Lester Frank Ward

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Lester Frank Ward

Lester Frank Ward (1841-1913) was an American paleobotanist, sociologist, and educator. He was the leading American opponent of social Darwinism and of impotent government.

Lester Ward was born in Joliet, III., on June 18, 1841. He received a bachelor of arts degree from George Washington University in 1869 and a master's in 1873. From 1865 to 1872 he was with the U.S. Treasury Department and from 1881 through 1888 was assistant and then chief paleontologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. He did considerable research in geology and paleobotany but became intensely interested in sociology as an emerging discipline. His published works in sociology were so well received that, without an academic position, he was elected president of the American Sociological Society in 1906 and 1907. In 1906 Ward was made professor of sociology at Brown University. He died in Washington on April 18, 1913.

Ward approached human society from two perspectives. First, as a successful botanist, he analyzed developments in social organization in terms of energy, and combinations and specialization in the use of energy. These themes were first presented in his Dynamic Sociology (1883) and Pure Sociology (1903). But Ward also emphasized the role of feelings, motives, and will in social affairs. This was extensively discussed in Psychic Factors in Civilization (1893).

In all the previously mentioned works, Ward sought to simplify the entire history of mankind as a relatively blind but somewhat progressive evolution of social order through conflict and resolution of conflict, by means of compromise and various degrees of cooperation (the socalled theory of genesis). Though prefigured in the last section of Pure Sociology, Ward's theory of telesis was considerably expanded in his Applied Sociology (1906). This theory asserted that the fruits of previous social achievements made possible man's ability to direct further evolution by rational effort and acquired intelligence.

Consequently, Ward strongly opposed the laissez-faire approach to government and regarded education as the primary mechanism of continued human progress. In short, Ward anticipated the development of modern governmental responsibilities (the welfare state), planning, and the expansion of formal education as a funnel for maximum participation by citizens in public affairs.

Ward epitomized the "engaged" or involved intellectual who values knowledge for its application to the resolution of social problems. He strongly favored cooperation between social welfare and the social sciences—though a divergence between the two was characteristic of the last decades of his life. The movement toward a closer alliance between social science and social practice is a quiet vindication of the visions of a long-neglected social prophet.

Further Reading

Israel Gerver, Lester Frank Ward (1963), contains selected portions of Ward's writings and a brief biographical sketch. A comprehensive collection of Ward's essays and selected excerpts, along with a well-reasoned interpretation of his thinking, is in Henry S. Commager, Lester Ward and the Welfare State (1967). A full-length biography and interpretation of Ward is Samuel Chugerman, Lester Frank Ward: The American Aristotle (1939).

Additional Sources

Scott, Clifford H., Lester Frank Ward, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976. □

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Ward, Lester Frank (1841–1913) One of the pioneers of American sociology, founder of a psychological evolutionism, which (contrary to Herbert Spencer) ascribed an important role in evolution to human mentality. Self-educated from boyhood, Ward enlisted in the Union Army in 1863, and finally gained his university degrees through evening study. He was a geologist and palaeontologist until the age of 65—when he accepted a professorship in sociology at Brown University (where he continued to teach until his death). In 1906 he was elected to be the first president of the American Sociological Society. Greatly influenced by Comte and Spencer, Ward's sociology is organized around a theory of evolution. This process is described in terms of stages, these being the result initially of ‘genesis’ (spontaneous blind forces), but latterly of ‘telesis’ (purposive actions of humans based on knowledge and the anticipation of consequences). Ward conceptualized sociology as the systematic study of social forces, these being psychic in nature, and resulting in a continuous process of ‘social synergy’ by which new structures were created. He is significant mainly because his works, particularly his discussion of telesis, anticipate the emphasis that twentieth-century sociology was to place on culture (see Dynamic Sociology, 1902
; Pure Sociology, 1903
; and Applied Sociology, 1906
). There is a useful introduction to his writings in Ronald Fletcher , The Making of Sociology, volume i (1971)

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Lester Frank Ward, 1841–1913, American sociologist and paleontologist, b. Joliet, Ill. Largely self-educated, he eventually took degrees in medicine and law. He worked as a government geologist and paleontologist from 1881 to 1906, when he became professor of sociology at Brown. One of the first and most important of American sociologists, Ward developed a theory of planned progress called telesis, whereby man, through education and development of intellect, could direct social evolution. His theories and those of his contemporary, William Graham Sumner, represent two main trends in 19th-century American sociology. Among his important works are Dynamic Sociology (1883), Psychic Factors of Civilization (1893), Pure Sociology (1903), and Glimpses of the Cosmos (6 vol., 1913–18).

See S. Chugerman, Lester F. Ward, the American Aristotle (1939, repr. 1965).