Picking up from the philosophers
This page presents the best there is from academia and practitioners on prudent choice-making. It organizes the complexity into 3 phases of activity and discusses the emotional factors within each phase, but that’s it. It offers no demonstrations, no implementations to audit, no ties to natural law, and takes no responsibility for the mess everyone faces every day dealing with organizational dysfunction (OD). You might be surprised that the “best” was first documented over 100 years ago, during and just after the bad choice-making lessons of WWI. The effort was spearheaded and organized by Graham Wallas. He is the “I” in this page.
The previous page featured the structure of making appropriate selections. This page features the subconscious mind contribution to making prudent choices. It highlights the critical importance of creativity and invention in the process of thinking about Cat 3 problems. Creativity is a totally personal functionality. There is no such thing as social creativity. Never was.
Men have recently increased their power over Nature, without increasing the control of that power by thought. We can make war more efficiently, but cannot prevent war; we can explore the world, but cannot contrive an interracial world-policy; and the same want of intellectual control exists, within each nation, in politics, philosophy and art. We require, therefore, both more effective thinking on particular problems, and an improved art of thought, in which scientific explanation may overtake and guide empirical rules. But in thought, science lags behind empiricism, and the study of modern psychological textbooks may even hinder effective thinking. Graham Wallas 1926
Types of thought
I have discussed certain mental habits and expedients which may be deliberately acquired by individual thinkers for the purpose of increasing the fertility and energy of their thoughts. I shall discuss a few of those mental habits which are characteristic of nations, or professions, or other groups of men. Some of these mental habits were in their origin half-conscious results of the conditions under which men earn their livelihood. No one, for instance, consciously invented the legal type of thought (with its tendency to treat words as identical with things), or the military , or clerical, or bureaucratic, or academic type; nor need one search for an inventor to explain why the Bradford type of thought is different from the Exeter type, or why a Roumanian peasant thinks differently from a Viennese merchant.
On the other hand, a type of thought sometimes follows a pattern that was first created by the conscious effort of a single thinker. Anaxagoras, or Aquinas, or Descartes, or Hegel, and was afterwards spread by teaching and imitation. The prevalence of a type of thought is often due to a combination of conscious invention and the less-conscious influence of circumstances. Someone invents a new type of thought, and, either at the time or later, a new fact appears in a national or group environment which makes the new type widely acceptable. In that way, types of thought, like the words and word-meanings by which they are often indicated, may be invented and neglected or superseded in one country, and be afterwards enthusiastically adopted in another country whose environment suits them better. One can see why Rousseauism, for instance, as interpreted by Jefferson, ‘caught on’ in America after the Declaration of Independence; or why a crude ‘Darwinismus’ spread in Germany as the German Empire began to extend beyond Europe; or why, in the same decade, the Hegelian dialectic fitted the needs of troubled Oxford religious thinkers.
The type of thought painfully worked out by Locke and his friends from 1670 to 1690 went to France in 1729 to justify the liberal opposition to Louis XV: Bentham’s a priori deduction of social machinery from primitive instinct suited the conditions of the South and Central American colonies after their separation from Spain: Herbert Spencer’s Synthetic Philosophy suited Japan after her sudden adoption of western applied science. Sometimes, though with much hesitation, one may ascribe the spread of a particular type of thought to innate racial factors — the victory, for instance, of Mohammedanism over Christianity among the stronger African tribes, and possibly the greater success of Buddhism in the eastern than in the western half of the Eurasian continent.
In examining such types of thought we have constantly to remember that there never exists a body of people all of whom are equally possessed of any type- quality. In interpreting nineteenth-century English political history, we may usefully speak of Conservative or Liberal types of thought as dominant at this or that moment, and yet we must never forget, not only that a Liberal or Conservative Government may be supported by a bare majority, or even a minority of the voters, but that every Liberal or Conservative voter or minister differs from every other, and that no one can ever be truthfully described as being politically a Liberal or Conservative and nothing else. In the same way, we may fairly speak of a national English or a French type of political thought, and yet remember that the fact behind our statement may be that a way of thinking which is characteristic of sixty percent, of active French politicians is only equally characteristic of forty percent, of active English politicians. This warning is specially needful when international friction arises from the prevalence of different types of thought among different nations, but the international policy of a modern nation at any given moment is for its neighbours a unity, and Englishmen and Frenchmen have therefore to recognize and try to understand the types of thought actually prevalent in the two countries without exaggerating either the universality or the permanence of the type in each case.
A type of thought characteristic, in that sense, of English politicians (though, owing to differences of political, educational, and religious history, not equally characteristic of Scotland and Wales), is often indicated by the English use of the expression fuddling through as a term of approval. That use went out of fashion, for obvious reasons, during the war; but, now that the English people intensely desire a return to peace and the ways of peace, it is reappearing. Canon Barnes (now Bishop of Birmingham) wrote, for instance, in 1922, while discussing certain educational proposals, that: ‘Administrative difficulties we are rapidly solving by our national genius for “muddling through.” In more respectful and more accurate language, we are finding the path to success by experiment, and we remain indifferent as to whether a logically perfect scheme will result.
In the case of his own mathematical discoveries, the sensibility concerned is that which arises from the aesthetic instinct. ‘It may appear surprising that sensibility should be introduced in connection with mathematical demonstrations, which, it would seem, can only interest the intellect. But not if we bear in mind the feeling of mathematical beauty, of the harmony of numbers and forms, and of geometric elegance. It is a real aesthetic feeling, that all true mathematicians recognize. . . . The useful combinations are precisely the most beautiful.
Poincare’s authority is sufficient to assure us that in his case the instinctive appreciation of elegance did play a real part in stimulating and guiding many of his subconscious trains of thought, and in deciding which of many subconsciously imagined solutions should produce the ‘click’ of conscious success. He may even be right in saying that without a rather high degree of this aesthetic instinct no man will ever be a great mathematical discoverer. But it is extremely unlikely that the aesthetic instinct alone was the ‘power’ driving the ‘machine’ of his thought. He must have possessed some of that ‘public spirit’ which is an almost indispensable condition of a lifetime spent in intellectual toil. He must have had many ambitions and loyalties and habits of thinking and feeling. Above all he had a brain which without scope for its self-activity would have been as restless as a wild hawk in a cage. And each of these factors must have played its part in the thought- processes that went on in the varying levels of his consciousness.
One almost fears that if Poincare had been a friend of Freud, instead of being a friend of Boutroux who was a friend of William James, he might have become certain that libido was the sole and sufficient ‘sieve’ of his thoughts. But, while the introspective evidence both of Varendonck and of Poincare is, I believe, presented in a setting of over-simplified theory, it is nevertheless possible for the student after reading their books to form, with the help of his own introspection, a fair working conception of those ‘natural’ thought-processes, which, however much influenced by experience and habit, are not, at the time of thinking, voluntarily controlled by any rules of the thinking art. He will observe in his own mind automatic trains of associated ideas, some ending with a remembered positive or negative decision, some broken and at once forgotten. Some of these trains may belong to that primitive type which has given rise to the ‘mechanist’ conception of the relation between ‘instinct’ and ‘reason.’
That is to say, behind the train may be the urge of a strong and simple instinct, love, or hatred, or fear, driving the train onward, judging its results, and bringing it back again and again to the same starting-point. Or the connecting cause may be some habit of thought; or, again, the upper brain may be acting on its own initiative, or in obedience to a ‘curiosity’ which may only be another name for more or less independent brain-activity. And, at any moment, a passionless association may lead him to a conclusion that wakens a vehement passion, or a train of thought driven by passion may fade into a passionless reverie. Flickering over all these processes, as the searchlights flicker along a line of cliffs, there may be a hundred different conscious or less-conscious ‘feelings,’ alternating with, and fading into each other. He may be dimly aware of some brooding ‘sentiment.’ The hormones discharged by the obscure processes of the endocrine glands may pervade him with v ague ‘euphoria’ or ‘dysphoria’ — elation or discomfort, energy or inertia. Actual sensations, and the more or less vivid memories of sensations, may play their part. Or, he may be able afterwards to remember sudden flashes of emotional experience almost too momentary for description, feelings of queerness, or surprise, or recognition, or amusement, or the craftsman’s delight in his own skill and success.
I have discussed two problems which are preliminary to any formulation of an art of thought: first, what conception of the human organism and human consciousness best indicates the general facts with which such an art must deal; and, secondly, what is the ‘natural’ thought-process which such an art must attempt to modify. I shall ask at what stages in that thought-process the thinker should bring the conscious and voluntary effort of his art to hear. Here we at once meet the difficulty that unless we can recognize a psychological event, and distinguish it from other events, we cannot bring conscious effort to bear directly upon it; and that our mental life is a stream of intermingled psychological events, all of which affect each other, any of which, at any given moment, may be beginning or continuing or ending, and which, therefore, are extremely hard to distinguish from each other.
We can, to some degree, avoid this difficulty if we take a single achievement of thought — the making of a new generalization or invention, or the poetical expression of a new idea — and ask how it was brought about . We can then roughly dissect out a continuous process, with a beginning and a middle and an end of its own. Helmholtz, for instance, the great German’ physicist, speaking in 1891 at a banquet on his seventieth birthday, described the way in which his most important new thoughts had come to him. He said that after previous investigation of the problem ‘in all directions . . . happy ideas come unexpectedly without effort, like an inspiration. So far as I am concerned, they have never come to me when my mind was fatigued, or when I was at my working table. . . . They came particularly readily during the slow ascent of wooded hills on a sunny day.’ Helmholtz here gives us three stages in the formation of a new thought. The first in time I shall call Preparation, the stage during which the problem was ‘investigated … in all directions’ ; the second is the stage during which he was not consciously thinking about the problem, which I shall call Incubation the third, consisting of the appearance of the ‘happy idea’ together with the psychological events which immediately preceded and accompanied that appearance, I shall call Illumination.
And I shall add a fourth stage, of Verification which Helmholtz does not here mention. Henri Poincare, for instance, in the book Science and Method, which describes in vivid detail the successive stages of two of his great mathematical discoveries. Both of them came to him after a period of Incubation (due in one case to his military service as a reservist, and in the other case to a journey), during which no conscious mathematical thinking was done, but, as Poincare believed, much unconscious mental exploration took place. In both cases Incubation was preceded by a Preparation stage of hard, conscious. systematic, and fruitless analysis of the problem. In both cases the final idea came to him ‘with the same characteristics of conciseness, suddenness, and immediate certainty. Each was followed by a period of Verification, in which both the validity of the idea was tested, and the idea itself was reduced to exact form. ‘It never happens,’ says Poincare, in his description of the Verification stage, ‘that unconscious work supplies ready-made the result of a lengthy calculation in which we have only to apply fixed rules. . . . We can hope from these inspirations, which are the fruit of unconscious work, is to obtain points of departure for such calculations . As for the calculations themselves, they must be made in the second period of conscious work which follows the inspiration, and in which the results of the inspiration are verified and the consequences deduced. The rules of these calculations are strict and complicated; they demand discipline, attention, will, and consequently, consciousness’. In the daily stream of thought different stages constantly overlap each other as we explore different problems.
An economist reading a Blue Book, a physiologist watching an experiment, or a business man going through his morning’s letters, may at the same time be ‘incubating’ on a problem which he proposed to himself a few days ago, be accumulating knowledge in ‘preparation’ for a second problem, and be ‘verifying’ his conclusions on a third problem. Even in exploring the same problem, the mind may be unconsciously incubating on one aspect of it, while it is consciously employed in preparing for or verifying another aspect. And it must always be remembered that much very important thinking, done for instance by a poet. exploring his own memories, or by a man trying to see clearly his emotional relation to his country or his party, resembles musical composition in that the stages leading to success are not very easily fitted into a ‘problem and solution’ scheme. Yet, even when success in thought means the creation of something felt to be beautiful and true rather than the solution of a prescribed problem, the four stages of Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and the Verification of the final result can generally be distinguished from each other.
If we accept this analysis, we are in a position to ask to what degree, and by what means, we can bring conscious effort, and the habits which arise from conscious effort, to bear upon each of the four stages. I shall not in this chapter, deal at any length with the stage of Preparation. It includes the whole process of intellectual education. Men have known for thousands of years that conscious effort and its resulting habits can be used to improve the thought-processes of young persons, and have formulated for that purpose an elaborate art of education. The ‘educated’ man can, in consequence, ‘put his mind on’ to a chosen subject, and ‘turn his mind off’ in a way which is impossible to an uneducated man. The educated man has also acquired, by the effort of observation and memorizing, a body of remembered facts and words which gives him a wider range in the final moment of association, as well as a number of those habitual tracks of association which constitute ‘thought-systems’ like ‘French policy’ or ‘scholastic philosophy’ or ‘biological evolution,’ and which present themselves as units in the process of thought.
The educated man has, again, learnt, and can, in the Preparation stage, voluntarily or habitually follow out. rules as to the order in which he shall direct his attention to the successive elements in a problem. Hobbes referred to this fact when in the Leviathan he described ‘regulated thought,’ and contrasted it with that ‘wild ranging of the mind’ which occurs when the thought process is undirected. Regulated thought is, he says, a ‘seeking.’ ‘Sometimes,’ for instance, ‘a man seeks what he has lost. . . . Sometimes a man knows a place determinate, within the compass whereof he is to seek; and then his thoughts run over all the parts thereof, in the same manner as one would sweep a room to find a jewel; or as a spaniel ranges the field, till he find a scent; or as a man should run over the alphabet, to start a rhyme.’ A spaniel with the brain of an educated human being could not, by a direct effort of will, scent a partridge in a distant part of the field. But he could so ‘quarter’ the field by a preliminary voluntary arrangement that the less-voluntary process of smelling would be given every chance of successfully taking place.
Included in these rules for the preliminary ‘regulation’ of our thought are the whole traditional art of logic, the mathematical forms which are the logic of the modern experimental sciences, and the methods of systematic and continuous examination of present or recorded phenomena which are the basis of astronomy, sociology and the other ‘observational’ sciences. Closely connected with this voluntary use of logical methods is the voluntary choice of a ‘problem-attitude’ (Aufgabe). Our mind is not likely to give us a clear answer to any particular problem unless we set it a clear question, and we are more likely to notice the significance of any new piece of evidence, or new association of ideas, if we have formed a definite conception of a case to be proved or disproved. A very successful thinker in natural science told me that he owed much of his success to his practice of following up, when he felt his mind confused, the implications of two propositions, both of which he had hitherto accepted as true, until he had discovered that one of them must be untrue.
Huxley on that point once quoted Bacon, ‘ Truth comes out of error much more rapidly than it comes out of confusion and went on, ‘If you go buzzing about between right and wrong, vibrating and fluctuating, you come out nowhere; but if you are absolutely and thoroughly and persistently wrong you must some of these days have the extreme good fortune of knocking your head against a fact, and that sets you all right again.’ This is, of course, a production, by conscious effort, of that ‘dialogue form’ of alternate suggestion and criticism which Varendonck describes as occurring in the process of uncontrolled thought. It is, indeed, sometimes possible to observe such an automatic ‘dialogue’ at a point where a single effort of will would turn it into a process of preparatory logical statement. On July 18, 1917, I passed on an omnibus the fashionable church of St. Margaret’s, Westminster. Miss Ashley, the richest heiress of the season, was being gorgeously married, and the omnibus conductor said to a friend, ‘Shocking waste of money! But, there, it does create a lot of labour, I admit that.’ Perhaps I neglected my duty as a citizen in that I did not say to him, ‘Now make one effort to realize that inconsistency, and you will have prepared yourself to become an economist.’
And though I have assumed, for the sake of clearness, that the thinker is preparing himself for the solution of a single problem, he will often (particularly if he is working on the very complex material of the social sciences) have several kindred problems in his mind, on all of which the voluntary work of preparation has been, or is being done, and for any of which, at the Illumination stage, a solution may present itself.
The fourth stage, of Verification, closely resembles the first stage, of Preparation. It is normally, as Poincare points out, fully conscious, and men have worked out much the same series of mathematical and logical rules for controlling Verification by conscious .effort as those which are used in the control of Preparation.
There remain the second and third stages, Incubation and Illumination. The Incubation stage covers two different things, of which the first is the negative fact that during Incubation we do not voluntarily or consciously think on a particular problem, and the second is the positive fact that a series of unconscious and involuntary (or foreconscious and forevoluntary) mental events may take place during that period. It is the first fact about Incubation which I shall now discuss, leaving the second fact — of subconscious thought during Incubation, and the relation of such thought to Illumination – to be more fully discussed in connection with the Illumination stage. Voluntary abstention from conscious thought on any particular problem may, itself, take two forms: the period of abstention may be spent either in conscious mental work on other problems, or in a relaxation from all conscious mental work.
The first kind of Incubation economizes time, and is therefore often the better. We can often get more result in the same time by beginning several problems in succession, and voluntarily leaving them unfinished while we turn to others, than by finishing our work on each problem at one sitting. A well-known academic psychologist, for instance, who was also a preacher, told me that he found by experience that his Sunday sermon was much better if he posed the problem on Monday than if he did so later in the week, although he might give the same number of hours of conscious work to it in each case. It seems to be a tradition among practising barristers to put off any consideration of each brief to the latest possible moment before they have to deal with it, and to forget the whole matter as rapidly as possible after dealing with it. This fact may help to explain a certain want of depth which has often been noticed in the typical lawyer-statesman, and which may be due to his conscious thought not being sufficiently extended and enriched by subconscious thought.
But, in the case of the more difficult forms of creative thought, the making, for instance, of a scientific discovery, or the writing of a poem or play or the formulation of an important political decision, it is desirable not only that there should be an interval free from conscious thought on the particular problem concerned, but also that that interval should be so spent that nothing should interfere with the free working of the unconscious or partially conscious processes of the mind. In those cases, the stage of Incubation should include a large amount of actual mental relaxation. It would, indeed, be interesting to examine, from that point of view, the biographies of a couple of hundred original thinkers and writers. A. R. Wallace, for instance, hit upon the theory of evolution by natural selection in his berth during an attack of malarial fever at sea; and Darwin was compelled by ill-health to spend the greater part of his waking hours in physical and mental relaxation. Sometimes a thinker has been able to get a sufficiency of relaxation owing to a disposition to idleness against which he has vainly struggled. More often, perhaps, what he has thought to be idleness, is really that urgent craving for intense and uninterrupted day-dreaming which Anthony Trollope describes in his account of his boyhood. One effect of such a comparative biographical study might be the formulation of the relation between original intellectual work and the virtue of industry.
There are thousands of idle ‘geniuses ’ who require to learn that, without a degree of industry in Preparation and Verification, of which many of them have no conception, no great intellectual work can be done, and that the habit of procrastination may be even more disastrous to a professional thinker than it is to a man of business . And yet a thinker of good health and naturally fertile mind may have to be told that mere industry is for him, as it was for Trollope in his later years, the worst temptation of the devil.
Cardinal Manning was a man of furious industry, and the suspension of his industry as an Anglican archdeacon during his illness in 1847 was, for good or evil, an important event in the history of English religion. Some of those who, like myself, live in the diocese of London, believe that we have reason to regret an insufficiency of intellectual leadership from our present bishop. The bishop himself indicated one of the causes of our discontent in a letter addressed, in September, 1922, to his clergy. ‘I come back to an autumn of what, from a human point of view, is unrelieved toil. October 1st to Christmas Day is filled every day, except for the one day off every week, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.’ Then comes a long list of administrative and pastoral engagements, including ‘three days interviewing no Harrow boys to be confirmed,’ ‘a critical Bill to see through the House of Lords,’ and ‘some sixty sermons and addresses already arranged in the diocese, besides the daily letters and interviews.’ ‘All this,’ he says, ‘might justify the comment of a kindly man of the world, “Why, Bishop, you live the life of a dog! But this is precisely, though on a larger scale, the life of every one of you.’ It is clear that the bishop considers that he and his clergy ought to be admired for so spending their time; and that he conceives the life of a turnspit dog to be the most likely to enable them to be successful in the exercise of their office. One sometimes, however, wonders what would be the result if our bishop were kept for ten weeks in bed and in silence, by an illness neither painful nor dangerous, nor inconsistent with full mental efficiency.
Mental relaxation during the Incubation stage may, of course include, and sometimes requires, a certain amount of physical exercise. I have already quoted Helmholtz’s reference to ‘ the ascent of wooded hills on a sunny day.’ A. Carrel, the great New York physiologist, is said to receive all his really important thoughts while quietly walking during the summer vacation in his native Brittany. Jastrow says that ‘thinkers have at all times resorted to the restful inspiration of a walk in the woods or a stroll over hill and dale.’ When I once discussed this fact with an athletic Cambridge friend, he expressed his gratitude for any evidence which could prove that it was the duty of all intellectual workers to spend their vacations in Alpine climbing. Alpine climbing has undoubtedly much to give both to health and to imagination, but it would be an interesting quantitative problem whether Goethe, while riding a mule over the Gemmi Pass, and Wordsworth, while walking over the Simplon, were in a more or in a less fruitful condition of Incubation than are a modern Alpine Club party ascending, with hands and feet and rope and ice-axe, the Finster-Aarhorn.
In this, however, as in many other respects, it may be that the human organism gains more from the alternation of various forms of activity than from a consistent devotion to one form. In England, the administrative methods of the older universities during term-time may, I sometimes fear, by destroying the possibility of Incubation, go far to balance any intellectual advantages over the newer universities which they may derive from their much longer vacations. At Oxford and Cambridge, men on whose powers of invention and stimulus the intellectual future of the country may largely depend, are made personally responsible for innumerable worrying details of filling up forms and sending in applications. Their subconscious minds are set on the duty of striking like a clock at the instant when Mr. Jones’s fee must be paid to the Registrar. In the newer English universities, the same duties are rapidly and efficiently performed by a corps of young ladies, with card-catalogues, typewriters, and diaries.
But perhaps the most dangerous substitute for bodily and mental relaxation during the stag e of Incubation is neither violent exercise nor routine administration , but the habit of industrious passive reading. Schopenhauer wrote that ‘to put away one’s own original thoughts in order to take up a book is the sin against the Holy Ghost ,’ During the century from 1760 to 1860, many of the best brains in England were prevented from acting with full efficiency by the way in which the Greek and Latin classics were then read. It is true that Shelley’s imagination was stung into activity by Plato and Aeschylus, and that Keats won a new vision of life from Chapman’s translation of Homer; but even the ablest of those who then accepted the educational ideals of Harrow and Eton and Oxford and Cambridge did not approach the classical writers with Shelley’s or Keats’s hunger in their souls. They plodded through Horace and Sophocles and Virgil and Demosthenes with a mild conscious aesthetic feeling, and with a stronger and less conscious feeling of social, intellectual and moral superiority; a nyone who was in the habit of reading the classics with his feet on the fender must certainly, they felt, be not only a gentleman and a scholar but also a good man.
Carlyle once told Anthony Trollope that a man, when travelling, ‘should not read, but sit still and label his thoughts. On the other hand, Macaulay, before he went out to India in 1834 to be Legislative Member of the Supreme Council, wrote to his sister: ‘The provision which I design for the voyage is Richardson, Voltaire’s works, Gibbon, Sismondi’s History of the French , Davila, Orlando in Italian, Don Quixote in Spanish, Homer in Greek, Horace in Latin. I must also have some books of jurisprudence, and some to initiate me in Persian and Hindustanee’; and, at the end of the four months’ voyage, he wrote: ‘Except at meals, I hardly exchanged a word with any human being. . . . During the whole voyage I read with keen and increasing enjoyment. I devoured Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian, French, and English; folios, quartos, octavos, and duodecimos.’
If he had followed Carlyle’s advice, he would have had a better chance of thinking out a juristic and educational policy for India which would not have been a mere copy of an English model. One understands why Gladstone’s magnificent enthusiasm and driving force was never guided by sufficient elasticity or originality of mind, when one reads, in Mrs. Gladstone’s Life, how she and her sister married the two most splendid Etonians of their time – Gladstone and his friend Lord Lyttelton – and spent a honeymoon of four in Scotland.
‘Any little waiting time as at the railway station,’ says her daughter, Mrs. Drew, ‘was now spent in reading — both husbands carrying the inevitable little classics in their pockets.’ During the days when new knowledge, new forms of thought, new methods in industry and war and politics, and the rise of new nations were transforming Western civilization, ‘Lord Lyttelton was to be seen at cricket-matches in the playing field at Eton, lying on his front, reading between the covers, but never missing a ball.’
I have inquired how far we can voluntarily improve our methods of thought at those stages — Preparation, Incubation (in its negative sense of abstention from voluntary thought on a particular problem), and Verification – over which our conscious will has comparatively full control. I shall now discuss, the much more difficult question of the degree to which our will can influence the less controllable stage which I have called Illumination. Helmholtz and Poincare, in the passages which I quoted above, both speak of the appearance of a new idea as instantaneous and unexpected. If we so define the Illumination stage as to restrict it to this instantaneous ‘flash,’ it is obvious that we cannot influence it by a direct effort of will; because we can only bring our will to bear upon psychological events which last for an appreciable time. On the other hand, the final ‘flash,’ or ‘click’ is the culmination of a successful train of association, which may have lasted for an appreciable t ime, and which has probably been preceded by a series of tentative and unsuccessful trains. The series of unsuccessful trains of association may last for periods varying from a few seconds to several hours.
H. Poincare, who describes the tentative and unsuccessful trains as being, in his case, almost entirely unconscious, believed that they occupied a considerable proportion of the Incubation stage. ‘We might,’ he wrote, ‘say that the conscious work, [i.e., what I have called the Preparation stage], proved more fruitful because it was interrupted [by the Incubation stage], and that the rest restored freshness to the mind. But it is more probable that the rest was occupied with unconscious work, and that the result of this work was afterwards revealed.’ Different thinkers, and the same thinkers at different times, must, of course, vary greatly as to the time occupied by their unsuccessful trains of association; and the same variation must exist in the duration of the final and successful train of association. Sometimes the successful train seems to consist of a single leap of association, or of successive leaps which are so rapid as to be almost instantaneous. Hobbes’s ‘Roman penny’ train of association occurred between two remarks in an ordinary conversation, and Hobbes, as I have said, ends his description of it with the words, ‘and all this in a moment of time, for thought is quick’ ( Leviathan , Chap. III). Hobbes himself was probably an exceptionally rapid thinker, and Aubrey may have been quoting Hobbes’s own phrase when he says that Hobbes used to take out his note-book ‘as soon as a thought darted,.’
But if our will is to control a psychological process, it is necessary that that process should not only last for an appreciable time, but should also be, during that time, sufficiently conscious for the thinker to be at least aware that something is happening to him. On this point, the evidence seems to show that both the successful trains of association, which might have led to the ‘flash’ of success, and the final and successful train are normally either unconscious, or take place (with ‘risings’ and ‘fallings’ of consciousness as success seems to approach or retire), in that periphery or ‘fringe of consciousness which surrounds our ‘focal’ consciousness as the sun’s ‘corona’ surrounds the disk of full luminosity. This ‘fringe-consciousness’ may last up to the ‘flash’ instant, may accompany it, and in some cases may continue beyond it. But, just as it is very difficult to see the sun’s corona unless the disk is hidden by a total eclipse, so it is very difficult to observe our ‘fringe-consciousness’ at the instant of full Illumination, or to remember the preceding ‘fringe’ after full Illumination has taken place. As William James says, ‘When the conclusion is there, we have always forgotten most of the steps preceding its attainment.
It is obvious that both Helmholtz and Poincare had either not noticed, or had forgotten any ‘fringe-conscious’ psychological events which may have preceded and have been connected with the ‘sudden’ and ‘unexpected’ appearance of their new ideas. But other thinkers have observed and afterwards remembered their ‘fringe-conscious’ experiences both before and even at the moment of full Illumination. William James himself, in that beautiful and touching, though sometimes confused introspective account of his own thinking which forms his chapter of Principles, says: ‘Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows round it. With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of whither the simultaneous vibration ot other strings under the influence of the string which was originally struck. The ‘fringe-consciousness’ of a human being may sometimes indicate that the activity of the main centre of his consciousness is being accompanied by the imperfectly coordinated activity of other factors in his organism.
I use the term ‘ Intimation * for that moment in the Illumination stage when our fringe-consciousness of an association-train is in the state of rising consciousness which indicates that the fully conscious flash of success is coming. A high English civil servant described his experience of Intimation to me by saying that when he is working at a difficult problem, ‘I often know that the solution is coming, though I don’t know what the solution will be,’ and a very able university student gave me a description of the same fact in his case almost in the same words. Many thinkers, indeed, would recognize the experience which Varendonck describes when he says that on one occasion : ‘When I became aware that my mind was simmering over something, I had a dim feeling which it is very difficult to describe; it was like a vague impression of mental activity. But when the association had risen to the surface, it expanded into an impression of joy.’ His phrase ‘expanded into an impression of joy’ clearly describes the rising of consciousness as the flash approaches.
Most introspective observers speak, as I have done, of Intimation as a ‘feeling,’ and the ambiguity of that word creates its usual crop of difficulties. It is often hard to discover in descriptions of Intimation whether the observer is describing a bare awareness of mental activity with no emotional colouring, or an awareness of mental activity coloured by an emotion which may either have originally helped to stimulate the train of thought, or may have been stimulated by the train of thought during its course. Mr. F. M. McMurry seems to refer to little more than awareness when he says, in his useful text-book, How to Study, ‘Many of the best thoughts, probably most of them, do not come, like a flash, fully into being but find their beginnings in dim feelings, faint intuitions that need to be encouraged and coaxed before they can be surely felt and defined.’
Dewey, on the other hand, is obviously describing awareness coloured by emotion when he says that a problem may present itself ‘as a more or less vague feeling of the unexpected, of something queer, strange, funny, or disconcerting.’ Wundt was more ambiguous when he said (in perhaps the earliest description of Intimation) that feeling is the pioneer of knowledge, and that a novel thought may come to consciousness first of all in the form of a feeling. My own students have described the Intimation preceding a new thought a s being sometimes coloured by a slight feeling of discomfort arising from a sense of separation from one’s accustomed self. A student, for instance, told me that his first recognition that he was reaching a new political outlook came from a feeling, when, in answer to a question, he was stating his habitual political opinions, that he ‘was listening to himself.’ I can just remember that a good many years ago, in a period preceding an important change of my own political position, I had a vague. almost physical, recurrent feeling as if my cloth es did not quite fit me. If this feeling of Intimation lasts for an appreciable time, and is either sufficiently conscious, or can by an effort of attention be made sufficiently conscious, it is obvious that our will can be brought directly to bear on it. We can at least attempt to inhibit, or prolong, or divert, the brain-activity which Intimation shows to be going on. And, if Intimation accompanies a rising train of association which the brain accepts, so to speak, as plausible, but would not, without the effort of attention, automatically push to the flash of conscious success, we can attempt to hold on to such a train on the chance that it may succeed.
It is a more difficult and more important question whether such an exercise of will is likely to improve our thinking. Many people would argue that any attempt to control the thought-process at this point will always do more harm than good. A schoolboy sitting down to do an algebra sum, a civil servant composing a minute, Shakespeare re-writing a speech in an old play, will, they would say, gain no more by interfering with the ideas whose coming is vaguely indicated to them, before they come, than would a child by digging up a sprouting bean, or a hungry man in front of a good meal, by bringing his will to bear on the intimations activity in his stomach or his salivary glands. A born runner, they would say, achieves a much more successful co-ordination of those physiological and psychological factors in his organism which are concerned in running, by concentrating his will on his purpose of catching the man in front of him, than by troubling about the factors themselves.
And a born orator will use better gestures if, as he speaks, he is conscious of his audience than if he is conscious of his hands. This objection might be fatal to the whole conception of an art of thought if it did not neglect two facts, first that we are not all ‘born’ runners or orators or thinkers, and that a good deal of the necessary work of the world has to be done by men who in such respects have to achieve skill instead of receiving it at birth; and, secondly, that the process of learning an art should, even in the case of those who have the finest natural endowment for it . be more conscious than its practice. Mr. Harry Vardon, when he is acquiring a new grip, is wise to make himself more conscious of the relation between his will and his wrists than when he is addressing himself to his approach-shot at the decisive hole of a championship.
The violinist with the most magnificent natural temperament has to think of his fingers when he is acquiring a new way of bowing; though on the concert-platform that acquirement may sink beneath the level of full consciousness. And, since the use of our upper brain for the discovery of new truth depends on more recent and less perfect evolutionary factors than does the use of our wrists for hitting small objects with a stick, or for causing catgut to vibrate in emotional patterns, conscious art may prove to be even more important, as compared to spontaneous gift, in thought than in golf or violin-playing. Here, again, individual thinkers, and the same thinker at different times and when engaged on different tasks, must differ greatly. But my general conclusion is that there are few or none among those whose work in life is thought who will not gain by directing their attention from time to time to the feeling of Intimation, and by bringing their will to bear upon the cerebral processes which it indicates.
On this point the most valuable evidence that I know of is that given by the poets. Poets have, more constantly than other intellectual workers, to ‘make us aware’ (as Varendonck says) ‘ of foreconscious processes for conscious ends.’ The production of a poem is a psychological experiment, tried and tested under severer conditions than those of a laboratory, and the poet is generally able to describe his ‘fringe-consciousness’ during the experiment with a more accurate and sensitive use of language than is at the command of most laboratory psychologists. Several of the younger living English poets have given admirable descriptions of Intimation, often using metaphors derived from our experience in daily life of a feeling that there is something which we have mislaid, and which we cannot find because we have forgotten what it is . Mr. John Drinkwater, for instance, says: ‘Haunting the lucidities of life that are my daily beauty, moves a theme Beating along my undiscovered mind.’
And Mr. James Stephens says: ‘I would think until I found Something I can never find, Something lying on the ground ‘In the bottom of my mind.’ Mr. J. Middleton Murry, in his Problem of Style points out the psychological truth of Shakespeare’s well-known description of the poet’s work: … ‘as imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen ‘Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothings A local habitation and a name.’
‘Forms of things unknown’ and ‘airy nothing s’ are vivid descriptions of the first appearance of Intimation; and ‘ local habitation and a name’ indicates the increasing verbal clearness of thought as Intimation approaches the final moment of Illumination; and may also indicate that Shakespeare was a much more conscious artist than many of his admirers believe. Some English poets and students of poetry have given descriptions not only of the feeling of Intimation, but also of the effort of will by which a poet may attempt to influence the mental events indicated by Intimation. and the dangers to the thought itself involved in such an effort. In these metaphors drawn from a boy’s hand an elusive fish, or a bird which will dart off if the effort is made a fraction of a second too soon or too late.
Mr. Robert Grave s allows me to quote in full a charming little poem, called ‘ A Pinch of Salt,’ in which he expands and plays with this metaphor:
‘When a dream is born in you
With a sudden clamorous pain,
When you know the dream is true
And lovely, with no flaw nor stain,
Oh then, be careful, or with sudden clutch
You’ll hurt the delicate thing you prize so much.
Dreams are like a bird that mocks,
Flirting the feathers of his tail
When you seize at the salt-box
Over the hedge you’ll see him sail.
Old birds are neither caught with salt nor chaff;
They watch you from the apple bough and laugh.
Poet, never chase the dream.
Laugh yourself and turn away.
Mask your hunger, let it seem
Small matter if he come or stay;
But when he nestles in your hand at last,
Close up your fingers tight and hold him fast.’
In this respect, the most obvious danger against which the thinker has to guard is that the association-train which the feeling of Intimation shows to be going on may either drift away of itself , as most of our dreams and day-dreams do, into mere irrelevance and forgetfulness, or may be interrupted by the intrusion of other, trains of association. All thinkers, know the effect of the ringing of the telephone bell, or the entrance of someone with a practical question which must be answered, during a promising Intimation. Aristophanes, when in the Clouds he makes Socrates complain that his disciple by asking him a question had caused valuable thought to ‘miscarry, ’ was probably quoting some saying of Socrates himself, whose mother was a midwife, and who was fond of that metaphor. If, therefore, the feeling of Intimation presents itself while one is reading, it is best to look up from one’s book and so avoid the danger that the next printed sentence may ‘start a new hare.’
Varendonck describes how, in one of his day-dreams, ‘The idea that manifested itself ran thus: “ There is something going on in my foreconsciousness which must be in direct relation to my subject. I ought to stop reading for a little while , and let it come to the surface .” And, besides such negative precautions against the interruption of an association-train, it is often necessary to make a conscious positive effort of attention to secure success. Vincent d’lndy, speaking of musical creation, said that he ‘often has on waking, a fugitive glimpse of a musical effect which — like the memory of a dream — needs a strong immediate concentration of mind to keep it from vanishing.
But even the effort of attention to a train of association may have the effect of interrupting or hindering it. Schiller is reported by Vischer to have said that when he was fully conscious of creation his imagination did not function ‘with the same freedom as it had done when nobody was looking over my Shoulder.
To a modern thinker, however, the main danger of spoiling a train of association occurs in the process of attempting — perhaps before the train is complete — to put its conclusion into the words. Mr. Henry Hazlitt, says, ‘ Thoughts of certain kinds are so elusive that to attempt to articulate them is to scare them away, as a fish is scared by the slightest ripple. When these thoughts are in embryo, even the infinitesimal attention required for talking cannot be spared’; and a writer on Montaigne in The Times Literary Supplement for January 31, 1924, says, ‘We all indulge in the strange pleasant process called thinking, but when it comes to saying, even to someone opposite, what we think, then how little we are able to convey! The phantom is through the mind and out of the window before we can lay salt on its tail, or slowly sinking and returning to the profound darkness which it has lit up momentarily with a wandering light. In the case of a poet, this danger is increased by the fact that for the poet the finding of expressive words is an integral part of the more or less automatic thought process indicated by Intimation.
The little girl had the making of a poet in her who, being told to be sure of her meaning before she spoke, said, ‘How can I know what I think till I see what I say?’ A modern professed thinker must, however, sooner or later in the process of thought, make the conscious effort of expression, with all its risks . A distant ancestor of ours, some Aurignacian Shelley, living in the warm spell between two ice ages, may have been content to lie on the hillside, and allow the songs of the birds and the loveliness of the clouds to mingle with his wonder as to the nature of the universe in a delightful uninterrupted stream of rising and falling reverie, enjoyed and forgotten as it passed. But the modern thinker has generally accepted, willingly or unwillingly, the task of making permanent his thought for the use of others, as the only justification of his position in a society few of whose members have time or opportunity for anything but a life of manual labour.
The interference of our will should, finally, vary with the variations of the subject-matter of our thought — not only in respect of the point in time at which it should take place, but also in respect to the element in a complex thought-process with which we should interfere. A novelist who had just finished a long novel, and who must constantly have employed his conscious will while writing it, to make sure of a good idea or phrase, or to improve a sentence, or rearrange an incident, told me that he had spoilt his book by interfering with the automatic development of his main story and of its chief characters, in order to follow out a preconceived plot.
Dramatists and poets constantly speak of the need of allowing their characters to ‘speak for themselves’; and a creative artist often reaches maturity only when he has learnt so to use his conscious craftsmanship in the expression of his thought as not to silence the promptings of that imperfectly co-ordinated whole which is called his personality. It is indeed at the stage of Illumination with its fringe of Intimation that the thinker should most constantly realize that the rules of his art will be of little effect unless they are applied with artistic delicacy of apprehension.
I thought . . . that an artist’s instinct may sometimes be worth the brains of a scientist , that both have the same ‘purpose, the same nature , and that perhaps in time , as their methods become perfect , they are destined to become one vast prodigious force which now it is difficult even to imagine.
I have already pointed out that the Intimation of a coming thought may be ‘coloured’ by an ‘emotion’ or ‘feeling,’ or, to use a more technical and more inclusive term, an ‘affect.’ One of the most difficult problems in the voluntary control of the thought-process arises from this fact. A poet who desires to retain an emotionally-coloured Intimation for a period long enough to enable it to turn into a fully developed and verbally expressed thought, will find that it is extraordinarily hard to do so. If he makes a direct effort to retain his emotion, the emotion may flit away. As Blake says:
‘He who bends to himself a Joy
Doth the winged life destroy.’
On this point the laboratory psychologists have carried out certain introspective experiments whose results may help us. They have compared the influence of voluntary attention upon a sensation with its influence upon an affect; and they have found that under laboratory conditions, it is easier to retain an affect indirectly by concentrating attention on the sensation which may have stimulated it than by attending directly to the affect itself. Affections lack what all sensations possess, the attribute of clearness. Attention to a sensation means always that the sensation becomes clear; attention to an affection is impossible. If it is attempted, the pleasantness or unpleasantness eludes us and disappears, and quotes Killpe’s statements: ‘It is a familiar fact that contemplation of the feelings, the devotion of special attention to them, lessens their intensity, and prevents their natural expression,’ and While pleasure and pain are brought far more vividly to consciousness by the concentration of attention upon their concomitant sensations, they disappear entirely when we succeed (and we can succeed only for a moment) in making the feeling as such the object of attentive observation’. Killpe and Titchener are both thinking mainly of the particular kinds of ‘affect’ which are called pleasure and pain, or pleasantness and unpleasantness; but what they say is to a large extent true of all those other affective types of consciousness, which are so easy to distinguish from each other in a text-book, and so difficult to distinguish while watching one’s own mind.
A new thought may not only be preceded or accompanied by an affect, but may also be accompanied by, or may consist of, a visual or audile ‘image.’ Instances may then occur where the affect is clearer and more lasting than the ‘image’ associated with it. This may happen when the association between the two has taken place in actual sleep — as when we awake from a dream with a feeling of terror, but having forgotten what frightened us. Or the image may be a picture that has only incompletely and with difficulty been made visible to the mind by a severe effort of concentration, but which is accompanied by an unusually intense and vivid emotion. The emotional effect of Dante’s poetry upon his readers is largely due to the amazing clearness of his power of sensory imagination, but even Dante found it easier to retain the passion of the final Beatific Vision in Paradise than the Vision itself. In the last canto of the Commedia he writes: ‘As is he who dreaming sees, and when the dream is gone the passion stamped remains, and nought else comes to the mind again; even such am I, for almost wholly fails me my vision, yet does the sweetness that was born of it still drip within my heart. So does the snow unstamp itself to the sun, so to the wind on the light leaves was lost the Sybil’s wisdom.’ The general testimony, however, of poets and imaginative thinkers is that the retention by the thinker of his emotion and its effective communication to others is most likely to take place when it is associated with a vivid and easily retained image — when, that is to say, the psychological events follow the primitive cycle of sensation, emotion , thought.
Milton, in his famous description of poetry as ‘simple, sensuous and passionate,’ puts the simple clearness of the associated sensory image”’ before the passion. Tchehov wrote to Gorky: ‘You are an artist . .. you feel superbly. You are plastic; that is, when you describe a thing you see and touch it with your hands. That is real writing.’
For ten years, from the age of nine to nineteen, I spent a quite considerable number of hours in each week in the composition of Latin and Greek verses. For four of those years I was in the Sixth Form of Shrewsbury School, which then had something like a monopoly of the Cambridge University prizes in classical versification. We were told that if we were to succeed in gaining these prizes, or the college classical scholarships, we must use in our verses particular instead of general terms. We must say ‘Tuscan’ or ‘Adriatic’ Sea, instead of ‘sea,’ ‘ilex’ instead of ‘tree,’ and ‘nightingale’ or ‘dove’ instead of ‘bird.’ We did so, choosing sometimes, when our memory failed us, some word in the ‘Gradus’ containing the right number of short and long syllables. Why we were to do so, neither we nor our Headmaster (who had won more verse prizes with, it seemed to me, less poetic sensibility than anyone else in the long history of Cambridge scholarship) had the least idea. Because Catullus in the road could shut his eyes, and feel his heart stir as he saw again the view from his villa at Sirmio, because Horace was best inspired with the snows of Soracte before him, and Virgil when he remembered the kindly smoke-pillars of the Mantuan farms, therefore we were to write down syllables indicating places on the map which we have never seen, and the names of trees and flowers which we would not have recognized at Kew Gardens.
It is this emotional factor which constitutes a large part of the difficulty in choosing, when choice is possible, the language we should use in thought. One language, or nuance of language, may enable our problems to be more exactly stated, and our Verification to be more successful; but another may possess for us emotional associations which are more likely to lead to new and vivid thoughts. When I was giving a short course in London University based on the material of this book, a very intelligent American graduate student reproached me for attempting to state psychological problems in ‘vernacular’ language. I could only answer that the enormous technical vocabulary used in many American psychological laboratories may (providing one recognizes that the vocabulary of one laboratory often differs from that of another) lead to greater exactness of thought; but that in this particular case, where my purpose was the exploring of a rather new problem, I believed that for me that advantage was less than the advantage of the more vernacular language, with its greater range of emotional, and, therefore, of intellectual associations.
For in the ‘telephone-exchange’ of our brain, just as an idea may call up an emotion, so an emotion may call up an idea.Besides the problem of the relation between ‘vernacular’ and technical vocabularies, thinkers and writers have sometimes to choose between a ‘literary’ language which has acquired exact meaning and wide intellectual associations, but which is tending to lose its emotional associations, and a less exact unliterary language with vivid emotional associations. Those countries are, in deed, extraordinarily fortunate, where, as in Russia and Norway, literary and popular speech keep close together . Sometimes the two forms of speech end by becoming two languages. Dante had to choose between the scholastic thought of his Latin De Monarchia , and the richer thought of his Italian Commedia. Petrarch never realized that his Latin epic Africa, on which, rather than his Canzoniere, he rested his own claim to immortality, illustrated every possible bad effect of language upon thought.
A more difficult case is presented when a people with a larger literature has conquered but not absorbed a people with a smaller literature in its own vernacular, especially if that vernacular has two forms, an older literary, and a newer popular form. At this moment, in Ireland, Czecho-Slovakia, and other parts of Europe, peoples whose technical and even literary language has for long been that of their conquerors, are deciding whether they should continue to use that language, with its advantages for exact thought and wide intercommunication, or should develop a more or less submerged vernacular. Each case must be decided on its merits, and the only point on which I myself feel sure is that when an old language is no longer in any true sense a vernacular, but has become a mere field for school-culture and literary study, like Sanskrit in India, and Gaelic in Brittany and in most parts of Ireland, the balance of advantage is against its revival for the general purposes of thought and communication.
Not only do such revivals add new obstacles to intellectual intercourse between nations and races and offer new temptations to the oppression of minorities, but the obvious defects of such a revived language in fullness and exactness are not compensated for by its sometimes forced emotional associations. Perhaps, if ever the hatreds of Versailles die away, the League of Nations may find itself discussing seriously whether a deliberately invented international language, with its obvious advantages in exactness and universal intelligibility, and its obvious disadvantages in emotional associations, may be worth the trouble involved in inducing the schools of the civilized world to teach it, in addition to the local vernaculars, to students likely to be engaged in commerce, scientific study, and the interpretation of legal and diplomatic documents. If it were decided to adopt such a language, new poems might after a generation be written in it, and after a century or two it might acquire such wide emotional association as to be suitable for general use.
In considering the emotional-intellectual influence of language, it has been convenient to think of all kinds of emotion as constituting together a single species. But there are certain emotions whose influence on thought can only be understood if we examine them separately.
Take, for instance, that curious psychological fact (existing, apparently, only in mankind) called the sense of Humor, or of the Ridiculous. It begins with the uproarious laughter of a little child who has just discovered that he can do a new trick or can recognize a new likeness between words and things. At this point it is exactly described by Hobbes’s definition of laughter as ‘sudden glory ’. It always retains this quality of representing a sudden burst into a new train of association; but in later life the feeling of release which accompanies the sense of Humour is closely connected with the fact that our thought has burst through some ‘censorship,’ some barrier, often unknown to ourselves, of custom, or morals, or self-esteem. Galileo found that his sense of humour was invaluable in clearing away for himself and his readers the mental and emotional obstacles which mediaeval tradition had built up across that path of logical inference which led to the Copernican astronomy.
Now that the Inquisition has passed, the need of a trained and courageous sense of Humour in the students of natural science is not so obvious as it was in the seventeenth century; but Humour is still a powerful instrument for clearing out what Carlyle called ‘the dead pedantries, unveracities, indolent somnolent impotences, and accumulated dung-mountains’ of scientific as well as social, political, and religious thought. A watchful awareness, indeed, of all Intimation that is coloured by Humour is an invaluable acquirement for any thinker who, whether as writer or organizer or teacher, has to deal with mankind, and with all the instincts and habits which arise from the fact that mankind are a semigregarious species prone to follow loyalties and solemnities even when the loyalties and solemnities have lost their original usefulness. I have before me a volume of caricatures from the Munich journal Simplicissimus during the years 1903 to 1914; and it is astonishing to see with what precise accuracy the young humorists were able to observe and communicate facts about the personalities and policies of the Kaiser and his son which every German would now recognize, but which were then hidden from almost every responsible German statesman.
Mr. William Nicholson, in the New Review of June, 1897, guided by a delicate and kindly sense of Humour, published that charming woodcut of Queen Victoria walking with her Scotch terrier, which began the process, since carried on by Mr. Lytton Strachey, of freeing us from the enormous unrealities of the Jubilees of 1887 and 1897. One sometimes feels if mankind were deprived of the sense of Humour ( which is not the same thing as the habit of repeating funny stories) and were reduced in that respect to the condition of the late Mr. W. J. Bryan, all progress in social, political, or religious thought might become impossible in America.
We generally assume that Humour requires only an inborn faculty combined with the encouragement of a free-speaking and free-thinking group of friends. But every humorist, if he is to develop, and still more if he is to retain after middle life his sense of Humour, requires a long succession of little acts of personal daring. He has not only to recognize in himself what W. K. Clifford called ‘t he still small voice that whispers fiddlesticks but also to insist on letting it speak out in spite of the forces within him that would silence it. He has to acquire the habit of treating every Intimation which comes to him with the colour of Humour as a challenge to his courage. Think, for instance, of the quiet heroism which enabled Mr. Logan Pearsall Smith to bring into full consciousness the following little mental experience, which most of us would have instantly huddled away from the fringe of subconsciousness into complete forgetfulness. He calls it ‘The Goat/ and says: ‘In the midst of my anecdote a sudden misgiving chilled me — had I told them about this Goat before? And then, as I talked, there gaped on me an abyss opening beneath abyss — a darker speculation: when goats are mentioned do I automatically and always tell this story about the Goat at Portsmouth.
Mr. Winston Churchill, in his World Crisis —1915 (1923), has a sentence which admirably indicates the importance in war of the courageous following of Humour: ‘Nearly all the battles which are regarded as masterpieces of the military art, from which have been derived the foundation of states and the fame of commanders, have been battles of manoeuvre, in which very often the enemy has found himself defeated by some novel expedient or device, some queer, swift, unexpected thrust or stratagem. The whole peace-training of the typical British officer is apt to prevent him from attempting to overcome in time of war his subconscious shrinking from any of those ‘queer’ things (like the tanks) which are felt as somehow part of the ‘bad form’ that may in the end destroy all the decent solemnities of military life. But the sense of Humour, like every other element in thought, requires for its effective use not the following of a mechanically uniform rule but the delicate manipulation of a varied art. Perhaps no English writer has so fine a natural gift of Humour as Mr. G. K. Chesterton, and his readers are often thankful to him for breaking his way by that gift towards new truth. Yet his books sometimes force one to realize that Humour without the patient effort of systematic exploration may be as misleading as patient effort without Humour.
And Humour is not the only emotion which we should learn to recognize habitually as a hint of truth, to be used skilfully rather than followed blindly. I have already referred to the part played in Henri Poincare’s mathematical thinking by the aesthetic emotion of beauty. When one reads A Passage to India by Mr. E. M. Forster (1924), who has developed his natural sensitiveness by habitually watching all the emotionally coloured fringes of his consciousness, one realizes that the history of British administration in India might have been different if a larger proportion of our Anglo-Indian officials and soldiers had submitted themselves to the same form of self-training. In the tense atmosphere which is so finely indicated by his description of the garden-party given by the English Club at Chandrapore to their native fellow-subjects, one seems to detect the terrific effort of habitual suppression, by which alone the hosts in that uncomfortable ceremony are enabled to drive beneath the level of their full consciousness a score of ‘still small voices/ that would whisper, if they were allowed to do so, of the shortness of human life , evanescence of empires, and the intellectual possibilities of unbuttoned sympathy.
Indeed, now that psychologists arc abandoning the simplified conceptions of reason as ‘the slave of passion/ or instinct as a force which mechanically drives the otherwise inert thinking brain, it is becoming more and more necessary that we should reconsider in detail the relation, in the processes of intellectual inference and practical decision, of emotion and associat ive thought^ An emotionally coloured Intimation may be the first indication, not merely that we attach this or that ‘value’ to an intellectual conclusion formed without the help of emotion, but that our intellectual and emotional being has, by a process of which we are only partially conscious, come as a whole to that conclusion, and that the final stage of conscious Verification may now begin. When I once asked the best administrator whom I knew how he formed his decisions, he laughed, and, with the air of letting out for the first time a guilty secret, said: ‘Oh, I always decide by feeling. So and so always decides by calculation, and that is no good.’ When, again, I asked an American judge, who is widely admired both for his skill and for his impartiality, how he and his fellows formed their conclusions, he also laughed, and said that he should be stoned in the street
if it were known that, after listening with full consciousness to all the evidence, and following as carefully as he could all the arguments, he waited until he ‘felt’ one way or the other. Such a ‘feeling’ will not, however, give rise to an effective new thought unless it is something deeper than an intellectual opinion that one ought to feel. I remember that a small nephew of mine said of the rather ill-tempered family dog: ‘O f course I love Pilot, but I don’t like him.’ If my nephew had become a poet, or a naturalist, or an Under-Secretary of State, that feeling which he called ‘liking’ might have helped to form his style or drive his thoughts to their conclusion; while the love’ which he merely knew that he ought to feel might have been a functionless ornament of his mind.
There is one emotionally-coloured Intimation which is so important in poetry that sensitiveness to it almost constitutes the special poetic gift. It is a feeling of the , universal significance of some clearly-realized sensory image . Professor F. C. Prescott, the author of The Poetic Mind (1922), describes this feeling in the case of a poetically-minded man who is not a poet. Pie says that we ‘suddenly find the scene before us, fields, trees, and sky, clothed in a strange appearance, coloured by a strange light, taking us back to childhood or forward to another world, we hardly know which, Baudelaire says: ‘In certain states of the soul the profound significance of life is revealed completely in the spectacle, however commonplace, that is before one’s eyes; it becomes the symbol of this significance.’ The force and depth of this Intimation may be due to its close relation to one of the most fundamental processes of life . A living organism — from the simplest protozoon to the most complex mammal — can only exist in the world on condition that it recognizes likenesses in its environment, the likeness of one scrap of food to another, or of one enemy to another of the same or a similar species. That recognition must have preceded by long ages the dominance and even the first appearance either of the upper brain or of that continuous consciousness which the upper brain made possible. The Intimation, therefore, that we are about to make a new vast recognition of likeness – that we are about, as Plato would say, to behold the eternal pattern of which the confused likenesses between individual phenomena are clumsy copies — moves our whole being. Aristotle goes far to explain the special emotion which much of the finest poetry excites, when he says that ‘Metaphor is the special mark of genius, for the power of making a good metaphor is the power of recognizing likeness.
This Intimation of significance may either appear as a feeling of the relation of some material object before us to the whole universe, Blake’s power:
To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower;
Hold infinity in the palm of y our hand And eternity in an hour.
Or it may be a sudden sense that some commonplace fact or saying has a new and intenser individual meaning, as when Hamlet cries: ‘My tables-meet it is I set it down, That one may smile and smile and be a villain. At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark.’
But strong and deep as this feeling is, our consciousness of it is often curiously evanescent . Hamlet may find himself staring at the scribbled words on his tables, while the emotion which accompanied the writing of them a moment ago has already sunk beneath consciousness. William James (who might have been a great poet) in that chapter of his Principles which I have already quoted, speaks of our awareness of‘a passage, a relation, a transition’ in our thought. ‘If,’ he says, ‘our purpose is nimble enough, and we do arrest it, it ceases forthwith to be itself. As a snowflake crystal caught in the warm hand is no longer a crystal but a drop, so, instead of catching the feeling of relation moving to its term, we find that we have caught some substantive thing, usually the last word we were pronouncing, statically taken, and with its function, tendency and particular meaning in the sentence quite evaporated.’
Sometimes a poet strives to retain this special Intimation of significance long enough to allow it to develop into the formation and expression of a new thought, and does so by concentrating his attention upon the ‘sensuous’ image that evokes it. Mr. Drinkwater, for instance, in his ‘Petition’ prays:
. . . ‘that I may see the spurge upon the wall
And hear the nesting birds give call for call
Keeping my wonder new.’
Poets, indeed, spend their lives in capturing for themselves and making permanent for their readers emotionally coloured Intimations which most of us no more notice than we notice the shifting clouds in the strip of sky above our street. Sometimes the poet so describes the Intimation itself as to communicate the emotional colour of it to his hearers or readers, and leaves the emerging thought to develop in their minds. Shakespeare, in the great tragedies of his later period, showed an amazing power of doing this. If we read or hear Macbeth’s speech, ‘To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow — ’ on being told of his wife’s death, or Hamlet’s ‘How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world,’an emotion stimulating a new thought is started in ourselves, and is deepened and maintained both by the music of Shakespeare’s words, and by the intense reality of his images — the ‘poor player,’ the ‘brief candle,’ the ‘tale told by an idiot.’
If, however, we substitute a conscious and mechanical theory of symbolism for this spontaneous experience of Intimation, the true feeling of significance, and its power to stimulate creative thought, at once depart. I remember a conversation with Dr. Tsai, the head of the Government University in Pekin, and a leading authority on Chinese aesthetics. An English friend and I had been asking him whether a new great period of Chinese art might be approaching, and in particular whether a revival of the Buddhist faith might not lend a new significance to Chinese pictures of mountains and pilgrims. ‘No,’ he answered, if I may interpret his interpreter, ‘the whole tradition of Chinese art depends on the fact that the significance of the thing seen arises from the intensity of its individual reality. If the artist consciously draws his mountain as a Buddhist heaven, it will lose its essential mountaineity; and the old man who is painted as a Buddhist saint will lose the intensity, and, therefore, the significance of his “old-mannedness.”
In the history of literary criticism all forms of Intimation and Illumination arc usually indicated by the single vague word Imagination ; and during the hundred years from the publication of Edward Young’s Conjectures on Original Corn-position in 1759, to that of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, Imagination was sharply contrasted with Reasoning or Reason. If a modern psychologist compares Imagination with Reason, he will do so in order to indicate different stages and purposes in associative thought, emphasizing, by the word Imagination, the stage of Illumination, and that awareness of the less-conscious fringe of thought which I have called Intimation, combined with the purpose of artistic creation; and by the word Reason emphasizing the stages which I have called Preparation and Verification, and the purpose of arriving at conclusions on which it is safe to act. But in the confused controversy , a century ago, in Germany, England, and France, between the ‘classicists’ and the Romanticists, the words Imagination and Reason were used to mean an opposition between two mutually exclusive processes.
Imagination was, to the writers of that time, an outburst of the uncontrollable forces which in some mysterious way produced beauty and significance in poetry. Reason was a fully conscious and fully voluntary process either of discovering the logical implications of accepted truth, or of so arranging the results of observation as to lead directly and inevitably to new truth. This opposition is admirably illustrated by a comparison of Shelley’s letters in 1811 with his essay on ‘The Defence of Poetry’ written in 1821. We should now say that Shelley in those ten years made an enormous advance in his practice of the art of thought by recognizing and emphasizing Intimation and Illumination as a necessary stage in the process of thought; Shelley himself described the change as the abandonment of Reason and the adoption of Imagination.
Shelley was expelled from Oxford on March 25, 1811, on the delation of Edward Coplestone (then Oxford Professor of Poetry, and later Bishop of Llandaff), for publishing anonymously certain objections, which no one at Oxford had answered for him, to the current apologetics of orthodox Christianity. It had, therefore, fallen to him as a boy of eighteen to be a standard-bearer and martyr of Reason. He had studied during his few months at Oxford the grim syllogisms of Godwin’s Political Justice . On June 11, 1811, he wrote to Elizabeth Hitchener, the first new friend he had made since his expulsion, I am now an undivided votary of reason.’ He believed, however, that in following reason he was giving up forever both imagination and joy. Towards the end of his letter to Godwin, Jan. 10, 1812: ‘Mr. Coplestone at Oxford, among others, had the pamphlet; he showed it to the Master and the Fellows of University College, and I was sent for’ (Ingpen, Letters of P. B. Shelley, 1915. Coplestone was Professor of Poetry at Oxford, 1802-12. He published in 1813 the Latin lectures which he had given, at the rate of one a term, during his professorship. The lecture which he must have given in the term when he caused Shelley to be expelled is entitled Tabulae Mythological,’ and he explains that he refers to ‘those fables, handed down from extreme antiquity, which a too credulous age used to receive from their parents and held to be sacred’ — which is very like a passage in Shelley’s pamphlet. Miss Hitchener he wrote: ‘I recommend reason. Why? Is it because, since I have devoted myself unreservedly to its influencing I have never felt happiness? I have rejected all fancy, all imagination; I find that all pleasure resulting to self is thereby annihilated.’
Part of his mental suffering during that spring was due to the fact that when he looked into his mind the clear-cut distinctions of Godwin’s logic were constantly obscured by vague emotional Intimations. He wrote to Miss Hitchener (June 20): ‘We find ourselves reasoning upon the mystery which involves our being . . . we see virtue and vice, we see light and darkness, each is separate, distinct; the line which divides them is glaringly perceptible; yet how racking it is to the soul, when inquiring into its own operations, to find that perfect virtue is very far from being attainable, to find reason tainted by feeling, to see the mind when analysed exhibit a picture of irreconcilable inconsistences, even when perhaps a moment before, it imagined that it had grasped the fleeting Phantom of virtue.’
In July he went for a holiday to Rhayader in South Wales, and wrote to Miss Hitchener: ‘Nature is here marked with the most impressive character of loveliness and grandeur; once I was tremendously alive to tones and scenes . . . the habit of analysing feelings I fear does not agree with this. It [i.e. feeling] is spontaneous, and, when it becomes subject to consideration, ceases to exist. . . . But you do right to indulge feeling where it does not militate with reason. I wish I could too.’ In Shelley’s letters we can also see some of the steps that led to the change from what he called Reason to what he called Imagination. In the winter of 1814—15 he began to produce real poetry. On December 11, 1817, he wrote to Godwin: ‘I am formed, if for anything not in common with the herd of mankind, to apprehend minute and remote distinctions of feeling, whether relative to external nature or the living beings which surround us, and to communicate the conceptions which result from considering either the moral or the material universe as a whole.’ 2 In 1812 he went to Italy, where, in addition to writing poetry of rapidly increasing power and beauty, he translated the Symposium of Plato and studied the Phadrus. In August, 1878, he wrote to Peacock, under the influence of Plato’s theory of poetry as the supreme form of intellectual creation, and quotes Tasso: ‘There is no one in the world who deserves the name of Creator but God and the Poet.’
In 1821 he wrote his Defence of Poetry , which ought to be read and re-read by every student of the psychology of thought. He still thinks of Imagination (or Poetry), with its quality of involuntary inspiration, as something to be distinguished from the completely voluntary but mechanical process of Reasoning.
‘Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens totransitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.’ Reason is now to him a mechanical process of calculation, which if it co-operates with Imagination must do so as a subordinate instrument. ‘Reason,’ he writes in the opening of his essay, ‘is the enumeration of quantities already known; imagination is the perception of the value of those quantities, both separately and as a whole. Reason respects the differences, and imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.
As the essay proceeds, he comes constantly nearer to Plato’s claim that Poetry includes in itself all the necessary elements of thought, that Poetry, in the large sense in which he uses the word, is a harmony of those elements, and that if rightly used it offers to mankind guidance both for individual and for social life.
In ‘Hellas, written a few months later than the Defence of Poetry, he definitely speaks of imagination and reason as well as will and passion as elements in the whole process of thought: ‘Poetry,’ he says, ‘compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know. It creates anew the universe, after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blasted by reiteration’. ‘It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred’. Shelley wrote his Defence of Poetry at a moment in the history of the world curiously like the present. The great Napoleonic War had been concluded, five years before, by a victorious Peace. There had been during the preceding generation an immense increase of human knowledge and particularly of the sciences applicable to the production of wealth. But victory in war and the possession of new power over nature had been accompanied by an actual diminution of the happiness and worth of human life. The cause of this is, says Shelley, that statesmen and manufacturers have not learnt from the poets the art of recognizing and retaining the significance of that which they see: ‘The cultivation of poetry is never more to be desired than at periods when, ‘Thought Alone, and its quick elements, Will, Passion, Reason, Imagination, cannot die; they are, what that which they regard appears. The stuff whence mutability can weave All that it has dominion o’er, worlds, worms. Empires and superstitions.’
From an excess of the selfish and calculating principle, the accumulation of the materials of external life exceed the quantity of the power of assimilating them to the internal law of human nature’. ‘Whilst the mechanist abridges, and the political economist combines labour, let them beware that their speculations, for want of correspondence with those first principles which belong to the imagination, do not tend, as they have in modern England, to exasperate at once the extremes of luxury and want. They have exemplified the saying, “To him that hath, more shall be given, and from him that hath not, the little that he hath shall be taken away.” The rich have become richer, and the poor have become poorer; and the vessel of the State is driven between the Scylla and Charybdis of anarchy and despotism. We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life.’ ‘We have more moral, political, and historical wisdom than we know how to reduce into practice; we have more scientific and economical knowledge than can be accommodated to the just distribution of the produce which it multiplies’.
As one reads the last pages of the Defence of Poetry one begins to see light on that dark saying of Aristotle, ‘Poetry, therefore, is more philosophic and a higher thing than history, for poetry tends to express the universal and history the particular.’ Shelley himself ends his essay with the words ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’; and the historians who know most of the struggle which saved England from the worst consequences of the Industrial Revolution k now that that struggle repre s ented a victory of those who c ould imagine its results in terms of human life over those who could only calculate percentages of commercial profit and loss. And, in our time, if Europe escapes the worst consequences of the Congress of Versailles, that fact will be ascribed by future historians not so much to the innumerable professional calculators who accompanied each national delegation, as to Mr. J. M. Keynes, who could ‘imagine what he knew,’ and who in his Economic Consequences of the Peace dared to quote Shelley. It is an indication of the sense in which Shelley uses the word Poetry in his Defence of Poetry that this sentence forms part of a passage taken almost verbatim from his Philosophical View of Reform (written in 1820, but left unfinished, and not published till 1920), and that he had originally written ‘ Poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’
All the activities of a living org anism produce, besides their immediate effects o n the organism and its environment, later and more permanent effects on the future behaviour^pattern of the organism. Every one , for instance, of our mental activities in the stages of Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and Verification, not only helps to produce an immediate output of successful thought, but leaves our organism more able and more inclined to repeat that activity in the future. These later effects are called habits, and in discussing possible improvements of the art of thought, while it is sometimes more convenient to concentrate our atten- tion on the original psychological activity and its immediate results, it is also sometimes convenient to concentrate our attention (as I shall do in this chapter), on the future habit as the end to be attained, and on the activity itself as a means of creating that habit.
I will begin with the simplest case — the formation, by voluntarily arranging the hours of intellectual work, of a habit of responding in the process of associative. thought to a time stimulus. If, for instance, a man is starting to write his first novel, it may seem very unimportant whether he sits down to write at 9 a.m., or 6 a.m., or 8 p.m. But if, day by day, he chooses 8 am, , he will find that the gradual stimulation of his thinking into full activity which some writers call ‘warming up’ will occur rather more easily and more quickly at that hour than at any other hour of the day and in a few weeks he will find that “warming up’ will tend to occur almost automatically. ‘Warming up’ may then be preceded by an automatic Intimation of its coming; and, if he breakfasts at 8 a.m., he may at 8.45 a.m. begin to wander about the house with that vague and slightly idiotic expression on his face which is so irritating to those members of his household on whom the daily worries of housekeeping are just descending. In this respect, it is a real advantage to a professional brainworker to know, and to make part of his working consciousness, something of what I may call the physiology as distinguished from the psychology of thought.
For instance, one who is habitually aware of the process by which the activity of the brain is ‘warmed np ’ will be ‘fussed.’ or angry, or despairing, if on any particular day that process is slower than usual. He will begin work on such a day patiently and quietly, and may find that the sense of vigour and reality in his thinking comes to him, as sleep comes to a healthy and tranquil boy, unobserved. In the same way, he will not be frightened at the first appearance of mental fatigue, but will plod on till his ‘second wind’ appears, and will only abandon his work when it has lasted for what experience tells him is the right number of hours, or when he is sure that fatigue on this particular day will not pass off.
Sometimes the time-habit is combined with a habit of responding to a particular sensory stimulus. Charles Dickens found that he started work best if he had certain ornaments, arranged in a certain order, before, him on his table. Some men work better in the British Museum Library than elsewhere. I myself find that my newest, and therefore, most easily forgotten thoughts tend to present themselves under the stimulus of the first spongeful of water in my bath; but I have never had the courage to search in the stationers’ shops for a waterproof writing-tablet and pencil. A more complex habit results when some daily repeated muscular action stimulates the memory of the thought- train on which we were engaged when we broke off work the day before. A friend of mine, who is an exceptionally fertile thinker and writer, tells me that he gets started most easily if he begins by copying out the last few sentences of yesterday’s work. Many intellectual workers regularly begin work by rereading tire whole of what they wrote the day before. Varendonck, for instance, says, ‘My first work in the morning is to reread what I wrote almost spontaneously the day before; I complete, correct, re-arrange, reserve points for later consideration, etc., till the whole produces a logical impression.
Rereading often reveals the fact that the brain has been subconsciously exploring the material during the interval of Incubation and sleep; and that that fact has made the processes of arrangement, combination, and expression much easier than they were when the words were first written down. Rereading also often brings on an Intimation indicating an uncompleted brain-activity and the approach of a new thought; and we should form the habit of making, when this Intimation appears, a short voluntary extension of the interruption of mental effort which I called Incubation. ‘If,’ says Varendonck, the order in which I want to present the different parts of my argumentation does not come forward at once foreconsciously, while I am reading them over, I leave my desk for a moment to look after the fire, or to play a tune on the piano or something of the sort. And provided I have been all this time in a half-dreamy state, the order of presentation is usually ready in my mind’s eye, without any apparent effort.
In all this, however, we must be careful not to become the slaves of our habits. In writing a long book it may be best on five days out of six to begin work by picking up and developing the thoughts of the day before. But on the sixth day it may be better to begin by using our time-habit to surprise, at the moment of warming up, our mental activity at a new and deeper level, and so to capture some idea which mere industry and regularity might never have brought to the surface. In administrative work a daily break of this kind is very often desirable. The administrative thinker has to deal in succession, with many problems widely separated from each other.
A rereading of the last memorandum which he wrote yesterday may actually prevent him from hitting on the problem which most needs to be thought out to-day. And the administrator is liable to form slight emotional complexes which may half-consciously ‘head him off from any path of thought diverging from office routine. I have been told by a colleague of Sir Warren Fisher how that great administrator used to begin his day’s work during the most critical months of the War. He used, I was told, to come into his room, and stand with his back to the fireplace, without looking at the pile of official ‘jackets’ which lay, with green ‘urgency’ slips sticking out of them, on his desk. Before him he would have a couple of the highest officials in his department. Then, rousing himself and them to the full vitality of imagination, he would say, ‘Now, you fellows, what is the most essential thing for us to get done to-day?’ and only when that was settled and arranged for would he go to his desk. It might be extremely valuable if, before the evidence is lost, some of those who know would make a careful comparison between Sir Warren Fisher’s methods and those by which Lord Kitchener at the War Office earned the name of ‘Lord K. of Chaos.’
The President of Harvard once described to me a mental expedient not unlike Sir Warren Fisher’s. He said that he had tried to train himself to begin the day by doing what could be put off and leaving till later what could not be put off. That which ‘can be put off’ means not only that which will not be mechanically brought forward by an interview already fixed or an urgent letter on the desk; it also often means some question which, without a special effort of volition, we should be inclined to put off, a problem with slightly uncomfortable associations, or an inchoate train of still vague and only partially conscious thought which will drift into forgetfulness unless the ‘salt-box’ is used. Mr. Walter Lippmann found, after interviewing, as a journalist, many American statesmen, that he could extract from them, when they were off their guard and slightly excited, thoughts infinitely more fruitful than the ordinary commonplaces of politics. Fisher asks, ‘What if it were possible, taking men as they are, to liberate the possibilities that in moments of candour are revealed!’ He is referring not merely to the chance fact of such a liberation at any particular moment, but to the possibility of creating among American statesmen that subtle habit of overcoming obstructive menta l complexes which we call ‘candour.’
There are writers and teachers the nature of whose work makes it necessary for them to regulate their intellectual life by strict routine, who must start, for instance, daily at 9 a.m., to write three thousand words of criticism or analysis of other men’s books, or to continue a long series of calculations, or to correct a daily stint of students’ essays. E ach one, however, even of these men and women, is not a machine, but a Jiving and imperfectly unified organism, whose thinking can be only partially controlled by order and forethought .
As they work, their whole nervous system may be half- consciously quivering with old memories and new associations and vague emotional Intimations. They can, and, if they are to contribute to the thought of their time, they should acquire the habit of watching the unfocussed fringe of their consciousness for any significant mental events which may appear there, without ^ diverting their main attention from their immediate task; just as the fencer watches in the periphery of his field of vision his opponent’s wrist for significant movements without withdrawing the central focus of his fields of vision from his opponent’s eyes. They will often be wise to jot down these fringe-thoughts in their first rough form , and to leave them for future examination and elaboration. And those, also, whose daily work requires a continuous effort of inventive thought, should form the same habit of watching and recording their fringe- thoughts. Mr. H. Hazlitt in his Thinking as a Science (1916) gives a description of this difficult process, ending with the statement: ‘Having written the idea you will have it off your mind’ — i.e. you will be spared the effort of preventing yourself from forgetting it.
The professed thinker should also be habitually on the look-out for the possibility that a fringe-thought may sometimes be recognized as more important than the main thought-train during whose course it arises, and that a temporary interruption of work may be desirable, during which the fringe-thought may be developed as a focal thought. I have done my best of late years to form the habit of writing down significant fringe – thoughts between ‘square brackets? on my writing-pad while ‘reading up a subject in a library. They produce ‘least interruption to the main course of attention when they are put down in the actual words, almost unintelligible to anyone else, with which they come into my mind, and when even those words are economized by the use of a sort of shorthand of logical symbols. The fringe-thoughts will have no obvious connection with the chapter which one is writing; and, therefore, one should, perhaps once a week, run one’s eye over the notes of the week’s work, and collect and rearrange the bracketed entries.
Sometimes the mere fact of writing the fringe-thought down seems to set the subconscious mind to work on it; aod the thought reappears at the end of the week further developed, and accompanied by an indication of its place in the main problem on which one is engaged. Varendonck, describing such fringe-thoughts, says: ‘These ideas coming to the surface, I scribble them down as quickly as possible, trying to write automatically. . . . When I have come to the end of a section, I cast a glance over my list of foreconscious ideas, and I find that nearly all of them have automatically found their natural place in the text. . . .Fringe-thoughts, though they: will generally find their place in some chapter before or after that on which the thinker is working, sometimes will not; and anyone who is living a life of intellectual production will do well to keep, as Darwin did, a rather considerable number of ‘folders’ or envelopes, labelled with the names of subjects to which he finds his_ mind recurring, even although he may not immediately contemplate writing, or lecturing, or acting, on them.
He will find, again, that thoughts which first appeared to be scattered and unconnected, will often tend to grow out towards each other, and to form new and unexpected connections. For this reason he should keep one large folder marked ‘Redistribute’ into which he puts, all thoughts that are felt to be significant, but which do not seem to belong to any of the sections already labelled, and from time to time go carefully through it, It is just in such a collection that new ideas are most likely to be found, and the recorded thoughts will at least be connected with each other by the fact that they have all appeared significant to that partially unified organism which is the thinker’s self. The thinker should not, as Helmholtz found, confine the process of recording his fringe-thoughts to the moments in the day when he is accustomed to respond to a time-stimulus, or when he is sitting at his desk or laboratory bench. And if a thinker is fortunate enough to be visited by some larger conception — a constructive theory, or a story, or poem – which carries with it from the first an Intimation of its complete form, he must break through all habits and duties till the impulse to develop and record it is exhausted.
A group of able teachers of philosophy in Columbia University, headed by Prof. J. J. Coss, published a year or two ago a volume of essays on Reflective Thinking, for the guidance of their students. It is a significant indication of the present conditions of intellectual work in New York that the writers assume that ‘real thought’ never takes place except during the fixed ‘working’ hours. The occasion,’ they say, ‘of reflective thought becomes clear when the activities of a day are reviewed. Awake, rise, dress, breakfast, read headlines, go to business, but only when the morning’s mail brings up a question requiring a decision does real thought make its appearance. Thought comes when decisions or conclusions are necessary, when the usual succession of acts is interrupted, and consideration has to be given to the next step. A doctor thinks when he has to diagnose a new case — a student thinks when he applies his knowledge to the solution of an original problem in geometry-a city official thinks when he considers the best method of making a tax levy.’ This passage helps to explain why Professor Carrel has to escape from the Rockefeller Institute to Brittany if he wishes to arrive at new physiological ideas. It is true that a Columbia student who strolled daily down Broadway in a ‘brown study’ would not live long, but no worse service can be done to him than to encourage him to submit to his environment, and to ignore the weak Intimations of new ideas which now knock unavailingly at the door of his consciousness while, after a hurried breakfast, he ‘reads headlines,’ or enters the roaring mele of the rush- hour trains, or watches at night a high-speed comic opera or a flickering film.
To a modern thinker on man and society, the problem of recording fringe-thoughts is particularly important during those hours in each week which he spends in newspaper-reading. Newspaper-reading is for most of us a life-long training in the bad habit of mildly enjoying and completely forgetting an infinite series of disconnected ideas, of which the only useful result is the possibility that the worn path of our subconscious thought may in some future crisis make the way to the formation of a conscious conclusion rather more easy. If we mark all the articles in one or two daily papers which set us thinking, and at the end of a week or month cut out and file them, we may accumulate a mass of intractable material which it is a labour of Hercules, or of a sub-editor, or at least of a man with a highly skilled professional secretary, to use at all.
It is, perhaps, a not wholly impossible counsel of perfection that we should train our minds to be equally strict in rejecting the second-rate ideas which come during newspaper-reading, and in retaining the few that seem really helpful; that we should so mark each cutting as to indicate at a glance the exact point which made it seem significant at the time of reading; that every cutting should as soon as possible be separated from its fellow cuttings, and take its place in a bundle of less repellent written notes and extracts; and that we should ruthlessly destroy all cuttings which, if glanced at later, seem no longer significant. A man whose literary output is not too large may find it useful once every three or four years to run quickly through his own already published books and occasional writings, to see if these do not suggest some inchoate thoughts which he may have left undeveloped at the time, but with which he can now proceed.
The special habits which each thinker should attempt to acquire in dealing with his accumulated material of notes of reading, recorded fringe-thoughts, and past writings, will vary , of course, with the nature of his material, the character of his work, and his own natural powers. Sir Walter Scott would browse for an hour over some of the old-notes of his seventeenth-century reading, or some new anecdotes and descriptions sent him by Erskine or Ballantyne. and would then write a chapter of a novel without that preliminary outline which Henry Tames called a ‘scenario,. ’ A man without Scott’s superb natural gifts, who is engaged in exploring some problem again and again. If he is to in which originally occurred independently to connect themselves as a single and consistent argument, he may require to make a dozen scenarios in the writing of a single chapter.
The question as to what habits it is best to acquire in this respect will, again, vary with a thinker’s age. A man of fifty or sixty will have as a rule a larger accumulated stock of ideas than a man of twenty-five, but he will also have a less rapid and elastic memory. He will not be able to sit back in his chair and sweep, without the help of notes, over the whole plan of the book that he is writing, and over all the ideas automatically suggested by every part of it. Charles Dickens, for instance, did not begin to keep a note-book of ideas and facts until he was forty-three years of age, and he made increasing use of it during the next ten years.
To some thinkers who are also teachers , the process of helping ideas to grow into relation with each other may be greatly eased by the habit of oral lecturing and seminar-teaching; if only they are fortunate enough to find a post in which lecturing and teaching are sufficiently limited to be a means towards thought and not a substitute for thought. The presence and emotional stimulus of an audience, and the fact that one necessarily approaches the subject from a somewhat different ;n the social sciences, will rearrange and reduce his scattered ideas angle from that of a writer may in such cases be valuable. But to secure this result a lecturer should be careful never to read from a manuscript; to watch for new and significant ideas occurring during his lecture; to write down an indication of those ideas immediately after, or, if he can do it quickly and without being observed, during the lecture, and, if possible, to discuss the whole lecture afterwards with a body of students few enough and keen enough for real-dialectic. On the other hand, many teacher-thinkers seem to feel that the effort of using two different methods, and of putting, in the broad style of the platform or the class-room thoughts, which they must afterwards try to express with scientific exactness, is for them rather worse than a waste of time.
It might appear that daily journalism would be a better means than daily teaching of increasing the fertility of thought. Experience, however, seems to contradict this; very few men who have, for any considerable part of their lives, been writers, as distinguished from occasional reviewers or contributors, on a daily newspaper, have produced important original work, and those few have generally been men who were fully aware of the intellectual dangers of their profession, and who took careful precautions, e.g. by giving certain hours of each day to more continuous work, against those dangers.
I thought that I understood the reason for this when I heard a small group of English daily journalists discuss their intellectual methods. The daily journalist gets his subject two or three hours before his ‘copy’ must go to press. He so trains his brain to answer to the stimulus of the daily need, that several of my journalist friends have told me that they find it almost impossible to write vigorously without that stimulus. But of necessity their thoughts are ‘first’ and not ‘second’ or ‘third’ thoughts. A man who has to write the last sentences of an article in the intervals of correcting a proof of the opening sentences cannot train himself patiently to expect the shy feeling of Intimation and develop it into a new thought; and he would be a hero among daily journalists who should reread every morning the article which he wrote the night before, and strive to make it the starting point of a train of thought which it will now be too late to publish.
Dean Wace, of Canterbury, was for twenty years a leader-writer on The Times , and the Archbishop of Canterbury, when preaching his funeral sermon, said that that experience ‘taught him to say with cogent terseness what he had to say.’ But the readers of Dean Wace’s controversies with Huxley will regret that his experience did not in that field of thought teach him to say anything but what he had ‘had to say’ since childhood. Weekly journalism, where a man has two or three or even four or five days between the choice of his subject and the completion of his article, is far less dangerous to thought, and monthly and quarterly journalism has often been one of the ways in which the most patient thinkers have discovered or published their results.
But I end by repeating that every thinker must remember always that if he is to get any advantage from the fact that he is a living organism and not a machine, he must be the master and not the slave of his habits. He should watch for the least sign that his careful arrangements of time and method and material are making him ‘ stuffy’ ; and if so, he should get as soon and as completely as possible into the physical and moral ‘open air.’ For that purpose he may find it best to sacrifice some of the advantages of habit i n order to strengthen the factor of stimulus : he may, for instance, temporarily begin working at dawn instead of 9 a.m. and go for a walk at 11 a.m., in order to work longer in the afternoon. He may cut down his newspaper-reading to five minutes a day, or read, for a day or two, nothing, or contemporary novels only. He may go for a voyage, leaving his files and card-catalogues at home, and try to follow up, while thinking hard all the time, with humility and sympathy the ideas which his neighbours in the steamer smoking-room will confidentially expound to him… If he is a writer, he may give a course of lectures, or if he is a lecturer, he may spend a Sabbatical term in writing an unacademic book.
Descartes, who lived in a time when war was, for a gentleman, a comparatively safe occupation, got the most fruitful stimulus of his life by going on a short campaign. This antinomy between the stimulus of i habit in time and place and circumstance, and the stimulus of breaking habit, is constantly reflected in the lives of those who are capable of serving mankind as creative thinkers. I have already discussed the fact that, though without industry great intellectual work cannot be done, yet mere industry may prevent creation. But that fact constitute s the simplest of the problems of conduct which torment and perplex those who believe themselves to feel the urge of genius.
There have been Shakespeares who were useless to mankind because they stayed in Stratford with Anne Hathaway, Shelleys because they obeyed their father, or were faithful to Harriet Westbrook, and Mary Wollstone- crafts who died as respected and pensioned schoolmistresses. But there may have been many more Wagners who were destroyed by gambling, Byrons by sex, and Marlowes by drink, before they had created anything, and Descartes who stayed too long in camp.
An important hindrance to further development in the art of thought arises from a want of clearness in our conception of the facts behind our use of such words as ‘energy,’ ‘effort,’ or ‘ease,’ in speaking either of conscious or of subconscious mental activity. Creative thinkers have noticed, not only that their best single ideas seemed to come to them by automatic Illumination, but that their more continuous work was often most successful when it was done without the strain of effort, and even without any conscious feeling of volition. Milton speaks of the ‘celestial patroness’ who ‘deigns Her nightly visitation unimplored.’ And dictates to me slumbering; or inspires Easy my unpremeditated verse.’ But it is difficult, with our existing psychological vocabulary, to indicate the fact that work done without conscious effort may vary greatly in respect to the ‘energy,’ or ‘force,’ or ‘vitality,’ with which it is done. The effortless thought-process which Milton describes must in his case have involved intense mental energy. His words, however, would equally describe a process involving little or no energy; and he was probably not himself aware of any difference between his consciousness of more energetic and of less energetic effortless thought. There is a hint of awareness of such a difference in a letter of Mozart’s in which, describing his conscious experiences during the production of one of his great musical creations, he says, ‘ All the inventing and making goes on in me, as in a beautiful strong dream.’
Mozart apparently recognized a difference in the form taken in consciousness by a ‘strong’ and a less strong ‘dream’; but most thinkers, even if they may have a theoretical knowledge that effortless thought can be more and less energetic, seem un able to be sure whether at any given moment their effortless ease of production is accompanied by a rise or by a fall of mental energy. Mr. J. Middleton Murry, who is not only a professional critic but also a man with personal experience of original literary creation, has written (in his Problem of Style , 1922) some interesting sentences on this point. When discussing ‘the kind of hallucination from which Swinburne sometimes suffered,’ he says: ‘ Anyone who has tried to experience moments when, in the flagging of his own creative effort, his writing seemed to be endowed with a sudden vitality. Word follows word, sentence follows sentence in swift succession; but so far from being the work of inspiration, on the morrow it appears flabby and-lifeless’.
The whole problem is complicated by the well-known phenomena of habit. Mental activities which were originally carried through with severe voluntary effort, inevitably become on repetition less effortful and less conscious; how, therefore, can a thinker, as his work becomes more habitual, prevent the resulting decline in effort from being accompanied by a decline in energy? Wordsworth, when, after Coleridge’s return from Germany, he began to think about his own mental processes, made the mistake of ignoring this difficulty; he assumed that the ease of production resulting from habituation was the same thing as the ease of production which accompanied, in Milton’s case and in his own best work, the greatest energy of thought. In the celebrated preface to the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads, he says that ‘poems to which any value can be attached, were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual sensibility, had also thought long and deeply.
For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts … so by the repetition and continuance of this act, our feelings will be connected with important subjects, till at length, if we be originally possessed of much organic sensibility, such habits of mind will be produced, that by obeying blindly and mechanically the impulses of those habits, we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments of such a nature and in such connection with each other, that the understanding of the being to whom we address ourselves, if he be in a healthful state of association, must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, his taste exalted, and his affections ameliorated.
Wordsworth here, by using the words ‘blindly and mechanically,’ describes exactly the mental attitude which was most likely to lead to loss of energy, and which did, in fact, help to destroy in him the power of producing great poetry. His Ecclesiastical Sonnets were the natural result of a ‘blind and mechanical’ following of habit in production. Mr. John Drinkwater, on the other hand, seems to imply that the ease resulting from habit is necessarily accompanied by a loss of energy. In his ‘Carver in Stone’ he speaks of Figures of habit driven on the stone By chisels governed by no heat of the brain But drudges of hands that moved by easy rule.
The problem, however, of the relation between habit and energy is not so simple; and I have already used the same metaphor as Mr. Drinkwater in pointing out, that time-habit can be so managed as to aid that ‘warming up’ of the mind which indicates an increase of energy.
A more fundamental method of establishing a mental_ habit (if one can still use the term) by which mental energy, instead of being diminished, is constantly renewed, can be inferred from the contrast which Mr. Henry Hazlitt draws, in his Thinking as a Science , between the accounts given by Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill of their respective intellectual methods. Spencer describes in his Autobiography a mental habit which was almost certain to lead to a progressive decline of energy.
When George Eliot told him that she was surprised to see no lines on his forehead, he explained, he says, that ‘My mode of thinking did not involve that concentrated effort which is commonly accompanied by wrinkling of the brows. It has never been my way to set before myself a problem and puzzle out an answer. The conclusions at which I have from time to time arrived, have not been arrived at as solutions of questions raised; but have been arrived at unawares — each as the ultimate outcome of a body of thoughts which slowly grew from a germ. Some direct; observation or some fact met with in reading, would; dwell with me: apparently because I had a sense of its significance. . . . And thus, little by little, in unobtrusive ways, without conscious intention or appreciable effort, there would grow up a coherent and organized theory. Habitually the process was one of slow unforced development, often extending over years; … it may be that while an effort to arrive forthwith at some answer to a problem, acts as a distorting factor in consciousness and causes error, a quiet contemplation of the problem from time to time, allows those proclivities of thought which have probably been caused unawares by experiences, to make themselves felt, and to guide the mind to the right conclusion.
Mill, on the other hand, uses the term habit, as Aristotle does in the Ethics , to describe a mental attitude in which a high degree of energy is so maintained by. repeated voluntary effort as to become at least partially automatic . He speaks of ‘a mental habit to which I attribute all that I have ever done, or ever shall do, in speculation; that of never accepting half-solutions of difficulties as complete; never abandoning a puzzle, but again and again returning to it until it was cleared up; never allowing obscure corners of a subject to remain unexplored, because they did not appear important; never thinking that I perfectly understood any part of a subject until I understood the whole.’
We can detect in the two statements the chief cause which made Mill’s thought, though done by a tired man after or before office hours, more valuable to mankind than Spencer’s thought, though he gave his whole time to it. But in the art of thought, as in other arts, the efficient stimulation of energy does not depend merely, or even mainly, on either the intensity or the repetition of the original effort. The thinker must also learn how to make that particular kind of effort, that particular ‘ stroke,’ which will bring the energy of his organism most easily and most completely to bear on his task. ‘Natural’ thinkers, like ‘natural’ cricketers, or boxers, or of happiness as ‘an energy of the mind in accordance with virtue’ and of virtue as ‘an established habit of voluntary decision.’ oarsmen, may learn that ‘stroke’ for themselves. Some thinkers never learn it at all; I have listened, on the public bodies of which I have been a member, for hours together to slack rambling speeches delivered with tremendous effort by good and earnest men and women who have never caught the trick of stimulating in themselves the mental energy which would have given point to their thought.
Sometimes a thinker will miss the necessary ‘stroke’ because he directs his conscious effort to some form of activity which is not that essentially needed by the task in hand. I remember that when William Morris was fatiguing his great brain and wearing out his powerful body by delivering innumerable confused Marxist speeches at street corners, Bernard Shaw said to me, ‘Morris has come into this movement with all his energy, but not with all his intellect.’ Shaw was here using the word ‘energy’ in the sense in which I am using the word ‘effort.’ Morris, in the arts of designing and printing, and sometimes in his poetry, had learnt the stroke by which the ‘energy’ (in the sense in which I am using the word) of his intellect could be most effectively brought to bear. In the kind of thought which is the first duty of a social critic and inventor he had not learnt that stroke, and had hardly recognized that he needed to learn it.
Most thinkers, however, are neither natural artists in thought, nor unable or unwilling to learn their art. But, in the absence of an accepted ‘scientific art,’ they learn by a puzzled and often unsuccessful imitation of the thought-processes and mental attitudes of others, until a sense of the craftsman’s mastery comes to them. And to learn by such a method the right kind of stroke n thought is much more difficult than to learn it in cricket or rowing or designing; success in the self-stimulation of mental energy requires the co-ordination of innumerable psychological factors of hose nature and working we are largely ignorant, and often the overcoming of unconscious inhibitions. And sometimes the thinker will be tormented by the fear, well or ill founded, that he is contending, not against a temporary inhibition, but against innate and permanent inability.
Much of the best existing material for those who seek in this, respect to improve their mental methods is the negative evidence contained in accounts given by thinkers of their own sense of failure. In the Memoir of Henry Sidgwick, for instance, with its noble record of a lifelong intellectual service which never quite attained its end, there are two letters — written in 1864, within a few days of each other, at the age of twenty-six after a stay in Germany — which make one feel that Sidgwick then had a glimpse both of a form of mental effort which his splendid ability, his industry and courage, the advice of his friends, and the psychological treatises of his time never made clear to him, and of the degree of mental energy to which that effort might lead. ‘I believe,’ he says, in one letter, ‘I am cursed with some original ideas, and I have a talent for rapid perception.
But I am destitute of Gibbonian gifts which I most want. I cannot swallow and digest, combine, build. Then people believe in me somewhat I wish they would not.’ If he had been a physicist or a biologist, he might a little later have learnt the secret which he sought at Cambridge, when Clerk Maxwell returned there in 1871, or when Francis Balfour began his embryological work in 1875. his own sphere of work, one feels that the atmosphere of ‘thoroughness’ in the academic Germany of 1864 might then have helped him, and that it may have been a wise impulse which led him to write in the other letter, with a possible return to Germany in his mind, ‘I always feel it only requires an effort, a stretching of the muscles, and the tasteless luxury, the dusty culture, the noisy and inane polemics of Cambridge and Oxford are left behind forever.’
Sometimes the effective stimulation of mental energy depends on the establishment of a right relation between the thought-process and those ‘emotions’ or ‘instincts’ or ‘passions’ whose part in rational thought has been so much discussed by modern psychologists. Mr. J. M. Murry, for instance, after quoting a good many introspective accounts of literary creation, says that ‘the lesson of the masters is really unanimous’ and that ‘the source of style [he is here using the word style as almost equivalent to thought] is to be found in a strong and decisive original emotion’.
The word ‘emotion’ is, however, here, as often elsewhere, ambiguous. It may mean little more than the form taken in consciousness by any kind of intense mental energy — the ‘continuous excitement,’ for instance, under which Mr. A. E. Housman says that in the early months of 1895 he wrote the greater part of his ‘Shropshire Lad.’ If we use the word in this sense, Mr. Murry’s statement amounts to little more than the proposition that mental energy is not to be acquired without mental energy. But ‘emotion,’ in its more exact sense, means the form taken in consciousness by any one of those impulses which apparently arise in the lower brain, and which in the primitive psychological cycle mediate between sensation and associative thought; the ‘passion’ to which Milton referred when he said that poetry should be ‘sensuous and passionate,’ or the ‘love’ to which Wordsworth referred when he wrote, ‘In a life without love there can be no thought; for we have no thought (save thoughts of pain) but as far as we have love and admiration,’ and which Dante meant when he said, ‘I am one who when Love inspires take note, and as he dictates within me I express myself.’
Sometimes the white heat of such a passion will stimulate the brain into abnormal achievements of thought in solving the problems of the moment, as in the instances given by William James in his essay on ‘The Energies of Men,’ and in the description of war-passion which he there quotes from Colonel Baird-Smith, who, when barely alive from fatigue and disease and wounds at the siege of Delhi, found that ‘the excitement of my work was so great that no lesser one seemed to have any chance against it, and I certainly never found my intellect clearer or my nerves stronger in my life.’ More often emotion becomes an effective factor in thought only when the original nervous excitement has died down (Wordsworth’s ‘emotion remembered in tranquillity’) or when the emotions have been organized into what Mr. Shand calls ‘sentiments.’
When the war broke out in 1914, I expected that the emotions stimulated by it would at once create memorable poetry or prose, and prepared to collect a small anthology of war-philosophy and war-poetry. I soon found, however, that the terrific emotions of a modern war are apt to benumb rather than to stimulate all the higher processes of the mind which are not applied to the work of fighting. Before the fighting began , Mr. John Masefield wrote his lovely ‘August, 1914’ and when the fighting was over, Mr. Housman produced an epigram on ‘A Mercenary Army’ which was worthy of Simonides; and that was all, except a tiny German lyric in a newspaper, which I found myself desiring to keep.
The physiological events, indeed, which underlie our consciousness of passion may often, even in ordinary life, prevent that harmonious energy of the whole organism on which efficiency in thought depends. The psychiatrists have shown us that when our upper brain needs the passive expectance of a new thought, our teeth may be clenched, our fingers taut, the ‘sympathetic’ nervous system may be in a condition of strain, and our ductless glands in full activity; and then when our upper brain calls for activity all or part of the rest of our organism may refuse to respond. Therefore, during the last half-century, ever since, indeed, the psychology of the subconscious has been studied, recurrent advice has been given to thinkers that they should secure organic unity by a conscious attempt to extend the condition of relaxation throughout their whole organism. William James, in one of the best known of his ‘Talks to Teachers’ insists on the special importance of this advice for America. Some Americans, he says, on returning from Europe, observe the ‘desperate eagerness and anxiety’ in their compatriots’ faces, and say: ‘What intelligence it shows!
How different from the stolid cheeks, the codfish eyes, the slow, inanimate behaviour we have been seeing in the British Isles’. ‘But,’ says James, ‘that eagerness, breathlessness, and anxiety are not signs of strength: they are signs of weakness and of bad co-ordination. The even forehead, the slab-like cheek, the codfish eye, may be less interesting for the moment, but they are more promising signs than intense expression is of what we may expect of their possessor in the long run’, and he goes on to advocate ‘the gospel of relaxation . . . preached by Miss Annie Payson Call in her admirable little volume called Power through Repose ’. James’s warning must, in thousands of cases, have saved teachers and others all over the world from wearing themselves out by the mere friction of opposing nervous tensions. But Miss Call’s gospel of relaxation must have led many of those who followed it faithfully into that state of mild intellectual passivity which was attained by Herbert Spencer at his worst moments. The thinker should judge his work, not by the degree of his internal harmony as he does it, but by his success in the creation of new thought in a world the most important of whose conditions are external to himself.
No thinker, therefore, can do all his work in a state of organic harmony. Between the moments of harmony there must come times of painful strain and discord, when, as Maudsley says, ‘the face of a person eagerly pursuing a thought is that of one trying eagerly to see something which is difficult to be seen, pursuing it, as it were, with his eye,’ the face that one can watch in the British Museum Library when a writer is striving to capture some elusive Intimation, or to hold his unwilling attention to some distasteful problem. Shelley, in those months when the true conditions of creative thought were being revealed to him, wrote to Godwin of the ‘alternate tranquility . . . which is the attribute and accompaniment of power; an d the agony and bloody sweat of intellectual travail.’
The relation between ‘tranquillity’ and ‘agony,’ and between all the intermediate grades of harmony and conflict in the thinking organism, must, of course, and should vary constantly with variations in the individual thinker and his task. The genius will differ from the intelligent man of industry, the dramatist from the archaeologist, the young man from the old, the man beginning his task from the man ending it. But every thinker, even at his moments of most harmonious energy, must be prepared for the sudden necessity of straining effort, and in his moments of. greatest effort may hope for the sudden sense of harmony.
The young thinker, i f he requires a general formula f or the increase of mental energy , will find the phrase ‘ Power through Action’ more helpful than ‘Power through Repose.’ Action, in subtle ways that are the result of millions of years of organic evolution, brings all the factors of the organism into relation to each other, and in that region of full consciousness which is indicated by the word ‘self’ action, more than any other expedient, brings unity without loss of energy. Whoever has been called upon to act publicly on what have hitherto been his private speculative opinions, can remember that the various ‘selves’ of his thoughts and words, and of the thoughts and words of other men in relation to him, came wonderfully nearer to each other – that, to use the language of the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table , ‘The real John, John’s ideal John, and Thomas’s ideal John’ were more nearly one than they had ever been before. He seemed to drop a hundred intellectual disharmonies as Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress dropped his burden. John Dewey says, ‘All people at the outset, and the majority of people probably all their lives, attain ordering of thought through ordering of action.’ But even when the thinker has acted on his thoughts, and has thereby attained a new measure of moral and intellectual unity, he should beware of deceiving himself by the belief that he can now substitute a single formula for the whole complex art of thought. That on which the efficiency of his work will ultimately depend may be no part of his new confident unified self, but some vaguely disturbing Intimation, whose significance arises from its relation to causes and effects in the world outside his self, and which can only be brought to the surface of consciousness by a difficult effort of will.
Bernard Shaw’s whole life has been a protest against contentment with premature emotional and intellectual unity, and on occasion, when in debate a critic had said, ‘Mr. Shaw, you seem to talk like two people,’ Shaw answered, ‘Why only two?’ And, on the other hand, Mr. Shaw’s selves may be offering him contradictory interpretations of a single universe; and contradictory interpretations of the universe, though they may all be helpful in providing a choice of decisions and a wider range of association, cannot all be right. Verification with her lame foot and painful step must follow Illumination.
Action, again, not only produces psychological unity, with all its advantages and all its dangers, but may also directly increase — in the course of that physiological process one of whose manifestations we call habit — the energy which it stimulates. William James’s great chapter on ‘Habit’ in his Principles of Psychology can indeed be read, almost line for line and word for word, as a direction for strengthening, not only habituation, but also energy. ‘Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on any emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain . . . When a resolve or a fine glow of feeling is allowed to evaporate without bearing practical fruit it is worse than a chance lost; it works so as positively to hinder future resolutions and emotions from taking the normal path of discharge.’ And his advice to ‘speak genially to one’s grandmother … if nothing more heroic offers, indicates a means of strengthening not only the habit of genial speech but also the energy of our geniality.
But if we are to use action as a means of stimulating the energy of our thought, we shall require a more detailed analysis of the term ‘action’ than that offered in James’s chapter. ‘It is not,’ he there says, ‘in the moment of their forming, but in the moment of their producing motor effects, that resolves and aspirations communicate the new “set” to the brain.
In its influence on the organism mere motor movement may sometimes be almost negligible; Prof. Lloyd Morgan and others have pointed out that if we put the limbs of a passive or resistant animal or child through any movement we do not thereby create a habit. The movement must be voluntary, and the whole organism must take part in it. It is not the muscular movement of speaking genially to one’s grandmother that increases one’s love for her; an actor may, in the run of a successful play, speak genially a thousand times to an actress whom he detests, and may thereby increase his loathing for her; he will only increase affection if his whole organism takes part – if he ‘means what he says.’
Even completely voluntary acts will also differ, as to their effect in increasing energy of thought and emotion, according to our knowledge of the range of persons and things which will be influenced by them, and our purpose in exercising that influence. Two men, for instance, of about the same age, were once walking on an American winter’s day, and recalling the political discussions which had gone on in the groups to which as young men they had belonged. ‘I remember,’ said one of them, ‘that I and my friends used to discuss such questions in order that we ourselves might know the truth and vote wisely. You and your friends seem to have discussed them in much the same words, but you all seem to have felt (as a naturalist feels about his science) that if you could discover the truth about democracy, or socialism, or federalism, you had the responsibility of doing so on behalf of the human race.’
Bentham sat for nearly seventy years scribbling speculative paragraphs on morals and legislation, and looking like any one of many scores of insignificant little scribbling men. But the energy which vitalized his thought, and which grew stronger decade by decade, would have died down, had he not always retained his belief that the movements of his pen and the efforts and discoveries of his brain were acts as important to mankind as the battle-orders of a general in the crisis of a war. The psychological effect of an act may even be greatly changed by knowledge only received after the act is concluded. A man may sit at his microscope dissecting the mouth of a fly, or a freshwater mollusk. He may note the presence of certain foreign bodies, may sketch them, and may publish his sketch. That sketch may afterwards become the starting-point for a beneficent world-wide campaign against sleeping sickness or malaria or bilharzia. And while, at the moment of observation or the moment of publication, the energy of the observer may have been in no way heightened, the whole force of his thought may be changed when a year hence he sits reading his newspaper and suddenly realizes what he has done.
When Aeschylus fought at Marathon, and Socrates defied the Thirty Tyrants, each of them strengthened the energy of his thought because, in Aristotle’s phrase, he ‘knew what he was doing.’ And that fact is the answer to those who would plunge, or advise others to plunge, into mere physical action as both a guide to truth and a relief from the effort of thought. The student who has toiled in vain to think out a solution of the problem of the distribution of wealth, or of the relation of man to the universe, determines to ‘stop thinking and act.’ He joins a propagandist socialist body, or becomes a Trappist monk. He finds, for the moment, an escape from his troubles, and begins, perhaps, a period of ‘Incubation,’ during which new thoughts may form themselves, and lead to a new Intimation.
But that Intimation, when it comes, may find that his mental energy has meanwhile been lowered, and that he can no longer develop or act on his thought. To shout speeches, to tell beads, to dig in a monastery garden, are ways in which some of our physiological and psychological needs may be satisfied. They are not for the thinker — as the acts of finishing his book, or formulating his opinions, or even resigning his office might be – means of carrying into effect and thereby strengthening his mental energy. Throughout this chapter, while discussing suggestions for the preservation or increase of mental energy, I have kept on the plane of empirical observation.
I have not inquired what is the relation between ‘energy,’ as the writer or psychologist uses the word, and the ‘energy’ of the physicist or physiologist. But a day may come when the physicists and physiologists will learn enough about the nature of life to get in touch with the psychologists, and to help them to invent means of increasing mental through atomic ‘energy.’ At present, even if we accept the view that thought is driven by a ‘horme’ which is life itself, we can seldom relate our belief to the facts of physical energy further than the broad statement that a man in good health is likely to be a more effective thinker than the same man in bad health. At the Oxford International Psychological Congress of 1923, Dr. E. D. Adrian, the Cambridge physiologist, said (in a paper on ‘The Conception of Nervous and Mental Energy’), ‘I am quite ready to believe that the conception of mental energy, properly defined, may be as necessary to psychology as that of physical energy is to physiology’; but that ‘at present I do not think that the physiology of nervous conduction has advanced far enough in its results to be of any real significance for the psychologist (except so far as he studies the physiology of the sense organs); speaking from a purely physiological point of view, it seems to me that the less we say about nervous and mental energy the better.’
As against Dr. Adrian, Professor C. S. Myers at the same congress could only claim ‘that no harm can result from applying the term “energy,” even though we are ignorant of its nature, and are unable directly to measure it in terms of mass and velocity’. There may, however, be students now living who will succeed in relating our inexact and empirical observations of the effects of emotion and habit and action on the success of our thinking, to those measurable facts as to the energy of the nerve-cell with which Dr. Adrian’s researches deal. If that happens, the art of thought may be helped and extended by knowledge of such things as the conditions of cell-nutrition, and the influence on living tissues of stimulation by sunlight or glandular secretions. We may then learn how, by means unknown to Miss Annie Payson Call, to increase the ‘energy’ of our thought by increasing the ‘energy’ of our whole organism.