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Stern, William

Stern, William



William Stern (1871-1938), German psychologist and philosopher, was born in Berlin and spent the first 25 years of his life there. He received his doctorate in 1892, soon after the establishment of the first psychological laboratories in Germany and in America, and wrote his dissertation under the then young Ebbinghaüs, who had fired his enthusiasm for exact empirical studies. At that time an empirical approach to the new discipline of psychology usually meant an exhaustive study of single functions and elements of experience with the assumption that, when enough of them were understood as distinct entities, the resulting knowledge would constitute a working system. In spite of his allegiance to Ebbinghaüs, Stern did not entirely accept the limitations of this approach. He had entered the University of Berlin with the intention of studying philosophy and philology and had acquired a broad base in those fields before he started to study psychology. At 19 he realized that he would have to find a way to reconcile his love for empirical investigation with his love for philosophical speculation, and this was to remain his goal for the rest of his life (1930b, p. 340).

Between 1892 and 1897 Stern worked on his monograph Psychologie der Veränderungsauffassung (1898), which dealt with a series of investigations on the apperception of change. The experimental work that formed the basis for this study included observations that made him aware of the richness and diversity of types of change and led him to the conviction that the prevalent view, which equated all change with change of location, was artificial and unreal.

In 1897 Ebbinghaus left Berlin for a chair in Breslau, and Stern also went to Breslau as a Privatdozent. The succeeding years there were marked by intense activity and untiring production. At this time Stern felt that the deeper implications of his work on the experience of change were being largely ignored by his colleagues, so he set himself, for a time, a variety of more narrowly psychological tasks; they served, he said, as a stockade behind which his metaphysical system could develop. It was only later, he noted, that he fully realized how much this work contributed to the conceptual foundations of his final theory. At the same time, it did much to establish his reputation at home and abroad. Especially in the areas of child psychology and in the applied fields of mental and vocational testing and legal psychology, his observational methods and the ways in which he organized his material helped open up and structure new fields of study. With the more recent development of experimental techniques and rigorous statistical treatment of data, his publications are less frequently quoted, but there is no doubt of the part that they have played.

In the United States Stern is probably best known for his contributions to child psychology, especially for his studies of the development of language in children. He published two important monographs in collaboration with his wife, Clara Stern, based on diaries that she kept during the early development of their own children: Erinnerung, Aussage, Lüge in der ersten Kindheit in 1905 and Die Kindersprache in 1907. An account of the childhood of Helen Keller (1910), tracing the construction of her world from tactual sensations and the unusual but well-ordered processes by which she acquired language, also appeared at this time. [See Developmental psychology;and Language, article on Language development.]

Stern early became interested in the psychology of individual differences, publishing in 1900 a monograph entitled über Psychologie der individuellen Differenzen, which appeared, completely rewritten, in 1911 as Differentielle Psychologie. During this period he became involved in the testing of intelligence and of vocational aptitude and was the first to suggest the use of the intelligence quotient to indicate ability. In later years he warned against the overemphasis of such measures, stressing the importance of looking at the role of intelligence in the functioning of the person as a whole, rather than evaluating it as an independent factor. [See Aptitude testing; Intelligenceand Intelligence testing; Vocational Interest testing.]

Another field in which Stern worked was that of legal psychology. His interest in this topic resulted in the publication of “Zur Psychologie der Aussage” in 1902 and two volumes of Beitrage zur Psychologie der Aussage (1903-1906) soon thereafter. His continuing interest in this field is evidenced by the fact that his last public lecture in 1937 dealt with questions of courtroom procedure. [See Psychiatry, article on Forensic psychiatry.]

In 1906, while he was still a member of the Breslau faculty, Stern cooperated with his former student Otto Lipmann in founding the Institut für Angewandte Psychologie in Berlin, and in 1907 he established the journal Zeitschrift für angewandte Psychologie, of which he remained coeditor until he left Germany in 1933. In spite of his manifold activity during the period in Breslau, he found time to reflect on his philosophical system and wrote the first volume of Person und Sache: System des kritischen Personalismus (1918-1923).

In 1916 he was appointed director of the psychological laboratory in Hamburg and professor of philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy at what was then the Kolonial Institut there. As the demand for university training increased at the end of World War i, Stern played an important part in the transformation of several loosely organized facilities in Hamburg into a major university. He remained at his post there until the beginning of the Hitler regime. During those years he published a large number of articles and books in different fields of theoretical and applied psychology. He was especially active in introducing tests for vocational guidance and for the selection of gifted children into the Hamburg schools. He also completed the presentation of his philosophical-psychological system (see 1918-1923, vols. 2-3; 1924).

With the advent of Hitler, Stern first sought refuge in Holland, and in 1934 joined the department of psychology headed by William McDougall at Duke University. During his year in Holland, he used his enforced leisure to give a detailed and comprehensive account of his ideas on psychology (1935). At Duke, Stern continued teaching, writing, and giving occasional public lectures until his sudden death in 1938.

Philosophical-psychological system. In describing his philosophical system, Stern said that his basic motive was a striving for concrete unity. He wanted to synthesize the antithetical concepts of mind and body, causality and teleology, associationism and holism. His central idea is the category of “person,” to which he assigned the defining property of concrete, purposeful activity, emphasizing that this activity is inner-determined rather than imposed from without and that the person is a genuine whole rather than an aggregate of parts.

With this definition, the category of person is applied to “the human, the sub-human, the superhuman, to the organic and inorganic, to individual and societal forms” ([1930b] 1961, p. 371). Complementary to the concept of “person” is the concept of “thing.” “Thing” refers to everything that is not whole, that is merely aggregated, that is not endowed with purposive, self-originating activity but is instead a sphere of influence for foreign determinants.

Stern called the science that studies the human person in his totality “personalistics.” It deals with the topics that the specialized sciences of the person—biology, physiology, pathology, psychology— have in common. Psychology is a branch of personalistics, and in defining it Stern began with the individual person (using the word “person” in its more usual sense). He said the person, in this sense, is “a living whole, unique, striving toward goals, self-contained and yet open to the world around him; he is capable of having experience”; and psychology is, then, “the science of the person as having experience or as capable of having experience. It studies this personal attribute, experience, in regard to the conditions of its appearance, its nature, mode of functioning and regularity, and its significance for personal existence and life considered as a whole” ([1935] 1938, p. 70).

Although the person exists as a biological organism and is connected with objective values, psychology, according to Stern, does not deal with the biosphere or with values as such. The biosphere and values belong to the broader science of personalistics and become part of the subject matter of psychology only as they enter into the experience of the person. Experience, in turn, is to be identified and interpreted in terms of its matrix, the unitary, goal-directed person (ibid., p. viii).

In his book on general psychology (1935), Stern treated those fields that are usually found in such a text—perception, memory and learning, thought and imagination, motivation and affect. The content is unusually rich; a great variety of phenomena are described and classified. Often they are sorted out according to polar dimensions—depthsurface, reactivity-spontaneity, nearness-remoteness, etc. Throughout the book every experience and every process is related to the total person. Stern frequently asked, What is it for? (i.e., What instrumental value does it have for the adaptation of the person to the environment?) and provided answers to that question. In short, with Stern an emphasis on the concrete unity of the person was paramount: he was always a holistic psychologist. His concern was mainly with phenomenological description and teleological explanation and less with causal conditions or effects. Thus his thought is related, on the one hand, to recent existentialism and phenomenology and, on the other, to the functionalism of James, Dewey, or Angeli.

In discussing the relation between the person and the world, Stern talked about “the personal world,” which is different from other worlds, e.g., the mathematical, physical, or sociological world. Each individual has his own world centered in his person, and this world has its own spatial-temporal structure. Thus, the usual dimensions of above-below, before-behind, right-left are found in the personal world, but they carry meanings beyond those of ordinary mathematical, Euclidean space. One term of a dimension is often given greater value than its opposite. For example, the terms “above,” “before,” and “right” are often given greater value than their opposites, “below,” “after,” and “left.” In this sort of treatment of the phenomenology of space and time, Stern came close to the existentialists with their “lived space” and “lived time.”

He distinguished between degrees of consciousness along a dimension that he called “salienceembeddedness.” The greater the salience of a specific experience the greater its relative independence and inner structure. Thus, a thought on which attention is focused, a clearly perceived figure, or a structured act of will is salient. On the other hand, the more embedded an experience, the less clear, structured, and independent it is. Examples are moods or general, unformulated attitudes. The polarity of salience versus embeddedness is similar to, but not the same as, the polarity of figure versus ground in gestalt psychology. Stern accused gestalt theory of dealing only with the salient parts of experience, since it stressed the clearly articulated gestalt; however, the embedded parts, such as feelings, smells, tastes, or empathic experience, should not be forgotten. Gestalt theory committed the error, he felt, of reifying figural units as if they were elements of a higher order. There can be no gestalt without a person who forms gestalten. Figural units are not independent; one always has to consider their relevance to the person and especially their significance for the person's adaptation to the environment.

Stern did not conceive of memory as related to traces having fixed content; rather, the traces become immersed in the total person and alter his disposition to react to immediate stimuli. In discussing thought and intellect, he conceded that they have survival value; but here again he stressed man's capacity to be more than a passive adapter: spontaneous striving toward enhanced status and power activates the intellect more than does mere self-preservation.

In treating the psychology of motivation, Stern dealt not only with reflexes, drives, needs, and instincts but also with “will,” which implies conscious anticipation of end and means. He discussed the course of voluntary behavior and distinguished pro-phase, onset of will, execution, and after-phase. Stern's treatment of the psychology of personality consists mainly of a classification of traits and types. For instance, he suggested that one can distinguish between people who are mainly concerned with their own preservation and development and those whose aims are related to the environment, i.e., to other persons, to groups, and to values.

Among Stern's younger contemporaries who were influenced by his thinking and who helped bring some of the broader aspects of his work, especially his stress on the whole person, into the stream of present-day psychology are Heinz Werner and Gordon Allport. On the whole, it may be said that in his most active years his greatest influence was on the new fields in which he was a trail blazer. Beyond this, it is hard to know how far contemporary trends that are in line with his thinking stem from his work and how far he should be thought of as merely anticipating independent developments. For psychologists who feel the need to go beyond a fragmented view of human nature, Stern's personalism, centered as it is in the concrete unity of the person, will always have a special attraction. It may be that, as he himself felt, this will be the most lasting part of his work.

Fritz Heider

[Other relevant material may be found inField theory; Gestalt theory; Personality; Self concept; and in the biographies ofAngyalandBühler.]


(1898) 1906 Psychologie der Veränderungsauffassung. 2d ed. Breslau (then Germany): Preuss & Junger.

1900 über Psychologie der individuellen Differenzen. Leipzig: Barth.

1902 Zur Psychologie der Aussage. Zeitschrift fur die gesamte Strafrechtswissenschaft 22:56 only.

1903-1906 Beiträge zur Psychologie der Aussage. 2 vols. Leipzig: Barth.

(1905) 1922 Stern, William; and Stern, ClaraErinnerung, Aussage, Luge in der ersten Kindheit. 3d ed. Leipzig: Barth.

(1907) 1927 Stern, William; and Stern, ClaraDie Kindersprache. 4th ed. Leipzig: Barth.

1910 Helen Keller: Personliche Eindrücke. Zeitschrift fur angewandte Psychologic 3:321-333.

1911 Differentielle Psychologie in ihren methodischen Grundlagen. Leipzig: Barth.

(1914) 1930 Psychology of Early Childhood up to the Sixth Year of Age. 2d ed. New York: Holt. → First published in German.

1918-1923 Person und Sache: System des kritischen Personalismus. 3 vols. Leipzig: Earth. → Subtitle of Volume 1: Ableitung und Grundlage des kritischen Personalismus; Volumes 2 and 3: Die menschliche Personlichkeit.

1924 Wertphilosophie. Leipzig: Barth.

1930a Studien zur Personuissenschaft. Part 1: Personalistik als Wissenschaft. Leipzig: Earth.

(1930b) 1961 William Stern. Volume 1, pages 335-388 in A History of Psychology in Autobiography. Edited by Carl Murchison. New York: Russell.

(1935) 1938 General Psychology From the Personalistic Standpoint. New York: Macmillan. → First published in German.


Allport, Gordon W. 1937 The Personalistic Psychology of William Stern. Character and Personality 5: 231-246.

Allport, Gordon W. 1938 William Stern: 1871-1938. American Journal of Psychology 51:770-773.

Werner, Heinz 1938 William Stern's Personalistics and Psychology of Personality. Character and Personality 7:109-125.

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