On the Positivistic Approach to Society

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

Bibliographical Notes

1. Comte's principal works include: The Positive Philosophyin six volumes (1830-1842); A Discourse on the Positive Spirit(1844); A General View of Positivism (1848); System ofPositive Polity, in four volumes (1851-1854); The Catechism ofPositive Religion (1852); Appeal to Conservatives (1855);and Religion of Humanity: Subjective Synthesis or Universal Systemof the Conceptions Adapted to the Normal State of Humanity(1856). Comte's most relevant writings for today have recently beenedited in: George Simpson (ed.), Auguste Comte: Sire ofSociology (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell,1969) .

2. For an exceptionally good brief but well-integrated sketch ofComte's life and work, see Rene Konig, "Comte, Auguste," inInternational Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Vol. 3 (NewYork: Macmillan and Free Press, 1968), pp. 201-206. See also: GeorgeSimpson, "Introduction," in George Simpson (ed.), Auguste Comte:Sire of Sociology (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1969), pp. 1-23;and Harry Elmer Barnes, "The Social and Political Philosophy ofAuguste Comte: Positivist Utopia and the Religion of Humanity," inhis An Introduction to the History of Sociology (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1948), pp. 81-109.

If we look with a philosophical eye upon the present state ofsocial science, we cannot but recognize in it the combination of allthe features of that theologico-metaphysical infancy which all theother sciences have had to pass through. . . .

If we contemplate the positive spirit in its relation toscientific conception . . . we shall find that this philosophy isdistinguished from the theologico-metaphysical by its tendency torender relative the ideas which were at first absolute. Thisinevitable passage from the absolute to the relative is one of themost important philosophical results of each of the intellectualrevolutions which has carried on every kind of speculation from thetheological or metaphysical to the scientific state. In a scientificview, this contrast between the relative and the absolute may beregarded as the most decisive manifestation of the antipathy betweenthe modern philosophy and the ancient.

Men were long in learning that Man's power of modifying phenomenacan result only from his knowledge of their natural laws; and in theinfancy of each science, they believed themselves able to exertunbounded influence over the phenomena of that science . . . We seethe metaphysical school . . . attributing observed events to chance,and sometimes, when that method is too obviously absurd, exaggeratingridiculously the influence of the individual mind upon the course ofhuman affairs . . . It represents the social action of Man to beindefinite and arbitrary, as was once thought in regard tobiological, chemical, physical, and even astronomical phenomenona, inthe earlier stages of their respective sciences . . . There is nochance of order and 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 andcharacter of political action--in other words, introducing into thestudy of social phenomena the same positive spirit which hasregenerated every other branch of human speculation. Such a procedureis the true scientific basis of human dignity; as the chieftendencies of man's nature thus acquire a solemn character ofauthority which must be always respected by rational legislation;whereas the existing belief in the indefinite power of politicalcombinations, which seems at first to exalt the importance of Man,issues in attributing to him a sort of social automatism passivelydirected by some supremacy of either Providence or the human ruler .. .

The last of the preliminary considerations that we have to reviewis that of the scientific prevision of phenomena, which, as the testof true science, includes all the rest. We have to contemplate socialphenomena as susceptible of prevision, like all other classes, withinthe limits of exactness compatible with their higher complexity.Comprehending the three characteristics . . . we have been examining,prevision of social phenomena supposes first, that we have abandonedthe region of metaphysical idealities, to assume the ground ofobserved realities by a systematic subordination of imagination toobservation; secondly, that political conceptions have ceased to beabsolute, and have become relative to the variable state ofcivilization, so that theories, following the natural course offacts, may admit of our foreseeing them; and, thirdly, that permanentpolitical action is limited by determinate laws, since if socialevents were always exposed to disturbance by the accidentalintervention of the legislator, human or divine, no scientificprevision of them would be possible. Thus, we may concentrate theconditions of the spirit of positive social philosophy on this onegreat attribute of scientific prevision . . .

The next step . . . is to examine . . . the means of investigationproper to Social Science . . . We may expect to find in Sociology amore varied and developed system of resources than in any other, inproportion to the complexity of the phenomena, while yet thisextension of means does not compensate for the increased imperfectionarising from the intricacy. The extension of the means is also moredifficult to verify than in any prior case from the novelty of thesubject; and I can scarcely hope that such a sketch as I must presenthere will command such confidence as will arise when a completesurvey of the science shall have confirmed what I now offer.

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

Very imperfect and even vicious notions prevail at present as towhat Observation can be and can effect in Social Science. The chaoticstate of doctrine of the last century has extended to Method; andamidst our intellectual disorganization, difficulties have beenmagnified; precautionary methods, experimental and rational, havebeen broken up; and even the possibility of obtaining socialknowledge by observation has been dogmatically denied; but if thesophisms put forth on this subject were true, they would destroy thecertainty, not only of social science, but of all the simpler andmore perfect ones that have gone before. The ground of doubt assignedis the uncertainty of human testimony; but all the sciences, up tothe most simple, require proofs of testimony: that is, in theelaboration of the most positive theories, we have to admitobservations which could not be directly made, nor even repeated, bythose who use them, and the reality of which rests only on thefaithful testimony of the original investigators; there being nothingin this to prevent the use of such proofs, in concurrence withimmediate observations. In Astronomy, such a method is obviouslynecessary; it is equally, though less obviously necessary even inmathematics; and, of course, much more evidently in the case of themore complex sciences. How could any science emerge from the nascentstate--how could there be any organization of intellectual labor,even if research were restricted to the utmost, if every one rejectedall observations but his own? The stoutest advocates of historicalskepticism do not go so far as to advocate this. It is only in thecase of social phenomena that the paradox is proposed; and it is madeuse of there because it is one of the weapons of the philosophicalarsenal which the revolutionary metaphysical doctrine constructed forthe intellectual overthrow of the ancient political system. The nextgreat hindrance to the use of observation is the empiricism which isintroduced into it by those who, in the name of impartiality, wouldinterdict the use of any theory whatever. No logical dogma could bemore thoroughly irreconcilable with the spirit of the positivephilosophy, or with its special character in regard to the study ofsocial phenomena, than this. No real observation of any kind ofphenomena is possible, except in as far as it is first directed, andfinally interpreted, by some theory: and it was this logical needwhich, in the infancy of human reason, occasioned the rise oftheological philosophy, as we shall see in the course of ourhistorical survey. The positive philosophy does not dissolve thisobligation, but, on the contrary, extends and fulfils it more andmore, the further the relations of phenomena are multiplied andperfected by it. Hence it is clear that, scientifically speaking, allisolated, empirical observation is idle, and even radicallyuncertain; that science can use only those observations which areconnected, at least hypothetically, with some law; that it is such aconnection which makes the chief difference between scientific andpopular observation, embracing the same facts, but contemplating themfrom different points of view: and that observations empiricallyconducted can at most supply provisional materials, which mustusually undergo an ulterior revision. The rational method ofobservation becomes more necessary in proportion to the complexity ofthe phenomena, amid which the observer would not know what he oughtto look at in the facts before his eyes, but for the guidance of apreparatory theory; and thus it is that by the connection offoregoing facts we learn to see the facts that follow. This isundisputed with regard to astronomical, physical, and chemicalresearch, and in every branch of biological study, in which goodobservation of its highly complex phenomena is still very rare,precisely because its positive theories are very imperfect. Carryingon the analogy, it is evident that in the corresponding divisions,statical and dynamical, of social science, there is more need thananywhere else of theories which shall scientifically connect thefacts that are happening with those that have happened: and the morewe reflect, the more distinctly we shall see that in proportion asknown facts are mutually connected we shall be better able not onlyto estimate, but to perceive those which are yet unexplored. I am notblind to the vast difficulty which this requisition imposes on theinstitution of positive sociology--obliging us to create at once, soto speak, observations and laws, on account of their indispensableconnection, placing us in a sort of vicious circle, from which we canissue only by employing in the first instance materials which arebadly elaborated, and doctrines which are ill-conceived. How I maysucceed in a task so difficult and delicate, we shall see . . ., but,however that may be, it is clear that it is the absence of anypositive theory which at present renders social observations so vagueand incoherent. There can never be any lack of facts; for in thiscase even more than in others, it is the commonest sort of facts thatare most important, whatever the collectors of secret anecdotes maythink; but, though we are steeped to the lips in them, we can make nouse of them, nor even be aware of them, for want of speculativeguidance in examining them. The statical observation of a crowd ofphenomena can not take place without some notion, however elementary,of the laws of social interconnection: and dynamical facts could haveno fixed direction if they were not attached, at least by aprovisional hypothesis, to the laws of social development. Thepositive philosophy is very far from discouraging historical or anyother erudition; but the precious night-watchings, now so lost in thelaborious acquisition of a conscientious but barren learning, may bemade available by it for the constitution of true social science, andthe increased honor of the earnest minds that are devoted to it. Thenew philosophy will supply fresh and nobler subjects, unhoped-forinsight, a loftier aim, and therefore a higher scientific dignity. Itwill discard none but aimless labors, without principle and withoutcharacter; as in Physics, there is no room for compilations ofempirical observations; and at the same time, philosophy will renderjustice to the zeal of students of a past generation, who, destituteof the favorable guidance which we, of this day, enjoy, followed uptheir laborious historical researches with an instinctiveperseverance, and in spite of the superficial disdain of thephilosophers of the time. No doubt, the same danger attends researchhere as elsewhere: the danger that, from the continuous use ofscientific theories, the observer may sometimes pervert facts, byerroneously supposing them to verify some illgrounded speculativeprejudices of his own. But we have the same guard here aselsewhere--in the further extension of the science: and the casewould not be improved by a recurrence to empirical methods, whichwould be merely leaving theories that may be misapplied but canalways be rectified, for imaginary notions which can not besubstantiated at all. Our feeble reason may often fail in theapplication of positive theories, but at least they transfer us fromthe domain of imagination to that of reality, and expose usinfinitely less than any other kind of doctrine to the danger ofseeing in facts that which is not.

It is now clear that Social Science requires, more than any other,the subordination of Observation to the statical and dynamical lawsof phenomena: No social fact can have any scientific meaning till itis connected with some other social fact; without which connection itremains a mere anecdote, involving no rational utility. Thiscondition so far increases the immediate difficulty that goodobservers will be rare at first, though more abundant than ever asthe science expands; and here we meet with another confirmation ofwhat I said at the outset . . .--that the formation of socialtheories should be confided only to the best organized minds,prepared by the most rational training. Explored by such minds,according to rational views of co-existence and succession, socialphenomena no doubt admit of much more varied and extensive means ofinvestigation than phenomena of less complexity. In this view, it isnot only the immediate inspection or direct description of eventsthat affords useful means of positive exploration; but theconsideration of apparently insignificant customs, the appreciationof various kinds of monuments, the analysis and comparison oflanguages, and a multitude of other resources. In short, a mindsuitably trained becomes able by exercise to convert almost allimpressions from the events of life into sociological indications,when once the connection of all indications with the leading ideas ofthe science is understood. This is a facility afforded by the mutualrelation of the various aspects of society, which may partlycompensate for the difficulty caused by that mutual connection: if itrenders observation more difficult, it affords more means for itsprosecution.

It might be supposed beforehand that the second method ofinvestigation, Experiment, must be wholly inapplicable in SocialScience; but we shall find that the science is not entirely deprivedof this resource though it must be one of inferior value. We mustremember . . . that there are two kinds of experimentation--thedirect and the indirect: and that it is not necessary to thephilosophical character of this method that the circumstances of thephenomenon in question should be, as is vulgarly supposed in thelearned world, artificially instituted. Whether the case be naturalor factitious, experimentation takes place whenever the regularcourse of the phenomenon is interfered with in any determinatemanner. The spontaneous nature of the alteration has no effect on thescientific value of the case, if the elements are known. It is inthis sense that experimentation is possible in Sociology. If directexperimentation had become too difficult amidst the complexities ofbiology, it may well be considered impossible in Social Science. Anyartificial disturbance of any social element must affect all therest, according to the laws both of co-existence and succession; andthe experiment would therefore, if it could be instituted at all, bedeprived of all scientific value, through the impossibility ofisolating either the conditions or the results of the phenomenon. Butwe saw . . . that pathological cases are the true scientificequivalent of pure experimentation, and why. The same reasons apply,with even more force, to sociological researches. In them,pathological analysis consists in the examination of cases, unhappilytoo common, in which the natural laws, either of harmony or ofsuccession, are disturbed by any causes, special or general,accidental or transient; as in revolutionary times especially; andabove all, in our own. These disturbances are, in the social body,exactly analogous to diseases in the individual organism: and I haveno doubt whatever that the analogy will be more evident (allowancebeing made for the unequal complexity of the organisms) the deeperthe investigation goes. In both cases it is . . . a noble use to makeof our reason, to disclose the real laws of our nature, individual orsocial, by the analysis of its sufferings. But if the method isimperfectly instituted in regard to biological questions, much morefaulty must it be in regard to the phenomena of Social Science, forwant even of the rational conceptions to which they are to bereferred. We see the most disastrous political experiments for everrenewed, with only some insignificant and irrational modifications,though their first operation should have fully satisfied us of theuselessness and danger of the expedients proposed. Without forgettinghow much is ascribable to the influence of human passions, we mustremember that the deficiency of an authoritative rational analysis isone of the main causes of the barrenness imputed to socialexperiments, the course of which would become much more instructiveif it were better observed. The great natural laws exist and act inall conditions of the organism; for as . . . 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 ourconclusions, with due caution, from the scientific analysis ofdisturbance to the positive theory of normal existence. This is thenature and character of the indirect experimentation which disclosesthe real economy of the social body in a more marked manner thansimple observation could do. It is applicable to all orders ofsociological research, whether relating to existence or to movement,and regarded under any aspect whatever, physical, intellectual, moralor political; and to all degrees of the social evolution, from which,unhappily, disturbances have never been absent. As for its presentextension, no one can venture to offer any statement of it, becauseit has never been duly applied in any investigation in politicalphilosophy; and it can become customary only by the institution ofthe new science which I am endeavoring to establish. But I could notomit this notice of it, as one of the means of investigation properto social science.

As for the third of those methods, Comparison, the reader mustbear in mind the explanations offered, in our survey of biologicalphilosophy, of the reasons why the comparative method must prevail inall studies of which the living organism is the subject; and the moreremarkably, in proportion to the rank of the organism. The sameconsiderations apply in the present case, in a more conspicuousdegree; and I may leave it to the reader to make the application,merely pointing out the chief differences which distinguish the useof the comparative method in sociological inquiries.

It is a very irrational disdain which makes us object to allcomparison between human society and the social state of the loweranimals. This unphilosophical pride arose out of the protractedinfluence of the theologico-metaphysical philosophy; and it will becorrected by the positive philosophy, when we better understand andcan estimate the social state of the higher orders of mammifers, forinstance. We have seen how important is the study of individual life,in regard to intellectual and moral phenomena--of which socialphenomena are the natural result and complement. There was once thesame blindness to the importance of the procedure in this case as nowin the other; and as it has given way in the one case, so it will inthe other. The chief defect in the kind of sociological comparisonthat we want is that it is limited to statical considerations;whereas the dynamical are, at the present time, the preponderant anddirect subject of science. The restriction results from the socialstate of animals being, though not so stationary as we are apt tosuppose, yet suceptible only of extremely small variations, in no waycomparable to the continued progression of humanity in its feeblestdays. But there is no doubt of the scientific utility of such acomparison, in the statical province, where it characterizes theelementary laws of social interconnection, by exhibiting their actionin the most imperfect state of society, so as even to suggest usefulinductions in regard to human society. There can not be a strongerevidence of the natural character of the chief social relations,which some people fancy that they can transform at pleasure. Suchsophists will cease to regard the great ties of the human family asfactitious and arbitrary when they find them existing, with the sameessential characteristics, among the animals, and more conspicuously,the nearer the organisms approach to the human type. In brief, in allthat part of sociology which is almost one with intellectual andmoral biology, or with the natural history of Man; in all thatrelates to the first germs of the social relations, and the firstinstitutions which were founded by the unity of the family or thetribe, there is not only great scientific advantage, but realphilosophical necessity for employing the rational comparison ofhuman with other animal societies. Perhaps it might even be desirablenot to confine the comparison to societies which present a characterof Voluntary cooperation, in analogy to the human. They must alwaysrank first in importance: but the scientific spirit, extending theprocess to its final logical term, might find some advantage inexamining those strange associations, proper to the inferior animals,in which an involuntary cooperation results from an indissolubleorganic union, either by simple adhesion or real continuity. If thescience gained nothing by this extension, the method would. And thereis nothing that can compare with such an habitual scientificcomparison 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 practical view, the insolent pride which inducessome ranks of society to suppose themselves as, in a manner, ofanother species than the rest of mankind, is in close affinity withthe irrational disdain that repudiates all comparison between humanand other animal nature. However all this may be, theseconsiderations apply only to a methodical and special treatment ofsocial philosophy. Here, where I can offer only the first conceptionof the science, in which dynamical considerations must prevail, it isevident that I can make little use of the kind of comparison; andthis makes it all the more necessary to point it out, lest itsomission should occasion such scientific inconveniences as I havejust indicated. The commonest logical procedures are generally socharacterized by their very application, that nothing more of apreliminary nature is needed than the simplest examination of theirfundamental properties.

To indicate the order of importance of the forms of society whichare to be studied by the Comparative Method, I begin with the chiefmethod, which consists in a comparison of the different coexistingstates of human society on the various parts of the earth's surface--those states being completely independent of each other. By thismethod, the different stages of evolution may all be observed atonce. Though the progression is single and uniform, in regard to thewhole race, some very considerable and very various populations have,from causes which are little understood, attained extremely unequaldegrees of development, so that the former states of the mostcivilized nations are now to be seen, amid some partial differences,among contemporary populations inhabiting different parts of theglobe. In its relation to Observation, this kind of comparison offersthe advantage of being applicable both to statical and dynamicalinquiries, verifying the laws of both, and even furnishingoccasionally valuable direct inductions in regard to both. In thesecond place, it exhibits all possible degrees of social evolution toour immediate observation. From the wretched inhabitants of Tierradel Fuego to the most advanced nations of western Europe, there is nosocial grade which is not extant in some points of the globe, andusually in localities which are clearly apart. We shall find thatsome interesting secondary phases of social development, of which thehistory of civilization leaves no perceptible traces, can be knownonly by this comparative method of study; and these are not, as mightbe supposed, the lowest degrees of evolution, which every one admitscan be investigated in no other way. And between the great historicalaspects, there are numerous intermediate states which must beobserved thus, if at all. This second part of the comparative methodverifies the indications afforded by historical analysis, and fillsup the gaps it leaves: and nothing can be more rational than themethod, as it rests upon the established principle that thedevelopment of the human mind is uniform in the midst of alldiversities of climate, and even of race; such diversities having noeffect upon anything more than the rate of progress. But we mustbeware of the scientific dangers attending the process of comparisonby this method. For instance, it can give us no idea of the order ofsuccession, as it presents all the states of development ascoexisting: so that, if the order of development were not establishedby other methods, this one would infallibly mislead us. And again, ifwe were not misled as to the order, there is nothing in this methodwhich discloses the filiation of the different systems of society; amatter in which the most distinguished philosophers have beenmistaken in various ways and degrees. Again, there is the danger ofmistaking modifications for primary phases; as when socialdifferences have been ascribed to the political influence of climate,instead of that inequality of evolution which is the real cause.Sometimes, but more rarely, the mistake is the other way. Indeed,there is nothing in the matter that can show which of two casespresents the diversity that is observed. We are in danger of the samemistake in regard to races; for, as the sociological comparison isinstituted between peoples of different races, we are liable toconfound the effects of race and of the social period. Again, climatecomes in to offer a third source of interpretation of comparativephenomena, sometimes agreeing with, and sometimes contradicting thetwo others; thus multiplying the chances of error, and rendering theanalysis which looked so promising almost impracticable. Here, again,we see the indispensable necessity of keeping in view the positiveconception of human development as a whole. By this alone can we bepreserved from such errors as I have referred to, and enriched by anygenuine results of analysis. We see how absurd in theory anddangerous in practice are the notions and declamations of theempirical school, and of the enemies of all social speculation: forit is precisely in proportion to their elevation and generality thatthe ideas of positive social philosophy become real and effective--anillusion and uselessness belonging to conceptions which are toonarrow and too special, in the departments either of science or ofreasoning. But it is a consequence from these last considerationsthat this first sketch of sociological science, with the means ofinvestigation that belong to it, rests immediately upon the primaryuse of a new method of observation, which is so appropriate to thenature of the phenomena as to be exempt from the dangers inherent inthe others. This last portion of the comparative method is theHistorical Method, properly so called; and it is the only basis onwhich the system of political logic can rest.

The historical comparison of the consecutive states of humanity isnot only the chief scientific device of the new political philosophy.Its rational development constitutes the substratum of the science,in whatever is essential to it. It is this which distinguishes itthoroughly from biological science . . . The positive principle ofthis separation results from the necessary influence of humangenerations upon the generations that follow, accumulatingcontinuously till it constitutes the preponderating consideration inthe direct study of social development. As long as this preponderanceis not directly recognised, the positive study of humanity mustappear a simple prolongation of the natural history of Man: but thisscientific character, suitable enough to the earlier generations,disappears in the course of the social evolution, and assumes atlength a wholly new aspect, proper to sociological science, in whichhistorical considerations are of immediate importance. And thispreponderant use of the historical method gives its philosophicalcharacter to sociology in a logical as well as a scientific sense. Bythe creation of this new department of the comparative method,sociology confers a benefit on the whole of natural philosophy;because the positive method is thus completed and perfected, in amanner which, for scientific importance, is almost beyond ourestimate. What we can now comprehend is that the historical methodverifies and applies, in the largest way, that chief quality ofsociological science--its proceeding from the whole to the parts.Without this permanent condition of social study, all historicallabor would degenerate into being a mere compilation of provisionalmaterials. As it is in their development, especially, that thevarious social elements are interconnected and inseparable, it isclear that any partial filiation must be essentially untrue. Where,for instance, is the use of any exclusive history of any one scienceor art, unless meaning is given to it by first connecting it with thestudy of human progress generally? It is the same in every direction,and especially with regard to political history, as it is called; asif any history could be other than political, more or less! Theprevailing tendency to speciality in study would reduce history to amere accumulation of unconnected delineations, in which all idea ofthe true filiation of events would be lost amid the mass of confuseddescriptions. If the historical comparisons of the different periodsof civilization are to have any scientific character, they must bereferred to the general social evolution: and it is only thus that wecan obtain the guiding ideas by which the special studies themselvesmust be directed.

In a practical view, it is evident that the preponderance of thehistorical method tends to develop the social sentiment, by giving usan immediate interest in even the earliest experiences of our race,through the influence that they exercised over the evolution of ourown civilization. As Condorcet observed, no enlightened man can thinkof the battles of Marathon and Salamis without perceiving theimportance of their consequences to the race at large. This kind offeeling should, when we are treating of science, be carefullydistinguished from the sympathetic interest which is awakened by alldelineations of human life--in fiction as well as in history. Thesentiment I refer to is deeper, because in some sort personal; andmore reflective, because it results from scientific conviction. Itcan not be excited by popular history in a descriptive form; but onlyby positive history, regarded as a true science, and exhibiting theevents of human experience in coordinated series which manifest theirown graduated connection. This new form of the social sentiment mustat first be the privilege of the choice few; but it will be extended,somewhat weakened in force, to the whole of society, in proportion asthe general results of social physics become sufficiently popular. Itwill fulfill the most obvious and elementary idea of the habitualconnection between individuals and contemporary nations, by showingthat the successive generations of men concur in a final end, whichrequires the determinate participation of each and all. This rationaldisposition to regard men of all times as fellow-workers is as yetvisible in the case of only the most advanced sciences. By thephilosophical preponderance of the historical method, it will beextended to all the aspects of human life, so as to sustain, in areflective temper, that respect for our ancestors which isindispensable to a sound state of society, and so deeply disturbed atpresent by the metaphysical philosophy.

As for the course to be pursued by this method--it appears to methat its spirit consists in the rational use of social series; thatis, 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 theopposite disposition, whence we may obtain a scientific prevision ofthe final ascendency of the one and extinction of the other--carebeing taken to frame our conclusions according to the laws of humandevelopment. A considerable accuracy of prevision may thus beobtained, for any determinate period, and with any particular view;as historical analysis will indicate the direction of modifications,even in the most disturbed times. And it is worth noticing that theprevision will be nearest the truth in proportion as the phenomena inquestion are more important and more general; because then continuouscauses are predominant in the social movement; and disturbances haveless power. From these first general aspects, the same rationalcertainty may extend to secondary and special aspects, through theirstatical relations with the first; and thus we may obtain conclusionssufficiently accurate for the application of principles.

If we desire to familiarize ourselves with this historical method,we must employ it first upon the past, by endeavoring to deduce everywell-known historical situation from the whole series of itsantecedents. In every science we must have learned to predict thepast, so to speak, before we can predict the future; because thefirst use of the observed relations among fulfilled facts is to teachus by the anterior succession what the future succession will be. Noexamination of facts can explain our existing state to us, if we havenot ascertained, by historical study, the value of the elements atwork; and thus it is in vain that statesmen insist on the necessityof political observation, while they look no further than thepresent, or a very recent past. The present is, by itself, purelymisleading, because it is impossible to avoid confounding principalwith secondary facts, exalting conspicuous transient manifestationsover fundamental tendencies, which are generally very quiet; andabove all, supposing those powers, institutions, and doctrines, to bein the ascendant, which are, in fact, in their decline. It is clearthat the only adequate corrective of all this is a philosophicalunderstanding of the past; that the comparison can not be decisiveunless it embraces the whole of the past; and that the sooner westop, in travelling up the vista of time, the more serious will bethe mistakes we fall into. Before our very eyes, we see statesmengoing no farther back than the last century, to obtain an explanationof the confusion in which we are living; the most abstract ofpoliticians may take in the preceding century, but the philosophersthemselves hardly venture beyond the sixteenth; so that those who arestriving to find the issue of the revolutionary period have actuallyno conception of it as a whole, though that whole is itself only atransient phase of the general social movement.

The most perfect methods may, however, be rendered deceptive bymisuse: and this we must bear in mind. We have seen that mathematicalanalysis itself may betray us into substituting signs for idea, andthat it conceals inanity of conception under an imposing verbiage.The difficulty in the case of the historical method in sociology isin applying it, on account of the extreme complexity of the materialswe have to deal with. But for this, the method would be entirelysafe. The chief danger is of our supposing a continuous decrease toindicate a final extinction, or the reverse; as in mathematics it isa common sophism to confound continuous variations, 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 humanfood, we can not but observe that men take less food as they advancein civilization. If we compare savage with more civilized peoples, inthe Homeric poems or in the narratives of travellers, or comparecountry with town life, or any generation with the one that wentbefore, we shall find this curious result. . . . The laws ofindividual human nature aid in the result by making intellectual andmoral action more preponderant as Man becomes more civilized. Thefact is thus established, both by the experimental and the logicalway. Yet nobody supposes that men will ultimately cease to eat. Inthis case, the absurdity saves us from a false conclusion; but inother cases, the complexity disguises much error in the experimentand the reasoning. In the above instance, we must resort to the lawsof our nature for that verification which, taken all together, theyafford to our sociological analysis. As the social phenomenon, takenas a whole, is simply a development of humanity, without any realcreation of faculties, all social manifestations must be found, ifonly in their germ, in the primitive type which biology constructedby anticipation for sociology. Thus every law of social successiondisclosed by the historical method must be unquestionably connected,directly or indirectly, with the positive theory of human nature; andall inductions which can not stand this test will prove to beillusory, through some sort of insufficiency in the observations onwhich they are grounded. The main scientific strength of sociologicaldemonstrations must ever lie in the accordance between theconclusions of historical analysis and the preparatory conceptions ofthe biological theory. And thus we find, look where we will, aconfirmation of that chief intellectual character of the newscience--the philosophical preponderance of the spirit of the wholeover the spirit of detail.

This method ranks, in sociological science, with that ofzoological comparison in the study of individual life; . . . thesuccession of social states exactly corresponds, in a scientificsense, with the gradation of organisms in biology; and the socialseries, once clearly established, must be as real and as useful asthe animal series. When the method has been used long enough todisclose its properties, I am disposed to think that it will beregarded as so very marked a modification of positive research as todeserve a separate place; so that, in addition to Observation,properly so called, Experiment, and Comparison, we shall have theHistorical Method, as a fourth and final mode of the art ofobserving. It will be derived, according to the usual course, fromthe mode which immediately precedes it: and it will be applied to theanalysis of the most complex phenomena.

I must be allowed to point out that the new political philosophysanctioning the old leadings of popular reason, restores to Historyall its scientific rights as a basis of wise social speculation,after the metaphysical philosophy had striven to induce us to discardall large consideration of the past. In the foregoing departments ofnatural philosophy we have seen that the positive spirit, instead ofbeing disturbing in its tendencies, is remarkable for confirming, inthe essential parts of every science, the inestimable intuitions ofpopular good sense; of which indeed science is merely a systematicprolongation, and which a barren metaphysical philosophy alone coulddespise. In this case, so far from restricting the influence whichhuman reason has ever attributed to history in politicalcombinations, the new social philosophy increases it, radically andeminently. It asks from history something more than counsel andinstruction to perfect conceptions which are derived from anothersource: it seeks its own general direction, through the whole systemof historical conclusions.