The Influence of Darwin on Theory of Knowledge and Philosophy


Under the headings of 'instrumental' and ' genetic' logic [2] the evolution theory has worked its way into the discussion of the higher processes of thought. The theory that thought is an instrument for dealing with social and practical situations—for solving problems of adjustment and truth — has given to discussions of knowledge and reality a new and vital interest. All knowledge remains experimental until it is confirmed, and it can be confirmed only by a resort to trial in the domain of its appropriate application. This leads up to two very important positions in the newer logic : a view as to the nature of truth on the one hand, and a view on the other hand as to the nature of the 'laws of thought,' the so-called categories or 'schemes,` in which the mind builds up and systematizes its acquisitions.

The theory of truth becomes either one of extreme 'Pragmatism' or one at least of 'Instrumentalism.'

Instrumentalism holds that all truth is tentatively arrived at and experimentally verified. The method of knowledge is the now familiar Darwinian procedure of ' trial and error.' The thinker, whether working in the laboratory with things or among the products of his own imaginative thought, tries out hypotheses; and only by trying out hypotheses does he establish truth. Here Darwinism gives support to the empiricism of Hume and Mill and forwards the sober British philosophical tradition. And no one illustrates better than Darwin, in his own scientific method, the soberness, caution, and soundness of this procedure.

( 208) Scientific method, therefore, becomes, when the full implications of the matter are thought out, the exhaustive epistemological method ; that is, we must hold that there is no method of reaching results to be called truths, which is not found, when genetically considered, to go back to the fundamental processes of experimentation. There is no royal road to truth ; no golden rule of revelation or inspiration by which the philosopher can deduce the ' universe and the contents thereof. 'The ambitious Naturphilosophie of the last century remained barren and speculative until, through the development of experimental and evolutionary science, it became Naturwissenschaft.

But what shall we say of the principles of knowledge itself? Are there no final a priori and absolute tests of truth such as we are accustomed to find in 'identity,' 'consistency,' and 'sufficient reason'? Are there no constructive categories which do not themselves owe their establishment to experiment?

As to the categories —here again instrumentalism has its adequate reply ; and its reply is strictly Darwinian. These, too, it replies, the categories, are principles which have been saved from numberless possible variations of thought in the course of racial evolution. They represent selections, adjustments to the natural situations which have confronted the mind. They are rules of systematization found useful for thought and experience, for individual knowledge and practice, and for common social belief in the vast stretches of history. The mind has built up a structure, as the body has ; and by a similar method : that of tentative and experimental adjustment, followed up by the correlated organic structure fixed by selection.

It is here that Herbert Spencer's most valuable intuition appears—a conception to be placed beside that of Darwin's. The weak point in Spencer's harness, however, was his resort to Lamarckian inheritance for the fixing of the rib-structures of mind. But for the theory of knowledge, the result is the same. The most absolute and universal-seeming principles of knowledge, viewed racially, are ' practical postulates' which have been woven into human thought as presuppositions of consistent and trustworthy experience. They were ' original ideas' at some time, found to be useful for the organization of knowledge and

( 209) for the conduct of life; and, now, by processes of reflective abstraction, they are set up as schemes or forms divorced from the concrete contents which alone gave them their justification and value, and called 'the Categories.'

So far we may recognize the two great conquests of the instrumental or experimental logic. It holds that all truth is confirmed hypothesis, and that all reason is truth woven into mental structure. These two great formulations are handed over to philosophy. Both are Darwinian. The first cites the selection of ideas for their utility in the individual's development; the second cites the 'coincident' racial selection that fixes them in the constitution of the mind.

But a more radical point of view is possible. What is now known as pragmatism proceeds out from this point. It is pertinent to notice it here, for it offers a link of transition to the philosophical views with which we must briefly concern ourselves.

Pragmatism [3] turns instrumentalism into a system of meta-physics. It claims that apart from its tentative instrumental value, its value as guide to life, its value as measured by utility seen in the consequences of its following out, truth has no further meaning. Not only is all truth selected for its utility, but apart from its utility it is not true. There is no reality then to which, whether humanly discovered or not, truth is still true ; on the contrary, reality is just and only the system of beliefs found useful as a guide to life.

I wish to point out that, in such a conclusion, not only is the experimental conception left behind, but the advantages of the Darwinian principle of adjustment to actual situations, physical and social, is lost; and if so interpreted instrumentalism de-feats itself. This appears as soon as we analyze any situation involving trial and error. Trial implies a problematical and alternative result : either the success of the assumption put to trial or its failure. When we ask why this is so, we hit upon the presence of some ' controlling' condition or circumstance in

( 210) the situation—some stable physical or social fact — whose character renders the hypothesis or suggested solution either adequate or vain, as the case may be. The instrumental idea or thought, then, has its merit in enabling us to find out, to locate, facts and conditions which are to be allowed for there-after. These constitute a control of knowledge, a system of things discovered. Now we may, indeed, say that nothing of what we think can be considered real except what has been actually discovered ; but we cannot go on to say that it is the discovery that makes it real. For if that were true what ac-count could we give of this painstaking and often most laborious process of gradual correction and proof? —what account, that is, of the º control'?

I know there are ways of replying to this criticism —ways of reducing the environment and its controlling facts to the level of postulates of earlier personal or racial experience. But while not finding these replies effective, I may simply say—confining the discussion to the Darwinian text—that the method of selection by trial and error requires that relatively greater stability, fixity and permanence be in the ' control' conditions, in the environment, and finds the genesis of truth in the gradual checking off of hypotheses under this more stable control. This supports instrumentalism, but it does not support pragmatism. I may

‘bring about' reality apparently without this external control, by I willing to believe' in something for which I have no proof or reason, in cases in which the sort of event willed — as for ex-ample, some one's else conduct —may be conditioned upon my act of will. But nature does not take to suggestions so kindly. The will of a general may stimulate his troops and so bring to him the victory lie believes in ; but such an act of the general's will cannot replenish the short supply of powder or shells, on which the issue of the battle perhaps more fundamentally depends.

In one other respect the newer view is transforming the theory of knowledge, a respect in which it shares with political and social science the impulse of Darwinism. I refer to the point of view from which the unit of knowledge, as of practice,

( 211) is no longer to be found in an isolated and self-regulating individual. Covering both the logical and the political aspects of the topic by the single term 'Community,' I may discuss the topic under that heading.

Community.[4] Work in social psychology has greatly modified the notion of the individual. The individual is found to be a social product, a complex result, having its genetic conditions in actual social life. Individuals act together, not alone — collectively, not singly. In short, the selective processes that have molded the individual, both racially and in his personal development, have turned on collective utilities. When interpreted in the political sciences this discovery shatters, at one blow, the historical theories of individualism, which make such motives as personal contract, individual competition, etc., the fundamental springs of human conduct, in its social relations, and the sources of government. Instead of a social contract, there is a social growth; the only contract is the one-sided one that assigns the too-individualistic thinker or actor to the jail or the asylum. In-stead of government only with the ' consent of the governed,' we have government by the few or by the many with or without the consent of the rest. In this, and in the more ' socialized' view of social competition and rivalry, and in the new view of social transmission considered as a process which largely replaces physical heredity, both in its content and in its method, we find summed up the enormous debt that political science, together with the other social sciences, owes to researches carried out in the spirit of the selection theory.

In the theory of knowledge the same general truth appears, and it is for this reason that I place the two cases together. In the social sciences and in the theory of knowledge º community' or some equivalent term is henceforth to be the watchword.

In the theory of knowledge it appears in the social reference that all knowledge implies. It is now the problem to find any knowledge that is psychologically private, not to find knowledge that is common and public. Individual judgment

( 212) and sentiment is everywhere rooted in social life —in education, tradition, convention — and it becomes a problem of knowledge, as it is of ethics, to show how it is possible to ' be a Daniel,' and ' to stand alone.' The result is that the subjectivistic theories of knowledge, like the individualistic theories of political science, are soon to be laid away in the attics where old intellectual furniture is stored. The knower does not start out in isolation and then come to some sort of agreement with others by ' matching up' his world of independent sensations and cognitions with theirs. On the contrary, he starts with what his and his neighbor's experience in common verify, and only partially and by degrees does he find himself and prove himself to be a relatively competent independent thinker. The theory of the ' communities' or common validities of knowledge, and that of the corresponding ' communities' or common interests of society, is our new possession and we owe them to the genetic researches which the Darwinian spirit and method have inspired.


In coming to a conclusion as to the influence of Darwin's thought on philosophy, we should first sum up the general results of Darwinian views in the different branches of knowledge with which philosophy deals. If we look upon philosophy as many do as simply the broadest and most unified view that we can get of the world as a whole, it is evident that our task will be to set together the results of the more partial disciplines, the results reached, that is, by the sciences of fact and value. This leads to the body of theory embraced by philosophy. Accepting this as a general statement of the problem of the content or matter of philosophy, a second great question remains in the determination of philosophical method. I shall take up the latter question first.

Philosophical Method. In an earlier address, in which the history of psychology was briefly outlined,[5] I took occasion to point out that an epoch in the progress of that science was inaugurated with the absorption of Darwin's point of view; and

( 213) this because a revolution was produced in psychological method. Psychology has always been the vestibule, as it were, to philosophy, and advance in the latter never gets far beyond that of the former. So when psychology adopted seriously a naturalistic and positivistic method —the method, that is, of the positive sciences of nature — philosophy had also to recognize the generality of these points of view. Philosophical truth, like all other truth, must be looked upon as truth about nature — the nature of the world and the nature of man — and its progress is secured through reflection exercised under the control of the positive instruments and methods employed in those subjects. Purely deductive, speculative and personal systems of philosophy may be useful as gymnastics and profit-able as sources of individual fame ; but the genuine progress of philosophy is to be looked for only through those methods of confirmation and proof which control the imagination and permanently satisfy the logical and other demands of common reflection. There may be different philosophies, but like rival scientific hypotheses, each must show the array of facts, aims, motives, values, etc.; that it can explain better than any other.

In these directions Darwin has strongly influenced modern philosophical thought; so strongly that the historical issues of philosophy have taken on new forms, which, in the new names now in vogue to describe them, are unfamiliar to the old-school philosophers. Instead of the problem of ' design,' we now have discussions of 'teleology'; instead of the doctrine of chance,' we now have the 'theory of probabilities'; instead of ' fatalism' and ' freedom,' we now have ' determinism' and ‘indeterminism' variously qualified ; instead of ' God,' we hear of ' absolute experience'; instead of ' Providence,' of ' order' and ' law' instead of ' mind and body,' of ' dualism or monism.' Not that all this shifting of emphasis and change of terms are due to Darwin ; but that they are incidents of the newer antitheses current since the mind has been considered as subject to ' natural law,' and the world, including God and man, as common material for science to investigate. Scientific naturalism and positivism are methods of unlimited scope ; and the

(214) question of philosophy is, what does the whole system of things, of external facts and of human values alike—when thus investigated—really turn out to mean ?

I may illustrate this by considering in more detail a central problem—one common to biology and psychology alike, and one whose answer colors the whole of one's philosophy. It is the old problem of 'design' debated in biology under theories of ' special creation' and ' chance,' and now discussed, alike in biology and psychology, in the form of questions of 'vitalism’ and ' teleology.' In what sense, if any, is the world — and in it, life and mind — an ordered, progressive and intelligible whole? And if it is such in any sense, how did it become so? Is it due to intelligence ? — and if so, whose intelligence? The most violent controversies aroused by the publication of the Origin of Species were let loose about this question. Darwin's opponents said ' chance,' ' fortuitous or spontaneous variation,' was to take the place of Providence, intelligent creation, God. If there be no rule of selection and survival save that of utility, and no source of the useful save the overproduction of chance cases, where is the Guiding Hand? Does not Natural Selection dispense with a ruling Intelligence altogether?

We have only to realize the present-day statement of this problem to see the enormous range of concession to naturalism the theory of Darwin has forced. Instead of 'chance' in the sense of uncaused [6] accident we now have the notion of ' probability,' a mathematically exact interpretation of what is to superficial observation fortuitous and capricious ; and instead of an interfering Providence, we have universal order born of natural law. And it is within such conceptions as these, now taken as common ground of argument, that the discussion of teleology is conducted. The world is no longer thought of as a piece of mosaic work put together by skilful artificers — as the old design theory looked upon it — but as a whole, a cosmos of law-abiding and progressive change. A philosopher who knows his calling to-day seeks to interpret natural law, not to discover

( 215) violations of it. The violations, if they came, would reduce the world to caprice, chance and chaos, instead of providing a refuge from these things.

So Darwin's view, while giving a ' black eye,' so to speak, to theories of chance and special creation, both equally desultory, capricious and lawless, replaced them once for all with law. It indicated the method of operation by which the progressive forms of nature are evolved in stages more and more fit and reasonable. The operation of such a law is no less and no more ' rational,' no less and no more ' fatalistic,' no less and no more ' atheistic ' than that of any other law physical or mental. What law — meaning simply what regular method of change — is operative in nature, and what its range, as compared with other such laws — this is entirely a question of fact, to be determined by scientific investigation. And how far the method or law called by Darwin ' natural selection' goes, what its range really is, we are now beginning to see in its varied applications in the sciences of life and mind. It seems to be — unless future investigations set positive limits to its application — a universal principle ; for the intelligence itself, in its procedure of tentative experimentation, seems to operate in accordance with it.

Again, it is in connection with this question that we are beginning to see how intelligence may, and does, work within the limits of law, effectively doing its work without violating the universally natural order. The statistical treatment of cases by newer methods [7] shows that events due to intelligence, on the one hand, and those observed to fulfil law on the other hand, fit into the same curves of distribution, if a sufficiently large number of cases of each be taken for treatment. Events involving social and voluntary factors — as crimes such as suicide,[8] the size of families,[9] each for itself depending upon the intelligent and free choice of individuals — when taken in the mass, follow the same laws of number and variation as do purely physical events in which there is no element of conscious determination. If this is so, we need not suppose any essential difference in

( 216) the results in the long run ; but may take our choice as between a purely mechanical interpretation of all the cases, or an interpretation of them all as involving a deeper and more immanent principle which works by both methods. In other words, it is not a teleology of the human type, working individually and tentatively against nature, that our philosophy must recognize, but mind in the larger sense of a principle whose mode of operation is in and through the reign of natural law.

One other instance may be cited to show how the evolution theory is serving to bring about a revision of the older philosophical conceptions. The notion of ' cause,' as held by the earlier more dualistic philosophies, has been transformed with the ad-vent of a broader naturalism.

Cause. —An objection to Darwinism, in the early days, was one that held in effect that natural selection left no place for ‘freedom' or intelligent initiation, but reduced all the sequences of nature to the level of I cause and effect' interpreted, as a mechanical principle of the transfer of physical energy. It was held that all movement, the entire dynamic and. genetic aspect of nature, became merely a series of compositions and recompositions, of transformations and retransformations, of a certain physical or energetic stuff. º Matter in motion' was the formula of ' cause and effect.' On further consideration, however, we begin to see how to make articulate our protest against this most superficial generalization. ' Cause' is a broader conception than ' energy.' Only when quantitatively considered are natural sequences exhausted by merely mechanical change. Qualitative differences are as universal and natural as are quantitative identities. There must be a revision of the notion of causation, to allow for the actual growth processes of life and mind, for the new modes of qualitative appearance that the genetic or developmental series of changes show. All vital, mental and social series of changes are of this sort: they are really dynamic, genetic. A psychological effect is not ' equivalent' to its antecedent conditions, considered as its cause, nor in any way identical with them in a quantitative sense. In what sense can we say —and still be intelligible —that a

(217) choice is equivalent or equal in energy to the antecedent motives of the agent? In what intelligible sense can an organic adaptation, upon whose utility the subsequent cause of evolution possibly depends, be said to be a mere transformation, equivalent in energy to the mechanical forces that condition it? We are really dealing here with a different sort of change—with genetic -change, with growth and development. We are dealing with qualitative, not quantitative conceptions; with modes of appearance and organization, not with units of energy ; and we must recognize the making of new modes of quality in every genetic movement of nature. Nature achieves novelties; there is, qualitatively speaking, more in the effect than there is in the cause.

This position is forced upon us by the radical acceptance of evolution. Spencer tried to subject the whole evolution movement to the mechanical conception of causation ; and he failed most signally. He interpreted all development in terms of successive transformations of energy. Thus life and mind alike were eviscerated of all their richer significance. So soon, how-ever, as we give genetic change a significance as fundamental as mechanical change, we reach a very different result. Every genetic change ushers in a real advance, a progression on the part of nature to a higher mode of reality. Actually new things — novelties— are daily achieved in life, mind and society. Mechanical causation, physical energetics — these are the poorest and least interesting facts of nature. They are instrumental conceptions, fruitful in science ; but along with the processes which these concepts generalize, go the dynamic, genetic, evolutionary modes of condition and consequent, which are equally actual and, in a comprehensive philosophy, infinitely more far-reaching and significant.[10]

The objection, then, that Darwinism reduces life and mind to physics, is quite beside the mark. On the contrary, the very radicalness of Darwin's conception, in forbidding any compromise with vitalism, accidentalism and all forms of obscurantism, has compelled the recognition of progressive movement, of real

( 218) evolution, as of the profoundest essence of nature. The reign of physical science and of mechanical law over the scientific and philosophic mind is over now, at the opening of the twentieth century. We have been hypnotized by the term 'energy' long enough.

These illustrations may suffice to show with what stones philosophers are laying the foundations of a new idealism. I may not now develop the matter further, since my topic has its limits in the influence of Darwin. But it is easy to see that with these two conceptions — an immanent principle of change, issuing in modes of reality which are progressively more and more significant for the demands of intelligence and life — the way is open for an interpretation of the world in terms of an organization of which progressive self-integrating experience is the type.

It is sufficient in this place to have shown that, in the working out of such an interpretation, the naturalism of Darwin has been and will be an important factor.

If, in conclusion, a brief statement were called for of the sort of influence Darwin has exercised on modern thought, I should sum it up in somewhat the following terms : Darwin gave the death-blow to uncritical vitalism in biology, to occultism in psychology, and to mysticism and dogmatism in philosophy. Each of these, alike progeny of the obscurantism of dogmatic thought, has in turn yielded before the conception of natural law and order embodied by Darwin in the theory of natural selection. This theory turns out to be not merely a law of biology as such, but a principle of the natural world, which finds appropriate application in all the sciences of life and mind.


  1. Abstract of part of a paper on 'Darwin and the Mental and Moral Sciences' prepared by request for the Darwin Celebration of the American Philosophical Society.
  2. See Dewey, Studies in Logical Theory, and Baldwin, Thought and Things or Genetic Logic.
  3. The authoritative exposition is James' Pragmatism. I do not hold the author, however, or any other one writer to the statements made in my text in exposition of this chameleon-like theory. My full criticism may be found in the article `The Limits of Pragmatism,' PSYCHOLOGICAL REVIEW, Vol. XI., PP.30 ff.
  4. The two sorts of 'community' indicated in what follows are worked out by the present writer in detail elsewhere ; that of the social life in Social and Ethical Interpretations (4th ed., 1906) and that of knowledge, in Thought and Things, Vol. II.
  5. Address prepared for the St. Louis Congress of Arts and Science, printed also in the PSYCHOLOGICAL REVIEW, Vol. XII, pp. 144 ff.
  6. Darwin himself described ' spontaneous variation' in these words (Descent of Man, ed. cit., p. 49): ' provisionally called spontaneous, for to our ignorance, they appear to arise without any exciting cause.'
  7. See especially K. Pearson, The Chances of Death, Vol. I.
  8. See the works of Morselli and Durkheim, on 'Suicide.'
  9. See Pearson, loc. cit.
  10. This point of view, developed by the writer under the heading of 'Theory of Genetic Modes' (Development and Evolution, Chap. XIX.) is brilliantly and forcefully presented by Professor H. Bergson in his work Évolution Créatrice.

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