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The So-called Science of Sociology

It has long been generally recognised that there are two quite divergent
ways of attacking sociological and economic questions, one that is
called scientific and one that is not, and I claim no particular virtue
in the recognition of that; but I do claim a certain freshness in my
analysis of this difference, and it is to that analysis that your
attention is now called. When I claim freshness I do not make, you
understand, any claim to original discovery. What I have to say, and
have been saying for some time, is also more or less, and with certain
differences to be found in the thought of Professor Bosanquet, for
example, in Alfred Sidgwick's "Use of Words in Reasoning," in Sigwart's
"Logic," in contemporary American metaphysical speculation. I am only
one incidental voice speaking in a general movement of thought. My trend
of thought leads me to deny that sociology is a science, or only a
science in the same loose sense that modern history is a science, and to
throw doubt upon the value of sociology that follows too closely what is
called the scientific method.

The drift of my argument is to dispute not only that sociology is a
science, but also to deny that Herbert Spencer and Comte are to be
exalted as the founders of a new and fruitful system of human inquiry. I
find myself forced to depreciate these modern idols, and to reinstate
the Greek social philosophers in their vacant niches, to ask you rather
to go to Plato for the proper method, the proper way of thinking

We certainly owe the word Sociology to Comte, a man of exceptionally
methodical quality. I hold he developed the word logically from an
arbitrary assumption that the whole universe of being was reducible to
measurable and commeasurable and exact and consistent expressions.

In a very obvious way, sociology seemed to Comte to crown the edifice of
the sciences; it was to be to the statesman what pathology and
physiology were to the doctor; and one gathers that, for the most part,
he regarded it as an intellectual procedure in no way differing from
physics. His classification of the sciences shows pretty clearly that he
thought of them all as exact logical systematisations of fact arising
out of each other in a synthetic order, each lower one containing the
elements of a lucid explanation of those above it--physics explaining
chemistry; chemistry, physiology; physiology, sociology; and so forth.
His actual method was altogether unscientific; but through all his work
runs the assumption that in contrast with his predecessors he is really
being as exact and universally valid as mathematics. To Herbert
Spencer--very appropriately since his mental characteristics make him
the English parallel to Comte--we owe the naturalisation of the word in
English. His mind being of greater calibre than Comte's, the subject
acquired in his hands a far more progressive character. Herbert Spencer
was less unfamiliar with natural history than with any other branch of
practical scientific work; and it was natural he should turn to it for
precedents in sociological research. His mind was invaded by the idea
of classification, by memories of specimens and museums; and he
initiated that accumulation of desiccated anthropological anecdotes that
still figures importantly in current sociological work. On the lines he
initiated sociological investigation, what there is of it, still tends
to go.

From these two sources mainly the work of contemporary sociologists
derives. But there persists about it a curious discursiveness that
reflects upon the power and value of the initial impetus. Mr. V.V.
Branford, the able secretary of the Sociological Society, recently
attempted a useful work in a classification of the methods of what he
calls "approach," a word that seems to me eminently judicious and
expressive. A review of the first volume the Sociological Society has
produced brings home the aptness of this image of exploratory
operations, of experiments in "taking a line." The names of Dr. Beattie
Crozier and Mr. Benjamin Kidd recall works that impress one as
large-scale sketches of a proposed science rather than concrete
beginnings and achievements. The search for an arrangement, a "method,"
continues as though they were not. The desperate resort to the
analogical method of Commenius is confessed by Dr. Steinmetz, who talks
of social morphology, physiology, pathology, and so forth. There is also
a less initiative disposition in the Vicomte Combes de Lestrade and in
the work of Professor Giddings. In other directions sociological work is
apt to lose its general reference altogether, to lapse towards some
department of activity not primarily sociological at all. Examples of
this are the works of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Webb, M. Ostrogorski and M.
Gustave le Bon. From a contemplation of all this diversity Professor
Durkheim emerges, demanding a "synthetic science," "certain synthetic
conceptions"--and Professor Karl Pearson endorses the demand--to fuse
all these various activities into something that will live and grow.
What is it that tangles this question so curiously that there is not
only a failure to arrive at a conclusion, but a failure to join issue?

Well, there is a certain not too clearly recognised order in the
sciences to which I wish to call your attention, and which forms the
gist of my case against this scientific pretension. There is a gradation
in the importance of the instance as one passes from mechanics and
physics and chemistry through the biological sciences to economics and
sociology, a gradation whose correlatives and implications have not yet
received adequate recognition, and which do profoundly affect the method
of study and research in each science.

Let me begin by pointing out that, in the more modern conceptions of
logic, it is recognised that there are no identically similar objective
experiences; the disposition is to conceive all real objective being as
individual and unique. This is not a singular eccentric idea of mine; it
is one for which ample support is to be found in the writings of
absolutely respectable contemporaries, who are quite untainted by
association with fiction. It is now understood that conceivably only in
the subjective world, and in theory and the imagination, do we deal with
identically similar units, and with absolutely commensurable quantities.
In the real world it is reasonable to suppose we deal at most with
_practically_ similar units and _practically_ commensurable quantities.
But there is a strong bias, a sort of labour-saving bias in the normal
human mind to ignore this, and not only to speak but to think of a
thousand bricks or a thousand sheep or a thousand sociologists as though
they were all absolutely true to sample. If it is brought before a
thinker for a moment that in any special case this is not so, he slips
back to the old attitude as soon as his attention is withdrawn. This
source of error has, for instance, caught nearly the whole race of
chemists, with one or two distinguished exceptions, and _atoms_ and
_ions_ and so forth of the same species are tacitly assumed to be
similar one to another. Be it noted that, so far as the practical
results of chemistry and physics go, it scarcely matters which
assumption we adopt. For purposes of inquiry and discussion the
incorrect one is infinitely more convenient.

But this ceases to be true directly we emerge from the region of
chemistry and physics. In the biological sciences of the eighteenth
century, commonsense struggled hard to ignore individuality in shells
and plants and animals. There was an attempt to eliminate the more
conspicuous departures as abnormalities, as sports, nature's weak
moments, and it was only with the establishment of Darwin's great
generalisation that the hard and fast classificatory system broke down,
and individuality came to its own. Yet there had always been a clearly
felt difference between the conclusions of the biological sciences and
those dealing with lifeless substance, in the relative vagueness, the
insubordinate looseness and inaccuracy of the former. The naturalist
accumulated facts and multiplied names, but he did not go triumphantly
from generalisation to generalisation after the fashion of the chemist
or physicist. It is easy to see, therefore, how it came about that the
inorganic sciences were regarded as the true scientific bed-rock. It
was scarcely suspected that the biological sciences might perhaps, after
all, be _truer_ than the experimental, in spite of the difference in
practical value in favour of the latter. It was, and is by the great
majority of people to this day, supposed to be the latter that are
invincibly true; and the former are regarded as a more complex set of
problems merely, with obliquities and refractions that presently will be
explained away. Comte and Herbert Spencer certainly seem to me to have
taken that much for granted. Herbert Spencer no doubt talked of the
unknown and the unknowable, but not in this sense, as an element of
inexactness running through all things. He thought of the unknown as the
indefinable beyond to an immediate world that might be quite clearly and
exactly known.

Well, there is a growing body of people who are beginning to hold the
converse view--that counting, classification, measurement, the whole
fabric of mathematics, is subjective and deceitful, and that the
uniqueness of individuals is the objective truth. As the number of units
taken diminishes, the amount of variety and inexactness of
generalisation increases, because individuality tells more and more.
Could you take men by the thousand billion, you could generalise about
them as you do about atoms; could you take atoms singly, it may be you
would find them as individual as your aunts and cousins. That concisely
is the minority belief, and it is the belief on which this present paper
is based.

Now, what is called the scientific method is the method of ignoring
individualities; and, like many mathematical conventions, its great
practical convenience is no proof whatever of its final truth. Let me
admit the enormous value, the wonder of its results in mechanics, in all
the physical sciences, in chemistry, even in physiology--but what is its
value beyond that? Is the scientific method of value in biology? The
great advances made by Darwin and his school in biology were not made,
it must be remembered, by the scientific method, as it is generally
conceived, at all. He conducted a research into pre-documentary history.
He collected information along the lines indicated by certain
interrogations; and the bulk of his work was the digesting and critical
analysis of that. For documents and monuments he had fossils and
anatomical structures and germinating eggs too innocent to lie, and so
far he was nearer simplicity. But, on the other hand, he had to
correspond with breeders and travellers of various sorts, classes
entirely analogous, from the point of view of evidence, to the writers
of history and memoirs. I question profoundly whether the word
"science," in current usage anyhow, ever means such patient
disentanglement as Darwin pursued. It means the attainment of something
positive and emphatic in the way of a conclusion, based on amply
repeated experiments capable of infinite repetition, "proved," as they
say, "up to the hilt."

It would be, of course, possible to dispute whether the word "science"
should convey this quality of certitude; but to most people it certainly
does at the present time. So far as the movements of comets and electric
trams go, there is, no doubt, practically cocksure science; and
indisputably Comte and Herbert Spencer believed that cocksure could be
extended to every conceivable finite thing. The fact that Herbert
Spencer called a certain doctrine Individualism reflects nothing on the
non-individualising quality of his primary assumptions and of his mental
texture. He believed that individuality (heterogeneity) was and is an
evolutionary product from an original homogeneity. It seems to me that
the general usage is entirely for the limitation of the use of the word
"science" to knowledge and the search after knowledge of a high degree
of precision. And not simply the general usage: "Science is
measurement," Science is "organised common sense," proud, in fact, of
its essential error, scornful of any metaphysical analysis of its terms.

If we quite boldly face the fact that hard positive methods are less and
less successful just in proportion as our "ologies" deal with larger and
less numerous individuals; if we admit that we become less "scientific"
as we ascend the scale of the sciences, and that we do and must change
our method, then, it is humbly submitted we shall be in a much better
position to consider the question of "approaching" sociology. We shall
realise that all this talk of the organisation of sociology, as though
presently the sociologist would be going about the world with the
authority of a sanitary engineer, is and will remain nonsense.

In one respect we shall still be in accordance with the Positivist map
of the field of human knowledge; with us as with that, sociology stands
at the extreme end of the scale from the molecular sciences. In these
latter there is an infinitude of units; in sociology, as Comte
perceived, there is only one unit. It is true that Herbert Spencer, in
order to get classification somehow, did, as Professor Durkheim has
pointed out, separate human society into societies, and made believe
they competed one with another and died and reproduced just like
animals, and that economists, following List, have for the purposes of
fiscal controversy discovered economic types; but this is a transparent
device, and one is surprised to find thoughtful and reputable writers
off their guard against such bad analogy. But, indeed, it is impossible
to isolate complete communities of men, or to trace any but rude general
resemblances between group and group. These alleged units have as much
individuality as pieces of cloud; they come, they go, they fuse and
separate. And we are forced to conclude that not only is the method of
observation, experiment, and verification left far away down the scale,
but that the method of classification under types, which has served so
useful a purpose in the middle group of subjects, the subjects involving
numerous but a finite number of units, has also to be abandoned here. We
cannot put Humanity into a museum, or dry it for examination; our one
single still living specimen is all history, all anthropology, and the
fluctuating world of men. There is no satisfactory means of dividing it,
and nothing else in the real world with which to compare it. We have
only the remotest ideas of its "life-cycle" and a few relics of its
origin and dreams of its destiny ...

Sociology, it is evident, is, upon any hypothesis, no less than the
attempt to bring that vast, complex, unique Being, its subject, into
clear, true relations with the individual intelligence. Now, since
individual intelligences are individual, and each is a little
differently placed in regard to the subject under consideration, since
the personal angle of vision is much wider towards humanity than towards
the circumambient horizon of matter, it should be manifest that no
sociology of universal compulsion, of anything approaching the general
validity of the physical sciences, is ever to be hoped for--at least
upon the metaphysical assumptions of this paper. With that conceded, we
may go on to consider the more hopeful ways in which that great Being
may be presented in a comprehensible manner. Essentially this
presentation must involve an element of self-expression must partake
quite as much of the nature of art as of science. One finds in the first
conference of the Sociological Society, Professor Stein, speaking,
indeed a very different philosophical dialect from mine, but coming to
the same practical conclusion in the matter, and Mr. Osman Newland
counting "evolving ideals for the future" as part of the sociologist's
work. Mr. Alfred Fouillée also moves very interestingly in the region of
this same idea; he concedes an essential difference between sociology
and all other sciences in the fact of a "certain kind of liberty
belonging to society in the exercise of its higher functions." He says
further: "If this view be correct, it will not do for us to follow in
the steps of Comte and Spencer, and transfer, bodily and ready-made, the
conceptions and the methods of the natural sciences into the science of
society. For here the fact of _consciousness_ entails a reaction of the
whole assemblage of social phenomena upon themselves, such as the
natural sciences have no example of." And he concludes: "Sociology
ought, therefore, to guard carefully against the tendency to crystallise
that which is essentially fluid and moving, the tendency to consider as
given fact or dead data that which creates itself and gives itself into
the world of phenomena continually by force of its own ideal
conception." These opinions do, in their various keys, sound a similar
_motif_ to mine. If, indeed, the tendency of these remarks is
justifiable, then unavoidably the subjective element, which is beauty,
must coalesce with the objective, which is truth; and sociology mast be
neither art simply, nor science in the narrow meaning of the word at
all, but knowledge rendered imaginatively, and with an element of
personality that is to say, in the highest sense of the term,

If this contention is sound, if therefore we boldly set aside Comte and
Spencer altogether, as pseudo-scientific interlopers rather than the
authoritative parents of sociology, we shall have to substitute for the
classifications of the social sciences an inquiry into the chief
literary forms that subserve sociological purposes. Of these there are
two, one invariably recognised as valuable and one which, I think, under
the matter-of-fact scientific obsession, is altogether underrated and
neglected The first, which is the social side of history, makes up the
bulk of valid sociological work at the present time. Of history there is
the purely descriptive part, the detailed account of past or
contemporary social conditions, or of the sequence of such conditions;
and, in addition, there is the sort of historical literature that seeks
to elucidate and impose general interpretations upon the complex of
occurrences and institutions, to establish broad historical
generalisations, to eliminate the mass of irrelevant incident, to
present some great period of history, or all history, in the light of
one dramatic sequence, or as one process. This Dr. Beattie Crozier, for
example, attempts in his "History of Intellectual Development." Equally
comprehensive is Buckle's "History of Civilisation." Lecky's "History of
European Morals," during the onset of Christianity again, is essentially
sociology. Numerous works--Atkinson's "Primal Law," and Andrew Lang's
"Social Origins," for example--may be considered, as it were, to be
fragments to the same purport. In the great design of Gibbon's "Decline
and Fall of the Roman Empire," or Carlyle's "French Revolution," you
have a greater insistence upon the dramatic and picturesque elements in
history, but in other respects an altogether kindred endeavour to impose
upon the vast confusions of the past a scheme of interpretation,
valuable just to the extent of its literary value, of the success with
which the discrepant masses have been fused and cast into the shape the
insight of the writer has determined. The writing of great history is
entirely analogous to fine portraiture, in which fact is indeed
material, but material entirely subordinate to vision.

One main branch of the work of a Sociological Society therefore should
surely be to accept and render acceptable, to provide understanding,
criticism, and stimulus for such literary activities as restore the dead
bones of the past to a living participation in our lives.

But it is in the second and at present neglected direction that I
believe the predominant attack upon the problem implied by the word
"sociology" must lie; the attack that must be finally driven home. There
is no such thing in sociology as dispassionately considering what _is_,
without considering what is _intended to be_. In sociology, beyond any
possibility of evasion, ideas are facts. The history of civilisation is
really the history of the appearance and reappearance, the tentatives
and hesitations and alterations, the manifestations and reflections in
this mind and that, of a very complex, imperfect elusive idea, the
Social Idea. It is that idea struggling to exist and realise itself in
a world of egotisms, animalisms, and brute matter. Now, I submit it is
not only a legitimate form of approach, but altogether the most
promising and hopeful form of approach, to endeavour to disentangle and
express one's personal version of that idea, and to measure realities
from the stand-point of that idealisation. I think, in fact, that the
creation of Utopias--and their exhaustive criticism--is the proper and
distinctive method of sociology.

Suppose now the Sociological Society, or some considerable proportion of
it, were to adopt this view, that sociology is the description of the
Ideal Society and its relation to existing societies, would not this
give the synthetic framework Professor Durkheim, for example, has said
to be needed?

Almost all the sociological literature beyond the province of history
that has stood the test of time and established itself in the esteem of
men is frankly Utopian. Plato, when his mind turned to schemes of social
reconstruction thrust his habitual form of dialogue into a corner; both
the "Republic" and the "Laws" are practically Utopias in monologue; and
Aristotle found the criticism of the Utopian suggestions of his
predecessors richly profitable. Directly the mind of the world emerged
again at the Renascence from intellectual barbarism in the brief
breathing time before Sturm and the schoolmasters caught it and birched
it into scholarship and a new period of sterility, it went on from Plato
to the making of fresh Utopias. Not without profit did More discuss
pauperism in this form and Bacon the organisation of research; and the
yeast of the French Revolution was Utopias. Even Comte, all the while
that he is professing science, fact, precision, is adding detail after
detail to the intensely personal Utopia of a Western Republic that
constitutes his one meritorious gift to the world. Sociologists cannot
help making Utopias; though they avoid the word, though they deny the
idea with passion, their very silences shape a Utopia. Why should they
not follow the precedent of Aristotle, and accept Utopias as material?

There used to be in my student days, and probably still flourishes, a
most valuable summary of fact and theory in comparative anatomy, called
Rolleston's "Forms of Animal Life." I figure to myself a similar book, a
sort of dream book of huge dimensions, in reality perhaps dispersed in
many volumes by many hands, upon the Ideal Society. This book, this
picture of the perfect state, would be the backbone of sociology. It
would have great sections devoted to such questions as the extent of the
Ideal Society, its relation to racial differences, the relations of the
sexes in it, its economic organisations, its organisation for thought
and education, its "Bible"--as Dr. Beattie Crozier would say--its
housing and social atmosphere, and so forth. Almost all the divaricating
work at present roughly classed together as sociological could be
brought into relation in the simplest manner, either as new suggestions,
as new discussion or criticism, as newly ascertained facts bearing upon
such discussions and sustaining or eliminating suggestions. The
institutions of existing states would come into comparison with the
institutions of the Ideal State, their failures and defects would be
criticised most effectually in that relation, and the whole science of
collective psychology, the psychology of human association, would be
brought to bear upon the question of the practicability of this proposed

This method would give not only a boundary shape to all sociological
activities, but a scheme of arrangement for text books and lectures, and
points of direction and reference for the graduation and post graduate
work of sociological students.

Only one group of inquiries commonly classed as sociological would have
to be left out of direct relationship with this Ideal State; and that is
inquiries concerning the rough expedients to meet the failure of
imperfect institutions. Social emergency work of all sorts comes under
this head. What to do with the pariah dogs of Constantinople, what to do
with the tramps who sleep in the London parks, how to organise a soup
kitchen or a Bible coffee van, how to prevent ignorant people, who have
nothing else to do, getting drunk in beer-houses, are no doubt serious
questions for the practical administrator, questions of primary
importance to the politician; but they have no more to do with sociology
than the erection of a temporary hospital after the collision of two
trains has to do with railway engineering.

So much for my second and most central and essential portion of
sociological work. It should be evident that the former part, the
historical part, which conceivably will be much the bulkier and more
abundant of the two, will in effect amount to a history of the
suggestions in circumstance and experience of that Idea of Society of
which the second will consist, and of the instructive failures in
attempting its incomplete realisation.

H.G. Wells