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Graham Wallas on Dispositions, the Great Society, the Failures of Experimental Psychology, and Some Novel Connections (Part 2) February 17, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Uncategorized.

Here I discuss Wallas more mature thought (c. 1914) and detail his account of dispositions, the discussion of which underscores his consistent commitment to a critique of the hedonic calculus. Wallas also used his understanding of human nature to position his social psychology as well as belittle (perhaps too strong a word) experimental psychology. It has not been sufficiently pointed out, and his discussion of the work of Charles Myers uncovers this, that social psychology of Wallas’ stripe was a move away from introspection and the study of consciousness as well as the laboratory. The results of the laboratory and the testing of individual subjects could be read as contrary to a inquiry which sought to explain past history and present politics through reference to pugnacity.

Wallas, I think, understood this as a real danger. In his “Great Society” of 1914, he also comes upon a fundamental realization brought about through his understanding of evolution and the instincts: if mankind had stopped evolving biologically long ago, if he was adapted to the savanna and the very small village, was society a benefit for good or for ill? The idea of human beings as adapted or maladjusted for society is essential to discussions of social selection. Furthermore, the conception of social life being in disequilibrium with the biological adaptation of the human race is one of the mainstays of bio-social anthropology.

It is thus worth positing: can the Cambridge Mind and turn of the century psychology in Britain give us an insight into contemporary debates about universals, particulars and biological reductionism in anthropology and psychology? Perhaps.

Through an attention to social psychology have we uncovered a debate over methods in early psychology? Perhaps too this is the case.

The Grote Club

Wallas understood the Great Society as the form of social organization brought about in large part by what economists then referred to as “The Great Industry”, the technological transformation of life and its social dislocations has resulted in a “general change of social scale” “without precedent in the history of the world (The Great Society, 1914, pg. 3).”  The question for him, as for many others, was whether such a change in the state of affairs, leaving behind the Malthusian England of old, was for the better or worse.   That progress would indeed be the reality was the “deeper anxiety of our times”, overshadowing even the worries of the ever-present commercial or industrial crisis (ibid, 6)  The idea of progress was easier to entertain in Herbert Spencer’s time, when England and America was under the sway of Lamarkianism.  That time had passed and the biologists have come to the conclusion…

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