Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/December 1872/Editor's Table



THAT man, as an individual, exemplifies the action of law in the various parts of his nature, and is hence the subject of science, everybody now understands: but that men collectively, or in social relations, are governed by natural laws which are capable of scientific investigation, is only beginning to be seen and admitted. If there are natural laws which determine the social state, it is certainly of the highest importance that they should be known. Legislation, philanthropy, and all projects of social amelioration and reform, must be but futile and quackish expedients, so long as men are ignorant of the natural forces, and orderly method, by which human society has been originated and is regulated. Social phenomena have their laws like all other phenomena, and it is the sole business of science to elucidate and declare them. Science has no schemes to propose, no reforms to carry out. Whether society is bad or good, rude or cultivated, getting better or getting worse, developing or perishing, it is all the same: science simply takes note of the facts, and draws from them the general principles to which social changes conform, and the systematic statement of which constitutes true social science.

It is from this point of view that the subject has been approached by Herbert Spencer, who is now acknowledged to be the foremost living expositor of pure scientific sociology. Some confusion has arisen in the public mind in regard to the various works bearing upon this subject which he has undertaken, and for the benefit of those interested we propose to explain his method of dealing with it, as this may prove instructive in relation to the character of the inquiry itself.

Mr. Spencer was attracted to social studies in his youth. His first publication was a pamphlet on the proper sphere and functions of political government, and his first book was a treatise on society, known as "Social Statics." It was a work of great originality and power of statement, and its fundamental idea was that of his present philosophical system, the idea of evolution; but it was only imperfectly worked out, and the effect upon Mr. Spencer's mind of preparing the volume was to convince him that the whole question of the natural laws of society would have to be taken up in a more thorough and comprehensive way, before the requirements of science could be satisfied. As society is made up of men, its deepest laws must be derived from the natures of men. The first thing to be done, therefore, was to inquire what there is in the constitution of human nature which must be known, before social effects can be understood. Man's nature is twofold, vital and psychical; and all social phenomena are phenomena of life and thought, which determine human actions. The laws of life give rise to the science of Biology; the laws of thought and feeling, which depend upon life, give rise to the science of Psychology; and a knowledge of these subjects forms the indispensable basis of Sociology. So clear and close is this dependence, and so comprehensive and complex the investigation, that Mr. Spencer soon saw he must give his life to it, if it was to be adequately done. He accordingly laid out his plan of work in 1859, and commenced its execution in 1860, allowing twenty years for its completion. His first volume was preliminary, and contained an exposition of his method, under the title of "First Principles." Then followed two volumes of the "Principles of Biology," which was succeeded by two volumes of the "Principles of Psychology." This work is just finished, and takes him half through his undertaking. He has now before him the subject of Sociology, which he proposes to treat in three volumes of the "Principles of Sociology," to be commenced this winter. His Philosophical Series will be completed by two additional volumes of the "Principles of Morality," as deduced from the whole system of facts and principles established in the preceding works.

At this stage of his enterprise, Mr. Spencer encounters certain difficulties which have to be met by what we may call side-undertakings—works which have an important bearing upon the subject of Sociology, but are not properly parts of his philosophical system. The articles that are appearing in The Popular Science Monthly, and which, when completed, will form a volume of the International Scientific Series, are designed to explain the nature, scope, and claims of Social Science. Such are the general doubt and misapprehension regarding this subject, that Mr. Spencer was induced to pause for a little at this stage of his labors, and present some considerations of the method and subject-matter of Sociology which are greatly needed by the public, and which do not properly fall within the course of his regular exposition. It is important to make this explanation, as the papers we have published have been supposed, by some, to be a part of his long-expected "Principles of Sociology."

Another of the difficulties of his undertaking was foreseen by Mr. Spencer several years ago, and has led to a separate work, which, though indispensable to the main plan, is nevertheless of independent value, and of great public importance. As the scientific character of his philosophy is fundamentally inductive, the first work in each department is the collection of data on which inductions are to rest. The data of Biology are accessible in treatises on Natural History, where they can be obtained in a digested and authentic form, while any defects may be supplied by special investigations. The data of Psychology are also available in scientific works upon that subject, and the conditions for extending and verifying them can be commanded anywhere. But, as respects its data, Sociology is very different from these sciences. Dealing with the phenomena manifested by diverse races and communities of men; dealing with the development of society, which is a problem of history; dealing with those facts of the social state which illustrate its natural laws; and dealing, moreover, by a scientific method, with a great subject which has hitherto been regarded as not amenable to that method, the difficulty of gathering the indispensable and pertinent facts for such an inquiry was formidable. History has occupied itself with quite other things than the record of such facts. Travellers fill their pages with chaffy gossip and egotistical narrative, and give but little attention to the social facts which it is most desirable-to know. Their observations are careless, and their statements loose and often untrustworthy. Nobody has taken pains to collect and sift from the vast mass of historical rubbish and the bulky litter of travellers the few and scattered statements which throw-light upon the laws of social life. Before there can be a science of Sociology presenting the generalizations of sociaL phenomena, there must first be an accumulation and a classification of its-data. What these are it is important to understand, and, in a remarkable passage of a review article published by Mr. Spencer in 1859[1] he thus states them:

That which constitutes History, properly so called, is in great part omitted from works on the subject. Only of late years have historians commenced giving us, in any considerable quantity, the truly valuable information. As in past ages the king was every thing and the people nothing, so, in past histories, the doings of the king fill the entire picture, to which the national life forms but an obscure background. While only now, when the welfare of nations rather than of rulers is becoming the dominant idea, are historians beginning to occupy themselves with the phenomena of social progress. The thing it really concerns us to know is, the natural history of society. We want all facts which help us to understand how a nation has grown and organized itself. Among these, let us of course have an account of its government; with as little as may be of gossip about the men who officered it, and as much as possible about the structure, principles, methods, prejudices, corruptions, etc., which it exhibited: and let this account include not only the nature and actions of the central government, but also those of local governments, down to their minutest ramifications. Let us of course also have a parallel description of the ecclesiastical government—its organization, its conduct, its power, its relations to the State; and, accompanying this, the ceremonial, creed, and religious ideas—not only those nominally believed, but those really believed and acted upon. Let us at the same time be informed of the control exercised by class over class, as displayed in social observances—in titles, salutations, and forms of address. Let us know, too, what were all the other customs which regulated the popular life out-of-doors and in-doors, including those concerning the relations of the sexes, and the relations of parents to children. The superstitions, also, from the more important myths down to the charms in common use, should be indicated. Next should come a delineation of the industrial system: showing to what extent the division of labor was carried; bow trades were regulated, whether by caste, guilds, or otherwise; what was the connection between employers and employed; what were the agencies for distributing commodities; what were the means of communication; what was the circulating medium. Accompanying all which should be given an account of the industrial arts technically considered: stating the processes in use, and the quality of the products. Further, the intellectual condition of the nation in its various grades should be depicted; not only with respect to the kind and amount of education, but with respect to the progress made in science, and the prevailing manner of thinking. The degree of æsthetic culture, as displayed in architecture, sculpture, punting, dress, music, poetry, and fiction, should be described. Nor should there be omitted a sketch of the daily lives of the people—their food, their homes, and their amusements. And, lastly, to connect the whole, should be exhibited the morals, theoretical and practical, of all classes, as indicated in their laws, habits, proverbs, deeds. These facts, given with as muck brevity as consists with clearness and accuracy, should be so grouped and arranged that they may be comprehended in their ensemble, and contemplated as mutually dependent parts of one great whole. The aim should be so to present them that men may readily trace the consensus subsisting among them, with the view of learning what social phenomena coexist with what others. And then the corresponding delineations of succeeding ages should be so managed as to show how each belief, institution, custom, and arrangement, was modified, and how the consensus of preceding structures and functions was developed into the consensus of succeeding ones. Such alone is the kind of information, respecting past times, which can be of service to the citizen for the regulation of his conduct. The only history that is of practical value is, what may be called Descriptive Sociology. And the highest office which the historian can discharge is that of so narrating the lives of nations as to furnish materials for a Comparative Sociology, and for the subsequent determination of the ultimate laws to which social phenomena conform.

In this statement of the missing elements of history, Mr. Spencer has outlined just that body of facts which are indispensable as the foundation of a valid social philosophy; and he foresaw that, before any such philosophy can be constructed, these facts must be systematically and exhaustively supplied. The labor of their careful collection could not fail to be enormous, and its expense, together with their publication, heavy; yet it was essential to the completeness of his system and of immense importance to the progress of knowledge, and Mr. Spencer did not for a moment hesitate to undertake it. He first devised a system of tables suited to present the whole scheme of social facts, displayed by any community, in such a manner that these facts can be compared with each other at a glance, while the social elements of different communities can also be brought into comparison with the greatest facility. These Sociological Tables are marvels of analytic skill, simplicity, and comprehensiveness; and the command they give over the results of investigation is commensurate with the greatness of the subject to which they apply.

Having fixed upon a method of presentation, Mr. Spencer divided the communities of mankind into three great groups: the existing savage races of Asia, Africa, and America; the existing civilized races of Western Europe; and the extinct civilizations of Egypt, Palestine, Greece, Rome, and Peru. Five years ago he engaged an able scholar—a graduate of the University of Edinburgh—to devote himself to the study of the savage races, and gather from all the most reliable sources the facts relating to their social state. The Tables are then gradually filled in, and each one becomes a summary, we might almost say a map, of the social condition of the community to which it is devoted. The first volume of the Sociological Tables will embrace descriptions of some seventy or eighty of the principal savage tribes, and will be accompanied by an octavo volume of extracts from the authorities consulted, and on which the summary of the Tables rests. This portion of the undertaking is now nearly completed. Another able scholar—also an Edinburgh graduate—has been for some years engaged upon the existing civilizations, the results of which will be published in a second volume of Tables and the second accompanying volume of authorities, and this work is also well advanced. A German historical student has also taken up the extinct civilizations, and will prepare the third volume upon this division of the subject. We shall thus have the full realization of what Mr. Spencer pointed out many years ago, in the above-quoted extract, as a great desideratum, and which will create the new and important science of Descriptive Sociology. It is hardly necessary to say that such a work will stand upon its own merits, and have a general usefulness that will no way depend upon Mr. Spencer's philosophical doctrines.


Mr. Editor.—In one of the late numbers of your periodical, I observe that you say, in casually alluding to my Chicago Address, that I treat the doctrine which classes mental and physical forces in the same category as being "heretical." There is but one sense in which the word "heretical" can be properly understood, or even understood at all—and that is, the sense of opposition to the prevailing religious belief. Understanding the word in this sense, there can be no difference of opinion what-ever, among any of the parties to this discussion, as to the "heresy" involved in the doctrine in question. The doctrine is as much heretical in your view, and in Mr. Herbert Spencer's, as it is in mine.

But, the inference which the reader is left necessarily to draw from your remark is, that I attempted to controvert the doctrine, on the ground that it is heretical—a thing which I did not do at all. I did not even, if I remember aright, take the trouble to remark that the doctrine is an heretical doctrine, that being a thing so obvious that it may be allowed to "go without saying." My actual argument was that, in assuming the equivalency and convertibility of mental and physical forces, we are unavoidably led to conclusions which contradict (not religious dogmas, of which I said not a word, but) well-established principles of Physics themselves.

Your reference to my Address was so casual and slight, that it may hardly seem sufficient to justify this seriousness of remonstrance, but, slight as it was, it placed me wholly wrong before the readers of the Monthly, the greater number of whom have probably not seen my Address.

I am, very respectfully,
F.A.P. Barnard.
Columbia College, October 9, 1872.

  1. "What Knowledge is most worth" (Westminster Review).