Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/November 1886/Comte and Spencer on Sociology

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THE most momentous intellectual conquest of our days is, perhaps, the discovery of the great law of the unity and continuity of life, generally styled the law of evolution. Not only are the remotest branches of knowledge—as, e. g., physics and psychology, or chemistry and politics—connected by it into a systematic and harmonious whole; but by it also has been realized that union between science and philosophy for which the clearest minds of former ages longed in vain. The secular feud between idealists and materialists ceases on the solid ground of the evolutionary doctrine, where every science becomes philosophical without surrendering to any metaphysical or a priori conception; while, on the other hand, our psychological and ethical inquiries acquire a firm basis and scientific precision and accuracy as soon as they are touched by the vivifying spirit of this theory.

Since we admit the unity of life, and since we consider cosmic phenomena, in spite of their amazing apparent diversity, only as various manifestations or consecutive degrees of one evolution, we are compelled to infer that our methods of political or historical knowledge ought to be essentially identical with those generally prevailing in physical or biological researches. Metaphysical speculations on social matters, in which the greatest philosophers of former centuries delighted, lose their hold upon the skeptical mind of our age, and even the economic empiricism of Adam Smith, Malthus, and Ricardo, grows inadequate to the modern demand for positive knowledge of the natural laws pervading the evolution of human societies. Sociology, i. e., a strictly scientific statement of these laws, is considered nowadays as an integral part, as the necessary "couronnement de l’édifice" of a methodical conception of the world. The very name of sociology has been created ad hoc by Comte, who esteemed himself to be the founder of that Novum Organum or gospel of modern intellectual regeneration.

In his classification of sciences, based upon their increasing concreteness and speciality, he states that science, though essentially one in opposition to metaphysics and theology, ought to be divided into branches, or sciences in a more restricted acceptation of the word, each of them corresponding to a well-defined series, the number of which he fixed at six, as follows: first, Mathematics; second, Astronomy; third, Physics; fourth, Chemistry; fifth, Biology; and sixth, Sociology.

Without insisting upon the number of these divisions or their philosophic value, I shall only consider the limits of sociology as they have been traced by the master-hand of the French patriarch of that strange mixture of knowledge and faith ("Catholicism minus Christ and plus erudition," as it has been styled), which still holds sway over so many minds under the name of the Positive Philosophy, and the peculiarities of which are partly due to the depressed state of his health at the time when he wrote his most important sociological works, and partly, perhaps, to his native pedagogic whims.

According to Comte, sociology ought to be a science, so to speak, exclusively human. Social facts may be common in the life of animals, and even of plants, but he entreats the sociologists of his school not to pay them any attention. While other sciences are cultivated for the sake of truth, Comte would have sociology to be learned only for the sake of human morality. As to the methods of sociological research, he admitted them in his first writings to be similar to the strictly scientific methods of observation and induction, but he soon retracted that admission, and declared that skeptical analysis ought not to enter the sacred precincts, synthesis alone being worthy of such elevated study. Thus he voluntarily created an abyss between science and sociology.

Referring to the limits and object of sociology, the statements of the great founder of the French positive philosophy appear, in certain respects, far more worthy of acceptance. Selecting, arbitrarily, the human individual as the starting-point of his researches, he observes that one part only of our activity is based upon egoistic instincts arising from need of nutrition or personal preservation in general; that part, including our uppermost psychological recesses, belongs to the biological domain. Sociology includes the remainder—viz., that part of human activity which is based not upon individual self-satisfaction, but upon what he calls altruistic instincts, supposing them to be inherent in every living being. The physiological roots of altruism he perceives in the sexual attraction, the natural result of which is the association of a male and a female for the preservation of species—an end not personal to either of them.

A psychologist would observe, first, that Comte uses the word "instinct" in a sense which is not very clear and is throughout unscientific; for, according to modern researches,[2] we do "instinctively," i. e., unconsciously, that which previously we did knowingly, and thus to account for an "instinct" as a primum movens sounds somewhat like the "purgative force of the rhubarb"; secondly, that the distinction he makes between egoistic and altruistic instincts is superficial. From the subjective point of view, it is obvious that whether they act under the impulse of sexual attraction or under that of hunger, individuals aim merely at the satisfaction of physiological (egoistic) want; nor are their objective results so essentially different as Comte pretends; hunger as well as sexual attraction is able to lead men and animals—in some cases to struggle, in others to co-operation. And, if he did not exclude the social life of animals from the field of his humanitarian sociology, he might easily perceive that associations for food or for self-defense have generally a far more social character than primitive conjugal alliances for progeny.

Nevertheless, the greatest, perhaps the only valuable, service rendered by Comte to social science lay in the very clear distinction he made between the sociological and the biological domains, when he referred to sociology only such aggregation of individuals as is based on co-operation, conscious or unconscious, and abandoned groupings based on struggle to biology. Thus, I may say, he opened the door of true social science without himself entering its precincts, and, unfortunately, I must add, misleading his followers with his erroneous statements as to the unavoidable subjectivity of the methods of social knowledge. I insist upon that high service; that remarkable definition of the boundaries and of the object of sociology appears, so to say, drowned amid the numberless quaintnesses of his whole system, and none of his admirers, orthodox or schismatic, have ever cared so far as to disengage from his hardly readable volumes the few lines.

Owing to his restricted acknowledgment of the principle of the unity of Nature, Comte appears, at any rate, scarcely a precursor of the modern scientific evolutionism. Looking for a more complete and methodical compendium of that theory, we have to cross the Channel and to approach Herbert Spencer's "First Principles," and his many other valuable essays on ethical, political, and other sociological subjects. No mind could perceive more perspicuously than Herbert Spencer does the admirable unity of Nature, and no pen could describe it with half so much clearness and attraction as his. While the science of Comte, always behind his age, appears like a mosaic of six stray pieces—and the author takes painful heed to make us feel the gaps which he supposes really to exist between them—the science of Spencer on more than one point gets the start of the erudition of modern specialists, and is throughout livingly and harmoniously one, according to the unity of Nature.

In the system of Spencer, as in that of Comte, sociology appears at the top of the scientific series, but with him this pinnacle of knowledge is really and solidly connected with the building itself. In spite of their much greater complexity, social phenomena are essentially identical with those of inferior cosmic life. Sociology for Herbert Spencer is a physical science like others, requiring no peculiar synthetic or subjective methods, and its aim with him can not be any other than the reduction of the specific laws of social life to the universal laws of motion.

Passing to the delimitation of the sociological domain and to the definition of the object of that science by Herbert Spencer, I must observe that those matters, in modern evolutionism, present a degree of complication which Comte avoided by the artificial isolation he created for sociology in his philosophical system. Natural science teaches us that association is the law of every existence. What we usually call society in common speech is only a particular case of that general law. A being, whether social or not, is never absolute, indivisible; but essentially comparative and multiple, resulting from the action of a number of forces converging on one point.

Political and social systems speak a good deal about "individual" and "society"; but the very point where the individual ends and society begins has never yet been fixed with any accuracy. The most prominent botanists and zoologists, who have to deal with this matter for their own technical purposes, have been led to acknowledge several degrees of individuality: we can consider each individual as a whole, or a person, in comparison with the individuals of a degree beneath it; but when we compare it with the individuality of a superior degree, it soon loses its personality and appears as a part, a member, or an organ. There are myriads of plants (algæ) and animals (infusoriæ), which are styled mononocellules, and which, indeed, are considered as consisting of one single organic element or cell, although their anatomical structure appears, sometimes, very complex and perfect in its peculiar style. But organic cells quite identical with these form also aggregations, or associations, more or less compound; and such groups of cells either live independently, unfolding their own botanical or zoloogical individuality, or enter, in the shape of textures and organs, into the composition of other still superior individual beings. Men, like other mammalia, are, in fact, associations of such colonies of cells. Our inveterate tendency to consider ourselves as an end and a center of the creation makes us prone to prejudge that our own individuality is the only genuine one.

It would be hardly possible to review in a few lines the remarkable researches into the various degrees of vegetable and animal individuality of Nägeli, Virchow, Huxley, Haeckel, and many others; and it is beyond my competence to settle whether absolute individuality, i. e., morphological indivisibility, ought to be granted to cells—as was asserted till the last few years by the most authoritative scholars—or whether organic cells themselves consist of individualized elements (plastids) still more primordial. But that is not intimately connected with the main object of the present essay, and the biologists are now somewhat at variance on the point. I shall only observe that the great De Candolle distinguished six degrees of individuality in plants alone; Schleiden reduced that number to three (the cell, the shoot, the cormus or stock); while Haeckel, again, doubled that number. For shortness' sake, we may admit the classification very recently (in 1883) proposed by a young Italian scholar, M.Cattaneo,[3] who, considering the question from a zoölogical point of view, fixed the number of such degrees of individuality at four, as follows: 1. Plastids i.e., cells or any other primordial elements, after dividing which we should get not a being of any kind, but mere amorphic organic matter; 2. Merids, i.e., colonies of such plastids; 3. Zoïds, i.e., such individuals as are autonomous so far as their individual preservation is concerned, but which are obliged to unite with other individuals of the same series for preservation of species (like superior animals and men); and, 4. Dems, i.e., colonies of zoïds: conjugal couples or pairs, families, tribes, societies.

Assuming that the proper aim of sociology is the investigation of the natural laws regulating the connections between individuals and society, it is obvious that, before we approach sociological studies themselves, we must answer the preliminary question, Which of the various degrees of individuality above mentioned we accept as the starting-point of our researches; or, in other terms, where ought the domain of social science properly to begin?

For Comte social life begins as soon as two individuals of the series of zoïds (he explicitly says, man and woman) unite themselves in a conjugal pair, the result of which union is the arising of a dem, i.e., a compound individual of a superior species. Thus he asks us to look for the object of sociology, not in the material fact of an aggregation, but in the consensus or convergence of forces represented by the uniting individuals, aiming at an end which is personal to none of them. In that sense his teaching seems to be of capital significance for the progress of the real social science. But that meaning can be only obtained from the spirit of his doctrine, not from its letter; and the great philosopher himself was more than once false to his own premises. It seems that Comte was not fully aware of the extreme difficulty of settling in a scientific sense the point where individual life becomes social, and we hasten to see how the far more learned English evolutionist—I mean Herbert Spencer—gets out of the whirlpool where the ship of the French positive philosophy foundered with all hands on board.

In his "Principles of Sociology" Herbert Spencer pays but little attention to these preliminary questions as to the limits and the specific laws of sociology; and we are compelled to go back as far as his "First Principles," etc., to get a knowledge of the way in which those questions are answered by his system. This is to be regretted, not so much because of the practical inconvenience of perusing many volumes about matters but indirectly connected with the object of our researches, but far more on account of the impossibility of summarily reviewing so monumental a work in the few pages of this essay.

To French positivism, sociology appeared too much isolated from genuine knowledge by a gulf which Comte asserted to be unfathomable. With the modern scientific school, the danger comes rather from the opposite side, and sociology is threatened, so to say, with being swallowed up, or absorbed, by zoölogy.

Indeed, to botanists and zoölogists is due the capital discovery of the unquestionable fact that (with the single exception of the lowest monocellular ones) organisms are societies. And if we were arbitrarily to reserve the appellation of society exclusively to the dems of M. Cattaneo's classification, still we could not get out of the difficulty even by such an anthropomorphic (i. e., anti-scientific) restriction. An "organism is a society"—that great sensational thesis is imposed on our mind more and more with every new advance of natural science; while, on the other hand, the chief sociologists of these later years, starting from their more or less synthetic point of view, come to the conclusion that "society is an organism,"[4] The great Darwinian law of the struggle for life, which is the specific law of evolutionary biology, plays a part still more and more prominent in the most recent sociological writings, and the very object of social science appears to be well-nigh dissolved in the vast domain of biology.


  1. From an article entitled "Revolution and Evolution," in the "Contemporary Review" for September, 1886.
  2. Romanes, various writings; also A. Herzen, "Studii fisiologici sopra la volontà."
  3. "Le colonie lineari e la morfologia dei molluschi."
  4. See the "Revue Philosophique" of M. Ribot, for 1883, passim.