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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Chauncey Wright   29 August 1872

Tavistock Hotel, Covent Garden | London

Aug. 29, 1872

My dear Sir,

I hope to have the pleasure of calling on you within a few days and before leaving London for the continent.1 I have after a long but rapid journey with a party of American friends through Ireland and the North, been resting here for several weeks, or rather trying the anti-tourist plan of making acquaintance with London and its neighborhood; that is, taking time instead of doing it by rapid journeys. This seemed like idling at first, but now I am satisfied with the plan; since it takes time to see anything well, and especially so great a thing as London.

I was much struck by the suggesti⁠⟨⁠ve⁠⟩⁠ view you give in your last letter of the limits or definition of the effects that can properly be ascribed to “man’s agency⁠⟨⁠” (⁠⟩⁠or to the agency of free or intelligent wills, as the metaphysical moralists would name it)—namely, that intended consequences only are properly attributable to this cause.2 This seems to me to simplify matters very much, and to be the common-sense view of the subject; and to be decisive with reference to the question of the origin of a language in any way essentially different, as Prof. Whitney holds, from the origin of other customs or powers or structures in men or in other living beings.3

A practical way of testing the matter would be to ask who are responsible or feel themselves to be responsible for the existence of any language; or who are to be personally credited with the invention or for any changes or improvements of a language?—(excepting, of course, the inventions and improvements of scientific nomenclatures and those schemes of philosophical language which have been proposed; but even in these credit is due for the proposition rather than the adoption or the actual existence and use among men of a form of speech.) The test of responsibility is all the more pertinent, since it ⁠⟨⁠i⁠⟩⁠s agreed on all hands that responsibility or the feeling of it is the evidence or at least the mark of so-called free, personal agency. There is however one apparently serious objection to this test as a substitute for your view. We are held by moralists, (not the metaphysical ones only,) to be responsible for more than we intend. Therefore personal agency extends beyond the intended consequences. We are responsible for consequences with which the non-existence of intentions can be charged, as well as for those which are intended. This happens when the existence of intentions which ought to have been ours would have altered the result. This objection together with the mystical doctrine of theologians regarding the nature of the moral sense gives rise, I am convinced to that view of free or intelligent human agency which represents it as a line of cause and effect arising in an absolute beginning, thus introducing a condition or an element of causation peculiar and non-natural into whatever effects may be dependent on it; and thus making these effects distinct from those that are strictly natural or due to unbroken lines o⁠⟨⁠f⁠⟩⁠ physical causation. I believe that ⁠⟨⁠this⁠⟩⁠ view is purely fanciful, or at best po⁠⟨⁠etical;⁠⟩⁠ but that it is implicitly contained in, or lies at the bottom of such objections as Prof. Whitney’s to inquiries and positions, which are really dealing only with strictly scientific or physical problems and are not concerned with the truth or falsity of the mystic’s view of causation either in human or non-human agency. But to make this perfectly clear it is necessary to consider what is strictly true in the statements, that our responsibility extends beyond our intentions; that unintended consequences are therefore ours, and hence that our free agency concerns the beginnings rather than the ends of our actions. These statements which are taken by the metaphysical moralist as absolute premises, simpliciter, are properly in need of qualification or explanation, secundum quid.4 They are concerned with the philosophy of moral or personal discipline, the question for what men as moral agents are rationally condemned or approved, pun⁠⟨⁠is⁠⟩⁠hed or rewarded. Obviously it is for ⁠⟨⁠ma⁠⟩⁠ny consequence⁠⟨⁠s⁠⟩⁠ of their actions which they ⁠⟨⁠may⁠⟩⁠ not have contemplated or intended, pro⁠⟨⁠vid⁠⟩⁠ed discipline tends effectively to bring such consequences, whenever important, under the purview of foreseeing and intelligent agency; that is, whenever intention ought to have been present and efficacious, or can be made so by the requisite discipline. But here obviously the responsibility is a different thing from that sense of accountability that is appealed to as evidence of an absolute personal freedom, since responsibility is not really felt with reference to unforeseen consequences; or is not felt directly and specifically, but only through the obligation we feel to be better informed, more careful, or to submit ourselves to the guidance and hence to the correction of the better instructed, and to the ultimate authority on what is right or wrong. Hence the sphere of human freedom and responsibility, though extending beyond what is actually foreseen as the consequences of our actions is still within the limit of what might and ought to be known as the consequences of our actions; that is, either specifically foreseen, or implicitly contained in a moral principle, instinct, precept or commandment. In other words this sphere is limited to the objects and means of moral discipline. Its ex⁠⟨⁠te⁠⟩⁠nsion beyond the range of actually foreseen consequences has, therefore, nothing to do with strictly scientific or theoretical inquiries concerning that in which neither the foreseeing nor the obedient mind is an agent or factor; but of which the intellect is rather the recorder or mere accountant. If the question concerning the origin of languages were how men might or should be made better inventors, or apter followers of the best inventions, instead of being how these inventions have actually arisen and been adopted, there might be some pertinency in insisting on the peculiar character of the choice to which changes in language are due. Moreover an invention becomes or amounts to a change of language only when adopted by several speakers, or when it is more or less generally agreed to. It is this adoption with which selection is concerned. The inventions, which are, or may be, acts of individual or personal agents only, correspond to the variations in structures and habits from which selection is made in nature generally; and they survive and become customs of speech because they are liked by many speakers. They are thus, as you say, analogous to the variations in domestic animals and plants that are unintentionally converted by savages or semi-civilized peoples into permanent race differences. Their adoption by the many speakers who fancy them, or choose them for any definite reasons, such as the authority of an influential speaker or writer; ease in pronouncing them; distinctness from other words, already appropriated to other meanings; their anologies in sound and sense with other words, and similar reasons;—this adoption seems to me to correspond very closely to what you call “unconscious selection”.5

It appears to me probable that Prof. Whitney had in mind in denying that this is a case of “natural selection”, the narrower meaning of the word “natural” as distinguished not only from systematic, intended or artificial selection, but also from personal agency altogether; or was speaking from that view of natural phenomena, which “binding nature fast in fate, leaves free the human will”.6 This was the idea of his objection which I expressed rather obscurely in a foot-note in my review of Mr. Wallace’s book nearly two years ago.7

I imagine that he was also actuated in giving emphasis to the contrast of “nature” and “man” by his opposition to theories of an original natural language, and especially to Prof. Max Müller’s theory of roots, “the ding-dong theory”,8 or the idea that invention in speech is governed by certain linguistic instincts, different for different races or groups of races, which affix general meanings a priori to certain sounds; and that his object was to insist on the arbitrary character of all the elements of speech, the roots of etymology as well as their developments.9 But perhaps I do him injustice by this supposition. Certainly if he had clearly understood the theory of natural selection he would have seen that the theory as it stands more nearly accords with the linguistic views which he favors than with those of Prof. Müller. But the theory as it stands is not, it seems to me, inconsistent even with Müller’s views, since it ascribes nothing and denies nothing to variations as a direct cause of changes in species or structures or habits or customs. It only attributes to them opportunities or the conditions for choice; and does not deny to them other forms of agency.10 Whether linguistic instincts, responsive to certain root vocables, govern the inventions, or rather the adoption of inventions in any definable or general way, and independently of accidental associations, or do not; it is certain that these inventions have such a range as to afford the conditions for a kind of choice that accounts for the diversities and continuous changes in languages derived from a common origin; and for this kind of choice it is obvious that men are neither individually nor jointly responsible in any proper meaning of the term. Whether in such choice they are bound fast in fate, or not, is a metaphysical question; but unless we distinguish man’s proper agency from other causes in the way which you propose we must fall into the greatest confusion with respect to other matters besides the origin of languages. Thus man is a geological agent. He affects and alters unintentionally the physical forces and conditions of the globe. He changes climates even, and their consequences, by actions designed for other effects. Could there be any sense or true philosophy in attempting to establish in physical geology a clear line of distinction between such agency and that of ⁠⟨⁠o⁠⟩⁠ther forms of living creatures like the coral animals, or that even of lifeless physical causes;—in distinguishing between quarrying, for example, and the agency of frosts and storms, or between the transfer of materials in ships and carts under the direction of seamen and carters and the transporting agency of other animals and of winds and water currents? These distinctions would be of the smallest importance in geology though they might be essential from a moral or legislative point of view.

But I have written what reads more like an essay than the letter I intended, though I suppose I ought to be held responsible for its unintended length.11 It will appear shorter, however, if we regard it as a brief of the case you have given me to work up; and a more reasonable letter in view of the advantage writing has over talk in continuous or consecutive discussion.

Hoping to see you soon I am | Very sincerely yours | Chauncey Wright


Wright visited Down on 4 September 1872 (Emma Darwin’s diary (DAR 242)).
See letter to Chauncey Wright, 3 June [1872] and n 4. William Dwight Whitney had criticised the view that languages were natural organisms that developed according to fixed laws independent of human agency (Whitney 1871, pp. 37, 47–8).
Secundum quid (Latin): ‘according to something’, or in a particular respect, as opposed to simpliciter: simply, unconditionally (OED).
CD had suggested that changes in language were analogous to the modifications produced in organic structures through ‘unconscious selection’ (see letter to Chauncey Wright, 3 June [1872] and n. 5).
The passage is from Alexander Pope’s ‘Universal prayer’: ‘And binding Nature fast in Fate, Left free the Human Will’ (Pope 1751, 3: 156).
Wright had reviewed Alfred Russel Wallace’s Contributions to the theory of natural selection (Wallace 1870) in the North American Review (Wright 1870). In the note, Wright addressed the objection that ‘Natural Selection does not apply to the origin of languages, because language is an invention, and the work of human will’ (Wright 1870, pp. 293–4). CD’s annotated copy of Wright 1870 is in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
Friedrich Max Müller had promoted a theory that language originated in monosyllabic ‘roots’. He also proposed that the earliest words derived from a percussive response of the human brain to objects in the external environment; this was referred to by Müller’s critics as the ‘ding-dong’ theory of language. On Whitney’s disagreements with Müller on these points of language theory, see Alter 2005, pp. 85–90, and Radick 2007, pp. 43–9.
Whitney opposed attempts to link language and racial theory, especially the view that racial characteristics determined language use (see Alter 2005, pp. 147–50).
The role of human agency, intention, and will in Whitney’s theory of language is discussed in Alter 2005, pp. 202–6.
Wright later published his views on language in relation to human agency in his article ‘On the evolution of self-consciousness’ (Wright 1873).


Alter, Stephen G. 2005. William Dwight Whitney and the science of language. Baltimore, Md., and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

OED: The Oxford English dictionary. Being a corrected re-issue with an introduction, supplement and bibliography of a new English dictionary. Edited by James A. H. Murray, et al. 12 vols. and supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1970. A supplement to the Oxford English dictionary. 4 vols. Edited by R. W. Burchfield. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1972–86. The Oxford English dictionary. 2d edition. 20 vols. Prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1989. Oxford English dictionary additional series. 3 vols. Edited by John Simpson et al. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1993–7.

Pope, Alexander. 1751. The works of Alexander Pope Esq. 9 vols. London: J. and P. Knapton, H. Lintot, J. and R. Tonson, and S. Draper.

Whitney, William Dwight. 1871. Strictures on the views of August Schleicher respecting the nature of language and kindred subjects. Transactions of the American Philological Association 2: 35–64.

Wright, Chauncey. 1870. [Review of Contributions to the theory of natural selection, by Alfred Russel Wallace, 1870.] North American Review 111: 282–311.

Wright, Chauncey. 1873. The evolution of self-consciousness. North American Review 116: 245–310.


Discusses ideas on the development of language; agrees with CD that it is a process governed by unconscious selection; he considers it analogous to unconscious selection of domestic animals by savages. Remarks on the differing views of Max Müller and W. D. Whitney regarding the origin of language and its development. Comments on the extent to which unintentional effects can be ascribed directly to the agency of free intelligent wills.

Letter details

Letter no.
Chauncey Wright
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
London, Covent Garden
Source of text
DAR 181: 169
Physical description
ALS 10pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8493,” accessed on 23 April 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 20