The American Journal of Sociology/Volume 01/Number 1/The Place of Sociology among the Sciences

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THE PLACE OF SOCIOLOGY AMONG THE SCIENCES

The word sociology first appeared in print in its French form "sociologie" in the fourth volume of Auguste Comte's Positive Philosophy, the first edition of which was published in 1839. The author's "avertissement" prefixed to that volume is dated December 13, 1838, so that the word must have been penned during the year 1838 or earlier. That edition has long been exhausted and is accessible to few, but in the third edition of 1869, which is perhaps the best known to the public, the word occurs on page 185 of Vol. IV. In a footnote the author says:

I think I should venture, from this time on, to employ this term, the exact equivalent of my expression social physics already introduced, in order to be able to designate by a single name that complementary part of natural philosophy which relates to the positive study of all the fundamental laws proper to social phenomena. The necessity for such a denomination to correspond to the special aim of this volume will, I hope, excuse here this last exercise of a legitimate right, which I believe I have always used with all due circumspection, and without ceasing to feel a strong repugnance to the practice of systematic neologism.

The world is certainly greatly indebted to Comte for this word, as it is also for that other useful word of his, altruism. Words are the tools of thought, and ideas can no more progress without words than can the arts without instruments and machinery. Although the word sociology is derived from both Latin and Greek, still it is fully justified by the absence in the Greek language of the most essential component. While it need not altogether replace the virtually synonymous expression social science it can be used in many cases where that could not. It tends to give compactness to the general conception and to unify the nomenclature of the sciences. In doing so it also adds somewhat both qualitatively and quantitatively to the thought. We all know what an improvement physics has been upon natural philosophy, and biology[1] upon natural history.

Sociology stands in about the same relation to the old philosophy of history, but any one can see how greatly it modifies and amplifies that conception. Another of its marked advantages is that it is a single word and as such has its appropriate derivatives, especially its adjective sociological, which so greatly simplifies expression. When we consider, therefore, that this science, new as it is, has its definite name and several useful synonyms, and that besides the regular adjective sociological it has the shorter one social[2] which conveys a somewhat different idea, we may well regard this most complex field of investigation as even better equipped with the necessary implements of culture than many of the simpler fields. So much for words.

Philosophers of all ages have been at work upon the problem of a logical and natural classification of the sciences. Not to speak of the ancients, we have had systems by Oken, Hegel, d'Alembert, Ampere, Locke, Hobbes, and many others before Comte and Spencer. Each of these systems has been largely a product of the quality of the author's mind and was specially adapted to the general thesis of his philosophy. In selecting from among them all that of Comte as best adapted to the subject of social philosophy I am far from condemning all others or even making odious comparisons. There is always more than one entirely correct way of classifying the phenomena of any great field. For example, the classification of the sciences which Spencer proposes as a substitute for Comte's, although a good one for certain purposes, is not a substitute for that classification and cannot be devoted to the purpose for which Comte employed it. Spencer's is a formal or logical classification, Comte's a genetic or serial one. The former shows the relations of coexistence among the sciences, the latter those of sequence and natural subordination. Spencer's is essentially a statical presentation of the facts, Comte's a dynamic one. The most important thing to determine was the natural order in which the sciences stand—not how they can be made to stand, but how they must stand, irrespective of the wishes of any one. What is true cannot be made truer. The world may question it and attack it and "hawk at it and tear it" but it will survive. It makes no difference either how humble the source from which the truth may emanate. It is not a question of authority. If it is truth it may come from a carpenter of Nazareth or from an attic in the Latin Quarter; sooner or later all the world will accept it. One of the most convincing proofs of the truth of Comte's system is found in the fact that Spencer himself, notwithstanding all his efforts to overthrow it, actually adopted it in the arrangement of the sciences in his synthetic philosophy and has never suggested that they should be otherwise arranged.

But any such sweeping classification of the sciences must recognize the necessity of the broadest generalization, and must not attempt to work into the general plan any of the sciences of the lower orders. The generalization must go on until all the strictly coordinate groups of the highest order are found, and then these must be arranged in their true and only natural order. This Comte accomplished by taking as the criterion of the position of each the degree of what he called "positivity," which is simply the degree to which the phenomena can be exactly determined. This, as may be readily seen, is also a measure of their relative complexity, since the exactness of a science is in inverse proportion to its complexity. The degree of exactness or positivity is, moreover, that to which it can be subjected to mathematical demonstration, and therefore mathematics, which is not itself a concrete science, is the general gauge by which the position of every science is to be determined. Generalizing thus Comte found that there were five great groups of phenomena of equal classificatory value but of successively decreasing positivity. To these he gave the names astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and sociology. A glance at these suffices to show that they conform to the conditions outlined and that they must stand in this order. To complain, as some have done, that many well recognized sciences are not named in this list is totally to misconceive the object of the classification. The conception is a great and grand one and before it all captious criticisms must yield if it is to do its proper work. But really, when carefully scanned, nearly every proper science can be assigned its natural place in this scheme. For my own part, I should add one to the number of these great coordinate sciences. I should recognize psychology as such and place it, as Spencer has done, between biology and sociology. Not that Comte ignored it, but in the mighty sweep of his logic he made it a part of biology, calling it "transcendental biology."

Much has been said about the relation of economics to sociology, and some have gone so far as to regard sociology as in some way subordinate to economics. The latter is simply one of those great fields of phenomena which lie outside the lines upon which the classification is based. Not that it is not recognized or appreciated, nor that it does not have its fixed and proper place in the scheme. To illustrate this we can best consider some of the other and less complex of the five great groups. Take astronomy, for example. It might be asked: Where is geology or geography? They do not appear in the series. Are they ignored or omitted ? By no means. They simply belong under the broad conception of astronomy. The earth is to the astronomer simply a planet and as such only does he study it. He may have more to say of Jupiter or Saturn. This illustrates the sweeping character of Comte's generalization. Those who raise these objections do not grasp it in its true magnitude. And I may say here, parenthetically, that Comte was typical of the French mind in general when at its best. There is no greater error than that of thinking it light and trivial. I have heard mathematicians, astronomers, and physicists say the same for these great departments of science. Every chemist, anatomist, and physiologist must be acquainted with French thought on these subjects. It was Lamarck who really broke the way to the new biology and gave it its name. Political economy, with all its merits and defects, orignated with the physiocrats. In the very word altruism Comte laid the foundation of a scientific ethics. And for moral power in fiction what author has approached Victor Hugo? The French mind penetrates to the very heart of every problem it attacks and is not deterred by practical obstacles. It has thus been the great organizer of human thought, leaving the details and frictional hindrances to the German and English schools. France has furnished the warp of science and philosophy, other nations their woof.

What has been said of astronomy and the sciences that fall within its far-reaching scope is also true of the other great groups. It is not necessary to give illustrations in all, but biology furnishes some that are specially instructive. Biology is the science of life and as such includes all that has life. Its principal branches are therefore vegetal and animal life. Yet biology is neither botany nor zoölogy, nor both combined. These, it is true, fall under it, but only in the same sense that geology and geography fall under astronomy. And just as the great bulk of geology and geography are not astronomy at all, so the greater part of both botany and zoölogy is not biology at all. This principle holds of all truly logical classification. The lower terms of any system of generalization always contain much more than the next higher. They stand under them, but all that belongs properly to them as lower terms does not belong to the higher terms but is additional to what is necessary to characterize them. This is well illustrated in both botany and zoölogy as systematic sciences. All classification here as elsewhere is what is called synoptical. In arranging the species of a great natural order they are always divided into first large and then progressively smaller and smaller groups. The order is divided into coordinate families, each family into coördinate genera, and each genus into species which are also coordinate. Usually there are found to be more subdivisions than these and we have in botany at least, suborders, subfamilies, tribes, subtribes, and subgenera. Even species have their varieties, and in some sciences, particularly in ornithology, these are called subspecies and have a special significance. What most concerns us here is that in characterizing these sucessively lower and lower groups, when scientifically done, none of the characters are described in a lower that have already been employed to mark off the next higher group. All the characters of a family are additional to those of the order to which it belongs, all those of a genus additional to those of its family, and all those of a species additional to those of its genus. In correct synoptical work there is no repetition or mixing up of the characters belonging to these respective groups, so that we speak of ordinal, family, generic, and specific characters.

All this may at first sight seem irrelevant to the question before us, but natural history furnishes the best possible example of the primary process of the mind in reasoning upon concrete facts. There is a certain school of biologists who are somewhat disposed to sneer at the old-fashioned study of systematic botany and zoölogy, but if it had no other claims it could be defended from the pedagogic standpoint as the best possible discipline of the mind, as the supreme object lesson in logic. It may sound paradoxical to assert that the study of living organisms can be made an aid in grasping the abstruse problems of metaphysics, but it certainly can do this. One of the most difficult of those problems has always been the Platonic idea, and few students ever readily grasp it. Yet every one of these groups in natural history classification to which I have referred is nothing more nor less than a Platonic idea. A species, a genus, a family, an order, a class or a kingdom is this and nothing else, and every schoolgirl who has analyzed a flower has, unknown to herself and without mental effort, obtained a clear conception of what constitutes the Platonic idea.

We come then to the last and highest of the sciences, viz., sociology, and what has been said is calculated to prepare us to understand the true scope of that science. This is specially important because there exists considerable confusion upon this point. The greatest difficulty has been that of distinguishing it from political ecomony or economics. It has naturally happened that it fell to teachers of that science to take up sociology also and give instructions in that, and from the long recognition of economics as a necessary branch of learning and the recent appearance of sociology upon the scene it has been concluded by some that this young aspirant for a place in the curriculum must necessarily be some subordinate outgrowth of the older science. But from the considerations already set forth it is obvious that this is an erroneous view. Comte's conception is of course widely different, as he makes it one of the great coordinate groups of his so-called hierarchy and as such to embrace everything that pertains to man as a social being, But before considering this claim let us examine the views of one of the foremost political economists of the world, Mr. John Stuart Mill, and this at a date anterior to the publication of Comte's name or his method. Mill saw that there was a great science of society as yet unnamed and undefined, and in striving after these two ends he used the three expressions: "social economy," "speculative politics," and "the science of politics," and then proceeded to define the scope of this great science as follows:

This science stands in the same relation to the social, as anatomy and physiology to the physical body. It shows by what principles of his nature man is induced to enter into a state of society; how this feature of his position acts upon his interests and feelings, and through them upon his conduct; how the association tends progressively to become closer, and the cooperation extends itself to more and more purposes; what those purposes are, and what the varieties of means most generally adopted for furthering them; what are the various relations which establish themselves among men as the ordinary consequence of the social union; what those which are different in different states of society; and what are the effects of each upon the conduct and character of man.[3]

Not content with thus broadly outlining a science to which he would have undoubtedly applied the name sociology if Comte or any one else had at that date suggested it, he proceeds to show how this science differs from that of political economy, and in these terms:

"Political Economy" is not the science of speculative politics, but a branch of that science. It does not treat of the whole of man's nature as modified by the social state, nor of the whole conduct of man in society. It is concerned with him solely as a being who desires to possess wealth, and who is capable of judging of the comparative efficacy of means of obtaining that end. It predicts only such of the phenomena of the social state as take place in consequence of the pursuit of wealth. It makes entire abstraction of every other human passion or motive except those which may be regarded as perpetually antagonizing principles to the desire of wealth, namely, aversion to labor, and desire of the present enjoyment of costly indulgences. . . . . Political Economy considers mankind as occupied solely in acquiring and consuming wealth; and aims at showing what is the course of action into which mankind, living in a state of society, would be impelled, if that motive, except in the degree in which it is checked by the two perpetual counter motives above adverted to, were absolute ruler of their actions."[4]

Although it is the old abstract political economy which is here described, and although the modern economics is much broader in its scope and rests to a far greater extent upon the observed facts of human life and action, still it remains true that the two sciences here so clearly marked off from each other by Mill are distinguished in substantially the way he shows them to be. The distinction is not essentially different from that between biology as now universally understood and taught and botany or zoölogy. It is a distinction of position in a scheme of classification. Rigidly construed, while the whole of the latter falls under the former, nothing that is distinctively botanical or zoölogical should be called biology. And in the same way, while economics belongs within the great field of sociology, there should be no confusion or overlapping in speaking of these sciences or in teaching them, so that nothing that clearly belongs to economics should be treated as sociology. While in so complex a field of phenomena it may be difficult in practice to draw the distinction thus definitely and always maintain it, this should be the constant aim and ideal both of the teacher and the social philosopher. If this is done there will be no such thing possible as a conflict between them, or of the cultivators of one of these sciences encroaching upon the domain of the other. In some of the simpler sciences this complete separation of the superior from the subordinate fields is less difficult. In astronomy, for example it is easy. Who ever heard of a geologist complaining that the astronomers were encroaching upon his domain? With the degree of complexity, however, the clearness of these distinctions diminishes in the maze of special details, until when the field of social action is reached it requires a skilled pilot to keep the thought-laden craft safely within the true channel of logical consistency. Yet the course exists as definitely in the one case as in the other, and it must be found and followed before the present confusion can be cleared up. It has been my purpose thus far simply to indicate that course and to show what I conceive the science of sociology to be as distinguished from all those special sciences which, indeed, fall within its general purview, but which are entitled to be cultivated, and have been cultivated, as sciences. I have taken economics as an example because it seems to be most prone to overflow into the broader field, and because it is out of this department that sociologists are now being chiefly recruited. But there are many other sciences or branches of learning that occupy practically the some relative position. It is here that history stands, while ethnology, ethnography and demography, with other attendant branches of anthropology, bear so strongly upon the great science of man in the social state that it is difficult to prevent them from forcing their way into it. And each of these has its specialized phenomena to be set aside and cultivated as separate departments or sciences. Reverting to a former illustration, we may regard sociology as one of the great natural orders of cosmical phenomena under which we may range the next most general departments as so many genera, each with its appropriate species. That is, the classification of the sciences may be made strictly synoptical. When this is done it will be possible for philosophers, like good systematists, to avoid making their ordinal characters include any properly generic ones, or their generic characters include any that are only specific.

Thus understood, sociology is freed from the unnecessary embarrassment of having hanging about it in more or less disorder a burden of complicated details in a great variety of attitudes which make it next to impossible to secure due attention to the fundamental principles of so vast a science. These details are classified and assigned each to its proper place (genus or species) and the field is cleared for the calm contemplation of the central problem of determining the facts, the law and the principles of human association.

I would not have it inferred from the high systematic rank thus given to sociology that the logical order in which the entire scheme is to be taken up and studied or taught is to begin with the highest or ordinal principles and end with the lowest or specific ones. Quite the contrary. Sociology is an advanced study, the last and latest in the entire curriculum. It should perhaps be mainly postgraduate. It involves high powers of generalization, and what is more, it absolutely requires a broad basis of induction. It is largely a philosophy, and in these days philosophy no longer rests on assumptions but on facts. To understand the laws of society the mind must be in possession of a large body of knowledge. This knowledge should not be picked up here and there at random, but should be instilled in a methodical way. It should be fed to the mind with an intelligent purpose in view, and that purpose should be the preparation of the mind for ultimately entering the last and most difficult as well as most important field of human thought, that of sociology. Therefore history, political economy, and the other generic branches should first be prosecuted as constituting the necessary preparation for the study of the higher ordinal principles.

And apropos of this purely pedagogic question, let me emphasize another principle which we also owe to Comte. I have called his system a natural system, and I use that term in the same sense here as when, as a botanist, I speak of the natural system of plants. The order is the order of nature and not of man, and the several sciences not only stand naturally in this order but are genetically affiliated upon one another in this order. That is, each of the five great natural groups rests upon the one immediately below it and grows out of it, as it were. From this it necessarily results that this is the true order in which they should be studied, since the study of each furnishes the mind with that proper data for understanding the next higher. The student, therefore, who advances in this order is approaching the goal of his ambition by two distinct routes which converge at the desired stage. He is laying the foundation for the understanding of the more complex sciences by acquainting himself with the simpler ones upon which they successively rest, and he is at the same time mounting upward in the scale of generalization from the specific and generic to the ordinal or higher groups in a systematic classification. The natural arrangement of the great coördinate groups is serial and genetic. The term "hierarchy" applied to it by Comte is inappropriate, since there is no subordination but simply degrees of generality and complexity. There is genetic affiliation without subordination. The more complex and less exact sciences may be regarded as the children of the more simple and exact ones, but between parent and offspring there is no difference of rank. In contrast with this, the other classification, which I have called synoptical, is a true hierarchy, such as was taught to exist among the angels. It will be easier to comprehend if we liken it to the system of ranking that prevails in an army. The two kinds of classification are entirely different in principle, and the last named occurs independently in each of the great serial groups. Now the pedagogic principle alluded to is that none of the more complex and less exact sciences can be properly understood until after all the simpler and more exact ones below it have first been acquired. What Comte insisted upon was that no one was competent to treat the higher sciences who was ignorant of the lower, and the same would of course be true of teaching. But the important qualification should be made that this canon does not imply a mastery of the details of these sciences, but only a comprehensive grasp of their principles. Thus qualified I believe it to be sound, and it is very important to set it forth at such a time as this when mathematicians, astronomers, and physicists, having no acquaintance with biology, psychology or sociology, are setting themselves up, on the strength of their reputation in the simpler fields, as authorities on economics and social and political science. And not less forcibly is the truth of this principle exemplified in those economists who almost boast that they know nothing of biology and the other great sciences from which the broadest principles of their own department are derived.

We see, then, the high place which sociology, properly defined, should hold among the sciences, and how clear and incisive are the boundaries which mark it off from all other branches of learning. It is the cap-sheaf and crown of any true system of classification of the sciences, and it is also the last and highest landing on the great staircase of education.

Washington, D. C.

  1. Until Huxley in 1876 went to the bottom of the subject (see Science and Education Essays, London, 1893, p. 268) and showed that the word biology was first employed by Lamarck in a work which appeared in 1801, there was much confusion as to the origin of this word. Comte (Phil. Soc. iii, 81) ascribed it to de Blainville and I followed him erroneously. Professor Giddings by a still greater error has recently (Theory of Sociology, p. 17) given the credit to Comte.
  2. Dr. Albion W. Small has, since the above was written, very properly called attention to the special value of the word "societary " in discussing social questions. See Ann. Pol. & Soc. Sci., Vol. V, March, 1895, p. 120.
  3. J. S. Mill: "On the Definition of Political Economy; and on the Method of Philosophical Investigation in that Science.—London and Westminster Review, Vol. XXVI, October, 1836, p. 11. Reprinted with slight modifications as the fifth of his Essays on some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy, 1844, p. 135.
  4. Mill, loc. cit., p. 12.


This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.