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The Principle of Limits: With Special Reference to the Social Sciences

Author(s): Jules Henry

Source: Philosophy of Science, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Jul., 1950), pp. 247-253
Published by: University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Philosophy of Science Association
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The following paper is a continuation of an attempt (2) to explore the pos-

sibility of intensifying sociological analysis through the development of heuristic
devices. The value of heuristic devices lies, so it seems to me, in their essential
simplicity and the consequent broadness of their applicability. A heuristic de-
vice differs from a law in that it is not an if, then type of proposition. It is a
guide to analysis rather than a statement of the necessaryissue of the analysis.
It suggests how the analysis may be carried forward rather than states how it
must come out. The principle of limits as presented below is an attempt to show
how this relatively simple heuristic device may be used in a variety of areas of
social analysis.
1.Definition. Phenomena are limited in their development or activity. They
are limited by factors inside and outside of themselves, viz., by external and
internal factors. Thus, the stature and weight of the body are limited by the
general chemical composition of the body (internal factors) and by nutrition
(external factors). The restrictive action of the factor may be either partial or
complete. To continue with our example of the human body, the genetic com-
position of the body partially determines growth, but other factors, such as
nutrition, affect growth also. On the other hand the general character of the
body, i.e., that it shall be human, equipped with two eyes, two arms, etc., is
limited entirely by the nature of the genes.
We have now establishedthe followingpropositions:
1. Phenomena are restricted (i.e., limited).
2. They are limited by specific factors.
3. These factors may be either external or internal.
4. The restriction brought about by the limiting factors may be either partial
or complete.
2. The Conceptof Limitsin Pure and AppliedScience. The peculiarityof the
concept of limits in mathematics is that it permits the abstract expression of
* Pitrim Sorokin published a paper with practically the same title in Social Process,
1932. Sorokin's paper, The Principle of Limits, urged: (1) That "there is a logical basis for
contending that causality between two phenomena exists only within certain limits and
that outside these bounds the relationship either disappears or becomes radically altered
in nature." (2) That there is no such thing as a "limitless perpetual direction of social
processes but that we have rather "a number of different attempts begun, developed, and
halted . . . Hence there is . . . not indefinite direction but short or long-term sharp, radi-
cal turns in the direction of the process." Alexander Goldenweiser's Theory of Limited
Possibilities, Journal of American Folklore, Volume 26, 1913,was a well-considered attempt
to explain certain aspects of cultural variability through analysis of the factors operating
to limit variation. Thus both these scholars have attempted to apply this mode of Western
thought to the analysis of particular problems. The contention of this paper, however, is
that this is an inherent mode of Western thought and ought to be objectifiedso that it will
become a tool used consciously in the analysis of all aspects of social process.

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the limiting relationship that one quantity bears to another as they vary in
In the biological sciences problems of limits have been explored with fruitful
results. Thus there is a limit to the extent to which any organism may multiply.
We know that in spite of the capacity that some organisms have for extremely
rapid reproduction, their actual numbers seem always to remain within certain
limits. This is due to the fact that no food is inexhaustible, and also to the
characteristics of organic interaction. In the case of the Drosophila fly, for ex-
ample, it appears that crowding by other Drosophila quickly reduces the fertility
of the females because of their extreme sensitivity to disturbance. In the multi-
plication of yeast, a limit is quickly reached because the multiplication process
itself generates products which are injurious to the yeast. The very potentialities
of the cells of the body are limited by the activities and characteristics of the
surrounding cells. The Darwinian theory of evolution, with its basis in the
limiting character of competition, and Malthus' law, have developed wholly or
partially out of problems of limits.
Now, although it is clear that we are not dealing with the same process in all
these phenomena, we are viewing them all in the same way. We are not saying
that the limit of the fertility of the Drosophila is determined by the same process
as determines the limits of the multiplication of yeast. But what is at issue in
these cases is the use of a concept of a very broad compass as a tool for the
examination of phenomena capable of increase or decrease, continuance or ces-
sation of development or activity.
Closely allied to biology is the new field of human engineering. Here, under
controlled conditions, physiologists and psychologists have studied the functional
limits of the human body. Particularly interesting is the work done in the past
ten years on airplane pilots. Among the problems studied were: the limits of
pilot ability to withstand fatigue and temperature changes; the limits of his
ability to register accurately, under all conditions of lighting, the notations on
an increasing number of dials on the instrument panel; pilot tolerance-limit for
rapid acceleration and deceleration; the limit of the number of functions a pilot
could perform successfully at one time. Other more obvious things, like pressure
and oxygen-content tolerance limits, have, of course, been the object of research
for a long time. This growing awareness of the importance of the tolerance
limits of the body has been important in the movement to design machines to
fit the human body rather than attempting, as in the past, to fit the body to the
3. The Concept of Limits in the Social Sciences. In the paragraphs that
follow I have applied the principle of limits to the analysis of two sets of phe-
nomena, which I have called respectively Restraints and Responsibilities, and
Multiplication and Dispersion. These ought to be considered as examples of the
use of the principle, rather than as thorough explorations of the general socio-
biological problems raised.

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Restraints and Responsibilities. Anthropologists have no knowledge of man as

a solitary animal, and it is very unlikely that any but a very rudimentary de-
velopment of the intellectual processes would have been possible for such a
solitary being had he existed. Since wherever and whenever we have known
homo sapiens it is as a social animal, we must conclude that man needs society
in order to survive. But living together in society imposes limits (restraints) on
the individual for he must learn to respect the needs of those with whom he
lives. Were he not to impose limits on himself, man would destroy his social
organization-the very thing he needs to survive. Limitations on the freedom
of the individual must, then, be part and parcel of any system of government or
tribal organization. It is very likely that in the course of the evolution of human
culture those which imposed too few or too many restraints could not survive,
so that what we have left today, whether at the primitive level or otherwise,
are cultures in which the problem of restraint has been adequately worked out
--for the time being at any rate. Of course, it would be naive to assume that
the American constitution with its system of checks and balances, with its
apportionment of powers between the states and the federal government, has
the same roots, let us say, as limitations on marriage in primitive cultures. But
both modern and tribal systems of limitations rest on the socio-biological fact
that a given culture, in order to survive, must limit freedom. Both types of
culture punish violations of those principles of restraint felt to be essential to
the survival of the culture.
Such considerations lead us to the conclusion that both in Anthropology and
Political Science certain fundamental conceptions of limitations are relevant.
Hence the concept of limits may usefully be applied to the data of both fields of
Much of the government in the United States has been concerned with the
manipulation of a constantly fluctuating system of limits. As a matter of fact
it might almost be said that half the art of government depends on the under-
standing of limits. The Constitutional Convention was largely concerned with
the problem of limitation of powers, as finally expressed in the system of checks
and balances. Most of the constitutional amendments impose restraints rather
than add powers or change methods. Indeed, the rights guaranteed in the Bill
of Rights are so guaranteed largely through the imposition of restraints on the
Federal power. Thus Article I states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the
free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of
the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress
of grievances.
And Article II
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the
people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
The establishment of the system of checks and balances and the Bill of Rights,
however, by no means settled the problems of limitation in the American federal

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system. Almost from the very beginning the Supreme Court was called upon to
make decisions involving the fixing of limits on jurisdictions and powers as be-
tween the states and the federal government. Cushman has suggested that:
Perhaps the most important duty which has fallen to the Supreme Court of the United
States has been that of ... drawing jurisdictional lines and settling disputes between
federal and state governments. (1)

It was only when circumstances-the growth and development of our country

-forced upon both federal and state governments the realization that govern-
ment in order to be successful must be a cooperative arrangement between the
states and the federal authority, that there was some modification of the Revo-
lution-born boundary between state and federal powers. Nevertheless, this
problem is still alive enough today to be projected into national politics.
The specific problems of limits of power and responsibility arising out of a
highly developed and complex governmental system are of a very different
character from those arising on the primitive level. The smaller populations of
primitive cultures, the vastly different organization; the difference of goals and
motivations, make the specific problems of limits very different in primitive
as contrasted with modern cultures. Yet we cannot understand the internal
structure either of primitive culture or of our own unless we understand what
limiting factors are at work in both.
In preceding paragraphs we examined the problem of limits from the point
of view of preventing interference with others. But social living implies-in-
deed, compels-responsibility also. There is no culture in which the members
do not have responsibilities-obligations to feed and protect others. Responsi-
bility, of course, may be looked upon as another side of the restraint medal, for
surely responsibility means that there is a limit to the extent to which any
individual or group may be concerned with itself alone. Social life compels the
individual to look after others as well as himself, and any compulsion is a limi-
tation. If we examine cultures both at the primitive level and otherwise, how-
ever, we will observe that while there is no such thing as unlimited freedom,
neither is there unlimited responsibility. One of the major accomplishments of
primitive kinship systems is that they not only specify but also limit social
obligation. When they do not, the result is social pathology.
The relationship systems of primitive cultures define the limits of economic
obligation. That is to say, to each relationship term there corresponds a range
of responsibility. The anthropologist is aware that once he knows the structure
of a relationship system in a primitive culture he generally knows with whom
every piece of meat or basket of yams that a man gets is going to end up. These
systems of primitive peoples are thus not only blueprints of the structure of
marital relationships; they are charts that tell every one with whom he must
cooperate in essential operations of the culture. It will be seen that this is an
absolute necessity; for since the fundamental cement of the culture is coopera-
tion, one must know with whom to cooperate. These laws of cooperation are
concretized in the relationship system. A large number of relationship systems

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of primitive people are exceedingly specific in delimiting the area of social

cooperation for each individual. When a culture does not, however, define this
area properly great tension may develop. In both the primitive cultures in which
I have worked this was the case. (3) (4) In both cultures the individual was
supposed to cooperate with everyone. Since this was impossible great distress
developed; on the one hand the individual was worried because he could not
fulfill his numerous responsibilities, and on the other hand he was angry with
those who, although obligated to him, did not fulfill their responsibilities. So,
also, worry about his own unfulfilled obligations often led the individual to the
assumption that all those with whom he did not cooperate were angry with him.
This resulted in a very unhealthy condition in these cultures.
Thus, most cultures, while placing limits on freedom, "pay back," in a sense,
by limiting responsibility. Both must be done, whether at the tribal or "civi-
lized" level; whether in a primitive relationship system or in a highly complex
government. Much of social life can be comprehended once we understand the
nature of its restraints and responsibilities. In primitive cultures these systems
are frequently frozen into patterns almost as rigid as language itself. In modern
governments, however, they are continually changing. Much of the pain of
growth in our federal constitution has been concerned with the expansion of
government responsibility under the impact of changing conditions. Much of
the work of the Supreme Court has been devoted to a redefinition of the limits
of federal responsibility. The expanding limits of state and federal responsibility
for social welfare have been one of the major political facts of our system in
the last fifty years. It has been the subject of some of the bitterest legal fights
and of some of the most far-reaching judicial decisions. (1)
Multiplication and Dispersion: Thus far we have examined some of the prob-
lems arising out of the hypothesis that considerations of limits on the activity
of individuals and groups are fundamental to an understanding of social process
both in our own and in primitive culture. This examination was conducted on
the basis of the further hypothesis that society was necessary to human sur-
vival. In this respect, then, our study of the nature of social organization is a
socio-biological one. There are certain other considerations also of a socio-bio-
logical nature that are worthwhile exploring.
Two universal properties of organisms-multiplication and dispersion-are as
fundamental to man as they are to any other biological form. Man as well as
bacilli has the property of multiplication and dispersion, and the environment
limits the extent to which these take place. However, while many organisms
react to the limiting factors in the environment in a relatively mechanical way,
the reactions of man are exceedingly intricate and conditioned by his culture.
At times man's culture can modify the limits imposed by the natural environ-
ment. At times his reaction to the limiting factors in the environment can be
caught up in a tangle of psychological consequences and political explosions.
In the following paragraphs there are examined some of the aspects of man's
reaction to the limiting effects of his environment.
The KaingatngIndians of Brazil (4) were a nomadic, hunting people-one of

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the simplest in the world. They were divided into extended families of 50 to
300 persons. Now, it is characteristic of hunting, as it is of other production en-
deavors, that it is destructive of the very thing it needs most. So the hunting
of the Kaingang destroyed the game animals in the areas in which the Indians
hunted. Any given area of the Santa Catarina forest was capable of supporting
only a small number of hunters, and this for only a very short time. Hence the
Kaingang had to move from place to place, and had to split their extended
families into small hunting bands. It is easily seen that in an area of relatively
scarce game supply, which the forest of Santa Catarina indeed was, the hunting
bands would have to move in ever-widening circles, and hence drift farther and
farther apart from one another. The result of this was that some Kaingang
would wander so far away from the rest of their extended family that they would
not see them for years, or perhaps vanish altogether. This is dispersion of a very
high order, under the influence of the limiting factors of the environment.
This, furthermore, is an almost mechanical reaction to the environment. How-
ever, in considering the nature of human responses it is not well to leave out
cultural factors; and in the Kaingatng case these provide some striking insights
into the psychological consequences of biological limitations.
It was a fundamental principle of Kaingatng social organization that every
man must hunt with every other man, on pain of grave disapproval of the
neglected parties. Now, it is obvious that under conditions of extreme dispersal
such a social rule is impossible to observe. Yet the Kaingang clung to this idea,
with the result that there were endless quarrels over unfulfilled obligations.
But this was not all. An important factor in the integration of Kaingang society
was the warm affective relationships among the men. It was quite common to
see them lying together; their arms wrapped around each other, for all the
world like lovers in our own culture. So, too, bunches of them liked to sleep
close together at night. The disruption of these affective ties through dispersion
was also felt. The consequence was a deepening of hostility. The whole situation
was made even worse through the very human Kaingang trait of imagining that
the person one failed to help was angry with one, and then acting on that as-
sumption. Thus A would imagine that B was angry with him because A had not
hunted with B. Then, when A finally met B, A would rail at B for being angry,
even before B uttered a word. Thus, to the environmental factor, which
weakened the social organization by compelling dispersion, was added a psycho-
logical one, which weakened the organization further and produced further
dispersion, through separation of the angry ones.
Thus, at the primitive level, the natural limits of the food supply may have
far-reaching effects on social organization. It is striking that the Arapesh of
New Guinea, (5) with an all-for-one-and-one-for-all social philosophy similar
to that of the Kaingang, were not torn asunder, as were the KaingAng, by dis-
sensions growing out of non-fulfillment of economic obligations. This was due
in part to the fact that the Arapesh are an agricultural people, and strictly
limited in locale. Under such conditions the Arapesh could carry out what the
Kaingang could not. Since the Kaingang had at one time been an agricultural

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people it is interesting to observe how a system of social sanctions serviceable

under one set of environmental conditions were catastrophic in another.
In our discussion of the Kaingang we observed that the limit on the food
supply available can be destructive of the social organization of a tribe. In our
own culture, on the other hand, we note that while food shortages may ulti-
mately undermine the political structure of nations, proper social organization
can indefinitely postpone the limiting effects of environment. We may also
observe that questions of natural limits are now-a-days quickly projected into
international power politics.
The ability to reclaim land through irrigation, enrichment of the soil, filling
gullies and the proper adjustment of furrows to the contour of the land is as
much an achievement of social organization as it is of science, for only a well
developed social organization can make such science possible, and only through
the high development of social organization-modern government-can the dis-
coveries of science be brought to bear on large tracts of land, to make them bear
fruit, when the natural character of the land would have ordained that they be
fallow. Actually, then, the limitations of human survival on this planet are at
least as much a function of social organization as they are of natural
4. Conclusions. It seems to me that there is no field of social thinking into
which the limitation principle has not entered as a powerful, sometimes even as
a determining, instrument. The science of economics, for example, resting as
it does on the assumption that economic goods are scarce, has made a limita-
tion the core of its theory.
It is not possible, however ima short paper to do more than make a beginning
in the discussion of a problem that is fundamentally so wide in its scope.
The reader will have discemed that my ideas about limitation have in them
much of the traditional flavor of our culture. It could hardly be otherwise.
English philosophy from Hobbs to John Stuart Mill has used limitation as an
instrument implicit to its thinking. My hope is that we may make it explicit, so
that it may be used consciously as an analytical tool in the social sciences. I
think of this as serving a two-fold purpose: first, as a possible help in the study
of particular social phenomena; and second, as a step in the direction of integra-
tion of the social sciences.

Washington University
1. CUSHMAN, ROBERTE. What's Happening to Our Constitution? Public Affairs Commit-
tee, Public Affairs Pamphlet No. 70. New York, 1946.
2. HENRY, JULES. "Cultural Discontinuity and the Shadow of the Past." Scientific
Monthly, March, 1948.
3. HENRY, JULES AND ZUNIA. Doll Play of Pilaga Indian Children. American Orthopsychi-
atric Association, Research Monographs No. 4. New York, 1944.
4. HENRY, JULES. Jungle People. New York. J. J. Augustin, 1941.
5. MEAD, MARGARET. Sex and Temperamentin Three Primitive Societies in From the South
Seas. William Morrow and Company, New York, 1939.
6. MILL, JOHN STUART. On Liberty, Chapter 1.

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