Graham Wallas on Instincts and the Study of Politics (Part 1)

My posts on William McDougall and Simon’s on the “Cambridge Mind” underscores the emergence of a  model which sought to explain the varieties of human behavior in the civilized nations and savage climes.  This model underscored that the difference between instinct and intelligence was one of degree rather than one of kind.  Theorists who articulated this model all understood that it provided a far more robust explanation for human behavior than the hedonic calculus developed a generation earlier by utilitarians and their followers.

As importantly, writers in the emerging social science disciplines in the United States and Britain began to wrestle with a series of interlocking questions, the most important of which were: as instinctual behavior was plainly apparent in the action of everyday animals, what did this mean for the study of human nature?;  as human beings were part of the order of nature by virtue of their instincts, how did these instincts come about through the process  of evolution and how did psychical and biological nature change with the advancement of civilization?

An attention to the Cambridge mind in both its British and American applications also illustrates a fundamental historigraphic fact: that much Victorian and Edwardian (as well as Gilded Age and Progressive social theory in the United States) is under-reported. This leads to some glaring omissions, such as our very partial understanding of Graham Wallas.   Wallas, with a number of American colleagues such as Walter Lippmann, sought to redefine the understanding of political behavior in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the opening decades of the twentieth century.  They sought to found a new science of politics and political behavior.   Wallas like McDougall was a searching critic of the hedonic calculus and its inability to explain the variety of human action.  And like McDougall, he begins his account of instincts and human behavior with this critique.

He wrote “Bentham’s standard of ‘pleasure and pain’…was in the first place obviously founded upon a universally accepted fact;  all men obviously feel both pleasure and pain…..” He continued, “But as a complete science of politics Benthamism is no longer possible.  Pleasure and pain are indeed facts about human nature, but they are not the only facts” important to a science of politics and human behavior.  He concluded, “The Benthamites, by straining the meaning of words, tried to classify such motives as instinctive impulse, ancient tradition, habit, or personal and racial idiosyncrasies as being forms of pleasure or pain” (Human Nature in Politics,  1908,  121-3.) Students of political behavior can not be like a “physicist” who constructs a “science out of a single variable” but rather must emulate the biologist who “who tries to discover how many common qualities can be observed and measured in a group of related beings….” (ibid, 122.)

Note here that the ‘biologisation’ of the inquiry into the human subject and his behavior was not the result of some necessarily deeply held belief in the retreat of reason or pessimism in the face of mass politics, although that was certainly there.  Here at least the emulation of the biologist was steeped in the problem of method.  Biologists, their methods and their results, were more scientific because of more robust induction.  For Wallas, the present state of the study of politics was positively Greek, similar to the understanding of medicine found in Galen.  This whole treatment of method and of the importance of facts has a very Baconian ring. He considers treatments of political behavior which emphasized the hedonic calculus, such as those of James Bryce and Moisey Ostrogorsky, “Ptolemaic” (123ff.)

Wallas’ account of instinct and its sources are complex, as is his understanding of human nature and political behavior.  The purpose of this post is not to outline the entirety of his project, but only certain aspects of it.  Subsequent posts will reveal (bit by bit) the fuller picture.

He was indebited to the American psychologist William James (especially in his early writings) as well as McDougall, whom he often uses as a foil particularly in his work, The Great Society (1914).  W.H.R. Rivers nourished his Our Social Heritage, based upon lectures given at Yale in 1919 (and published shortly after in 1921.) My next post will characterize their disagreements and their distinctions in approach, while also underscoring their mutual engagements. For now it is enough to touch upon some of Wallas’ ideas and their connections to William James’ account of instinct.

Instincts are certain inherited dispositions to act in certain ways.  Wallas detailed, “Our inherited organization inclines us to react in certain ways to certain stimuli because such reactions have been useful in the past in preserving our species.”  Such reactions “are what we specifically call ‘instincts’.” His definition reproduced James’ own definition of  instinct as “the faculty of acting in such a way as to produce certain ends without foresight of the ends and without previous education in the performance” (The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 2, 383.)  This is James’ opening formulation of the problem of instinct.  He goes on to say that instincts are not fixed but are vitiated by experience.  Most importantly, he underscores how instincts can be used to explain a wide range of behaviors in both men and women (and especially young children) as well as many differing species of animals.

Although there is an inordinate amount of criticism of McDougall (and Wallas) over their discussion of instincts such as gregariousness or pugnacity, James’ writings contains many discussions of the same flavor.  A sample of some delightful prose in this direction:”(Like dogs) Man is also excited by the presence of his kind. The bizarre (italics his) actions of dogs meeting strange dogs are not altogether without parallel in our own constitution.  We can not meet strangers without a certain tension, or talk to them exactly as our familiars” (pg. 431)  Another behavior, secretiveness, though often due to “intelligent calculation” is nonetheless “quite as often a blind propensity” (432.)  Wallas likewise writes that children will “fly” to the skirts of their mothers as soon as they see a stranger. Both James and Wallas agreed that instincts though “prerational” are throughout the life of the individual continually modified by “memory and habit and thought” (Human Nature in Politics, 27.)

Wallas contended that understanding the nature of instincts is of utmost importance for knowledge of political life and political behavior: political candidates are constantly advised to engender as much “affection” in their audience as possible by giving away “prizes” and to “say a few words at the end of other people’s speeches” (30-1).  Much political behavior and the conduct of men in governments (and the battles over socialistic reform) depends greatly upon the “desire for property” (36.)

In my next post, I turn my attention to Wallas’ Great Society (1914), where I detail his account of dispositions (a sparkling critique of the hedonic calculus while also pointing to his critique of Charles Myers’ experimental psychology.  Some repetition is inevitable, but to good effect, as my gloss points to how the Cambridge Mind allowed Wallas to point to an essential problem in social theory, how to explain the persistence of institutions?  This problem  was all the more acute given his understanding that while biological man had stopped progressing, his social life continued to flourish and grow.

2 thoughts on “Graham Wallas on Instincts and the Study of Politics (Part 1)

  1. Reblogged this on Ether Wave Propaganda and commented:

    Here I introduce Graham Wallas who applied the study of instincts to the science of politics. Unlike many previous glosses of the rise of mass psychology as the eclipse of reason, careful reading and situation of Wallas’ within the developing field of the social sciences in Britain demonstrate that the application of human nature and biological instincts to the study of politics was an avowed attempt to render the inquiry more scientific. Here the discussion of instincts, an important element of the model Simon calls the ‘Cambridge Mind’, was not a species of anti-democratic thinking or illustrative of the ‘eclipse of reason’ in thought and philosophy, but a revision of the hedonic calculus of Bentham and others. I also discuss William James in all of this in order to underscore that the Cambridge Mind drew from a wide variety of sources, not merely in the UK.


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