Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/August 1890/Editor's Table
MR. SPENCER'S PLACE IN PHILOSOPHY.
AS we had occasion not long ago to remark, the philosophy of evolution is a great stumbling-block and rock of offense to transcendentalists—that is to say, to people who want a philosophy founded on emotion and soaring beyond all experience into the region of the absolute. If such people do not like the evolution philosophy, it is natural that they should dislike the evolution philosopher par excellence, Mr. Spencer. His name seems to send a chill through those whose ambition it is to discover truth by some royal road of a priori assumption; and now and again these persons take courage to express all the repugnance they feel to what they regard as his desolating doctrines. Occasionally, also, though not very often, an attempt is made to show that Mr. Spencer is not so much of a philosopher after all—only a kind of all-round writer on a great variety of subjects, in not one of which he has any superior competence. Many of our readers will remember that some weeks ago a certain person wrote to the New York Times to express his own low estimate of the value of Mr. Herbert Spencer's philosophical work, and his grave doubts as to the rank assigned to him in the world of thought by really competent judges. This gentleman, who modestly signed "Outsider," had not been able to find that mathematical specialists thought very highly of Mr. Spencer as a mathematician, or that specialists in biology ranked him high as a biologist, or that men eminent for their historical knowledge regarded him as an authority in their special department, and so on and so on. Evidently this writer had somewhat singular notions as to what was required to make a philosopher. Not only is it impossible that Mr. Spencer should be a specialist in all the branches of knowledge upon which his system has a bearing, but it is quite unnecessary that he should be such in even one branch. His specialty consists in his power of co-ordinating the general results of different lines of inquiry; and his claim to rank as a philosopher depends on the success with which he has accomplished this task. All that can properly be demanded of Mr. Spencer, or any philosopher, is that he shall not misunderstand or misstate the results of the special sciences with which he may have to deal. If "Outsider" had been in a position to declare that mathematicians had examined Mr. Spencer's work, and found it very faulty on the mathematical side; that biologists, in like manner, had found it weak on the biological side; and that in general his system was, to a serious extent, based upon erroneous conceptions of special facts and laws, he would have made a very damaging criticism. He did not pretend, however, to be in a position to do anything of the kind; but simply attacked Mr. Spencer for not being, what no one man could possibly be, a specialist in half a dozen sciences at once.
The principal result of "Outsider's" attack was that a number of persons came forward, many over their own signatures, to vindicate Mr. Spencer; and so effectually was the work done, and such a revelation did the whole controversy afford of the hold Mr. Spencer had upon the thinking men of this country, that a very suspicious person might have conjectured that "Outsider's" secret object had been to get as much good said of Spencer as possible, and bring him and his works into greater prominence than ever. The personal interest which we have for years felt in the great English philosopher—an interest which the sketch of the late Prof. Youmans, published a couple of months ago in this magazine, will in some measure explain—led us to attempt in the columns of the Times a concise yet comprehensive statement of the testimonies that had been borne to the value of his scientific and philosophical work by the very highest authorities. "Outsider" had asked what the specialists thought of Mr. Spencer; we had no difficulty in showing what the men who commanded the widest view of the fields of philosophy and science, and who in that sense were the specialists by whom his work should be tried, thought of him. In philosophy, the names cited were such as Lewes, McCosh, J. S. Mill, Morell, and Ribot; in biology, such as Mivart, Ray Lankester, Huxley, Darwin; and in general science and history, Masson, Proctor, Tyndall, Grant Allen, Leslie Stephen, and Tylor. All of these, at one time or another, have in the amplest manner borne testimony to Spencer's philosophic genius, to the acuteness of his thought, the depth of his insight, the fertility of his methods, the sagacity of his judgment, the keenness and truth of his scientific perceptions—one remarking upon this quality or group of qualities, and another upon that. As further evidence of the impression Mr. Spencer has made upon his age, we gave the leading facts relating to the reproduction of his works in foreign countries and their translation into foreign tongues. In Russia, in Italy, in France, in Germany, Spencer's works may be read in the national tongue, and have powerfully molded philosophical opinion. The facts thus brought forward were not far to seek: any one even moderately acquainted with the course of modern thought can hardly fail to know that these things are so; and it is difficult to understand how a writer vouched for by the Times as a person of very superior acquirements could have managed to remain ignorant of them. Possibly he is one of those "specialists" whose information is so very special that virtually they may be said to go about with blinkers over their eyes that shut out all side views. But in that case the man who wears the blinkers should not constitute himself a judge of what he does not and can not see.
Another objection which our critic raised was that the laws of evolution embodied in Mr. Spencer's system had never served as the basis for prediction, and so far lacked full confirmation. This criticism was singularly pointless. Prediction, in the sense understood in the sciences say of astronomy and chemistry, is not to be expected in connection with a general system of philosophy—the aim of which is to correlate diverse phenomena under a few very general laws. In another sense Mr. Spencer's system does lend itself to prediction, inasmuch as it has traced for us the laws of development of the individual mind and of society, and so far enabled us to anticipate what would fall under our observation in newly discovered societies—could there be such—given one or two leading facts as to their environment and the stage of civilization they had reached. We credit the science of geology with a power of prediction when the geologist in an Old Red-sandstone country is able to say positively that there is no use in prospecting there for coal. Why not allow the evolutionist equal credit if he is able to say beforehand of a given community that the mathematical faculty will be found to be very feebly developed in it, but that the poetic may be found to have made some advance; or if, taking two widely separated stages of a nation's history, he is able in a general way to fill in the intervening course of events, very much as Mendeleef describes a certain set of elements yet to be discovered?
When Mr. Spencer says, "With the repression of militant activities and decay of militant organizations will come amelioration of political institutions as of all other institutions," he makes a prediction founded on the general principles of his system—a prediction in which many who take their ideas from poetry and romance might not be disposed to concur. It remains to be seen whether the evolutionist is right, or whether those are right who hold that without war the higher civic and personal virtues would decline and wither. The difference between the two opinions is that the one is founded on a long course of study, and is correlated with a multitude of established facts; while the other is rather a matter of sentiment than of reasoned conviction.
We do not intend, however, to pursue further a controversy which was carried on to considerable length in the columns of the Times, and which developed so much of sympathy with, and so little of decided opposition to, Spencer as to cause the editor of that paper to exclaim, "Where are the foes of Spencer?" and to express his surprise at the backwardness of certain persons, who are supposed to regard the doctrine of evolution as false and dangerous in the extreme, in availing themselves of the opportunity of stating and defending their convictions. It remains but to say that the value of the synthetic philosophy is not bound up with the accuracy of every scientific or historical statement its author may have made, nor yet with the absolute solidity of his metaphysics. It is a great colligation of the laws of life and development. It teaches us to understand the world and human society, and gives to every one who studies it a superior power of discernment in many fields of observation. The evolutionist can predict in this sense at least that, in a broad way, he knows what to expect, and does not look for grapes from thorns or figs from thistles. He sees cause and effect, action and reaction everywhere, not like some specialists in certain selected spheres exclusively. He believes in orderly progress, knowing that great processes of development can not be very materially hastened.
In the field of education the views derived from the general theory of evolution have been found of the very greatest value; and were education to-day free from the trammels of politics, and were it commanding—as, but for its connection with the state, it would command—the best thoughts and the best energies of a host of freely competing educators, the improvement in educational methods directly due to the new views would be most conspicuous.
The evolutionary philosophy is a practical one, and it is to-day on trial; its principles are more or less penetrating and permeating the community; and the more they do so, the more they are confirmed by experience, and be-come impressed on the mental habits of individuals. Of what competing philosophy can the same be said? It is to this growing experience of the race, therefore, that appeal must be made if the validity of the general theory is to be questioned.