Bertrand Russell: The Analysis of Mind


In this lecture we shall be concerned with a very general characteristic which broadly, though not absolutely, distinguishes the behaviour of living organisms from that of dead matter. The characteristic in question is this:

The response of an organism to a given stimulus is very often dependent upon the past history of the organism, and not merely upon the stimulus and the HITHERTO DISCOVERABLE present state of the organism.

This characteristic is embodied in the saying "a burnt child fears the fire." The burn may have left no visible traces, yet it modifies the reaction of the child in the presence of fire. It is customary to assume that, in such cases, the past operates by modifying the structure of the brain, not directly. I have no wish to suggest that this hypothesis is false; I wish only to point out that it is a hypothesis. At the end of the present lecture I shall examine the grounds in its favour. If we confine ourselves to facts which have been actually observed, we must say that past occurrences, in addition to the present stimulus and the present ascertainable condition of the organism, enter into the causation of the response.

The characteristic is not wholly confined to living organisms. For example, magnetized steel looks just like steel which has not been magnetized, but its behaviour is in some ways different. In the case of dead matter, however, such phenomena are less frequent and important than in the case of living organisms, and it is far less difficult to invent satisfactory hypotheses as to the microscopic changes of structure which mediate between the past occurrence and the present changed response. In the case of living organisms, practically everything that is distinctive both of their physical and of their mental behaviour is bound up with this persistent influence of the past. Further, speaking broadly, the change in response is usually of a kind that is biologically advantageous to the organism.

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