Sigmund Freud expanded on Herbart’s concept of repression, turning the unconscious into a seething cauldron that feeds one’s mind.

 Educational Psychology

Many consider Herbart the first educational psychologist. Herbart thought that a student’s mental framework must be considered when presenting new subject matter. Material incompatible with the existing apperceptive mass will be rejected, or at least uncomprehended.

Herbart’s theory of education anticipated Jean Piaget, who thought that teaching can only be effective if it starts with what a student can assimilate. Herbart’s apperceptive mass became Piaget’s cognitive structure.