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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 15/September 1879/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 15‎ | September 1879


WE print a translation of Professor Wundt's letter to Ulrici, which has attracted a good deal of attention in Germany, and is quite as applicable here as there. The view taken is one that needs enforcing, and it is satisfactory to find that it completely agrees with what has been repeatedly urged upon the subject in our pages.

We print also a communication from Dr. Child, of Nebraska, complaining of our partisanship in publishing upon only one side of this subject. He asks that we give audience to the spiritualists because it is our habit to accord "a fair hearing to all views, pro or con, on any subject of general scientific interest." But he here overlooks a very important distinction. We give the pros and cons only of subjects that are within the legitimate sphere of science. We give the pros and cons of discussion only where imperfect knowledge leads to diverse views, and where both sides recognize the canons of evidence by which all science has been created. But, though admitting of controversy under this limitation, our journal is devoted to the interests of science, and it can not be denied that we are partisans—partisans of the multiplication-table, partisans of the law of gravity, partisans of science generally. Our magazine was started expressly to represent this side of things, and we have no right to publish the other side—that is, anti-scientific papers; it would be a breach of contract with subscribers.

Our correspondent offers as a reason why we should open our columns to spiritualism, the fact that millions of people are becoming affected by its teachings, while it is spreading with unsuspected rapidity. That is a reason which might be addressed to ambitious politicians, who are always powerfully impressed by numbers, or to sectarian adventurers looking out for recruits; but it can not weigh in the court of science, where there is but one interest, the establishment of scientific truth. To the scientific mind, spiritualism is much the same whatever its magnitude. Science is satisfied to operate on small quantities, so they are fair samples, and for its purposes, one roomful of mediums is as good as a hundred. The believers in the power of ghosts and spirits have always been in the majority, and will no doubt long continue to be so. Does not our correspondent see that this rapid extension of spiritualism links it on to popular ignorance and credulity, and cuts it off from intelligence? Does he not see that he is dealing with the old superstition in a new form, and which spreads by the law of contagion rather than that of reason?

There are two aspects of spiritualism, one of which is entitled to the attention of scientific men and the other is not. When it is investigated by competent authorities, by men qualified for the task, it is proper to publish the results, and this we have done and are still doing. We have given more prominence in the pages of this periodical to psychical' and psychological questions which involve and enwrap the phenomena of spiritualism—have published more papers bearing upon the philosophy of the subject—than any other popular magazine either in this country or abroad.

But there is another aspect of spiritualism which does not deserve the slightest regard from scientific men, and this is exactly the aspect which is most insisted upon by spiritualists. As its problems are usually presented, the man of science can not for a moment entertain them without committing intellectual suicide. Science postulates an inflexible order of nature as the foundation of all its work. It starts from this principle, and assumes it at every step, in every direction. That which makes science possible is the uniformities among the phenomena of the natural world. It is its sole business to trace out these uniformities in time and space, which form the essential fabric of nature's order. The man of science works them out and formulates them as laws. All scientific reasoning, all induction, deduction, generalization, comparison, classification, are based upon the regularity and constancy of natural operations. The first article of a scientific man's faith is that Nature never breaks her regularities, but holds true to an unalterable method of law. He knows that, if he comes upon what appear as breaks or suspensions of this order, it is he who is at fault, and that with further knowledge the apparent derangement will disappear.

Now, the spiritualist comes to him, challenging his first principles. He denies his order of nature as being unalterable, and says that he knows of that which is above nature, that is greater than nature, that interferes with it, and breaches all its vaunted stabilities with infinite ease. To this the man of science must logically reply: "I can not waste time in listening to you. I am limited to nature, you take your stand outside of it, and there is no common ground between us. You come to me denying that which I find demonstrated everywhere. Between your spiritualism and my naturalism there is a fundamental antagonism; your position is radically anti-scientific, and so let us keep clear of each other."

That such is the attitude of the honest spiritualist is undeniable. He approaches the man of science not as an inquirer—he does not know what inquiry is—but he comes with his mind made up, saturated with credulity, and full of tales about what is going on in transcendental spheres, psychic realms, and the supernatural world. Witness the harmonical philosophy of A. J. Davis, based upon intercourse with invisible beings; witness Mr. Kiddle's late book filled with alleged communications from the spirit-world. The whole mass of modern spiritualistic literature is made up of revelations claiming to be supernatural, and to constitute a modern miraculous dispensation. The assumption which underlies all this contradicts the truth which is at the foundation of all science. The believers in astonishing revelations ask for "investigation": their claims have been investigated for five hundred years, and all science is a report against them.

The state of mind here betrayed is simply lamentable; in respect of intelligence, it is not one whit in advance of the veriest superstitions of the middle ages. Spiritualists are men to whom science teaches nothing; they reap its material advantages, but repudiate all its higher lessons. Practically they hold to the unalterable uniformities of nature. They ply the arts of industry, telegraph around the world, trust their lives on the flying train, and in a thousand exposures, practically certain that there will never be a hair's breadth of failure in the adamantine order of natural laws; and then they formulate a belief in ghosts who can kick holes through the rotten contexture of nature anywhere! Such beliefs are pernicious, not only because they are intrinsically false and absurd, but because they are in vicious hostility to science, and are a fatal obstruction to the advance of rational education. That science, as the most perfect form of knowledge, and therefore the true basis of education, has never had even decent consideration in the New York schools, is sufficiently well known; nor is the explanation far to seek, when their head turns out to be a spiritualist, and opens his book of revelations by the virtual announcement that he is miraculously called of God to arrest the course of modern scientific thought! If it be said that this is only the private eccentricity of a single person, the reply is, that we have yet to learn that it is not representative of the power that controls education in this city. The President of the Board of Education is reported to have said, when interviewed with reference to the removal of the Superintendent, "The strong feeling against him in the minds of the Commissioners who are opposed to Mr. Kiddle, arises not so much from any desire to interfere with his private opinions about spiritualism, as practically to show their disapprobation of the vapid trash to which he lends his sanction as communications from the spirits of the departed." From which we are to infer that, if the aforesaid "communications from the spirits of the departed" had been a little less vapid or trashy in their form, the board of officers who have in charge the formation of the minds of the young in this metropolis would have no objection to them. Our objection is not merely or mainly to the worthless character of Mr. Kiddle's book, but that it is an official insult to science; and we say that the mind which could dally with such vagaries is not fit to guide and shape the education of the young. We do not suppose that the New York Board of Education is constituted of men who either know or care much about science, or sound principles of education; but, as a new question is forced upon them which they can not escape, we respectfully commend to their consideration the instructive article of Professor Wundt.



Superintendent Harris, of St. Louis, has put forth an address on the "Method of Study in Social Science." The subject treated is important, and we took up his pamphlet hoping that, as an advanced educational leader, he had addressed himself to it with the practical view of determining the form and place it should take as a popular study in our American school system. We have long felt that it was desirable to have this done. Surely a State system of education, upon which millions are spent under the pretext that popular intelligence is necessary to the maintenance of free government, can not go on for ever ignoring all serious study of the natural laws of society, or the science of social relations. But we were disappointed. Mr. Harris gives us no help of the kind expected. On the contrary, his mode of dealing with the subject would seem to leave us no social science at all. He, however, speaks with an authority that is sure to give weight to his utterances, and it therefore becomes desirable to point out in what respect his views are misleading.

Mr. Harris begins his discourse with an excellent presentation of the method of the science of the present day. He recognizes that its tendency is to pass from the mere sensible properties of objects to their relations by saying: "No object can be understood by itself, and even the weather of to-day is found to be conditioned upon antecedent weather. . . . Science sees the acorn in the entire history of the life of the oak. It sees the oak in the entire history of all its species, in whatever climes they grow. . . . We must trace whatever we see through its antecedent forms, and learn its cycles of birth, growth, and decay. . . . We must learn to see each individual thing in the perspective of its history. . . . as a part of a process. . . . The ordinary habit of mind occupies itself with the objects of the senses, and does not seek their unity; . . . the scientific habit of mind chooses its object, and persistently follows its thread of existence through all its changes and relations."

All this is as true as it is well stated, and Mr. Harris, moreover, agrees that this method is coextensive with nature, and is therefore properly characterized as "natural science." But he knows a place where it does not apply and can not reach; a place so far set off from nature that it requires a new method of study, and gives rise to a new kind of science different from the common kind; and this, strange to say, is social science. He says: "Social science deals with man. Man has a natural being as a mere animal, as well as a spiritual being of intellect and will. . . . Man is not only an animal, having bodily wants of food, clothing, and shelter, but he is a spiritual being, existing in opposition to nature. . . . Man as a child or a savage is an incarnate contradiction; his real being is the opposite of his ideal being. His actual condition does not conform to his true nature. His true human nature is reason; his actual condition is irrational, for it is constrained from without, chained by brute necessity, and lashed by the scourges of appetite and passion. There is thus a paradoxical contrast between nature and human nature. . . . As man ascends out of nature in time and space into human nature, he ascends into a realm of his own creation. . . . The natural self must be abdicated in order that the personal self may be realized."

This theory of human nature is not new, but Mr. Harris certainly proposes to make a new use of it. For thousands of years it has been customary to divide man into two natures: a low, gross, corrupt, perishable, animal nature to be reprobated and renounced; and a high, pure, exalted, immortal nature, chained to the brutal part, and at war with it through all the course of our earthly life. This view has long been useful to theologians and moralists, but Mr. Harris is the first to reconstruct modern science on this basis. He would hand over the bestial, vulgar, and vilified part of humanity to "natural science"; and he would erect the upper and nobler portion into a new kind of science by a new method; and, as it is the more exalted portion of man which he "realizes in institutions," the new method becomes that of social science.

Yet, with reference to science, lower and higher are all one, and man is a unity. His higher nature is phenomenal, and in its constitution, mode of acting, as well as in its productions, it is not chaotic, but orderly, and is thus open to investigation like all the other parts of nature. That there is a profound difference between the corporeal and the psychical parts of man involves no such consequences as are here assumed. However deep may be the diversities among the objects of study in nature, the method of science in dealing with them is the same; because science, being the most valid knowing, depends upon the laws of knowing, and not upon the differences among the objects investigated. A hundred years ago it was objected that the legitimate methods of science can not be applied to the study of living things. Science had been created by investigations in the inorganic sphere, and true science was held to be limited to that sphere. When the inquirer left his gases, ores, and metals, to cross the boundary and begin a search into the nature of things that live, he was told that life is a mysterious realm where vitality suspends inorganic laws, and holds sway above nature and in opposition to it. Yet the province was long since conquered, and annexed to the domain of "natural science." The question in any case is simply this: Are we dealing with phenomena that may be observed, compared, analyzed, generalized, and reduced to a body of principles?

Mr. Harris discredits the method of natural science in its application to society, as follows: "From the fact that all merely natural beings—whether mineral, plant, or animal—never rise to the form of self-knowing and self-realizing, it follows that the application of scientific method to the explanation of human institutions in the ordinary form is not valid. In nature we explain the present by the past. If we attempt to explain the institutions of the family, society, and the state, by the rudimentary forms found in the childhood of the race, or, still worse, by the habits of the higher animals as the ape tribe, for example—we shall invert the true method for social science. Since all of man's institutions arise as forms of combination, which he has made in order to realize an ideal, it follows that the first ones, historically, are so rudimentary as scarcely to indicate their object, while the later and latest ones contain the explanation of themselves and of their predecessors."

We gather from this that Mr. Harris's "Method of Study in Social Science" is to ignore the historical aspect of the subject, and begin with the study of the most complex institutions. Then why not adopt the same method in the study of other subjects? Fancy him addressing a mathematical teacher as follows: "Since the advanced rules of arithmetic arise as forms of combination, which the mathematician has made in order to realize an ideal, it follows that the first rules are so rudimentary as scarcely to indicate their object, while the later and latest contain the explanation of themselves and of their predecessors; therefore, begin your class and keep it occupied with problems in the last portions of the text-book." On the contrary, it is the law of method in all study to proceed from the simple to the complex, from the lower to the higher, and to explain the more developed by the less developed. Mr. Harris's "method" would put an end to all embryological study; for, if society is not to be studied historically because its first forms "are so rudimentary as scarcely to indicate their object," is not that equally true of all rudimentary forms? His method is false everywhere. Adult institutions, like adult animals, can only be explained by beginning with their germs and tracing the course of organization.

But Mr. Harris does not leave us to infer the character of his new social science; he gives the formula of its method in explicit terms, as follows: "For the study of society, then, one must seek his principle of explanation not in the child or the savage, but in the ideals of the prophets of humanity. We are to understand Greek life through a study of Homer and Plato; the middle ages through Dante and Thomas Aquinas; modern times through Shakespeare and Goethe."

So we are to omit the child and the savage in the study of society; and Mr. Harris adds, "Above all, we must not make the mistake of studying man as a simple individual." But what will then be left to study? We have always supposed that society was made up of children, savages, and individuals, and that according to the natures and attributes of these units would be the character of the societies formed of them. But this it seems is a case in which the properties of a whole are not dependent upon the properties of its parts. Verily it would be an extraordinary "social science" that should arise by omitting the study of man as an individual, and interpreting society by the ideals of its literary prophets.