Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
The Use and Abuse of General Principles in Politics
By Dugald Stewart (17531828)
From Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind
BEFORE proceeding farther, it is necessary for me to premise that it is chiefly in compliance with common language and common prejudices, that I am sometimes led, in the following observations, to contrast theory with experience. In the proper sense of the word theory, it is so far from standing in opposition to experience that it implies a knowledge of principles, of which the most extensive experience alone could put us in possession. Prior to the time of Lord Bacon, indeed, an acquaintance with facts was not considered as essential to the formation of theories; and from these ages has descended to us an indiscriminate prejudice against general principles, even in those cases in which they have been fairly obtained in the way of induction.
But not to dispute about words; there are plainly two sets of political reasoners; one of which consider the actual institutions of mankind as the only safe foundation for our conclusions, and think every plan of legislation chimerical, which is not copied from one which has already been realised: while the other apprehend that, in many cases, we may reason safely a priori from the known principles of human nature, combined with the particular circumstances of the times. The former are commonly understood as contending for experience in opposition to theory; the latter are accused of trusting to theory unsupported by experience: but it ought to be remembered, that the political theorist, if he proceeds cautiously and philosophically, founds his conclusions ultimately on experience, no less than the political empiric;as the astronomer who predicts an eclipse from his knowledge of the principles of the science, rests his expectation of the event on facts which have been previously ascertained by observation, no less than if he inferred it, without any reasoning, from his knowledge of a cycle.
There is, indeed a certain degree of practical skill which habits of business alone can give, and without which the most enlightened politician must always appear to disadvantage when he attempts to carry his plans into execution. And, as this skill is often (in consequence of the ambiguity of language) denoted by the word experience, while it is seldom possessed by those men, who have most carefully studied the theory of legislation, it has been very generally concluded, that politics is merely a matter of routine, in which philosophy is rather an obstacle to success. The statesman who has been formed among official details, is compared to the practical engineer; the speculative legislator to the theoretical mechanician who has passed his life among books and diagrams.In order to ascertain how far this opinion is just, it may be of use to compare the art of legislation with those practical applications of mechanical principles, by which the opposers of political theories have so often endeavoured to illustrate their reasonings.
In the first place, then, it may be remarked that the errors to which we are liable, in the use of general mechanical principles, are owing, in most instances, to the effect which habits of abstraction are apt to have, in withdrawing the attention from those applications of our knowledge, by which alone we can learn to correct the imperfections of theory. Such errors, therefore, are in a peculiar degree, incident to men who have been led by natural taste, or by early habits, to prefer the speculations of the closet, to the bustle of active life, and to the fatigue of minute and circumstantial observation.
In politics, too, one species of principles is often misapplied from an inattention to circumstances; those which are deduced from a few examples of particular governments, and which are occasionally quoted as universal political axioms, which every wise legislator ought to assume as the groundwork of his reasonings. But this abuse of general principles should by no means be ascribed, like the absurdities of the speculative mechanician, to over-refinement, and love of theory; for it arises from weaknesses, which philosophy alone can remedy; an unenlightened veneration for maxims which are supposed to have the sanction of time in their favour, and a passive acquiescence in received opinions.
There is another class of principles, from which political conclusions have sometimes been deduced; and which, notwithstanding the common prejudice against them, are a much surer foundation for our reasonings: I allude, at present, to those principles which we obtain from an examination of the human constitution, and of the general laws which regulate the course of human affairs; principles which are certainly the result of a much more extensive induction, than any of the inferences that can be drawn from the history of actual establishments.
In applying, indeed, such principles to practice, it is necessary (as well as in mechanics) to pay attention to the peculiarities of the case: but it is by no means necessary to pay the same scrupulous attention to minute circumstances, which is essential in the mechanical arts, or in the management of private business. There is even a danger of dwelling too much on details, and of rendering the mind incapable of those abstract and comprehensive views of human affairs, which can alone furnish the statesman with fixed and certain maxims for the regulation of his conduct.