Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

say, which proceeds by breaking up composite phenomena into the elementary groups composing them, studying apart the elementary groups, determining their laws, and afterwards combining these laws in explanation of the original aggregates—this method, according to M. Comte, owes its efficacy to the uncomplex character of the phenomena submitted to the process. As phenomena become more complex, the method, he contends, becomes less suitable, less efficacious, till at length a point is reached at which it fails altogether, and it becomes necessary to adopt a contrary mode of procedure, the mode of procedure, namely, which he describes as investigation through the ensemble. This point in the scale of the sciences coincides, he tells us, with that at which the transition is made from inorganic to organic nature. The method of investigation by disintegration and separate study should thenceforth give way to that which proceeds by treatment in the ensemble. Accordingly, he holds that the organic sciences generally should be cultivated in conformity with this principle; but in the study of social phenomena, the most complex and intricate of all, the rule becomes absolute and imperative.

And here one is led to ask why the method of specialisation should lose its efficacy as problems become more complex ? The very opposite is what one would naturally expect. If a problem involving no more than two or three distinct elements can only be resolved by the process of analysis and separate consideration of the parts, the necessity for this would seem to be still more urgent as the elements engaged become more numerous. M. Comte's reason for reversing this inference is very peculiar. He says that as phenomena become more complex, the elements composing them become more solidaire. In the physical universe, the complexity of the phenomena is not great, and consequently their “solidarity” is but “slightly pronounced :" “ the elements are here better known to us than the ensemble.But the reverse is the case with the organic world, and more especially with that portion of the organic world which constitutes the social organism. The phenomena are here characterised by a very high degree of complexity, and therefore, says M. Comte, by a very high degree of solidarity : “the ensemble of the subject is better known to us and more accessible than the parts.” On the fundamental principle, then, of inductive logic, which requires us to proceed from the known to the unknown, from

(1) This argument has appeared to me so weak-indeed, M. Comte's whole case against Political Economy is, as it seems to me, so weak, that I have felt it difficult at times to repress the suspicion that his reasons for rejecting it were not purely and simply of a philosophical kind. “Il s'agit malheureusement,” he says in one passage, “et sans que rien puisse m'en dispenser, de tenter une création philosophique qui n'a jamais été jusqu'ici ébauchée ni convenablement conçue par aucun de mes prédécesseurs.” “Sociology" could not be constructed in its entirety by M. Comte if Political Economy were a legitimate speculation. But M. Comte felt it to be his mission to construct Sociology in its entirety. The conclusion seems evident. VOL. VII. N. S.

QQ

the better to the less known, we are bound, in dealing with the phenomena of organic nature, but more especially with the phenomena of society, to begin our investigations with the study of aggregates, and only after we have determined their laws to address ourselves to that of the less known elements. M. Comte admits that this mode of proceeding must “gravely augment” the fundamental difficulties already incident to the extreme complication of the subject-matter ; but this, he conceives, is only a reason for reserving the study of society for “the highest scientific intelligences.”

In attempting to criticise this argument, it becomes necessary to assign a distinct meaning to its several propositions. We encounter, in the first place, the expression, “the ensemble of society," and the statement that this is better known to us than the “elements.” In the most obvious meaning of the word the statement is manifestly not true. By the ensemble of society most people would, I think, understand the aggregate of the human beings composing society

-of those human beings considered in their social relations; and by the “elements," the individual social men and women. In this sense I say it is manifestly untrue that we know society better in its ensemble than in its “elements,”—50 manifestly so, that it cannot for a moment be supposed that this was M. Comte's meaning. When, for example, an Englishman travels in France, it is not with the ensemble of French society that he comes into contact, but with certain railway officials and hotel proprietors exemplifying a very limited range of French social existence. As he prolongs his residence he may extend his knowledge; but the course which his acquisitions take will, I need scarcely say, be in the opposite direction of that which M. Comte's maxim affirms. Nor can a French philosopher attain a knowledge of French social existence by any different path; he, too, must proceed from individuals to classes, and from classes to the social whole. But there is another sense in which M. Comte's language may be understood. Social phenomena, like all other phenomena, meet us not simple, but composite. We do not encounter purely religious, or purely industrial, or purely political men and women. Social acts, social situations, can rarely be referred to any single influence. Human beings, as they exist, are not abstract, but historical, human beings, in a greater or less degree, under the influences of all the causes that have been affecting the race from its origin down to the present time. Thus regarded, society, or more properly social phenomena, may be said to present themselves to us in the ensemble; and thus understood, the statement that we know society through its ensemble, not through its elements, is undoubtedly true. If this be M. Comte's meaning, the proposition cannot be disputed; but then it must be remarked that the assertion is equally true as applied to the phenomena of the physical universe. Physical forces also act in constant conjunction. Unless we effect the separation by artificial means we encounter no purely chemical, or purely optical, or purely mechanical phenomena; but phenomena in the production of which a variety, greater or less, of physical forces concur—that is to say, we know physical nature also through its ensemble. We are thus brought back to the point from which we started, why are we—the phenomena of social life and those of physical nature being made known to us under similar conditions—to reverse in our study of society the method of investigation which has been found efficacious in dealing with the physical world?

M. Comte's reply at this stage of the argument resolves itself into the doctrine I have already stated, that the solidarity of phenomena varies directly with their complexity. It is true, he seems to admit, that we know physical nature equally with social through its ensemble ; but the ensemble, in the former case, is composed of fewer elements, and these, in proportion as they are fewer, are less solidaire, are therefore more easily broken up and submitted to separate examination. Hence arises an increased facility of applying the method of disintegration and separate study in their case. But, in the first place, this does not meet the difficulty, since the answer admits that physical nature is known to us through its ensemblean admission which, on M. Comte's principles seems to draw with it the obligation of studying physical nature through this, its most familiar manifestation.' Waiving, however, this point, I wish to examine M. Comte's position, which is really the root of his whole argument against Political Economy, that phenomena in proportion as they are more complex are more solidaire. If this assumption be not wellfounded, there is absolutely nothing for his reasoning to rest upon.

To test the doctrine, let us consider it in a concrete case. I take the instance of water, a composite physical phenomenon exemplifying a variety of physical laws. Considered chemically, its complexity is of the lowest degree, containing as it does but two elements, oxygen and hydrogen. According to M. Comte's doctrine, water, being chemically of the lowest degree of complexity, ought to exhibit, in the relation of its chemical elements, the lowest degree also of solidarity. The fact, I need scarcely say, is exactly the reverse. As every one knows, the solidarity—by which I understand intimacy of relationship, closeness of interdependence-existing between the elements composing water is of an extremely intense kind, so much so that the analysis of water constituted an epoch in chemical history. On the other hand, if we take a phenomenon of greater complexity, say water in combination with lime, we find the solidarity diminish as the number of the elements is increased; the water or the lime being much more easily detached from the hydrate of lime than the elements composing the water, or than those composing the lime, are from each other. Nor is this a solitary

example: rather it represents a rule holding extensively throughout chemical combination. In inorganic chemistry the salts are in general easily decomposed, while the less complex elements composing them—the oxides of the metals and the acids—are mostly of very difficult analysis. And in organic compounds a similar rule prevails. So far, therefore, the relation between complexity and solidarity appears to be the reverse of that for which M. Comte contends. The case just considered illustrates the incidents of complexity within the range of a single order of relations. How stands the fact when the orders of relation exemplified in the phenomena are different ? For example, water possesses, besides chemical, mechanical, optical, electrical, and other physical properties. Is it true that, as between these several orders of physical phenomena, the solidarity is, as M. Comte asserts, “little pronounced ?"—that the chemical, mechanical, optical, and electrical attributes of water are but slightly interdependent-less interdependent than, for example, physiological and moral qualities in a human being, or political and industrial conditions in a body politic ? No one denies that there is here also solidarity; but the question is, not as to the existence of solidarity, but as to the degree. What M. Comte had to show was that the solidarity of co-operating agencies was greater in the case of the phenomena of society than in that of the phenomena of the physical world—so much greater as to necessitate in their case an inversion of the method of investigation practised in the study of physical nature; but to establish this he has not advanced a particle of proof. For my part, I can imagine no more eminent example of the solidarity of forces than that presented by the most ordinary phenomena of the physical world—the ebb and flow of the tides, the succession of the seasons, the freezing and thawing of water, a shower of rain, a drop of dew. Yet this has been no bar in the study of these phenomena to the employment of methods which M. Comte would nevertheless exclude from the domain of social science on the ground that its phenomena are solidaire.

So much for the grounds of general philosophy on which M. Comte relies in refusing to recognise Political Economy as a science; and he finds, as he conceives, corroboration of the soundness of the view he has taken in the history and actual condition of economic speculation. M. Comte opens his criticisms on the history and existing state of Political Economy with the remark, that its scientific pretensions could not well have been otherwise than inane, considering the sort of persons by whom it has been cultivated. These bave, he tells us, nearly all proceeded “ from the ranks of advocates and littérateurs l:—“Strangers by their education, even with regard to the least important phenomena, to every idea of scientific observa

(1) Philosophie Positive, vol. iv. p. 266.

tion, to every notion of natural law, to every sentiment of true demonstration, it was impossible for them, whatever might have been the intrinsic force of their intelligence, to apply duly to the complicated problems of society a method of reasoning of which they were wholly ignorant of the most simple applications,—destitute, as they were, of any other philosophical preparation than certain vague and inadequate precepts of general logic." From this sweeping characterisation he excepts Adam Smith, and Adam Smith alone, whose judgment is commended in having avoided the “vain pretension” of founding a special science, and in confining the aim of his work to the elucidation of some detached points of social philosophy. But with the single exception of the “ Wealth of Nations,” the whole dogmatic portion of the pretended science presents, according to M. Comte, the simple metaphysical character —a phrase which, as M. Comte's readers are aware, supplies the strongest form of reprobation known to the Comtian vocabulary. Of the truth of this conclusion, if further evidence were needed, ample is found in “the avowal, spontaneous and decisive, of the respectable Tracy,” implied “in the execution of his treatise on Political Economy as a fourth part, between Logics and Ethics, of his general treatise on Ideology.”

The impression which these comments will leave on readers acquainted with the leading economical writers of France and England, will scarcely, I should think, be favourable to M. Comte's candour and sagacity. It is, in fact, quite evident that M. Comte had no effective knowledge of the branch of science which he denounced; and it is scarcely credible that he could even have remembered, as he wrote the passage from which I have made the above extracts, who its cultivators had been; for the list includes, to mention no others, the names of Turgot, Hume, Bentham, Ricardo, and the two Mills. There need be no hesitation in saying, and the remark implies no disrespect to M. Comte, that any one of these writers had quite as accurate a conception of what constitutes a law of nature, and of the sort of proof by which a law of nature is established, as M. Comte himself. It would seem, indeed, as if M. Comte's mind lost its proper balance and edge on coming into contact with Political Economy. He not only forgets what is due to the able thinkers who preceded him, and who—would he but believe it -were his fellow-labourers in building up that science of society of which he wished to constitute himself the sole and exclusive founder, but his sense of logical cogency seems to fail him: I know not how else to account for his reference to the collocation of topics adopted by M. Destutt de Tracy in his treatise on Ideology, as “decisiveevidence of the unpositive character of Political Economy. What M. Comte's reasons were for excepting Adam Smith from the genera condemnation passed upon the cultivators of economic science, it is

« ZurückWeiter »