The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter 1

Scope and Method of Politics

§2. The question, however, still remains how far Politics can be properly or advantageously separated from the general science of society. To this question J. S. Mill (Logic, Bk. vi. ch. ix. §4) appears to give a decidedly negative answer. He says that there can be no separate science of government; government being the fact which of all others is most mixed up, both as cause and effect, with the qualities of the particular people or of the particular age: in treating of the phenomena of government we have to take account of ``all the circumstances by which the qualities of the people are influenced''. He holds, accordingly, that ``all questions respecting the tendencies of forms of government must stand part of the general science of society, not of any separate branch of it''. Of this general science, as he afterwards explains (ch. x. §2), ``the fundamental problem is to find the laws according to which any state of society produces the state which succeeds it and takes its place''. And the solution of this problem, as he goes on to explain, can only be advantageously attempted by a method primarily historical: we must obtain from history empirical laws of social development, and afterwards endeavour to connect these, by a process which he calls ``inverse deduction'', with ``the psychological and ethological laws which govern the action of circumstances on men and of men on circumstances''. In Mill's view, in short, Theoretical Politics can only be scientifically studied as one part or application of the Science or Philosophy of History.

Now, I agree with Mill in holding that the scientific study of the structures and functions of the different governments that have actually existed in human societies cannot well be pursued in complete separation from the scientific study of other important elements of the societies in question: whether the aim of the student is to ascertain the causes of the differences in such governments or to examine their effects. But I do not think that there is any fundamental difference, in this respect, between the study of political relations and the study of economic relations, or, again, of religion, of art, of science and philosophy, as factors of social life. In each of these cases the student concentrates his attention on one element of human history which can only be partially separated from other components of the whole complex fact of social development. Experience seems to show that this kind of concentration, and consequent partial separation of historical and sociological study into special branches, is unavoidable in the division of intellectual labour which the growth of our knowledge renders necessary in a continually increasing degree. I think, therefore, that it must be accepted in the study of Polity no less than in other departments of History and Social Science: though I quite admit that it ought never to be carried so far as to make us forget the influence exercised on government by other social changes---for instance, by the development of thought, of knowledge, of morals, of industry.

In any case the study, at once historical and scientific, of Political Society, and the general science of society of which this study is a more or less separable element, are undoubtedly studies of great interest: and it is possible---perhaps even probable---that when they have reached a further stage of development they may take the leading place in any rational and systematic method of answering the political questions with which we shall be concerned in the present treatise. At present, however, I do not think that this is the case.

As has been explained, the primary aim of this book is to set forth in a systematic manner the general notions and principles which we use in ordinary political reasonings. Now, ordinary political reasonings have some practical aim in view: to determine whether either the constitution or the action of government ought to be modified in a certain proposed manner. Hence the primary aim of our study must be similarly practical: we must endeavour to determine what ought to be, so far as the constitution and action of government are concerned, as distinct from what is or has been. And in the systematic reasonings by which we seek to arrive at such practical conclusions I conceive that the historical study of the forms and functions of government can at present only occupy a secondary place.

For, first, it must be observed that History cannot determine for us the ultimate end and standard of good and bad, right and wrong, in political institutions;---whether we take this to be general happiness, or social wellbeing defined somehow so as to distinguish it from happiness. This ultimate end we cannot get from history; we bring it with us to the study of history when we judge of the goodness or badness of the laws and political institutions which history shows us.

Secondly, supposing that we are agreed on the ultimate end to which our political efforts should be directed---and I think the majority of my readers will probably agree in taking it to be general happiness---still, the study of past history appears to me only to a very limited extent useful in determining our choice of means for the attainment of the end here and now.

This is partly on account of the inevitable defects of the study of human history---the difficulty of ascertaining past events with sufficient fullness and accuracy to enable us to establish trustworthy generalisations as to their causal relations. But it is still more due to the very characteristic which gives the history of civilised mankind its special interest for the philosopher---viz. that it is concerned with that part of the knowable universe in which change most distinctly takes the form of progress: so that each age has its own problems, in the solution of which the assistance that we can obtain from a study of preceding ages can only be of a subordinate kind. Even granting that History scientifically treated may enable us to decide, at least roughly and approximately, how far particular laws and institutions have tended to promote human happiness or social wellbeing in past ages; we cannot hence legitimately infer, in any direct and cogent way, what structure or mode of action of government is likely to be most conducive to happiness here and now. This, indeed, the advocates of what is called the ``historical method'' have usually maintained with especial emphasis: they have been especially anxious to urge that the value of all political institutions is ``relative'', and that those best adapted to promote social wellbeing in any given age and country may be in the highest degree unsuited to different circumstances and a different stage in the development of human society. They have, it is true, chiefly urged this ``relativity'' as a reason against applying our current political maxims in judging the events and institutions of the past: but their arguments seem equally valid against attempts to base present maxims of policy on inductions from past history.

It may be said, however, that so far as we have ascertained the true laws of development of political societies, we shall know what government is to be and do in the future, no less than what it has been and done in the past. I grant that a scientific study of political history must, in virtue of its scientific character, aim at prevision; indeed it has hardly earned a title to the name of science, until it can supply some rational forecast of the future. But any such sociological forecasts---in the present stage of development of political science---can only be vague and general, if they are kept within the limits of caution and sobriety; and any guidance that may be derived from such forecasts for the problems of practical politics must be mainly negative and limitative, and can hardly amount to positive direction. It may be useful in preventing us from wasting our efforts in the attempt to realise impracticable ideals: it may show us to some extent, with some degree of probability, which of the characteristics of our own political society will increase in importance as the years go on, and which will decrease: it may thus lay down for us certain lines within which our choice of governmental institutions and laws is necessarily restricted: but it can hardly, I conceive, instruct us how to choose within these lines. For instance, suppose that we know in this way---I am far from affirming that we do know---that in the course of one or two centuries all nations now civilised will have adopted some form of democracy: this will render it useless to inquire what kind of aristocracy would be best adapted for any of these nations, but will not materially assist us in determining the particular form of democracy most likely to be conducive to its wellbeing. It would no doubt be a mistake to disregard such probable forecasts: and they have, in fact, been kept in view throughout the composition of the present treatise; and I have considered carefully how far they may reasonably be held to modify conclusions otherwise arrived at. I have not, indeed, found that the extent of this modifying influence has been great: but had it been greater, it could, I think, only have been of the limitative kind above described. Grant that we know all that the most confident of scientific historians would claim to know of the irresistible tendencies of social and political development; the question still remains, What, within the limits set by these tendencies, is the best mode of organising government and directing its action? And the more we believe in a law of development tending to make the future specifically unlike the past, the less direct assistance can be expected from our knowledge of what the structure and functions of government have been, in determining what they ought to be.

I do not mean to imply that the student of the Art of Government can derive no positive assistance at all from history. Notwithstanding the continual process of change and development through which political societies pass, the fundamental aims and conditions of the work of government do not change so quickly and completely from age to age that we can learn nothing as to the right methods of working from the action of states and statesmen in the past. And the same may be said of the qualities of human intellect and feeling, on which the determination of the appropriate structure of government will properly depend. It would therefore be rash to affirm that suggestions of practical value may not be derived, in particular cases, from the study of problems analogous to our own which have been dealt with by statesmen in other ages and countries. But it will, I think, be generally admitted, with regard to all but very recent history, that any practical inferences that may be drawn from such a study must generally be. of a very indirect and uncertain kind:---that we can never safely reason ``Because such a law, such a form or institution of government, such a measure or line of policy, was suitable in Greece or Rome or any mediæval country, or even in any European state of the sixteenth, seventeenth, or eighteenth century, therefore it would be suitable here and now.''

The case is different when we turn to the recent history of States on a level in civilisation with our own. Here, no doubt, we find that statesmen and thinkers are often grappling with practical problems closely similar in their nature and conditions to those with which we have to deal. Still, even these modern facts, for a student of the general principles and method of practical politics, appear to be chiefly valuable in the way of suggestion, or as a test of results otherwise obtained; the particular instances afforded of success or failure of certain political institutions or modes of governmental action being rarely in themselves sufficient to justify confident general inductions as to the expediency of adopting such institutions or modes of action in modern states. It is rather when we pass from the general theory to a particular application of it, that the study of these analogous cases, if conducted with a due regard to differences as well as resemblances, becomes of great importance.

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