Instinct and Desire

Knight Dunlap
The Johns Hopkins University

HAVING precipitated, by a paper[2] read before this Association in 1919, a controversy over instincts which has flourished since that time, I may perhaps be pardoned for bringing before you what I hope will be my final controversial contribution to the subject.[3]

The discussion up to date has seemed to involve a large amount of confusion on the parts of some of the participants, and the several attackers of instinct have seemed to have as little common ground as have the several defenders. Yet there are practical results of the controversy which are unmistakable. In the first place, the old conception of instincts; mere teleological classifications of behavior ascribed to an indefinitely characterized inherited mechanism; has shown definite signs of giving up the ghost and disappearing from the field of psychology, although perhaps still strongly intrenched in educational psychology. Recently, I have found among biologists also a pleasing indication of a tendency to soften the old antithesis of instinct and habit; of inherited and acquired action-tendencies.

On the other hand, McDougall, who must necessarily be in the focus of our attention when we discuss instinct or instincts, has responded valiantly and admirably to the verbal missiles hurled at him, and has shown us that many of them were projected in ,error. He has, in short, cleared up his position, and made it plain that it is not that of the more nave instinct doctrine against which my first attack was launched. I think it is plain, also, that such defense as may be made of "instincts" may be made solely in behalf of his conception, and that instinct-psychologists who are not willing to go the whole length with him have really little

( 171) ground left to stand upon. When I use the term "instinct", therefore, in the following discussion, I mean the "instinct" ,as defined by McDougall.

It disturbs me somewhat, however, to find that McDougall, in a paper[4] read in this city just a year ago to-day finds me rather distinctly in agreement with him on the major points at issue. In effect, McDougall seems to charge me with having rejected "instincts" in name only, having really accepted them under the caption of "desires", although he finds my tentative list of nine desires is less adequate and more hastily put together than his famous instinct-list of thirteen plus. On this latter point, I quite admit the charge My list of desires is merely tentative: some illustrations of what I am discussing, although illustrations drawn from those desires (or forms of desire if you will), which we can hardly avoid talking about. McDougall's instinct-list, on the other hand, is the result of longer study, and put out as far more final than provisional.

There seems to me, however, to be a fundamental difference between the desire and the instinct, which McDougall does not fully recognize. still understand the instinct to be a central factor so far as it-; organic nature is concerned. That is, it could be referred physiologically only to certain dispositions of the nervous system, although not necessarily independent of factors of other origin, such as hormones. When he speaks of the instinct as a disposition, I am at present unable to understand him as meaning anything but a neural disposition.

What I mean by a desire, however, is not a "central" factor at all, but a strictly peripheral one. I mean something on the same plane as a "sensation" or "percept" (if one should use these terms), which is introspectively an object of experience, and physiologically a process or condition in some tissue outside of the nervous system, which stimulates or excites certain receptors. On the other hand, I do not find that McDougall considers an instinct as introspectively observable at all. If he does, then I must admit that I am dull, and have entirely mistaken his meaning.

As to the way in which "the language of the New Realism is strangely blended with that of introspection",[5] in one of my discussions, I do not believe this offers any difficulty to the psy-

( 172) -chologist. If I speak of a caterpillar crawling over an apple teat', I may describe it in mechano-chemical terms, using whatever symbols are fashionable in chemistry and physics at the moment, and relating it as a stimulus-pattern to the retinal receptors through the current conception of ether waves. But I may describe it also in terms of color, form and visible movement; describe it, therefore, as an actual object of my visible experience. This double description may mystify or confuse the behaviorist, but not the psychologist. Similarly I may describe the desire in the same mechano-chemical terms and symbols (if I can) and consider it also as a stimulus pattern affecting receptors in the soma and viscera. And I may also describe it as an object of immediate experience. Now, I may be entirely wrong in my conception of what a. desire really is, and I am not attempting at all in the present paper to defend my conception: I am merely trying to make it plain what my conception is, and it seems to me radically different from that of the instinct.

So far, I have been describing under the name "desire" some-thing which may be classified as ,a "feeling" or "affective content", quite aside from ,any cognitive reference it may have, that is, quite aside from the desired thing. If we call this a desire-feeling, our further discussion may be clarified. I believe such desire-feelings may occur without distinct reference to any object:_ nevertheless, they usually are referred to objects, and this combination of desire-feeling plus reference to an object is also called a desire, and in fact, "desire" is used more often than not in this latter way. In attempting to classify desire-feelings under the tentative assumption that there are several, qualitatively different, it is at present impossible to proceed without referring them to typical objects, that is, without referring them teleologically. Because of this common ambiguity of the term desire, and my dislike of the hyphenate term (which is also ambiguous), I hesitatingly called the desire-feeling the "radical of desire".[6] This unfortunate terminology of mine apparently has confused McDougall, and helped to form his opinion that I meant by desire something like an instinct.

I may be in error in calling the instinct a force or energy. McDougall insists that it is a structural disposition : "a fact of mental structure.[7] But the instincts have "expressions" in

( 173)action and in "emotional and conative experiences", and there are 13, plus, of them, apparently quite distinct from one another. And these expressions of instinct "cannot be explained by any mechanical theory".[8] I admit that I do not know what a "mental structure" is, aside from an actual pattern of conscious processes as they occur. But the instinct is not behavior as it occurs, nor is it consciousness as it occurs, nor is it content. It is apparently a determinant of all these. It seems to be something that might he called a potential energy. At any rate, it is :far removed from the class of things to which belong the observable caterpillar crawling over the observable leaf, the stomach-ache, and the desire-feeling.

If I am reasonably correct in my interpretation of McDougall's instincts, they are really a group of our old friends the "faculties of the mind '. Sill's line : "From tins low world of ours no gods have taken flight," is distinctly true of those gods from the machine, the faculties. The simplest, and most widely used method of explanation of any mental function is to refer it to a faculty, just as he easiest way to explain a pestilence is to say that is the expression of the sun-god's, wrath.

But like the other gods, the faculties appear at divers times under divers names and with divers symbols, and although their ancient appellation of "faculty" is taboo, their worship never wanes. None of them in the past have had the prestige and the glory enjoyed to-day by the faculty of "intelligence", whose sacred symbol s the I.Q.: And thirteen plus of them, the instincts, whose natures are revealed only in the behavior in which they manifest themselves,[9] are reverently accepted by large numbers of "social scientists, educationists, and psychiatrists",[10] as McDougall has himself pointed out. As for the psychologists, the popular suspicion that they are a scandalous crowd of atheists is apparently confirmed.


  1. A paper road before the American Psychological Association, Washington, December 29, 1924.
  2. Are there any Instincts; THE JOURNAL OF ABNORMAL PSYCHOLOGY, 1919, vol. XIV, pp. 307-311.
  3. A more extended presentation of my views on the subject of "Instinct and Instincts" will be found in The Identity of Instinct and Habit, Journal of Philosophy, 1922, Vol. XIX, pp. 85-94, and The Foundations of Social Psychology, Psychological Review, 1923, Vol. XXX, pp. 81-102.
  4. McDougall, W. Can Sociology and Social Psychology Dispense with Instincts, J. OF ABNORMAL AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY, 1924, vol. xix, pp. 13-41.
  5. McDougall, op. cit., p. 23.
  6. Dunlap, K. The Foundations of Social Psychology, Psychological Review, 1923, Vol. xxx, p. 95.
  7. McDougall, op. cit., p. 27.
  8. Op. cit., p. 28.
  9. See McDougall, op. cit., p. 22.
  10. Op. cit., p. 40.

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