Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXXVI.: A DIGRESSION. 1864. Æt. 43. - An Autobiography, vol. 2
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CHAPTER XXXVI.: A DIGRESSION. 1864. Æt. 43. - Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography, vol. 2 
An Autobiography by Herbert Spencer. Illustrated in Two Volumes. Vol. 2 (New York: D. Appleton and Company 1904).
Part of: An Autobiography
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Chronologically placed, the incidents to be narrated in this chapter should have been narrated some distance back in the preceding chapter; for instead of belonging to the close of 1864, they belong to its opening. But the narrative would have been confused had I adhered strictly to the order of occurrence. I have thought it better to make of these detached incidents the matter for a detached chapter.
Ten years had elapsed since, in the essay on the “Genesis of Science,” I had discussed and rejected the classification of the sciences proposed by M. Comte. In the course of the criticism to which the first part of the essay was devoted, I expressed the opinion that the sciences do not admit of serial arrangement, whether considered logically in their natures or historically in their developments; and I expressed the further opinion that they stand in relations of divergence and re-divergence, which may be symbolized by the branches of a tree. More than once during these ten years, I had made attempts to represent on paper their ramifying relations, but without success: none of the diagrams I made came anywhere near satisfying me. But now, my attention having been again drawn to the subject by seeing these diagrams, my thoughts took, it seems, a new direction, and led me to recognize those fundamental distinctions which divide the great groups of sciences, and determine the classification of them.
There is a family of sciences which severally undertake to give accounts of individualized objects—not objects which, like fragments of stone, are in some or many respects indefinite, but objects which are definable, and are known either as solitary individuals or as individual members of a species. Be it nebula, star, the sun, a planet or a satellite, each of the things Astronomy concerns itself with is an identifiable individual. So is the Earth with which Geology deals; and so are all plants and animals. So in a sense are minds; for though not visible entities, they are coherent and organized groups of functions exhibited by certain entities; and each of them is individualized as belonging to one or other kind of creature, and, in a minor degree, to one or other sample of it. And so it is with societies. Each of them is a more or less distinctly incorporated whole, individualized by its structural traits as well as by its name and locality. Moreover, every science of this class is like the others in the respect that it aims to give an exhaustive account of the object or objects forming its subject-matter. Nor is this all. It aims also to give an account of the ways in which each of them became what it is—to give a history of the transformations through which it has passed. Astronomy, Geology, Biology, Psychology, and Sociology, may in fact all of them be properly called Natural Histories; though in current speech a sub-division of one monopolizes the name.
Devoid of these traits, the sciences forming another family have in common certain other traits. Mechanics, Physics, and Chemistry, none of them treat of definitely individualized objects. The forces with which Mechanics is concerned are not tangible or visible entities at all; nor, in formulating their laws, is absolute quantity of any moment: relative quantity only enters into the inquiry. Similarly, the phenomena of Heat, Light, and Electricity are generalized without reference to specialized portions or particular amounts: the characters which give individuality are absent. The like holds with Chemistry. In their gaseous forms the matters it deals with can scarcely be said to have tangibility or visibility; in their liquid forms they cannot be said to be individualized; and though, in their solid forms, fragments of them have shapes and sizes by which they can be recognized, these are irrelevant to those truths respecting molecular constitutions, combining proportions, and modes of action, which Chemistry sets forth. Moreover these sciences have the peculiarity that they respectively treat of matters and forces, not as they exist in actual objects and actual motions, but as separated, so far as may be, from one another—from impurities and from perturbing actions. And once more, they have, by consequence, the peculiarity that the truths they express are partially ideal: the atomic weights and combining equivalents of the chemist are not verified absolutely by experiments, for impurities cannot be entirely got rid of; and no law of motion or action formulated by the physicist is ever fulfilled completely, because interferences can never be wholly escaped.
Yet more sharply marked off from both of these groups of sciences than they are from one another, is a third group of sciences. This third group is not concerned at all with the real, but with the purely ideal. Though Logic and Mathematics habitually affirm truths respecting existences, yet they are in no case concerned with the existences themselves, but only with certain of their aspects considered as dissociated from them. Logic has to do with the exclusions, inclusions and over-lappings of classes of existences, considered as distinguishable from one another by marks; and it cares neither what the existences are nor what the marks are. The units with which arithmetic and the calculus at large deal, often stand for real objects, but the reality of the objects is quite irrelevant to the numerical truths reached: in any ordinary calculation when one number is multiplied or divided by another, there is no thought of the things which the numbers represent. So it is with geometrical truths. These are concerned with the phenomena of pure space. Though in the expression of these phenomena visible lines are habitually used, yet that which gives the lines visibility is intentionally ignored.
That the conception originally presented itself to me in this shape, I do not say; but this was the outcome of it. It became manifest that, as above shown, the sciences fall into three groups—Concrete, Abstract-Concrete, and Abstract. And it became further manifest that the sciences within each group are to be arranged in the order of decreasing generality.
This view appeared to me important enough to merit prompt publication; and I decided to suspend my ordinary work that I might write an essay setting it forth.
Whether this resolve was made in December 1863, while my father was with me in town, or whether it was made while I was in Derby in January 1864, I cannot decide. But it was evidently in one or the other; for the first letter in which reference is made to it, implies that my father had already been told about it. It is dated February 19, and runs as follows:—
“I am still busy with the Essay on Classification, which I have fully written out, and have nearly done revising. It works out far more completely than I imagined it would. After sundry consultations I have decided not to publish it in a periodical but to publish it separately as a pamphlet.”
This decision was, I fancy, in large measure a forced one. Inquiry made it manifest that an essay so purely philosophical would be unreadable by nearly all who take in periodicals, and that editorial acceptance was scarcely to be expected. There was no alternative but to undertake the cost of printing it as an independent publication.
As it happened, this decision was fortunate; for just as the pamphlet, or rather brochure, was on the eve of issue, there occurred an incident which made needful an emphatic repudiation of certain doctrines ascribed to me; and while the issue of the pamphlet afforded a fit opportunity for the repudiation, a postscript to it afforded a fit place.
The incident in question was the appearance of a review of First Principles, by M. Auguste Laugel, in the Revue des Deux Mondes, for 15 February 1864. Highly satisfactory to me as the review was in many respects, there was one respect in which it was unsatisfactory. M. Laugel tacitly implied that I belonged to a school of thought from the doctrines of which I dissent: having, indeed, to sundry of the leading doctrines, a profound aversion.
That body of scientific truths and methods which M. Comte named “Positive Philosophy,” he remarked, was analogous to that which had been in England called “Natural Philosophy”; and, by implication, the men of science who had been natural philosophers were regarded by him as positive philosophers. This naming, or re-naming, led to an unfortunate confusion. The philosophy which M. Comte named “Positive Philosophy,” came not unnaturally to be spoken of by his disciples as his philosophy; and gradually among them, and afterwards among the undiscriminating public, there grew up the notion that those who held the doctrines called by M. Comte “Positive Philosophy” were adherents of M. Comte. M. Laugel, if he did not fall into this error, at any rate used language which seemed to countenance it. He spoke of me as imbued with certain ideas (naming especially the relativity of knowledge) characterizing the Philosophy called Positive; and though these ideas were manifestly not ideas originated by M. Comte, nor claimed by him, yet by calling them ideas of the Positive Philosophy which I accepted, he produced the impression that I was an adherent of M. Comte.
This impression, utterly untrue as it was, I thought it needful to dissipate; and the greater part of March I occupied in setting forth my antagonism to all those doctrines which are distinctive of the Comtean Philosophy. On the 26 March I wrote to my father as follows:—
“I have just got rid of the last revises of my pamphlet, the corrections and modifications of which have caused me a great deal of bother and delay. I expect it will be out towards the end of next week.
You ask about my health. I am happy to say that I am well, in spite of unfavourable circumstances. The writing the Appendix about Comte brought on a fit of excitement, moral and intellectual, which I could not subdue. I could not stop thinking day or night, and was in a great fright lest I should have a serious relapse. However I escaped it; and now seem to be all the better. It seems to me that this fit of excitement has done something towards restoring my cerebral circulation, which, ever since my break-down, has been deficient.”
The fit of excitement here referred to was not produced wholly by the writing of this postscript setting forth “Reasons for dissenting from the philosophy of M. Comte.” A private controversy which resulted had much to do with it. Wishing to be quite fair to Comte, I thought it desirable that the proof of what I had written should be looked through by one who was in sympathy with him. Lewes, if not a disciple in the full sense of the word, was a partial adherent, and was also his expositor. I asked him to oblige me by his criticisms, which he willingly did. Some of the minor ones I accepted and profited by, but against the major ones I protested; and this led to a correspondence between us over which I excited myself in the way indicated. My letter of chief importance, which might fitly have formed a postscript to the postscript, will be found in Appendix B.
The inquiry which led to the digression described in this chapter had a sequence. More important than the theory of the Classification of the Sciences set forth, and much more important than the definite rejection of the Comtean philosophy, for which the opportunity was afforded, was a certain incidental result.
When arranging the divisions and sub-divisions of the Concrete Sciences, and setting out with recognition of the fact that under their most general aspects they all give accounts of the re-distributions of matter and motion, there arose the need for stating the universal trait of all such re-distributions. This trait is that increasing integration of matter necessitates a concomitant dissipation of motion, and that increasing amount of motion implies a concomitant disintegration of matter. Perception of this truth threw a new light on the phenomena of Evolution at large. Here were seen the processes which constitute respectively Evolution and Dissolution under their primordial aspects. It became obvious that the differentiations, with resulting increase of heterogeneity, which I had supposed to be primary traits of Evolution, were but secondary traits. Clearly the first law must be the law in conformity with which aggregates are formed and destroyed; and not the law in conformity with which their complexities of structure arise.
The necessity for re-arranging First Principles became manifest. It had been wrongly organized and must be re-organized. This task I decided to undertake as soon as a new edition seemed likely to be called for.