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Title: An Ethnologist's View of History - An Address Before the Annual Meeting of the New Jersey - Historical Society, at Trenton, New Jersey, January 28, 1896
Author: Brinton, Daniel Garrison, 1837-1899
Language: English
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*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "An Ethnologist's View of History - An Address Before the Annual Meeting of the New Jersey - Historical Society, at Trenton, New Jersey, January 28, 1896" ***

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Transcriber's Note

A number of typographical errors have been maintained in this version of
this book. They have been marked with a [TN-#], which refers to a
description in the complete list found at the end of the text.



                        AN ADDRESS
                        BEFORE THE
          TRENTON, NEW JERSEY, JANUARY 28, 1896.


     DANIEL G. BRINTON, A. M., M. D., LL. D., D. Sc.


                    PHILADELPHIA, PA.

An Ethnologist's View of History.


       *       *       *       *       *

The intelligent thought of the world is ever advancing to a fuller
appreciation of the worth of the past to the present and the future.
Never before have associations, societies and journals devoted to
historical studies been so numerous. All times and tribes are searched
for memorials; the remote corners of modern, medieval and ancient
periods are brought under scrutiny; and going beyond these again, the
semi-historic eras of tradition and the nebulous gleams from
pre-historic milleniums[TN-1] are diligently scanned, that their
uncertain story may be prefaced to that registered in "the syllables of
recorded time."

In this manner a vast mass of material is accumulating with which the
historian has to deal. What now is the real nature of the task he sets
before himself? What is the mission with which he is entrusted?

To understand this task, to appreciate that mission, he must ask himself
the broad questions: What is the aim of history? What are the purposes
for which it should be studied and written?

He will find no lack of answers to these inquiries, all offered with
equal confidence, but singularly discrepant among themselves. His
embarrassment will be that of selection between widely divergent views,
each ably supported by distinguished advocates.

As I am going to add still another, not exactly like any already on the
list, it may well be asked of me to show why one or other of those
already current is not as good or better than my own. This requires me
to pass in brief review the theories of historic methods, or, as it is
properly termed, of the Philosophy of History, which are most popular

They may be classified under three leading opinions, as follows:

1. History should be an accurate record of events, and nothing more; an
exact and disinterested statement of what has taken place, concealing
nothing and coloring nothing, reciting incidents in their natural
connections, without bias, prejudice, or didactic application of any

This is certainly a high ideal and an excellent model. For many, yes,
for the majority of historical works, none better can be suggested. I
place it first and name it as worthiest of all current theories of
historical composition. But, I would submit to you, is a literary
production answering to this precept, really _History_? Is it anything
more than a well-prepared annal or chronicle? Is it, in fact anything
else than a compilation containing the materials of which real history
should be composed?

I consider that the mission of the historian, taken in its completest
sense, is something much more, much higher, than the collection and
narration of events, no matter how well this is done. The historian
should be like the man of science, and group his facts under inductive
systems so as to reach the general laws which connect and explain them.
He should, still further, be like the artist, and endeavor so to exhibit
these connections under literary forms that they present to the reader
the impression of a symmetrical and organic unity, in which each part or
event bears definite relations to all others. Collection and collation
are not enough. The historian must "work up his field notes," as the
geologists say, so as to extract from his data all the useful results
which they are capable of yielding.

I am quite certain that in these objections I can count on the suffrages
of most. For the majority of authors write history in a style widely
different from that which I have been describing. They are distinctly
teachers, though not at all in accord as to what they teach. They are
generally advocates, and with more or less openness maintain what I call
the second theory of the aim of history, to wit:

2. History should be a collection of evidence in favor of certain

In this category are to be included all religious and political
histories. Their pages are intended to show the dealings of God with
man; or the evidences of Christianity, or of one of its sects,
Catholicism or Protestantism; or the sure growth of republican or of
monarchial institutions; or the proof of a divine government of the
world; or the counter-proof that there is no such government; and the

You will find that most general histories may be placed in this class.
Probably a man cannot himself have very strong convictions about
politics or religion, and not let them be seen in his narrative of
events where such questions are prominently present. A few familiar
instances will illustrate this. No one can take either Lingard's or
Macauley's History of England as anything more than a plea for either
writer's personal views. Gibbon's anti-Christian feeling is as
perceptibly disabling to him in many passages as in the church
historians is their search for "acts of Providence," and the hand of God
in human affairs.

All such histories suffer from fatal flaws. They are deductive instead
of inductive; they are a _defensio sententiarum_ instead of an
_investigatio veri_; they assume the final truth as known, and go not
forth to seek it. They are therefore "teleologic," that is, they study
the record of man as the demonstration of a problem the solution of
which is already known. In this they are essentially "divinatory,"
claiming foreknowledge of the future; and, as every ethnologist knows,
divination belongs to a stadium of incomplete intellectual culture, one
considerably short of the highest. As has been well said by Wilhelm von
Humboldt, any teleologic theory "disturbs and falsifies the facts of
history;"[6-1] and it has been acutely pointed out by the philosopher
Hegel, that it contradicts the notion of progress and is no advance over
the ancient tenet of a recurrent cycle.[6-2]

I need not dilate upon these errors. They must be patent to you. No
matter how noble the conviction, how pure the purpose, there is
something nobler and purer than it, and that is, unswerving devotion to
rendering in history the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the

I now turn to another opinion, that which teaches that--

3. History should be a portraiture, more or less extended, of the
evolution of the human species.

This is claimed to be the "scientific" view of history. It was tersely
expressed by Alexander von Humboldt in the phrase: "The history of the
world is the mere expression of a predetermined, that is, fixed,

It is that advocated by Auguste Comte, Draper and Spencer, and a few
years ago Prof. Gerland, of Strasburg, formulated its basic maxim in
these words: "Man has developed from the brute through the action of
purely mechanical, therefore fixed, laws."[7-1]

The scientist of to-day who hesitates to subscribe to these maxims is
liable to be regarded as of doubtful learning or of debilitated
intellect. I acknowledge that I am one such, and believe that I can show
sound reasons for denying the assumption on which this view is based.

It appears to me just as teleologic and divinatory as those I have
previously named. It assumes Evolution as a law of the universe, whereas
in natural science it is only a limited generalization, inapplicable to
most series of natural events, and therefore of uncertain continuance in
any series. The optimism which it inculcates is insecure and belongs to
deductive, not inductive, reasoning. The mechanical theory on which it
is based lacks proof, and is, I maintain, insufficient to explain
motive, and, therefore, historic occurrences. The assumption that
history is the record of a necessary and uninterrupted evolution,
progressing under ironclad mechanical laws, is a preconceived theory as
detrimental to clear vision as are the preoccupations of the theologian
or the political partisan.

Any definition of evolution which carries with it the justification of
optimism is as erroneous in history, as it would be in biology to assert
that all variations are beneficial. There is no more certainty that the
human species will improve under the operation of physical laws than
that any individual will; there is far more evidence that it will not,
as every species of the older geologic ages has succumbed to those laws,
usually without leaving a representative.

I am aware that I am here in opposition to the popular as well as the
scientific view. No commonplace is better received than that, "Eternal
progress is the law of nature;" though by what process eternal laws are
discovered is imperfectly explained.

Applied to history, a favorite dream of some of the most recent teachers
is that the life of the species runs the same course as that of one of
its members. Lord Acton, of Oxford, in a late lecture states that: "The
development of society is like that of individual;"[8-1] and Prof.
Fellows, of the University of Chicago, advances the same opinion in the
words, "Humanity as a whole developes[TN-2] like a child."[8-2]

The error of this view was clearly pointed out some years ago by Dr.
Tobler.[8-3] There has been no growth of humanity at large at all
comparable to that of the individual. There are tribes to-day in the
full stone age, and others in all stages of culture above it. The
horizons of progress have been as local as those of geography. No
solidarity of advancement exists in the species as a whole. Epochs and
stadia of culture vary with race and climate. The much talked of "law of
continuity" does not hold good either in national or intellectual

Such are the criticisms which may be urged against the historical
methods now in vogue. What, you will ask, is offered in their stead?
That which I offer is the view of the ethnologist. It is not so
ambitious as some I have named. It does not deal in eternal laws, nor
divine the distant future. The ethnologist does not profess to have been
admitted into the counsels of the Almighty, nor to have caught in his
grasp the secret purposes of the Universe. He seeks the sufficient
reason for known facts, and is content with applying the knowledge he
gains to present action.

Before stating the view of the ethnologist, I must briefly describe what
the science of Ethnology is. You will see at once how closely it is
allied to history, and that the explanation of the one almost carries
with it the prescription for the other.

It begins with the acknowledged maxim that man is by nature a gregarious
animal, a _zoon politikon_, as Aristotle called him, living in society,
and owing to society all those traits which it is the business of
history, as distinguished from biology, to study.

From this standpoint, all that the man is he owes to others; and what
the others are, they owe, in part, to him. Together, they make up the
social unit, at first the family or clan, itself becoming part of a
larger unit, a tribe, nation or people. The typical folk, or _ethnos_,
is a social unit, the members of which are bound together by certain
traits common to all or most, which impart to them a prevailing
character, an organic unity, specific peculiarities and general

You may inquire what these traits are to which I refer as making up
ethnic character. The answer cannot be so precise as you would like. We
are dealing with a natural phenomenon, and Nature, as Goethe once
remarked, never makes groups, but only individuals. The group is a
subjective category of our own minds. It is, nevertheless,
psychologically real, and capable of definition.

The _Ethnos_ must be defined, like a species of natural history, by a
rehearsal of a series of its characteristics, not by one alone. The
members of this series are numerous, and by no means of equal
importance; I shall mention the most prominent of them, and in the order
in which I believe they should be ranked for influence on national

First, I should rank Language. Not only is it the medium of intelligible
intercourse, of thought-tranference,[TN-3] but thought itself is
powerfully aided or impeded by the modes of its expression in sound. As
"spoken language," in poetry and oratory, its might is recognized on all
hands; while in "written language," as literature, it works silently but
with incalculable effect on the character of a people.[10-1]

Next to this I should place Government, understanding this word in its
widest sense, as embracing the terms on which man agrees to live with
his fellow man and with woman, family, therefore, as well as society
ties. This includes the legal standards of duty, the rules of
relationship and descent, the rights of property and the customs of
commerce, the institutions of castes, classes and rulers, and those
international relations on which depend war and peace. I need not
enlarge on the profound impress which these exert on the traits of the

After these I should name Religion, though some brilliant scholars, such
as Schelling and Max Müller,[10-3] have claimed for it the first place
as a formative influence on ethnic character. No one will deny the
prominent rank it holds in the earlier stages of human culture. It is
scarcely too much to say that most of the waking hours of the males of
some tribes are taken up with religious ceremonies. Religion is,
however, essentially "divinatory," that is, its chief end and aim is
toward the future, not the present, and therefore the impress it leaves
on national character is far less permanent, much more ephemeral, than
either government or language. This is constantly seen in daily life.
Persons change their religion with facility, but adhere resolutely to
the laws which protect their property. The mighty empire of Rome secured
ethnic unity to a degree never since equalled in parallel circumstances,
and its plan was to tolerate all religions--as, indeed, do all
enlightened states to-day--but to insist on the adoption of the Roman
law, and, in official intercourse, the Latin language. I have not
forgotten the converse example of the Jews, which some attribute to
their religion; but the Romany, who have no religion worth mentioning,
have been just as tenacious of their traits under similar adverse

The Arts, those of Utility, such as pottery, building, agriculture and
the domestication of animals, and those of Pleasure, such as music,
painting and sculpture, must come in for a full share of the
ethnologist's attention. They represent, however, stadia of culture
rather than national character. They influence the latter materially and
are influenced by it, and different peoples have toward them widely
different endowments; but their action is generally indirect and
unequally distributed throughout the social unit.

These four fields, Language, Government, Religion and the Arts, are
those which the ethnologist explores when he would render himself
acquainted with a nation's character; and now a few words about the
methods of study he adopts, and the aims, near or remote, which he keeps
in view.

He first gathers his facts, from the best sources at his command, with
the closest sifting he can give them, so as to exclude errors of
observation or intentional bias. From the facts he aims to discover on
the above lines what are or were the regular characteristics of the
people or peoples he is studying. The ethnic differences so revealed are
to him what organic variations are to the biologist and morphologist;
they indicate evolution or retrogression, and show an advance toward
higher forms and wider powers, or toward increasing feebleness and

To understand them they must be studied in connection and causation.
Hence, the method of the ethnologist becomes that which in the natural
sciences is called the "developmental" method. It may be defined as the
historic method where history is lacking. The biologist explains the
present structure of an organ by tracing it back to simpler forms in
lower animals until he reaches the germ from which it began. The
ethnologist pursues the same course. He selects, let us say, a peculiar
institution, such as caste, and when he loses the traces of its origin
through failure of written records, he seeks for them in the survivals
of unwritten folk-lore, or in similar forms in primitive conditions of

Here is where Archæology renders him most efficient aid. By means of it
he has been able to follow the trail of most of the arts and
institutions of life back to a period when they were so simple and
uncomplicated that they are quite transparent and intelligible. Later
changes are to be analyzed and explained by the same procedure.[12-1]

This is the whole of the ethnologic method. It is open and easy when the
facts are in our possession. There are no secret springs, no occult
forces, in the historic development of culture. Whatever seems hidden or
mysterious, is so only because our knowledge of the facts is imperfect.
No magic and no miracle has aided man in his long conflict with the
material forces around him. No ghost has come from the grave, no God
from on high, to help him in the bitter struggle. What he has won is his
own by the right of conquest, and he can apply to himself the words of
the poet:

    "Hast du nicht alles selbst vollendet,
    Heilig glühend Herz?" (_Goethe_).

Freed from fear we can now breathe easily, for we know that no _Deus ex
machina_ meddles with those serene and mighty forces whose adamantine
grasp encloses all the phenomena of nature and of life.

The ethnologist, however, has not completed his task when he has defined
an _ethnos_, and explained its traits by following them to their
sources. He has merely prepared himself for a more delicate and
difficult part of his undertaking.

It has been well said by one of the ablest ethnologists of this
generation, the late Dr. Post, of Bremen, that "The facts of ethnology
must ever be regarded as the expressions of the general consciousness of
Humanity."[13-1] The time has passed when real thinkers can be satisfied
with the doctrines of the positive philosophers, who insisted that
events and institutions must be explained solely from the phenomenal or
objective world, that is, by other events.

Sounder views prevail, both in ethnology and its history. "The history
of man," says a German writer, "is neither a divine revelation, nor a
process of nature; it is first and above all, the work of man;"[13-2] an
opinion reiterated by Prof. Flint in his work on the philosophy of
history in these words: "History is essentially the record of the work
and manifestation of _human nature_."[14-1] In both sciences it is the
essentially human which alone occupies us; it is the _life of man_.

Now men do not live in material things, but in mental states; and solely
as they affect these are the material things valuable or valueless.
Religions, arts, laws, historic events, all have but one standard of
appraisement, to wit, the degree to which they produce permanently
beneficial mental states in the individuals influenced by them. All must
agree to this, though they may differ widely as to what such a mental
state may be; whether one of pleasurable activity, or that of the
Buddhist hermit who sinks into a trance by staring at his navel, or that
of the Trappist monk whose occupations are the meditation of death and
digging his own grave.

The ethnologist must make up his own mind about this, and with utmost
care, for if his standard of merit and demerit is erroneous, his
results, however much he labors on them, will have no permanent value.
There are means, if he chooses to use them, which will aid him here.

He must endeavor to picture vividly to himself the mental condition
which gave rise to special arts and institutions, or which these evolved
in the people. He must ascertain whether they increased or diminished
the joy of living, or stimulated the thirst for knowledge and the love
of the true and the beautiful. He must cultivate the liveliness of
imagination which will enable him to transport himself into the epoch
and surroundings he is studying, and feel on himself, as it were, their
peculiar influences. More than all, chief of all, he must have a broad,
many-sided, tender sympathy with all things human, enabling him to
appreciate the emotions and arguments of all parties and all peoples.

Such complete comprehension and spiritual accord will not weaken, but
will strengthen his clear perception of those standards by which all
actions and institutions must ultimately be weighed and measured. There
are such standards, and the really learned ethnologist will be the last
to deny or overlook them.

The saying of Goethe that "The most unnatural action is yet natural," is
a noble suggestion of tolerance; but human judgment can scarcely go to
the length of Madame de Stael's opinion, when she claims that "To
understand all actions is to pardon all." We must brush away the
sophisms which insist that all standards are merely relative, and that
time and place alone decide on right and wrong. Were that so, not only
all morality, but all science and all knowledge were fluctuating as
sand. But it is not so. The principles of Reason, Truth, Justice and
Love have been, are, and ever will be the same. Time and place, race and
culture, make no difference. Whenever a country is engaged in the
diffusion of these immortal verities, whenever institutions are
calculated to foster and extend them, that country, those institutions,
take noble precedence over all others whose efforts are directed to
lower aims.[15-1]

Something else remains. When the ethnologist has acquired a competent
knowledge of his facts, and deduced from them a clear conception of the
mental states of the peoples he is studying, he has not finished his
labors. Institutions and arts in some degree reflect the mental
conditions of a people, in some degree bring them about; but the
underlying source of both is something still more immaterial and
intangible, yet more potent, to wit, Ideas and Ideals. These are the
primary impulses of conscious human endeavor, and it is vain to attempt
to understand ethnology or to write history without assigning their
consideration the first place in the narration.

I am anxious to avoid here any metaphysical obscurity. My assertion is,
that the chief impulses of nations and peoples are abstract ideas and
ideals, unreal and unrealizable; and that it is in pursuit of these that
the great as well as the small movements on the arena of national life
and on the stage of history have taken place.

You are doubtless aware that this is no new discovery of mine. Early in
this century Wilhelm von Humboldt wrote: "The last and highest duty of
the historian is to portray the effort of the Idea to attain realization
in fact;" and the most recent lecture on the philosophy of history which
I have read, that by Lord Acton, contains this maxim: "Ideas which in
religion and politics are truths, in history are living forces."

I do claim that it is timely for me to repeat these doctrines and to
urge them with vehemence, for they are generally repudiated by the
prevailing schools of ethnology and history in favor of the opinion that
objective, mechanical influences alone suffice to explain all the
phenomena of human life. This I pronounce an inadequate and an
unscientific opinion.

There is in living matter everywhere something which escapes the most
exhaustive investigation, some subtle center of impulse, which lies
beyond the domain of correlated energy, and which acts directively,
without increasing or diminishing the total of that energy. Also in the
transformations of organic forms, there are preparations and propulsions
which no known doctrine of the mechanical, natural causes can interpret.
We must accept the presence of the same powers, and in a greater
degree, in the life and the history of man.[17-1]

It may be objected that abstract ideas are far beyond the grasp of the
uncultivated intellect. The reply is, consciously to regard them as
abstract, may be; but they exist and act for all that. All sane people
think and talk according to certain abstract laws of grammar and logic;
and they act in similar unconsciousness of the abstractions which impel
them. Moreover, the Idea is usually clothed in a concrete Ideal, a
personification, which brings it home to the simplest mind. This was
long ago pointed out by the observant Machiavelli in his statement that
every reform of a government or religion is in the popular mind
personified as the effort of one individual.

In every nation or _ethnos_ there is a prevailing opinion as to what the
highest typical human being should be. This "Ideal of Humanity," as it
has been called, is more or less constantly and consciously pursued, and
becomes a spur to national action and to a considerable degree an
arbiter of national destiny. If the ideal is low and bestial, the course
of that nation is downward, self-destroying; if it is lofty and pure,
the energies of the people are directed toward the maintenance of those
principles which are elevating and preservative. These are not
mechanical forces, in any rational sense of the term; but they are
forces the potent directive and formative influence of which cannot be
denied and must not be underestimated.

Just in proportion as such ideas are numerous, clear and true in the
national mind, do their power augment and their domain extend; just so
much more quickly and firmly do they express themselves, in acts, forms
and institutions, and thus enable the nation to enrich, beautify and
strengthen its own existence. We have but to glance along the nations
of the world and to reflect on the outlines of their histories, to
perceive the correctness of the conclusion which Prof. Lazarus, perhaps
the most eminent analyst of ethnic character of this generation, reaches
in one of his essays: "A people which is not rich in ideas, is never
rich; one that is not strong in its thinking powers, is never

I claim, therefore, that the facts of ethnology and the study of racial
psychology justify me in formulating this maxim for the guidance of the
historian: _The conscious and deliberate pursuit of ideal aims is the
highest causality in human history._

The historian who would fulfil his mission in its amplest sense must
trace his facts back to the ideas which gave them birth; he must
recognize and define these as the properties of specific peoples; and he
must estimate their worth by their tendency to national preservation or
national destruction.

This is the maxim, the axiom, if you please, which both the ethnologist
and the historian must bear ever present in mind if they would
comprehend the meaning of institutions or the significance of events.
They must be referred to, and explained by, the ideas which gave them
birth. As an American historian has tersely put it, "The facts relating
to successive phases of _human thought_ constitute History."[18-2]

I am aware that a strong school of modern philosophers will present the
objection that thought itself is but a necessary result of chemical and
mechanical laws, and therefore that it cannot be an independent cause.
Dr. Post has pointedly expressed this position in the words: "We do not
think; thinking goes on within us,"[19-1] just as other functions, such
as circulation and secretion, go on.

It is not possible for me at this time to enter into this branch of the
discussion. But I may ask your attention to the fact that one of the
highest authorities on the laws of natural science, the late George J.
Romanes, reached by the severest induction an exactly opposite opinion,
which he announced in these words: "The human mind is itself a causal
agent. Its motives are in large part matters of its own creation. * * *
Intelligent volition is a true cause of adjustive movement."[19-2]

For myself, after what I have endeavored to make an unbiased study of
both opinions, I subscribe unhesitatingly to the latter, and look upon
Mind not only as a potent but as an independent cause of motion in the
natural world, of action in the individual life, and, therefore, of
events in the history of the species.

Confining ourselves to ethnology and history, the causative idea, as I
have said, makes itself felt through ethnic ideals. These are
influential in proportion as they are vividly realized by the national
genius; and elevating in proportion as they partake of those final
truths already referred to, which are all merely forms of expression of
right reasoning. These ideals are the _idola fori_, which have sometimes
deluded, sometimes glorified, those who believed in them.

I shall mention a few of them to make my meaning more apparent.

That with which we are most familiar in history is the warrior ideal,
the personification of military glory and martial success. It is present
among the rudest tribes, and that it is active to-day, events in recent
European history prove only too clearly; and among ourselves, little
would be needed to awaken it to vivid life.

We are less acquainted with religious ideals, as they have weakened
under the conditions of higher culture. They belong in European history
more to the medieval than to the modern period. Among Mohammedans and
Brahmins we can still see them in their full vigor. In these lower
faiths we can still find that intense fanaticism which can best be
described by the expression of Novalis, "intoxicated with God," drunk
with the divine;[20-1] and this it is which preserves to these nations
what power they still retain.

Would that I could claim for our own people a grander conception of the
purpose of life than either of these. But alas! their ideal is too
evident to be mistaken. I call it the "divitial" ideal, that of the rich
man, that which makes the acquisition of material wealth the one
standard of success in life, the only justifiable aim of effort. To most
American citizens the assertion that there is any more important, more
sensible purpose than this, is simply incomprehensible or incredible.

In place of any of these, the man who loves his kind would substitute
others; and as these touch closely on the business of the ethnologist
and the historian when either would apply the knowledge he has gained to
the present condition of society, I will briefly refer to some advanced
by various writers.

The first and most favorite is that of _moral perfection_. It has been
formulated in the expression: "In the progress of ethical conceptions
lies the progress of history itself." (Schäfer.) To such writers the
ideal of duty performed transcends all others, and is complete in
itself. The chief end of man, they say, is to lead the moral life,
diligently to cultivate the ethical perception, the notion of "the
ought," and to seek in this the finality of his existence.[21-1]

Keener thinkers have, however, recognized that virtue, morality, the
ethical evolution, cannot be an end in itself, but must be a means to
some other end. Effort directed toward other, altruism in any form, must
have its final measurement of value in terms of self; otherwise the
immutable principles of justice are attacked. I cannot enlarge upon this
point, and will content myself with a reference to Prof. Steinthal's
admirable essay on "The Idea of ethical Perfection," published some
years ago.[21-2] He shows that in its last analysis the Good has its
value solely in the freedom which it confers. Were all men truly
ethical, all would be perfectly free. Therefore Freedom, in its highest
sense, according to him and several other accomplished reasoners, is the
aim of morality, and is that which gives it worth.

This argument seems to me a step ahead, but yet to remain incomplete.
For after all, what is freedom? It means only opportunity, not action;
and opportunity alone is a negative quantity, a zero. Opportunity for
what, I ask?

For an answer, I turn with satisfaction to an older writer on the
philosophy of history, one whose genial sympathy with the human heart
glows on every page of his volumes, to Johann Gottfried von
Herder.[21-3] The one final aim, he tells us, of all institutions, laws,
governments and religions, of all efforts and events, is that each
person, undisturbed by others, may employ his own powers to their
fullest extent, and thus gain for himself a completer existence, a more
beautiful enjoyment of his faculties.

Thus, to the enriching of the individual life, its worth, its happiness
and its fullness, does all endeavor of humanity tend; in it, lies the
end of all exertion, the reward of all toil; to define it, should be the
object of ethnology; and to teach it, the purpose of history.

Let me recapitulate.

The ethnologist regards each social group as an entity or individual,
and endeavors to place clearly before his mind its similarities and
differences with other groups. Taking objective facts as his guides,
such as laws, arts, institutions and language, he seeks from these to
understand the mental life, the psychical welfare of the people, and
beyond this to reach the ideals which they cherished and the ideas which
were the impulses of their activities. Events and incidents, such as are
recorded in national annals, have for him their main, if not only value,
as indications of the inner or soul life of the people.

By the comparison of several social groups he reaches wider
generalizations; and finally to those which characterize the common
consciousness of Humanity, the psychical universals of the species. By
such comparison he also ascertains under what conditions and in what
directions men have progressed most rapidly toward the cultivation and
the enjoyment of the noblest elements of their nature; and this strictly
inductive knowledge is that alone which he would apply to furthering the
present needs and aspirations of social life.

This is the method which he would suggest for history in the broad
meaning of the term. It should be neither a mere record of events, nor
the demonstration of a thesis, but a study, through occurrences and
institutions, of the mental states of peoples at different epochs,
explanatory of their success or failure, and practically applicable to
the present needs of human society.

Such explanation should be strictly limited in two directions. First, by
the principle that man can be explained only by man, and can be so
explained completely. That is, no super-human agencies need be invoked
to interpret any of the incidents of history: and, on the other hand, no
merely material or mechanical conditions, such as climate, food and
environment, are sufficient for a full interpretation. Beyond these lie
the inexhaustible sources of impulse in the essence of Mind itself.

Secondly, the past can teach us nothing of the future beyond a vague
surmise. All theories which proceed on an assumption of knowledge
concerning finalities, whether in science or dogma, are cobwebs of the
brain, not the fruit of knowledge, and obscure the faculty of
intellectual perception. It is wasteful of one's time to frame them, and
fatal to one's work to adopt them.

These are also two personal traits which, it seems to me, are requisite
to the comprehension of ethnic psychology, and therefore are desirable
to both the ethnologist and the historian. The one of these is the
poetic instinct.

I fear this does not sound well from the scientific rostrum, for the
prevailing notion among scientists is that the poet is a fabulist, and
is therefore as far off as possible from the platform they occupy. No
one, however, can really understand a people who remains outside the
pale of the world of imagination in which it finds its deepest joys; and
nowhere is this depicted so clearly as in its songs and by its bards.
The ethnologist who has no taste for poetry may gather much that is
good, but will miss the best; the historian who neglects the poetic
literature of a nation turns away his eyes from the vista which would
give him the farthest insight into national character.

The other trait is more difficult to define. To apprehend what is
noblest in a nation one must oneself be noble. Knowledge of facts and an
unbiased judgment need to be accompanied by a certain development of
personal character which enables one to be in sympathy with the finest
tissue of human nature, from the fibre of which are formed heroes and
martyrs, patriots and saints, enthusiasts and devotees. To appreciate
these something of the same stuff must be in the mental constitution of
the observer.

Such is the ethnologist's view of history. He does not pretend to be
either a priest or a prophet. He claims neither to possess the final
truth nor to foresee it. He is, therefore equally unwelcome to the
dogmatist, the optimistic naturalist and the speculative philosopher. He
refuses any explanations which either contradict or transcend human
reason; but he insists that human reason is one of the causal facts
which he has to consider; and this brings him into conflict with both
the mystic and the materialist.

Though he exalts the power of ideas, he is no idealist, but practical to
the last degree; for he denies the worth of any art, science, event or
institution which does not directly or indirectly contribute to the
elevation of the individual man or woman, the common average person, the
human being.

To this one end, understanding it as we best can, he claims all effort
should tend; and any other view than this of the philosophy of history,
any other standard of value applied to the records of the past, he looks
upon as delusive and deceptive, no matter under what heraldry of title
or seal of sanctity it is offered.


[6-1] In his epochal essay "Die Aufgabe des Geschichtschreibers."
_Gesammelte Werke_, Bd. I., s. 13. It was republished with a
discriminating introduction by Professor Steinthal in _Die
Sprachphilosophischen Werke Wilhelm von Humboldt's_ (Berlin, 1883).

[6-2] "Der Zweck-Begriff bewirkt nur sich selbst, und ist am Ende was er
im Anfange, in der Unsprünglichkeit, war." _Encyclopädie der
philosophischen Wissenschaften._ Theil,[TN-4] I., § 204.

[6-3] "Die Weltgeschichte ist der blosse Ausdruck einer vorbestimmten
Entwicklung." (Quoted by Lord Acton.)

[7-1] "Die Menschheit hat sich aus natürlicher, tierischer Grundlage auf
rein natürliche mechanische Weise entwickelt." _Anthropolgische
Beiträge_, s. 21.

[8-1] _A Lecture on the Study of History_, p. 1 (London, 1895).

[8-2] See his article "The Relation of Anthropology to the Study of
History," in _The American Journal of Sociology_, July, 1895.

[8-3] Ludwig Tobler, in his article "Zur Philosophie der Geschichte," in
the _Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie_, Bd. XII., s. 195.

[10-1] One of the most lucid of modern German philosophical writers
says, "Without language, there could be no unity of mental life, no
national life at all." Friedrich Paulsen, _Introduction to Philosophy_,
p. 193. (English translation, New York, 1895.) I need scarcely recall to
the student that this was the cardinal principle of the ethnological
writings of Wilhelm von Humboldt, and that his most celebrated essay is
entitled "Ueber die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues und
ihren Einfluss auf die geistige Entwickelung des Menschengeschlechts."
The thought is well and tersely put by Prof. Frank Granger--"Language is
the instinctive expression of national spirit." (_The Worship of the
Romans_, p. 19, London, 1896.)

[10-2] "Law, in its positive forms, may be viewed as an instrument used
to produce a certain kind of character." Frank Granger, ubi supra, p.

[10-3] _Lectures on the Science of Religion_, p. 55.

[12-1] How different from the position of Voltaire, who,
expressing,[TN-5] the general sentiment of his times, wrote,--"The
history of barbarous nations has no more interest than that of bears and

[13-1] _Grundriss der ethnologischen Jurisprudenz_, Bd. I., s. 5.
(Leipzig, 1894.)

[13-2] "Das Geschichte ist weder eine Offenbarung Gottes, noch ein
Naturprocess, sondern eben Menschenwerk." Tobler in the _Zeitschrift für
Völkerpsychologie_, Bd. XII., s. 201.

[14-1] _History of the Philosophy of History_, p. 579.

[15-1] There is nothing in this inconsistent with the principle laid
down by Lecky: "The men of each age must be judged by the ideal of their
own age and country, and not by the ideal of ourselves."--_The Political
Value of History_, p. 50, New York, 1892. The distinction is that
between the relative standard, which we apply to motives and persons,
and the absolute standard, which we apply to actions. The effects of the
latter, for good or evil, are fixed, and independent of the motives
which prompt them.

[17-1] "The historian," says Tolstoi, "is obliged to admit an
inexplicable force, which acts upon his elementary forces." _Power and
Liberty_, p. 28 (Eng. Trans., New York, 1888).

[18-1] See his article "Ueber die Ideen in der Geschichte," in the
_Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie_.[TN-6] Bd. III., S. 486.

[18-2] Brooks Adams, _The Law of Civilization and Decay_, Preface
(London, 1895). This author has reached an advanced position with
reference to thought and emotion as the impulses of humanity.

[19-1] _Grundriss der ethnologischen Jurisprudenz_, Band I., s. 4.

[19-2] _Mind and Motion_, pp. 29, 140, etc. (London, 1895.) Prof.
Paulsen goes much further, as, "The inner disposition spontaneously
determines the development of the individual," and "The organism is, as
it were, congealed voluntary action."--_Introduction to Philosophy_,
pp,[TN-7] 187, 190.

[20-1] Before him, however, the expression "ebrius Deo" was applied to
the ancient rhapsodists.

[21-1] As expressed by Prof. Droysen, in his work, _Principles of
History_, (p. 16, New York, 1893), recently translated by President
Andrews, of Brown University--"Historical things are the perpetual
actualization of the moral forces." Elsewhere he says--"History is
humanity becoming conscious concerning itself,"[TN-8] There is no
objection to such expressions; they are good as far as they go; but
they do not go to the end.

[21-2] In the _Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie_, Band XI., Heft II.

[21-3] _Ideen zur Geschichte der Menschheit_, B. XV., Cap. I.

Transcriber's Note

The following misspellings and typographical errors were maintained.

       Page       Error
  TN-1   3        milleniums should read millenniums
  TN-2   8        developes should read develops
  TN-3  10        thought-tranference, should read thought-transference
  TN-4  fn. 6-2   Theil, should read Theil
  TN-5  fn. 12-1  expressing, should read expressing
  TN-6  fn. 18-1  _Völkerpsychologie_. should read _Völkerpsychologie_,
  TN-7  fn. 19-2  pp, should read pp.
  TN-8  fn. 21-1  itself," should read itself."

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "An Ethnologist's View of History - An Address Before the Annual Meeting of the New Jersey - Historical Society, at Trenton, New Jersey, January 28, 1896" ***

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