The Philosophy of the Act

Essay 27 Back of Our Minds

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I AM not now using the term "mind" in a technical sense. I refer to the meanings and values which things have for us and the responses they call out. I refer to such expressions as "I have this or that idea of the affair," or "This is what it means to me." If a man looks at the heavens and has an idea that it will rain, he takes a raincoat, and we locate that idea in his mind; or, if he spends a goodly sum of money on a first edition of Samuel Johnson's Rasselas, we place that valuation in his mind. Our minds contain our immediate reasons and grounds for our conduct, that is, our reasons and grounds as they appear to ourselves.

Freud has made a great play of showing that the reasons and grounds which lie in our minds for many of our acts are not the real reasons and grounds, and he is seldom satisfied if he does not find the real reasons in thwarted sexual impulses. But, apart from Freud's predominant reference to sex in the matter, there is no great novelty in this recognition that there are more profound reasons for much of our conduct than those that appear to us to be explanations of our acts. To take a flagrant example: We have found our reason for eating in the dishes spread before us, while we are quite ready to recognize that these dishes have been only occasions for the exercise of a profound habit of seeking nourishment, very little of which lies in what we call our consciousness. We play golf perhaps with passion, but back of this and other fashions of recreation lie obscure demands of our physiological systems which only find occasions for their expression in the games. The young man falls desperately in love with a very specific young woman, but back of it lies the great process of reproduction of the species.

(480) The good reasons for which we act and by which we account for our actions are not the real reasons.

And then there are the profound social habits which make our societies possible that find their expression in buying and selling, in voting and seeking political offices, in herding together in clubs and churches and nations, and which only find their occasions for our conduct in specific stimulations that appear to us to be the good and sufficient reasons for what we do and refuse to do.

There is no great importance in this distinction between these profound biological and social processes and habits, on the one side, and the specific occasions that, under the ordinary conditions of daily life, give them their expression, on the other, unless these underlying impulses get tied up in the forms of so-called complexes, and it becomes important for the physical and psychical health of an individual to distinguish between the good reason and the real reason for his conduct. When, however, there has been a considerable change in the social situation, these former cues and occasions for conduct fall to answer to the impulses and processes they should serve, and uneasiness and friction arise which we are often unable to understand. There is a failure to connect between the underlying changing attitudes and our minds with their definite ideas and values that should give them expression. The difficulty lies especially in the fact that the accepted ideas and valuations of things keep the old habitual responses in action, while the changing attitudes find only unfitting occasions for their expression. Our minds-in the sense in which I have been using the term-fall behind the profound development that is taking place underneath. Of course, there is more here than the mere misfit of the social process and the idea of the thing in which it finds its expression. There is the conflict between the old and the new, between the radical and the conservative; but this conflict becomes unintelligent because we are unable to find appropriate cues and occasions for its expression. We may not wish to be either radical or conservative. We may wish to comprehend

(481) and to do justice to the changing valuations. Under such conditions it is worth while to bring to as clear light as we can that which is taking place underneath. I have in mind three profound changes which have been going on in recent years and which fail to fit satisfactorily into customary ideas and valuations: those growing out of the World War, out of the extraordinary development of recent science, and out of the scientific control of biological life.

I hope it is clear from my approach that I am not undertaking to discuss American adherence to the League of Nations, or relativity, or birth control in order to indicate certain contentious questions which these topics will at once suggest. What I want to do is to set off against the unquestioned reconstruction of the world, along with our consequent attitudes toward it, the ideas which we commonly use in reacting to the world.

The change brought about by the World War that I have in mind is the definite abandonment of war, except in case of defense, as a legitimate measure of national policy. The practically universal acceptance of the peace pact is the adequate evidence for this fundamental change. Of course, the definition of a defensive war and of national honor and of peculiar interests indicate how far we are from carrying over the fundamental attitude into practical measures of international life, but that the peoples of the Western world have realized that this international life is so genuine that the differences between nations may be settled in ways other than by fighting and that these other methods should be found and used, is, I think, beyond doubt. War, even a world war, is still an ominous danger; but it is no longer unthinkable that it should be abandoned, and, if it can be, it certainly ought to he eliminated. The arbitrament of the god of battles is an indefensible court of appeal between intelligent nations, so far as the settlement of differences of interest is concerned. Of course, if we were attacked, we would fight-and fight to the last man and the last gun-but the country has subscribed to President Wilson's affirmation that the times were past when the people of the United States would

(482) enter upon a war to win another square foot of territory. We have been deeply gratified that we have settled our fishery quarrels with Canada-and the Alaska boundary dispute-by arbitration. We feel that we have been acting as self-respecting gentlemen in demanding only what are recognized as our rights among the peoples of the earth and being willing to abide by a decision of impartial judges of those rights. The procedure has increased our self-respect, not diminished it. If Japan should demand that we admit her nationals as immigrants, we would feel that she was undertaking to settle for us our home policies; and, if she went to war about it, we would regard her as an aggressor and our war as a war of defense, and the community of nations would assent. But, if an issue arose over the Monroe Doctrine, we would suddenly find ourselves in another universe of discourse. Nobody knows what the Monroe Doctrine is. It is a policy that was initiated in the interest of the South and Central American communities, but today it is almost unanimously denounced by these very communities. We cannot say that the issue involved in the Monroe Doctrine is that we are unwilling to have neighbors on this hemisphere who belong to European communities, since the undefended continent-wide boundary between the United States and Canada is the only boundary, I think, in the whole wide world which, during the century and more since its establishment, has not been crossed by hostile forces. No, the Monroe Doctrine is a question of national honor. We are all of one mind about it because there cannot be two minds about something which no one understands. It is an ideal instance of the issues for which nations fight at the drop of the hat, and our chests expand when we feel that we would as a nation go to the mat for something that we are unwilling to discuss.

I think this an excellent illustration of a profound social reconstruction that is taking place back of our minds; while in our minds we do not as yet find the cues which answer to this new ordering of social relations. We must in some way be able to assert our national self-respect. In some instances we can do

(483) this, in courts of arbitration or other International bodies, but back of these lies a something that we have no other means of affirming except by a willingness to fight, not because we want to fight, or because we hold other nations in hate, but because unless we are willing to stake everything upon some cause, of which we ourselves are the sole judges, we would not hold our own national self-respect nor would we feel that we could command the respect of other peoples in the community of nations to which we belong. For this purpose we set up national honor. It may be aroused by the Monroe Doctrine or by the Panama Canal or by on insult to the flag. The important point is that, whatever the cue to fighting may be, we will ourselves determine whether or not our honor is impugned . There must be some symbol that we will not submit to the estimation of anyone. Now, as long as war is regarded as a legitimate method of settling differences among nations, this is inevitable because no one but yourself can decide upon what you will stake your very existence and because in war all standards are in abeyance - witness the use of gas and the submarine in the World War. But this attitude is not physiologically or socially essential to the preservation of self-respect. Our personal self-respect is closer to us than our national self-respect, but we have long ago dropped the duel as an institution essential to a gentleman. Our minds have fallen behind the social development that is back of them. If a war of aggression is a crime, one cannot absolve a war for national honor from the same stigma, except by the confession that our minds are unequal to the task of finding out what it is in which national honor consists. If it has any rational content, it is capable of being impartially judged. Our mental processes have lagged behind the advancing world within which they should function. As tong as fighting is an accepted method of international intercourse, national honor is essential to keeping up the fighting spirit, just as chivalry was a natural psychological incident of feudalism. If war is not only a criminal but a stupid method of settling national differences of interest, the sort of fighting spirit that is signified by national

(484) honor is as really out of date as the knight errant and the duel. But we cannot, as yet, think of ourselves as a self-respecting nation without feeling ourselves ready to fight for grounds of which we ourselves will be the sole censors. Our intellectual processes have not caught up with the growth of international society.

Let us consider another illustration of the same mental lag - that for which the growth of the modern sciences is responsible. I am not referring to the inability of the man in the street to comprehend the intricate methods and findings of recondite physical science. The mental lag I have in mind may affect the scientist quite as much as it affects the layman. What I refer to is the finding of the meaning of the world in the historical account of it, and I refer, of course, to its meaning to us. The outstanding case of it is presented in the philosophy of history to be already found in the New Testament epistles, which interpreted the Pauline Christology in a history that went back through the chronicles of the chosen people to the Garden of Eden and the creation of the world. This philosophy of history was sharply formulated by Augustine, as from the northern coasts of Africa he watched the fall of Rome to the conquering Goths, and lifted the church out of the crumbling Empire as God's chosen instrument for the accomplishment of His purpose. The form in which we are most familiar with this philosophy of history is in the height of that great argument in which Milton undertook to assert eternal providence and justify the ways of God to men. I am not interested in any particular form of this philosophy of history. We may utterly neglect the Pauline Christology and the Augustinian doctrine of the church and the Miltonic councils of the Trinity and still assume that we can interpret the meaning of the world for us in its history. The scientist occupied the attitude as truly as the churchman when Bishop Wilberforce asked Thomas Huxley on which side of his family he traced his descent from the apes, and Huxley replied that he would rather trace his descent from an ape than from a bishop; and the case has been tried more recently in the

(485) courts of the state of Tennessee. The scientists were quite as ready as the churchmen to believe that the meaning of man's life on earth was to be found in his past history. It was a combat of histories.

Take another illustration: Entropy and the second thermodynamic law indicate that, instead of the history of the universe moving toward some far-off divine event, its goal is to be found in a dismal twilight of creation in which energy can do no more work but is evenly distributed in entire meaninglessness. Professor Millikan does not like this picture because it seems to take the meaning out of the present, and he has suggested that the cosmic rays, which he has so brilliantly investigated, may be expressions of energy which build up again the atom and so build up again the star, and thus set the whole process in operation again and again. And jeans, the eminent English astronomer and astrophysicist, in his comment on Professor Millikan's suggestion, says that for his part he would rather see the universe running down than endlessly repeating itself. In either case the scientist is interpreting the universe in terms of its history. It is not as scientists that either of these men make their comments, for each of them knows that research science is quite as busy discovering new histories of the universe as in discovering new elements and processes in the present. When the spectroscopist adds or subtracts a billion light years to or from the history of stellar bodies by noting minimal differences in the positions of spectral lines, he knows that a later investigator will reconstruct his history of the universe in reconstructing his scientific theory. For our science is a research science and a science of discovery in a universe so interrelated in its events and phases that every advance means, a new history. We interpret the past by the present as really as we interpret die present by the past. The new history of the stellar universe, which Eddington and jeans have spread before us, is simply the building-out of their hypotheses of atomic processes and stellar structures. A new hypothesis will inevitably present us with a new history. Nor are such thoroughgoing reconstructions of his-

(486) -tory confined to stellar ages. The last authoritative commentary on the Gospel of John presents it as a dramatic treatment of the life of Jesus under the influence of Alexandrian gnosticism and Pauline Christology, by the pupil of the Witness, who was a younger follower of the Apostles-the author being the teacher of Polycarp and writing probably in Ephesus at the end of the first century of the Christian era. The historical reconstruction of the Gospel of the Beloved Disciple is as logical an outcome of the scientific criticism of sources and monuments as Eddington's account of what has been going on in the interior of the sun during the last billion years is the logical outcome of the theory of the expenditure of the sun's energy and the structure and process of the atom. If our scientific historians did not rewrite human history, they would be writing themselves down as incompetent research men. It is not necessary to elaborate what sticks out of all the work of modern science and has placed the works of scientists who command a good English style among our best sellers.

But the moral of it, while close at hand, is not so readily drawn. The moral is that we cannot interpret the meaning of our present through the history of the past because we must reconstruct that history through the study of the present. It is fairly evident that we cannot find the meaning of human life on the earth in the present-day history of the earth. With Bishop Usher's chronology on the margin of the Bible and the Pauline philosophy of history we could. Yet we are unwilling to surrender this method of exegesis. When evolution presented another history of man, certain social theorists found the meaning of human society in the law of the survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence-and appealed to nature against our philanthropies which preserve and propagate the unfit. To take another illustration: When Marxian socialism became a dogmatic system, the economic interpretation of history became as rigid a part of their orthodoxy as the historicity of the Bible record had been in church doctrine. The furor that has been raised over history textbooks in our schools, with the

(487) demand that the children should find the accepted meanings of our institutions displayed in the histories of their country, is another illustration. We want security in our institutions, and so we look for their natures in the immutable past. But unfortunately the past is not immutable; each generation re-writes its history. So the legalists of the generation of Webster and Hayne fought over the historical interpretation of the wording of the Constitution, while the real question whether an institution such as slavery, which irrevocably divided North and South, could remain in a nation that was one and indivisible came to final decision on the battlefield. Von Treitschke sought in German history and Mommsen in Roman history for stable foundations for the Machtpolitik of a Prussian state embodied by Bismarck in a German empire, but the answer to the challenge of militant imperialism was found not in history but in the judgment of the World War. It is not in a historical tradition that we can find the answer to our social problems. We have got to think them out in terms of the present. Historical data present some of the conditions for their solution, but they do not carry their solutions with them. That is, we cannot find the meaning of the world or of our societies and their institutions in a process we can trace in the past leading up to a goal which we can descry in the future. This has been our method of understanding the world. The plan of salvation as we find it in Paradise Lost was the philosophy of the average man for centuries, and we have substituted evolution for the biblical account but retained the framework. The meaning of the world must be some end toward which we can trace the movement of events in the historical past. Herbert Spencer presented it in his philosophy, and Tennyson sang it. Whatever faith of this sort we may carry in our souls, it has ceased to be an intellectual fabric within which we can state our probems (sic) if we wish to solve them intelligently. There is no vision given on the mount in any historical past that works out the steps we are to take to reach the solution of our problem. By the very achievement of the sciences we are thrown back on the method of the sciences - and

(488) this method is one that is continually reconstructing its world and therefore its history. It is in the social problems that we have as yet difficulty in making use of this method. We cannot approach the questions of property, of the family, or of the criminal without assuming a proper order which the history of the past reveals to us. Let me bring out the difference in a procedure within a social problem in which we have in a measure made use of scientific method. I refer to the juvenile court. In the case of the juvenile offender the court may undertake to discover the reasons for the child's delinquency. Parents, schoolteachers, social workers, neighbors, probation officers, as well as those affected by the child's misconduct, may all be called in not so much to find out whether a certain criminal act has been committed but to find out why the child is derelict and to work out some hypothesis of a reconstruction of the child's social situation which may change his habits and attitudes. The procedure is that of the physician and health officer in seeking to check a disease. There is no law of evidence. Everything that can make the situation comprehensible is welcome, and any course that will bring the child back into normal conduct is allowed. In the court to which the adult criminal is brought, crime is defined by a historical institution, with values that have been previously fixed by legislation. The problem is to give the act its proper definition under the terms of an enacted statute and then punish it according to a gradation of penalties which the institution of criminal justice has approved. Only in Erewhon would we proceed in this fashion with the sick. We call our punishments means of repressing crime, but we would be unwilling to test them scientifically and substitute entirely different methods of checking crime if they could be found. Retributive justice has a sanction which is too deeply imbedded in our past to be abandoned. We are as yet unable to approach the discovery of what crime is, as we seek the cause of measles or of cancer. Our institutionalized past has determined for us what they are. As, however, in the juvenile court the other method appears, so we find in dealing with divorce,

(489) with public utilities, this approach indicated if not adopted, that is, we undertake to find out what the values are in present experience and abandon the time-honored definitions. But the situation is so complex and difficult that the intellectual lag promises to be long in correction.

My final illustration is found in the biological sciences. All species in some sense control their environments. The world that surrounds them is in some degree different from what it would be if they were not there, and this difference has something to do with their success or failure in accomplishing the adventure of life. But it has been left to man to attain the largest control over the environment, to determine the biological and physical conditions which render life possible for the human species, and to fix the conditions which may change the character of the human animal.

We have generally assumed that climate (that is, the incidence of heat and cold upon the dermal surfaces of animal forms), the geographical locus of a species, the food supply both animal and vegetable, the variety of matings, and the exposure to enemies, macroscopical and microscopical, have been the influences that have determined the prevalence and disappearance of living forms on the surface of the earth and to have been in no small measure the causes or occasions for the appearance of new species. These would not, of course, account for mutations, but some suggestions of the physiological processes by which these may have taken place appear in studies in the influence of radiation upon germ plasm. Now the human species has attained the possibility of the control over all these factors. By change of habitat, but principally by the use of clothing, we can determine what the incidence of heat and cold shall be upon man. We can live in any locality, even in the Antarctic. We can adjust ourselves to all types of geographical surroundings-man is at home on mountain or plain, on islands or on continents, in the desert or in the fruitful river valleys. Man has geographically conquered the earth. He can determine what vegetation shall surround him, wipe out primeval forests, and reforest the land. He plants

(490) what crops he wishes, and the cattle upon a thousand hills are his. If dangerous foes still exist in forest and jungle or lurk in the caves of the earth, it is by his good will. At present he is carrying on a winning battle with his most insidious enemies, the microorganisms. It rests with him to determine what pressures of population shall arise or subside. Biologically he is at liberty to breed the best strains, and he is busily at work determining what the heritable characteristics are for which he may wish to breed his own kind. He is pushing his study of the social conditions which determine the psychical health of the community. He can envisage the principal influences which affect for good or ill the life of human communities, and in great measure these are, or promise to be, under the control of the community. His societies are not, as in the case of the insect societies, limited by physiological differentiation. Social differentiation is the function of what we call mental life, that is, each individual carries in his mental apparatus the social structure of which he is a part, through the symbols which answer to all the varied responses of those with whom he co-operates in the complexities of our communities; and behavioristic psychology is bringing this highest phase of organization among the members of the species within the pale of scientific contemplation and possible control.

The development, on the one hand, of the biological and social sciences and, on the other, of social organization, has brought human society to the point at which it may ultimately control the conditions that presumably determine human misery, disease, surplus population, and the propagation of undesirable types. We cannot eliminate earthquakes or hurricanes or cyclones but we can conceivably learn to live with them or avoid them. Now 1 am not so silly as to suppose that, if we were simply willing to be intelligent, we could in the immediate future solve any of these fundamental social problems. What 1 would call to your attention is that we have fundamentally different methods of stating the problems and that the ideas

(491) which belong to one statement do not fit in with the others. Let me refer again to crime, by way of illustration. We can state this as a problem of getting rid of crime and ask what are the characteristics of the criminal, if there are such characteristics, and what are the social conditions which lead to crime, and then we would seek to breed out those characteristics if they exist; but as there are probably no specific criminal characters, the interest would turn to the control of the conditions which breed criminals, and the most sensible method of dealing with actual criminals with a view to making them socially normal citizens and of isolating those who cannot be so brought back into the social order. On the other hand, we have the institution of retributive justice which, as John Stuart Mill showed, goes back to an attitude of vengeance. We are at liberty to inflict suffering upon the criminal because of his transgression. The satisfaction of this impulse, however wholesome we may think it is in the repression of crime, belongs to a different universe of discourse from that of the control of crime by control of the conditions out of which it arises. The two sets of ideas do not cover each other. For example, you hear the sociologist abused as a dangerous sentimentalist when he recommends a consistent system of paroling offenders, while he becomes an inhuman monster if he recommends sterilizing hopelessly degenerate stocks.

Again I wish to emphasize that I am not recommending a certain procedure but that I am only pointing out that ideas which we entertain of crime, owing to the traditional punishment of the criminal, do not fit in with the attempt to control the conditions which are responsible for the origin of the criminal or the fixing of his criminal habits thereafter, and naturally enough the two methods do not combine very satisfactorily.

I have indicated above that it is possible at present to approach all our serious social problems from the standpoint of the control of the conditions which determine the problems. This has not presented us as yet with definitive solutions of these problems, except perhaps in the field of disease, where

(492) some notable triumphs have been obtained, but it has given us new statements of the problems which are of the greatest importance; and the ideas in our minds which spring from our traditional institutional responses, as a rule, lag behind the attempt to approach them in this other fashion which may be called "scientific." I think a definite plea may be made for the sort of intelligence which recognizes this natural and necessary lag. I assume that we would all agree that, in the presence of an evil which we wish to remove, the intelligent attitude is that of discovering the conditions out of which the evil springs and undertaking to control these conditions; and I have been indicating, in indeed a cursory manner, that human society has never been able in the past to make so intelligent an approach to problems as it is today, and that the most serious obstacle to this sort of intelligence lies in the failure of traditional ideas lying in our minds to fit in with the statement of the problem in terms of controlling conditions. The solutions of these problems is far ahead of us in any case, but there is no reason for putting it still farther off by an unwillingness to recognize the source and function of our ideas.

I have sought to exhibit three different phases of the world that lie back of our minds, with which I think we can pretty plainly recognize that our ideas fail to connect. Being willing to fight for a reason which we are unwilling to discuss should no longer be necessary to achieve a sense of national self-respect, that is, to realize our solidarity as a nation; and international society has so far progressed that we admit that war as a method of national policy is no longer legitimate, and yet we still keep the idea of national honor as an allowable casus belli.

We live in a universe whose past changes with every considerable change in our scientific account of it, and yet we are prone to look for the meaning of our biological and social life in fixed forms of historical institutions and the order of past events. We prefer to understand the family, the state, the church, and the school by forms which history has given to

(493) their social structures rather than by finding the meaning of the history of the institutions in the functions and services which our social science exhibits.

And, finally, while biological science has shown us that human beings can control in large measure the conditions which determine their physiological and social life, we still hesitate to state our problems in terms of these conditions because of the fear of weakening or invalidating old values which are consecrated by the past, and because of the responsibility which the new statement of the problem carries with it.


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