Harold Walsby: The Absolute Assumption

The process of assumption, we have just seen, is intimately connected with the means by which a living organism maintains its relations with its environment, the external world. Those means are patterns of nervous activity. And patterns of nervous activity naturally require a nervous structure or system. Some patterns, or rather, some types of pattern, arise from a wholly inborn structure, and other types arise from a modification of this structure. Since the acquired types of pattern are based upon the inborn types, we may tentatively conclude that the most primitive and fundamental – as well as the most permanent – of our assumptions are inborn. And these, we might add, will be particularly manifested in all expressions of what we call instinct. Let us turn our attention for a moment in this direction.

As the nervous system has a phylogeny, or evolutionary history, so, we may infer, have the types of pattern representing the environment of the organism; and so too, therefore, have the appropriate types of assumption, and consequently, the process of assumption itself. The unit of the nervous system is the nerve-cell. These cells have developed, phylogenetically, by increasing specialisation and differentiation from a more generalised type, and ultimately of course, from a unicellular creature; a type so generalised in its functioning as to render it capable of independent existence, and of being, so to speak, its own nervous system. That a unicellular creature of this generalised nature can be such a one-celled “nervous system” is shown by the behaviour of the amoeba which, when a sharp beam of strong light is directed on to one part of it, reacts by contraction of the stimulated part and then by complete withdrawal from the beam. (Very strong light is injurious to the creature and may even kill it.) This simplest and least organised member of the protozoa is sensitive to certain other stimuli, all parts of its surface being equally sensitive; and impulses from a stimulated region actually travel throughout its whole body at a very slow but definite rate.

Here, in such an elementary creature as this, are the rudimentary, primeval beginnings of our own highly organised system of nervous activity, the complex patterns of which we identify with our internal and external environment. Though the primitive nervous activity of the unicellular protozoon can hardly be regarded in terms of “patterns,” nevertheless, we cannot escape the fact that the rudimentary elements for nervous patterns are somehow present in the creature. And from these elements have developed, in the long course of evolutionary change, the types of nervous pattern which, we have seen, necessarily involve assumption, and along with which, therefore, has arisen the assumptive process, itself.

The assumptive process, then, is inborn and inherited as a necessary consequence of our inheritance of a ready-made system of nervous activity. It is a fundamental function of that activity – the function which prescribes that the patterns of the activity are those of independent existences, are those of a real world; the function which ensures that the patterns, or mutual relations of nervous activities, are identically those of “reality.” Even those patterns we distinguish as mere flights of fancy, as the unreal products of imagination, we are compelled to assume as real products of a real nervous activity: in other words, we are compelled to regard them as really illusions and therefore, in some way, as part of reality.

Now, we have said that certain assumptions are more fundamental and permanent than others; we have also seen that some, at least, of these, are inborn. As assumptions are connected with the relation of nervous patterns to reality, then the more permanent and basic assumptions will be associated with those parts of the patterns which are the more enduring and constant features of patterns, and which are more common to them. On the other hand, the temporary and more superficial assumptions will be connected with those elements of patterns which are continually changing. The most fundamental element of all of these patterns will obviously be that which has persisted in all types of pattern throughout evolutionary history, and which has come down to us from the very earliest times, from the very beginnings of primeval nervous activity. It is, we suggest, with this fundamental component of our patterns that our most fundamental and permanent assumption is bound up. And, for the very reason that it is the most elementary and permanent of all assumptions, it is the most likely, in our normal, everyday intercourse with our environment, to escape notice. Let us attempt to isolate this assumption (the one to which all others must be assimilated) and endeavour to discover how it manifests itself in our behaviour.

In an earlier chapter, when trying to come to grips with the nature of assumption, we asserted that the process involved something taken and something given. It involved introjection and projection. We then added that what was introjected, or received, was a limitation of some sort, and what was projected, or given up, was one’s independence of the limitation. It will now be readily seen that all stimuli constitute limitations – which is, of course, another way of saying that all stimuli condition. The limitation, then, which is introjected in the process of assumption, is a stimulus of some kind. (We have already learned that an assumption takes place under some kind of compulsion.) However, we can no longer confine the idea of a stimulus to mean a simple sensory pattern. We have seen that such a stimulus has an inherent pattern which we have called “sensory.” But we also came to understand that there are other nervous patterns which are patterns or mutual relations of sensory stimuli – in other words, patterns of sensory patterns. These patterns of patterns we shall now include under the term stimuli. And in order to distinguish them from mere sensory patterns – from the patterns or stimuli which are directly sensated – in order to distinguish those that form mutual relations between sensory patterns, we shall use the term “abstract stimuli.” This enables us, when we assert that the introjected limitation is a stimulus of some sort, to include in the assertion those assumptions which are ideologically determined – i.e. those assumptions which are formed when certain ideas influence us.

Introjection, we see then, is necessarily the introjection of a stimulus, sensory or abstract. The other aspect of the assumptive process – projection – involves, as we have said, something given; and we can now readily understand that what is given is a reaction of some kind. In the case of a simple sensory stimulus the reaction begins with the effect of the stimulus upon the receptors or sense-cells, which is then transferred to the processes or fibres of other cells and so eventually to the brain, where the pattern of the stimulus is received and assimilated to either patterns (probably by reinforcement of the activity of numerous appropriate groups of cyclically connected neurons, which, it has been suggested, are bound up with memory or retention of pattern). The reaction then continues, via other cells, in the modification of one’s behaviour – as, for example, in the operation or inhibition of some conditioned reflex or reflexes.

The whole reaction – which, in our own highly organised system, is a complex, or pattern, like the sensory stimulus itself – and each part of the reaction, thus entails the expenditure of energy. What, we venture to suggest, is actually given up in the process of assumption, what is actually projected – is a certain amount of energy. Further, we suggest that the total amount of energy involved in the projection, the total energy expended (for there will be some energy gained as well as lost) is equivalent to the loss of independence – i.e. the loss of freedom from the limitation of stimulus.

The case of the introjection of the abstract stimulus is basically similar in so far as it involves the giving of a reaction which necessitates the expenditure of energy. The abstract stimulus, we have seen, consists of relations between sensory stimuli; the presentation and introjection of the abstract stimulus depends, therefore, upon the more or less simultaneous introjection of its component sensory stimuli – either directly as in the conditioning process, or indirectly, as in the form of the presentation of written or spoken words (which, as intelligible propositions, each containing two terms and a copula, express relations between things). However, the whole reaction to the abstract stimulus, as might be expected, is more complex and subtle than the reactions to the mere sensory stimulus. For reasons of space we cannot deal in detail with it here. But enough has been said, at any rate, to show (a) that the process of assumption, when analysed into its constituents, reveals itself as a physical process as well as an ideological one, and (b) that the assumptive process is a unity which consists of the introjection of a stimulus (sensory or abstract always remembering the abstract stimulus includes the sensory) and the projection of a reaction.

Every stage in the introjection of the stimulus is at the same time, a stage in the projection of the reaction: each unit-cell taking part introjects a simple stimulus series of stimuli, and each cell projects a simple reaction or series of reactions. Let us return for a moment to the amoeba. Though much less specialised in its structure and functioning than the nerve-cell taking part in the complex assumptive process characteristic of highly organised systems of nervous activity, nevertheless, for this elementary unicellular creature the process is fundamentally and basically the same. It introjects a stimulus and it projects a reaction necessitating the expenditure of energy. When the amoeba withdraws or contracts that part of it subjected to the light-beam, it is reacting to a stimulus. But not only is it reacting; it is resisting a limitation. And when we examine the behaviour of organisms generally – throughout the whole scale of life from amoeba to man – we can see that it can be summed up in the one word: resistance – i.e. the escaping from or overcoming of limitations. All reactions, then, are resistances; and in this connection, such phrases as “struggle for existence” and “survival of the fittest” at once spring to mind. Again, it will be clear that all intentional behaviour, all our aims, objects and purposes, however many and various, have as a single common function, the overcoming of limitations: i.e. resistance.

If we can show that all organic behaviour, however simple or complex it may be, or whatever multitudinous forms it may take, is fundamentally and universally resistance to limitation, then, I venture to think, we shall be well on the way to the discovery of our fundamental assumption. But, although so far we have shown this in no little detail – from the simple behaviour of the protozoon to the complex sensory and ideological behaviour of human beings – we have to remind ourselves of this important fact: namely, that organic creatures are also inorganic, and that the analysed details of all organic behaviour must, when severed from their organic connections, exhibit the behaviour of the inorganic – that is to say, must exhibit chemical, physical and mechanical behaviour. Can this, too, be encompassed by our generalisation? If so, if it can be so included, then down comes another barrier we have assumed to exist between the organic and the inorganic.

Now, it is a fundamental law of motion – and according to the scientific account, motion is omnipresent – as well as an axiom of physical science, that to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Every mechanical action is opposed by an equal reaction. Thus we are even compelled to think of a stationary object in terms of the resultant of two actions: one, of its downward movement toward the earth’s centre of gravity, and the other, of its upward movement caused by the force exerted by that upon which it stands. This mutual resistance of action and reaction is universal. Every force is resisting and, at one and the same time, is being resisted by another; and every force is a limitation which is resisting the limitation of another such force.

Hence, we can now see that in all its main features: and all its details – inorganic as well as organic – the universally common and most fundamental function of the behaviour of living organisms is resistance to limitation. Action and reaction, stimulation and response, introjection and projection – these are, respectively, the physical, biological and ideological forms of the same basic process; a process which has evolved, from the beginning of time, to its final fruition in the assumptive process of the self-conscious mind.

All stimuli limit. Whether they be sensory or abstract stimuli, internal (from the body) or external, all stimuli constitute limitations. And all our complicated and involved behaviour consists in the interaction of forms of resistance corresponding to these various forms of limitation. But resistance ultimately implies the absence of limitation, i.e. it implies freedom and independence from limitation – it implies, in a word, self-determinism. We find we cannot even think of resistance to limitation without the thought of self-determinism: for if there is no self-determinism, if it be excluded from that which resists, then there can be no longer any resistance. Resistance exists in proportion as there is self-determinism, and resistance which is not self-determined, as well as determined, is meaningless and unintelligible. In all the physical reactions of matter, in all the biological responses of organisms, and in all ideological projections of the mind, there is resistance and therefore self-determinism.

Here, at last, we arrive at our fundamental, our most permanent and most primitive assumption, that into which all other assumptions must be assimilated, and that which constitutes the basis for the whole ideological structure of assumptions: it is the assumption that one is fundamentally self-determined (or indetermined, independent, unlimited, unconditioned or free). We shall see that the basic function of every form of resistance, every struggle, every wish or whim, every aim, every object or purpose, is to establish or confirm this assumption as far as is possible. Proteus-like, it manifests itself in all our activities. It underlies our instincts, our egoism, our love of power, of wealth, and even our love of knowledge.

Even when we willingly submit or subject ourselves to some limitation or other (as, of course, we are constantly doing) we do so only in so far as we think this subjection enables us to overcome a greater limitation. For instance, we willingly submit to the limitations imposed upon us in the getting of food in order to avoid the greater limitation imposed upon us by the internal stimulus of hunger. In fact, every successful action must be based on the acceptance of certain limitations (i.e. certain assumptions) which then become the means of overcoming the greater limitation otherwise suffered. This is how man becomes a more or less tamed or civilised animal. In accepting the limitations imposed upon him by relations with his fellows – in other words, by co-operating in social life – each member of the community avoids the greater limitations which he would otherwise have to suffer in isolation.

Again it is by acceptance of the limitations imposed upon him by intractable matter, that man is able to understand it and overcome those limitations. He subjects himself to its limitations in preparing the very techniques and contrivances which enable him to overcome its limitations and control matter. Science itself is essentially based on this submission to limitation in order to overcome limitation. Every person learns very early in life that, in approaching a brick wall with the intention of getting to the other side, it is necessary to submit to the limitations it imposes upon one’s movements; it cannot be ignored.

Consider our so-called instincts. Internal stimuli in the form of physico-chemical events operating in conunction with inborn nervous structures, impose certain limitations upon us. In order to resist or escape the limitation and re-confirm the self-deterministic assumption, we are driven into certain forms of behaviour we call instinctive. However social life comes to modify instinctive behaviour, the fundamental assumption remains to express itself in all the modifications. The basic drive to political, economic and social struggle is in all cases the assumption of self-determinism – frequently voiced in such forms as “liberty,” “freedom,” “independence,” “equality,” or even “self-determination.”

Thus, we see that the ultimate foundation for the whole ideological fabric of our assumptions is, paradoxically enough, the primitive inborn assumption that we are, ultimately, in our fundamental nature, unlimited, unconditioned, independent, indetermined and therefore free agents – in short, the assumption that, in our basic and final nature, we are absolute. We shall consequently refer to it as the “absolute” assumption (or, alternatively, the self-deterministic or indeterministic assumption).

Whether we know it or not we are all compelled to think in absolute terms. This fact is confirmed by a comparative study of ideologies. Even the ideologies which affirm that all things, or everything, is relative, must treat the “relative” as ultimate, fundamental, and absolute. (If everything is relative, then what is the whole class of relatives – the relative class – relative to? Since there can be nothing apart from everything then relativity can only be [a] relative to, or within, itself alone and [b] relative to nothing apart from itself. And this is just the nature of the absolute assumption.)

It is of interest and highly significant in connection with this innate fundamental assumption of self-determinism, to note that Pavlov’s conditioned-reflex experiments forced him to conclude the existence of an innate “liberty” or “freedom” reflex in his dogs, and that, moreover, he was forced to conclude the instinct of “struggle” or “resistance” to be the most fundamental of instincts.

It is the absolute assumption which forms the basis of all our reality-conceptions. For when, in the process of assumption, we introject a limitation (in the form of a sensory or abstract stimulus) we react or “resist” that limitation, by “giving” it “reality” or independence – i.e. by the projection of self-determinism. And by so doing, by so giving the stimulus the fundamental character of our own identity, we come to identify ourselves with the stimulus. As an assumption it becomes part of one’s own being. We thus come to identify ourselves with what we “know,” or what amounts to the same, we identify ourselves with the objects of our perception and understanding – that is to say, with that to which our perception and understanding refers. The whole question of “identification,” however, requires separate treatment, and moreover is complicated by the process of inhibition or “repression.” We shall proceed to deal with these two topics in the next chapters.

Continue reading The Domain of Ideologies by Harold Walsby (1947)
Part I Mass Groups and Intellectual Groups
Forward | The Paradox | The Political Groups | The Left Wing and IntellectualismThe Masses and Emotional Suggestibility | Fear of the Group | Political Collectivism | Political Individualism | The “Mass Rationality” Assumption
Part II Ideological Structure and Development
The Ideological FieldDefinition of Ideology | Cognitive Assumptions | The Process of Assumptions | The Absolute Assumption | Identification | Development and Repression | Conclusion | Bibliography | Index