Herbert Spencer on Instinct and Intelligence: The Background of the “Cambridge Mind”

Simon Cook previously described the novel account of the human mind which emerged before the First World War- the Cambridge Mind.  He considers the development of this conception of brain and behavior to be a critical moment in the early history of the social sciences in Britain, informing the views of both Alfred Marshall and W.H.R. Rivers, but to very different effects. From my vantage point of American intellectual history and history of science, I find a number elements of “the Cambridge Mind” interesting.

First, the Cambridge Mind was a critique of the hedonic calculus which informed the work of David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill. Interestingly, British and American anthropology after the Second World War both returned to this hedonic model while a number of other engagements in the social sciences re-founded their discussions of human behavior on biological universals which were akin to some of the instinctual theories important to some adherents to the “Cambridge Mind.”  One such adherent was William McDougall and as I will demonstrate on my site Vice Versa, McDougall’s psychology and his philosophical ideas have had a very interesting legacy.

Secondly, the ideas which constituted the Cambridge Mind differed in the works of each adherent and had a very complex, uncertain and ill-defined legacy.  Carr-Saunders‘ account of instincts and intelligence and the hereditary origins of human behaviors drew upon McDougall, W.H. R. Rivers, but also took a great deal from Hobhouse, as well as dozens of writers whom had nothing to do with the development of the social and behavioral sciences at Cambridge.  Others like Graham Wallas took the Cambridge Mind to other nascent disciplines like the study of American and British politics.  Simon has underscored this in his original post on the Cambridge Mind, pointing to the twin divergent applications of these ideas in the work of Alfred Marshall and W.H.R. Rivers.

Third, the Cambridge Mind has a background which I find extremely fascinating.  Although W.H.R Rivers came to argue for the difference of instinct and intelligence to be one of degree, rather than kind, this was not a sentiment in the psychological and brain sciences which emerged overnight.  The process by which Rivers reached this conclusion was the product of a contested consensus which reached back to the psychology of Herbert Spencer.

Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) has never been well-remembered.  Near the end of his life Spencer was castigated by G.E. Moore in his Principia Ethica (1903) for conflating the order of nature and the moral order (the so-called “naturalistic fallacy”).   Of course, he does not quite do this.

Spencer’s Principles of Psychology (1855) is a masterpiece of mid-nineteenth century synthesis in all of its baroque glory, which should be placed alongside J.S. Mill’s 1843 System of Logic and Henry Buckle’s History of Civilization in England (1857).  It is also I think an unjustly neglected work and more cogent than Spencer’s critics give credit for.

Spencer considered instinct to be a “mode” of intelligence (487.) Instinct is also a “compound reflex action.”  Instinct can be clearly distinguished from the action of a simple reflex (an action or movement in response to irritation) by virtue of the complexity of the movements and the multiplicity of the sensations and their reactions (539-540.) Instincts can also be differentiated from simple reflexes by virtue of their successive action (instinctual behavior unfolds in a series or sequence).

Most importantly, instincts are defined (at least at their highest levels) by consciousness. I append a long quotation because the manner in which Spencer treated instinct as connected with consciousness was heavily disputed after the publication of Principles.  He wrote, “it is not improbable that, in its higher forms, instinct is accompanied by some approach to what we understand as consciousness. There cannot be a co-ordination of many stimuli, without some centre of communication through which they are all brought into relation. In the process of bringing them into relation, this centre must be subject to the influence of each—must undergo many changes. And the quick succession of changes in a sentient center, constitutes the raw material of consciousness” (541.)  The development of instinct moreover was a stage in mental and physical development of organisms from simple to complex, homogeneous to heterogeneous and from physical to psychical through the harmonization of inner mental states to external stimuli.

He considered all life possible due to the adjustment of the “inner order” of the organism to the external order of nature (505.) Instincts are then “the heritable consequence of that process of adjustment.” They are “determined by the experiences of the race of organisms forming its ancestry, which by infinite repetition in countless successive generations have established those sequences as organic relations” and are a “heredity transmission” displayed in varying forms “in all the animals we breed, and in the human race” (525.)

Spencer pointed to what he saw as evidence “that the induced tenancies in the nervous system, are transmitted along with induced tenancies in the other systems”, so that by way of the hereditary transmission of nervous tenancies (the inner state) are consistently brought into harmony with the “outer state” of external nature, which becomes ever more complex.  As nature becomes more and more complex, so do the inner states of adapting creatures, moving from the merely reactive responses to external harmful stimuli to the very complex, intelligent and symbolic connections forged by human beings in the context of civilization (529-31.)

Instincts do not govern the action of the lungs, of the liver or of the kidneys (540-41) They are not automatic.  Instincts develop from the ability of higher organisms to recognize and to sufficiently analyze differing classes of objects and to sort through multi-various sensations, even unclear sensations.  Simple stimuli are constant and provoke a constant automatic reaction.  Because of the repetition and  pervasive nature of said stimuli, these stimuli are most general and defined.  An example would be automatic reactions to heat, cold, and changes in the tactile nature of objects (sharpness and dullness.) More complex stimuli, on the other hand, are relatively rarer and are therefore not omnipresent.  As importantly because of the complexity of the stimuli, the corresponding psychical states are “less coherent.” Complex stimuli do not lead to a distinct psychic impression and a distinct corresponding physical reaction (pg. 541ff.)

Because of their complex character, the nervous response to them become more and more autonomous and deliberative rather than automatic.  As external stimuli become more complex and the organism (or “people” or “race” in Spencer’s scheme) learns to distinguish between various classes of stimuli, some of which are frequent, some of which are not, and correspondingly, to distinguish between mental states, some of which are clear and some of which or not.  It is here that the individual learns discernment.  It is through this process that “what we call instinct will gradually merge into something higher” (550-1). Much like the proponents of the Cambridge Mind, Spencer accorded to instincts a role in the foundation of intelligence, where the difference between instinct and intelligence was not one of kind, but rather of degree.

Spencer is blunt on this point.  Drawing from his discussion of memory (which shall not detain us here), he declared, “That the commonly assumed line of demarcation between Reason and Instinct has no existence, is clearly implied not only in the argument of the last few chapters, but also in those more general arguments elaborated in preceding parts of this work” (562.) The lack of division between instinct and intelligence depended upon Spencer’s account of both mind and brain: his understanding of “the unity of composition throughout all mental processes” and the composition and functioning of the nervous system itself.

So at the end of this we are left with a bit of a dilemma which I would like to explore in subsequent posts. Proponents of the Cambridge Mind began there new psychology in opposition to the supposition that “instinct and intelligence are generally regarded as two distinct modes of mental activity.”  Charles S. Myers, the author of the previous statement (The British Journal of Psychology, Vol. 3, 1910, 188),  articled his program in part by announcing the intended proof of the idea that “instinct and intelligence are everywhere inseparable” (ibid.)

But, this is very much what Spencer wrote. And here things start getting very interesting. The exact nature of instinct and intelligence (and how to measure them experimentally and how to distinguish them) were among the most important questions asked by the American and British psychological communities in the decades before the Second World War. The experimentalist Alice Hamlin attributes to Spencer the quote, “No instinct need ever have been intelligent. In its higher forms it is probably accompanied by a rudimentary consciousness, but this is an effect of the growing complexity of the instinct” (Alice Julia Hamlin, “An Attempt at a Psychology of Instinct” Mind, New Series, Vol. 6, No. 21 (Jan., 1897), pp. 59-70)  At the moment, I can not find this quote.

And in fact, Spencer is at pains to describe the lack of true gradation between instinct and intelligence and of the tremendous anxiety of the need to separate the two. In many instances, instincts develop into intellectual activity and movements requiring conscious coordination become more instinctual as they become more and more automatic.  He spent much of sections 194,195, and 196 of the Principles of Psychology breaking down the distinction between instinct and intelligence, contending their difference in degree rather than in kind.

Thus, my posts on the background of the Cambridge Mind have taken an interesting turn. In describing Spencer’s account of the development of intelligence and reason from even the most simple and rudimentary reflexes and in recovering some of the contextual meanings of Spencer’s notion of “compound reflex,” I hope to have described Spencer narrating something very close to the later proponents of the Cambridge Mind.

It is very interesting that Spencer was imputed to be arguing something quite different by his interpreters.  Spencer did not mean, at all, for his account of instinct as a compound reflex action  to be taken that instinct and intelligence were separate states of mind. For him the division of actions requiring consciousness and intellect was very finely graded and porous.  He also realized that his demolition of such a distinction would disturb some (570ff.)

Now my task becomes somewhat difficult. If Spencer’s critics (like Georges Romanes and Wilhelm Wundt) imputed the notion of compound reflex and instincts as resembling nothing intelligent to Spencer than they are incorrect. If Spencer is indeed breaking down the distinction between instinct and intelligence to a greater degree than his contemporaries give him credit, thus anticipating the development of psychology fifty years later, this is significant.

If Charles Myers and the proponents of the Cambridge Mind’s claim to novelty and distinction is in the lack of difference between instinct and intelligence, than they can not strictly claim this novelty as strictly theirs.  With Spencer, such a distinction was present at the beginnings of scientific psychology. The questions begin to compound with the reception of Spencer’s account of instinct as a compound reflex. In my estimation, much of the American and European psychological establishment has misinterpreted him on this issue. Or: this issue is a great deal more complex than I had hereto imagined, as it might be the case that the proponents of the Cambridge Mind are misinterpreting the arguments of their opponents.

One thought on “Herbert Spencer on Instinct and Intelligence: The Background of the “Cambridge Mind”

  1. Reblogged this on Ether Wave Propaganda and commented:

    In this post for the Grote Club, I reexamine Herbert Spencer’s discussion of a fundamental dispute in early psychology and intellectual history: the degree of difference between instinct and intelligence.


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