Front Page Titles (by Subject) APPENDIX B.: Letter to Mr. G. H. Lewes - An Autobiography, vol. 2
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APPENDIX B.: Letter to Mr. G. H. Lewes - 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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Letter to Mr. G. H. Lewes
[The following is the letter to Mr. G. H. Lewes, referred to at the close of chapter xxxvi, as having resulted from the publication of the “Reasons for dissenting from the Philosophy of M. Comte”.]
29 Bloomsbury Sq. W.C.
My dear Lewes,
Thanks for your criticisms, some of which are important as saving me from an over-statement that would have been mischievous. With respect to the others I will briefly reply to the most important; and after troubling you to read these replies and my comments on the propositions contained in your two notes, I will say no more on the matter.
I was wrong in the assertion that Comte repudiated the science of mind: I should have said the subjective analysis of mind. That he does this I take on your own evidence; since you quote John Mill against him on this point.
The proposition which I oppose to Comte’s proposition of the three successive states, theological, metaphysical, and positive, you say is “by no means a counter-proposition”. When Comte says that the three methods are “different and even radically opposed,” while I say that the method is one that continues essentially the same; and when he says that there are three possible terminal conceptions while I say there is but one possible terminal conception; it seems to me that the term counter-proposition is well warranted.
I have not read Littré. Harrison named the fact that he had replied to me, and I have as yet only skimmed the chapter in which he does this and sought elsewhere for my name to see whether he anywhere regards me as a partial adherent. As he does not do so I conceive that the note is justified. But I have put a note recognizing your criticism respecting ideas and emotions; and meeting it.
You say I have not recognized Comte’s “conception of sociology as a science” among his distinctive doctrines. I do not see that it is distinctive of him. The conception that there is a social science was surely, as Masson shows, entertained by Vico and Kant—vaguely if you like. That which is distinctive of Comte is his elaboration of the conception. Surely, too, you will not deny that there have been other conceptions of social science among the German thinkers, however wild and untenable. Unless you can show that before Comte no one believed that social phenomena conform to law, you cannot say that the conception of social science is distinctive of Comte.
You ask, too, why I do not put down, as among his distinctive doctrines, the idea of a philosophy constructed out of the sciences. I do not admit this to be distinctive any more than the other. I refer you to your own History of Philosophy (p. 348), in proof that Bacon had an idea of such a philosophy; and, as far as it goes, a very true one. I hold that his assertion that “unless natural philosophy be drawn out to particular sciences; and again, unless these particular sciences be brought back again to natural philosophy,” involves a more correct conception of the relations of the sciences to each other than Comte’s elaborated hierarchy of the sciences. Bacon’s conception is vague and true: Comte’s conception is definite and untrue. I really cannot see that the notion of an organization of the sciences into one whole can be claimed for Comte.
You protest against my representing Comte as excluding the recognition of cause from the positive philosophy. If he does not do so what becomes of his alleged distinction between the perfection of the metaphysical system and the perfection of the positive system.
In your first note you say “when Comte insists on the relativity of knowledge he thereby postulates an Absolute, as you do.” I do not see how you can say this if you mean that he consciously or avowedly does so. Have I not myself joined issue with Hamilton and Mansel on this very point; and endeavored to show that the existence of an Absolute is necessarily postulated though they have not recognized this necessity? And if Hamilton and Mansel assert the relativity of knowledge and do not recognize the implied consciousness of existence transcending knowledge, is it not legitimate to say that Comte does the same when there are his own words to show it?
One of the implications of your first note, and of our conversations, is that I ought to recognize myself “indebted to Comte as one independent thinker may be indebted to a predecessor.” I do not admit that I am reluctant to recognize indebtedness to predecessors: it is a question of the predecessor. If anyone says that had von Baer never written I should not be doing that which I now am, I have nothing to say to the contrary—I should reply it is highly probable. But because I am deeply indebted to one predecessor, I do not see that I am called upon to admit indebtedness to another when I am unconscious of it.
You say that you may have thought that my antagonistic attitude towards Comte has tended to suppress the growth of any consciousness of indebtedness to Comte. Possibly. But allow me to point out, on the other hand, that the attitude of Comte’s disciples, and your own attitude in particular as expositor, is one which inevitably tends to generate an exaggerated estimate of Comte’s influence, and inevitably tends to make you assume indebtedness on insufficient grounds.
You say that Comte’s ideas have reached hundreds who never saw his works. This is perfectly true. If you mean to imply that any such diffused influence affected me before I wrote Social Statics, I say it is out of the question; for my reading up to that time had been wholly confined to the special sciences, and to party-politics, joined with miscellaneous light reading and an occasional glance into the elder writers on philosophy. The only book, which, so far as I know, was a means of diffusing any of Comte’s ideas was Mill’s Logic; and this I did not read until at least two years after Social Statics was written—a fact of which you will I believe find evidence without going far. [Referring to George Eliot, who had presented me with a copy of Mill’s Logic.]
I fancy that you and other partial adherents of Comte mistake as an atmosphere of Comtean thought, what is nothing else than the atmosphere of scientific thought. Those whose education has been mainly literary, are unable to realize the mental attitude of those whose education has been mainly scientific—especially where the scientific education has been joined to scientific tendencies, and a life of practical science continually illustrating theoretic science, as in my own case. How little influence Comte’s teachings have had on scientific thinking in England, will be shown by the accompanying paragraph; which I suppressed from my appendix from the desire to avoid seeming needlessly hostile.
And now let me deal with your two most specific points, taking first the question of the Sociology. You say—“Was not Comte the one who attempted to construct a Sociology on the positive method—and is not that your aim also?” If you say that here is a resemblance, you say truly. If you say that here is priority on the part of Comte, you say truly. If you say that here is indebtedness on my part, I do not admit it. If you believe that I was acquainted with Comte’s ideas before Social Statics was written, you may suppose that I derived the notion of a social organism (which is the only point of community between us) from him: but if you do not suppose this, I do not see what grounds you have for the assumption that I am here in any way indebted to Comte. The conception of Social Science which I have now, differs in nothing except further development from the conception set forth in Social Statics. With the exception of quite minor ethical propositions, I hold to all that is in Social Statics; and in the various political essays which I have since written, have shown its further development by the addition of conceptions which I have proved, by the analysis I sent you, to be neither allied to those of Comte nor suggested by them. I contend that, starting with Social Statics, passing through these several steps to the wider generalization of social phenomena given in the essay on Progress, and from thence by other steps to the views which I now hold, there is a development on lines of organization that cannot be traced to him; but are manifestly traceable to the extension of von Baer’s principle, and to the rationalization of it which I have since attempted. [This statement, along with some preceding and succeeding ones, and along with a passage in the “Reasons for dissenting from the Philosophy of M. Comte,” make it clear that I had, in 1864, forgotten some of the ideas reached in 1850; for on pp. 451-53 of Social Statics, where individual organisms and social organisms are shown to be similar in the respect that progress from low types to high types is progress from uniformity of structure to multiformity of structure, there is, in so far, and in other words, a recognition of the law which von Baer formulated in respect of the development of each organism, as a progress from homogeneity to heterogeneity.]
The other important point is that raised in your question—“Was not Comte the man who first constructed a Philosophy out of the separate sciences—and is not that your aim also”? Here, it seems to me, is the chief source of difference between us. I venture to think that you are assimilating two wholly different things—endeavouring to establish a lineal descent between systems which are not only generically distinct or ordinally distinct, but which belong to distinct classes. What is Comte’s professed aim? To give a coherent account of the progress of human conceptions. What is my aim? To give a coherent account of the progress of the external world. Comte proposes to describe the necessary, and the actual, filiation of ideas. I propose to describe the necessary, and the actual, filiation of things. Comte professes to interpret the genesis of our knowledge of nature. My aim is to interpret, as far as it is possible, the genesis of the phenomena which constitute nature. The one end is subjective. The other is objective. How then can the one be the originator of the other? If I had taken the views briefly set down in The Genesis of Science, and developed them into an elaborate system showing the development and coordination of human knowledge in pursuance of a theory at variance with that of Comte; then you might rightly have said that the one was suggested by the other. Then you might rightly have asked—“Was not Comte the man who first constructed a Philosophy out of the separate sciences—and is not that your aim also?” A philosophy of the sciences has a purely abstract subject-matter. A philosophy of nature has a purely concrete subject-matter, and how the one can beget the other I do not see. A concrete may beget an abstract; but how an abstract begets a concrete is not manifest. Comte’s system is avowedly an Organon of the Sciences. The scheme at which I am working has been called by Martineau a Cosmogony. Surely in the generation of thought, an Organon should give origin to an Organon and a Cosmogony to a Cosmogony. If you look for my predecessors, and if you point to the Cosmogonies of Hegel and Oken as being conceptions which may have influenced me, I do not say nay: I knew the general natures of Hegel’s and Oken’s Cosmogonies, and widely different as their conceptions are from my own, they are conceptions of the same class, and may very possibly have had some suggestive influence.* But why, in seeking the parentage of the Cosmogony at which I am working, you should pass over antecedent Cosmogonies, and fix on an Organon of the Sciences for its parent, is more than I understand.
And now, having pointed out what I conceive to be the fundamental difference between the natures and aims of Comte’s scheme and my own (which your question assumes to be the same in nature and aim) let me take a further step. Looking at it from this new point of view, glance through the essay on Progress. Having done this, ask yourself, in the first place, whether you see any Comtean inspiration in that—whether you see in it anything more than the extension of von Baer’s principle and the endeavour to interpret that principle deductively? You must I think answer—No. In the second place, ask yourself whether there are not in that essay the rudiments of the scheme which is developed in First Principles. You cannot but answer—Yes. And then, in the third place, ask, is it so foreign to my nature to go on further developing ideas, that you cannot believe that the last of these has grown out of the first? In the essay on Progress there is a rudimentary Cosmogony. In First Principles there is a more elaborated Cosmogony. Is it unnatural that the one should in the course of some years have evolved the other?
Even while I write I am reminded of evidence on this point, which, however inconclusive it may be to others, is perfectly conclusive to myself; and makes me more than ever certain of the truth of my denial. You may remember that at the end of 1858 or beginning of 1859, I made an effort to obtain some appointment, which should give me sufficient means and leisure to do that which I am now doing. I have a distinct recollection of then explaining to Mr. Grote, who took some interest in the matter, that my purpose was to elaborate the ideas contained in the essay on Progress, which had then taken a larger development. And if Mr. J. S. Mill keeps his letters, I am greatly mistaken if it cannot be shown by the correspondence I then had with him, that I gave him the same explanation of my aims.*
Whether you do or do not continue to think as you did on this matter, you will at any rate see that the amount and kind of evidence which (to myself) warrants my continual denial, is abundant and definite. And unless there is virtue in saying that you are indebted when you are not conscious of being indebted, I think I am not only warranted in making the denial but bound to make it.
In brief, then, my position is this:—Until it is shown that the views of social science I now hold, differ from those contained in Social Statics, by something more than difference of development—until it is shown that a Cosmogony is not to be rightly affiliated on preceding Cosmogonies but is to be rightly affiliated on an Organon of the Sciences—until it is shown that the essay on Progress does not contain the rudiments out of which First Principles has naturally developed—until it is shown that I have adopted some general view of Comte’s, or been led by his teaching to abandon some view I previously held; I shall continue to assert that I am uninfluenced by Comte, save in those minor views of his which I avowedly accept, and by the influence of antagonism. And until some such specific evidence is assigned, I shall continue to think the opposite assertion unwarranted.
[* ]Sixteen years after this letter was written, the analogy between the Synthetic Philosophy and the system of Hegel, in so far as the subject matter is concerned, was alleged by Mons. Carrau. In an article published in the Revue des Deux Mondes on 1st April, 1880, he said:—“C’est l’Encyclopédie de Hegel refaite au point de vue de la méthode expérimentale.”
[* ][Fortunately he had kept my letter. He returned it to me and I have quoted it in Chapter XXX.]