Spencer's The Principles of Sociology

Spencer's The Principles of Sociology

The Principles of Sociology. By Herbert Spencer. Parts I to V. Williams and Norgate, 1874–1875.

The issue of this work has now advanced to five parts, amounting to 400 pages, embracing a number of topics of the highest interest.(9 § 4 ¶ 1)

The Philosophy of History has passed through several phases since History first began to be written, as may now be clearly seen from Professor Flint’s work, of which the first volume, comprising French and German authors, has been published. The subject received its laste great impulse from Auguste Comte’s work—the Philosophie Positive, following on John Stuart Mill’s articles in the Westminster and Edinburgh Reviews—on Guizot, Michelet, Thierry, and De Tocqueville. In the Logic, Mill, having imbued himself with Comte’s speculations, presented a summary of theoretical Sociology, which served as a sort of text-book or compendium to a generation of learners.(9 § 4 ¶ 2)

Mr. Spencer’s work starts from a new vantage ground. The speculative doctrine of Evolution was implicitly allowed in regard to social facts, when not thought of anywhere else; and as it is now formulated with precision, it is in a better state for being applied anew to human history. Again, the accumulation of observations respecting the earlier stages of man, and respecting the inferior races, has provided an immensely enlarged inductive basis for the laws of social evolution. On this basis various theorists have already established a number of remarkably luminous inductions.(9 § 4 ¶ 3)

Mr. Spencer’s competence for rearing an advanced scheme of Sociology rests upon his having worked his way upwards through the various preparatory stages, in a series of treatises, each admirable in itself, and all pointing to this consummation. The science that Sociology immediately reposes upon is Psychology; and in his systematic handling of this branch, Mr. Spencer, while doing justice to the wide field of mental facts, has made his expositions point, by anticipation, to Sociology. We are, therefore, interested in glancing at his manner of entering on the new department.(9 § 4 ¶ 4)

He opens by a short chapter defining Super-Organic Evolution as that new and higher form of Evolution exhibited by man in society. He already prepares us for his line of treatment, which is to make Evolution the mould or matrix of all Sociological doctrines, much the same as he done with Psychology.(9 § 4 ¶ 5)

He then inquires what are the factors of social phenomena. First are the extrinsic or external factors, namely, the physical environment—comprising climate, configuration of surface, vegetation, animal life, and the modifications that man can make upon these. The physical circumstances and surroundings of human societies have long been taken account of in explaining their state of progress. It was brought into prominence by Montesquieu, and is now adverted to by all historians and sociologists. Mr. Spencer’s handling of the subject is brief, but takes in all the leading points. He lucidly brings out the important bearings of climate, variety of surface, vegetable productions, and animals; resuming skilfully the various ways that the past and the existing civilisations have been influenced by one and all of these different conditions.(9 § 4 ¶ 6)

After the external factors come the internal—Man himself. This leads to a review of the characteristics—physical, emotional, and intellectual—of what many call the primitive type of man; a somewhat arbitrary assumption, but yet necessary as a starting-point, and not involving any hypothesis as to the actual commencement of the human race.(9 § 4 ¶ 7)

Under the physical traits, Mr. Spencer first discusses the stature, and finds that, although there are curious exceptions, as a rule, the lowest races are inferior to the civilised races in this characteristic; yet not in a very decided degree, except in the lowest races of all. A more marked difference is the development of the lower limbs; short, small, slender, or crooked legs would seem a prevailing feature of the savage tribes. The meaning of it is discussed with great appearance of reason. then comes the trait of large digestive organs, the pot-belly; obviously connected with uncertain meals and coarse food; and, implying a low capacity for steady work. Farther, the muscular strength as a whole is not up to the mark of the civilised man. Again, the primitive man has a point of advantage of superiority in his hardiness, the power of resisting cold, malaria, and bodily injuries. Mr. Spencer thinks it probable (he might have said certain) that this, and we may add the pot-belly, entails loss of power in other directions. It is a positive endowment of the system, an expenditure of nervous and other power, to maintain leading functions at great odds. Allied to the same fact, Mr. Spencer thinks is the callousness to suffering generally; indeed this is the same fact, if it means that causes of suffering do not make suffering. The concluding physical characteristic is early arrival at maturity, connected with a low cerebral type.(9 § 4 ¶ 8)

The mental characters are divided into emotional and intellectual. As to the emotions, the first and fundamental trait is impulsiveness to which is properly devoted a considerable amount of illustration, being the key to many seemingly contradictory manifestations of the savage mind. Improvidence is merely one direction of the same trait; and with this is associated by cause and effect a childish mirthfulness. next comes the important circumstance of sociability, or rather the balance of the two opposing tendencies, one tending to independence, the other to social cohesion. Here the primitive man shows considerable variety, but until the social forces acquire preponderance he makes very little way. Sociability is first strongly manifested as a cohesive force in the form of vanity, and the influence of approbation and disapprobation generally, the first great curb to egotism pure and simple. As regards sympathy proper, the sources of its culture are the marital and parental relations, whose manifestations in the lower tribes are set forth by the author at some length. To these characters is added the fixity of habit in the uncivilised man, a consequence and a cause of his degraded condition.(9 § 4 ¶ 9)

Viewed intellectually, the primitive man is wanting in the grasp of general facts; out of which single defect springs a multiplication of weaknesses. Next is a point of superiority, if viewed in itself, namely acute nerves and quick perceptions. To exceed another person in delicacy of smell or hearing is a merit and not a defect. The misfortune is that such acuteness should be necessary, being purchased at the expense of the more exclusively intellectual functions, such as are necessary for arriving at general truths. The superhuman smell of the savage has to disappear along with the pot-belly, before he can be a well proportioned intelligence. Acuteness of sense may lead to artistic excellence, as in the low form of mimicry, for which savages have often a talent. The general intellectual weakness is further associated with extreme credulity, and with an absence of rational surprise and intelligent curiosity: the motives necessary to the beginning of what may be called speculative knowledge. Another important remark is the lack of constructive imagination, a guarded phrase which allows plenty of another kind of imagination—the converting of facts into fancies. And finally comes the intellectual side of one of the physical traits, namely, that the primitive intellect develops more rapidly and stops sooner than the intellect of the civilised man.(9 § 4 ¶ 10)

Mr. Spencer’s next chapter is Primitive Ideas, an exceedingly valuable and interesting review of the way that the intellectual defects of the early mind limit and pervert its views of the world. Here he anticipates the difficulty of knowing what are the primitive man’s ideas. If we take very low races at the present time, we may find that they have ideas beyond their station, in consequence of being the degenerate successors of some better race: retrogression being a fact as well established as progression. Nevertheless, starting from the weakness of faculty of the infant races, we see that they are bad classifiers, confounding, for instance, glass with ice, and biscuit with dried flesh. Still more are they out in classing relations (cause and effect) as when they call dew the same effect as sweat, or spittle. In short, they have no power of analysis, adequate to deal with the unions of like and unlike properties presented by the outer world. Their notions of what makes an explanation are singularly hazy. They swallow incongruities and inconsistencies by the score.(9 § 4 ¶ 11)

In following out these tendencies to results of importance, Mr. Spencer instances the attitude of the savage mind in gazing at a cloud that has vanished, or at the occasional disappearance of the stars, the moon and the sun. Unable to reach the true interpretation, he snatches at the most familiar analogy, and says they have departed—walked away. What does he make of the wind? A power that cannot be seen; but this invisibility is simply due to going away. From facts such as these he takes up the notion of duality, or double existence—in sight and out of sight. (9 § 4 ¶ 12)

Another class of things—a fossil, for example—gives the idea of the transformability of matter; and, there being no definite limit to the process, when trees are seen petrified, it is quite admissible that men may be turned into stones. Then what ideas are formed from living growth: from a chick leaving the egg? It is just as conceivable that the chick may be brought out of a nut. (9 § 4 ¶ 13)

What is shadow? A reality, attached to a tangible object, but itself intangible—a real existence. What are reflexions? Another intangible accompaniment of things. What are echoes? The voices of concealed beings; confirming the duality of existence—the seen and the unseen. (9 § 4 ¶ 14)

Now for a theory of this double existence. To prepare the way, the author devotes a chapter to the distinction between the Animate and the Inanimate, as evolved in the primitive intelligence. At this point, I shall stop for the present. In another notice, it may be possible to indicate an outline of the genesis of the conception of Spirit or mind, which is fraught with so many developments, including Religion and the Supernatural.(9 § 4 ¶ 15)

A. Bain.