Historical Essays and Studies/Mr. Buckle's Thesis and Method

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MR. BUCKLE'S THESIS AND METHOD[1]

Mr. Buckle is a gentleman who has had the rare fortune of jumping to celebrity at a bound, by the publication of an elaborate book on a profound subject. The success of the published portion of his History of Civilisation in England has been hitherto far above that which usually attends such efforts ; and it must be conceded, that a work which could thus seize on the public ear must be, at any rate, a remarkable production. It must have powerfully appealed to something or other in the public mind, or tell something or other very important, which people wanted to know, in order to have won so rapid a popularity.

The object which he proposes to himself is, to prove that history may be reduced to a science. To comprehend the full meaning of this proposition we must ask, what is "history," and what is "science"? History is a generalised account of the personal actions of men united in bodies for any public purposes whatever ; and science is the combination of a great mass of similar facts into the unity of a generalisation, a principle, or a law, which principle or law will enable us to predict with certainty the recurrence of like events under given conditions. Now, then, can there be a science of history? Can we ever arrive at such a complete knowledge of all the motives and laws of human conduct as to be able to predict with certainty of any bodies of men what their conduct in given circumstances will be? Mr. Buckle thinks we can. Not that he ever hopes to be able to predict the actions of individual men ; but for men in masses, for humanity in general, for large races, for nations, he supposes that pretty close approximations may be arrived at.

The "history" which Mr. Buckle proposed to write is not history in general, nor history of such kind as biography, or accounts of families, but the special history of civilisation. Now, what is civilisation ? It is the progress of mankind measured by "the triumph of mind over external agents." It is the conquest of nature by man. In thought, it is the gradual weaning of the mind from a superstitious veneration for, and deification of, nature ; in action, it is the use of nature, the making matter and its forces obedient to our behests, and using them for our needs and convenience.

It is important to settle that this is all that Mr. Buckle means by civilisation ; for on this definition depends the whole logical value and consistency of his book. Among many passages that might be selected, the following, from p. 205, where he announces the plan of his future volumes, includes all that we want to show : —

In a great and comprehensive view, the changes in every civilised people are in their aggregate dependent solely on three things : first, on the amount of knowledge possessed by their ablest men ; secondly, on the direction which that knowledge takes, that is to say, the sort of subjects to which it refers ; thirdly, and above all, on the extent to which the knowledge is diffused and the freedom with which it pervades all classes of society.

The word changes indicates that the fundamental idea in the writer's mind is that of progress. The knowledge which he requires for this progress must be either religious, moral, or scientific. He proves, with great care, that it is neither of the two former ; it must, therefore, be the last. Not that he denies the power of religious and moral convictions, but he says that their action ceases with individuals, and leaves no permanent result on society. Vices and virtues, like plus and minus quantities in an equation, eliminate each other, and leave the residuum to be attributed to some other cause ; they are equivalent opposing forces, neutralising each other, therefore contributing nothing to progress, therefore not to be considered in the history of civilisation, according to the terms of the definition. The following passage immediately succeeds that quoted above : —

These are the three great movers of every civilised country ; and although their operation is frequently disturbed by vices or the virtues of powerful individuals, such moral feelings correct each other, and the average of long periods remains unaffected. Owing to causes of which we are ignorant, the moral qualities do, no doubt, constantly vary ; so that in one man, or perhaps even in one generation, there will be an excess of good intentions, in another an excess of bad ones. But we have no reason to think that any permanent change has been effected in the proportion which those who naturally possess good intentions bear to those in whom bad ones seem to be inherent. In what may be called the innate and original morals of mankind, there is, so far as we are aware, no progress. Of the different passions with which we are born, some are more prevalent at one time, some at another ; but experience teaches us that, as they are always antagonistic, they are held in balance by the force of their own opposition. The activity of one motive is corrected by the activity of another. For to every vice there is a corresponding virtue. Cruelty is counteracted by benevolence, sympathy is excited by suffering, the injustice of some provokes the charity of others, new evils are met by new remedies, and even the most enormous offences that have ever been known have left behind them no permanent impression. The desolation of countries and the slaughter of men are losses which never fail to be repaired, and at the distance of a few centuries every vestige of them is effaced. This is the ebb and flow of history, the perpetual flux to which, by the laws of our nature, we are subject. Above all this, there is a far higher movement ; and as the tide rolls on, now advancing, now receding, there is, amid its endless fluctuations, one thing, and one alone, which endures for ever. The actions of bad men produce only temporary evil, the actions of good men only temporary good ; and eventually the good and the evil together subside, are neutralised by subsequent generations, absorbed by the incessant movement of future ages. But the discoveries of great men never leave us ; they are immortal, they contain those eternal truths which survive the shock of empires, outlive the struggles of rival creeds, and witness the decay of successive religions. All these have their different measures and their different standards ; one set of opinions for one age, another set for another. They pass away like a dream ; they are as the fabric of a vision, which leaves not a rack behind. The discoveries of genius alone remain : it is to them we owe all that we now have, they are for all ages and all times ; never young and never old, they bear the seeds of their own life ; they flow on in a perennial and undying stream ; they are essentially cumulative, and, giving birth to the additions which they subsequently receive, they thus influence the most distant posterity, and after the lapse of centuries produce more effect than they were able to do even at the moment of their promulgation.

Let us not allow the emotions stirred up by Mr. Buckle's eloquence to blind us to the real meaning of his grand words. We must note that the "eternal truths" do not concern morality, or that "flux and reflux" of human action which neutralises itself and forms no element of progress. They have still less to do with religion ; for they "outlive the struggles of rival creeds, and witness the decay of successive religions," but they are "the discoveries of genius" — not barren truths regarding intellect and will, and such-like metaphysical matters, which yield no fruit, but truths which teach man how to conquer and make use of nature, which tell him what he may do with water, and steam, and electricity, and wood, and coal, and iron, and gas, and skins, and horns. They are "essentially cumulative" : one man begins where the last ended, and adds improvement on improvement — not as in morals, where all men begin afresh, and no real advance is made. Again, it is evident that individual happiness or misery forms no element in Mr. Buckle's computation : he eliminates both vice and virtue, not only because they balance one another, but because, after a century or two, no vestiges are left of the greatest crimes or most splendid acts of goodness. Mr. Buckle, therefore, does not contemplate the action, but the result ; not the life or thinking of the man, but the work he has done, or the theory he has thought out. Where no trace remains of the work, nothing was done worth speaking of.

Having thus made the individual soul of no account in his investigations on the history of human progress, it is clear that only one manner of looking at mankind remains : if they are not to be viewed as persons in detail, they must be considered as bodies in mass. Hence not individual acts, but their statistics engage his attention. It is not personal doings, but sums total, that he seeks. But here we will let him speak for himself: —

The actions of individuals are greatly affected by their moral feelings and by their passions, but these being antagonistic to the passions and feelings of other individuals, are balanced by them. So that their effect is, in the great average of human affairs, nowhere to be seen, and the total actions of mankind, considered as a whole, are left to be regulated by the total knowledge of which mankind is possessed. And of the way in which individual feeling and individual caprice are thus absorbed and neutralised, we find a clear illustration in the history of crime. For the amount of crime committed in a country is, year after year, reproduced with the most startling uniformity, not being in the least affected by those capricious and personal feelings to which human actions are too often referred. But if, instead of examining the history of crime year by year, we were to examine it month by month, we should find less regularity, and if we were to examine it hour by hour, we should find no regularity at all ; neither would its regularity be seen if, instead of the criminal records of a whole country, we only knew those of a single street, or of a single family. This is because the great social laws by which crime is governed can only be perceived after observing great numbers of long periods ; but in a small number, and a short period, the individual moral principle triumphs, and disturbs the operation of the larger and intellectual law. While, therefore, the moral feelings by which a man is urged to commit a crime, or to abstain from it, will produce an immense effect on the amount of his own crimes, they will produce no effect on the amount of crimes committed by the society to which he belongs ; because, in the long-run, they are sure to be neutralised by opposite moral feelings, which cause in other men an opposite conduct. Just in the same way, we are all sensible that moral principles do affect nearly the whole of our actions, but we have incontrovertible proof that they produce not the least effect on mankind in the aggregate, or even in men in very large masses, provided that we take the precaution of studying social phenomena for a period sufficiently long, and on a scale sufficiently great to enable the superior laws to come into uncontrolled operation.

The doings of individual men, of families, of the inhabitants of single streets, are nothing to Mr. Buckle ; they must be divested of all personality, of all reminiscences of personality, before they are of use to him. That is to say, in his view of civilisation, he looks at men not as persons, but as machines ; and the result he contemplates is not the action of these machines, but their productions. This is all that Mr. Buckle's design includes, all that logically he has any right to pretend to discuss. Defining, as he does, civilisation to be that mass of ideas, knowledge, and production which remains over and above when you have abstracted all transitory actions, all the results of politics, war, or religion, of course his history of civilisation ought to be confined to the genesis of this product, and the rules on which he proceeds to such as are applicable only to such a history. For instance, as virtues, vices, and all transitory actions are excluded from his view, of course he has nothing to do with the question of the force on which they depend ; hence he is quite right in eliminating free-will from his laws of civilisation. Man's knowledge depends not on his will, but on his intellect ; now it is his will, not his intellect, that is free. A man cannot refuse to see that which he does see, nor force himself to disbelieve that which is demonstratively proved. It is only when he has to decide whether he will open his eyes to see, or whether he will act on that which is proved to him, that he is free to do as he chooses. Again, it is only to men as persons that free-will belongs : look at them in masses, and they become machines ; with their personality you abstract their freedom. Looking, therefore, at mankind as Mr. Buckle does, not as individual persons but as masses of producers, he could not allow free-will to come into his calculations. So again with Providence. Providence dealing with the world is that creative and preservative force which conducts the universe according to "a law which shall not be broken" ; the expression of Providence is this law, wherein no personality can be proved. But Providence dealing with persons is the action of a Personal God upon his personal creatures ; warning them, teaching them, judging them. Eliminate personality from your science, and of course your science has nothing to do with the personal providence. Nothing can be clearer.

But then, again, nothing can be clearer than this, that when you have cut off a part from anything, the thing is no longer a whole. This very clear truth Mr. Buckle, with the most charming simplicity, not only forgets, but tries to make his readers forget also. Having arbitrarily settled the limit of his history ; having, in so many words, recognised that things do exist outside of these limits, which, however, do not require his attention, as they do not influence the precise matter on hand ; having confessed that the constant variation of moral qualities in men is "owing to causes of which we are ignorant" ; that to individuals, or a small number of persons his rules will not apply, because there " the individual moral principle triumphs, and disturbs the operation of the larger and intellectual law," and that "we are all sensible that moral principles do affect nearly the whole of our actions," — yet he goes on to treat his science as exhaustive, as including every possible kind of human actions, and as furnishing the true key to the only real "history" of the human race. Let us see how Mr. Buckle manages to turn this wonderful intellectual somersault. We must suppose that the man who has written so remarkable a book had the whole plan of it in his mind. He knew that he was to write about men, not as individuals, but in masses. He knew that all his proofs were to be statistical, that is, winnowed from all personal detail, lumped together, averaged, and reduced to mathematical symbols. Yet, for all this, he pretends to begin from persons. The fundamental question of his book is thus stated : "Are the actions of men, and therefore of societies, governed by fixed laws, or are they the result either of chance or supernatural interference?"[2] He discusses these latter alternatives, not mathematically, or metaphysically, or logically, but by means of a fanciful theory, illustrated by an apologue. He imagines man to have been originally a wild and savage hunter, sometimes finding game, sometimes starving, and attributing his good or ill success only to chance ; next the savage becomes agricultural, and seeing that seasons succeed regularly, and that the crop answers to the seed, the first notion of " uniform sequence "arises, and ripens into that of "law of nature" and "necessary connection." These doctrines of the people give rise, among the men of leisure, or thinkers, to two corresponding doctrines of the learned — free-will and predestination ; founded one on a metaphysical, the other on a theological hypothesis. Mr. Buckle rejects both doctrines : the second, as unproved, and if proved only a barren hypothesis ; the first, free-will, as "in reality resting on the metaphysical dogma of the supremacy of the human consciousness. Every man, it is alleged, feels and knows that he is a free agent ; nor can any subtleties of argument do away with our consciousness of possessing a free-will." This supremacy of consciousness he denies : first, because we cannot prove that consciousness is a faculty ; secondly, because if a faculty it is fallible, or, as he explains in a note, infallible as to the fact, but fallible as to the truth ; infallible in testifying the presence of a phenomenon to the mind, fallible in affirming the substantial reality of the phenomenon. Now the consciousness is often deceived in affirming the existence of ghosts and the like, therefore it may be deceived in affirming the existence of free-will. This is literally the whole proof which Mr. Buckle deigns to give us of the premiss of the fundamental proposition of his book.

It is almost too absurd to controvert. He foists the unnecessary word supremacy into his adversary's statement, in order that he may object that, consciousness not being a faculty, there is no supremacy. Possibly not. Yet consciousness being the mind's knowledge of its own acts, and of the motives upon which it acts, either consciousness is true, or all our knowledge of our own thoughts is possibly false — i.e. possibly I am thinking exactly the contrary of that which I know I am thinking. Next, the mind may be infallibly conscious of its acts and motives, and, among the rest, of its own freedom. Put the case of every imaginable motive of interest and pleasure, temporal and eternal, being offered me to determine me to a certain act : I know that if I choose, I may do exactly the reverse, simply to prove my freedom. I am conscious not only of my freedom to act, but also that the assertion of this freedom may be a motive outweighing all other motives together. We are all conscious that we often will not do what we ought, simply because we are commanded : "If you tell me I may, I won't ; if you tell me I must, I will see you hanged first," — that is, egotistical freedom asserts itself by not brooking permission, and by defying command. Mr. Buckle has no right to object to this, that our consciousness may be wrong, for he himself appeals to it in a passage quoted above : "We are all sensible that moral principles do affect nearly the whole of our actions." Sensible means conscious ; he therefore puts himself out of court by producing in his own behalf the witness whose truth he had before impeached. To compare our consciousness of ghosts with our consciousness of our own freedom, is to confound the mind's self-consciousness of itself with its consciousness of a false sensation, or false nervous impression ; one is outward, the other inward. It is to argue that because a blind man cannot see colours, therefore he cannot see the validity of a syllogism. So that Mr. Buckle utterly fails to establish the premiss of his fundamental proposition : "the actions of men, and therefore of societies, are governed by fixed laws, and not by free-will."

Again, why make an "alternative" between fixed laws and free-will ? God is absolutely free and absolutely immutable. Freedom is not instability. The liberty of the children of God does not consist in holding an even balance between obeying and disobeying God, now inclining to one side, now to the other. True liberty is a self-determined, self-chosen perseverance in the way we deliberately think the best. Fixedness, then, is not really opposed to freedom. But further ; let us assume as an hypothesis the existence of an immaterial soul, having perfect and even capricious freedom, — such that there is no fixity in its intentions, no possibility of predicting the changes of its self-determination. Yet as soon as this soul is united with body, as soon as it manifests its acts in time and space, it must follow the laws of time and space. It must work "in number, measure, and weight." It cannot enclose a space with two straight lines ; it cannot find a shorter way of joining two points than by a straight line. So also in moral acts ; it cannot do anything that may not be referred to the seven virtues, or the seven sins ; nay, there must be an average in its sins or virtues ; it must either attach itself to all equally, or it must now prefer one, now another. Its acts must be capable of numeration ; and every thing that is numerable becomes at once a subject of statistics, — it has its average, its maximum, and its minimum, and is ticketed as belonging to a "fixed law." Yet, by the hypothesis, it was perfectly free. Therefore perfect freedom, and subjection to a fixed law, are quite compatible even in the individual soul, working in space and time. In its inner self-determination it may be perfectly free ; yet in the manifestations or results of its free action it is bound by the fixed laws of number, space, and time. Again, these results, before they become appreciable, are done ; they have become facts, and as such are removed from the influence of free-will. Not even God, says the poet, can make a fact not a fact, can render undone what is done. That which is done is become a material external product, altogether independent of the interior determination, or free-will, which motived or gave the first occasion of its existence. Hence no examination of these facts, apart from the consciousness of the doers of them, can possibly give us the element of freedom ; they are mere material external facts, as subject to numeration and measurement as a crop of wheat, or the velocity of a bullet.

And if this is true of the acts of an individual, how much more true will it be of the acts of a mass of men ? The laws of number are capable of a much more varied manifestation in large than in small numbers. There is no regularity in throws of dice taken ten and ten together; but in 10,000 throws we can predict with great confidence how many times sixes will be thrown. There is no possible certainty that any given individual will commit murder ; but take a population of 100,000, and in a given time some one or other is sure to be found committing murder. All double things are done at intervals ; and though there is the greatest uncertainty when they will be done, yet give laxity enough, allow a thousand, a hundred, or fifty years, and it may be confidently predicted that the thing will be done in that time ; and this by no quality inherent in the thing or the doer, but by the law of numeration. Hence we cannot say, as Emerson somewhere says, that "if one man in thirty thousand eats shoes, or marries his grandmother, then one man in every thirty thousand must eat shoes, or marry his grandmother," for there is no necessity in the case. Take the dice. The mathematician will tell you exactly how often he will throw aces in 10,000 throws. But suppose by some very possible accident you had made 9990 throws without turning aces the average number of times, are you in any conceivable way surer of having aces in the last ten throws than if you were only just beginning the game? Not a bit. The former throws have nothing to do with the latter. The law is a law of numbers, a law of chances applicable to numbers and on the average applicable to all numerable things ; but not implying any force, or cause, or reason why the things themselves should be thus rather than otherwise. Hence, in the first place, we should never be surprised if facts, the origin of which is free-will, are numbered ; nor, secondly, if they are found capable of being averaged, so that a given number of them take place in a given time, but from this to make the third step, and to say, because they are numerable, because they can be averaged, therefore they happened by necessity, by a fixed law, is absurd in any man, and in Mr. Buckle dishonest.

It is dishonest in Mr. Buckle, because he must be aware that he is using the words law and necessity in a sense quite different from that intended by ordinary mortals. When we say "law," we always think of some force, or command, which is the cause of the thing being done. But Mr. Buckle, by /aw, only means numerical average. Now it is clear that when a thing has an average, it has an average ; you may call this a fixed law if you please ; but use your terms in such a way that we may not be led into the mistake of concluding that fixed law means a necessity inherent in the essence of the thing, and that therefore whatever has an average is necessary, and could not be otherwise. So, again, the word necessary. Common thinkers mean by it that which cannot be thought to be otherwise without self-contradiction ; thus it is necessary that two and two make four, that the three angles of a triangle equal two right angles, and the like. Now, is there any necessity of this kind in averages ? Clearly not, or they would not be averages, but identical numbers. If there were any fixed law, or necessity of murder, the annual number of murders would not be merely approximate, but identical, or varying directly as the population. As they are not thus identical, there clearly is no fixed law in the usual sense, no necessary average of murder ; and Mr. Buckle has no right to mislead his readers by using the word in his sense.

And now let us see what Mr. Buckle says on these points.

Rejecting the metaphysical doctrine of free-will, and the theological dogma of predestined events, we are driven to the conclusion that the actions of men, being determined solely by their antecedents, must have a character of uniformity, that is to say, must, under precisely the same circumstances, always issue in precisely the same results.

Here, we observe, Mr. Buckle contradicts himself; for though he expresses so confidently that the law of individual action is, that it is "necessarily determined by antecedents," he concedes in another place that the variation in human conduct is "owing to causes of which we are ignorant." But let us proceed : —

To state some of the most decisive proofs we now possess of the regularity with which mental phenomena succeed each other, . . . murder, one of the most arbitrary and irregular of crimes, is committed with as much regularity, and bears as uniform a relation to certain known circumstances as do the movements of the tides and the rotations of the seasons.

The great authority for this statement, and for the theory he derives from it, is M. Quételet. Now although he conceives that because he calls M. Quételet "confessedly the first statistician in Europe," his conclusions will therefore pass unchallenged, we must observe that a very different opinion of him prevails among those who are more competent judges than either Mr. Buckle or ourselves. His way of applying the theory of probabilities to statistics is rejected even by the French writers ; and the following observations made with reference to him by one of the most celebrated political economists of the age, show the estimation in which his method is held in Germany : —

Of late years an opinion has been gaining ground that statistics have only to deal with political and social facts expressed in figures, without being confined to any particular time. Calculations are made with tables, etc. ; and meanwhile the signification of the figures virtually disappears from the mind, which becomes conscious of it only when the result is obtained. Now for all those facts which are susceptible of it, the mathematical form of expression is undoubtedly the most perfect, and we must endeavour, therefore, to make the mathematical branch of statistics as comprehensive as possible. But one branch of a science is not the science itself. Just as there is no special science in natural philosophy called Microscopia, which combines all observations made through the microscope, so the principle of a science ought never to be deduced from the character of its principal instrument. This restriction would deprive statistics of all scientific unity and interior coherence.[3]

But to return to Mr. Buckle —

"This," says he, "will appear strange to those who believe that human actions depend more on the peculiarities of each individual than on the general state of society."

So suicide ; the number of suicides in every year is about the same, therefore —

. . . in a given state of society a certain number of persons must put an end to their own life. This is the general law ; and the special question as to who shall commit the crime depends of course upon special law ; which, however, in their total action, must obey the large irresistible social law to which they are all subordinate.

Alas, then, if one person in our village is to commit suicide, if nobody else will, I must! And why? Simply because one person has committed suicide there yearly for several years past. Nothing can withstand the simple rules of arithmetic! But fortunately this "irresistible social law" allows of a considerable laxum in its operation ; about two hundred and forty persons a year must kill themselves in London, but the special number may vary between two hundred and sixty-six and two hundred and thirteen. Our readers, too, may take comfort from hearing that "suicide is more frequent among Protestants than among Catholics."

Nor is it merely the crimes of men which are marked by this uniformity of sequence. . . . In England the experience of a century has proved that marriages, instead of having any connection with personal feelings, are simply regulated by the average earnings of the great mass of the people. . . . Year after year the same proportion of letter-writers forget to direct their letters, so that we can actually foretell how many will do it next year.

The chief things we note here are, the utter worthlessness of the reasoning itself, and its formal contradiction by the author's admissions previously quoted. What can we think of the judgment of a man who allows statistics to make him believe that marriages have no connection with personal feelings ! or that can use a few imperfect returns about murders, suicides, and undirected letters, to upset all the affirmations of personal consciousness, the whole common sense of the world, as expressed in human language, and his own common sense to boot ! For we do not forget, that though at p. 26 he tells us that the question who, what individual, shall commit suicide "depends upon special laws, which in their total action must obey the large social law to which they are subordinate," at p. 208 he tells us that this is only true for great numbers of men, and long periods of time ; for "in a small number, and a short period, the individual moral principle triumphs, and disturbs the operation of the larger and intellectual law" : we must study "social phenomena for a period sufficiently long, and on a scale sufficiently great, to enable the superior laws to come into uncontrolled operation."

Now this very contradiction should have taught Mr. Buckle that he was involved in a fallacy. In nature totals are made up of parts similar to the whole. A block of stone is made up of stony molecules ; a kidney of several little kidneys ; a wave is an accumulation of little waves. Every chip of wood has the same construction as the block. Yet Mr. Buckle pretends to show us a long period and a great number made up of a quantity of short periods and small numbers, which are ruled by principles contradictory in their action to the principle which rules the total. In other words, the repetition of an individual law destroys that law ! Individual moral principle manifests itself so often that it is never seen ! A thing, by being multiplied, is annihilated ! Addition, instead of increasing, diminishes the sum !

Mr. Buckle's fallacy consists mainly in this : that whereas his whole conception of the object of his work required him to abstract his consideration entirely from all persons, and to consider man only in the mass, as so much productive machinery, oiled indeed, and kept in working order by a due amount of virtue, but intended only to produce intellectual truths capable of teaching how more and more to subdue nature, — he has chosen to apply the rules, applicable exclusively to man under this aspect, to man as a person, as an individual ; though he knows and confesses that they are not so applicable. We are sorry that we are thus reduced to defend either Mr. Buckle's understanding at the expense of his honesty, or his honesty at the expense of his understanding. In fact, man, as person, cannot be added to man ; soul cannot be mixed with soul ; each individual stands apart, or loses his individuality by addition.

History, therefore, on Mr. Buckle's plan, is impossible. For as soon as we seek simply statistics and averages, we have lost sight of man, and are contemplating only his works, his products. The true historian takes the individual for his centre ; he describes the typical man, whom all others more or less resemble ; he recounts the adventures of the ruler, to whose will multitudes bow. If he treats of mobs, or armies, or bodies of men, he invests this multitude with a kind of personality of its own, — its own wishes, passions, character, will, and conscience. Mr. Buckle's history, if he could write a history according to his programme, would be the reverse of all this : he would merge the individual in the company, the person in the body ; wishes, passions, character, conscience, 'all would be abstracted ; for those things either balance, and so neutralise each other, or else are transient in their effects, and so immaterial to the total. History would consist in tabular views of births, deaths, marriages, diseases, prices, commerce, and the like ; and the historian would be chiefly useful in providing grocers with cheap paper to wrap up butter in. But Mr. Buckle knows better than to reduce history to such dry chaff; when he writes history he makes persons his centres, and reduces it to what it must always be, an intricate and interlacing tissue of biographies, so far as men advanced some particular movement on which the historian is writing. Thus Louis XIV., Richelieu, and Burke crop out in Mr. Buckle's volume as the centres of his political speculations.

Mr. Buckle's practice herein is utterly contrary to his theory. History can only be reduced to a science by ^excluding individualism and personality. Persons act, if not by free-will, at least by unknown laws, which are in opposition, as Mr. Buckle owns, to the great statistical laws on which he would found historical science. The reason of this opposition is manifest ; and an explanation will clearly show why it is, and always will be, impossible to write a history upon Mr. Buckle's programme, and why he must be disappointed in his expectation of reducing history to a science.

All sciences are either inductive or deductive. We need not waste time in arguing with Mr. Buckle that history is not a deductive science, for he himself spends several pages in proving this proposition. It must, therefore, be a science depending upon induction. Now what is induction ? Though essentially the same as of old, this act of reason is differently conducted now. Formerly, if two or three instances suggested a principle or a generalisation to the mind, this principle was said to be gained by induction. Or if a mere guess or fancy could be strengthened by a few instances or analogies, this might readily be turned into an inductive argument : "It is the case in this, and a second and third instance, therefore in all." But this loose unscientific induction is now changed; the instances have to be well manipulated before they can be used for a true induction ; and not only similarities but dissimilarities have to be investigated. We must abstract all points of difference before adding the various elements; induction therefore is not only addition but subtraction also. Before we can include two things under a general law, we must subtract all that makes them different from one another ; otherwise we should include contradictions in a pretended unity.

Now, if we submit men and human actions to the crucible of induction, they must be "prepared," like everything else, for the process. The unlike must first be abstracted. Take any two men : what is the first element that constitutes their difference ? Clearly their personality; John is not Robert ; not because they have a different nature, but because they have a different personality. If we wish to include John and Robert under a single generalisation, the first thing we must divest them of is personality, with all its distinctive characteristics, the chief of which is usually said to be freedom of the will. Man, then, in this induction is not real man ; he is no longer a personal free agent, but a machine, subject in his movements to those laws of action which remain after personality and free-will have been subtracted.

Thus, if free-will is the source of action in men, it will be impossible ever to reduce all the sources of human action to an inductive generalisation, such as will enable us to predict how men will act. Free-will, refuses the inductive process. The only chance is, to prove that free-will does not exist, or is not such a source of action. This Mr. Buckle has attempted to do in various ways. In his first chapter he tries to prove that "the actions of men, and therefore of societies, are governed by fixed laws"; how weakly, we have shown above. We reproduce the thesis here to show that even Mr. Buckle allows that individuals are the primary elements of societies, and that the laws of society may be deduced from the laws that govern individuals. In other places, before quoted, Mr. Buckle asserts that the moral actions of men depend on particular laws, to him unknown, which laws are in their operation antagonistic to the great laws that govern society. And elsewhere he says that the laws of society are the rule for the individual, the actions of men are regular because "they are governed by the state of the society in which they occur."

Here, then, we see that there is a fundamental impossibility, because a self-contradiction, in Mr. Buckle's method and system, when applied to anything beyond the limits to which he himself is conscious it should be confined. If he would really eliminate all the moral actions of men, all the "flux and reflux" of society, all war and politics, from his speculations, and apply his theory to the "discoveries of genius" and to the progressive knowledge and subjugation of nature alone, he would escape all contradiction. But if he insists on applying his method to history, in the usual acceptation of the word, we are forced to tell him that his pretensions are untenable. These pretensions may perhaps be traced to that characteristic which Socrates holds up to such ridicule in his speech in the Apologia. Every artisan, he says, because he is expert in his own art, thinks he knows every other art. The tendency of the intellect is to complete its own circle ; whatever gaps a man finds in his knowledge are filled up by an unwarrantable stretching of the next subject which he knows. The whole system of positive philosophy is the work of under-educated, or half-educated men, adepts in physical science, but ignorant of the principles of any other, who insist that all science must have the same method as theirs, and that metaphysical realities must be measured and explained by physical laws. We state this to show that Mr. Buckle's absurdities and dishonesties are not his own, but those of his school.

We are quite conscious that in this article our criticism does not reach over the whole extent of the work under review ; but as the limits of a monthly journal are so narrow, we thought it better to confine our remarks to one or two points, rather than to dissipate our attention over the multitude of subjects that ought to be discussed. We have, however, attempted to discover the fundamental and leading idea of the book, which we have proved to be untenable. We do not deny all merit to the work ; we only say that the mass of information, collected with immense labour, and put together with great acuteness, a boldness fearless of consequences, and in a captivating style, does not exactly prove that which he undertakes to prove ; for nothing can prove a proposition that contradicts itself.

We shall have to return to the book, to make observations on Mr. Buckle's detailed proofs. Hitherto we have only attacked his general thesis, the conclusion which he proposes as the end of his induction ; we shall hereafter have to examine some specimens of the terms of his inductive argument, and to inquire into the validity of his claims to respect for the extent and accuracy of his learning.

Notes[edit]

  1. "History of Civilisation in England, by H. T. Buckle. London, J. W. Parker." The Rambler, 1858.
  2. P. 8.
  3. Roscher, System der Volkswirthschaft, i. 29.