Louis William Stern

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Louis William Stern

Louis William Stern, the German philosopher and psychologist, was born in Berlin and received his PhD under Hermann Ebbinghaus in Berlin in 1892. From 1897 to 1915 he taught philosophy and psychology at the University of Breslau, and in 1915 he moved to Hamburg, where, in 1919, he helped to found the University of Hamburg. He was forced into exile in 1933 by the Nazi government and became professor of psychology and philosophy at Duke University. He died in Durham, North Carolina.

As a psychologist Stern revolted against the elementarism (the belief in the adequacy of analysis of consciousness into its elementary parts) current in Germany before the general acceptance of Gestalt psychology. In his early studies of the perception of change and motion, he employed phenomenological methods and anticipated some later developments in Gestalt psychology.

He soon gave up psychophysical experimentation, however, and pioneered in various fields of applied psychology, such as psychology of childhood, forensic psychology, intelligence testing (he introduced the concept of the intelligence quotient), and vocational psychology.

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Hermann Ebbinghaus

Stern’s work in psychology was always timely and often ahead of his times; he therefore earned a reputation as a psychologist that he never enjoyed as a philosopher, for most of his philosophizing was either opposed to, or out of touch with, contemporary movements. Some resemblance to Lebens-philosophie can be discerned, but he had little contact with Wilhelm Dilthey and his circle.

Stern’s philosophy must be understood in conjunction with his own psychological work, as providing the presuppositions for his lifelong scientific focus on the individual person—not on elements in his behavior and not on abstract universal laws relating them, but on the unique man. Even against Gestalt psychology, which likewise rejected elementarism, Stern’s motto was: “No Gestalt without a Gestalter.”The Gestalter was the person.

Stern called his philosophy critical personalism to distinguish it from other personalistic theories, such as animism, vitalism, and Cartesianism, which were based upon the familiar dualism of mind and body.

Wilhelm Dilthey
Wilhelm Dilthey

For him the person was an integral totality (unitas multiplex) whose defining property was purposive activity. What is not a person is a thing. A thing is not a whole but merely an aggregate; not autonomous but determined from without; not concretely individual but fragmentary or abstract.

The person-thing distinction does not correspond to the mind-body distinction; rather, Stern held, the person is “psychophysically neutral,” and both mind and body are thinglike abstractions from the original concreteness of a person sufficiently complex to be called an organism. Only some persons are conscious; indeed, only some of them are living.

The person-thing distinction is repeated hierarchically, and the world is a system of persons included in and inclusive of others. A thing is a person seen from the standpoint of the supervenient person; that is, a person which includes other persons as parts.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

With this conception, which suggests Aristotle, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and Gustav Fechner, Stern formulated his theory of teleomechanics as a way of avoiding an ontological dichotomy between teleology and mechanism. Mechanical uniformities, patterns of thing-behaviors, are derivative from teleological activities of supervenient personal beings in which the things are components.

By this theory Stern attempted to derive the formal concepts and principles of the thing-world as we know it, such as magnitude, uniformity, class, causality, space, and time. By making these concepts and principles derivative, not fundamental, Stern’s theory gave metaphysical priority to teleological and irreducibly individualistic notions.

Since the concrete substances of the world are teleological both as goal-setting and as goal-realizing, Stern identified the concept of intrinsic value with that of genuine, or personal, being. There are values corresponding to every level of person, indeed to every individual in the hierarchy of persons.

Gustav Fechner
Gustav Fechner

But whereas in the theory of teleomechanism persons become things in the context of supervenient persons and thereby have at most extrinsic value, Stern later explored interpersonal relations in which the autonomy of each person is preserved and heightened through those relations which constitute a higher person.

To the teleomechanical (cosmological) relation between persons Stern now added the introceptive (axiological) relation, by which ends and intrinsic values of other persons as such are used by each person as factors in his own selfhood and autonomous self-determination and growth.

In the formation of more inclusive and autonomous persons, the value of the whole suffuses the included persons with a radiative value (Strahlwert) instead of depersonalizing them as merely instrumentally valuable.

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Stern’s studies of love, religion, art, history, and ethics are deep and perceptive applications of his account of introception and radiative values. The theory of radiative value is especially fruitful in his accounts of symbolism and expression in many fields, and in his theory of introception he attempted to rationalize the value-oriented assessment of total personality characteristic of his psychology of individual differences.

Stern’s personalism differs from that of personal idealism in that it is neither theistic nor idealistic, nor so radically pluralistic. It has closer resemblances to Jan Christiaan Smuts’s holism and to some phases of Max Scheler’s theory of value.
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