The Vindication of Sociology

The University of Chicago

Professor Henry Jones Ford of Princeton has lately done sociologists the notable service of advertising to the world how ingeniously sociology may be misunderstood.[1] This is by no means the first instance of strange sayings coming out of Princeton on this subject, but, in connection with recent occurrences at that venerable seat of learning, one of the effects of this elaborate darkening of counsel is reinforced suspicion that sociological obscuration is not only an affliction at Princeton but a policy.

Professor Ford does this Journal the honor of quoting, not without a certain fraction of approbation, the editorial in the first number of the volume just closed.[2] He had read the article, therefore, or at least parts of it. His allusions show that he recognized in it a thesis which deserved a certain degree of respect. He chooses, however, to ignore the methodological argument, and instead of meeting sociology frankly on that plane, he throws around the situation a dust of incoherence, and irrelevance and triviality. The article is consequently a curious specimen of pseudo-scientific muck-raking. Its distortion and dislocation of near-facts into counts against sociology culminate in a permanent contribution to the humor of anti-sociological

( 2) prejudice. The climax of sociology's misdoings is found in Professor Simon N. Patten's address at Atlantic City last December, when he was speaking as president of The American Economic Association!

Assuming, as a preface to the present argument, the editorial above referred to, we take Professor Ford's article as occasion for discussing the question, What sort of vindication is coming to sociology?

Instead of attempting to answer the question by direct reply to the various types of misconstruction packed into Professor Ford's paper, we prefer to restate the meaning of the sociological movement. The vindication of sociology will appear, not in discovery of specific facts, nor in adoption of particular plans, still less in the attainment of a pedestal upon which sociology may pose in solitary state. It will come in eventual adjustment by the social sciences, and by social practice, to the conception of social relations which sociology represents.

Whether or not he meant just what we must put into the words today, Comte was close to a crucial truth, more intelligible now than at his time, when he said, two-thirds of a century ago:

It cannot be necessary to prove to anybody who reads this work that ideas govern the world, or throw it into chaos; in other words, that all social mechanism rests upon opinions. The great political and moral crises that societies are now undergoing is shown, by a rigid analysis, to arise out of intellectual anarchy. While stability in fundamental maxims is the first condition of genuine social order, we are suffering from an utter disagreement which may be called universal. Till a certain number of general ideas can be acknowledged as a rallying-point of social doctrine, the nations will remain in a revolutionary state, whatever palliatives may be devised; and their institutions can only be provisional. But whenever the necessary agreement on first principles can be obtained, appropriate institutions will issue from them, without shock or resistance; for the causes of disorder will have been arrested by the mere fact of the agreement. It is in this direction that those must look who desire a natural and regular, a normal state of society.[3]

The substratum of meaning, which Comte was not late enough to put in full force into his quasi-prophetic language, is

( 3) that we have been passing from a static into a dynamic world; from a world of assorted things to a world of developing processes. Referring particularly to the English-speaking countries, our social sciences and the popular opinions which partly echo and are partly echoed by these sciences are in the last analysis still dominated by the statical conception. They are accordingly provincial, esoteric, and lifeless.

It requires no wide observation or reading to collect abundant material for smart gibes at sociologists. It demands more reflection than the gibers are prepared to perform to discover that these sane pert witticisms do more, to impeach the scientific seriousness of the jesters than to discredit the real workers. Inquirers who are both candid and competent begin by distinguishing the latter from the rabble of parasites upon responsible sociology. Even without technical acquaintance with sociology, scholars ought to be able, on fairly familiar general principles, to distinguish the serious investigator from the desultory talker.

There are more pharmaceutical, as there are more sociological, proprietary medicine exploiters than there are biological and sociological explorers. No academic man would go into print with an array of the sins of medical quacks, nor even of the disputes between investigators in the course of threshing out their results, as proof that there is no science in biology. To the men who understand what the sociologists are about, one simply exhibits quite as naïve limitations who draws from the equally irrelevant social quacks and equally incidental disagreements of sociological scholars, the conclusion that there is nothing scientific in sociology. To confuse either biological or sociological investigators with the sorts of adventurers who counterfeit them is catchy in the clown or the yellow-journal paragrapher, but it is pitiable in a professed spokesman for science.

In this time of uncompleted transition from categorical to evolutionary thinking, a few men who, in talent, in training, and in learning, are at least the peers of the satisfied traditionalists in the conventional sciences, have felt, more than they could at once formulate, the needs of modifications in our methodology of investigating and interpreting human experience. These men

( 4) are not amateurs, they are not Philistines, they are not rank outsiders. Man for man they know the inside of one or more of the social sciences from which they have come up out of great tribulation, quite as familiarly as the smug sectarians who resent departure from the standing order. Indeed, the vindication of sociology may, I am quite ready to admit, never come to sociology by name at all. Sociology may come to its own eventually in future forms of the social sciences developed out of the present crude technologies by men who will have the essential spirit of the present sociological movement, without adopting its name. At all events, both within the conventional social sciences, and in a growing number of cases in positions of their own co-ordinate in rank with that of the older disciplines, men are at work adapting the programme of social investigation to the primary perceptions which are reducing anarchy to order in the sciences.

In other words, partly within and partly without the traditional social sciences, there is a methodological agitation, which we have called "the sociological movement," which consciously or unconsciously starts from the premise that the outlook and the procedure of our academic sciences have been made partially obsolete by types and results of scientific analysis and synthesis which we accept in the abstract, which we have not co-ordinated, and the meaning of which for earlier scientific presumptions we have not recognized.

To express briefly the present scientific conception of the problems of knowledge, we have come to a point at which it is not unsafe to predict that the tendency, for an indefinite period, is likely to be toward clearer defining of the knowable in terms of increasingly complex processes of physical causation, and then of these processes involved with progressively complex processes of psychical causation. In so far as it is necessary or useful to divide these connected processes, we may say in the rough that, in the order of complexity, our knowledge problems are, first those of physics (of course in a broader than the technical sense), second, those of psychology (also in a wider than the technical sense).

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From this point of view, if we stick to our analysis of actual processes, instead of allowing ourselves to be backslidden into substitution of dialectics for analysis, it is merely a question of time when we shall become aware that, above the uncertain line beyond which physical causation may be treated as furnishing the relatively constant conditions, while psychical causation introduces the decisive variants, the whole knowledge problem may be reduced to the desideratum of knowing man acting. If the psychologist, rather than the sociologist, were making this reduction to lowest terms, perhaps lie would prefer to substitute something like this: Our problem in understanding human experience is to learn the conditions, the means, the processes, the products, the purposes, and the values of sentient activities. However we phrase it, scientific reaching-out after understanding of life as it is conceives it as from first to last a correlation of functionings, the meanings of which have to be found first in the elemental processes themselves, and then in as much as can be discovered of the whole continuity of processes which they compose.

With the view of the human reality as an incessant becoming of persons, and of relations between persons, through functional reactions within and between themselves, and with the physical conditions, the methodological question is sooner or later inevitable: Have the categories and the techniques, worked out mostly in accordance with earlier and very different fundamental conceptions, said the last word about ways and means of investigating and interpreting experience as we now conceive it?

So far as the sociological movement has declared and systematized itself, it is, first, merely the negative answer to this question. It does not thereby declare its independence of other divisions of social investigation, but it announces its refusal to be limited by their untenable prejudices. The sociological movement is, second, constructively, an effort to show how our knowledge processes need to be reinforced, in order to go as far as our means permit toward understanding human experience. It is not, as the traditionalists labor to make it appear, an amateurish disregard of tools of precision which scientists have perfected. It

( 6) is the declaration by specialists that the contrivances relied upon by the traditional sciences as tools of precision are bungling substitutes for adequate means of the sort of research now in order. It is, furthermore, refusal to join any longer in making up a majority for votes of confidence in an archaic conception of science.

The men who are, in name or in spirit, in the sociological movement, have found out that the results with which the conventionalists are satisfied are relatively meaningless partial products within the whole problem of experience. They are saying, more or less directly, to their self-satisfied colleagues, "You may fool yourselves to the end of the chapter, if you will; you may fool academic authorities and the helpless public for a long time; but you cannot fool all the people all the time; and we prefer to put in our work creating a demand for a science that is more real, more precise, more conclusive than yours."

In short, the knowledge problem is: What, how, why, and of what account are the processes of sentient action which fall within the human range of research? The methodological problem then is: What means of discovery are at human disposal for solving the knowledge problem?

The sociological answer to the latter question is substantially that the categories and the technique of the older social sciences serve merely the preliminary purpose of assembling some of the raw material of the problem; while the ultimate treatment within our powers at present is sociological criticism on its situation side, supported by psychological criticism on its process side, with psychological and sociological treatment combined in the subsequent valuation-synthesis.

All this is as mystical to the man who has simply the horizon of the concrete social sciences as the differential calculus is to the man who knows only his arithmetic. Just as the mathematician knows that one reality vouches for the arithmetic and the calculus, so psychologists and sociologists know that one reality manifests itself in the lesser and the greater social processes.

From this general statement we may proceed to a few more particular propositions.

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First, Sociology is already vindicated in part by the very conclusion with which such writers as Professor Ford try to rule it out of court; viz., that it is consciously and avowedly a science in the making.

In our day nothing more vital than Mandarins' traditions is ossified and encysted and sterilized. It is becoming. It is realizing itself, both in rearrangements within and in readjustments without. Some divisions of knowledge are not doing this. On the contrary they are vaunting their fixedness. The sociologists are men who refuse to be entombed in these sepulchers. They assert that knowledge of life is as vital as life itself, and they declare their independence of all the pseudo-scientific committees of mummification who propose to make scientific standing depend on acceptance of burial space.

Primarily for this reason, no sociologist may speak very specifically for his colleagues. "There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit." Because they are interrogating life, not forcing life into the molds of foregone conclusions, they frequently seem wholly detached from one another. It is, however, only the detachment of deployed skirmishers. They know their rallying-point, and their work makes for the success of a common campaign.

Second, Sociology is still further vindicated in part by the very accusations that are brought against it.

Professor Ford's article is a symptom of the amateurish stage of almost-science which, for brevity, we may caricature. Its major premise is that knowledge is preserved in an assortment of hermetically sealed cans. The right and the skill to open these cans is the monopoly and the mystery of corresponding groups of specialists. Each group has also the peculiar skill and right to manipulate the contents of its respective can.

Every man who takes this view of science points to his precious can of preserves, and denies to the sociologist the rank of scientist till he can produce a can of a different sort of preserves from any previously listed in the collection.

Third, In order to get a hearing at all, sociology has been

(8) obliged to stake a certain "ad hominem" argument for itself in terms of the cans-of-preserves conception of science.

Although the chief reason, on the methodological side, for the existence of sociology, is this absurdity to which schematic classification of the sciences has led, the absurdity had preempted the minds of academic authorities, and there was nothing for the sociologists to do, if they were to get standing ground within academic territory, but to present themselves with cans of stuff in their hands that seemed to fill out the list of preserves necessary to complete the scientific assortment. There is nothing very heroic about this procedure, we must admit. It might have been better all around to stand outside the academic walls and to bombard the pedantries within till they capitulated. For well or ill, as the price of a place among the traditional sciences, the people who call themselves sociologists have assumed the burden of proving that they have a can of science-stuff of their own, and are thus as much entitled to a place among the academic can-openers as the predecessors who are exploiting more familiar brands of preserves. The most extreme illustrations are Professors Simmel and Tönnies in Germany. They are among the most acute thinkers in the world today, and it is safe to predict that their work will be held in high honor when the present sociological movement has passed to its final account in the history of science. They are, however, paying a heavy duty of apparent provincialization of their activities, in order to be tolerated among the academically protected interests.[4]

We are perhaps getting what we deserve in kind, though more than our share in degree, when we are taunted with having only an empty can, or one filled from the cast-offs of other cans. Out calling is first and foremost to show up the absurdity of the can-of-preserves obsession in science; and we are making our election sure just in the degree in which we differentiate ourselves from the can-openers, and promote the perception that real science has the task of reorganizing itself for an entirely different procedure.


Meanwhile, when we have to argue with the order of intelligence which cannot rise above the can-of-preserves conception, we need not go to Europe for material for the ad hominem argument. People who cannot understand the reconstructive pointings from the sociological outlook, but must have a can of stuff before their eyes, will hardly find, in their whole trade-list, samples of material more worth collecting, or better entitled to a separate label, than the contents of Professor Ross's Social Control, or Professor Cooley's two books, Human Nature and the Social Order, and Social Organization. Without appealing to more general treatises, we might rest the case for sociology, against the charge that it has no subject-matter, on the types of relations which these books bring to light.

Fourth, The most impressive body of social science in the world is sociology in everything but name. Professor Ford says :

In America, although not to any extent in Europe, sociology, considered as a scheme of methodology, has made some impression on scholars in the established sciences.

One might exhaust the thesaurus of sophistries without finding a more perfect specimen of correct statement of fact which utterly misrepresents truth. The reason why sociology as methodology has made no distinct impression in Germany is that the methodology that has grown up within the social sciences in Germany is so nearly the methodology which the sociologists in America are formulating that the function of the sociological methodologist is virtually performed under another title. The spirit of life has not been dissected out of the social sciences in Germany in anything like the degree to which it has been killed off in England and America. Resurrection through external methodological treatment is consequently not so obviously called for in the one case. It appears to be the only hope in the other.

When Mr. Hobson, author of The Evolution of Modern Capitalism, was on his latest lecture tour in this country, he made some of his economic colleagues gasp by the frank confession, "The reason why political economy has so little prestige in England today is that it succeeded in throttling sociology half a century ago."

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There are economists in American universities who do everything in their power to prevent their graduate students from taking any of the sociological courses.

A review copy of an American book on the methodology of sociology was sent to the American Historical Review. The editor returned it to the publishers with the comment, "No doubt the book will be useful to the sociologists, but it contains nothing of interest to historians." The book was nevertheless treated respectfully by European journals of all the social sciences. Its main argument was almost as directly a thesis in the methodology of history as of sociology. It is either valid or invalid. The American editor's statement was either defamation of the character of historians in this country, or, in denying their interest in open questions of methodology it was an official confession of the provincialism against which the sociological movement is a protest.

In contrast with these crudities, we may point to the fact that Wundt, to whom all the psychologists in the world listen with respect, if not always with assent, in his Methodenlehre gave sociology essentially the relation to other divisions of science which the sociologists have claimed. The only escape from the sane conclusion is to plead the baby act, and to stop short with one's own can of preserves instead of following out the correlations of activities.

In the more concrete divisions of science, while Schäffle undoubtedly sacrificed some of his prestige as an economist by writing a sociology which the Germans have never understood, Schmoller, who is outranked by none of the economists, seems to have fitted naturally into the position of president of the Institut Internationale de Sociologie. A reason for this may be found in the preface to the first of the two volumes published last year by eminent economists in celebration of Professor Schmoller's seventieth birthday. The preface has the signatures, "Geibel, Lexis, von Philippovich, Schumacher, Sering, Wagner." It contains this passage:

No one who goes through the following monographs can escape the impression that the development of German economic theory in the nine-

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-teenth century has been extraordinarily rich. Especially since the middle of the century, there is evident appearance of new ideas, and new points of view which investigation takes as points of departure, and there is increase of the objects of investigation to which research turns its attention. In all this, two facts are decisive, first, the revision to which views of the relations of the individual to the state were subjected, and second, the deeper analysis of the individual himself. This latter led to the result that we learned to understand individual volition and action as product of social conditions; we learned that all the forces which form the life of mankind must be investigated in their influence upon human industry, that this industry is not to be regarded as the outcome of absolute natural necessities alone, but also of casual cultural conditions, that is, of factors historical in origin, and which are morally influenced and directed. Therewith were new tasks imposed upon theory and policy. It was necessary to investigate the relationships of industry to other social life-manifestations, and to understand industry itself as an inseparable member of the one life of society.[5] Necessarily involved in all this was enhanced sense of the significance of all the historically evolved institutions and organizations into which individuals are voluntarily or by compulsion articulated, the family, the corporations, the parish, the state, etc. This extension of the range of research produced new tendencies and methods in science, and therewith at the same time an antithesis of views about boundaries and purposes, which is nothing else than an expression of the variety of the tasks which economic theory must undertake.

Whether, in view of this fact, one may speak of a unified economic theory, is a question which cannot here he answered. Whatever he the answer, the results of this development must be taken over, and it must be recognized that the merit belongs to the German national economists of having, in all this, begun to investigate industry in all its relationships, and to interpret national industry as a historical social organism, and hence in the flux of social becoming and changing. In this historical life process of popular industry, man appears not merely as the determined but also as a determining factor, which through law and morality takes a hand in the order and progress of historical occurrences, This perception is the root from which the most important and decisive remodellings of our science have grown. It has not abolished the valve of that scientific tendency which limits itself to investigation of purely economic regularities, but it has brought us into the presence of new tasks. It has led to deeper psychological consideration of the individual and of his motivations; it has given an impulse to a different conception of the nature of civic society, to a higher valuation of the social organizations of mankind in general; it has brought to pass that. in many ways, economic theory has expanded itself into social science.

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While these propositions by no means show that there is no function left for sociologists, even in Germany, they present, to anyone who is acquainted with English and American economic thinking first, a contrast which of itself would be sufficient to vindicate the sociological volunteers in this country, and second, they illustrate very clearly why the demand for a distinct sociological methodology has been less acute in Germany than in the English-speaking countries. There has never been as wooden fencing off of the different divisions of sociological labor from one another in Germany as is orthodox today in England and America.

Turning to the historians, the parochialism of Anglo-Saxon scholars might be shown by contrast, if space permitted analysis of the attitude toward the subject shown by the best-known French historical methodologist, Seignobos, in his monograph, La méthode historique appliquée aux sciences sociales. The same contrast appears in the leading German writer on historical methodology. In his latest edition Bernheim defines history as follows :

Historical science is the science which investigates and exhibits the temporally and spatially delimited facts of the development of mankind in their (singular as well as typical and collective) activities as social beings, in the correlation of psychophysical causality.[6]

If English and American historians were far enough advanced to adopt such a declaration—with heart as well as with lips, and with decent insight into all that it involves—we could hardly wonder if some of the more faint-hearted sociologists should infer that their occupation was gone.

As to the political scientists, it would be easy to maintain the thesis that, from Montesquieu in France, and von Osse in Germany, the continental predecessors of present political theorists have, on the whole, considering the state of knowledge in

( 13) their day, shown more affinity for what we now call the functional interpretation of society than the type of classifiers for whom Professor Ford speaks.[7]

The jealousy which would smother sociology, in the interest of a programme of forcing all knowledge into cans, of form and caliber prescribed by an a priori schematology, is not science but decadence.

Fifth, No competent sociologist ever supposed that he had a technique which could be a substitute for adequate means of research already devised by other divisions of social science. No one who comprehends the sociological movement, and means to tell the truth, would be caught accusing the sociologists of trying to make facts and relations and programmes out of nothing by a method through the use of which sociologists claimed to be sufficient unto themselves. The precise opposite is not only assumed by the sociologists, but from the start they have labored to provoke all the can-openers for very shame to admit the like in their own cases. The sociologist has to take his physics and psychology, and ethnology, and history, and economics, as they are given to him by the present condition of those divisions of labor. If he makes mistakes of fact or of conclusion, they are probably not counts against sociology at all. They may justify true bills against the individual's patience and caution and sobriety. They may chiefly expose either the incompleteness of the older divisions of knowledge, or the inadequacy of the means of communication between scientific investigators.

Sixth, Sociology could afford to rest its expectation of vindication solely on its attorneyship for the motor aspects of knowledge. Knowledge that is knowledge only is an abortion. Knowledge is vital only when it is transformed into arterial sustenance for action. Here again sociology is neither a creator out of nothing nor a monopolist of the thing created. It has specialized more persistently than any other division of science upon the problem of making knowledge available for the guidance of con-

( 14) -structive social conduct. To say that we may summon from the historians and moralists and political philosophers and economists a great cloud of witnesses that knowledge is of no use until it is applied, robs sociology of no laurels. Does anyone discover a danger that knowledge will apply itself too fast in rationalizing the world's conduct? Is there no room for specializing as admonisher of men that knowledge is at hand which our social programmes have not assimilated? Both the Verein für Socialpolitik in 1871, and the American Economic Association in 1885 projected the motor impulse into social science in a salutary way. Without disparaging either movement, it must be pointed out that there was in each a certain hiatus between the dynamic sentiment of the organization, and the dynamic knowledge necessary to give the sentiment lasting force. Sociology has done no mean service in calling for organization of that sentiment into a system which shall rely for support upon functional psychology.

In a nutshell, our whole elaborate scientific liturgy of life no more fits the reality which we encounter when we freely inspect human experience, than Calvin's Institutes reflect the moral order in which modern men believe. The sociological movement is fundamentally a resolve to learn life from life, not to take a version of it on the authority of a pseudo-scientific liturgy. The sociological movement begins whenever men part company with the Weltanschauung that life is a department store stocked with original packages of assorted stuff. The sociological movement gets a character of its own as fast as it brings into distinct focus the substitute Weltanschauung which the process conception of life throws on the screen. The nearest that we are likely to get for a long time to literalism in our social sciences will be in rendering the on-goings of the life-process in some variation of these terms : Everything that occurs among men is a certain reaction of the physical forces; beyond that it is more distinctively evolving processes first of knowing, then of feeling or judgment valuations, in view of concurrently evolving purposes, and of choices converging toward those purposes.

The only possible vindication for an intellectual movement is that people after a while find themselves thinking its way. It is as

( 15) evident that, all thinking about social relations is setting irresistibly toward sociological channels, as that all our thinking is affected by Darwin. The solemn men, who return from reading the signs of the times with reports that there is nothing in sociology, deserve a stanza in the old song of Noah's neighbors. They knew it wasn't going to be much of a shower.


  1. Cf. The Pretensions of Sociology, below pp. 96 and 105.
  2. “The Meaning of Sociology," Am. Jour. of Sociol., XIV, 1
  3. Pos.Phil., chap. I.
  4. In a later number we shall return to this subject in connection with Simmel.
  5. Italics ours.
  6. "Die Geschichtswissenschaft ist die Wissenschaft, welche die zeitlich and räumlich bestimmten Tatsachen der Entwicklung der Menschen in ihren (singulären wie typischen and kollektiven) Betätigungen als soziale Wesen im Zusammenhange psycho-physischer Kausalität erforscht and darstellt "—Lehrbuch der historischen Methode und der Geschichts-philosophie fünfte und sechste Auflage (1908), p.9.
  7. So far as the Germans are concerned, I think I have demonstrated this in a book which will appear in September: The Cameralists, the Pioneers of German Social Polity.

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