The Principles of Social Study

The Principles of Social Study. Mill’s theory of political and ethical liberalism, developed chiefly in his Utilitarianism, the essay On Liberty, and the Representative Government, remained for the most part within the circle of subjects and of ideas native to his English tradition. The very important changes which he made were considered by him, mistakenly, to be , amendments and additions. But Mill came also to believe that there were general deficiencies in this social philosophy, and with his usual open-mindedness he tried to understand and make use of other points of view.

These deficiencies he believed could be summed up under two principal heads. First, the politics and economics of Bentham’s age tried to proceed from a few general laws of human nature, believed to be universally the same in all times and places, directly to the political and economic behavior of men in specific societies, at specific times, and within the framework of specific systems of legislation.

Hence the older utilitarians had not sufficiently recognized the importance of institutions or the fact that institutions are, so to speak, a third reality between individual psychology and the concrete practice of a given time and place. Second, because institutions were not recognized as independent realities, the factor of historical growth or development was not given the importance it deserved.

Mill associated both these additions to social philosophy with foreign influences, somewhat vaguely with German idealism and the Coleridgeans, definitely with the philosophy of Auguste Comte. What was needed and what Mill thought that Comte supplied was a general science of society, to support more limited sciences like politics and economics, and the formulation of a general law of social growth. These were, in short, sociology and the law of the three stages.

These two projects were highly characteristic of social thought in the mid-nineteenth century and in the event they led to important consequences but for the time being they signified a change in point of view rather than any specific achievement.

In one sense Comte’s philosophy was a culmination of social speculation that had begun with Rousseau’s enigmatic idea of the general will, the concept of society as a collective entity which has its own properties and values and which overcharges the purposes and wills of its members.

The reaction against the French Revolution gave this conception a central place in the social philosophy of the early nineteenth century. Comte himself encountered this reaction primarily in Roman Catholic traditionalists such as Bonald and de Maistre.

The social philosophy of Hegel, however, was actuated by the same general tendency in a different form, and Marxism was still a further elaboration of it. What Comte contributed was not so much a new discovery as the hope that speculation might be replaced by science, that the concept of society might be analyzed and its laws discovered by methods that would conform to canons of empirical verification, and that the relationships might be traced in detail between social institutions and human nature.

In another sense, therefore, Comte’s philosophy Was not a culmination but a beginning, the midpoint from which might, be dated the whole vast effort to bring the social studies within the sweep of modern science. Considered in this light it merely opened up a task whose complexity was only dimly realized and which even yet has achieved no startling success. Its history from Comte’s time to the present has been one of new problems and new methods, new fields of investigation, and even of whole new sciences such as cultural anthropology or social psychology.

This fundamental purpose of Comte’s philosophy was one that for obvious reasons appealed strongly to Mill. It was an enlargement of a belief that had always been central in liberal doctrine, the conviction that human relations are amenable to intelligent understanding and control.

For the time being Comte’s general plan for a science of society appeared to be bound up with his second and, as it turned out, very dubious idea that the main result of such a science would be the discovery of a law governing the growth and development of societies.

Such a law, it was assumed, would mark out a normal or standard line of evolution to which every society might be expected in general to conform, allowing for some degree of variability according to circumstances. This fascinating speculation, which Leon Brunellescg called the darling vice of social thought in the nineteenth century, drew support from several different and indeed logically discrepant sources.

It was already assumed by the belief in progress which had been inherited from pre-revolutionary thinkers like Turgot and Condorcet. In a different form it was implicit in Hegel’s philosophy of history and in the historical method which Hegelianism introduced into social studies. And as Herbert Spencer was to show, it at least seemed to join hands with biological evolution, which after Darwin became a scientific preoccupation of the nineteenth century.

Under the guidance of these several ideas, which appeared for the moment to converge upon a single point of view, the comparative method became a commonly accepted procedure in nearly all branches of social study. In general the result, though it enormously extended the range of information about varieties of social and political organization, was wholly disappointing so tar as concerned the main purpose. Probably few if any anthropologists would now accept the presumption that cultures do in fact follow any normal line of growth or that, in view of what is known of the causes of social change, there is any reason to expect them to do so.

When Mill encountered the philosophy of Comte, however, speculations of this sort were quite definitely a part of the climate of opinion. He was eager to supplement and fill out an inherited social philosophy which he had come to regard as limited and insular.

Accordingly he accepted, with some reservations, both the idea of a general social science and the hope for a philosophy of history, though they came to him too late to be interwoven with the older native strands of his thought. In his Autobiography he enumerated the most important conclusions to which Comte and the Coleridgeans led him.

That the human mind has a certain order of possible progress, in which some things must precede others, an order which government and public instructors can modify to some, but not to an unlimited extent that all questions of political institutions are relative, not absolute, and that different stages of human progress not only will have, but ought to have, different institutions that government is always either in the hands, or passing into the hands, of whatever is the strongest power in society, and that what this power is, does not depend on institutions, but institutions on it that any general theory or philosophy of politics supposes a previous theory of human progress, and that this is the same thing with a philosophy of history.

To write a complete gloss on this sentence would require a commentary on a substantial portion of the evolutionary ethics and evolutionary sociology of the second half of the nineteenth century, much of which was undertaken from the point of view of a liberal social philosophy derived from Mill and Green. In that sense Mill’s thought was programmatic.

Liberalism had always claimed that it tested on an empirical foundation, but empiricism had been understood to mean an individual psychology developed from the new way of ideas that Locke had considered to be the original insight of his Essay.

Now it appeared that an individual psychology was not enough but must be supplemented by a study of social institutions and particularly of their growth. The method would still be empirical but the empiricism would be on a much larger scale.

The program therefore had tremendous scope, and certainly Mill had little conception of all that was involved. If the mind has a certain order of Possible progress it must be possible to show by historical induction what that order has been. If there are different stages of human progress, it must again be possible to show an evolution of moral ideas and a growth of the social institutions in which moral ideas are expressed.

And finally it must be possible to show by far-reaching comparisons that the growth of mind is correlated with the advancement of civilization. If all this were accomplished, it would then in, deed be proved that liberalism depended upon a theory of human progress, that it was a culmination and a summation of political development.

In nineteenth-century Europe it was possible, perhaps even plausible, to entertain the expectation that political institutions everywhere would be liberalized by a process of gradual evolution, And as yet anthropological investigation had not revealed the difficulties, not to say the fallacies, that lurked in the comparative method.

However little of this ambitious project Mill may have foreseen when the passage quoted was written in 1873, he had grasped two ideas that were both sound and important. The first was the dependence of political upon social institutions and the second was the psychological nature of society. The first point corresponded to his general criticism of the older liberals, that they had been unaware of the extent to which general laws of individual psychology are adaptable to a wide range of institutions and historical circumstance.

Thus in jurisprudence they had construed sovereignty as a mere habit of obedience to specific persons, and in economics, as Mill believed, they had erroneously referred the practices of a capitalist society to unchangeable psychological necessities. In his essay On Liberty Mill had tacitly developed the same criticism by regarding liberal government as dependent on a social and moral respect for individuality.

The awareness of society and the sense that individual behavior always is in some sense socialized was in fact an important property of Mill’s thought, even though he did not always see clearly how much was implied. The second main idea, that psychology (rather than  biology) is the basic science of social behavior was one in which Mill differed from Comte.

In this respect he adhered to the position which had always prevailed in English social studies. Possibly his conclusion was in part determined by the fact that his thought took form before biological evolution was a factor to be considered, but in any case it was sound. The attempt to tie social and moral development directly to organic evolution was an error that served to confuse both, as Spencer’s evolutionary philosophy demonstrated. On the other hand, it is impossible to see how Mill could have explained the certain order of possible progress that he attributed to the mind-by the association psychology which he always professed.

For the association of ideas meant substantially that the sole process required to explain mental development was the formation of habits, and what ideas habit associated depended not on the mind but on circumstances. At this point also any effective development of Mill’s thought would have involved complete reconstruction.

Mill inserted in his Logic a special section, the Sixth Book, dealing with scientific method in the social studies. The mere inclusion of the subject in a work on logic which dealt mainly with the methodology oi the inductive natural sciences was significant. It showed the need that Mill felt for enlarging the scope of social studies, of making their methods more rigorous, and particularly of giving them a place besides the natural! sciences.

In general he took the position that the method of the social sciences involved a twofold use of induction and deduction, which was no doubt true but did not distinguish social studies from other subjects. This conclusion was at once a concession to criticisms directed at the deductive procedure of the Philosophical Radicals and a reaffirmation of the necessity and justifiably of that procedure.

In 1829 Macaulay had printed in the Edinburgh Review a rather contemptuous article on James Mill’s Essays on Government, attacking the book for its highly rationalistic method and apparently taking the position that political science ought to be purely empirical.

Mill in the Logic rejected both exclusive views in favor of one which used both deduction and induction. Politics required, he argued, psychological laws of behavior which can rest only on induction, but the explanation of political events must be largely deductive since their explanation means referring them to psychology. Mill followed the same line of argument in trying to make his own procedure accord with that of Comte.

He accepted the possibility of establishing inductively some laws of historical development, though with some traces of skepticism about the extent and certainty of this procedure, but he still regarded such laws as explainable only by their deduction from psychology.

Mill’s general conclusion, therefore, was that there are two methods of procedure for social studies Which should supplement each other. The one he called the direct deductive method, which was his own, and the other the indirect deductive method, which he credited to Comte.
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