Alexander Bain, a neglected pioneer

Image credit: Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Professor Cairns Craig is The Glucksman Chair of Irish & Scottish studies at The University of Aberdeen. He is the author of Associationism and the Literary Imagination (2007)

1876, the year Mark Twain published his novel Tom Sawyer, and Queen Victoria, now 57, adopted the title empress of India. In the history of science, one often remembers this as the year of the first telephone call. There were, however, some other events which took place that year which would influence generations to come. In Britain and in France, new scientific reviews dedicated to psychology were founded. In the UK, it was the Scotsman, Alexander Bain, who took it upon himself to finance this new innovation. London was in the middle of the Darwinian revolution, and the new quarterly review, entitled Mind, would become the preeminent medium for discussion in the decade, yes even century, that followed.   We talked with professor Cairns Craig, a specialist on Bain, and asked him why no one had ever written a biography about this vastly influential philosopher.  Alexander Bain founded one of the most influential journals within psychology. Why has there been written so little about him?

Professor Cairns Craig: Because he was seen as the continuer of empirical psychology as developed by Hume and J.S. Mill and as the precursor of a new kind of psychology, based on a material understanding of the nervous system. He was neither regarded as a contributor to the ongoing discipline of Philosophy nor as any more than a precursor of the new discipline of psychology. He is often mentioned as prefiguring the future of psychology but his own works dated rapidly, in part because they were based on empirical dated that was rapidly overtaken by new studies. When we refer to «psychology» in Victorian times, we are not talking about modern clinical psychology. How would you briefly describe the psychological thinking of the Victorian age?

Professor Cairns Craig: it was divided between British empiricism – the mind is a tabula rasa which learns from experience – and Kantian notions of the mind as shaping the world through the categories by which it organised its perceptions. In the second half of the nineteenth century, determined effort were made to combine these two views, culminating in James Ward’s article on ‘Psychology’ in the ninth edition of the Encyc Britannica, which attempted to show that Kantian categories were in fact the product of experiences laid down on the tabula rasa of early human experience. When and why did Bain come up with the idea for a psychological journal, and how did he set about creating it?

Professor Cairns Craig: Bain has always been an intellectual entrepreneur, writing books that fitted with school curricula and university disciplines. I believe he saw the journal as a means of challenging Kantian notions of the mind by insisting on empirical study, and since Kantianism was dominant in late-nineteenth-century Britain through the influence of the Cairds and T.H.Green, the journal was a way of fighting back on behalf of empiricism. There was another journal, Brain, founded a little later, and of course Ribot’s La Revue philosophique in France. Why did Mind become more influential than these, do you think?

Professor Cairns Craig: Because it combined traditional philosophical empiricism deriving from Hume and developed by J.S.Mill with the new empirical psychology that sought material causes of mental experiences.

George Croom Robertson (the first editor of Mind) Bain hired George Croom Robertson to edit his journal. When and how did the two meet?

Professor Cairns Craig: Croom Robertson was one of Bain’s outstanding students and Bain invited him to edit the journal because he did not feel himself up to a task which would mean engaging with the wider British philosophical and psychological community – he was happy to be established in and to remain in Aberdeen. Bain wrote a book about John Stuart Mill. In what way did his own thinking depart from Mill’s?

Professor Cairns Craig: Bain was a follower of both Mill and his father (James Mill) in terms of their philosophy and their psychology, but he was profoundly disappointed when J.S.Mill appeared to give up their materialist commitments for some kind of ‘spiritual’ version of humanity. Bain wrote biographies of both father and son in the latter years of his life and was very unflattering about J.S.Mill’s ‘apostasy’ from the cause of empiricism and materialism. Bain and Mill were both of Scottish descent. In what way were they indebted to the Scottish enlightenment?

Professor Cairns Craig: this is a difficult question, for there was no such concept as the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ in the nineteenth century – it did not come into existence till the 1960s. In the nineteenth century Scottish philosophy was deeply divided between the adherents of Hume – sceptical, irreligious – and the adherents of Reid – believing and committed to a Christian conception of the world. There could be no ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ till this opposition faded, which it did not do till Norman Kemp Smith’s book on Hume in the 1940s, which allowed Hume and Reid to be seen as sharing a very similar philosophy despite their asserted differences. There was a Canadian science journalist called Grant Allen, a proponent of Herbert Spencer, for the most part. In his early work Allen used Bain to balance out what he saw as dogmatism in Spencer’s theories? What was the relationship between Bain and Spencer? Did they know each other?

Professor Cairns Craig: I believe that Bain and Spencer shared a similar empirical approach to the human mind but that Spencer had taken on the Darwinian perspectives which were barely available to Bain when he was writing his major works. Bain’s associationist psychology was eventually pushed aside by the Darwinian revolution. Bain lived a very long time. How did he meet the new questions raised by Darwin?

Professor Cairns Craig: It is a profound mistake to think that associationist psychology was made redundant by Darwinism; in fact, associationism EXPLAINED the mental processes of Darwinism (associations are adaptive behaviour that help species survive) and associationism flourished in the Darwinian environment of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – it is as fundamental to J.G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough as it is to Freud’s account of latest and manifest meaning. Is there a lasting legacy of Bain’s own psychology today, except for Mind of course, which continues to survive as a journal?

The first 1876 issue of Mind.

Professor Cairns Craig: Bain is almost always cited as the first modern psychologist but there is little in his work that would be considered relevant to modern psychology. His influence is the indirect influence he exerted through his students – some of whom helped shape early twentieth-century psychology ­– and through Mind, which was the medium by which philosophy and psychology established a new discipline that combined the self-reflexive analysis of the mind (that was to become phenomenology) with the acceptance that the mind existed only in and through the body and the nervous system.

Listen to a reading of Alexander Bain’s 1882 Rectorial speech