Edwin Bissell Holt 1873–1846

Herbert S. Langfeld

With the death of E. B. Holt on January 25th, psychology lost one of its most colorful figures. To the younger generation he was already history. They knew his writings but they had never heard his voice, for years ago he withdrew from the active life of a teacher to a lonely spot on the Maine coast, there to bury himself in what he finally came to believe was the only thing worth while—the famous literature of the past. His was an escape from the modern trend of psychology, with, as he thought, its lack of intrinsic scholarship and insight.

Holt, although out of step with much that psychology is now doing, had considerable effect upon its development. He was one of the favorite pupils of William James, and was probably more like James than any other of James's disciples in the quality of his intellect, in his dislike of sham and outworn convention, in his independence of thought and criticism, in his brilliant conversation and originality of expression, and in his generosity in helping and encouraging little-known but promising writers. Those of his friends with whom he corresponded know the quality of thought to which I refer. An example from one of his letters may give those who did not know him an idea of what I mean. I had sent him a picture of Santayana taken in Rome after the Liberation. Holt replied:

"Amazing that Santayana seemed so little cognizant of the invasion of Rome! ... He, so aloof and inaccessible, the one practising solipsist, moves with ease within the range of his own select and attenuated experiences, largely imaginative and verbal; but what competence would he show if forced for once to tackle realities? Idle question, though: even the invading hordes of Nasties could not break in on his 'living in the eternal.' A most successful, impregnable mollusc!" [1] (September 28, 1944).

Holt held James in the deepest reverence and in unfaltering affection. James in turn must have enjoyed the companionship of his pupil for Holt was a frequent visitor to his house. In fact, he was treated almost as a member of the family, and saw much of the three sons, being especially intimate with young William James.

Holt was not a pragmatist, but he carried on the spirit of James's philosophy in his realism. This realistic attitude, which certainly in Holt's case was a personality trait, was back of his interest in physiological psychology and led eventually to his most important book, Animal Drive and the Learning Process (6).

Holt's personality was complex and often paradoxical, and his interests broad. In spite of his devotion to ex-

( 251) -act experimentation, he was one of the early exponents in this country of Freud's psychology. His Freudian Wish (5), which was widely read in America and England, was said by Freud himself to have been the best exposition of his (Freud's) theory to appear up to that time in this country.

Holt was an inspiring teacher; he was also a disturbing one. He delighted in knocking the props from under his listeners in order to make them build from the ground up. He had devoted followers, and hundreds of Harvard students who took his course in the Philosophy of Nature, and Princeton students who listened to his Social Psychology, have been influenced by him.

Holt was born August 21, 1873, at Winchester, Massachusetts, the son of Stephen Abbott and Nancy Wyman Cutter Holt. His father, who died when Holt was a young man, was a graduate of Bowdoin College and became a Congregational minister in the Bangor Theological Seminary. Holt, who held his father in great admiration and affection, used to speak of the broad views on religious questions which he held toward the latter part of his life. Holt himself was seemingly anti-religious, and was wont to make remarks on religion and clerics which often startled his listeners. Toward religion, however, as toward so many other subjects, his attitude frequently seemed contradictory, for he would inveigh against clergymen and the Church while holding in affection individual members of the Church and respecting his friends' beliefs. As I see it, the paradox is resolved by the fact that Holt was not at heart against religion, but against religious institutions, which he felt were more concerned with their power than their spiritual influence. This attitude toward 'power' was at the bottom of his dislike of all so-called leaders. He himself had decided ideas; but when he met opposition, instead of pushing forward or even compromising, he withdrew—and the opposition knew him no more.

Holt's mother was a woman of keen intellect and a sense of humor which was like his own and which was one of the bonds between them. She was a very strong-minded, self-willed person, who worshipped him but at the same time selfishly dominated him. His attitude toward her was ambivalent. He was brilliant from early childhood, according to persons who knew him then, and his mother encouraged his intellectual curiosity. She kept a tray of silkworms for him, raising in her garden the mulberry leaves on which they fed. He was greatly interested in feeding them, watching them spin their cocoons and emerge as butterflies. His unusually broad knowledge of flora and his tender affection for animals were evidence of his mother's influence. Remarks such as the following frequently appeared in his letters:

"We are having a grand blizzard tonight; thick snow and a high wind. Our four sparrows will need special attention tomorrow" (February 11, 1944).

Whenever he could, he kept a cat and a dog, and a stray animal was always welcomed. He had a great respect for their intelligence and would not say anything in their presence which he thought would hurt their feelings. It might be added that it was this deep-seated love of animals that made him so critical of much of animal experimentation.

At about eight years of age he had a toy theater for which he planned scenery and costumes. This interest for the theater continued through his life. He made toy theaters for the children of his friends, and for a time helped make the scenery for Baker's Forty-Seven Workshop. He was always keenly alive to

( 253) and intelligently critical of the developments of the professional stage.

Holt went to school in Winchester, and in 1892 to Amherst. At the end of his freshman year, he transferred to Harvard. He never kept up his Amherst contacts. In 1896 he received his Bachelor of Arts degree, magna cum laude, from Harvard. He attended the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences from 1897 to 1898. When the Spanish-American War broke out, he joined Battery A, 1st Regiment, Massachusetts Artillery, U. S. Volunteers, and was with the outfit from May 6 to November 14, 1898, being stationed successively at Fort Warren, Mass., Nahant, Mass., and Fort Pickering, Salem, Mass. When, as a Harvard student, he first joined up, he was considered a softie by his hard-boiled companions. It was not long, however, before he had out-distanced them in the use of those words which have always been a large part of the vocabulary of soldiers. It was during this period, then, that he acquired and never lost that picturesque form of expression so familiar to his friends and so astounding to his new students.

After the war he attended the Medical School of the University of Freiburg, Germany, for one year. On returning to the United States he went to Columbia, where he received a Master of Arts degree in 1900. Then back to Harvard for his doctoral degree in 1901. The men who influenced him most at Harvard were James and Münsterberg. He liked neither the idealist philosophy of Royce nor the ethics of Palmer. Münsterberg was Director of the Psychological Laboratory, and he had Holt appointed instructor, a rank he held from 1901 to 1905. Early in his teaching career he received an offer from England. As he wrote, in learning of S. Alexander's death:

"I am very sorry that S. Alexander has gone. Every one spoke of him as a most loveable gentleman. I never saw him; but in one of the very first years of my teaching at Harvard he offered me, through Wm. James, an opening at Manchester. And except for my Mother's need of me, I should unquestionably have gone" (September 22, 1938).

It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if Holt had accepted this offer. His scholarship in the Old World tradition, his originality and his interest in the philosophical problems of psychology were greatly liked by the English. His Concept of Consciousness appealed even more to the British than to his fellow countrymen, and his Freudian Wish at least as much. In England Holt was, in the old days, one of the best-known and most respected of American psychologists. He would have been in a congenial atmosphere because it would have been one of warm appreciation. He needed the encouragement he would have received, and it is quite probable that his production would have been even greater.

In 1905 he was made assistant professor, a rank he held until he withdrew from Harvard in 1918. In the academic year 1910–11 he was Acting Director of the Psychological Laboratory during the absence of Münsterberg in Berlin. Holt was for many years the real guide of the graduate research. Münsterberg assigned most of the problems and criticized the final results, but Holt helped the students set up their apparatus and saw to it that the research was carried out properly. He was generous with his time, but meticulous and exacting. No careless work ever got by him, and many of his graduate students have repaid him with unfailing loyalty for the benefits they derived from his guidance. He had considerable manual dexterity, and liked to work with instruments. Also it was part of his motor theory that one should use his hands as well as his 'mind.' He was

( 254) very neat, and spent much time in keeping the Laboratory in order. It was a familiar sight to see him at his desk, painstakingly painting and lettering little tin boxes to hold nails, pins, and the like.

There is little doubt that James had the most influence on his thinking. In the early days he was also very close to Münsterberg, whose theory of response, though pleasing to Holt, suggested a very different approach. He was an intimate friend of the Morton Prince family. He and Morton Prince had pleasant times in each other's company although they were in only partial agreement on important problems of psychology. Of the younger men in the department, Holt saw most of Yerkes and Perry. For many years he and Perry lunched together in the laboratory and discussed philosophical questions relating especially to their growing interest in a realistic approach. He organized and ran a small discussion and social group called the "Wicht Club" which met frequently and played a large role in his life for a number of years. The members were R. P. Angier, W. B. Cannon, E. B. Holt, Gilbert Lewis, H. W. Morse, R. B. Perry, G. W. Pierce, W. H. Sheldon, E. E. Southard and R. M. Yerkes. For several years the publications of the group were collected, and under Holt's direction bound in handsome volumes entitled Was Wichtiges. This was an unusually inspiring group of intimate friends, all of whom became leaders in their respective fields. There is no doubt that, in the give-and-take of these friendly discussions, Holt increased his knowledge of the sciences and of philosophy, and sharpened the critical faculty which was one of the most evident characteristics of his mind.

During World War I Holt was too old to engage in active service. He therefore volunteered as a 'Dollar-a-Year Man' in Washington, where he worked in one of the Government offices.

Holt made it clear to his friends about this time that he was only remaining at Harvard because he had to take care of his mother. As a matter of fact, he had his letter of resignation already written and the night his mother died in January, 1919, he mailed it at the corner postbox. President Lowell, who was always very fond of him, called me to his office and asked me whether there was anything he could do to keep him; he was willing to offer him a professorship and the directorship of the Laboratory. Holt, however, never could be dissuaded when he had once made up his mind.

For the next few years he lived in various parts of New England, California and British Columbia, generally with a friend, sometimes alone. In 1926 he came to Princeton as Visiting Professor in the Department of Psychology, where he remained ten years. During most of this period he taught only in the Spring term, when he gave Social Psychology which was frequently voted by the Seniors one of the most interesting courses. He was an unusually good teacher. His voice was pleasant, his language distinguished, his exposition clear, his interest sharp and his criticism often caustic. In his course he started with the reflex circle and conditioning, and gradually developed his description and criticism of social institutions. Most of his precepts were in the evening; often students would stay through two precepts and on into the night, and accompany him home about one o'clock in the morning.

In 1936 he felt tired and decided he did not want to teach any longer. He therefore returned with his devoted friend, George Bernier, to Maine, where he eventually built a house at Tenants Harbor, and worked on the second volume of his Animal Drive. But his heart

( 255) was no longer in his work. In April, 1944, he wrote, "I doubt that the contemporary crowd cares an iota for any of the topics in which I am interested. Nor do I care for any in which they are interested. That is what it means to grow old." The war also depressed him greatly. In July, 1940, he wrote, "Everything is topsy turvy and disheartening. I can see nothing but the complete collapse of Western civilization. How fortunate that you and I are not exactly young." In November, 1944, he caught a "terrific cold" in Boston. Back at Tenants Harbor he began to suffer from the muscular pains which kept him in bed until his death.

Holt's list of publications is not long. There are 30 articles and books under his name in the Psychological Register of 1932, three of which are there by mistake (a Vassar student, Elizabeth B. Holt, was one of the co-authors of these articles). Holt wrote slowly and with great care. His style, .however, was easy, clear and graceful. Words interested him. He had an unusually wide vocabulary and an uncanny ability in selecting exactly the right word or phrase to express his meaning. He disliked unusual words if a common one would do, and his expressions were direct and to the point.

His doctor's dissertation was on 'Eye-movement and central anaesthesia.' It was published as a monograph in 1903 (1) and also appeared as the first article in the first volume of the Harvard Psychological Studies. He concluded "that voluntary movements of the eyes condition a momentary, visual, central anaesthesia" (p. 45). This field of research interested him for about six years. In 1910 he started collaboration with Marvin, Montague, Perry, Pitkin and Spaulding on a program of philosophy based on the principle of realism (2). This group—known to their friends as the Six Little Realists—published The New Realism (3) in 1912. Holt's chapter was 'The Place of Illusory Experience in a Realistic World.' His problem as a realist was to explain secondary qualities, optical illusion, illusion of thought, errors of thought, etc. He ends his essay with "A consciousness is a group of (neutral) entities to which a nervous system, both at one moment and in the course of its life history, responds with a specific response" (3, p. 373). This sentence is significant in that it is prophetic of what was to appear in his The Concept of Consciousness (published in 1914 and dedicated to Münsterberg's), and also of his motor theory. The Concept of Consciousness (4) is primarily philosophical. Much that he wrote then he has since denied, especially the neutral entities. It is also interesting to note his arguments for Münsterberg's action theory as against McDougall's drainage theory. In the light of what we now know about his motor theory of consciousness, we can see a certain influence that Münsterberg had in directing his thought. Holt liked some of Münsterberg; he liked McDougall's physiological psychology and his social psychology. He also was enthusiastic over Watson's behaviorism, but was cold towards these men's later writings.

In 1915 appeared the most popular and most widely read of Holt's books: The Freudian Wish and Its Place in Ethics. He applied Freud's principles to explain behavior but in such an original and delightful manner that many persons spoke of the book as 'the Holtian Wish.' He wrote also of the physiological basis of wishes, in which he introduced examples of conditioning, though not using the word. He was troubled because he could not explain how reflex paths are integrated into complicated behavior—one of a number of similar problems that engaged his attention and were more fully un-

( 256) -derstood by him later. In the same year he published a paper 'Response and Cognition' which was reprinted at the end of The Freudian Wish. It contains a discussion of realism—the refutation of the soul and subjectivism, and the importance of specific response in cognition.

Freud was so very close to Holt's heart that he refused to write an article on him for the PSYCHOLOGICAL REVIEW because there were so many 'grave defects' in Freud's theory which he did not care to describe publicly. As to the features of the theory which he liked, Holt wrote:

"The points for which I venerate Freud are his fine empirical observations in the earlier part of his career; his substituting the dynamic 'wish' for Janet's non-dynamic and futile 'dissociation'; and lastly, his supreme integrity, in science and in everything. On the second point (where Freud helped me so greatly toward a motor psychology) I said in 'The Freudian Wish' all that I could now say. And I think that few readers understood or cared; since so few have been led on to a motor psychology" (November 14, 1939).

Holt was supposed to revise James's Psychology after the latter's death. For years he pondered the problem. At first it seemed difficult. Finally he found it impossible since psychology had advanced so rapidly during this period that a new book was necessary, and Animal Drive and the Learning Process, in 1931, was the answer. It is the culmination of his thinking and lecturing through many years; with much of it his students in Social Psychology were already familiar. He builds up behavior from the reflex circle and circular response, through chain reflexes, adience response, motor theory, to integration. The term 'reflex circle' has given students difficulty. In fact, he wrote on April 8, 1943: "Unless is a really intelligent person he would better not touch the reflex-circle; it ramifies too dreadfully." However, in a previous letter (March 24, 1943) he sent me a description of both reflex circle and circular response, which is clarifying:

"The term 'reflex circle' and 'circular reflex' have caused much trouble. They are so much alike that they remain confused in the mind in spite of explicit definitions. Whether I could have explained them more clearly I really don't know. 'Circular reflexes' (Sherrington) are only one (though a numerous) class of 'reflex-circles'; a special case of r.-c. Many reflex-circles are not 'circular reflexes' (in Sherrington's sense, of course).

"Ariëns Kappers' principle of neurobiotaxis is the physical cause of all these phenomena, but it operates unseen, at the microscopic level.

"Now Bok's 'reflex-circle' principle (or law, if you prefer) is:—If the contraction of any muscle causes any sense-organ to be stimulated, then that sense-organ will soon acquire a neural connection to that muscle. The grasping reflex and auditory-vocal response are cases of this. The sense-organ involved in the former is the tactile surface of the palm and finger-tips, in the latter it is the cochlea; exteroceptors both.

"Circular reflex is that special case of reflex-circle, merely, in which the sense-organ involved is a proprioceptor.

"I tried to make this explicit and clear on pages 37–8 of Animal Drive, and again with the first sentence on page 44."

"You ask: 'Isn't the functional connection in the central nervous system the same thing as the reflex circle?' No! The essence of the reflex-circle is its genesis. The 'law' that I gave on the previous page is a genetic formula; and that is why the reflex-circle leads us on to a strictly dynamic psychology. It is by this genetic formula that the connections in the central nervous system become moulded to, and subservient to, our own external anatomy and to the objects of the outer world. It is on the reflex-circle principle that such func-


-tional nerve paths are formed as will produce significant responsive behaviour."

In 1935 Holt published a short essay entitled 'The whimsical condition of social psychology and of mankind' (7) in which he first reviewed the concepts of the reflex circle and of adience. This latter response is the basis of self-interest, according to Holt. From here it is an easy transition to his favorite topic of leaders, especially political and other institutional despots. It is a very Holtian paper and particularly interesting in view of the present prominence of the concept of ego-involvement.

Holt was very much interested in language. His guiding hand is much in evidence in Latif's thesis (9), but he has not written much himself on the subject. He wrote me at length on the topic on February 9, 1941, however, and inasmuch as the letter gives us his latest views, it seems profitable to quote it here.

"May I spill a few half-baked reflections about thought and language? Pareto had a good impulse when he tried to distinguish between instincts (& all non-linguistic behaviour), or Résidus, and linguistic behaviour (thought-speech), or Dérivations. But I do not see that he threw any real light on the matter. Mauthner, with the same dichotomy in mind, declared that it is precisely the distinction between the Kantian Verstand and Vernunft. The Reason, for him, is essentially verbal; and perhaps nothing else. I do not agree to the 'nothing else,' but I think the remark is extremely sagacious, and significant. However, even Mauthner does not take us much further on just this point.

"In my An. Drive I tried to say something about the origin and mechanism of non-linguistic behaviour (the Verstand). The transition to linguistic behaviour is primarily along the classic lines of the child's picture-book. The word (heard or read) starts us off towards the object (if in sight) which the word 'means' or/and sets us to re-creating a ('subjective') image of the object 'meant.' (Such is the motor Meaning of Meaning.) And vice versa, the object as stimulus, or the subjective image as proprioceptive stimulus, sets us to utter the name or appropriate descriptive words.

"As soon as even a small vocabulary exists everything favours an enormous social traffic in words and their attendant subjective images alone and quite apart from immediate contact with the things in question. With this begins an endless process of dislocation and transmutation of meanings, held but little in check by rare and spasmodic renewals of contact with the things. Die Vernunft! Reason-logic, 'thought,' verbalism metaphysics, etc. The great differences coming in here (Pareto's and Mauthner's dichotomy) are because perception and observation are almost wholly in abeyance, and are superseded by purely associative ('mental') phenomena. Almost everything in this realm of Vernunft is artifact. And Vaihinger in his Als Ob only scratched the surface.

"That fact was Gruppe's revelation; and it is significant that Gruppe was a philologist. (Both Vaihinger and Mauthner took their lead from Gruppe.) These artifacts are distortions; some of them may be useful. With them the motor theory has its best fun.

"Of late I've been mulling over this:—In the 3d part of Latif's thesis is a section on thought along a linear dimension (with a reference, I believe, to C. K. Ogden's book on Opposition). The two ends of such a dimension usually have names and figure as opposites (rich-poor, large-small, etc.). Gruppe pointed out that such opposites are 'correlatives,' neither one having any meaning except relatively to the other; i.e. (for me) 'thought' recreates the dimension. A moment's introspection on the pair up-down will illustrate this. Further, said G., vastly more predicates than we ever supposed are such correlatives (e.g. animate-inanimate, existence-nonexistence, objective-subjective). If one is predicated and the other totally excluded, nonsense results; as in the idealist's pan-subjectivism.

"In a diagrammatic thinking (e.g. Herbart's psychology) such 'dimensions' often


provide the coordinates of the diagram. Thus, Herbart's system is essentially a diagram, an image of a surface of water, with air above and water beneath. The pair conscious-subconscious is the vertical co-ordinate of the diagram. The sharp demarcation at the water-surface is a dam-aging artifact.

"All this may be very boring. It interests me because I think I begin to discern the very warp and woof of the Vernunft. Anyhow I'll desist."

Finally, mention should be made of an article entitled 'Eight steps in neuromuscular integration'(8) which he contributed to a symposium dedicated to Professor J. S. Beritoff. In it one will find the high lights of Holt's most mature thought, and will realize how much he contributed to the explanation of behavior, both individual and social, in terms of neuro-muscular processes.

In relation to social and political problems, it is difficult to classify Holt. Just as one thinks he has him neatly pigeon-holed, he slips out. He never acted true to any form, and he was less given to stereotyped thinking than any other person I have known. In some ways he was a liberal—certainly in his attitude toward most racial problems. Toward economic questions he was a rock-bound conservative; toward politics also. He hated 'leaders' and always thought them fundamentally self-seeking. He avoided anyone who had a tendency to 'command.' Above all he was an individualist and a staunch believer in individual freedom.

Personalities like Holt's are rare in science. Seldom does one find such a combination of clearly-focussed thinking and broad human interests in art, people and politics. In brilliancy of conversation he had few rivals. His writings, on whatever subject, were always original, interesting and inspiring. As scientist and man of letters the unique place he held in psychology cannot be filled.

Princeton University


1. Holt, E. B. Eye-movement and central anaesthesia. Psychol. Rev., Monogr. Sup. 1903, 4, No. 17, 3-45. Also in Harvard Psychol. Stud. (H. Münsterberg, Ed.), 1903, 1, 3-45.

2. ——, MARVIN, W. T., MONTAGUE, W. P., PERRY, R. B., PITKIN, W. B., & SPAULDING, E. G. The program and first platform of six realists. J. Phil., Psychol., Sci. Meth., 1910, 7, 393-401.

3. ——. The place of illusory experience in a realistic world. In The New realism. New York: Macmillan, 1912.

4. ——. The concept of consciousness. London: Allen, 1914.

5. ——. The Freudian wish and its place in ethics. New York: Holt, 1915.

6. ——. Animal drive and the learning process, an essay toward radical empiricism. New York: Holt, 1931.

7. ——. The whimsical condition of social psychology, and of mankind. In American philosophy, today and tomorrow. (H. Kallen & S. Hook, Eds.). New York: Lee Furman, Inc., 1935.

8. ——. Eight steps in neuro-muscular integration. In Problems of nervous physiology and of behavior (A symposium dedicated to J. S. Beritoff). Tiflis, U. S. S. R.: Academy of Sciences of U. S. S. R.—Georgian Branch, 1936.

9. LATIF, I. The physiological basis of linguistic development of the ontogeny of meaning. PSYCHOL. REV., 1934, 41, 55-85 (Part I); 153-176 (Part II); 246-264 (Part III).


  1. Throughout this article quotations followed by a date are from personal correspondence.

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