Bain, Alexander

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Bain, Alexander




Alexander Bain (1818–1903) is remembered primarily as an associationist and physiological psychologist, and his contributions to social and differential psychology have perhaps been unduly neglected. Bain’s father was an ex-soldier turned weaver, whose earnings progressively diminished as his eight children grew up. Bain himself left school and began to work at the age of 11; indeed, he assisted his siblings financially for a considerable portion of his life. He felt handicapped in competition with his economically more fortunate peers and, not surprisingly, developed lifelong dyspepsia and a tendency toward merciless criticism of the shortcomings of others. Certain of his personal characteristics clearly affected his career: his sincerity led to religious nonconformity, and this delayed his academic advancement (he became professor of logic and rhetoric at the University of Aberdeen in 1860, after several abortive candidacies for other chairs); his perseverance gave rise to a thoroughness of method, a comprehensive erudition, and a large volume of production (over ninety published works); and his propensity to dominate his fellows culminated in his appointment as rector of the University of Aberdeen for three terms (1884, pp. 175–200).

The Senses and the Intellect (1855) and The Emotions and the Will (1859) are Bain’s bestknown works. Together they dealt with all aspects of psychology and were used as textbooks until nearly the end of the nineteenth century, even after James Ward’s attack on associationism in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1886, vol. 20, pp. 37–85). In these books Bain consistently applied the principle that “the time has now come when many of the striking discoveries of Physiologists relative to the nervous system should find a recognized place in the Science of Mind” (1855, preface, p. iii in 1874 edition).

Although these works suffered because Bain frequently juxtaposed, rather than integrated, psychology and physiology, their shortcomings should not obscure some of their original features. One of these was Bain’s characterization of then current theories of consciousness as “shifting quicksands.” Integrating the emotional and intellectual aspects of consciousness, he related it to physiological events: “The clear, distinctive discrimination that we obtain of different things that strike us, which is the very foundation of an intellectual development, is originally bred from cerebral shocks, not improperly styled surprises” (1859, p. 619 in 1865 edition). Also unusual for its time was Bain’s behavior ally oriented theory of belief. Belief, he asserted, “has no meaning, except in reference to our actions—no mere conception that does not directly or indirectly implicate our voluntary exertions, can ever amount to the state in question” (1859, p. 568 in 1865 edition). Bain’s analysis of spontaneity was original, and it anticipated later behaviorism in some respects, although it did include a major mistake: the analysis was based on the notion of initial general activity that becomes specified through reward and punishment, so that feelings become linked with actions (1859, pp. 328–329, 339 in 1865 edition). Bain thought that spontaneous activity was “at the outset independent of any stimulus from without” (1859, p. 327 in 1865 edition), but more recent work has shown that he failed to distinguish “without” from “within.”

In The Emotions and the Will, and in earlier, forgotten works, Bain put forward a pioneer social psychology that has received little attention. It dealt with sympathy, social conformity, and interpersonal behavior. Bain analyzed sympathy more clearly than had his predecessors (e.g., Adam Smith and Thomas Brown); he characterized it as one’s assumption of the mental state of another by the development of the bodily states one attributes to the other by virtue of his behavior (1859, p. 215 in 1865 edition). An understanding of social conformity is sought, according to Bain, through the study of moral habits. This study produces a distinction between disinterested action and conscience (these being matters of psychology), on the one hand, and ultimate moral standards, on the other (Mental and Moral Science [1868] 1872, p. 344; and Dissertations on Leading Philosophical Topics 1903). Bain treated interpersonal behavior principally by showing how sympathy leads to cohesion in social groups (“The Human Mind” [1849] 1858, pp. 337–352) and how egotistic feelings develop into the need for “social alliance” (1872, p. 250).

Bain made other insufficiently appreciated contributions. Thus, in “On Toys” (1842), he set forth the view that the manipulation of toys is important for revealing aptitudes and interests and for developing skills. In his book Education as a Science (1879), he developed a detailed rationale for relating punishment to individual differences and reflected carefully on the severity of punishment that was possible without damage to the individual. On the Study of Character (1861) contained suggestions on testing that were well in advance of his time; moreover, as he reported in his Autobiography (1904, p. 132), he had begun thinking about the subject even earlier. In the Autobiography and in his Logic (1870) he recast, acutely and critically, Comte’s classification of the sciences.

As the author of texts that were not replaced until those of Stout and James appeared and as the founder of Mind (in 1876), Bain’s place in psychology remains secure.

J. A. Cardno

[For the historical context of Bain’s work, see the biographies ofHartleyandLocke; for discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeConformity; Emotion; Learning, article onReinforcement; Punishment; Social psychology; Sympathy and empathy.]


1842 On Toys. Westminster Review 37:97–121.

(1849) 1858 The Human Mind. Volume 2, pages 337–352 in Chamber’s Information for the People. London and Edinburgh: Chambers.

1850 Animal Instincts and Intelligence. Volume 6, number 82, pages 1–32 in Chambers’ Papers for the People. Edinburgh: Chambers.

(1855) 1894 The Senses and the Intellect. 4th ed. New York: Appleton.

(1859) 1899 The Emotions and the Will. 4th ed. London: Longmans.

1861 On the Study of Character: Including an Estimate of Phrenology. London: Parker.

(1868) 1872 Mental and Moral Science. London: Longmans.

(1870) 1889 Logic. New ed., rev. New York: Appleton.

(1872) 1879 Mind and Body: The Theories of Their Relation. New York: Appleton.

1879 Education as a Science. New York: Appleton.

1884 Practical Essays. New York: Appleton.

1903 Dissertations on Leading Philosophical Topics. London: Longmans.

1904 Autobiography. London: Longmans.


Boring, Edwin G. (1929) 1950 Alexander Bain. Pages 233–240 in Edwin G. Boring, A History of Experimental Psychology. New York: Appleton.

Cardno, James A. 1955 Bain and Physiological Psychology. Australian Journal of Psychology 7:108–120.

Cardno, James A. 1956 Bain as a Social Psychologist. Australian Journal of Psychology 8:66–76.

Cardno, James A. 1963 Bain and Individual Differences. Aberdeen University Review 40:124–132.

Davidson, William L. 1904 Professor Bain’s Philosophy. Mind New Series 13:161–179.

Watson, Robert I. 1963 Alexander Bain. Pages 196–200 in Robert I. Watson, The Great Psychologists: From Aristotle to Freud. Philadelphia: Lippincott.


Brett, George S. (1912–1921) 1962 Brett’s History of Psychology. Rev. ed. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Macmillan. → See especially pages 456–465 on “Classification of Mental Activities.”

Mill, James 1869 Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind. 2 vols. London: Longmans. → Contains critical notes by Alexander Bain.

Murphy, Gardner (1929) 1949 Historical Introduction to Modern Psychology. Rev. ed. New York: Harcourt. → See especially Chapter 7 on “British Psychology in the Mid-nineteenth Century.”

Ward, James 1886 Psychology. Volume 20, pages 37–85 in Encyclopaedia Britannica. 9th ed. Edinburgh: Black.

Warren, Howard C. 1921 A History of the Association Psychology. New York: Scribner. → See especially pages 104–109 on “Alexander Bain’s Conception of Association”; pages 109–115 on “Bain’s Derivation of Mental Phenomena”; and pages 115–117 on “Culmination of Pure Associationism.”

Bain, Alexander

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Bain, Alexander

(b. Aberdeen, Scotland, 11 June 1818; d. Aberdeen, 18 September 1903)

philosophy, psychology.

Alexander Bain was the son of George Bain, a handloom weaver. Poverty forced the father to take young Alexander out of school at the age of eleven, and for the next seven years the boy had to work for a living. However, he spent his spare time studying Latin, Greek, mathematics (chiefly algebra), and some mechanics. He became very proficient in these subjects, and in 1836 he won a bursary to study at Marischal College, in Aberdeen. He excelled at his studies during his four years at Marischal, and when he received his degree of master of arts in 1840, he was adjudged the best candidate of the year. He had acquired a training both in the humanities and the natural sciences.

After receiving his degree, Bain taught mental and moral philosophy for five years at Marischal. During these years he did much of his thinking on psychology. For the next fifteen years he held various lectureships for short durations. It was also during this time that he became a close friend of John Stuart Mill. In 1860 he was elected to the chair of logic at the newly formed Aberdeen University (a union of Marischal and King’s colleges). Bain remained in this post until he retired in 1880. In 1876 he founded, and for sixteen years edited, the philosophical journal Mind, which has remained an important journal in the field to the present day. He served as rector of the university from 1882 to 1886. Bain was married twice. His first wife, Frances, whom he married in 1855, died in 1892. In April 1893 he married Barbara Forbes.

After an early interest in the natural sciences, Bain turned his attention to philosophical psychology. Here his training in the philosophy of Reid and Beattie, the influence of his friends Mill and George Grote, and the writings of Comte and Whewell are apparent. He had a great respect for facts and a mistrust of speculative metaphysics. He was also impressed by the physiological theories of Johannes Müller and was convinced that they were essential to the study of psychology.

Two powerful and complementary ideas of Bain’s philosophy concerned the unity of the mind and the active power of the mind: “The argument for the two substances have, we believe, now entirely lost their validity; they are no longer compatible with ascertained science and clear thinking. The one substance with two sets of qualities, the physical and mental—a double-faced unity—would comply with all the exigencies of the case” (Mind and Body, p. 196). Bain’s study of the nervous system gave him a way of correlating every mental process with some physiological process. For example, the will is identified with surplus energy in the nervous system.

The active nature of the mind is emphasized not only with respect to the feelings and volitions of an individual but also to the sensations. The mind can discriminate between sensations and can retain some of them; and he found that greater retention of some sensations is connected closely with greater discriminations of these sensations. Bain also believed that instinct, which includes reflex actions and primitive combined movements, is another active principle of the mind. Thus Bain presented the mind as an active unity, which superseded the then reigning theory of the faculties of the mind.

In ethics Bain followed the utilitarian position set out by Mill. He also followed Mill in logic, even in criticizing the Aristotelian syllogism as fallacious; but later, in a note in Mind (reprinted in Dissertations), he renounced this position.


For a complete bibliography of Bain’s work, see his Autobiography (London, 1904). Articles of primary importance include “Electrotype and Daguerrotype,” in Westminster Review, 34 (Sept. 1840), 434; “Constitution of Matter,” ibid., 36 (July 1841), 69; “An Attempt to Generalise and Trace to One Sole Cause—viz. the Liberation of Latent Heat—All Cases of Terrestrial Heat,” read to the Aberdeen Philosophical Society (6 Jan. 1843), manuscript in the Aberdeen University Library; On a New Classification of the Sciences,” read to the Aberdeen Philosophical Society (1 Dec. 1843), manuscript in the Aberdeen University Library; and “On the Definition and Classification of the Human Senses,” read to the Aberdeen Philosophical Society (9 Dec. 1844), manuscript in the Aberdeen University library. See also “On the impediments to the Progress of Truth from the Abuse of Language,” and 1845 MS in the Aberdeen University Library. For major books by Bain see The Senses and the Intellect (London, 1855); The Emotions and the Will (London, 1859); An English Grammar (London, 1863); Mental and Moral Science-a Compendium of Psychology and Ethics (London, 1868); Logic, part I, “Deduction” (London, 1870), part II, “Induction” (London, 1870); Mind and Body: The Theories of Their Relation, International Scientific Series, Vol. IV (London, 1872); Mental Science; Psychology and History of Philosophy (London, 1872); Moral Science: Ethical Philosophy and Ethical Systems (London, 1872); Education as a Science, International Scientific Series, Vol. XXV (London, 1879); James Mill: A Biography (London, 1882); John Stuart Mill: A Criticism With Personal Recollections (London, 1882). Some of Alexander Bain’s most important articles, chiefly from the journal Mind, can be found in Dissertations on Leading Philosophical Topics (London, 1903). Works edited by Bain include Paley’s Moral Philosophy, with dissertations and notes, Chamber’s Instructive and Entertaining Library (Edinburgh, 1852); James Mill’s Analysis of the Human Mind, with notes, 2 vols. (London, 1869); Grote’s Aristotle, with G. C. Robertson (London, 1872); and Grote’s Minor Works, with critical remarks (London, 1873).

Jagdish N. Hattiangadi

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