The following text is © 1997 Robert Wozniak. All hyperlinked text links to footnotes located at the bottom of the document.

Max Meyer and The Fundamental Laws of Human Behavior

Robert H. Wozniak
Bryn Mawr College

In its conception, The Fundamental Laws of Human Behavior, published in 1911 by Max Meyer (1873-1967), is a remarkable book. Appearing two years before John Broadus Watson (1878-1958) issued his famous behaviorist manifesto,[1] it has been called the first "completely behavioristic explanation of human action"[2] and to some extent it is. Meyer rejects the explanatory use of mental states except as shorthand for the operation of complex nervous processes, emphasizes the importance of behavior, and limits the scientific value of introspection solely to "the fact that it aids us in discovering the laws of nervous function."[3] But Meyer's seminal text, written for the beginning student, is both more and less extreme in its objectivism than the behaviorism that Watson made famous.

Unlike Watson, Meyer was an uncompromising neurophysiological reductionist. This theme, which runs throughout The Fundamental Laws, was articulated for a professional audience in two papers -- one on the psychology of feeling,[4] from which Meyer drew heavily in writing The Fundamental Laws, and a second[6] on mind and body, published just after the 1911 textbook appeared. In discussing "the causes of action" in 1908, Meyer asserted that:

"The nervous correlate of a sensation is a nervous process starting at a sensory point, passing over a definite path of connecting neurons, and ending in a motor point of the body. The sensation (or perception, if it is a unified group of sensations) preceding the movement may justly be called the cause of the movement. If the nervous process passes over higher connecting neurons which have previously been excited from different sensory points of the body we experience imagery. These images may justly be called the cause of the action, for this movement would not have taken place in response to this sensory stimulation if the nervous current had not taken this very path over higher connecting neurons."[7]

Sensations and images, in other words, are the conscious correlates of nervous processes that link stimulation to action. As mental states, they bear a determinate relationship to specific nervous processes and may be viewed as the cause of behavior only insofar as they accompany the nervous processes that serve as necessary and sufficient conditions of behavior. In 1912, Meyer made this view even more explicit. Criticizing William McDougall's (1871-1938) Body and Mind for reintroducing consciousness as an unknown in the equation relating stimulation to behavior, Meyer argued that:

We need to establish definite relations between our subjective and our objective terms, so that, instead of mixing them up, we can translate the one into the other. Then only will it be possible to utilize the advances made at the present time...for the advancement of an objective science of human behavior. We must try to establish definite nervous correlates for all the specific mental states and mental functions which are used in and seemingly can not be spared from our descriptions of human life in the mental and social sciences. I venture to predict that those terms of mental function, for which no nervous correlate can be found, are the very ones which are superfluous, can be spared from our descriptions of mental life in man and animals."[8]

This is an important perspective, and Meyer's Fundamental Laws of Human Behavior articulates it clearly and carries it through consistently. It is not a view, however, that was by any means unique to Meyer. Statements of physiological reductionism of one sort or another were common by 1900.[9] What is much more significant about The Fundamental Laws is the way in which Meyer elaborates his reductionism. Over a decade before Ivan Petrovich Pavlov's (1849-1936) first systematic treatise on the brain and behavior[10] and some 38 years before D. O. Hebb (1904-1985) demonstrated the theoretical possibilities inherent in a "conceptual nervous system,"[11] Meyer employed a series of rationally derived, associationist models of neural architecture to organize the presentation of psychological fact.

First presented in the 1908 article on feeling and greatly elaborated in The Fundamental Laws, Meyer's models are abstract theoretical structures whose function is conceptual and heuristic. Starting from what is known about mental states and behavior, these models stipulate what nervous mechanisms must be like.[12] As Meyer put it in introducing his approach:

If we wish to develop a plain and comprehensive view of the relation between consciousness and nervous activity...we must first of all develop a plain and comprehensive theory of nervous function. To what extent this later theory can ultimately be accepted as right, is only of secondary importance in this connection, provided, of course, that the theory does not contradict any facts known beyond doubt. It is easier to change details of a definite theory when necessary, than to make definite a theory which is vague at the start."[13]

While Meyer's objectivism was radically reductionist and, in this regard, he went beyond Watson, in certain other respects Meyer's position was much less extreme than that of Watson. Meyer neither denied the reality of personal consciousness nor completely separated himself from the data of introspection. His "behaviorism" was not that of the Watsonian prediction/control, stimulus/response, empty organism variety that was eventually carried to its logical extreme by B. F. Skinner (1904-1990).[14] For Meyer, the explanation of behavior depends directly on what goes on in the organism -- on nervous processes that link stimuli to behaviors and that correlate with mental states.

In working out this approach, Meyer was more a forerunner of modern cognitive neuropsychology than of behaviorism -- at least of behaviorism as it was first introduced and elaborated by Watson and later revised by the neobehaviorists Edward C. Tolman (1886-1959) and Clark L. Hull (1884-1952).[15] Yet the fact remains that Meyer was viewed by his contemporaries[16] and even by himself[17] as an early behaviorist. Objectivist in tone and thoroughly behavior-oriented, The Fundamental Laws of Human Behavior contributed to the general climate of opinion within which Watson issued his call for a psychology restricted to the study of behavior. In this light, it is of interest to inquire into Meyer's own intellectual roots.

Max Meyer was born in Danzig[18] in 1873. The son of a less than prosperous and personally irascible goldsmith, Meyer was not blessed with an especially happy childhood.[18] At the Gymnasium, which he continued to attend at municipal expense after his father refused to pay the tuition, Meyer was a dedicated student who took as wide a range of courses as possible. At the age of 16, he chanced to discover Der Ursprung der Sprache of Lazarus Geiger (1829-1870). The effect that this work had on Meyer was enormous and helped to determine the direction of his future thinking.

Geiger was a largely self-taught philologist who devoted the majority of his life to solitary scholarly pursuits.[19] Der Ursprung der Sprache was based on the principle that the origin of human reason coincided with the origin of language. According to Geiger, an empirical and historical analysis of language could therefore be expected to clarify the nature and origin of reason. In slightly more modern terms, Meyer described Geiger's view and its influence on his own thinking in the following way:

"Geiger thought that all thinking was innere Sprache ["internal speech"] and that speaking had its origin in the necessity for human beings to cooperate in muscular activity. I accepted that. And since all skeletal muscular activity is governed neurologically, I concluded that all thinking is governed neurologically by mediation of speech."[20]

In the Spring of 1892, Meyer left Danzig for the University of Berlin where he took coursework in philosophy, mathematics, physics, and physiology. In his second year, during a period in which he was experiencing a crisis of confidence in his own abilities, Meyer enrolled in a psychological seminar run by Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909). Ebbinghaus was then already world famous for his experimental studies of memory.[21] For reasons that are unclear, Meyer did not find in Ebbinghaus the source of personal and academic support that he badly needed, and by 1894, when Ebbinghaus left Berlin for the chair at Breslau, Meyer, as he tells us, was so utterly convinced of his own failure that he was "thinking of the most painless method of committing suicide."[22]

It was then that Meyer had the good fortune to meet Carl Stumpf (1848-1936). Stumpf, newly arrived from Munich, had been chosen over Ebbinghaus for the Philosophy Chair at Berlin. His call to Berlin had resulted at least partly from the publication of his Tonpsychologie [23]in two volumes between 1883 and 1890. In the Tonpsychologie, Stumpf expounded views on the nature of attention, the psychophysics of tone, and the perception of tonal fusion, dissonance and consonance.

In the summer of 1894, Stumpf offered a seminar in which Meyer enrolled. When Stumpf inquired of the seminar participants whether anyone was interested in helping him carry out experiments in psycho-acoustics, Meyer and three other students remained behind at the end of class to discuss the work.[24] Within two weeks, the three other students had all abandoned the project. Only Meyer was left, and thus began a close personal and professional relationship with Stumpf that continued for four productive years and led to Stumpf's directing Meyer's doctoral dissertation on audition.[25]

Joining in the approval of Meyer's dissertation was another relatively recent arrival at Berlin, Max Planck (1858-1947), who had assumed the Chair in Theoretical Physics in 1889. Planck may have influenced Meyer's general theoretical perspective in two significant ways[26]. From Planck, Meyer seems to have adopted the view that careful reasoning alone can provide insight into the characteristics of natural phenomena. Meyer's strong tendency to develop abstract theoretical models that stipulate what nervous mechanisms must be like is certainly consonant with this view.

Planck may also have been a source of Meyer's commitment to the distinction between the internal and the external points of view. While the internal, psychological point of view yields direct, personal knowledge of psychological states, these states are accessible to others only through external manifestations in action. From the external, physiological point of view, a satisfactory understanding of behavior can be obtained in terms of neural processes without postulating the intervention of any particular mental force.[27] The external point of view, as we have seen, was consistently evident in Meyer's work.

In 1898, Meyer broke with Stumpf over the interpretation of data bearing on Stumpf's concept of "musical dissonance-consonance". Outraged over what he took to be Meyer's defection from the fold, Stumpf summarily dismissed his former student from the Berlin laboratory. Alone, without an academic position and with few academic contacts in Germany, Meyer took his meager savings and left Berlin, moving first to the University of London for seven months as an unpaid assistant to James Sully (1842-1923) and then to the United States for a year as an unpaid fellow with G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924) at Clark University.

During much of this time, Meyer was deeply involved in theoretical work on the psychology of music[28] and on the nature of cochlear function in hearing.[29] The little time he took away from this research was devoted to finding a salaried position. Finally, in June 1900, his funds almost exhausted, Meyer's diligence was rewarded, and he received notification of appointment to the University of Missouri faculty, [30] a position he was to retain until 1929.[31]

Upon arrival in Missouri, Meyer set to work with his usual intensity. With access to a laboratory and subjects, he initiated a series of experimental studies on the aesthetics of final tones, musical intonations, and quartertone music.[32] At the same time, he also began to teach a wide array of courses in psychology. Although we don't know exactly what inspired Meyer to decide to write his own textbook, it seems reasonable to assume that his sudden immersion in teaching, his need to move far beyond his own specialty area to cover the broad field of general psychology,[33] and his own intense interest in learning processes impelled him to consider how best to present material to his students.

Interestingly, The Fundamental Laws of Human Behavior was his second venture in this regard. His first exposure to textbook writing came when he agreed to translate Ebbinghaus's Abriss der Psychologie [34] into English for the publisher D.C. Heath. In the preface, Meyer tells us that "the present book is a free translation"[35] calculated to enhance the book's value to students. It is that; indeed, Meyer's translation is so free that he felt able to take the liberty of interpolating into the text figures and attendant discussion that present three of his own quite idiosyncratic models of neural architecture.[36] Encouraged apparently by this initial attempt, Meyer then greatly elaborated on these models and on the theoretical reasoning that they make explicit and used them as the conceptual backbone for his own introductory textbook. The Fundamental Laws of Human Behavior appeared in 1911.

Although The Fundamental Laws was used as a text at Missouri and probably at Ohio State,[37] it seems otherwise to have been widely ignored.[38] The work's failure to attract attention probably reflected several factors. First, the book received only a single, albeit extremely favorable review.[39] George Van Ness Dearborn (1869-1938), the reviewer, commented not only on the originality of Meyer's work, but on its potential theoretical power. "Many a long-famous treatise in two 'considerable' volumes," Dearborn wrote, "...has had less constructive material within its walls than this little book. Much knowledge of child-behavior and insight of the human nervous system is behind these pages' composition, and (the two being efficiently correlated) the work, therefore, really supplies new laws of human behavior...."[40]

Unfortunately for Meyer, however, Dearborn's article was a double review that also focused on a text by Meyer's Missouri colleague, Maurice Parmelee (1882-1969)[41] Somewhat critical of Parmelee's work, Dearborn devoted most of the review to this criticism and only two substantive paragraphs near the end of the article to Meyer's Fundamental Laws. Worse, the review was published two years after the appearance of Meyer's text and appeared in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, a heavily clinical journal with a specialized and limited readership among psychologists. No discussion of Meyer's book ever appeared in either The American Journal of Psychology or The Psychological Bulletin, the two most influential repositories of reviews.

Second, Meyer's choice of publishers, Richard G. Badger of Boston, was less than felicitous. While Badger published a number of important books,[42] almost all of Badger's publications dealt with topics in psychoanalysis, psychiatry, or sexology. The inclusion of The Fundamental Laws of Human Behavior among titles such as Roswell Park's (1852-1914) The Evil Eye, Thanatology, and Other Essays;[43] Sanger Brown's (1884-1968) The Sex Worship and Symbolism of Primitive Races;[44] and W. R. Robie's (1866-1928) Rational Sex Ethics; a Physiological and Psychological Study of the Sex Lives of Normal Men and Women;[45] and Morton Prince's (1854-1929)The Psychology of the Kaiser, [46] could not have enhanced Meyer's scientific credibility.

Third, The Fundamentals of Human Behavior was, after all, a basic textbook, aimed at the introductory student. One suspects that only a very few of the students to whom it was assigned appreciated its revolutionary import, and that, as an introductory text, it was probably read by even fewer research psychologists. As the author of Meyer's obituary put it, his "teaching books did not notably attract the attention of systematists."[47]

Lastly, during his career in America, Max Meyer remained out of the professional mainstream, not only within American psychology but even within behaviorism.[48] This should come as no surprise. Meyer's intellectual roots lay in German experimental psychophysics and sensory psychology, not in the animal behavior study that took center stage within behaviorism. His intellectual affinities lay more with the pure science orientation of German laboratory psychology than with the characteristically applied American preoccupation that led Watson to assert "prediction and control of behavior"[49] to be psychology's theoretical goal.

In this regard, it is especially revealing that Max Meyer, stringent objectivist, critic of introspection, and unrelenting reductionist, held only one experimental psychologist in America in high esteem. That psychologist was Edward Bradford Titchener (1867-1927)[50] arch introspectionist and opponent of reductionism and behaviorism alike. When the founders of scientific psychology in America, disillusioned with the sterility of the early experimental work, began one by one to desert the laboratory for the philosopher's easy chair, the tests, questionnaires, and popularizations of the applied psychologist, or an office in the administration building,[51] Titchener stood almost alone in his continuing commitment to the traditional laboratory and to psychology as the pure science of human psychological phenomena. This was a commitment that Max Meyer understood. The Fundamental Laws of Human Behavior may have been the first "completely behavioristic explanation of human action,"[52] but the direction that behaviorism and psychology took after 1913 was foreign to Max Meyer, and he remained foreign to it.


1. Watson, J.B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177. [Back to text]

2. Pillsbury, W.B. (1929). The history of psychology. NY: Norton, p. 290. [Back to text]

3. Meyer, M. (1911). The fundamental laws of human behavior. Boston: R.G. Badger, p. 239. [Back to text]

4. Meyer, M. (1908a). The nervous correlate of pleasantness and unpleasantness, Psychological Review, 15, 201-216, 292-322. [Back to text]

5. Meyer, M. (1912). The present status of the problem of the relation between mind and body. Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, 9, 365-371. [Back to text]

6. Meyer (1908a), pp. 318-319. [Back to text]

7. Meyer (1912), p. 371. [Back to text]

8. For a discussion of the history of mind/body views, see: Wozniak, R.H. (1992). Mind and body: RenŽ Descartes to William James. Bethesda, MD: National Library of Medicine and Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association. [Back to text]

9. Pavlov, I.P. (1923). Dvadtsatiletnii opyt obektivnogo izucheniia vysshei nervnoi deiatel'nosti zhivotnykh. Moskva-Petrograd: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel'stvo. [Back to text]

10. Hebb, D.O. (1949). The organization of behavior: A neuropsychological theory. NY: John Wiley. [Back to text]

11. See, for example, figures 16 and 17 following p. 44 of Meyer (1911). [Back to text]

12. Meyer (1908a), p. 292. [Back to text]

13. Skinner, B.F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. NY: Appleton-Century. [Back to text]

14. Thus neither the hypothetical constructs of Hullian theory [Hull, C.L. (1943). Principles of behavior: An introduction to behavior theory. NY: Appleton-Century] nor the intervening variables of Tolman's purposive behaviorism [Tolman, E.C. (1932). Purposive behavior in animals and men. NY: Century] had or were ever expected to have explicit neural reference. [Back to text]

15. See Esper, E.A. (1966). Max Meyer: The making of a scientific isolate. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 2, 341-356, especially pp. 341 and 355. [Back to text]

16. See Esper, E.A. (1967). Max Meyer in America. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 3, 107-131, especially p. 124. [Back to text]

17. Material in this section is drawn heavily from Esper (1966) and Esper (1967). Esper, in turn, based his discussion on correspondence received from Meyer between 1955 and 1965. [Back to text]

18. Letter from Meyer to Esper, quoted in Esper (1966), p. 342. [Back to text]

19. See Esper, E.A. (1968). Mentalism and objectivism in linguistics. NY: Elsevier, pp. 85-113. [Back to text]

20. Esper (1966), p. 344. [Back to text]

21. Ebbinghaus, H. (1885). †ber das GedŠchtnis. Untersuchungen zur experimentellen Psychologie. Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot. [Back to text]

22. Esper (1966), p. 345. [Back to text]

23. Stumpf, C. (1883-1890). Tonpsychologie. Leipzig: S. Hirzel. [Back to text]

24. Esper (1966), pp. 345-346. [Back to text]

25. Meyer, M. (1896). †ber Kombinationstšne und einige hierzu in Beziehung stehende akustische Erscheinungen. Zeitschrift fŸr Psychologie und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane, 11, 177-229. [Back to text]

26. See Esper (1966), pp. 347-348 for an excellent discussion of Planck's influence on Meyer. [Back to text]

27. See Planck, M. (1950). Scientific autobiography and other papers. London: Williams & Norgate, pp. 59-75 for this argument. [Back to text]

28. Meyer, M. (1900a). Elements of psychological theory of melody. Psychological Review, 7, 241-273. [Back to text]

29. Meyer, M. (1899). Zur Theorie des Hšrens. PflŸger's Archiv fŸr die gesamte Physiologie, 78, 346-362; Meyer, M. (1900b). Karl L. SchŠfer's "Neue ErklŠrung des subjectiven Combinationstšne." PflŸger's Archiv fŸr die gesamte Physiologie, 81, 49-60; Meyer, M. (1900c). E. ter Kuile's Theorie des Hšrens. PflŸger's Archiv fŸr die gesamte Physiologie, 81, 61-75. [Back to text]

30. Esper (1967), p. 112. [Back to text]

31. In 1929 a questionnaire assessing attitudes toward extramarital sexual relations had been distributed to students with Meyer's tacit approval. Public outcry over the questionnaire led to Meyer's receiving a one-year, unpaid suspension from the University. In 1930, upon his return, Meyer had the poor judgment to engage in public criticism of the members of the University Board of Curators who had been responsible for his suspension. As a result, he was summarily dismissed from the University and never again held a regular faculty appointment. For an informative discussion of the entire affair. see Esper (1967). [Back to text]

32. Meyer, M. (1903). Experimental studies in the psychology of music. American Journal of Psychology, 14, 192-214. [Back to text]

33. Esper (1967), p. 113. [Back to text]

34. Ebbinghaus, H. (1908a). Abriss der Psychologie. Leipzig: Veit & Co.. In English as: Ebbinghaus, H. (1908b). Psychology. An elementary text-book. Translated and edited by Max Meyer. Boston: D.C. Heath. [Back to text]

35. Ebbinghaus (1908b), p. iii. [Back to text]

36. Ibid., pp. 34-38. [Back to text]

37. See Esper (1967), pp. 113-114 for Meyer's influence on his former student, Ohio State University Professor A.P. Weiss. [Back to text]

38. As best we can tell, The Fundamental Laws had only a single printing. While none of Meyer's textbooks is especially common in the antiquarian book trade, this one is quite uncommon. [Back to text]

39. Dearborn, G.V.N. (1913-1914). [Review of] The Science of Human Behavior: Biological and Psychological Foundations. By Maurice Parmelee of the University of Missouri. (New York, The Macmillan Company, 1913. Pp. XVII, 443). [and] The Fundamental Laws of Human Behavior: Lectures on the Foundations of Any Mental or Social Science. By Max Meyer of the University of Missouri. (Boston, Richard G. Badger, 1911. Pp. xv, 241). Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 8, 212-215, reprinted in this volume. [Back to text]

40. Ibid., p. 214. [Back to text]

41. Parmelee, M. (1913). The science of human behavior: Biological and psychological foundations. NY: Macmillan. [Back to text]

42. Doll, E.A. (1917). Clinical studies in feeble-mindedness; Ferenczi, S. (1916). Sex in psychoanalysis. Contributions to psycho-analysis; Meyer, A. & Jelliffe, S.E. (1911). Dementia praecox: A monograph; Prince, M. (1910). (Ed). Subconscious phenomena; Sidis, B. (1916). The causation and treatment of psychopathic diseases. All published in Boston by R.G. Badger. [Back to text]

43. (1912). Boston: R.G. Badger. [Back to text]

44. (1916). Boston: R.G. Badger. [Back to text]

45. (1916-1919). Boston: R.G. Badger. [Back to text]

46. (1915). Boston: R.G. Badger. [Back to text]

47. Hirsh, I.J. (1967). May Frederick Meyer: 1873-1967. American Journal of Psychology, 80, 644-645. [Back to text]

48. Esper (1967). [Back to text]

49. Watson (1913), p. 158. [Back to text]

50. See Esper (1967), p. 126. [Back to text]

51. William James (1842-1910) and James Mark Baldwin (1861-1934) for philosophy; James McKeen Cattell (1860-1944), Joseph Jastrow (1863-1944), and Hugo MŸnsterberg (1863-1916) for applied psychology; and G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924) and James Rowland Angell (1869-1949) for academic administration. [Back to text]

52. Pillsbury (1929), p. 290. [Back to text]