TO truly understand our discipline, we need to appreciate how it has developed historically. In the story I am about to tell, we see how it has emerged from our religious past.
TO truly understand our discipline, we need to appreciate how it has
developed historically. In the story I am about to tell, we see how it
has emerged from our religious past.
If membership of mainstream Christian churches in the UK continues to
decline at its current rate, they will have virtually no members by
mid-century. In such a godless environment, it is hard to think back to
the far more devout age of the Victorians and their predecessors. Yet
it was in this age that scientific psychology first appeared; and to
grasp its origins, religious perspectives are essential.
The traditional notion of intelligence that goes back to Francis Galton
is odd in many ways. Its basis is that we are each born with
individually differing intellectual endowments ranging from genius to
what used to be called ‘feeble-mindedness’. Between 1865, when Galton
first broached the idea, until the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, it was
inseparable from the eugenic aim of encouraging the most able and
discouraging what Galton called ‘the refuse’, and what his follower
Lewis Terman described as ‘democracy’s ballast, not always useless but
always a potential liability’ (quoted in Minton, 1988, p.99).
The oddity of the notion is seen in its focus on intellectual ability,
especially of an abstract sort. Why this restriction, seeing that one
can display intelligence as a tennis player or craftsperson as much as
a mathematician or philosopher? The strangeness comes out, too, in the
predeterminism of this notion – in the idea that, as Cyril Burt put it,
‘the degree of intelligence with which any particular child is
endowed…sets an upper limit to what he can perform’ (Burt, 1959,
p.281). But this belief that we each have our own pre-programmed
ceiling of ability is simply an assumption, and not based on evidence.
How did this singular notion of intelligence come about? What are its historical roots?
There are grounds for thinking that the origins are religious. This may
seem hard to swallow. Galton and his followers – Pearson and Burt in
Britain, Goddard and Terman in the US – are typically considered to be
scientists, pioneers in detaching psychology from its philosophical and
theological heritage. It is well known that the inspiration for
Galton’s 1865 eugenic manifesto was his cousin Charles Darwin’s
recently published Origin of Species.
Yet not all psychologists impressed by Darwin’s thesis have been
eugenicists. Why was Galton of this persuasion? I argue that the
motivation was religious. His encouragement of the most able to
procreate was against the background of a living universe which he
called ‘a pure theism’ – a cooperative system in which men and other
animals ‘contribute, more or less unconsciously, to the manifestation
of a far higher life than our own’ (Galton, 1892/1978, p.376). He wrote
that ‘man has already furthered evolution very considerably…but has not
yet risen to the conviction that it is his religious duty to do so
deliberately and systematically’ (Galton, 1883/1907, p.198).
Galton’s disciple, Karl Pearson, wrote approvingly of the ‘new
religion’ that Galton sought to introduce. ‘If the purpose of the Deity
be manifested in the development of the universe, then the aim of man
should be, with such limited powers as he may at present possess, to
facilitate the divine purpose’ (Pearson, 1924, p.261). Burt, too,
believed – in his own words – ‘in the supreme importance of
consciousness in deciding the direction and furthering the progress of
animal evolution’ (quoted in Hearnshaw, 1979, p.225). He called this
consciousness ‘psychon’, seeing it as a kind of group mind based on the
subconscious interaction of certain living persons with the psychic
powers of the dead.
If Galton, Pearson and Burt were scientists, they were scientists in
the shadow of older religious ideas. Almost to a man, these and other
early pioneers of intelligence were from branches of radical
Protestantism that sprang from 17th-century puritanism. Galton,
although not a Quaker himself, belonged to a well-connected Quaker
Pearson, too, was from Quaker stock, while Burt’s father’s family had
deep Congregationalist roots. Of the early American pioneers, James
McKeen Cattell, Galton’s first American follower, was from a
Presbyterian family. H.H. Goddard was a practising Quaker. Lewis Terman
was an unbeliever, but with what appears to be an Ulster Presbyterian
pedigree. Other psychologists closely associated with these men, like
G. Stanley Hall and William McDougall, were from a similar religious
background, as also, in a later generation, was Philip Vernon, the son
of a Baptist. The most famous person not included in this list is
Charles Spearman, whose family may well have been Anglican.
There are features of the Galtonian tradition on intelligence that mesh
so closely with puritan and post-puritan views on human beings and
their destinations that they make mere coincidence unlikely. One is its
polarising tendency. The pioneers were interested in the extremes of
human ability – in nurturing an intellectual elite and containing,
phasing out, isolating or excluding the most backward. The puritan
tradition was also founded on polarisation – the small number of
‘elect’ who were to be saved, and those heading for damnation. There is
a kind of salvationism in eugenics. The fate of the human race, and
indeed of the larger universe of living beings of which it forms a
part, depends on what provision it makes or fails to make for the
A related feature of the puritan legacy, dropped by the Quakers, but
retained by other groups like Congregationalists and Presbyterians, is
predestination. Whether or not one ends up among the saved or among the
damned is predetermined by God. Commentators from Walter Lippman
onwards, in a famous journalistic spat with Terman in the 1920s, have
pointed to the parallel here with the idea that one’s intelligence, and
the mental ceiling which goes with it, is fixed by innate factors. And
not only one’s intelligence, but in many cases one’s social
destination: if one’s innate intelligence is low, an elite education
and a professional career are out of the question. One is fated, in
terms of the social ladder, to be a ‘failure’ rather than a ‘success’.
The salvationist thought-world is not far in the background.
The intelligence men were especially interested, for eugenic reasons,
in the ‘gifted’. The notion of ‘gift’ is, at root, religious. It is
especially important in Puritanism, linked with its emphasis on the
belief that each person has their own ‘vocation’. What God calls one to
do in this life, whether as farmer, or teacher, or housewife, depends
on the abilities with which he has innately endowed one. Education, of
key interest to all puritans, is a process by which one discovers one’s
innate gifts and intended vocation. The preoccupation of most of the
intelligence pioneers (not least Burt, Goddard and Terman) with
education and educational and vocational selection is well known.
I am not claiming that all these men were consciously following these
religious paths; only, at most, that their thought appears to be
influenced by their shared religious heritage. There is a further
consideration which points in this direction.
Thanks to the prominence of IQ testing in our age, we have grown used
to associating intelligence with abstract intellectual enquiry. Howard
Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences and Robert Sternberg’s on
practical intelligence have broadened horizons here, but many would
still go along with Godfrey Thomson’s comment that ‘although
intelligence expresses itself in different forms, in its highest
aspects it is always concerned with abstractions and concepts and
relationships’ (Thomson, 1947, p.17). Galton, Burt, Terman and other
fellow-eugenicists agreed with him. How can we explain the
restrictiveness of their position? Once we know about their shared
religious heritage in post-puritan thinking, an answer readily suggests
The early puritans and the sects they later spawned attached huge
importance to abstract thinking – for religious reasons. Logic was
central to their theology. In the early days of New England, for
instance, communities were run on authoritarian lines by what Perry
Miller has termed ‘the wise and learned of the upper class through
their mastery of logic’ (Miller, 1939, p.429).
Why logic? What was its attraction? The answer takes us back to the
16th century, to a French protestant logician called Pierre de la
Ramée, or Ramus. He was enormously influential in puritan circles. He
held that understanding of God’s universe is to be gained by beginning
with the most abstract and general of categories, and then generating
subordinate categories and sub-categories by a process of repeated
dichotomisation. The more specific the dichotomies become, the closer
they are to the concrete realities around us. In this way, this logical
scheme is able to capture the complex heterogeneity of the divine
creation. It is able to locate every part of it in its proper logical
place, to show its dependence on the ultimate abstractions (Miller,
Nonsense though this may seem to us, for the early puritans on both
sides of the Atlantic this system of logic seemed to offer an
intelligible, and above all easily teachable, way of mastering the
knowledge of God’s creation they needed for their own salvation. Among
other things, it provided an explanation of human thinking. God has
programmed the human soul to work in a logical, dichotomising way,
deriving less abstract from more abstract categories and seeing
particularity in the light of the more general. Educational programmes
were constructed accordingly.
Even after the system crumbled away in the course of the scientific
revolution, the old attachment to logic lived on. Along with the also
abstract subjects of mathematics and science, logic had become a
central element in an English Dissenter’s or Scottish Presbyterian’s
higher education. A famous example of this is found in the
ultra-intellectual education given to John Stuart Mill by his
ex-Presbyterian father James and described in the former’s
autobiography. Here, too, logic – introduced at age 12 – was the
Even today it still exists vestigially in the academic structures of
the older Scottish universities. In 19th-century American colleges it
was an indispensable feature of the compulsory Mental and Moral
Philosophy course taught by religious-minded college presidents like
the Congregationalist G. Stanley Hall. This course is now widely
recognised as the immediate precursor of the ‘new’ scientific
psychology that took its place. Hall, the teacher of Goddard, Terman
and J. McKeen Cattell, was, as it were, a living bridge between the
older theological thought-world and the new eugenic science of the mind.
Against this backdrop, the intelligence pioneers’ attachment to the
abstract and to the logical may make more sense. In the tradition from
which so many of them had sprung, abstractness was at the heart not
only of the structure of creation in general, but also of the human
mind in particular. Under the Galtonians, general abstract ability
comes out as one of the key features of our being.
In its essence the traditional notion of general intelligence may be a
secularised version of the Puritan idea of the soul. Whether or not
this is so, when Galton first introduced this notion of intelligence in
1865, it did not appear from nowhere. We know that he saw it as part of
the ‘new religion’ that Karl Pearson ascribed to him. But as I have
suggested (and see White, 2005, 2006, for more), perhaps Galtonian
intelligence had its roots in a far older kind of religious thinking.
- John White is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Education at the Institute of Education. E-mail: J.White@ioe.ac.uk.
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Hearnshaw, L.S. (1979). Cyril Burt. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
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White, J. (2005). Puritan intelligence. Oxford Review of Education, 31(3), 423–442.
White, J. (2006). Intelligence, destiny and education: The ideological roots of intelligence testing. London: Routledge.