Cornhill Magazine,  3 (1861), 666–80.

The Study of History  [1/2]

[J Fitzjames Stephen]


Essay, Serial


Natural Law, Morality, Controversy, Nomenclature, Astronomy, Design, Spiritualism, Soul, Methodology, Mental Illness, Political Economy

People mentioned:

John Austin , Alexander Pope

Publications cited:

Austin 1832

    Considering the current controversy over 'whether history is or is not capable of being studied as a science' (666), Stephen argues forcefully against 'the popular notion that physical science is founded upon the existence of brute matter, moved according to necessary laws' (667). Scientific laws, unlike those of jurisprudence, are metaphorical constructs that are 'mere records of facts' such as the regularity which we observe in the motion of the planets, but the 'mind is almost inevitably infected with the notion that they have not only an existence of their own apart from facts, but an energy of their own by which they control them' (668). Only if it is first 'assumed that there is an intelligent Author of Nature' can 'the laws of motion be described as laws in the proper sense of the word. Upon any other supposition, the use of the word is more or less improper' and should be replaced by 'either "rule" or "formula"'. The scientific standard of proof relies on there being 'no evidence to the contrary' of a proposition, but at the same time it cannot provide positive confirmation that any hypothesis is either true or false. (669) Indeed, 'It would be impossible to disprove on scientific grounds the assertion that a chair or a table has a soul, though it would be easy to show that we have not the smallest reason to think so' (670). It is the 'metaphorical language in which the results of physical science are expressed' that has led to so many 'delusions' like 'that most pernicious notion that it establishes the proposition that the material universe is affirmatively known to be a collection of inanimate agents governed by necessary laws' (675).

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