The Mind in the Making by James Harvey RobinsonThe Relation of Intelligence to Social Reform

Produced by Tiffany Vergon, Marc D’Hooghe, Charles Franks and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team. THE MIND IN THE MAKING The Relation of Intelligence to Social Reform By JAMES HARVEY ROBINSON _Author of_ “PETRARCH, THE FIRST MODERN SCHOLAR” “MEDIAEVAL AND MODERN TIMES” “THE NEW HISTORY”, ETC. CONTENTS I PREFACE 1. ON THE PURPOSE OF THIS VOLUME
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  • 1921
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Produced by Tiffany Vergon, Marc D’Hooghe, Charles Franks and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.


The Relation of Intelligence to Social Reform































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This is an essay–not a treatise–on the most important of all matters of human concern. Although it has cost its author a great deal more thought and labor than will be apparent, it falls, in his estimation, far below the demands of its implacably urgent theme. Each page could readily be expanded into a volume. It suggests but the beginning of the beginning now being made to raise men’s thinking onto a plain which may perhaps enable them to fend off or reduce some of the dangers which lurk on every hand.

J. H. R.




If some magical transformation could be produced in men’s ways of looking at themselves and their fellows, no inconsiderable part of the evils which now afflict society would vanish away or remedy themselves automatically. If the majority of influential persons held the opinions and occupied the point of view that a few rather uninfluential people now do, there would, for instance, be no likelihood of another great war; the whole problem of “labor and capital” would be transformed and attenuated; national arrogance, race animosity, political corruption, and inefficiency would all be reduced below the danger point. As an old Stoic proverb has it, men are tormented by the opinions they have of things, rather than by the things themselves. This is eminently true of many of our worst problems to-day. We have available knowledge and ingenuity and material resources to make a far fairer world than that in which we find ourselves, but various obstacles prevent our intelligently availing ourselves of them. The object of this book is to substantiate this proposition, to exhibit with entire frankness the tremendous difficulties that stand in the way of such a beneficent change of mind, and to point out as clearly as may be some of the measures to be taken in order to overcome them.

When we contemplate the shocking derangement of human affairs which now prevails in most civilized countries, including our own, even the best minds are puzzled and uncertain in their attempts to grasp the situation. The world seems to demand a moral and economic regeneration which it is dangerous to postpone, but as yet impossible to imagine, let alone direct. The preliminary intellectual regeneration which would put our leaders in a position to determine and control the course of affairs has not taken place. We have unprecedented conditions to deal with and novel adjustments to make–there can be no doubt of that. We also have a great stock of scientific knowledge unknown to our grandfathers with which to operate. So novel are the conditions, so copious the knowledge, that we must undertake the arduous task of reconsidering a great part of the opinions about man and his relations to his fellow-men which have been handed down to us by previous generations who lived in far other conditions and possessed far less information about the world and themselves. We have, however, first to create an _unprecedented attitude of mind to cope with unprecedented conditions, and to utilize unprecedented knowledge_ This is the preliminary, and most difficult, step to be taken–far more difficult than one would suspect who fails to realize that in order to take it we must overcome inveterate natural tendencies and artificial habits of long standing. How are we to put ourselves in a position to come to think of things that we not only never thought of before, but are most reluctant to question? In short, how are we to rid ourselves of our fond prejudices and _open our minds_?

As a historical student who for a good many years has been especially engaged in inquiring how man happens to have the ideas and convictions about himself and human relations which now prevail, the writer has reached the conclusion that history can at least shed a great deal of light on our present predicaments and confusion. I do not mean by history that conventional chronicle of remote and irrelevant events which embittered the youthful years of many of us, but rather a study of how man has come to be as he is and to believe as he does.

No historian has so far been able to make the whole story very plain or popular, but a number of considerations are obvious enough, and it ought not to be impossible some day to popularize them. I venture to think that if certain seemingly indisputable historical facts were generally known and accepted and permitted to play a daily part in our thought, the world would forthwith become a very different place from what it now is. We could then neither delude ourselves in the simple-minded way we now do, nor could we take advantage of the primitive ignorance of others. All our discussions of social, industrial, and political reform would be raised to a higher plane of insight and fruitfulness.

In one of those brilliant divagations with which Mr. H. G. Wells is wont to enrich his novels he says:

When the intellectual history of this time comes to be written, nothing, I think, will stand out more strikingly than the empty gulf in quality between the superb and richly fruitful scientific investigations that are going on, and the general thought of other educated sections of the community. I do not mean that scientific men are, as a whole, a class of supermen, dealing with and thinking about everything in a way altogether better than the common run of humanity, but in their field they think and work with an intensity, an integrity, a breadth, boldness, patience, thoroughness, and faithfulness–excepting only a few artists–which puts their work out of all comparison with any other human activity…. In these particular directions the human mind has achieved a new and higher quality of attitude and gesture, a veracity, a self-detachment, and self-abnegating vigor of criticism that tend to spread out and must ultimately spread out to every other human affair.

No one who is even most superficially acquainted with the achievements of students of nature during the past few centuries can fail to see that their thought has been astoundingly effective in constantly adding to our knowledge of the universe, from the hugest nebula to the tiniest atom; moreover, this knowledge has been so applied as to well-nigh revolutionize human affairs, and both the knowledge and its applications appear to be no more than hopeful beginnings, with indefinite revelations ahead, if only the same kind of thought be continued in the same patient and scrupulous manner.

But the knowledge of man, of the springs of his conduct, of his relation to his fellow-men singly or in groups, and the felicitous regulation of human intercourse in the interest of harmony and fairness, have made no such advance. Aristotle’s treatises on astronomy and physics, and his notions of “generation and decay” and of chemical processes, have long gone by the board, but his politics and ethics are still revered. Does this mean that his penetration in the sciences of man exceeded so greatly his grasp of natural science, or does it mean that the progress of mankind in the scientific knowledge and regulation of human affairs has remained almost stationary for over two thousand years? I think that we may safely conclude that the latter is the case.

It has required three centuries of scientific thought and of subtle inventions for its promotion to enable a modern chemist or physicist to center his attention on electrons and their relation to the mysterious nucleus of the atom, or to permit an embryologist to study the early stirrings of the fertilized egg. As yet relatively little of the same kind of thought has been brought to bear on human affairs.

When we compare the discussions in the United States Senate in regard to the League of Nations with the consideration of a broken-down car in a roadside garage the contrast is shocking. The rural mechanic thinks scientifically; his only aim is to avail himself of his knowledge of the nature and workings of the car, with a view to making it run once more. The Senator, on the other hand, appears too often to have little idea of the nature and workings of nations, and he relies on rhetoric and appeals to vague fears and hopes or mere partisan animosity. The scientists have been busy for a century in revolutionizing the _practical_ relation of nations. The ocean is no longer a barrier, as it was in Washington’s day, but to all intents and purposes a smooth avenue closely connecting, rather than safely separating, the eastern and western continents. The Senator will nevertheless unblushingly appeal to policies of a century back, suitable, mayhap, in their day, but now become a warning rather than a guide. The garage man, on the contrary, takes his mechanism as he finds it, and does not allow any mystic respect for the earlier forms of the gas engine to interfere with the needed adjustments.

Those who have dealt with natural phenomena, as distinguished from purely human concerns, did not, however, quickly or easily gain popular approbation and respect. The process of emancipating natural science from current prejudices, both of the learned and of the unlearned, has been long and painful, and is not wholly completed yet. If we go back to the opening of the seventeenth century we find three men whose business it was, above all, to present and defend common sense in the natural sciences. The most eloquent and variedly persuasive of these was Lord Bacon. Then there was the young Descartes trying to shake himself loose from his training in a Jesuit seminary by going into the Thirty Years’ War, and starting his intellectual life all over by giving up for the moment all he had been taught. Galileo had committed an offense of a grave character by discussing in the mother tongue the problems of physics. In his old age he was imprisoned and sentenced to repeat the seven penitential psalms for differing from Aristotle and Moses and the teachings of the theologians. On hearing Galileo’s fate. Descartes burned a book he had written, _On The World_, lest he, too, get into trouble.

From that time down to the days of Huxley and John Fiske the struggle has continued, and still continues–the Three Hundred Years’ War for intellectual freedom in dealing with natural phenomena. It has been a conflict against ignorance, tradition, and vested interests in church and university, with all that preposterous invective and cruel misrepresentation which characterize the fight against new and critical ideas. Those who cried out against scientific discoveries did so in the name of God, of man’s dignity, and of holy religion and morality. Finally, however, it has come about that our instruction in the natural sciences is tolerably free; although there are still large bodies of organized religious believers who are hotly opposed to some of the more fundamental findings of biology. Hundreds of thousands of readers can be found for Pastor Russell’s exegesis of Ezekiel and the Apocalypse to hundreds who read Conklin’s _Heredity and Environment_ or Slosson’s _Creative Chemistry_. No publisher would accept a historical textbook based on an explicit statement of the knowledge we now have of man’s animal ancestry. In general, however, our scientific men carry on their work and report their results with little or no effective hostility on the part of the clergy or the schools. The social body has become tolerant of their virus.

This is not the case, however, with the social sciences. One cannot but feel a little queasy when he uses the expression “social science”, because it seems as if we had not as yet got anywhere near a real science of man. I mean by social science our feeble efforts to study man, his natural equipment and impulses, and his relations to his fellows in the light of his origin and the history of the race.

This enterprise has hitherto been opposed by a large number of obstacles essentially more hampering and far more numerous than those which for three hundred years hindered the advance of the natural sciences. Human affairs are in themselves far more intricate and perplexing than molecules and chromosomes. But this is only the more reason for bringing to bear on human affairs that critical type of thought and calculation for which the remunerative thought about molecules and chromosomes has prepared the way.

I do not for a moment suggest that we can use precisely the same kind of thinking in dealing with the quandaries of mankind that we use in problems of chemical reaction and mechanical adjustment. Exact scientific results, such as might be formulated in mechanics, are, of course, out of the question. It would be unscientific to expect to apply them. I am not advocating any particular method of treating human affairs, but rather such a _general frame of mind, such a critical open-minded attitude_, as has hitherto been but sparsely developed among those who aspire to be men’s guides, whether religious, political, economic, or academic. Most human progress has been, as Wells expresses it, a mere “muddling through”. It has been man’s wont to explain and sanctify his ways, with little regard to their fundamental and permanent expediency. An arresting example of what this muddling may mean we have seen during these recent years in the slaying or maiming of fifteen million of our young men, resulting in incalculable loss, continued disorder, and bewilderment. Yet men seem blindly driven to defend and perpetuate the conditions which produced the last disaster.

Unless we wish to see a recurrence of this or some similar calamity, we must, as I have already suggested, create a new and unprecedented attitude of mind to meet the new and unprecedented conditions which confront us. _We should proceed to the thorough reconstruction of our mind, with a view to understanding actual human conduct and organization_. We must examine the facts freshly, critically, and dispassionately, and then allow our philosophy to formulate itself as a result of this examination, instead of permitting our observations to be distorted by archaic philosophy, political economy, and ethics. As it is, we are taught our philosophy first, and in its light we try to justify the facts. We must reverse this process, as did those who began the great work in experimental science; we must first face the facts, and patiently await the emergence of a new philosophy.

A willingness to examine the very foundations of society does not mean a desire to encourage or engage in any hasty readjustment, but certainly no wise or needed readjustment _can_ be made unless such an examination is undertaken.

I come back, then, to my original point that in this examination of existing facts history, by revealing the origin of many of our current fundamental beliefs, will tend to free our minds so as to permit honest thinking. Also, that the historical facts which I propose to recall would, if permitted to play a constant part in our thinking, automatically eliminate a very considerable portion of the gross stupidity and blindness which characterize our present thought and conduct in public affairs, and would contribute greatly to developing the needed scientific attitude toward human concerns–in other words, to _bringing the mind up to date_.


Plans for social betterment and the cure of public ills have in the past taken three general forms: (I) changes in the rules of the game, (II) spiritual exhortation, and (III) education. Had all these not largely failed, the world would not be in the plight in which it now confessedly is.

I. Many reformers concede that they are suspicious of what they call “ideas”. They are confident that our troubles result from defective organization, which should be remedied by more expedient legislation and wise ordinances. Abuses should be abolished or checked by forbidding them, or by some ingenious reordering of procedure. Responsibility should be concentrated or dispersed. The term of office of government officials should be lengthened or shortened; the number of members in governing bodies should be increased or decreased; there should be direct primaries, referendum, recall, government by commission; powers should be shifted here and there with a hope of meeting obvious mischances all too familiar in the past. In industry and education administrative reform is constantly going on, with the hope of reducing friction and increasing efficiency. The House of Commons not long ago came to new terms with the peers. The League of Nations has already had to adjust the functions and influence of the Council and the Assembly, respectively.

No one will question that organization is absolutely essential in human affairs, but reorganization, while it sometimes produces assignable benefit, often fails to meet existing evils, and not uncommonly engenders new and unexpected ones. Our confidence in restriction and regimentation is exaggerated. What we usually need is a _change of attitude_, and without this our new regulations often leave the old situation unaltered. So long as we allow our government to be run by politicians and business lobbies it makes little difference how many aldermen or assemblymen we have or how long the mayor or governor holds office. In a university the fundamental drift of affairs cannot be greatly modified by creating a new dean, or a university council, or by enhancing or decreasing the nominal authority of the president or faculty. We now turn to the second sanctified method of reform, moral uplift.

II. Those who are impatient with mere administrative reform, or who lack faith in it, declare that what we need is brotherly love. Thousands of pulpits admonish us to remember that we are all children of one Heavenly Father and that we should bear one another’s burdens with fraternal patience. Capital is too selfish; Labor is bent on its own narrow interests regardless of the risks Capital takes. We are all dependent on one another, and a recognition of this should beget mutual forbearance and glad co-operation. Let us forget ourselves in others. “Little children, love one another.”

The fatherhood of God has been preached by Christians for over eighteen centuries, and the brotherhood of man by the Stoics long before them. The doctrine has proved compatible with slavery and serfdom, with wars blessed, and not infrequently instigated, by religious leaders, and with industrial oppression which it requires a brave clergyman or teacher to denounce to-day. True, we sometimes have moments of sympathy when our fellow-creatures become objects of tender solicitude. Some rare souls may honestly flatter themselves that they love mankind in general, but it would surely be a very rare soul indeed who dared profess that he loved his personal enemies–much less the enemies of his country or institutions. We still worship a tribal god, and the “foe” is not to be reckoned among his children. Suspicion and hate are much more congenial to our natures than love, for very obvious reasons in this world of rivalry and common failure. There is, beyond doubt, a natural kindliness in mankind which will show itself under favorable auspices. But experience would seem to teach that it is little promoted by moral exhortation. This is the only point that need be urged here. Whether there is another way of forwarding the brotherhood of man will be considered in the sequel.

III. One disappointed in the effects of mere reorganization, and distrusting the power of moral exhortation, will urge that what we need above all is _education_. It is quite true that what we need is education, but something so different from what now passes as such that it needs a new name.

Education has more various aims than we usually recognize, and should of course be judged in relation to the importance of its several intentions, and of its success in gaining them. The arts of reading and writing and figuring all would concede are basal in a world of newspapers and business. Then there is technical information and the training that prepares one to earn a livelihood in some more or less standardized guild or profession. Both these aims are reached fairly well by our present educational system, subject to various economies and improvements in detail. Then there are the studies which it is assumed contribute to general culture and to “training the mind”, with the hope of cultivating our tastes, stimulating the imagination, and mayhap improving our reasoning powers.

This branch of education is regarded by the few as very precious and indispensable; by the many as at best an amenity which has little relation to the real purposes and success of life. It is highly traditional and retrospective in the main, concerned with ancient tongues, old and revered books, higher mathematics, somewhat archaic philosophy and history, and the fruitless form of logic which has until recently been prized as man’s best guide in the fastnesses of error. To these has been added in recent decades a choice of the various branches of natural science.

The results, however, of our present scheme of liberal education are disappointing. One who, like myself, firmly agrees with its objects and is personally so addicted to old books, so pleased with such knowledge as he has of the ancient and modern languages, so envious of those who can think mathematically, and so interested in natural science–such a person must resent the fact that those who have had a liberal education rarely care for old books, rarely read for pleasure any foreign language, think mathematically, love philosophy or history, or care for the beasts, birds, plants, and rocks with any intelligent insight, or even real curiosity. This arouses the suspicion that our so-called “liberal education” miscarries and does not attain its ostensible aims.

The three educational aims enumerated above have one thing in common. They are all directed toward an enhancement of the chances of _personal_ worldly success, or to the increase of our _personal_ culture and intellectual and literary enjoyment. Their purpose is not primarily to fit us to play a part in social or political betterment. But of late a fourth element has been added to the older ambitions, namely the hope of preparing boys and girls to become intelligent voters. This need has been forced upon us by the coming of political democracy, which makes one person’s vote exactly as good as another’s.

Now education for citizenship would seem to consist in gaining a knowledge of the actual workings of our social organization, with some illuminating notions of its origin, together with a full realization of its defects and their apparent sources. But here we encounter an obstacle that is unimportant in the older types of education, but which may prove altogether fatal to any good results in our efforts to make better citizens. Subjects of instruction like reading and writing, mathematics, Latin and Greek, chemistry and physics, medicine and the law are fairly well standardized and retrospective. Doubtless there is a good deal of internal change in method and content going on, but this takes place unobtrusively and does not attract the attention of outside critics. Political and social questions, on the other hand, and matters relating to prevailing business methods, race animosities, public elections, and governmental policy are, if they are vital, necessarily “controversial”. School boards and superintendents, trustees and presidents of colleges and universities, are sensitive to this fact. They eagerly deprecate in their public manifestos any suspicion that pupils and students are being awakened in any way to the truth that our institutions can possibly be fundamentally defective, or that the present generation of citizens has not conducted our affairs with exemplary success, guided by the immutable principles of justice.

How indeed can a teacher be expected to explain to the sons and daughters of businessmen, politicians, doctors, lawyers, and clergymen–all pledged to the maintenance of the sources of their livelihood–the actual nature of business enterprise as now practiced, the prevailing methods of legislative bodies and courts, and the conduct of foreign affairs? Think of a teacher in the public schools recounting the more illuminating facts about the municipal government under which he lives, with due attention to graft and jobs! So, courses in government, political economy, sociology, and ethics confine themselves to inoffensive generalizations, harmless details of organization, and the commonplaces of routine morality, for only in that way can they escape being controversial. Teachers are rarely able or inclined to explain our social life and its presuppositions with sufficient insight and honesty to produce any very important results. Even if they are tempted to tell the essential facts they dare not do so, for fear of losing their places, amid the applause of all the righteously minded.

However we may feel on this important matter, we must all agree that the aim of education for citizenship as now conceived is a preparation for the same old citizenship which has so far failed to eliminate the shocking hazards and crying injustices of our social and political life. For we sedulously inculcate in the coming generation exactly the same illusions and the same ill-placed confidence in existing institutions and prevailing notions that have brought the world to the pass in which we find it. Since we do all we can to corroborate the beneficence of what we have, we can hardly hope to raise up a more intelligent generation bent on achieving what we have not. We all know this to be true; it has been forcibly impressed on our minds of late. Most of us agree that it is right and best that it should be so; some of us do not like to think about it at all, but a few will be glad to spend a little time weighing certain suggestions in this volume which may indicate a way out of this _impasse_.[1]

We have now considered briefly the three main hopes that have been hitherto entertained of bettering things (I) by changing the rules of the game, (II) by urging men to be good, and to love their neighbor as themselves, and (III) by education for citizenship. It may be that these hopes are not wholly unfounded, but it must be admitted that so far they have been grievously disappointed. Doubtless they will continue to be cherished on account of their assured respectability.

Mere lack of success does not discredit a method, for there are many things that determine and perpetuate our sanctified ways of doing things besides their success in reaching their proposed ends. Had this not always been so, our life to-day would be far less stupidly conducted than it is. But let us agree to assume for the moment that the approved schemes of reform enumerated above have, to say the least, shown themselves inadequate to meet the crisis in which civilized society now finds itself. Have we any other hope?

Yes, there is Intelligence. That is as yet an untested hope in its application to the regulation of human relations. It is not discredited because it has not been tried on any large scale outside the realm of natural science. There, everyone will confess, it has produced marvelous results. Employed in regard to stars, rocks, plants, and animals, and in the investigation of mechanical and chemical processes, it has completely revolutionized men’s notions of the world in which they live, and of its inhabitants, _with the notable exception of man himself_. These discoveries have been used to change our habits and to supply us with everyday necessities which a hundred years ago were not dreamed of as luxuries accessible even to kings and millionaires.

But most of us know too little of the past to realize the penalty that had to be paid for this application of intelligence. In order that these discoveries should be made and ingeniously applied to the conveniences of life, _it was necessary to discard practically all the consecrated notions of the world and its workings which had been held by the best and wisest and purest of mankind down to three hundred years ago_–indeed, until much more recently. Intelligence, in a creature of routine like man and in a universe so ill understood as ours, must often break valiantly with the past in order to get ahead. It would be pleasant to assume that all we had to do was to build on well-designed foundations, firmly laid by the wisdom of the ages. But those who have studied the history of natural science would agree that Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes found no such foundation, but had to begin their construction from the ground up.

The several hopes of reform mentioned above all assume that the now generally accepted notions of righteous human conduct are not to be questioned. Our churches and universities defend this assumption. Our editors and lawyers and the more vocal of our business men adhere to it. Even those who pretend to study society and its origin seem often to believe that our present ideals and standards of property, the state, industrial organization, the relations of the sexes, and education are practically final and must necessarily be the basis of any possible betterment in detail. But if this be so Intelligence has already done its perfect work, and we can only lament that the outcome in the way of peace, decency, and fairness, judged even by existing standards, has been so disappointing.

There are, of course, a few here and there who suspect and even repudiate current ideals and standards. But at present their resentment against existing evils takes the form of more or less dogmatic plans of reconstruction, like those of the socialists and communists, or exhausts itself in the vague protest and faultfinding of the average “Intellectual”. Neither the socialist nor the common run of Intellectual appears to me to be on the right track. The former is more precise in his doctrines and confident in his prophecies than a scientific examination of mankind and its ways would at all justify; the other, more indefinite than he need be.

If Intelligence is to have the freedom of action necessary to accumulate new and valuable knowledge about man’s nature and possibilities which may ultimately be applied to reforming our ways, it must loose itself from the bonds that now confine it. The primeval curse still holds: “Of every tree in the garden thou mayest freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Few people confess that they are afraid of knowledge, but the university presidents, ministers, and editors who most often and publicly laud what they are wont to call “the fearless pursuit of truth”, feel compelled, in the interest of public morals and order, to discourage any reckless indulgence in the fruit of the forbidden tree, for the inexperienced may select an unripe apple and suffer from the colic in consequence. “Just look at Russia!” Better always, instead of taking the risk on what the church calls “science falsely so called”, fall back on ignorance rightly so called. No one denies that Intelligence is the light of the world and the chief glory of man, but, as Bertrand Russell says, we dread its indifference to respectable opinions and what we deem the well-tried wisdom of the ages. “It is,” as he truly says, “fear that holds men back; fear that their cherished beliefs should prove harmful, fear lest they themselves should prove less worthy of respect than they have supposed themselves to be. ‘Should the workingman think freely about property? What then will become of us, the rich? Should young men and women think freely about sex? What then will become of morality? Should soldiers think freely about war? What then will become of military discipline?'”

This fear is natural and inevitable, but it is none the less dangerous and discreditable. Human arrangements are no longer so foolproof as they may once have been when the world moved far more slowly than it now does. It should therefore be a good deed to remove or lighten any of the various restraints on thought. I believe that there is an easy and relatively painless way in which our respect for the past can be lessened so that we shall no longer feel compelled to take the wisdom of the ages as the basis of our reforms. My own confidence in what President Butler calls “the findings of mankind” is gone, and the process by which it was lost will become obvious as we proceed. I have no reforms to recommend, except the liberation of Intelligence, which is the first and most essential one. I propose to review by way of introduction some of the new ideas which have been emerging during the past few years in regard to our minds and their operations. Then we shall proceed to the main theme of the book, a sketch of the manner in which our human intelligence appears to have come about. If anyone will follow the story with a fair degree of sympathy and patience he may, by merely putting together well-substantiated facts, many of which he doubtless knows in other connections, hope better to understand the perilous quandary in which mankind is now placed and the ways of escape that offer themselves.


[1] George Bernard Shaw reaches a similar conclusion when he contemplates education in the British Isles. “We must teach citizenship and political science at school. But must we? There is no must about it, the hard fact being that we must not teach political science or citizenship at school. The schoolmaster who attempted it would soon find himself penniless in the streets without pupils, if not in the dock pleading to a pompously worded indictment for sedition against the exploiters. Our schools teach the morality of feudalism corrupted by commercialism, and hold up the military conqueror, the robber baron, and the profiteer, as models of the illustrious and successful.”–_Back to Methuselah_, xii.

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Good sense is, of all things among men, the most equally distributed; for everyone thinks himself so abundantly provided with it that those even who are the most difficult to satisfy in everything else do not usually desire a larger measure of this quality than they already possess.–DESCARTES.

We see man to-day, instead of the frank and courageous recognition of his status, the docile attention to his biological history, the determination to let nothing stand in the way of the security and permanence of his future, which alone can establish the safety and happiness of the race, substituting blind confidence in his destiny, unclouded faith in the essentially respectful attitude of the universe toward his moral code, and a belief no less firm that his traditions and laws and institutions necessarily contain permanent qualities of reality.–WILLIAM TROTTER.


The truest and most profound observations on Intelligence have in the past been made by the poets and, in recent times, by story-writers. They have been keen observers and recorders and reckoned freely with the emotions and sentiments. Most philosophers, on the other hand, have exhibited a grotesque ignorance of man’s life and have built up systems that are elaborate and imposing, but quite unrelated to actual human affairs. They have almost consistently neglected the actual process of thought and have set the mind off as something apart to be studied by itself. _But no such mind, exempt from bodily processes, animal impulses, savage traditions, infantile impressions, conventional reactions, and traditional knowledge, ever existed_, even in the case of the most abstract of metaphysicians. Kant entitled his great work _A Critique of Pure Reason_. But to the modern student of mind pure reason seems as mythical as the pure gold, transparent as glass, with which the celestial city is paved.

Formerly philosophers thought of mind as having to do exclusively with conscious thought. It was that within man which perceived, remembered, judged, reasoned, understood, believed, willed. But of late it has been shown that we are unaware of a great part of what we perceive, remember, will, and infer; and that a great part of the thinking of which we are aware is determined by that of which we are not conscious. It has indeed been demonstrated that our unconscious psychic life far outruns our conscious. This seems perfectly natural to anyone who considers the following facts:

The sharp distinction between the mind and the body is, as we shall find, a very ancient and spontaneous uncritical savage prepossession. What we think of as “mind” is so intimately associated with what we call “body” that we are coming to realize that the one cannot be understood without the other. Every thought reverberates through the body, and, on the other hand, alterations in our physical condition affect our whole attitude of mind. The insufficient elimination of the foul and decaying products of digestion may plunge us into deep melancholy, whereas a few whiffs of nitrous monoxide may exalt us to the seventh heaven of supernal knowledge and godlike complacency. And vice versa, a sudden word or thought may cause our heart to jump, check our breathing, or make our knees as water. There is a whole new literature growing up which studies the effects of our bodily secretions and our muscular tensions and their relation to our emotions and our thinking.

Then there are hidden impulses and desires and secret longings of which we can only with the greatest difficulty take account. They influence our conscious thought in the most bewildering fashion. Many of these unconscious influences appear to originate in our very early years. The older philosophers seem to have forgotten that even they were infants and children at their most impressionable age and never could by any possibility get over it.

The term “unconscious”, now so familiar to all readers of modern works on psychology, gives offense to some adherents of the past. There should, however, be no special mystery about it. It is not a new animistic abstraction, but simply a collective word to include all the physiological changes which escape our notice, all the forgotten experiences and impressions of the past which continue to influence our desires and reflections and conduct, even if we cannot remember them. What we can remember at any time is indeed an infinitesimal part of what has happened to us. We could not remember anything unless we forgot almost everything. As Bergson says, the brain is the organ of forgetfulness as well as of memory. Moreover, we tend, of course, to become oblivious to things to which we are thoroughly accustomed, for habit blinds us to their existence. So the forgotten and the habitual make up a great part of the so-called “unconscious”.

If we are ever to understand man, his conduct and reasoning, and if we aspire to learn to guide his life and his relations with his fellows more happily than heretofore, we cannot neglect the great discoveries briefly noted above. We must reconcile ourselves to novel and revolutionary conceptions of the mind, for it is clear that the older philosophers, whose works still determine our current views, had a very superficial notion of the subject with which they dealt. But for our purposes, with due regard to what has just been said and to much that has necessarily been left unsaid (and with the indulgence of those who will at first be inclined to dissent), _we shall consider mind chiefly as conscious knowledge and intelligence, as what we know and our attitude toward it–our disposition to increase our information, classify it, criticize it and apply it_.

We do not think enough about thinking, and much of our confusion is the result of current illusions in regard to it. Let us forget for the moment any impressions we may have derived from the philosophers, and see what seems to happen in ourselves. The first thing that we notice is that our thought moves with such incredible rapidity that it is almost impossible to arrest any specimen of it long enough to have a look at it. When we are offered a penny for our thoughts we always find that we have recently had so many things in mind that we can easily make a selection which will not compromise us too nakedly. On inspection we shall find that even if we are not downright ashamed of a great part of our spontaneous thinking it is far too intimate, personal, ignoble or trivial to permit us to reveal more than a small part of it. I believe this must be true of everyone. We do not, of course, know what goes on in other people’s heads. They tell us very little and we tell them very little. The spigot of speech, rarely fully opened, could never emit more than driblets of the ever renewed hogshead of thought–_noch grosser wie’s Heidelberger Fass_. We find it hard to believe that other people’s thoughts are as silly as our own, but they probably are.

We all appear to ourselves to be thinking all the time during our waking hours, and most of us are aware that we go on thinking while we are asleep, even more foolishly than when awake. When uninterrupted by some practical issue we are engaged in what is now known as a _reverie_. This is our spontaneous and favorite kind of thinking. We allow our ideas to take their own course and this course is determined by our hopes and fears, our spontaneous desires, their fulfillment or frustration; by our likes and dislikes, our loves and hates and resentments. There is nothing else anything like so interesting to ourselves as ourselves. All thought that is not more or less laboriously controlled and directed will inevitably circle about the beloved Ego. It is amusing and pathetic to observe this tendency in ourselves and in others. We learn politely and generously to overlook this truth, but if we dare to think of it, it blazes forth like the noontide sun.

The reverie or “free association of ideas” has of late become the subject of scientific research. While investigators are not yet agreed on the results, or at least on the proper interpretation to be given to them, there can be no doubt that our reveries form the chief index to our fundamental character. They are a reflection of our nature as modified by often hidden and forgotten experiences. We need not go into the matter further here, for it is only necessary to observe that the reverie is at all times a potent and in many cases an omnipotent rival to every other kind of thinking. It doubtless influences all our speculations in its persistent tendency to self-magnification and self-justification, which are its chief preoccupations, but it is the last thing to make directly or indirectly for honest increase of knowledge.[2] Philosophers usually talk as if such thinking did not exist or were in some way negligible. This is what makes their speculations so unreal and often worthless. The reverie, as any of us can see for himself, is frequently broken and interrupted by the necessity of a second kind of thinking. We have to make practical decisions. Shall we write a letter or no? Shall we take the subway or a bus? Shall we have dinner at seven or half past? Shall we buy U. S. Rubber or a Liberty Bond? Decisions are easily distinguishable from the free flow of the reverie. Sometimes they demand a good deal of careful pondering and the recollection of pertinent facts; often, however, they are made impulsively. They are a more difficult and laborious thing than the reverie, and we resent having to “make up our mind” when we are tired, or absorbed in a congenial reverie. Weighing a decision, it should be noted, does not necessarily add anything to our knowledge, although we may, of course, seek further information before making it.


A third kind of thinking is stimulated when anyone questions our belief and opinions. We sometimes find ourselves changing our minds without any resistance or heavy emotion, but if we are told that we are wrong we resent the imputation and harden our hearts. We are incredibly heedless in the formation of our beliefs, but find ourselves filled with an illicit passion for them when anyone proposes to rob us of their companionship. It is obviously not the ideas themselves that are dear to us, but our self-esteem, which is threatened. We are by nature stubbornly pledged to defend our own from attack, whether it be our person, our family, our property, or our opinion. A United States Senator once remarked to a friend of mine that God Almighty could not make him change his mind on our Latin-America policy. We may surrender, but rarely confess ourselves vanquished. In the intellectual world at least peace is without victory.

Few of us take the pains to study the origin of our cherished convictions; indeed, we have a natural repugnance to so doing. We like to continue to believe what we have been accustomed to accept as true, and the resentment aroused when doubt is cast upon any of our assumptions leads us to seek every manner of excuse for clinging to them. _The result is that most of our so-called reasoning consists in finding arguments for going on believing as we already do_.

I remember years ago attending a public dinner to which the Governor of the state was bidden. The chairman explained that His Excellency could not be present for certain “good” reasons; what the “real” reasons were the presiding officer said he would leave us to conjecture. This distinction between “good” and “real” reasons is one of the most clarifying and essential in the whole realm of thought. We can readily give what seem to us “good” reasons for being a Catholic or a Mason, a Republican or a Democrat, an adherent or opponent of the League of Nations. But the “real” reasons are usually on quite a different plane. Of course the importance of this distinction is popularly, if somewhat obscurely, recognized. The Baptist missionary is ready enough to see that the Buddhist is not such because his doctrines would bear careful inspection, but because he happened to be born in a Buddhist family in Tokio. But it would be treason to his faith to acknowledge that his own partiality for certain doctrines is due to the fact that his mother was a member of the First Baptist church of Oak Ridge. A savage can give all sorts of reasons for his belief that it is dangerous to step on a man’s shadow, and a newspaper editor can advance plenty of arguments against the Bolsheviki. But neither of them may realize why he happens to be defending his particular opinion.

The “real” reasons for our beliefs are concealed from ourselves as well as from others. As we grow up we simply adopt the ideas presented to us in regard to such matters as religion, family relations, property, business, our country, and the state. We unconsciously absorb them from our environment. They are persistently whispered in our ear by the group in which we happen to live. Moreover, as Mr. Trotter has pointed out, these judgments, being the product of suggestion and not of reasoning, have the quality of perfect obviousness, so that to question them

… is to the believer to carry skepticism to an insane degree, and will be met by contempt, disapproval, or condemnation, according to the nature of the belief in question. When, therefore, we find ourselves entertaining an opinion about the basis of which there is a quality of feeling which tells us that to inquire into it would be absurd, obviously unnecessary, unprofitable, undesirable, bad form, or wicked, we may know that that opinion is a nonrational one, and probably, therefore, founded upon inadequate evidence.[3]

Opinions, on the other hand, which are the result of experience or of honest reasoning do not have this quality of “primary certitude”. I remember when as a youth I heard a group of business men discussing the question of the immortality of the soul, I was outraged by the sentiment of doubt expressed by one of the party. As I look back now I see that I had at the time no interest in the matter, and certainly no least argument to urge in favor of the belief in which I had been reared. But neither my personal indifference to the issue, nor the fact that I had previously given it no attention, served to prevent an angry resentment when I heard _my_ ideas questioned.

This spontaneous and loyal support of our preconceptions–this process of finding “good” reasons to justify our routine beliefs–is known to modern psychologists as “rationalizing”–clearly only a new name for a very ancient thing. Our “good” reasons ordinarily have no value in promoting honest enlightenment, because, no matter how solemnly they may be marshaled, they are at bottom the result of personal preference or prejudice, and not of an honest desire to seek or accept new knowledge.

In our reveries we are frequently engaged in self-justification, for we cannot bear to think ourselves wrong, and yet have constant illustrations of our weaknesses and mistakes. So we spend much time finding fault with circumstances and the conduct of others, and shifting on to them with great ingenuity the on us of our own failures and disappointments. _Rationalizing is the self-exculpation which occurs when we feel ourselves, or our group, accused of misapprehension or error._

The little word _my_ is the most important one in all human affairs, and properly to reckon with it is the beginning of wisdom. It has the same force whether it is _my_ dinner, _my_ dog, and _my_ house, or _my_ faith, _my_ country, and _my God_. We not only resent the imputation that our watch is wrong, or our car shabby, but that our conception of the canals of Mars, of the pronunciation of “Epictetus”, of the medicinal value of salicine, or the date of Sargon I, are subject to revision.

Philosophers, scholars, and men of science exhibit a common sensitiveness in all decisions in which their _amour propre_ is involved. Thousands of argumentative works have been written to vent a grudge. However stately their reasoning, it may be nothing but rationalizing, stimulated by the most commonplace of all motives. A history of philosophy and theology could be written in terms of grouches, wounded pride, and aversions, and it would be far more instructive than the usual treatments of these themes. Sometimes, under Providence, the lowly impulse of resentment leads to great achievements. Milton wrote his treatise on divorce as a result of his troubles with his seventeen-year-old wife, and when he was accused of being the leading spirit in a new sect, the Divorcers, he wrote his noble _Areopagitica_ to prove his right to say what he thought fit, and incidentally to establish the advantage of a free press in the promotion of Truth.

All mankind, high and low, thinks in all the ways which have been described. The reverie goes on all the time not only in the mind of the mill hand and the Broadway flapper, but equally in weighty judges and godly bishops. It has gone on in all the philosophers, scientists, poets, and theologians that have ever lived. Aristotle’s most abstruse speculations were doubtless tempered by highly irrelevant reflections. He is reported to have had very thin legs and small eyes, for which he doubtless had to find excuses, and he was wont to indulge in very conspicuous dress and rings and was accustomed to arrange his hair carefully.[4] Diogenes the Cynic exhibited the impudence of a touchy soul. His tub was his distinction. Tennyson in beginning his “Maud” could not forget his chagrin over losing his patrimony years before as the result of an unhappy investment in the Patent Decorative Carving Company. These facts are not recalled here as a gratuitous disparagement of the truly great, but to insure a full realization of the tremendous competition which all really exacting thought has to face, even in the minds of the most highly endowed mortals.

And now the astonishing and perturbing suspicion emerges that perhaps almost all that had passed for social science, political economy, politics, and ethics in the past may be brushed aside by future generations as mainly rationalizing. John Dewey has already reached this conclusion in regard to philosophy.[5] Veblen[6] and other writers have revealed the various unperceived presuppositions of the traditional political economy, and now comes an Italian sociologist, Vilfredo Pareto, who, in his huge treatise on general sociology, devotes hundreds of pages to substantiating a similar thesis affecting all the social sciences.[7] This conclusion may be ranked by students of a hundred years hence as one of the several great discoveries of our age. It is by no means fully worked out, and it is so opposed to nature that it will be very slowly accepted by the great mass of those who consider themselves thoughtful. As a historical student I am personally fully reconciled to this newer view. Indeed, it seems to me inevitable that just as the various sciences of nature were, before the opening of the seventeenth century, largely masses of rationalizations to suit the religious sentiments of the period, so the social sciences have continued even to our own day to be rationalizations of uncritically accepted beliefs and customs.

_It will become apparent as we proceed that the fact that an idea is ancient and that it has been widely received is no argument in its favor, but should immediately suggest the necessity of carefully testing it as a probable instance of rationalization_.


This brings us to another kind of thought which can fairly easily be distinguished from the three kinds described above. It has not the usual qualities of the reverie, for it does not hover about our personal complacencies and humiliations. It is not made up of the homely decisions forced upon us by everyday needs, when we review our little stock of existing information, consult our conventional preferences and obligations, and make a choice of action. It is not the defense of our own cherished beliefs and prejudices just because they are our own–mere plausible excuses for remaining of the same mind. On the contrary, it is that peculiar species of thought which leads us to _change_ our mind.

It is this kind of thought that has raised man from his pristine, subsavage ignorance and squalor to the degree of knowledge and comfort which he now possesses. On his capacity to continue and greatly extend this kind of thinking depends his chance of groping his way out of the plight in which the most highly civilized peoples of the world now find themselves. In the past this type of thinking has been called Reason. But so many misapprehensions have grown up around the word that some of us have become very suspicious of it. I suggest, therefore, that we substitute a recent name and speak of “creative thought” rather than of Reason. _For this kind of meditation begets knowledge, and knowledge is really creative inasmuch as it makes things look different from what they seemed before and may indeed work for their reconstruction_.

In certain moods some of us realize that we are observing things or making reflections with a seeming disregard of our personal preoccupations. We are not preening or defending ourselves; we are not faced by the necessity of any practical decision, nor are we apologizing for believing this or that. We are just wondering and looking and mayhap seeing what we never perceived before.

Curiosity is as clear and definite as any of our urges. We wonder what is in a sealed telegram or in a letter in which some one else is absorbed, or what is being said in the telephone booth or in low conversation. This inquisitiveness is vastly stimulated by jealousy, suspicion, or any hint that we ourselves are directly or indirectly involved. But there appears to be a fair amount of personal interest in other people’s affairs even when they do not concern us except as a mystery to be unraveled or a tale to be told. The reports of a divorce suit will have “news value” for many weeks. They constitute a story, like a novel or play or moving picture. This is not an example of pure curiosity, however, since we readily identify ourselves with others, and their joys and despair then become our own.

We also take note of, or “observe”, as Sherlock Holmes says, things which have nothing to do with our personal interests and make no personal appeal either direct or by way of sympathy. This is what Veblen so well calls “idle curiosity”. And it is usually idle enough. Some of us when we face the line of people opposite us in a subway train impulsively consider them in detail and engage in rapid inferences and form theories in regard to them. On entering a room there are those who will perceive at a glance the degree of preciousness of the rugs, the character of the pictures, and the personality revealed by the books. But there are many, it would seem, who are so absorbed in their personal reverie or in some definite purpose that they have no bright-eyed energy for idle curiosity. The tendency to miscellaneous observation we come by honestly enough, for we note it in many of our animal relatives.

Veblen, however, uses the term “idle curiosity” somewhat ironically, as is his wont. It is idle only to those who fail to realize that it may be a very rare and indispensable thing from which almost all distinguished human achievement proceeds. Since it may lead to systematic examination and seeking for things hitherto undiscovered. For research is but diligent search which enjoys the high flavor of primitive hunting. Occasionally and fitfully idle curiosity thus leads to creative thought, which alters and broadens our own views and aspirations and may in turn, under highly favorable circumstances, affect the views and lives of others, even for generations to follow. An example or two will make this unique human process clear.

Galileo was a thoughtful youth and doubtless carried on a rich and varied reverie. He had artistic ability and might have turned out to be a musician or painter. When he had dwelt among the monks at Valambrosa he had been tempted to lead the life of a religious. As a boy he busied himself with toy machines and he inherited a fondness for mathematics. All these facts are of record. We may safely assume also that, along with many other subjects of contemplation, the Pisan maidens found a vivid place in his thoughts.

One day when seventeen years old he wandered into the cathedral of his native town. In the midst of his reverie he looked up at the lamps hanging by long chains from the high ceiling of the church. Then something very difficult to explain occurred. He found himself no longer thinking of the building, worshipers, or the services; of his artistic or religious interests; of his reluctance to become a physician as his father wished. He forgot the question of a career and even the _graziosissime donne_. As he watched the swinging lamps he was suddenly wondering if mayhap their oscillations, whether long or short, did not occupy the same time. Then he tested this hypothesis by counting his pulse, for that was the only timepiece he had with him.

This observation, however remarkable in itself, was not enough to produce a really creative thought. Others may have noticed the same thing and yet nothing came of it. Most of our observations have no assignable results. Galileo may have seen that the warts on a peasant’s face formed a perfect isosceles triangle, or he may have noticed with boyish glee that just as the officiating priest was uttering the solemn words, _ecce agnus Dei_, a fly lit on the end of his nose. To be really creative, ideas have to be worked up and then “put over”, so that they become a part of man’s social heritage. The highly accurate pendulum clock was one of the later results of Galileo’s discovery. He himself was led to reconsider and successfully to refute the old notions of falling bodies. It remained for Newton to prove that the moon was falling, and presumably all the heavenly bodies. This quite upset all the consecrated views of the heavens as managed by angelic engineers. The universality of the laws of gravitation stimulated the attempt to seek other and equally important natural laws and cast grave doubts on the miracles in which mankind had hitherto believed. In short, those who dared to include in their thought the discoveries of Galileo and his successors found themselves in a new earth surrounded by new heavens.

On the 28th of October, 1831, three hundred and fifty years after Galileo had noticed the isochronous vibrations of the lamps, creative thought and its currency had so far increased that Faraday was wondering what would happen if he mounted a disk of copper between the poles of a horseshoe magnet. As the disk revolved an electric current was produced. This would doubtless have seemed the idlest kind of an experiment to the stanch business men of the time, who, it happened, were just then denouncing the child-labor bills in their anxiety to avail themselves to the full of the results of earlier idle curiosity. But should the dynamos and motors which have come into being as the outcome of Faraday’s experiment be stopped this evening, the business man of to-day, agitated over labor troubles, might, as he trudged home past lines of “dead” cars, through dark streets to an unlighted house, engage in a little creative thought of his own and perceive that he and his laborers would have no modern factories and mines to quarrel about had it not been for the strange practical effects of the idle curiosity of scientists, inventors, and engineers.

The examples of creative intelligence given above belong to the realm of modern scientific achievement, which furnishes the most striking instances of the effects of scrupulous, objective thinking. But there are, of course, other great realms in which the recording and embodiment of acute observation and insight have wrought themselves into the higher life of man. The great poets and dramatists and our modern story-tellers have found themselves engaged in productive reveries, noting and artistically presenting their discoveries for the delight and instruction of those who have the ability to appreciate them.

The process by which a fresh and original poem or drama comes into being is doubtless analogous to that which originates and elaborates so-called scientific discoveries; but there is clearly a temperamental difference. The genesis and advance of painting, sculpture, and music offer still other problems. We really as yet know shockingly little about these matters, and indeed very few people have the least curiosity about them.[8] Nevertheless, creative intelligence in its various forms and activities is what makes man. Were it not for its slow, painful, and constantly discouraged operations through the ages man would be no more than a species of primate living on seeds, fruit, roots, and uncooked flesh, and wandering naked through the woods and over the plains like a chimpanzee.

The origin and progress and future promotion of civilization are ill understood and misconceived. These should be made the chief theme of education, but much hard work is necessary before we can reconstruct our ideas of man and his capacities and free ourselves from innumerable persistent misapprehensions. There have been obstructionists in all times, not merely the lethargic masses, but the moralists, the rationalizing theologians, and most of the philosophers, all busily if unconsciously engaged in ratifying existing ignorance and mistakes and discouraging creative thought. Naturally, those who reassure us seem worthy of honor and respect. Equally naturally those who puzzle us with disturbing criticisms and invite us to change our ways are objects of suspicion and readily discredited. Our personal discontent does not ordinarily extend to any critical questioning of the general situation in which we find ourselves. In every age the prevailing conditions of civilization have appeared quite natural and inevitable to those who grew up in them. The cow asks no questions as to how it happens to have a dry stall and a supply of hay. The kitten laps its warm milk from a china saucer, without knowing anything about porcelain; the dog nestles in the corner of a divan with no sense of obligation to the inventors of upholstery and the manufacturers of down pillows. So we humans accept our breakfasts, our trains and telephones and orchestras and movies, our national Constitution, or moral code and standards of manners, with the simplicity and innocence of a pet rabbit. We have absolutely inexhaustible capacities for appropriating what others do for us with no thought of a “thank you”. We do not feel called upon to make any least contribution to the merry game ourselves. Indeed, we are usually quite unaware that a game is being played at all.

We have now examined the various classes of thinking which we can readily observe in ourselves and which we have plenty of reasons to believe go on, and always have been going on, in our fellow-men. We can sometimes get quite pure and sparkling examples of all four kinds, but commonly they are so confused and intermingled in our reverie as not to be readily distinguishable. The reverie is a reflection of our longings, exultations, and complacencies, our fears, suspicions, and disappointments. We are chiefly engaged in struggling to maintain our self-respect and in asserting that supremacy which we all crave and which seems to us our natural prerogative. It is not strange, but rather quite inevitable, that our beliefs about what is true and false, good and bad, right and wrong, should be mixed up with the reverie and be influenced by the same considerations which determine its character and course. We resent criticisms of our views exactly as we do of anything else connected with ourselves. Our notions of life and its ideals seem to us to be _our own_ and as such necessarily true and right, to be defended at all costs.

_We very rarely consider, however, the process by which we gained our convictions_. If we did so, we could hardly fail to see that there was usually little ground for our confidence in them. Here and there, in this department of knowledge or that, some one of us might make a fair claim to have taken some trouble to get correct ideas of, let us say, the situation in Russia, the sources of our food supply, the origin of the Constitution, the revision of the tariff, the policy of the Holy Roman Apostolic Church, modern business organization, trade unions, birth control, socialism, the League of Nations, the excess-profits tax, preparedness, advertising in its social bearings; but only a very exceptional person would be entitled to opinions on all of even these few matters. And yet most of us have opinions on all these, and on many other questions of equal importance, of which we may know even less. We feel compelled, as self-respecting persons, to take sides when they come up for discussion. We even surprise ourselves by our omniscience. Without taking thought we see in a flash that it is most righteous and expedient to discourage birth control by legislative enactment, or that one who decries intervention in Mexico is clearly wrong, or that big advertising is essential to big business and that big business is the pride of the land. As godlike beings why should we not rejoice in our omniscience?

It is clear, in any case, that our convictions on important matters are not the result of knowledge or critical thought, nor, it may be added, are they often dictated by supposed self-interest. Most of them are _pure prejudices_ in the proper sense of that word. We do not form them ourselves. They are the whisperings of “the voice of the herd”. We have in the last analysis no responsibility for them and need assume none. They are not really our own ideas, but those of others no more well informed or inspired than ourselves, who have got them in the same careless and humiliating manner as we. It should be our pride to revise our ideas and not to adhere to what passes for respectable opinion, for such opinion can frequently be shown to be not respectable at all. We should, in view of the considerations that have been mentioned, resent our supine credulity. As an English writer has remarked:

“If we feared the entertaining of an unverifiable opinion with the warmth with which we fear using the wrong implement at the dinner table, if the thought of holding a prejudice disgusted us as does a foul disease, then the dangers of man’s suggestibility would be turned into advantages.”[9]

The purpose of this essay is to set forth briefly the way in which the notions of the herd have been accumulated. This seems to me the best, easiest, and least invidious educational device for cultivating a proper distrust for the older notions on which we still continue to rely.

The “real” reasons, which explain how it is we happen to hold a particular belief, are chiefly historical. Our most important opinions–those, for example, having to do with traditional, religious, and moral convictions, property rights, patriotism, national honor, the state, and indeed all the assumed foundations of society–are, as I have already suggested, rarely the result of reasoned consideration, but of unthinking absorption from the social environment in which we live. Consequently, they have about them a quality of “elemental certitude”, and we especially resent doubt or criticism cast upon them. So long, however, as we revere the whisperings of the herd, we are obviously unable to examine them dispassionately and to consider to what extent they are suited to the novel conditions and social exigencies in which we find ourselves to-day.

The “real” reasons for our beliefs, by making clear their origins and history, can do much to dissipate this emotional blockade and rid us of our prejudices and preconceptions. Once this is done and we come critically to examine our traditional beliefs, we may well find some of them sustained by experience and honest reasoning, while others must be revised to meet new conditions and our more extended knowledge. But only after we have undertaken such a critical examination in the light of experience and modern knowledge, freed from any feeling of “primary certitude”, can we claim that the “good” are also the “real” reasons for our opinions.

I do not flatter myself that this general show-up of man’s thought through the ages will cure myself or others of carelessness in adopting ideas, or of unseemly heat in defending them just because we have adopted them. But if the considerations which I propose to recall are really incorporated into our thinking and are permitted to establish our general outlook on human affairs, they will do much to relieve the imaginary obligation we feel in regard to traditional sentiments and ideals. Few of us are capable of engaging in creative thought, but some of us can at least come to distinguish it from other and inferior kinds of thought and accord to it the esteem that it merits as the greatest treasure of the past and the only hope of the future.


[2] The poet-clergyman, John Donne, who lived in the time of James I, has given a beautifully honest picture of the doings of a saint’s mind: “I throw myself down in my chamber and call in and invite God and His angels thither, and when they are there I neglect God and His angels for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach, for the whining of a door. I talk on in the same posture of praying, eyes lifted up, knees bowed down, as though I prayed to God, and if God or His angels should ask me when I thought last of God in that prayer I cannot tell. Sometimes I find that I had forgot what I was about, but when I began to forget it I cannot tell. A memory of yesterday’s pleasures, a fear of to-morrow’s dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine ear, a light in mine eye, an anything, a nothing, a fancy, a chimera in my brain troubles me in my prayer.”–Quoted by ROBERT LYND, _The Art of Letters_, pp. 46-47.

[3] Instincts of the Herd, p. 44.

[4] Diogenes Laertius, book v.

[5] _Reconstruction in Philosophy_.

[6] _The Place of Science in Modern Civilization._

[7] _Traite de Sociologie Generale, passim._ The author’s term “_derivations_” seems to be his precise way of expressing what we have called the “good” reasons, and his “_residus_” correspond to the “real” reasons. He well says, _”L’homme eprouve le besoin de raisonner, et en outre d’etendre un voile sur ses instincts et sur ses sentiments”_–hence, rationalization. (P. 788.) His aim is to reduce sociology to the “real” reasons. (P. 791.)

[8] Recently a re-examination of creative thought has begun as a result of new knowledge which discredits many of the notions formerly held about “reason”. See, for example, _Creative Intelligence_, by a group of American philosophic thinkers; John Dewey, _Essays in Experimental Logic_ (both pretty hard books); and Veblen, _The Place of Science in Modern Civilization_. Easier than these and very stimulating are Dewey, _Reconstruction in Philosophy_, and Woodworth, _Dynamic Psychology_.

[9] Trotter, _op. cit._, p. 45. The first part of this little volume is excellent.

* * * * *


Nous etions deja si vieux quand nous sommes nes.–ANATOLE FRANCE.

Simia quam similis, turpissima bestia, nobis?–ENNIUS.

Tous les homines se ressemblent si fort qu’il n’y a point de peuple dont les sottises ne nous doivent faire trembler.–FONTENELLE.

The savage is very close to us indeed, both in his physical and mental make-up and in the forms of his social life. Tribal society is virtually delayed civilization, and the savages are a sort of contemporaneous ancestry.–WILLIAM I. THOMAS.


There are four historical layers underlying the minds of civilized men–the animal mind, the child mind, the savage mind, and the traditional civilized mind. We are all animals and never can cease to be; we were all children at our most impressionable age and can never get over the effects of that; our human ancestors have lived in savagery during practically the whole existence of the race, say five hundred thousand or a million years, and the primitive human mind is ever with us; finally, we are all born into an elaborate civilization, the constant pressure of which we can by no means escape.

Each of these underlying minds has its special sciences and appropriate literatures. The new discipline of animal or comparative psychology deals with the first; genetic and analytical psychology with the second;[10] anthropology, ethnology, and comparative religion with the third; and the history of philosophy, science, theology, and literature with the fourth.

We may grow beyond these underlying minds and in the light of new knowledge we may criticize their findings and even persuade ourselves that we have successfully transcended them. But if we are fair with ourselves we shall find that their hold on us is really inexorable. We can only transcend them artificially and precariously and in certain highly favorable conditions. Depression, anger, fear, or ordinary irritation will speedily prove the insecurity of any structure that we manage to rear on our fourfold foundation. Such fundamental and vital preoccupations as religion, love, war, and the chase stir impulses that lie far back in human history and which effectually repudiate the cavilings of ratiocination.

In all our reveries and speculations, even the most exacting, sophisticated, and disillusioned, we have three unsympathetic companions sticking closer than a brother and looking on with jealous impatience–our wild apish progenitor, a playful or peevish baby, and a savage. We may at any moment find ourselves overtaken with a warm sense of camaraderie for any or all of these ancient pals of ours, and experience infinite relief in once more disporting ourselves with them as of yore. Some of us have in addition a Greek philosopher or man of letters in us; some a neoplatonic mystic, some a mediaeval monk, all of whom have learned to make terms with their older playfellows.

Before retracing the way in which the mind as we now find it in so-called intelligent people has been accumulated, we may take time to try to see what civilization is and why man alone can become civilized. For the mind has expanded _pari passu_ with civilization, and without civilization there would, I venture to conjecture, have been no human mind in the commonly accepted sense of that term.

It is now generally conceded by all who have studied the varied evidence and have freed themselves from ancient prejudice that, if we traced back our human lineage far enough we should come to a point where our human ancestors had no civilization and lived a speechless, naked, houseless, fireless, and toolless life, similar to that of the existing primates with which we are zoologically closely connected.

This is one of the most fully substantiated of historical facts and one which we can never neglect in our attempts to explain man as he now is. We are all descended from the lower animals. We are furthermore still animals with not only an animal body, but with an animal mind. And this animal body and animal mind are the original foundations on which even the most subtle and refined intellectual life must perforce rest.

We are ready to classify certain of our most essential desires as brutish–hunger and thirst, the urgence of sleep, and especially sexual longing. We know of blind animal rage, of striking, biting, scratching, howling, and snarling, of irrational fears and ignominious flight. We share our senses with the higher animals, have eyes and ears, noses and tongues much like theirs; heart, lungs, and other viscera, and four limbs. They have brains which stand them in good stead, although their heads are not so good as ours. But when one speaks of the animal mind he should think of still other resemblances between the brute and man.

All animals learn–even the most humble among them may gain something from experience. All the higher animals exhibit curiosity under certain circumstances, and it is this impulse which underlies all human science.

Moreover, some of the higher animals, especially the apes and monkeys, are much given to fumbling and groping. They are restless, easily bored, and spontaneously experimental. They therefore make discoveries quite unconsciously, and form new and sometimes profitable habits of action. If, by mere fumbling, a monkey, cat, or dog happens on a way to secure food, this remunerative line of conduct will “occur” to the creature when he feels hungry. This is what Thorndike has named learning by “trial and error”. It might better be called “fumbling and success”, for it is the success that establishes the association. The innate curiosity which man shares with his uncivilized zoological relatives is the native impulse that leads to scientific and philosophical speculation, and the original fumbling of a restless ape has become the ordered experimental investigation of modern times. A creature which lacked curiosity and had no tendency to fumble could never have developed civilization and human intelligence.[l0]

But why did man alone of all the animals become civilized? The reason is not far to seek, although it has often escaped writers[11] on the subject. All animals gain a certain wisdom with age and experience, but the experience of one ape does not profit another. Learning among animals below man is _individual_, not _co-operative_ and _cumulative_. One dog does not seem to learn from another, nor one ape from another, in spite of the widespread misapprehension in this regard. Many experiments have been patiently tried in recent years and it seems to be pretty well established that the monkey learns by _monkeying_, but that he rarely or never appears to _ape_. He does not learn by imitation, because he does not imitate. There may be minor exceptions, but the fact that apes never, in spite of a bodily equipment nearly human, become in the least degree civilized, would seem to show that the accumulation of knowledge or dexterity through imitation is impossible for them.

Man has the various sense organs of the apes and their extraordinary power of manipulation. To these essentials he adds a brain sufficiently more elaborate than that of the chimpanzee to enable him to do something that the ape cannot do–namely, “see” things clearly enough to form associations through imitation.[12]

We can imagine the manner in which man unwittingly took one of his momentous and unprecedented first steps in civilization. Some restless primeval savage might find himself scraping the bark off a stick with the edge of a stone or shell and finally cutting into the wood and bringing the thing to a point. He might then spy an animal and, quite without reasoning, impulsively make a thrust with the stick and discover that it pierced the creature. If he could hold these various elements in the situation, sharpening the stick and using it, he would have made an invention–a rude spear. A particularly acute bystander might comprehend and imitate the process. If others did so and the habit was established in the tribe so that it became traditional and was transmitted to following generations, the process of civilization would have begun–also the process of human learning, which is noticing distinctions and analyzing situations. This simple process of sharpening a stick would involve the “concepts”, as the philosophers say, of a tool and bark and a point and an artificial weapon. But ages and ages were to elapse before the botanist would distinguish the various layers which constitute the bark, or successive experimenters come upon the idea of a bayonet to take the place of the spear.

Of late, considerable attention has been given to the question of man’s original, uneducated, animal nature; what resources has he as a mere creature independent of any training that results from being brought up in some sort of civilized community? The question is difficult to formulate satisfactorily and still more difficult to answer. But without attempting to list man’s supposed natural “instincts” we must assume that civilization is built up on his original propensities and impulses, whatever they may be. These probably remain nearly the same from generation to generation. The idea formerly held that the civilization of our ancestors affects our original nature is almost completely surrendered. _We are all born wholly uncivilized._

If a group of infants from the “best” families of to-day could be reared by apes they would find themselves with no civilization. How long it would take them and their children to gain what now passes for even a low savage culture it is impossible to say. The whole arduous task would have to be performed anew and it might not take place at all, unless conditions were favorable, for man is not naturally a “progressive” animal. He shares the tendency of all other animal tribes just to pull through and reproduce his kind.

Most of us do not stop to think of the conditions of an animal existence. When we read the descriptions of our nature as given by William James, McDougall, or even Thorndike, with all his reservations, we get a rather impressive idea of our possibilities, not a picture of uncivilized life. When we go camping we think that we are deserting civilization, forgetting the sophisticated guides, and the pack horses laden with the most artificial luxuries, many of which would not have been available even a hundred years ago. We lead the simple life with Swedish matches, Brazilian coffee, Canadian bacon, California canned peaches, magazine rifles, jointed fishing rods, and electric flashlights. We are elaborately clothed and can discuss Bergson’s views or D. H. Lawrence’s last story. We naively imagine we are returning to “primitive” conditions because we are living out of doors or sheltered in a less solid abode than usual, and have to go to the brook for water.

But man’s original estate was, as Hobbes reflected, “poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. To live like an animal is to rely upon one’s own quite naked equipment and efforts, and not to mind getting wet or cold or scratching one’s bare legs in the underbrush. One would have to eat his roots and seeds quite raw, and gnaw a bird as a cat does. To get the feel of uncivilized life, let us recall how savages with the comparatively advanced degree of culture reached by our native Indian tribes may fall to when really hungry. In the journal of the Lewis and Clark expedition there is an account of the killing of a deer by the white men. Hearing of this, the Shoshones raced wildly to the spot where the warm and bloody entrails had been thrown out

… and ran tumbling over one another like famished dogs. Each tore away whatever part he could, and instantly began to eat it; some had the liver, some the kidneys, and, in short, no part on which we are accustomed to look with disgust escaped them. One of them who had seized about nine feet of the entrails was chewing at one end, while with his hand he was diligently clearing his way by discharging the contents at the other.

Another striking example of simple animal procedure is given in the same journal:

One of the women, who had been leading two of our pack horses, halted at a rivulet about a mile behind and sent on the two horses by a female friend. On inquiring of Cameahwait the cause of her detention, he answered, with great apparent unconcern, that she had just stopped to lie in, but would soon overtake us. In fact, we were astonished to see her in about an hour’s time come on with her new-born infant, and pass us on her way to the camp, seemingly in perfect health.

This is the simple life and it was the life of our ancestors before civilization began. It had been the best kind of life possible in all the preceding aeons of the world’s history. Without civilization it would be the existence to which all human beings now on the earth would forthwith revert. It is man’s starting point.[13]

But what about the mind? What was going on in the heads of our untutored forbears? We are apt to fall into the error of supposing that because they had human brains they must have had somewhat the same kinds of ideas and made the same kind of judgments that we do. Even distinguished philosophers like Descartes and Rousseau made this mistake. This assumption will not stand inspection. To reach back in imagination to the really primitive mind we should of course have to deduct at the start all the knowledge and all the discriminations and classifications that have grown up as a result of our education and our immersion from infancy in a highly artificial environment. Then we must recollect that our primitive ancestor had no words with which to name and tell about things. He was speechless. His fellows knew no more than he did. Each one learned during his lifetime according to his capacity, but no instruction in our sense of the word was possible. What he saw and heard was not what we should have called seeing and hearing. He responded to situations in a blind and impulsive manner, with no clear idea of them. In short, he must have _thought_ much as a wolf or bear does, just as he _lived_ much like them.

We must be on our guard against accepting the prevalent notions of even the animal intellect. An owl may look quite as wise as a judge. A monkey, canary, or collie has bright eyes and seems far more alert than most of the people we see on the street car. A squirrel in the park appears to be looking at us much as we look at him. But he cannot be seeing the same things that we do. We can be scarcely more to him than a vague suggestion of peanuts. And even the peanut has little of the meaning for him that it has for us. A dog perceives a motor-car and may be induced to ride in it, but his idea of it would not differ from that of an ancient carryall, except, mayhap, in an appreciative distinction between the odor of gasoline and that of the stable. Only in times of sickness, drunkenness, or great excitement can we get some hint in ourselves of the impulsive responses in animals free from human sophistication and analysis.

Locke thought that we first got simple ideas and then combined them into more complex conceptions and finally into generalizations or abstract ideas. But this is not the way that man’s knowledge arose. He started with mere impressions of general situations, and gradually by his ability to handle things he came upon distinctions, which in time he made clearer by attaching names to them.

We keep repeating this process when we learn about anything. The typewriter is at first a mere mass impression, and only gradually and imperfectly do most of us distinguish certain of its parts; only the men who made it are likely to realize its full complexity by noting and assigning names to all the levers, wheels, gears, bearings, controls, and adjustments. John Stuart Mill thought that the chief function of the mind was making inferences. But making distinctions is equally fundamental–seeing that there are really many things where only one was at first apparent. This process of analysis has been man’s supreme accomplishment. This is what has made his mind grow.

The human mind has then been built up through hundreds of thousands of years by gradual accretions and laborious accumulations. Man started at a cultural zero and had to find out everything for himself; or rather a very small number of peculiarly restless and adventurous spirits did the work. The great mass of humanity has never had anything to do with the increase of intelligence except to act as its medium of transfusion and perpetuation. Creative intelligence is confined to the very few, but the many can thoughtlessly avail themselves of the more obvious achievements of those who are exceptionally highly endowed.

Even an ape will fit himself into a civilized environment. A chimpanzee can be taught to relish bicycles, roller skates, and cigarettes which he could never have devised, cannot understand, and could not reproduce. Even so with mankind. Most of us could not have devised, do not understand, and consequently could not reproduce any of the everyday conveniences and luxuries which surround us. Few of us could make an electric light, or write a good novel to read by it, or paint a picture for it to shine upon.

Professor Giddings has recently asked the question, Why has there been any history?[14] Why, indeed, considering that the “good” and “respectable” is usually synonymous with the ancient routine, and the old have always been there to repress the young? Such heavy words of approval as “venerable”, “sanctified”, and “revered” all suggest great age rather than fresh discoveries. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, is our protest against being disturbed, forced to think or to change our habits. So history, _namely change_, has been mainly due to a small number of “seers”,–really gropers and monkeyers–whose native curiosity outran that of their fellows and led them to escape here and there from the sanctified blindness of their time.

The seer is simply an example of a _variation_ biologically, such as occurs in all species of living things, both animal and vegetable. But the unusually large roses in our gardens, the swifter horses of the herd, and the cleverer wolf in the pack have no means of influencing their fellows as a result of their peculiar superiority. Their offspring has some chance of sharing to some degree this pre-eminence, but otherwise things will go on as before. Whereas the singular variation represented by a St. Francis, a Dante, a Voltaire, or a Darwin may permanently, and for ages to follow change somewhat the character and ambitions of innumerable inferior members of the species who could by no possibility have originated anything for themselves, but who can, nevertheless, suffer some modification as a result of the teachings of others. This illustrates the magical and unique workings of culture and creative intelligence in mankind.[15]

We have no means of knowing when or where the first contribution to civilization was made, and with it a start on the arduous building of the mind. There is some reason to think that the men who first transcended the animal mind were of inferior mental capacity to our own, but even if man, emerging from his animal estate, had had on the average quite as good a brain as those with which we are now familiar, I suspect that the extraordinarily slow and hazardous process of accumulating modern civilization would not have been greatly shortened. Mankind is lethargic, easily pledged to routine, timid, suspicious of innovation. That is his nature. He is only artificially, partially, and very recently “progressive”. He has spent almost his whole existence as a savage hunter, and in that state of ignorance he illustrated on a magnificent scale all the inherent weaknesses of the human mind.


Should we arrange our present beliefs and opinions on the basis of their age, we should find that some of them were very, very old, going back to primitive man; others were derived from the Greeks; many more of them would prove to come directly from the Middle Ages; while certain others in our stock were unknown until natural science began to develop in a new form about three hundred years ago. The idea that man has a soul or double which survives the death of the body is very ancient indeed and is accepted by most savages. Such confidence as we have in the liberal arts, metaphysics, and formal logic goes back to the Greek thinkers; our religious ideas and our standards of sexual conduct are predominantly mediaeval in their presuppositions; our notions of electricity and disease germs are, of course, recent in origin, the result of painful and prolonged research which involved the rejection of a vast number of older notions sanctioned by immemorial acceptance.

_In general, those ideas which are still almost universally accepted in regard to man’s nature, his proper conduct, and his relations to God and his fellows are far more ancient and far less critical than those which have to do with the movement of the stars, the stratification of the rocks and the life of plants and animals_.

Nothing is more essential in our attempt to escape from the bondage of consecrated ideas than to get a vivid notion of human achievement in its proper historical perspective. In order to do this let us imagine the whole gradual and laborious attainments of mankind compressed into the compass of a single lifetime. Let us assume that a single generation of men have in fifty years managed to accumulate all that now passes for civilization. They would have to start, as all individuals do, absolutely uncivilized, and their task would be to recapitulate what has occupied the race for, let us guess, at least five hundred thousand years. Each year in the life of a generation would therefore correspond to ten thousand years in the progress of the race.

On this scale it would require forty-nine years to reach a point of intelligence which would enable our self-taught generation to give up their ancient and inveterate habits of wandering hunters and settle down here and there to till the ground, harvest their crops, domesticate animals, and weave their rough garments. Six months later, or half through the fiftieth year, some of them, in a particularly favorable situation, would have invented writing and thus established a new and wonderful means of spreading and perpetuating civilization. Three months later another group would have carried literature, art, and philosophy to a high degree of refinement and set standards for the succeeding weeks. For two months our generation would have been living under the blessings of Christianity; the printing press would be but a fortnight old and they would not have had the steam engine for quite a week. For two or three days they would have been hastening about the globe in steamships and railroad trains, and only yesterday would they have come upon the magical possibilities of electricity. Within the last few hours they would have learned to sail in the air and beneath the waters, and have forthwith applied their newest discoveries to the prosecution of a magnificent war on the scale befitting their high ideals and new resources. This is not so strange, for only a week ago they were burning and burying alive those who differed from the ruling party in regard to salvation, eviscerating in public those who had new ideas of government, and hanging old women who were accused of traffic with the devil. All of them had been no better than vagrant savages a year before. Their fuller knowledge was altogether too recent to have gone very deep, and they had many institutions and many leaders dedicated to the perpetuation of outworn notions which would otherwise have disappeared. Until recently changes had taken place so slowly and so insensibly that only a very few persons could be expected to realize that not a few of the beliefs that were accepted as eternal verities were due to the inevitable misunderstandings of a savage.

In speaking of the “savage” or “primitive mind”, we are, of course, using a very clumsy expression. We shall employ the term, nevertheless, to indicate the characteristics of the human mind when there was as yet no writing, no organized industry or mechanical arts, no money, no important specialization of function except between the sexes, no settled life in large communities. The period so described covers all but about five or six thousand of the half million to a million years that man has existed on the earth.

There are no chronicles to tell us the story of those long centuries. Some inferences can be made from the increasing artfulness and variety of the flint weapons and tools which we find. But the stone weapons which have come down to us, even in their crudest forms (eoliths), are very far from representing the earliest achievements of man in the accumulation of culture. Those dim, remote cycles must have been full of great, but inconspicuous, originators who laid the foundations of civilization in discoveries and achievements so long taken for granted that we do not realize that they ever had to be made at all.

Since man is descended from less highly endowed animals, there must have been a time when the man-animal was in a state of animal ignorance. He started with no more than an ape is able to know. He had to learn everything for himself, as he had no one to teach him the tricks that apes and children can be taught by sophisticated human beings. He was necessarily self-taught, and began, as we have seen, in a state of ignorance beyond anything we can readily conceive. He lived naked and speechless in the woods, or wandered over the plains without artificial shelter or any way of cooking his food. He subsisted on raw fruit, berries, roots, insects, and such animals as he could strike down or pick up dead. His mind must have corresponded with his brutish state. He must at the first have learned just as his animal relatives learn–by fumbling and by forming accidental associations. He had impulses and such sagacity as he individually derived from experience, but no heritage of knowledge accumulated by the group and transmitted by education. This heritage had to be constructed on man’s potentialities.

Of mankind in this extremely primitive condition we have no traces. There could indeed be no traces. All savages of the present day or of whom we have any record represent a relatively highly developed traditional culture, with elaborate languages, myths, and well-established artificial customs, which it probably took hundreds of thousands of years to accumulate. Man in “a state of nature” is only a presupposition, but a presupposition which is forced upon us by compelling evidence, conjectural and inferential though it is.

On a geological time scale we are still close to savagery, and it is inevitable that the ideas and customs and sentiments of savagery should have become so ingrained that they may have actually affected man’s nature by natural selection through the survival of those who most completely adjusted themselves to the uncritical culture which prevailed. But in any case it is certain, as many anthropologists have pointed out, that customs, savage ideas, and primitive sentiments have continued to form an important part of our own culture down even to the present day. We are met thus with the necessity of reckoning with this inveterate element in our present thought and customs. Much of the data that we have regarding primitive man has been accumulated in recent times, for the most part as a result of the study of simple peoples. These differ greatly in their habits and myths, but some salient common traits emerge which cast light on the spontaneous workings of the human mind when unaffected by the sophistications of a highly elaborate civilization.

At the start man had to distinguish himself from the group to which he belonged and say, “I am I.” This is not an idea given by nature.[16] There are evidences that the earlier religious notions were not based on individuality, but rather on the “virtue” which objects had–that is, their potency to do things. Only later did the animistic belief in the personalities of men, animals, and the forces of nature appear. When man discovered his own individuality he spontaneously ascribed the same type of individuality and purpose to animals and plants, to the wind and the thunder.

This exhibits one of the most noxious tendencies of the mind–namely, personification. It is one of the most virulent enemies of clear thinking. We speak of the Spirit of the Reformation or the Spirit of Revolt or the Spirit of Disorder and Anarchy. The papers tell us that, “Berlin says”, “London says”, “Uncle Sam so decides”, “John Bull is disgruntled”. Now, whether or no there are such things as spirits, Berlin and London have no souls, and Uncle Sam is as mythical as the great god Pan. Sometimes this regression to the savage is harmless, but when a newspaper states that “Germany is as militaristic as ever”, on the ground that some insolent Prussian lieutenant says that German armies will occupy Paris within five years, we have an example of animism which in a society farther removed from savagery than ours might be deemed a high crime and misdemeanor. Chemists and physicians have given up talking of spirits, but in discussing social and economic questions we are still victimized by the primitive animistic tendencies of the mind.

The dream has had a great influence in the building up of the mind. Our ideas, especially our religious beliefs, would have had quite another history had men been dreamless. For it was not merely his shadow and his reflection in the water that led man to imagine souls and doubles, but pre-eminently the visions of the night. As his body lay quiet in sleep he found himself wandering in distant places.

Sometimes he was visited by the dead. So it was clear that the body had an inhabitant who was not necessarily bound to it, who could desert it from time to time during life, and who continued to exist and interest itself in human affairs after death.

Whole civilizations and religions and vast theological speculations have been dominated by this savage inference. It is true that in very recent times, since Plato, let us say, other reasons have been urged for believing in the soul and its immortality, but the idea appears to have got its firm footing in savage logic. It is a primitive inference, however it may later have been revised, rationalized, and ennobled.

The taboo–the forbidden thing–of savage life is another thing very elementary in man’s make-up. He had tendencies to fall into habits and establish inhibitions for reasons that he either did not discover or easily forgot. These became fixed and sacred to him and any departure from them filled him with dread. Sometimes the prohibition might have some reasonable justification, sometimes it might seem wholly absurd and even a great nuisance, but that made no difference in its binding force. For example, pork was taboo among the ancient Hebrews–no one can say why, but none of the modern justifications for abstaining from that particular kind of meat would have counted in early Jewish times. It is not improbable that it was the original veneration for the boar and not an abhorrence of him that led to the prohibition.

The modern “principle” is too often only a new form of the ancient taboo, rather than an enlightened rule of conduct. The person who justifies himself by saying that he holds certain beliefs, or acts in a certain manner “on principle”, and yet refuses to examine the basis and expediency of his principle, introduces into his thinking and conduct an irrational, mystical element similar to that which characterized savage prohibitions. Principles unintelligently urged make a great deal of trouble in the free consideration of social readjustment, for they are frequently as recalcitrant and obscurantist as the primitive taboo, and are really scarcely more than an excuse for refusing to reconsider one’s convictions and conduct. The psychological conditions lying back of both taboo and this sort of principle are essentially the same.

We find in savage thought a sort of intensified and generalized taboo in the classification of things as clean and unclean and in the conceptions of the sacred. These are really expressions of profound and persistent traits in the uncritical mind and can only be overcome by carefully cultivated criticism. They are the result of our natural timidity and the constant dread lest we find ourselves treading on holy (_i. e._, dangerous) ground.[17] When they are intrenched in the mind we cannot expect to think freely and fairly, for they effectually stop argument. If a thing is held to be sacred it is the center of what may be called a defense complex, and a reasonable consideration of the merits of the case will not be tolerated. When an issue is declared to be a “moral” one–for example, the prohibition of strong drink–an emotional state is implied which makes reasonable compromise and adjustment impossible; for “moral” is a word on somewhat the same plane as “sacred”, and has much the same qualities and similar effects on thinking. In dealing with the relations of the sexes the terms “pure” and “impure” introduce mystic and irrational moods alien to clear analysis and reasonable readjustments. Those who have studied the characteristics of savage life are always struck by its deadly conservatism, its needless restraints on the freedom of the individual, and its hopeless routine. Man, like plants and animals in general, tends to go on from generation to generation, living as nearly as may be the life of his forbears. Changes have to be forced upon him by hard experience, and he is ever prone to find excuses for slipping back into older habits, for these are likely to be simpler, less critical, more spontaneous–more closely akin, in short, to his animal and primitive promptings. One who prides himself to-day on his conservatism, on the ground that man is naturally an anarchic and disorderly creature who is held in check by the far-seeing Tory, is almost exactly reversing the truth. Mankind is conservative by nature and readily generates restraints on himself and obstacles to change which have served to keep him in a state of savagery during almost his whole existence on the earth, and which still perpetuate all sorts of primitive barbarism in modern society. The conservative “on principle” is therefore a most unmistakably primitive person in his attitude. His only advance beyond the savage mood lies in the specious reasons he is able to advance for remaining of the same mind. What we vaguely call a “radical” is a very recent product due to altogether exceptional and unprecedented circumstances.


[10] It is impossible to discuss here the results which a really honest study of child psychology promises. The relations of the child to his parents and elders in general and to the highly artificial system of censorship and restraints which they impose in their own interests on his natural impulses must surely have a permanent influence on the notions he continues to have as an adult in regard to his “superiors” and the institutions and _mores_ under which he is called to live. Attempts in later life to gain intellectual freedom can only be successful if one comes to think of the childish origin of a great part of his “real” reasons.

[11] Clarence Day in _Our Simian World_ discusses with delightful humor the effects of our underlying simian temperament on the conduct of life.

[12] The word “imitation” is commonly used very loosely. The real question is does an animal, or even man himself, tend to make movements or sounds made by their fellow-creatures in their presence It seems to be made out now that even monkeys are not imitative in that sense and that man himself has no general inclination to do over what he sees being done. Pray, if you doubt this, note how many things you see others doing that you have no inclination to imitate! For an admirable summary see Thorndike, E. L., _The Original Nature of Man_, 1913, pp. 108 ff.

[13] “If the earth were struck by one of Mr. Wells’s comets, and if, in consequence, every human being now alive were to lose all the knowledge and habits which he had acquired from preceding generations (though retaining unchanged all his own powers of invention and memory and habituation) nine tenths of the inhabitants of London or New York would be dead in a month, and 99 per cent of the remaining tenth would be dead in six months. They would have no language to express their thoughts, and no thoughts but vague reverie. They could not read notices, or drive motors or horses. They would wander about, led by the inarticulate cries of a few naturally dominant individuals, drowning themselves, as thirst came on, in hundreds at the riverside landing places, looting those shops where the smell of decaying food