Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/April 1883/Nature and Limits of the Science of Politics

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APRIL, 1883.


By Professor SHELDON AMOS, LL. D.

THE progress of the strictly physical sciences in modern times has had a twofold influence on the advancement of those branches of knowledge which deal less with physical than with moral, social, and political facts. On the one hand, the exact methods and indisputable conclusions of the sciences concerned with matter have inaugurated modes of study and inquiry which are believed to be of universal application. On the other hand, the standard of rigorous logic in all studies is so far exalted that those subjects of thought or investigation which do not conform to identically the same standard as that maintained for the study of matter are thought to be not worth pursuing with any regard to the claims of a severe logical process. This sort of antipathy between the physical and the ethical regions of search and argument has been intensified by the coexistence of two opposed orders of minds, the ardently speculative and the persistently practical. The former are discontented with the notion of a so-called Science of Politics, because of the complexity of the subject-matter, and the intrusion, at all points, of such seemingly incalculable factors as the will and passions of mankind. Practical statesmen, again, immersed in actual business, and oppressed by the ever-recurring presence of new emergencies, almost resent the notion of applying the comprehensive principles of science, and still more the conjectural use of foresight, in respect of subjects which, for them, are in ceaseless flux, and can, at best, only be safely and wisely handled by momentarily adjusted contrivances.

Between these two extreme classes lies all the large portion of society composed of persons with minds less distinctly determined and trained in one direction or the other, and therefore all the more open to be impressed by influences derived from sound thinkers and energetic workers, but experiencing these influences only in a loose and diluted form. The aggregate result is that the subject of Politics floats in the public mind either as a mere field for ingenious chicane or as a boundless waste for the evolutions of scholastic phantasy. If Politics are to be vindicated from the aspersions cast upon them from the opposite quarters here indicated, and are ever to be erected into a science, with its own appropriate methods and limitations, the foundation of these skeptical suspicions must be investigated and their real value strictly assessed. The investigation will proceed as follows:

1. One obvious class of objections to the possibility of applying rigorous scientific methods to Politics is founded on the number and nature of the component and preparatory studies which are presupposed in all strict inquiries into the theory of government. Assuming that the physical sciences—beginning (say) with astronomy and ending with physiology or psychology—have reached a strictly scientific stage, there yet remain, as properly leading the way to the study of Politics, all those branches of knowledge which depend on the composite nature of man both as isolated and as in society. Such are Ethics in the Aristotelian sense, comprehending as topics decorum and propriety as well as duty; political economy, which deals with the conditions under which national wealth is produced, accumulated, and distributed; law and legislation (sometimes comprised under the general head of jurisprudence), which deal with the essential nature, logical distribution, and historical growth of the general rules of conduct which all governments maintain and enforce; and, lastly, the somewhat novel science of Sociology, which deals with the inherent problems to which the aggregation of mankind into groups gives rise, so far as these problems can be abstracted and treated independently of government.

This list of studies, which might be multiplied and varied to any extent according to individual proclivities, incloses large areas of knowledge over the subjects of which the human will and human passions must have, at least in the course of ages, and in passing from country to country, an amount of influence which seems to set scientific precision at defiance. Nevertheless, and in spite of all the controversies waged among those who prosecute these studies, there is no doubt that in all these pursuits the most searching and exact methods, so far as they are applicable, are beginning to be used, and the certainty and universality of the sequence of cause and effect—that is, of laws of Nature—to be recognized as a premise.

The extension of the like severity of process to political studies is mainly delayed by the constantly disappointing incompleteness of the constituent and preparatory studies just enumerated. A Science of Politics, indeed, has its own special sources of embarrassment, owing, among other things, to the necessity of co-ordinating in one view all the conclusions deducible from those other, and as it were introductory, researches. Of course, this process of combination abounds with its own manifold opportunities of error; but this fact need no more produce despair than the composite quality of physiology leads the student to be skeptical of the scientific character of inquiries into the constitution of the animal world.

There is a vast difference between calling a branch of knowledge a science, because it can only be profitably studied by the use of the same logical methods as are indispensable in the mastery of the best established physical sciences, and being, as yet, scientifically cultivated, or advanced in outward form to the full proportions of a maturely developed science. It may be, indeed, that, from a number of causes to be shortly adverted to, Politics will always present an appearance neither homogeneous nor, in one sense, exact. But these defects neither impair the genuine truth of the universal laws to which the topic is submitted, nor ought to convey any imputation on the only methods serviceable in treating it.

Admitting, as a provisional and practical postulate, the freedom of the human will, it might indeed seem to be impossible, on the face of it, to bring within the domain of stringent scientific methods any class of materials largely conversant with the direct actions and emotions of mankind. But there are certain corrections which reduce the significance of any skeptical conclusions which might be drawn.

In the first place, the more extensively and minutely historical studies are carried on and the investigations of travelers pursued and recorded, the more uniform does human nature appear, and the more calculable are the actions, sentiments, and emotions of large classes of mankind, when the antecedents and surrounding conditions are ascertained. So far as political inquiries are concerned, it is more with classes, groups, and assemblages of men, and with considerable stretches of time, than with any individual men at a given moment that the investigator is occupied. Thus the historical method, in proportion as it is extensively pursued, contains in itself its own correctives.

But, in the second place, if the researches of historians and the reports of travelers contain an endless and boundless mass of facts which seem rather to increase the list of human eccentricities than to reduce it by discovering a dominant order and an integral unit of progress and purpose, yet here again the problem of finding a scientific form for the theory of government is on the whole simplified rather than otherwise. As explorations of all sorts are multiplied and extend, they take the place of the logical instrument of experiment; and the result of them is, that a limited number of propositions are evolved which admit of being announced with a fair assurance of their universality. If the area of observation be limited, the truths reached will, indeed, be proportionately restricted in number, but within this area they will be none the less valid.

Thus, in the science of political economy, it is not universally true that, in all conditions of society, population tends to increase out of proportion to the means of subsistence; for the effective desire of individual self-enrichment constitutes in certain conditions a reparative and compensating force. So in law, it is not everywhere true that a human being is, in a legal sense, a person and not a thing; or that laws proceed from a consciously acting political authority; or that it is recognized as an axiom that taxation and representation go together. The several propositions here chosen, by way of illustration, from two of the component sciences which, with others, go to constitute the complete range of political studies, and help to convert those studies into a separate science, are only partially and relatively true at certain places and periods. But, within these limits of time and place, their truth, and the truth of all like propositions, is invariable and incontestable.

Thus, if the composite nature of Politics impairs the universality of the majority of the propositions with which it is concerned, this only establishes the relativity of these studies, and in no wise detracts from their usefulness or supersedes the employment of those rigorous logical methods which in other respects continue to be applicable.

2. Another reason which accounts for the unscientific aspect under which political studies usually present themselves is that it very rarely happens, or has happened, that conscious attention to the true character of governmental problems, to their difficulties, and to the modes of their solution, is aroused in any nation till long after a practical solution of some kind has been instinctively resorted to, and a considerable advance in the art of administration achieved.

An exception might be supposed to exist in the case of colonies and dependencies, at the first foundation of which all the materials seem to be within the conscious control of the parent or governing State. But it is just on this very account that theoretical truths have here their most hopeful platform, and are habitually applied in practice to an extent which, because of unnoticed but vitiating errors of calculation, is often fraught with serious hazard. The Cornwallis settlement in Bengal, the early land policy of the Australian colonies, and the attempted central taxation of the American colonies by the British Parliament, are all instances of the over-hasty application, to materials believed to be malleable, of firmly fixed political principles. The principles themselves, indeed, in all these cases, needed re-examination and restatement.

The obstacles to at once applying even the best-established principles of government, in all conceivable emergencies, so soon as conscious attention happens to be awakened to the national needs, are sufficiently obvious. It is not only that the principles themselves usually demand modification in view of the circumstances of the people and of the day, but that the greatest allowance must always be made in all political reforms for the influence of fixed sentiments and habits. It also may happen that bad institutions—such as a bad poor-law system, or, in the criminal law, a falsely-conceived relationship between crimes and punishments—may have generated a vast and complex web of affiliated ideas, customs, institutions, and laws, which can severally be neither defended in principle nor yet rudely disdained and cast aside.

For not only do custom and habit enable a people, or classes of a people, to work in long-established grooves with the smallest amount of friction and obstruction, but the mere fact of the long existence of a familiar usage so far fashions in its own image the mind and even the conscience of a people that a critical reformer has a hard and unpopular task to perform in assaulting even the most indefensible abuses. The large mass of the people, if disused to political change of any but the most cautious, slow, and tentative kind, have their sentiments of loyalty and reverence outraged by the sudden introduction of what is new and unfamiliar. Their mind has been trained and pruned in such a way as to be unable to conceive, as a mere intellectual notion, a better ordered world than that in which they live. Where too great a disparity, both in sentiments and in intellect, exists between the reformer and the people, or even between different classes of the people *in the same community, it may show that the times are not yet ripe for changes recommended by deference to the claims of logic and of justice.

Instances in point are supplied by the difficulties experienced by the British Indian Government in dealing with such patently immoral institutions as polygamy; by the attachment of the Scotch to a law of marriage which notoriously facilitates the most cruel of frauds; and by the obstacles in all countries to any comprehensive reconstruction of the systems of land-tenure and inheritance, and of civil, and still more of criminal, procedure. These last-mentioned institutions have seldom been radically altered in any country by any process short of revolution, however persuasive the voice of right, of reason, and of utility, in favor of change. So vast is the number of individual persons interested in these classes of matters, so well habituated are they, and consequently so deeply attached, to the recognized forms, usages, or even gestures, customarily in use—many of which are of a public nature and are daily witnessed by all men—that any vital reconstruction seems little short of sacrilege, and the most conclusive reasons in favor of it are scarcely comprehensible.

3. It is needless to point out that the conception of Politics as a Science is much affected by the imperfections of Politics as a practical Art. It is not only by reason of the existence of ineradicable institutions and ideas that the scientific development of political studies is hampered and delayed. There is another reason of a still more commanding importance which operates in the same direction with a still more signal force. It is that, at any given moment, when the legislator, or administrator, would otherwise most desire to govern with due regard to well-established principles dictated by abstract political science, he is imperatively urged on to the front, and impelled into action, by the pressing necessity of instantly choosing between a limited number of possible alternative courses. Most of all is this the case in what are sometimes called constitutionally-governed countries—that is, countries in which representative institutions have reached a tolerable degree of advancement, and political knowledge and interest are widely diffused. In these circumstances a spontaneous organization of political leaders and their respective followers into parties for the purpose of uniform and combined action is sure to have taken place.

The result is, that an artificial effort will be made, at each critical occurrence which seems to call for the intervention of the Government, to narrow the possible courses of action to a very few immediately intelligible expedients, recommended rather by their rough conformity to some pre-existing schemes or ideals in favor with the different contending parties than by their intrinsic harmony with scientific requirements. No doubt the party leader who is himself imbued with a scientific spirit, and is personally disposed to do as little violence as possible to his cultured instincts, will do his utmost to bring all his measures into the shape which his logical and historical training, applied to all the circumstances of the special case, leads him to desire. But action at once and without further delay is unavoidable. A decision can only be deferred at the cost either of letting go the opportunity for providing a remedy of some sort for a possibly crying abuse; or of openly confessing impotency; or of surrendering to others a leadership which, with all its demerits, is probably believed to be, on the whole, fraught with good rather than with evil. Thus the peremptoriness of political opportunities and the necessity of instant action withstand, in a country with free representative institutions, every effort to impart to political action through a long period a comprehensive, consistent, and scientific character.

It is no wonder if the same class of facts reacts on the intellectual conception of the position of Politics as a subject of study and of knowledge.

The topic is naturally relegated to the region of caprice and accident, or to that of tentative experiment and spasmodic contrivance. This intellectual consequence is intensified by the fact that all Governments—and not least those known at the present day as the freest and, on the whole, the soundest—are habitually made the arena of purely ambitious contention, of selfish aspiration, and even of corrupt conspiracies against the public well-being. The wider the territorial area of any particular Government, and the more complicated and extensive its essential mechanism, the more opportunity there is for the exhibition of personal or, at the most, of local self-seeking. So far as this prevails, Politics becomes degraded into a mere vulgar struggle for money, office, or power. All actual reference to scientific considerations is excluded. The tone of public thought and sentiment becomes proportionately infected, and all the claims which might otherwise be asserted on behalf of Politics to take its place, by the side of other sciences dealing with such moral elements as the human Will meet with a skeptical repudiation.


Where free representative institutions are not found, and absolutism of one type or another prevails, the way is more open for a deliberate choice of the policy to be pursued in any sudden emergency. Such a case has presented itself, again and again, on the occurrence of famines in British India. Could such a casualty occur without being long foreseen in a country enjoying a popular constitution, the question of remedies would be instantly debated in every kind of public assembly, and by all the organs of public opinion, with a ferment of party zeal which would daily gain in heat and vehemence, and would impel statesmen to select with over-much precipitation between the limited number of remedial measures which enjoyed, for one cause or another, the popular favor.

The legislation demanded in the case of a failure of the potato-crop in Ireland has more than once illustrated this position. One party advocates the institution of public works, of a purely wasteful or superfluous kind, on an enormous scale; another is in favor of indiscriminate out-door relief; a third recommends, with the late Lord George Bentinck, the construction at the public cost of railways, with the purpose at once of employing labor on a large scale and of distributing food. However much a judicious statesman may be opposed to all these views, yet for fear of being reduced to nullity, and of having to give place to opponents, he can only connect his own name with, and invite the adhesion of his followers to, what seems on the whole the least objectionable of the popular alternatives. The utmost he can do is to combine different courses in such a way as that some special evil of one may neutralize some greater evil of another, and to introduce modifications which may escape general attention, but which none the less go some way, at least, to qualify the mischievous operation of the scheme, a professed adoption of which can not be evaded.

It will depend, of course, very largely on the constitutional circumstances of the country how far, even in the case of a pressing emergency, the art of Politics may be made to comply with the requirements of scientifically ascertained laws. Where a large and promiscuous population has to be satisfied or must be appealed to by statesmen for political support, the measures must be instantly intelligible and not too far removed in their conception from the average ken of mankind as represented then and there. The ulterior objects proposed must not belong to a too distant future: the pursuit of them must not involve what seem to most people excessive or disproportionate sacrifices: they must easily and obviously connect themselves with the common wants and feelings of the many at the moment, rather than with the (seemingly) problematical aspirations of a few in the indefinite future.

The case is different where popular government has not yet established itself, and where, in consequence, none of the above obstacles, even at a critical juncture calling for the immediate intervention of the legislator or administrator, are presented. But the exemption of the statesman or ruler from the checks of popular control of a constitutional kind by no means insures a deference to purely scientific demands. Timidity, rashness, prejudice, personal rivalries, and the still less worthy influences of calculating self-interest or of a narrow ambition, dwarf and vitiate a policy not less surely than do the impediments due to popular ignorance and incompetence. The statesman, in the one case as in the other, is bound to act—and this too without delay; and, though a scientific resolution can not be excluded, yet, from one cause or another, the temptations to deviate to this or that side are numerous and urgent. There have indeed been statesmen who have so far impressed their own personality on their policy, and communicated their views and aspirations to the bulk of the governing population that, at special exigencies, the public confidence previously won has enabled them to dictate a course scarcely comprehended by the people at large. Such a position was occupied on certain occasions by Count Cavour in Italy, Presidents Lincoln and Grant in the United States, even to some extent by Prince Bismarck in Germany, to a still greater extent by M. Thiers in France, conspicuously by the Duke of Marlborough for a time in England, and in modern times by Sir R. Peel, Lord Palmerston, and Mr. Gladstone.

So also in Governments not controlled by representative institutions—such as those of almost all the States of Europe except England, up to very recent days—there have always been found exceptional rulers who, in spite of all temptations to indulge selfish prepossessions in favor of ease or aggrandizement, have availed themselves of the peculiar felicity of their situation to pursue a consistent and far-sighted policy, undisturbed by all casual occurrences or misadventures. To this class have belonged many well-known administrators of British India and of the Crown Colonies of Great Britain, as well as certain absolute sovereigns in ancient and modern times.

It appears, then, that not only does the imminent necessity for immediate action present serious obstacles to the pursuit of a policy founded on the teachings of critical observation and a wide-reaching experience—that is, on science—but the mere fact that statesmen are constantly impelled to act at once in directions which very imperfectly correspond to their own conceptions of what is really best throws a shadow of doubt and uncertainty over the scientific character of the studies concerned. It is felt, not unreasonably, that if those who are most concerned to be acquainted with the best methods of political research forbear to turn these methods to account at the moment of the utmost need, this is at least as likely to result from the inherently imperfect and illogical nature of the branch of knowledge in question as from any other cause. To this comprehensive skepticism some of the classes of facts above adverted to may be held to supply an answer. The unscientific character of a policy adopted at any crisis has often been an exact measure of the amount of external pressure applied through the competition of factions, or through the impetuosity of a populace only jaded into an unwonted attention to political affairs by exceptional events. Where this pressure is not at hand, rulers still may, indeed, through unworthy influences and motives, prefer the worse to the better way; but enough instances of the persistent maintenance of a deliberately adopted policy in the face of the most seductive allurements to fluctuation have been exhibited to show that it can not be fairly alleged that Politics must necessarily be unscientific because few in the real business of life have time, or liberty, or tenacity of purpose, sufficient to withstand the impetuous torrent of popular zeal generated by sudden crises or catastrophes.

Probably the most real and enduring objection to the claims of Politics to assume the rank of a true science is the confessedly immature and imperfectly developed character of the component or preparatory studies, apart from which, in their combination with each other, the study of Politics can not be pursued. It has already been noticed that the complex and composite nature of political studies is of itself a presumption against the facility, if not against the possibility, of ever imparting to those studies the rigorous certainty essential to Science. But this presumption is greatly increased by the fact that in such broad but indispensable preparatory studies confessedly of a scientific aspect—as Ethics, Economics, and Jurisprudence, there are to be found only the very smallest' number of uncontroverted propositions. And, even as to the logical methods applicable in each branch of knowledge, no generally assented-to decisions have yet been accepted.

There is thus afforded to the skeptically-minded a wide opening for treating as unscientific a study which, like that of Politics, must be built up on conclusions yet to be established in those other regions of knowledge, but none of which are as yet established with a certainty which is beyond debate. Nevertheless, if it be admitted that those component studies are capable of being placed on a strictly scientific foundation, and only wait for longer time and attention to assume scientific exactness, at least as much may be claimed for Politics, and the composite study may advance in logical perfection at an equal rate with the elementary studies.


The general result of these considerations is that there are a variety of solid reasons which account not only for the reputation acquired by Politics of being an inherently unscientific study, but also for the study itself having advanced only a very short way toward scientific completeness. But most or all of these reasons have been seen to be of a kind which hold out a good promise for the future, and thereby afford an ample encouragement to the use of a strictly logical method in political investigations, and to the attempt to create a scientific structure of ever-increasing completeness in this region, as well as in others more familiarly associated with the name of Science.

A science need not be built on universal, nor even upon general, propositions; and partial, particular, or even probable premises may justify conclusions, drawn with logical correctness, which may be a firm basis for action. Where truths are by their nature restricted in time and place, or where evidence is yet lacking to demonstrate their actual generality, the assemblage of such truths will carry with it a fragmentary and hypothetical character which may to some seem incompatible with the rigid demands of Science. But where the investigator himself proceeds in strict accordance with the severest logical requirements, conducting his ratiocination with the utmost precision, and distinguishing at all points the possible or probable from the certain, the universal or general from the particular, and proof from plausibility or mere conjecture, it matters little what name is given to the branch of inquiry concerned. It lacks no one of the essential elements and recommendations of the best and earliest-established of the physical sciences. Its terms are submitted to the same process of definition, its subject-matter to a like arrangement into groups and classes, genera and species, and the resulting propositions are reached by a course of reasoning as logically irrefutable.

There are, indeed, certain plain indications that the study of Politics is already, even by practical statesmen, being placed on a platform of far higher scientific exactness than ever before.

One of these indications is the large and discriminating use made of statistics. The collection and due use of statistics belong to very modern times; and owing to popular prejudices and social obstacles—such, for instance, as still exist in England with regard to the collection of agricultural and religious statistics—they have not yet received anything like the extension of which they are capable. Nevertheless, it has become the fashion for all the more advanced Governments to rival each other in the breadth, fullness, arrangement, and clearness of the numerical information they obtain on all the groups of national facts which are susceptible of being tabulated in a systematic shape. These tables of statistics are periodically furnished by the Government, not only for purposes of contemplated legislation, but independently of all thought of immediate use. The fallacious use to which purely numerical facts can be put, with only too seductive a show of plausibility, is beginning to be fully acknowledged and guarded against. But the assurance that the registered number of births, deaths, and marriages, within a given period and area, as well as the periodical records of crime and disease, and, even more obviously, the tabulated increase or decrease of commerce, shipping, and manufactures of different sorts, may serve to point to the presence of general laws—that is, of permanent sequences of cause and effect—is a sufficient justification of the labor and expense involved in obtaining the severally relevant statistics. The comparison between the numerical results obtained at one time and place and another, and between those presented in different countries, is becoming a political method increasing in prevalence and repute. In many quarters, indeed, the value of purely numerical estimates has been much exaggerated, and its peculiar liability to error, when made a basis of political reasoning, has been too much ignored. But when its limits of application are duly recognized, and care is taken to distinguish legal and political causes from those which are purely ethical or sociological, the study and use of statistics must be regarded as a most valuable ally, and an unmistakable proof of the scientific character of political studies.

Akin to the token which the enlarged use of statistics affords of the growing recognition of Politics as a true science, is the ever-increasing disposition, at the present day, to await, at any political crisis, whether legislative or administrative, the result of a patient examination of evidence as to the state of the facts and the previous history of the question.

It is now the practice in the more advanced countries to take, in the path of serious political change, no step which seems to be other than the next step onward in a course which has become habitual, without first nominating, by one process or another, competent persons to conduct a critical examination and to deliberate and report upon the matter. The most searching powers are often intrusted to this body of persons to enable them to inform themselves not only as to all the interests, in their several proportions, to be affected by the new policy, but as to the history of the general policy pursued in the past, and occasionally even as to the practice in other countries.

It often, indeed, happens that after a laborious investigation, lasting for months or even for years, the popular interest in the once advocated policy is found to be exhausted, or diverted into new directions, and the thought of new legislation is abandoned, and a voluminous, costly, and invaluable report cast on one side. Such are among the inevitable accidents which retard the progress of Government.

But what is of importance to notice in this place is that the growing disposition to consult past and surrounding facts before inaugurating change belongs to the strictly scientific habit of mind; and if it is true that much laborious investigation seems for the time to be thrown away, yet it seldom happens that complicated and far-reaching changes are encountered without the assistance of a previous impartial and deliberate inquiry of the kind here adverted to. The scientific method, in Politics as elsewhere, is slowly and surely getting the better of the empiric.

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