Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/November 1884/Origin of the Synthetic Philosophy


To the Editor of the Times.

SIR: As you have placed before a multitude of readers Mr. Frederic Harrison's anniversary address on "The Memory of Auguste Comte and his True Works," I may, I think, properly ask you to place before the same readers the disproof of a statement made by Mr. Harrison which gravely compromises me. He said that "Mr. Herbert Spencer, who had written a book to explain his divergences from Comte, was himself in all essentials his unconscious imitator, 'Synthetic Philosophy' being nothing but an attempt to play a new tune upon Comte's instrument. All the idées-mères, as the French said, of the Synthetic Philosophy, were those of the Positive Philosophy. Had there been no Comte, assuredly there would have been no Spencer." Even had I no other motive than that of showing my independence of Comte, I should, I think, be justified in not allowing this statement to pass unchallenged. But I have a further motive. As I have recently been passing a very outspoken judgment on the absurdities of the Comtean religion, the above passage implies that I have been ridiculing a man to whom I am deeply indebted, and the desire to clear myself from this aspersion compels me to speak.

A reader of literary history, struck as he must be with the numerous disputes about originality and priority, might sum up the result in somewhat Irish fashion by saying—No man's ideas are his own; they always belong to somebody else. My experiences might serve to support his paradox. Three distinct origins have been assigned for the Synthetic Philosophy. The current belief is that I have simply accepted Mr. Darwin's doctrine, and occupied myself in giving to it a wider extension; the truth being that the essential principles of the Synthetic Philosophy were set forth by me in two essays on "Progress: its Law and Cause," and on "The Ultimate Laws of Physiology," published respectively in the "Westminster Review" and the "National Review" (not the periodical now bearing that title) in April and October, 1857, more than two years before the publication of "The Origin of Species." Another source was not very long since alleged by the Rev. Thomas Mozley. In his "Reminiscences," etc., when giving an account of the influence exercised over him by my father, of whom he was a pupil, he describes himself as deriving from my father certain ideas which led him to think out a philosophy of like general nature with that set forth by me; but when, after enumerating the cardinal ideas of the Synthetic Philosophy, I requested him to point out any one of them which was contained in his own "elder philosophy," as he called it, he did not do so, and said all he meant by "family likeness" was such family likeness as might be alleged between "Cardinal Newman's view and his brother Frank's."[2] And now comes Mr. Harrison, repeating the assertion made twenty years ago, and then refuted by me, that I am indebted to Comte—nay, that I owe to him "all the idées-merès" of the Synthetic Philosophy. These three different beliefs concerning its origin go a long way toward destroying one another. Each by implication contradicting the other two is itself contradicted by them; and being thus severally discredited, they might, perhaps, safely be left as they stand. But readers of Mr. Harrison's address might not consider this sufficient, and I must therefore deal with his statement directly.

In the first sentence of that statement he refers to a brochure entitled "The Classification of the Sciences; to which are added Reasons for Dissenting from the Philosophy of M. Comte," originally published in March, 1864. In this I have set down not such "divergences" as might consist with partial acceptance, which Mr. Harrison's statement may lead readers to suppose, but I have given "reasons for dissenting from," and rejecting, Comte's philosophy altogether. I have enumerated six cardinal propositions essentially characterizing the Positive Philosophy, and have set against them six counter-propositions which I hold. I have then gone on to say:

"Leaving out of his 'Exposition' those pre-established general doctrines which are the common property of modern thinkers, these are the general doctrines which remain—these are the doctrines which fundamentally distinguish his system. From every one of them I dissent. To each proposition I oppose either a widely different proposition or a direct negation; and I not only do it now, but have done it from the time when I became acquainted with his writings. This rejection of his cardinal principles should, I think, alone suffice; but there are sundry other views of his, some of them largely characterizing his system, which I equally reject"

And I have thereupon contrasted four other general views of Comte with the opposite views held by me.

But I do not write this letter merely for the purpose of pointing out these facts. I write it mainly for the purpose of making public the judgment given on the question at issue by the earliest and most distinguished of M. Comte's English adherents, Mr. John Stuart Mill. Before quoting his judgment I must explain how it came to be given, and in doing this must reproduce a letter written by me to him many years ago, which itself contains evidence clearly disproving Mr. Harrison's assertion. Here it is, or rather the first part of it:

"17 Wilmot Street, Derby, July 29, 1858.

"My dear Sir: May I ask your opinion on a point partly of personal interest, partly of more general interest? "In the essays on 'Progress; its Law and Cause,' and on 'Transcendental Physiology,' which I believe you have read, are the rudiments of certain general principles, which, at the time they were first enunciated, I had no intention of developing further. But more recently these general principles, uniting with certain others, whose connection with them I did not before recognize, have evolved into a form far higher than I had ever anticipated; and I now find that the various special ideas which I had designed hereafter to publish on certain divisions of Biology, Psychology, and Sociology, have fallen into their places as parts of the general body of doctrine thus originating. Having intended to continue occupying myself, as hitherto, in writing essays and books embodying these various special ideas, I have become still more anxious to devote my energies to the exposition of these larger views, which include them, and, as I think, reduce all the higher sciences to a rational form."

Has Mr. Harrison any doubt concerning the truth of these statements? If so, he may easily verify them. If he will turn to the second, or constructive, division of "First Principles" (I give the references to the second and subsequent editions, partly because they are most widely distributed), he will find that Chapter XV embodies the argument contained in the first half of the essay on "Progress: its Law and Cause," and incorporates all the illustrative examples along with additional ones; and in Chapter XX he will find the second half of that essay reproduced with all its illustrations, and with further elaborations. Similarly, two fundamental principles set forth in the essay originally published under the title "The Ultimate Laws of Physiology" (but republished in the third volume of my Essays, etc. under the title "Transcendental Physiology"), he will find are severally developed in Chapters XIV and XIX; where, again, the original illustrations will be found joined with numerous others, accompanying a much wider extension of those principles. In these two essays, then, Mr. Harrison will discover the idées-mères of the Synthetic Philosophy; and the task before him is to affiliate these ideas, if he can, upon the ideas contained in the Positive Philosophy.

I now come to the opinion expressed by Mr. Mill. When, in 1864, there appeared in the Revue des Deux Mondes an article on "First Principles," by M. Auguste Laugel, in which he described me as being in part a follower of M. Comte, and when I decided to append to "The Classification of the Sciences" the "Reasons for Dissenting from the Philosophy of M. Comte," proving that M. Laugel's belief was erroneous, I bethought me of the above partially-quoted letter. On stating to Mr. Mill why I wanted it, he kindly returned it (not, however, soon enough for use), and with it there came a letter from himself. I give this letter, or rather the first paragraph of it—a paragraph which, under ordinary circumstances, it would be bad taste in me to publish, but which, under the present circumstances, I shall, I think, be held justified in publishing:

"Blackheath, April 3, 1864.

"Dear Sir: I am fortunately able to send you the letter you want. No Englishman who has read both you and Comte can suppose that you have derived much from him. No thinker's conclusions bear more completely the marks of being arrived at by the progressive development of his own original conceptions; while, if there is any previous thinker to whom you owe much, it is evidently (as you yourself say) Sir W. Hamilton. But the opinions in which you agree with Comte, and which, as you truly observe, are in no way peculiar to him, are exactly those which would make French writers class you with him; because to them, Comte and his followers are the only thinkers who represent opposition to their muddy metaphysics."

To this I may fitly add a passage contained in Mr. Mill's work, "Auguste Comte and Positivism," issued a year later, in which, distinguishing between that part of the Positive Philosophy which belongs to Comte and that which "is the common inheritance of thinkers," he says:

"Mr, Spencer rejects nearly all which properly belongs to M. Comte, and in his abridged mode of statement does scanty justice to what he rejects" (p. 5).

Now, considering that Mr. Mill was a profound admirer of M. Comte, kept up a correspondence with him, and raised funds to support him, and considering that when the above letter was written I knew Mr. Mill personally only through two calls at the India House, and was an antagonist of Comtean views which he accepted, and had publicly combated one of his own views, it is manifest that any bias he may be supposed to have had was against me rather than for me. Such being the ease, most persons will, I think, regard his voluntarily given opinion as decisive. Herbert Spencer.

Athenæum Club, September 8th.

Mr. Harrison replied to the foregoing letter, which elicited the following rejoinder from Mr. Spencer:

To the Editor of the Standard[3]

Sir: I regret further to occupy attention with a matter mainly personal, but feel obliged to do so.

I pointed to the essays in which were contained the idées-mères of the Synthetic Philosophy, and gave Mr. Harrison means of finding that they were undeniably such by referring him to parts of "First Principles," in which they were developed; and I then invited him to point out the ideas in the Positive Philosophy from which they were derived. Instead of taking this direct way of establishing filiation, he has sought to establish it in various indirect ways.

He contends that I owe the conception of a "coherent body of doctrine," formed by "the amalgamation of Science, Philosophy, and Religion," to Comte. If he will turn to the Essay on "The Genesis of Science," he will see that my criticism of Comte's Classification of the Sciences is preceded by a criticism of the schemes of Oken and Hegel, both of which profess to be coherent bodies of doctrine formed of Philosophy and the Sciences. Having the three schemes before me, why does Mr. Harrison suppose that Comte, rather than Hegel or Oken, gave me the idea? And why should I not say that Comte was indebted to them, just as others say he was indebted for his idées-mères to St. Simon?

He refers to my first work, "Social Statics," as being identical in title with one by Comte. In the pamphlet issued twenty years ago, discussing the question now again raised, I stated that at the close of 1850, when "Social Statics" was published, Comte was to me but a name. It seems that Mr. Harrison did not believe me. There are various proofs, however. Though I have letters showing that "Social Statics" was not the title originally intended, this evidence must be left out, being too long to quote. But there is the sub-title, "The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified, and the First of them Developed." Does this correspond with the substance of Comte's "Social Statics"? Further still, there is the fact, named in the pamphlet above mentioned, that I was blamed by a reviewer of "Social Statics" in the "North British Review" (August, 1851) because I did not "seem to have the slightest notion" of that which Comte understood by Social Statics. And, once more, there is the fact that the ideas and spirit of the book are as utterly alien to those of Comte as can well be. They involve a pronounced individualism, which was one of his aversions.

Because Comte here and there speaks of "synthesis," Mr. Harrison thinks that the title Synthetic Philosophy was derived from him. If he will refer to the programme as originally given, and as continued for ten years or more, he will see that no such title was used. My adoption of it was due simply to the fact that there had been given to the system by my American adherent, Mr. Fiske, the title "Cosmic Philosophy"—a title which I disapproved.

Mr. Harrison says, "Mr. Spencer has written volumes about the 'Social Organism,' 'Social Evolution,' 'Social Environment'; so has Comte." I did not know Comte had used the phrase "Social Organism"; but if Mr. Harrison will refer to "Social Statics," p. 443 and p. 453, he will find it used at a time when, as I have said, Comte was to me but a name. If Mr. Harrison alleges that anybody who writes about Social Evolution (in past days called Social Progress) must be indebted for the idea to Comte, he is simply illustrating afresh that which all observers are now remarking, that he and his co-disciples find Comte everywhere. As to "Social Environment," I have, I believe, occasionally used the expression; but it makes so little figure that I should be puzzled where to look for it. That the name Sociology was introduced by Comte is doubtless true, and that I have avowedly adopted it is also true: true also that I have been blamed for using this hybrid word. But though the word is his, the idea is not. In its crude form it can be traced as far back as Plato; and long before the time of Comte it assumed a considerable development in the work of Vice—"Scienza Nuova."

"The conception that all things social are amenable to invariable laws and have modes of life analogous to those of physical organisms is one of the most transcendent steps taken in modern thought," says Mr. Harrison. To the first of these statements I have to reply, that if Mr. Harrison will refer to a pamphlet on "The Proper Sphere of Government," written by me when twenty-two, he will find this same conception distinctly expressed and argued from. And to the second I have to reply, 1. That the analogy between the individual organism and the social organism is traceable in Greek thought; and, 2. That it was set forth elaborately, though very erroneously, by Hobbes. To say that "Comte is the unquestioned author of the thought" illustrates afresh the way in which his disciples are possessed by him.

The adoption of the word "Altruism" from Comte is referred to by Mr. Harrison. Here he is perfectly right. I have acknowledged the adoption; and I have also defended it as a very useful word.

Mr. Harrison claims for Comte the distinction between the militant phase of social life and the industrial phase. Is he sure that no one recognized it before? But that I do not owe the conception to him is again sufficiently shown by reference to "Social Statics," pp. 419-434 (original edition), where the essentially different traits of predatory societies and peaceful societies are contrasted, though the words "industrial" and "militant" are not used. Moreover, Comte's conception and mine, respecting the types of social organization proper to the two, are radically opposed.

In the "Principles of Biology," vol. i, p. 74, is a note which, by implication, refutes the statement that I owe the definition of life to Comte. Comte evidently made in the "Positive Philosophy" an approach to the truth, but he strangely missed it. How little he himself regarded what he there said as a definition of life is proved by the fact that he adopted De Blainville's definition. Dir. Bridges says he reached it in the "Politique Positive." Be it so. That, however, is a work which Mr. Harrison reproaches me with not having read.

But if I go on in this way, meeting one by one Mr. Harrison's allegations, I shall tire your readers before I reach the statement which I think will be held conclusive. My course must be to specify those idées-mères which I have indicated to Mr. Harrison, but which he refuses to look for, and then to show how from these the whole doctrine I have set forth gradually grew.

Omitting earlier stages, which I can trace back to 1850, I begin with the essay, "Progress: Its Law and Cause," which was published in 1857. On the second page of that essay I have named the generalization reached by Von Baer, that the changes undergone during the development of every living thing "constitute an advance from homogeneity of structure to heterogeneity of structure." On the next page I have enunciated the thesis of the essay; namely, that "this law of organic progress is the law of all progress"—not progress in a limited sense, but progress inorganic as well as organic, presented throughout the universe, from celestial bodies to such social products as science, art, and literature. How was the evidence supporting this thesis to be presented? By taking the various groups into which all kinds of phenomena are divisible, and showing that the law holds throughout each group, I have arranged them in the order astronomical, geological, biological, psychological, sociological. Why this order? The reasons are obvious. If the Cosmos has been evolved, then, in order of time, astronomical phenomena preceded geological, geological preceded biological, biological preceded psychological, psychological preceded sociological. Equally was the arrangement dictated by order of dependence. The existence of each of these groups of phenomena made possible the existence of the succeeding group. I could not have put the groups in any other order without manifest derangement. The second half of the article first asks the question—Why does this universal transformation go on? and the alleged cause is that "every active force produces more than one change" or effect; the implication being that there is a continuous multiplication of effects, of which increasing heterogeneity is a result. The rest of the article traces out everywhere this multiplication of effects; and in thus interpreting deductively the previous inductions I was, of course, forced to follow the same succession of groups of phenomena by the necessities of orderly exposition.

Is there anything here attributable to M. Comte? This order of exposition, which arose irrespective of any classification of the sciences, Comtean or other, and which governs the order in which the works constituting the Synthetic Philosophy have been written, is one which Mr. Harrison is courageous enough to say corresponds with Comte's scheme of the sciences. He does this in face of the fact that of Comte's six sciences three have no place in it! It contains no division dealing with mathematics, none with physics, none with chemistry!

I pass on now to point out that six months after, in the second essay I named, there is recognized the fact that for this universal transformation of things there is a cause taking precedence of the multiplication of effects, namely, the instability of the homogeneous (i. e., the relatively homogeneous, for absolute homogeneity does not exist)—a law which holds alike of a nebulous mass, an ovum, a primitive tribe, etc. And then in the same essay the law of integration (previously recognized in 1855 in the "Principles of Psychology," Part III, chapter xiv), is set forth as holding of organisms and societies—a law later recognized as holding of all evolving aggregates, and eventually recognized as the primary trait of all evolution. Are these conceptions to be found in the Positive Philosophy?

Shortly after, further developments of these views took place, which are referred to in my letter to Mr. Mill already quoted. Then came recognition of the truth that in aggregates of all orders one of the traits of evolution is increase of definiteness; universally the tendency is for the differentiated parts, at first vaguely marked out, to become sharply marked out. Later still was recognized the fact that these various changes are accompanied everywhere by a process of segregation; and then, finally, in answer to the question, What is the outcome of all these changes? there was reached the answer—They inevitably continue till an equilibrium of forces is reached; every aggregate, inorganic or organic, goes on changing until the forces acting upon it are balanced by the forces it opposes to them; hence the general law of equilibration. Are these Comtean conceptions?

When in 1860-62 "First Principles" was written, these several inductive and deductive generalizations were incorporated in a coherent theory; and in the chapter dealing with each, there was followed this same order in the groups of illustrations which I have shown naturally arises. Beyond this, however, there was an endeavor to go behind these proximate causes of the universal transformation, and find the ultimate cause. This was alleged to be the persistence of force (an expression I continue to use as comprehending both the conservation of energy and the constancy of those forces by which passive matter becomes known to us). Has Comte enunciated these ideas, or any allied to them?

Lastly, I have to point out that only in the reorganized second edition of "First Principles," published five years later, when, along with other developments, there was recognized that transformation of motion which everywhere accompanies the transformation of matter, did the general conception reach its complete form. There was a gradual growth, as Mr. Mill says; and it had continued from 1850 to 1867. Not only has Comte's influence no place whatever in this process, but the ultimate product of it has no alliance whatever with the product he calls Positive Philosophy. For what is the one word which describes this theory of transformation, exhibited by the Cosmos as a whole and by every part of it, and proceeding everywhere after the same general manner and everywhere consequent on the same general laws of forces? The one word is Cosmogony. And what is the name applicable to M. Comte's Positive Philosophy? An Organon of the Sciences.

See, then, how the case stands. A system which had for its germinal idea Von Baer's formula of organic development—a system which grew by the addition of other general ideas, to one of which, I believe, Schelling's doctrine of individuation partially opened the way, but the others of which grew up I know not how—a system which slowly became a coherent whole, uniting the several principles by derivation from one ultimate principle—a system the exposition of which followed an order not determined by any theory of classification, but simply by the order of genesis of the phenomena themselves—a system which, at the very outset, presented itself as the rudiment of a cosmogony, and became eventually a fully-elaborated cosmogony; is a system which Mr. Harrison holds to be inspired by Comte's "Organon of the Sciences," the greater part of which is concerned with scientific methods, with the dependence of ideas, with the course of intellectual progress, with the order of discovery, and the like; and which entirely ignores geological evolution, biological evolution, and psychological evolution. This system it is which Mr. Harrison characterizes as "an attempt to play a new tune upon Comte's instrument"!

I ask space only for a few words on the question of authorities. Mr. Harrison, finding the verdict of Mr. John Stuart Mill against him, does his best to discredit it. He says that Mr. Mill was scarcely in a position for judging, since "he had one volume only and part of another before him." Pie is quite mistaken. If I had continued to quote Mr. Mill's letter, I should have quoted a passage saying that he had been re-reading the "Principles of Psychology"(edition of 1855). Besides this, and "Social Statics," and "First Principles," and nearly one volume of the Biology, he had before him two volumes of Essays, the majority of which bear in one way or other on the doctrine of evolution, and sufficiently show the drift of much that was coming. But Mr. Harrison attempts to discredit Mr. Mill's letter by calling it a "testimonial," and saying that he was able to "read between the lines." After having pointed out that I simply asked Mr. Mill to return my letter, and that his letter, accompanying it, was voluntarily written, I think every one will be of opinion that this sneer of Mr. Harrison's is wholly uncalled for; and when they observe that he says what he does notwithstanding that Mr. Mill, in his volume on Comte published a year later, utters substantially the same opinion as in his letter, they will think his sneer without excuse. To strengthen his case Mr. Harrison seeks to override the verdict of Mr. Mill by that of Mr. Lewes—ranks Lewes higher than Mill as an authority in philosophy! I imagine the raised eyebrows of competent judges.

Here I leave the matter. I have nothing more to say than that if any one has doubts he may easily settle them, irrespective of the explanation I have given above, and irrespective of any authority. He will see that alike by its position as first of the series, and by its title, "First Principles" is shown to contain the cardinal ideas elaborated in the volumes following it. Let him, then, take this volume and take also Miss Martineau's abridged translation of the Positive Philosophy, and compare the two. After an hour's search for points of community he will, I think, feel astonished that any one should have asserted a connection between them.

I am, sir, your obedient servant,
Herbert Spencer,
Athenæum Club, September 13th.

  1. From the "Times" of September 9, 1884.
  2. See "Athenæium," July 22, 1882.
  3. From the London "Standard" of September 15, 1884.