Durant 1926: Psychology: The Evolution of Mind (Herbert Spencer)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter VIII Section 5 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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V. Psychology: The Evolution of Mind

The two volumes on The Principles of Psychology (1873) are the weakest links in Spencer’s chain. There had been an earlier volume on the subject (1855), a youthfully vigorous defense of materialism and determinism; but age and thought revised this into a milder form, and padded it out with hundreds of pages of painstaking but unilluminating analysis. Here, even more than elsewhere, Spencer is rich in theories and poor in proofs. He has a theory of the origin of nerves out of intercellular connective tissue; and a theory of the genesis of instinct by the compounding of reflexes and the transmission of acquired characters; and a theory of the origin of mental categories out of the experience of the race; and a theory of “transfigured realism”;* and a hundred other theories that have all the obfuscating power of metaphysics rather than the clarifying virtue of a matter-of-fact psychology. In these volumes we leave realistic England and go “back to Kant.” 

*Spencer means by this that although the objects of experience may very well be transfigured by perception, and be quite other than they seem, they have an existence which does not all depend upon perceiving them.

Spencer is rich in theories and poor in proofs. The theories have all the obfuscating power of metaphysics rather than the clarifying virtue of a matter-of-fact psychology.

What strikes us at once is that for the first time in the history of psychology, we get here a resolutely evolutionist point of view, an attempt at genetic explanations, an effort to trace the bewildering complexities of thought down to the simplest of nervous operations, and finally to the motions of matter. It is true that this effort fails; but who has ever succeeded in such an attempt? Spencer sets out with a magnificent program for the unveiling of the processes whereby consciousness has been evolved; in the end he is compelled to posit consciousness everywhere, in order to evolve it. He insists that there has been one continuous evolution from nebula to mind, and at last confesses that matter is known only through mind. Perhaps the most significant paragraphs in these volumes are those in which the materialist philosophy is abandoned: 

Can the oscillation of a molecule be represented in consciousness side by side with a nervous shock, and the two be recognized as one? No effort enables us to assimilate them. That a unit of feeling has nothing in common with a unit of motion, becomes more than ever manifest when we bring the two into juxtaposition. And the immediate verdict of consciousness thus given, might be analytically justified; … for it might be shown that the conception of an oscillating molecule is built out of many units of feeling.” (I. e., our knowledge of matter is built up out of units of mind—sensations and memories and ideas). “… Were we compelled to choose between the alternatives of translating mental phenomena into physical phenomena, or of translating physical phenomena into mental phenomena, the latter alternative would seem the more acceptable of the two.

Spencer sets out with a magnificent program for the unveiling of the processes whereby consciousness has been evolved; in the end he is compelled to posit consciousness everywhere, in order to evolve it.

Nevertheless there is of course an evolution of mind; a development of modes of response from simple to compound to complex, from reflex to tropism to instinct, through memory and imagination to intellect and reason. To the reader who can pass alive through these 1400 pages of physiological and psychological analysis there will come an overwhelming sense of the continuity of life and the continuity of mind; he will see, as on a retarded cinematograph, the formation of nerves, the. development of adaptive reflexes and instincts, and the production of consciousness and thought through the clash of conflicting impulses. “Intelligence has neither distinct grades nor is it constituted by faculties that are truly independent, but its highest manifestations are the effects of a complication that has arisen by insensible steps out of the simplest elements.” There is no hiatus between instinct and reason; each is an adjustment of inner relations to outer relations, and the only difference is one of degree, in so far as the relations responded to by instinct are comparatively stereotyped and simple, while those met by reason are comparatively novel and complex. A rational action is simply an instinctive response: which has survived in a struggle with other instinctive responses; aroused by a situation; “deliberation” is merely the internecine strife of rival impulses. At bottom, reason and instinct, mind and life, are one. 

Nevertheless there is of course an evolution of mind; a development of modes of response from simple to compound to complex, from reflex to tropism to instinct, through memory and imagination to intellect and reason.

Will is an abstract term which we give to the sum of our active impulses, and a volition is the natural flow of an unimpeded idea into action. An idea is the first stage of an action, an action is the last stage of an idea. Similarly, an emotion is the first stage of an instinctive action, and the expression of the emotion is a useful prelude to the completed response; the baring of the teeth in anger. gives a substantial hint of that tearing of the enemy to pieces which used to be the natural termination of such a beginning. “Forms of thought” like the perception of space and time, or the notions of quantity and cause, which Kant supposed innate, are merely instinctive ways of thinking; and as instincts are habits acquired by the race but native to the individual, so these categories are mental habits slowly acquired in the course of evolution, and now part of our intellectual heritage. All these age-long puzzles of psychology can be explained by “the inheritance of continually-accumulating modifications.”—It is of course just this all-pervading assumption that makes so much of these laborious volumes questionable, and perhaps vain.

It is of course just this all-pervading assumption that makes so much of these laborious volumes questionable, and perhaps vain.

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