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    Adolf-Würth-Center for the History of Psychology

    Carl Stumpf: The rectorate-speech about the ethical scepticism in 1908

    The Adolf-Würth-Centre has a small part of Carl Stumpf’s estate available. Besides some photos and correspondences (e.g. with Husserl), there is a 12 “- Schellackdisk which is in possession of the Adolf-Würth-Centre. It has the title: “Geh. Rat. Dr. Carl Stumpf-from a recctorate-speech” and contains parts of the second rectorate-speech by Carl Stumpf on the occasion of the foundation celebration of the University of Berlin on the 3rd of August in 1908. The recording did not arise at the foundation celebration directly, but probably shortly afterwards, still in August 1908. We managed to digitalise the disk with adequate accuracy. Carl Stumpf’s original voice with parts of his speech can be listened to by clicking on the integrated player on the bottom of this page. Stumpf is talking about the ethical scepticism in his speech. The ethical scepticism has spread in this time despite or because of the specific position of power and  industrial power and dynamic of the German Empire: “An ethical scepticism, for which all tradition seems powerless, all regulations seem not only alterable but also necessary to change,  is pervasive nowadays.” (Stumpf, 1910, p.198). He takes up the argumentation of e.g. Montaigne (1533-1592), Paul Ree (1849-1901) and Alexander Bain (1818-1903) and agrees with them to an extent by saying that “today for behaviour which is judged as good, an opposite behaviour can be found which is seen as good in other cultures while our moral ideals are disdained there.” (ebd. p. 199). However, the conclusion Stumpf draws from the evidence of the sceptics is not the conclusion of the ethical scepticism. It is much more the development of an ethics which is constantly and constructively developing further. Stumpf sees the fundament of this ethics in the insight in inner and independent values of ethical attitude. With this, he follows the ideas of Kant and Socrates: “Moral behaviour is insightful and very distinct from instinctive and habitual behaviour.” (ebd. p.211). A further fundament for Stumpf was his persuasion that good behaviour can only be carried out by those who have exact knowledge about  the “circumstances of reality” (ebd. p.218), because “a power which always aims for the good and always creates the bad is less welcome than one of the opposite nature.” (ebd. p.219).According to Stumpf’s deliberations individual perfection is achieved through these two fundaments by using one’s life to achieve big, objective aims and at the same time putting back oneself. For Stumpf, this is a psychological” law of nature”, “the true basic formula”: “Only who loses one’s soul, will find it. This formula is the one which is expressed without speaking in the powerful movement for social, objective ethics.  This movement is above all, even brilliantly formed, subjective approaches, because it is grounded in human nature. Someone who is not living with objective interest is being condemned to only share the company of one’s own woeful self. These persons have taken all content from the self which they can only clean up artificially. However, things are very different for those who dedicate their lives to arts, scientific problems and national social services: what a richness of life and true reality is that person achieving without even consciously knowing and aiming for!” (ebd. p.217).


    Stumpf, C. (1910). Philosophische Reden und Vorträge. Leipzig: Johann Ambrosius Barth.


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