The American Journal of Sociology/Volume 01/Number 1/Seminar Notes

For works with similar titles, see The American Journal of Sociology/Seminar Notes.


Recent developments in systematic sociology are evidences of a change of front in general philosophy. Men have everywhere and always differed in opinion about the intrinsic and the mediate value of all things. Especially has the question been discussed in connection with music, sculpture, painting, poetry, science—Is it valuable chiefly for its own sake, or chiefly for its utilitarian services? Without prying into the psychology of the change, we note the fact that men are more generally content than ever before to adjourn this attempt at giving an absolute position in the scale of values to the different objects of human interest; and we are able to say of each object of knowledge—it is worth attention both for its own intrinsic importance and for its value as a fragment of all useful knowledge. In other words, we no longer take either horn of the dilemma, but we regard all knowable truths both as ends and as means; as the goal of one stage of knowledge and as the points of departure for another stage.

The civilization in which our own lot is cast has without formal or very distinctly conscious action adopted as a last applicable standard for measuring the worth of all knowledge the visible service of that knowledge to man. In other words we are all in a real sense utilitarians. Scholars of a certain type zealously cultivate the tradition that all truths are uniformly important. This tradition is as false as the vulgar version of our democratic doctrine, "all men are born free and equal." All truths are not equally important. On the contrary they vary in importance in direct ratio with their bearing upon human weal. This is not to imply that the ratio may always or often be precisely determined. It will doubtless never be possible to apply this standard so that we may catalogue all sciences and all truths organized by sciences in the exact order of their utility. The impossibility of making exact application of the principle does not vacate the principle itself. The principle is at all events applicable in a certain approximate way. Thus, whatever may be the scientific value of a circumstantial account of the spot which we call the north pole, it will in all probability be a value incalculably inferior to that of a discovery which would inaugurate the era of complete combustion of fuel and of abated smoke nuisance in Chicago. Again, we cannot imagine a discovery in the historical portion of linguistic science that would equal Jenner's invention of vaccination in value to the human race. A final demonstration and formulation of the precise method of evolution up to date would be immeasurably inferior in value to such projection of the process of evolution into the future that the present generation of men would be enabled and induced to secure for the next generation a single step of advancement toward the ultimate realization of maximum welfare. In general, no truth held apart from other truths and unrelated to them is as valuable as any truth brought into connection with the other truths with which it belongs.

Sociology has been promoted by increased attention to the fact that all knowledge is mediate. No knowledge is self-sufficient. Each kind of knowledge plays its rôle, but its value is the value of the service which it renders in the economy of human existence. It is therefore principal or subordinate—primary or secondary—essential or incidental—but never absolute. Knowledge ranks with knowledge according to the part which each species of knowledge performs in procuring life larger in any dimension, or richer in any quality. That knowledge is of capital value which contributes to the intensifying or harmonizing of human life in its essential elements.

It would be a most unscholarly procedure to enter upon an argument to prove that one science, or one branch of knowledge is worthy and another unworthy of human pursuit. No detail of knowledge distinct enough to present unsolved problems to the human mind is too insignificant for the scholar's attention, so long as the problem remains unsolved. Every science may therefore make incalculably valuable contributions to the final art of life, provided that the results of each science are brought into correlation with the results of all the rest. The perception to which attention is called is not that one science deserves more sincere respect than another, but that all kinds of knowledge belong together at last, and that they can attain their proper dignity only in unity. No fraction of knowledge is as important as the next larger synthesis of that knowledge with other knowledge. No constituent of knowledge kept separate and isolated from other knowledge can be as valuable to the race as it becomes when combined with related knowledge. The contrary is admittedly often the case in a sense with individuals. For the largest social purposes there must go side by side in constructive scholarship the process of abstraction and the process of correlation. To make the most of knowledge it is necessary to perform two processes, either deliberately or unconsciously,—first, the process of studying the particular subject as though it were the one object of interest upon which the energies of the human mind ought to concentrate; second, the process of locating that subject in its proper relations with the whole body of knowledge of which it is a fragment. Minute study of abstracted specialities is no more important than the subsequent or possibly prior inquiry. How does the specialty fit into the whole complex of knowledge that fills the territory of human interests?

A scholar whose department is logically somewhat distant from sociology, recently made this very sagacious remark: "A couple of centuries ago men's thoughts were fairly expressed by Pope's aphorism 'The proper study of mankind is man.' Meanwhile our perspective has so shifted that our generation says 'The proper study of man is mankind.'"

The point of view of modern sociology could hardly have been more ingeniously indicated. Man the individual, man the genus homo is not the last term in the equation of visible life. Mankind, the permutation of men, the associations of men, in which there is reciprocal modification of the association by its components, and of the components by the association—men in social reciprocity, this is the last and highest stage of experience which our observation discovers, and this consummate reality of associated human life, in which the career of individuals is made or marred, forms the setting, to interpret and to be interpreted by all the included particulars which special knowledge accumulates.

The all-inclusive fact of association in groups or societies of various grades, from the family up to the race, presents the most complex forms of the human life problem. What are the essentials and what are the accidents of the associated or societary condition? What limitations does it fix to human accomplishments? What aids does it furnish to human endeavors? What taslcs does it impose, what aims does it suggest and what means and methods does it stipulate for the combination of human effort ? These are not questions invented in the seclusion of scholars' libraries. They are propounded by the world's busiest laborers and by its idlest shirkers alike. They are questions that propound themselves so soon as the objective fact of society presents itself to men's perceptions.

Every science throws its particular light upon some phase of the comprehensive societary problem. The physical sciences, first and foremost, analyze the external material conditions to which societies as well as individuals must accommodate themselves. The biological sciences deal at last with the vital factors which determine the individual type, and thus indirectly much of the social structure. The psychical sciences, both historical and contemporary, control another order of phenomena proceeding primarily from individuals, but combined at last into phenomena that have societary importance. Lastly, the social sciences divide up the phenomena of associated activity and interpret societary institutions and processes, domestic, economic, artistic, educational, ethical, religious, juridical and political. Each and all of these departments of knowledge puts under the microscope a certain section of reality abstracted from the vast sum of reality in which the movements of human society preserve their orbit, and then each tries more or less directly to correlate these details with the whole. The emergence of a new attempt to deal with the phenomena of society, and the application of a new name, Sociology, to this attempt, means, in the simplest words, that the growing dissatisfaction of scholars in all the branches of social science about the impotent isolation of the divisions of social science from each other has at last found effective expression in the differentiation of class of men calling themselves sociologists, who are offering themselves as the missing links to bind these disjecta membra together. It is sufficient for the present purpose to point out that sociology undertakes the work of organizing, and focalizing upon the tasks of living men, the distinct divisions of knowledge which may be and have been cultivated too independently and consequently too unproductively. A serious question of sociological method concerns the relation of facts which have already engaged the attention of accredited sciences, to facts which seem to be less susceptible of classification and generalization. A form of the question is involved in the differences of policy between investigators who tend to confine their view to historical data, i. e., to facts belonging in the past, and the other class of investigators who tend to equally exclusive interest in contemporary social phenomena.

It cannot be too forcibly urged that past and present societary facts must serve as reciprocal interpreters; with this provision it seems to be timely to advocate at present the devotion of a larger proportion of sociologists' attention to scientific treatment of facts taking place before our eyes. Whatever be the ultimate success of scholars in reconstructing history, there is no single past period or past societary status of which relatively so complete knowledge is available as of our own civilization. There is more room for skepticism about conclusions drawn from assumed knowledge of past societary conditions than there would be in the case of conclusions derived by equally critical processes from interpretation of contemporary facts.

The portion of time which we easily and without important error think of as the present is sufficiently extended to exhibit the same relations of sequence as well as of order which we try to trace in the past. More complete evidence about this present is available than in case of past periods. The scientific value of contemporary phenomena, as the material for social philosophy, is not placed as high as it deserves to be by the most competent sociologists. Perhaps they instinctively avoid dealing with these facts, from dread of being confused with the unscientific people who make the name social science contemptible. At all events the men who have done the most to develop sociological methodology have given relatively excessive attention to sources of evidence which can never be as productive as contemporary sources.

The experience of men in the present generation, or better in some instances the present century, is a safer basis for the beginning of induction, dynamic as well as static, than the more imposing but less coherent evidence available about remote societary systems. Conclusive social philosophy will not be constructed chiefly out of the fragmentary data which remote centuries have reserved, but chiefly rather out of observation of present realities. The men who are at present observing the most scientific decorum in dealing with societary facts, are inclined to presume that facts are fit only for the material of social palliatives and nostrums until they are centuries old. But revision of that presumption is going on. Scholars are beginning to see that the industrial order of the present century is both a statical and a dynamic exhibit from which inductions of more credibility and greater relative significance may be derived than from analysis of vaguely represented industrial systems of which it is extremely doubtful if we have sufficiently complete information for useful conclusions.

The like may be said of our constitutional development in the present century: of our educational, ecclesiastical, scientific, social and philanthropic readjustments. Each of these has exhibited within an easily observable period a series of statical conditions and lines of dynamic operations which would yield larger proportionate returns to scientific scrutiny than all available evidence about any period except the present. By knowing the present better we shall be able to make better use of knowledge that may be gained about the past. This fact gives to the work performed by many observers of neglected contemporary facts a dignity that is as yet too rarely acknowledged.

The recently established sociological department of a prominent theological journal makes a painfully amateurish display in dealing with questions of sociological method. Any alleged science is essentially fraudulent that claims authority in expression of conclusions before mastery has been acquired of the postulates and processes by the use of which conclusions are derived. The editor of the department referred to has not yet arrived at an intelligent rendering of the rudimentary postulate "society is an organism." It is quite conceivable that future sociologists may invent a more precise and luminous expression of the idea so formulated, but it is morally certain that nobody will contribute much, except by accident, to a more adequate account of the facts, until he has become able to understand the sense in which the present formula is employed.

The interpretation which is imposed upon the conception of society as an organism by the editor in question, is that it presumes society to be something which belongs properly within the field of zoölogy, or perhaps even botany. Human groups, or societies, either in the most narrow or in the most comprehensive sense, are made up of individuals composing a division of zoological units. This fact is a sociological datum, but it is not the fact directly alluded to in the dictum under discussion. The writer referred to seems to understand the users of the formula to mean that societies are vegetables or animals in successful disguise. They are supposed to teach, for instance, that the Constitution of the United States came into existence through the operation of some law of physiological propagation, precisely as the members of the Continental Congress of 1776 were physically begotten. It is too late in the history of sociology to waste time in attempts to bring such a man up to date. Before he can be taken seriously he must somehow get possession of the primary information which he has neglected, in his haste to become an authority. The conception which we cite as an illustration has been explained so often and so minutely that any one who still fails to give a fair rendering of the sense in which it is employed by those who find it serviceable writes himself down as either dishonest or ignorant. The former explanation need not be discussed. If the facts to which we refer arise from lack of acquaintance with standard sociological literature, to which every student is now introduced in the first year of sociological study, it would seem to go without saying that the case is an instance of attempting to do the work of a scholar with a somewhat inadequate preparation.

It will probably be long before explanations of the use of biological analogies in general by students of society will be unnecessary. Discussions of society up to date have taken comparatively little account of the fact that so far as degree of complexity is concerned, vital phenomena are the only approximate analogue of societary phenomena. A consequence of this failure has been that shoals of people who have not acquired ability to think through relations of the biological order of complexity, have presumed themselves capable of thinking steadily a still higher order of complexity. The use of biological analogies as a tool in sociology does not mean the seizure of biological facts and their forcible transfer into sociology. It does not mean that finding analogies between biological and societary facts constitutes sociology. It means that the sociologist has to do with societary interrelations, the complexities of which he tries to understand by checking off the involutions which are analogous with biological correlations, and by observing afterwards the unparalleled remainder by which the societary facts exceed in complexity the biological facts.

The method of societary analysis which Schaeffle elaborated in such detail that few people have had the patience to understand him, is at bottom simply persistent pursuit of the discovery that human associations have all the degrees of complexity manifested by vital organisms—plus. The method which Schaeffle developed so minutely is not properly changeable with any of the alleged literalism which has been asserted of it, and of which earlier forms of the method are surely guilty. It starts with the postulate that "society" is a reality which is at least as complicated as "life" in the biological sense. The inference follows that interpretation of this complexity will discover many relations between societary facts which will be elucidated by comparison with relations between vital facts. To begin with, we find at once that, like plants and animals, any portion of societary order is an outgrowth of earlier order, and is affecting the character of associations that are developing. In the case of societies too, as with animals, we find that the form of development has apparently been determined in part by physical environment. The study of societies involves therefore the tracing of an evolutionary process within forms of human association. Instead of being an innovation due to sociology, this perception has been more or less familiar to historians and philosophers as far back as Aristotle, and probably much earlier. Sociologists are simply sharpening one of the tools which their predecessors already used. The stage of evolution which is exhibited in existing animals or in societies, has to be found out by minute observation and interpretation of the forms of coexistence and of coöperation between the elements that make up the respective units. The idea of structure and function is made in this investigation to serve the same purpose which the idea of causal relationship in one or another form has served in history.

The whole story about the biological analogy, as thus suggested, is that it is, up to date, the nearest approach we have to an interpretation of the most complicated correlations that occur in human experience. In order to get our minds clear as to the greater complexity of societary phenomena, we have no recourse so useful as employment of the concepts which familiarity with the next antecedent order of complexity furnishes. These will serve us in preliminary surveys, at any rate, but their best service in a given case may be their demonstration of the gap between analogy and identity. Perception of the insufficiency of biological analogies does not, however, as so many critics appear to imagine, involve the consequence that resort should be had to conceptions still less adequate. It rather imposes the task of building up more highly refined concepts of societary relationships. In doing this constructive work the mind cannot do without any of the general notions derived by science from acquaintance with all the relations discovered among the inferior orders of reality.

The fundamental difference between the men who value biological conceptions as tools in sociology, and the critics who affect to consider the use of biological analogies necessarily superficial, is that the latter do not believe it worth while to examine societary phenomena as closely as the biologists examine vital phenomena. Such being the case time may be trusted to settle the question of relative superficiality.

This work was published before January 1, 1927 and it is anonymous or pseudonymous due to unknown authorship. It is in the public domain in the United States as well as countries and areas where the copyright terms of anonymous or pseudonymous works are 100 years or less since publication.