Bain, Alexander (1818–1903)

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Alexander Bain, the Scottish philosopher and psychologist, was the son of a weaver. He was mainly self-educated but managed to attend Marischal College, in his native city of Aberdeen. After graduating he assisted the philosophy professor there from 1841 to 1844. A confirmed radical, Bain established close contacts with utilitarian circles in London, helping John Stuart Mill in the revisions of his unpublished System of Logic in 1842 and helping Edwin Chadwick with his sanitation reforms from 1848 to 1850. During the next decade, supporting himself by journalism, he produced his magnum opus in two installments, titled The Senses and the Intellect (London, 1855) and The Emotions and the Will (London, 1859). Appointed professor of logic and rhetoric at Aberdeen in 1860, he published his Manual of Rhetoric (London, 1864) and his Logic, Deductive and Inductive (London and New York, 1870). On the proceeds of these and other textbooks he founded Mind in 1876, choosing his disciple George Croome Robertson as editor. After Bain's death his Autobiography (London, 1904), which gives his personal background and a useful criticism of his own books, was published.

Criticism of Associationism

Bain was not simply a pedestrian disciple of the two Mills. Fundamentally loyal to associationism, he was as discontented as J. S. Mill with its tenets but more systematic in his criticisms of them. What apparently made Bain uneasy was the narrow combination of introspection and emphasis on facts that characterized the associationistic science of mind. He was attracted by the physiologists' contemporary program of studying mind by a method uniting emphasis on facts with observation rather than introspection. At the same time Bain was interested in the recent efforts of the epistemologists to found a science that, while still introspective, was concerned not with empirical facts but with necessary truths. He had contacts with William Sharpey among the physiologists and James Ferrier among the epistemologists. Physiology and epistemology were interests alien to Mill.

The Will

The fusion of diverse tendencies in Bain's philosophy is best seen in the final section of his chief workthe discussion of the willand especially its last hundred pages, which contain Bain's spirited defense of determinism, his justly famous theory of belief, and his equally interesting, though less known, analysis of consciousness. For Bain the central problem of the will apparently is the question of how I exercise voluntary control over my limbs. From the traditionalist standpoint it seemed an insoluble mystery how the mind knows just what motor nerves to activate when, for instance, expecting a blinding light to be switched on, it causes the eyes to close in advance. Bain's theory swept aside the traditional analogy with the case of first getting information about what is ahead and then operating a lever. The limbs are not inert like levers but possess an inherent spontaneity, and this spontaneity means that the expectation of the painful glare is inseparably associated with preparations to close the eye. The idea is that theory and practice are one. This doctrine of spontaneity, a direct ancestor of pragmatism, Bain rightly considered to be his most original contribution to philosophy, and he both discussed it effectively at the animal level and struggled honestly, in his discussion of effort, with the difficulty of applying it at the human level.


Bain's doctrine of belief arose in the context of his view of will. When he spoke of belief as being inseparable from "a preparation to act," he was envisaging as basic a situation in which one seriously expects alleviation of a present pain from something that is visible but out of reach. In the ensuing action of trying to grasp this thing, the belief is inevitably put to the test: "We believe first and prove or disprove afterwards." The essence of the human situation was thus for Bain a kind of circle of activity in which we inevitably acquire new nonrational beliefs as a direct consequence of practically and experimentally testing those we start with. The point is apparently that our actions have unforeseen consequences.


By an ingenious turn Bain used the pragmatist analysis of belief as a basis for a theory of consciousness inspired by William Hamilton's doctrine of the inverse ratio of sensation and perception. In Bain's version of the theory, a sharp contrast is drawn between the emotive pole of consciousness, where absorption in one's pains or pleasures prevents the objective assessment of one's situation, and the cognitive pole, where pleasures and pains are forgotten in the business of mapping one's world and where emotion appears only in the shock of scientific discovery, as a feeling that, like boredom, is outside the pleasure-pain sphere. The movement from feeling to knowledge in consciousness is linked with the same facts that give human life the character of a passage from belief to self-criticism.

But what, then, is this consciousness that underlies both the emotional side and the intellectual? Inspired by Hamilton and Ferrier, Bain made two points. First, we are unconscious of the undifferentiated. "A constant impression is to the mind a blank"if temperature were unvarying we would not notice it. Second, we are conscious of the constant only in the midst of variety and difference. The essence of consciousness is thus to be discriminative, and Bain pointed out that of the discriminations involved in consciousness, the most liable to be misunderstood is that implicit in the problem of the external world. Bain argued that although Berkeley was right in denouncing as meaningless the notion of material objects independent of experience, he overlooked an important pointthat a distinction can be drawn within experience between the person sensing and the sensation sensed. Thus Bain, unlike J. S. Mill, conveyed a profound sense of the complexity of the problem of the external world.

Bain was aware that his philosophy was far removed from ordinary associationism. Above all, in the important Note F to the third edition of The Senses and the Intellect, he made it clear that for him association presupposed disassociation.

Bain progressively broke away from the heritage of the Mills, in logic as well as in psychology (he ultimately gave up Mill's view of logic for Augustus De Morgan's). At the same time there always survived in him certain tracts of unredeemed associationism. Thus, he retained to the last Mill's peculiar doctrine about the dependence of sight on muscular sense. So, too, his discussions of sympathy and of our knowledge of other minds are very crude examples of associationism.

These weaknesses in Bain have been too much stressed by his critics to the neglect of his merits. Thus, in dealing with the emotions the important role he gave to pure malice, or sadism, as a human motive contrasts refreshingly with the more commonplace views of such critics as Francis Herbert Bradley. Nevertheless, the only part of Bain's work that has been justly appreciated in our time is not his philosophy but his contribution to rhetoric.

See also Berkeley, George; Bradley, Francis Herbert; De Morgan, Augustus; Determinism, A Historical Survey; Ferrier, James Frederick; General Will, The; Hamilton, William; Introspection; Knowledge and Belief; Mill, James; Mill, John Stuart; Psychology; Utilitarianism.


Mental and Moral Science (London: Longmans, Green, 1868) is an abridgment of The Senses and the Intellect and The Emotions and the Will.

For works on Bain, see W. L. Davidson, "Professor Bain's Philosophy," in Mind, n.s., 13 (1904): 161179; and Howard C. Warren, A History of the Association Psychology (New York: Scribners, 1921), pp. 104117. For Bain's contributions to rhetoric, see Stephen Potter, The Muse in Chains (London: J. Cape, 1937).

George E. Davie (1967)

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Bain, Alexander (1818–1903)

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