Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER II: the method of enquiry - Modern Democracies, vol. 1.
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
CHAPTER II: the method of enquiry - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 1. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 1
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
the method of enquiry
The contrast between the rapid progress made during the last two centuries in the study of external nature and the comparatively slow progress made in the determination of the laws or principles discoverable in the phenomena of human society is usually explained by the remark that in the former success was attained by discarding abstract notions and setting to work to observe facts, whereas in the latter men have continued to start from assumptions and run riot in speculations. As respects politics, this explanation, though it has some force, does not cover the whole case. The greatest minds that have occupied themselves with political enquiries have set out from the observation of such facts as were accessible to them, and have drawn from those facts their philosophical conclusions. Even Plato, the first thinker on the subject whose writings have reached us, and one whose power of abstract thinking has never been surpassed, formed his view of democracy from the phenomena of Athenian civic life as he saw them. His disciple Aristotle does the same, in a more precise and less imaginative way. So after him did Cicero, with a genuine interest, but no great creative power; so too did, after a long interval, Machiavelli and Montesquieu and Burke and others down to Tocqueville and Taine and Roscher.
The fundamental difference between the investigation of external nature and that of human affairs lies in the character of the facts to be observed. The phenomena with which the chemist or physicist deals — and this is for most purposes true of biological phenomena also — are, and so far as our imperfect knowledge goes, always have been, now and at all times, everywhere identical. Oxygen and sulphur behave in the same way in Europe and in Australia and in Sirius. But the phenomena of an election are not the same in Bern and in Buenos Aires, though we may call the thing by the same name; nor were they the same in Bern two centuries ago, or in Buenos Aires twenty years ago, as they are now. The substances with which the chemist deals can be weighed and measured, the feelings and acts of men cannot. Experiments can be tried in physics over and over again till a conclusive result is reached, but that which we call an experiment in politics can never be repeated because the conditions can never be exactly reproduced, as Heraclitus says that one cannot step twice into the same river. Prediction in physics may be certain: in politics it can at best be no more than probable. If vagueness and doubt surround nearly every theory or doctrine in the field of politics, that happens not so much because political philosophers have been careless in ascertaining facts, but rather because they were apt to be unduly affected by the particular facts that were under their eyes. However widely and carefully the materials may be gathered, their character makes it impossible that politics should ever become a science in the sense in which mechanics or chemistry or botany is a science. Is there then no way of applying exact methods to the subject, and of reaching some more general and more positive conclusions than have yet secured acceptance? Are the materials to be studied, viz. the acts and thoughts of men, their habits and institutions, incapable of scientific treatment because too various and changeful?
The answer is that there is in the phenomena of human society one “Constant,” one element or factor which is practically always the same, and therefore the basis of all the so-called “Social Sciences.” This is Human Nature itself. All fairly normal men have like passions and desires. They are stirred by like motives, they think upon similar lines. When they have reached the stage of civilization in which arts and letters have developed, and political institutions have grown up, reason has become so far the guide of conduct that sequences in their action can be established and their behaviour under given conditions can to some extent be foretold. Human nature is that basic and ever-present element in the endless flux of social and political phenomena which enables general principles to be determined. and though the action of individual men may often be doubtful, the action of a hundred or a thousand men all subjected to the same influences at the same time may be much more predictable, because in a large number the idiosyncrasies of individuals are likely to be eliminated or evened out. Politics accordingly has its roots in Psychology, the study (in their actuality) of the mental habits and volitional proclivities of mankind. The knowledge it gives is the knowledge most needed in life, and our life is chiefly spent in acquiring it. But we are here concerned only with the political side of man, and have to enquire how to study that particular department of his individual and collective life.
Two other differences between the Natural and the Human Sciences need only a word or two. The terms used in the latter lack the precision which belongs to those used in the former. They are not truly technical, for they do not always mean the same thing to all who use them. Such words as “aristocracy,” “prerogative,” “liberty,” “oligarchy,” “faction,” “caucus,” even “constitution “convey different meanings to different persons. The terms used in politics have, moreover, contracted associations, attractive or repellent, as the case may be, to different persons. They evoke feeling. An investigator occupied in the interpretation of history is exposed to emotional influences such as do not affect the enquirer in a laboratory. Nobody has either love or hatred for the hydrocarbons; nobody who strikes a rock with his hammer to ascertain whether it contains a particular fossil has anything but knowledge to gain by the discovery. The only chemical elements that have ever attracted love or inspired enthusiasm are gold and silver; nor is it chemists whom such enthusiasm has affected.
Human affairs, however, touch and move us in many ways, through our interest, through our associations of education, of political party, of religious belief, of philosophical doctrine. Nihil humani nobis alienum. We are so influenced, consciously or unconsciously, in our reading and thinking, by our likes and dislikes, that we look for the facts we desire to find and neglect or minimize those which are unwelcome. The facts are so abundant that it is always possible to find the former, and so obscure that it is no less easy to undervalue the latter.
If vigorous minds who have addressed themselves to the study of governments have, although they used the facts they saw, often differed in their conclusions and failed in their forecasts, this is because few subjects of study have suffered so much from prejudice, partisanship, and the habit of hasty inference from a few data. Even large-visioned and thoughtful men have not escaped one particular kind of prepossession. Such men are naturally the keenest in noting and condemning the faults of whatever system of government they happen to live under. Nearly every political philosopher has like Hobbes, Locke, and Burke written under the influence of the events of his own time. Philosophers who are also reformers are led by their ardour to overestimate the beneficial effects of a change, because they forget that the faults they denounce, being rooted in human weakness, may emerge afresh in other forms. Struck by the evils they see, they neglect those from which they have not suffered. One must always discount the sanguine radicalism of a thinker, who, like Mazzini, lived beneath the shadow of a despotism, and the conservatism, or austerity, of one who lived, like Plato, amidst the hustle and din of a democracy.
Human nature being accordingly a factor sufficiently constant to enable certain laws of its working to be ascertained, though with no such precision and no such power of prediction as is possible in the physical sciences, how is it to be studied?
The best way to get a genuine and exact first-hand knowledge of the data is to mix in practical politics. In such a country as France or the United States a capable man can, in a dozen years, acquire a comprehension of the realities of popular government ampler and more delicate than any which books supply. He learns the habits and propensities of the average citizen as a sailor learns the winds and currents of the ocean he has to navigate, what pleases or repels the voter, his illusions and his prejudices, the sort of personality that is fascinating, the sort of offence that is not forgiven, how confidence is won or lost, the kind of argument that tells on the better or the meaner spirits. Such a man forms, perhaps without knowing it, a body of maxims or rules by which he sails his craft, and steers, if he be a leader, the vessel of his party. Still ampler are the opportunities which the member of an Assembly has for studying his colleagues. This is the best kind of knowledge; though some of it-is profitable only for the particular country in which it has been acquired, and might be misleading in another country with a different national character and a different set of ideas and catchwords. Many maxims fit for Paris might be unfit for Philadelphia, but some might not. It is the best kind because it is first-hand, but as its possessor seldom commits it to paper, and may indeed not be qualified to do so, the historian or philosopher must go for his materials to such records as debates, pamphlets, the files of newspapers and magazines, doing his best to feel through words the form and pressure of the facts. When he extends his enquiry to other countries than his own, the abundance of materials becomes bewildering, because few books have been written which bring together the most important facts so as to provide that information regarding the conditions of those countries which he needs in order to use the materials aright.
These data, however, do not carry us the whole way towards a comprehension of democratic government in general. The student must try to put life and blood into historical records by what he has learnt of political human nature in watching the movements of his own time. He must think of the Past with the same keenness of interest as if it were the Present, and of the Present with the same coolness of reflection as if it were the Past. The English and the Americans of the eighteenth century were different from the men of to-day, so free government was a different thing in their hands. There are, moreover, differences in place as well as in time. Political habits and tendencies are not the same thing in England as in France or in Switzerland, or even in Australia, The field of observation must be enlarged to take in the phenomena of all the countries where the people rule. The fundamentals of human nature, present everywhere, are in each country modified by the influences of race, of external conditions, such as climate and the occupations that arise from the physical resources of the country. Next come the historical antecedents which have given, or withheld, experience in self-government, have formed traditions of independence or submission, have created institutions which themselves in turn have moulded the minds and shaped the ideals of the nations.
This mode of investigation is known as the Comparative Method. That which entitles it to be called scientific is that it reaches general conclusions by tracing similar results to similar causes, eliminating those disturbing influences which, present in one country and absent in another, make the results in the examined cases different in some points while similar in others. When by this method of comparison the differences between the working of democratic government in one country and another have been noted, the local or special conditions, physical or racial or economic, will be examined so as to determine whether it is in them that the source of these differences is to be found. If not in them, then we must turn to the institutions, and try to discover which of those that exist in popular governments have worked best. All are so far similar in that they are meant to enable the people to rule, but some seek this end in one way, some in another, each having its merits, each its defects. When allowance has been made for the different conditions under which each acts, it will be possible to pronounce, upon the balance of considerations, which form offers the best prospect of success. After the differences between one popular government and another have been accounted for, the points of similarity which remain will be what one may call democratic human nature, viz. the normal or permanent habits and tendencies of citizens in a democracy and of a democratic community as a whole. This is what we set out to discover. The enquiry, if properly conducted, will have taught us what are the various aberrations from the ideally best to which popular government is by its very nature liable.
It is this method that I have sought to apply in investigating the phenomena each particular government shows, so as to indicate wherein they differ from or agree with those found in other governments. Where the phenomena point to one and the same conclusion, we are on firm ground, and can claim to have discovered a principle fit to be applied. Firm ground is to be found in those permanent tendencies of mankind which we learn from history, i.e. from the record of observations made during many centuries in many peoples, living in diverse environments, physical and historical. The tendencies themselves take slightly diverse forms in different races or peoples, and the strength of each relatively to the others varies. These diversities must be noted and allowed for; but enough identity remains to enable definite conclusions of general validity to be attained.
So expressed and considered in their application to practice, these conclusions have a real value, not only to the student but also to the statesman. Many an error might have been avoided had a body of sound maxims been present to the minds of constitution makers and statesmen; not that such maxims could be used as necessarily fit for the particular case, but that he who had them before him would be led to weigh considerations and beware of dangers which might otherwise have escaped him. Some one has said, There is nothing so useless as a general maxim. That is so only if you do not know how to use it. He who would use it well must always think of the instances on which it rests and of the instruction these may be made to yield. Its use is to call attention. It is not a prescription but a signpost, or perhaps a danger signal.
The conclusions obtained by these methods of investigation are less capable of direct application to practice than are those of the exact sciences. However true as general propositions, they are subject to many qualifications when applied to any given case, and must be expressed in guarded terms. The reader who may be disposed to complain of the qualified and tentative terms in which I shall be obliged to express the results which a study of the phenomena has suggested will, I hope, pardon me when he remembers that although it is well to be definite and positive in statement, it is still better to be accurate. I cannot hope to have always attained accuracy, but it is accuracy above everything else that I have aimed at.