Front Page Titles (by Subject) 94.: HERSCHEL'S PRELIMINARY DISCOURSE EXAMINER, 20 MAR., 1831, PP. 179-80 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I
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94.: HERSCHEL’S PRELIMINARY DISCOURSE EXAMINER, 20 MAR., 1831, PP. 179-80 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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HERSCHEL’S PRELIMINARY DISCOURSE
John Frederick William Herschel, 1st Baronet (1792-1871), astronomer, son of the astronomer Sir William Herschel and President of the Astronomical Society 1827-32, was a brilliant theorist as well as observer and discoverer of stars. This review appears in the “Literary Examiner,” headed: “Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia, Vol. XIV. A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy. By John Frederick William Herschel, Esq. A.M., late Fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge, &c. &c. &c.” The work had been published in London by Longman, et al., in late 1830. Described in Mill’s bibliography as “Review of Herschel’s Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, in the Examiner of 20th March 1831” (MacMinn, p. 15), the item is similarly listed (“Review of Herschel’s Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy”), and enclosed in square brackets, in the Somerville College set.
this work has afforded us great pleasure, and greater hope. It evinces a reach of thought, for which the physical researches of the present day are quite inapt to supply adequate occupation. A greater destiny is reserved for Mr. Herschel. It is his to aspire, and not in vain, to the character of the philosopher—to whom the mere man of science is but a pioneer.
If the utility of the very modern physical inquiries were to be estimated solely by the intrinsic value of their results, by the direct use which has been made, or from their nature ever can be made, of the truths which those inquiries have elicited, we know not that the labours of a savant would be deserving of much higher commendation than those of a bricklayer; and we much doubt whether, if there had not been made a single scientific discovery in the last hundred years, mankind, taken in the mass, would have at this moment enjoyed one jot less of happiness than they actually do. Mere physical comforts and enjoyments, not the most valuable part of happiness, are the best which such knowledge could bestow, while it is too apparent in how niggardly a measure it has dealt out even those, to an immense numerical majority in the most civilized nations; and even the fortunate individuals on whom it has most lavished its gifts, have most frequently found in them not enjoyment, but only means of enjoyment, from which they have never known how to extract real happiness—nor ever will, until their minds are as highly cultivated as their bodies are: until moral and social science have attained the same perfection as physical science: until the theory and practice of education are lifted out of their present depressed and degraded posture: until human beings have learned how to cultivate and nurture their own susceptibilities of happiness, and have made such arrangements of outward circumstances, as shall provide that the means which each adopts of seeking his own well-being, shall no longer damage that of the remainder of his species.
To this blessed consummation, physical science is capable of contributing invaluable assistance; not, however, by the truths which it discloses, but by the process by which it attains to them. It is an example, and the only example, of a vast body of connected truth, gradually elicited by patient and earnest investigation, and finally recognized and submitted to by a convinced and subdued world. If the broad and fundamental differences which exist among the minds which have sought with greatest diligence for truths of a higher order, may be traced, as they clearly may, to differences in their methods, or modes of philosophising; if the uncertainty which hangs over the very elements of moral and social philosophy, proves that the means of arriving at the truth in those sciences are not yet properly understood—that the minds of the majority of inquirers are not yet so formed as to be capable of the successful pursuit of those truths which are essential to the proper use and application of all other knowledge; whither can mankind so advantageously turn, in order to learn the proper means, and to form their minds to the proper habits, as to that branch of knowledge in which, by universal acknowledgment, the greatest number of truths have been ascertained, and the greatest possible degree of certainty has been arrived at?
But physical science has not yet been converted to this its noblest use. Men of science are usually as little conscious of the methods by which they have made their greatest discoveries, as the clown is of the structure of his eye, or the process by which he has learnt to see. With the exception of the analysis of the syllogism, which was performed long ago by the ancients, scarcely any thing has yet been contributed towards an accurate dissection of the mode in which the human understanding arrives at the discovery and the verification of truth. Bacon afforded merely a few hints, which it has scarcely even yet been attempted to improve and follow up: for such scattered suggestions as can be gleaned from books of later date, mankind are indebted to metaphysical writers, not to physical; to Locke and Brown,1 rather than to Newton or Davy.2 Men of science have even, in our own country at least, rather more than their share of the vulgar prejudice against such researches. An inquiry into the nature of the instrument with which they all work, the human mind, and into the mode of bringing that instrument to the greatest perfection, and using it to the greatest advantage, has usually been treated by them as something frivolous and idle: as if the rules of philosophising did not stand fully as much in need of a philosophical foundation, as any of the particular truths which have been, or may be, attained by the observance of them.
From this prejudice, which essentially belongs to minds of the most limited range (though, perhaps, of microscopic vision within that range) Mr. Herschel is wholly exempt; and his work contains (we speak advisedly) a clearer and less incomplete view of the nature of philosophical truth, of the evidence on which it rests, and the means of discovering and testing it, than is to be found in any work which has yet been produced. To point out in what particulars it appears to us to fall short of what is still to be looked for and hoped for, would be inappropriate to the nature of a notice like the present: but there is nothing which may not be hoped for from the author of such a work, if he perseveres in the course of thinking into which he has here entered; and his vast and profound knowledge in every department of physics has enabled him, in this volume, to supply any one who may take up the inquiry where he has left it, with a rich fund of the most apt examples, capable alike of illustrating, and of suggesting, the most profound and important views on the operation of the intellect in philosophising.
The first chapter, being the most vague, is, as usually happens in such cases, the least valuable. There are some points in the higher metaphysics on which we should differ from the author: but these are precisely such as have least to do with the general course of his speculations. The spirit of the work is admirable. We never met with a book so calculated to inspire a high conception of the superiority of science over empiricism under the name of common sense—of the advantage of systematic investigation, and high general cultivation of the intellect. And we quote with delight the following noble passage; showing that one who, by the consent of all our scientific men, is placed first, or among the first, in the knowledge of all which physical science can teach, yet feels that there are truths far more important to human happiness than all these which it is the highest boast of physical science that it may assist in training the mind to be capable of investigating and applying. The first part of the treatise, which is devoted to setting forth the “General Nature and Advantages of the Study of the Physical Sciences,” is wound up as follows:
Finally, the improvement effected in the condition of mankind, by advances in physical science as applied to the useful purposes of life, is very far from being limited to their direct consequences in the more abundant supply of our physical wants, and the increase of our comforts. Great as these benefits are, they are yet but steps to others of a still higher kind. The successful results of our experiments and reasonings in natural philosophy, and the incalculable advantages which experience, systematically consulted and dispassionately reasoned on, has conferred in matters purely physical, tend of necessity to impress something of the well weighed and progressive character of science on the more complicated conduct of our social and moral relations. It is thus that legislation and politics become gradually regarded as experimental sciences; and history, not as formerly, the mere record of tyrannies and slaughters, which, by immortalizing the execrable actions of one age, perpetuates the ambition of committing them in every succeeding one, but as the archive of experiments, successful and unsuccessful, gradually accumulating towards the solution of the grand problem—how the advantages of government are to be secured with the least possible inconvenience to the governed. The celebrated apophthegm, that nations never profit by experience, becomes yearly more and more untrue. Political economy, at least, is found to have sound principles, founded in the moral and physical nature of man, which, however lost sight of in particular measures—however even temporarily controverted and borne down by clamour, have yet a stronger and stronger testimony borne to them in each succeeding generation, by which they must sooner or later prevail. The idea once conceived and verified, that great and noble ends are to be achieved, by which the condition of the whole human species shall be permanently bettered, by bringing into exercise a sufficient quantity of sober thought, and by a proper adaptation of means, is of itself sufficient to set us earnestly on reflecting what ends are truly great and noble, either in themselves, or as conducive to others of a still loftier character; because we are not now, as heretofore, hopeless of attaining them. It is not now equally harmless and insignificant whether we are right or wrong, since we are no longer supinely and helplessly carried down the stream of events, but feel ourselves capable of buffetting at least with its waves, and perhaps of riding triumphantly over them; for why should we despair that the reason which has enabled us to subdue all nature to our purposes, should (if permitted and assisted by the providence of God,) achieve a far more difficult conquest; and ultimately find some means of enabling the collective wisdom of mankind to bear down those obstacles which individual short-sightedness, selfishness, and passion, oppose to all improvements, and by which the highest hopes are continually blighted, and the fairest prospects marred.
[1 ]Thomas Brown (1778-1820), disciple of Dugald Stewart and a leading exponent of the Scottish school, was Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh from 1810.
[2 ]Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) became Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institute in 1802; in 1812 he was knighted, largely for his work in isolating certain elements (potassium, sodium, chlorine) by the agency of the galvanic battery; he is best known for the development of the safety-lamp in 1815.