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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/April 1884/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 24‎ | April 1884



THERE is obviously a decline in the influence of malign criticism in recent times. Even the savage "quarterly reviewer" has lost many of the terrors with which he used to be invested. An excellent example of this is afforded by the history of Spencer's "Synthetic Philosophy." It has been tempting game for the critical sports, and they have pursued it unweariedly. It had but few friends and multitudes of enemies. A new departure in philosophy, it incurred the hostility of the devotees of all old philosophies. Dealing with the larger aspects of science, it kindled the jealousy of narrow-minded scientific specialists. Antagonizing established political opinion and cherished religious beliefs, it provoked the wrath of all who rest contented in tradition. Appearing in successive parts and volumes for twenty-five years, it was constantly before the public, and has been all that time subject to a degree of abuse, ridicule, and detraction, which is quite without parallel in the past history of such enterprises.

And yet during all that time Spencer's system of thought has increased in recognition, appreciation, and power over the mind of the age. Its doctrines permeate our serious literature, as is widely shown by the periodicals; many books are written for and against them; and their author stands to-day the representative man of the most influential and growing school of thought in modern times. This view is further verified by the increasing public demand for his works, more of the solid volumes of the "Synthetic Philosophy" having been called for during the last twelvemonth than in any former year. The inexorable critical resistance Spencer's works have met with has no doubt hindered their spread, but it has failed to arrest them, and has only served to test and demonstrate the inherent strength of his systematic work.

And now the sluggish old "Edinburgh Review" has at last awakened, girded itself up, and entered the lists against Mr. Spencer. The current number contains an article entitled "The Spencerian Philosophy," to which we here call attention, not because it has the slightest value as a contribution to the subject, but because we may gather from it an instructive lesson regarding the decline of the influence of vindictive criticism. It happens that the "Edinburgh Review" has a history in this matter. This is not the first time it has practiced its bludgeon upon the representatives of advancing knowledge. Let us, therefore, first notice its early record in relation to one of the most important steps in the progress of modern science—the establishment of "the undulatory theory of light" by Dr. Thomas Young. We give the "Review" full credit for consistency in an unprincipled course; the instinctive meanness of its infancy, long since execrated by the world, is not in the least abated in its senile dotage.

The "Novum Organon Renovatum" of Dr. William Whewell is an able work devoted to the philosophy of the inductive sciences, of which the same author is also the eminent historian. Dr. Whewell has selected the two most conspicuous examples of comprehensive and valid induction afforded by physical science, and by means of charts he has illustrated in a very striking way the extent of the observed and experimental facts, and the minor inductions, that are brought into unity by all-embracing theories. The first chart is an "Inductive Table of Astronomy," and it shows in a very interesting manner how completely astronomical phenomena are explained and brought into harmony by "the theory of universal gravitation." The second chart is "An Inductive Table of Optics," and in a corresponding way it exemplifies the elucidation of luminous phenomena, and the explication of general optical effects which result from "the undulatory theory of light." Whatever may be the imperfection of these theories, they have fulfilled the purposes of giving rational interpretation to wide ranges of natural phenomena, and of guiding the human mind in the pathway of new discovery by the power of prediction that they have conferred, and the two theories stand together as eminent triumphs of physical reasoning. The name of Newton will be forever associated with the law of universal gravitation, and in the same way Dr. Thomas Young will be immortal as the man whose genius established the undulatory theory of light, and who has hence been very appropriately designated as the Newton of the science of optics.

The optical theory which reigned in the scientific world until the beginning of the present century was known as the theory of emission, which assumed that all luminous effects are due to the darting, rebounding, and deflecting of some kind of material corpuscles or particles. The idea of vibratory or undulatory action as the cause of light was early broached by Huygens and maintained later by Euler, but was generally regarded as a crude speculation without scientific value. Dr. Young, devoting his great powers to optical research, soon perceived that the evidence was decisive in favor of the undulatory view; and, in the case of the interference of light, he proved that it affords a complete interpretation of the effects where the emission theory wholly breaks down. He developed his ideas in elaborate papers published in the "Proceedings of the Royal Society," and gave them mature expression in the Bakerian Lecture of 1802. It was at once seen by a few discerning scientific men that the old controversy between the theories of light was virtually brought to an end. But the old explanation, long accepted, and sanctioned by the great authority of Newton, was, of course, still supreme, while the new explanation had its way to make in scientific circles and in the general mind.

The "Edinburgh Review" now appears upon the scene. This quarterly had just been established, and was supported by a brilliant corps of writers who attracted wide attention, and gave to the periodical an extensive and powerful influence. Henry Brougham, afterward Lord Chancellor of England, was among its founders, and was one of its most versatile and effective writers, and he had himself dabbled somewhat in optical science. He reviewed Young's Bakerian Lecture on "The Theory of Light and Colors," which appeared in the "Philosophical Transactions," and the article was published in the first volume of the new Edinburgh quarterly issued in 1803. It was an insulting and malignant attack upon Dr. Young, whom he ridiculed in the coarsest manner. Mr. Brougham characterized the Bakerian Lecture as worthless, and bitterly denounced the authorities of the Royal Society for degrading science by admitting such foolish speculations into their published proceedings. The event is so memorable that we shall be excused for making some quotations from the article. It opens with these words: "As this paper contains nothing which deserves the name either of experiment or discovery, and as it is in fact destitute of every species of merit, we should have allowed it to pass among the multitude of those articles which must always find admittance into the collections of a society which is pledged to publish two or three volumes every year....

"We wish to raise our feeble voice against innovations that can have no other effect than to check the progress of Science, and renew all those wild phantoms of the imagination which Bacon and Newton put to flight from her temple....

" It is difficult to argue with an author whose mind is filled with a medium of so fickle a vibratory nature. Were we to take the trouble to refute him, he might tell us, 'My opinion is changed, and I have abandoned that hypothesis, but here is another for you.'...

"We demand if the world of science, which Newton once illuminated, is to be as changeable in its modes as the world of taste, which is directed by the will of a silly woman or a pampered fop. Has the Royal Society degraded its publications into new and fashionable theories for the ladies who attend the Royal Institution? Proh pudor! Let the professor continue to amuse his audience with an endless variety of such harmless trifles; but in the name of Science let them not find admittance into that honorable repository which contains the works of Newton, Boyle, Cavendish, and Herschel....

"From such a dull invention nothing can be expected. It only removes all the difficulties under which the theory of light labored to the theory of this new medium which assumes its place. It is a change of name; it teaches no truth, reconciles no contradictions, arranges no anomalous facts, suggests no new experiments, and leads to no new inquiries. It has not even the pitiful merit of affording an agreeable play of the fancy. It is infinitely more useless and less ingenious than the Indian theory of the elephant and the tortoise. We have a right to demand that the hypothesis shall be so consistent with itself and so applicable to the facts as not to require perpetual mending and patching—that the child which we stoop to play with shall be tolerably healthy, and not of the puny, sickly nature of Dr. Young's productions which have scarcely stamina to subsist until the fruitful parent has furnished us with a new litter; to make way for which, he knocks on the head or more barbarously exposes the first."

This is certainly poor stuff, read in the light of subsequent history. Of the man so shamefully vilified by a reckless critic, Professor Helmholtz thus speaks: "His was one of the most profound minds that the world has ever seen; but he had the misfortune to be too much in advance of his age. He excited the wonder of his contemporaries, who, however, were unable to follow him to the heights at which his daring intellect was accustomed to soar. His most important ideas lay, therefore, buried and forgotten in the folios of the Royal Society until a new generation gradually and painfully made the same discoveries, and proved the exactness of his assertions and the truth of his demonstrations."

Nevertheless, the "Edinburgh Review" had power to extinguish the influence of this extraordinary genius, and it was the article from which we have quoted that did the work. Rubbish as it now appears, it was accepted as truth, and the effect was to close the channels of reply to Dr. Young, and push him into obscurity as nothing better than a shallow pretender. As Professor Tyndall remarks: "For twenty years this man of genius was quenched—hidden from the appreciative intellect of his countrymen—deemed, in fact, a dreamer, through the vigorous audacity of a writer who had then possession of the public ear, and who, in the 'Edinburgh Review,' poured ridicule upon Young and his speculations."

Such was the power of base-minded criticism at the beginning of the century; and such the first great exploit of the "Edinburgh Review" in relation to the progress of scientific thought.

Eighty years have since passed away, but the old Scotch quarterly has learned nothing. Oblivious of the great changes that have taken place in the world of thought, it undertakes to repeat upon Herbert Spencer the tactics which proved so effectual in suppressing the greatest scientific man of the opening century. It will fail, and not only this, but the absurd anomaly of its action will be certain to defeat the end it proposes to accomplish. There could hardly be a greater compliment to the work of Spencer than that the "Edinburgh Review" should at this time have printed so incompetent and ridiculous an assault upon it.

The reviewer entitles his article "The Spencerian Philosophy," but it is false to its title in that it makes not the slightest attempt to deal with that philosophy. It shows no appreciation of it, and conveys no shadow of an idea of its real character. The discussion is confined to "First Principles," the opening volume of the philosophical system, which was published twenty-two years ago, and the article is characterized throughout by the most inexcusable ignorance of the subjects considered. It is spiteful, contemptuous, and flippant in spirit, vicious in misrepresentation, and mean in its covert insinuations and outright imputations. Brougham's assault upon Young is its model, and the phraseology of disparagement is almost identical in the two papers, as we illustrate by italicized passages. The reviewer says of Spencer: "He has not ascertained or discovered a single new fact, nor put any old ones together in such a way as to justify any new inference as to their causes, either immediate or ultimate. He has only applied new and fanciful terms to the collections he has made." And this is the way he sums the matter up: "This is nothing but a philosophy of epithets and phrases introduced and carried on with an unrivaled solemnity, and affectation of precision of style concealing the loosest reasoning, and the haziest indefiniteness on every point except the bare dogmatic negation of any 'knowable' or knowing author of the universe; which, of course, is the reason why this absurd pretense of a philosophy has obtained the admiration of a multitude of people who will swallow any camel that pretends to carry the world standing on the tortoise that stands on nothing, provided only it has been generated by a man out of his own brains, and asserted in imposing language with sufficient confidence." The philosophy of the universe, it may be remarked, which is tacitly held by the writer, is simply mathematics and physics plus Scotch orthodoxy.

We have no space to go into particulars in regard to this performance, but may give one illustration of its looseness and lack of decent regard for truth. Its fragmentary quotations are made in the most slovenly manner, and mixed up with the language of the writer so as to convey his own perverted meaning; and, as if conscious of this, he seems to think it necessary to make at least one fair extract. So he says: "This time we will not omit a word for brevity. We ought to give at least one specimen of Mr. Spencer's most careful and precise style unreduced." Then follows an extract of eighteen lines, and, if the reader will believe it, the passage was reduced by the dropping of whole clauses, which were not only significant, but made the entire statement unintelligible. And if the reader hesitates to believe this on our authority, as too improbable a thing, then let us say that Mr. Proctor has exposed it in his London journal, and convicted the reviewer of mutilation by publishing the extract, with the omissions bracketed.

The "Edinburgh Review" will not succeed at this late day in the revival of its old tactics. Its "slashing" article will be rated at its true worthlessness because there are now multitudes who have some intelligent understanding of the Spencerian philosophy, even if the chosen reviewer knows nothing about it, cares nothing about it, and only takes it up to make a sensational caricature of it. In confirmation of this, we quote a passage from a recent letter of Mr. Richard A. Proctor to the "New York Tribune":

The "Edinburgh Review" makes a savage assault on Herbert Spencer this quarter, in an article written in a style so familiar that it might as well have been signed. Those who admire the work which has already been achieved and is in progress of achievement by the leading philosopher of the century, "will be scarcely less pained by this unfair and acrimonious attack than those who have a regard for the reputation of Sir Edmund Beckett. Sir Edmund has attacked the Bacon of this day in terms that would be hardly appropriate if applied to one of those absurd persons who go about with theories that the earth is flat, the law of gravity a gigantic blunder, and the squaring of the circle child's play. Belonging myself to both categories above mentioned, I am doubly grieved. I value Sir Edmund Beckett as a kind personal friend, a masterly reasoner within certain lines, and one of the most skillful advocates, whether of a good or of a mistaken cause, that I have ever met. Herbert Spencer I esteem, I may almost say reverence, as the teacher of the soundest system of philosophy the world has yet, in my judgment, known. That a man whose researches reach so widely should at times fall into error in matters of detail may be readily admitted. Only a few weeks ago I pointed out in the pages of my weekly journal, "Knowledge," what I hold to be an entirely erroneous view of Herbert Spencer's respecting the probable origin of the system of asteroids. Yet even in matters of detail belonging to the work of specialists he has been singularly clear-sighted. He first pointed out the fallacies underlying the long accepted teaching respecting the stellar system, star-clusters, nebulas, etc., which men like Arago and Humboldt had dealt with without detecting error. In every department of science, in fact, though a specialist in none, Herbert Spencer has left his mark.

The attack in the "Edinburgh Review" leaves Spencer's fame untouched. It is evident in every line of this sour production that the enmity which Sir Edmund Beckett has always felt and expressed toward the teachings of the school of which Spencer has been the Bacon, the Darwin, and the Newton, has made it impossible for him to read with even average attention the work which he pretends to criticise. He has not caught the veriest glimmer of a notion of Mr. Spencer's real meaning. From the only passage which he claims to quote entire he has allowed several important words to drop—by accident doubtless, but yet not by mere accident in transcribing what he had already carefully read and understood; for the reasoning which follows falls to the ground so soon as the omitted words are restored.

Let one example suffice to show how utterly Sir Edmund Beckett either has missed or misrepresents the meaning of the famous contemporary whom he assaults. Herbert Spencer, speaking of the Great First Cause, transcending all laws, Absolute, Unconditional, says that we only perceive It, can only recognize It, by the persistence of force which, as it were, symbolizes It. Sir Edmund regards this as equivalent to saying that the Great First Cause is nothing else but persistent Force. Beckett rebukes Spencer for speaking of the "laws of motion" as the results of experience, saying that Newton regarded them as self-evident. He must have forgotten Newton's "Principia," where these laws are presented by Newton as now spoken by Spencer.