Holt, Edwin Bissell (1873–1946)

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Edwin Bissell Holt, an American psychologist and philosopher, was noted for his innovations in philosophical psychology. His influence was greater in psychology than in philosophy. In his time he was the American psychologist best known and most respected by the British. Holt completed his undergraduate and graduate work at Harvard and taught there from 1901 to 1918, first as an instructor and then as assistant professor of psychology. In 1926 he returned from retirement to become visiting professor of social psychology at Princeton, but he retired permanently in 1936.

New Realism

Holt was one of the original six American New Realists who banded together in the first decade of the twentieth century in a polemic against idealism and representational realism. Holt was the only one, however, to attempt a systematic development of New Realism, first in a neutral monism, then, after giving that up, in a behaviorist theory of consciousness. In this attempt, Holt uncovered the fatal problems that were in New Realism from its beginning.

The New Realists took their start from the theory of consciousness of William James. James argued that consciousness was an external relation between a sentient organism and its objects, not a substance or entity. The latter view was the basis of the doctrine of the dualism of psychic and physical substances, and of an idealism that defined objects in terms of psychic or subjective substance, thereby giving them a mental or ideal status.

Holt replaced the dualism and psychic monism with a monism that was neutral, defining Being, or reality, neither in terms of mind (idealism) nor in terms of matter (materialism). The basic category of this neutral monism was "Being," which connoted nothing and denoted everything. This neutral Being could most readily be found in the concepts of logic and mathematics, the simplest known elements of Being. But in thus identifying Being with logical and mathematical terms and propositions, Holt gave it a distinctly mental or conceptual character. He admitted borrowing this approach from the idealist Josiah Royce, but he claimed that rather than arguing for idealism, his neutral monism reaffirmed the "sadly neglected truism" of New Realism: "everything is precisely what it is, and is not to be explained away as something else."

Yet Holt's analysis had an inescapable reductivist outcome. All things turn out to be "really" the same. That is, they turn out to be neutral entities (logical and mathematical terms) and the complexes made out of them (propositions), not the material things of common sense or the particles and elements of science. As one critic pointed out, this meant that it is the mathematical logician, not the physicist, who tells us what things are. By failing to keep clear the difference between the simplest elements of Being and the simplest known elements of Being, Holt threw doubt on the neutrality of his monism. The supposedly neutral logical and mathematical entities, he said, generate the further terms and propositions that make up all systems of being, or universes of discourse, through a "motion" of their own. Though Holt denied that this motion was a mental process, he did term it a "deduction," an intrinsic activity at work in the universe. Like any other object or aggregate, consciousness thus can be "deduced" from Being, and since Being is neutral, consciousness too is neutral; for all the complex constructions in experience are basically composed of neutral entities that maintain their identity despite the constructions they go into.

It is to these propositions, then, generated by the neutral entities of logic and mathematics through a "motion" of their own, that the nervous system responds. Although he admitted this might be considered fantastic, Holt stood by his position. James had said that the content of knowledge is the object of knowledge; content and object are not two separate things but are numerically one. Holt modified this only by noting that since our knowledge of an object is never complete, our ideas are never completely identical with their objects. When we say "My thought is of an object," we should say "My thought is a portion of the object; a portion of the object is my thought." Holt thought the representationalists had failed to see that an idea can represent an object only to the extent that it is identical with that object. An idea cannot represent space, then, without itself being spatial; the only adequate idea of a minute or an hour is just a minute or an hour. Holt thus passed from a partial qualitative identity of knowledge or consciousness and its objects to a numerical or existential identity. He had forgotten that he had begun with James's idea of consciousness as a relation.

No other New Realist developed monism in this thoroughgoing fashion. Holt carried it to its furthest conclusion. If consciousness and its object are numerically identical, do objects then have the character of consciousness (panpsychism), or does the content of consciousness have the character of objects (an inverted panpsychism, or "panobjectism")? Holt's anti-idealism ruled out panpsychism; consequently the elements of consciousness became objects themselves among all other objects, and the world for Holt is populated with all those entities usually placed in consciousness: error, hallucination, delusion, secondary qualities, even volitions. The objective world contains physical counterparts to the errors of ordinary sense experience. Errors of thought, always cases of contradictory propositions, are equally objective. The "real," or objective, world is contradictory through and through; nature is a "seething chaos of contradiction."

Holt, in a later paper on the locus of concepts, confessed that his neutral monism had led him to write a mistaken book, an "absurd hocus-pocus" conjured up because he did not know at the time the true locus of these neutral "timeless and changeless entities." His failure to maintain their neutrality is admitted: These entities have no objective existence in nature. Although he promised to return to the subject, Holt never did. Nor did he produce the planned second volume that was to carry out the epistemological implications of his neutral monism. Instead, he turned to the development of a behaviorist theory of consciousness.

Behaviorist Theory of Consciousness

Holt saw that an extreme behaviorism would make the materialist's mistake of denying the facts, as well as the theory, of consciousness. While he described his own behaviorism as part of the "objective tendency" to abolish the subjective and to interpret mental phenomena in an "objective relational manner," he consciously sought to avoid slurring over or repudiating the "facts" of consciousness, and he modified his behaviorism accordingly.

Increasingly, ideas suggestive of subjectivity, if not dualism, such as integration of behavior, capacity to respond, suppression, and split personality, appeared in Holt's writings. The result was an oscillation between his objectivist, behaviorist ideas and the subjectivist ideas that he needed in order to do justice to the facts of consciousness.

In The Freudian Wish, he described behavior by examining the way in which reflexes are combined and integrated to produce that organized "synthetic novelty" which is the specific response, or behavior, and which is also the point at which awareness is born. He identified this response with Sigmund Freud's "wish," including in it purpose, tendency, desire, impulse, and attitude. It was the replacement, Holt claimed, for sensation as the unifying factor of psychology. But he denied that this view meant he was falling back on the psychic or subjective; the basis for the view was objectively observable in what an organism does. While he did not deny that we have unobservable thoughts, he argued that they are often an "embroidery, a mere irrelevance to action," and eventually they too can be observed if one looks to behavior that is yet to come.

Holt thought the Freudian wish was the first key that psychology had discovered for an explanation of mind. It meant psychology "with a soul," not the "ghost-soul" but the "wishes" which are the soul. Like Aristotle, he identified the soul with the dynamic form of a body endowed with the capacity of life: it is what it can do. The behavior of such a body is distinguished from its random movements by its purposiveness, an objective reference that is found in every reflex. Behavior occurs when more than one reflex is set off by a stimulus. As the number of reflexes increases, the immediate stimulus "recedes" as the inciting and controlling factor. This recession of the stimulus is part of intelligence and deliberation. Holt also used it to give an account of consciousness and knowledge of spatially and temporally remote objects. Still, Holt could not avoid a basic monism. The "objective" world is the only world. What has been called the "subjective" world is the subtler workings of integrated objective mechanisms. It is the body that is the knower; the environing objects to which it responds are the known. And Holt revived his claim that the mind is the thing of which it is thinking.

By the end of his career, despite his lifelong objectivist-subjectivist oscillations, Holt was committed to an objectivist position. He described his last published book (on the learning process) as an essay toward radical empiricism, and it was supposed to complete James's work of ridding philosophy and psychology of the absurdities of subjectivism and any form of psychophysical parallelism. There is only a sketchy idea at the end as to what direction Holt's epistemology might have taken. He thought at that point that he was but one short step away from a definition of awareness and consciousness in physiological terms. His "objectism" was reaffirmed: he sought to formulate a wholly physical and physiological psychology as a basis for the solution of any psychological problem. But he admitted that such a psychology had not yet given the slightest clue to the problem of secondary qualities.

Holt's last published writing set forth a materialism without apologies. Mind and cognition are neither mental nor cognitive, but physicala matter of nerves and muscles. The active self is the physical body, that and nothing else. An experience of "self" is an experience of parts of one's body. Anything other than that, whether a self, ego, soul, or knower, does not exist.

Still, Holt modified this objectivism. He admitted that our physiological apparatus of perception and thought habitually distorts, mutilates, and disguises what it is perceiving. It subtracts from "the objective reality," and with the remainder it fuses inseparably "a vast amount of unreality of its own motor creating (subjective reality)." In a mistaken but significant interpretation of Immanuel Kant, Holt claimed that these distortions are strikingly analogous to the Kantian categories in their distortion of things-in-themselves in intuition and understanding.

The ghost of subjectivism remained. Holt and the New Realists may have exorcised its idealist form, but the need for its inclusion was a constant embarrassment to them and was eventually the reason for the failure of New Realism to be anything more than an anti-idealist polemic.

See also Aristotle; Behaviorism; Being; Freud, Sigmund; Idealism; James, William; Kant, Immanuel; Monism and Pluralism; New Realism; Panpsychism; Royce, Josiah.


Works by Holt are The Concept of Consciousness (London: George Allen, 1914; manuscript completed in 1908), which presents his doctrine of neutral monism; "The Place of Illusory Experience in a Realistic World," in E. B. Holt et al., The New Realism (New York: Macmillan, 1912), pp. 313376the book contains essays by the six New Realists elaborating their 1910 platform statement; "Response and Cognition," in Journal of Philosophy 12 (1915): 365373, 393409, reprinted in The Freudian Wish; The Freudian Wish and Its Place in Ethics (New York: Holt, 1915), his most popular and widely read book and one of the first introductions of Freud to a large American audience; "Prof. Henderson's 'Fitness' and the Locus of Concepts," in Journal of Philosophy 17 (1920): 365381; Animal Drive and the Learning Process: An Essay towards Radical Empiricism (New York: Holt, 1931), Vol. I, probably Holt's most significant publication in psychology; "The Whimsical Condition of Social Psychology and of Mankind," in Horace M. Kallen and Sidney Hook, eds., American Philosophy Today and Tomorrow (New York: Furman, 1935); and "Materialism and the Criterion of the Psychic," in Psychological Review 44 (1937): 3353.

A secondary source is Syed Zafarul Hasan, Realism: An Attempt to Trace Its Origin and Development in Its Chief Representatives (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1928), an extensive consideration of American philosophic realism in all its variations, including a critical exposition of Holt's philosophy.

Thomas Robischon (1967)