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Instinctive Tendencies With An Intellectual Reference

( Originally Published 1916 )

IT is all-important from the standpoint alike of child-study and of educational procedure to ascertain the range of the child's native spontaneity. The native spontaneities of man may well be wider in their range than could by any theory be accounted for on the lines merely of nerve-stimulation and muscular response. There may be native tendencies not only of the body but of the mind, of the "heart," and of the spirit. There may be affinities which we do not acquire, which, whilst using the body for their expression, yet have distinctive qualities which make the purely sensori-motor aspect but a small part of the whole phenomenon. Whatever the nature and the number of these spontaneous tendencies, account must needs be taken of them in any wisely ordered education.

The second group of instinctive tendencies which we are now to consider includes spontaneous and unlearned ways of responding to environment which tend directly to give knowledge of the environment. And, if the name "instinct" is given to reactions which do not depend for their performance on any previous experience on the part of the individual, may we not rightly apply it to reactions which, whilst associated as the earlier group was clearly seen to be with our nervo-muscular system, yet depend for their spontaneous and original character upon the very nature and constitution of the mind ? To admit this is but to illustrate further the appropriateness of the term psycho-physical as applied to the human organism, and to see how inevitably man's compound nature is bound up in every phase of his experience.

We cannot, of course, go back to the very starting-point of individual development and experience without encountering difficulties of psychological analysis. For example, it does not seem possible to say with certainty whether the impulse or stimulation leading to a purely instinctive reaction of the kind we have been discussing is really only a matter of nerve-excitation or has some kind of conscious accompaniment. Of those who have been quoted in the preceding chapter Mr. McDougall in his "Introduction to Social Psychology" holds that there is a clear psychical or conscious accompaniment. Mr. McDougall's view is that "there is every reason to believe that even the most purely instinctive action is the outcome of a distinctly mental process, one which is incapable of being described in purely mechanical terms, because it is a psycho-physical process, involving psychical as well as physical changes, and one which, like every other mental process, has, and can only be fully described in terms of, the three aspects of all mental process—the cognitive, the affective, and the conative aspects; that is to say, every instance of instinctive behaviour involves a knowing of some thing or object, a feeling in regard to it, and a striving towards or away from that object.'

On the other hand, Principal Lloyd Morgan thinks it safer to leave this an open question and to look at the procedure from the physiological point of view, holding that we can only conjecture, not only as to the nature of the conscious impulse which is commonly assumed to accompany the performance of an instinctive action, but even as to the presence of such conscious impulse.

Leaving this point, however, two things may be said without much hesitation. The first is certainly beyond question—namely, that there are intellectual results from instinctive reactions as there are from those more complex reactions which have in them a large instinctive element. They afford " data for the conscious guidance of future behaviour." So a dog, following the bias imposed upon his experience by his specific brain structure and organisation, begins by smelling smells. But he not only smells smells, " he remembers smells, he thinks smells, he even dreams smells, as you may see by his sniffing and growling in his sleep." And in the next place, there is not much doubt that there are forms of instinctive tendency which have a direct reference to intellectual results. These form the subject of the present chapter.

First of all, corresponding to the general tendency to physical activity already mentioned, is a general tendency to mental activity. Mind spontaneously tends to be active. As if to emphasise this tendency in the child, we have the massive higher brain. Its very presence, especially in such striking proportions, counts for much. The child is built brainily ; and the higher brain soon finds uses for itself both in connection with the lower portions of the sensorimotor system, and in connection with the spontaneous acquirement and organisation of knowledge.

With respect to the connection between the higher brain and the lower portions of the sensori-motor systems there are two things to be noted : (i) The higher brain does not live out its life in a state of exalted independence. It is from this point of view like the upper classes of society, which would soon cease to be upper if it were not for the industry of the lower. Omitting from consideration the lowest level of wholly reflex responses, it is fairly certain, that, apart from its connection with the domain of the five senses, we might as well carry our upper brain about in a carpet bag as have it where it is. The sense-organs with their spontaneous reactions to stimulus are integral parts of the brain-system. Alike, therefore, as a matter of instinctive necessity, and because of nature's anticipations for him as an intellectual being, the child needs to have plentiful opportunities for sense-activity. He is built for his environment, and he attends instinctively to real things. In this way he gains his first knowledge of the world in which he is to live. Through sheer sense-activity and responsive muscle-activity he enters upon his life as an intelligent and an intellectual being. (2) The functioning of the higher brain itself reacts upon and widens the range of the child's activity.

It is, moreover, in virtue of his higher brain endow-ment that the child, still impelled by instinct, begins to forge ahead just where the animal stops short. We may take as an example the child's instinctive curiosity. A dog evinces curiosity, certainly, but he seems to sum up all when he has placed the object in question either in his satisfactory or his unsatisfactory smell column. Most of his final inductions seem to come within the category of smell.' A monkey has a good deal of destructive inquisitiveness ; and the boy, say some, inherits it. But the tendencies in the two cases are quite incommensurate. Knowing a little of the bare " this " and " that " of things, in answer to his instinctive curiosity as to what things are,—and even so, knowing more of the " what " of things than dog or monkey can, the boy, quite as instinctively, asks "Why ?" and "How ? " A fairly typical child's question was that of a little boy of four who said one day, " Mother, is that a cow ? " "Yes," she said, " it is a cow." a Mother, why is it a cow ?" he asked. Whether or not the belief that everything has a cause is, as some have urged, one of the universal conditions or " laws" of thought, the "Why ?" and " How ?" of the child is certainly a spontaneous instinctive questioning. "Man wants to know. When he no longer wants to know he ceases to be man," said Nansen.

It is only possible to suggest in a general way the nature and directions of the instinctive play of the mind in building up its experience. All the main movements of the mind in the acquirement of knowledge seem to have instinctive beginnings. Instinctively, from the mere fact that he possesses a mind, aided, of course, by the delicacy and physical discriminativeness of the organs of sense, the child discriminates experience from experience ; he interprets experience by experience—the new by the old : he associates experience with experience. So much of our intellectual capacity is given, not acquired, that our acquisitions never reach a level at which they are independent of the mind's purely native tendencies.

For example, when we distinguish spontaneous from voluntary attention, we find that, whilst some instances of spontaneous attention are due to habit and association, others are due to a purely primitive tendency. The latter type clearly has, as Ribot says, " its roots in the very basis of our being." I But a careful examination of any single instance of voluntary attention would show that the will, however strenuously exerted, never elects to run counter to all original tendency. Depending though will does upon an act of choice (Aristotle's) , no concrete example can be found in which our voluntary attention wholly transcends our native tendencies. All voluntary effort has reference to what, in virtue of some part of our nature, we spontaneously tend to be. The bearing of this upon the school theory of interest is evident. We do not " create " interests ; they are outgrowths of the child's instinctive tendencies. The child never fruitfully attends to anything which is altogether out of relation to these tendencies. Any attention that is worth having is so because it is reinforced by spontaneously operating laws of his mental being. Even the claims of the ideal, which it is part of the aim of school education to present, are all grounded in the actual child-nature before us. The highest genius illustrates the same broad principle. Ribot instances Fourier, the mathematician, who was "turbulent and in-capable of application" till he was introduced in his thirteenth year to the study of mathematics; thenceforward he became a different being : Malebranche, the philosopher, who by chance and half-reluctantly took up a book on philosophy and who was so arrested by it that he had to keep laying the book aside in order to breathe freely : and so of Newton and many others. "Some perhaps will say : Such traits are the marks of a dawning vocation. But what indeed is a vocation but attention discovering its way, its true bearings, for the rest of life? No finer instances of spontaneous attention could be given." I Attention is just the selective power of the mind whereby any-thing whatsoever becomes definite, and is distinguished from the rest of the world of objects. If we were not by the very nature of the mind, and of the nervous system, able to single out "this" that I see or "that" that I hear from the whole range of possible experiences at any moment, it would be the same thing as having no experience. We could no more have an experience without attention than a photographic picture without focussing. Evidently this is not acquired. It has to be there from the outset if experience is to begin at all. It is absolutely original. Starting from the child's keen attention to objects, we can trace throughout a mental spontaneity present in attention in all its forms apart from which we could scarcely be said to be possessors of minds at all.

The same is true of the other absolutely fundamental capacity of mind, its power of retention : fundamental, be-cause, if without attention all consciousness would be a blur and no beginning whatever be made towards perception or the most rudimentary form of knowledge, so without power of retention the mind would be a blank, carrying nothing forward from one moment's consciousness to the next. No attention, no mind ; no retention, no mind. A child has not, fortunately for the teacher, to be taught to remember. It belongs to the mind's own nature. The teacher's help of various kinds, and his by no means trivial acquirement of skill in the presentation and arrangement of what he teaches, affect the directions which memory takes. But the main work of remembering is part of our spontaneous mental activity.

The processes of discrimination and assimilation, again, are not learned or acquired. They are rather primitive aspects of the activity of attention and memory. No beginning of an intellectual experience could be made without them.

Nor does the mind need to be taught to apperceive. It is part of its very nature to bring its past experiences and acquisitions to bear in dealing with fresh experience or in gaining fresh ground. In the same way we might speak of association.

What we are finding, then, is that all the main strands of our intellectual experience depend upon the mind's absolutely original tendencies. Attention, retentiveness, discrimination, assimilation, apperception, association, are one and all guaranteed in advance. And these are the vital processes of our mental being. The highest reaches of man's mind are large and rich assimilations and constructive associations,—as in the discovery of laws or principles ; the composition of works of literature or art ; the devising of great practical schemes of reform, of government, of commerce ; inventions ;—based upon the fine and accurate discriminations of exact thinking and detailed selective planning. The untaught tendencies to note, to interpret, to compare, to combine, lie behind it all.

In noting this wide range of unlearned or instinctive tendency underlying all intellectual processes, the accompanying and to a large extent determining bodily conditions are, of course, not to be lost sight of. We are dealing throughout with psycho physical phenomena. It is, accordingly, as necessary as it is customary to speak of the neural basis of memory ; the physical adjustments implied in attention ; the nerve-paths in the brain-substance which are the physical bases of association and thus both of apperception and of mental habit.

To sum up in a sentence : the general lines along which experience travels and the mind unfolds are given, not acquired. Obviously, the educator's labour is eased if he learns to follow these lines. This is why, as teachers, we need to know something of psychology, which deals with the laws which govern the mind's behaviour.

One somewhat important theoretical question remains. It has to do with the relation between our intellectual life and instinctive tendency ; and it affects to some extent our view as to the foundations of mind and the nature of the child's congenital endowment. It concerns, therefore, the part assignable to instinct in the unfolding and up-building of personality.

The question connects itself with the nature of instinct as discussed in this and the preceding chapter. It is the question as to how Er instinctive reactions, especially those dealt with in the preceding chapter, may have arisen independently of consciousness, i.e., on a purely physical plane. Certainly, as Professor James says, instincts must have been either (1) each specially created in complete form, or (2) gradually evolved. The former alternative he dismisses as "nowadays obsolete." But with regard to the latter alternative, it has been matter for debate whether the history of the growth of instincts is one of mind and physical organism cooperating, i.e., is psycho-physical, or is merely physical. It might be said, perhaps, that; granting the facts of instinct, the question of its origin matters but little ; that the build of the self may be considered quite apart from the process of building. But, in the first place, there is no such thing as a built self. The self is still, and always, in the making. The important thing, therefore, is the process. And a second reason for going back to origins, at least so far back as science itself invites us, arises if our interpretation of mental processes and mental development is in any marked degree affected by such theories of origin.

One of the most recent utterances in this connection is that of Sir E. Ray Lankester in his presidential address at the British Association Meetings in 1906. His conclusion in the paper from which he there quoted is that " there is no community between the mechanisms of instinct and the mechanisms of intelligence, and that the latter are later in the history of the development of the brain than the former, and can only develop in proportion as the former become feeble and defective. . . . To a large extent, the two series of brain mechanisms, the ' instinctive ' and the ' individually acquired,' are in opposition to one another." Obviously, if this is so and thought and instinct are essentially at odds, not only does man become a greater puzzle to himself than ever, but the practical problem as to what he shall do with himself, and, if he be an educator, what he shall endeavour to do for his pupils, is more puzzling still. We are almost forced to ask: Is education an uprooter of instincts? Is the sequel to " A body hast Thou prepared me," that we have to preside over its rebuilding ? Or are we right in having suggested that instincts, even those which are for the most part merely behaving tendencies, are really a base upon which, with a certain reserve, the educator may build ?

Professor Lankester's argument, whereby he maintains that it is the undoing or loss of instinct which "permits and necessitates the education of the receptive brain," is based in the main upon an examination of the brain cavities of some of the extinct mammalia of the Tertiary Period. The Titanotherium, the rhinoceros of that period, and "a true rhinoceros," had not more than a fifth of the brain substance possessed by the living rhinoceros, though the animal itself was as large as, if not larger than, living specimens. Similar increase in the size of the brain is observable in comparing extinct with living reptiles, and in the human brain as compared with that of the more ancient pithecoid apes. Now, assuming that the Titanotherium was an "efficient and adequate piece of living mechanism," i.e., that its nervous system served it as well as does that or the living rhinoceros, it would seem, on the face of it, to have been at no loss through the smallness of its brain. It it was not, Professor Lankester argues, we may regard its efficiency and adequacy as having arisen to a large extent independently of consciousness of which the brain is the organ. Yet—to deal at once with this specific argument—since there is a brain cavity, and since a brain, however small, may be taken to imply consciousness, and since we have no means of knowing how much consciousness is necessary (supposing consciousness to be involved), the mere smallness of the brain cavity in no way proves that no consciousness intervened. And, in the second place, as to the efficiency and adequacy of the response to their environment, the fact of the possessors of these smaller brains having become extinct must be taken into account. Indeed, at the instance of Dr. Andrews, of the British Museum, Professor Lankester in a note to his Romanes Lecture on "Nature and Man " frankly admits that the elephant of the Tertiary Period had a large brain cavity ; and that this fact accounts for the elephant having survived into our own time. The small-brained monsters clearly seem to have been incapable of holding their own as the larger-brained monsters did. They existed, as Professor Lankester says, "from generation to generation"; and so far must have been capable of organic response to their environment. But they have become extinct, whereas larger-brained monsters have proved themselves capable of surviving. The Titanotherium argument would seem rather to point in the direction of brain-activity (and therefore consciousness) having played an essential part in the acquisition of life-sustaining responses.

It may well be, however, that a certain preparation of the mechanism employed in instinctive reactions has taken place on a physical plane and independently of consciousness ; even though it also appears clear that consciousness has played its part. With regard to the possibility of the preparation or structure on a purely physico-chemical plane, many interesting experiments have been made in recent years tending clearly to show that products of the laboratory, i.e., of physico-chemical processes, may simulate certain rudimentary forms of organic life.

It is fortunate for the educator if, as the argument seems to show, there is no need to emphasise the incongruity of instinct and intelligence. For it is evident that the educative process would suffer a severe handicap if Nature and intelligence (as the teacher seeks to develop it) were really at variance. Whatever opposition there may be between instinct and intelligence, it is very far from being a conflict of extinction. Some instincts die out of themselves, so far as anything that has once held its own in the history of the organism can die out. They die out when the environment does not call for them ; just as it no longer calls for the activity of the rudimentary organs, over one hundred in number, which are said to be present in the child's body, and which are not only of no use, but some of which are even in the way. But those instincts which do not die out it is no part of the work of intelligence to kill. Occasionally it may accelerate their lapsing into disuse, but more generally it will utilise, coordinate, modify, and direct. Thought, truly, makes new adaptations ; but it does so either by taking the old as its point of departure or by working new territory. It comes not to destroy, but to fulfil.'

We may take it, then, that the child's instincts are a true endowment ; that they are part of his equipment. They are germane to the life of the child, and to the life of man, —an inherited power to grapple with the world and to use its resources. None the less, they may have to be schooled. And in seeking to utilise and to direct the child's instincts, general principles must guide us. Briefly to state some or these will be the most direct way of showing the educational bearing of this and the preceding chapter.

(1) One general principle to be applied in the schooling of instincts is to remember that each age and stage has a certain completeness of its own, accompanying its incompleteness. To be immature is not necessarily to be imperfect. Whether as parents or teachers the " natural child," the "real boy " has worth for us quite independently of the consideration that he is an adult in the making. There is continuity, of course, between the life of the child and the life of the adult. It is as true to the vision of science as it is to the vision of the poet that "the child is father of the man." When we speak of the transitoriness of instincts and of epochs in child -life when this or that instinct becomes prominent, we do not mean that life is carried through by a series of spurts. Man is built on the long-distance race principle. And this fact also emphasises the value of each stage. If at any point he does not get into his stride, ground is lost on the whole race. Whether, then, we are considering the worth of the child as he is, or the worth of being a "natural child" or a "real boy" to the man that is to be, value attaches to the ample expression by the child of his own natural life. Why, for example, should I sometimes in play-intervals allow children in the nursery or in the Transition Class and in the lower Primary Classes (say up to nine years of age) to use the balls of Froebel's First Gift for throwing at a target ? I answer : Why is it we often see full-blooded big boys throwing stones at birds or sticks at dogs ? It is most probably because they were preternaturally checked from some such exercise when they were little boys. If we provide targets, with interesting features according to taste, we are making timely use of a ready-made impulse in the direction of hand and eye co-ordination. We are also doing something to justify ourselves in trying to train "good little boys who do not throw at poor little birds." There is a time for the target and a time for the word-building sheet ; a time for mud (or clay, a cleaner and slightly less-loved form of mud), and a time for the penholder ; a time for real free following of one's own devices, and a time for bending to set tasks. And these times are not always fixable by means of Time Tables and school curricula. Nature fixes them. " I've often wondered," says the American " philosopher," Mr. Dooley, "what a little boy thinks about us. We fire him off to school just about the time of day when any one ought to be out of doors. He has to sit there most of the pleasant part of the day, and every time he tries to do anything that seems right to him, the strange lady or gentleman that acts as his keeper swoops down on him. . . . Towards evening if he has been good and repressed all his natural instincts he is allowed to go home and chop some wood. . . . And so it goes. . . . If he does not do any of these things, or if he does not do them the way ye think is the right way, some one hits him or wants to." Whereas, really the child's instincts lead him fairly straight in respect of fundamentals. Our first duty in learning to educate him, is to know them -that is, so far to know him ; and our second, to make discriminating but not half-hearted use of them as native sources of energy in developing his intelligence.

We want the child to use nature's endowment. The only trouble sometimes is to know how to do this. At school, especially, he often shows his mental and physical propensities in a way which makes it not so much a difficult thing to educate him as to educate him and a number of his peers simultaneously. The real success which so many teachers are achieving is but one further testimony to what human endeavour can accomplish in spite of difficulties.

(2) Another general fact to be borne in mind is that there are grades and types of innate disposition. A child may have a relatively poor or a relatively rich instinctive endowment. Once more to illustrate from animal life. Principal Lloyd Morgan tells of walking with a friend and his five young hounds. They came to a gate, the lower bars of which were close together. The two men got over and watched the pups. At first all tried the lower bars ; but presently one, then a second, and a third tried higher up, and got through. The fourth persistently struggled at the lower bars. The fifth now and then made an effort, but for the most part lay and whined. When the men climbed and reclimbed the gate, the three successful dogs came through each time ; the other two repeated their respective manoeuvres for a full twenty minutes, when the experiment was abandoned. The dogs were differently endowed. And differences similar to these may reproduce themselves in the. boy-world. Some have initiative : they are born that way. Some, again, will learn from the leaders : it will save us trouble, as teachers, to let them do so, contenting ourselves largely with guiding the process and with setting suitable tasks. The one that tries,, and tries, wants a pat on the back and a lift, up ; after that he will probably make his way through. He needs teaching. The rarer type of boy who gives up and whines we shall probably, after trying the pat and the lift up, have to remove to a lower class, or give him other work. He must be taken to a gate that he can get through.

(3) Instincts being fixed up in a psycho-physical organism, and depending largely on sheer bodily organisation, we are reminded that bodily conditions underlie all acquisition. Education implies handwork. Yet here, again, a difficulty arises. Many children come to school physically tired. Either through work at home or through playing a part in the nation's vast business which has not yet risen in its strength and shaken itself free from child-labour, children sometimes come to school fitter for sleep than for work. It is a perplexing problem. If we could only know which was which, we should do well in many elementary schools, some of which would perhaps not be suspected of the second need, to set some of the children to educational handwork whilst others were allowed to lay their heads on their arms and fall asleep.

(4) A fourth consideration affecting our work as educators is that sometimes we have to interpret instinct from the point of view of the spirit of the thing rather than as it actually appears. The race only slowly outgrows its more primitive ways of instinctive behaviour. The tiger and the ape in us are doomed. But they die by inches. Their doom will come by transformation, not by extinction. "There are wild traits in tame animals." And there need to be. Only those who appreciate this really understand the tame animal.


1. Observe the universal pleasure children find in using their own minds in their own way.

2. For observation in school, home, or elsewhere as occasion serves, the following methods are useful : (1.) To note down during some five or ten minutes all that one child says, for example, when the child is playing by himself or with one or two other children in the nursery ; (2.) To note the number of verbs, or of words used as substitutes for verbs, in the young child's vocabulary, and of nouns ; (3.) To note how nouns are made to serve for verbs and verbs for nouns, and so on, giving a certain insight into the history of the growth of language (e.g., " hammer " as a verb, " talk " as a noun, in ordinary speech) ; (4.) To note how as children grow older their speech becomes more complex to suit their thought ; how from the elliptical sentence stage they pass to the simple sentence and sentences compounded by the connectives " and," "and so," and then," and on to complex sentences.

3. This last point comes out clearly in comparing essays written upon wholly unprepared and interesting topics by school-children of different ages, e.g., such subjects as: "How I should like to spend next Saturday," "How I should like to spend my next holiday," " Our ramble to ," "If I had a sovereign, what I should like to do with it."

4. We may note that children come to their first acquisition of general names by experimenting with them In connection with objects. Our general ideas or "concepts" come to perfectly clear meaning by stages. At first the name, which is the verbal equivalent of the general idea, serves roughly to mark off the fact that we mean one class of objects, not another. (" Gee-gee " does this for the little child, after a series of, to him, subtle discriminations from " moo-cow.") Then the name comes to convey in its meaning an idea of the salient features belonging to the group of objects so distinguished. And, lastly, we arrive at a few (a few only in the case of most of us) actually clear and distinct and adequate concepts in the ideas and terms that we can "define" ; a definition being the verbal expression of a perfected general idea.

5. Other points in connection with the subject of this chapter are discussed in Kirkpatrick's a Fundamentals of Child Study "; King's " Psychology of Child Development"; Thorn dike's "Notes on Child Study" and " Principles of Teaching."

6. In addition to the more specific arguments in favour of consciousness or mind being at least to some extent associated with the development of instinct, there exists a wide-spread tendency at the present time to associate mind with animal life even in its simplest forms ; and some go so far as to include plant-life. "In our distribution of minds may we stop short of even the very lowest animal organisms ? It seems arbitrary to do so."

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