Popular Science Monthly/Volume 3/August 1873/Editor's Table



WE note a very healthy curiosity on the part of many of our exchanges in regard to the progress of Mr. Spencer's discussion of Sociological Study. Now that he has considered the "Theological Bias," there is much solicitude expressed that he shall not forget the "Scientific Bias." Well, he has not forgotten it. We give his views in the present number of the Monthly, and commend them to the careful perusal of our readers. Mr. Spencer's treatment of the subject, however, has important bearings that he does not pursue. Although pointing out the influence of the study of various sciences in forming the mental habits necessary to deal with the single subject of Sociology, he in reality develops the disciplinary value of the sciences in their adaptation to the general work of education.

And the supreme question of education is undoubtedly that of mental discipline. Its primary object is to get the use of the tools of learning—the arts of reading, writing, and elementary computation. So much is indispensable for everybody; but, where education proceeds to its higher work, the next step is the application of the implements to the acquisition of knowledge. Here difficulties arise from its boundless extent. All subjects cannot be studied; whole ranges of them can never be even approached by any single mind; and, as what can be actually acquired is relatively so small, it was long ago seen that the main work of the school must be to form the mind and develop its capacities for effective action in subsequent life. An important truth was here recognized, but its bearing and exact value were far from well understood, and its undue influence led to bad results. For, although the principle is sound, that the chief purpose of education is to cultivate the mental capacities, yet this cannot be done except by means of studies selected for the purpose; and it was a grave mistake to lose sight of the value and adaptation of the knowledge to be gained, however comparatively small might be its amount. Yet such was the result. The staple studies of a liberal education had not been chosen with a view to their special mental influence, and were originally adopted for reasons of utility, because they were suited to the business wants of the professional classes. Yet their supremacy and permanence were defended on the ground of their incomparable merit for discipline. And, when modern studies began to press for increasing recognition in the higher schools, they were resisted on the principle that the acquisition of knowledge was not the object of academic study, but only mental training. The studies in use were defended for their superior claims in this respect, and the sciences were kept out of the schools, or but partially and grudgingly admitted, because they were said to be unsuited for the attainment of discipline. But this is one of the cases in which the truth turns out to be exactly the reverse of old and established opinion. The studies that have held their supremacy for ages, on the ground of their eminent suitableness for mental discipline, are at last losing their ascendency because of defects in this respect; and the studies which were long resisted because of their alleged unfitness to train the mind, are now coming into wide recognition as the best and indispensable means of attaining this end.

The educational advance here indicated is of the highest significance, for the old scholastic scheme which vaunted its perfect adaptation to the work of mental development was chiefly remarkable because it did not include a single branch of study which brought the mind into direct relations with Nature. It was, in fact, a scholastic curriculum in which Nature was entirely left out, and its discipline could hardly be other than partial and artificial. On the other hand, it now begins to be seen and acknowledged that the completest discipline of the human mind must come from the comprehensive and systematic study of Nature itself. This step is an immense gain to rational culture by putting an end to the old anomaly that the most valuable knowledge for application in life is antagonistic to that required for mental development. It is now perceived that "it would be utterly contrary to the beautiful economy of Nature if one kind of culture were needed for the gaining of information, and another kind were needed as a mental gymnastic. Everywhere throughout creation we find faculties developed through the performance of those functions which it is their office to perform; not through the performance of artificial exercises devised to fit them for these functions."

"With the growing study of Nature, and the creation of those perfected forms of knowledge which we call science, the grave defects of the old methods of study have become more and more apparent, and are affirmed with emphasis by men of broad cultivation and the highest intellectual eminence. Mr. Mill shows that logic, the very science by which truth is investigated, was paralyzed for two centuries by the habit, prevailing in the universities, of regarding logical propositions as involving the relations of ideas instead of the relations of the phenomena of Nature. So long as logic and the connected branches of mental philosophy assumed that the investigation of truth consisted merely in contemplating and handling ideas, little was done in the way of discovery. Mind wrongly trained was barren of valuable results. It was only by the inversion of this procedure, and the adoption of the scientific method of study which brought the mind face to face with natural phenomena and gave it a new discipline, that the great and fruitful truths of modern knowledge have been attained. Dr. Whewell, late Master of Trinity College, in the Cambridge University, and a man of high scholarship, in his various works upon education, protested strongly against the deficiencies of the old system in the matter of discipline, and demanded the larger introduction of the sciences to repair their defects. He said: "The period appears now to have arrived when we may venture, or rather when we are bound to endeavor to include a new class of fundamental ideas in the elementary discipline of the human intellect. This is indispensable if we wish to educe the powers which we know that it possesses, and to enrich it with the wealth which lies within its reach."

In an able lecture by Prof. Helmholtz, just published in this country, "On the Relation of Natural Science to General Science," he considers the several branches of study as exercises for the intellect, and as supplementing each other in that respect. Admitting that a certain kind of discipline is obtained by the study of grammar and philology, he shows that it is radically defective, and requires scientific culture to correct it. He says: "In proportion as the range of science extends, its system and organization must be improved, and it must inevitably come about that individual students will find themselves. compelled to go through a stricter course of training than grammar is in a position to supply. What strikes me in my own experience of students who pass from our classical schools to scientific and medical studies is, first, a certain laxity in the application of strictly universal laws. The grammatical rules, in which they have been exercised, are for the most part followed by long lists of exceptions; accordingly, they are not in the habit of relying implicitly on the certainty of a legitimate deduction from a strictly universal law. Secondly, I find them for the most part too much inclined to trust authority, even in cases where they might form an independent judgment."

Of such criticisms the literature of modern education is full, so that we may say that the traditional culture is now indicted before the world for breaking down at precisely that point in which it has claimed the greatest strength. That the old method of study disciplined the mind was nothing; the question is, What kind of discipline did it afford? All prolonged mental effort in any direction gives power and fixes habit, but the effect may be so narrowing and perverting that the discipline becomes an evil in proportion to its thoroughness. The need and value of scientific studies, as a correction of classical discipline, are now generally admitted; but, before any such correction can be intelligently or effectually made, it is necessary to know what sort of discipline the study of science confers. Science is a comprehensive term; it means various groups of sciences which exercise the intellect in widely different ways. A discipline may be scientific, and still be partial and deficient. We were, therefore, in need of a thorough analysis of the subject, and a statement of what the several sciences are competent to do in the training of the mental faculties. This want has now been supplied by Mr. Spencer.

Obviously the first thing here wanted is a classification of the sciences, and it is equally evident that such an application of it as is here contemplated would become a test of its validity. In a true classification, objects are grouped together which are most alike in characters, and only those sciences which are most similar will call forth like mental activities in their pursuit. Mr. Spencer divides the sciences into three groups: Abstract sciences; Abstract-concrete sciences; and Concrete sciences.

Abstract science is the science of pure relation, with no reference to the nature of the things related. The abstract sciences are logic and mathematics, and they deal with the abstract relations under which all phenomena are presented.

Mr. Spencer holds that space and time, the forms of phenomena, "are contrasted absolutely with the existences disclosed to us in space and time; and that the sciences which deal exclusively with space and time are separated by the profoundest of all distinctions from the sciences which deal with the existences that space and time contain. Space is the abstract of all relations of coexistence; time is the abstract of all relations of sequence. And, dealing, as they do, entirely with the relations of coexistence and sequence in their general or special forms, logic and mathematics form a class of the sciences more widely different from the rest than any of the rest can be from one another." These sciences are, therefore, better suited than any other to establish in the mind "unshakable beliefs in necessities of relation;" and Mr. Spencer points out the unequal values of logic and different branches of mathematics for this purpose.

As the first division takes into account only ideal relations, the second division takes up relations among realities. It includes concrete things, and gives rise to a division which Mr. Spencer, therefore, calls the abstract concrete-sciences. These are mechanics, physics, and chemistry. They deal with the laws of forces as manifested by matter, but when artificially separated from one another. Mechanics, physics, and chemistry have, for their object, to generalize the laws of relation of their several phenomena, when disentangled from those actual conditions of Nature in which they are mutually modified. For example: "In works on mechanics, the laws of motion are expressed without reference to friction and resistance of the medium. Not what motion ever really is, but what it would be, if retarding forces were absent, is asserted. If any retarding force is taken into account, then the effect of this retarding force is alone contemplated: neglecting the other retarding forces." This group of sciences introduces a new order of ideas which call out a different form of mental exercise. They deal with causation, and have great value in giving "distinctness and strength to the consciousness of cause and effect." By familiarizing the mind with numberless simple and separate cases of the action of forces, "they make it impossible to think of any effect as arising without a cause, or any cause as expended without an effect; and they make it impossible to think of an effect out of proportion to its cause, or a cause out of proportion to its effect."

Mr. Spencer's third division comprises what he terms the concrete sciences, or the real, as contrasted with the wholly or partially ideal sciences. They include astronomy, geology, biology, and psychology, which consider phenomena in their totalities or aggregates. These sciences, being far more complex than the preceding, and presenting their various phenomena in combination, are suited to cultivate the synthetical habit of mind, and to familiarize it with complex causation. Mr. Spencer shows that, while the concrete sciences cannot be made to give the mental discipline of the simpler groups, they are indispensable to exercise the mind upon the fundamental conceptions of continuity, complexity, and contingency in causation, and which are of the highest importance in the judgment of common affairs.

The authorities cited above, and which might have been greatly multiplied, establish the fact, beyond cavil, that there is a profound deficiency in the discipline of the current classical system of study; and they all agree that the introduction of science is alone competent to afford a remedy. Mr. Spencer has shown not only how comprehensive and varied is the discipline which the sciences are capable of yielding, but he has pointed out the radical insufficiency of limited portions of science for that complete mental training which it is the object of the higher education to give. In the interests of mental discipline, therefore, we are compelled to demand a reconstruction of the curriculum of "liberal culture," with not merely more of science in it, but with such an organized scheme of scientific studies as will accomplish the end desired.