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CHARLES R. VARELA
INTRODUCTION: SCIENCE FOR HUMANISM
With the decline of postmodernism (Lopez and Potter 2001:3-4) it has become evident to many social scientists that the varieties of neo-realist philosophy of science offered by Harré and Bhaskar in the 1970’s provided the new promise of the possibility of naturalism in the social sciences. The science and humanist debate has thus been quietly reopened. In its traditional format the debate meant that the materialistic determinism of science threatened the humanist belief in freedom. But now there can be a shift away from renouncing science in order to affirm the latter (often disembodied). In its place we have a conception of science along realist lines that better serves the humanist affirmation of freedom.
According to the neo-realist view of determinism, the natural world is conceived of as being causally active and displayed as an evolving stratified variety of natural kinds of powerful particulars (ubiquity determinism). Human freedom thus is regarded as being one kind of embodied causal agency (hence materially grounded) and is therefore a natural property of that subset of the biophysical world we call homo sapiens (Varela 1994, 1995a, 1996b, 1999; Diamond 1995). Thus we do not have to rely upon either a Sartrean existential affirmation or a phenomenological description of human agency in order to believe in human agency. Subjectivity can now be understood as an objective fact of the natural world – the powerful particular activity of human subjects. In moving beyond a positivist conception of science to a realism of the relevant kind, we have the metaphysical grounds for the recovery of human agency as dynamically embodied and discursive (Bhaskar 1979:102-146; Harré 1995;Varela 1999, 2003). From this realist standpoint the science and humanist debate can now be redefined: in recovering human agency in the natural world science is for humanism.
From the standpoint of this realist recovery of human freedom, I propose that we redefine the structure and agency problem that is at the center of the science and humanist debate. Generally, this entails the problem of how to account for the freedom of human agency in a world of deterministic structures. More specifically, we have the issue of ubiquity determinism (i.e. a causally active world) and the four classic arenas in which the problems of structure and agency arise: biological, psychological, social, and cultural structures. The deterministic problem for any of the four types of structures is reification. The problem is not simply the traditional view of treating an abstraction as a concrete “thing,” From the realist standpoint, the critical error of reification is rather, that what is intended, implied, or connoted is a causal entity, hence the direct relevance of the theory of causal powers and the theory of plausibility in Harré’s realist philosophy of science to my various papers on the reification problem (Varela 1994, 1995a, 1995b, 1996a, 1999, 2002). This grounding allows me to offer the thesis that reification consists of two forms of metaphysical ascription: (i) assigning casual powers (genuine agency) to human structures and (ii) assigning the character of deep or third-realm explanation (plausible agency) to human structures. As proposed working mechanisms affecting the everyday shared life of human beings, each of the four types of structure are not only efficient causes having genuine agency, they are also plausible agents. As an unobservable efficient cause, the mechanism of any working structure therefore presupposes a concept of an unconscious, in the sense that persons are unaware of any of the alleged four mechanisms that affect them. This is why the mechanism may take the form of an individual and psychological unconscious, or a collective and so a social or cultural unconscious.
This grounding in causal powers and plausibility theory also allows me to offer the following thesis: the social science tradition of assigning genuine and plausible agency to the four paradigm human structures presents us with freakish rather than genuine causal powers because they violate causal powers theory, and implausible causal powers because they fail to meet the stringent standards of plausibility. My work is thus located in the philosophy of social science as a ‘science for humanism’ project, at the center of which are the above theses, whose theme is a Harréan realist resolution of the structure and embodied agency problem of reification. In this paper, the topic of instinctive biological structure is to be understood as one of the four classic problems of structure and embodied agency (Varela and Harré in progress).1 My special interest here is in Freud’s concept of the biological and psychological unconscious. In locating the Freudian unconscious within a science for humanism project it is will be necessary to spell out the relationship of Freud’s concept to scientific realism and to the science/humanism encounter.
FREUDIAN REALISM: DETERMINISIM AND THE UNCONSCIOUS POSTULATE
Within the scientific tradition of classical psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic ego psychology it is taken as given that the concept of the unconscious presupposes the general question of how it is to be understood in relationship to determinism. Spence articulates this as the unconscious postulate -- the unconscious is a lawful, causal entity (Spence 1987: 1-42,26-31). Hence, the unconscious is a metaphor that has become the heuristic devise for modeling “a discoverable entity” (Spence 1987:26). It is impossible to confront the problem of the unconscious postulate adequately given the humanistic turn away from psychoanalytic metapsychology to clinical psychoanalysis: in effect this is a turn away from the scientific problem of the postulate (Gill 1976:71-104;Holt 1989:305-344; Klein 1976:41-71). Properly framed as a topic in the philosophy of science, however, the problem of the unconscious postulate involves positivism and realism as rival conceptions of science. Once that is clarified, it becomes evident that it is ubiquity determinism and not regularity determinism that is relevant to the problem here.
Humean regularity determinism replaces causation with correlation, whereas a realist view of determinism returns causation to its proper place in scientific thinking. Ubiquity determinism allows us to foreground the metaphysical questions of causal powers and plausibility that identify the problem with the unconscious postulate -- the ascription of agency to the mind rather than the (embodied) person (Varela 1999, 2002).
In the last two decades, in debates concerning the issue of the scientific status of psychoanalysis, it is only in reference to Grunbaum and Wollheim’s debate over the question of Grunbaum’s empiricist rejection of the unconscious, that Freud’s realism has surfaced (Grunbaum 1984,1993;Varela 1995b:363-4;2002a:69-70).Wollheim dismisses Grunbaum’s rejection on the grounds that, as a regularity determinist, Grunbaum did not deal with the unconscious as a psychological causal structure that mediates the correlations Grunbaum was solely interested in (Wollheim 1993:92-111, 107). Within the orbit of that debate, Frankel-Brunswik and Meehl’s explicit emphasis on the deep explanatory causal status of the unconscious was revived by Wollheim, Gardner and Edelson in their insistence that the unconscious is a causal power (Frankel-Brunswik 1954:95-109; Gardner 1991:146; Meehl 1984:349-411;Varela 1972:446-448). In fact, Edelson actually used Harré’s idea of casual powers to articulate why we should again take the unconscious postulate seriously (Edelson 1988: 359-360). A crucial point worth remembering here with regard to the scientific realist tradition of Freudian psycho-analysis is the belief that the unconscious is a necessary concept in the social sciences, based on the conviction that causation is real, and the unconscious is a real causal event.
What is new about this is the grounding and the legitimation of those beliefs in a self-serving reading of Harré’s referential realism. Absent of this reading is the understanding that the necessity of the unconscious is a question of its adequacy according to the theories of causal powers and plausibility (see the opposing view of Jones 2002: 345-366). It is important to note the novelty of this historical moment regarding psychoanalysis and the new science/humanist debate generated by Harré and Bhaskar’s philosophy of scientific realism. The traditional debate had always mistakenly been between positivism and humanism but the quiet renewal of the possibility of naturalism engenders a debate between realist science and humanism (Manicas 1987). The recent realist revival of the unconscious postulate in psychoanalysis must therefore be set in the context of the new debate between realist science and humanism.
REALISM AND THE NECESSITY OF THE UNCONSCIOUS POSTULATE
In the mid-seventies Klein and Schafer initiated a revolt against the metapsychology and its unconscious postulate in the name of clinical psychoanalysis and its hermeneutic postulate. This was another instance in the social sciences of the humanist renunciation of science in order to affirm human freedom (Klein 1976;Schafer 1976). In principle, however, this strategy amounted to nothing more than an antidote to the structure and embodied agency problem rather than a resolution (for a representative case see Bock 1994). Shortly afterwards, when Grunbaum began his ten to fifteen year critical campaign to discredit not only the scientific legitimacy of the metapsychology and its unconscious postulate, but also the hermeneutic answer to all that, Edelson, Gardner, and Wollheim responded with a revival of Freud’s scientific realism, as discussed above. The purpose was to rescue the unconscious as a bio-psychological causal structure (Grunbaum 1984, 1993). Readers conversant with Harré’s realism will know how to read this move. Edelson, Gardener and Wollheim, in effect, dismissed the traditional conflation of science with positivism in order to reinstate, at least partially, the unconscious postulate. They accomplished this by replacing regularity determinism with the principle of ubiquity determinism in realist science.
In my judgement, what we have here is a ‘second wind’ at the end of the twentieth century for the classical psychoanalytic and the ego psychological scientific tradition. Having almost lost the unconscious under the old positivist/humanist debate, there emerged the opportunity for its salvation in the possibility of naturalism, this time in the terms of the new debate between realist social science and humanist social science. In this attempt to save the unconscious on Freud’s realist terms, we have one of the deeper reasons for the legitimacy of Cioffi’s question, namely, ‘Why are we still arguing about Freud? (Cioffi 1998:1-92). My work on the unconscious postulate to date takes its departure from the historical moment of the Grunbaum-Wollheim debate (Varela 1993, 1994, 1995b, 2001, 2002). My question was, “Can the possibility of a realist psychoanalysis allow the reinstatement of the unconscious as a powerful particular?” The answer was “no.” The science for humanism project presents the reasons for that answer. I now turn to an additional problem concerning the necessity of the resurrected unconscious postulate.
BIOLOGICAL STRUCTURE : THE OLD AND THE NEW INSTINCTIVISM
This paper will take up the specific theoretical question concerning the link between the biological and psychological determinism of the unconscious. The link, I shall argue, is instinctivism. In examining the link between these two determinisms, I will employ a distinction between the old and the new instinctivism, in reference to which Freud’s conception of the unconscious is regarded as an example of the old instinctivism. In my concluding remarks I will examine briefly a current form of biological determinism, with reference to what Senchuk (1991) suggests is the new instinctivism. For example, in Wilsonian Sociobiology (and its re-branded copycat evolutionary psychology) there is an explanatory shift away from instincts to genes and a tendency to treat genes as if they are instincts. Genetic influence is thus given the deterministic force of instincts. Clearly a suitable conception of instinct is required to evaluate both the link between the biological and psychological unconscious and this apparent conflation of instincts and genes. For this task I will, for good reason, use Hebb’s concept of instinctive behavior. To date, Hebb’s discussion of instinctivism is the only one I know of that offers us an explicit, systematic, and a robust conception of instinct. ‘Robust’ in a double sense: using it we can decide if human nature is instinctive; evaluating it, we know how it can be refuted.
In classifying Freud’s theory of the unconscious as an example of the old instinctivism, it is interesting to note that at the time his theory became a dogma, seventy to eighty years ago (Plotkin 1997:125-133), the idea of instinct had essentially been abandoned in the social sciences. This indifference to instinct is still the case, although an interest in the idea on the part of small social science minority has reappeared each decade since the sixties (see Fletcher 1966, Yankelovich and Barrett 1970, Bocock 1976, and Craib 1990). It has also remained more or less constant as a popular belief. Nevertheless, in important critiques of Sociobiology, such as Sahlins’s The Use and Abuse of Biology (1976) and Bock’s Human Nature and History (1980), instinct is not a topic in itself. This is hardly surprising, however, since Wilson dismisses the explanatory relevance of instinct in the study of human cultural behavior, at least in Sociobiology’s official statements (e.g., 1980:18-9, 2000:26-7).
My interest in the idea of instinct is unique in that I focus on the determinism of the unconscious in relationship to Freud’s conviction that the category of instinct applies to human beings. For Freud, the mind is, first of all, an unconscious deterministic force of some kind, and then an instinctive biological, and hence a psychological motivational force. The hidden assumption here is that the unconscious is deterministic because instinctive forces constitute it. My thesis is this: if the category of instinct does not apply to human beings, then in principle the unconscious loses its property of determinism. More specifically, if human beings are not instinctive, then drives cannot be deterministic, and neither can the psychological motives that represent them in the unconscious.
FREUD: INSTINCT OR DRIVE THEORIST
Until recently, it was a matter of common knowledge to students of Freud’s theory of mind and personality that he was an instinct theorist. In 1927 in a letter to a colleague Freud announced that:
Man has always known he was a spiritual being; it remained for me to show him that he was also instinctual (cited in Binswanger 1927:182-3).
In his last work, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, published posthumously, Freud stated his signature position that instincts are:
…somatic demands upon mental life. [And they are]…the ultimate cause of all activity (Freud 1949 : 5, emphasis provided).
Yankelovich and Barrett summarized Freud’s 1915 conception of instinct, pointing out that, as a cause, “…the essence of instinct [is that of] an active agent driving the organism” (Yankelovich and Barrett 1970:36). The full significance of this conception has been overlooked. Freud believed that the conception of instinct has a level of theoretical power such that it can be used to deduce consequences of considerable importance in understanding, and thus in taking charge of human affairs.
From our mythology of instincts we can easily deduce a formula for an indirect method of eliminating war (Freud 1933:48).
In this theory of the unconscious we have a classic instance of the Old Instinctivism. As a natural scientist Freud’s commitment to determinism entailed two kinds of unconscious -- biological and psychological. The link between them is the notion of instinct: the machinery of biological drives becomes the determinism of psychological motives.
Despite these statements by Freud himself, the idea that Freud is an instinct theorist is not without dissenting voices, some of which bear considerable intellectual weight within psychoanalysis itself. For example, the eminent psychoanalytic theorist Heinz Hartmann notes that
…Freud had to modify the concept of ‘instinct’ commonly used in other fields. His term, in German, Trieb, in English, ‘drive’, is certainly not identical with what one refers to in speaking of the instincts of lower animals (Hartmann 1959:11).
His point is that the Freudian theory of mind is not, technically, an instinct theory but a drive theory (see also the contrary claim that Freud at his best is instead a theorist of unconscious wishes, Holt 1989:171-96). Clearly we have a conflict: for Yankelovich and Barrett drives are instincts, for Hartmann, drives are not instincts! It is my contention that the conflict is more apparent than real, however, since Freud carried forward the property of determinism that belongs to instinct and ascribes it to drives, and thence to motives. Even if one accepts Hartmann’s position that Freud replaces instinct with trieb, as a natural scientist and determinist, Freud nevertheless retained the idea of deterministic forces. Furthermore, we know that by 1896 Freud admitted to himself that his attempt to show that the neurophysiology of the brain can completely account for the psychology of the unconscious mind had failed (Wollheim 1973:43-44). Yet, Freud never doubted that someday this would be done, and so settled for his hobbyhorse, a psychological unconscious (Wollheim Ibid: 43-44). However, this compromise put that theoretical move in a serious predicament. As is well known, as a scientist who was now studying the psychological unconscious, Freud opened himself up to the fatal charge of giving us yet another Cartesian ghost in the machinery of the body (MacIntyre 1958:73, 69-73; Spence 1987:27; Holt 1989: 168-69). Consistent with his statement in the dream book that psychic reality must not be reduced to material reality (Freud 1998:658-9), in An Outline of Psychoanalysis Freud opens with a declaration concerning the psychical apparatus.
Psychoanalysis makes a basic assumption….[that] we know two things about what we call our psyche: firstly, its bodily organ…the brain and, on the other hand, our acts of consciousness…. Everything that lies between is unknown to us, and the data do not include any direct relation between these two terminal points of our knowledge (Freud 1949: 1).
Later on he continues with the clarification that,
…this hypothesis has put us in the position to establish psychology on foundations similar to any other science, such…as physics. In our science as in the others the problem is the same: behind the attributes of the object under examination which are presented directly to perception, we have to discover something else which is more independent of our sense organs and which approximates more closely to what may be supposed to be the real state affairs(Freud 1949: 53).
At the end of his life, in this last major theoretical statement, Freud makes clear the realism all along of his scientific practice: the psychological unconscious is a model of something real. Now: Freud’s predicament is that the mind is either the soul in secular dress or the brain, otherwise the problem is not simply that it is unknown, it cannot exist.
I believe a plausible answer to such criticism on this very difficult issue was available to Freud. If he could remain true to his scientific commitment to determinism he could sidestep the critique that he was introducing a second Cartesian ghost, but that could happen only in so far as he could convince himself that determinism reigned in the psychological activity of the mind. Anyone who knows Freud’s work intimately, as a theorist, paper by paper, and as a therapist, case by case, knows of his commitment to determinism. Hartmann, for example, asserts without qualification that Freud “was a strict determinist” (Hartmann 1959:8). Rapaport confirmed Hartmann’s point when he declared that “The influence of Helmholtz on Freud’s theory is seen in the postulate of thoroughgoing determinism” (Rapaport 1960:11). In other words, Freud was absolutely committed to honor the solemn oath of the Helmholtz School of Physicalistic Physiology to conceive of the organism only as a machinery of forces. If not, then the scientist had to “assume new forces equal in dignity to the chemical physical forces inherent in matter” (Yankelovich Op. Cit: 46, emphasis provided). This captures the quintessence of Freud’s conclusion to the postscript of his autobiographical study:
Nevertheless, the whole impression is a satisfactory one----of serious scientific work carried on at a high level (Freud 1950: 141).
Freud the Darwinian biologist was able to satisfy the criterion of new forces “equal in dignity” with his assumption that determinism in the form of instinct was native to the psychological world of the mind. It appears that the charge of Cartesianism has been deflected: concerning the biological unconscious Freud is a realist; regarding the psychological unconscious Freud, like Chomsky, is a methodological Cartesian. This compromise legitimated his hermeneutic analyses of his patients: unconscious psychological meanings are to be taken seriously because they are biologically real.
Note however, that if instinct is a failed concept in the human realm there is no biological reality to guarantee the psychological seriousness of meaning. The problem of Cartesianism returns as the problem of the reification of mind, conscious or unconscious. Holt recognizes exactly this:
The disinterested contemporary reader must be struck by another feature of Freud’s discussion of motives or instincts---his treating them constantly as if they were real, concrete entities. In short, he reifies concepts that should remain abstract. [ Note carefully that ] This charge is anything but novel (Holt 1989: 168-169).
Freud reveals this definitively in his paper, ‘The Unconscious’ (1915) and in the postscript to his autobiographical study (Freud 1952 )
It is a very remarkable fact that the unconscious of one human being can react upon that of another, without the conscious being implicated at all (1915 cited in A. Freud 1986: 165).
I perceived ever more clearly that the events of history, the interactions between human nature, cultural development, and the precipitates of primeval experiences…are no more than a reflection of the dynamic conflicts between the ego, the id, and the superego, which psychoanalysis studies in the individual (Freud 1952 : 138).
In this picture of interaction between the structural unconscious of one person and that of another, one finds the kind of standard reification which led Boring to remark that,
Brucke would have been puzzled had he been told that the pact of 1845…to keep physiology physicalistic would result…in the belief that there are three little warring men in every head (Boring 1950:714).
If the unconscious mind -- the psychological unconscious -- is not the brain, then it is either lost to behavior (behaviorism) or must be saved by a sophisticated theory of embodied action, otherwise it does not exist. I will argue that this must be the case, since the concept of instinct in any form cannot be applied to human beings.
FREUD TO HEBB
I will show that Hebb’s conception of instinct would have led him to side with Hartmann’s view that drives are not instincts. Hebb’s conception is expressed precisely as instinctive behavior and not instinctive drives. For Hebb, a certain kind of behavior distinguishes an instinctive species, for instance, ants, from an intelligent species, for instance, modern Homo sapiens. This is so even if drives are implicated in instinctive behavior, which they are. For Hebb, instincts are not drives, though they can entail them. Hebb’s theoretical point is that ‘behavior’ and not ‘drive’ is the critical dimension with regard to a robust conceptualization of “instinct.”
It is in view of this particular point that Hebb insists that the word ‘instinct’ should refer to ‘instinctive behavior’ (Hebb 1958: 113-114, 1966: 140). An important reason for this, apart from theoretical precision and empirical accuracy, is that historically, the term ‘instinct’ connotes a reified entity. For example, consider three phrases in common usage, “It’s all in your instincts,” “It’s in your unconscious,” “It’s in your genes”. As mentioned earlier, Yankelovich and Barrett’s statement that ‘instinct’ is “an active agent driving the organism” is a correct rendering of Freud’s own theoretical view and reinforces Freud’s error of conceiving “instinctive drives” as “the ultimate cause of all activity.” The fact that Freud collapsed ‘instinct’ and ‘drive’ into the concept of ‘instinctive drive’, and then defined the unconscious with that term, allows us to see the historical facts that make the aforementioned common sense phrases viable. In committing the fallacy of reification, they Cartesianize biological discourse. This remains the central problem with the conception of the unconscious, of course. Nevertheless, the eminent defender of the realism of the Freudian unconscious in American psychology, the late Paul E. Meehl, believed in the postulate that the unconscious, in fact, refers to “an inferred entity in the other’s mind that has imputed to it a causal status” (Meehl 1983:354).
INSTINCT: THE HISTORY OF AN EXPLANATORY CONCEPT
As is well known, Western philosophy presupposes the general dualistic categories of spirit and matter, which are then expressed in the specific categories of mind and body. In forging his variety of Western dualism, Descartes’ unconsummated marriage between supernaturalism and naturalism leads him to highlight mind and its rationalism in ontological opposition to the body and its instinctivism. In virtue of this, I suggest that the problems of agency and structure confront us right from the start. We are faced with the problem of reconciling the freedom of human embodied agency with the deterministic structures of the natural world. Biological structure and the issue of instinctivism is perhaps the first and most immediate problem facing human agency in the modern world. Descartes’ dualism implies that the immediate problem be cast in terms of intelligence and instinct. However, even before Cartesian dualism dominated the intellectual stage, the conception of the body and its instinctivism was historically undergoing an important change. The brief examination to follow of the emergence of the explanatory status of the conception of instinct is a topic in the philosophy of social science. My interest here is restricted to the kind of concept for the social sciences that is functioning to implement the principle of determinism and to promote the idea of an unconscious that is itself emerging significantly soon after Descartes’ death in 1650.
By the mid-sixteenth century the term ‘instinct’ was being used to refer to the innateness of impulses (Ayoto 1990:301). Whyte (1959) informs us that by the late seventeenth century, in direct response to Cartesianism, the idea of an unconscious mind was conceivable. The historical scientific moment of Newtonian physics surrounded the emergence of this new idea long before Freud. Newtonianism provided the intellectual resources for the idea of instinctive, unconscious determinism. Instinct could be understood as a causal agent, acting as a natural force, compelling modern human beings to behave as they do, indeed, as they must. Hence the common view of early modern philosophers, from Hobbes to Hume, that mind serves the body, reason the passions, and, we can now add, intelligence the instincts. Freud was to enshrine all this in the principle that the Ego originates in the Id, primarily a virtual maturational outgrowth of the latter under the minor but important promptings of reality (Freud 1949: 52-61).
There is an important implication in this early idea of unconscious -- instinctive determinism. As the dark side of the Cartesian mind, it was to be located within the presuppositions of radical individualism and interiority. Henceforth, the natural forces of innate impulses were refined as ‘inner’ forces, and so they became a compelling (universal) and ‘impelling’ (particular) force. The implication is that as a necessary inner force, ‘instinct’ calls for a bifurcation of the individual human being into ‘mind’ and ‘person’, and the bifurcation of the individual human being into ‘body’ and ‘organism’. What happens is that the ‘body’ is reduced to the ‘organism’, while the ‘person’ simply drops out of theoretical sight. From this time forward, this loss of the person and the focus on mind as the ghost in the machinery of the body, the organism, haunts and plagues intellectual thought concerning human embodied agency in a world of deterministic structures (see Pauketat 2001 regarding this problem in contemporary archaeology). The mind (or the person) appears to be free, but the body (or the organism), its motor and mechanism, is the real agency. Biological structure is granted causal agency and the individual is thereby transformed into a problematic (epi)phenomenon.
With the Ego and the Id in nineteen twenty-three Freud transformed this idea into the concept of the Id. By the mid-twentieth century, Merleau-Ponty’s existential philosophy re-described this according to the decreed sovereignty of the felt experience of agentic bodily intentionality (Varela 1994:176-179). Before Merleau-Ponty’s reversal of the location of agency from mind to body, however, the agency of the organism and its determinism was the sovereign notion. It is no surprise that Freud singled out the reflex arc to ground his psychoanalytic theorizing when he was creating psychoanalysis in the 1890’s. However, in 1896 Dewey warned against using the reflex arc to disintegrate the holism of the animal or person in psychology since, as he deftly demonstrated, it artificially leads to either a neuro-psychological or behavioristic determinism (Dewey 1896). From our current perspective, we can see how Dewey’s insight applied to the early history of the idea of unconscious, instinctive determinism.
Freud’s psychoanalysis and Pavlov’s behaviorism were both in deadly pursuit of the dream of determinism fin de siecle. In the imagination and experience of science and commonsense, notions of ‘instinct’ and ‘reflex’ become inextricably linked. Henceforth four conflations became dogma and custom in the twentieth century. Together they constitute what I will call discourses of instinct. There was a conflation of instinct and innateness, instinct and impulse, instinct and reflex, and, finally, instinct and response. In this last conflation, commonsense views tend to see instinct as a response and not a habit (since habits, are supposedly learned), while professional commonsense in biology and social science sees instinct as a ‘response to’ event, whose meaning vacillates ambiguously between ‘pattern’ and ‘habit’. In order to improve on the standard discussions of instinctivism to date, I will systematically reconstruct Hebb’s realist conception of instinct in order to disambiguate and discredit all these conflations. The goal is to lend significant theoretical clarification to the pattern/habit connection. With Hebb’s conception of instinct in hand we can show decisively not only that it does not apply to human beings, but that it cannot apply to human beings, on pain of accepting a theoretical absurdity.
A CONCEPTION OF INSTINCT: HEBB’S CONTRIBUTION
Prior to the task of systematically reconstructing Hebb’s conception of instinctive behavior, I want to refer to another of Freud’s views on instincts:
The theory of instincts is so to say our mythology. Instincts are mythical entities, magnificent in their indefiniteness. In our work we cannot for a moment disregard them, yet we are never sure that we are seeing them clearly (Freud 1933:84).
Bock, who has examined Freud’s instinct theory as an exemplar of a mythology of human nature (Bock 1994): 61-79), assesses the theory as follows;
It is one of the very few occasions in the literature of human nature when an author openly rules out all evidence from human experience as inadequate and seeks instead to derive an instinct from a series of abstract propositions about the nature of organic and inorganic matter in general. Freud’s mastery of the technique and his powers of imagination and expression are impressive. But these are the tools of myth making, not of rational public inquiry. [From this highly idiosyncratic “methodology”] Freud undertook to tell people that they are naturally [instinctively] bent on destroying themselves [death instinct] or, in lieu of that, destroying their fellows [sadistic instinct], and to represent that myth as a produce of “sober and sustained research. Freud had no more evidence for such a sweeping proposition than Calvin had in his convictions about human sinfulness (Bock 1994:64).
From such considerations I affirm with even greater conviction that an adequate conception of instinct is of the greatest importance. Contrary to Freud’s position, I maintain that it is possible to achieve the kind of clarity such that a decisive stand can be taken with regard to the question of instinct in the affairs of human beings. Using Hebb’s contribution we can say that Freud’s rejection of the relevance of a conception of instinct as found in lower animal forms can now be extended to reject a conception of instinct as drive on the human level. Clearly, Freud did not have any such adequate conception of instinctive behavior at his disposal with which to realize this possibility. .
The favorite everyday example of ‘human instincts’ found in college textbooks and invariably brought out in classroom discussions is the so-called instinct of self-preservation. The kind of behavior typically chosen to exemplify this supposed natural inner force of preservation is presented as a variation of the startle-reflex (See Levin and Spates 1990:42). For example, the typical scenario involves someone creeping up behind a person standing at the edge of some great height. The person turns to find someone about to push him off the edge. Startled, the “instinct of self-preservation” comes to the rescue. This conflation of instinct with reflex and innateness, and the suggestion of a conflation with impulse, is certainly not surprising in light of a cultural history of discourses on instinct. However, these very conflations remain with us today, outside of commonsense usage in biology and psychology. For example, a dictionary of biological science clearly states that an instinct is a reflex, compound though it may be (Parker 1997:241). A dictionary of genetics and a biology textbook emphasize the idea that instinct and innateness and instinct and reflex go together (King 1997:179, Audesirk 1999:760-1). A dictionary of physiological and clinical psychology states that instinct refers to both innateness and motivational force (Harré and Lams 1986:127-8), while E. O. Wilson’s sociobiology text simply equates instinct with innateness (1980:18-9).
Let us reconsider for a moment the relationship between instinctivism and Cartesianism. An innate impulse has been assimilated to the Cartesian presuppositions of individualism, interiorization, and the passions of the bodily machine. Instinct thus becomes a property of an individual, and as such, is an innate force -- a natural, inner impulse making the individual behave. What then, is the exact nature of instincts? Is it impulse, the state of an organism defined by primary needs and drives? Or behavior, the environmental activity of the organism which is correlated to such organic states? Discourses on instinct presume that a state of the organism is being referred to --that is why there is behavior in the first place. One suspects a hidden assumption at work -- that an instinctive state and the behavior to which it is necessarily connected exhibits a near-perfect and positive correlation (i.e. if s [instinct] then b [behavior], if b then s). But instinct as ‘a state of the organism that necessarily determines behavior’ does not have the property of homeostatic needs and drives. In the case of Homo Sapiens especially, the logic of the relationship between state and behavior is one of possibility and not necessity. This is quite clear from the standard psychological facts about curiosity and problem-centered behavior in human and non-human animals. Curiosity and an interest in problems will lead non-human animals to forestall any attention given to their primary needs and drives. In humans, fasting, dieting, suicidal and heroic starvation and the ordinary cultural variation in interpreting and organizing our primary homeostatic states demonstrate that they are innately promotional, not innately prescriptive. It is perhaps only with instinctive species that necessity defines the relationship between the organic state of an animal and its behavior. However, that is a neurophysiological matter that entails the entire animal rather than a component of the animal -- an alleged drive state. Moreover, even that necessity is not absolute.
Four decades ago, Hebb showed that need-drives are only one source of motivating sensory stimulation. As a function of both environmental and organismic sources, and mediated by the recticular activating system, the cortex is continuously bathed in a variable stream of sensory arousal and sensory cue stimulation (Hebb 1966:207-11). Hebb defines motivation as a “…tendency of the whole animal to be active in a selective, organized way” (Hebb, ibid: 334). Hebb’s point is that “the whole animal tends to produce organized activity” (Hebb, ibid: 206). Drives -- homeostatic and others -- are no longer the point regarding behavior. Animals are by nature active, and they are the drivers not the so-called drives. This implies that dividing the organism or the person into a whole-part schema, whether based on the idea of causation or not, is theoretically implausible (see Pribram’s version of this implausibility 1996:216-217).
If a viable concept of instinct cannot be found in motive or state, then we should no longer ask “What state is the animal in?” but rather “What kind of behavior does the animal exhibit, instinctive as against non-instinctive?” States cannot instruct us about the nature of instinctive behavior because they are common to both instinctive and non-instinctive behavior, and so cannot be used to differentiate between the two. For example, someone presented with two animals from two species, one instinctive and the other not, knowing only that they are in the same organic state, cannot tell by virtue of that fact alone which behavior is instinctive and which is not.
Hebb’s new view of motivation entails a powerful and unavoidable corrective. It suggests the exact nature of the error in the way the unconscious is reified via Freud’s thesis of instinctive drives. For Hebb, to mistake ‘drives’ for the driver is to artificially impose a whole-part grid onto the organism (or person) and consequently to reify drives at the expense of the animal itself. In using that artificial grid the instinct discourses that locate motives ‘inside’ as a state of the organism therefore give license to all kinds of such imputations. Whether referring to the interiority of the organism as a ‘state of mind’ or as a ‘state of the brain’, a component or element of some kind has been singled out to define the nature of the state in question. This reifying practice entails using the terms of whichever variety of component is theoretically preferred -- e.g., faculty, organic state, motive, intention, thought, linguistic engine or module, etc. As we saw earlier, Meehl does just that. As a loyal Freudian he not only imputes a psychological entity ‘inside’ the individual, but adds the status of causality. It is interesting to note that all the ingredients for the unconscious -- instinctivism, Cartesianism, and Newtonianism -- were there by the eighteenth century, long before Freud. The unconscious, in part, is an artifact of the conflation of instinct and impulse. The shift to behavior suggested by Hobbs allows us to side step a whole range of specific reifications, all of which presuppose this central one that gave us the unconscious.
Following Hebb, I shall define instinct as a certain natural kind of behavior, namely, instinctive as against intelligent behavior. This strictly implies by sheer definition that instinctive behavior is innate behavior. Innateness is the crux of the matter. But what exactly follows from this? While all instinctive behavior is innate, is it the case that all innate behavior is instinctive? For example, is it the case that a reflex is an instinct because, as unconditioned behavior, it is innate? The discourses of instinctivism prescribe an affirmative answer, of course, but there is a mistake here of some importance. To equate instinct and innateness is to claim that anything innate is instinctive and that reflexes are instincts. Pavlovian conditioned-reflex learning theory, however, provides a negative answer. Reflexes, as unconditioned reactions to unconditioned stimuli are subject to learned modification upon proper exposure to unconditioned neutral stimuli. Reflexes are thus innate behaviors, but are open to learning. Their chief property is flexibility: such reactions are subject to conditioned learning and, in higher species like Homo sapiens, are also subject to intelligent control. (for example, there is sneezing, and then again, there is sneezing -- cultural convention, family constraints, and individual habits tell the story of that difference.) If reflexes are innate but flexible behaviors, instincts --which are not based on learning by practice and/or observation-- must be inflexible behaviors (Hebb 1966:140-1). The question of rigidity and fixation are interconnected here.
The property of inflexibility applies to the relative inability of instinctive animals to apply learning and intelligence to their behaviors. The implication is that instinctive behavior is rigid and fixed. In the ethological literature, instinctive behavior is often characterized as stereotypic (Plotkin Op. Cit.: 129). My suggestion is that rigidity and fixation comprise stereotypic behavior. Instincts, then, are innate behaviors that are rigid and fixated, and although they may be based on reflexes, they are technically not the same as reflexes. Note Hebb’s definition of instinct as “species-predictable behavior at a more complex level than reflex” (Hebb Ibid:332). Hobb’s reference to a “more complex level” suggests a difference in kind here. Comparison with Dobzhansky’s definition of instinct as “concatenations of unconditioned reflexes” (Dobzhansky 1962:203) illustrates the theoretical advance of Hebb’s conception. Existing at a more complex level, instincts are clearly something more than reflexes. My point is that the property of rigidity identifies instincts just as flexibility identifies reflexes.
This ‘more than’ characteristic of instinctive behavior refers to two different properties. On the one hand, rigid behavior and fixedness, and on the other, complexity. The property of complexity in instinctive species is illustrated by the fact that, invariably, most (and usually all) of the body of the animal is involved, e.g., web building (Hebb 1958:114). In contrast, reflexes are simple behaviors involving a local process restricted to a specific group of effectors and evoked by stimulation of a specific sensory surface, e.g., salivary secretion (Hebb 1966:140). Especially telling is the following research finding:
Even if the genitalia [of the male rat] are removed that pattern of mating behavior can be obtained, complete up to the point of intromission and ejaculation; thus an essential reflex element of the total pattern is missing, but the pattern is recognizable and complete as far as it is mechanically possible (Ibid: 141, emphasis provided).
Crucially, instinctive behavior is identifiable in the absence of the reflex component. Instinctive behavior is therefore more than reflex -- its essential character that of rigidity and complexity.
The complexity of instinctive behavior and this difference in natural kind implies another critical theoretical distinction between instincts and reflexes. If reflexes, when unconditioned reactions, are ‘responses’ and not ‘habits’, are instincts ‘habits’? The theme of Pavlov’s theory is that reflexes are unconditioned responses that can become habits when appropriately conditioned, but reflex habits are learned, whereas instinctive habits are unlearned, that is, innate. Hebb is precise on the innate criterion, “The special attribute of instinctive behavior is that it does not have to be taught or acquired by practice” (Hebb 1966:141). It is fruitful to distinguish the terms ‘response’ and ‘habit’ as follows: ‘response’ (not, ‘responding’) can be defined as n-number of reactions that are not functionally organized together in relation to an adaptational environmental problem. Habit can be reciprocally defined as n-number of reactions so organized.
I can now construct a systematic theoretical presentation of the natural kind difference, which distinguishes instincts and reflexes. This concept entails two sets of criteria, one denoting five similarities, which are significant but uncritical, and the other denoting four differences, which are significant and critical. The similarities are uncritical in the strict sense that they cannot be used to argue that instinct and reflex are identical. The differences can be used to argue that they are indeed different natural kinds.
SIMILARITIES BETWEEN REFLEXES AND INSTINCTS
3. UNIVERSAL: MATURATION
4. AUTOMATICITY: STIMULUS-RESPONSE REACTION (ELICITATION)
5. ACORTICAL: ELICITATION NOT COGITATION
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN REFLEXES AND INSTINCTS
1. FLEXIBLE RIGID (fixed, compulsive)
2. RESPONSE HABIT
3. SIMPLE COMPLEX
4. VARIABILITY CONSTANCY
Instincts and reflexes are significantly similar in that they are both innate, elicited behaviors that are species-specific and automatic. Thus as stimulus-response functions they can operate without the benefit of higher-order cognitive processes––foreknowledge, expectancy, or deliberation (Hebb 1966:158-60). However, this apparently neat unity is short lived. Instinctive behavior is a complex and rigid habit, which upon first exposure to the appropriate stimulus during the attainment of maturity, will produce the entire instinctive behavior syndrome. In the case of reflexes, at birth, first exposure to the appropriate conditions of stimulation produces a variable reaction. For example, human infants may not suckle when first given a nipple.
I propose that theoretically, this conception of instinctive behavior means that a higher-order ‘automaticity’ is involved. After all, the truly significant distinctive property of instinctive behavior is that it is robotic: the animal qua organism is itself under a holistic compulsion to act (Senchuk: 32-34). This is a case of ‘the tail that wags the dog’, by which I do not mean that a part of the animal (e.g., drive) is the agency that determines the animal’s behavior. I mean that the instinctive animal is at the mercy of its own agency. In other words, the agentic scope of the instinctive animal’s tendency to produce organized activity is highly restrictive. Thus, it “looks” as if the agency lies somewhere other than the whole animal, but it does not. In this robotic feature we find the import of Hebb’s definition of instinctive behavior as specie-predictable (Hebb 1966:140). It is precisely here, in this specie-predictable feature of compulsivity that the determinism of instinctivism shines forth. In being an innate, rigid, fixed, and compulsive complex habit-system instinctive behavior is indeed robotic (See Dawkins on pre-computer and computer forms of roboticism 1983:14-8).
The idea of a ‘habit system’ with its three aspects (fixed, rigid, compulsive) is also the most significant theoretical reason to prefer ‘instinctive habit’ over the term ‘pattern’. The most important constituent feature of ‘habit’ is the regularity of its order, its automaticity.
It is the regularity of order by virtue of this special kind of specie-predictable habit system that provides the determinism presumed by the concept of instinct. Habit, not pattern achieves that distinction. If there is any paradigm case of determinism in biology to be found, this is it (See Dobzhansky on deterministic animal taxes Ibid: 203).
I have proposed that one similarity between instincts and reflexes is the property of automaticity. At this point, it is necessary to keep in mind the obvious fact that there is a difference in natural kind between, say, instinctive ants and intelligent Homo sapiens. An automatic reaction is called an S-R reaction: a stimulus immediately and directly elicits a response, without any intervening cognitive activity. For example, seeing food, you salivate; you don’t think about it first in order to salivate. An important feature of instinctive behavior is that it is automaticity of a special kind. When the behavior is an R elicited by an S, the responding system is robotic. However, if the critical features of a complex habit system are not innate rigidity, fixation, and compulsivity, then automaticity is not roboticism. Thus, in the kind of automaticity we can attribute to Homo sapiens, the learned formation of complex habits that can then function as skills, is functionally compatible with autonomy -- the freedom to think of other things and even do other things, while on ‘cruise control’, so to speak. It is the perfection of this kind of learned automaticity in sports and dance, or reading and writing, for example, that makes a disciplined body possible, and it is that discipline which provides both the foundation for and the instrument of the freedom and creativity of human action.
INSTINCT: THE PROBLEM OF LEARNING AND INTELLIGENCE
Hebb reported what has since become common knowledge; that the environment is not simply that situation in which learning is obtained through practice, observation and intelligence (Hebb 1966:156-58). There is also the chemical environment (prenatal and postnatal) composed of both nutrient and toxic influences. Of special importance for a given species, however, is the constancy of the early sensory environment (prenatal and postnatal). The import of this is that if invertebrates, fish, birds, and some mammals are subject to sense-deprivation during the early years instinctive behaviors are seriously disrupted. For example, ants of one species will instinctively kill ants of another species if the latter do not give-off the same species-specific odor. They will also kill a specie-member if they happen (experimentally) to give-off the wrong odor. However, if within twelve hours of hatching, normally antagonistic species are mixed together, they will live together amicably (Hebb 1966:148). After examining all such evidence Hebb concludes that:
…apart from unconditioned reflexes, all behavior depends on the generalized learning resulting from early sensory experience…. Instinctive behavior also requires prior learning, and all evidence indicates it is wrong to think of instinctive behavior as a separate class, wholly distinct from another class of learned behavior. Instead, the two classes shade into one another with no clear line of demarcation. As for the term “instinct”, it must be by definition that process within the neural system that produces instinctive behavior, and we can see why it is a misleading term. It implies that instinctive behavior is produced by a special activity or part of the brain separate from those that make up…intelligence. But this is not so (Ibid:159).
Thus, although instinctive behavior is innate, that is “not requiring special conditions of learning for its appearance”, it is dependent on prior early sensory learning (Hebb, ibid: 140, 158). However, there is more to it than even the fact of early sensory learning. There is the factor of intelligence and instinct.
Beach has…shown that learning ability in the male rat…is correlated with sexual activity. The better learner copulates more efficiently and frequently…. The female that is best at maze learning is the best mother. Similarly, cortical removal, which affects intelligence and learning in the rat produces a lowered rate of copulation in the male and a deterioration of maternal behavior in the female. (Hebb, ibid: 159).
Clearly, instinctive behavior is a rigid and complex habit system, but its rigidity, though high, is not absolute. Although severely limited, there is some scope for learning and intelligence (see also Senchuk 1991: 149-68, and Wilson 1999: 142). It is also evident that any consequences of such learning and intelligence are biologically conservative. To see this more clearly, let us consider instinct and reflex once again from a slightly different angle. Given that “instinct is…over and above reflex paths” (Hebb, ibid: 130):
…it does not consist of a predetermined sequence of muscular contractions (as in the case of reflexes), and yet it has a constant and predictable end result. The spider…will spin a web highly specific in design, though the movements necessary to produce it vary with the distance of the objects in which it is attached (Hebb 1948:166).
Note that the spider’s web itself is predetermined, but the behaviors necessary to build it are not. This pinpoints the biological conservatism strictly controlling the highly limited role of learning and intelligence in instinctive performance.
By way of a summary en passant, thus far, Hebb’s conception of instinctive behavior affirms these conclusions:
Instincts are behaviors not drives, though they are entailed
Instincts are not reflexes, though they are involved
Instincts are complex habits, not simply responses
By virtue of the fact that only instincts are a biological deterministic system of complex functional activity, instincts and reflexes constitute different natural kinds of behavior. In short, instinctive kinds of species are robotic, while reflexive kinds of species are automatic. Since automaticity is biologically necessary for autonomy it is not to be equated biologically with pre-computer forms of roboticism. The next important question concerns the neurological differences distinguishing instinctive and intelligent species.
INSTINCTIVE AND INTELLGIENT SPECIES: THE A AND S RATIO
We have already noted Hebb’s slightly different approach to the exploration of the instinct/reflex distinction in The Organization of Behavior (1949). Unlike reflex behavior, instinctive behavior doesn’t constitute predetermined muscular sequences, only a constant and predetermined end. Nevertheless,
…the behavior though it cannot be a reflex is still under sensory influence, more or less direct. At each stage of the construction the muscular activity varies with the circumstances and is such as to produce a certain perceptual effect. This indirect sensory control is demonstrated whenever accident destroys part of the structure…. Since behavior is continually responsive to such events it must be under affluent influence throughout (1949:167).
Hebb is here talking about the strict deterministic nature of instinctive behavior. The immediate situation of behavior and objects exerts sensory dominance over that behavior moment to moment. He then introduces the topic of the relative amount of association cortex (thinking) to sensory cortex (motor). He calls this the A and S ratio, which “affects the directness of sensory control over behavior and the promptness with which it can be established” (ibid.). This ratio is of fundamental importance since it denotes the ‘O’ (central organizing system) that mediates the ‘S’ (stimulus) and the ‘B’ (behavior) in Hebb’s theory of cognitive behavior. The central nervous system is a cortical organizing system of (not in) an animal engaged in activity. The natural kind of cortical/activity system in question is the basis for the different kinds of biological organisms found in a Darwinian world. At this point Hebb is ready to zero in on the critical theoretical relevance of the A and S ratio to the problem of the instinct/intelligence distinction. However, in view of the fact that the cerebral cortex is either absent or of very minor importance in the instinctive behavior of lower animal forms (e.g., fish, birds, etc.), Hebb says he will speak only of the ratio of internuncial (interneurones) to afferent cells.
A massive afferent system and a negligibly small internuncial one implies an immediate and direct sensory control of behavior, and one in which any particular constellation would tend to have a single effect on behavior. The larger the internuncial system, the more slowly can a sensory control be set up. A sensory control that is established only with experience, however, means that there is an element of learning in the subsequent behavior––and an increased variability. Thus, with phylogenesis, the predictability of instinctive behavior would steadily decrease as the ratio of afferent to internuncial cells becomes smaller…. This can only give an explanation of the point that instinct is most evident in lower species, in which internuncial structures are small, both absolutely and relatively to afferent ones (ibid.)
This provides the grounds for understanding that Homo sapiens has a central nervous system with the highest A/S ratio. The neural systems of those species where instinctive behavior is evident has the highest ratio of S (afferent structures) to A (internuncial structures). A species with an A/S neural system, and the highest A/S ratio, has a structure that can only produce intelligent behavior. A species with an S/A neural system, and the highest S/A ratio, can only produce instinctive behavior. In abstract terms, how can one believe that an A/S neural structure can produce an S/A function or the reverse, that an S/A neural structure can produce an A/S function. In concrete terms, how is one to understand that human beings can behave as if they were ants, or that ants can behave as if they were human beings. The want of cogency of the theoretical proposition found in both abstract and concrete forms is this: it is simply wrong to believe that human beings are instinctive. In other words, to believe that human beings are instinctive is to believe in a proposition that is a theoretical self-contradiction. To challenge this declaration it must be theoretically shown how our A/S brain can function to produce behavior that is causally produced only by a brain with the opposite S/A structure. And even though it is obvious that empirically we need evidence that human beings present such self-contradictory behavior, to date there has been no such behavioral evidence. But, without an adequate theory of human neurophysiology that can explain away the above theoretical absurdity, why would any realist scientist believe it sensible to empirically search for such evidence? Until Hebb’s conception of instinctive behavior is overthrown with a superior conception, it must be accepted that it is a formulation of a truth..
Now, we might ask if the biological determinism of instinctive behavior becomes more plausible for the human case when expressed indirectly? For example, suppose one says, “the determinism that governs ant behavior is the same determinism that governs human behavior.” The implication is that ant behavior and human behavior, although different, are both nevertheless instinctive. My contention is that both the direct claim that humans are instinctive and the indirect claim expressed above are, in fact, identical. They both presuppose the principle of determinism, either physical or biological. They assume that the machinery of nature is deterministic at the complex level precisely because it is deterministic at the simple level --that Nature’s laws are uniform in their operation. This principle licenses instinct theorists, old and new, to use the idea of instinct at their own ideological (in)discretion. As a contemporary example, Wilson (2000:26-7) declares that instinctive explanations are not relevant to human language behavior while also claiming that there is a language instinct (1999:145,167). However, until Hebb’s conception of instinctive behavior is defeated it must be the case that It just isn’t human nature to behave instinctively (for a less than viable conception of instinct see Yankelovich 1972: 414-415).
Yankelovich and Barrett especially highlight the basic Freudian premise that, since men and women are animals, they live and act the way they do because of a definitive human nature. Thus, human beings will do what comes naturally. The logic of the premise is clear: what is natural is biological, and since what is biological for animals is instinctive, humans must be instinctive (Yankelovich and Barrett 1970:347-58). We now understand that in this classic Freudian picture there are conflations between innateness and instinct, as well as impulses (drives) and instinct. There is no question that instincts or drives (homeostatic) are innate. However, we have seen that what is innate is not necessarily an instinct, since innate reflexes are not instincts. Since innate drives are common to both reflexes and instincts innate drives are not instincts, they are simply innate. The important point is that since the Freudian position prescribes that drives must be innate in order to be instincts, the critical issue is innateness -- in short, hereditary forces, or genes. Yankelovich and Barrett make this quite clear in their defense of the Freudian position. A “specific and definite human nature…is rooted in hereditary forces in man called instincts” (1970: Ibid). Note the slippery equation implicated in all this. Innate drives are instincts, instincts are hereditary forces, so, instincts are genes and genes are instincts. And genes therefore are expressed as drives, which thus must be innate. The old instinctivism of Freudian theory thus becomes a rehearsal for the new instinctivism that is just around the corner. Five years after Yankelovich and Barrett mounted their defense, Edward O. Wilson published Sociobiology.
Throughout this paper my special interest in the old instinctivism of classic Freudianism has been his theory of the unconscious and the connection between mind and body so specified. The issue that concerns me is that in order to dismiss the critique that the unconscious is a Cartesian ghost, it is necessary to preserve the idea that the mind is a deterministic process. Yankelovich and Barrett reveal how beautifully Freud made that work:
Freud dropped the Project so far as it aimed at reducing psychic processes to material particles; but he never ceased to follow through its fundamental line of thought. Thus in 1900, in the famous chapter seven [section F] of The Interpretation of Dreams, he simply translated the thinking of the Project into psychological language. In place of the nervous system made of neurones he substituted the notion of “psychic systems” or the “mental apparatus”. In place of the “quantity of charge” (upon the neurone) he substituted the notion of “cathexis” or psychic energy. In place of the “principle of inertia” he substituted the pleasure principle (which was the regulative mechanism governing the mental apparatus). And in place of the “principle of conservation of energy” he substituted the economic viewpoint [a utilitarian premise], in accordance with which the mental apparatus distributes the various pleasurable gratifications of instinct. The names have changed; but the whole psychic constellation still functions in strict analogy with a Newtonian system (Yankelovich & Barrett 1970: 49).
My evaluation of Freud’s move hinges on what I consider the key to its possible success. The significance of the idea of instinct as the exemplar of biological determinism is that Freud believed it mirrored Newtonian determinism. The Freudian picture thus provides a strict Newtonian model of the biological for the psychological. What we are presented with is ultimately a verbal trick of identifying motive with drives, drives with instincts, and instincts with Newtonian mechanistic causes. It is important to note however, that in Freud’s day this move was not a trick. It was a proto-theoretical metaphor with an unknown promise of becoming a model of something real. Today the metaphor is dead because the model has no promise (Holt 1989:171-96). If there is an unconscious, it cannot be deterministic, at least, not if instinctive behavior is the concept being used to confirm that proposition. And if the Freudian unconscious is not deterministic, why is it necessary to believe that there is such an “entity” in the head housing smaller “entities” determining the course of our lives? Hebb’s comment on the point is germain.
It is also clear, as I have tried to show in the preceding pages, that we can no longer conceive of the [Freudian] unconscious as a deep well in which the conscious may fish, for there is no conscious to do the fishing [according to Freud] and the unconscious, illogically named, is the sole seat of consciousness (Hebb 1980:20)
This argument against instinct completes my several arguments critical of the scientific tradition of psychoanalysis in reference to what Spence has called its collective fantasy of treating the mind as an unobservable causal power. The critical thread unifying those arguments is centered in a Harréan realist philosophy of science that has compelled us to see that Freud’s classic argument that the concept of the unconscious in needed in order to restore causal continuity to mind is false. For, only the dynamically embodied person, not the bio-psychological unconscious, is the powerful particular that can restore that continuity. The reason is strictly derived from the logic of the conception of causal powers, namely, that causation operates according to the ‘power of a particular’ schema. Therefore, the unconscious is an artifact of the violation of that schema in the analytical shift to ‘a power and particular’ schema: here power and particular are de-coupled, and a free-floating power is now available to be arbitrarily assigned to the mind and not to the person (see my discussion of this in Varela 1995:363, and its development in 2001:69-70, 1999:385-400)). We should remind ourselves that Hebb’s realist conception of instinctive behavior has, in effect, led him to the same Deweyan (p.17) avoidance of using the ‘power and particular’ schema (and so the whole-part strategy) in treating the animal as a whole single causal entity : motivation is the tendency of the whole active animal (p.21).
Now, because of this precise clarity about the logic of causal powers we can better understand why within (and outside of) psychoanalysis itself certain scholars have taken up the hermeneutic Freud and thus transformed the scientific problem of the “unconscious” into the existential problem of the lived failure of awareness. For example, Klein (1976) resorts to Sartre’s notion of disavowal; Schafer (1976) employs the strategy of Ryle’s action language, and Varela (1973: chps.11-12, 1993:chp.6) argues for a Meadian conception of failed awareness. What’s happened here is this: if the unconscious is given up then the proper focus is on the person’s experience of his crisis as a failure to be aware of or to know the possible meanings of that crisis. Now there is the reasonable implication that ‘the unconscious’ is better understood as ‘unselfconscious’: in a personal crisis a given ‘self’ is not conscious of the possible meanings that a given ‘other’ may wish to impute to that crisis. So that, ‘the unconscious’ is ‘the consciousness of the other’. When I made this point to John Shotter once he remarked, “Oh yes
Charles, and there are many others.” I should think that Shotter had in mind Mead’s famous idea that the self is a chorus of others. Cioffi captures the import of this shift to ‘unselfconscious’.
Freud is sometimes a superb clarifier of thoughts, and it is this which is often behind our admiration for his penetration rather than the reason convention constrains us to, that he has discovered how to decode the manifestations of the unconscious (Cioffi I998:63; emphasis provided).
To be sure, developing a fruitful account of the phenomenology of failed awareness is certainly of importance and should be pursued. However, it is no longer obvious that this is the most important existential problem in building a theory of person, experience, and action. At the very least, it’s not the only problem. After all, if this problem of failed awareness is a way of wondering why people in existential crisis don’t know what they should about themselves, the social sciences can move on here to other ways of such wondering (see Pribram’s similar preference for this epistemological version of the unconscious 1996:210-213). In this paper I have provided further reason why they should. And, again and finally, the key theme unifying all my reasons is that any account of the failure of awareness cannot be cogent if it presumes either the ‘power and particular’ schema or its weak sister, the whole-part strategy: the logic is that to do so is to violate the agentic reality of the person as an efficient cause.
CONCLUDING REMARKS: THE NEW INSTINCTIVISM
Using Hebb’s analysis I have argued that since human brains are structured for intelligent action, it must be the case that human nature is incompatible with behaving or being driven instinctively. Human beings have no choice but to invent culture, and, ironically perhaps, that is as biological as we can get. The significance of human biology is that our neurophysiology dispositionally empowers us to automate some actions, which become the ground for the autonomy of other actions and possible creativity. We may have here an Allportian insight: rather than a specie-specific functional autonomy of motives, we have instead the specie-specific functional autonomy of human action. This may be a way to ground Dawkins’s thesis that, since replication, not genetics, is biologically primary, culture has become another replicator (Dawkins 1975:189-201, 1982:87-117). But in this case, rather than culture being put forth as some suspect process of meme generation, it is simply joint human actions generating a shared conventional and meaning-centered way of life. Thus, going through Sahlins and beyond him, we can say that culture co-opts biology and is determined only by the agentic activity of its social beings (Sahlins 1998:399-416, 400). In concluding, we can link this discussion of instinctive behavior and its implications for culture theory to a preliminary discussion of the contemporary issue of genetic explanation in Sociobiology. Clearly, adequate treatment of this topic would admittedly require a separate paper.
In his reading of the discursive shift from instincts to genes, Senchuk tells us that “Instinct is less a dead horse than a phoenix” (1991: xv). We see this at work in the transformation of the old instinctivism to a new form of biological determinism that continues the Freudian tradition of Cartesianizing biological discourse. The new instinctivism involves a covert appeal to the determinism of instinctive explanations. Hence popular reifications have moved from “It’s your instincts,” to “It’s in your unconscious,” to the more recent addition, “It’s in your genes.” Genes are thus the new reified agents of causal explanation. If the Freudian theory of mind was indeed a rehearsal for the new instinctivism, then we can imagine a scenario in which a sociobiologist or evolutionary psychologist mimics Meehl’s comment (p.15). For instance, we may well get something like, “the truth of genetic determinism as the ultimate cause of all activity allows us to infer a genetically prescribed entity in the brain of the other that has imputed to it a causal status.” While this scenario may strike some social scientists and biologists as entirely speculative, from Richard Lewontin’s perspective on the history of biology and its dominant paradigm to date, it is to be expected. That paradigm, he tells us, entails a commitment to realize
…the explanation of all biological phenomenon, from the molecular to the social, as special cases of a few overarching laws…the culmination of a program for the mechanization of living phenomena that began in the…[dream] of Harvey and Descartes to reveal the details of the bete machine [the human body]. (Lewontin 1995: 117, 118)
The absolute seriousness with which mainstream biologists view this dream can be seen in Lewontin’s report of a “…claim made by one of the world’s leading molecular biologists, a co-discoverer of the genetic code…that if he had a large enough computer and the complete DNA sequence of an organism he could compute the organism” (Lewontin, ibid:123).
To mechanize biological phenomena in order to compute the organism from genetic material is, of course, the biological equivalent of Laplace’s dream of a complete deterministic explanation in physics. I now see the genetic determinism inherent in the imagined scenario as an expression of the biological machine program. My critical response is unequivocal: it is a fallacy to imply that genetic explanation is another form of biological determinism. Hebb’s conception of instinctive behavior provides the rationale: genes are not instincts. To conflate the one with the other is to give genetic influence the illicit connotation of a deterministic force. That force is reserved for instinctive behavior alone.
Charles R. Varela
Department of Anthropology
University of Illinois
Acknowledgements. I want especially to thank Brenda Farnell for her excellent editorial comments on this paper. I also wish to thank the three anonymous reviewers whose helpful suggestions guided me in my attempt, at least, to improve this paper.
1 In this paper I do not address the problem of instinct in relation to the social problems of various forms of bigotry, e.g. racism, eugenics and similar ideologies and their intellectual histories. Such a focus would deal with the ideological and political consequences of the use of an allegedly scientific concept such as ‘instinct’. My discussion here focuses rather upon the philosophy of science and the relationship of the concept of instinct to explanation in the social sciences.
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