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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/November 1884/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 26‎ | November 1884

EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
THE AMERICAN ASSOCIATION AT PHILADELPHIA.

THE recent meeting of the American Scientific Association at Philadelphia was an eminently successful one. It was the largest ever held, the number of papers read was greater, and their merit above the past average. The presidential address by Professor Young, which we reprint, was a production of unusual ability. He chose the theme upon which he was best qualified to speak, the present state of astronomical science, with reference to its imperfectly solved problems, and the researches to which attention must next be given.

The great drawback to the enjoyment of the meeting was the intolerable heat, which was the more aggravating as there was so much to see, and 80 much laid out to do; but the Philadelphians, by their generous hospitality and their liberal arrangements for the pleasure and entertainment of visitors, did everything possible to mitigate the calamity of the weather.

The project of a permanent international scientific association, to which we have before called attention, was taken up and favorably received, although in the opinion of many the time has not yet come when such a plan can be vigorously carried out. It is reported that the project "has now a more assured existence" inasmuch as the philanthropist, Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson, has contributed $5,000 to it and will give $5,000 more next year, on the condition that $10,000 are furnished from other sources. This lady also donated $1,000 to the American Association to promote researches in light and heat.

The coming of the British Association in full force to Montreal to hold a meeting, to be immediately followed by the session of the American Association in Philadelphia in which many British scientists took part, has naturally raised various questions of comparison between the policy and working of the two bodies. We give some of the points of comparison and contrast.

The Canadian meeting was considerably the larger: 1,773 members were registered, of whom about one half crossed the ocean. This is below the average of the past ten years by about a hundred members. The number of members registered at Philadelphia was 1,261, or about five hundred less than at the Montreal meeting. Of these, 303 were foreign visitors.

Fewer papers were read at the American Association than at the British, but more in proportion to the membership, 304 being reported at Philadelphia, and 327 at Montreal. But some forty, or one eighth of the entire number, were contributed by American gentlemen attending the Canada meeting. The character of the work at both meetings is generally admitted to be above the average. Of the five papers recommended by the British Association to be published in full, two were from the States; one by Professor Gray, and one by Professor Thurston.

Both Associations adopt the plan of appointing special committees to investigate and report upon designated subjects; but the British Association carries it out much more thoroughly than the American. While the reports at the Philadelphia meeting were so meager that "it can be hardly said there were any," on the other hand, "in addition to the regular papers, there were in the various sections of the British Association more than fifty reports presented, coming from committees appointed at previous meetings." This is at least partly accounted for by the fact that the British Association makes grants of money to its committees to remunerate for services, no less than $7,500 being thus allowed at the Montreal meeting, while our own Association makes no such allowances.

Upon bringing English and American scientific work into the closer comparison which this new experience allows, the superiority, it must be confessed, belongs to the older and larger body. A writer in "Science," after contrasting various features of the two organizations, justly remarks: "On the whole, it will be admitted that the British Association does its work upon a higher plane than that occupied by the American. Its sectional work shows more that is really new and of lasting value, and less that is trifling; although there has been a steady and healthful improvement in the character of the American Association during several years past. It may be well to remark here that there are at least a few of the ablest and best men in American science who have continued to exhibit no interest in the American Association; and that, if the Association is not precisely what they believe it ought to be, the fault lies at their own doors. No others should or could be so influential in shaping its course and molding its character."

 

 
HARRISON; COMTE, AND SPENCER.

Upward of twenty years ago, when Mr. Herbert Spencer first began to publish the system of thought upon which ho has since been occupied, he was charged with being a disciple of Comte, and indebted to him for his cardinal ideas. The reply made by Mr. Spencer at the time was generally held to be so effectual that but little more was heard of the matter. But some of the more ardent followers of Comte refused to be convinced, and among them is Mr. Frederic Harrison, who has now revived the accusation, and stoutly maintains that, if not directly, then indirectly, Spencer owes his main and most characteristic conceptions to Comte.

It has been well understood that Mr. Frederic Harrison is the leading English representative of the Positive philosophy, though, like Mill, he has been credited with a good deal of independence and reservation in the acceptance of the Positivist system. But his address on September 5th before the members of the Positivist Society at Newton Hall, in London, where he preaches, shows a servility of discipleship for which we were quite unprepared. The subject of the discourse was "The Memory of Auguste Comte and his True Work," the occasion being the anniversary of the death of that philosopher. It was, of course, to be expected that Mr. Harrison would not let such an opportunity pass without speaking in high terms of the genius of Comte and the importance of his labors; but the performance is quite startling from its lurid eulogy and the wild extravagance of its claims in regard to Comte's character and mission. He credits him substantially with all the greatest steps of advance in science, philosophy, and religion that have been made in the present century. Comte's classification of the sciences is pronounced to be final. Though a phrenologist, and openly repudiating modern psychology, Mr. Harrison insists that Comte has made the most important step of the century in psychology. The idea that law rules in the moral and social as well as in the physical sphere belongs to Comte. He instituted the science of sociology, and constituted it in all its material parts. And, among his other accomplishments, this wonderful Frenchman challenges the admiration and gratitude of the world as the founder of a new religion.

These undiscriminating and inordinate claims leave little room, of course, for the recognition of the merits of other men; all who came since are but followers and imitators of Comte. It was supposed that Mr. Spencer had done some important original work in philosophy, psychology, and sociology, but Mr. Frederic Harrison says he has given the world nothing "but a very unsuccessful attempt to re-edit Comte's work on a plan of his own."

Such a charge as this could not assuredly be suffered to pass; and it is well that it was thus sweepingly made while Mr. Spencer is living and able to deal with it. The publication of Harrison's address opened a controversy at once in the leading London newspapers. We have room for only a part of it, and we select the most important part. We reprint two letters by Mr. Spencer, which are of interest as throwing light upon the true origin of his system. It will not be denied that Mr. Spencer knows more about it than anybody else; and when attacked by this imputation of wholesale plagiarism, the alternative of incompetence to judge where his leading conceptions came from, it is desirable to know what he has to say, both as a question of the history of thought and as a matter of justice to himself. We have a vast apparatus of legislatures and courts to secure to men their material possessions; but, when it comes to property in ideas, nothing remains for thinkers but to lose it or to defend it themselves.

 

 
IS THE CONTRAST VALID?

President Porter, of Yale, has lately made answer, in the "Princeton Review," to the argument of President Eliot, of Harvard, in the "Century," entitled "What is a Liberal Education?" At the close of his paper. Dr. Porter refers to the Appendix to the third edition of "A College Fetich," in which Mr. Adams has included the chief portion of the paper of Professor James on "The Classical Question in Germany," and some other matter from "The Popular Science Monthly."

We are glad to observe that Dr. Porter admits the essential justice of Professor James's case. The "Berlin Report "had been translated and widely circulated to show that, by long and extensive German experience in the trial of two school systems, it was settled that classical education is superior to scientific education; and that this was admitted even by the most eminent scientific men. Professor James proved that the "Report" settles no such question, and Dr. Porter so far acknowledges this as to say, "It may certainly be conceded to the critic that the 'practical trial' of the two systems of study—the classical and the non-or less classical—was not in all respects fair or decisive." If Dr. Porter had said it was not in any respect fair or decisive, we believe he would have been still nearer the truth.

But we are just now more concerned with another point of his statement in relation to the validity of the contrast, for important educational purposes, between the study of words and the study of things. Dr. Porter refers to this matter as follows:

The long extracts from Professor E. L. Youmans, taken from "The Popular Science Monthly," are significant as urging the point made by President Eliot, that classical is essentially inferior to scientific culture because "it trains the verbal memory and the reason so far as it is exercised in transposing thought from one form of expression to another, . . . while the new method cultivates the powers of observation and the faculty of reasoning upon the objects of experience so as to educate the judgment upon the problems of life. . . . The problems of life, as we understand them, are to a very large extent those which concern human relations, and these are quite as important as those which are commonly called facts or phenomena. To a large extent they are not material relations, and are not subjects of sensible experiment or verification. The facts and the reasoning must also be stated in language clearly, forcibly, and convincingly, in order to convince the reason and affect the conduct. To interpret and employ language, even with those who think themselves employed about facts, is consequently one of the chief occupations of all those who have power with their fellowmen, whether their sphere of thought is material or spiritual 'things.' The pretended contrast between thought and words is not valid, especially when used for so sweeping an induction as that made by Professors Cooke and Youmans or President Eliot."

The contrast between words and things is certainly not a pretense but a reality; and we are unable to see how the validity of the induction in this case is in any way dependent upon the sweep of its application. It is claimed by nobody in this controversy that words are unimportant or that language-studies are not of great value; but it is maintained that the things represented are more important than their signs, and Nature-studies of higher value than lingual studies, and the whole issue turns upon the recognition of this fact. Historically, this contrast has been proved to be profound and momentous. In the pre-scientific ages, words were not only put in the place of things, but confounded with them so as to vitiate whole systems of thought as shown in the history of Greek speculation and the scholasticism of the middle ages. The investigation of truth was made to consist in mere verbal manipulations. The Baconian reform in philosophy consisted in demanding that the human mind shall no longer occupy itself in the verbal sphere, but shall break through the barriers of words and study the things they represent. The inductive philosophy began with facts—the observation and investigation of things—and was a new method which has revolutionized knowledge, created the modern sciences, and revealed the order of Nature-It is contrasted with verbal and literary studies, which accept common notions—the loose, vague, crude ideas of ordinary experience—and can not advance and perfect knowledge because it refuses to make facts first and to exercise the mind in their close and careful study. Is a contrast so broad as this, between a fruitless method which kept the mind stationary for centuries and a method so fruitful as to give origin to a vast body of accurate and productive truth, to be regarded as a pretense when it is claimed to be fundamental in education? The verbal system is historic, traditional, popular, and all-prevalent in our systems of mental cultivation. It is proposed by the reformers not to destroy it, but to reduce its exaggerated proportions, and give greater prominence to the systematic study of actual things. The demand is that there shall be a new discipline in education, begun early and pursued thoroughly, by the mastery of given branches of science at first hand. The contrast between words and things must be at any rate held valid for the accomplishment of this reasonable object. That this claim is a moderate and sober one, and has long been firmly held by educators of the highest character, might be shown by quotations from many authorities; Dr, William Whewell thus remarks upon it:

Of the mode in which this culture of the inductive habit of mind, or at least appreciation of the method and its results, is to be promoted—if I might presume to give an opinion—I should say that one obvious mode of effecting this discipline of the mind in induction is, the exact and solid study of some portion of inductive knowledge. I do not mean the mechanical sciences alone, physical astronomy and the like, though these undoubtedly have a prerogative value as the instruments of such a culture; but the like effect will be promoted by the exact and solid study of any portion of the circle of natural sciences; botany, comparative anatomy, geology, chemistry, for instance. But I say the exact and solid knowledge; not a mere verbal knowledge, but a knowledge which is real in its character, though it may be elementary and limited in its extent. The knowledge of which I speak must be a knowledge of things, and not merely of names of things; an acquaintance with the operations and productions of Nature, as they appear to the eye, not merely an acquaintance with what has been said about them; a knowledge of the laws of Nature seen in special experiments and observations, before they are conceived in general terms; a knowledge of the types of natural forms, gathered from individual cases already made familiar. By such study of one or more departments of inductive knowledge, the mind may escape from the thralldom and illusion which reign in the world of mere words.