William James Biography.com
Philosopher, Journalist, Psychologist, Doctor (1842–1910)
The writings of psychologist and philosopher William James had a major impact on the way we look at the mind, the body and the world.
William James was born in New York City on January 11, 1842, into an intellectual household; his father was a philosopher and his brother, Henry James, grew up to become a renowned novelist. After medical school, James focused on the human psyche, writing a masterwork on the subject, entitled The Principles of Psychology. He later became known for the literary piece The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, which was published in 1897. James died on August 26, 1910, in Chocorua, New Hampshire.
What Is An Instinct?
INSTINCT is usually defined as the faculty of acting in such a way as to produce certain ends, without foresight of the ends, and without previous education in the performance. That instincts as thus defined, exist on an enormous scale in the animal kingdom needs no proof. They are the functional correlatives of structure. With the presence of a certain organ goes, one may say, almost always a native aptitude for its use.
A very common way of talking about these admirably definite tendencies to act is by naming abstractly the purpose they subserve, such as self-preservation, or defence, or care for eggs and young—and saying the animal has an instinctive fear of death or love of life, or that she has an instinct of self-preservation, or an instinct of maternity and the like. But this represents the animal as obeying abstractions which, not once in a million cases is it possible it can have framed.
The strict physiological way of interpreting the facts leads to far clearer results. The actions we call instinctive all conform to the general reflex type; they are called forth by determinate sensory stimuli in contact with the animal’s body, or at a distance in his environment.
His (animal’s) nervous system is to a great extent a pre-organized bundle of such reactions— Although the naturalist may, for his own convenience, class these reactions under general heads, he must not forget that in the animal it is a particular sensation or perception or image which calls them forth.
At first this view astounds us by the enormous number of special adjustments it supposes animals to possess ready-made in anticipation of the outer things among which they are to dwell. Can mutual dependence be so intricate and go so far? Is each thing born fitted to particular other things, and to them exclusively, as locks are fitted to their keys? Undoubtedly, this must be believed to be so.
The older writings on instinct are ineffectual wastes of words, because their authors never came down to this definite and simple point of view, but smothered everything in vague wonder at the clairvoyant and prophetic power of the animals— But God’s beneficence endows them, first of all, with a nervous system ; and, turning our attention to this, makes instinct immediately appear neither more nor less wonderful than all the other facts of life.
Every instinct is an impulse.
Why does the hen, for example, submit herself to the tedium of incubating such a fearfully uninteresting set of objects as a nest full of eggs, unless she have some sort of a prophetic inkling of the result ? The only answer is ad hominem. We can only interpret the instincts of brutes by what we know of instincts in ourselves.
Nothing more can be said than that these are human ways, and that every creature likes its own ways, and takes to the following them as a matter of course.
Science may come and consider these ways, and find that most of them are useful. But it is not for the sake of their utility that they are followed, but because at the moment of following them we feel that that is the only appropriate and natural thing to do.
It takes, in short, what Berkeley calls a mind debauched by learning to carry the process of making the natural seem strange so far as to ask for the why of any instinctive human act.
And so probably does each animal feel about the particular things it tends to do in presence of particular objects. They, too, are a priori syntheses. To the lion it is the lioness which is made to be loved; to the bear, the she-bear. To the broody hen the notion would probably seem monstrous that there should be a creature in the world to whom a nest full of eggs was not the utterly fascinating and precious and never-to-be-too-much-sat-upon object which it is to her.
Thus we may be sure that, however mysterious some animals’ instincts may appear to us, our instincts will appear no less mysterious to them.
Nothing is commoner than the remark that Man differs from lower creatures by the almost total absence of instincts, and the assumption of their work in him by “reason.” A fruitless discussion might be waged on this point by two theorizers who were careful not to define their terms. “Reason” might be used, as it often has been used since Kant, not as the mere power of “inferring,” but also as a name for the tendency to obey impulses of a certain lofty sort, such as duty, or universal ends.
And ” instinct ” might have its significance so broadened as to cover all impulses whatever, even the impulse to act from the idea of a distant fact, as well as the impulse to act from a present sensation. Were the word instinct used in this broad way, it would of course be impossible to restrict it, as we began by doing, to actions done with no prevision of an end.
We must of course avoid a quarrel about words, and the facts of the case are really tolerably plain ! Man has a far greater variety of impulses than any lower animal; and any one of these impulses, taken in itself, is as “blind” as the lowest instinct can be; but, owing to man’s memory, power of reflection, and power of inference, they come each one to be felt by him, after he has once yielded to them and experienced their results, in connection with a foresight of those results.
In this condition an impulse acted out may be said to be acted out, in part at least, for the sake of its results. It is obvious that every instinctive act, in an animal with memory, must cease to be “blind” after being once repeated, and must be accompanied with foresight of its “end” just so far as that end may have fallen under the animal’s cognizance.
It is plain then that, no matter how well endowed an animal may originally be in the way of instincts, his resultant actions will be much modified if the instincts combine with experience, if in addition to impulses he have memories, associations, inferences, and expectations, on any considerable scale.
Here we immediately reap the good fruits of our simple physiological conception of what an instinct is. If it be a mere excito-motor impulse, due to the pre-existence of a certain “reflex-arc ” in the nerve-centres of the creature, of course it must follow the law of all such reflex-arcs. One liability of such arcs is to have their activity “inhibited” by other processes going on at the same time. It makes no difference whether the arc be organized at birth, or ripen spontaneously later, or be due to acquired habit, it must take its chances with all the other arcs, and sometimes succeed, and sometimes fail, in draughting off the currents through itself. The mystical view of an instinct would make it invariable. The physiological view would require it to show occasional irregularities in any animal in whom the number of separate instincts, and the possible entrance of the same stimulus into several of them, were great. And such irregularities are what every superior animal’s instincts do show in abundance.
Wherever the mind is elevated enough to discriminate; wherever several distinct sensory elements must combine to discharge the reflex-arc; wherever, instead of plumping into action instantly at the first rough intimation of what sort of a thing is there, the agent waits to see which one of its kind it is and what the circumstances are of its appearance ; wherever different individuals and different circumstances can impel him in different ways ; wherever these are the conditions—we have a masking of the elementary constitution of the instinctive life. The whole story of our dealings with the lower wild animals is the history of our taking advantage of the way in which they judge of everything by its mere label, as it were, so as to ensnare or kill them. Nature, in them, has left matters in this rough way, and made them act always in the manner which would be oftenest right.
There are more worms unattached to hooks than impaled upon them ; therefore, on the whole, says Nature to her fishy children, bite at every worm and take your chances. But as her children get higher, and their lives more precious, she reduces the risks. Since what seems to be the same object may be now a genuine food and now a bait ; since in gregarious species each individual may prove to be either the friend or the rival, according to the circumstances, of another ; since any entirely unknown object may be fraught with weal or woe, Nature implants contrary impulses to act on many classes of things, and leaves it to slight alterations in the conditions of the individual case to decide which impulse shall carry the day.
Thus, greediness and suspicion, curiosity and timidity, coyness and desire, bashfulness and vanity, sociability and pugnacity, seem to shoot over into each other as quickly, and to remain in as unstable equilibrium in the higher birds and mammals as in man. They are all impulses, congenital, blind at first, and productive of motor reactions of a rigorously determinate sort. Each one of them, then, is an instinct, as instincts are commonly defined. But they contradict each other—” experience” in each particular opportunity of application usually deciding the issue. The animal that exhibits them loses the “instinctive ” demeanor and appears to lead a life of hesitation and choice, an intellectual life ; not, however, because he has no instincts—rather because he has so many that they block each other’s path.
Thus, then, without troubling ourselves about the words instinct and reason, we may confidently say that however uncertain man’s reactions upon his environment may sometimes seem in comparison with those of lower creatures, the uncertainty is probably not due to their possession of any principles of action which he lacks, but to his possessing all the impulses that they have, and a great many more besides. In other ‘words, there is no material antagonism between instinct and reason. Reason, per se, can inhibit no impulses; the only thing that can neutralize an impulse is an impulse the other way. Reason may, however, make an inference which will set loose the impulse the other way; and thus, though the animal richest in reason might be also the animal richest in instinctive impulses too, he would never seem the fatal automaton which a merely instinctive animal would be.
Were one devising an abstract scheme, nothing would be easier than to discover from an animal’s actions just how many instincts he possessed. He would react in one way only upon each class of objects with which his life had to deal; he would react in identically the same way upon every specimen of a class; and he would react invariably during his whole life. There would be no gaps among his instincts; all would come to light without perversion or disguise.
But there are no such abstract animals, and nowhere does the instinctive life display itself in such a way.
Not only, as we have seen, may objects of the same class arouse reactions of opposite sorts in consequence of slight changes in the circumstances in the individual object or in the agent’s inward condition ; but two other principles, of which we have not yet spoken, may come into play and produce results so striking that observers as eminent as Messrs. D. A. Spalding and Romanes do not hesitate to call them “derangements of the mental constitution,” and to conclude that the instinctive machinery has got out of gear.
These principles are those of the inhibition of instincts by habits and of the transitoriness of instincts. Taken in conjunction with the two former principles —that an object may excite ambiguous impulses, or suggest an impulse different from that which it excites, by suggesting a remote object—they explain any amount of departure from uniformity of conduct, without implying any getting out of gear of the elementary impulses from which the conduct flows.
Take first the inhibition of instincts by habits. The law is this : When objects of a certain class elicit from an animal a certain sort of reaction, it often happens that the animal becomes partial to the first specimen of the class on which it has reacted, and will not afterward react on any other specimen.
The selection of a particular hole to live in, of a particular mate, of a particular feeding-ground, a particular variety of diet, a particular anything, in short, out of a possible multitude, is a very wide-spread tendency among animals, even those low down in the scale.
But each of these preferences carries with it an insensibility to other opportunities and occasions—an insensibility which can only be described physiologically as an inhibition of new impulses by the habit of old ones already formed.
The original impulse which got us homes, wives, dietaries, and friends, at all, seems to exhaust itself in its first achievements and to leave no surplus energy for reacting on new cases. And so it comes about that, witnessing this torpor, an observer of mankind might say that no instinctive propensity toward certain objects existed at all.
A habit, once grafted on an instinctive tendency, restricts the range of the tendency itself, and keeps us from reacting on any but the habitual objects, although other objects might just as well have been chosen had they been the first corners.
Another sort of arrest of instinct by habit is where the same class of objects awakens contrary instinctive impulses. Here the impulse first followed toward a given individual of the class is apt to keep him from ever awakening the opposite impulse in us.
Animals, for example, awaken in a child the opposite impulses of fearing and fondling. But if a child, in his first attempts to pat a dog, gets snapped at or bitten, so that the impulse of fear is strongly aroused, (362) if may be that for years to come no dog will excite in him the impulse to fondle again. On the other hand, the greatest natural enemies, if carefully introduced to each other when young and guided at the outset by superior authority, settle down into those “happy families” of friends which we see in our menageries. Young animals, immediately after birth, have no instinct of fear, but show their dependence by allowing themselves to be freely handled. Later, however, they grow “wild,” and, if left to themselves, will not let man approach them.
All animals are tame during some phase of their infancy. Habits formed then limit the effects of whatever instincts of wildness may later be evolved.
This leads us to the law of transitoriness, which is this: That many instincts ripen at a certain age and then fade away. A consequence of this law is that if, during the time of such an instinct’s vivacity, objects adequate to arouse it are met with, a habit of acting on them is formed, which remains when the original instinct has passed away; but that if no such objects are met with, then no habit will be formed; and, later on in life, when the animal meets the objects, he will altogether fail to react, as at the earlier epoch he would instinctively have done.
No doubt such a law is restricted. Some instincts are far less transient than others—those connected with feeding and “self-preservation” may hardly be transient at all, and some, after fading out for a time, recur as strong as ever, e.g., the instincts of pairing and rearing young. The law, however, though not absolute, is certainly very wide-spread, and a few examples will illustrate just what it means.
The instinct of sucking is ripe in all mammals at birth, and leads to that habit of taking the breast which, in the human infant, may be prolonged by daily exercise long beyond its usual term of a year or a year and a half. But the instinct itself is transient, in the sense that if, for any reason, the child be fed by spoon during the first few days of its life and not put to the breast, it may be no easy matter after that to make it suck at all.
Assuredly the simple fact that instincts are transient, and that the effect of later ones may be altered by the habits which earlier ones have left behind, is a far more philosophical explanation than the notion of an instinctive constitution vaguely “deranged” or ” thrown out of gear.”
Leaving lower animals aside, and turning to human instincts, we see the law of transiency corroborated on the widest scale by the alternation of different interests and passions as human life goes on. With the child, life is all play and fairy-tales and learning the external properties of “things;” with the youth, it is bodily exercises of a more systematic sort, novels of the real world, boon-fellowship and song, friendship and love, nature, travel and adventure, science and philosophy ; with the man, ambition and policy, acquisitiveness, responsibility to others, and the selfish zest of the battle of life.
If a boy grows up alone at the age of games and sports, and learns neither to play ball, nor row, nor sail, nor ride, nor skate, nor fish, nor shoot, probably he will be sedentary to the end of his days.
There is a happy moment for fixing skill in drawing, for making boys collectors in natural history, and presently dissectors and botanists; then for initiating them into the harmonies of mechanics and the wonders of physical and chemical law. Later, introspective psychology and the metaphysical and religious mysteries take their turn; and, last of all, the drama of human affairs and worldly wisdom in the widest sense of the term. In each of us a saturation-point is soon reached in all these things; the impetus of our purely intellectual zeal expires, and unless the topic be one associated with some urgent personal need that keeps our wits constantly whetted about it, we settle into an equilibrium, and live on what we learned when our interest was fresh and instinctive, without adding to the store.
Outside of their own business, the ideas gained by men before they are twenty-five are practically the only ideas they shall have in their lives. They cannot get anything new. Disinterested curiosity is past, the mental grooves and channels set, the power of assimilation gone. If by chance we ever do learn anything about some entirely new topic we are afflicted with a strange sense of insecurity, and we fear to advance a resolute opinion. Whatever individual exceptions might be cited to this are of the sort that “prove the rule.”
To detect the moment of the instinctive readiness for the subject is, then, the first duty of every educator. As for the pupils, it would probably lead to a more earnest temper on the part of college students if they had less belief in their unlimited future intellectual potentialities, and could be brought to realize that whatever physics and political economy and philosophy they are now acquiring are, for better or worse, the physics and political economy and philosophy that will have to serve them to the end.
The natural conclusion to draw from this transiency of instincts is that most of them are implanted for the sake of giving rise to habits, and that, this purpose once accomplished, the instincts themselves, as such, have no raison d’etre in the psychical economy, and consequently fade away. That occasionally an instinct should fade before circumstances permit of a habit being formed, or that, if the habit be formed, other factors than the pure instinct should modify its course, need not surprise us. Life is full of the imperfect adjustment to individual cases, of arrangements which, taking the species as a whole, are quite orderly and regular. Instinct cannot be expected to escape this general rule.
The most interesting thing possible now would be to test our principles by going through the human instincts in detail. But as I have already exceeded my allotted space, that must be reserved for another opportunity.
One comment: contemporary hypersocial humans (especially psychologists and social scientists) are obsessed with doing just this: “It takes, in short, what Berkeley calls a mind debauched by learning to carry the process of making the natural seem strange so far as to ask for the why of any instinctive human act.”