Instinct: A study in social psychology

Chapter 6: The Evolution of Neuro-Psychic Controls — Intelligence and Language

Luther Lee Bernard

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Out of these general overt and inner neural adjustment mechanisms, discussed in the preceding chapter, or as phases of them, develop many subsidiary adjusting mechanisms of vast importance to the individual and society. The most important of all of these is undoubtedly speech and language. In fact language may be said to be the symbolizing mechanism par excellence, whether it be the language of gesture and mimicry or the language of speech. Without it, especially in its more highly and abstractly developed forms, where symbolization is most completely developed, abstract thinking or inner neural adjustment in its most effective forms, could not have been developed. Language symbolism is the chief symbolic content of the inner neural or conscious and subconscious adjustment processes. This fact has been shown to be true by those who have investigated the content of thinking. They have shown that thinking is conversational in form, whether it takes place in contact with others, or is the thinking of the silent and isolated individual. Only the most abstract thinking drops the conversational form of ratiocination; and even here the symbolism, however abstract, is that of language, but of written rather than of oral language. Oral language symbols constitute the content of the conversational or ordinary everyday thinking processes.[1] People who have long been isolated from conversational contacts, such

(108) as hermits or insane people of certain types, often develop the habit of engaging in audible conversations with imaginary or hypothetical persons as accompaniments of their thinking.[2] When excited or under great emotional strain anyone may lapse into the oral symbolism or audible conversational form of thinking. Prayer probably has much of this element in it, and revelations from divinity may be explainable, in part at least, as conversational thinking in prayer, projected into the hypothetical mind or mouth of a divinity or a saint or holy spirit.

Such is the intimate connection between language and habit. The instinctive element in language is relatively simple and amorphous from the standpoint of intellectual content. The general tendency to vocalize may be spoken of as instinctive only in the most general sense. Such tendencies may be described as random in the same way in which we speak of random movements, when these movements spring from a metabolic basis and are not definitely directed toward or correlated with particular objects. In the same way random vocalizations are not definitely correlated with definite meanings and do not serve as stimuli to definite activity processes in others. But, like random movements, random vocalizations do serve as valuable raw material out of which definite habits of speech may be formed. Much of our speech forms and content, on the neuro-muscular side, go back to these random vocalizations as basic content. There are, however, definite instinctive elements of a simple sort in speech and language. These are cries of various kinds and with various emotional values or appeals. The child probably instinctively makes certain calls or cries, for help, and the mother possibly responds more or less instinctively to them. But even these instinctive calls of the child are general in character, that is, they are not specific to any type or types

( 109) of objects exciting fear. All objects causing pain or discomfort or fear (if the fear is instinctive) produce the same type of call or cry, varying only in volume, intensity or continuity, according to the persistence or intensity or character of the stimulus. It is doubtful whether the infant's vocal expressions of satisfaction and affection are instinctive. They are more probably learned early, being built up out of random vocalizations on the one hand and, on the other hand, closely correlated with the instinctive tendency of the face to relax in the general way which later comes to be known as a smile, when the organism is at rest or the organic needs are satisfied.

Almost the whole of the vocal content of speech or language is acquired and the whole of the written symbolical content of language is learned. The acquired elements in these two forms of language come in a very minor degree from the individual's own experience and by far the greater degree or volume from the experience of the race in the past or the present. Both oral and written languages are based on both the overt muscular and the inner neural types of adjustment mechanisms. In the case of oral language or speech the tendency for overt muscular expression to accompany the inner or conscious neural adjustment becomes specialized to the vocal cords. In the case of writing the muscular or overt expression tends to be specialized in certain muscles of the body, especially of the hand and forearm, but also to some extent in the set of the lips and the angle at which the head rests upon the neck and shoulders, which have acquired a secondary or non-functional adaptation to the act of writing, or rather accompany the overt process itself. This overt expression of the inner conscious or subconscious adjustment of the neural mechanisms through hand and vocal cords is not immediately necessary to the act or process of thinking. But it is indirectly and ultimately necessary to thinking, for the

( 110) processes of thought cannot go on without the use of the symbols of speech and of writing, and the most abstract and economical thinking processes are possible only with the aid of the highly compact symbols of writing, such as the formulae and signs used in the various sciences. Thinking and overt expression, as language, are reciprocal processes. Thinking is developed as a process dependent upon the technique of language symbolization and organization on the one hand; and, on the other hand, there must be organized an adequate language expression of thought content as a means to the development of further symbolic language content or technique to serve as a basis for further advances in thought. While thinking can go on for a long time without overt expression in either form of language, it cannot continue thus indefinitely without impairment of its efficiency. People who do not express themselves in speech or in writing, or do not at least read books-which is a highly specialized form of conversation— lose the most characteristic vigor or power of thinking, and in the end they are likely to cease constructive thinking altogether.[3]

If inner neural adjustment, which at its best is thinking, is an economical and more accurate or efficient substitute for overt muscular adjustment on the automatic habit or instinctive action basis, so may oral and written language be considered as an economical and more efficient substitute for overt

( 111) habit and instinctive adjustments not directed, or less directed, by the inner or conscious neural mechanisms. Language introduces a new economy into the overt adjustment process. It not only symbolizes the inner, abbreviated and rationalized neural and psychic adjustment going on within as a substitute in large measure for a totally overt adjustment of the organism to the environment, but it also introduces a social or coöperative element into this abbreviated and better defined adjustment process. Since language is a mechanism for communication as well as a mechanism for thinking, it makes it unnecessary for the individual to perform all his adjustments for himself alone, by exchanging adjustment services or even by organizing some of them on a coöperative community basis. Coöperative adjustments, or the exchange of services, both in the making of overt adjustments and in the making of the inner or thought adjustments, not only shorten the process by which each individual finds his adaptation but also increase enormously the volume of adjustments which can be made. This last service of coöperative adjustment, made possible by the use of language, is especially important in our highly complex social organization. Indeed, such organization would not be possible without language as the medium through which the inner adjustment mechanisms are effective in the coöperative or social adjustment process. Man's environment has come to be primarily a psycho-social one, with its content of institutions, customs, traditions, conventions and the like, and these are able to keep their form and their continuity only with the aid of language. They are abstract social entities having their roots in the thought and action of men-the inner and overt adjustment processes,-and they must be organized end communicated through language. There is no other means and medium through which they can maintain their identity and continuity.

It follows, therefore, that both spoken and written lan-

( 112) -guages, operating as they do as the chief social servants of the mind, are of the greatest importance to civilization. Without them civilization could not have evolved; they are the chief carriers of the content of civilization. Of the two, written language has rendered the greater service to civilization, especially in its later development. Oral language gave man a medium of communication which made possible the development of coöperation over such areas as the voice would carry or as the spoken word could be transmitted effectively from mouth to mouth. Such communication was of especial service in the coöperative protection against enemies and in procuring food, especially after the securing of food by the simplest methods of direct appropriation had given way to hunting, fishing, grazing and agriculture. Spoken language also made possible the transmission of valuable technique and knowledge of all sorts, not alone horizontally, from person to person, living contemporaneously, but longitudinally, from the people of one generation to those of future generations, almost without end. Traditions came into existence with a language rich enough to carry their content. Customs were enriched by it and given effective volume. Technique, both of the practical physical sort and of the magical kind, multiplied greatly. Institutions were not possible without spoken language, but with it they reached a high degree of complexity and effectiveness. Without science, their effectiveness exceeded their utility, in many cases. With oral language man became a thinking, coöperating, social being, as well as an acting animal. His effectiveness, immediately and ultimately, was vastly increased. Spoken language brought the prehistoric stages of our culture into flower.

But the higher or historical stages of culture could not develop without the aid of written language as the carrier of their content. Written language increases somewhat the range of communication and hence of potential social coöperation. It

( 113) increases vastly the volume of communication. For, as voluminous as is talk at all stages of human development and especially now,[4] with its increased facilities made possible by use of the telephone, it cannot begin to compare with written language where volume is multiplied by distance or extent. The newspaper and the movie, the magazine and the book, carry a very large content of ideas much more uniformly over a wider area than would be possible by means of spoken language alone. Many ideas, especially of the more serious sort, would be lost or greatly diminished in extent of reach and volume if they had to be sifted through all types of minds, many of them poorly prepared for such transmission. On the other hand the carriers of written language can pass over such minds not prepared to act as transmitters of the more abstract ideas and reach other minds in considerable volume far from the center of transmission. These minds, even on the outskirts of the geographic area of the written or printed carriers may serve again as centers for vocal or written transmission of the same ideas. But the greatest advantages of written language arise from its superior accuracy and its greater permanence. The same danger of breaking the thread of communication which exists with respect to lateral transmission, where untrained minds have to act as the media of transmission, is to be found also where the transmission is from generation to generation in the form of tradition or belief or technique. Disturbed times, the untimely death of the bearer of the wisdom of the race, before his successor had been fully initiated, conquest by a more warlike but more ignorant group, or other unexpected or unfavorable events, might easily cut the thread of trans mission, as historic facts amply prove. This danger was all the more real the more difficult the ideas to be communicated or the technique of transmission (language) to be mastered, or the greater the sacredness of the content, with the conse-

(114) -quent restriction upon the numbers of the carriers of the sacred or valuable possessions. Likewise, the content of the transmitted ideas or control technique was almost certain to undergo modification and, ultimately, possibly complete transformation when passing through a great many minds. This tendency towards modification is well illustrated by the changing character of the content of gossip in contemporary society.[5] The same difficulty is to be encountered in some degree in connection with written language. One of the reasons for the existence of the "higher criticism" of the sacred writings of any religion is that copyist and commentator have from early times added to the text or taken from it, in spite of the (interpolated?) threats of Revelation .[6] Such additions and mutilations are, however, much more difficult in the day of printed books and preserved first editions. The written or printed content of the language can be handed down from age to age regardless of the refracting medium of individual minds and public opinion, for it does not pass through minds; it passes to minds.

In another, but related, sense also written language is better able to preserve its content with accuracy from generation to generation. The more abstract and highly symbolical content probably could not be transmitted intact orally through a sufficiently large number of minds to make it generally available for the use of a whole people. Hence, a high degree of intellectual culture could not arise with merely oral transmission from generation to generation, before the advent of written language. It is necessary to have a less destructible medium to preserve the content intact until it may be absorbed by a sufficiently large number of people to render its cultural content widely diffused.

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In the matter of the volume of ideas or knowledge which may be communicated, the advantage is overwhelmingly with written language. Long ago, with the aid of writing and printing and a highly developed symbolism of expression, the volume of the cultural content of civilization outgrew the capacity of the human brain to remember and transmit economically. The troubadour and the minstrel were the first general carriers of the folk wisdom, and in order to gain a general hearing and support their wares had to be primarily popular in content and literary in form.[7] Even the philosophers no longer attempt to write into systems of interpretation the whole content of human knowledge. Nor can the scientist any longer master the whole of his own field. The very process of knowing, as well as of transmission, has now come to be coöperative. General treatises on a single subject must come more and more to be written by a group of men, which is the reverse of the former practice by which one man wrote a group of treatises.

Even the learned man no longer attempts to carry in his memory the whole content of his specialty. He remembers those ideas and facts and formula which constitute his most frequently used working tools, just as the plumber carries his most necessary apparatus about with him in his kit. The rest of the pertinent data-the less frequently used tools-are kept in convenient storage places, in cyclopaedias, files, books,

(116) notes, etc., just as the plumber has a large supply of tools in his shop to be drawn upon in case of need. Libraries and museums are the great storage places for the data which are too voluminous for oral transmission or to be carried by the specialist in his memory. The specialist remembers the key facts and formulae and draws from the storage places additional material to apply to the solution of any particular problem. This is true not alone in theory, where new interpretations of phenomena are being worked up in the abstract, but it is equally true of the applied sciences. The physician does not carry all the knowledge he needs in his head, but constantly consults the medical journals and libraries. The engineer does not remember all the formulae he needs to use in his profession. He merely learns the methods by which he may apply data to the solution of problems and such formula and facts as he will most frequently use. The rest he is prepared to draw from the Engineers' Pocket Book or Year Book, with its multiplicity of tables, formula, and data of all pertinent kinds. In cases of greater urgency he consults the libraries and the technical journals or specialists.[8]

The whole method and process of education is being transformed because of this vast increase in the volume of knowledge or data which has accumulated and which can no longer be transmitted orally in full. The old ideal of education was to stuff the memory as full of facts, formula and laws and principles as possible. Thus the educated man was a walking magazine ready to explode upon the relatively ignorant upon occasion.[9] This stuffing process is no longer successful, be-

( 117) -cause no mind can comprehend even a large fraction of the accumulated and stored data.

The modern ideal or aim of education which has superseded this earlier one is to train the mind of the thinker to locate, discover and utilize data in the solving of the problems which he will encounter. This involves three major processes. First, the student must be taught the classification and location of facts and data, that is, the tools which he will use. This naturally involves instruction in a considerable knowledge of the more important and frequently used facts and data themselves. It also involves instruction in the organization and content of libraries, card catalogues, cyclopaedias, and the like. Second, he must be taught the key sciences, chief of which is mathematics, which unlocks the doors to all other sciences or to scientific method in all fields of knowledge. But there are other great key sciences, such as physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology. Their basic data and their leading formula are indispensable for the understanding and interpretation of the data in these general fields and in the special sciences based upon these general sciences. Third, there must be training in methodology or in the concrete methods of induction and synthesis in the theoretical fields and in the technique of the applied sciences, as a means to making the data stored outside the memory content of the thinker practically available. One thus educated is equipped for effective thinking or practice. He has a satisfactory basis in his knowledge of fact and formulae for work; he knows where to secure the materials which he does not carry in his memory; and he understands the methods of effective thinking and practice.

(118) Such a person is educated in the most effective sense for modern life and thinking.

Thus, with the development and extensive utilization of written language, actual habit tends to be replaced very largely by potential habit. That is, while oral language always proceeds directly from the neural organization within, written language, when stored outside of the memory, does not, when transmitted, necessarily proceed directly from the neural processes within. Ultimately it must proceed from such sources. But, in a certain sense and to a certain degree, it is self-perpetuating, that is, it may be transmitted without becoming actually a part of the intellectual possessions of the transmitters. In this way an ever-increasing proportion of mental content becomes potential instead of actual at any one time. This potential habit-directly inner or conscious and indirectly overt, in content (for the overt can come into existence in such a case only through the inner adjustment processes)-is stored outside of the muscular system and the neurons of the organism which may utilize it. Only by being taken into the consciousness through the key methods and processes above described is it possible for it to become a part of the actual organic adjustment content, either neuro-psychic or neuro-muscular. It follows that the larger part of the human mental content, at least potentially, is stored outside the neural processes. It is brought into the consciousness and the neural adjustment content only upon need or upon occasion and there utilized and finally transferred in its end products to the overt adjustment processes. The final form of habit adjustment, as a substitute for instinctive adjustment, thus comes to be potential and external. It is stored in books, museums; even in the rituals and verbal credos of men which have lost their conscious significance, and in the material external controls which guide our movements automatically. Only

( 119) the key processes remain as inner and actual conscious habit content.

This externalization of habit and of potential mental processes results also in an externalization of social control processes. Earlier thinkers imagined mankind and individuals to be regulated in their activities by an external force, such as deity or natural law. With the development of a knowledge of the working of the human mind, but before the relation of thought to external stimuli was clearly understood, there grew up a theory that action was an unfolding of the inner nature. The Herbartians applied this theory to the field of education and the metaphysicians generally made much of it, giving to it the peculiar turn in epistemology which bears the name of Berkeley and in ethics the characterization of Kantian. In the field of social thought this viewpoint is represented by utilitarianism on its more objective side, and by philosophic anarchism in its more subjective aspects. But with the development of a knowledge of the environment and its connection with human thinking this "individualistic," or better-called subjectivistic, interpretation is giving way to a new theory of external determination of human conduct. In this case the external control is conceived of as existing in the environment, and particularly in the psycho-social environment, instead of in natural law or the supernatural. The present analysis of habit and mental content, disclosing the propensity which these processes manifest for being stored as potential categories outside of the actual neural content or organization, adds much to the content and understanding of such an external or environmental control.

This objectification and externalization of the potential habit end thought content into a phase of the environment -- books, museums, newspapers, idea storage of all sorts-tend especially to objectify the social control process. It removes the immediate direction of human social affairs from the active

(120) conscious processes and places it largely in the stored psychosocial and physico-social content. The standardized, environmentalized, objectified stored potential knowledge and habit content must play an ever-increasing rôle in social control. Of greater present power in social control is a less objectified phase of the psycho-social environment-the institutions, customs, traditions, conventions, and the like. These controls have their existence partly in human consciousness and in muscular and neural habit. But they are also partly imbedded in the externally stored potential habit and thought content. And this externalization of institutions and other abstract psycho-social controls will increase as data and technique increase in volume and as more and more of these are stored as potential action and thought material outside of the immediate grasp of the human mind.

The implication of this discussion and of the ideas developed in this and the preceding chapter must now be clear. As is shown in the diagram of the various stages of development of neuro-psychic processes or technique, the tendency is for adjustment processes operating between the organism and the environment to get farther and farther away from instinct. In the last stages of the development of such adjustment mechanisms the technique is not only of the acquired sort, operating through habit mechanisms when it actually functions, but it is in large degree externalized into the environment itself. Habit, like instinct, is a mechanism residing in the organism. But potential habit, or thought, is stored outside of the organism and does not necessarily proceed from the experience of the organism upon which it is destined to operate. It is organized first within the psycho-social or physico-social environment and is then applied to the direction of the adjustment processes of the individual organisms through being taken into their consciousness or otherwise being made to oper-

( 121) -ate upon or create habit equipment. In this way the environment comes increasingly to dominate the adjustment processes at the expense of the instinctive or native equipment. Social control in a civilized society has been objectified into the newly created and expanding social environment, and the dominance of instinct is fading accordingly and proportionately. Even now the instinctive control of life obtains only in a very minor degree. Practically all of the institutions are being organized on the basis of external and objective social controls. In fact, the primary social significance of institutions is the substitution of external objective control for instinctive subjective control of conduct. We have now reached the stage of development in which science, rather than custom, plays the leading role in creating this objectivity of social control through institutions. The social sciences represent the extension of the scientific method into the field of human affairs as the means by which science is applied to this objective social control process. Formerly science and scientific method were developed only for the interpretation and control of the physical world.


  1. See C. H. Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order, esp. chs. 3-6.
  2. Compare E. A. Ross, Principles of Sociology, ch. 10.
  3. Thoreau is an interesting example of a man who lived a more or less isolated life but preserved the vigor of his thought primarily by selecting his companions because of what they could contribute intellectually and especially because of the books he read, which brought him in contact with the best minds of all ages. He had early acquired the habit of careful and intensive observation of natural and human phenomena, reflecting upon what he observed, a fact which goes far to explain the persistent vigor of his intellectual processes. He illustrates well the saying that one may do well to withdraw from the world in order to enjoy the best fruits of its great intellects and to produce most-at least of a certain character-of his own thinking.
  4. See Walter Bagehot on "Talk" in his Physics and Politics, ch. 5.
  5. For an excellent example of how content may be modified by gossip see C. G. Jung, Analytical Psychology, ch. 4.
  6. XXII, 18-19.
  7. Even written language in our day suffers from these limitations of form in order to secure a wide reading. The novel, play and poetry are examples of the distortion of ideas--or rather of the non-maturing of ideas into abstract symbolical content-by means of which they are brought or kept within the range of the average mind. On the one hand, such writing is a survival of the old method of part-intellectual, part-action content of speech, where the ideas which could not be grasped by the abstracting processes of the mind could be apprehended through pantomime or gesture. On the other hand, it represents the application of the modern refinements of the psychological arts of suggestion, symbolized in language, as methods of appeal to the emotions. Thus, there are both primitive and modern elements in modem popular writing for the reading public at large. But in both cases the abstract intellectual content is minor and the emotional symbolization of action is dominant.
  8. For an elaboration of this point, see the author's article, "Theory, Practice and Progress in Social Work" in Hospital Social Service Magazine, May, 1923.
  9. One still occasionally meets an individual of this type-people who scintillate with ideas or facts drawn from all quarters and shower them upon their less voluble victims until they are suffocated or dazzled by the brilliancy without content. Such people are properly regarded as superficial, because they present in their conversation vast collections of data without conclusions; they do not generalize. The thinker is ordinarily not a good conversationalist, except in his specialty, and there he is not likely to have many companions in an ordinary social group. His tendency to abstract into formula takes him out of the range of the symbolization of most of his companions who are enjoying the emotional impact of random data which they shoot at each other with intellectual popguns in the form of scandal, puns, the miraculous, paradoxes, etc., which constitute "brilliant" conversation.

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