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Transcribed from the 1910 A. C. Fifield edition by David Price, email
[email protected]

Unconscious Memory

Samuel Butler

Author of “Life and Habit,” “Erewhon,” “The Way of All Flesh,” etc.

* * * * *

New Edition, entirely reset, with an Introduction
by Marcus Hartog, M.A., D.SC., F.L.S., F.R.H.S., Pro-
fessor of Zoology in University College, Cork.

* * * * *

OP. 5

* * * * *

A. C. Fifield, 13 Clifford’s Inn, E.C.

* * * * *

“As this paper contains nothing which deserves the name either of
experiment or discovery, and as it is, in fact, destitute of every
species of merit, we should have allowed it to pass among the
multitude of those articles which must always find their way into the
collections of a society which is pledged to publish two or three
volumes every year. . . . We wish to raise our feeble voice against
innovations, that can have no other effect than to check the progress
of science, and renew all those wild phantoms of the imagination
which Bacon and Newton put to flight from her temple.”—_Opening
Paragraph of a Review of Dr. Young’s Bakerian Lecture_. _Edinburgh
Review_, _January_ 1803, p. 450.

“Young’s work was laid before the Royal society, and was made the
1801 Bakerian Lecture. But he was before his time. The second
number of the _Edinburgh Review_ contained an article levelled
against him by Henry (afterwards Lord) Brougham, and this was so
severe an attack that Young’s ideas were absolutely quenched for
fifteen years. Brougham was then only twenty-four years of age.
Young’s theory was reproduced in France by Fresnel. In our days it
is the accepted theory, and is found to explain all the phenomena of
light.”—_Times Report of a Lecture by Professor Tyndall on Light_,
_April_ 27, 1880.

* * * * *

This Book

Is inscribed to


(Of the British Museum)

In grateful acknowledgment of the unwearying kindness
with which he has so often placed at my disposal
his varied store of information.


NOTE. By R. A. Streatfeild viii
INTRODUCTION. By Professor Marcus Hartog ix
CHAPTER I. Introduction—General ignorance on the subject 1
of evolution at the time the “Origin of Species” was
published in 1859
CHAPTER II. How I came to write “Life and Habit,” and 12
the circumstances of its completion
CHAPTER III. How I came to write “Evolution, Old and 26
New”—Mr Darwin’s “brief but imperfect” sketch of the
opinions of the writers on evolution who had preceded
him—The reception which “Evolution, Old and New,” met
CHAPTER IV. The manner in which Mr. Darwin met 38
“Evolution, Old and New”
CHAPTER V. Introduction to Professor Hering’s lecture 52
CHAPTER VI. Professor Ewald Hering “On Memory” 63
CHAPTER VII. Introduction to a translation of the 87
chapter upon instinct in Von Hartmann’s “Philosophy of
the Unconscious”
CHAPTER VIII. Translation of the chapter on “The 92
Unconscious in Instinct,” from Von Hartmann’s “Philosophy
of the Unconscious”
CHAPTER IX. Remarks upon Von Hartmann’s position in 137
regard to instinct
CHAPTER X. Recapitulation and statement of an objection 146
CHAPTER XI. On Cycles 156
CHAPTER XII. Refutation—Memory at once a promoter and a 161
disturber of uniformity of action and structure
CHAPTER XIII. Conclusion 173


FOR many years a link in the chain of Samuel Butler’s biological works
has been missing. “Unconscious Memory” was originally published thirty
years ago, but for fully half that period it has been out of print, owing
to the destruction of a large number of the unbound sheets in a fire at
the premises of the printers some years ago. The present reprint comes,
I think, at a peculiarly fortunate moment, since the attention of the
general public has of late been drawn to Butler’s biological theories in
a marked manner by several distinguished men of science, notably by Dr.
Francis Darwin, who, in his presidential address to the British
Association in 1908, quoted from the translation of Hering’s address on
“Memory as a Universal Function of Original Matter,” which Butler
incorporated into “Unconscious Memory,” and spoke in the highest terms of
Butler himself. It is not necessary for me to do more than refer to the
changed attitude of scientific authorities with regard to Butler and his
theories, since Professor Marcus Hartog has most kindly consented to
contribute an introduction to the present edition of “Unconscious
Memory,” summarising Butler’s views upon biology, and defining his
position in the world of science. A word must be said as to the
controversy between Butler and Darwin, with which Chapter IV is
concerned. I have been told that in reissuing the book at all I am
committing a grievous error of taste, that the world is no longer
interested in these “old, unhappy far-off things and battles long ago,”
and that Butler himself, by refraining from republishing “Unconscious
Memory,” tacitly admitted that he wished the controversy to be consigned
to oblivion. This last suggestion, at any rate, has no foundation in
fact. Butler desired nothing less than that his vindication of himself
against what he considered unfair treatment should be forgotten. He
would have republished “Unconscious Memory” himself, had not the latter
years of his life been devoted to all-engrossing work in other fields.
In issuing the present edition I am fulfilling a wish that he expressed
to me shortly before his death.


_April_, 1910.

By Marcus Hartog, M.A., D.Sc., F.L.S., F.R.H.S.

IN reviewing Samuel Butler’s works, “Unconscious Memory” gives us an
invaluable lead; for it tells us (Chaps. II, III) how the author came to
write the Book of the Machines in “Erewhon” (1872), with its
foreshadowing of the later theory, “Life and Habit,” (1878), “Evolution,
Old and New” (1879), as well as “Unconscious Memory” (1880) itself. His
fourth book on biological theory was “Luck? or Cunning?” (1887). {0a}

Besides these books, his contributions to biology comprise several
essays: “Remarks on Romanes’ _Mental Evolution in Animals_, contained in
“Selections from Previous Works” (1884) incorporated into “Luck? or
Cunning,” “The Deadlock in Darwinism” (_Universal Review_, April-June,
1890), republished in the posthumous volume of “Essays on Life, Art, and
Science” (1904), and, finally, some of the “Extracts from the Notebooks
of the late Samuel Butler,” edited by Mr. H. Festing Jones, now in course
of publication in the _New Quarterly Review_.

* * * * *

Of all these, “LIFE AND HABIT” (1878) is the most important, the main
building to which the other writings are buttresses or, at most, annexes.
Its teaching has been summarised in “Unconscious Memory” in four main
principles: “(1) the oneness of personality between parent and offspring;
(2) memory on the part of the offspring of certain actions which it did
when in the persons of its forefathers; (3) the latency of that memory
until it is rekindled by a recurrence of the associated ideas; (4) the
unconsciousness with which habitual actions come to be performed.” To
these we must add a fifth: the purposiveness of the actions of living
beings, as of the machines which they make or select.

Butler tells (“Life and Habit,” p. 33) that he sometimes hoped “that this
book would be regarded as a valuable adjunct to Darwinism.” He was
bitterly disappointed in the event, for the book, as a whole, was
received by professional biologists as a gigantic joke—a joke, moreover,
not in the best possible taste. True, its central ideas, largely those
of Lamarck, had been presented by Hering in 1870 (as Butler found shortly
after his publication); they had been favourably received, developed by
Haeckel, expounded and praised by Ray Lankester. Coming from Butler,
they met with contumely, even from such men as Romanes, who, as Butler
had no difficulty in proving, were unconsciously inspired by the same
ideas—“_Nur mit ein bischen ander’n Wörter_.”

It is easy, looking back, to see why “Life and Habit” so missed its mark.
Charles Darwin’s presentation of the evolution theory had, for the first
time, rendered it possible for a “sound naturalist” to accept the
doctrine of common descent with divergence; and so given a real meaning
to the term “natural relationship,” which had forced itself upon the
older naturalists, despite their belief in special and independent
creations. The immediate aim of the naturalists of the day was now to
fill up the gaps in their knowledge, so as to strengthen the fabric of a
unified biology. For this purpose they found their actual scientific
equipment so inadequate that they were fully occupied in inventing fresh
technique, and working therewith at facts—save a few critics, such as St.
George Mivart, who was regarded as negligible, since he evidently held a
brief for a party standing outside the scientific world.

Butler introduced himself as what we now call “The Man in the Street,”
far too bare of scientific clothing to satisfy the Mrs. Grundy of the
domain: lacking all recognised tools of science and all sense of the
difficulties in his way, he proceeded to tackle the problems of science
with little save the deft pen of the literary expert in his hand. His
very failure to appreciate the difficulties gave greater power to his
work—much as Tartarin of Tarascon ascended the Jungfrau and faced
successfully all dangers of Alpine travel, so long as he believed them to
be the mere “blagues de réclame” of the wily Swiss host. His brilliant
qualities of style and irony themselves told heavily against him. Was he
not already known for having written the most trenchant satire that had
appeared since “Gulliver’s Travels”? Had he not sneered therein at the
very foundations of society, and followed up its success by a
pseudo-biography that had taken in the “Record” and the “Rock”? In “Life
and Habit,” at the very start, he goes out of his way to heap scorn at
the respected names of Marcus Aurelius, Lord Bacon, Goethe, Arnold of
Rugby, and Dr. W. B. Carpenter. He expressed the lowest opinion of the
Fellows of the Royal Society. To him the professional man of science,
with self-conscious knowledge for his ideal and aim, was a medicine-man,
priest, augur—useful, perhaps, in his way, but to be carefully watched by
all who value freedom of thought and person, lest with opportunity he
develop into a persecutor of the worst type. Not content with
blackguarding the audience to whom his work should most appeal, he went
on to depreciate that work itself and its author in his finest vein of
irony. Having argued that our best and highest knowledge is that of
whose possession we are most ignorant, he proceeds: “Above all, let no
unwary reader do me the injustice of believing in me. In that I write at
all I am among the damned.”

* * * * *

His writing of “EVOLUTION, OLD AND NEW” (1879) was due to his conviction
that scant justice had been done by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace and
their admirers to the pioneering work of Buffon, Erasmus Darwin, and
Lamarck. To repair this he gives a brilliant exposition of what seemed
to him the most valuable portion of their teachings on evolution. His
analysis of Buffon’s true meaning, veiled by the reticences due to the
conditions under which he wrote, is as masterly as the English in which
he develops it. His sense of wounded justice explains the vigorous
polemic which here, as in all his later writings, he carries to the

As a matter of fact, he never realised Charles Darwin’s utter lack of
sympathetic understanding of the work of his French precursors, let alone
his own grandfather, Erasmus. Yet this practical ignorance, which to
Butler was so strange as to transcend belief, was altogether genuine, and
easy to realise when we recall the position of Natural Science in the
early thirties in Darwin’s student days at Cambridge, and for a decade or
two later. Catastropharianism was the tenet of the day: to the last it
commended itself to his Professors of Botany and Geology,—for whom Darwin
held the fervent allegiance of the Indian scholar, or _chela_, to his
_guru_. As Geikie has recently pointed out, it was only later, when
Lyell had shown that the breaks in the succession of the rocks were only
partial and local, without involving the universal catastrophes that
destroyed all life and rendered fresh creations thereof necessary, that
any general acceptance of a descent theory could be expected. We may be
very sure that Darwin must have received many solemn warnings against the
dangerous speculations of the “French Revolutionary School.” He himself
was far too busy at the time with the reception and assimilation of new
facts to be awake to the deeper interest of far-reaching theories.

It is the more unfortunate that Butler’s lack of appreciation on these
points should have led to the enormous proportion of bitter personal
controversy that we find in the remainder of his biological writings.
Possibly, as suggested by George Bernard Shaw, his acquaintance and
admirer, he was also swayed by philosophical resentment at that
banishment of mind from the organic universe, which was generally thought
to have been achieved by Charles Darwin’s theory. Still, we must
remember that this mindless view is not implicit in Charles Darwin’s
presentment of his own theory, nor was it accepted by him as it has been
by so many of his professed disciples.

* * * * *

“UNCONSCIOUS MEMORY” (1880).—We have already alluded to an anticipation
of Butler’s main theses. In 1870 Dr. Ewald Hering, one of the most
eminent physiologists of the day, Professor at Vienna, gave an Inaugural
Address to the Imperial Royal Academy of Sciences: “Das Gedächtniss als
allgemeine Funktion der organisirter Substanz” (“Memory as a Universal
Function of Organised Matter”). When “Life and Habit” was well advanced,
Francis Darwin, at the time a frequent visitor, called Butler’s attention
to this essay, which he himself only knew from an article in “Nature.”
Herein Professor E. Ray Lankester had referred to it with admiring
sympathy in connection with its further development by Haeckel in a
pamphlet entitled “Die Perigenese der Plastidule.” We may note, however,
that in his collected Essays, “The Advancement of Science” (1890), Sir
Ray Lankester, while including this Essay, inserts on the blank page
{0b}—we had almost written “the white sheet”—at the back of it an apology
for having ever advocated the possibility of the transmission of acquired

“Unconscious Memory” was largely written to show the relation of Butler’s
views to Hering’s, and contains an exquisitely written translation of the
Address. Hering does, indeed, anticipate Butler, and that in language
far more suitable to the persuasion of the scientific public. It
contains a subsidiary hypothesis that memory has for its mechanism
special vibrations of the protoplasm, and the acquired capacity to
respond to such vibrations once felt upon their repetition. I do not
think that the theory gains anything by the introduction of this even as
a mere formal hypothesis; and there is no evidence for its being anything
more. Butler, however, gives it a warm, nay, enthusiastic, reception in
Chapter V (Introduction to Professor Hering’s lecture), and in his notes
to the translation of the Address, which bulks so large in this book, but
points out that he was “not committed to this hypothesis, though inclined
to accept it on a _prima facie_ view.” Later on, as we shall see, he
attached more importance to it.

The Hering Address is followed in “Unconscious Memory” by translations of
selected passages from Von Hartmann’s “Philosophy of the Unconscious,”
and annotations to explain the difference from this personification of
“_The Unconscious_” as a mighty all-ruling, all-creating personality, and
his own scientific recognition of the great part played by _unconscious
processes_ in the region of mind and memory.

These are the essentials of the book as a contribution to biological
philosophy. The closing chapters contain a lucid statement of objections
to his theory as they might be put by a rigid necessitarian, and a
refutation of that interpretation as applied to human action.

But in the second chapter Butler states his recession from the strong
logical position he had hitherto developed in his writings from “Erewhon”
onwards; so far he had not only distinguished the living from the
non-living, but distinguished among the latter _machines_ or _tools_ from
_things at large_. {0c} Machines or tools are the external organs of
living beings, as organs are their internal machines: they are fashioned,
assembled, or selected by the beings for a purposes so they have a
_future purpose_, as well as a _past history_. “Things at large” have a
past history, but no purpose (so long as some being does not convert them
into tools and give them a purpose): Machines have a Why? as well as a
How?: “things at large” have a How? only.

In “Unconscious Memory” the allurements of unitary or monistic views have
gained the upper hand, and Butler writes (p. 23):—

“The only thing of which I am sure is, that the distinction between
the organic and inorganic is arbitrary; that it is more coherent with
our other ideas, and therefore more acceptable, to start with every
molecule as a living thing, and then deduce death as the breaking up
of an association or corporation, than to start with inanimate
molecules and smuggle life into them; and that, therefore, what we
call the inorganic world must be regarded as up to a certain point
living, and instinct, within certain limits, with consciousness,
volition, and power of concerted action. _It is only of late_,
_however_, _that I have come to this opinion_.”

I have italicised the last sentence, to show that Butler was more or less
conscious of its irreconcilability with much of his most characteristic
doctrine. Again, in the closing chapter, Butler writes (p. 275):—

“We should endeavour to see the so-called inorganic as living in
respect of the qualities it has in common with the organic, rather
than the organic as non-living in respect of the qualities it has in
common with the inorganic.”

We conclude our survey of this book by mentioning the literary
controversial part chiefly to be found in Chapter IV, but cropping up
elsewhere. It refers to interpolations made in the authorised
translation of Krause’s “Life of Erasmus Darwin.” Only one side is
presented; and we are not called upon, here or elsewhere, to discuss the
merits of the question.

* * * * *

“LUCK, OR CUNNING, as the Main Means of Organic Modification? an Attempt
to throw Additional Light upon the late Mr. Charles Darwin’s Theory of
Natural Selection” (1887), completes the series of biological books.
This is mainly a book of strenuous polemic. It brings out still more
forcibly the Hering-Butler doctrine of continued personality from
generation to generation, and of the working of unconscious memory
throughout; and points out that, while this is implicit in much of the
teaching of Herbert Spencer, Romanes, and others, it was nowhere—even
after the appearance of “Life and Habit”—explicitly recognised by them,
but, on the contrary, masked by inconsistent statements and teaching.
Not Luck but Cunning, not the uninspired weeding out by Natural Selection
but the intelligent striving of the organism, is at the bottom of the
useful variety of organic life. And the parallel is drawn that not the
happy accident of time and place, but the Machiavellian cunning of
Charles Darwin, succeeded in imposing, as entirely his own, on the
civilised world an uninspired and inadequate theory of evolution wherein
luck played the leading part; while the more inspired and inspiring views
of the older evolutionists had failed by the inferiority of their luck.
On this controversy I am bound to say that I do not in the very least
share Butler’s opinions; and I must ascribe them to his lack of personal
familiarity with the biologists of the day and their modes of thought and
of work. Butler everywhere undervalues the important work of elimination
played by Natural Selection in its widest sense.

The “Conclusion” of “Luck, or Cunning?” shows a strong advance in
monistic views, and a yet more marked development in the vibration
hypothesis of memory given by Hering and only adopted with the greatest
reserve in “Unconscious Memory.”

“Our conception, then, concerning the nature of any matter depends
solely upon its kind and degree of unrest, that is to say, on the
characteristics of the vibrations that are going on within it. The
exterior object vibrating in a certain way imparts some of its
vibrations to our brain; but if the state of the thing itself depends
upon its vibrations, it [the thing] must be considered as to all
intents and purposes the vibrations themselves—plus, of course, the
underlying substance that is vibrating. . . . The same vibrations,
therefore, form the substance remembered, introduce an infinitesimal
dose of it within the brain, modify the substance remembering, and,
in the course of time, create and further modify the mechanism of
both the sensory and the motor nerves. Thought and thing are one.

“I commend these two last speculations to the reader’s charitable
consideration, as feeling that I am here travelling beyond the ground
on which I can safely venture. . . . I believe they are both
substantially true.”

In 1885 he had written an abstract of these ideas in his notebooks (see
_New Quarterly Review_, 1910, p. 116), and as in “Luck, or Cunning?”
associated them vaguely with the unitary conceptions introduced into
chemistry by Newlands and Mendelejeff. Judging himself as an outsider,
the author of “Life and Habit” would certainly have considered the mild
expression of faith, “I believe they are both substantially true,”
equivalent to one of extreme doubt. Thus “the fact of the Archbishop’s
recognising this as among the number of his beliefs is conclusive
evidence, with those who have devoted attention to the laws of thought,
that his mind is not yet clear” on the matter of the belief avowed (see
“Life and Habit,” pp. 24, 25).

To sum up: Butler’s fundamental attitude to the vibration hypothesis was
all through that taken in “Unconscious Memory”; he played with it as a
pretty pet, and fancied it more and more as time went on; but instead of
backing it for all he was worth, like the main theses of “Life and
Habit,” he put a big stake on it—and then hedged.

* * * * *

The last of Butler’s biological writings is the Essay, “THE DEADLOCK IN
DARWINISM,” containing much valuable criticism on Wallace and Weismann.

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