Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/March 1897/Scientific Literature

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Scientific Literature.


The completion of Herbert Spencer's Synthetic Philosophy[1] is the most noteworthy recent event in the field of scientific literature. More than forty years have elapsed since Mr. Spencer enunciated the doctrine of evolution in the first edition of the Principles of Psychology, preceding by several years the great work of Darwin on the Origin of Species. Nearly thirty-seven years have gone by since the plan of the Synthetic Philosophy was definitely formulated, soon followed by the publication of First Principles. The accomplishment of the Herculean task then outlined is hardly less marvelous than was its projection at a time when, as Mr. Spencer plains in the preface to the present volume, his circumstances of health and fortune were most discouraging.

Though approaching the completion of his seventy-seventh year, neither Mr. Spencer's age nor his long struggle with infirmity has dimmed the vigor of his thought or the lucidity of his diction. The closing chapters of the present volume exhibit the strength of a mind unimpaired and of a conviction undaunted by the apparent drift of events in a direction contrary to that in which he sees the salvation of society. No pessimistic reflections have obliterated his early vision of an ideal man in a relatively perfect social state. "Long studies," he affirms at the conclusion of his work, ". . . have not caused me to recede from the belief expressed nearly fifty years ago that ‘the ultimate man will be one w'hose private requirements coincide with public ones. He will be that manner of man who, in spontaneously fulfilling his own nature, incidentally performs the functions of a social unit.’”

The volume now before us includes the discussion of Ecclesiastical, Professional, and Industrial Institutions. The consideration of the two latter topics, not contemplated at the outset, has displaced the general survey of progress which was to have completed the Principles of Sociology. The finished structure is not marred; the change has enhanced the practical value of the work. In this adaptation to the requirements of added experience and maturer reflection the Synthetic Philosophy is seen to be itself a product of evolution, a vital expression of progressive thought, rather than a mechanically constructed system. That its final form is so near to the original plan is a remarkable testimony to the profound scientific prescience of the author.

The first two sections of the present volume have already received notice in these pages. The concluding section, on Industrial Institutions, is the latest product of Mr. Spencer's thought, and treats of the problems now uppermost in the minds of men. The discussion, therefore, has more than a merely theoretical value. It presents the mature judgment of the greatest thinker of our time on questions of immediate practical import. It therefore challenges the thoughtful attention of all to whom the perfection of individual character and of the societary forms best adapted to assure the progress of the race is a matter of supreme interest.

Reviewing the different stages of industrial progress, Mr. Spencer optimistically concludes that advancement has been more rapid in the century now closing than in all the past of man's career upon the earth—a conclusion seemingly justified by the facts which he skillfully marshals in its support. This progress has been characterized by an increasing specialization of functions and division of labor, thus illustrating the universal law of evolution. The chief incentives to early industrial effort grew out of the steady increase of population, the militant structure of society, and the love of ornament common to primitive peoples. Further industrial progress, however, is seen to be dependent on the decline of the military spirit. Peace alone answers the conditions requisite to continuous effort, promotes economy and encourages better methods. Hostilities between tribes and nations prevent free interchange and competition, and so favor adulteration in materials and the survival of inefficient methods. "Thus in all ways increase of population by its actions and reactions develops a social organism which becomes more heterogeneous as it becomes larger, while the immediate cause for the improvement in quantity and quality of productions is competition."

Mr. Spencer regards the development of a sound and convenient medium of exchange as a condition essential to that integration of industries which has everywhere accompanied the differentiation of industrial functions. The idea that each local community must be autonomous and self-supporting, peculiar to early societies and in harmony with their prevailing militancy, must give way as production increases and the means of distribution are developed. These advances are dependent on an acceptable medium of exchange. "With a good monetary system the resistance to exchange disappears; relative values of things can be measured; current prices can be recognized; and thus arises competition, with all the cheapenings, stimulations, and improvements resulting from it." A debased currency tends to limit exchanges to the community which employs it; witness the innumerable disastrous experiments with irredeemable paper money. "A developed and differentiated currency furthers production and raises the rate of distribution," thus aiding in the integration of society. Mr. Spencer's conclusions confirm the teachings of political economists, and will commend themselves to all who believe in sound and progressive financial methods.

All these processes of industrial evolution tend to raise man out of the static independence of the savage state into that higher realm of interdependence and mutual service which is his noble prerogative as a social being. By them labor is organized and regulated. Its early regulation implies either actual or potential coercion, at first effected by combined religious, governmental, and industrial control. These functions are gradually differentiated as social evolution proceeds. Emancipation from coercion is conditioned upon the higher development of character in the worker. Patriarchal regulation, communal regulation, and slavery were necessary steps in industrial progress, leading to the modern system of free labor under contract.

The place of the craft-guilds in industrial evolution is treated most suggestively. Their universal prevalence, their normal development in a militant society as substitutes for the original family groups, their important bearing on the evolution of the political franchise, are admirably expounded. It is shown, however, that the "free man" of the industrial guild was free only in a qualified sense. He was subject to many restrictions imposed both by the guild and by the government of the country. The modern trade union, while not a lineal descendant of the craft-guild, is the product of similar social conditions, and is akin to it in nature; militant in its structure and often tyrannical in its oppression of the individual worker. The fruitlessness of the attempt to benefit the worker by artificial efforts to raise the rate of wages is clearly shown. Natural law is stronger than artificial regulations. "Protected industries do not prosper." Yet Mr. Spencer recognizes the fact that trade organizations are natural to the passing stage of social evolution, and may have beneficial functions under existing conditions. Employers are more ready to raise wages when trade is flourishing than they would be without the menace of combined labor. They treat the laborer with more respect. They are led to study the convenience of the men, and look after their health and comfort. The discipline of the organization also helps to prepare the men for the higher social and industrial conditions which will probably arise.

The economic utility of the various modes of compounding capital exemplified in our modern industrial life is clearly recognized by Mr. Spencer. By the use of these methods stagnant capital has almost disappeared. Liberty of combination is asserted, subject to due responsibility of the individual shareholder. No sympathy is expressed with the prevalent indiscriminate denunciation of corporations and trusts. Possibly Mr. Spencer does not fully realize the extent to which such combinations may become a menace to the liberty of the small tradesman, the purity of legislation, and the just requirements of public service. He doubtless thinks that such evils would be self-corrective, as in the case of the various "bubble enterprises" which have been fostered under capitalistic auspices. He sees the utility of such combinations in promoting serviceable industrial enterprises, and affirms their superiority to state action in the advancement of the common weal.

The greatest interest of the reader will, probably center in the closing chapters on co-operation, socialism, and the probable trend of industrial evolution in the near future. Mr. Spencer's general attitude toward these questions is well known; but he has never stated his convictions more lucidly nor with equal calmness and poise of judgment. Nor has he before presented so clearly the ripe fruit of his own mature reflection as to the ideal relation of the laborer to the product of his industry.

"Social life in its entirety is carried on by co-operation," Mr. Spencer declares. The earliest modes of conscious industrial co-operation are closely allied to similar united action for militant purposes. All modes of industrial alliance which are enforced by the state must partake strongly of the militant spirit, inhibit individual freedom, and restrain true progress along normal lines of social evolution.

The word "co-operation" is now commonly used in a restricted sense to distinguish a special form of social and industrial life. In those methods of adjusting the interests of capital and labor generally known as "profit-sharing," Mr. Spencer sees some advantages joined with serious defects. He regards them as unnecessarily complicated, difficult of comprehension by employees, and therefore not likely to prove ultimately satisfactory to them. They are based on the system of wage-labor, and this is defective in that it does not proportion the reward of services to their quality and amount. "So long as the worker remains a wage-earner the marks of status do not wholly disappear. For so many hours daily he makes over his faculties to a master. . . . He is temporarily in the position of a slave, and his overlooker stands in the position of a slave-driver." An ideal system will assure rewards proportionate to activities and a direct interest of the worker in the enterprise which he is developing. Socialism, whether voluntary or compulsory, violates the first of these conditions, tends to undermine family life, and is essentially militant in its social ideal. "People who, in their corporative capacity, abolish the natural relation between merits and benefits, will presently be abolished themselves."

All co-operative enterprises involving wage-service imply the defects inherent in the wage system, and can only partially remedy its inequities. A self-governing body of workers paid according to the piece-work system, and sharing profits or losses in a like ratio, constitutes the ideal of future industrial evolution. The practicability of such a system depends wholly on character: "The best industrial institutions are possible only with the best men." Such an ideal adjustment can not become speedily prevalent; but a few successful efforts "might be the germs of a spreading organization. Admission to them would be the goal of working-class ambition. They would tend continually to absorb the superior, leaving outside the inferior to work as wage-earners; and the first would slowly grow at the expense of the last. Obviously, too, the growth would become increasingly rapid; since the master-and-workman type could not withstand competition with-this co-operative type, so much more productive and costing so much less in superintendence."

For the present, Mr. Spencer sees the rhythmic principle exemplified in all evolutionary processes carrying us inevitably toward a régime of socialistic experimentation. Militantism is reviving in Europe and America. Equality is the ideal of the modern statesman, economist, and politician, rather than liberty. "There is small objection to coercion if all are equally coerced." This process can only be arrested by a great spread of co-operative production, which is not probable. Nations may perish, civilizations may decay, under this downward tendency. How long it will last and what will ultimately check it we can not now foresee. The processes of evolution will go on, however, gradually ultimating in that complete adaptation of human nature to the social state which is its ideal end and aim. This end will be proximated and preceded by a federation of nations whereby wars will be prevented and "the rebarbarization which is continually undoing civilization" will come to an end. Peace is the essential condition to that equilibrium between inner faculties and outer requirements, between man and society, which will constitute the final stage of human evolution. By a faith in eternal principles as constant and exalted as that of the religious saint, Mr. Spencer sees beyond the reversion implied in present downward tendencies the vision of man finally triumphant over false theories and the delusions of ignorance, at last completely fulfilling the demands of his higher nature in the organization of a society which may well be likened to the kingdom of heaven foretold by the founder of Christianity. May we not hope that the treaty of arbitration between Great Britain and the United States will constitute an initial step in the direction of this better day?

  1. The Principles of Sociology, vol. iii. By Herbert Spencer. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1897. Pp. 645.