Stout, George Frederick (1860–1944)

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George Frederick Stout was an English philosopher and psychologist. Records of Stout's early life are scant. He was born in South Shields, Durham. A clever boy at school, he went in 1879 to St. John's College, Cambridge, where he obtained first-class honors in the classical tripos with distinction in ancient philosophy and followed this with first-class honors in the moral sciences tripos with distinction in metaphysics. In 1884 he was elected a fellow of his college, and in 1891 he succeeded George Croom Robertson as editor of Mind. He was appointed Anderson lecturer in comparative psychology at Aberdeen in 1896; Wilde reader in mental philosophy at Oxford in 1899; and professor of logic and metaphysics at the University of St. Andrews in 1903. He remained at St. Andrews, where he was instrumental in establishing a laboratory of experimental psychology, until his retirement in 1936. In 1939 he went to Sydney, Australia, to live with his son Alan, who had been appointed to the chair of moral and political philosophy at the University of Sydney. He spent the remaining years of his life joining vigorously in the discussions of a lively circle of younger philosophers at that university.

Stout's position in the history of philosophy and psychology is at the end of the long line of philosophers who, by reflective analysis, introspection, and observation, established the conceptual framework of what became in his time the science of psychology. He was a pupil of James Ward but not a mere disciple. He assimilated the essentials of Ward's system into his own philosophy of mind, but in the assimilation he transformed and extended them so that he created an entirely original and distinctive philosophy. Although he was formidable in polemical discussion, his bent was to constructive thinking. He assimilated many systems, boasting in later years, "I have got them all in my system" (idealism, realism, rationalism, and empiricism). He acknowledged indebtedness to philosophers as diverse as Benedict de Spinoza and Thomas Hobbes and to the last was preoccupied with the ideas of his contemporaries Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and he was far from being unsympathetic to the increasingly influential schools of psychology: behaviorism and the hormic and gestalt psychologies.

In Stout's work there is a progressive development of three main theses: the doctrine concerning thought and sentience; the concept of the embodied self; and a doctrine concerning "conative activity." These central theses entail in their elaboration the reinterpretation of many of the concepts important, historically and analytically, in the philosophy of mind. It is difficult to distinguish clearly, although the attempt is rewarding, between changes (or developments) in Stout's views and changes merely in his terminology. In his earlier writings, for example, he was content to describe the ultimate data of our knowledge of the external world as "sensations." Later he followed Ward in using the term presentations, and finally he accepted sense data and sensa to facilitate discussion with the exponents of the prevailing phenomenalism of the day. The readiness to change his terminology was most striking in his many attempts to convey his distinctive doctrine of thought reference.

Thought and Sentience

Since the time of George Berkeley there has been a widely accepted doctrine that cognition begins with simple sensations which are mental states and "in the mind"; that these sensations and their corresponding images are associated in order to form complex ideas; that some of these sensations and images are projected so as to appear as phenomena of the external world; and that these sensations are the ultimate basis of our beliefs about and our knowledge of the external world. Against this Stout set up the proposition that sense experience involves "thought reference" to real objects. As René Descartes had held that "thought" (as he used the term) implies a thinker, so Stout held that "thought" (in the same sense) implies something real and objective which is thought about.

This thesis, prominent in his Analytic Psychology, was expressed in terms of the concept of "noetic synthesis." In his characteristic conciliatory way he conceded the abstract possibility of "anoetic sentience" (sense experience without thought reference), but in subsequent writings he was inclined to deny both the occurrence of anoetic sentience and (to coin a phrase for him) "nonsentient noesis" (imageless thought or any form of thought reference independent of sense experience). In the elaboration of this thesis he offered a paradoxical theory of errorone difficult to refute or proveto the effect that there can be no complete error, no sheer illusion, no pure hallucination. All errors are misinterpretations of fact. This thesis was later expressed in terms of "original meaning," in saying that every sense experience is apprehended as "conditioned by something other than itself," or as an "inseparable phase of something other than itself." It was developed with subtlety and in detail in the genetic psychology of the Manual of Psychology.

Following Ward, Stout attempted to give a natural history of the development of human awareness of the world which also offered grounds for our knowledge of what the world is really like. The central thesis here is that we must accept as primary not only the particular sense data of experience but also the categories or ultimate principles of unity: space, time, thinghood, and causality. These are not so much a priori cognitions as dispositions to organize experience in certain ways. We do not, for instance, have a priori knowledge that every event has a cause, but we have a disposition to look for causes. So, mutatis mutandis, with the other categories.

The Embodied Self

Stout, like Ward, accepted a two-dimensional, tripartite division of mental functions into cognition, feeling, and conation; and he distinguished self, attitude, and object in each function. However, in the analysis of every concept in this scheme Stout modified every idea he took from Ward. He was more thoroughgoing in his adoption of Franz Brentano's principle that the essential component that distinguishes a mental function from a nonmental one is the attitude or way in which the subject is concerned with its objects. His most fundamental divergence from Ward was in his account of the knowing, feeling, and willing subject (self or ego). His differences from Ward are set out in detail in his important article "Ward as a Psychologist" (Monist, January 1926). Here he opposed to Ward's account of the pure ego his own view that the self as first known in sensible experience is that thing whose boundary from other things is the skin.

The Manual of Psychology contains a puzzling and confusing chapter, "Body and Mind," that combines a critique of the classical theories of interactionism, epiphenomenalism, and parallelism, all of which presupposed Cartesian dualism, with a defense of a version of parallelism that did not. This chapter puzzled students until, many years later, Stout was able to set out more clearly (especially in the Gifford Lectures) his basic philosophical thesis. This was a rejection of a dualistic ontology (that there are two sorts of substance, material things and minds) and a defense of a dualism of attributesphysical and mentalcombined in a single entity, the embodied mind, which has both physical and mental attributes united somewhat as the primary and secondary characteristics are united in a material object as it is apprehended in naive perceptual situations. This view of the self entailed a corresponding reanalysis of the mental attitudes of cognition, feeling, and conation.

Stout discarded the dualism of substances but retained the dualism of qualities in his account of mental dispositions. These came to be described as "psychophysical dispositions" in accounts of the instincts, sentiments, attitudes, and other proposed ultimate sources of behavior. In this he anticipated and inspired the hormic psychology of William McDougall and, less directly, the theory of personality elaborated by Gordon Allport. McDougall was to describe the ultimate springs of human conduct in terms of certain innate primary psychophysical dispositions to perceive and attend to certain objects, to feel emotional excitement in the presence of such objects, and to experience an impulse to act in certain ways in regard to those objects. Allport later defined these sources of behavior as mental and neural "states of readiness" for such experiences and activities. In Stout these concepts are embodied in a more radical account of conative activity and conative dispositions.


Although he accepted the classical tripartite division of mental functions, Stout accorded a certain priority to conation, so much so that he encouraged what has been described as the "conative theory of cognition," such as that developed by his contemporary Samuel Alexander. (The last paper published by Stout was "A Criticism of Alexander's Theory of Mind and Knowledge," Australian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy, September 1944.) The term conative activity covers all psychophysical processes which are directed to a goal (whether anticipated or not). It includes such cognitive processes as observation, recollection, and imagination, which are directed to the attainment of clearer and fuller perception of things present, the reconstruction of the past, and the comprehension of future possibilities. Conation is divided into practical and theoretical conation. Practical conative activity is directed to producing actual changes in the objects and situations with which the subject has to deal in the real world. Theoretical conation is directed to the fuller and clearer apprehension of such objects and situations. Stout's account of theoretical conation was in effect his account of attention. Attention is theoretical conation, although it incorporates practical conation through determining sensory-motor adjustments and the manipulation of instruments that facilitate clarity of perception.

Traditional accounts of association and reproductive and productive thinking were similarly revised and restated in conative terms. The law of association by contiguity was reformulated as the law of association by continuity of interest. One basic idea in all later theories of productive or creative thinking derives from Stout's account of "relative suggestion," an expression introduced by Thomas Brown that led to confusion between Stout's usage and Brown's.

In his treatment of all these concepts, Stout advanced beyond Ward and contributed significantly to the transition of psychology from a branch of philosophy to a science of human experience and behavior. These contributions were largely ignored, however, because of the powerful movements in psychology that were adverse to what had come to be described as "armchair psychology," that is, the purely formal analysis of psychological concepts. Stout's influence on philosophical thought outside his own circle of associates was also limited because of the reaction against "speculative" philosophy and the increasing restriction of philosophical discussion to analysis, more especially to the analysis of linguistic usage.

Stout's philosophy was, mistakenly, treated as being in the tradition of metaphysical speculation and the creation of systems in the grand manner. His final position is most fully set out in the two volumes of Gifford Lectures. These embody many clarifications of concepts in the philosophy of mind and some acute criticism of earlier expositions of materialism and of contemporary phenomenalism. They contain the only records of Stout's views on aesthetics and ethics and his more tentative speculations concerning God, teleology, and the nature of material things. There is probably no philosopher who in his own thinking so smoothly made the transition from the prevailing idealism of the late nineteenth century to the prevailing critical, nonspeculative philosophy of the mid-twentieth century. Something of the idealist tradition is preserved in his sophisticated defense of philosophical animism, but more important are his detailed contributions to the transition from the philosophy of mind of the nineteenth century to that of the twentieth.


works by stout

Analytic Psychology. 2 vols. London: Sonnenschein, 1896.

A Manual of Psychology. London: University Correspondence College Press, 1899; 4th ed., rev. by C. A. Mace, London, 1929; 5th (and last) ed., London: University Tutorial Press, 1938. The 5th edition contains an appendix on gestalt psychology by R. H. Thouless and a supplementary note by Stout.

Studies in Philosophy and Psychology. London: Macmillan, 1930.

Mind and Matter. London and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1931. Vol. I of the Gifford Lectures.

God and Nature. Edited by Alan Stout. London: Cambridge University Press, 1952. Vol. II of the Gifford Lectures with a memoir by J. A. Passmore and a full bibliography.

works on stout

Broad, C. D. "The Local Historical Background of Contemporary Cambridge Philosophy." In British Philosophy in the Mid Century, edited by C. A. Mace. London: Allen and Unwin, 1957; 2nd ed., 1966.

Hamlyn, D. W. "Bradley, Ward and Stout." In Historical Roots of Contemporary Psychology, edited by B. B. Wolman. New York: Harper and Row, 1968.

Mace, C. A. "George Frederick Stout." Proceedings of the British Academy 31.

Mace, C. A. "The Permanent Contributions to Psychology of George Frederick Stout." British Journal of Educational Psychology 24, Part 2 (June 1954).

Passmore, J. A. A Hundred Years of Philosophy, 192202 and passim. London: Duckworth, 1957.

C. A. Mace (1967)