Friday, May 15, 2009


Irwin Edman, a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, a popular professor and a frequent contributor to literary magazines such as The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, and Commentary wrote in Human Traits and their Social Significance, "Man has long been defined as the "social animal," and it is certainly characteristic of human activity that it takes place largely with reference to other people. He added, man is a human animal and as a human being he is strikingly set off by his upright posture and his large and flexible hand. But chiefly he is distinguished by his plastic brain, upon which depends his capacity to perform the complex mental activities—from administering a railroad to solving problems in calculus—which constitute man's outstanding and exclusive characteristic.
At any given time a human being is being acted upon by a wide variety of competing and contemporaneous stimuli. In walking down a street with a friend, for example, one may be attracted by the array of bright colors, of flowers, jewelry and clothing in the shop windows, blink one's eyes in the glare of the sun, feel a satisfaction in the presence of other people and a loneliness for a particular friend, dodge before a passing automobile, be envious of its occupant, and smile benevolently at a passing child. It would be difficult in so complex and so characteristically familiar a situation to pick out completely and precisely the original human tendencies at work, and trace out all the modifications to which they have been subjected in the course of individual experience. For even single responses in the adult are not the same in quality or scope as they were to start with. Even the simplest stimuli of taste and of sound are different to the adult from what they are to the child. What for the adult is a printed page full of significance is for the baby a blur, or at most chaotic black marks on white paper.
Habitual behavior which can become so completely controlling in the lives of so many people is not without its dangers. The nervous system is originally neutral, and can be involved on the side either of good or evil. A human born with a plastic brain and nervous system must acquire habits, but that he will acquire good habits (that is, habits serviceable to his own happiness and to that of his fellows) is not guaranteed by nature. Habits are indeed more notorious than famous, and examples are more frequently chosen from evil ones than from good. Promptness in the performance of one's professional or domestic duties, care in speech, in dress and in demeanor, are, once they are acquired, permanent assets. But if these fail to be developed, dishonesty or superficiality, slovenliness in dress and speech, and surliness in manner, may and do become equally habitual.
If the acquisition of bad, that is, disservice able habits, is disastrous to the individual, it is in some respects even worse in the group. The inertia of the nervous system, the tendency to go on repeating connections that have once been made is one of the strongest obstacles to change, however desirable. It is not only that habits of action have been established, but that with them go deep-seated habits of thought and feeling. The repression of people's accustomed ways of doing things may bring with it a sense of frustration almost as complete and painful as if these obstructed activities were instinctive. This is not true merely in the melodramatic instances of drug addicts and drunkards. It is true in the case of social habits which have become established in a large group. Any Utopian that dreams of revolutionizing society overnight fails to take into account the enormous control of habits over groups which have acquired them, and the powerful emotions, amounting sometimes to passion, which are aroused by their frustration.
That habit is at once the conserver and the petrifies of society has long been recognized by social philosophers. There is one habit, however, the acquisition of which is itself a preventive of the complete domination of the individual or the group by hard and fast routine. This is the habit of learning, which is necessary to the acquisition of any habits at all. Man in learning new habits, "learns to learn." This ability to learn is, of course, correlated with a plasticity of brain and nerve fiber which is most present in early youth. The disappearance of this capacity is hastened by the pressure which forces individuals in their business and professional life to cling fast to certain habits which are prized and rewarded by the group. A sedulous cultivation on the part of the individual of the habit of open-minded inquiry, of the habit of learning, and the encouragement of this tendency by the group are the only antidotes that can be provided against this marked physiological tendency to fossilization and the frequent social tendencies in the same direction.

All human action, whether on the plane of instinct, habit, or reflection, is, to a lesser or greater degree, accompanied by emotion. While there is considerable controversy among psychologists as to the precise nature of emotion, and the precise conditions of its causation, its general features and significance are fairly clear. Emotion may be most generally defined as an awareness or consciousness on the part of the individual of his experiences, both those in which he is the actor and those in which he is being passively acted upon. This awareness or consciousness is not detached intellectual perception, but is accompanied by, as it is by some held to be merely the consciousness of, certain specific bodily disturbances. Thus the emotions of fear and grief are not cold and abstract perceptions of situations that belong in the classes dangerous or deplorable, respectively. The awareness of these situations by the individual is intimately and invariably connected with certain outward bodily manifestations and certain inner organic disturbances. Fear, rage, pity, and the like are not unimpassioned judgments, but highly charged physical changes. So close, indeed, is the connection between specific bodily conditions and the subjective or inner consciousness that we call emotion. Emotions are nothing more nor less than the blending of the complex organic changes that occur in any given emotional state.
In one sense these emotional disturbances impede action, certainly action on the reflective level. It is the capacity and function of reflection to solve and adjust precisely those conflicts of competing impulses during which emotional disturbances occur. But the reflective process is confused and distorted in conflicts of native or habitual desires by these emotional disturbances which accompany them. It is proverbially difficult to think straight when angry; the surgeon in performing an operation must not be moved by pity or fear; and love is notoriously blind. The facts with which reflection must deal are presented in distorted and exaggerated form under the stress of competing impulses. Stimuli become loaded with emotional associations. They are glaring and conspicuous on the basis of their emotional urgency rather than on the ground of their logical significance. The paralysis or complete disorganization of action which occurs in extreme cases of hysteria takes place to some extent in all less extreme instances of emotional disturbances.
But just as the original nature with which man is born is modifiable, so are his emotional reactions. Each individual's emotional reactions are peculiar and specific, because of the particular contacts to which they have been exposed, and the organization of instincts and habits which have come to be their more or less fixed character. Any emotional experience consists of an intermingling of many and diverse feelings. And these particular complexes of emotions become for each individual organized about particular persons or objects or situations. The emotional reactions of an individual are, indeed, accurately symptomatic of the character of the individual and the culture of his time. They are aroused, it goes without saying, on very different occasions and by very different objects, among different men and different groups.
In the case of habit, we may upon reflection discover that our habits of walking, writing, or speech are bad; that we ought not to smoke, or drink, or waste time. We may come, through reflection, to realize with the utmost clarity the advantages to ourselves of acquiring the habits of going to bed early, saving money, keeping our papers in order, and persisting at work amid distractions. But the bad habits and the good are already fixed in our nervous system, and in physiology also possession is nine tenths of the law. We may intend to change, but by taking thought alone we cannot add a cubit to our stature. Reflection can do no more than point the way we should go. For unless the wrong actions are systematically and repeatedly refrained from, and the proper ones made habitual, thinking remains merely an impotent summary of what can be done. Conduct is governed, it must be repeated, by the satisfactions action can bring us, and unless actions are made habitual they will not be performed with satisfaction.
We come, through habit, to be alive only to certain possibilities to the practical exclusion of all others. Thinking becomes fruitful and suggestive when it is freed from the limited number of suggestions that occur through force of habit. But original thinking is rare precisely because habits do have such a compulsive power in determining the possibilities of action that suggest themselves to us. The man who moves in a rut of habitual reactions will "never think" of possibilities that "stare in the face" a less habit-ridden thinker. Inventiveness, originality, creative intelligence, whatever one chooses to call it, consists, in no small measure, in this ability to remain alive to a wide variety of stimuli, to keep sensitive to all the possibilities that are in a situation, instead of those only to which we are immediately prompted by instinct or habit. The possibility of using the current of a river as power is not the first possibility that flowing water suggests.
Past training and individual differences in temperament not only limit the possibilities that do occur to us; they seriously distort, color, and qualify those of which we become conscious. We forecast differently and with differing degrees of accuracy the consequences of those possible courses of action which do occur to us according to the influence and stimulation which particular native traits and acquired impulses have in our conduct. Ideally, the consequences which we imaginatively forecast as following from a given course of action, should tally with the consequences which genuinely follow from it. But there is too often a sad discrepancy between the consequences as they are foreseen by the individual concerned and the genuine consequences that could be foreseen by any disinterested observer. The discrepancy between the genuine and the imagined consequences of given ideas or suggestions is caused more than anything else by the hopes, fears, aversions, and preferences which, by nature or training, are controlling in a man's behavior. Facts are weighed differently according as one or another of these psychological influences is present. We intend unconsciously to substitute a desired or expected consequence for the actual one; we tend to be oblivious to consequences which we fear, and quick to imagine those for which we hope. On the day before an election the campaign managers on both sides, in the glow and momentum of their activities, are confident of the morrow's victory. The opponent of prohibition saw nothing but drug fiends and revolution as its consequences; its extreme advocates saw it as the salvation of mankind. The causes of error in appraising the consequences of any given course of action are partly individual and partly social in character.
To many people there is something terrifying about the idea of controlling life by reason. Life is a vital process of instincts which appear before thinking, and which are often more powerful than reasoned judgments. Against advice to live consciously, to be in control of ourselves, to know what we are about, comes the call "Back to Nature." A life of reflection appears chilling and arbitrary.
Reflection Page 60 in the life of the individual insures that he will not become the slave of his own habits. He will regard habits as methods to be followed when they produce good results, to be discarded or modified when they do not. But if habit in the life of the individual needs control lest it become dangerously controlling, it needs it more conspicuously still in the life of the group. Unless the individuals that compose a society are alert and conscious of the bearings of their actions, they will be completely and mechanically controlled by the customs to which they have been exposed in the early periods of their lives. What an individual regards as right or wrong, what he will cherish or champion in industry, government, and art, depends in large measure on his early education and training and on the opinions and beliefs of other people with whom he repeatedly comes in contact. A society may be democratic in its political form and still autocratic in fact if the majority of its citizens are merely machines which can be set off to respond in certain determinate ways to customary stimuli of names, leaders, and party slogans. A society becomes genuinely democratic, precisely to the extent to which there is on the part of its citizens participation in the important decisions affecting all their lives. But the participation will only be a formality if votes are decided and opinions formed on the basis of habit alone.
Thus far thinking has been discussed in its more practical aspects. And thinking is in its origins a very practical matter. Literally, most people think when they have to, and only when they have to. Given a problem, a difficulty, a maladjustment between the individual and his environment, thinking occurs. If every instinctive act brought satisfaction, thinking would be much less necessary and much less frequently practiced. This is illustrated in the performance of any act that once required attention and discrimination, and has later become habitual. We do not think how to walk, eat, and spell familiar words, how to find our way about Page 61 familiar streets or even in familiar dark rooms. We do think about where we shall spend our evenings or our summer, which courses we shall choose at college, which profession we shall enter. Where we are uneasy, drawn by competing impulses, we consider alternatives, measure consequences, and choose our course of action in the light of the results we can forecast. But while a large proportion of reflective behavior is thus practical in its origins and its results, it also occurs not infrequently where there is no immediate problem to be solved. Not all of men's energies are concerned in purely practical concerns. And part of man's superfluous vitality is expended in disinterested and curious inquiry into problems whose solutions afford no immediate practical benefits, but in the mere solving of which man finds satisfaction.
Human beings tend not only sympathetically to reproduce the instinctive actions of others, but they tend, despite themselves, to experience directly and immediately, often involuntarily, the emotions experienced and outwardly manifested by others. Almost everyone has had his mood heightened to at least kindly joy by the presence in a crowded street car of a young child whose inquiring prattle and light-hearted laughter were subdued by the gray restraints and responsibilities of maturity. One melancholy face can crush the joy of a boisterous and cheerful party; the eagerness and enthusiasm of an orator can, irrespective of the merits of the cause he is defending, provoke eagerness and enthusiasm for the same cause among an audience that does not in the least understand what the orator is talking about.
A generous degree of susceptibility to the emotions of others makes a man what is variously called "mellow," "humane," "large-hearted," "generous-souled." The possession of such susceptibility is an asset, first, in that it enriches life for its possessor. It gives him a warm insight into the feelings, emotions, desires, habits of mind and action of other people, and gives to his experiences with them a vivid and personal significance not attainable by any hollow intellectual analysis. It is an asset, moreover, in the purely utilitarian business of dealing with men. The statesman or executive who deals with men as so many animate machines, may achieve certain mechanical and arbitrary successes. But he will be missing half the data on which his decisions must be based if he does not have a live and sensitive appreciation of how men feel when placed in given situations. The placing of women in positions of labor management where women chiefly are to be dealt with is an illustration of the recognition of the importance of sympathy, fellow-feeling in the management of human affairs. One of the reasons why many university scholars make poor teachers is because they cannot place themselves back at the point where a subject was as live and fresh and virgin to them as it is to their students.
While there is a general tendency to experience sympathetically the feelings of others, this becomes specialized in most people, and one tends to experience most immediately and intensely the emotions of one's own kind, physically, socially, and intellectually. Sympathy is a specialization of man's general gregariousness, and becomes more specialized as one becomes habituated exclusively to a small group. Within this small group, individuals not only experience the emotions of others, but like to share and communicate their own emotions. The nearer people are to us in mode of life, social status, and intellectual interests, the closer is community of feeling and "consciousness of kind." Two Americans meeting in a foreign Page 94 country have a quick and sympathetic understanding of each other. Two alumni of the same college meeting in a distant city have a common basis of interest and feeling.
This easy give-and-take of feeling and emotion makes the deep attractiveness of intimate companionship. Our companion has but to mention a name or a place, and we experience the same associations, the pleasures, or antipathies which he does. A gesture, a curious glance of the eye, a pause, we understand as quickly as if he had spoken a sentence. But not only do we understand his feelings; he (or she) understands ours. And for most people, all their interests and enjoyments are heightened by the presence of an intimately known companion.
We have already had occasion to point out that education is the method by which society inculcates in its younger members habits which are regarded as socially beneficial. In its broadest sense the whole social environment is an individual's education. And it is an education chiefly through experience with other people, discovering what they will and will not tolerate, what they will cherish and what they will condemn.”
(Excerpts from The Project Gutenberg EBook of Human Traits and their Social Significance, by Irwin Edman)

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