Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Bain, Alexander
BAIN, ALEXANDER (1818–1903), psychologist, logician, and writer on education, born on 11 June 1818 in Aberdeen, was one of the eight children of George Bain, a man of energy and a strict Calvinist. Son of a small farmer, the father served as a soldier, and finally settled in Aberdeen as a weaver. Alexander's mother, Margaret Paul, active and industrious, but delicate in health, died young. Bain himself preserved his health by a carefully planned system of simple living. At eleven he left school to work for his living. Although occupied in weaving, he found time to study mathematics by himself, and at sixteen he attended first of all an evening school and afterwards a mutual instruction class connected with the Mechanics' Institution. John Murray, a minister in Aberdeen, helped him in acquiring Latin, and introduced him to Professor John Cruikshank, who assisted him greatly in his studies. After spending three months at the grammar school, Bain obtained a bursary at Marischal College at the ago of eighteen ; in 1840 he graduated at the head of the honours list, and in the same year he began to contribute to the 'Westminster Review,' while he also attended classes in chemistry and anatomy. In 1841 he became assistant to the professor of moral philosophy, Dr. Glennie, and in 1842 he visited London and made the acquaintance of John Stuart Mill, George Grote, George Henry Lewes, Edwin Chadwick, Thomas Carlyle, and other men of note. At Mill's request Bain revised the manuscript of his 'Logic' and later on he reviewed it in the 'Westminster Review' ; he was likewise led by Mill to make a special study of the philosophy of George Combe [q. v.], and in 1861 he wrote ' The Study of Character, including an Estimate of Phrenology.' In 1844 Bain lost his post of assistant to Dr. Glennie owing to his having made some innovation in the teaching, but he was asked temporarily to take the place of the professor of natural philosophy, William Knight (1786-1844) [q. v.], though doubts of his religious orthodoxy prevented his becoming his successor. A like disappointment was experienced in regard to the logic chair at St. Andrews University for which he was a candidate, and several further applications for vacant chairs proved futile, largely from the same cause. In 1845-6 Bain lectured in Glasgow in connection with the Andersonian University, and continued to write for magazines, besides publishing educational works on science for Messrs. Chambers. Through Edwin Chadwick's influence he came to London in 1848 to fill the post of assistant secretary to the metropolitan sanitary commission, and he was occupied in public health work in London until 1850. Subsequently he lectured at the Bedford College for Women while carrying on his literary labours. In 1852 he edited Paley's 'Moral Philosophy.' On his first marriage in 1855 he resigned his appointment at Bedford College and resided at Richmond for five years. During this period he held examinerships for the University of London and Indian civil service and occupied himself with writing ; in 1855 he published 'The Senses and the Intellect' (4th edit. 1894), and in 1859 'The Emotions and the Will' (4th edit. 1899).
Bain was again defeated in his application for the logic chair at St. Andrews in 1860, but despite much opposition from the orthodox party, he was in the same year appointed by the crown to the newly created professorship of logic and English in the United University of Aberdeen on the recommendation of Sir George Cornewall Lewis, then home secretary. Bain set himself to improve the teaching of logic and English in Aberdeen University. For his English class he wrote an English grammar in 1863, which was followed three years later by a manual on 'English Composition and Rhetoric ' (new edit. 1887) and then by 'English Extracts.' In 1872 and 1874 he issued two other English grammars. In 1868 he published his important work, 'Mental and Moral Science, a Compendium of Psychology and Ethics' (3rd edit. 1872), and in the following year he edited along with J. S. Mill, George Grote, and Andrew Findlater, James Mill's 'Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind.' In 1870 appeared his 'Logic' and in 1872 there was published (in the 'International Scientific' series) his 'Mind and Body' (3rd edit. 1874; German trans. 1874; Spanish trans. 1881). He was accorded the degree of LL.D. by the University of Edinburgh in 1869.
Bain assisted his pupil and close friend, George Groom Robertson [q. v.] in editing 'Grote's Aristotle' (1872), and he also edited Grote's minor works in 1873. In 1876 there was issued on Bain's initiative and at his expense the first number of 'Mind,' the philosophical journal for which he frequently wrote. He appointed Groom Robertson editor, and was financially responsible for the periodical until 1891, when Groom Robertson resigned his editorship. Bain published another educational work, 'Education as a Science ' also in the 'International Scientific' series, in 1879 (German trans. 1879). His health began at this time to flag, and in 1880 he resigned his chair ; two years later he was elected Lord Rector of the Aberdeen University, an honour which was accorded him for two separate terms of three years each. His later works were 'James Mill: a biography* and 'John Stuart Mill: a Criticism with Personal Recollections' (1882); 'Practical Essays,' a collection of addresses and papers (1884); an edition of G. Groom Robertson's philosophical remains (1894) ; ' Dissertations on Leading Philosophical Topics ' (1903), and finally his 'Autobiography,' published posthumously in 1904. In addition, he continued to write largely in periodicals. All through life he was keenly interested in public affairs, educational and other, and in university matters he led the progressive party. He received a civil list pension of 100Z. on 18 June 1895. He died at Aberdeen on 18 Sept. 1903, and was buried there.
Bain was married twice: (1) in 1855 to Frances A. Wilkinson, who died in 1892; and (2) in 1893 to Barbara Forbes. He had no issue. His portrait by (Sir) George Reid was presented to him in 1883 and hangs in Marischal College. In 1892 his bust by Mr. Bain Smith was presented to the public library of Aberdeen.
Bain was an ardent promoter of education, advocating reform in methods of teaching natural science and the claims of modern languages to a larger place in the curriculum. But his chief claim to notice rests on his work as a psychologist and as an advocate of the application of ‘physiology to the elucidation of mental states.’ One of the first in this country to apply to psychology the results of physiological investigations, he greatly advanced and popularised the science as it is usually understood.
Bain was a conspicuous exponent of what is sometimes termed the a posteriori school of psychology, whose foundation was laid by Hobbes and Locke while its tenets were carried to their extreme consequences by David Hume. The so-called Scottish philosophy of Reid and Dugald Stewart (which was carried on alongside the idealistic system of the German philosophers whose origin may be traced to Descartes) represented a reaction against this school, and James Mill by way of a counter-reaction stoutly maintained that a return must be once more made to Locke. In this conviction he was supported by Bain, who developed more fully the ideas which Mill propounded. He felt that the old psychology which regarded the mind as though it were divided up into separate compartments must be discarded, and, like Mill, he argued that the laws of the human intellect necessarily correspond with the objective laws of nature from which they may be inferred.
Bain and his followers admit that there are certain notions such as extension, solidity, time, and space, which are constructed by the mind itself, the material alone being supplied to it, but they make it their work to trace the process by which the mind constructs its ideas, and believe that the laws by which it operates will be found not to be anything remote or inexplicable, but simply the actual working out of well-known principles. Thus Bain's conclusion is (1) that the phenomena of the mind which seem the more complicated are formed out of the simple and elementary; and (2) that the mental laws by means of which the formation takes place are the laws of association. Bain considers that these laws extend to everything, and he proceeds to inquire how much of the apparent variety of the mental phenomena they are capable of explaining. Then he endeavours to determine the ultimate elements that remain in the mind when everything that can be accounted for by the law or laws of association is deducted, and he proceeds by means of these elements to determine how the remainder of the mental phenomena can be built up with the aid of these same laws. It must not be forgotten, however, that in his later years he laid considerable stress on the part played by heredity in accounting for the facility with which the individual acquires knowledge.
Bain's system of philosophy has been termed materialistic because it endeavours to ascertain the material condition of our mental operations and the connection that exists between mind and body, and also to follow out the development of the higher mental states from the lower. He expounded the association psychology with which his name is connected with lucidity and in great detail, for he possessed an exceptional gift of methodical exposition. He applied natural history methods of classification to psychical phenomena in a manner which gave scientific value to his work, and a knowledge of the physical sciences unusual to a philosopher of his day, conjoined with remarkable analytic powers, enabled him to present his system with effect.
In ethics Bain was a utilitarian, and for the confirmation of his views his appeal was made frankly to experience. He claimed indeed in his psychology to have purged himself of metaphysics, of which, especially in its idealistic development, he had the greatest distrust, regarding metaphysics as having separated itself from the experimental test which he regarded as all-important.
[Autobiography, ed. W. L. Davidson, with bibliography by P. J. Anderson, 1904; Dissertations and Discussions, by John Stuart Mill, 1867; Th. Ribot, La Psychologie anglaise contemporaine, 1870; Blackwood's Mag., July 1904; Mind, April 1904, vol. xiii (new series) by W. L. Davidson; Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edit.; and Hastings' Encyc. Religion and Ethics, ii.]