William McDougall on Psychology, Rationality, Childhood and Civilization (Part 1)

In his previous post on W.H.R. Rivers, Simon Cook described Rivers’ complex notion of the interconnection between reason and the instincts and the role of the unconscious as the ‘storehouse’ of these accumulated psychological residues.  With this discovery, psychology had become, according to Rivers, the task of understanding the process through which human beings sort through those habits and instincts acquired through evolution which no longer suited their present environment. Man, through his social evolution, developed new ways of addressing the chaos of the world; this did not mean that the old defenses from terrors disappeared completely.  Rivers’ account of the instincts and the unconscious was an important part of what Simon has christened the ‘Cambridge Mind’, which  from 1860 to 1920 emerged as the principle grounding for a new science of man and society.

This account of mind underscored that instincts and intelligence could be placed within the same scheme where the difference between the two is simply one of degree.  Rivers took this model of mind to mean that the springs of human action, the origins of human behavior, were far less guided by reason alone than had classically been argued, and the behavior of the masses in particular underscored the supremacy of instinct over that of reason.   William McDougall (22 June 1871 – 28 November 1938), one of Rivers’ unjustly neglected students who emigrated to Harvard after being recruited by William James, began from the position of the interconnection between intelligence and instinct. What follows is McDougall’s gloss on the ‘Cambridge Mind.’

In his Introduction to Social Psychology ( 2nd ed. 1909), McDougall contended that his account of the origins and development of the instincts was first (though not foremost) a reaction against the reductive picture of man which the sciences had so far developed. Particularly problematic was the image of man that had been put forward by a previous generation of political economists where “man is a reasonable being who always intelligently seeks his own good or is guided in all his activities by enlightened self-interest” (11.)  Political science as well as the myriad social sciences suffered no less from this “crude psychology” (13.) Even Darwin, who produced a more nuanced psychology using the “comparative” and “natural history method”, still suffered from the “deference” accorded “the doctrine of psychological hedonism” (14-5.)  In place of this crudeness, McDougall promised the reader a “dynamic, functional and voluntaristic view of mind” which takes into account with increasing specificity the influence of the social environment and the importance of group psychology upon the individual (16.)

McDougall’s psychology is founded upon a hierarchical, evolutionary and dualistic model- where “innate tendencies”  (the instincts) are controlled and guided by “intellectual faculties” and which differ only in degree from one another.  These innate tendencies exist in differing proportions and strengths in differing races and at differing periods in human history, but are also to some degree shared. A detailed understanding of these innate tenancies will allow for “a much needed basis for speculation on the history of the development of human societies and human institutions” (19,) with the similarity of tendencies across nations and history being the basis for a new science of man.

Instincts were “an inherited and innate psycho-physical disposition which determines its possessor to perceive, and to pay attention to objects of a certain class, to experience an emotional excitement of a particular quality upon perceiving such an object” and to be disposed to act towards that object in a certain way (29.)  This is not to say that instincts are always and everywhere the same.  Even among lower animals, instincts could be modified by experience; for human beings, the degree of modification was much greater.

Accordingly, animals though instinctively fearful of loud noises, learned to discriminate between those which signal harm and those which can be safely ignored. Likewise, birds who were unused to man as a hunter will have no fear on the approach of man on an uninhabited island.  However, “But the men employ themselves in shooting, and very soon the sight of man excites the instinct of fear in the birds, and they take flight at his approach” (35.) The ability of instincts to be changed or to be modified according to new stimuli was the principal way animals “profit by experience” and “learn to adapt their  behavior to a greater variety of the objects of their environment than is provided by for their purely innate dispositions” (38.) The higher animals were on the evolutionary ladder, the more their instinctual responses could modified by experience.

Consequently, in man especially,  many instincts (the exceptions being many behaviors displayed by infants- suckling, wailing, “shrinking before a coming blow” (41)) were subject to the control of the intellect and were determined by the state of refinement of civilization.  Thus, the instinct of pugilism (aggressive behavior) could either cause a resort to raised fists (in more primitive cultures) or to intricate sword-play. But this control only extends so far as such instincts (in even their most developed form) bring with them changes in heart-rate and blood pressure which are involuntary.

Instincts in humans were thus the “prime movers of all human activity” (44.)  McDougall most interestingly renders a taxonomy of instincts and their corresponding emotional states. He distinguished between “principal instincts” such as the instinct of flight and the emotion of fear- emotions being the language we use to describe the immediate physiological as well as the “the visceral and bodily changes” which occur when in the thrall of an instinctual response (46)- and those instincts which played a larger role in civilized life as well as in the lives of adults.  The principal instincts played a greater role in primitive society and in the lives of children, who recapitulate the social evolution of civilized man from his primitive fore-bearers.  Fear was “the great agent of social discipline” (55) in primitive societies. Likewise, the instinct of self-display and of the corresponding elation is present in much of the behavior of small children, less so in adults (62ff.)

This post has described the role that McDougall carved out for instincts in explaining the behavior of individuals.  Instinctual behavior was a feature that mankind shared with the animal kingdom and which determined the life of children and savages. Instincts too played a role in civilized life- both savage and civil mothered their children and shrank back in fear; instincts however, explained a great deal of man’s behavior generally as well as accounted for the differences in that behavior over the course of his social evolution.  As societies and individuals moved from savagery to refinement, they began to master their own instincts through the application of intelligence, with new instincts becoming centrally important. As importantly, the transition from being in the thrall of instincts to the intelligent shaping of the motives for action was as an essential feature of childhood psychology.

In part 2, I will detail how McDougall’s model of mind accounted for motion- the social evolution of mankind and the emergence of individuals from childhood and barbarism and of the history of the world from races to nations. As with Rivers, reason and instinct intermixed, with intellect being one motive, one spring of action among others.  But we shall see if this delimiting of the scope of rationality in the work of McDougall leads to Rivers’ pessimism and mass psychology.

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