by the astronomer John Herschel. (Herschel, of course, was familiar with Quetelet as a fellow astronomer.) Later, in 1857, Maxwell read a newly published book by the historian Henry Thomas Buckle. Buckle, himself clearly influenced by Quetelet, believed that science could discover the “laws of the human mind” and that human actions are part of “one vast system of universal order.”15 (I encountered one Web page where Buckle is referred to as the Hari Seldon of the 19th century.)

Buckle was another of the 19th century’s most curious characters. Born near London in 1821, he was a slow learner as a child. When he was 18 his father, a maritime merchant, died, leaving the son sufficient funds to tour Europe and pursue his hobbies of history and chess. (Buckle became a formidable chess player and learned several foreign languages, becoming fluent in seven and conversant in a dozen others. He also became a prolific bibliophile, amassing a library exceeding 20,000 books.)

From 1842 on, Buckle began compiling the data and evidence for a comprehensive treatise on history. Originally planned to focus on the Middle Ages, the work eventually took on broader aims and became the History of Civilization in England (by which Buckle actually meant the history of civilization, period). While presumably a work of history, Buckle’s book was really more a sociological attempt to subject the nature of human behavior to the methods of science. He criticized the “metaphysical” (or philosopher’s) approach to the issue, advocating instead the “historical” method (by which he basically meant the scientific method).

“The metaphysical method … is, in its origin, always the same, and consists in each observer studying the operations of his own mind,” Buckle wrote. “This is the direct opposite of the historical method; the metaphysician studying one mind, the historian studying many minds.”16 Buckle could not resist remarking that the metaphysical method “is one by which no discovery has ever been made in any branch of knowledge.” He then emphasized the need for observing great numbers of cases so as to escape the effects of “disturbances” obscuring the underlying law. “Every thing we at present know,” Buckle asserted, “has been ascertained by studying



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement