Alexander Bain, one of the famous British Utilitarians, was early proponent of scientific psychology. Together with James Mill and his son, John Stuart Mill, Bain was a major proponent of the British school of empiricism: a theory which based all knowledge on basic sensory experiences and not on introspection.
Bain's acquaintance with John Stuart Mill, who was a fellow advocate of pragmatism and empiricism, began when Bain began contributing to The Westminster Review after his university graduation in 1840. (Bain later wrote John Stuart Mill: A Criticism, with Personal Recollections in 1882). Among other civil service jobs, he taught logic and English Literature at the University of Aberdeen, where he proposed many reforms for the educational system in Scotland. Apart from his writings on the English language and Logic (1870), Bain conducted extensive research in the field of psychology. In 1876, Bain founded the first psychological journal entitled Mind.
An advocate of the British school of Empiricism, Bain proposed that all knowledge and mental processes had to be based not only on spontaneous thought and ideas, but on actual physical sensations. Bain strove to identify the link between the mind and the body, focusing on the physiological correlations between mental and behavioural phenomena. In his seminal work The Senses And The Intellect (1855) and its companion volume, Emotions And The Will (1859), Bain proposed that traditional psychology could be expressed with reference to the laws of association, and that both physiological and psychological processes were linked. These two works remained the standard British text for students of the subject until being superseded at the end of the 19th Century. Notable in The Senses was the inclusion of a chapter on the nervous system, which set the standard for the majority of textbooks to come.
Accepting the traditional division of mind into intellect, feeling and will, Bain then broadened the definition of 'feeling' beyond emotions to incorporate sensation, and attributed volition to both feeling and intellect. Thus, he introduced a new classification of the mind: as consciousness, thought and action. Bain also made his most recognized contribution to the revolution of the field, by separating the feelings of movement from actual movement itself, arguing that action was independent of sensation, and could exist independent of any external stimulus.
In what would later be known as the Law Of Effect, Bain studied the mechanisms by which movement was associated with feeling. He suggested for example that if during a moment of physical pain, there occurred an accidental, spontaneous movement which relieved the sensation of the pain, the organism would naturally sustain this movement as long as the painful stimulus remained. In other words, the organism could, by chance alone, learn responses to pleasure/pain stimuli and subsequently repeat this response, thereby associating the two. Associative strength could be influenced by the outcome of an action. In his consideration of the concepts of Trial and Error, he made another famous contribution. J.S. Mill, suitably impressed with this new approach, remarked: "Mr. Bain possesses, indeed, an [sic] union of qualifications peculiarly fitting him for... the physical investigation of mind...[h]aving made a more accurate study than perhaps any previous psychologist, of the whole round of the physical sciences..." (as qtd. in Young, 1970)
In his systematic study and cataloging of psychological and physiological data, Bain contributed to the emergence of the discipline of psychology from metaphysical speculation. He contributed greatly to the development of scientific psychology by demonstrating the relevance of anatomical and physiological data to psychological study, and by emphasizing the importance of (conscious) movement, he blazed a trail for subsequent studies in functionalist psychology of adaptive behaviour.
Bibliography and Web Resources
- Psychology Section, Thoemmes Press Online
- Young, Robert M. Mind, Brain and Adaptation in the Nineteen Century
- "Bain Alexander," Columbia Encyclopedia
Last modified 27 February 2002