Front Page Titles (by Subject) LECTURE II.: POLITICAL ECONOMY A MENTAL STUDY. - Four Introductory Lectures on Political Economy
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
LECTURE II.: POLITICAL ECONOMY A MENTAL STUDY. - Nassau William Senior, Four Introductory Lectures on Political Economy 
Four Introductory Lectures on Political Economy (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1852).
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.
POLITICAL ECONOMY A MENTAL STUDY.
In the present and the following two Lectures, I shall consider whether Political Economy is a physical or a mental study; whether it may be more conveniently treated as a science or as an art; and whether its premises are to be taken solely from observation and consciousness, or rest, in part, on arbitrary assumptions. And I shall begin by stating, at some length, the distinction between science and art,—not with the hope of saying anything new, but because I believe that that distinction, though it has been clearly drawn, may not be familiar to all my hearers.
Shortly, it may be said that, as a history is a statement of past facts, so a science is a statement of existing facts, and an art a statement of the means by which future facts may be caused or influenced, or, in other words, future events brought about. The first two aim only at supplying materials for the memory and the judgment; they do not presuppose any purpose beyond the acquisition of knowledge. The third is intended to influence the will. It presupposes that some object is to be attained, and points out the easiest, the safest, or the most effectual conduct for that purpose. It is for this reason that the collection of related facts which constitute a science is generally a less complex thing than the collection of related precepts which constitute an art. A single science may be complete in itself;—a man may confine himself to chemistry, or to zoology, or to botany. He may pursue any one of those sciences to the boundaries of existing knowledge, and know nothing of the others. But an art must draw its materials from many sciences. No man can teach or practise well the art of agriculture unless he have some knowledge of chemistry, botany, zoology, mechanics, and indeed of many other sciences.
In the progress of human knowledge art precedes science. The first efforts of man are practical. He has an object in view, and tries various means of accomplishing it. Some of these utterly fail, some succeed imperfectly, and others are effectual, but at an unnecessary expense of time and trouble. As his experience increases, he gradually lays down for himself certain practical rules. If the business in which he is engaged can be managed by a solitary individual, these rules may be known only to himself, and be lost at his death. It is thus that we have lost many of the secrets of the ancient painters. But if it be one that requires co-operation, they become known to his assistants and to his pupils, and gradually to all who are engaged in similar pursuits. Many minds are employed in improving them and in adding to their number, until at length they swell into a system. It may be long, however, before they exist in any but a traditional form. The great architects of the middle ages left behind them no written precepts. They taught their pupils by oral instruction, and the rest of the world and posterity by example. The desire, however, to communicate and perpetuate information is one of the strongest passions of inventive minds. As books multiply and become the principal means by which this can be effected, those who are conscious of superior knowledge become writers. They compose treatises in which the means which are supposed to be productive of certain effects are arranged and preserved; and the knowledge which previously rested on individual experience or traditional routine becomes an art.
With the exception, however, of poetry, architecture, and generally of the arts that are addressed to the taste and the imagination, for which nations in an early stage of civilisation seem to have a peculiar aptitude, the arts of an unscientific age contain many rules ineffectual for their intended purposes, and many that are positively opposed to them. Thus the medicine of the middle ages ordered plants with yellow flowers to be used in cases of jaundice, and those with red flowers in fevers, and directed fomentations and ointments to be applied not to the wound but to the sword. At length a man arrives with wider views or less docile habits of mind, who is not satisfied to obey what often appear to him to be arbitrary rules, though he is told that they are the results of experience. He endeavours to account for the effects which he sees produced, that is to say, to refer them to some general laws of matter or of mind. To do this is to create a science. As soon as scientific habits of thought prevail, men are teazed by any appearance for which they cannot account. Their first motive is to question its reality. Evidence of mesmeric clairvoyance has been produced enough to satisfy a sceptical inquirer, if the phenomenon itself could be accounted for. But we cannot refer it to any general law, and therefore the greater part of those who think about it, deny its existence; many suspend their opinion, and scarcely any are complete believers. If its existence should ever be thoroughly established, the whole scientific world will be engaged in searching for the general principles to which it is to be referred; for no one will be satisfied with accepting it as an insulated unexplained fact.
I have said that a single art generally draws its premises from many different sciences. So a single science generally affords premises to many different arts. How numerous are the sciences which are applicable to the art of war. How numerous are the arts which depend in part on the principles of chemistry. And it is obvious that every increase of human knowledge must increase the influence of science on art. Under this influence many new rules are laid down, and many, which were supposed to be founded on experience, are abandoned as unnecessary or injurious. The art becomes in some respects more simple and in others more complex: more complex because its precepts become more diversified and more detailed; more simple because, instead of being thrown together with little apparent connection, they are grouped under the general principles supplied by science.
Sciences are divided into two great classes, differing both as to the matters which they treat, and the sources from which they draw their premises. These are the physical and the mental, or, as they are sometimes called, the moral sciences. The proper subjects of the first are the properties of matter; those of the second are the sensations, faculties, and habits of the human mind. As we have no experience of mind separated from matter (perhaps indeed are incapable of conceiving its existence), and as the mind can act only through the body, even the more purely mental sciences are forced to take notice of matter; and many of them, such as the sciences which have been called æsthetic, those which account for the pleasure which we derive from beauty and sublimity, seem at first sight to treat of little except material objects. But they consider those objects merely with reference to their effects on the human mind. To classify and account for those effects as a part of the philosophy of mind is the purpose of the science, and it regards in matter only the qualities which produce them. On the other hand, a botanist in the description of plants cannot omit the qualities which render them agreeable or useful to man. Without doubt, to be pleased by the sight and smell of a rose is as much an attribute of the human mind as the form, colour, and other qualities which occasion that pleasure are attributes of the rose. But it is to the rose only that the botanist looks. He states that it is beautiful and odoriferous as a part of the description of the plant, not of that of the being to whom it is beautiful and odoriferous.
The same difference separates arts, though the line is less clearly marked. For as every art must use material instruments, it is to a certain extent physical; and as every art aims at producing pleasure or preventing pain, it must be, to a certain extent, mental. Still, however, the difference exists. No one would call rhetoric a physical art, though its teacher must deliver precepts as to voice and gesture. No one would call agriculture a mental art, though a treatise on agriculture would be incomplete which did not compare the advantages and disadvantages of task-work and day-work,—a comparison involving wide and numerous moral considerations.
Where the subject is matter the distinction between an art and a science is in general easily perceptible. No one confounds the science of projectiles with the art of gunnery, or the art of surgery with the science of anatomy. But it appears to be much less easy to distinguish the arts and the sciences which have for their subject the operations of the human mind. Thus we often talk of the art of logic, and of the science of morality. But logic is not an art but a science. It is not a collection of precepts how to reason, but a statement of the principles on which all reasoning depends. The logician does not advise, he merely instructs. He does not teach us to argue by means of syllogisms, but asserts the fact that all reasoning is syllogistic. His statements are all general; they have no relation to time or to place. They are unconnected with any science but his own. On the other hand, morality is not a science but an art. The object of the moralist is not to inform us as to the nature of the faculties and the sensations of man, but to advise us how to use those faculties, and how to subject ourselves to those sensations, for the purpose of promoting our happiness. He must therefore draw his materials from many different sciences, and must vary his precepts according to the social condition of those whom he addresses. The morality of the Stoics was fitted to an aggregate of petty communities constantly engaged in foreign and civil war, in which defeat involved the worst of human evils, the loss of life, of relations, of property, and of liberty. No Greek could be sure that in a year’s time his country might not be conquered by a neighbouring tribe, or his party overthrown by a revolution, and all his family and friends murdered before his eyes, or sold with him into slavery. Under such circumstances, insensibility, the power of enduring the approach and the presence of evil, and the insecurity, and even the absence of good, appeared to be the quality most conducive to happiness. The Stoic moralist, therefore, was as anxious to blunt the desires and harden the perceptions of his pupils, as the English moralist is to rouse their ambition, and to expand their sensibility. The logic of Aristotle and the logic of Whately are the same, but how little do we find in common when we compare the morality of Zeno with that of Smith or of Paley.
It appears to me that the greater tendency to confound science and art, when the subject is mind, than when it is matter, arises from the more immediate influence on human conduct possessed by the mental sciences. The sciences which consider matter have often little apparent connection with any of the arts to which they are subservient. The application of chemistry to agriculture has taken place almost within our own recollection; its application to navigation is still more recent; to transport by land, more recent still; to the transmission of intelligence, scarcely ten years old. Such sciences may be, and indeed generally are, most earnestly studied by men who have no object beyond the discovery and diffusion of truth. That object is enough to satisfy the most ardent scientific ambition, and to urge the most unwearied scientific labours. The astronomer does not consider what will be the practical results of his inquiries, or whether they will lead to any practical results whatever. His object is knowledge. The uses to which that knowledge may be applied, the mode and the degree in which it may affect men’s conduct, he leaves to others.
On the other hand, the mental sciences are directly and obviously connected with the arts of which they furnish the principles; and those arts almost every educated man must practise. No man studies the science of reasoning without resolving to apply its principles whenever he has to exercise the art of controversy. No man inquires into the laws which regulate the human intellect or the human passions, without framing out of them some practical rules for the employment of his own faculties and the regulation of his own affections.
The distinction between physical and mental is important, not only with respect to the subjects treated by the sciences and arts in each class, but also with respect to the principal sources from which they respectively draw their premises.
In all sciences and in all arts these sources are but three—observation, consciousness, and hypothesis. The physical sciences, being only secondarily conversant with mind, draw their premises almost exclusively from observation or hypothesis. Those which treat only of magnitude and number, or, as they are usually called, the pure sciences, draw them altogether from hypothesis. The mathematician does not measure the radii of a circle in order to ascertain that they are all equal: he infers their equality from the definition with which he sets out. Those which abstain from hypothesis depend on observation. It is by observation that the astronomer ascertains the motions of the planets, the botanist classifies plants, and the chemist discovers the affinities of different bodies. They disregard almost entirely the phenomena of consciousness. The physical arts are almost exclusively based on observation. As their object is to produce positive effects, they trust as little as possible to hypothesis; and the mental phenomena which they have to consider are generally few and simple. The art of navigation, the art of mining, or the art of fortification, might be taught by a man who had never studied seriously the operations of his own mind.
On the other hand, the mental sciences and the mental arts draw their premises principally from consciousness. The subjects with which they are chiefly conversant are the workings of the human mind. And the only mind whose workings a man really knows is his own. When he wishes to ascertain the thoughts and the feelings of others, his first impulse always is, to endeavour to suppose himself in what he believes to be their situation, and to consider how he himself would then think and feel. His next impulse is to infer that similar moral and intellectual processes are taking place in them. If he be a cautious observer, he endeavours to correct this inference by examining their countenances, their words, and their actions. But these are uncertain symptoms, often occasioned by a state of mind different from that which they appear to indicate; and often employed for the purpose of concealment or of deception.
When a man endeavours to discover what is passing in the mind of another, by reflecting on what has passed or is passing in his own, the certainty of the result depends of course on the degree in which the two minds coincide. The educated man, therefore, estimates ill the feelings and the faculties of the uneducated, the adult those of the child, the sane those of the insane, the civilised man those of the savage. And this accounts for the constant mismanagement of the lower orders, and of children, madmen, and savages, by their intellectual and moral superiors. The student of mental science is in the situation of an anatomist, allowed to dissect only a single subject, and forced to conjecture the internal conformation of other men by assuming that it resembles that of the subject which he has dissected, and correcting that assumption only by observing the forms of their bones and the outward play of their muscles. The mental peculiarities of other men are likely to mislead him in particular instances. His own mental peculiarities are likely to mislead him on all occasions.
Another important difference, between mental and physical studies, is the degree and the manner in which they respectively can be aided by experiment. When we are dealing with matter, we frequently are able to combine its particles at will, and to ascertain the results of the combination. If we find that, all other things remaining the same, the presence or absence of a given element is followed by the presence or absence of a given result, we ascribe to that element and to that result the relation of cause and effect, or at least of condition and result.
But we can scarcely be said to be able to make experiments on the minds of others. It is necessary to an experiment, that the observer should know accurately the state of the thing observed before the experiment, and its state immediately after it. But when the minds of other men are the subject, we can know but little of either the one state or of the other. We are forced, therefore, to rely not on experiment, but on experience, that is to say, not on combinations of known elements effected for the purpose of testing the result of each different combination, but on our observation of actual occurrences, the results of the combination of numerous elements, only a few of which are within our own knowledge. And the consequence is, that we frequently connect facts which are really independent of one another, and not unfrequently mistake obstacles for causes.
The measure now* before parliament for introducing into Ireland a compulsory provision for the destitute, is defended by an appeal to experience. We are told that the English poor have such a provision, and are the most industrious and the best maintained population in Europe. The Irish poor have no such provision, and are the idlest and the poorest people that is called civilised. If the presence of a poor law in the one and its absence in the other were the only difference in the history of the two countries, this would really be an instance of experience. If a country with a previous history precisely resembling that of England, possessing precisely the same physical and moral advantages, and differing solely in the absence of a poor law, were found to be idle and miserable, we might justly infer that the prosperity of England is owing to its poor law; for there would be no other cause to which it could be referred. And the misery of the other country could be referred to no cause except its want of a poor law. But when we find that the English and the Irish nations differ in race, in religion, and in habits,—that the one is chiefly a town and the other almost exclusively a country population,—that the one consists principally of labourers for hire, the other of small tenants,—that the one lives on wages, the other on its own crop,—that the vice of the one is improvidence, that of the other indolence,—that in one country the religion of the people has been persecuted, in the other endowed,—that in the one the clergy of the people are the allies of the government, in the other its enemies,—that in the one public sympathy is with the supporter of order and peace, in the other with the disturber,—that the code which prevails in the one is that which is sanctioned by parliament and administered by courts of justice, in the other is one framed by conspirators, promulgated by threatening notices, and enforced by outrage and assassination,—that it is more dangerous to obey the law in the one than to violate it in the other,—when we find that these differences have lasted for centuries, and that, almost from our earliest knowledge of them, the circumstances in which the two countries have been placed have been not only dissimilar but opposed, it is obvious that the wretchedness of Ireland in the absence of a poor law does not prove that the presence of such an institution has been beneficial to England. All that is proved is that a country can prosper with a poor law and be miserable without one. To that extent the experience of England and Ireland is decisive. It is a complete answer to any one who should maintain either that a country in which the population are forced to rely for subsistence on their own resources will necessarily be laborious, or that one in which the law protects every one, whatever be his conduct, from want, will necessarily be indolent. But it is no answer to any one who should maintain that such are the tendencies of the two opposite institutions, but that such tendencies may be neutralised by counteracting causes. And yet there are thousands of educated men who call such reasoning as this arguing from experience, and are now anxious to make the tremendous experiment of an Irish poor law on the English model in reliance on what they call the experience of England.
When we direct our attention to the workings of our own minds, that is to say, when we search for premises by means of consciousness instead of by means of observation, our powers of trying experiments are much greater. To a considerable degree we command our own faculties, and though there are few, perhaps none, which we can use separately, we can at will exercise one more vigorously than the others. We can call, for instance, into peculiar activity, the judgment, the memory, or the imagination, and note the differences in our mental condition as the one faculty or the other is more active. And this is an experiment. Over our mental sensations we have less power. We cannot at will feel angry, or envious, or frightened. But we can sometimes, though rarely, put ourselves really into situations by which certain emotions will be excited. And when, as is usually the case, this is impossible or objectionable, we can fancy ourselves in such situations. The first is an actual experiment. We can approach the brink of an unprotected precipice and look down. We can interpose between our bodies and that brink a low parapet, and look over it. And if we find that our emotions in the two cases differ,—that though there is no real danger in either case, though in both our judgment equally tells us that we are safe, yet that the apparent danger in the one produces fear, while we feel secure in the other,—we infer that the imagination can excite fear for which the judgment affirms that there is no adequate cause. The second is the resemblance of an experiment, and when tried by a person with the vivid imagination of Shakspeare or Homer may almost serve for one. But with ordinary minds it is a most fallacious expedient. Few men when they picture themselves in an imaginary situation take into account all the incidents necessary to that situation. And those which they neglect may be among the most important.
Having explained the distinction between a science and an art, and the chief differences between the arts and sciences which consider as their principal subject the laws of matter, and those whose principal subject is mind, I now come to one of the practical questions in which this long preface will I hope be found useful, namely, whether Political Economy be a mental or a physical study.
Unquestionably the political economist has much to do with matter. The phenomena attending the production of material wealth occupy a great part of his attention; and these depend mainly on the laws of matter. The efficacy of machinery, the diminishing productiveness, under certain circumstances, of successive applications of capital to land, and the fecundity and longevity of the human species, are all important premises in Political Economy, and all are laws of matter. But the political economist dwells on them only with reference to the mental phenomena which they serve to explain; he considers them as among the motives to the accumulation of capital, as among the sources of rent, as among the regulators of profit, and as among the causes which promote or retard the pressure of population on subsistence. If the main subject of his studies were the physical phenomena attending the production of wealth, a system of Political Economy must contain a treatise on mechanics, on navigation, on agriculture, on chemistry—in fact, on the subjects of almost all the physical sciences and arts, for there are few of those arts or sciences which are not subservient to wealth. All these details, however, the political economist avoids, or uses a few of them sparingly for the purpose of illustration. He does not attempt to state the mechanical and chemical laws which enable the steam engine to perform its miracles—he passes them by as laws of matter; but he explains, as fully as his knowledge will allow, the motives which induce the mechanist to erect the steam engine, and the labourer to work it. And these are laws of mind. He leaves to the geologist to explain the laws of matter which occasion the formation of coal, to the chemist to distinguish its component elements, to the engineer to state the means by which it is extracted, and to the teachers of many hundred different arts to point out the uses to which it may be applied. What he reserves to himself is to explain the laws of mind under which the owner of the soil allows his pastures to be laid waste, and the minerals which they cover to be abstracted; under which the capitalist employs, in sinking shafts and piercing galleries, funds which might be devoted to his own immediate enjoyment; under which the miner encounters the toils and the dangers of his hazardous and laborious occupation; and the laws, also laws of mind, which decide in what proportions the produce, or the value of the produce, is divided between the three classes by whose concurrence it has been obtained. When he uses as his premises, as he often must do, facts supplied by physical science, he does not attempt to account for them; he is satisfied with stating their existence. If he has to prove it, he looks for his proofs, so far as he can, in the human mind. Thus the economist need not explain why it is that labour cannot be applied to a given extent of land to an indefinite amount with a proportionate return. He has done enough when he has proved that such is the fact; and he proves this by showing, on the principles of human nature, that, if it were otherwise, no land except that which is most fertile, and best situated, would be cultivated. All the technical terms, therefore, of Political Economy, represent either purely mental ideas, such as demand, utility, value, and abstinence, or objects which, though some of them may be material, are considered by the political economist so far only as they are the results or the causes of certain affections of the human mind, such as wealth, capital, rent, wages, and profits.
In the next Lecture I shall consider the first of the two remaining questions,—namely, whether Political Economy may be better treated as a science or as an art.
[* ] This Lecture was delivered in March, 1847.