POWELL RESIGNED from the United States Geological Survey in May, 1894. His outward excuse was physical disability: the stump of his arm, twice-operated-upon, was painful and difficult to live with. But he was careful to select as his successor the durable Walcott rather than the scholarly Gilbert, and in his last year he had the satisfaction of a partial restoration of his mutilated budget.1 He left the Survey with hope for its future and a markedly paternal pride in its achievements. His bureaus had from the beginning had a high esprit de corps; in that, they established models for the later Forest Service, National Park Service, Soil Conservation Service, and other government agencies, mainly under Interior and Agriculture, which have been notable for the disinterested effectiveness of their work. But the Geological Survey had had more than esprit. It had had brilliance. “In this severance of our relations,” said Powell’s last report, “ ... I cannot refrain from an expression of profound gratitude for the loyal and loving aid which they have given me, ever working together with zeal and wisdom to add to the sum of human knowledge. The roster of those honored men is found in ten-score volumes of contributions to knowledge and fifty-score maps familiar to the scholars of the world.”2
They had been dedicated to a high purpose, and the revenue of their new discoveries had enriched them individually and collectively. From the initial exploration of the last American Unknown they had extended their work across the nation; their isostatic force had raised whole continents of knowledge into the light. But certainly one of the saddest parts of Powell’s general defeat was the defection of Dutton, one of the earliest and the best, the inheritor of Powell’s geological labors, whose testimony had become a weapon in Stewart’s hands. Dutton was gone before Powell was, back into his regular army duties.
An aging, tired man, one might think, gave up his administrative power in 1894. The last years of a man whose reach had so far exceeded his grasp might be bitter. But Powell had filled his life with such a variety of interests that even the defeat of the General Plan left him much. Long ago he had given up geology. He had been forced to give up land reform. Now he had given up administration except for the relatively minor administration of his Bureau of American Ethnology. His public career was so reduced that it could be said to have ended. But his intellectual career went on. Mental force, like water, can be dammed, but its immediate reaction is to pond behind the dam until it breaks over into a new channel. Powell’s last eight years might be described in his own geological terms as an example of “consequent drainage.”
What he had left to him was the Science of Man, and now he could devote himself to it. There is even some indication that he entertained ambitions to build the Bureau of American Ethnology into a great organization for anthropological research on the scale of the Geological Survey. If he did, the feeling against government science, the personal hostility of a part of Congress, and the position of the Bureau of Ethnology within the Smithsonian where it was safer but also had less freedom, all combined to thwart another piece of major bureau building. His friend W J McGee said that the failure to expand his anthropological organization embittered Powell’s late years and shortened his life;3 there is no indication other than McGee’s statement that it really did so.
For even without that opportunity, he had another ambition, this one completely out of the hands of Congressional committees. He wanted to summarize human knowledge, the history of the human experience, the history of mind, from the savage level through Plato and Aristotle, Bacon and Linnaeus, and beyond those to the triumph of science in his own time. His novum organum was planned in three volumes. But though the synthetic rewriting of human history which Adams had foreseen as the result of geological and anthropological discoveries tempted him as it had tempted Marx, Ward, Spencer, Sumner, Morgan, he was less historian than analyst. History provided the illustration for his epistemology. All human progress led toward science, error gave way slowly to truth. And “most of the literature of the past,” Powell had said in 1885, “is a vast assemblage of arguments in support of error.”4
To point out those errors, cut away the accumulated web of argument and disputation masking mythology or thaumaturgy or unverifiable belief, to establish the knowability and verifiability of the properties of phenomena, to map the progressive stages of development of human organization and intelligence — those were jobs enough for his declining years. Also, he was as good a man as any to take the jobs on. By common consent among all but his personal enemies he was one of the foremost scientists in America, one of the foremost in the world. This farm boy with the homemade education held honorary degrees from several universities including Harvard and Heidelberg. In 1891 he had been awarded the Cuvier Prize, given every three years for “the most remarkable work either on the Animal Kingdom or Geology,” in recognition of the combined work of the Geological Survey. He was a member of a dozen national and international scientific societies, and he had not been boasting when he said that the work of his bureau — which was to a large but indeterminable extent his own — was known to the scholars of the world. Among anthropologists he was quite as well known. Perhaps he did not, as Spencer Baird said, know “more about the live Indian than any live man,” but he was outranked in the Science of Man by no more than three men, dead or alive — if Gallatin, Morgan, and Brinton could really be said to outrank him. Age and retirement were the proper time for memoirs: the appropriate memoir for John Wesley Powell was a summary of human growth, the “larger synthesis” which Henry Adams had long sought and finally lost hope of.
With his philosophy of science, his epistemology, this book has nothing to do. It was the late, cherished, cranky, highly original, wildly abstract, and characteristically unfinished culmination of his years of scientific education. No one who couldn’t formulate and hang on to an abstraction, he said, had any business psychologizing.5 He himself formulated and hung on to a complexity of abstractions that bewildered his contemporaries, dazed his most loyal friends, and has apparently influenced as yet not one philosophical thinker.
His friend Lester Ward, who had dedicated to Powell his Dynamic Sociology6 and to whom Powell dedicated his first philosophical volume, called Truth and Error, accused Powell of being a little touched on the five-fold properties of matter;7 Powell replied with dignity that he was not making numbers-magic as Ward thought he was, but was simply reporting what long and verified observation had taught him. Gilbert confessed frankly that he did not understand the Major’s philosophical writings. Powell would have told him, and perhaps did, that his difficulty was not the complexity of the ideas in Truth and Error, but their dazzling simplicity. It was only the accumulation of centuries of error, metaphysics, and idealism, the reification of various voids, the confusion of abstraction with analysis, that made Powell’s system seem difficult. His system reduced the complexities of the world, if not to unity, at least toward simplicity;8 the philosophers of the past had built the simplest things into complexities until at length matter itself disappeared and Reality, as in the Idealists, became Illusion.
Powell believed in objective reality, and he did not trouble himself overmuch with the “supersensual chaos” that frustrated Adams’ search for Unity. He thought he knew the essential properties of matter — number, extension, speed, persistence, and consciousness. He thought he could tell the difference, as few philosophers had been able to, between these inherent and concomitant and irreducible “properties” and the subjective “qualities” which human consciousness had read into them and confused with them. Upon these five properties of matter he built his whole system, and logic led him to find the fifth of them — consciousness — as certainly in the particles of a molecule as in the human brain. The force that made hydrogen atoms seek always a certain arrangement and structure, or that made minerals arrange themselves in definite patterns of crystals, or that led a watermelon seed to extract from soil and water precisely those chemicals that would build new watermelon vines and fruit, was choice, and this choice could be tracked back to the smallest particles of matter as definitely as could speed, persistence, extension, or number.
On the evolutionary scale, the highest choice, the most complicated relationship, was that in which the human intelligence was conscious of itself: the consciousness of consciousness, the knowledge of knowledge, the perception and apprehension of mind. It was mind toward which all evolution moved, and since Powell believed with Lamarck that long exercise of an organ increased its use and function and size and efficiency, evolution for him was no longer blindly biotic, but mental. When he died he had a bet on with W J McGee that his brain was bigger and heavier than McGee’s. For whatever it mattered, it was.9
Knowledge of knowledge, method of method, perception of perception, a philosophy of mind. What do you want to do all that thinking for, Doña Ana’s father asks Don Juan in Shaw’s Man and Superman. Why don’t you just relax and enjoy yourself? Ah, says Don Juan, without the mind you only enjoy yourself. You do not know the fun you are having.
Epistemology is not our province. If there is any virtue in the Major’s five-fold systematizations, if he succeeded in making any sort of coherent and enduring structure out of the ideas he ransacked from chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy, biology, anthropology, psychology, personal experience, philosophy, and the accumulated mass of human error, some philosopher will eventually discover the first volume of his novum organum and the scattered essays which were to make up the second. The fact that he does not appear in the discussions of modem philosophers or get himself quoted in the symposia which aim, as he did, to synthesize scientific knowledge, may mean much or little. Powell does not appear importantly in the social and political histories either, or has not until recently, when Walter Webb, Henry Nash Smith, and Joseph Kinsey Howard all discovered him. Oberholtzer’s massive History of the United States since the Civil War does not mention him in text or bibliography. Allan Nevins in The Emergence of Modern America gives him a few paragraphs. Fred A. Shannon’s otherwise admirable volume on post-Civil War agriculture, The Farmer’s Last Frontier, ignores him completely, though he was one of the most potent influences both in the West and in Washington in those postwar years, and he proposed and almost put into effect a program that would have altered all the agricultural history that Professor Shannon wrote about. George Wharton James’ Reclaiming the Arid West in 1917 gave Powell credit for being the father of reclamation, and Louise. Peffer, in The Closing of the Public Domain, traced back to him a number of contemporary land policies. Yet the Truman Water Resources Commission’s report in 1952 never mentioned his name.
Still, comparative neglect does not necessarily mean unimpor tance : importance has been overlooked in other cases than his. It is possible, though hardly probable, that his epistemology will be dug out by someone less dazed than Gilbert and less captious than Lester Ward, and shown to have as much validity in the half-mapped terrain of the philosophy of science as his plan for the conservation and reclamation of the arid regions has in the drouthy West.
Of the validity of that Western blueprint, which is our concern here, there is not the shadow of a doubt. He was not merely an explorer, an opener, and an observer, he was a prophet. And yet by the law of motion (and hence of history) which he himself accepted, his motion as a particle in the jar and collision of American life was bound to be spiral. His reforms have taken effect, his plans have been adopted, but partially, belatedly, sidelong, as a yielding resultant of two nearly equal stresses.