The Cambridge Mind, 1868-1920

In this post I introduce the psychological model that is at the center of my ongoing research into the moral sciences.

From the late 1860s through to World War One and beyond, this model of the mind was widely regarded within Cambridge as the foundation of the various sciences of Man and of Society. Its distinguishing characteristic was that it looked to a unified physiological account of the nervous system in order to explain both reasoning and  instinctual action. This physiological model was itself evolutionary and hierarchical. But this gave rise to a psychological model that, as we shall see, supported two quite opposite readings of human society.

The psychologist and anthropologist W.H.R. Rivers provides us with a useful point of entry. In his Instinct and the Unconscious (Cambridge: University Press, 1920, p. 31), Rivers observes:

It is now recognised that the activity of every functional unit of the nervous system is of two kinds. Every unit forms part of a hierarchy in which it controls lower, and is itself controlled by higher, elements of the hierarchy.

What is crucial to grasp is the evolutionary framework standing behind Rivers’ notion of a physiological hierarchy. The idea is that evolution generates these hierarchies; which is to say that over time organisms evolve higher level functions, which stand in a relation of control to older and lower level physiological systems within the nervous system.

Crucially, the evolutionary dimension of this model allows higher mental activities to be placed within the same framework as habits and instincts. Here is Rivers again:

It is not long since it was regarded as a sufficient definition of instinct that it is the mode of mental activity proper to animals as distinguished from the intelligence which was believed to be the chief, or even the only, factor of any importance in regulating Man’s behaviour. All recent work in psychology has shown this distinction to be of little value. (Ibid, p.40)

Thus a distinguishing characteristic of this model is that the difference between reason and instinct is one of degree not of kind.

To pause for a moment and place our model within a more general history of physiology and psychology: this unified physiological approach to the mind built upon research conducted throughout the first decades of the nineteenth century, but the crucial evolutionary step was taken in mid-century by Herbert Spencer (see Robert M. Young’s Mind, Brain and Adaptation in the Nineteenth CenturyOxford, 1970). However, for Rivers and others of his generation, whose studies began only at the very end of the nineteenth century,  Spencer’s work was mediated by the brilliant research of the great English neurologist, John Hughlings Jackson.

Now, a unified physiological model that encompasses both reasoned and instinctive human action lends itself to two quite different interpretations, depending upon whether emphasis is placed upon the reasoning or the instinctive side of things. This can be illustrated historically by tracing the changing use made of this model within Cambridge moral science.

In the late 1860s a young Alfred Marshall presented a paper entitled ‘Ye Machine’ to the Grote Club. Marshall began by describing the operation of the mind of a brute – with sensual input automatically generating behavioural response. He then imagined a higher circuit, which allowed the outcomes of different actions to be imagined, thereby allowing one action to be selected as optimal. The higher circuit was assumed to have evolved out of the lower; the two were not different in kind, but they generated behaviour that could be labeled, respectively, reasoned and instinctual.

Within a few years Marshall had switched his primary research interest from psychology to political economy, and he would go on to fundamentally reform Classical political economy and found the Cambridge school of economics. But Marshall’s early psychological model was at the heart of his reformation of political economy.

By the early 1870s Marshall was coming to the conclusion that the old political economy – associated particularly with Malthus and Ricardo – erred in treating human beings as dumb animals. Malthus’ famous law of population, for example, which posited that any increase in wages would automatically generate more babies, assumed that the labouring class acted purely on instinct. Like other academic liberals of his generation, Marshall believed that the working class was capable of moral and mental improvement, and that if their wages were raised many would spend their new wealth, not on feeding more babies, but rather on the education of their existing children. Such forethought demonstrated the employment of a higher mental circuit – for these working class parents were making choices after imagining different possible futures for their children.

We see here the ground of Marshall’s transformation of Classical political economy, in which production is the primary economic activity, into Neo-classical economics, in which market exchange is the primary activity. Much productive labour may involve only low mental activity, but all economic agents are daily called upon to deliberate upon a wide array of market situations.

In short, Marshall in the 1870s employed our psychological model in order to emphasize the reasoning activities of the working classes and thereby draw a progressive social lesson.

If we return to Rivers in 1920, however, a quite different lesson is emphasized:

… we have learnt that the behaviour of man is far less subject to reason and intelligence than was once supposed, and that his reactions to circumstance are often with difficulty to be distinguished from the behaviour of the unreasoning brutes. This absence or deficiency of reason is especially pronounced in those social reactions in which individual differences dictated by reason sink into insignificance before the mass-reactions of the crowd. (Ibid)

Such a perspective on human psychology had a clear impact upon Rivers’ turn from evolutionary to diffusionist anthropology. Late nineteenth-century evolutionary anthropologists had declared that human societies everywhere advance through similar stages of mental and moral development, suggesting that humans were by nature progressive creatures. The diffusionists, by contrast, assumed that mankind is naturally static and took progress to be an aberration – in their model of prehistory, civilization is invented only once, and then disseminated across the globe.

This instinctual approach to psychology had clear ramifications also for the self-understanding of twentieth-century Western societies. Rivers’ allusion to the unreasoning actions of the crowd points disturbingly toward the politics of mass propaganda of the 1930s.

From the social point of view this shift of perspective makes a lot of sense: Europe had only recently emerged from the unprecedented horrors of World War One.

But in terms of intellectual history this shift raises a great many questions: what did the economists have to say about this new psychology of instinct? How compatible were diffusionist and evolutionary perspectives? What was the relationship of this kind of social science to the idealist philosophies of the time? And what are we to make of the rapid eclipse in the Interwar era of social science founded upon this psychological model?

To these and related questions I hope to turn in future posts.

Photo: (c) Simon Knott (used with permission)

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