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Classification Of The Sciences

( Originally Published 1913 )

HITHERTO I have adhered very little to Comte's own exposition of his system. By a more popular and discursive exposition, I have endeavoured to familiarize the reader with the point of view from which to study the Positive Philosophy ; but in treating of the luminous conception of a new and final classification of the sciences, it will be well to do so as much as possible in Comte's own words. Those who have never examined the subject of classification will fail to appreciate the gigantic force of philosophic thought implied in this scheme. The arrangement seems so natural, so obvious, that an acute thinker reviewing Comte in Blackwood's Magazine, expressed, what is perhaps a very general impression, in saying it was just the sort of classification that would naturally arise in any reflective mind on a review of the subject. Had this critic only remembered the abortive attempts made by Bacon, D'Alembert, Stewart, Ampère, and others, he would never have suffered that phrase to have escaped him.

Without, however, criticising the attempts of previous thinkers, let us examine the principle laid down in the Positive Philosophy. The problem before us is this : How to arrange the sciences that the classification may itself be the expression of the most general fact apparent on a profound investigation of the objects which this classification includes. The solution of the problem lies in this: the dependence of the sciences can only result from that of the corresponding phenomena.

Science is a knowledge of the laws of nature. This knowledge is the only rational basis of man's action on nature. By it, he foresees what will be the result of the working of any phenomena left to their own spontaneous activity, and by what modifications he may produce a different result more advantageous to himself. Science gives power to foresee, and foreseeing leads to action. Hence the relation of Science and Art.

Science leading in this way to the Useful, and there having been so much cause in modern times for appreciating the practical ends it serves, its cultivation has become too much associated with ideas of mere profit and utility. Comte here, as elsewhere, warns us against losing sight of its higher function—that of satisfying a fundamental want of our nature. As intelligent beings we have an insatiable craving to know the laws of nature. For this purpose, when in want of positive conceptions, we resort to the theological or metaphysical conceptions.

The laws of phenomena (theoretical science), and the application of those laws to practical purposes, forming two distinct branches of speculation, the latter subject, it may be inferred, does not fall within the scope of Comte's system.

He makes another elimination. Natural sciences are of two kinds—the one abstract, the other concrete, special, descriptive. The first are the fundamental sciences ; the latter are secondary. The working of the abstract laws in particular instances gives rise to the concrete laws. General physiology is abstract ; zoology and botany are concrete. So with chemistry and mineralogy : in chemistry we consider all possible combinations of matter; in mineralogy we consider only the combinations which we find actually existing in the minerals. It is Abstract Physics only which fall within Comte's classification.

To enter now directly upon the great question before us, we must at the outset recall to mind that, in order to obtain a natural and positive classification of the fundamental sciences, we have to seek for the principle in a comparison of the different orders of phenomena whose laws it is their object to discover. What we wish to determine is, the actual dependence of the various sciences among themselves. Now this dependence can only result from that of the corresponding phenomena.

Considering all observable phenomena under this point of view, we shall see that it is possible to classify them in a small number of natural categories, disposed in such a way that the rational study of each category may start from a knowledge of the principal laws of the preceding category, and become, in its turn, a foundation for the study of the succeeding. This order is determined by the degree of simplicity, or, what comes to the same thing, by the degree of the generality of the phenomena. From this difference in simplicity or generality result the successive dependence of the phenomena, and, as a consequence, the greater or less facility with which they may be studied.

In fact it is, à priori, clear, that the simplest phenomena, those which are least complicated with others, are necessarily the most general also ; because that which occurs in the greatest number of cases is, from that very fact, to the greatest possible degree unconnected with, and independent of, the circumstances peculiar to each separate case. We must therefore commence with the study of the most general or the most simple phenomena, and then proceed in succession to the most complicated, if we would conceive natural philosophy in a truly methodical way ; for since this order of generality or simplicity necessarily determines the rational connection of the different fundamental sciences by the successive dependence of their phenomena, it also fixes their comparative degrees of difficulty.

Our first survey of the ensemble of natural phenomena leads us at the outset to divide them, agreeably to the principle which we have just established, into two great classes—the first comprehending all the phenomena of inorganic bodies, the second all those of organized bodies.

The latter are evidently more complex and more special than the former; they depend on the preceding phenomena, which, on the contrary, do not depend on them ; hence the necessity of studying physiological phenomena only after those of inorganic matter. In whatever way we explain the differences of these two modes of existence, it is certain that we observe in living bodies all the phenomena, both mechanical and chemical, which have place in inorganic bodies, and besides these, an entirely special order of phenomena—vital phenomena —those peculiar to organization. Organized and in-organized matter may, or may not, considered as noumena, be of the same nature; the philosophy eschews such inquiries; it is enough that there is a recognised difference between them such as to require them to be studied separately, and that, on any hypothesis as to the nature of this difference, general phenomena ought to be studied before their special modifications.

This is not the proper place for a general comparison between organized and inorganized matter. At present, it is sufficient that we recognise the logical necessity of separating the science which embraces organised matter from that relating to inorganized matter, and of not proceeding to the study of organic physics till after having established the general laws of inorganic physics.

As to inorganic physics, we see at once that by continuing to adhere to the order of generality and of dependence of the phenomena, they must be divided into two distinct sections, according as they refer to the general phenomena of the universe, or specially to those which are presented to us by terrestrial matter. Hence we have celestial physics, or astronomy, geometrical and mechanical ; and terrestrial physics. There is the same necessity for this division as there was for the preceding one.

Astronomical phenomena being the most general, the most simple, and the most abstract of all, it is evident that the study of natural philosophy ought to commence with them, since the laws to which they are subject act on those of all other phenomena, they themselves being, on the contrary, essentially independent. In all the phenomena of terrestrial physics, we observe the general effects of universal gravitation, besides certain other effects which are peculiar to themselves, and which modify the first. It follows that when we analyze the simplest terrestrial phenomenon, whether chemical or even purely mechanical, we always find it more compound than the most complex celestial phenomenon. It is thus, for example, that the simple movement of a falling body, even when that of a solid only, really offers (if we would take into account all the influencing circumstances), a mere complicated subject of inquiry than the most difficult astronomical question. This consideration clearly shows how indispensable it is that a distinct separation be made between celestial physics and terrestrial physics, and of passing to the study of the second only after the first, which is its rational basis.

Terrestrial physics are, in their turn, subdivided into two very distinct portions, according as they relate to bodies considered under the mechanical point of view, or under the chemical. In order to conceive the former in a truly methodical manner, there is evidently implied a previous knowledge of the other. For all chemical phenomena are necessarily more complex than physical phenomena; they are dependent on them, without acting on them. Every one knows that all chemical action is subject to the influence of weight, heat, electricity, &c., and that, at the same time, it manifests something peculiar to itself which modifies the action of the pre-ceding agencies.

The above, therefore, is the rational division of the principal branches of the general science of inorganic bodies. There is an analogous division, formed in the same manner, in the general science of organic bodies.

All living beings present two orders of phenomena essentially distinct—those relating to the individual, and those relating to the species, more especially when it is sociable. It is chiefly in respect to man that this distinction is fundamental. The latter order of phenomena is evidently more complicated and more special than the former : it is dependent on it without influencing it. Hence, two great sections in organic physics, namely, physiology, properly so called, and social physics, which are founded on physiology.

In all social phenomena, we observe in the first place the influence of the physiological laws of the individual, and also something special, which modifies their effects, and which concerns the action of individuals on one another.

This influence is singularly complicated in the human species by the action of each generation upon its successor. Hence it is evident, that in order to study social phenomena in a proper way, it is necessary to begin with a profound knowledge of the laws relating to individual life. On the other hand, it by no means follows from this necessary subordination between the two subjects of study (as some physiologists of the first rank have been led to believe), that we only see in social physics an appendix to physiology. Although the phenomena may certainly be homogeneous, they are not at all identical ; and it is of radical importance to make a separation between the two sciences. For it would be impossible to treat the study of the species under the collective point of view, as a pure deduction from the study of the individual, since the social conditions which modify the action of the physiological laws become there the most essential object of consideration. It follows certain in its results than another, because it is less precise.

Lastly, the most interesting characteristic of the encyclopaedical formula, on account of the importance and multiplicity of the immediate applications which we can make of it, is that of directly determining the true general plan of a scientific and entirely rational education. This is a direct consequence of the very composition of the formula.

It is evident, in fact, that before undertaking the methodical study of any one of the fundamental sciences, it is absolutely necessary to be prepared by an examination of such of them as refer to the phenomena that go before it in the eneyclopa edical scale, since the latter always weightily influence those whose laws are to be the subject of study.

If the remark is eminently applicable to general education, it is as much so to the special education of savans. The natural philosophers who have not in the first place studied astronomy, at least under the general point of view; the chemists who, before occupying themselves with their own science, have not previously studied astronomy, and, after it, physics ; the physiologists who have not prepared themselves for their special labours by a preliminary study of astronomy, of physics, and of chemistry;—all want one of the fundamental conditions of their intellectual development. It is still more evident in the case of those minds who would devote themselves to the positive study of social phenomena without having first acquired a general knowledge of astronomy, physics, chemistry, and physiology.

It is a proposition at the very root of Comte's system, that until the sciences are learned in their natural order, which at present is seldom the case, a scientific education will be incapable of realizing its most general and essential results.

He proceeds to point out that it is not only as to doctrine that his encyclopaedical law serves as a basis for a scientific education ; it is of equal importance as to method., In passing from one science to another, we discover the several modifications which method (essentially the same in all) undergoes. A proper knowledge of the positive method can only be acquired in this way. Each science develops characteristic processes of its own : one, observation—another, experiment of one sort—a third, experiment of another sort. And they ought to be taken in the encyclopaedical order. What rational product, of any great national superiority, can come from a mind which occupies itself from the very outset with the study of the most complicated phenomena, without having first been made to understand, by an examination of the most simple phenomena, what it is we call a law,—what it is to observe,—what is a positive conception,—what even is logical reasoning ? Such, however, is still at this day the ordinary course of our young physiologists, who most frequently commence directly the study of living bodies, without having received any other preparation than a preliminary education, limited to the study of one or two dead languages ; and having but a very superficial knowledge of physics and chemistry,—a knowledge almost amounting to nothing, so far as respects Method, seeing that generally it has not been obtained in a rational manner, nor by proceeding from the true starting point of natural philosophy. While, in respect to social phenomena, which are more complex still, would it not be taking a great step towards the return of modern society to a truly normal state, to recognise the logical necessity of only proceeding to the study of these phenomena, after having gradually trained up the intellectual organ by a profound and philosophical examination of all the anterior phenomena ? We may even say, with the utmost correctness, that the main difficulty lies wholly here. For there are few intelligent minds who are not now convinced that it is necessary to study social phenomena according to the Positive Method. Owing to those who are engaged in the study not knowing, and not being able to see exactly wherein this Positive Method consists, from not having examined it in its anterior applications, this maxim has hitherto been almost sterile in renovating social theories, which are not as vet out of the theological or metaphysical state, notwithstanding the efforts of professed positive reformers.

The reader may have marked the omission of mathematics in the encyclopaedical scale. This science, how-ever, is placed by Comte, in virtue of the principle of his classification, at the very head of the scale. But he regards this vast and important science less as a constituent part of natural philosophy than as the true and fundamental basis of it ; and he values it not so much for its own intrinsic truths, as for its being the great and most powerful instrument in furthering the progress of science.

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