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Chapter 9

Remarks upon Von Hartmann's position in regard to instinct.

Uncertain how far the foregoing chapter is not better left without comment of any kind, I nevertheless think that some of my readers may be helped by the following extracts from the notes I took while translating. I will give them as they come, without throwing them into connected form.

Von Hartmann defines instinct as action done with a purpose, but without consciousness of purpose.

The building of her nest by a bird is an instinctive action; it is done with a purpose, but it is arbitrary to say that the bird has no knowledge of that purpose. Some hold that birds when they are building their nest know as well that they mean to bring up a family in it as a young married couple do when they build themselves a house. This is the conclusion which would be come to by a plain person on a prima facie view of the facts, and Von Hartmann shows no reason for modifying it.

A better definition of instinct would be that it is inherited knowledge in respect of certain facts, and of the most suitable manner in which to deal with them.

Von Hartmann speaks of "a mechanism of brain or mind" contrived by nature, and again of "a psychical organisation," as though it were something distinct from a physical organisation.

We can conceive of such a thing as mechanism of brain, for we have seen brain and handled it; but until we have seen a mind and handled it, or at any rate been enabled to draw inferences which will warrant us in conceiving of it as a material substance apart from bodily substance, we cannot infer that it has an organisation apart from bodily organisation. Does Von Hartmann mean that we have two bodies--a body-body, and a soul-body?

He says that no one will call the action of the spider instinctive in voiding the fluids from its glands when they are too full. Why not?

He is continually personifying instinct; thus he speaks of the "ends proposed to itself by the instinct," of "the blind unconscious purpose of the instinct," of "an unconscious purpose constraining the volition of the bird," of "each variation and modification of the instinct," as though instinct, purpose, and, later on, clairvoyance, were persons, and not words characterising a certain class of actions. The ends are proposed to itself by the animal, not by the instinct. Nothing but mischief can come of a mode of expression which does not keep this clearly in view.

It must not be supposed that the same cuckoo is in the habit of laying in the nests of several different species, and of changing the colour of her eggs according to that of the eggs of the bird in whose nest she lays. I have inquired from Mr. R. Bowdler Sharpe of the ornithological department at the British Museum, who kindly gives it me as his opinion that though cuckoos do imitate the eggs of the species on whom they foist their young ones, yet one cuckoo will probably lay in the nests of one species also, and will stick to that species for life. If so, the same race of cuckoos may impose upon the same species for generations together. The instinct will even thus remain a very wonderful one, but it is not at all inconsistent with the theory put forward by Professor Hering and myself.

Returning to the idea of psychical mechanism, he admits that "it is itself so obscure that we can hardly form any idea concerning it," [139a] and then goes on to claim for it that it explains a great many other things. This must have been the passage which Mr. Sully had in view when he very justly wrote that Von Hartmann "dogmatically closes the field of physical inquiry, and takes refuge in a phantom which explains everything, simply because it is itself incapable of explanation."

According to Von Hartmann [139b] the unpractised animal manifests its instinct as perfectly as the practised. This is not the case. The young animal exhibits marvellous proficiency, but it gains by experience. I have watched sparrows, which I can hardly doubt to be young ones, spend a whole month in trying to build their nest, and give it up in the end as hopeless. I have watched three such cases this spring in a tree not twenty feet from my own window and on a level with my eye, so that I have been able to see what was going on at all hours of the day. In each case the nest was made well and rapidly up to a certain point, and then got top-heavy and tumbled over, so that little was left on the tree: it was reconstructed and reconstructed over and over again, always with the same result, till at last in all three cases the birds gave up in despair. I believe the older and stronger birds secure the fixed and best sites, driving the younger birds to the trees, and that the art of building nests in trees is dying out among house-sparrows.

He declares that instinct is not due to organisation so much as organisation to instinct. [140] The fact is, that neither can claim precedence of or pre-eminence over the other. Instinct and organisation are only mind and body, or mind and matter; and these are not two separable things, but one and inseparable, with, as it were, two sides; the one of which is a function of the other. There was never yet either matter without mind, however low, nor mind, however high, without a material body of some sort; there can be no change in one without a corresponding change in the other; neither came before the other; neither can either cease to change or cease to be; for "to be" is to continue changing, so that "to be" and "to change" are one.

Whence, he asks, comes the desire to gratify an instinct before experience of the pleasure that will ensue on gratification? This is a pertinent question, but it is met by Professor Hering with the answer that this is due to memory--to the continuation in the germ of vibrations that were vibrating in the body of the parent, and which, when stimulated by vibrations of a suitable rhythm, become more and more powerful till they suffice to set the body in visible action. For my own part I only venture to maintain that it is due to memory, that is to say, to an enduring sense on the part of the germ of the action it took when in the persons of its ancestors, and of the gratification which ensued thereon. This meets Von Hartmann's whole difficulty.

The glacier is not snow. It is snow packed tight into a small compass, and has thus lost all trace of its original form. How incomplete, however, would be any theory of glacial action which left out of sight the origin of the glacier in snow! Von Hartmann loses sight of the origin of instinctive in deliberative actions because the two classes of action are now in many respects different. His philosophy of the unconscious fails to consider what is the normal process by means of which such common actions as we can watch, and whose history we can follow, have come to be done unconsciously.

He says, [141] "How inconceivable is the supposition of a mechanism, &c., &c.; how clear and simple, on the other hand, is the view that there is an unconscious purpose constraining the volition of the bird to the use of the fitting means." Does he mean that there is an actual thing--an unconscious purpose--something outside the bird, as it were a man, which lays hold of the bird and makes it do this or that, as a master makes a servant do his bidding? If so, he again personifies the purpose itself, and must therefore embody it, or be talking in a manner which plain people cannot understand. If, on the other hand, he means "how simple is the view that the bird acts unconsciously," this is not more simple than supposing it to act consciously; and what ground has he for supposing that the bird is unconscious? It is as simple, and as much in accordance with the facts, to suppose that the bird feels the air to be colder, and knows that she must warm her eggs if she is to hatch them, as consciously as a mother knows that she must not expose her new-born infant to the cold.

On page 99 of this book we find Von Hartmann saying that if it is once granted that the normal and abnormal manifestations of instinct spring from a single source, then the objection that the modification is due to conscious knowledge will be found to be a suicidal one later on, in so far as it is directed against instinct generally. I understand him to mean that if we admit instinctive action, and the modifications of that action which more nearly resemble results of reason, to be actions of the same ultimate kind differing in degree only, and if we thus attempt to reduce instinctive action to the prophetic strain arising from old experience, we shall be obliged to admit that the formation of the embryo is ultimately due to reflection--which he seems to think is a reductio ad absurdum of the argument.

Therefore, he concludes, if there is to be only one source, the source must be unconscious, and not conscious. We reply, that we do not see the absurdity of the position which we grant we have been driven to. We hold that the formation of the embryo IS ultimately due to reflection and design.

The writer of an article in the Times, April 1, 1880, says that servants must be taught their calling before they can practise it; but, in fact, they can only be taught their calling by practising it. So Von Hartmann says animals must feel the pleasure consequent on gratification of an instinct before they can be stimulated to act upon the instinct by a knowledge of the pleasure that will ensue. This sounds logical, but in practice a little performance and a little teaching--a little sense of pleasure and a little connection of that pleasure with this or that practice,--come up simultaneously from something that we cannot see, the two being so small and so much abreast, that we do not know which is first, performance or teaching; and, again, action, or pleasure supposed as coming from the action.

"Geistes-mechanismus" comes as near to "disposition of mind," or, more shortly, "disposition," as so unsatisfactory a word can come to anything. Yet, if we translate it throughout by "disposition," we shall see how little we are being told.

We find on page 114 that "all instinctive actions give us an impression of absolute security and infallibility"; that "the will is never weak or hesitating, as it is when inferences are being drawn consciously." "We never," Von Hartmann continues, "find instinct making mistakes." Passing over the fact that instinct is again personified, the statement is still incorrect. Instinctive actions are certainly, as a general rule, performed with less uncertainty than deliberative ones; this is explicable by the fact that they have been more often practised, and thus reduced more completely to a matter of routine; but nothing is more certain than that animals acting under the guidance of inherited experience or instinct frequently make mistakes which with further practice they correct. Von Hartmann has abundantly admitted that the manner of an instinctive action is often varied in correspondence with variation in external circumstances. It is impossible to see how this does not involve both possibility of error and the connection of instinct with deliberation at one and the same time. The fact is simply this--when an animal finds itself in a like position with that in which it has already often done a certain thing in the persons of its forefathers, it will do this thing well and easily: when it finds the position somewhat, but not unrecognisably, altered through change either in its own person or in the circumstances exterior to it, it will vary its action with greater or less ease according to the nature of the change in the position: when the position is gravely altered the animal either bungles or is completely thwarted.

Not only does Von Hartmann suppose that instinct may, and does, involve knowledge antecedent to, and independent of, experience--an idea as contrary to the tendency of modern thought as that of spontaneous generation, with which indeed it is identical though presented in another shape--but he implies by his frequent use of the word "unmittelbar" that a result can come about without any cause whatever. So he says, "Um fur die unbewusster Erkenntniss, welche nicht durch sinnliche Wahrnehmung erworben, sondern als unmittelbar Besitz," &c. [144a] Because he does not see where the experience can have been gained, he cuts the knot, and denies that there has been experience. We say, Look more attentively and you will discover the time and manner in which the experience was gained.

Again, he continually assumes that animals low down in the scale of life cannot know their own business because they show no sign of knowing ours. See his remarks on Saturnia pavonia minor (page 107), and elsewhere on cattle and gadflies. The question is not what can they know, but what does their action prove to us that they do know. With each species of animal or plant there is one profession only, and it is hereditary. With us there are many professions, and they are not hereditary; so that they cannot become instinctive, as they would otherwise tend to do.

He attempts [144b] to draw a distinction between the causes that have produced the weapons and working instruments of animals, on the one hand, and those that lead to the formation of hexagonal cells by bees, &c., on the other. No such distinction can be justly drawn.

The ghost-stories which Von Hartmann accepts will hardly be accepted by people of sound judgment. There is one well-marked distinctive feature between the knowledge manifested by animals when acting instinctively and the supposed knowledge of seers and clairvoyants. In the first case, the animal never exhibits knowledge except upon matters concerning which its race has been conversant for generations; in the second, the seer is supposed to do so. In the first case, a new feature is invariably attended with disturbance of the performance and the awakening of consciousness and deliberation, unless the new matter is too small in proportion to the remaining features of the case to attract attention, or unless, though really new, it appears so similar to an old feature as to be at first mistaken for it; with the second, it is not even professed that the seer's ancestors have had long experience upon the matter concerning which the seer is supposed to have special insight, and I can imagine no more powerful a priori argument against a belief in such stories.

Close upon the end of his chapter Von Hartmann touches upon the one matter which requires consideration. He refers the similarity of instinct that is observable among all species to the fact that like causes produce like effects; and I gather, though he does not expressly say so, that he considers similarity of instinct in successive generations to be referable to the same cause as similarity of instinct between all the contemporary members of a species. He thus raises the one objection against referring the phenomena of heredity to memory which I think need be gone into with any fulness. I will, however, reserve this matter for my concluding chapters.

Von Hartmann concludes his chapter with a quotation from Schelling, to the effect that the phenomena of animal instinct are the true touchstone of a durable philosophy; by which I suppose it is intended to say that if a system or theory deals satisfactorily with animal instinct, it will stand, but not otherwise. I can wish nothing better than that the philosophy of the unconscious advanced by Von Hartmann be tested by this standard.


[139a] Page 100 of this vol.

[139b] Pp. 106, 107 of this vol.

[140] Page 100 of this vol.

[141] Page 99 of this vol.

[144a] See page 115 of this volume.

[144b] Page 104 of this vol.

Samuel Butler

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