On the Positivistic Approach to Society

From Auguste Comte, The Positive Philosophy (translated and condensed by Harriet Martineau),Vol. 2 (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1854), 68-74 and 95-1 10.

If we look with a philosophical eye upon the present state of social science, we cannot butrecognize in it the combination of all the features of that theologico-metaphysical infancy whichall the other sciences have had to pass through. . . .

If we contemplate the positive spirit in its relation to scientific conception . . . we shall find thatthis philosophy is distinguished from the theologico-metaphysical by its tendency to renderrelative the ideas which were at first absolute. This inevitable passage from the absolute to therelative is one of the most important philosophical results of each of the intellectual revolutionswhich has carried on every kind of speculation from the theological or metaphysical to thescientific state. In a scientific view, this contrast between the relative and the absolute may beregarded as the most decisive manifestation of the antipathy between the modern philosophy andthe ancient.

Men were long in learning that Man's power of modifying phenomena can result only from hisknowledge of their natural laws; and in the infancy of each science, they believed themselvesable to exert unbounded influence over the phenomena of that science . . . We see themetaphysical school . . . attributing observed events to chance, and sometimes, when that methodis too obviously absurd, exaggerating ridiculously the influence of the individual mind upon thecourse of human affairs . . . It represents the social action of Man to be indefinite and arbitrary, aswas once thought in regard to biological, chemical, physical, and even astronomicalphenomenona, in the earlier stages of their respective sciences . . . There is no chance of orderand agreement but in subjecting social phenomena, like all others, to invariable natural laws,which shall, as a whole, prescribe for each period, with entire certainty, the limits and characterof political action--in other words, introducing into the study of social phenomena the samepositive spirit which has regenerated every other branch of human speculation. Such a procedureis the true scientific basis of human dignity; as the chief tendencies of man's nature thus acquire asolemn character of authority which must be always respected by rational legislation; whereas theexisting belief in the indefinite power of political combinations, which seems at first to exalt theimportance of Man, issues in attributing to him a sort of social automatism passively directed bysome supremacy of either Providence or the human ruler . . .

The last of the preliminary considerations that we have to review is that of the scientificprevision of phenomena, which, as the test of true science, includes all the rest. We have tocontemplate social phenomena as susceptible of prevision, like all other classes, within the limitsof exactness compatible with their higher complexity. Comprehending the three characteristics . . . we have been examining, prevision of social phenomena supposes first, that we haveabandoned the region of metaphysical idealities, to assume the ground of observed realities by asystematic subordination of imagination to observation; secondly, that political conceptions haveceased to be absolute, and have become relative to the variable state of civilization, so thattheories, following the natural course of facts, may admit of our foreseeing them; and, thirdly,that permanent political action is limited by determinate laws, since if social events were alwaysexposed to disturbance by the accidental intervention of the legislator, human or divine, noscientific prevision of them would be possible. Thus, we may concentrate the conditions of thespirit of positive social philosophy on this one great attribute of scientific prevision . . .

The next step . . . is to examine . . . the means of investigation proper to Social Science . . . Wemay expect to find in Sociology a more varied and developed system of resources than in anyother, in proportion to the complexity of the phenomena, while yet this extension of means doesnot compensate for the increased imperfection arising from the intricacy. The extension of themeans is also more difficult to verify than in any prior case from the novelty of the subject; and Ican scarcely hope that such a sketch as I must present here will command such confidence as willarise when a complete survey of the science shall have confirmed what I now offer.

As Social Physics assumes a place in the hierarchy of sciences after all the rest and thereforedependent on them, its means of investigation must be of two kinds: those which arise from theconnection of sociology with the other sciences; and these last, though indirect, are asindispensable as the first. I shall review . . . the direct resources of the science.

Very imperfect and even vicious notions prevail at present as to what Observation can be and caneffect in Social Science. The chaotic state of doctrine of the last century has extended toMethod; and amidst our intellectual disorganization, difficulties have been magnified;precautionary methods, experimental and rational, have been broken up; and even the possibilityof obtaining social knowledge by observation has been dogmatically denied; but if the sophismsput forth on this subject were true, they would destroy the certainty, not only of social science,but of all the simpler and more perfect ones that have gone before. The ground of doubt assignedis the uncertainty of human testimony; but all the sciences, up to the most simple, require proofsof testimony: that is, in the elaboration of the most positive theories, we have to admitobservations which could not be directly made, nor even repeated, by those who use them, andthe reality of which rests only on the faithful testimony of the original investigators; there beingnothing in this to prevent the use of such proofs, in concurrence with immediate observations. InAstronomy, such a method is obviously necessary; it is equally, though less obviously necessaryeven in mathematics; and, of course, much more evidently in the case of the more complexsciences. How could any science emerge from the nascent state--how could there be anyorganization of intellectual labor, even if research were restricted to the utmost, if every onerejected all observations but his own? The stoutest advocates of historical skepticism do not goso far as to advocate this. It is only in the case of social phenomena that the paradox is proposed;and it is made use of there because it is one of the weapons of the philosophical arsenal whichthe revolutionary metaphysical doctrine constructed for the intellectual overthrow of the ancientpolitical system. The next great hindrance to the use of observation is the empiricism which isintroduced into it by those who, in the name of impartiality, would interdict the use of any theorywhatever. No logical dogma could be more thoroughly irreconcilable with the spirit of thepositive philosophy, or with its special character in regard to the study of social phenomena, thanthis. No real observation of any kind of phenomena is possible, except in as far as it is firstdirected, and finally interpreted, by some theory: and it was this logical need which, in theinfancy of human reason, occasioned the rise of theological philosophy, as we shall see in thecourse of our historical survey. The positive philosophy does not dissolve this obligation, but, onthe contrary, extends and fulfils it more and more, the further the relations of phenomena aremultiplied and perfected by it. Hence it is clear that, scientifically speaking, all isolated,empirical observation is idle, and even radically uncertain; that science can use only thoseobservations which are connected, at least hypothetically, with some law; that it is such aconnection which makes the chief difference between scientific and popular observation,embracing the same facts, but contemplating them from different points of view: and thatobservations empirically conducted can at most supply provisional materials, which must usuallyundergo an ulterior revision. The rational method of observation becomes more necessary inproportion to the complexity of the phenomena, amid which the observer would not know whathe ought to look at in the facts before his eyes, but for the guidance of a preparatory theory; andthus it is that by the connection of foregoing facts we learn to see the facts that follow. This isundisputed with regard to astronomical, physical, and chemical research, and in every branch ofbiological study, in which good observation of its highly complex phenomena is still very rare,precisely because its positive theories are very imperfect. Carrying on the analogy, it is evidentthat in the corresponding divisions, statical and dynamical, of social science, there is more needthan anywhere else of theories which shall scientifically connect the facts that are happening withthose that have happened: and the more we reflect, the more distinctly we shall see that inproportion as known facts are mutually connected we shall be better able not only to estimate,but to perceive those which are yet unexplored. I am not blind to the vast difficulty which thisrequisition imposes on the institution of positive sociology--obliging us to create at once, so tospeak, observations and laws, on account of their indispensable connection, placing us in a sortof vicious circle, from which we can issue only by employing in the first instance materialswhich are badly elaborated, and doctrines which are ill-conceived. How I may succeed in a taskso difficult and delicate, we shall see . . ., but, however that may be, it is clear that it is theabsence of any positive theory which at present renders social observations so vague andincoherent. There can never be any lack of facts; for in this case even more than in others, it isthe commonest sort of facts that are most important, whatever the collectors of secret anecdotesmay think; but, though we are steeped to the lips in them, we can make no use of them, nor evenbe aware of them, for want of speculative guidance in examining them. The statical observationof a crowd of phenomena can not take place without some notion, however elementary, of thelaws of social interconnection: and dynamical facts could have no fixed direction if they werenot attached, at least by a provisional hypothesis, to the laws of social development. The positivephilosophy is very far from discouraging historical or any other erudition; but the preciousnight-watchings, now so lost in the laborious acquisition of a conscientious but barren learning,may be made available by it for the constitution of true social science, and the increased honor ofthe earnest minds that are devoted to it. The new philosophy will supply fresh and noblersubjects, unhoped-for insight, a loftier aim, and therefore a higher scientific dignity. It willdiscard none but aimless labors, without principle and without character; as in Physics, there isno room for compilations of empirical observations; and at the same time, philosophy will renderjustice to the zeal of students of a past generation, who, destitute of the favorable guidance whichwe, of this day, enjoy, followed up their laborious historical researches with an instinctiveperseverance, and in spite of the superficial disdain of the philosophers of the time. No doubt,the same danger attends research here as elsewhere: the danger that, from the continuous use ofscientific theories, the observer may sometimes pervert facts, by erroneously supposing them toverify some illgrounded speculative prejudices of his own. But we have the same guard here aselsewhere--in the further extension of the science: and the case would not be improved by arecurrence to empirical methods, which would be merely leaving theories that may be misappliedbut can always be rectified, for imaginary notions which can not be substantiated at all. Ourfeeble reason may often fail in the application of positive theories, but at least they transfer usfrom the domain of imagination to that of reality, and expose us infinitely less than any otherkind of doctrine to the danger of seeing in facts that which is not.

It is now clear that Social Science requires, more than any other, the subordination ofObservation to the statical and dynamical laws of phenomena: No social fact can have anyscientific meaning till it is connected with some other social fact; without which connection itremains a mere anecdote, involving no rational utility. This condition so far increases theimmediate difficulty that good observers will be rare at first, though more abundant than ever asthe science expands; and here we meet with another confirmation of what I said at the outset . . .--that the formation of social theories should be confided only to the best organized minds,prepared by the most rational training. Explored by such minds, according to rational views ofco-existence and succession, social phenomena no doubt admit of much more varied andextensive means of investigation than phenomena of less complexity. In this view, it is not onlythe immediate inspection or direct description of events that affords useful means of positiveexploration; but the consideration of apparently insignificant customs, the appreciation of variouskinds of monuments, the analysis and comparison of languages, and a multitude of otherresources. In short, a mind suitably trained becomes able by exercise to convert almost allimpressions from the events of life into sociological indications, when once the connection of allindications with the leading ideas of the science is understood. This is a facility afforded by themutual relation of the various aspects of society, which may partly compensate for the difficultycaused by that mutual connection: if it renders observation more difficult, it affords more meansfor its prosecution.

It might be supposed beforehand that the second method of investigation, Experiment, must bewholly inapplicable in Social Science; but we shall find that the science is not entirely deprivedof this resource though it must be one of inferior value. We must remember . . . that there aretwo kinds of experimentation--the direct and the indirect: and that it is not necessary to thephilosophical character of this method that the circumstances of the phenomenon in questionshould be, as is vulgarly supposed in the learned world, artificially instituted. Whether the casebe natural or factitious, experimentation takes place whenever the regular course of thephenomenon is interfered with in any determinate manner. The spontaneous nature of thealteration has no effect on the scientific value of the case, if the elements are known. It is in thissense that experimentation is possible in Sociology. If direct experimentation had become toodifficult amidst the complexities of biology, it may well be considered impossible in SocialScience. Any artificial disturbance of any social element must affect all the rest, according to thelaws both of co-existence and succession; and the experiment would therefore, if it could beinstituted at all, be deprived of all scientific value, through the impossibility of isolating eitherthe conditions or the results of the phenomenon. But we saw . . . that pathological cases are thetrue scientific equivalent of pure experimentation, and why. The same reasons apply, with evenmore force, to sociological researches. In them, pathological analysis consists in the examinationof cases, unhappily too common, in which the natural laws, either of harmony or of succession,are disturbed by any causes, special or general, accidental or transient; as in revolutionary timesespecially; and above all, in our own. These disturbances are, in the social body, exactlyanalogous to diseases in the individual organism: and I have no doubt whatever that the analogywill be more evident (allowance being made for the unequal complexity of the organisms) thedeeper the investigation goes. In both cases it is . . . a noble use to make of our reason, todisclose the real laws of our nature, individual or social, by the analysis of its sufferings. But ifthe method is imperfectly instituted in regard to biological questions, much more faulty must itbe in regard to the phenomena of Social Science, for want even of the rational conceptions towhich they are to be referred. We see the most disastrous political experiments for ever renewed,with only some insignificant and irrational modifications, though their first operation shouldhave fully satisfied us of the uselessness and danger of the expedients proposed. Withoutforgetting how much is ascribable to the influence of human passions, we must remember thatthe deficiency of an authoritative rational analysis is one of the main causes of the barrennessimputed to social experiments, the course of which would become much more instructive if itwere better observed. The great natural laws exist and act in all conditions of the organism; foras . . . in the case of biology, it is an error to suppose that they are violated or suspended in thecase of disease: and we are therefore justified in drawing our conclusions, with due caution,from the scientific analysis of disturbance to the positive theory of normal existence. This is thenature and character of the indirect experimentation which discloses the real economy of thesocial body in a more marked manner than simple observation could do. It is applicable to allorders of sociological research, whether relating to existence or to movement, and regarded underany aspect whatever, physical, intellectual, moral or political; and to all degrees of the socialevolution, from which, unhappily, disturbances have never been absent. As for its presentextension, no one can venture to offer any statement of it, because it has never been duly appliedin any investigation in political philosophy; and it can become customary only by the institutionof the new science which I am endeavoring to establish. But I could not omit this notice of it, asone of the means of investigation proper to social science.

As for the third of those methods, Comparison, the reader must bear in mind the explanationsoffered, in our survey of biological philosophy, of the reasons why the comparative method mustprevail in all studies of which the living organism is the subject; and the more remarkably, inproportion to the rank of the organism. The same considerations apply in the present case, in amore conspicuous degree; and I may leave it to the reader to make the application, merelypointing out the chief differences which distinguish the use of the comparative method insociological inquiries.

It is a very irrational disdain which makes us object to all comparison between human societyand the social state of the lower animals. This unphilosophical pride arose out of the protractedinfluence of the theologico-metaphysical philosophy; and it will be corrected by the positivephilosophy, when we better understand and can estimate the social state of the higher orders ofmammifers, for instance. We have seen how important is the study of individual life, in regard tointellectual and moral phenomena--of which social phenomena are the natural result andcomplement. There was once the same blindness to the importance of the procedure in this caseas now in the other; and as it has given way in the one case, so it will in the other. The chiefdefect in the kind of sociological comparison that we want is that it is limited to staticalconsiderations; whereas the dynamical are, at the present time, the preponderant and directsubject of science. The restriction results from the social state of animals being, though not sostationary as we are apt to suppose, yet suceptible only of extremely small variations, in no waycomparable to the continued progression of humanity in its feeblest days. But there is no doubtof the scientific utility of such a comparison, in the statical province, where it characterizes theelementary laws of social interconnection, by exhibiting their action in the most imperfect stateof society, so as even to suggest useful inductions in regard to human society. There can not be astronger evidence of the natural character of the chief social relations, which some people fancythat they can transform at pleasure. Such sophists will cease to regard the great ties of the humanfamily as factitious and arbitrary when they find them existing, with the same essentialcharacteristics, among the animals, and more conspicuously, the nearer the organisms approachto the human type. In brief, in all that part of sociology which is almost one with intellectual andmoral biology, or with the natural history of Man; in all that relates to the first germs of the socialrelations, and the first institutions which were founded by the unity of the family or the tribe,there is not only great scientific advantage, but real philosophical necessity for employing therational comparison of human with other animal societies. Perhaps it might even be desirable notto confine the comparison to societies which present a character of Voluntary cooperation, inanalogy to the human. They must always rank first in importance: but the scientific spirit,extending the process to its final logical term, might find some advantage in examining thosestrange associations, proper to the inferior animals, in which an involuntary cooperation resultsfrom an indissoluble organic union, either by simple adhesion or real continuity. If the sciencegained nothing by this extension, the method would. And there is nothing that can compare withsuch an habitual scientific comparison for the great service of casting out the absolute spiritwhich is the chief vice of political philosophy. It appears to me, moreover, that, in a practicalview, the insolent pride which induces some ranks of society to suppose themselves as, in amanner, of another species than the rest of mankind, is in close affinity with the irrational disdainthat repudiates all comparison between human and other animal nature. However all this may be,these considerations apply only to a methodical and special treatment of social philosophy. Here,where I can offer only the first conception of the science, in which dynamical considerationsmust prevail, it is evident that I can make little use of the kind of comparison; and this makes itall the more necessary to point it out, lest its omission should occasion such scientificinconveniences as I have just indicated. The commonest logical procedures are generally socharacterized by their very application, that nothing more of a preliminary nature is needed thanthe simplest examination of their fundamental properties.

To indicate the order of importance of the forms of society which are to be studied by theComparative Method, I begin with the chief method, which consists in a comparison of thedifferent coexisting states of human society on the various parts of the earth's surface-- thosestates being completely independent of each other. By this method, the different stages ofevolution may all be observed at once. Though the progression is single and uniform, in regardto the whole race, some very considerable and very various populations have, from causes whichare little understood, attained extremely unequal degrees of development, so that the formerstates of the most civilized nations are now to be seen, amid some partial differences, amongcontemporary populations inhabiting different parts of the globe. In its relation to Observation,this kind of comparison offers the advantage of being applicable both to statical and dynamicalinquiries, verifying the laws of both, and even furnishing occasionally valuable direct inductionsin regard to both. In the second place, it exhibits all possible degrees of social evolution to ourimmediate observation. From the wretched inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego to the most advancednations of western Europe, there is no social grade which is not extant in some points of theglobe, and usually in localities which are clearly apart. We shall find that some interestingsecondary phases of social development, of which the history of civilization leaves no perceptibletraces, can be known only by this comparative method of study; and these are not, as might besupposed, the lowest degrees of evolution, which every one admits can be investigated in noother way. And between the great historical aspects, there are numerous intermediate stateswhich must be observed thus, if at all. This second part of the comparative method verifies theindications afforded by historical analysis, and fills up the gaps it leaves: and nothing can bemore rational than the method, as it rests upon the established principle that the development ofthe human mind is uniform in the midst of all diversities of climate, and even of race; suchdiversities having no effect upon anything more than the rate of progress. But we must beware ofthe scientific dangers attending the process of comparison by this method. For instance, it cangive us no idea of the order of succession, as it presents all the states of development ascoexisting: so that, if the order of development were not established by other methods, this onewould infallibly mislead us. And again, if we were not misled as to the order, there is nothing inthis method which discloses the filiation of the different systems of society; a matter in which themost distinguished philosophers have been mistaken in various ways and degrees. Again, thereis the danger of mistaking modifications for primary phases; as when social differences havebeen ascribed to the political influence of climate, instead of that inequality of evolution which isthe real cause. Sometimes, but more rarely, the mistake is the other way. Indeed, there isnothing in the matter that can show which of two cases presents the diversity that is observed.We are in danger of the same mistake in regard to races; for, as the sociological comparison isinstituted between peoples of different races, we are liable to confound the effects of race and ofthe social period. Again, climate comes in to offer a third source of interpretation of comparativephenomena, sometimes agreeing with, and sometimes contradicting the two others; thusmultiplying the chances of error, and rendering the analysis which looked so promising almostimpracticable. Here, again, we see the indispensable necessity of keeping in view the positiveconception of human development as a whole. By this alone can we be preserved from sucherrors as I have referred to, and enriched by any genuine results of analysis. We see how absurdin theory and dangerous in practice are the notions and declamations of the empirical school, andof the enemies of all social speculation: for it is precisely in proportion to their elevation andgenerality that the ideas of positive social philosophy become real and effective--an illusion anduselessness belonging to conceptions which are too narrow and too special, in the departmentseither of science or of reasoning. But it is a consequence from these last considerations that thisfirst sketch of sociological science, with the means of investigation that belong to it, restsimmediately upon the primary use of a new method of observation, which is so appropriate to thenature of the phenomena as to be exempt from the dangers inherent in the others. This lastportion of the comparative method is the Historical Method, properly so called; and it is the onlybasis on which the system of political logic can rest.

The historical comparison of the consecutive states of humanity is not only the chief scientificdevice of the new political philosophy. Its rational development constitutes the substratum of thescience, in whatever is essential to it. It is this which distinguishes it thoroughly from biologicalscience . . . The positive principle of this separation results from the necessary influence ofhuman generations upon the generations that follow, accumulating continuously till it constitutesthe preponderating consideration in the direct study of social development. As long as thispreponderance is not directly recognised, the positive study of humanity must appear a simpleprolongation of the natural history of Man: but this scientific character, suitable enough to theearlier generations, disappears in the course of the social evolution, and assumes at length awholly new aspect, proper to sociological science, in which historical considerations are ofimmediate importance. And this preponderant use of the historical method gives itsphilosophical character to sociology in a logical as well as a scientific sense. By the creation ofthis new department of the comparative method, sociology confers a benefit on the whole ofnatural philosophy; because the positive method is thus completed and perfected, in a mannerwhich, for scientific importance, is almost beyond our estimate. What we can now comprehendis that the historical method verifies and applies, in the largest way, that chief quality ofsociological science--its proceeding from the whole to the parts. Without this permanentcondition of social study, all historical labor would degenerate into being a mere compilation ofprovisional materials. As it is in their development, especially, that the various social elementsare interconnected and inseparable, it is clear that any partial filiation must be essentially untrue.Where, for instance, is the use of any exclusive history of any one science or art, unless meaningis given to it by first connecting it with the study of human progress generally? It is the same inevery direction, and especially with regard to political history, as it is called; as if any historycould be other than political, more or less! The prevailing tendency to speciality in study wouldreduce history to a mere accumulation of unconnected delineations, in which all idea of the truefiliation of events would be lost amid the mass of confused descriptions. If the historicalcomparisons of the different periods of civilization are to have any scientific character, they mustbe referred to the general social evolution: and it is only thus that we can obtain the guidingideas by which the special studies themselves must be directed.

In a practical view, it is evident that the preponderance of the historical method tends to developthe social sentiment, by giving us an immediate interest in even the earliest experiences of ourrace, through the influence that they exercised over the evolution of our own civilization. AsCondorcet observed, no enlightened man can think of the battles of Marathon and Salamiswithout perceiving the importance of their consequences to the race at large. This kind of feelingshould, when we are treating of science, be carefully distinguished from the sympathetic interestwhich is awakened by all delineations of human life--in fiction as well as in history. Thesentiment I refer to is deeper, because in some sort personal; and more reflective, because itresults from scientific conviction. It can not be excited by popular history in a descriptive form;but only by positive history, regarded as a true science, and exhibiting the events of humanexperience in coordinated series which manifest their own graduated connection. This new formof the social sentiment must at first be the privilege of the choice few; but it will be extended,somewhat weakened in force, to the whole of society, in proportion as the general results ofsocial physics become sufficiently popular. It will fulfill the most obvious and elementary ideaof the habitual connection between individuals and contemporary nations, by showing that thesuccessive generations of men concur in a final end, which requires the determinate participationof each and all. This rational disposition to regard men of all times as fellow-workers is as yetvisible in the case of only the most advanced sciences. By the philosophical preponderance ofthe historical method, it will be extended to all the aspects of human life, so as to sustain, in areflective temper, that respect for our ancestors which is indispensable to a sound state of society,and so deeply disturbed at present by the metaphysical philosophy.

As for the course to be pursued by this method--it appears to me that its spirit consists in therational use of social series; that is, in a successive estimate of the different states of humanitywhich shall show the growth of each disposition, physical, intellectual, moral, or political,combined with the decline of the opposite disposition, whence we may obtain a scientificprevision of the final ascendency of the one and extinction of the other--care being taken to frameour conclusions according to the laws of human development. A considerable accuracy ofprevision may thus be obtained, for any determinate period, and with any particular view; ashistorical analysis will indicate the direction of modifications, even in the most disturbed times.And it is worth noticing that the prevision will be nearest the truth in proportion as thephenomena in question are more important and more general; because then continuous causes arepredominant in the social movement; and disturbances have less power. From these first generalaspects, the same rational certainty may extend to secondary and special aspects, through theirstatical relations with the first; and thus we may obtain conclusions sufficiently accurate for theapplication of principles.

If we desire to familiarize ourselves with this historical method, we must employ it first upon thepast, by endeavoring to deduce every well-known historical situation from the whole series of itsantecedents. In every science we must have learned to predict the past, so to speak, before wecan predict the future; because the first use of the observed relations among fulfilled facts is toteach us by the anterior succession what the future succession will be. No examination of factscan explain our existing state to us, if we have not ascertained, by historical study, the value ofthe elements at work; and thus it is in vain that statesmen insist on the necessity of politicalobservation, while they look no further than the present, or a very recent past. The present is, byitself, purely misleading, because it is impossible to avoid confounding principal with secondaryfacts, exalting conspicuous transient manifestations over fundamental tendencies, which aregenerally very quiet; and above all, supposing those powers, institutions, and doctrines, to be inthe ascendant, which are, in fact, in their decline. It is clear that the only adequate corrective ofall this is a philosophical understanding of the past; that the comparison can not be decisiveunless it embraces the whole of the past; and that the sooner we stop, in travelling up the vista oftime, the more serious will be the mistakes we fall into. Before our very eyes, we see statesmengoing no farther back than the last century, to obtain an explanation of the confusion in which weare living; the most abstract of politicians may take in the preceding century, but the philosophersthemselves hardly venture beyond the sixteenth; so that those who are striving to find the issue ofthe revolutionary period have actually no conception of it as a whole, though that whole is itselfonly a transient phase of the general social movement.

The most perfect methods may, however, be rendered deceptive by misuse: and this we mustbear in mind. We have seen that mathematical analysis itself may betray us into substitutingsigns for idea, and that it conceals inanity of conception under an imposing verbiage. Thedifficulty in the case of the historical method in sociology is in applying it, on account of theextreme complexity of the materials we have to deal with. But for this, the method would beentirely safe. The chief danger is of our supposing a continuous decrease to indicate a finalextinction, or the reverse; as in mathematics it is a common sophism to confound continuousvariations, more or less, with unlimited variations. To take a strange and very marked example:if we consider that part of social development which relates to human food, we can not butobserve that men take less food as they advance in civilization. If we compare savage with morecivilized peoples, in the Homeric poems or in the narratives of travellers, or compare countrywith town life, or any generation with the one that went before, we shall find this curious result. . . . The laws of individual human nature aid in the result by making intellectual and moral actionmore preponderant as Man becomes more civilized. The fact is thus established, both by theexperimental and the logical way. Yet nobody supposes that men will ultimately cease to eat. Inthis case, the absurdity saves us from a false conclusion; but in other cases, the complexitydisguises much error in the experiment and the reasoning. In the above instance, we must resortto the laws of our nature for that verification which, taken all together, they afford to oursociological analysis. As the social phenomenon, taken as a whole, is simply a development ofhumanity, without any real creation of faculties, all social manifestations must be found, if onlyin their germ, in the primitive type which biology constructed by anticipation for sociology. Thus every law of social succession disclosed by the historical method must be unquestionablyconnected, directly or indirectly, with the positive theory of human nature; and all inductionswhich can not stand this test will prove to be illusory, through some sort of insufficiency in theobservations on which they are grounded. The main scientific strength of sociologicaldemonstrations must ever lie in the accordance between the conclusions of historical analysis andthe preparatory conceptions of the biological theory. And thus we find, look where we will, aconfirmation of that chief intellectual character of the new science--the philosophicalpreponderance of the spirit of the whole over the spirit of detail.

This method ranks, in sociological science, with that of zoological comparison in the study ofindividual life; . . . the succession of social states exactly corresponds, in a scientific sense, withthe gradation of organisms in biology; and the social series, once clearly established, must be asreal and as useful as the animal series. When the method has been used long enough to discloseits properties, I am disposed to think that it will be regarded as so very marked a modification ofpositive research as to deserve a separate place; so that, in addition to Observation, properly socalled, Experiment, and Comparison, we shall have the Historical Method, as a fourth and finalmode of the art of observing. It will be derived, according to the usual course, from the modewhich immediately precedes it: and it will be applied to the analysis of the most complexphenomena.

I must be allowed to point out that the new political philosophy sanctioning the old leadings ofpopular reason, restores to History all its scientific rights as a basis of wise social speculation,after the metaphysical philosophy had striven to induce us to discard all large consideration ofthe past. In the foregoing departments of natural philosophy we have seen that the positive spirit,instead of being disturbing in its tendencies, is remarkable for confirming, in the essential partsof every science, the inestimable intuitions of popular good sense; of which indeed science ismerely a systematic prolongation, and which a barren metaphysical philosophy alone coulddespise. In this case, so far from restricting the influence which human reason has ever attributedto history in political combinations, the new social philosophy increases it, radically andeminently. It asks from history something more than counsel and instruction to perfectconceptions which are derived from another source: it seeks its own general direction, throughthe whole system of historical conclusions.

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