Commentary Magazine

The Study of Man: Can There Be a General Science of Man?

There are some subjects that call for the statement of simple and obvious truths, if only because they have been so much discussed, so smothered by sophistication that the plainest, most elementary facts have been lost sight of and are no longer admitted as worthy of mention. One of the more elementary facts about sociology is that the literature of this science is very dull. This might not have been expected, and calls for an explanation. The literature of social anthropology is far from dull. On the contrary, it is full of surprising and suggestive facts about human life; and these are facts that probably could not have been discovered by any methods other than those actually used by anthropologists. One therefore opens a recommended book by an anthropologist with a pleasant expectation of learning something new and of finding methods related to results. By now, after all these years of methodological argument, one opens a work on sociology with a sigh and certainly with no pleasant expectation of coming across surprising and suggestive facts about human life. I cannot think of a single sociological generalization that is really new and important: important, that is, in the sense that it changes, or ought to change, our general way of thinking about political and social policies, as, for instance, Freud’s generalizations have changed our general way of thinking. Nothing, I think, has passed from sociology into the general currency of thought and of argument, except possibly the statistics of Dr. Kinsey, which might indeed be regarded as surprising—“Astonish me” is the second demand that we make of a scientist, the first being only that he should make no statement that is less than exact, as far as it can be checked by observation and experiment. These two demands are of course related; for the example of the physical sciences has taught us to expect that the demand for exactness of statement will by itself lead to amazing results. It seemed evident that heavier bodies must fall to the ground more quickly than lighter ones; it was having the idea, and finding the means, of measuring very exactly that brought this question into the domain of science and made it interesting.

Whatever the subject matter in which we are interested, it is up to us to decide whether we want to confine ourselves, at certain times and for certain purposes, to statements that are entirely exact, as far as they can be checked by observation. There is nothing in the world that by its nature prevents us from making systematically exact statements about it, and therefore from studying it scientifically. But there are certain things—for example, Shakespeare’s plays—in which we are interested in a way, and for reasons, which provide no strong motive for insisting on extreme exactness of statement. We are on the other hand interested in ourselves, and in other human beings, in ways, and for reasons, which certainly do provide a motive for extreme exactness of statement: for example, we are interested in people’s health and sanity, their diet and their means of livelihood, and in many other aspects of their life and behavior, and we are interested in them with a view to controlling and altering them. The more we try to make our statements about persons exact, as far as our observations allow, the more we are driven to isolate particular aspects of personality for minute and intensive study. We are compelled to turn away from the vague, sweeping, more or less true generalities about human beings that ordinarily guide our actions. The hypothesis therefore suggests itself that sociology has been so far a failure, or a comparative failure, because it has been trying to do two incompatible things at once; to be scientific, and at the same time to be all-embracing and not abstract in its statements. It seems it cannot do both at once, and that there is some consequent vice in the definition of its aims.



Sociology may be defined as the study of people living within a clearly marked group, with a view to arriving by observation at some general truths about the formation of social groups and about the relation of individuals to them. Only the methods of exact observation are new. Since the beginnings of Western thought the idea of arriving at some general truths about the various forms of society has been part of the idea of history itself. No one would be accounted a serious historian who did not see his story of men’s lives, or of institutions and opinions, as showing some important relations between human nature and the forms of society which modify it. Without some such guiding idea, which still may not amount to a theory, a historian would have no canons of relevance, and there would be no inner consistency in his writing.

After 1725, the year of the first publication of Vico’s Scienza Nuova, it could be argued that the only true account of the nature of man, as a social animal, is the whole story of his customs, language, art and institutions, in the true order of their development up to the present time. But still the traditional philosophers could object that we do not establish the true nature of man, and of his needs in society, merely by finding his history; for to determine the nature of any natural kind is to set the limits of its possible performance: and to show what kind of societies men have created in the past is still not to set any limits to the forms of life that they may create in the future. For this reason Vico’s and Hegel’s claim that history must displace traditional philosophy as the study of the human mind was seen to be idle, unless it went together with a philosophical theory of the successive ages of man forming the epochs of human history; and in Vico and Hegel this was still a metaphysical theory, not guaranteed by unassisted knowledge of the past.

In his early period as a radical Hegelian, Marx honestly confronted this problem left unsolved by his master. If the French Revolution introduced a new and revolutionary phase of human development, in which all social relations are transformed, as Hegel himself had argued, then the history of the human spirit up to the 19th century, as expressed in art and institutions, must be treated as prehistory. In the modern period of self-consciousness, all social relations are for the first time called in question and have to be justified to critical men as historically necessary, and therefore as transitory and changing. If there is this abrupt break with the past, in which men were not conscious of their own place in history, knowledge of this past cannot be an adequate guide to the future. Therefore the distinction between the Geisteswissenschaften and the natural sciences must be abandoned, and we must look for a strictly scientific explanation of social change as the basis of future action.

Unfortunately in the 1840’s—and even later in Taine and the positivists—science was distinguished from other inquiries by its subject matter, and it was therefore mistakenly assumed that any scientific study of man in society must be a study of a material reality, and therefore (by Marx) of his material relations within the processes of production. This simple philosophy, which identified science by its subject matter rather than by its methods, seemed to make an empirical study of human motives unnecessary. Motives are not material things, and Marx, in the pride of his new materialism, supposed that for this reason they should be by-passed as philosophical moonshine, in stating the truly scientific laws of social change. So the most powerful political movement of the ensuing century went on” its way without paying the slightest attention to exact observation in the social sciences, and to this day the paradox remains that sociology is taken seriously in the relatively unplanned West and not in the planning Communist states. This metaphysical materialism is the fitting philosophy for a tyranny that has no means of bending its policies to the evidence of changing needs.

The social sciences could not come into independent existence until science was distinguished from other inquiries solely by its experimental methods, and not by its subject matter. This was the achievement of Mill and Durkheim, working in more or less liberal and democratic societies. It is not an accident that comparative observation of myths, customs, and moralities should have developed furthest in democratic states, where politics are largely governed by the pressures of popular demands, and later in America, where success in a free economy has depended on refinements of market research. The physical sciences took root wherever there was an accumulating demand for the technical means of exploiting cheap sources of power; the social sciences are taking root wherever political and economic success depend upon anticipating voters’ and consumers’ preferences. There is now a well-known technique of manipulating people in the mass, and their precisely anticipated responses are indeed a source of cheap power. The advertising people and salesmen who guide President Eisenhower’s campaigns, and who methodically “sell” a product, a policy, or a person, act upon statistical observations, no less than the economic advisers of government; but they remain mere technologists, uninterested in general theory.



Whether an entirely general theory of social change is possible is an old—and now weary—dispute, descending from Durkheim and Max Weber: admitting that reliable uniformities of behavior and social grouping are to be found in any one society, is there yet any ground in observation to hope for correlations that are valid in all societies, no matter what the other differences between them? If not, the notion of natural law, on which most of the phvsical sciences are founded, is inapplicable in sociology, as it is at present defined. The first successes of natural science depended upon abstracting from the superficial qualitative differences that distinguish one material from another, and on deriving all these differences from laws correlating a few primary or structural properties. Inevitably therefore, the early theorists of social science were led by this analogy to look for a few invariant laws of social structure, trusting that this metaphor of “structure” would justify itself in experience. The experience was to be found, within the discipline of social anthropology, in observing the various enclosed and relatively stable societies formed by primitive peoples; their number and variety would be a substitute for active experiment.

It seems to me very probable that anything really deserving the name of social science will in fact be social anthropology, or an offshoot of it, and certainly it is not surprising that the most interesting writers on these subjects are anthropologists. In trying to find the fitting terms in which to communicate their exact observations to each other, anthropologists must in the end be led by experience toward some features of behavior and language that can be assumed to be common points of reference in the description of any society. The observer is therefore compelled to look beneath his ordinary classifications of human thought and behavior. He cannot expect that custom, belief, property, morality, art, or the individual soul, will everywhere appear as recognizably the same separable factors in the speech and action of men.

But even if some more general and constant relationships in social structure are in this way uncovered, it will still seem too late for all practical purposes, and will be of interest mainly to historians. We do not doubt that the great leveling process of industrial civilization will soon sweep away the enclosed societies that have so far survived for observation. The forms of industrial society really are discontinuous with any of the earlier forms of social life, and are also more homogeneous and less varied; wherever they are implanted, they quickly destroy local history. The discontinuity lies in the spreading of a critical and self-conscious spirit through all sections of society, a diffusion that cannot be arrested once it has begun, for it is necessary to the processes of production, which require universal literacy and popular scientific education. The rate of scientific advance is now too fast for any of the already-known conditions of social stability to be applicable, or for the spread of unrest to be stopped. Under these conditions the sociologist, I think, can only be the useful man with the questionnaire who discovers present needs and frustrations, but who does not even try to extrapolate far into the future. If the mass of the population in an industrial society are ready to claim new needs, and new rights arising from them, as soon as the old needs are satisfied, the basis for establishing any laws of social change will be lacking, for the same reason that we do not expect to find laws governing the free choices of individuals: that the initial conditions are always changing and are never sufficiently repeated. As it is morally repugnant actively to experiment with human beings, there is no certain way round this difficulty.

Secondly, there is a kind of contradiction between the idea of understanding present social changes scientifically and the idea of many of us trying to calculate, with the aid of this social science, how we can best achieve our independently conceived ends. If, for instance, we all become self-conscious about belonging to this or that social group with its well-known characteristics, that particular class structure begins to disaggregate and a new pattern is formed. This awkward effect of self-consciousness is reflected in much contemporary writing: Figaro and Julien Sorel (unlike their creators) did not within their stories see themselves solely as typical specimens of a particular social change, as the corresponding hero of a contemporary novel, miserably and irritably, does. These were the grounds on which Marx concluded, against Hegel, that, under conditions of general self-consciousness, the point cannot be merely to understand social changes but rather actively to make them. But how can we decide on the direction of change without methodically inquiring into the needs and will of men at this particular time? This brings one back to the old radical idea, which formed the first revolutionary tradition and which is still unrefuted: that the future in human affairs is not to be predicted, but rather to be decided anew at every stage within the changing bounds of the possible, and that the first problem of politics is merely to find and keep a just machinery of decision.



Society itself is never at fault, and we cannot look to this abstract entity to make men happy; for, whatever society may have been in the past, it is now only a complicated set of more or less alterable and consciously adopted habits. Psychologists can perhaps explain the unconscious roots of these habits and tell the story of their beginnings and development. Then a man who, together with a million others, has a particular habit can be persuaded to ask himself, in full knowledge of its causes and history, whether it is a good or a bad one. Surely it is better to wait for his answer, and not to give him the false impression that a social scientist somewhere knows what his answer will be, before he has started to think. If he thinks that the scientist already knows his answer, he will not trouble with the question. If he does not trouble with the question, someone employing the scientist will soon find experimentally a way of changing or maintaining his habits at will. But if he does trouble with the question, and if he knows what the scientist knows of the factors influencing him, his answers will always be one step ahead of the scientist’s predictions: and that is the liberal hope.

It seems to me therefore, that we should not be misled by the phrase “the science of man in society,” with its suggestion that there must be one special set of laws of motion that apply to man in society. It may be that we shall learn to understand better the behavior of men in society, as we understand the behavior of fish in water, through a medley of specialized sciences that provide entirely exact statements about different aspects of human behavior. One would be irritated with a man who said “I am not satisfied with zoology, anatomy, chemistry; I insist on finding the laws proper to piscatology, the integral science of the behavior of fish in water.” We would answer: “Observe the habits of the various types of fish as accurately as you can, and put these facts together with the facts and theories of zoology, anatomy, and chemistry and of other relevant sciences. Then see what gaps still need to be filled by further exact observation, before an explanation is forthcoming of the behavior of this or that type of fish in this or that type of water. But do not suppose that you will ever have anything interesting to say if you remain a mere piscatologist, determined to explain your fish in terms of pure universal piscatological laws.”

The two bulky books that have provoked these reflections are Common Frontiers of the Social Sciences (Falcon’s Wing, Free Press, 1957), a collection of studies edited by Mirra Komarovsky of Barnard College, and Theory and Practice of the Social Studies (Macmillan, 1956) by Professor Earl S. Johnson of the University of Chicago. The first of them, diffuse and miscellaneous though it is, contains in its historical studies more solid information than the second, which consists of page after page of mechanical speculation—sociology at its worst. No science or inquiry can afford to be as woolly and shapeless as this.


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