Invisible and Dark Factors of My Early Mental Life

From: "Sociology of My Mental Life", in: Allen, P.J., ed. Pitirim A. Sorokin in Review. The American Sociological Forum. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1963. Xxii; pp.4-36

Invisible and Dark Factors

1917. Members of the Russian State Duma (photo by Mr.Bulla)

The preceding pages outline the visible factors that shaped my early mental life (up to about the age of fourteen years). These factors consist mainly in the character of the mental life of the people-individuals and groups-among whom I lived and with whom I interacted face to face. An additional factor was the character of the mental currents (beliefs, knowledge, standards, and values) with which I came in contact indirectly-through books read, pictures seen, music heard, and through other means of communication. These two factors, plus the geographic conditions of my early years, seem to account for a large portion of my early mental equipment but hardly for the whole of it.

They hardly account, for instance, for my becoming a voracious reader and developing an insatiable curiosity to know many things, while 99 per cent of the boys of this region (especially my elder brother) who lived under similar conditions and breathed the same atmosphere of the mental life of the people, did not develop these tendencies. And why did these boys and both of my brothers absorb from the total mental culture of these communities ideas, values, and forms of conduct essentially different from those absorbed by me? What were the reasons for these differences? And why was I the brightest pupil in all the schools attended at that period of my life? And why, at the age of fourteen, was my mental equipment probably richer and my mental perspective wider than those of boys of the region? And why, in the advanced grade school, did I become a leader a few times in "overthrowing the tyranny" of the profoundly disliked school's housekeeper and cook (by emptying a pail of water on her) and by this "revolutionary" action bring into the open her misdeeds and take upon myself the punishment for this "outrageous" conduct (unanimously approved by the pupils and tacitly approved by the teachers), and in several other non-scholastic actions? And why, when my views were different from those of nearly all the pupils, did I not hesitate to oppose them, despite my loss of popularity with them? (This sort of "bullheadedness" on my part I began to show fairly early.) These and other questions occur to me now. These differences from the boys of the same communities and from my brothers can hardly be explained by the mental environment because it was about the same for me, for my brothers, and for the other boys. If anything, the rank and file of the other boys had a better family, and better economic and other social conditions than my own. (My mother died when I was about three years old; my father-a very good man when sober-became a chronic alcoholic as I earlier indicated and, in his search for a job, was often away from "home," though frequently there was no "home" in a good sense of the word.)

 Most of the scholars would probably try to explain these differences by the factor of heredity. But such an explanation would only replace the unknown X by the no-better-known Y. First, so far as I know my genealogy (which does not go, however, beyond knowledge of my father, mother, brothers, aunts, uncles, and grandmother), my relatives, parents, and grandparents did not distinguish themselves by any particular achievement, except, perhaps, my illiterate uncle. Knowing nothing about human anatomy, he nevertheless successfully treated dislocated joints. By a simple manipulation of such dislocated joints he performed this operation in a shorter, simpler, and better way than the local medical personnel. He never charged any of his patients for this service and he never boasted of his "God-given" ability. However, being an uncle through his marriage to a sister of my mother, he was not one of my ancestors. Second, today's biology has not learned, as yet, what kind of germ cells nor which of their chromosomes are bearers of a "fortunate" or "unfortunate" heredity, nor with what kind of heredity this or that individual is endowed. For this reason in most of the "hereditary" interpretations of personality characteristics the "hereditarians" do not deduce or predict these characteristics from their knowledge of the specific traits of the paternal germ cell of the individual, but postulate the quality of his unknown hereditary endowment from the known characteristics of the individual. If the individual has distinguished himself by a notable creative achievement, they conclude that he had a fortunate heredity; if he has not distinguished himself in any way, his heredity is assumed to have been average or poor. Obviously, such a conjecture is purely speculative and unproven. It is in no way better than a hypothesis of a "creative grace" or "uncreative curse" visited upon the person, or his "good or bad luck," or "favorable or unfavorable chance." It is possible that each of these factors plays some role in determining the life course or mental equipment of the individual; but at our present poor knowledge of their role, they remain a purely residual guess. They can be left at this point of this essay.