Marischal College, Broad Street, Aberdeen, AB10 1AB, Scotland, United Kingdom
Alexander Bain graduated from Marischal College in 1840.
Bain, oil painting by Sir George Reid; in the collection of the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.
Alexander Bain, 1818 – 1903, Scottish philosopher and educationalist in the British school of empiricism.
(Bain strove to identify the link between the mind and the...)
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 the end of the nineteenth century.
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.
Alexander Bain 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 Master of Arts degree in 1840, 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. Bain retired from his Chair and Professorship from the University of Aberdeen and was succeeded by William Minto, one of his most brilliant pupils. He served as rector of the university from 1882 to 1886.
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 great respect for facts and mistrust of speculative metaphysics. He was also impressed by the physiological theories of Johannes Miller 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). 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.
In 1882 appeared the Biography of James Mill, and accompanying it John Stuart Mill: a Criticism, with Personal Recollections. Next came (1884) a collection of articles and papers, most of which had appeared in magazines, under the title of Practical Essays. This was succeeded (1887, 1888) by a new edition of the Rhetoric, and along with it, a book On Teaching English, being an exhaustive application of the principles of rhetoric to the criticism of style, for the use of teachers; and in 1894 he published a revised edition of The Senses and the Intellect, which contain his last word on psychology. In 1894 also appeared his last contribution to Mind. His last years were spent in privacy at Aberdeen, where Bain died on 18 September 1903.
(Bain strove to identify the link between the mind and the...)1859
In his 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.” In his written works The Emotions and the Will, and in earlier, forgotten works, Bain put forward a pioneer social psychology that has received little attention. Bain analyzed sympathy more clearly than had his predecessors; 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. An understanding of social conformity is sought, according to Bain, through the study of moral habits. Bain treated interpersonal behavior principally by showing how sympathy leads to cohesion in social groups and how egotistic feelings develop into the need for “social alliance”.
“Terror is a powerful agent in overcoming the contumacious and self-willed disposition and is made use of in government, in religion, and in education. The passion may be excited by the mere prospect of great suffering, but still more effectually by unknown dangers, uncertainties, and vast possibilities of evil, in matters keenly felt by the hearers. The approach of unexperienced calamities is out to engender panic. Under a plague or epidemic, people may be easily frightened into measures that in cool moments they would repudiate. The sick and the depressed can readily be inspired with religious and moral terrors. History furnishes many examples of political oratory succeeding through the excitement of terror.”
"Disinterestedness is as great a puzzle and paradox as ever. Indeed, strictly speaking, it is a species of irrationality, or insanity, as regards the individual’s self; a contradiction of the most essential nature of a sentient being, which is to move to pleasure and from pain."
"He that could teach mathematics well, would not be a bad teacher in any of [physics, chemistry, biology or psychology] unless by the accident of total ineptitude for experimental illustration; while the mere experimentalist is likely to fall into the error of missing the essential condition of science as reasoned truth; not to speak of the danger of making the instruction an affair of sensation, glitter, or pyrotechnic show."
"Instinct is defined as the untaught ability to perform actions of all kinds, and more especially such as are necessary or useful to the animal."
"Mathematics, including not merely Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry, and the higher Calculus, but also the applied Mathematics of Natural Philosophy, has a marked and peculiar method or character; it is by preeminence deductive or demonstrative, and exhibits in a nearly perfect form all the machinery belonging to this mode of obtaining truth. Laying down a very small number of first principles, either self-evident or requiring very little effort to prove them, it evolves a vast number of deductive truths and applications, by a procedure in the highest degree mathematical and systematic."
"Of Science generally we can remark, first, that it is the most perfect embodiment of Truth, and of the ways of getting at Truth. More than anything else does it impress the mind with the nature of Evidence, with the labor and precautions necessary to prove a thing. It is the grand corrective of the laxness of the natural man in receiving unaccredited facts and conclusions. It exemplifies the devices for establishing a fact, or a law, under every variety of circumstances; it saps the credit of everything that is affirmed without being properly attested."
"The arguments for the two substances [mind and body] have, we believe, entirely lost their validity; they are no longer compatible with ascertained science and clear thinking. The one substance with two sets of properties, two sides, the physical and the mental - a double-faced unity - would appear to comply with all the exigencies of the case. The mind is destined to be a double study - to conjoin the mental philosopher with the physical philosopher."
"The method of arithmetical teaching is perhaps the best understood of any of the methods concerned with elementary studies."
"The uncertainty where to look for the next opening of discovery brings the pain of conflict and the debility of indecision."
"Those that can readily master the difficulties of Mathematics find a considerable charm in the study, sometimes amounting to fascination. This is far from universal, but the subject contains elements of strong interest of a kind that constitutes the pleasures of knowledge. The marvelous devices for solving problems elate the mind with the feeling of intellectual power; and the innumerable constructions of the science leave us lost in wonder."
During his youth, Bain 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.
Quotes from others about the person
"In Dr. Bain's death, psychology has sustained a great loss; but so too has education and practical reform. It is rare to find a philosopher who combines philosophical with educational and practical interests, and who is also an active force in the community in which he dwells. Such a combination was here. Let us not fail to appreciate it." - Professor William L. Davidson
Alexander Bain was married twice. His first wife, Frances, whom he married in 1855, died in 1892. In April 1893 he married Barbara Forbes.