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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 9/September 1876/Present Status of Social Science: Reply to a Critic

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 9‎ | September 1876


WHEN a periodical of such wide circulation and deservedly high reputation as The Popular Science Monthly disparages an author by its criticism, silence on his part might reasonably be construed into acquiescence in its justness. It is, therefore, hoped that this reply to a criticism on the late work, published by H. L. Hinton & Co., on "The Present Status of Social Science," which appeared in that monthly for May, 1874, will not be denied a place in the same columns that allowed the criticism.

The main accusation preferred against the book—and it is almost the only one—is, that it is "an old book," and of "an antiquated character."

It may not be out of place here to remind our critic that some of the oldest books in the world are among the most valuable, that age does not necessarily detract from the real merit of a book, or of any truth it may advocate, any more than it does from the quality of wine, or of ancient, long-tried, long-approved friendship, that an old truth is even better than a new error, and that one of the highest and most important functions of the philosopher, in every age, is to reconcile the new with the old, to harmonize the latest revelations of science with the venerable traditions and immutable ideas of the race; in short, to keep mankind constant, and bring them back to the old landmarks, the primary and fundamental truths, from which they have a constant tendency to wander off and go astray. Perhaps it might not be amiss, furthermore, to remind him that the present age, more than any other, and especially this department of science, require to be admonished with the warning proverb of Solomon, "Remove not the ancient landmarks which thy fathers have set."

But with what propriety can a book be called old, or antiquated in character, that deals almost exclusively, and that, too, with almost unqualified approbation and accord, with the views of such recent and highly-advanced thinkers as Guizot and Hallam, Sismondi and Mill, Cousin, Buckle, Comte, and Herbert Spencer?

If the book in question is old, all that Herbert Spencer has written on sociology is likewise old. If there is nothing new in this book, there is nothing new in any of the reasonings, on society, of that Magnus Apollo, we might almost say, that alter ego, of The Popular Science Monthly. We challenge our critic to produce a single idea of Herbert Spencer's, having any important bearing on the philosophy of society, and any claim to be considered at all new, either in his "Social Statics," or any other of his works, that is not contained in the "Present Status of Social Science," either in direct expression, or in fair, direct, and inevitable logical sequence, from what is directly expressed. Will our critic accept the challenge, with the privilege of only a brief reply accorded to a misrepresented and much-wronged author? We hardly think so.

The truth rather seems to be, that the work in question contains rather too much about Mr. Spencer and his philosophy of society. It contains, substantially, not only all that is true or essentially valuable in the suggestions of that great and eminently valuable thinker, up to the present time, but something that is not so valuable or true. It contains, in short, a rather too caustic, possibly too just, and unanswerable criticism on his extreme and exaggerated applications of the laissez-faire doctrine, and upon his fantastical reasonings about "the evanescence of evil." It takes too just exceptions to his condemnation of any and all provision, by the state, for the relief of the poor, or even for their education.

But the plea of our critic, which is plausible only on its face, is, that it was unfair, unjust, thus to attack Mr. Spencer, when his views had not as yet been fully presented to the world. On this point, which is the main point, he says: "An example of the antiquated and unreliable character of the work is afforded by the author's treatment of the most eminent thinker of the times on problems of social science. Mr. Herbert Spencer is judged as a sociologist by his views developed in 'Social Statics;' how justly will appear from the fact that 'Social Statics' was Mr. Spencer's first work, published twenty-four years ago. And not only this, but he was so dissatisfied with it that he would not consent to its republication in this country without incorporating a preface, which indicated that his views had undergone important modifications."

Now, what does our critic mean by the equivocal expression, "Mr. Spencer is judged," etc., "by his views expressed in 'Social Statics?'" Does he mean that he has been judged in part, or altogether and solely, by his "Social Statics?" If the former only, what is the ground of complaint? What more fair, or just, than that an author should be judged, in part, by a part of his performance, by one of his most formal and elaborate works? If he means the latter, then he is greatly mistaken, and grossly misrepresents the author. Mr. Spencer is judged in the work in question, not only by his "Social Statics," but by his brilliant article on "The Social Organism," to be found in his "Illustrations of Universal Progress," by his truly great work on "First Principles," in which are contained some of his most valuable thoughts on sociology,[1] and to some and not unimportant extent, also, by his "Principles of Biology," and other writings.

And now to the main point of the criticism, its very citadel, which, briefly rendered, is, that Mr. Spencer has been judged, at least to a very large and important extent, by a work which he has virtually retracted or disclaimed, in some of its essential doctrines. On this point, as will be seen, the critic expresses himself with a very cautious reserve, gently insinuating, merely, what he could hardly venture directly to assert. In reference to the preface, which Mr. Spencer insisted on incorporating with the republication of the "Social Statics," in this country, he says it "indicated that his views had undergone important modifications."

Now, we must beg leave, most respectfully but most emphatically, to dissent from the critic's interpretation of Mr. Spencer's preface in question, and to say that it indicated, very clearly, that his views had undergone only some slight and unimportant modifications. The precise words of Mr. Spencer's preface, on this point, are "some accompanying modifications." But the whole context conclusively demonstrates that "those modifications" were not important, not material, in respect to the essential or substantial import of his ideas.

He begins his preface by saying he would not have the American public to take this work as "a literal expression" of his present views. He proceeds to say that now, after the lapse of fourteen years, were he writing out his thoughts on the subject, he would express himself somewhat differently on several specified points. Then by way of excusing himself from rewriting his views, and of showing the little importance of his doing so, he concludes his preface with these conclusive words, expressing himself in the third person: "When, however, he comes to the closing volumes of this system, should he ever get so far, he proposes to set forth in them the developed conclusions of which 'Social Statics' must be considered a rough sketch." What more conclusive proof could we need that "Social Statics" was still, then and there, a substantial embodiment of his views?

The critic says that the author of the work in question appears to have "an obscure conception of social science," etc. It is to be remembered, however, that social science is a very large science, susceptible of very diverse renditions, or modes of consideration, and that, when viewed, as it is by Mr. Spencer and his especial admirers, from the lofty standpoint of universal science, it would be likely to present somewhat different points of prominence for scientific consideration from those it would present from the far less ambitious standpoint from which it is viewed by the author in question—the standpoint of the practical statesman and jurist.

By way of illustrating the fairness and justness of his criticism, the critic quotes an isolated passage from the work under his consideration, which, unexplained, and rent from its context, would appear only as Greek, Hebrew, or Sanscrit, to the general reader; a passage in which, after the example of Mr. Spencer himself, and other modern scientists, the author had casually drawn on astronomical science for illustration, and instituted a similitude between the forces of cosmical and social life. But was that a really fair selection? What would our critic think if any one should undertake to judge Mr. Spencer, either as a sociologist or a general scientist, solely by his fundamental postulate that all evolution is from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous?

The critic would have conveyed to his readers a far more just idea of the scope and real character of the work under his review—a mere preliminary work as it is—if he had seen fit to quote the seven propositions laid down in the author's sixth chapter, embodying, as they claim to do, the essential import of all the most recent and most advanced thought in social philosophy; nay, embodying, in outline, the very quintessence of Mr. Spencer's peculiar views, with the addition of only a few highly-important ideas, which he seems to have either overlooked or undervalued.

And here it may be proper to remark that there is no essential antagonism between Mr. Spencer and the author who has incurred the displeasure of The Popular Science Monthly. On fundamental principles, and in the general drift of their reasonings, likewise, they are in almost perfect accord—co-laborers in the same great field—endeavoring to compass it only by different methods.

While Mr. Spencer is tugging at the vast problems of social science from the standpoint of the universal scientist, the author in question is viewing them more directly from the standpoint of the specialist in sociology—and more particularly in the department of statesmanship—seeking and deriving valuable instruction from the vast generalizations of his more able and far more learned co-laborer.

Can it be supposed, however, that the two laborers will not differ, somewhat, in some of their practical applications of the very same general principles which they hold in common? Or need it be wondered at that, while Mr. Spencer would abolish the state school and state provision for the poor, the author in question would rather re-model and enlarge the scope of both, while admitting and appreciating the great abuses and mischiefs that may result from either?

Does not the very loftiness of Mr. Spencer's standpoint, the grandeur of his views, and the vast and far-reaching comprehensiveness of his observations, make it impossible, despite his great and indisputable sagacity, to avoid some mistakes in respect to the great practical problems of social life, and to escape altogether the error, so common with our modern reformers, of seeking to abolish institutions that need only amendment and reform?

In conclusion, let the hope be expressed that "the antiquated character" of this reply will find excuse in the fact that, although the privilege of making it was solicited early in June, 1874, it was not accorded until late in October following, when the author, in despair of obtaining justice, or a fair hearing, at least in this country, had abandoned all idea of replying. Weeks and even months then elapsed before the purpose of doing so revived in his mind, under the conviction that such a course was due, not only to himself, but to the momentous theme, which he has made the theme of his life, and on which he feels a strong assurance that he has some suggestions to offer, some great universal truths, great fundamental laws of social life, to announce, that are calculated to exert an important influence on the cause of knowledge and human advancement.

Cincinnati, February 22, 1875.


  1. See "Present Status," etc., pp. 126-128, or chapter vi., §12.