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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Throughout the greater part of American intellectual
history, the term “human nature” was used without
explicit definition and in various ways, both descriptive
and normative. It included “mental philosophy,” a
term gradually replaced in the later nineteenth century
by “psychology,” which hitherto enjoyed only infre-
quent use. It is possible to identify four main usages:
(1) those traits that distinguish man from other
creatures in “nature” and from angels and God, the
traits, that is, that give him human identity; (2) man's
original (genetic) equipment at birth, that is, his bio-
logical heritage and his “unlearned” impulses; (3) man's
character and behavior resulting from the interaction
of his heredity and his environmental experiences; and
(4) the identification of human nature with the values
and practical measures that different groups, classes,
and factions universalize in their desire to perpetuate
or to establish. Of these one or more, and sometimes
several at the same time, figured in theology, political,
economic, and social thought, in literature, and in
proverbs and folk sayings.

Ideas in America about the nature of man were for
the greater part of colonial and national experience
eclectic, and in relation to the intellectual history of
Europe, derivative. Nevertheless, long before Ameri-
cans developed distinctive schools of psychology and
the movement known as the behavioral sciences, the
history of ideas about “human nature” is important
because of the particular selections from and combina-
tions of ideas accessible to the New World. That history
is also important because of the bearings of these
choices and combinations of ideas about human nature
on political, social, and economic thought and discus-
sion as well as on belles lettres.

A conception of human nature is implied in colonial
secular writing, whether “promotional literature” to
encourage migration from the Old World, personal
letters and narratives, or pamphlets addressed to ad
hoc political and economic issues. But for the most
part an explicit discussion of human nature was closely
related to three religious movements—to Puritanism,
Quakerism, and Anglicanism. These discussions also
reflected, to be sure, secular ideas as well as the posi-
tion of the writer in the social order; but all of them,
notwithstanding differences of interpretation and em-
phasis, shared the basic Christian idea of man's dualistic
nature: an eternal soul and a corporeal body, often in
conflict since each human being was subject both to
divine and, because of Adam's fall, to satanic direction
and influence. However limited and depraved, man's
human nature still bore some residue of its original
composition, that is, some power of reason and moral

Seventeenth-century Puritanism in New England,
while incorporating portions of classical thought and
Renaissance humanism, and while modifying both the
theology and polity of Calvinism, nevertheless rested
heavily on that system of thought and faith. If New
England's intellectual leaders were “advanced” in
accepting, in place of traditional Aristotelian logic, the
system of the Huguenot reformer Petrus Ramus,
dualistic and Platonic in character, their “psychology”
was largely medieval and scholastic—broadly speaking,
the synthesis that Thomas Aquinas made of Aristotle's
De anima, of Plato's conception of the soul, and of
Hebraic-Christian ideas and traditions. It is important
to keep in mind the fact that seventeenth-century
sermons varied in emphasizing in greater or lesser
measure the more rationalistic concept of Aristotle and
Aquinas and the emotional, intuitive, and even mystical
one of the Cambridge Platonists which anticipated the
image of man in such early eighteenth-century figures
as the metaphysical poet Edward Taylor and in
Jonathan Edwards.

It is possible to reconstruct the Puritan overall con-
cept of the nature of man from John Winthrop's Jour-
from sermons, and from bodies of law and court
proceedings. In the main, however, the image of man
presented by Charles Morton is representative of
prevailing theories of human nature in seventeenth-
century New England. This learned clergyman, on
settling in Massachusetts Bay in 1686, brought copies
of his Compendium physicae, which was used for a
great many years in instruction at Harvard. Indebted
in his discussion of “physics” to Robert Boyle and the
new spirit of the Royal Academy, Morton was also
familiar with Descartes and in a sense tried to reconcile
much of the old with the newer learning. His “psy-
chology,” however, was for the most part traditionally


After discussing the anatomy of the brain and the
nature of “animal spirits,” Morton attributes, to human
beings, reason and a sentiment of the deity, faculties
which “no brute has, at least to any appearance.” If
some men claimed there is no God, this was the result
of a corrupt will and affections, rather than judgment,
which comprised, with the intellect, the faculties God
had implanted in man. Since Morton was primarily
concerned with physics, he felt it necessary to explain
the inclusion of a discussion of spirits or souls, tradi-
tionally the domain of metaphysics and, more lately,
of the new “science” of pneumatics. The faculties or
properties of the soul, which differentiate man from
the brutes, depend somewhat, in their operation, on
the body, and thus are a proper matter to be included
in physics. Souls, defined as beings or forms inde-
pendently created by God, are separately infused with
the body at the moment of creation, so that original
sin proceeds, not from body to body, nor from soul
to soul, nor from the body to the soul, but from man-
kind to the man. The inorganic faculties, or those
immediately proceeding from the nature of the soul,
are intellect and will. Neither of these, in contrast with
the sensory, appetitive, and locomotive powers, is
affixed to any member of the body. The intellect, nev-
ertheless, is said to reside in the head (according to
Descartes, the mind acts on the body through the
pineal gland), so that one speaks of “a good head.”
Likewise, the will, which primarily manages the
appetites and affections, is said to possess the heart
(“I will with all my heart”).

Intellect, or the power of the reasonable (or reli-
gious) soul which enables it to understand the truth,
could be improved by logic and by an understanding
of how ideas are formed. The intellect receives images
or “phantasms” that are then cleared by abstraction
from matter and made “intelligible,” as distinct from
having previously been merely “potential.” Morton
illustrated this process by reference to the way in
which the idea of a true friend is developed. When
one thinks of such at first, he has a phantasm of the
man's person, of the time, circumstances, and nature
of his acts of kindness. Intellect transmutes this
phantasm into an abstraction from the color, stature,
features, and other material conditions that form and
distinguish the “species” of “the real friend.” Having
such an idea, one completes the formal execution out
of the result that the intellect, acting on the object,
has now “intellectuated” or made “understood.” In
many scholastic theories of psychology the intellect is
the king of the faculties, the will the queen, but man's
fall, with Adam and Eve's sin, dislocated their proper
symmetry. Morton defined the will as the power of
the reasonable soul, whereby, after the information
provided by the intellect, the soul “Closeth with Good,
and Shuns Evill” in whatever the object or act. In
contrast with these primary faculties, man also posses-
ses the secondary faculties, properties arising from the
rationality that differentiate him from brutes—that is,
speech, admiration, the human passions, and laughter.
Morton later supplemented this discussion of human
nature. In The Spirit of Man (1693) he emphasized the
general “grayness” of human infirmity, and individual
differences in mental and moral talents. He also urged
self-analysis and sustained effort for governing one's
spirit, with a recognition of continual need for assist-
ance from on High. It was not that man could “expell”
his “nature,” but rather that he might “order and
govern” his natural dispositions and inclinations both
for God's glory and service and for his own comfort
and advantage.

Notwithstanding new movements of thought across
the Atlantic that were greatly to alter ideas about the
nature of man, traditional views persisted in America.
As late as 1714 Samuel Johnson, an eighteen-year-old
tutor at Yale, on the verge of discovering the new
learning that was later to inform his own major philo-
sophical treatises, made a summary abridgment of the
old scholastic system. In the light of Scripture, reason,
sense perception, experience, and induction, Johnson
postulated the separate faculties of the “rational soul”
and related these to the members of the corporeal body
which are suited to the operations of the soul, which
in turn is the principle of these operations. The discus-
sion of the faculty of appetite, by which the animal
spirits (which animate emotions, respiration, the beat-
ing of the pulse) are excited, added something to Mor-
ton's account. But in summing up Johnson's description
of the nature of man, a historian of the early develop-
ment of American psychology was not unfair in
describing it as “Plato shorn of his poetry, Aristotle
without his breadth and acuteness of observation and
his carefully qualified conclusions, Thomas Aquinas
without his logical subtlety” (Fay, p. 16).

This Ramean emphasis on the rationality of the
universe and on the power of the faculty of reason
at least to glimpse God's plan was supplemented by
the metaphysical conception of the Covenant of Grace,
the process by which God enabled His “chosen” or
“elect” to become regenerate. Far from being a mere
emotional cataclysm, the infusion of grace elevated
reason, purifying it of its corruption and enabling the
redeemed to see, with this spiritual light, further into
God's plan.

The seventeenth-century Puritan conception of uni-
versal human limitations, greater in some, less in others,
was reflected in social and economic pronounce-
ments and arrangements. William Bradford justified


Plymouth's abandonment of the initial communal
economy on the ground of the unequal distribution of
talents and incentives for achievement. In the Puritan
mind, inequality of status reflected inequality of innate
endowment and thus of God's favor. In A Brief Exposi-
tion with Practicall Observations
(1657) John Cotton
declared that just as the strongest are most able to
battle, just as men of knowledge are most apt to win
heavenly favor, so men of understanding are most apt
to attain riches. Thomas Hooker (The Soules Vocation
or Effectual Calling to Christ,
1638) never knew a man
“desperately poor, but his heart was desperately
proud.” While John Eliot could remind the poor that
poverty must ever be an example of the price of sinful
conduct (The Harmony of the Gospels..., 1678),
charitable relief was, if carefully hedged, a Christian
duty. “For the poor that can work and won't, the best
liberality,” Cotton Mather wrote, “is to make them.”
On the other hand, in view of universal human deprav-
ity, men might give way to an insatiable craving for
wealth; and with this in mind John Cotton laid down
the tenet that “we are never to desire more than we
have good use of.” Late in the century Cotton Mather
emphasized anew the doctrine of the stewardship of
wealth. God alone is the true owner, hence the rich
man is merely His steward, to be held to account for
the uses he has made of his riches, and these uses should
include charity and gifts for the public weal (Essays
to Do Good,
1710). In further recognition of human
greed, and in accord with the ethical and economic
teachings of Thomas Aquinas, Puritan Massachusetts
tried to impose for a time “the just price” as well as
“the just wage.” That is, man's innately sinful tenden-
cies were to be regulated by the state for the good
of the whole.

Political theory likewise reflected the Puritan con-
ception of human nature. In denouncing democracy,
whether in church or civil government, John Cotton
(The Pouring Out of the Seven Vials, 1642) declared
that corruption always starts from the inherently cor-
rupt, stable “people,” not from the top, the superiorly
endowed rulers. Similar ideas, reflecting a commitment
to the inequality of human beings, found expression
again and again, nowhere, perhaps, more pointedly
than in the Reverend William Hubbard's Election
Sermon of 1676 in which he declared that “the greatest
part of mankind, are but as tools and instruments for
others to work by, rather than any proper agents to
effect anything for themselves. Needing a shepherd to
keep them, in time of peace, from destroying them-
selves by sloth, they need, in war, a shepherd even
more, lest they permit themselves to be destroyed by
others.” Yet since corruption was universal in human
nature, opposition to the unlimited exercise of author
ity found expression in both verbal and active protests
—Samuel Gorton and Roger Williams are well-known

Puritan education also reflected the belief in a
human nature in which intellectual gifts were unevenly
distributed, despite the presence of some part of the
rational faculty in everyone (the male more than the
female), and in a persisting conflict between reason and
the lower passions, the one pointing to truth, the other
to error. Thus Harvard College was designed to pro-
vide for the cultivation of superior intellects for roles
in ecclesiastical and civil leadership. The belief that
metaphors and adornments in prose writing served the
passions, provided a rationale for the “Plain style.” The
establishment of town schools testified to the belief in
the possibility and importance of developing such rea-
son as God had implanted in His human creatures, in
order that they might better understand His laws as
exemplified in the Bible Commonwealth, and thus keep
the lower passions in check. What a few mission-
ary-teachers did for the Indians implemented the idea
that these degraded, corrupt, and vicious creatures,
whom God had permitted the Devil to rule, still had
capacity for Christian conversion and rational devel-
opment, even if this could be effected only by extermi-
nating the majority in a just war, that the remnant
might be brought to light and civilization.

Such an oversimplified summary leaves out telling
examples of ways in which the seventeenth-century
Puritan image of man was reflected or applied in daily
life: Winthrop's faith that notwithstanding man's total
depravity, the favorable condition of the isolated envi-
ronment of the New World might bring out and en-
courage the best human possibilities; Winthrop's fur-
ther observation that a woman who had lost her
“understanding and reason” because of devotion to
reading and writing, should not have meddled “in such
things as are proper for men, whose minds are
stronger” (Journal, II, 225); the rejection of any non-
organic or functional conception of insanity, and the
consequent attribution of it either to a deformity in
the brain or to the triumph of the Devil in the perpet-
ual war he waged for the human soul; and the
exemplification of almost every Puritan idea about
human nature in the Salem witchcraft outbreak which,
in Perry Miller's words, was “for the seventeenth cen-
tury, not only plausible but scientifically rational”
(Miller [1953], p. 191).

The use in Harvard classes of manuscript copies of
William Brattle's Compendium logicae secundum
principia, D. Renati Cartesii
for almost half a century
before its publication in 1735, was one indication of
the impact of the Cartesian psychology on the teaching
of logic. But the most important shifts in the Puritan


concept of human nature came in the early decades
of the eighteenth century and were related not only
to the increasing secularization of life in New England
but to the uses made of both traditional and of new
movements of thought received from the Old World.

John Wise's tracts for justifying the older congrega-
tional organization of the churches and for opposing
assertions of British authority in secular affairs rest in
good part on a theory of human nature. This by no
means broke drastically with the past. It recognized
the innately good and bad in man, the existence of
the elect and of superior talent, and the authority of
Scripture. But it emphasized the rational component
in human nature to an even greater extent than had
been traditionally the case, and it invoked, in explain-
ing the origin of civil society and in justifying the
limitation of human authority and a broadly based
consent if not participation in the direction of human
affairs, a more secular view of natural law. In the state
of nature, Wise asseverated, men possessed three
“immunities” imprinted on their very nature: a
sufficient reason to discover the law of nature to which
man is at all times subject; a rational liberty under
the law of nature; and an equality of condition, to the
extent, at least, that all men are children of God and
enter and leave the world in the same way. But since
men possess self-love and self-interest as well as a
sociable disposition or “an affection or love to mankind
in general,” it was expedient to move from the state
of nature through contract, to the civil state, the better
to control self-love and self-interest, and to make the
more operationally effective the inherent associative
or affectional gift. The implications of this concept of
human nature, which Wise made explicit in The
Churches Quarrel Espoused
(1715) and A Vindication
of the Government of New-England Churches
1772), pointed toward a more elevated concept of
human nature, capable of coping with life's prob-
lems through reason to a greater extent than had been
traditionally the case. Wise's portrait of man empha-
sized an innate sociability to a greater degree than had
Locke's; it repudiated Hobbes's exclusion of the
efficacy of an innate love for others; and it made ad
hoc applications of Pufendorf's natural law philosophy.

A few decades after Wise, Jonathan Edwards,
responding to some of the newer movements of
thought, to the concern he felt for the attenuation of
Calvinism, and to the religious revivals of the 1740's,
developed a more systematic and a more original con-
ception of man's nature. In view of its Platonic element
and of the emotional intensity and anxieties of seven-
teenth-century Puritanism, Jonathan Edwards' empha-
sis on intuition and the religious affections, or on emo-
tions, was not entirely new. Yet in accepting the rising
“sensational” psychology of John Locke while he was
a young student at Yale and in attaching at the same
time great importance to intuitional truth, Edwards
achieved an impressive synthesis of old and new in
which his psychology has special importance.

In rejecting the traditional compartmentalization of
body and mind of most scholastic or faculty psycholo-
gies, Edwards reduced all reality to a spiritual
monism—and apparently without benefit of Berkeley.
At the same time he insisted on the indispensable
importance of “sensational” experience as the first step
toward understanding and directing the religious emo-
tions or affections toward the love of God—that is,
toward “true virtue.” The deference to Lockean “en-
vironmentalism” was evident in his explanation of why,
in view of the ubiquity and identity of human nature
everywhere, the Greeks developed a great philosophy
of the mind in contrast with the Scythians: Edwards
found the answer in the stimulating commercial ex-
changes of the Greeks and other peoples (Works, II,
477). Recognition of the Lockean psychology also ex-
plains in part why Edwards used concrete emotion-
provoking rhetoric in his revivalist sermons. Since true
religion involves both the understanding and the will
together with the encircling emotions, Edwards felt
it necessary to defend the deterministic implications
of Calvinism which were being challenged by
Arminianism. He developed a mediating position
which held that men are free to will what their strong-
est inclinations (emotions) impel them toward while
they are not free to “will” their inclinations—the free-
dom to choose without the freedom of the choices to
be chosen. These were major contributions to psycho-
logical problems that helped establish Edwards' con-
temporary reputation at home and abroad as an origi-
nal thinker—a reputation meeting with appreciation
on the part of modern psychologists. Beyond this, the
Great Awakening, in which he played a notable part,
contributed to making the emotionally religious expe-
rience a participatory one for the newly awakened,
plain people. This sense of individual self-awareness,
of an immediately felt importance in the sight of God,
inspired later revivalists to develop these implications
in promoting both democratic action and humanitar-
ian reform.

Though Puritanism and Anglicanism were similar in
a great many ways, the only systematic colonial
formulation by an Anglican brought out important
differences in the concepts of man. Samuel Johnson,
who was Edwards' tutor at Yale, led a small group of
young men into the Church of England. Like Edwards,
Johnson tried to reconcile orthodox Christian theology
with the new learning of Bacon, Newton, and Locke.
The Church of England offered him an opportunity


on the one hand to combat a trend toward “natural
religion” and “deism” and, on the other hand, to find
a more congenial theology than Calvinism. The philo-
sophical idealism that Johnson found useful to this end
was that of Bishop Berkeley, who lived for a time in
Newport. In distinguishing between pure intellect and
sensation and in his analysis of intuitive evidence,
Johnson went beyond his master. His psychology,
which he developed in A System of Morality (1746)
and more comprehensively in Elementa philosophica
..., which Franklin printed in 1752 as the first Amer-
ican textbook in philosophy, indicate familiarity with
Hobbes, Hume, Leibniz, Locke, and Wolff, an impor-
tant formulator of faculty psychology, as well as
Berkeley. His references to man's relations with ani-
mals and his treatment of the learning process of chil-
dren give him a place in the history of genetic psy-
chology; and his discussion of cognition, judgment,
affection, conation, and the sense of beauty, showed
some independence of thinking. In his philosophical
writings and in his sermons, Johnson stressed man's
rationality and natural desire for happiness. The road
to happiness, he held, lay in the glorification of God
in a rational manner and in subordinating the unruly
passions to reason and order. Although as an Arminian
Johnson made a place for a modified “free will” and
moral responsibility, he emphasized, increasingly as he
grew older, the dependency of man, as a sinner, on
God's grace, which perfected human nature rather than
transforming it, as some evangelical revivalists held.
Johnson's philosophy, which was taught at King's Col-
lege (later Columbia University) during the time he
presided over the institution (1754-63), made little
appeal and exercised slight influence even among
Anglicans. Yet a historian of American psychology finds
nothing superior to it at the time on either side of the
Atlantic (Fay, p. 42).

The most important exemplification of the Quaker
theory of human nature is that to be found in John
Woolman's Journal and Essays (1774; 1922). Recog-
nizing as inborn taints and corruptions such powerful
impulses as pride, vanity, greed, and self-love, Wool-
man nevertheless believed that God had also implanted
in man the capacity for love of and compassion toward
his fellow creatures. Through the power of truth and
spiritual strength which is possible when the heart is
opened to God, man could wean himself away from
the desire for outward greatness, luxury, and greed—
traits that result in such evils as slavery, war, and
indifference to the impoverishment of one's fellow
men. The unity of mankind would recognize no bar-
riers of race, color, or condition—if the believer lifts
himself above self-deception. Woolman had a keen
sense of what modern psychology calls “ration
alization.” John Woolman's religious mysticism, a
matter of the inner self, was integrally related to an
outward expression of opposing social evils and the
extension of Christian love to all human beings. Since
Woolman perceived that customs and opinions re-
ceived by youth from their parents and other superiors
became like “the natural Produce of a Soil, especially
when they are suited to favourite Inclinations,” he
attached great importance to child-rearing and educa-
tion. In terms of upbringing and social environment
he explained why Negroes developed sloth and other
habits odious to whites. Consideration of “these and
other Circumstances... will lessen that too great
Disparity which some make between us and them.”

In his emphasis on humanitarianism Woolman
looked forward to one characteristic of the concept
of human nature associated with the Enlightenment.
At the risk of great oversimplification, it is possible
to say that the similarities between what has been
thought of as the Age of Reason image of man and
that of Puritanism were in some ways greater than the
differences. Both conceived of human nature in static
rather than in evolutionary or dynamic terms; both
gave an important place to reason in man's makeup;
and both emphasized the limitations in man's equip-
ment—the philosophers of the Enlightenment attach-
ing even more importance to the lust for power than
had the Puritan writers. Nevertheless the differences
were also of great importance: the Age of Reason
rejected the Special Providences or “interference” of
God with the laws of nature and man, and emphasized
the idea that the universe is a rational order capable
of being understood by man's reason, if unfettered by
religious dogma and if aided by the methods of natural
science. Several Enlightenment thinkers attached great
importance, in the molding of man, to climate and
social institutions. Among these some held that man's
irrational behavior resulted from the influence of
outworn, irrational institutions—monarchical, feudal,
priestly. Still other Enlightenment thinkers rejected the
ancient dualistic conception of man, substituting for
it a monistic and materialistic one.

No one American incorporated in his thinking all
of these ideas. Nor did any American of the late eigh-
teenth and early nineteenth centuries develop a sys-
tematic exposition of human nature in terms of the
assumptions that Enlightenment thinkers had made.
Nevertheless these ideas about human nature found
expression in American thought and some of them
exerted a direct and positive influence on public action.

Broadly speaking, the ideas that may be regarded
as most “innovative” or “radical” played a minor role
on the American scene. Such ideological orators as
Tunis Wortman did, to be sure, accept the idea of


human perfectibility. This concept also appealed to
such writers as Joel Barlow, Philip Freneau, and
Charles Brockden Brown. Another example is worth
noting because it both reflected the ideas of William
Godwin and his circle in Britain and anticipated the
Owenite and Fourieristic communitarianism of the
1830's and 1840's. The utopian “novel,” Equality; a
History of Lithconia,
first issued as a serial in 1802 in
The Temple of Reason, a Philadelphia weekly paper,
was probably written by Dr. James Reynolds, a
democratic activist. The author maintained that the
causes of the malevolent passions might be uprooted
only in a society which repudiates private property,
family pride, and jealousy, along with other prevailing
institutions that thwart man's natural endowment of
rational and moral gifts, the realization of which alone
could result in happiness.

Nor did the monistic, “materialistic” and mecha-
nistic conception of human nature associated with
Cabanis, Tracy, d'Holbach, Helvétius, and La Mettrie
become an important or widely held view of man. It
is true that these writers appealed to Thomas Jefferson,
who defined thinking as “a mode of action” and a
“particular organization of matter.” Such a position
ruled out revealed religion and metaphysics as means
of understanding the mind, and placed the mind
squarely within nature. Religious opposition kept
Jefferson from appointing Thomas Cooper to the fac-
ulty of the newly founded University of Virginia.
Cooper shared the materialistic philosophy of Joseph
Priestley and, like him, had fled from the reactionary
England of the late eighteenth century. Cooper
espoused a strict psychological materialism and trans-
lated Broussais' On Irritation and Insanity (1831) to
support his conviction that mental processes are ex-
plicable in terms of the motions of the nervous system.

A similarly monistic materialism informed the re-
markable if crude book of a Kentucky physician,
inventor, champion of Pestalozzian education, and
empirical investigator of vision—Joseph Buchanan. His
Philosophy of Human Nature (1812) warranted his
reputation as “the earliest native physiological
psychologist” (Riley, p. 395). The much more impor-
tant Benjamin Rush, who wrote Medical Inquiries and
Observations Upon the Diseases of the Mind
might be regarded as a materialist inasmuch as he
attributed all operations of the mind to motions excited
in the brain. But in fact he did not completely move
away from dualism, since he described “the causes of
insanity” as both physical (diseases, poisoning, injuries)
and mental (intense concentration, worry, anxiety). It
remained for his little known and eccentric son, James
Rush, to present a consistently physiological and “ma-
terialistic” treatment—A Brief Outline of an Analysis
of the Human Intellect
(1865). Among other things
James Rush anticipated the later behavioristic concept
of thought as subvocal speech.

These highly heterodox ideas associated with the
Enlightenment were much less influential than “envi-
ronmentalism” in both the physical and social sense.
It derived in large part from Locke's and Hartley's
theories that ideas are the result of sense impressions,
reflections on these, and the laws of association. A
well-known example of the use of the environmental
theory in the discussion of race is Samuel Stanhope
Smith's An Essay on the Causes and Variety of Com-
plexion and Figure in the Human Species
Rejecting the idea that God created diverse races, this
Presbyterian divine and Princeton professor argued in
favor of one original race and explained differences
in color and character in terms of climate and social
institutions. Jefferson, stopping short of accounting for
the “inferiority” of Negroes on the basis of historical
and environmental handicaps, nevertheless also set
great store on the influence of environment, physical
and social, in delineating man's character and conduct.
Holding human nature to be the same on both sides
of the Atlantic and a “constant” over time, Jefferson
empirically refuted the absurd contention of Buffon
and other prestigious French savants that American
environment accounted for an alleged physical deteri-
oration of animal species. On the contrary, Jefferson
found that the American environment was favorable
to all species, including the human. If human nature
did not change, the human condition, Jefferson held,
did change under favorable conditions. Thanks to
America's freedom from the tyranny of kings, nobles,
and priests and to its abundant free lands, Jefferson
saw in the American man, particularly in the yeoman,
a superior example of the human condition. Given the
continuing availability of free lands and abundant re-
sources, free schools and a free press Jefferson felt that
in America the human condition, despite the menace
of slavery, stood a good chance of further improve-
ment. In emphasizing the great importance of educa-
tion, the author of the Declaration of Independence
expressed one of the most favored ideas associated with
the belief in man's rationality and susceptibility to
improvement, through the cultivation of both mind and
moral sense.

In some measure Jefferson, despite the optimistic
view of human nature implied in the Declaration of
Independence, shared the preponderant late eight-
eenth-century idea that man is innately both good and
bad. To be sure, his political opponents, Alexander
Hamilton, John Adams, and John Marshall, emphasized
to a much greater extent than he did the innate selfish-
ness, vanity, lust for power, and corruptibility of human


nature—characteristics deemed innate and ineradica-
ble. In this regard they were influenced by the
Calvinistic doctrine of depravity and even more by
Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Mandeville. With such a low
view of human nature it became, in their minds, im-
perative to devise forms of government designed to
check man's baser passions: this could best be done
by checks and balances and by allocating power to
a “natural aristocracy” which, however susceptible to
man's limitations, nevertheless, by birth, education, and
wealth, could be counted on to bring rationality and
morality to bear in the making of public decisions. Such
a position informed discussions in the Constitutional
convention (Lovejoy, Lecture 2), in The Federalist, and
in the private correspondence of Hamilton, Jay,
Madison, Adams, and, at times, Jefferson. With an
ingenious system of constitutional techniques for
safeguarding the interests of minorities this image of
man subsequently played an important part in John
C. Calhoun's political theory. In The Disquisition on
(1851) the champion of southern states'
rights as against federal authority argued the necessity
of meeting the problem created by the fact that rulers
oppress the ruled, human nature being what it is, while
the ruled, when possessing the means for so doing,
inevitably resist the rulers. This whole emphasis on the
unequal distribution of superior faculties in a generally
unfavorable portrait of human nature was also a com-
ponent of the pro-slavery argument.

Benjamin Franklin shared many of his contem-
poraries' misgivings about human nature. Because he
has been regarded as “characteristically American” his
views warrant comment. Like others who subscribed
to the naturalistic assumptions of the Enlightenment,
Franklin rejected the idea of original sin. He did not,
in consequence, assume that man might reach angelic
heights. Accepting the idea of the Great Chain of Being
he believed that men must operate at the particular
level in the order of creation to which they are
assigned. They might, however, restrain their passions
and irrationality by deliberately cultivating good
habits, the effect of which would be to promote both
personal happiness and the well-being of mankind.
Franklin's own success in overcoming hardships and
in achieving fame as a self-made man, together with
the cheerful “constitution” with which he apprecia-
tively felt nature had endowed him, explained his belief
that, with all man's limitations, human kind might still
achieve relative virtue and happiness. Add to this a
sense of human equality and the pragmatic character
he ascribed to human thinking at its best, and one has
what may fairly be regarded as the most widely held
American view of human nature.

Franklin, like Jefferson, shared many of the concepts
of the Scottish Enlightenment. The idea of an innate
moral sense was especially appealing. This idea,
antithetical to Locke's conception of the mind as tabula
rasa at birth had, of course, a long history, reaching
back at least to Stoicism. But it was the Scottish
philosophers, Hutcheson, Reid, and Dugald Stewart,
along with Shaftesbury, who gave it a modern idiom.
The popularity in America of the Scottish common-
sense philosophers can be explained by the search,
during the reaction against the deism of the Enlighten-
ment, for a philosophy that would provide support for
a belief in an innate moral sense, in the unity of the
soul, in freedom of the will, and for a more congenial
image of man than the analytical and atomistic one
of Locke's sensationalism and Hartley's associationism.
The Scots taught that there is an objective reality, the
proof of which was the existence of principles prior
to and independent of experience (James McCosh, The
Scottish Philosophy
... [1874], pp. 2-10). Thus a phi-
losophy was at hand that offered a refutation of Hume's
skepticism and the materialistic implications of
Lockean psychology. The Scottish philosophy was
popularized by academics who prepared textbooks in
mental and moral philosophy that, however simplified
and eclectic, leaned heavily on it. The more widely
used texts included those of Francis Bowen, Francis
Wayland, Joseph Haven, Asa Mahan, and Mark
Hopkins, to name only a few.

The most original of these texts were those of
Thomas Upham, professor of mental and moral philos-
ophy at Bowdoin College and a leading opponent of
war and slavery. Upham borrowed not only from Reid,
Stewart, and Hamilton; he was also familiar with con-
temporary French and German philosophy as well as
with general literature and travel accounts that antici-
pated later ethnology. Unlike most of his colleagues
in other institutions who prepared texts, he included
an exposition of the nervous system, pathological be-
havior, and animal and child psychology. With the help
of Asa Burton, an obscure but original parson in
Thetford, Vermont, he conceived a way of distin-
guishing between the feelings and the will which put
new life into the tripartite classification of the human
faculties. He made the faculties of intellect, sensation,
and will interdependent rather than separately operat-
ing mental functions and in so doing looked forward
to what was to become a characteristically American
emphasis, that is, functional psychology. What also
especially distinguished Upham from the often over-
intellectualist tone of his contemporaries was his em-
phasis on emotions—here he was looking back, per-
haps, to Jonathan Edwards. “A knowledge of human
nature in the common apprehension of the phrase,”
Upham wrote, “does not so much imply a knowledge


of perception and reasoning as a knowledge of the
springs of action, back of the intellect, which, in the
shape of the emotions and passions, give an impulse
and a character to the conduct of both individuals and
communities” (Elements of Mental Philosophy [1831],
II, 26-27). A British reviewer of Upham's Philosophical
and Practical Treatise of the Will
(1834) regarded the
book as the most consistent example of the use of the
Baconian method in mental science to be found in the
English language, while a historian of American psy-
chology has discovered in Upham such modern ideas
as mental set, individual differences, introversion and
extroversion, rationalization, the emergence of sup-
pressed desires in perverted forms, and the James-Lange
theory of emotions (Fay, pp. 106-08).

Until well after the Civil War the political economy
taught in American colleges derived support both from
faculty psychology, which held that mind is composed
of a number of “powers” or agencies such as memory,
will, and attention, and from the not incompatible
image of man generally shared by the classical econo-
mists. In Benthamite terms, this ascribed to human
nature a tendency to avoid pain and to realize pleasure
with rational calculation of the means of advancing
self-interest. In the words of Wesley C. Mitchell the
common-sense philosophy saw the prevailing “eco-
nomic organization as a beautiful illustration of the
contrivances of the Creator for the benefit of human-
ity.” Stress was also put on the beautiful harmony of
relationships found under a competitive system which
indicated precisely that “a man got what he merited
and that the institution of private property contributed
to general well-being by giving everybody a strong
inducement to produce more than he consumed himself
in order that he might add to his own ownership”
(Mitchell, p. 115). As one of the best known authorities
of the time, Francis Bowen of Harvard, put it, “It is
true that men are usually selfish in the pursuit of
wealth; but it is a wise and benevolent arrangement
of Providence, that even those who are thinking only
of their own credit and advantage, are led, uncon-
sciously but surely, to benefit others. The contrivance
by which this end is effected—this reconciliation of
private aims with the public advantage—is often com-
plex, far-reaching, and intricate; and thus more strongly
indicates the benevolent purpose of the Designer”
(American Political Economy... [1890], p. 15).

What the faculty psychology or mental and moral
philosophy, with its ethical and economic implications,
was to the educated classes, phrenology was to the
common man. Phrenology removed psychology alto-
gether from the realm of metaphysics. Originally, as
developed by two Austrian physicians, Franz Joseph
Gall and Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, phrenology was
an empirical study of the physical manifestations of
temperaments (nervous, bilious, sanguine, lymphatic)
and, more importantly, of the anatomy and physiology
of the brain which located in its various parts the
sensations and the powers of the mind—the list of
“propensities” included amativeness, benevolence,
combativeness, veneration, and many others. Accord-
ing to phrenology as it was developed, the desirable
propensities might be consciously cultivated, the
undesirable ones, inhibited. The visit of Spurzheim to
America, where he died in 1832, and the subsequent
sojourn of the Scottish phrenological leader and moral
philosopher, George Combe (Essay on the Constitution
of Man,
1828, 1833) aroused the interest of medical
men and of such leading intellectuals as Benjamin
Silliman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Mann, Samuel
Gridley Howe, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, and
Henry Ward Beecher.

Although Calvinists and many evangelical leaders
felt that phrenology contradicted Scripture, and
although most physicians became critical, phrenology
influenced psychiatry, criminology, and pedagogy. In
contrast with its career in Europe, phrenology in
America was democratized as well as commercialized
through the press, the itinerant lecturer and “demon-
strator,” and such diagnostic and advisory centers as
those of O. S. Fowler and S. R. Wells in New York
City. It became a cult which for many years served
the need the common man felt for a philosophy of
human nature that could be readily understood, as a
practical guide to the selection of proper mates and
vocations and, above all, for self-improvement. The
appeal of phrenology is further explained by its useful-
ness in the mid-nineteenth-century atmosphere of
moral optimism, extreme individualism, and the wide-
spread search for and belief in the possibility of
achieving worldly success and happiness.

Competing images of man challenged the dominant
mid-nineteenth-century view of human nature as it was
presented by the mental and moral philosophers and,
on the popular level, by the phrenologists. Unitarian-
ism, which appealed chiefly to a small, educated and
well-to-do New England elite, rejected the doctrine
of original sin but retained the rational and ethical
components of Calvinism. It also adopted the natural-
ism, environmentalism, optimism, and humanitarianism
of the Age of Reason. In emphasizing the fatherhood
of a loving God it endowed His sons with a larger share
of divine attributes—above all with dignity—than was
the case among the traditional and the more popular
religious organizations. But the emphasis on reason as
against emotion and on detachment led to another
protest—transcendentalism. This loosely bound group
of ideas attached less importance to the traditional


conception of generic man than to the unique individ-
ual. The emphasis was also on each individual's capac-
ity for imagination, sensibility, ecstasy, on an ability
spontaneously and intuitively to experience the uni-
versal in the concrete, to achieve through self-culture
and rapport with nature the higher self—to become
one with an organic, living universe, with supreme
reality, with absolute truth. This way of looking at
human nature was in varying degrees influenced by
Platonism and Neo-Platonism, Oriental mysticism,
German idealistic philosophy, and a reaction against
what appeared to be the excessive materialism of an
America engaged in conquering the wilderness and in
building factories, machines, and cities.

Such a “transcendentalist” image of man found
expression in the educational ideas and experiments of
Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Peabody, in the com-
munitarianism at Brook Farm and Fruitlands, in
George Bancroft's historical explanation of the rise of
America as the Hegelian unfolding of the world spirit,
in the aesthetics and the romantic feminism of
Margaret Fuller, in the nature-appreciation and social
dissent of Henry David Thoreau, in the gnomic poems
and evocative essays of Emerson, and in the synthesis
Walt Whitman made of mystical and ego-centered
views of human nature, on the one hand, and the
concrete democratic realities of everyday American
life, on the other. While the humanitarianism of the
period owed much to evangelical Christianity, and
particularly to the revivalism of Charles G. Finney,
it was also indebted to the transcendentalist image of
man as expressed in Emerson's remark, “Man is born
to be a re-former.”

Still other manifestations of the “romantic” impulse
in the discussion of human nature included the
Dionysian conflict in Poe's poems of mystery and
beauty and in his gothic tales. The paradox in James
Fenimore Cooper's novels between primitivism and
civilization was another example of a “romantic”
image of man.

At least two efforts to present systematically a psy-
chology encompassing some part of this view of human
nature deserve comment. Frederic Rauch, a German
theologian trained at Marburg and Giessen and a
member of Heidelberg's philosophical faculty until he
was forced to leave, became President of Marshall
College in 1836 and published, five years later, his
Psychology or a View of the Human Soul, including
(1841). This was the first work in English
both to use the term “psychology” in the title and to
present in modified version the Kantian and post-
Kantian, particularly the Hegelian, philosophy of
human nature. Rauch expressed dissatisfaction with
current views of body and mind as two substances and
suggested that they be regarded as one would regard
the sunlight and raindrops in a rainbow. He denied
the existence of independent faculties and regarded the
growth of the mind as the growth of a plant from a
seed. In his view reason and the will function inter-
dependently—the concept of freedom of the will is
rejected in view of the influence of environment on
the mind as well as the influence of the mind on the
body and on the environment. The treatise was some-
what exceptional in discussing individual, sexual, and
racial differences and in delineating the effects of envi-
ronment on temperament, sleep, and dreams.

Laurens P. Hickok's Rational Psychology (1849) was,
like Rauch's work, inspired by German idealistic phi-
losophy. Regarded by some as the first profound treat-
ment of epistemology in America since Jonathan
Edwards, Hickok's treatise was notable in trying to
reach a priori principles free from the subjectivity of
Kantian categories and for stressing the “constructive”
powers of the mind. Hickok saw in reason, which with
sensibility and understanding constitute the faculties
of the mind, an intuitive insight. His ethical views were
basically Kantian. Though extended through the writ-
ings and teaching of his pupil, John Bascom, Hickok's
influence was relatively limited, important though his
work was from a technical point of view.

The generally optimistic tone of all these images of
man may in part be explained by the objective realities
in American life which supported the belief in
“progress” and by the fact that, save for the Civil War,
the country was spared most of the great tragic experi-
ences of many other peoples—more or less constant
war, famine, pestilence, and foreign military occupa-

The faculty and rational psychology, so central in
American assumptions about human nature, continued
to dominate the academic scene long after a revolu-
tionary movement known as “the new psychology” got
under way in Great Britain and Germany. It began
even before mid-century with Charles Bell's and
Marshall Hall's investigations of the nervous systems,
and made rapid strides in Germany where Ernst
Weber, Gustav Fechner, Hermann von Helmholtz, and,
later, Wilhelm Wundt developed laboratory methods
for measuring sensation, memory, and perception. The
new scientific study of mental phenomena, known as
psychophysics and physiological psychology, rejected
the traditional view that “mind” could be studied
abstractly, by introspection alone, and without specific
reference to physics and physiology. It assumed on the
contrary that mental phenomena could be understood
only in terms of the controlled and experimental study
of the organic, unified human being. While British
empiricism and associationism initially provided a


philosophical context for specific laboratory investi-
gations of mental phenomena and behavior, the publi-
cation of Darwin's three works, Origin of Species
(1859), Descent of Man (1871), and The Expression of
the Emotions in Man and Animals
(1872), marked a
revolutionary shift in theory. The evolutionary hy-
pothesis substituted a dynamic view of human nature
for one that had regarded man's constitution as static
and unchangeable. The new view provided a new
setting for the discussion of heredity and environment,
and, in assuming an intimate and genetic relationship
between the higher primates, human infants, and the
matured individual, stimulated the development of
animal and child psychology.

In the United States the first impressive discussion
of the new psychology was that of Edward L. Youmans,
a disciple of Herbert Spencer and an effective popu-
larizer. In an address entitled “Observations on the
Scientific Study of Human Nature” (The Culture
Demanded by Modern Life,
pp. 373-408) Youmans
rejected the ancient dualism (body as the seat of a
lower material nature, mind that of a higher spiritual
nature). He insisted that “man, as a problem of study,
is simply an organism of varied powers and activities
and that the true office of scientific inquiry is to deter-
mine the mechanism, modes, and laws of its action.”
Citing the recent experimental literature and suggest-
ing some of the implications of the new movement
for the treatment of the mentally ill, for education,
and for everyday life, Youmans concluded that the new
science was only in its infancy.

Within the next two decades young Americans
sought out the new psychological laboratories in
Germany, especially that of Wilhelm Wundt in
Leipzig, and returned to set up laboratories in the
major American universities. The pioneer American
contribution to the new experimental psychology,
however, was that of C. S. Peirce and one of his Johns
Hopkins students, Joseph Jastrow. Interested in
measuring the smallest perceptible differences in sen-
sation, Peirce and Jastrow demonstrated experi-
mentally that when slight differences between two
stimuli of weights or surfaces were reduced below the
so-called physiological threshold, a subconscious regis-
tration operated. The pressure-balance devised for this
investigation was the forerunner of all the improved
pressure-balances later employed, the use of which
confirmed the Peirce-Jastrow finding (Murchison, I,

One young American who was to become a leader
in the new psychology, James McKeen Cattell, worked
not only as a student in the Leipzig laboratory, but
also went to England to acquaint himself with the
pioneer work of Francis Galton in devising tests and
statistical measurements for intelligence. The labora-
tory researches of the European-trained exponents of
the new psychology, and of those of their students,
supplemented the work of the Europeans and in time
gave new dimensions to it. By the end of the century
the new psychology had largely overshadowed tradi-
tional mental philosophy except in a few centers, nota-
bly Catholic institutions. In an address at the Interna-
tional Congress of Arts and Sciences at St. Louis in
1904 Cattell reflected the optimism of the new psy-
chology in declaring that he saw no reason “why the
application of systematized knowledge to the control
of human nature may not in the course of the present
century accomplish results commensurate with the
nineteenth-century applications of physical science to
the natural world” (Popular Science Monthly, 66
[1904-05], 186).

The evolutionary theory of human nature not only
affected the investigations in the laboratories. It also
provided a new context for the discussion of human
nature. To some intellectual leaders the evolutionary
theory suggested that what was called human nature
had changed but little, and that in view of this it was
futile to expect melioristic changes or the elimination
of institutions deeply rooted in human nature. Thus
Henry Ward Beecher, the most celebrated of Protestant
preachers, said, in commenting on the Franco-Prussian
conflict of 1870, that war is the “remnant in man of
that old fighting animal from which Mr. Darwin says
we sprang.” War, he went on, is a constitutional dis-
order belonging to human nature. A presumption in
favor of Darwinian theory was the fact that war dem-
onstrates how much of the animal there is still left in
man (Sermon of July 30, 1870, in The Plymouth Pulpit).
Similar views were later expressed by William Graham
Sumner and William James. Sumner also became a
leading advocate of the idea that the efforts of society
to support the incompetent poor must result in still
further degrading them and in discouraging those who
had proved their merit by making the most of their
endowments through sustained hard work (What Social
Classes Owe to Each Other,
1883). Thus not only so-
cialism but anything pointing to a welfare state was
denounced as contrary to human nature. Such an in-
terpretation of evolution, largely influenced by Herbert
Spencer, was known as Social Darwinism.

On the other hand, the dynamic view of man which
the evolutionary theory substituted for the traditional
static one suggested that the evolution of human na-
ture had not come to an end. It was to improve
partly through direct adaptation, partly through the
survival of the fittest, and above all through the
inheritance of slowly evolving superior charac-
teristics—characteristics that, according to the almost


universally accepted theory of Lamarck, were trans-
mitted through heredity. It was this view that John
Fiske popularized. The most essential and charac-
teristic feature of the human being, Fiske said, is his
improvability. Since the first appearance of the human
being enormous changes had taken place through nat-
ural selection and adaptation. Inasmuch as civilization
thus far had advanced largely through fighting and the
deadly struggle of competition, quick-wittedness had
developed as a human trait faster than compassion and
kindness. Even so, over the past thirty centuries strife
had gradually lessened and cooperation, so necessary
in an emerging industrial civilization, was to become
a dominant trait, since, like all traits that are put to
use, it would be strengthened and transmitted through
heredity. “Man is slowly passing from a primitive social
state in which he was little better than a brute, toward
an ultimate social state in which his character shall
have become so transformed that nothing of the brute
can be detected in it. The ape and the tiger in human
nature will become extinct” (The Destiny of Man
Viewed in the Light of His Origin
[1884], p. 103).

Lester Frank Ward, more consequential a figure than
Fiske because he spoke as both a biologist and a pio-
neer sociologist, projected on the basis of his reading
of evolutionary theory a similarly progressive im-
provement of human nature. This was to take place
through the “telic” or purposeful guidance of man's
future by the planned use of applied intelligence.

These optimistic interpretations of evolutionary
theory, resting in part on the Lamarckian theory of
acquired characteristics, met with a serious challenge
when, in the 1880's, a new theory of heredity reached
America. Although not at once or universally accepted,
August Weismann's denial of the transmission of
acquired characters and insistence that characteristics
could be transmitted only through immutable germ
plasm, raised a serious question for the reformers who
rested their case in large part on evolutionary theory
and the transmission of acquired characteristics. As
Amos Warner, a leading figure in social welfare, wrote,
“If acquired characteristics be inherited, then we have
a chance permanently to improve the race inde-
pendently of selection, by seeing to it that individuals
acquire characteristics that it is desirable for them to
transmit.” But if Weismann is correct, “our only hope
for the permanent improvement of the human stock
would then seem to be through exercising an influence
on the selective process” (Amos Warner, American
[1908], p. 22). Thus the ground was split
between the hereditarians and the environmentalists
for a major controversy in the changing reputation of
human nature.

Even more consequential in raising doubt about the
improvability of human nature through the melioristic
change of the environment was Francis Galton who
maintained, on the basis of genealogical data and a
pioneer study of identical twins, that nature, not nur-
ture, is the dominant force. Galton did not convince
such able Americans as Chauncey Wright, Charles H.
Cooley, and William James, who, in a much discussed
article in The Atlantic Monthly for 1880, “Great Men,
Great Thoughts, and Their Environment,” maintained
that while certain geniuses, like murder, “will out,”
this was by no means always the case. In another epoch
Darwin and Spencer might have died “with all their
music in them.” The Galton study, in short, James
insisted, did not take into account the limiting or
encouraging factors in childhood and the excessive
complexity of the conditions of effective greatness or
“genius.” Yet Galton and his more doctrinaire disciple,
Karl Pearson, enlisted influential supporters. These
included Charles W. Eliot, who in his own way recon-
ciled Galton's elitist and hereditarian ideas with de-
mocracy, and G. Stanley Hall, whose recapitulation
theory, borrowed from the hereditarian storehouse,
made every individual relive the experience of the
race—a position that for a time influenced the Ameri-
can school curriculum.

The experiments with twins and with animal and
child learning that another psychologist, E. L. Thorn-
dike, carried through, seemed to lend great weight to
the dominant role of heredity. In later years this was
also true of the work of other psychologists, notably
Lewis Terman, a student of Hall, whose influential
development of the Binet intelligence tests and whose
study of a thousand California youths identified as
“geniuses” seemed, to many minds, to establish the
superior importance of nature over nurture. On the
level of pedigree studies and field surveys Richard
Dugdale (The Jukes, 1877), Henry Goddard, and others
concluded that “poor stock” perpetuated itself in
succeeding generations of criminals, insane, prostitutes,
and other ne'er-do-wells. Despite the faulty records and
dubious statistical procedures in these studies, they
provided support for the eugenics movement initiated
in Britain by Galton and his disciples. In several states
the eugenicists succeeded in obtaining legislative sup-
port for the sterilization of the “unfit”—in 1927 the
Virginia law was upheld by the Supreme Court, Mr.
Justice Holmes speaking for the majority.

The emphasis on heredity as the major factor in
human nature found additional support in the sweeping
and uncritical interpretations of the inadequately
devised intelligence tests administered to the rank and
file of the armed forces during the First World War.
Before psychologists and such critics as Walter
Lippmann showed the inadequacy of the tests, the


results were cited with a note of triumph by immigra-
tion restrictionists, who had long opposed the accep-
tance of newcomers from southern and eastern Europe
on the ground of innate inferiority and unassimilability,
and also by those convinced of the inherent and
irremediable inferiority of American Negroes.

The contentions of the hereditarians, and the expo-
nents of an unchangeable human nature with inherent
class and race differences, met with opposition from
humanitarians, including such leaders as Jane Addams,
and from sociologists who insisted that unequal
achievements and evidences of social ineffectiveness
and dereliction were explicable in terms of the mores,
and by the ways in which the environment determined
the qualities and virtues that the individual in any
society tries to attain or the vices that he attempts to
avoid: in other words, the values in any society are
the formulators of the characters of men. The most
effective refutations in the nature versus nurture con-
troversy of the extreme hereditarian position were
those of a characteristically American school of
psychologists—the functionalists—and of the social
philosophers and social scientists who shared their basic
image of man.

The dominant emphasis of Wundt and his disciples
on the structure or contents of mental experience
through measurement and introspective analysis met
with some opposition in Europe (Oswald Külpe,
Édouard Claparède, and others). But it was most
tellingly challenged in America by what came to be
known as functional psychology. In brief, influenced
by evolutionary theory this psychology assumed that
at one or another stage in the history of man the need
for each mental process had become sufficiently
demanding to result in the emergence of a particular
process or function. Thus sense perception, emotion,
and mental images developed as functions in the orga-
nism's evolution. Thinking resulted when instinct and
habit failed to resolve a conflict or tension in the effort
of the organism to adjust itself to an environmental
situation. The functionalists attached great importance,
as a result, to motor activity, to usefulness of the func-
tional operations of the organism (i.e., mind), and to
a dynamic process as opposed to a static equilibrium.

The first clear and explicit exposition of the func-
tional view seems to have been that of John Dewey
in 1884. He insisted on recognizing mental life as an
organic unitary process, not as a theater for the exhibi-
tion of independent autonomous faculties or as a
rendezvous in which isolated, atomic sensations and
ideas gathered, held “external converse,” and then
parted forever. In addition, Dewey emphasized the
importance of the relationships of an individual life
to other lives organized in society. “The idea of envi
ronment is a necessity to the idea of organism, and
with the conception of environment comes the impos-
sibility of considering psychical life as an individual,
isolated thing developing in a vacuum” (“The New
Psychology”). In 1896 Dewey's famous paper on the
reflex arc, which rejected the mechanistic and dualistic
stimulus-response principle, noted that the organism
is an active, not passive, perceiver of stimuli. Behavior,
he insisted, is not disjoined into stimuli and responses
but is continuous, and the sensory and motor aspects
of behavior blend continuously with each other. This
opened the door to technical support for a psychology
of motor activity, adjustment, and functional interrela-
tionships between organism and environment.

Meanwhile, in his vividly and racily written Princi-
ples of Psychology
(1890) William James presented the
findings of the “new psychology”—but not without
critical reservations. With his imaginative, poetical zest
for unresolved mysteries, exceptional personalities,
peak experiences, and the reality of values no less than
that of facts, James felt that “official” psychology was
only a limited, however useful, means to understanding
human nature. His treatment of the nervous system,
the physiology of sense, the instincts, the emotions, and
the will, together with the central importance he
attached to habit, reflected the purposive or functional
as opposed to the structural view. The associationism
that characterized the structural position of Wundt and
such American disciples as E. B. Titchener, was
rejected for a transitory, fluctuating “stream of con-
sciousness,” unified rather than atomistic, and related
to choice. In brief, James's conception of the “mind”
was that of the functional and dynamic adjustment of
the organism to its environment, including the un-
predictable and twilight regions of experience.

The functional psychology achieved its fullest de-
velopment at the University of Chicago during
Dewey's affiliation with it (1894-1904) and in the years
that followed. George Herbert Mead developed the
idea of the inherent relatedness of self to other selves,
which James had touched on, into a major concept (role
theory). Of great importance also was his emphasis on
the idea that thinking and social activity are aspects
of the same basic process, that is, communication or
symbolic behavior as mechanisms for both social con-
trol and social progress. James Rowland Angell showed,
experimentally, how reaction time is a function of
attention and explicated the relation of organic
processes to consciousness (James Rowland Angell,
Psychology, New York [1908], with preface to the first
edition, and Murchison, III, 5-29). Others in the
Chicago school applied functional psychology to ethics,
law, and social institutions. Dewey himself, in his con-
tinuing work in logic, education, aesthetics, and social


psychology overshadowed his sometime colleagues.
Among the issues to which he addressed himself in later
years were the nature-nurture controversy, which he
helped resolve by showing that each is dependent on
and inseparable from the other (Dewey, 1922; 1939);
the contention that such social institutions as war and
capitalism are the inevitable expression of human na-
ture (or instincts), which he refuted by showing that
social institutions are expressions of certain inherent
human impulses or needs that might be channeled into
other social expressions, as was the case in various
cultures; and the question whether the very term
human nature was any longer a useful concept, at least
unless it was very carefully defined (“Does Human
Nature Change?,” The Rotarian, 52 [Feb. 1938],

Functionalism became absorbed into the main
stream of psychology in America. Several later
emphases did, however, reflect some of its special
aspects. This was true, for example, of the interpersonal
psychiatry of Harry Stack Sullivan, Conceptions of
Modern Psychiatry
(1956), of the opposition of the
Gestalt school to a discrete, atomistic, and mechanistic
conception of behavior and, in a sense, of Kurt Lewin's
field theory, which held that if an individual's behavior
were to be understood it must be in terms of the life
space, i.e., of the relation of the individual to his envi-
ronment over time and at the particular moment. Even
behaviorism, despite important differences and the
criticisms functionalists and behaviorists had for each
other, was in some respects an outgrowth of the
Chicago school.

Many insisted that behaviorism was a typically
American psychology although others related it to a
long line of forerunners including Democritus, La
Mettrie, Condillac, and their successors. It was cer-
tainly related to the “connectionist” psychology of
E. L. Thorndike who had made the stimulus-response
in the context of neurons and synapses a central feature
of his concept of learning. Behaviorism also de-
rived a good deal from experimental animal psychology
and from the work of the Russian “objectivists,” Pavlov
and Bekhterev. Though it also had immediate Ameri-
can forerunners other than Thorndike, behaviorism was
chiefly associated with John B. Watson of Chicago and
Johns Hopkins. In his expositions of behaviorism,
introspection and consciousness were rejected in favor
of an objective, mechanistic interpretation of behavior
in terms of stimulus, response, and the conditioned
reflex. Watson went further than most psychologists
in making sweeping analogies between animal and
human behavior and in his dogmatic and flamboyant
claim that all human behavior is susceptible to predic-
tion and control. His popular vogue rested in part on
his psychology of child-rearing: parents might so con
dition infants as to develop behavior and personalities
congenial to their taste.

The critics of behaviorism included those who, like
the functionalists, regarded experience as unfrag-
mented and continuous rather than atomistic and
mechanistic; those who contended that in throwing out
introspection and consciousness altogether the
behaviorists could not possibly explain their awareness
of themselves; and those who objected that behaviorism
eliminated values and ethics in any true sense.
Behaviorism as modified by such criticisms and by the
experimental and theoretical work of E. C. Tolman,
Clark Hull, and others was fused into general psychol-
ogy. What some laymen interpreted as a belated echo
was B. F. Skinner's Walden Two (1948). This was about
a model community in which elitist masters of the
conditioned reflex and other behavior techniques had
dehumanized (in order to make happy) the men and
women who put themselves in the hands of their
benevolent if dictatorial manipulators.

Some of the problems of deviant behavior were
illuminated by contributions of varying importance at
the hands of such nineteenth-century alienists, psychi-
atrists, and neurologists as Isaac Ray, William
Hammond, S. Weir Mitchell, Oliver Wendell Holmes,
George Beard, and Morton Prince. Of special note was
the work of these and others in neurasthenia, hysteria,
dreams, and other types of unconscious and nonrational

The reception of Freudianism was somewhat belated
and markedly mixed. By reason of his concern with
psychopathology, the theory of the unconscious, and
his intellectual hospitality, William James was
predisposed to give psychoanalysis an open hearing,
while G. Stanley Hall's interest in sex and the psychol-
ogy of deviancy led him to invite Freud and Jung to
a conference at Clark University in 1909. Writing to
his brother shortly after hearing and talking with the
visitors, James expressed the hope that “Freud and his
pupils will push their ideas to their ultimate limits;
they cannot fail to throw light on human nature”
(Henry James, Letters of William James [1920], pp.
237-38). James, however, distrusted Freud's “obsession
with fixed ideas.” Hall likewise distrusted Freud's way
of tracing everything to one source, although he later
expressed his conviction that the advent of Freudianism
marked the greatest epoch in the history of psychology.
Academic psychologists, in contrast with such neurol-
ogists and psychiatrists as James J. Putnam and A. A.
Brill, in the main resisted the uncritical acceptance of
Freud's unverified theories. These theories, never-
theless, had begun by the 1920's to exert an important
influence not only in psychiatry but in such varied fields
as social work, social science, labor-management prob-
lems, advertising, and public relations. In terms of the


bearing of psychoanalysis on ideas about human nature
the most important contributions of the American
neo-Freudians involved an emphasis on the inclusion
of social and cultural factors in the explanations of
neuroses, psychoses, and other maladjustments.

This broadening of an imported European movement
owed a good deal to several of the men and women
who had come to the United States with early first-hand
associations with the leaders in what was coming to
be called “depth psychology.” These revisionists in-
cluded Karen Horney (The Neurotic Personality of our
1937); Abram Kardiner (The Individual and His
1939, and with others The Psychological Fron-
tiers of Society,
1945); Franz Alexander (Our Age of
1942); Erich Fromm (Man for Himself...,
1947); and Erik Erikson (Childhood and Society, 1950;
1968). The Freudian emphasis on sex and a desire to
test the incidence and character of the sexual act in
wider samples than those available in clinical reports
led Alfred C. Kinsey of Indiana University to interview
a considerably larger population (Sexual Behavior in
the Human Male,
1949, and Sexual Behavior in the
Human Female,

The emphasis on quantification and on the cross-
fertilization of biology, psychiatry, psychology, sociol-
ogy, and anthropology led to the behavioral science
movement. In 1943 Clark Hull (Principles of Behavior)
expressed the conviction that the successful, systematic
development of the behavioral sciences must await the
time when students of behavior become adept at
interpreting their materials in terms of mathematical
equations. The proliferation of such studies, based on
ideal types or models and executed with the aid of
complicated computers, made contributions to the
prediction and control of behavior, especially in moti-
vation research. But the inclusion of role theory, sys-
tems theory, game theory, decision-making, and
deprivation and reenforcement theory, all precisely
defined in terms of the control of variables, exhibit the
large scope of the behavioral sciences movement. It
is true that some social scientists and virtually all
humanists expressed skepticism about the more ex-
treme claims of the movement. The concern deepened
when investigations in molar biology and micro-
genetics suggested that the genes of inheritance might
be controlled or modified, thus opening somewhat
frightening possibilities for those committed to indi-
vidualism and democracy.


The only general survey is Don H. Wolfe, The Image of
Man in America
(Dallas, 1957; New York, 1970), which,
drawing on both social science material and belles lettres,
focuses on ideas about “creativity” in the human person
ality. Several articles on the idea of human nature in west-
ern thought bear on the American discussion of it. The most
useful are John Dewey's article in the Encyclopedia of the
Social Sciences
(1935), VII, 531-36; James Luther Adams,
“The Changing Reputation of Human Nature,” Journal of
Liberal Religion,
4 (Autumn 1942), 59-79; 4 (Winter 1943),
137-60; and Merle Curti, “Human Nature in American
Thought,” Political Science Quarterly, 68 (Sept. 1953),
354-75; (Dec. 1953), 493-510.

In terms of the discussion of the idea of human nature
in formal psychology the most useful general accounts are
E. G. Boring, A History of Experimental Psychology (New
York, 1950); Carl Murchison, ed., A History of Psychology
in Autobiography,
5 vols. (Worcester, Mass., 1930-52); and
Henryk Misiak and Virginia Staudt Sexton, History of Psy-
chology:—An Overview
(New York, 1966). Notwithstanding
the merits of this specialized account of American psychol-
ogy, Jay Warton Fay, American Psychology before William
(New Brunswick, N.J., 1939), it is not satisfactory.
Special note should be made of R. C. Davis, “American
Psychology 1800-1885,” Psychological Review, 43 (Nov.
1936), 471-93.

For the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the most
important primary sources are The Journal of John
ed. James K. Hosmer, 2 vols. (New York, 1908);
Charles Morton, Compendium physicae, Publications of the
Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 33 Collections (1940), ed.
Theodore Hornberger; Thomas Clap, An Essay on the Na-
ture and Foundation of Moral Virtue
(New Haven, 1765);
Jonathan Edwards, Works, 5 vols. (London, 1840); Paul
Ramsey's edition of Edwards' Freedom of the Will (New
Haven, 1957); Samuel Johnson, President of King's College.
His Career and Writing,
ed. Herbert and Carol Schneider,
4 vols. (New York, 1929); John Woolman, Essays and Jour-
(New York, 1922); and titles of sermons and other pieces
cited in the text. Benjamin Rush's Medical Inquiries and
Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind
1812), has been reissued, with an introduction by S. Barnard
Wortis, in the History of Medicine Series, No. 15 (New York,
1962). It may be supplemented by The Autobiography of
Benjamin Rush,
ed. George W. Corner, in Memoirs of the
American Philosophical Society,
45 (Princeton, 1951).

Secondary material includes Perry Miller, The New
England Mind. The Seventeenth Century,
(New York, 1938),
esp. Ch. 9; and idem, The New England Mind, From Colony
to Province
(Cambridge, Mass., 1953); Claude M. Newlin,
Philosophy and Religion in Colonial America (New York,
1962), and the earlier work of I. Woodbridge Riley, Ameri-
can Philosophy. The Early Schools
(New York, 1907). The
second chapter in Arthur O. Lovejoy's Reflections on Human
(Baltimore, 1961), shows how theories of human
nature entered into the making of the Constitution of the
United States. Also useful is Adrienne Koch, The Philosophy
of Thomas Jefferson
(New York, 1943). An interesting exam-
ple of an effort to apply modern psychological concepts
to an eighteenth-century American's thought about the
nature of man is Richard I. Bushman, “On the Use of
Psychology: Conflict and Conciliation in Benjamin
Franklin,” History and Theory, 5 (1966), 225-40. For the
use by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century historians of


concepts of human nature see Merle Curti, Human Nature
in American Historical Thought
(Columbia, Mo., 1968).

The discussion of human nature in the literature of
transcendentalism can best be understood through the writ-
ings of the transcendentalists themselves, although the
standard biographies are also useful. Joseph Dorfman's The
Economic Mind in American Civilization,
5 vols. (New York,
1946-59), is a good guide to the economic writings in which
theories of human nature are explicitly or implicitly
accessible. Also relevant is Wesley C. Mitchell's Lecture
Notes on Economic Theory
(New York, 1949). The standard
authority on phrenology is John D. Davies, Phrenology: Fad
and Science; A 19th Century American Crusade
Haven, 1955).

Also important are Edward Youmans' essay in The Culture
Demanded by Modern Life
(New York, 1867; 1900), and John
Dewey's “The New Psychology,” Andover Review, 2 (Sept.
1884), 278-91. Much basic material is at hand in the
autobiographies of pioneer psychologists, in Carl Murchison,
cited above; in R. B. Perry, Life and Letters of William
2 vols. (Boston, 1935); and in G. Stanley Hall, Life
and Confessions of a Psychologist
(New York, 1923). The
files of the American Journal of Psychology (1887—) and
the Psychological Review (1894—) are, of course, indis-

The most useful brief account of the relation between
Darwinism and concepts of human nature is E. G. Boring,
“The Influence of Evolutionary Theory upon Psychological
Thought in America,” in Stow Persons, ed., Evolutionary
Thought in America
(New York, 1956), pp. 268-98. The best
analysis of Chauncey Wright, William James, C. S. Peirce,
and John Fiske in the context of their evolutionary, prag-
matic, and idealistic philosophy in relation to the idea of
human nature is that of Philip P. Wiener, Evolution and
the Founders of Pragmatism
(Cambridge, Mass., 1949), pp.
31ff. Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American
Thought 1860-1915
(New York, 1944; 1959); and Mark
Haller, Eugenics; Hereditarian Attitudes in American
(New Brunswick, N.J., 1963), are standard accounts.
Nicholas Pastore, The Nature-Nurture Controversy (New
York, 1949), documents the conservative-liberal alignment
of hereditarians and environmentalists.

For the functional psychology see James R. Angell, “The
Province of Functional Psychology,” Psychological Review,
14 (March 1907), 61-91. Benjamin Wolstein's “Dewey's
Theory of Human Nature,” Psychiatry, 12 (Feb. 1949),
77-85, is, of course, only one of a great many valuable
commentaries on Dewey's philosophy, social ideas, and
psychological contributions. Dewey's own most relevant
writings are Human Nature and Conduct (New York, 1922),
and Freedom and Culture (New York, 1939).

Watson's most important writings are Psychology from
the Standpoint of the Behaviorist
(Philadelphia, 1919; 2nd
ed. 1929), and Behaviorism (New York, 1925; rev. ed., 1930).
For more recent developments see the papers in “Psychol-
ogy: a Behavioral Reinterpretation,” Proceedings of the
American Philosophical Society,
108 (Dec. 1964), 151-85;
and C. L. Hull, Principles of Behavior (New York, 1943);
idem, A Behavior System (New Haven, 1952); E. C. Tolman,
“Principles of Purposive Behavior,” in S. Koch, ed., Psy-
chology: a Study of a Science,
3 vols. (New York, 1959),
II, 92-157; and B. F. Skinner, Walden Two (New York, 1948);
idem, Science and Human Behavior (New York, 1953). See,
among secondary studies, John C. Burnham, “The Origins
of Behaviorism,” Journal of the History of the Behavioral
4 (April 1968), 143-51; and Gustav Bergmann,
“The Contribution of John B. Watson,” in John M. Scher,
ed., Theories of the Mind (New York, 1962), pp. 674-87.
Mention should be made of Donald H. Fleming's introduc-
tion to Jacques Loeb, The Mechanistic Conception of Life
(Cambridge, Mass., 1964), which is a basic contribution to

For the reception and influence of Freud consult John
C. Burnham, Psychoanalysis and American Medicine
1894-1918, Psychological Issues,
Monograph 20 (Pittsburgh,
1968); and idem “The New Psychology: From Narcissism
to Social Control,” in Braeman, Bremner, and Brody, eds.,
Change and Continuity in Twentieth-Century America: the
(Columbus, Ohio, 1968), pp. 351-98; Clarence P.
Oberndorf, A History of Psychoanalysis in America (New
York, 1953); Merle Curti, “The American Exploration of
Dreams and Dreamers,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 27
(July-Sept. 1966), 391-416. Frederick J. Hoffman, Freudian-
ism and the Literary Mind
(Baton Rouge, 1945); and idem,
The Twenties; American Writing in the Post-War Decade
(New York, 1955).

The literature of the behavioral sciences is too vast to
do more than offer a very few samples: Leonard D. White,
ed., The State of the Social Sciences (Chicago, 1956); idem,
The Social Studies and the Social Sciences (New York, 1962);
and Merle Curti, “The Changing Concept of “Human Na-
ture in the Literature of American Advertising,” Business
History Review,
41 (Winter 1967), 335-57. For a criticism
of the behavioral sciences from a “humanistic” point of view
consult Floyd W. Watson, The Broken Image, Man, Science
and Society
(New York, 1964).


[See also Deism; Education; Evolutionism; Genetic Con-
tinuity; Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics; Man-
Machine; Organicism; Perfectibility; Philanthropy; Prag-
; Progress; 2">Psychological Schools in European
Sin and Salvation.]