Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XLVII.: THE DESCRIPTIVE SOCIOLOGY. 1867—74. Æt. 47—54. - An Autobiography, vol. 2
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER XLVII.: THE DESCRIPTIVE SOCIOLOGY. 1867—74. Æt. 47—54. - 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
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 DESCRIPTIVE SOCIOLOGY.
In the last chapter but one I had to make an overlap in the narrative, and here I have to make a double overlap. For not only while there were occurring the incidents set down in many preceding chapters, but also while there were occurring those set down in the chapter described as an overlap, there was being carried on an undertaking, the progress of which I could not continually refer to without confusing the accounts of doings which mainly occupied me.
In Chapter XLI I briefly described certain preparations, then commenced, for the Principles of Sociology: saying how I had arranged to have collected for me, and put in fitly classified groups and tables, facts of all kinds, presented by numerous races, which illustrate social evolution under its various aspects. Though this classified compilation of materials was entered upon solely to facilitate my own work, yet, after having brought the mode of classification to a satisfactory form, and after having had some of the tables filled up, I decided to have the scheme executed with a view to publication: the facts being so presented, apart from hypotheses, as to aid all students of Social Science in testing such conclusions as they have drawn and in drawing others.
This undertaking, commenced at the close of 1867, had been quietly progressing from that time to the time now reached—1874. The chief occurrences connected with the prosecution of it down to the latter date, must here be set down.
The loss of Mr. Duncan’s services was followed by a considerable interval during which the work stood still: no successor being discoverable. As already shown by an extract from a letter dated 9 March 1870, I sought for aid in the United States as well as in Great Britain. A passage preceding the one quoted, which I had reserved for use here, runs as follows:—
“The accounts of the uncivilized races have been in a great measure digested, and the facts they present duly arranged; and Mr. Duncan will, I hope, be able to complete them within a moderate period after he reaches India. We have agreed, too, that he shall, while in India, carry on the second part of the work, dealing with the extinct and decayed historic races. But I see that it will be needful, with a view to the completion of the undertaking in such time as to render it available for me, that the modern historic races should be undertaken by some one else.”
Of course the required qualifications, which were high, excluded the mass of applicants. At length there came to me, on recommendation, a young Scotchman, clerical by education and ambition, but who was, I suspect, “a stickit minister.” He had not abandoned his ambition, however; for I afterwards learned that during his engagement with me he occasionally preached: an anomalous combination of functions. He was a dull fellow. So wanting in ability to do anything requiring more than mechanical intelligence did he prove, that I had shortly to dismiss him.
And here I seize the occasion for expressing my belief that not only does education, as at present carried on, fail to increase the power of independent thought, in those who have little, but it tends to diminish such power of independent thought as they naturally have. Of sundry instances which have fallen under my observation, I will name only the most striking—that of a University graduate who had recently taken his degree with honours, though not high ones. Along with the knowledge thus implied there went almost incredible ignorance. He asked me whether the disappearance of a distant vessel at sea was due to failure of vision, or whether, as some said, it was consequent on the curvature of the Earth. On a reference being made to the increase of the population in England, he proved to be unaware of the fact that our population is increasing. He spoke of the gizzard of a dog; and was surprised on being told that mammals have no gizzards. But the most astonishing example disclosed itself the moment he began to write to my dictation. He did not know that the commencement of a paragraph is invariably shown by the setting back of the initial word! He began the first line of each paragraph level with the other lines; and, until I explained it to him, did not see that when the preceding paragraph happens to fill out completely its last line, a new paragraph cannot be marked at all unless its first word is thus set back. Here was one who, during his school career and college career, had been daily occupied with books for many hours, and who was so unobservant that he had never remarked this uniform trait in them; much less had perceived how such a trait arises!
Everybody nowadays hears of the mischiefs of “cram”; and yet insistence upon them seems to produce no effect whatever. Though it has become manifest that the accumulation of knowledge in excess of power to use it, is not only no aid to efficiency, but is an impediment to efficiency; yet the quantity of knowledge accumulated continues to be used as the measure of efficiency. In pursuance of the law-established conceptions of education the system has practically become unalterable; and the minds of the young, overburdened with useless knowledge, will presently exhibit the effects of measures which might fitly be called measures for the increase of stupidity.
It was not until after many months had passed that I succeeded in finding, in the person of Mr. James Collier, a capable successor to Mr. Duncan. Educated partly at St. Andrews and partly at Edinburgh, Mr. Collier, though he had not taken his degree, possessed in full measure the qualifications requisite for the compilation and tabulation of the Descriptive Sociology; and the third division of the work, dealing with the existing civilized races, progressed satisfactorily in his hands.
Thereafter, correspondence yields no trace of the progress of the work until 27 April 1871, when I find in a letter to Youmans the following passage:—
“In so far as immediate personal results are concerned, this [product of American sales of my books] is a matter of comparative indifference to me. Now, and for the future, the realization of profits interests me mainly as facilitating this large expensive undertaking which, as you know, I am having carried on by proxy; partly with a view to the facilitation of my own work when I come to the Sociological division of it, but still more with a view to wide and permanent use. It is now nearly a year since the printing of the first volume (that is, the preparation of the stereotype-moulds) was commenced. On a rough estimate, something like £600 will have to be laid out before any returns can begin to come in; and the rate at which the work can be carried on, is limited by the rate at which the surplus returns from the sale of my books enable me to pay printers’ bills. With a view to more rapid progress with this work, I am therefore interested in the advance of the American sales.”
Evidently the prosecution of the scheme, irrespective of the immediate needs of my own work, had come to interest me greatly.
The undertaking had now so far advanced that the tables embodying the classified facts presented by some of the uncivilized societies, were in type; and when my friend Youmans came over in July 1871, he saw a number of the proofs. Unlike those who have not dropped their educational blinkers, he was in all cases quick to recognize things lying off the beaten track, and to see their relative importance. It became at once manifest to him that exhibiting sociological phenomena in such wise that comparisons of them in their coexistences and sequences, as occurring among various peoples in different stages, were made easy, would immensely facilitate the discovery of sociological truths. To have before us, in manageable form, evidence proving the correlations which everywhere exist between great militant activity and the degradation of women, between a despotic form of government and elaborate ceremonial in social intercourse, between relatively peaceful social activities and the relaxation of coercive institutions, promises furtherance of human welfare in a much greater degree than does learning whether the story of Alfred and the cakes is a fact or a myth, whether Queen Elizabeth intrigued with Essex or not, where Prince Charles hid himself, and what were the details of this battle or the other siege—pieces of historical gossip which cannot in the least affect men’s conceptions of the ways in which social phenomena hang together, or aid them in shaping their public conduct. Without recognizing such sociological correlations as those just instanced, which, indeed, at that time did not “jump to the eyes,” as they did when a large number of tables had been prepared, my friend anticipated much help in rationalizing men’s conceptions of civilization and guiding their actions in politics.
It resulted that he became anxious to have the undertaking pushed forward with greater rapidity. The first division, dealing with the uncivilized races, was in progress; as was also the third division, dealing with the existing civilized races; but nothing had been done, or was about to be done, towards executing the second division, dealing with the extinct and decayed civilized races. On learning this he urged me to put this division also in hand. I explained that already my resources were taxed to the uttermost by payments for compilation and printing, and that more rapid progress was impossible. Eager to have useful things done, as he always was, he presently made me a remarkable proposal. If I would superintend the execution of the second division, he undertook, on behalf of the Americans, that they would furnish funds for paying the compiler and the printer. In what way I received this proposal I cannot remember. Indeed, until correspondence recalled it to me, I had forgotten it. Evidently, however, as shown by subsequent occurrences, I finally assented. For when, after making arrangements with M. Baillière for the publication of the “International Scientific Series” in France, we parted, I for home and he for Germany, it was with the understanding that he should advertise in German newspapers for a fit compiler.
In most cases the answers to advertisements are anything but satisfactory. Ordinarily there come many blanks and no prize; but in this case there came one prize and no blanks. The solitary respondent was Dr. Richard Scheppig, at that time a teacher at Hoffwill school. He accepted the engagement, and joined me at the end of the year. Writing to Youmans on Feb. 2, 1872, I said of him:—“Scheppig is beginning to get into his work, and, as I gather, likes it. He seems to me a clear-headed fellow, and is, I think, likely to succeed.” This expectation was fully verified. He turned out to be admirably adapted for the work he had undertaken.
The financial arrangement made with Youmans, however, was not carried out. Mis-statements which had become current in America respecting the continuance of my work, which was represented as having been made possible exclusively by the American testimonial, increased the reluctance I originally felt. The following letter refers to the erroneous impressions that prevailed and to the course consequently taken by me. It is dated 4 May, 1872.
“I heard lately of certain absurd statements that are current in America respecting the aid rendered to me by Americans, and the difficulties from which I was rescued by them. The copy of the New York Evening Mail of April 15, which I received from you this morning, serves indirectly to verify the report that had reached me respecting these statements; since it makes statements, nearly akin to them, that are no less erroneous.
It is needful, that this propagation of misconceptions should be checked. I at first thought, on reading the article, of writing a letter myself to the New York Evening Mail on the matter. But on second thoughts I see that the statement will come better from you. Inclosed I give you an outline of the facts, sufficient to dissipate the erroneous beliefs that have been spread among you, and are likely to become exaggerated as well as confirmed if they pass uncontradicted. . . .
Under the circumstances I must cancel the arrangement made with regard to the payment of Scheppig, and the American publication of the second division of the Descriptive Sociology. I see that whatever precaution may be taken it is sure to be misapprehended and mis-stated. I see that I shall be able to pay Scheppig myself—especially now that the proceeds of these sociological articles have come to help.”
Writing on the 10th August, I said:—“Your letter was just the thing needed, and the circulation of it through the Tribune will be quite sufficient.” Most of the facts contained in this letter are already known to the reader; but as there are joined with them some not before stated, I have decided to reproduce it in Appendix H.
The work proceeded without incident until the succeeding midsummer, when a letter of July 31, 1873, says:—“The first number of Descriptive Sociology was published yesterday.” On the 27th September, time having been given to contemplate my position, I sent my friend a discouraging report:—
“I have just been going through my bills, and I find that this first number has cost me for the—
You will see at once that to reimburse myself for this large outlay (which would reach £700 were I to add loss of interest) will require either an extensive sale or a pretty high rate of profit on a small sale; and I see little chance of being able to go on with such returns from America as even your last letter seems to imply.” . . .
“I am quite content to give my labour for nothing. I am content even to lose something by unrepaid costs of authorship. But it is clear that I shall not be able to bear the loss that now appears likely. In addition to the sum of £648 named above, I have already spent on the first division of Duncan, “Uncivilized Races,” in printing and authorship, about £400; and on the second division about £280. So that you see I am more than £1300 out of pocket without getting a penny back. I must now, being in the middle of it, complete the first part of the “Extinct Civilized Races” and the first part of the “Savage Races,” by which time I shall have laid out more than £2000. It will then be time to stop; for, as I now infer, there is but little probability of getting a return that will approximately meet my outlay.”
At the close of the subsequent March, I find a passage implying further discouragement:—
“No. 2 of the Des. Soc. is out, and I have ordered a copy to be sent to you. It will be a very valuable instalment for all people sufficiently rational to appreciate it; of which, however, there are unfortunately but few. The third volume of Forster’s Life of Dickens sold 10,000 copies in ten days. The first part of Descriptive Sociology has been asked for by the public to the extent of not quite 200 copies in eight months.”
It was thus becoming clear that I had greatly overestimated the amount of desire which existed in the public mind for social facts of an instructive kind. They greatly preferred those of an uninstructive kind.
My American friend had, I suppose, been naming to some of those likely to be interested, these adverse results, and the consequent probability that I should shortly bring the undertaking to a close; for, early in the autumn, he transmitted to me a letter from Mr. Edwin W. Bryant, an actuary of St. Louis, showing something more than ordinary sympathy. This letter, dated 27 June, setting out with remarks of a complimentary kind concerning the importance of the undertaking, went on to say:—
“But, leaving to you all this argument, to amplify, supplement, or suppress, as you may think best, I propose this: that we try to get £1000 (or more if we can) to send to Mr. Spencer, to be used by him as he chooses, in aid of the work—to pay for assistance, printing or whatever else there may be to pay for. Of this amount, you may count on me for one half—five hundred pounds—any time at call, and without reference to what you may get or fail to get from any one else.”
This drew from me the following response in a letter dated 23 Sept. 1874:—
“Bryant’s proposal is a very noble one, and the more noble because he is not, I suppose, a man of very extensive means. I suspected that there was behind the question in your previous letter, some scheme of the kind; as I concluded that it was not likely to come from the Appletons.
While fully appreciating the feeling with which Mr. Bryant’s proposal is made, and that which has previously prompted others to offer to bear part of the expenses, I still cannot yield to such an arrangement as that proposed. There is, however, a plan which it occurs to me might possibly be practicable, and which would, I think, serve the several ends aimed at, in an unobjectionable way. Mr. Bryant and other Americans, while anxious to insure the continuance of the Descriptive Sociology, are also anxious that local institutions should have copies. Both ends would be subserved if they were to purchase from me, and were to distribute to these institutions; and this arrangement might be made in such a way as to divide the advantages. It would yield me an ample return were I to supply copies at half the retail price. Instead of absolutely giving copies to American libraries, schools, &c., my American friends might offer them to such buyers at, say, 1-3rd the retail price. In this case they would themselves have to lose on each copy only 1-6th of the retail price; and thus a moderate sum would go a long way. Even if they offered copies to these institutions at 1-4th the retail price, themselves paying the other 1-4th the distribution of, say, 300 copies, would go far towards covering the printing expenses, and would leave the English sales to do something towards returning cost of authorship [i.e. payments to compilers].”
Three weeks later, however, I wrote withdrawing this qualified assent, as follows:—
“After several times thinking over again the reply I made in my last to the generous proposal made by Mr. Bryant, I have decided to decline even that modified mode of aid which I described as one that might perhaps be adopted. On considering my accounts and probable resources, I conclude that the amount of loss entailed on me will not be greater than I can bear. Manifestly, the undertaking will become easier as it goes on; since, besides the proceeds of my books at large, which seem likely to go on increasing, I shall have the proceeds from the Descriptive Sociology itself, which, inadequate as they may be, will go some way towards defraying the cost of each succeeding number. As I have been able to meet the expenditure up to the present time (for I have now settled my printer’s account) I may fairly calculate upon being able to do so in future—especially as the parts are not likely to be issued so near together as the two in last half year. Concluding, thus, that I shall be able to do the work myself by devoting to it such part of my income as remains after defraying personal expenses, I prefer to do this. I have no motive for accumulating.”
Nothing further passed; and thus ended all plans for lightening the burden I had taken upon myself.
A foregoing extract, dated 27th Sept. 1873, intimates my intention of stopping as soon as I had printed and published the first part of the “Extinct Civilized Races” and the first part of the “Savage Races.” This intention, however, I abandoned for more reasons than one.
The understanding in pursuance of which the compilers were working, stood in the way of so prompt a cessation. To each of them I had given a double incentive beyond the direct payment for work done which he received. One was the publication of his name as compiler and abstracter, and consequent obtainment of credit for such skill and labour as were implied. The other was a promise that, as soon as the sales repaid me for printing expenses, I would give him half the net returns, without waiting to repay myself for the cost of compilation. This undertaking I felt bound to carry out in respect not only of those parts which were completed or far advanced, but also in respect of those which were commenced. Of the “Uncivilized Races,” compiled by Prof. Duncan, such parts as were not wholly or partially through the press were in manuscript. Dr. Scheppig had already made considerable progress with the “Hebrews and Phœnicians.” And Mr. Collier had been for some time at work on the “French.” To have stopped at the point above named would, of course, have been to break, if not wholly still in part, the engagement I had made; so that I was obliged to continue.
A further reason for continuing was that if I did not do so, a large amount of collected, classified, and digested information, extremely valuable to the sociological student, would be thrown away. That I was leaving in a useless state the products of years of labour, would have been a thought scarcely tolerable to me. I should have been restive under the consciousness of what would have seemed a serious loss to social science.
Thus I found myself committed to more than I at first foresaw. I accepted the situation; and, disastrous as was the undertaking pecuniarily considered, I persisted in it through the seven following years.