J. Wesley Robbins
Indiana University South Bend
From lecture notes P358 American Philosophy

James: Great Men and Their Environment


-Asa Gray: Harvard biology professor, Congregational Christian, early defender of Darwin's theory in America - argued that it is not inconsistent with Christian belief (1860 essay in ATLANTIC MONTHLY, 1876 DARWINIANA).

I. Darwin's theory

A. Artificial selection: selective breeding by humans.

-Example of domestic pigeons.

-Twenty varieties, so different from one another that, in the wild, they would qualify as well-defined species.

-beaks, skulls

-number of vertebrae, ribs

-number of primary wing feathers

-relative length of wing and tail

-shape and size of eggs

-manner of flight

-voice, disposition

-All twenty of these domestic varieties descended from a common ancestor, the rock pigeon.

-The result of selective breeding by humans.

1. Successive variations in the pigeons, arise suddenly.

2. Human breeders add these variations up in a certain direction useful to them (human).

-The twenty varieties of domestic pigeons are the result of the continued selection of slight variations over time = a large amount of change slowly accumulated.

B. Natural selection: selective breeding by the natural environment.

1.Individual differences: the many slight differences that occur in the offspring of the same parents (some of which are inherited).

-The materials for natural selection to act on and accumulate in the same manner as humans do in domesticated breeding.

-Variations useful in some way to the individuals who posses them (not humans), in the struggle for existence: gives them some advantage, a better chance of surviving and procreating, over other individuals who do not possess that particular variation.

2. Natural selection: the natural environment operates selectively on these individual differences as they occur, (a) preserving the ones that are favorable to their possessors and (b) destroying the ones that are unfavorable to their possessors.

-The gradual accumulation of slight individual differences over time, by natural selection: the "Great Tree of Life" on earth = all of the species (genuses, families) of plants and animals now living (and extinct) from a few common ancestors.

-Darwin's theory explains how many different varieties of living things are formed from a few common ancestors, by natural selection operating on individual differences, regardless of where these individual differences come from in the first place. His theory (i) ignores that question and (ii) focuses on what natural selection does with these differences = selective attention on a limited question, disregarding the "ultimate" question of where differences (and life) come from in the first place.

II. James's use of Darwin's theory in "Great Men and Their Environment."

-(166) The question: What are the causes that make communities change from generation to generation?

1. Herbert Spencer: the changes are irrespective of persons (independent of individual control). They are due to the environment . . . to everything except the Grants and the Bismarcks, the Joneses and the Smiths.

2. James: the difference is due to the accumulated influences of individuals, their examples, initiatives and decisions.

-(196) The whole purpose of Spencer's book is to show the fatal way in which the mind is molded by its experiences of "outer relations."

-James's strategy (197): show that the Spencerian view of the human mind (its passivity vis a vis the external environment) rests on a pre-Darwinian theory of evolution and thus is scientifically out of date and discredited, "an obsolete anachronism, reverting to a pre-Darwinian type of thought.

-James is going to use Darwin's theory (of natural selection operating on individual differences) to defend

1. The importance of individuals in bringing about social change.

2. The activity of humans (the mind) as instigators of change, not just passive recipients.

III. What are the causes that make communities change?

(eg., What caused the man to fall and crack his head?)

(168)-asked by humans, with finite minds.

(1) Abstract propositions: empty

(eg., the whole history of the world, dinner months before.)

(2) Concrete facts links: picking out, narrowing our point of view for a particular purpose.

(eg., melt the ice so it doesn't happen again)

A. Example from mathematics, of simply ignoring certain things in order to accomplish something - differential calculus.

-The calculator throws out all of the "infinitesimals" of the quantities he is considering, for the purposes of his calculation.

B. Astronomy: ignores the effects of the wind on the ocean (waves), for the purpose of determining the tidal movements of the ocean.

C. Cycles of causes in nature.

(169) 1. All connected to one another only if we take the whole universe into account.

2. Humans (finite minds): regard them as disconnected and irrelevant to one another.

D. Biology

-Organisms that possess some "extraordinary peculiarity."

-Darwin distinguished two sets of causes (cycles in nature).

1. Physiological: the causes that produced the peculiarity in the organism in the first place.

2. Environmental: the causes that maintain it after it is produced.

-He chose to (a) ignore the first [tendencies to spontaneous variation] and (b) concentrate attention of the second [natural selection].

E. Pre-Darwinian philosophers

(170) Clumped these two cycles together indiscriminately.

Eg., the environment not only

1. preserves the giraffe's long neck, but

2. made it long in the first place = the environment molds the animal by direct pressure.

-Adaptive changes: the very feature in the environment to which the organism is adapted itself produced the adjustment.

Eg., Spencer: the inner relation corresponds with its own efficient cause.

-Special case of this (ideas in people's mind): objects in the environment create resemblances of themselves in people's mind.

F. Darwin: the vast majority of changes in organisms are caused by internal molecular accidents, of which we know nothing.

1. Molecular and invisible causes that operate on the organism before it is born: ignore these, like the infinitesimals in calculus, for the purpose of determining...

2. The effects of the environment (tangible and distinct) on organisms that are born with these differences (to preserve them or destroy them): focus on this cycle of causes.

G. The role of great individuals in social change?

(173) -Are they simply the result of the environment molding people in its likeness?

1. Treat the causes that produce geniuses in the first place like Darwin treated spontaneous variations: ignore the causes that produced their differences in the first place = take geniuses as data.

2. Focus on what the environment does with individual geniuses once they appear: its selective effects on their differences.

-(176) There are incompatibilities between (i) individual genius and (ii) surroundings. The environment

(a) operates to exclude certain contributions from individuals, not

(b) to determine what those individual contributions shall be in the first place.

-When the differences of a genius are preserved: the world is "modified in an entirely unique and peculiar way" = the world (society) is different than it would have been other wise.

H. (178) Two distinct factors in social evolution.

1. The individual: the power of initiative.

2. The social environment: power to accept or reject the individual and their gifts.

III. (184) The indeterminacy of the harmony (adaptation) between organisms and their environment.

-Accident: humans having five fingers - the first vertebrate above the fishes happened to have that number.

-Social peculiarities: a matter of what physiological accidents happen among individuals.

(183) "No geographical environment can produce a given type of mind." It can only

1. Operate selectively on

2. Certain types that were produced fortuitously.

IV. (190) Mental evolution.

-Is the Darwinian distinction appropriate here?

Classical empiricism: the way that humans know about the outside world is by having our minds (passively) formed by it.

-The outside world causes a duplicate of itself to be formed in our mind via the senses.

-Sense data (simple impressions): can only be received.

(191) The highest levels of human intellectual life.

1. Random images, fancies, accidental out-births of spontaneous variations in the functional activity of the excessively instable human brain = anything but the mark of the environment made by it on our mind.

2. The outer environment operates selectively on these.

(193) Both (i) flashes of genius and (ii) ridiculous notions (a) start out the same: as spontaneous variations in this idiosyncratic brain - not something that the environment mechanically produces in any brain.

(b) Agreement with the outside world: comes about if and when the environment preserves the idiosyncratic idea that happens to be useful - not a duplicate of itself that the environment has impresses on the mind.

-Dewey (Thayer, 36-7) referring to the PRINCIPLES chapter:

"Most of our most important modes of perception and conception of the world of sensible objects are not the cumulative products of particular experience, but rather original biological sports, spontaneous variations, which are maintained because of their applicability to concrete experiences after once having been created."

(37) "It is therefore not the origin of a concept, it is its application which becomes the criterion of its value; and here we have the whole of pragmatism in embryo."

3. (196) Examples of machines and instruments: the yardstick, the balance, the chronometer.

a. Originally: flashes of genius in an individual head.

b. Then preserved by the environment.

-Not something that (i) started in the outside world and then (ii) got into someone's head so that their mind was conformed to what already existed "objectively" in the outside world.

-The implication is that (a) ideas are exactly like (b) instruments in this respect.

4. Dismissal of the Spencerian position as scientifically outdated: obsolete, pre-Darwinian in its "explanation" of both (a) social and (b) mental evolution.

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