(Review) Irwin Edman, Human Traits and their Social Significance.

H. B. Alexander, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 18, No. 22 (Oct. 27, 1921), pp. 609-612.

This is a book designed to give to freshmen a conscious perspective of the multifarious nature of man. It sketches the activities and assembles the interests of a generic citizen of the century, first analyzing the operative modes of human conduct and then going forward to comprehensive depictions of their ends as exemplified in the great pursuits of art, science, religion, and the practical life of reason. The point of view, as indicated by title and division, is that of ‘‘social psychology,’’ and it is as a social psychologist rather than as a philosopher that Dr. Edman frames his subject-matter.

It is done very engagingly, and for the good of the freshman, and indeed of the many others who will no doubt be drawn to these pages. The style is clear and unaffected; the paragraphs are adorned with numerous telling quotations and with references to authors every freshman should find out; the topics are handled in due order and with balanced weight: as a piece of book-making, in its kind, the work is capital. Furthermore, the thinking that is called for is surely salubrious, even for freshmen, provided it be taken as the author intends it to be as an introduction to problems and attitudes swaying our contemporary mind. Beyond question we are living into a period of agitated concern about the conduct of men in societies; the impelling currents of modern thought are in the direction of political and social philosophizing; we may expect a generation or more of social self-searching, human nature, generative and decadent, replacing the panorama of things cosmic in the theatre of speculation. There never has been a more vivid demand for just such books as Human Traits, and its author is to be felicitated both upon the general excellence of his work and the season which it strikes.

Having given this meed of praise, which is certainly due to so clean-made a book, one may be permitted, I trust, a few tempera-mental qualifications. Of which the first is a doubt about the kind of thing. This social psychology one would expect to be a study of the conduct of men collectively; instead, it develops into an account of whatever men have in common, and thus it purports to give a true and comprehensive account of human nature. Your freshman will surely gain the impression that here he is anatomizing to its roots the whole constitution of man and the import of all his works. He will, as a matter of fact, gain needed insights into many springs of conduct; he will understand himself and his fellows better, for the thought which will be required of him; and in particular he will have a sane and reasonable introduction to numerous currents of ideas that make up the moil of present-day social introspection. But he will get it all aloof from the subject, which is life in all its concrete complexity, and he will retain it with an assurance that will carry him through many a day of blind misunderstanding of things human. Your social psychologist studies the Genus Homo as your biologist does an ant-hill, with vast concern about descriptive apparatus and faint realization of the fact that the noumenal essence of its nature is forever shut off from his understanding. The conceit of knowing men is easy to cultivate in youth, and oftentimes it is a conceit which the experience of years fails to correct. This is not saying that such a book as Dr. Edman’s is wanting in edification for the young; but it is meant for a warning against its too ready absorption. ‘T’were pity, indeed, if young men should be carried by the illusion of its perspective into a cocksure and superficial philosophy, as well might happen. To some extent I get from the book the same pause which Mr. Wells’s Outlines of History impels: Is Man, after all, so poor a thing? In my view the evidence of life leads elsewhere.

In particular—and here I come to a quarrel which I would hold not merely against Dr. Edman, but against the main tides of contemporary psychology, social and what-not—in particular, I do not believe that human traits can be so assembled as to picture a total or living man. Instincts, habits, appetites, imaginings, satisfactions, and the like, are without bond or meaning until the character of an agent, not made by them, but making them in their several sorts, is duly recognized. This the psychologists decline to do, with the consequence that they give us lexicons but no science. And so, when Dr. Edman, with the valiantest intentions in the world, sets out to justify reason and the life of reason, he is driven to gloss over its essential character, which, as Milton says, is choosing, and to treat it as some vague precipitate of muddied and perturbed reflexes. ‘‘Man’s reason,’’ he says, ‘‘which has its roots in his instincts, is the means of their harmonious fulfillment.’’ And here we have in a phrase the key to the whole philosophy of a sense-engaged world. In direct speech, reason is the panderer of the passions: that is not only the psychological inference to be drawn, it is also the social and moral sermon which is preached to our generation.

That our day believes itself to believe this, I make no doubt. It is the matter of more or less learned expression in the fields of psychology, sociology, economies, historiography, social philosophy, and in the fashionable chat of the sophisticated. The idea is a natural consequence of the vogue of Darwinism, which, in explaining man as a confluence of environment and heredity (itself nothing but ancestral environment), makes of him not even a machine, but only a dumb mechanical product. It has come in with this vogue and has carried the fashionable theorizing of our time. But it has not carried the practical convictions of the day. There are few more striking conflicts of human ideals in the history of mankind than has been the great struggle inaugurated by the two past centuries. The eighteenth century saw the rise and triumph of belief in the individual responsibility of political men; in the ‘‘rights of man” as a person and citizen, and essentially as a free agent; liberty and democracy were the slogans of the period, and pragmatically they ‘‘worked’’—for there has seldom been in history a more vivid carrying out of ideas than has been the carrying out of this democratic philosophy of man sponsored by Milton, Descartes, Locke, Rousseau, and the makers of the Revolutions. In the western world the whole theory has remained vital, and recently a great war was fought over it—certainly not as yet to see it crushed by its great antagonist, that Darwinism which for three quarters of a century has been denying all that the democracies of the world affirm. The struggle is by no means ended; and it is certainly a game fray, with the political convictions of a quarter of mankind on one side and the influence of the schools almost wholly upon the other.

To which party will Dr. Edman’s book lend support? Assuredly not to the democrats, not to the men who believe in the agential power of mankind to master environment. And as I think over the whole meaning of education, in its relation to our institutions, I am led to pause once more. Here is a book wonderfully responsive to the thought and feeling of our day, a book which truly does give a comprehensive perspective of society as society is conscious of itself. But of the truth of human nature? I am uncertain that just these ideas will lead to saner citizenship in these United States of America; I am doubtful if they will lead young men to believe in their country. And for my own part, I should prefer that my boy, as freshman, should get his notion of human nature from Montaigne’s Essays or even Burton’s Anatomy, local as these are of other times, and vastly more prefer that he should get it from Plato or the Bible. After all, we get the coloration of our own day all too indelibly; but the true complexion of man can be known only through laborious ventures into other ages.

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