Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 21.djvu/419

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

common and peculiar to many and diverse communities.

The enterprise was, moreover, wholly new, nothing having been previously done toward gathering the multitudinous data necessary for studying what may be called the natural history of human societies. It was also desirable that the work should at first be so effectually done that it could be made popularly available; and, in securing this object, the magnitude of the effort expended upon it by the editor and the compilers simply represented so much labor saved by the student of social questions. Its preparation was not only an elaborate process of condensation and simplification, but it involved a selection of valuable data to be of permanent use in subsequent social inductions and constructions. An incalculable amount of material had to be overhauled to find the pertinent facts. It was a winnowing of the bulky chaff of history to separate its wheat. Science applied to history gives us first of all a revaluation of its materials. The great mass of it must be left out as comparatively worthless. As Professor J. R. Seeley well remarks: "History is now a department of serious scientific investigation. The study history now in the hope of giving more precision, definiteness, and solidity to the principles of political science." And it may be added that we are beginning to study history with a view of obtaining clearer, truer, and broader ideas of the constitution and development of human society.

It is unnecessary here to expatiate on the value of Spencer's method in this undertaking, or the thoroughness of its execution. The original plan, though not technically completed, has been carried out on a comprehensive scale. Three great groups of human communities have been treated, viz.: 1. Savage and Uncivilized Societies; 2. Civilized Societies, Extinct or Decayed; and, 3. Civilized Societies, Historic and still Flourishing. Of these groups, representing communities of every type and grade, past and present, stationary and progressive, the social constitution and history of seventy-two distinct communities are systematically described.

This is done in eight large folio parts or separate treatises, in which the facts are first brought into relation by tabular arrangements, and then the authorities for all the statements are given in an appended form as extracts from the works consulted. The simplification is remarkable; and the command given over the immense details of the whole subject is something quite incredible to those unacquainted with the work.

We are therefore justified in saying that Spencer's "Descriptive Sociology" is nothing less than a cyclopædia of social data, inexhaustible in its wealth of instructive facts, lucid in method, elaborately fortified in its authorities, free from all hypothesis, and furnishing in a very accessible form the kind of knowledge most demanded by the modern student of social affairs.

It would seem that such a work ought to have been welcomed and liberally sustained by a public-spirited age. But it has been commercially a disastrous failure. The obvious reason is, that there is but very little appreciation of the need of such a work. Neither our so-called "Schools of Political Science" nor our so-called "Associations for the Promotion of Social Science" seem to have any idea of what science means in relation to social phenomena. The solitary cultivators of the science are without backing by any parties, societies, or schools, and are left to their unaided exertions. Mr. Spencer could find no publisher to take the pecuniary risk of his enterprise, and so he printed his costly cyclopædia at his own expense. He contributed his talent and his time, paid his assistants and his printer's bills, but he made a work that was not wanted and would not sell, and