Nature, mind and rights: An Edwardian construct

Classical political theory used nature as an analytical and justificatory device. Perceived by removing the distortions of existing society, the pristine human individual thought up by philosophers was employed as the normative basis for a projected political order. Liberalism, in particular, sought to determine the limits of political power by interposing nature-deduced rights between (artificial) government and (natural) individual and society. This type of argument was prevalent during the early modern period. By the twentieth century, however, nature-based rights seemed to have gone out of usage, owing to factors like the changing perceptions of the natural world, the rise of the independent social sciences, and the impact of Marxism.

However, an influential nature-based theory of rights did exist at the beginning of the twentieth century, and, to a certain extent, notions that resemble it were current within some professional discourses by its end. Edwardian progressive liberalism used its understanding of biology and the place of humanity in nature to construct a justificatory platform for its notion of social rights. This theory had had an earlier exponent in J.S. Mill, and the type of psychology aligned with it still informed late-twentieth century ideas of individual development. The contention here is not that a genealogical sequence exists between Mill and the later ideas of nature and rights. This paper will instead argue that variations on a specific view of the link between nature, personality and politics reappeared in different circumstances during the last century and a half.

The fundamental attributes of this concept of nature-based personality and rights are the following. Firstly, it is immanentist and monist, recognizing the observed natural world as the sole source of ethical standard and social rules. Secondly, it sees rational individuality as produced and not as given: individuality is a normative goal rather than a premise, as it had been for Locke. Thirdly, it is developmental and open-ended, envisaging no ultimate resting-point, but relying instead on an equilibrium of contradictory forces, that are seen as legitimate components of nature, mind, and society.


The project outlined in J.S. Mill's On Liberty consisted in the cultivation of conditions for continuous debate, so as to enable individuals to experience and challenge a range of beliefs and lifestyles. Ultimate truth and correct procedures for social decisionmaking could be approximated B if never completely achieved B only through constant interplay between conflicting individual stances. Personal opinions and choices, however, had to be actively defended: owing to the potentially-suffocating character of public opinion, individual rationality could not be counted on as inherent in human society. Space for it had to be deliberately cleared by political arrangement, if that capacity for personal difference which was crucial for progress was to emerge. Individual identities and outlooks were not stable and atomistically isolated, but involved with and constantly shaped by the surrounding environment.

Mill's essay 'Nature' was written in the 1850s, alongside On Liberty. In that text, Mill criticized the romantic and theist idealization of nature, saying that nature was violent and arbitrary, and pointing to the finity of any individual life as ultimate proof of nature's virulent character. However, as Mill refused to appeal to transcendental authority, the origins of human capabilities like reason, the sense of justice, cleanliness and altruism had also to be located within nature. Humans were endowed with a package of conflicting natural attributes. Improvement was brought about by using some of these attributes to offset the others. The benevolent and rational personality, itself a product of cultivated natural materials, should proceed 'not so much [by] subduing the original nature as [by] merging it into itself'.

When observing these essays together, it may be seen how the tense, morally-neutral, immanent nature of 'Nature' makes possible the basis for the political framework of On Liberty. Individual minds replicated nature: they contained various potentialities; they referred to no external and common truths outside themselves; and they had to be educated into rationality and benevolence. Rational autonomy was not a given human capacity, nor could it be relied for on the grace of God or a metaphysical Geist. It had to be intentionally created by the social environment out of the contest between various urges and stimulations. Autonomy could not be indoctrinated into. It had to be provided for by ensuring a minimal space for development around each person. Nature implied a polity in which the quest for rationality was institutionally protected rather than assumed and left to its own devices. Rights were meant not to preserve pre-political abilities, but to foster such abilities and engender progress.


The publication of Mill's On Liberty in 1859 coincided with that of Darwin's The Origin of the Species. From that point on, Darwin's terminology took a hold on public discussion. By the turn of the century, evolution dominated political argument in Britain. The left-leaning Edwardian liberals who saw themselves as Mill's successors had to develop their own interpretation of evolution to support their politics.

In a variety of books, essays and journalistic contributions, as well as through formal and informal channels, Edwardian liberals advocated a programme of social reform. Some of its central ideas were enacted by administrations in the 1906-1914 period. Formulated by intellectuals like L.T. Hobhouse, J.A. Hobson, Graham Wallas, and others, reforming liberalism argued that in complex industrial conditions, individual liberty had to be protected from the arbitrary fluctuations of the market and from the power of landlords and employers, as much as from government. Such protection could be gained through the construction of agencies whose aim it was to cushion citizens against the economic insecurity that had put them at the mercy of stronger social bargainers. Hence the liberals' call for state legislation for, and financial participation in, old age pensions, unemployment and health insurance, and school meals.

Such measures did not involve nationalizing the economy. They did mean higher and graded taxation, and the expansion of public-owned services. In offering this programme progressive liberals differed from both the various shades of socialism which favoured more rigorous nationalization and bureaucratization, and from those liberals and conservatives who would minimize state involvement in welfare, and leave to systems such as the poor-law administration or its substitutes those individuals who needed public assistance.

Edwardian liberalism, therefore, introduced welfare into the spectrum of rights to which individuals were entitled by their polity. Why did individuals have welfare rights? Why, indeed, should they have rights at all? Unlike early-modern liberals, Edwardian progressives could not simply appeal to nature to ground rights in. Nature was no longer the divinely-ordained and static mechanism assumed by early modernity. It now consisted in the open-ended dynamics described by Darwin. Evolution was, at the time, a favourite argument of free-marketers and imperialists who would let the strong annihilate the militarily and economically weak in the name of biological principles. To avoid this yet keep ethics while accepting evolution, some commentators suggested the bifurcation of the world into 'cosmic', natural processes, and 'ethical', humanist ones: humanity should not follow cruel nature but benevolent ethics. Progressive liberals, however, rejected this solution as well, as it implied a force outside nature, which, like Mill, they could not accept. Ethics had to be grounded in nature itself B complete with its violence and its instability.

Insisting on a single, natural basis to all phenomena meant that differences had to be played out against each other for any coherent structure to form: there was no external edifice from which to mould it. Rationality had to be gained through an internal dialectic which involved a series of stages. The mind, wrote a progressive publicist, 'plunges from innocence...into the vortex of the world's strife, where it becomes conscious of its own nature and personality: and then emerges into a positive and rational order'. This process held for both civilization and for each person. In the earliest phases of human development, J.A. Hobson argued, individual consciousness was not differentiated from collective instinct. The pre-rational animal acted for the propagation of its kind, knowing little of its own separateness. With the 'dawn of reason', however, the individual attained a self-consciousness which competed with collective imperatives. This often led the individual into struggle with the species. Only in a further stage of growth does individuality - now safe in its sense of autonomy B begin to recognize and respect the subjectivity of others and their mutual link in society. Competition is then consciously transformed into cooperation, reason thus recovering the solidarity it had once superseded.

How could this roundabout development be anchored in biology? Darwinian evolution pointed to adaptation and survival as the core mechanisms of nature. The fundamental fact about humans, reforming liberals noted, was that they could not survive alone. Each person had to be nourished by a mother. 'Man' in nature was therefore neither Hobbes's lonely, panic-stricken fighter, nor Locke's independent and hungry producer: he or she was a dependent infant, always born into society. The constraints of species-survival made parental care an unquestioned reality for each newborn. The supporting society was always already there, constituting humanity's true natural condition. Hence, at its beginning, human consciousness cannot differentiate itself from its environment, and consists instead in a structureless flux. Mind has to gain such differentiation in order for its possessors to be able to work and provide for the next generation, so that while individuality needs an enfolding society to grow, society in its turn needs individual separateness to propagate.

Politics had to recognize this biologically-grounded interdependence of individuality and collectivity. While the basic dependence and absence of differentiation were prior to deliberate intervention, the desired individual autonomy was a product of training: rational independence was gradually educated into rather than given. This was naturally carried out by the family, and what the family did for its members, a nature-based polity had to do for its citizens. Individual development mirrored that of society, which was in its turn a replication of the species' evolution.

The analogy between biology and society, and the interplay between individuality and society, were expanded on by Hobhouse. What did evolution consist of? The most prevalent difference between higher and lower life-forms was the complexity of the central nervous system, whose development rendered individuals increasingly self-conscious as the species emerged from the primeval stages. In lower life forms, behaviour was instinctive, but as the scale ascended, organisms' ability to memorize and employ memories so as to assist in future behaviour increased. At the highest phases of development, humans can acquire and transfer knowledge, and so minimize the role of instinct and maximize that of choice. Rationality was therefore not the state of nature but its perceived end.

The growth of individual consciousness was matched by the growth of interdependence and cooperation. Protozoa are cissiparious, whereas mammals are sexual, and the more intelligent among them are capable of carrying out complex collective tasks. The level of social organization, therefore, indicates biological development. At the higher stages of evolution, social sophistication merges with individuality to form the modes of cooperation particular to humanity. Unlike social insects, humans are aware of their social nature, and are therefore capable of choosing its form and extent. The ubiquitous double movement of rational individuation and social elaboration accounts for the anthropological and political record which Hobhouse interpreted as demonstrating that society had grown up from the loose, polygamous kinship, into the close-knit but internally differentiated nuclear family, and from local and tribal loyalties into representative democracies.


The liberal political agenda was directly related to this concept of nature and society. As evolution meant the simultaneous advance of both choice and interdependence, individuals could not be coerced into rationality by governmental measures. Nor could they be left to face the market on their own. Either course would have meant a retrogressive step down the biological scale and away from the pattern which enabled the survival and ascendance of the species. Social cooperation could, on the other hand, be charged with the protection of choice and individuality, government with enabling rational autonomy:

human personality...can be placed under conditions in which it will flourish and expand, or, if it is diseased, under conditions in which it will heal itself by its own recuperative powers. The foundation of liberty is the idea of growth.

Rights to a minimal personal space, to security from unwarranted loss of income and from destitute old age were advocated as means to achieving this cultivation of individuality. Such rights were linked to the idea of nature as the sole source of justification, to its developmental character, and to the predication of individuality on the supporting environment.

Evolution was not an unruffled process. It involved the survival and generation of dysfunctional characters and the generation of new characters. The human mind contained residual urges, such as imitation, aggression and risk-taking, which were of little use in modern conditions. These were, however, legitimate human attributes which could not be overlooked: 'if we "baulk" any of one of our main dispositions', Graham Wallas wrote, 'we produce in ourselves a state of nervous strain'.

Being unavoidable human traits, such urges created rights, like the right to leisure as space for play: the state had to accommodate needs instead of rooting them out. Politics was about managing dysfunctional irrationality, or, as Mill had put it, 'merging it into itself'. The assumption that useless expenditure B 'extravagances', in J.A. Hobson's terminology B was a legitimate component of social organisation, militated new liberals against those Hegelian idealists and Spencerian liberals who confronted psychological depth with the demands of virtue and the market. For liberal reformers, Society's role expanded from holding the ring and assuring fair contest, into catering for the complex and ambiguous makeup of the mind, tolerating creative antinomy and avoiding utilitarian closure.


Edwardian progressive liberalism seems, by the turn of the millennium, to be hopelessly archaic. Scholars have become wary of using the languages of biology and the natural for social analysis. The culturally-fragmented late-twentieth century has rejected views based on extrahistorical modular 'man' as ethnocentric and offensively gendered. Simultaneously, the supportive polity that new liberalism had advocated came under attack in the 1980s, when parts of the redistributive framework were folded up. The turn of mind which emphasized providing for social needs was superseded by a mentality which prioritized economic performance. However, while in many respects the progressives' outlook seemed on the decline, their view of mind and nature was not completely absent from the cognitive landscape of the later decades. Growing up from within the public education and health systems generated by reforming liberalism, a cohort of developmental psychologists appeared, who were aligned with progressive liberalism in terms of their outlook on nature, society and personality.

Using varying terminologies and methods, specialists like Cyril Burt, John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott disseminated a view of the individual as conditioned by evolutionary needs, predicated on society, and ambivalently open-ended. Humans are not born rational and differentiated: their primary unit is the nourishing diad, parent and infant, without which the individual cannot survive beyond birth. Only when the individual is secure within this basis may individuality safely emerge, a complex process which unavoidably involves aggression: 'my thesis', Winnicott said, 'is that the destruction plays its part in making the reality'. Revolt may take the form of turning from the objective social world into an internal space where dream and play impinge on reality. The role of the parent is not putting down this rebellion, but 'holding' the multiplex personality of the developing child, thus allowing it to elaborate both its objective, social-oriented faculties, and its subjective, individuating ones. Nurture therefore extends beyond physical survival needs into mental support and secure emotional attachment. Failure to provide it brings about that 'maternal deprivation' which feeds into adult delinquency. Society thus has a stake in allowing the development of individuality, while individuality needs the aid of society to mature.

These specialists were clear that their psychology did not end in the nursery. Providing safe space for emotional exploration and antinomy was the role of the therapist as well as of the parent. Nor, however, did it end in the clinic: it was part of a comprehensive view of society. This view generated the need to survey and measure individuals through state-based educational institutions, to quantify individuality itself so as to let society have the information it needs for fostering it. Hobhouse had formulated individual liberty as growth, charging society with providing the political institutions for enabling it, and almost six decades later Winnicott agreed that 'there is no personal fulfilment without society, and no society apart from the collective growth processes of the individuals'.

This psychology was marketed by its exponents as Freudian. They explained their emphasis on early social influences as derived from psychoanalysis. However, there is little in the writings of the British developmental psychologists to remind one of the Oedipal dynamics, and little of the overall sense of unresolved and endemic discontent Freud's outlook is known for. This is mainly a result of a teleological, purposive assumption that operated at the back of Burt's, Bowlby's and Winnicott's theories. Fundamental attachment, as well as infantile angst and neuroses, were necessary parts of an evolutionary movement that predicated individuality on society and the advance of the species on the autonomous personality. Development could only take place by offsetting the various components against each other, and this was attained within a supporting environment which contained the tension rather than coercing or ignoring it. Where psychoanalysis saw insoluble hostility and conflict, British developmentalists saw necessary phases of evolution. Environmental provision, as well as a space for introspection and privacy, were therefore biologically-determined rights, properties that the individual had to be given for society to exist.


It is an open question whether developmental psychology came upon such notions as one collects the bones of a dinosaur B these ideas being the scattered remains of an older, late-Victorian social and political worldview. It may equally be plausible that its practicians accidentally developed concepts akin to those which had earlier been held by liberal theorists. The claim here was that, regardless of lineage, a similar cluster of arguments about nature and social rights was advocated by J.S. Mill, by early twentieth-century liberals, and by later psychologists. Its substance is a monist naturalism that perceives both society and nature as legitimately tense, ambiguous, and open-ended. It deduces from nature a matching view of personality as developmental and containing contradictory possibilities, of which rational autonomy is one, and charges society with actively providing for the maturation of this personality.