Modern Versus Western Thought: The Unconscious and Determinism

William H. Young

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while American society largely continued to value the founding ideals of individualism, intellect, and reason, academic social and political science began to re-orient thought in the directions of both subjectivism and determinism. 

From the late nineteenth century, concepts of the unconscious mind, first advanced by Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, William James, and others, effected fundamental changes in the understandings of psychology and social science. The subjective unconscious was increasingly seen to determine man’s thoughts and acts. The common meaning of rationalism at the founding, “to make conformable to reason,” began to be replaced by a psychological definition, “inventing a reason for an often unconscious action the motive of which is not recognized.”[1] 

Social science came to consider the individual mind a blank slate subject to social constructionism through cultural determinism, behaviorism, and progressivism. 

Social Science and Determinism 

Rationalism in another form—in the thought of society rather than in the individual—would also emerge in the same time period from European efforts to emulate natural science by creating a new science of society in which experts could determine social outcomes. Auguste Comte was the founder of positivism, described in Positive Philosophy (1830–1842), and of sociology—what he called the one great science of man, or the science of society. From extending the methods of natural science to the study of man, the managers of society would be guided for social regulation and planning. Emile Durkheim was the intellectual heir to Comte and established the academic discipline of sociology in the 1880s.[2] 

Durkheim first posited the denial of human nature and the autonomy of culture from individual minds: 

Every time that a social phenomenon is directly explained by a psychological phenomenon, we may be sure that the explanation is false….The group thinks, feels, and acts quite differently from the way in which members would were they isolated….If we begin with the individual in seeking to explain phenomena, we shall be able to understand nothing of what takes place in the group….Individual natures are merely the indeterminate material that the social factor molds and transforms. Their contribution consists exclusively in very general attitudes, in vague and consequently plastic predispositions. 

And he laid down a law for the social sciences that would be cited often in the century to come:  

The determining cause of a social fact should be sought among the social facts preceding it and not among the states of individual consciousness.[3] 

Durkheim proposed that groups had their own characteristics, more than the sum of individual behaviors and emphasized the independent reality of social facts (as distinct from the psychological attributes of individuals). He insisted that instinct, habit, and affections had more power than reason to direct human behavior. He further suggested that when people make political decisions, they operate not as rational individuals, but as defenders of the groups that gave them their sense of identities.[4] 

Although the idea that human society could be studied scientifically was given its earliest and most influential formulations by European thinkers, the United States was the primary national setting in which the project of developing a “science of society” flourished. European ideas swept through the faculties of American universities, founded on the belief that the individual and human nature could be entirely socially constructed by society or culture. Such a belief would produce not science, but ideology. 

American social science began with Dynamic Sociology (1884), a synthesis of the ideas of Comte and Herbert Spencer by Lester Ward, who called for the direction of social policy by academic “experts.” There was widespread hope that such experts would be able to solve many of the social problems of an urban, industrial society with a largely immigrant labor force. The social sciences might produce a class of “social engineers” to manage human affairs.[5] 

In America, the doctrine of social constructionism (or determinism)—the individual has no human nature (and thus no common sense or reason) except that formed by society and culture—grew into an article of faith in academic sociology. John Dewey would argue that “society, not the individual makes the mind.”[6] 

Going beyond their mentor’s original ideas, the followers of the father of modern cultural anthropology, Franz Boas, laid a new foundation for that academic social science: differences among human races and ethnic groups all come from their cultures, not from individual human nature. A culture is superorganic and explains every aspect of human existence: cultural determinism.[7] 

Orwellian Determinism

George Orwell portrayed a future society under the control of social constructionism or determinism in the political satire Nineteen Eighty-Four  (1949). Party operative O’Brien explains to the protagonist Winston Smith that the second precept of the Party’s philosophy is the doctrine of the superorganism: “Can you not understand, Winston, that the individual is only a cell? The weariness of the cell is the vigor of the organism. Do you die when you cut your fingernails?...Power is collective. The individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual.”

This is the principal doctrine of social constructionism, a collectivity (a culture, a society, a class, a gender) is a living thing with its own interests and belief system. Orwell is showing its dark side: the dismissal of the individual—the only entity that literally feels pleasure and pain—as a mere component that serves to further the interests of the whole.

Orwell’s greatest concern is the core of the Party’s philosophy: “We control life, Winston, at all its levels. You are imagining that there is something called human nature which will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable.” Orwell believed that only human nature, with its innate love of liberty had saved humankind from tyranny. He feared that even human nature would wither from an onslaught of mass suggestion.[8] 

Psychology and the Unconscious

In The Principles of Psychology (1890), William James presented the findings of a new psychology based on understanding the functions of consciousness and how it enabled the organism to adapt. He envisioned the nervous system, the physiology of sense, the instincts, the emotions, and the will, together with a central importance he attached to habit. His conception of the mind was that of the functional and dynamic adjustment of the organism to its environment. He was inspired by Darwin’s argument that perception, cognition, and emotion, like physical organs, had evolved as biological adaptations. He drew from Darwin the lesson that natural selection had produced, in human beings, innate features that provided the instruments to understand reality and make choices. His concluding chapter presciently describes some of the innate aspects of human nature now confirmed by modern evolutionary psychology.[9]  

Unfortunately, other psychologists cast aside James’s work and shifted psychology’s focus to behavior. In 1913, John B. Watson published the “behaviorist manifesto.” It promised to unlock the mechanism that governed human action, which held special appeal for reformers. Leaders of the new science of psychology saw no reason “why the application of systematized knowledge to the control of human nature may not in the course of the present century accomplish results commensurate with the nineteenth-century application of physical science to the natural world.” Behaviorism—man’s behavior can be entirely conditioned (determined) by external forces acting on the blank slate of the unconscious—became the leading belief within psychology until the mid-twentieth century. Behaviorism emphasized the outward behavioral aspects of thought and dismissed the inward, experiential aspects as well. 

Behaviorism denied the existence of consciousness, desanctified the outer world of nature and the realm of inner experience, reducing both to manipulable objects. Watson claimed in Behaviorism (1930): “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”[10] The radical behaviorism of B. F. Skinner succeeded Watson’s, and endured until the 1970s. 

In this case, the determinism of behaviorism prevailed over the subjectivism of the unconscious. But behaviorism did have a perhaps unintended benefit for the continuation of traditional education. A paper for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy (recently renamed the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal) credits the empirical research of behaviorism, specifically Watson, Skinner and others, that: 

…..lent solid experimental backing to the more traditional methods of education that had been practiced for thousands of years until their overthrow by [John] Dewey….Behaviorism...places the responsibility for learning squarely on the shoulders of the teacher….Behaviorists point to the proven successes of direct instructional methods and positive reinforcement for motivation that occur with properly trained instructional personnel using carefully sequenced curricula.[11] 

Political Philosophy and Determinism 

Academic and philosophical thought also turned away from the founding British philosophies to the German idealism of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and the economic determinism of Karl Marx. In a 1961 paper, historian Gordon Wood explains the deterministic history of the American founding— presented by Charles Beard in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) and other progressive historians. Beard’s book reflects an acceptance of Marxist “economic determinism” as follows: 

The work of these Progressive historians was grounded in a social and economic explanation of the Revolutionary era that explicitly rejected the causal importance of ideas. …By absorbing the diffused thinking of Marx and Freud and the assumptions of behaviorist psychology, men had come to conceive of ideas as ideologies or rationalizations, as masks obscuring the underlying interests and drives that actually determined social behavior….[12] 

Progressivism also adopted the Hegelian deterministic concept that individual happiness, recognition, and esteem must come from rights to equality and social justice awarded by the state rather than through self-determination in the unjust private sphere. 

A new political science of progressive governance (or collective liberalism) was created to overcome the limits of the founding order and to erect a more modern “progressive” Hegelian state. Turning to the democracy rejected by the Founders, political elites determine the popular or collective “will” of the whole people and implement it through an administrative state and the technical rationality of social science, supplanting the people’s elected representatives.[13] 

In America’s Constitutional Soul (1991), Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. argues that after World War II, social science found the determinants of popular will in the interests of minority groups and turned to “public choice” models that make rational choices for governance. Mansfield points out that the functions and officials of our constitutional government are “disdained” and “do not appear in public choice models.” “For actual majority rule, they substitute ‘conceptual unanimity’...”—“what the people, if rational, would have consented to.”[14]

Progressivism includes a continuing belief in determinism by a collective will through an administrative state. President Obama applied public and political opinion as he saw it and governed extensively through executive orders and administrative agency regulations.

Modern Thought 

Over the first half of the twentieth century, modern thought began to take its bearings from the subjective expressions of the unconscious mind and psychological, social, and political determinism rather than reason and rational thought. The thought of individuals would begin to be determined by the cultural and social groups that conferred their identity. 

The next article will address the turn to new views of the self and social character. 

This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy. 

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002). 

Image: Pixabay, Public Domain


[1] “Rationalization (psychology).” Wikipedia,

[2] “Auguste Comte,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. “History of Sociology” Wikipedia,  Thomas H. Greer, A Brief History of Western Man Since 1500 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1972), 423–24. Edward McNall Burns, Western Civilizations, Eighth Edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1973), 2:598–99. John A. Garraty and Peter Gay, ed., The Columbia History of World (New York: Harper & Row Publishers,1972), 867. Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment, and Frank M. Turner, eds., The Western Heritage (Brief Edition): Combined Volume, Third Edition (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 2002), 472–73. James W. Ceaser, “A Clear and Present Danger: The Doctrine of Political Nonfoundationalism,” in Robert Faulkner and Susan Shell, eds., America at Risk: Threats to Liberal Self-Government in an Age of Uncertainty (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2009), 78. “Auguste Comte,” in Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 2 (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1967), 173–77.

[3] Emile Durkheim, The Rules of the Sociological Method (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1895/1962), 103–6, 110, quoted in Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Viking, 2002), 23–24. Peter Winch, “Emile Durkheim,” in Edwards, Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 5:437–41.

[4] Kagan et al., Western Heritage, 483.

[5] David A. Hollinger, “Social Science,” in Eric Foner and John A. Garraty,eds. The Reader’s Companion to American History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991), 1003–6. Mark C. Smith, “Social Science,” in Paul S. Boyer, ed., The Oxford Companion to United States History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 727–28. Ronald J. Pestritto, Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005), 8–10, 13. John Marini, “Progressivism,” in John Marini and Ken Masugi, eds., The Progressive Revolution in Politics and Political Science: Transforming the American Regime, The Claremont Institute (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005), 221–22.

[6] William H. Young, Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (Indianapolis: Xlibris, 2010), 19-20, 369, 389.

[7] Pinker, Blank Slate, 22-3.

[8] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Centennial Edition (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983) (First Published 1949), 256–57, 273, 279. Frank N. Magill, ed., Masterpieces of World Literature (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), 582–85. Pinker, Blank Slate, 426–28.

[9] Merle Curti, “Psychological Theories in American Thought,” in Philip P. Wiener, ed., The Dictionary of the History of Ideas (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), 27–28. William James, Principles of Psychology (1890), in Robert Maynard Hutchins, ed., Great Books of the Western World, vol. 53 (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952). Pinker, Blank Slate, 19. Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: The Story of Ideas in America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), 146, 357–58. Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, “Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer,” Center for Evolutionary Psychology,

[10] Curti, “Psychological Theories in American Thought,” 27–28. James McKeen Cattell, “Address to International Congress of Arts and Sciences: 1904,” Popular Science Monthly, 66, 1904–1905, 186. Ludi T. Benjamin Jr., “Psychology,” in Boyer, Oxford Companion to U. S. History, 631. Buckley, “Behaviorism,” 68–69. David P. Barash, Ideas of Human Nature: From the Bhagavad Gita to Sociobiology (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1998), 97. Burns, Western Civilizations, 2:703.

[11] Baker A. Mitchell, “The Great Pedagogical Debate: Behaviorism vs. Constructivism,” 20 May 2011, G. K. Cunningham, “UNC Education Schools: Helping of Hindering Potential Teachers,” The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

[12] Gordon S. Wood, “Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Jan. 1961), 3-32.

[13] Harvey C. Mansfield Jr., America’s Constitutional Soul (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 139–62. John Marini, “Progressivism, Modern Political Science, and the Transformation of American Constitutionalism,” in Marini and Masugi, Progressive Revolution, 221–44. Pestritto, Woodrow Wilson, 67–83.

[14] Mansfield., America’s Constitutional Soul, 139−62.

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