Cornhill Magazine,  7 (1863), 649–56.

The Mental Condition of Babies

[George H Lewes]




Human Development, Gender, Psychology, Controversy, Associationism, Animal Behaviour, Philosophy, Experiment, Vivisection, Physiological Psychology, Heredity

Publications cited:

Kussmaul 1859

    Proposes to end that age-old 'controversy' in which a baby's 'pretensions to intellectual eminence' are 'artfully, and sometimes vociferously, asserted by the women' and 'dubiously received by the men', by referring the question 'to science, with her passionless experimental methods, equally regardless of the fluttering agitations and flattering self-delusions of maternal instinct, and of the combative opinionativeness of men always ready to presuppose irrationality in woman. Science sets aside emotion, and sees only the logical connection between a premiss and its conclusion'. (649). Asserts that 'Very far from a tabula rasa is the mind of a new-born infant. It is from the first equipped with sensibilities and organized tendencies, which not only vindicate its psychological character, but at once manifest its individual peculiarities' (650). Although the mental capacity of a human baby is very different from that of 'the young alligator' which 'emerges from the egg nearly as intelligent (the intelligence of an alligator, you will observe!) as its parents', it is nevertheless 'certain that philosophers have been hopelessly wrong in their estimates' of the 'special sensibilities' of the infant mind (650–51). Indeed, the 'precision of scientific research discloses their utter inaccuracy, and vindicates the baby's claims to manifold sensibilities', thus gaining a 'ready ear' among 'the mothers of Cornhill and its "circumambient" parishes' (651). The full 'psychological integrity of the infant' (652) has been shown by Adolf Kussmaul, who is the 'first person who, to our knowledge, has examined this question in a scientific spirit' (651). However, 'making new-born infants subjects of experiment [...] would, no doubt, have drawn upon him the voluble execrations of outraged womankind, were it not' for the 'mollifying circumstance' of his having produced 'results which so triumphantly vindicate' the special sensibilities of babies (651–52). In a personal aside, Lewes reflects, 'Experiment on babies! We remember that, in a communication we submitted to the British Association for the Advancement of Science [i.e. Lewes 1860b], the mention of experiments performed on sleeping children was not very well received by some mothers, although the experiments carried with them no operation more formidable than tickling the sleeper's cheeks. The sanctity of the infant was felt to have been violated! Perhaps, also, the experiments being mentioned in conjunction with others on decapitated frogs and salamanders, the timorous imagination at once conjured up visions of remorseless physiologists decapitating babies to detect the laws of nervous action' (651). Avers that while we 'may warrantably reject the old notion of the mind being from the first well furnished with truths of wide generality—"innate ideas", as they are called [...] the advance of psychology, founded on physiology, has made it pretty certain that if not furnished with ready-made truths, if not enriched with innate ideas, the mind is from the first furnished with hereditary tendencies and aptitudes' (655–56). Concludes that, as Plato and William Wordsworth once suggested, 'a new solemnity surrounds the cradle' (656).

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