Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Mechanism in thought and morals. : An address delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University, June 29, 1870. : With notes and afterthoughts. online

. (page 1 of 5)
Online LibraryOliver Wendell HolmesMechanism in thought and morals. : An address delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University, June 29, 1870. : With notes and afterthoughts. → online text (page 1 of 5)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook











1 Car il ne faut pas se mdconnaltre, nous sommes automates autant
qu esprit." PASCAL: Pens&es, chap. xi. 4.



Entered, according to Act of Congress, in the year 1871,

In the Office of the Librarian of Congress, at Washington.

Boston :
Stereotyped and Printed by Rand, Avery, & Frye.


IT is fair to claim for this Essay the license
which belongs to all spoken addresses. To
hold the attention of an audience is the
first requisite of every such composition;
and for this a more highly colored rhetoric is
admissible than might please the solitary
reader. The cheek of a stage heroine will
bear a touch of carmine which would hardly
improve the sober comeliness of the mother
of a family at her fireside.

So too, on public occasions, a wide range
of suggestive inquiry, meant to stimulate
rather than satiate the interest of the listen-


ers, may, with some reason, be preferred to
that more complete treatment of a narrowly
limited subject which is liable to prove
exhaustive in a double sense.

In the numerous notes and other additions,
I have felt the right to use a freedom of ex
pression which some might think out of
place before the mixed audience of a lit
erary anniversary. The dissentient listener
may find himself in an uneasy position hard
to escape from : the dissatisfied reader has
an easy remedy.




AS the midnight train rolls into an inter
mediate station, the conductor s voice
is heard announcing, " Cars stop ten minutes
for refreshments." The passengers snatch a
brief repast, and go back, refreshed, we will
hope, to their places. But, while they are at
the tables, one may be seen going round
among the cars with a lantern and a ham
mer, intent upon a graver business. He is
clinking the wheels to try if they are sound.
His task is a humble and simple one : he is
no machinist, very probably ; but he can cast
a ray of light from his lantern, and bring out
the ring of iron with a tap of his hammer.



Our literary train is stopping for a very
brief time at its annual station ; and I doubt
not it will be refreshed by my youthful col
league before it moves on. It is not unlikely
the passengers may stand much in need of
refreshment before I have done with them :
for I am the one with the hammer and the
lantern ; and I am going to clink some of
the wheels of this intellectual machinery, on
the soundness of which we all depend. The
slenderest glimmer I can lend, the lightest
blow I can strike, may at least call the atten
tion of abler and better-equipped inspectors.

I ask your attention to some considerations
on the true mechanical relations of the think
ing principle, and to a few hints as to the
false mechanical relations which have intruded
themselves into the sphere of moral self-

I call that part of mental and bodily life
mechanical which is independent of our
volition. The beating of our hearts and the
secretions of our internal organs will go on,
without and in spite of any voluntary effort


of ours, as long as we live. Respiration is
partially under our control : we can change
the rarte and special mode of breathing, and
even hold our breath for a time ; but the
most determined suicide cannot strangle him
self without the aid of a noose or other
contrivance which shall effect what his mere
will cannot do. The flow of thought is, like
breathing, essentially mechanical and neces
sary, but incidentally capable of being modi
fied to a greater or less extent by conscious
effort. Our natural instincts and tastes have
a basis which can no more be reached by the
will than the sense of light and darkness, or
that of heat and cold. All these things we
feel justified in referring to the great First
Cause : they belong to the " laws of Na
ture," as we call them, for which we are not

Whatever may be our opinions as to the
relations between "mind" and "matter," our
observation only extends to thought and
emotion as connected with the living body,
and, according to the general verdict of


consciousness, more especially with certain
parts of the body; namely, the central organs
of the nervous system. The bold language
of certain speculative men of science has
frightened some more cautious persons away
from a subject as much belonging to natu
ral history as the study of any other func
tion in connection with its special organ.
If Mr. Huxley maintains that his thoughts
and ours are " the expression of molecular
changes in that matter of life which is the
source of our other vital phenomena;" 1 if
the Rev. Prof. Haughton suggests, though in
the most guarded way, that " our successors
may even dare to speculate on the changes
that converted a crust of bread, or a bottle
of wine, in the brain of Swift, Moliere, or
Shakspeare, into the conception of the gentle
Glumdalclitch, the rascally Sganarelle, or
the immortal Falstaff," 2 all this need not

1 On the Physical Basis of Life. New Haven,
1870, p. 261.

2 Medicine in Modern Times. London, 1869,
p. 107.


frighten us from studying the conditions of
the thinking organ in connection with
thought, just as we study the eye in its
relations to sight. The brain is an instru
ment, necessary, so far as our direct observa
tion extends, to thought. The " materialist "
believes it to be wound up by the ordinary
cosmic forces, and to give them out again as
mental products: 1 the " spiritualist" believes
in a conscious entity, not interchangeable
with motive force, which plays upon this
instrument. But the instrument must be
studied by the one as much as by the other :
the piano which the master touches must be
as thoroughly understood as the musical
box or clock which goes of itself by a spring
or weight. A slight congestion or softening
of the brain shows the least materialistic of

1 " It is by no means generally admitted .that
the brain is governed by the mind. On the con
trary, the view entertained by the best cerebral
physiologists is, that the mind- is a force developed
by the action of the brain." Journal of Psycho
logical Medicine, July, 1870 ; Editor s (TW A.
Hammond) Note, p. 535.


philosophers that he must recognize the strict
dependence of mind upon its organ in the
only condition of life with which we are
experimentally acquainted. And what all
recognize as soon as disease forces it upon
their attention, all thinkers should recognize,
without waiting for such an irresistible
demonstration. They should see that the
study of the organ of thought, microscopi
cally, chemically, experimentally, on the
lower" animals, in individuals and races, in
health and in disease, in every aspect of
external observation, as well as by internal
consciousness, is just as necessary as if mind
were known to be nothing more than a
function of the brain, in the same way as
digestion is of the stomach.

These explanations are simply a concession
to the timidity of those who assume that
they who study the material conditions of
the thinking centre necessarily confine the
sphere of intelligence to the changes in those
conditions ; that they consider these changes
constitute thought; whereas all that is held


may be, that they accompany thought. It
is a well-ascertained fact, for instance, that
certain sulphates and phosphates are sep
arated from the blood that goes to the brain
in increased quantity after severe mental
labor. But this chemical change may be
only one of the factors of intellectual action.
So, also, it may be true that the brain is in
scribed with material records of thought ; but
what that is which reads any such records,
remains still an open question. I have meant
to leave absolutely untouched the endless dis
cussion as to the distinctions between " mind "
and " matter," l and confine myself chiefly to
some results of observation in the sphere of
thought, and some suggestions as to the
mental confusion which seems to me a com
mon fact in the sphere of morals.

The central thinking organ is made up of
a vast number of little starlike bodies embed-

1 Matter itself has been called " frozen "force,"
and, as Boscovich has said, is only known to us as
localized points of attraction and repulsion.


ded in fine granular matter, connected with
each other by ray -like branches in the form
of pellucid threads ; the same which, wrapped
in bundles, become nerves, the telegraphic
cords of the system. The brain proper is a
double organ, like that of vision ; its two
halves being connected by a strong trans
verse band, which unites them like the
Siamese twins. The most fastidious lover
of knowledge may study its general aspect as
an after-dinner amusement upon an English
walnut, splitting it through its natural suture,
and examining either half. The resemblance
is a curious freak of Nature s, which Cowley
has followed out, in his ingenious, whimsical
way, in his fifth " Book of Plants ; " thus
rendered in the old translation from his origi
nal Latin :

" Nor can this head-like nut, shaped like the brain
Within, be said that form by chance to gain :
For membranes soft as silk her kernel bind,
Whereof the inmost is of tenderest kind,
Like those which on the brain of man we find ;
All which are in a seam-joined shell enclosed,
Which of this brain the skull may be supposed."


The brain must be fed, or it cannot work.
Four great vessels flood every part of it with
hot scarlet blood, which carries at once fire
and fuel to each of its atoms. Stop this
supply, and we drop senseless. Inhale a few
whiffs of ether, and we cross over into the
unknown world of death with a return-
ticket ; or we prefer chloroform, and perhaps
get no return-ticket. Infuse a few drachms
of another fluid into the system, and, when it
mounts from the stomach to the brain, the
pessimist becomes an optimist ; the despairing
wretch finds a new heaven and a new earth,
and laughs and weeps by turns in his brief
ecstasy. But, so long as a sound brain is
supplied with fresh blood, it perceives, thinks,
wills. 1 The father of Eugene Sue, the nov
elist in a former generation, and M. Pinel in
this, and very recently, have advocated doing

1 That is, acts as the immediate instrument
through which these phenomena are manifested.
So a good watch, in good order and wound up,
tells us the time of day. The making and wind-
ing-up forces remain to be accounted for.


away with the guillotine, on the ground that
the man, or the nobler section of him, might
be conscious for a time after the axe had
fallen. We need not believe it, nor the story
of Charlotte Corday; still less that one of
Sir Everard Digby, that when the execu
tioner held up his heart to the gaze of the
multitude, saying, " This is the heart of a
traitor!" the severed head exclaimed, "Thou
liest ! " These stories show, however, the
sense we have that our personality is seated
in the great nervous centre ; and, if physiolo
gists could experiment on human beings as
some of them have done on animals, I will
content myself with hinting that they would
have tales to relate which would almost rival
the legend of St. Denis. 1

1 There is a ghastly literature of the axe and
block, of which the stories above referred to are
specimens. All the express trials made on tbe
spot after executions in 1803, in 1853, and more
recently at Beauvais, have afforded only negative
results, as might be anticipated from the fact
that the circulation through the brain is instantly


An abundant supply of blood to a part
implies a great activity in its functions. The
oxygen of the blood keeps the brain in a
continual state of spontaneous combustion.
The waste of the organ implies as constant a
repair. " Every meal is a rescue from one
death, and lays up for another ; and, while
we think a thought, we die," says Jeremy
Taylor. It is true of the brain as of other
organs : it can only live by dying. We must
all be born again, atom by atom, from hour
to hour, or perish all at once beyond repair. 1

arrested ; and Pere Duchesne s eternuer dans le
sac must pass as a frightful pleasantry. But a
distinguished physiological experimenter informed
me that the separated head of a dog, on being
injected with fresh blood, manifested signs of life
and intelligence. See London Quarterly Review,
vol. Ixxiii. p. 273 et seq. ; also N. Y. Medical
Gazette for April 9, 1870. The reader who would
compare Dr. Johnson s opinion of vivisection with
Mr. Huxley s recent defence of it may consult the
Idler, No. 17.

1 It is proper to say here, that the waste occur-


Such is the aspect, seen in a brief glance,
of the great nervous centre. It is constantly
receiving messages from the senses, and
transmitting orders to the different organs by
the " up and down trains " of the nervous
influence. It is traversed by continuous
lines of thought, linked together in sequences
which are classified under the name of "laws
of association." The movement of these
successions of thought is so far a result of
mechanism, that, though we may modify
them by an exertion of will, we cannot stop
them, and remain vacant of all ideas.

My bucolic friends tell me that our horned
cattle always keep a cud in their mouths :
when they swallow one, another immediately
replaces it. If the creature happens to lose

ring in an organ is by no means necessarily con
fined to its stationary elements. The blood it
self in the organ, and for the time constituting a
part of it, appears to furnish the larger portion of
the fuel, if we may call it so, which is acted on
by its own oxygen. This, at least, is the case
with muscle ; and is probabty so elsewhere.


its cud, it must have an artificial one given it,
or, they assure me, it will pine, and perhaps
die. Without committing myself to the ex
actness or the interpretation of the statement,
I may use it as an illustration. Just in the
same way, one thought replaces another ; and
in the same way the mental cud is sometimes
lost while one is talking, and he must ask his
companion to supply its place. " What was
I saying? " we ask ; and our friend furnishes
us with the lost word or its equivalent, and
the jaws of conversation begin grinding

The brain being a double organ, like the
eye, we naturally ask whether we can think
with one side of it, as we can see with one
eye ; whether the two sides commonly work
together ; whether one side .may not be
stronger than the other ; whether one side
may not be healthy, and the other diseased ;
and what consequences may follow from
these various conditions. This is the subject
ingeniously treated by Dr. Wigan in his
work on the duality of the mind. He


maintains and illustrates by striking facts the
independence of the two sides ; which, so far
as headache is concerned, many of my audi
ence must know from their own experience.
The left half of the brain, which controls
the right half of the body, is, he believes, the
strongest in all but left-handed persons. 1

The resemblance of the act of intelligence
to that of vision is remarkably shown in the
terms we borrow from one to describe the
other. We see a truth ; we throw light on a
subject ; ,we elucidate a proposition ; we darken

1 Gratiolet states that the left frontal convolu
tions are developed earlier than the right. Bail-
larger attributes right-handedness to the better
nutrition of the left hemisphere, in consequence
of the disposition of the arteries ; Hyrtl, to the
larger current of blood to the right arm, &c. See
an essay on " Eight and Left Handedness," in the
Journal of Psychological Medicine for July, 1870,
by Thomas Dwight, jun., M.D. ; also "Aphasia and
the Physiology of Speech," by T. W. Fisher, in the
Bostoji Medical and Surgical Journal for Sept. 22,


counsel ; we are blinded by prejudice ; we
take a narroiv view of things ; we look at our
neighbor with a jaundiced eye. These are
familiar expressions ; but we can go much
farther. We have intellectual myopes, near
sighted specialists, and philosophers who are
purblind to all but the distant abstract. We
have judicial intellects as nearly achromatic
as the organ of vision, eyes that are color
blind, and minds that seem hardly to have
the sense of beauty. The old brain thinks
the world grows worse, as the old retina
thinks the eyes of needles and the fractions
in the printed sales of stocks grow smaller.
Just as the eye seeks to refresh itself by
resting on neutral tints after looking at bril
liant colors, the mind turns from the glare of
intellectual brilliancy to the solace of gentle
dulness ; the tranquillizing green of the sweet
human qualities, which do not make us shade
our eyes like the spangles of conversational
gymnasts and figurantes.

We have a field of vision : have we a field
of thought ? Before referring to some mat-


ters of individual experience, I would avail
myself of Sir John Herschel s apology, that
the nature of the subject renders such refer
ence inevitable ; as it is one that can only
be elucidated by the individual s putting on
record his own personal contribution to the
stock of facts accumulating.

Our conscious mental action, aside from
immediate impressions on the senses, is mainly
pictured, worded, or modulated, as in remem
bered music ; all, more or less, under the
influence of the will. In a general way, we
refer the seat of thinking to the anterior part
of the head. Pictured thought is in relation
with the field of vision, which I perceive as
others do, no doubt as a transverse ellipse ;
its vertical to its horizontal diameter about
as one to three. We shut our eyes to recall
a visible object : we see visions by night.
The bright ellipse becomes a black ground, on
which ideal images show more distinctly than
on the illuminated one. The form of the
-mental field of vision is illustrated by the
fact, that we can follow in our idea n ship


sailing, or a horse running, much farther,
without a sense of effort, than we can a bal
loon rising. In seeing persons, this field of
mental vision seems to be a little in front of
the eyes. Dr. Howe kindly answers a letter
of inquiry as follows :

" Most congenitally-blind persons, when
asked with what part of the brain they
think, answer, that they are not conscious of
having any brain.

" I have asked several of the most thought
ful and intelligent among our pupils to
designate, as nearly as they can, the seat of
sensation in thought ; and they do so by
placing the hand upon the anterior and upper
part of the cranium."

Worded thought is attended with a distinct
impulse towards the organs of speech : in
fact, the effort often goes so far, that we
" think aloud," as we say. 1 The seat of

1 The greater number of readers are probably
in the habit of articulating the words mentally.
Beginners read syllable by syllable.

" A man must be a poor beast," said Dr. John-


this form of mental action seems to me to be
beneath that of pictured thought; indeed,
to follow certain nerves downward : so that,
as we say, " My heart was in my mouth,"

son, " that should read no more in quantity than
he could utter aloud." There are books of which
we can exhaust a page of its meaning at a glance ;
but a man cannot do justice to a poem like Gray s
Elegy except by the distinct mental articulation
of every word. Some persons read sentences and
paragraphs as children read syllables ; taking their
sense in block, as it were. All instructors who
have had occasion to consult a text-book at the
last moment before entering the lecture-room
know that clairvoyant state well enough in which
a page. prints itself on their perception as the form
of types stamped itself on the page.

We can read aloud, or mentally articulate, and
keep up a distinct train of pictured thought,
not so easily two currents of worded thought
simultaneously : though this can be done to some
extent ; as, for instance, one may be reading aloud,
and internally articulating some well-known pas


we could almost say, " My brain is my
mouth." A particular spot has been of late
pointed out by pathologists, not phrenologists,
as the seat of the faculty of speech. 1 I do
know that our sensations ever point to it.
Modulated or musical consciousness is to
pictured and worded thought as algebra is
to geometry and arithmetic. Music has an
absolute sensuous significance the wood-
chuck which used to listen to my friend play
ing the piano I suppose stopped at that ; 2
but for human beings it does not cause a mere
sensation, nor an emotion, nor a definable
intellectual state, though it may excite many
various emotions and trains of worded or
pictured thought. But words cannot truly
define it : we might as well give a man a

1 A part of the left anterior lobe. See Dr.
Fisher s elaborate paper before referred to.

2 For various alleged instances of the power
of music over different lower animals, the cow,
the stag, mice, serpents, spiders, see Dwight s
Journal of Music for Oct. 26, 1861.


fiddle, and tell him to play the Ten Command
ments, as give him a dictionary, and tell him
to describe the music of " Don Giovanni."

The nerves of hearing clasp the roots of
the brain as a creeping vine clings to the
bole of an elm. The primary seat of musical
consciousness seems to be behind and below
that of worded thought ; but it radiates in all
directions, calling up pictures and words, as
I have said, in endless variety. Indeed, the
various mental conditions I have described
are so frequently combined, that it takes
some trouble to determine the locality of

The seat of the will seems to vary with
the organ through which it is manifested ;
to transport itself to different parts of the
brain, as we may wish to recall a picture,
a phrase, or a melody ; to throw its force
on the muscles or the intellectual processes.
Like the general-in-chief, its place is any
where in the field of action. It is the least
like an instrument of any of our faculties ;
the farthest removed from our conceptions of


mechanism and matter, as we commonly de
fine them.

This is my parsimonious contribution to
our knowledge of the relations existing be
tween mental action and space. Others may
have had a different experience ; the great
apostle did not know at one time whether he
was in the body or out of the body : but
my system of phrenology extends little be
yond this rudimentary testimony of con

When it comes to the relation of mental
action and time, we can say with Leibnitz,
" Calculemus ; " for here we can reach quanti
tative results. The " personal equation," or
difference in rapidity of recording the same
occurrence, has been recognized in astronomi
cal records since the time of Maskelyne, the
royal astronomer ; and is allowed for with the
greatest nicety, as may be seen, for instance,
in Dr. Gould s recent report on Transatlan
tic Longitude. More recently, the time re
quired in mental processes and in the trans
mission of sensation and the motor impulse


along nerves has been carefully studied by
Helmholtz, Fizeau, Marey, Bonders, and
others. 1 From forty to eighty, a hundred or
more feet a second are estimates of different
observers : so that, as the newspapers have
been repeating, it would take a whale a sec
ond, more or less, to feel the stroke of a har
poon in his tail. 2 Compare this with tho
velocity of galvanic signals, which Dr. Gould

1 See Annual of Scientific Discovery for 1851,
1858, 1863, 1866 ; Journal of Anatomy and Phys
iology, 2<1 Series, Xo. 1, for November, 1867 ;
MAREY, Du Mouvement dans les Fonctions de la
Vie, p. 430 et seq.

2 Mr. W. F. Barrett calculates, that as the
mind requires one-tenth of a second to form a
conception and act accordingly, and as a rifle-
bullet would require no more than one-thousandth

1 3 4 5

Online LibraryOliver Wendell HolmesMechanism in thought and morals. : An address delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University, June 29, 1870. : With notes and afterthoughts. → online text (page 1 of 5)