The Working Hypothesis in Social Reform
THERE are some consequences that follow from the attempt to establish the theory of social reform among the inductive sciences that need emphasis. That to which I wish to refer is the implication of the hypothesis.
Socialism, in one form or another, lies back of the thought directing and inspiring reform. While socialistic utopias have been recognized as impotent to lead to better conditions, and opportunists have succeeded to the programists, the assumption that it will be possible to effect by constructive legislation radical changes that will lead to greater social equality is still very widely present. The success of municipal ownership, in means of transportation and various common necessities within cities, has aroused the expectation that this success can be achieved in other industries as fast as they are so organized as to become so-called natural monopolies. I think that a great deal of this confidence is inspired by the socialistic schemes of an essentially a priori character, rather than by a study of the conditions which these municipal concerns represent. We fail often to notice that government as an institution has essentially changed its character in so far as it has assumed these new functions. The government has become a business concern, which enters into the business world on a basis that is determined by the latter. It has assumed a certain amount of invested capital, where business risk has ceased, in the interests of its members, and has undertaken to carry on an enterprise that has already been worked out as regards its methods and technique. In a word, the municipality has become a business body operating for the benefit of those that make it up, and is therefore not different in principle from any stock company. The number of enterprises that such a body could undertake as a commercial body are, so far, necessarily small, and we have no reason to assume that in the end anything but business conditions will determine what the municipality may successfully manage. There is no reason why
(368) the German government, as a social individual, should not buy up and manage such a business as the railroad; only so far as the business itself is concerned it must conduct it upon the principles which control the industrial world as a whole. It may introduce such reforms into it as are demanded by the public sentiment that finds expression in legislation, sooner than they will be introduced into other concerns. But it becomes at once in tendency as conservative as other great concerns, and must adapt itself to the demands of the business world of which it is a part. The government has then separate functions. On the one side, it formulates and brings to a focus public sentiment in so-called legislation, and conducts a police activity, national and international, over against classes of society and human impulses which are as yet not so socially organized as are the bulk of its members with their dominant impulses. On the other side, being an institution which is as definitely independent as other corporations within the community, it may undertake a very limited number of industrial and commercial concerns, which business evolution has carried to such a point of perfection that they lie safely within its domain.
While we recognize this possibility, we must, on the other side, recognize with equal distinctness that the functions of government, as an institution, are merging with equal rapidity into the industrial world which it is supposed to control. The whole work of legislation is not only dependent upon public sentiment, at least in democratic countries, but it is finding constantly fuller expression in other channels of publicity. The newspaper, in its various forms of journal and magazine, is effecting changes that are assumed to be those which follow governmental action. If only it becomes possible to focus public sentiment upon an issue in the delicate organism of the modern civilized community, it is as effective as if the mandate came from legislative halls, and frequently more so. This is true, not simply in the public reaction upon the justice of movements like those of great strikes and lockouts, but even in the interpretation of the methods of industrial and commercial activity. What the court does in reinterpreting laws is being done in increasing extent by simply closer
(369) organization of the business world — an organization that depends most immediately upon growing publicity. The study of the criminal and defective classes, as an expression of the conditions of the social body in which they are found, and their treatment from this new standpoint, as well as the movement toward arbitration for the solution of international differences, all point to the passing of functions which are supposed to inhere in the government into activities that belong to the community simply through its organization apart from government as a separate institution. On the other hand, certainly one of the most important so-called governmental functions, that is characteristic of the time, is the committee work, which is but a part of the general process of gaining publicity as regards what is going on in the country and the world. This is often done, not by a legislative commission, but by the university as well as the newspaper. In attempting to forecast what is to be the result of the movement of municipal ownership, we have to consider, therefore, not only the development of the municipal corporation and the industry that it conducts, but also that of a government that is changing fully as rapidly as the industrial and commercial world.
I have adduced this as an illustration of the attitude which social reformers must assume toward their problems. It is impossible to so forecast any future condition that depends upon the evolution of society as to be able to govern our conduct by such a forecast. It is always the unexpected that happens, for we have to recognize, not only the immediate change that is to take place, but also the reaction back upon this of the whole world within which the change takes place, and no human foresight is equal to this. In the social world we must recognize the working hypothesis as the form into which all theories must be cast as completely as in the natural sciences. The highest criterion that we can present is that the hypothesis shall work in the complex of forces into which we introduce it. We can never set up a detailed statement of the conditions that are to be ultimately attained. What we have is a method and a control in application, not an ideal to work toward. As has been stated, this is the attitude of the scientist in the laboratory, whether his work remains purely scientific or is applied immediately to
(370) conduct. His foresight does not go beyond the testing of his hypothesis. Given its success, he may restate his world from this standpoint and get the basis for further investigation that again always takes the form of a problem. The solution of this problem is found over again in the possibility of fitting his hypothetical proposition into the whole within which it arises. And he must recognize that this statement is only a working hypothesis at the best, i.e., he knows that further investigation will show that the former statement of his world is only provisionally true, and must be false from the standpoint of a larger knowledge, as every partial truth is necessarily false over against the fuller knowledge which he will gain later. Even the axioms of Euclid are not true now in the sense of Euclid. In a word, our confidence in the results of science and the general application of intelligence to the control of the physical world is based, not upon a knowledge of the whole universe as it is, but upon a faith in its general rational character, that is perhaps best stated in the success of working hypotheses.
In social reform, or the application of intelligence to the control of social conditions, we must make a like assumption, and this assumption takes the form of belief in the essentially social character of human impulse and endeavor. We cannot make persons social by legislative enactment, but we can allow the essentially social nature of their actions to come to expression under conditions which favor this. What the form of this social organization will be depends upon conditions that lie necessarily beyond our ken. We assume that human society is governed by laws that involve its solidarity, and we seek to find these out that they may be used. In the same way the natural scientist assumes that the world is as a whole governed by laws that involve the interaction of all its forces, and that he may find these laws out; and use them for the further organization of his world, so far as he is a part of it.
There is here, however, a distinction that is of considerable importance. In the physical world we regard ourselves as standing in some degree outside the forces at work, and thus
(371) avoid the difficulty of harmonizing the feeling of human initiative with the recognition of series which are necessarily determined. In society we are the forces that are being investigated, and if we advance beyond the mere description of the phenomena of the social world to the attempt at reform, we seem to involve the possibility of changing what at the same time we assume to be necessarily fixed. The question, stated more generally is: What is the function of reflective consciousness in its attempts to direct conduct? The common answer is that we carry in thought the world as it should be, and fashion our conduct to bring this about. As we have already seen, if this implies a "vision given in the mount" which represents in detail what is to be, we are utterly incapable of conceiving it. And every attempt to direct conduct by a fixed idea of the world of the future must be, not only a failure, but also pernicious. A conception of a different world comes to us always as the result of some specific problem which involves readjustment of the world as it is, not to meet a detailed ideal of a perfect universe, but to obviate the present difficulty; and the test of the effort lies in the possibility of this readjustment fitting into the world as it is. Reflective consciousness does not then carry us on to the world that is to be, but puts our own thought and endeavor into the very process of evolution, and, evolution within consciousness that has become reflective has the advantage over other evolution in that the form does not tend to perpetuate himself as he is, but identifies himself with the process of development. Our reflective consciousness as applied to conduct is, therefore, an identification of our effort with the problem that presents itself, and the developmental process by which it is overcome, and reaches its highest expression in the scientific statement of the problem, and the recognition and use of scientific method and control.
GEORGE H. MEAD.
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO.