Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/August 1883/Editor's Table

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EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
HERBERT SPENCER AND THE FRENCH ACADEMY.

MR. HERBERT SPENCER has been chosen a member of the Institute of France. We learn that he was elected in May by a nearly unanimous vote as a Foreign Correspondent of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, to fill a vacancy caused by the death of Henry P. Tappan, of Detroit. These academical distinctions are so often unworthily bestowed, that Mr. Spencer does not hold them in much esteem as indications of genuine merit; but, as it may be assumed that he is not indifferent to the good opinion of his eminent contemporaries, he will, no doubt, appreciate at its true worth this well-intended compliment, and make his acknowledgments accordingly.

But there is an interest in the transaction not confined to the immediate parties to it. When an institution, standing highest in the world as a dispenser of the titles to intellectual eminence, and which has become a kind of authoritative arbiter in such matters, undertakes to assign the position of a man like Spencer, there are many who will desire to know with what discrimination, and what rectitude of judgment, the award has been made. The honors of the Institute are not all of equal dignity: that of Foreign Associate is highest, while that of Foreign Correspondent is of secondary rank. The French academicians, after having certainly taken abundant time for deliberation, now decide that Mr. Spencer's claims are not such as to entitle him to the highest rank among the intellectual leaders of the time. We think the Academy has here made a considerable mistake, which it is important should be corrected.[1]

By the theory of all such institutions, the relative rank of great men is a determinable thing. The supreme object of the Institute of France, through the organization of its five great Academies, is the extension and improvement of human knowledge in all its comprehensive departments; while, subsidiary to this object, it assumes the function of honoring the men in foreign countries who have contributed in eminent ways to this advance of knowledge. Mr. Spencer is, therefore, to be estimated by the import of his contributions to the progress of thought. The tests of pre-eminence here are not doubtful. To produce any wide or profound impression upon the state of knowledge at the present day requires the rarest order of mind. There must be a thorough mastery of many departments, comprehensive insight, great capacity of generalization and of organization, and the fertility of creative conception, the independence and the originality of ideas that belong to genius. It will not be difficult to show that Herbert Spencer possesses these traits in so marked a degree as to have made him a leading power in the greatest intellectual movement of modern times.

Mr. Spencer published in 1855 a philosophical treatise entitled "The Principles of Psychology," an original and powerful work, putting the science of mind upon a new basis, and which the best judge in England, John Stuart Mill, pronounced "the finest example we possess of the psychological method in its full power." This work anticipated and reduced to valid application in the highest phenomenal sphere those fundamental doctrines of nature and life which have since become firmly established in the scientific world. Holding the principle of evolution to be a fundamental truth while yet it was generally held to be a baseless speculation, he founded upon it a systematic exposition of the laws of mental phenomena. The constitution of mind was investigated by the genetic method, and the development of the mental elements, organic and psychical, was traced from their simplest to their most complex relations in correspondence with the phenomenal relations of environing nature, by intercourse with which all mind is unfolded. The book was greatly in advance of the age, and its significance was at first comprehended by only a few; but these were so powerfully affected by it that a new direction was given to psychological study, and its influence was soon widely recognized in the ablest literature of the subject.

A single illustration of its insight and originality may be here instanced. From early times down to the present, philosophers have been split into two parties over the question of the genesis of ideas, one maintaining that they are innate, and the other that they originate in experience. From Plato to Kant on the one side, and from Aristotle to Locke on the other side, the representatives of these schools have battled over the problem in thousands of futile books, which left the question as unsettled as they found it. Herbert Spencer solved the problem and reconciled the antagonism through the basal

idea of evolution in the organic sphere—the principle of heredity. He showed that there is an element of truth in both views, and that, while on the one hand all ideas are derived from experience, it is not alone the experience of the individual, but the experience of the race and of ancestral races, by which the mental elements become organized, transmitted, and augmented in vast time, so that each individual is born with a heritage of innate and a priori aptitudes and capacities—the products of evolution. Thus the philosophical conflict of ages was harmonized in our own time, and the brilliancy of the solution is already tempting some of our ablest thinkers to venture the assertion of rival claims to the honor of having independently reached this great result. But the priority of Herbert Spencer is here impregnable, as is unreservedly conceded by the most competent authorities. We quote the last that comes to hand. Dr. Edmund Montgomery, in a masterly series of articles on "Causation and its Organic Conditions," recently contributed to "Mind," thus refers to Spencer's enunciation of the principle:

"Until quite recently I can not detect any movement in philosophy containing a germ of sufficient power to be capable of effecting by development the deliverance from the constant and almost fruitless see-sawing of the two schools. . . .

"Suddenly, however, light began to pierce the hitherto immovable darkness. It was Mr. Herbert Spencer who caught one of those rare revealing glimpses that initiate a new epoch in the history of thought. He saw that the evolution hypothesis 'furnishes a solution of the controversy between the disciples of Locke and Kant.' To us younger thinkers, into whose serious meditations Darwinism entered from the beginning as a potent solvent of many an ancient mystery, this reconciliation of transcendentalism and experientialism may have consistently presented itself as an evident corollary from the laws of heredity. But what an achievement for a solitary thinker, aided by no other light than the penetration of his own genius, before Darwinism w r as current, to discover this deeply-hidden secret of nature which with one stroke disclosed the true relation of innate and acquired faculties, an enigma over which so many generations of philosophers had pondered in vain!"

We speak far within bounds in saying that the book embodying these and kindred views, and recasting the most subtile and complex of the sciences, must be classed with the few great works of the century, the value of which, as a contribution to progressive thought, it is hard to overestimate.

Had Mr. Spencer done nothing more than to make his powerful contribution to the regeneration of mental philosophy, this capital service to the advance of thought should have been honorably signalized by the French Academy a quarter of a century ago. But this research only prepared the way for labors of greater magnitude. His system of Psychology, matured in thought in 1853, and written in 1854, shows how early and how firmly he had grasped the principle of evolution at that early time. That he should have been enchained by the new view was inevitable. The sciences were full of the raw materials of the inquiry, and evidence rapidly accumulated that a common process of unfolding transformation may be traced through all orders of phenomena. It was while writing the "Psychology" that Mr. Spencer first reached the conviction that evolution is a universal law of the course of nature. So vast and so pregnant an idea could not fail to have an all-determining influence upon his future course of thought. He saw that the scientific elucidation of this grand generalization, the discovery of the causes and conditions of the universal process, and the comprehensive application of the principle to the reorganization of knowledge, must be the next great step in the progress of modern ideas. The import of the new view could hardly be exaggerated. Hitherto the unity of nature had been a speculative conception favored by the tendencies of science, but not resulting in any valid unification of knowledge. An epoch was now reached by the recognition of a demonstrable, all-unifying, objective law, capable of bringing the great divisions of science into closer co-ordination, and a more intimate mutual dependence. This made possible a philosophy of nature based upon the sciences, and to the working out of such a scheme of thought Mr. Spencer devoted all the powers of his mind. His qualifications for the task were eminent. His encyclopedic acquisitions, his remarkable power of analysis, his capacity of organization and generalization, declared by the "Saturday Review" to have been unequaled in England since Newton, prepared him to engage upon a great intellectual undertaking which lie was himself the first to conceive and to project, and he resolved to work out a philosophical system of thought constructive and synthetic in its predominant character, and embodying the principle of evolution as its central and controlling conception.

Mr. Spencer entered upon this extensive project in 1858 by drawing up a scheme designed to occupy seven volumes and to contain a fundamental exposition of the proofs and principles of the theory of evolution, a broad application of it to the laws of life, of mind, and of human society, and finally to ethical science by showing the bearing of evolutionary doctrine upon the regulation of human conduct—the whole to constitute a systematic philosophy of evolution. His method was then mature, but upon further consideration the scheme was amplified in 1859 to ten volumes, and embodied in a prospectus for publication, which presented the course of the elucidation in detailed order of logical dependence under thirty-three consecutive divisions, and which referred to various extended tracts of the general investigation already written and published. This prospectus was printed in March, 1860, and has been adhered to, with no essential deviation, in the subsequent carrying out of the undertaking.

Now, in any critical estimate of Mr. Spencer's original contributions to the progress of knowledge, it is of the first importance to bear distinctly in mind the time at which they were matured. For this purpose we are closely concerned with his status as a thinker in 1858, as recognized by men of the highest ability while yet the general public knew nothing of him. There is evidence upon this point that must not be overlooked. When Mr. Spencer had elaborated the first programme, and resolved to execute it, he had at once to meet the primary difficulties of self-support and of publication. Thinking there might be some Government place of light duty and small emolument which he could consistently fill, and still have leisure for his labors, a few friends were consulted, and they gave him letters designed to be published and to favor his application. But Mr. Spencer gave up the plan and never printed them, and the use now made of them is by no consent of his. These letters were from John Tyndall, J. S. Mill, George Grote, T. H. Huxley, R. G. Latham, J. D. Hooker, and A. O. Fraser. Their joint import was that Mr. Spencer was a man of remarkable endowments, eminently qualified to do a great intellectual work, which would be an honor to the nation and a lasting service to mankind a work like that of Bacon, although more arduous and difficult, owing to the vast accumulation of knowledge in modern times. One of the most distinguished of the writers said:

"I am glad to have an opportunity of expressing my sense of the value which attaches to the writings of my friend Mr. Herbert Spencer, and of the high estimation in which I, as a practical man of science, hold his speculative labors.

"Founded as it is upon the accurate observation of facts, science would soon stagnate if the co-ordination of its data did not accompany their accumulation; and I can conceive nothing that would give a more vigorous impulse to the progress of science than the promulgation of a modern Novum Organon adapted to the state of knowledge in these days, and showing the unity of method of all science, and the mutual connection and interdependence of all forms of acquisition.

"I can not testify more strongly to my estimation of Mr. Spencer's abilities than by expressing my belief that, if health and moderate leisure be granted him, he will very satisfactorily perform this necessary piece of work for us. And I base my conviction not so much upon a knowledge of Mr. Spencer's works (though I could amply justify it from them), as upon that intimate acquaintance with himself which it has, for some years past, been my privilege to enjoy."

The eminent and responsible pledges thus tendered twenty-five years ago of Mr. Spencer's preparation to enter upon a great intellectual undertaking for the advancement of human knowledge have now been amply redeemed. Seven volumes of the "Synthetic Philosophy" have been given to the public, have been translated into various languages, and are recognized by the best minds as authoritatively representing a new epoch of thought, and as taking rank among the monumental works of the century. Though it may seem useless to quote authorities in confirmation of this statement, yet they have so important a bearing upon our present purpose that we must be excused for citing a few expressions testifying to the position of the man as shown by the character of his accomplished work.

Dr. Masson, of the Edinburgh University, spoke several years ago, in one of his books, of Spencer as the rising power in British philosophy; and G. H. Lewes, in his "History of Philosophy," declared "that no thinker of finer caliber had appeared in England." Professor Jevons, in his "Principles of Science," ranks the works of Spencer as in their influence among the most important that have appeared since the "Principia" of Newton. Dr. J. D. Morell, author of the "History of Philosophy," testified to Spencer's "extraordinary power of analysis and generalization," and Dr. Fairbairn recently declared that to conceive such a system as Spencer's "is in itself an education to an age." Professor Huxley remarked before the Royal Institution that "the only complete and systematic statement of the doctrine (evolution) with which I am acquainted, is that contained in Mr. Herbert Spencer's 'System of Philosophy.'" Mr. J. S. Mill has referred to his "encyclopedic knowledge"; Mr. Darwin spoke of him as "our great philosopher"; H. W. Beecher as "king of the thinkers of this age"; President McCosh recognized his "giant mind," and President Barnard speaks of him as "not only the profoundest thinker of our time, but the most capacious and the most powerful intellect of all time."

These emphatic declarations regarding Spencer's genius and position as evinced by the greatness of his work must be construed as applying to what he had really achieved in 1858-'59. It is not that his works stand to-day confessed in their supereminence, but that he was before all other men in arriving at the views they contain. Evolution has now become a commonplace of thought; it was the guiding principle of Herbert Spencer's intellectual labor thirty years ago. While yet the doctrine was scouted as a chimera by one half the world, and execrated as an abomination by the other half, there was with Mr. Spencer no slightest question of its truth, the evidence for it being to him overwhelming and irresistible on every hand. While a few scientific men were giving to it a reserved adhesion, or testing it in special directions, Mr. Spencer was reconstructing the sciences by its guidance, and building a philosophy out of its principles. In any attempt to appraise his intellectual rank, we are bound to remember the originality and the priority of the labors it is now so easy to applaud. When it is a question of grading the searcher after truth, it makes a profound difference whether he is a pioneer or a follower; and it is but naked justice to Mr. Spencer to recognize that he had worked out the grand doctrine of evolution in systematic completeness as now formulated and accepted before Mr. Darwin had published a word of his important contributions to the subject.

Clearly, then, the action taken by the French Academy is discreditable to its intelligence and to its impartiality. By all the equities that should control it in the discharge of its self-assumed office of rating the intellectual services of eminent men, the name of Herbert Spencer ought long since to have been enrolled among the first in honor. By its culpable tardiness its belated verdict is alike superfluous to the recipient and to the world which long ago formed its judgment of the rank of this philosophical thinker. And when at last the decision comes, it betrays a misconception of the case, which may be fitly characterized as a blunder, while only the following sorry apology can be offered for it. It is well known that the French are behind the world in their appreciation of the doctrine of evolution. The French mind has never recovered from the warp it received half a century ago in getting committed on the wrong side by the overshadowing genius of Cuvier, whose brilliant rhetorical triumph over Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, in the walls of the Academy itself, strongly biased the national thought in relation to this subject. The savants of France may therefore be not very competent judges of the foreign contributions to the knowledge of it. But surely they should have known better than to offer Herbert Spencer the successorship to "Tappan, of Detroit!" In what way this gentleman ever got into the French Academy, let those explain w T ho can; but certainly, if the place was suited to him, it is not such as should have been proffered as an honor to the most commanding intellect of the age.

 

  1. It may be as well to say that we are not to expect too much from the French Academy. Its predominant historic spirit has been time-serving, and it is declared by high authority that, instead of fostering originality, it has rather been its policy to hamper and crush it. We should not, therefore, look to it for a very liberal appreciation of Herbert Spencer; his qualities, in fact, are very much those which it has not been its policy to honor. The following estimate of its influence, by M. Langfrey, is probably but too correct. He says, in his "History of Napoleon": "Founded by the monarchy and for the monarchy, eminently favorable to the spirit of intrigue and favoritism, . . . wasting all its energies in childish tournaments, in which the flatteries that it showers on others are only the foretaste of the compliments it expects in return for itself, the French Academy seems to have received from its founders the special mission to transform genius into bel-esprit, and it would be hard to produce a man with talent whom it has not demoralized. . . . If we examine its influence on the national genius, we shall see that it has given it a flexibility, a brilliancy, a polish, which it never possessed before; but it has done so at the expense of its masculine qualities, its originality, its spontaneity, its vigor, its natural grace. It has disciplined it. but it has emasculated, impoverished, and rigidified it. It sees in taste not a sense of the beautiful, but a certain type of correctness, an elegant form of mediocrity. It. has substituted pomp for grandeur, school-routine for individual inspiration, elaborateness for simplicity, fadeur and the monotony of literary orthodoxy for variety—the source and spring of literary life; and, in the works produced under its auspices, we discover the rhetorician and the writer, never the man. By all its traditions, the Academy was made to be the natural ornament of a monarchical society. Richelieu conceived and created it as a sort of superior centralization applied to intellect, as a high literary court to maintain intellectual unity and protest against innovation."