The Pretensions of Sociology[1]

Henry Jones Ford
Princeton University

Much is heard in these times of sociology. The proverbial "man in the street," who is supposed to notice nothing apart from his business and sporting interests, save what in some way jostles him and thus intrudes on his attention, has heard of sociology as a science that understands all about society and its make-up, and that is thus able to say what is the correct thing. Even the vaudeville hall has heard of it, as a sociological treatise supplied the phrase "trial marriage," used as a refrain in the topical song, "No Wedding Bells for Me," with which all the music-halls resounded until it wore itself out. Those who do not stand in a merely impressionist attitude to life, and who attribute to scholarship the duty of acting as a conservator of mental and moral values, have also heard of sociology, and are puzzled by it. They find it appearing as a sponsor for schemes of revolutionizing the family, the home, and the state, and they feel both perturbed at the prospect and perplexed by the difficulty they have in reconciling such projects with the respect they feel for science. Disturbance of this character is augmented by a belief that sociology is a new science which is derived from Darwinism, and which hence possesses the authority belonging to a doctrine generally accepted as applying to all forms of life and to all institutions arising from the modes of life. An impression has been made to the effect that scientific grounds have been established for the opinion that marriage, family life, society, and government are mere accidental cohesions which may now be superseded by more rational arrangements upon principles expounded by sociology. Pretensions of this character are certainly made in the name of sociology, and it therefore becomes a matter of public importance to inquire what this new science is and what basis it has for its claim of authority.


Sociology has no connection with Darwinism except by an imputed affiliation, which on examination is found to possess no better

( 97) warrant than the tendency toward syncretism that always appears when a great scientific or philosophical system dominates the country of thought. There is, then, a strong propensity on the part of system-builders to bring their own possessions within the shelter of its massive parapets and bastions. In this way sociology has been annexed to Darwinism, but it does not belong there. The term was invented by Auguste Comte to designate those branches of "organic physics" which deal with human society. The volume of his Philosophie positive that introduced the word "sociology" was published in 1839—twenty years before the publication of the Origin of Species. J. S. Mill, who was much influenced by Comte's speculations, started the use of the term in England, employing it in his own writings as early as 1843. Harriet Martineau's translation of Comte's works was published in 1853. She had great expectations of Comte's system, believing that in it students would find "at least a resting-place for their thought —a rallying-point of their scattered speculations—and probably an immovable basis for their intellectual and moral convictions." Both resting-place and rallying-point are still to seek. Professors Albion W. Small and George E. Vincent of the University of Chicago, in their manual for the study of sociology, expressly warn students not "to regard Comte as an authority in sociology." They remark that "all that is of permanent value in the six volumes of Positive Philosophy, and in the four later volumes entitled System of Positive Polity, might be reported in a few paragraphs.

Darwin made no use of Comte's terminology, but this of itself is not significant, since he wrote strictly as a naturalist and never made the slightest attempt to formulate a system of philosophy. It is significant, however, that the term sociology has never commended itself to Darwinists, even when considering implications of the master's views on the origin and nature of humanity. Haeckel, whose systematic exposition was followed by Darwin himself with lively interest, took a survey of the field claimed by sociology, but he proposed an entirely different terminology, which will be found in Table I of his Evolution of Man (1874). It may be doubted whether the use of the word sociology as a term designating social science would have survived the impact of Darwinism if Herbert Spencer had not adopted it, which he did as early as 1859. In his Autobiography he referred to his borrowings from Comte rather regretfully :

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Save in the adoption of the word "altruism," which I have defended, and in the adoption of his word "sociology" because there was no other available word (for both which adoptions I have been blamed), the only indebtedness I recognize is the indebtedness of antagonism.

Darwin's Descent of Man was published in 1871, but his views as to the particular causation of the human species do not appear to have had any effect whatever on Spencer's preconceived ideas of social science. Spencer's Study of Sociology was published serially in England and in the United States in 1872, and in book form, in 1873. It makes only a passing allusion to Darwin, and then only with respect to his services in demonstrating the indefinite modifiability of species, elsewhere mentioned as "one of the cardinal truths which biology yields to sociology." Spencer's system was always expounded independently of Darwin's views. It was Spencer's labors that brought sociology into vogue, but he seems to have shared the fate of Comte in that his system is now regarded as defective and inadequate. Small and Vincent inform the student that "Spencer's sociology ends precisely where sociology proper should begin."


What, then, is sociology? It is impossible to say, save that it deals with social phenomena; but this affords no definition, as the same may be said of history, politics, statistics, and other sciences gathering their data from observation of mankind. In his Pure Sociology Professor Lester F. Ward mentions twelve definitions of sociology already in existence, and then he proceeds to add another of his own. What claim has any body of knowledge to rank as a science whose students have yet to arrive at some agreement as to what it is or as to how it is to be defined? Sociology has not yet established any claim to be accepted as a science. Leslie Stephen, in his presidential address at the annual meeting of the Social and Political Education League, London, March, 1892, thus summarized the situation : "It may be stated that there is no science of sociology properly scientific—merely a heap of vague empirical observations, too flimsy to be useful in strict logical inference." The situation has not improved since then. Writing in 1902, Professor Ward said:

I do not claim that sociology has as yet been established as a science. I only maintain that it is in process of establishment, and this by the same method by which all other sciences are established. Every independent thinker has his system.

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The latest official bulletin is probably that issued by Professor Small. In an article contributed to the American Journal of Sociology, July, 1908, he says:

Whether or not there is, or ever shall be, a science of sociology, there is and will hardly cease to be something which, for lack of a better name, we may call the sociological movement. This movement clearly vindicates the sociologists.

This, of course, suggests the query, What, then, is the sociological movement? What vision has it of fresh fields of knowledge that suggests the need of a new science to garner the results of research? We are told that the movement is fundamentally "a declaration of faith that the closest approach to ultimate organization of knowledge which finite intelligence can ever reach must be a formulation of the relations of all alleged knowledge to the central process of human experience." But has not that been the object of philosophy ever since it originated in ancient Greece? At any rate, it is clear that this movement, this faith, on its own showing, has no right to rank as a science or to set up any claim of authority.


Accepting for the present the plea of confession and avoidance that is offered by the exponents of sociology when its scientific pretensions are challenged, let us consider it as a movement. In this respect, too, on its own showing, it is quite bewildered. It does not know whence it starts, or whither it is going. J. H. W. Stuckenberg, in his Sociology, the Science of Human Society (1903), has to admit that the very nature of the subject which sociology proposes to treat is yet to be settled. He remarks that "society is the new world which is still waiting for its Columbus;" and, again, that "the nature of society is the profound problem whose solution is the key to all other solutions." Darwin has offered a solution of this problem, namely, that human society was evolved from brute society by stresses resulting from the group incident of natural selection, so that human society was shaped by the life of the community precisely as bee nature has been shaped by the life of the hive, certain distinctive organs and capacities being developed in the individual, not primarily for individual advantage, but for the advantage of the community. Thus Darwin's theory coincides with Aristotle's doctrine that man is born a political animal. In any period before the formation of society, the human species did not exist, but at the most only simian species

(100) with potential capacity for humanization under appropriate conditions. All theories postulating the existence of natural rights enjoyed by man before he was united with his fellows in social and political relations collapse at once if Darwinism be valid. And yet, on this fundamental point of trenchant importance as regards system and terminology, sociology is distracted. On the one hand, Professor Franklin H. Giddings declares :

There is hardly a single fact in the whole range of sociological knowledge that does not support the conclusion that the race was social before it was human, and that its social qualities were the chief means of developing its human nature.

On the other hand, Professor Ward rejects the conclusions of Aristotle and Darwin, holding in express opposition to them both that man was not originally a social animal, but "that he was descended from an animal that was not even gregarious by instinct, and that human society .... is purely a product of his reason, and arose by insensible degrees, pari passu, with the development of his brain." No disagreement could be more radical than this. The Darwinists hold that socialization developed the human brain ; the anti-Darwinists hold that the human brain developed socialization. No wonder, then, that, lacking any base of operations, the movement is nothing more than desultory roving in all directions.

The unsystematic character of the movement accounts for its marked tendency to fall into errors, that might be avoided by recourse to established science. Sir Frederick Pollock, in his History of the Science of Politics, remarks that "after Burke it was impossible for anyone in England to set up the social contract again, either in Rousseau's or in Locke's form, for any effectual purpose." But sociologists in America do that very thing. Sociological discussion of the nature of government reads like an ardent revival of  Rousseau's political philosophy. Professor Ward, in his Dynamic Sociology (Vol. II, pp. 212 f.), argues that government was originally a system of imposture :

It is evident that man in a supposed unrestrained state, in which none of his own race have the power to deprive him of any pleasure which he may seek, and be able to secure, would be far happier than in a condition where half of his desires which might otherwise be gratified are forbidden that gratification by the laws of government.

What is this but Rousseau's state of nature? If Darwin be right, in this "unrestrained state" we should not find men at all ; perhaps

( 101) not even animals so closely akin to men as the anthropoid apes. But Professor Ward makes this hypothetical state of nature the basis of his argument :

Having arrived at a rational conception of what kind of a being man was before any society existed—that is, before the essential condition of society, populousness, existed—we are better able to understand how society and government should have come about.

If man was in a state of happiness when there was no government to restrain his impulses, he was defrauded in some way when government was instituted. Hence Professor Ward concludes that government is essentially a usurpation:

It must have been the emanation of a single brain or of a few concerting minds, the special exercise of a particular kind of cunning or sagacity, whereby certain individuals, intent on securing the gratification of the special passion known as love of power, devised a plan or scheme of government.

If this be so, then government is a thing to be got rid of as soon as possible. That is just what Professor Ward holds to be the end of social effort and the blessed consummation of the labors of sociologists. What men and women are struggling to attain is "freedom to do as their desires prompt them, and to be their own judge of the rightfulness and justness of their actions." Hence robust sociologists contend that we should all be as free to find our affinities as cats or dogs. Suggestions of trial marriage are made simply as a temporary palliative of an enslaving institution. The trouble with divorce laws is not that they are loose, but that there should be any laws at all. Human beings should be free to mate as they please, and separate as they please, like other animals enjoying their natural freedom.

We have here an instance of what is a striking characteristic of sociology. It gives a hospitable reception to notions examined, discredited, and rejected by established science. After a hard struggle political science has got rid of the noxious fallacies generated by French ideology in the eighteenth century. They now reappear as doctrines propounded by sociology. And so, likewise, in other branches of science, sociology appears as an interloper, proclaiming that the work must all be done over again, and so it starts to rake the refuse heap. It is a whimsical situation. Sociology admits that it has really no scientific credentials, and yet it claims sovereign authority in the field of science. Professor

( 102) Edward A. Ross, of the University of Nebraska, in his Foundations of Sociology, says: "It aspires to nothing less than the suzerainty of the special social sciences. It expects them to surrender their autonomy and become dependencies, nay, even provinces of sociology."

These remarks are made in discussing the "problem of coming to terms with the special social sciences, such as economics, jurisprudence, and politics," and it is anticipated that "the workers in long-cultivated fields will resist such pretensions." That is very likely—the more so since sociology invites them to turn back to old errors. In America, although not to any extent in Europe, sociology, considered as a scheme of methodology, has made some impression on scholars in established sciences. There was a time in this country (chiefly owing to Spencer's influence) when there was, perhaps, a preponderance of scientific opinion to the effect that the scheme was theoretically feasible, and that sociology would eventually be established as a comprehensive system of science. I myself held that opinion at one time, and, impelled by it, I read extensively in sociological literature. But I finally concluded that if Darwin was on the right track, sociology was on the wrong track. Political and social phenomena can never be fully interpreted as results of individual activities. The attitude of sociology is precisely like that which a biologist would adopt if he should endeavor to discover the causes of the formation of tissues by scrutiny of the characteristics of individual cells instead of by consideration of the growth and development of the organism that includes the cells and conditions their activities. The true cause of the difficulties which the exponents of sociology have in formulating it, is that in reality there is no basis for it as a science. All its troubles come from its primal trouble that its fundamental concept is an illusion. Hence it is doomed to error by its nature. In endeavoring to substitute its elaborate ideology for existing scientific system, it is not going forward, but backward. All of the material with which it attempts to deal, according to the various definitions given of its purpose, is already allotted to better advantage. Take from it what belongs to psychology, history, anthropology, ethics, civics, jurisprudence, economics, statistics, and charity administration, and there is nothing left of value. So far as sociology differs from established sciences, it is an asylum for their castaways.



In considerations like these one should bear in mind Huxley's wise observation that "there is no greater mistake than the hasty conclusion that opinions are worthless because they are badly argued." Sociology may be worthless, but the streams of sentiment from which its fogs arise are by no means worthless. Professor Small points out the thing that counts when he says that even if there is no science of sociology, there is the sociological movement. There is, indeed, a world-wide movement for social reform involving extensive readjustments of public order and of governmental function. Civilization is apparently engaged in the dangerous but periodically unavoidable process of exuviation, when old forms are cast and new forms are shaped. But in Europe this is a political movement, and if in the United States it is regarded as a distinctly sociological movement, American scholarship is at fault. If sociology lacks scientific validity, it cannot give safe guidance to any movement and its invasion of the political arena is an added peril. Hence it is impossible to follow Professor Small's logic when he holds that the movement "clearly vindicates the sociologists." It may account for the activity of the sociologists and for the attention their projects receive, just as the prevalence of disease accounts for the activity of quacks, but it certainly does not vindicate them. Apart from the general futility of sociology considered as a science, the American brand of the article is exposed to especial condemnation from the aid and comfort it gives to charlatanry. Instead of inspiring caution, it encourages haste, levity, and sensationalism in dealing with social problems. The official address delivered at Atlantic City, December 28, by the eminent sociologist, Professor S. N. Patten of the University of Pennsylvania, is open to such charges. Among similar matter, he says : "No argument is good in a book or in a classroom unless it could convince the million readers of a daily paper and could find place in the campaign-book of a political party." Indeed! Thus sociology commends itself to people who mistake reverie for thought and feeling for judgment; who reach emotional conclusions from sentimental assumptions, and who impute to their projects the merit of their motives. We shall be lucky if we get through the present era of Jacobinism in ethics and politics without serious disaster.

In the ordinary course of scientific progress error is eliminated

( 104) by discussion and concepts found to be invalid are discarded. If the invalid concept was of vital importance, then the terminology derived from it is also discarded and a new terminology is evolved. The process' is illustrated by the way in which chemistry superseded alchemy. A similar fate seems to impend over sociology, but until the reconstruction of political science on Darwinian principles, now taking place, advances beyond the present stage of collection and verification of data, and has some generalizations to propound, sociology has its day. The matter might be left to right itself if sociology preserved the proper scientific habit of reserve as to provisional and tentative conclusions. But since it has gone into the forum to harangue the mob, it is the duty of whom it may concern to follow it there and to give notice that it possesses no authority whatever. If anything is urged in the name of sociology the fit rejoinder is that there is no such science.


  1. Republished from The Nation by permission of author and editor

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