The Subjective Aspect of Culture

Ellsworth Faris
The University of Chicago


The present trend of opposition to instinctivism implies a rejection of evolutionism as a tool of analysis for social psychologists. Behaviorism and all similar efforts to interpret personality in terms of reflexes involves the unjustifiable assumption that culture is added to the human animal and that the two can separately be investigated. Heredity and cultural environment are not separate forces, they are merely tools of analysis. They are justifiable abstractions but are too often conceived as independent forces. Social psychology, defined as the study of the subjunctive aspect of culture, includes the study of groups and the study of individuals. The most important fields in which data can, at present, be found seem to lie in the realms of ethnology, history, and biography.

The efforts of astronomers to signal to the planet Mars on the occasion of the last opposition, were, unfortunately, not rewarded with success, but the Martians, who are more advanced than we, did succeed in landing an expedition of scholars on the North American continent. In a recent conversation with one of the members of the expedition, I found it very difficult to convince him that we still have a large group of students of psychology who seek to explain and understand human nature by collecting anecdotes about the ants, bees, and the wild oxen of Patagonia. The Martian was at first incredulous. He, too, had been interested in zoology and had studied the fishes, insects, birds, and quadrupeds of the earth, but he had thought it necessary, before venturing any conclusions about the terrestrial featherless bipeds who have built cities, erected monasteries, built palaces and temples, and practiced institutionalized torture, to draw the facts from the behavior of the human animals themselves. The Martian was very insistent. No aspect of life, said he, was so interesting or so various in its manifestations as the human animals, and none interested him more. But the behavior of the different varieties of the species were so different that he felt he was under the necessity of spending some months to get at the facts of human life in their variety before he could venture any conclu-

( 38) -sions. I tried to explain to him that we had been at it more or less continuously for sixty-six generations. He was amazed. "Is it possible?" was all he could say.

I tried to defend our clan. "You see, we have evolution, we have instincts, we have neurones, synapses, and reflexes." Evolution—he had heard that word, but he had been under the impression that it referred to anatomical structures and their relations, which I had to admit. "Then how can you apply it to societal sequences?" Well, I squirmed, it was a beautiful idea, and we thought we should like to apply it to human society. "But that does not appear defensible," he said. "It seems, pardon me, almost indolent to take over the generalizations of one field and apply them in advance to another." I quickly changed the subject.

"But we have human instincts?" The celestial visitor smiled. "What are you trying to put over one me, anyhow? I have been in the libraries long enough to know that the instincts of the human being are listed in the most chaotic fashion. Three eminent writers agree in listing just one human instinct, one gives just two, several give four, others ten, some twelve, sixteen, twenty-three, and on to a hundred or more."

"Well," I conceded, "there has been a recent revolt from the instinct doctrine, but at least we have behaviorism."

"It sounds bad to call a scientific doctrine an ism, but go ahead." Behaviorism, I tried to explain, is a method of understanding and investigating human nature by external observation.

"But what about the imagination—can they observe that?" "Hush!" I said, "you must not mention imagination, some behaviorist might hear you-it is taboo."

"You mean that they do not try to consider the internal aspect of men?"

"O, yes, the neuroses and synapses."

"Ah! that sounds interesting," he said. "I have often wished there were some technique for observing the working of the nervous system, for obviously it is of the utmost importance in behavior.

And what technique have the behaviorists developed for observing the working of the nerve currents?"

"Well, we have books and pictures about them."

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"But I mean the working of the synapses!" "Well, we dissect the brain."

"O, I see, and how do you manage to dissect the brain without injuring the individual?"

"You don't understand; we only dissect him after he is dead." "But then he has ceased to act."


"But you perhaps dissect the different types of men and observe the different nerve-end connections?"

"Well, no. We usually dissect paupers and the unclaimed bodies of human derelicts."

"Are their synapses the same as those of gifted and successful people?"

"I don't know."

"Don't know! See here, why don't you know?"

"Well, the synapses are not really facts of observation."

"Do you mean to say," said he, "that you build your science on hypothetical assumptions? Now in Mars, our psychology is far more advanced. We begin by—"

Unfortunately, just then I awoke.

The study of human nature goes back very far in the history of thought and has taken so many false leads that new starts have to be undertaken whenever the old efforts have proven misleading. The older structures have to be wrecked and new buildings planned in their stead. At the present time the wrecking crew is very busy and very happy. The young men who are demolishing the instinct hypothesis remind one of the Irish Catholic laborer who was rejoicing at the best job in the world: "Tearing down a Methodist church and getting paid for it." The instincts must go.

The instinct hypothesis arose out of the effort to apply the concept of evolution to the facts of human behavior, and it is the doctrine of evolution that must next be overthrown as a starting-point for social psychology. I do not mean that any concession is to be made to Mr. Bryan and his fundamentalism, but I do mean that, whether applied to individual behavior or to social change, the concept of evolution has been not only sterile of results but has been

( 40) positively misleading and has operated to obscure the real facts. He who will read the two books of W. H. R. Rivers, the monograph on the Todas and his masterpiece on the Melanesians cannot hope to find a more eloquent commentary on the new light and added insight that comes when the concept evolution has been discarded and the notion of history and contacts substituted.

All this is disconcerting to some of our number, but the rejection of McDougallism was made necessary in most cases on account of the earnest effort to apply the doctrine. And the same thing can be said about the doctrine of the evolution of society, with its separate stages and successive ages. We accepted it as good and tried to work it, but it would not work, so we had to abandon it.

Whence came the facts referred to? Speaking generally, they came from a widened view of space and a lengthened view of time —in short, from ethnology and from history. He who will go round the planet, considering one by one the peoples and the cultural organizations, and he who will consider the mere tithe that our historians and archaeologists have furnished to us of the weary road along which the race has traveled, often to its doom—he, I say, who will consider these facts will find the conceptions of instincts and evolution incumbrances and not helps.

Let us then consider evolutionism and instinctism dead and buried (or perhaps buried alive). Is the ground clear? Well, hardly. Physiological psychology and animal psychology have descended upon us in the form of behaviorism, and social psychology is to be written in terms of reflexes. The wrecking crew will have a harder task just here, for it is harder to wreck a new building than an old one. Moreover, it is not yet finished, and the wreckers will have to contend with the builders, and yet it must be done. If it is not done we shall not ever get a science of human nature. Now human nature is different from animal nature, and the neurological approach not only has no technique for distinguishing human nature from the nature of the lower animals, but tends to deny that there is any essential difference. But we are interested in just that difference and are determined to study it as it is.

Some years ago it was a common practice to assume a primitive

(41) man, a hairy cave man who went abroad alone, hunting and killing in solitary predaciousness, doing his wooing with a baseball bat and dragging his unconscious bride to his lair. The picture strikes us now as a bit inaccurate. We think of the cave man as probably having been born, and presumably born young, with a mother and a period of infancy. We think of his bride as probably not always and everywhere reluctant to be married. We feel superior to the men who wrote about the cave man in the traditional way, and yet some of our assumptions are open to the suspicion of an analogous error, for much of current writing takes the form of an inquiry into what the individual is, apart from his social influences. It would be as difficult to talk about what brandy is apart from its alcoholic content. It would not be brandy. What the individual would be apart from his environment is forever impossible to state.

It is physiological psychology and neurological psychology which is so largely responsible for the misleading statement of the problem of heredity and environment.

Heredity and environment are not forces operating upon a passive individual. They are not forces that compete within an individual. They are not forces at all. Heredity and environment are tools of analysis, necessary and useful abstractions like weight, color, impenetrability. Chromosomes are concepts which the biologists have developed, increasingly fruitful in guiding their researches, but it cannot be too clearly understood that the social psychologist must do his work in interpreting the phenomena in his field without a microscope. President Coolidge opposes a competitive naval program, while Secretary Wilbur actively and aggressively insists that we should spend one hundred million dollars a year for the next twenty years to make our battleships many and deadly. Far be it from me to deny the existence of chromosomes in Secretary Wilbur and President Coolidge; but if I am gracious enough to admit the existence of their chromosomes, I shall be willing to do so only on condition that our biological psychologists shall speak of their chromosomes subsequent to, and not before, a microscopic examination of them.

It is environment when we cannot account for a divergence by

( 42) an appeal to heredity. It is heredity when we cannot account for it by reference to the environment. It is neither heredity nor environment when we do not have to account for it at all.

The study of human personality has witnessed more than one particular divergence from sound method. Descartes was not an environmentalist. At least the central and most important ideas were to him inborn. Men gave up this notion because the divergence of innate ideas brought on too rich a variety for this explanation to satisfy. John Stuart Mill, on the other hand, was an environmentalist. To him ideas came into the mind from without, being formed from the sensations that the environment provided. Men gave up this notion because of the stubbornness of youth against the efforts of their schoolmasters. McDougall is again an instinctivist—a militant apostle of heredity: although ideas are not inherited, yet instincts are native. The British Empire is to him the result of the instinctive curiosity which is so highly developed in the insular Nordics, while African slavery is the consequence of an exaggerated instinct of submission among those who have kinky hair. Men are giving this up because the changing trends which history reveals and the divergent customs which ethnology discovers have made it unworkable. Barnard is again an environmentalist; habits formed under the pressure of the environment determine the nature and development of personality.

It seems that we are ready for another stage in our thinking on this problem. Like many other such problems, we shall not settle it; we shall outgrow it. There are situations in which it is of no value to regard either heredity or environment. Some facts of life can only be explained as due to heredity; others must refer to social influence. But the separation of heredity and environment can only be done by an act of abstraction. They never occur separately, nor do they ever occur together. They do not occur at all save where the investigator analyzes the concept and selects a single aspect to aid him in his puzzle.

There is at the present time a lively but useless controversy as to the nature of social psychology. Social psychology is the study of group behavior, cries one. Nay, says another, it is the study of the individual modified by social influence. Who is right? Neither.

( 43) The problem belongs not in psychology but in lexicography. In the Oxford dictionary there are fourteen pages devoted to the definition of the preposition "of." Social psychology can perhaps be defined in a shorter space, but the facts are that men are studying groups and men are studying individuals, and if they can speak a language sufficiently common to enable them to communicate, it should not appear quixotic to hope that some day they may be of service to each other. One would have thought that professor Cooley had settled this question for us long ago. If I read him aright the difference between the individual and society does not always exist, but it may exist whenever a problem of their relationship appears and when it appears the individual is seen to be one aspect of the whole.

They tell of a Russian Jew who came to the hospital for an operation on his face. He was told that it would be necessary to shave his beard off, a statement which produced in him the greatest distress. He appeared on the appointed day, his face perfectly smooth, having pulled every hair out by the roots. This was clearly the act of an individual. Here were obviously involved chromosomes and nerves and reflexes. But his behavior was the subject aspect of an ancient culture. The rabbis of the Middle Ages pulled their hair out.

McKay, a Negro poet, wrote a few years ago a defiant poem which millions of Negroes have read and memorized, called, "If We Must Die." He belonged to the race which was assumed to have an exaggerated instinct of submission. But there is no submission here, and the point is that in one sense McKay did not write it. His race wrote it. He was the concentrated point with the wit to give expression to what millions were feeling before he wrote and felt more strongly when he wrote it.

John Dewey once said facetiously of the Germans: "Other nations are proud of their great men; but the Germans are proud of themselves for producing Luther and Goethe." But in one sense the Germans are right. They did produce their great men, and they have a right to be proud of them and we of ours.

I am seeking in this paper a formula of reconciliation. To me the concept of a group mind or over-soul is untenable and emotionally distasteful, and yet groups exist. Groups are always composed of

(44) members, and phenomena go on in terms that can be described, if one needs to do so, from the standpoint of individual psychology. Nevertheless, groups exist in the sense that we can identify them, study them, get information about them and learn to handle them. This is the only helpful sense in which anything may be said to exist. From the standpoint of our problem, the institutions of society, our customs, our language, our art, morals, religion, and social organization are the objective phenomena about which facts can be gathered and generalizations made and tested.

But in all these groups there are members, and in each of these members the objective aspects of culture have a corresponding subjective side, and the subjective aspect of culture is one way in which the object-matter of social psychology might be defined.

A lieutenant was drilling his men. After each command he said in a low voice, "You too." To his colonel, demanding an explanation, he replied: "I myself came up from the ranks, and know what those men are thinking. Whenever I give a command, every one of those men says in his heart, ‘You go to hell.’" The lieutenant was a social psychologist. He was interested in an aspect of culture which is not easily accessible to strictly behavioristic methods.

Social psychologists should rejoice at the lively interest in the field, and at the activity which characterizes the students of the subject. But we are still too disconnected in our points of view, and can hardly be said to have a universe of discourse. I wonder if we all read each others' books! It matters little what definition you give to social psychology, but it does matter much what method and standpoint we take.

Social psychology is defined as study of groups. It is just that as some men pursue it. Social psychology is defined as the study of individuals, and some are doing that. But the important matter to be grasped is that both are partial, and each a different aspect of the whole.

Personality is the subjective aspect of culture and the problem is not how personality is modified by culture, but how personality results inside the process of culture.

There is doubtless a crowd fallacy and yet groups exist. They exist in the same sense that storms exist, or waterfalls, or stampedes. Groups exist in the sense that we can deal with them, study them,

( 45) get information about them, and learn about life by studying them. And persons exist, and in the same way, and in no other way. For existence can only be apprehended by us as a function. Consider language. Language has its subjective aspect and facts about language, which can be apprehended in no other way. But language has its objective aspect, and there are facts that can be obtained only by an objective consideration. No one understands the subjective aspect of language without some conception of the other, and vice versa.

Why do we study social psychology? There is the mere urge of curiosity for some, but I freely confess that my own motivation is the hope that we shall get some of the principles of behavior so well formulated that we shall be enabled to control our life better. War, crime, poverty, vice, delinquency, and inefficiency—these are the drives that make us eager to perfect our method and cultivate our field.

And what should our method be? I am convinced that the study of the concrete facts of observation, experience, including introspective experience—the taking into account of ethnological differences and cultural and historical changes—these will be far more fruitful than any other, at least for the present. In short, our method must be frankly analytical, and we must be content to seek patiently the facts and to build on surer foundations.

The conception of social psychology as the study of the subjective aspect of culture, if taken wholeheartedly, will mean more than a mere recognition of individual and social facts. Many writers can repeat Cooley's phrase about society and the individual being different aspects of the same phenomenon without either grasping the real significance of the statement or adding anything to their own competence in investigation. The conception of personality as subjective culture will seem to lead to very real changes of stress and emphasis, among which we may venture to include the following:

1.Abandonment of the neurological and physiological approach, since anatomy and physiology may be assumed to be constant in any given series of cultural changes.

2 Abandonment of anecdotes of animals as material, since animals have no culture.

3. Abandonment of hypothetical elemental infantile behavior as

( 46) significant, and a renewed enthusiasm for careful study of children. Children have culture; infants are mere animals.

4. Renewal of emphasis on imagination, since images and symbols are the essential material for the formation of social attitudes, and since images are essential components of wishes. As Cooley says, we must imagine imaginations.

5.Increased emphasis on, and study of, emotional behavior, and the location of the central problem in those crises where old habits break up and new objects and new attitudes are formed.

6.A renewed emphasis on communication and gesture, and the development for objectively studying these, since culture results from interaction and is transmitted in the interpenetration of attitudes and gestures.

These will, it seems certain, make more significant certain types of data which have recently been relegated to a subordinate place, but which ought to be more fruitful than ever. The chief of these are: ethnological facts, historical facts and changes, culture contacts, and individual life histories.


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