John Stuart Mill was Britain’s leading thinker when it came to issues having to do with logic and scientific knowledge in the mid-nineteenth century. His System of Logic was first published in 1843 and was reprinted in numerous editions, and it constituted a comprehensive treatment of scientific knowledge and inference within the empiricist tradition. The book devoted an entire section to the logic of what Mill referred to as the “moral sciences” (Book VI, published separately as The Logic of the Moral Sciences). He defined the moral sciences as those areas of study having to do with human dispositions, character, and action, extending from psychology to social science. The conception of social science knowledge that he presents has had a deep impact on subsequent thinking about “scientific” social analysis and is worth examining again. (Here is a link to the Gutenberg etext edition of the System of Logic.)
Mill developed a general vision of science that was derived from the best current examples of progress in the natural sciences, and he then applied this vision to the effort to understand human and social phenomena scientifically. Putting his vision simply, science consists of the discovery of general causal laws based on systematic empirical observation. It lays the framework for a positivist conception of social science, and it prepares a charge of “Not scientific!” to social scientists who deviate from these central positivist tenets.
The social sciences barely existed in 1843; so it is intriguing to see how Mill thought about the task of creating a social science. For one thing, he had virtually no good examples to work with; political economy was just about the only significant piece of rigorous social analysis that existed. The topics considered by modern sociology were only beginning to gain rigorous attention, and political science took the form of analysis of the interests and policies of specific nation states. Mill was very much interested in the work of Auguste Comte — the thinker who introduced both “sociology” and “positivism” into the philosophical lexicon, and Mill wrote a critical essay about Comte’s philosophy in 1865 (Auguste Comte & Positivism). But Comte’s writings did not provide good examples of detailed empirical study of social phenomena. One of Comte’s central goals was to discover laws of development for civilizations — a far cry from the way we would define the focus of sociology today. Here is a summary definition of the science of society that Mill offers:
Next after the science of individual man comes the science of man in society–of the actions of collective masses of mankind, and the various phenomena which constitute social life. (Book VI, chap. VI, sect. 1)
In several earlier postings I’ve referred to the important role that philosophical ideas played in defining the aims and goals of the social sciences. Mill’s writings certainly fall in the category of foundational, guiding ideas. So let’s see what guiding ideas are expressed in the System of Logic for the social sciences.
Prediction. Mill opens his discussion of the social sciences by quoting a passage from Condorcet with evident approval on the role of prediction in the sciences and history. Condorcet draws an explicit parallel between the predictive capacity of some of the natural sciences (e.g. astronomy) and the development of history; if history is made by men, then we should be able to learn the laws of behavior and use them to predict history (Book VI). This captures Mill’s conception of social science: social developments are the result of individual actions and behaviors; individual actions are subject to laws that can be discovered in psychology and ethology (the science of human development); and therefore, in principle, historical outcomes are governed by these laws as well. So the goal of the social sciences is to discover the laws of behavior that permit us to predict behavior and social outcomes.
Laws and regularities. Mill firmly believed that science involves the discovery of laws and regularities. A body of observations that lacks organizing regularities cannot be considered to be a science. So for Mill, social science research too must involve the discovery of laws of social behavior and social dynamics. “Are the actions of human beings, like all other natural events, subject to invariable laws? Does that constancy of causation, which is the foundation of every scientific theory of successive phenomena, really obtain among them?” (Book VI, chap. I, sect. 2) Mill’s answer, ultimately, is affirmative: there are such laws of individual behavior and choice. In reflecting on the status of weather phenomena he writes:
Yet no one doubts that the phenomena depend on laws, and that these must be derivative laws resulting from known ultimate laws, those of heat, electricity, vaporization, and elastic fluids. (Book VI, chap. III, sect. 1)
He distinguishes between exact sciences (where a few general laws govern virtually all variation) and inexact sciences (where we need both fundamental laws and secondary influences in order to explain observed behavior). His example of an inexact science is tidology.
By combining, however, the exact laws of the greater causes, and of such of the minor ones as are sufficiently known, with such empirical laws or such approximate generalizations respecting the miscellaneous variations as can be obtained by specific observation, we can lay down general propositions which will be true in the main, and on which, with allowance for the degree of their probable inaccuracy, we may safely ground our expectations and our conduct. (Book VI, chap. III, sect. 1)
And this model seems to capture his entire conception of scientific understanding: we understand a phenomenon when we have identified the primary causes that bring it about (and the laws that correspond to these); and the secondary influences that disturb or modify the workings of the primary causes (with their laws as well).
The science of human nature is of this description. It falls far short of the standard of exactness now realized in Astronomy; but there is no reason that it should not be as much a science as Tidology is, or as Astronomy was when its calculations had only mastered the main phenomena, but not the perturbations…. (Book VI, chap. III, sect. 2)
The subject, then, of Psychology is the uniformities of succession, the laws, whether ultimate or derivative, according to which one mental state succeeds another, is caused by, or at least, is caused to follow, another. (Book VI, chap. IV, sect. 3)
So Mill believes that a science of behavior is possible, issuing in a set of regularities of behavior. And he believes that we can also arrive at a science of development, which he refers to as “ethology”; this is a description of the ways in which circumstances influence individual character. Ethology too issues in laws and regularities, according to Mill.
A science is thus formed, to which I would propose to give the name of Ethology, or the Science of Character, from ἦθος, a word more nearly corresponding to the term “character” as I here use it, than any other word in the same language. (Book VI, chap. V, sect. 4)
This leads to a general conception of how social change works:
All phenomena of society are phenomena of human nature, generated by the action of outward circumstances upon masses of human beings; and if, therefore, the phenomena of human thought, feeling, and action are subject to fixed laws, the phenomena of society can not but conform to fixed laws. (Book VI, chap. VI, sect. 2)
Methodological individualism. So laws govern individual actions. What about social phenomena? Mill sees social phenomena as the combination of multiple individual actions. And he believes that it is self-evident that the laws of the compound derive from the workings of the laws of the parts.
The laws of the phenomena of society are, and can be, nothing but the laws of the actions and passions of human beings united together in the social state. Men, however, in a state of society are still men; their actions and passions are obedient to the laws of individual human nature. Men are not, when brought together, converted into another kind of substance. (Book VI, chap. VII, sect. 1)
So social laws and regularities ought to be explained on the basis of individual-level laws and regularities. This is a pretty clear statement of the principle of methodological individualism.
Parallel to the assumption of methodological individualism is a strong inclination on Mill’s part towards the idea of inter-theoretic reduction: the laws of the compound should be reducible to the action of the laws of the composing entities. So social laws should be reducible to laws of psychology, combined with factual descriptions of the particular circumstances that surround given societies.
Methods of agreement and difference. Quite a bit of attention has been directed to Mill’s methods of agreement and difference within the field of comparative historical sociology. It is startling, therefore, to realize that Mill himself felt that these families of methods were not relevant or applicable to social phenomena. Appeal to these methods in the social sciences, Mill maintains, is to succumb to the fallacy of the “chemical or experimental method” in the social sciences (Book VI, chap. VII, sect. 1). The problem is that the conditions for the application of these methods are impossibly stringent when we come to consideration of the causes of complex social events like revolutions or civil wars. There are always innumerable differences between the cases; so the methods of difference and similarity cannot direct us to the unique differentiating causes.
The Method of Difference in either of its forms being thus completely out of the question, there remains the Method of Agreement. But we are already aware of how little value this method is, in cases admitting Plurality of Causes; and social phenomena are those in which the plurality prevails in the utmost possible extent. (Book VI, chap. VII, sect. 4)
Mill offers an alternative preferred method, the deductive method. “However complex the phenomena, all their sequences and co-existences result from the laws of the separate elements” (Book VI, chap. IX, sect. 1). The deductive method involves identifying these separate elements; discovering their fundamental properties and regularities; and deducing the interactions that occur among them to produce the complex outcome.
The Social Science, therefore (which, by a convenient barbarism, has been termed Sociology), is a deductive science; not, indeed, after the model of geometry, but after that of the more complex physical sciences. It infers the law of each effect from the laws of causation on which that effect depends; not, however, from the law merely of one cause, as in the geometrical method but by considering all the causes which conjunctly influence the effect, and compounding their laws with one another. (Book VI, chap. IX, sect. 1)
The plurality of causes that is explicit in the deductive method leads Mill to qualify the scope of prediction that is possible in the social sciences. Because it is not possible to precisely determine the joint effect of multiple causes, predictions are generally approximate rather than exact.
It is evident, in the first place, that Sociology, considered as a system of deductions a priori, can not be a science of positive predictions, but only of tendencies. We may be able to conclude, from the laws of human nature applied to the circumstances of a given state of society, that a particular cause will operate in a certain manner unless counteracted; but we can never be assured to what extent or amount it will so operate, or affirm with certainty that it will not be counteracted. (Book VI, chap. IX, sect. 2)
(Daniel Hausman gives a good exposition of this method of explanation in “The Deductive Method” (Essays on Philosophy and Economic Methodology).)
The aim of sociology. Mill believes that the most fundamental aim of sociology is to derive a set of governing laws for the whole of society from the laws of individual action and ethology, and to permit the scientist to explain the particular features of the total state of society. He describes the “state of society” in these terms:
In order to conceive correctly the scope of this general science, and distinguish it from the subordinate departments of sociological speculation, it is necessary to fix the ideas attached to the phrase, “A State of Society.” What is called a state of society, is the simultaneous state of all the greater social facts or phenomena. Such are: the degree of knowledge, and of intellectual and moral culture, existing in the community, and in every class of it; the state of industry, of wealth and its distribution; the habitual occupations of the community; their division into classes, and the relations of those classes to one another; the common beliefs which they entertain on all the subjects most important to mankind, and the degree of assurance with which those beliefs are held; their tastes, and the character and degree of their aesthetic development; their form of government, and the more important of their laws and customs. (Book VI, chap. X, sect. 2)
This sounds pretty much like what we might call “macro-sociology” — an effort to describe and explain the large-scale features of a given society. So the goal of sociology is to discover laws of behavior at the individual level that permit deduction of the features of society in which these individuals live, given the current circumstances. Sociology should provide a theory providing an understanding of the broad sweep of history, the totality of human individual and social actions.
The doctrine which the preceding chapters were intended to enforce and elucidate–that the collective series of social phenomena, in other words the course of history, is subject to general laws, which philosophy may possibly detect–has been familiar for generations to the scientific thinkers of the Continent, and has for the last quarter of a century passed out of their peculiar domain, into that of newspaers and ordinary political discussion. (Book VI, chap. XI, sect. 1)
A sociological imagination? In spite of Mill’s evident interest in the foundations of a science of society, he shows little evidence of possessing a lively sociological imagination. He does not seem to have paid much attention to the actual social processes and changes underway in Britain in the beginning of the nineteenth century. There is almost no description or comment concerning the social circumstances of nineteenth-century Britain — subjects that were of great interest to Mill as a reformer. It is striking to compare his writings with those of Tocqueville, who observes and conceptualizes a wide range of concrete social activity and behavior. Mill remains on a highly abstract plane: are there social laws? How do social laws relate to individual laws? How does evidence support or undermine various social hypotheses? (See an earlier posting on Tocqueville.)
So here we find almost all the elements that came to define the framework of positivist social science: the doctrine of the unity of science, the insistence on the primacy of the discovery of laws and regularities, the doctrines of methodological individualism and reductionism, and the assumption that the natural sciences provide a regulative guide to the social sciences (naturalism). Mill’s writings about the social sciences set the stage for the development of a positivist paradigm that impaired the disciplines from adopting the fluidity and pluralistic viewpoints that they would need.
The shortcomings of Mill’s philosophy of social science derive from his most basic assumptions. He treats the creation of a science of society as primarily a methodological and epistemic problem; he takes it for granted that the “phenomena” of the social world are entirely analogous to the phenomena of the natural world. But this is an error of social ontology. Social phenomena are not relevantly analogous to natural phenomena. “States” are not like “metals”, and social processes like contention are not like physical processes of mixing and heating. And if Mill had devoted more of his analytical intelligence to the problem of discovering, analyzing, and explaining the actual social phenomena of contemporary Britain, he might well have been drawn to a less positivist construction of sociology.
(Here are several earlier postings that are relevant to this topic:
- philosophical frameworks of the social sciences link
- how does philosophy help guide the social sciences? link
- why a philosophy of social science? link
- proto-social inquiry link
- components of positivism link
- a non-naturalistic approach link
The unifying thread to these posts is the question, to what extent did philosophical presuppositions influence the development of the social sciences?)