Johnson on instinct

“We do not know in what either reason or instinct consists, and therefore cannot tell with exactness how they differ; but surely he that contemplates a ship and a bird’s nest will not be long without finding out that the idea of the one was impressed at once, and continued through all the progressive descents of the species, without variation or improvement; and that the other is the result of experiments compared with experiments, has grown, by accumulated observation, from less to greater excellence, and exhibits the collective knowledge of different ages and various professions.

“Memory is the purveyor of reason, the power which places those images before the mind upon which the judgment is to be exercised, and which treasures up the determinations that are once passed, as the rules of future action, or grounds of subsequent conclusions.” Johnson: Rambler #41 (August 7, 1750)

7 thoughts on “Johnson on instinct

  1. “Without variation or improvement” seems a little rhetorically excessive, but then I’m not totally clear on what progressive-minded men of Sam’s era believed about biological descent. He didn’t meet Erasmus until about 10 years after writing this. But it may not be important–his real subject here is not instinct, or even reason, but consciousness–our awareness, alone among other creatures, that we have a past, a future, and an end. That is, the essay this is from is a lot more about Mind than Nature. Full context here:


    1. Your link doesn’t work, alas [huh. Now it does. The vagaries of the intertubes].

      Merely because I put these quote up there doesn’t, of course, mean I agree with them. It means that I find them historically interesting. He clearly thinks that species have a developmental identity that doesn’t change.


  2. I agree, and it makes me want to read through his work and see if I can find out more about his beliefs about biology. Johnson was extremely interested (and well-informed, for his time) in science, though he never practiced it personally. My point was just that in the end, he always asked how knowledge, scientific or otherwise, served moral purposes. I’m also curious to know how his thoughts about biology (and possibly evolution) changed after befriending Erasmus Darwin, though we won’t find that in the Rambler, which ended before their meeting.

    Speaking of internettish vicissitudes, the comments alerts haven’t been working consistently for me here. Not a big deal; just thought I’d mention it.


  3. I found myself dropping aspects of this subject some years ago “as they partake of the fuliginous and denigrating humor.”

    I am glad you don’t share his views on identity John that would certainly raise a few eyebrows.

    His views on this subject partly shaped the considerable antipathy that existed between Johnstone and James Burnett.

    His influences are typical of his day though not universal.

    Perhaps usefull to start with a digression before approaching Erasmus.


  4. p.s my initial gut reaction to this was to laugh and imagine James Burnett sitting spitting at it.

    Lord Monboddo had some very distinct views on this subject, his interest in the beaver is a striking example. If he had viewed it as having the organs capable of producing speech he would have almost certainly declared it a human being with full potential for accquiring reason.

    To lord M. the beaver was a member of a very saintly and ordered society.

    It was thought to have a rather memorable instinctive trait from which it’s association with virtue originates.


  5. On the other end of the spectrum, Carl Zimmer is arguing in Discover that math is an “instinct.” You couldn’t ask for a better example of how science journalists screw up the way we understand biology.


  6. Chris

    Personally I find with both science and art that its research that focuses totally on origin and tramples through workable historical contexts with large theoretical boots on in a bid to rush to the starting line, which often distorts the task at hand.

    It’s especially common in the very small patch of wild landscape I’ve been observing for years.

    Just the other day I noticed someone has been running about in there in a big pair of size tens disturbing the wildlife.

    It’s difficult to track exactly what is going on as there are a lot of random footprints mixed with some unusual lines drawn in the sand that I have never observed before.

    Got no clear track to follow so I am not sure what the actual intent is. This is unusual as I can normally spot the path people are taking. I have been observing the relationship between the craft based art forms of elite and oral culture
    for some- time.

    Lets just hope it’s not someone chasing a bogey man they have conjured in the shadows.

    Their also seems to be an attempt to shoot the more common species of birds leaving only the more elite species to sing.

    Problem is both species are dependant on each other. If you can only find art and value in the singing voice of one you will simply end up with a landscape in which no birds do sing.

    Art is no respecter of class boundaries although it is common for individuals to find an inflated sense of value in a favoured cultural type.

    But the dynamics of such a black economy rest on denial, theft or disguise and empty claims of ownership of commonly held ground.


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