I HAVE no laboratory but the world of books and men in which I live; but I am much mistaken if the scientific spirit of the age is not doing us a great disservice, working in us a certain great degeneracy. Science has bred in us a spirit of experiment and a contempt for the past. It has made us credulous of quick improvement, hopeful of discovering panaceas, confident of success in every new thing.
I wish to be as explicit as carefully chosen words will enable me to be upon a matter so critical, so radical as this. I have no indictment against what science has done: I have only a warning to utter against the atmosphere which has stolen from laboratories into lecture rooms and into the general air of the world at large. Science—our science—is new. It is a child of the nineteenth century. It has transformed the world and owes little debt of obligation to any past age. It has driven mystery out of the Universe; it has made malleable stuff of the hard world, and laid it out in its elements upon the table of every classroom. Its own masters have known its limitations; they have stopped short at the confines of the physical universe; they have declined to reckon with spirit or with the stuffs of the mind, have eschewed sense and confined themselves to sensation. But their work has been so stupendous that all other men of all other studies have been set staring at their methods, imitating their ways of thought, ogling their results. We look in our study of the classics nowadays more at the phenomena of language than at the movement of spirit; we suppose the world which is invisible to be unreal; we doubt the efficacy of feeling and exaggerate the efficacy of knowledge; we speak of society as an organism and believe that we can contrive for it a new environment which will change the very nature of its constituent parts; worst of all, we believe in the present and in the future more than in the past, and deem the newest theory of society the likeliest. This is the disservice scientific study has done us; it has given us agnosticism in the realm of philosophy, scientific anarchism in the field of politics. It has made the legislator confident that he can create, and the philosopher sure that God cannot. Past experience is discredited, and the laws of matter are supposed to apply to spirit and the make-up of society.
- Concluding part of the oration at the Princeton Sesquicentennial Exercises. Reprinted from The Forum for December, 1896.