Delivered at Conway Hall 25 April 1934. Chaired by Professor J. B. S. Haldane and presented by Professor Hyman Levy.
Knowledge about the world is gained by inter-acting with the world, through action and experimentation. Via such inter-action, the world is affected in the process of becoming known. Also, physical alterations to the world surrounding man have been produced by human actions.
Inter-actions between material forces in the universe are consistent with mechanical laws. These laws do not govern matter in any external or supernatural sense, but are contained in matter and express its nature. More precisely, each specific item of matter has its own characteristic laws, which express its nature. In some cases, the laws characteristic of an individual entity apply to other entities and therefore have a general application. These laws are demonstrated by the changes matter undergoes, because these changes unfold in accordance with law.
Just as mechanical laws exist in matter, so there exist laws of human society. Man is both a material object and a conscious, active being. Hence he exhibits both mechanical laws and those of individual human behaviour, each set of laws being consistent with the other. Also, man is a social being, his behaviour conforming to the demands of other people. Man creates society, but society subsequently moulds man.
Society is a relationship between single individuals and groups of individuals. That relationship is chiefly to do with the satisfaction of human wants, both material and mental. These considerations point to basic laws of social structure and change. Social laws arise from the collective endeavours of mankind to satisfy its needs by controlling and utilising the material forces of nature.
Laws of all kinds consist of a causal relation between an individual entity and its environment. This point applies to the most basic level of material events, and to the individual society in relation to other societies. Science’s business is the study of laws, a study issuing in systematic and ordered knowledge, via the process of experimentation, with theory and practice in harmony. Also, the individual scientist’s endeavours have, as their context and background, the work of previous scientists.
Systematic and ordered knowledge, in connection with the study of human beings, means examining the individual always in relation to his environment; people both alter and are altered by environment. This consideration points to the difficulty of labelling a person as ‘essentially’ one thing or another, as if we could consider him apart from his environment. Given the enormous variety of environments, most of them class-dominated, the only way of achieving a fundamental understanding of the human individual would be to establish a standardised environment, in which there was no class dominance, and therefore no class-based attitudes and values. In human society thus far, class has been the leading factor in shaping the behaviour of most individuals; hence that behaviour is in no way a full index of individual capacity.
In the process of developing a viable outlook, the individual must become aware of the environmental factors which have shaped his outlook thus far. This is essential in order to again to realism and full rationality, especially in the field of economics.
On the economic front, the capitalist system has utilised science to produce ever more efficient machines for producing goods, thereby displacing human producers i.e. industrial workers, and creating unemployment. This policy is irrational, creating a profound contradiction within the system: more is produced, but fewer people can afford to buy what is produced, due to the unemployment created by that increase in production. This contradiction can only be resolved by turning over the processes of production to public ownership.
Society’s access to material resources, and ability to utilise them, are key factors in determining its cultural level. Also, ability to utilise resources depends on level of technological development. Who owns the material resources, and the means of refining them and distributing the resultant products, is fundamental in shaping society’s control structure. In all societies thus far, the control structure has been a class structure, producing differences in economic and cultural level, and reinforced by the power of the state.
Throughout history, social change-the demise of one ruling class and the rise of another-has taken place when the means and needs of production have outrun the capacity of the current social system to accommodate them. Power has passed from entrenched ruling groups who failed to accommodate them to new groups who succeeded in doing so. This has been the law of social change, one studied much less than the laws of physics. However, social laws differ from physical laws in that they are created by human beings through action, not discovered by them through observation.