Graham Wallas on Dispositions, the Great Society, the Failures of Experimental Psychology, and Some Novel Connections (Part 2)

Wallas understood the Great Society as the form of social organization brought about in large part by what economists then referred to as “The Great Industry”, the technological transformation of life and its social dislocations has resulted in a “general change of social scale” “without precedent in the history of the world (The Great Society, 1914, pg. 3).”  The question for him, as for many others, was whether such a change in the state of affairs, leaving behind the Malthusian England of old, was for the better or worse.   That progress would indeed be the reality was the “deeper anxiety of our times”, overshadowing even the worries of the ever-present commercial or industrial crisis (ibid, 6)  The idea of progress was easier to entertain in Herbert Spencer’s time, when England and America was under the sway of Lamarkianism.  That time had passed and the biologists have come to the conclusion that “Each generation…will start…in essentials, not where their fathers left off, but where their fathers began” (8.) What then was behind the endurance of social institutions?

This was made more difficult since Wallas believed, as did many others, that the bodily and mental machinery of mankind had evolved in the distant past under far differing environmental conditions.  “Why should,” he questioned, “we expect a social organization to endure, which has been formed in a moment of time by human beings, whose bodies and minds are the result of age-long selection under far different conditions?” (ibid.) If the present industrial civilization was to disappear, he continued, human kind would stand to loose much more than those denizens of past failed civilizations since so little of the world as it now stood was in the form of “self-supporting villages” (12.) Wallas’ present objective like that of his previous Human Nature in Politics (1908) was to bring “the knowledge which has been accumulated by psychologists into touch with the actual problems of present civilized life.”  While Human Nature in Politics had addressed the connections between psychology and representative government, The Great Society dealt “with general social organization” where especially the difficulties encountered in the great change brought about “Great Industry” would be underscored.

Wallas began his work by noting that social psychology sought the causes behind “dispositions” which are, he says later, inherited tendencies towards acting, thinking and feeling (22.)  Like “human nature,” disposition is a term of convenience (as both discussions are highly technical). Wallas and McDougall were both given to overstatement and generalization (as in Wallas’ account of dispositions) since the discussions of the springs of action, motivation and behavior were becoming so technical and even byzantine on both sides of the Atlantic when they wrote. This washing of the hands of more technical discussion comes from McDougall’s example, whom he relies upon heavily here.  I note this so that there disagreements on many things can be discussed in a background of agreement.

Wallas’ discussion of instincts makes clear that the understanding of the role of instincts in human  behavior is part of his effort to address the manifold complexity of human behavior in everyday life.  Psychology as traditionally narrated has made it “unnecessarily difficult to combine and to compare such facts as that men feel pain, make calculations, and act in obedience to the impulse of anger” (22.) Pain, rational calculation and instinct were previously all divergently explained. However, the true student of human nature and a scientific social psychology should consider all three activities as “dispositions.” Instead, he possesses by inherited tendency and experience a disposition to intelligence and ratiocination. In much the same way, by virtue of evolution and experience, he is predisposed to anger in response to certain stimuli (23.)

Wallas’ account of evolutionary inheritance and of predispositions was not simply a critique of the hedonic calculus, but part of his effort to position social psychology as an inquiry in a field of competitors. By giving a robust account of instincts and intelligence, Wallas’ believed himself to be advancing psychology as a pragmatic science applicable to the study of politics, history and society.  Such an inquiry went beyond the gains of experimental psychology, which had outlined such processes as hearing, taste and touch.

Experimentalists such as Charles S. Myers (whom was on the Torres Straits Expedition with William McDougall and W.H.R. Rivers) had interrogated the nervous system and from him the social psychologist “receives invaluable guidance both from their results and from their method and spirit. He can now use words like pain or pleasure or habit in a clearer sense than that given by the loose associations of ordinary speech” (30.) According to Wallas, however, laboratory methods are for the social psychologist in many instances the least helpful form of inquiry for it is impossible to study patriotism or artistry, which possesses such complexity that it can not be reduced to laboratory methods (31.) For a man accused of much reductionism (of men to mere instincts) it is surprising to see him accuse others of the same work in another field.

Wallas’ positioning of social psychology (especially his social psychology) as practical, as opposed to experimental psychology, is intriguing.  Myers later wrote extensively about the practical applications of psychology for industry and education as well as the uses of social psychology for the purposes of reform in his pamphlet, The Present-day Applications of Psychology, with Special Reference to Industry, Education and Nervous Breakdown (1918) and later in Mind and Work (1921). One would think that Wallas would be slightly more complementary to Myers.

The latter also wrote perceptively about instinct and intelligence as being different in degree rather than in kind in the infamous (for the Grote Club at least) British Journal of Psychology special issue on instinct and intelligence.  Wallas quotes him to great effect on pgs. 42 and 43 of The Great Society. Here Myers, as previously reported, underscored that instinct and intelligence should not be considered “two distinct modes of mental activity.” Discussions like this were the basis of much of Wallas’ as well as William McDougall’s work. When then critique Myers? A large part of this has to be the degree to which Myers restricted the object of experimental psychology to be the study of consciousness and his discussion of the methods of psychology, especially introspection and the laboratory. Myers spends some time accounting for the virtues of introspection and the experimental method in psychology. This is a part of discussion which had riven students of human nature in the previous generation (with the work of Wilhelm Wundt.)  William James wrote in much the same universe.

Wallas makes little use of introspection although he does mention its usefulness occasionally, such as on pg. 139.  He also has little use for discussions of consciousness.  Given the dozens of times which Myers discusses introspection in his own 1909 Textbook of  Experimental Psychology, in contrast, it is quite clear that Wallas is engaging in a conceptually distinctive project, as Wallas considered the introspection issue not worthy of even much mention.  So perhaps this is the reason for the criticism.

Myers early work in psychology, however, can be read as a kind of consul against Wallas’ brand of social psychology. Myers in the second edition to his Textbook on Experimental Psychology  (1911) notes in his chapter on “Thought and Volition”, “Perhaps the most valuable results of this application have been to show the extreme complexity of these mental processes and the wide differences in mental build existing among differing persons” (324.)  Such statements like those of Myers render more difficult the instinct psychology suitable for politics which Wallas had in mind, perhaps.

In my next post on Wallas I shall go beyond discussions of method to the actual matter of his psychology. His question concerning the persistence of social institutions is a good one.  One of the acute problems opened up by the Cambridge Mind is that if instincts and the biological evolution represented a past stage of development, this means of course that the biological and social evolution of humanity was in potential disequilibrium and that recent social life (cities, modern warfare, courts of law) could very well be mal-adaptive. Saying that man had progressed beyond his biology, though not reducing mankind to nature, did not necessarily solve any problems, as it necessitated the explanation of the persistence of social institutions. A common answer to this question, both before the Second World War was altruism. Wallas as we will see in part three takes this up.

Like the post-war functionalism of Talcott Parsons, Wallas’ social psychology had by 1914 begun to branch into an inquiry into why there was social institutions at all,  looking for the sources of stability.  Very similar questions where taken up by Robin Fox and his brand of biosocial anthropologists, who all sought to explain how if man biologically had adapted to the savanna, how on earth he could live in a city?  In the case of both biosocial anthropology and Wallas’ own social theory, the answers are very complex.

One thought on “Graham Wallas on Dispositions, the Great Society, the Failures of Experimental Psychology, and Some Novel Connections (Part 2)

  1. Reblogged this on Ether Wave Propaganda and commented:

    Here I discuss Wallas more mature thought (c. 1914) and detail his account of dispositions, the discussion of which underscores his consistent commitment to a critique of the hedonic calculus. Wallas also used his understanding of human nature to position his social psychology as well as belittle (perhaps too strong a word) experimental psychology. It has not been sufficiently pointed out, and his discussion of the work of Charles Myers uncovers this, that social psychology of Wallas’ stripe was a move away from introspection and the study of consciousness as well as the laboratory. The results of the laboratory and the testing of individual subjects could be read as contrary to a inquiry which sought to explain past history and present politics through reference to pugnacity.

    Wallas, I think, understood this as a real danger. In his “Great Society” of 1914, he also comes upon a fundamental realization brought about through his understanding of evolution and the instincts: if mankind had stopped evolving biologically long ago, if he was adapted to the savanna and the very small village, was society a benefit for good or for ill? The idea of human beings as adapted or maladjusted for society is essential to discussions of social selection. Furthermore, the conception of social life being in disequilibrium with the biological adaptation of the human race is one of the mainstays of bio-social anthropology.

    It is thus worth positing: can the Cambridge Mind and turn of the century psychology in Britain give us an insight into contemporary debates about universals, particulars and biological reductionism in anthropology and psychology? Perhaps.

    Through an attention to social psychology have we uncovered a debate over methods in early psychology? Perhaps too this is the case.


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