Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario
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Scientific Truth and the Scientific Spirit

James Gibson Hume (1916)
University of Toronto

First published in University of Toronto Monthly, 16, 443-445.[*]

Posted October 2001

In Science, March 31st, 1916, appears an article by Professor A. B. Macallum on "Scientific Truth and the Scientific Spirit", a summary of an address at the annual dinner of the Columbia Biochemical Association.

After tactfully referring to the part played by Canadians in 1861 in assisting in the struggle against slavery, and the present effort of Canadians on behalf of liberty, he turns to the forces that should bring men together in peaceful co-operation, among these preeminently "scientific truth and the scientific spirit".

He then shows his versatility by discussing truth and the method of its discovery from the angle of the history of science and the discussions, of the two contending schools of philosophy at the present time, the Pragmatists and their opponents, whom he describes as believing in an Absolute "absolved from all limitations of time and capable of all that we can conceive and more".

It soon appears that Dr. Macallum enrols himself as an enthusiastic admirer of the Pragmatic school. He traces its rise and its affinities with historical, empirical and experimental methods in science.

The point of emphasis is laid on the progressive character of the discovery of truth and the danger of a dogmatic assumption of completed knowledge.

He lays the blame for the persecutions of the middle ages at the door of the school of the "Absolute" of that time.

A brief sketch of the rise and growth of the science of Biochemistry with a fine statement of the aims and [p. 444] ideals and aspirations of science in general, completes a very interesting and suggestive article.



It is not at all surprising that the statement philosophical principles and methods by William James should appeal to a Biochemist. James was first of all trained in biology, physiology and medicine and was a teacher in that field before turning to psychology and later to philosophical construction. He therefore had an intimate acquaintance with and sympathy for the work in biology and understood its problems and difficulties and methods.

But it is not so evident why Dr. Macallum should follow with such an implicit trust the Pragmatists in their misunderstanding amounting to misrepresentation of their philosophical opponents, charging them with a preposterous view of the Absolute that comes with it the supposition that any knowledge of any kind and to any degree of an Absolute is the belief in an alleged absolute knowledge or complete knowledge.

Dr. Macallum then naturally concludes that the Pragmatists allow for progress in science whereas the Anti-pragmatists deny such progressiveness, being already at their goal.

The injustice of this interpretation may be easily demonstrated.  The list of "Absolutists" given by Dr. Macallum includes the following names : Green, Caird, Bosanquet, Bradley and Royce. Until recently these men were frequently referred to as Neo-Hegelians and Hegel was supposed to be the arch offender in Absolutism. Now the truth is that just a half-century before Darwin wrote his epoch-making "Origin of Species", Hegel had written his'' Philosophy of History'', etc., and had enunciated the theory of development and applied it to the interpretation of human civilisation. The naturalistic philosophical view of evolution in Darwin and the previously announced idealistic [p. 445] philosophical view of development in Hegel are identical in so far as the belief in progressiveness is concerned. Indeed both had the same tendency to make almost a fetich[sic] of this feature of progressiveness, so that to some of their disciples in each case progressiveness appeared  as something inevitable. The view of William James corrects this inevitableness in the Darwinian evolution, representing it on the-contrary as conditional and in the case of human progressiveness dependent on human volition and human effort. But curiously enough the Neo-Hegelians had gone in ahead on this very point. Green's masterly treatment of the human will in his Prolegomena to Ethics issues in a similar emendation of the Hegelian inevitableness making human progressiveness dependent on human volitional effort. With the possible exception of Bradley we might show that each one of the other writers censured for lack of admission of progress, wrote to prove the contrary. Take for instance the work by Caird on "the Evolution of Religion among the Greeks".

It is indeed a revelation to find the earlier rationalists guilty for the persecutions in the middle ages. We had supposed these were due to the school of the anti-rationalists who desired to accelerate the "will to believe".

Dr. Macallum has had a preliminary training for philosophical construction similar to that possessed by John Locke and by William James but with a more extended study of physiological science, and we should welcome further philosophical ventures on his part.  As he has nailed to the mast the flag of "Progressiveness" it is not unlikely that he may yet, while extending his pragmatic views allow a more charitable interpretation to be put on the views and methods of the Constructive Idealists.


[*] Classics Editor's note: The article to which Hume is responding in the present paper, "Scientific Truth and the Scientific Spirit" by Archibald Byron Macallum, is avaialable on-line at JSTOR (for those who have access through their academic institution or library). Macallum was a biochemistry professor at University of Toronto (UT). He favored William James' pragmatism over what he called "absolutist" approaches to truth.  Macallum obtained his BA from UT in 1880, his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins in 1888, and became a UT professor in 1891 (much like Hume himself). Macallum was instrumental in the modernization of the UT Medical Faculty. He discovered one of the first neurotransmitters, and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1906.  In 1917, the year after this paper was published, he left UT to become Chair of the Research Council of Canada, and then he went on to teach medicine in Peking in 1920.  He returned to Canada to take up a professorship at McGill from 1920 to 1929, where he became an outspoken advocate of public educational reform.