Popular Science Monthly/Volume 7/July 1875/Editor's Table
THE so-called "Association for the Promotion of Social Science" held its last meeting in May, in Detroit. It is reported as a satisfactory session, there having been a good attendance, much interest, and a full invoice of papers upon the varied topics which it is the habit of the body to consider. That the Association performs a useful function in securing the discussion of grave public questions, and in disseminating information, more or less useful, concerning them, we are not at all disposed to question; but we miss (as we did a year ago) any thing in the proceedings answering to the definite object of the organization as put forth in its title. The name of the Association is entirely misleading: it avows one object, and pursues others; it professes to do a certain work of very great public importance, and then, by totally neglecting it and doing something else under its name, it produces a mischievous confusion in the public mind, and becomes detrimental to the very purpose which it distinctly professes to advance.
As judged by its title, the Association was instituted to do an explicit thing, that is, to promote a certain science. Now what does this imply? It implies doing for the particular branch of science chosen, just what other associations do for the promotion of other branches of science. It implies, first, a branch of knowledge capable of assuming a scientific shape, and of definition and limitation in its objects; secondly, it implies efforts and measures for the elucidation of the subject, the extension of observations upon it, the generalization of its facts, by the same patient processes and cautious method that are adopted in other sciences with the single and supreme object of arriving at the truth; and, lastly, it implies men who will devote themselves to the cultivation of the subject in the true scientific spirit, men trained to original inquiry, widely informed in the subject-matter of investigation, and determined to push it forward in new directions, and arrive at trustworthy and valid results. Social science is to be promoted, if promoted at all, in this manner, and by such men. It implies the systematic treatment of social phenomena, with the view of reaching a definite, coherent, and settled body of social truths, by the collection, analysis, and classification of the proper data of the subject. If the science is in its infancy, and has as yet been only roughly outlined, the work of its cultivators must needs be elementary, and the proceedings of any body of its true promoters will necessarily be characteristic of the stage or state of the subject. In the growth of all the sciences there has been an inevitable order of mental procedure, an advance from simplicity to complexity, from the uniform to the multiform, from the lower to the higher; but though this method has been necessarily followed, mental power has been immensely wasted by ambitious essays to resolve the larger and more difficult aspects of phenomena first. Yet the sciences have been actually and only built up by laying the foundations first and erecting the superstructures afterward.
But all this is of small account to the members of the "Association for the Promotion of Social Science." They do not seem, in fact, to know what the science is that they have assumed the task of promoting. They were in a muddle about it at starting ten years ago, and, if we may judge from the secretary's report, they are much in the same condition still. At any rate, they have little notion of plodding among the rudiments of the subject.
There were able disquisitions at Detroit on Finance, International Law, Life-insurance, Ideal Education, Medical Charities, Immigration, State Churches, Steamship-lines, etc., etc., but they had none of them any more to do with the science of the social relations of mankind than the proceedings of any other convention of thoughtful men called to deliberate upon important public affairs.
We make these remarks in no captious spirit, and we cordially concede the usefulness and importance of much of the work done by this organization: we are only speaking in the interest of that which the Association professes to do, but really does not even recognize; and what it pledges itself to do or to attempt, by the very title it takes, we hold to be far more important than all it accomplishes. The working out of the principles of social science, of the natural laws of the social state, into a clear, comprehensive, and authoritative form, is a matter of great moment, both because the state of knowledge at the present time makes it more possible and practicable than ever before, and because the results of even its partial accomplishment will be of immense value in the management of social affairs. And because of its grave importance, we strenuously object to any perversion or misappropriation of the term to illegitimate uses. We object to its employment as merely a dignified title for miscellaneous speculations on human affairs. Social science is a something yet to be achieved—a well-defined branch of inquiry yet to be elaborated by the prolonged efforts of painstaking thinkers; and we protest against its use as a kind of imposing category for the schemes of philanthropists and the projects of reformers. It may seem a matter of small importance what name an association chooses to adopt, but it is not so in the present case. The misuse of terms leads to false views that are liable to produce the most injurious consequences. No one can be better aware of the potent misleading influence of words upon the public mind than the distinguished president of the Detroit meeting, Hon. D. A. Wells. He perfectly understands that only a few people go beyond the word to the quality of the thing indicated. He knows that the policy of restriction imposed by the State upon the freedom of commercial interchange, by which monopolists are enriched, the people plundered, the Government corrupted, and the country disgraced, is intrenched in popular misconception, because it has got itself labeled "protection." The case before us is equally in point. So long as the term "social science" is employed to characterize the heterogeneous and discordant opinions of unscientific men upon the most intricate and refractory problems of civilized life, it will be discredited in its true application.
The American Social Science Association has been running for ten years, and its British prototype has had a conspicuous.career for twice that time, but so little have they done toward the real promotion of the subject, so little to prepare the public for it, and so much to disseminate erroneous views respecting it, that the most comprehensive and solid contribution yet made to sociological science—a work entirely free from speculation, and which aims to lay the foundation of the science by collating and arranging the elemental facts descriptive of all types of social structure—cannot get patronage enough even to pay for carrying on the publication; and the real difficulty is the false impressions of the subject that have been fostered and disseminated by those who have acquired weight with the publie as its promoters.
The ex-President of Harvard College, writing in the Unitarian Review, revives the perversion of Prof. Tyndall's views on the prayer question in the following pointed words: "Let the President of the British Association refrain from insulting Protestant Christians by proposing an arithmetical test of the reality of the communion of the soul with God." We are curious to know where Dr. Hill got his evidence for the charge that Prof. Tyndall has ever proposed "an arithmetical test of the reality of the communion of the soul with God," or any evidence that he has ever questioned that reality. To the conception of prayer as inspiration, communion with the Divine Spirit, or the expression of devotional feeling, we are not aware that Prof. Tyndall has ever made the slightest objection. On the contrary, we know, by his own repeated avowals, that he recognizes the religious efficacy of prayer as a "strengthener of the heart," which "in its purer forms hints at disciplines which few of us can neglect without moral loss." Again, he observes: "It is not my habit to think otherwise than solemnly of the feeling that prompts prayer." This, surely, is very far from being the language either of denial or of insult.
As to the so-called prayer-test, it was not to try "the reality of the communion of the soul with God" that Sir Henry Thompson proposed it, and Prof. Tyndall indorsed it by sending the anonymous article to the Contemporary Review. The object was, indeed, very different from this. It was to determine the validity of what may be called the physical theory of prayer; to ascertain the value of petitions to God for intervention in producing designated physical effects, such as changing the weather, augmenting the crops, or staying disease in special answer to such petitions. It was to the conception of prayer as critical and advisory, as objecting to this and calling for that, as invoking a potency that is available to man for the attainment of specific ends in the natural world, such as can be only in this way secured, that it was proposed to apply some rational method of verification.
The effects claimed being physical, it is the legitimate work of science to search out and measure every agency by which they are influenced. Nor is even tins the sinful occupation that religious people often assume, for the laws of Nature are the laws of God, and no man can be more reverently occupied than in investigating their operations. The laws of God, we venture to think, do not shrink from any thoroughness of verification, and those who conceive themselves insulted by the application of the balance or the spectroscope, geometry or arithmetic, to any of the physical operations of the world, must entertain a very narrow and morbid view of the divine government. It would seem that the old religious prejudice against the study of Nature, as a profane occupation of the human mind, in contrast with the sacredness of theological studies, still survives, and that the old conflict is yet very far from having died out. If it be said that the doctrine of answer to prayer, by immediate and miraculous suspension of the course of natural changes, has passed away, and has been replaced by the doctrine that the answer comes through the operation of natural laws, we reply, that the proof of this position is wanting. We hazard little in the assertion that, if the question were submitted to the suffrage of Christendom, those who hold to this interpretation of prayer would not only be in a paltry minority, but would be voted as infidels and apostates from the faith. The fact cannot be escaped that multitudes of devout people still strenuously hold to immediate divine intervention in the course of natural things, in response to human supplication. A periodical before US, representing the faith of half the Christian world, says: "Suppose, then, that a whole city full of people should testify to the resurrection of a dead man from the grave; would we be justified in rejecting the testimony on the sole ground of the physical impossibility of the occurrence? ... History abounds in instances of the Sort, in recitals of sudden cures witnessed by thousands, of conflagrations suddenly checked, of plagues disappearing in a moment." That such beliefs were universal in past times is notorious; that they have been dissipated from many minds is purely owing to what is called the encroachment of science. But the mass of people are still very far from having so clear, and settled, and strong a conviction of the physical order of Nature, that they will not lend a willing ear to the most preposterous stories of its violation. What is the lesson of the gross ghostology of modern spiritualism, before which even educated people will throw up gravity, and all the laws of physics, at the first puzzle of a juggling exhibitor, unless it be that the scientific doctrine of the government of the world by inviolable law is yet far from being firmly rooted in the general mind. Those who entertain such loose views of the constitution of Nature will almost necessarily take to the superstitious side of religion, and resent all attempts to submit their beliefs, even where they involve physical effects, to the test of science.