Letter to Charles Darwin August 29, 1872

Chauncey Wright

To Mr. Darwin.

Aug. 29, 1872.

I hope to have the pleasure of calling on you within a few days, and before 'leaving London for the continent. I have, after a long but rapid journey with a party of American friends through Ireland and the North, been resting here for several weeks, or rather trying the anti-tourist plan of making acquaintance with London and its neighborhood ; that is, taking time, instead of doing it by rapid journeys. This seemed like idling at first, but now I am satisfied with the plan ; since it takes time to see any thing well, and especially so great a thing as London.

I was much struck by the suggestive views you give in your last letter[1] of the limits or definition of the effects that can

( 241) properly be ascribed to "man's agency" (or to the agency of free or intelligent wills, as the metaphysical moralists would name it); namely, that intended consequences only are properly attributable to this cause. This, seems to me to simplify matters very much, and to be the common-sense view of the subject ; and to be decisive with reference to the question of the origin of a language in any way essentially different from the origin of other customs or powers or structures in men or in other living beings.

A practical way of testing the matter would be to ask who are responsible or feel themselves to be responsible for the existence of any language ; or who are to be personally credited with the invention, or for any changes or improvements, of a language, — excepting, of course, the inventions and improvements of scientific nomenclatures and those schemes of philosophical language which have been proposed ; but even in these, credit is due for the proposition rather than the adoption or the actual existence and use among men of a form of speech. The test of responsibility is all the more pertinent, since it is agreed on all hands that responsibility or the feeling of it, is the evidence, or at least the mark, of so-called free, personal agency.

There is, however, one apparently serious objection to this test as a substitute for your view. We are held by moralists (not the metaphysical ones only) to be responsible for more than we intend. Therefore, personal agency extends beyond the intended consequences. We are responsible for consequences with which the non-existence of intentions can be charged, as well as for those which are intended. This happens when the existence of intentions which ought to have been ours would have altered the result. This objection, together with the mystical doctrine of theologians regarding the nature of the moral sense, gives rise, I am convinced, to that view of free or intelligent human agency which represents

( 242) it as a line of cause and effect arising in an absolute beginning, thus introducing a condition or an element of causation peculiar and non-natural into whatever effects may be depended on it; and thus making these effects distinct from those that are strictly natural or due to unbroken lines of physical causation. I believe that this view is purely fanciful, or at least poetical ; but that it is implicitly contained in, or lies at the bottom of, such objections as Professor Whitney's to inquiries and positions which are really dealing only with strictly scientific or physical problems, and are not concerned with the truth or falsity of the mystic view of causation, either in human or non-human agency.

But, to make this perfectly clear, it is necessary to consider what is strictly true in the statements that our responsibility extends beyond our intentions, that unintended consequences are therefore ours, and hence that our free agency concerns the beginnings rather than the ends of our actions. These statements, which are taken by the metaphysical moralist as absolute premises, simpliciter, are properly in need of qualification or explanation, secundum quid. They are concerned with the philosophy of moral or personal discipline, the question for what men as moral agents are rationally condemned or approved, punished or rewarded. Obviously, it is for many consequences of their actions which they may not have contemplated or intended, provided discipline tends effectively to bring such consequences, whenever important, under the purview of foreseeing and intelligent agency; that is, whenever intention ought to have been present and efficacious, or can be made so by the requisite discipline. But here the responsibility is a different thing from that sense of accountability that is appealed to as evidence of an absolute personal freedom, since responsibility is not really felt with reference to unforeseen consequences, or is not felt directly and specifically, but only through the obli-

( 243) -gation we feel to be better informed, more careful, or to submit ourselves to the guidance and hence to the correction of the better instructed, and to the ultimate authority on what is right or wrong.

Hence the sphere of human freedom and responsibility, though extending beyond what is actually foreseen as the consequences of our actions, is still within the limit of what might and ought to be known as the consequences of our actions ; that is, either specifically foreseen, or implicitly contained in a moral principle, instinct, precept, or commandment. In other words, this sphere is limited to the objects and means of moral discipline. Its extension beyond the range of actually foreseen consequences has, therefore, nothing to do with strictly scientific or theoretical inquiries concerning that in which neither the foreseeing nor the obedient mind is an agent or factor, but of which the intellect is rather the recorder or mere accountant.

If the question concerning the origin of languages were bow men might or should be made better inventors, or apter followers of the best inventions, instead of being how these inventions have actually arisen and been adopted, there might be some pertinency in insisting on the peculiar character of the choice to which changes in language are due. Moreover, an invention becomes or amounts to a change of language only when adopted by several speakers, or when it is more or less generally agreed to. It is this adoption with which selection is concerned. The inventions, which are, or may be, acts of individual or personal agents only, correspond to the variations in structures and habits from which selection is made in nature generally; and they survive and become customs of speech because they are liked by many speakers.

They are thus, as you say, analogous to the variations in domestic animals and plants that are unintentionally converted by savages or semi-civilized peoples into permanent

( 244) race-differences. Their adoption by the many speakers who fancy them, or choose them for any definite reasons, such as the authority of an influential speaker or writer, ease in pronouncing them, distinctness from other words already appropriated to other meanings, their analogies in sound and sense with other words, and similar reasons, — this adoption seems to me to correspond very closely to what you call " unconscious selection."

It appears to me probable that Professor Whitney had in mind, in denying that this is a case of "natural selection," the narrower meaning of the word "natural," as distinguished not only from systematic, intended, or artificial selection, but also from personal agency altogether; or was speaking from that view of natural phenomena, which, "binding nature fast in fate, leaves free the human will." This was the idea of his objection, which I expressed rather obscurely in a foot-note in my review of Mr. Wallace's book nearly two years ago. I imagine that he was also actuated in giving emphasis to the contrast of "nature" and "man " by his opposition to theories of an original natural language, and especially to Professor Max Müller's theory of roots, "the ding-don- theory," or the idea that invention in speech is governed by certain linguistic instincts, different for different races or groups of races, which affix general meanings a priori to certain sounds; and that his object was to insist on the arbitrary character of all the elements of speech, the roots of etymology as well as their developments. But perhaps I do him injustice by this supposition. Certainly, if he had more carefully considered the theory of natural selection, he would have seen that the theory, as it stands, more nearly accords with the linguistic views which he favors than with those of Professor Müller.

But the theory as it stands is not, it seems to me, inconsistent even with Müller's views, since it ascribes nothing and

(245) denies nothing to variations as a direct cause of changes in species or structures or habits or customs. It only attributes to them opportunities or the conditions for choice, and does not deny to them other forms of agency. Whether linguistic instincts, responsive to certain root vocables, govern the inventions, or rather the adoption of inventions, in any definite or general way, and independently of accidental associations, — or do not, it is certain that these inventions have such a range as to afford the conditions for a kind of choice that accounts for the diversities and continuous changes in languages derived from a common origin ; and for this kind of choice it is obvious that men are neither individually nor jointly responsible in any proper meaning of the term. Whether in such choice they are bound fast in faith, or not, is a metaphysical question. But unless we distinguish man's proper agency from other causes in the way which you propose, we must fall into the greatest confusion with respect to other matters besides the origin of languages. Thus, man is a geological agent. He affects and alters unintentionally the physical forces and conditions of the globe. He changes climate even, and its consequences, by actions designed for other effects. Could there be any sense or true philosophy in attempting to establish in physical geology a clear line of distinction between such agency, and that of other forms of living creatures, like the coral animals, — or even that of lifeless physical causes, —in distinguishing between quarrying, for example, and the agency of frosts and storms, or between the transfer of materials in ships and carts, under the direction of seamen and carters, and the transporting agency of other animals and of winds and water currents ? These distinctions would be of the smallest importance in geology, though they might be essential from a moral or legislative point of view.

But I have written what reads more like an essay than the letter I intended, though I suppose I ought to be held respon-

( 246) -sible for its unintended length. It will appear shorter, however, if we regard it as a brief of the case you have given me to work up, — and a more reasonable letter in view of the advantage writing has over, talk, in continuous or consecutive discussion.

On August 31, Mr. Darwin writes his thanks for this "long and interesting letter," and adds : " I write now to say how very glad I shall be to see you here. . . . I trust that you will come and dine and sleep here. We shall thus see each other much more pleasantly than by a mere call, as you propose."


  1. On June 3, Mr. Darwin had written, thanking Wright for a copy of his article on "Evolution by Natural Selection," which "he had read with great interest." "Nothing," he says, "can be clearer than the way in which you discuss the permanence or fixity of species. . . . As your mind is so clear and as you consider so carefully the meaning of words, I wish you would take some incidental occasion to consider when a thing may properly be said to be effected by the will of man. I have been led to the wish by reading an article by your Professor Whitney versus Schleicher. He argues that, because each step of a change in language is made by the will of man, the whole language so changes ; but I do not think that this is so : a man has no intention or wish to change the language. It is a parallel case with what I have called `unconscious selection,' which depends on men consciously preserving the best individuals, and thus unconsciously altering the breed."

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