Dr. Harper, of the Institute for Humane Studies, is temporarily Visiting Lecturer in Social Philosophy at Wabash College.
These are troubled and confused times.
This observation may safely be made at any time, as perhaps the most permanent statement one can make about the affairs of this life as they appear to most of us. The scenery and the players keep changing, but the script is always good. For the more one scans the universe superficially the more chaotic it appears to be.
The appearance of chaos has led otherwise highly intelligent persons to jump to two conclusions:
1. That it is nonsense to assert that this is an "ordered" universe, because it then could not be so disorderly.
2. Since the "creator" who does not exist failed to make us an orderly habitat, it remains for the inhabitants to take the situation by the horns and make some order out of the chaos by planning and the use of force.
It is difficult to prove in a positive fashion that this universe is an orderly creation, unless one can attest to having been present at that time and witnessed the making. As with this question, it sometimes is helpful to try the reverse hypothesis, namely, that it is not an ordered universe, and see where that leads us.
We would then have to assume that one plus one will not necessarily be two the next time around. We would have to assume that the planets all whirl through space at random speeds and directions, changing constantly, and perhaps not even having straight lines or curves to fit any event of the universe. There would presumably be no such thing as gravity, or any substitute, leaving all mass without either attraction or repulsion. Chemicals would have no features of consistency, even in their integral parts. What any person says or does has no similarity whatever to what he will say or do in the future on the same subject or under the same circumstances. In short, no single item of your experience or that of any other person in history, as "acquired knowledge," can be of any use to anybody in the future. To live would surely not be fraught with boredom, which would be absent to a degree presumably intolerable to everyone.
A fantastic set of assumptions? To whatever extent it seems that way to us, our wisdom and experience are telling us that the universe is not disorderly.
Stressing the nature of an unordered universe needs constant emphasis when trouble and confusion discourage us from the quest of discovery. It is by this process that we may live with some peace of mind. After first making up our mind that order exists, and that disorder is no more than the reflection of our ignorance and lack of faith, we are then—and only then—ready to go to work on any part of our daily affairs. All who live and act are really exhibiting the faith of which we speak, even when their words deny their inner faith. Clearest of all, perhaps, is the work of the scientist who would have no purpose at all in ever turning his hand at his work, except as he assumes order that will make like consequences out of like causes.
On the second point about the hand of man making order out of the chaos left by gods on vacation, we need only observe that this task would be patently impossible in an assumed universe of totally unreliable forces and materials. The cure of the situation by the independent power of man is denied by the assumption as to why it is needed. Before any such person can go to work with his planning and his controls, he must first obtain a license and tools from a source whose existence itself has been denied.
The State of the Social Sciences
The relevance of what has just been said about the plight in logic of the person who would control without any tools for control is most acutely at issue, in our time, in the social sciences. The reason is, I believe, that the chaos in human relationships throughout the world is so heavily on our minds that we are overly impatient with the slow processes necessary to their sound solution. If we may accept the outline of scientific development by Comte, further refined by Spencer, the social sciences have awaited the prior development, by and large, of the simpler sciences of mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology—to be followed by psychology, sociology, economics, and other branches of mankind and his conduct.
Why has there been this order in the development of the sciences? Why has man learned so much, long ago, about the sun and the stars far away where he has never visited, but has learned so little about himself and his next door neighbor? Briefly, it seems to be because the one is relatively simple and the other is extremely complex.
A road block in the way of developing the science of human relationships now appears to be the lack of finding and using the basic, elemental tools of the science. For one thing, this science has always lacked—and seems still to lack—the first requisite of any developing science: precise identities for ideas and entities within the science. To illustrate the problem of which I speak, what is liberty?’ And similarly, what precisely are other key concepts and their meanings in terms we can use for precise thought and communication with one another?
To look at the cause of persistent stumbling in the social sciences another way, it may help to at the sister science of chemistry. Little progress in chemistry could ever have been made without identity of the key concept of the basic unit of that science—the element. Imagine trying to make any real sense out of the complexity of chemistry while dealing, in thought and in fact, only with compounds. How could a person ever find a linkage between a deadly gas, water, and a rusty nail? Yet to take that important step, the "obvious" had to be surmounted into the abstract. This is because most of our environment is made up of compounds, not elements.
If chemists had persisted in working with the seemingly natural state of affairs, they would have gone on and on in the hopelessly blinding search of the collectivist or communist state of chemical existence—the compounds, wherein the basic units of the science were concealed. Nitrogen, interestingly, is a unique exception that persists in its attempted bachelorhood, and for that very reason has been unique as an explosive.
The Elemental Unit of Social Science Is the Individual
Turning now to the social sciences, and speaking here in terms of a hypothesis for serious consideration, I would suggest that the only elemental unit of social science is the individual person. Under this assumption, every combination of two or more persons into an aggregate either in physical proximity or statistically is a social compound and should be dealt with solely as such. No such combination is an original unit in this science, to be dealt with to the obliteration of the elemental unit which comprises it. This does not deny the existence of such social compounds, for, as in chemistry, they abound widely and commonly—so much so, in fact, that they have stolen the show and prevented the science from developing very far.
This may not be a startling hypothesis. One is inclined to yawn and pass on to things seemingly less obvious. But just a minute; is it so obvious and well known? Though a person knows in a superficial sense that persons are individuals—his mother may have clued him a bit about the nature of his individual birth, and both the bride and groom on their wedding day may suspect this to be the case, and the honored guest at funerals seems likewise to be the remains of an individual person—is it known clearly and firmly enough to use it as such in our thinking?
Is it at once clear how this concept is denied in the way we commonly speak and discuss issues of our time, and in our attempts to resolve them? "What does the
Differences Within Groups
One might think that the biologists, of all scientists, would have been clear on this elemental unit of social science. They spend a large part of their time taking apart the various specimens of animal life, one at a time. In a sense and to a degree, they doubtless have. Yet the biologists, like the scientists in other and older fields, have tended to emphasize the broad classifications of similarity within the segment of the universe with which they dealt, rather than to preserve and concentrate thought and study on the differences within these groups.
The early steps of any science, traditionally, have been to make some sense out of the confusion, apparent on the surface, by finding some main categories of similarity. These have included the distinction between organic and inorganic matter, between plant and animal life, between cattle and horses, and the like. Only in the highly advanced course in college, for instance, is the student’s attention focused on the differences within one of these classes—to illustrate, a class in judging cattle by focus on the differences between several
Even in older sciences we are experiencing surprises as differences are discovered where homogeneity was presumed to prevail. In physics, for instance, newer developments are said to suggest that individual atoms within a group that was presumed to be homogeneous act in highly variable manners. Edward Teller has said that individual atoms are as unpredictable as people are supposed to be; that we have been dealing with them en masse by averages, much like the processes of an insurance company.
A Highly Complex Unit
In social science, we are dealing with a unit that is far more complex than an atom, an earthworm, or a hippopotamus. The human organism, which is the basic element of this science, has been dealt with intensely as distinguishable units in a special scientific manner only about half a century, and mostly within the last quarter century. And even now, few are working at it effectively in this manner of approach, and as yet we see only dimly the nature of the problem and extent of human variation. To sketch areas of interest, some differences in blood types were discovered around the turn of the century; finger prints, as we have known for some time, will distinguish a person from any other person; and recently, by use of the DNA molecules, the separate identity of each of the three billion persons on earth could be stored in a thimble.
Not only does one of these features of a person vary over a wide range, but there are all but countless features of the human that so vary. Perhaps any one of these innumerable features could be used to identify a person from any other person, if we only knew how to make a tool to measure it and knew how to use it. To take an illustration again, the mind was formerly thought of as a mysterious unit of the person. We know little about it yet, but one research worker has identified some forty separate dimensions of the human mind, and has reason to believe that there may be as many as sixty.3 When the sixty are at last identified, we may have reason to think that there are one hundred; two hundred.
If one will ponder the magnitude of human variation which this suggests, it will be rather overwhelming at best. If nothing else, it will put a new meaning in the statement of the friend you met at the bar, who complained that his wife does not understand him. To be sure she does not, for the very good reason that he defies full understanding. But so does his wife, and every other person.
Some Implications of Variation
There is not the space and this is not the place to develop at much length the implications of this terrific human variation. It will suffice, for here and now, to suggest some of the implications that seem to lie buried behind the failure to have dealt with the basic element of this science of human relationships. The meaning will then, I hope, grow and grow.
It should be noted that this all but-infinite human variation is at one and the same time a possible curse and a possible blessing. Any one element of difference might go either way, depending on how we look at it and how we deal with it. On the one hand, human variation is a cause of conflict; it is, presumably, the sole root cause of human conflict and wars. Were everyone identical—a state of the universe that is incomprehensible, and which would end all reason for human relationships at all—there would be no cause to fight anyone or growl at him. Few persons fight themselves in the mirror, or growl at themselves except perhaps for what they did to someone else because of these differences.
These same differences, on the other hand, are the potential blessing that makes life really worth living. I do not mean the entertainment that we give each other, like the animals of a zoo which in this instance are running at large, though there is plenty of room for amusement and amazement. The real significance of human variation as a potential for good lies in the infinite possibilities for exchange that is possible for this reason alone.
These exchanges are both economic and noneconomic. You do not trade with a person in the market because he is identical with you; on the contrary, you trade for the reason that he differs from you in ability or capacity to produce, or in tastes for consumption, or in some other significant aspect. And unless you are one of those exceedingly rare persons who married solely for economic reasons, your marriage was outside the economic realm, and in any event you probably married because of differences rather than similarities.
Isolation Not Required
In identifying the individual as the basic unit of social science, isolation is not necessarily required or advocated. Such identification merely asserts that in any relationship with one another we are behaving as individuals who retain our identity while so doing. Cooperation, in fact, could not exist except as there are separate entities to do the cooperating. An omelet does not describe a state of ongoing cooperation between eggs. The meaning of this concept is, instead, that individuals have both the right and the attendant responsibility of selective relationships with other persons, at times and places requisite to their mutual needs. Contractual obligations may give one relationship an enduring quality into time, or it may be like the trade in the market at one point of time with a person you may never see again. In any event, the identity of the individual person as the key to the science, instead of isolating him conceptually, really widens the possible scope of his opportunities for cooperation, due to the fact that it frees him from restraints imposed by others which shackle him.
Nor does the concept of the individual as the basic unit deny or prevent a unity of spirit, so long as the individual is left intact, spiritually and otherwise.
"So that the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ nor, again, can the head say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body which have no obvious function are the most essential…." I CORINTHIANS, 12.
An Important Area To Develop
The points of significance need not be belabored to establish the main point, namely, that a great and largely undeveloped field of work in this young science of human affairs seems to lie behind a firm establishment of the individual as the elemental unit of this science. The science is so young and full of unknowns or even superstitions that we may expect our grandchildren to look back on our efforts as perhaps well-meaning but amazingly in error.
Yet, if the assumption is correct that this new approach is a crying need, with terrific amounts of underlying work to be done in biology, psychology, and goodness knows what else, we may look ahead with the hope which true humility makes possible. The trail of hope, I firmly believe, leads toward more and more harmony arising out of the seeming chaos in which we now find ourselves in our ignorance. Full wisdom and complete understanding are, presumably, not for us. But this need not prevent a doubling, a trebling, and so forth, of the little we now know; and to that extent, the fruits of ignorance in the form of chaotic enmity will give way to harmonious human relationships.
F. A. Harper.
2 Roger Williams. Free and Unequal (University of Texas Press, 1953).
³ J, P. Guilford. "The Structure of Human Intellect," a paper delivered before the National Academy of Sciences,
By the mere fact that he forms part of an organized crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilization. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian—that is, a creature acting by instinct. He possesses the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity, and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings, whom he further tends to resemble by the facility with which he allows himself to be impressed by words and images—which would be entirely without action on each of the isolated individuals composing the crowd—and to be induced to commit acts contrary to his most obvious interests and his best-known habits. An individual in a crowd is a grain of sand amid other grains of sand, which the wind stirs up at will.
GUSTAVE LE BON, The Crowd