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The Dilemma of Democracy in the United States

ISSUE:  Autumn 1925


In the later decades of the nineteenth century a German scientist, Emil du Bois-Reymond, delivered a notable lecture on the Seven World Riddles. The seven world riddles were the nature of matter and force, the origin of motion, the origin of life, the purposiveness of Nature, the freedom of the will, the nature of consciousness, and the connection of mind and body. Concerning the last of these problems he thought that the difficulties were so great that we must confess not merely our ignoramus but even our ignorabimus.

Hardly fifty years have passed since du Bois-Reymond thus spoke, and in this short time probably more progress has been made in answering these riddles than in all the centuries since Aristotle. No one now would be willing to say of any of them, “We shall never know”—and of most of them we are almost ready to say, “We are beginning to know.”

Of these seven world riddles, no doubt the one about the mind and its relation to the body is the hardest of all. Does matter think, and if so how can it think? Or is it a soul that thinks; and if so, what is this soul that thinks? What is its relation to the brain and to those newly discovered endocrine glands?

Many would say that the riddle is insolvable. Intriguing no doubt was that motto over the gate at Delphi, Know thyself, but the pursuit is illusive. “Think it not thy business,” said Carlyle, “this of knowing thyself; thou art an unknowable individual: know what thou canst work at; and work at it like a Hercules! That will be thy better plan.” But again and again in the history of science this agnosticism has been rebuked by subsequent discoveries. When it is said that we can never know, then straightway we know. One after another forbidden fields of knowledge have been entered and occupied. The amazing progress which physicists have made in the last twenty years in our knowledge of the constitution of matter, as well as the achievements of biologists in the understanding of life and heredity, gives us courage to attempt any of the seven world riddles—even the riddle of the mind. And the new knowledge of the mind recently gained by psychologists, while not so spectacular as the revelations in physics and biology, is none the less real and significant. The search for the soul has not perhaps led to its discovery, but it has led to the track along which we are sure that the discovery lies. Curiously enough, the track is leading us back to Aristotle. For it was Aristotle, with his penetrating insight, who taught us that the soul is the fruition of the body, its “Entelechy,” as he called it,— that is, its end or perfection, its reality. How many unhappy centuries of confusion and perplexity might have been avoided had we followed Aristotle instead of Plato! And Plato was right, too, in a way, for he saw that the soul was something of great worth and dignity, something divine and “eternal.” Only now, indeed, are we beginning to understand that these two views can be reconciled, and that the eternal value of the soul doey not depend on its being a sojourner in the body, a kind of heavenly visitor come to inhabit a temporary earthly home, a prisoner fretting to be free.


Let us pass over the weary centuries following Aristotle and continuing almost down to the present, when controversies about the soul divided philosophers into schools. Let us come to that recent memorable year when Professor James startled all the psychologists and philosophers with his bold announcement that souls had worn out both themselves and their welcome. Straightway psychologists began to write psychologies without any mention of the soul, but they had a great deal to say about “consciousness.” Then Professor James wrote another article entitled “Does Consciousness Exist?” in which he said that as a kind of stuff it has no existence, being but the faint rumor of the disappearing soul. Thereupon came the Behaviorists, who studied psychology without any reference to consciousness at all, confining themselves to an accurate description of actual facts in the behavior of living organisms.

Dewey had already begun his constructive work, saying little about the soul or about consciousness, but studying with remarkable acuteness that kind of behavior of organisms which we call intelligent behavior. He showed that intelligence is an instrument developed in evolution at the point where the organism is confronted with a new and perplexing situation, when familiar responses are no longer adequate to meet the organism’s vital needs. A statement such as this began to clarify the misty metaphysical atmosphere like an electric storm on a sultry day.

Then Freud came with his new discoveries about the mind, showing that it is not a collection of sensations, images, and ideas, but a deep and troubled sea, whose secrets are found not in its placid surface of consciousness and reason, but in its profound unconsciousness and irrational depths, where dwell powerful psychic energies, known as wishes, desires, impulses, appetites, and interests. In the conventional life of civilized man these vital wishes are necessarily suppressed. Hence arise unhappy complexes lying below the threshold of consciousness and welling up into our conscious lives under the influence of emotion.

So it came about that we began to think of the mind in a wholly different way. Why did we ever think of the mind as a substance? Substances are not in good standing now either in physical or metaphysical science. Activities, processes, capacities have taken their place. It is illuminating to think of the mind as a kind of doing rather than as a kind of being. Even the table on which I write appears now to be a doing, not a being. We used to think that the table was made of a physical substance, which we called matter. Now we learn that the material atom is no longer material, but is an energy system, the electrons being centers of electric force, eternally doing, never being—hurling themselves through their relatively great spaces with nearly the swiftness of light.

Under the encouragement of Einstein and his co-laborers, the Event has emerged to a place of dignity in physical science. Among ultimate things we hear of “atoms of action,” as well as electrons and hydrogen nuclei, and others beside Bergson are showing us that it is Time rather than Space which is the big thing. Events have thus suddenly become not merely the interesting things but the real ones. We should no longer care to think of the soul as a substance, even if we could. It is an event and the great event of the past million years.

We are learning that the mind is what it does, that it is great and wonderful because it does great and wonderful things, and that it has, or rather that it is, great capacities, marvelous powers. It is needless to dwell on the power of the mind in these days of human achievement. It is sufficient to recall that the mind of man has not only discovered the electron, but actually harnessed it to his use, made it an obedient servant to help him carry his voice and his music broadcast across the ether. Scientific discovery and practical inventions attest the power of mind in a striking way, but its greater achievements are in the fields of literature, art, philosophy, social organization, and social and ethical progress. The mind creates ideals and then attains them. That there are no limits to the creative imagination is a familiar fact, but we are almost ready to believe that there are no limits to the mind’s achievements. Some great mind visions a League of Nations, or a World Court to lessen the horrors of war—and they are achieved. Others have the vision of a United States of Europe, and it will be achieved.

It is an easy task to expatiate on the power of the mind to think, to reason, to imagine, to conceive, to will, to conquer nature, to conquer evil, to conquer self. It is not quite so easy, however, to understand that the powers themselves are the mind. We are still slaves to our old scholastic habits, and we love to think of these powers as “faculties” which “inhere” in some substantial soul. But this we must now give up, and great will be our gain in this new way of thinking. We have long wanted to believe that the soul is incorporeal, and now we see that this is true, since it is not a substance but a power, or an organization of powers; and we have long hoped for a theory of the soul which would still allow us to believe with Plato that it is something of a divine nature of infinite dignity and worth, and this too we may now believe, since it is the sublime achievement of perhaps 800 million years of upward progress in evolution.


But now we must study more intimately the nature of the soul as we are beginning to understand it. The approach to this study will necessarily be made through the living organism, for minds are exhibited in connection with the bodies of men and of animals, and only the genetic study of the organism will enable us to understand what the mind is. Every living organism, even the simplest, possesses a peculiar power called irritability. When stimulated it responds, and the response is not the mechanical equivalent of the stimulus. When you apply a lever to heave a rock, there is a mere transference of mechanical energy. But when you apply a stimulus to a living organism, the situation is wholly different. There is a release of energy resident in the organism, and while a definite response follows upon a definite stimulus, the nature of the response is such as to bring the organism into some satisfying relation to the environment. A situation such as this, involving “release” of energy, “response” to a stimulus, and “satisfaction” to an organism, introduces us suddenly into a region of activity wholly different from mechanism and vastly more complex. Thus even a simple reflex action, like winking the eye when a threatening object approaches, is a very complex affair, and we may realize at once that the road to an understanding of the mind is an intricate road, and that the mind when it is discovered is a complex thing.

But we will not call a simple reflex action a mental process. It is only a step towards a mental process, but a great step which it required long laborious ages for Nature to take. When simple reflex actions become highly compounded and brain patterns are acquired and transmitted to successive generations, there results an inherited disposition to react in a certain rather definite manner to a definite set of stimuli. Then we have a kind of behavior which we call instinctive, illustrated in the babe’s comparatively simple movements of the lips in sucking, or the complex actions of the bird in building a nest.

But here again there is something very different from the mechanical interplay of energies in the inorganic world. The various tactile or visual objects presented to the babe or bird release forces within the organism in such a way as to conduce to its vital interests or the vital interests of the species. The amazing wonders of instinct in animals are familiar to us, so that illustrations are needless. Shall we call behavior of this kind mental? Certainly it is wholly unlike those actions which we call mechanical. We seem to be up on a new level, above the level of mechanism. In instinctive behavior we are certainly approaching the mental realm, if we are not already within it.

But now we must take another all-important step, a step which nature found it difficult to take, requiring still longer ages to accomplish. There came a time in the history of organic life when an animal was confronted with a perplexing situation, which called for a new set of powers. In reflex and instinctive action a given stimulus, or a given group of stimuli, is followed with a considerable degree of certainty by a given kind of reaction. There is little ability to adapt behavior to new and unexpected situations; but the time comes when just this ability is gained—and its arrival signals the birth of mind. It is what we call intelligence, to use a more specific and narrower term; and it is itself a very complex process or group of processes, involving memory, association, prevision, attention, and control.

Suppose in the case of a machine, say a motor car, we set in motion a chain of causes, of which one set would drive the car ahead and the other would reverse it. The car has no ability to deal with such an unusual situation as this, and simply breaks down. Or suppose the appropriate levers are pulled to speed the car ahead directly in the direction of a dangerous ledge of rock. The car cannot review the situation, foresee the peril, and adapt its response to avert the disaster. It goes fatally to its destruction. Not so the living organism, provided it has reached a certain stage of organization. At that stage a new power appears in the world, the power to review the situation, to foresee a catastrophe, to recall the normal consequences of a given reaction, and to adapt its behavior to the total situation in such a way as to result in the preservation or furtherance of life.

All this is a miracle, and we used to explain it by the presence in the organism of a psychical “principle,” just as we used to explain growth and reproduction by the presence of a “vital principle.” But no mystic “entelechy,” has arrived on the scene. The new capacity is the entelechy, and it has come as the result of a higher and more complex organization and integration. The material elements in the organism do not think, nor reason, nor remember. They have no will-to-live, no power of choice, any more than they have in the automobile. Atoms and molecules cannot behave adaptively, nor do they think or reason. They are just material which can be used as the frame-work of structure. Therefore we cannot say that matter is intelligent, even when organized, any more than we can say that bricks and stone are beautiful, when built into a Gothic church. It is the church that is beautiful.

Mind, therefore, is a capacity which has emerged from organization, a new and marvelous capacity, which nature has achieved, which, if you please, God has brought into the world at an advanced stage in that process of world-building which we call evolution, or more accurately, creative evolution. Mind is a created product, a reality, yes, even an entity—for all these words now indicate significant processes or powers.

Mind therefore is a reality which emerges at a certain level of organization, just as life emerges at a lower level, and just as new qualities emerge from structure at still lower levels. Atoms are organized structures possessing qualities not belonging to their constituent electrons. Molecules are organized structures possessing qualities not belonging to their constituent atoms. Water quenches thirst, revives the drooping plant, freezes at zero centigrade. Not so the oxygen and hydrogen which constitute its mere materials. They quench no thirst, revive no plant, nor freeze at zero temperature.


This new conception of mind wonderfully simplifies the old perplexing problem of mind and brain which used to drive us nearly crazy. We need no longer think of mind and body as two separate parallel series, whose interdependence seems to violate basic laws of science. It is a great relief to be free from the old metaphysical “solutions” of the mind-body problem, such as interactionism, psychophysical parallelism, and the double-aspect theory, and to think of the mind as the name of a group of powers or capacities which have arisen in evolution when organization of vital processes reaches a certain complex stage. Mr. Lloyd Morgan and Mr. S. Alexander have used the word emergence to designate the relation of the mental to the physical. If we apply the word “mental” to certain peculiar forms of behavior in organisms, namely, to that kind of behavior which we call adaptive, whereby new perplexing situations are intelligently controlled in the furtherance of life, I think the old mind-body problem is greatly simplified. The mental emerges from the physical. The similitude of the parallel bars no longer expresses the relation of mind and body. If we desire a figure, that of the ladder would be better. The brain is a step up which Nature mounts to mind. The brain is something indispensable if mind is to be realized; just as hydrogen and oxygen are indispensable if water is to be created to revive the drooping plant; just as the chemical is indispensable if the vital is to be realized.

Thus we come back to Aristotle’s notion of the mind as the fruition of the body, its entelechy, its reality, its perfection, avoiding in the simplest manner all those frantic attempts to explain how soul and body interact—animal spirits, divine interference, pre-established harmony, the double-aspect theory, materialism, and psychical monism. As philosophical theories, both dualism and monism have issued in much perplexity. We seem rather to be led in the direction of a pluralistic world view. Electrons are real, atoms are real, molecules are real, life is real, and mind is real. Perhaps, however, we may say that there is an increasing reality in the processes which emerge at the successive levels which nature gains in evolution. Reality is a matter of degree.

Whether we shall with Professor Henderson say that the universe is biocentric, tending from the beginning towards life, whether going one step farther we shall with Professor Albert P. Mathews say that all life is psychotropic, tending to mind and struggling for freedom through mind, will depend upon our philosophical attitude. Certainly it is tempting, knowing as we do now that mind is a peculiar power achieved through long ages of organic development, to think of it as a value which nature has been striving to realize, to think of life itself and mind and consciousness and social organization and science and art and literature as “eternal values,” as final achievements of a creative evolution which is taking place at many times and many places throughout the universe. Civilizations might crash, planets might freeze, life might disappear, only that the process of creative evolution should be endlessly repeated to the end that life and mind and science and art and morality may be realized; for they are the eternal values. Then with Plato we could be assured of the divinity of the human soul.

Tempting as this interpretation of the world is, it goes of course far beyond our present knowledge. Nothing like this is involved in our science of mind and yet nothing like this is inconsistent with it. We shall be safer to walk the earth with Aristotle than to try to pierce the skies with Plato. But we have a suspicion that Plato was right.


Leaving these interesting speculations and returning to the stricter philosophy of mind, there are plenty of difficulties yet to be considered. One objection which may be raised is that when we consider mind as a capacity which has been evolved in living beings, a capacity to think, to reason, and to control, we are narrowing the word mind to what is usually called intelligence and have forgotten that mind in its wider meaning includes other elements, such as consciousness and will and impulse and desire, and we shall be reminded of the rich contributions to the philosophy of mind which the Freudians have made. What is this Freudian “wish” that we hear so much about, and what of that strange subterranean region of the unconscious.

First, then, let us speak of consciousness. The word has had an interesting history and it would be helpful if we could arrive at a clear notion of its rightful meaning. In the late years of the nineteenth century a curious change took place in psychological nomenclature. Psychology had hitherto been defined as the science of the mind or the soul, or of mental states or processes. But suspicion had begun to attach to the word soul and even to the word mind. They suggested unverified metaphysical theories remote from actual experience. Pending further investigation, therefore, these words were dropped from text-books in psychology. But some word had to be found to take their place. If psychology is not the science of mind, it must be the science of something. So it happened that the word consciousness came into general use and psychology was often defined as the science of consciousness or of conscious states. But here again confusion arose. Consciousness was sometimes thought of as a kind of stuff, sometimes as a kind of receptacle. Sometimes it was conceived as mere awareness of an external object, or as a kind of “feel” of all the processes called mental. More often it was merely a general name loosely used to designate the whole subject matter of psychology.

The word consciousness was so lacking in scientific accuracy that its use was soon restricted. James, in the article already mentioned, raised the question whether consciousness exists. The Freudians make much of unconscious mental processes. The Behaviorists proceed quite undismayed to construct the whole science of psychology without any reference to consciousness at all. So the word has run its course and has been more and more dropped from psychological texts. McDougall speaks of it as a “thoroughly bad word,” and Bertrand Russell says that consciousness is not I the essence of life or mind at all, and early in his book, “The Analysis of Mind,” proposes to let the word disappear until a later stage in his analysis, when it would re-emerge as mainly a trivial and unimportant outcome of linguistic habits.

Nevertheless, consciousness does exist, not, to be sure, as any kind of stuff, nor as one side or aspect of all reality, but rather as a special kind of relation between the various elements of our mental life, arising at a certain late stage of mental development. If we consider mind as a process of adjustment which organisms are making to meet new situations in a way to conserve their vital interest, the feel of these adjustments to the individual is consciousness.

As they are “lived through,” or experienced, they get a different meaning from that which they have when viewed from an objective standpoint. They fall into different relationships, being linked up with words and names, with memory images, and with somatic and visceral sensations. The whole assemblage of events becomes a self, and consciousness takes the form of self-consciousness. Consciousness thus becomes a kind of awareness, in its very simplest form being a mere awareness of an external object, and, in its more complex form, this awareness linked up with many subjective factors.

One who has taken ether or some other anaesthetic, often when awakening from his deep sleep has some such experience as this. He hears voices about him but does not connect them with any definite situation. He may be said to be aware of the voices, or conscious of them. “I hear a voice” is not the form which his experience takes. It takes rather the form, “There is a voice.” Presently the whole situation dawns. “I hear a voice. I am here. I have been asleep. I have been ill.” Now self-consciousness has come. It is a different kind of awareness. It is a “togetherness” of many factors, giving the whole situation a setting and a meaning, making a kind of connected story of it all. If we consistently use the word consciousness in this sense, as a kind of relation, it simplifies our philosophy of mind very much. It takes away much of the mystery connected with the word and gives it a definite meaning and a definite relation to that far greater and more significant thing which we call the mind, or intelligence. And it is easy to see how consciousness has arisen late in the history of vital development in the stress and labor of adjustment and control.

And yet it is not quite clear whether Mr. Russell is right in saying that consciousness is a trivial accompaniment of linguistic habits. The new meaning which consciousness gives to our inner life is the source of a real and a new joy. Life perhaps is never without its joy, but this joy is intensified in the coming of language and its associated net-work of relations which makes up consciousness.


But the story of the mind is not yet told. What are those strange “wishes” that have become famous since Freud first worked and wrote? What place have they in that complex thing we call the mind, for by this time we are beginning to realize that the mind is a complex thing and its story by no means easily told? Perhaps it may never be fully told, but the mere fact that the mind is complex need not deter us from trying to sound its depths.

When we were speaking of the mind in its narrower sense as adaptive behavior or intelligence, we referred several times to the fact that not only adaptive and instinctive behavior but also reflex action is directed to the welfare of the organism, being such as tend to bring the organism into a satisfying relation to the environment. They further the “biological interests” of the organism. So, then, the organism has interests. Here is a new fact promising an insight into new depths of the mind—or shall we now use the word soul, reserving the word mind for intelligence and the group of mental processes which it implies?

Organisms, then, have “wishes.” They wish for food, they wish for life, they wish for the continued life of their species. This last, under the name of sex, seems to have been unduly magnified by Freud and certain of his co-laborers. Perhaps they used the word in a generic sense for desire. But organisms desire to live and desire all that is necessary for life and more life; and these profound desires are not explained as emerging from the higher integration of bodily processes. They are something deeper and more primordial. They are not forms of behavior, but springs of behavior. They are the driving forces in all psychic life, presupposed by any kind of behavior whether instinctive or adaptive, presupposed even in reflex action; for the response is always purposeful, flying to its mark—and that mark is life. The universe may not be purposive; but life is purposive, looking ever to self-maintenance, growth, and self-perpetuation. Plato and Aristotle understood this, when they spoke of a vegetative and appetitive soul. The Freudians understand it, when they put so much emphasis upon the wish or libido, finding in the unconscious action of these impulses the secret of so many strange psychoses.

“Hormic energy” is the term that Professor McDougall prefers for these insistent driving forces, and Dr. Louis Berman speaks sententiously of the “energy-influences seething and bubbling in the organism,” and he thinks that the brain itself is the instrument of these primordial energies. But I think the word energy, even when qualified as hormic, is not the best word for these deep psychical impulses; for the word energy is taken from the mechanical sciences, where it is a mere symbol, meaning only that work is being done or may be done. It stands for nothing but a bent bow or an unbending bow, but “the conative bow is bent ever toward the future.”

Likewise it is misleading to speak of these conative tendencies as driving forces, as I have done above. They are cravings, wishes, appetites—they are a kind of hunger, a hunger for life, perhaps a hunger for consciousness or even higher values—perhaps, dare we say, a kind of aspiration? We may call them native impulses, instincts, or propensities. Whatever we call them, they seem to be not only the springs of behavior but the sources of progress. They well up in our conscious life, suffused with emotional tone, not, merely as desires and appetites but also as vague longings, aspirations, hopes, and ambitions; so that they become the springs of progress as well as the fountain of our love-life, our social life, our economic life. They are the power behind the throne in it all.

It seems, therefore, that what wre call will in man, what we call impulse, conation, deliberate and conscious effort, are all closely related to a more general impulse which belongs to all life. Life is restless and insurgent, pressing patiently when necessary, persistently always, into every nook and cranny of the surface of the earth, in the depths of the deepest sea, on the tops of the highest mountains, under Antarctic ice, in desert sand. Seven thousand millions of diatoms, a microscopic plant, says a recent writer, may be found under a surface of a square yard of lake water. This insurgency of life is a fact that we must simply take for granted. We know that it is, but not what it is. Schopenhauer calls it the Will-to-live. Bergson calls it the elan vital; Bernard Shaw, the life-force. Some, extending it still farther out into all organic life, have called it the struggle for existence, or the evolutionary urge.

Every clod feels a stir of might,
An instinct within it that reaches and towers;
And, grasping blindly above it for light,
Climbs to a soul in grass and flowers.

Or, in Santayana’s words, “The Greek naturalists saw (what it needs only sanity to see) that the infinite substance of things was instinct with a perpetual motion and rhythmic order which were its life, and that the spirit of man was a spark from that universal fire.”

We see here how quickly we arrive at the borders of our knowledge, and how easy it is to pass from facts to theories. We do not know what the evolutionary urge is, nor how to account for the struggle for existence. We do not know that every clod feels a stir of might and we do not know that the infinite substance is instinct with a rhythmic order, but we do know that there is a struggle for existence and that there are “energy-influences seething and bubbling in the organism,” and that those elements in our soul life which we call impulses and desires and wishes are its most significant parts.

So we see in conclusion that the soul of man is a very complex thing, including first those deep impulsive cravings which belong to all life, second, that peculiar kind of behavior which we call adaptive, involving a series of powers best typified in thought and intelligence, and third, that meaningful relation between organism and environment which we call awareness or consciousness.


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