The Crisis of the Personal
‘The Form of the Personal’ was the subject which I chose for the two series of Gifford Lectures which were delivered in the University of Glasgow in the Spring of 1953 and of 1954. For this choice I had two main reasons; the first, that it is, in my judgement, the emergent problem for contemporary philosophy; the second, that it directs attention to that aspect of our common experience from which religion springs, and is in this respect appropriate to the purpose of the Gifford foundation. For it is characteristic of religion that it behaves towards its object in ways that are suitable to personal intercourse; and the conception of a deity is the conception of a personal ground of all that we experience. If then human reason, unaided by revelation, can contribute anything to theology, it is through a philosophical analysis of the personal that we should expect this to be brought to light.
I must treat this theme as a philosopher, for that is my only competence. But here I am embarrassed by the widespread doubt whether a natural theology is at all possible; whether indeed such a branch of knowledge properly exists. If it can be made possible, then it must be a part of philosophy; yet among philosophers today the most prevalent view would seem to be that there can be no natural theology, but at most a philosophy of religion. If we disregard philosophies which are grounded in a dogmatic theology on the one hand or in a dogmatic atheism on the other, it would be fair to say that for the most part the debate about the status of theological beliefs turns upon the validity or illusoriness of specifically religious experience. But this would appear to rule out, by implication, the possibility of any natural theology. For by this term is meant, as I understand it, a theology which is based upon our common human experience of the world, and which requires no help from special experiences of a peculiarly religious kind. It must be discoverable by reason alone, without the need to have recourse to faith.
This philosophical tendency to discount the possibility of a natural theology is confirmed by the most vigorous and challenging of contemporary developments in theology itself. The Theology of Crisis has stressed the complete otherness of God to a point where the notion that reason could even suggest the divine becomes evidently irrational, and the idea of a natural theology itself unnatural. So, in our time, philosophers and theologians tend to unite, it would seem, in agreement that religion must rest upon its own evidence, and that any knowledge we may have of the divine must be revealed to us in ‘religious’ experiences whose validity is evidenced by an inner conviction of their authenticity in those to whom they are granted.
When both philosophy and theology tend in this matter to recognize an impassable gulf between faith and reason, it would seem that the philosopher, who must stand by reason, should conclude to atheism. He cannot admit, as premisses of his argument, any special experiences, religious or other, whose validity is at all questionable. He must start from common experience at its most universal and its most ordinary; and his procedure must be by rational analysis and rational inference. At no point can he admit as evidence any experience which is radically heterogeneous with this commonplace starting-point, and which could point to no evidence in common experience to bear witness for it. Such a disparity between normal and religious experience would convict of unreality the abnormality of the latter. If there is no point at which faith and reason can meet, then it is unreasonable to accept the deliverances of faith, and atheism is the reasonable conclusion.
It is undeniable that the historic development of modern philosophy has moved in this direction. In its beginnings it is unquestioningly theist, and confident of its capacity to demonstrate the existence of God. Even Hobbes and Machiavelli profess a religious belief which we should consider hardly compatible with their modes of thought. This early confidence has gradually faded; and in the end has been replaced by the conviction that any attempt to sustain religion by philosophical reasoning is to be suspected of special pleading. The long argument which Descartes initiated has moved decisively in the direction of atheism.
It may be said that this is only history, and that it merely reflects the progressive decline of the authority of religion in our civilization during the modern period. There is truth in this. Yet the history of our philosophy is our social history at its most serious, its most reflective and its most logical. May not the failure of reason to sustain the argument for religion be in turn part of the explanation of the decline of faith? I do not wish to argue these issues now. I shall content myself, at this stage, with expressing my belief that the more closely modern philosophy keeps to its programme, and the more purely objective its procedure becomes, the more inevitable is the atheism of its conclusion. Within the limits of its assumptions no other result is permissible.
Yet I cannot accept the conclusion, in spite of its logical necessity; and that I am not alone in this seems to be shown by the reluctance of so many competent philosophers explicitly to draw it. When I forget the course of the argument, I find the conclusion unreasonable, and indeed prima facie incredible. I do not mean that atheism in itself is prima facie irrational. But the view that there is no path from common experience to a belief in God; that religion rests upon some special and extraordinary type of experience apart from which it could not arise—this seems to me hardly credible. For if it were true we should expect to find (should we not?) that religion developed late in the history of culture, and sporadically, under the influence of unusual conditions of life. Interest in religion, one would imagine, would be confined to special types of men, with abnormal and possibly somewhat deranged sensibilities; and we should expect also to find no connexion between religion and more usual forms of reflective activity. Yet the opposite of all this is the case. Religion is the original, and the one universal expression of our human capacity to reflect; as primitive and as general as speech. It is atheists and agnostics who have been exceptional and abnormal. They have indeed constituted a very small minority at all times, although their numbers have tended to increase in epochs of social dissolution. So far, too, from being heterogeneous with other aspects of culture, and resting upon abnormal experience which contrasts with our common awareness of the world, religion is the source from which the various aspects of human culture have been derived; and the belief in a radical disparity between philosophy and theology is an exceptional and recent phenomenon.
These considerations do nothing, of course, to prove the validity of religious belief; but they do make it unlikely that our common, primary experience provides no evidence tending to support it. If then modern philosophy fails to find any, may it not be because it works within limits which exclude the evidence from its consideration; or that it rests upon assumptions, so familiar perhaps that they have lapsed from consciousness, which require scrutiny and modification? This is the view, at least, to which my own reflection has led me, and which determines the method which I shall pursue in the discussion of my theme. Quite apart from all specifically theological questions, I believe that the emergent problem of contemporary philosophy necessitates a revision of traditional assumptions; and that when this revision has been made the direction of the argument will be so altered that it will tend thereafter to a theistic conclusion.
Since I am of this mind, I propose to put aside any discussion of religion until it arises in the natural development of the argument, and to proceed, in a purely philosophical manner, upon an inquiry which arises, within the normal field of modern philosophy, from the analysis and interpretation of common human experience. I shall invite attention to what I take to be the emergent problem of contemporary philosophy, and initiate the criticism of current assumptions which it requires. If this leads, as I believe it does, to modifications of outlook which require a theistic conclusion I shall have fulfilled the intentions of the founder of the Gifford lectureship, though indirectly, yet in the best way that is open to me.
I have referred to the form of the personal as the emergent problem of contemporary philosophy, and this requires both to be explained and to be justified. For it is far from being the case that this is the problem with which philosophy is particularly concerning itself at present. What is meant is rather that the historical situation in which we find ourselves presents us with a philosophical problem for solution, and that this problem concerns the form of the personal. The decisive questions of serious philosophy are never determined at random. They have their origins in a historical necessity, not in the chance interests of a particular thinker. Philosophy aims at a complete rationality. But the rationality of our conclusions does not depend alone upon the correctness of our thinking. It depends even more upon the propriety of the questions with which we concern ourselves. The primary and the critical task is the discovery of the problem. If we ask the wrong question the logical correctness of our answer is of little consequence.
There is of necessity an interplay, in all human activities, between theory and practice. It is characteristic of Man that he solves his practical problems by taking thought; and all his theoretical activities have their origins, at least, in his practical requirements. That they also find their meaning and their significance in the practical field will command less general assent; yet it is, in my belief, the truth of the matter, and one of the major theses to be maintained here. Activities of ours which are purely theoretical, if this means that they have no reference to our practical life, must be purely imaginary—exercises of phantasy which are not even illusory unless we relate them to the practical world by a misplaced belief. The truth or falsity of the theoretical is to be found solely in its reference to the practical.
This may be what is intended by the assertion current in some philosophical circles that the meaning of a proposition is the method of its verification. If so, I can have no quarrel with this doctrine. I should like to be sure, however, that it is recognized that the method of verification with which the physical sciences have made us familiar is not the only way in which the theoretical can refer to the practical. There are other modes of verification; indeed, if there were not, the scientific mode would itself be invalid and indeed impossible. But this is not the moment to enter into these issues in detail. We must limit ourselves to what seems reasonable at a first inspection. For every inquiry must start from what is the case prima facie. We know how large a part of our thinking is concerned with the solution of practical issues. In such cases it is obvious to everyone that the reference is to practical behaviour, and that conclusions which have no bearing upon the solution of our practical problems are without significance. The theoretical question is posed by the practical situation; for that very reason the significance and the verification of the theoretical conclusion lie in the practical field. Indeed the theoretical result, if it is meaningful at all, is the solution of a practical problem. If then, as seems indubitable, all theoretical problems have their ultimate, if not their immediate, origin in our practical experience it seems reasonable to expect that all must find their ultimate meaning in a reference to the practical. It may indeed turn out otherwise. There may be generated, by the instigation of practical experience, a set of theoretical activities which have their meaning in themselves and require no practical reference to sustain or to validate them. But it would be a methodological error to assume this from the start.
This does not mean, however, that the reference of theoretical to practical activities is always direct or obvious. Nor does it mean that in our reflection we can or should always be aware of the practical reference. It does not justify a pragmatic theory of truth nor suggest that we should not seek knowledge for its own sake. The disinterested pursuit of the truth may be, and, I am convinced, is in fact, a condition of the practical efficacy of reflection. The inner life of the spirit is not merely technological: it is not condemned to a servitude to practical ends which are set for it without its knowledge or consent. The essential reference of theoretical to practical activities does not involve the control of theory by practice. It consists even more significantly in the control of practice by theory; in the determination, through reflection, of the ends of action. All that is contended for is this, that there is a necessary relation between cur theory and our practice; that the activities of reflection can never be totally unrelated to practical life; that it is always legitimate to ask, of any theory which claims to be true, what practical difference it would make if we believed it. It may often be difficult to answer this question; but if the correct answer were that it would make no difference at all, then the theory would be a mere exercise of phantasy, neither true nor false, but meaningless.
I have laboured a truism because I am thinking primarily of philosophy. For here, if anywhere, it might seem to be true that we are involved in a theoretical activity which has no practical reference. This I am concerned to deny. In philosophy, indeed, the reference to practice is indirect and remote throughout much of its range. Here too it is especially important that the question of the ultimate reference to practice should not obsess the thinker, or control the processes of his reflection. But it is also in philosophy that the ultimate reference of theory to practice is most decisive and far-reaching. It is not for nothing that some have held that a philosophy is a way of life; or that common tradition conceives the philosopher as a man of a balanced temper, who meets fortune or disaster with equanimity. Our western philosophy began with the breakdown of a way of life in ancient Greece, which posed the question ‘What should we do?’ If it has found itself driven to dwell almost exclusively with the sister question ‘How can we know?’ it remains true that this question is incomplete in itself; and that the complete question, in the end, is ‘How can we know what we should do?’
Now action is inherently particular; and therefore questions of the form ‘What shall I do?’ have a historic reference. They cannot be answered without regard to the circumstances in which we have to act. Since philosophy, like all modes of reflection, involves, however indirectly, a practical reference, it is not exempt from the changes of circumstance. However eternal may be the problems to which it seeks a solution, philosophy has a history, and this is essential, not accidental to it. This reference to history has a double aspect. There is a historical process within philosophy which preserves a continuity of development from one age to its successor, and which calls for historical study and understanding. But also philosophy is itself one element in the social process, and is linked in numerous and essential ways to the other aspects of historical development. One can never fully understand, and may easily misunderstand a past philosophy, if one does not also understand in some measure the practical history of the era of its origin.
Instead of saying that a philosophy is a way of life, it would be better to say that any way of life implies a philosophy. For if it is a way of life at all it must be a relatively satisfactory adjustment to Reality, exhibiting a systematic structure, and, to a considerable degree, a consistency of direction. Any effort to give reflective expression to such a way of life must formulate a system of beliefs about the nature of the world and a system of priorities in valuation. The expression of a social tradition provides, therefore, if not a philosophy, at least the raw material for one. To achieve such a formulation would in itself provide a task of immense magnitude and difficulty if it had to begin from scratch, as it were. But the individual philosopher finds the tradition which he shares already formulated, if not analytically systematized. And since the formulation is never fully satisfactory, reflection will find, and will tend to concentrate attention upon the inconsistencies and incoherences which are involved and which reflect, in their fashion, the strains and stresses arising from a practical inadequacy. The philosophical effort to achieve consistency implies then, even if it does not intend, a modification of the way of life itself which would eliminate what is practically unsatisfactory in its working. We see here the practical ground of the two conditions that any valid philosophy must satisfy—a theoretical consistency and a comprehensive adequacy. The need for consistency is obvious. The demand for adequacy arises from this, that the effort to overcome any practical maladjustment in a way of life may, by its success, generate even more serious difficulties in other departments.
That there is such an interrelation, indirect enough and largely unconscious, between philosophical theory and social processes of a more empirical kind, is evident from any study of the history of philosophy which looks for it. The philosophy of any historical period reflects the life of the period even more evidently than does its art. One aspect of this to which I would draw attention is particularly obvious. The breakdown of a social tradition involves a break in the continuity of philosophical development, and the more revolutionary is the social crisis, the more thorough is the break in the philosophical tradition. One might instance the change in ancient philosophy which marks the fall of the city-state and the rise of the empires; or in modern philosophy in the transition from the mediaeval world. In such revolutionary periods philosophy responds to the practical transformation of the way of life by a radical transformation of its central problem. A new starting-point is discovered and a new era of reflection begins. So long as a way of life remains viable, the philosopher works within a framework of thought which in its general structure and in its general concepts remains stable. His problems are problems of relative detail, and he finds them set for him by difficulties in the theoretical field itself. Their relation to the practical problems of his society is indirect and need not be noticed. But with a break in tradition this is no longer the case. His criticism no longer touches this or that inconsistency or inadequacy in a continuing tradition, but the basis of the tradition itself. He must find a new starting-point; and his success depends on the discovery of the emergent problem for philosophy in his own time.
Perhaps I have said enough to suggest a prima facie case for the view that there is a necessary relation between philosophy and social practice. My immediate purpose falls short of this. It is to explain what is meant by saying that the form of the personal is the emergent problem for contemporary philosophy. That we are living through a period of revolutionary change is already a commonplace. We are all aware of this, though we may differ in our estimate of the depth and the extent of the transformation that has already occurred or that is inevitable as we go forward. To me it seems certain that the scale of change must dwarf the transformation of medieval into modern Europe. For that historic revolution fell within the development of Western Christendom, and rested upon a deeper continuity of Graeco-Roman tradition; while ours arises from the incompatibility of age-old ways of life in a world already largely forced into unity at the economic and technological levels. The European tradition, not to speak of its national variations, is now only one factor in a conflict of traditions which must achieve a practical compatibility if civilization is to maintain itself.
But these are large speculations upon which we shall not enter. We need only recognize the break with tradition which is apparent in all fields in our own society—in religion and morals, in politics and economics, and in the arts. In such circumstances we should expect to find a break in the continuity of philosophical development, a radical criticism of traditional philosophy and a search for new ways and new beginnings. And this we do find. We need only think of such developments as phenomenology, logical empiricism or existentialism to realize that new modes of philosophy are being created and spreading rapidly, which stand in strong contrast with the main stream of traditional thought. The first of these is confessedly an effort to start afresh where Descartes started, but employing a catharsis of the mind to remove prejudice and achieve an innocence of immediate vision for whatever can be object for thought. Logical empiricism, armed with a high-powered analytic technology, is concerned to make an end of all metaphysics, and to include under metaphysics most of what has traditionally been considered the substance of philosophical doctrine. Its main interest in the past is to show how it was constantly led, not into error, but into meaningless debate by failure to perform the only proper task of philosophy, the logical analysis of language. Existentialism, on the other hand, has so altered the focus of attention, and so largely turned its back upon the established methods of procedure that many have doubted its claim to be a philosophical discipline at all.
These two contemporary forms of philosophy, logical empiricism and existentialism, represent, it would seem, opposite reactions to the breakdown of the tradition. They are united in the extremity of their difference, not merely by their negative attitude to the philosophical past, but if I mistake not, by a common conviction from which both arise. I may express this roughly by saying that both rest upon the decision that the traditional method of philosophy is incapable of solving its traditional problems. But whereas the logical empiricists discard the problems in order to maintain the method, the existentialists relinquish the method in wrestling with the problems. So the latter achieve a minimum of form; the former a minimum of substance. The logical empiricists are content to elaborate the subtleties of formal analysis—and often with the beauty of genius; so far as the substantial problems go, they use their formalism to erect notices on every path which say ‘No road this way!’ For all the roads that do not lead to the impassable bogs of metaphysics belong to the special sciences. The existentialists, determined to grapple with the real problems—and their sensitiveness to the darkness of human despair leads them to discover the emergent problem of our time—find no formal analysis that is adequate to the task. They are constrained to quit the beaten track; to wallow in metaphor and suggestion; to look to the drama and the novel to provide an expression, albeit an aesthetic expression, for their discoveries.
Where is the way forward? Do we go along with one of these contemporary schools of thought? Or should we count them as aberrations engendered by the stress and sickness of our age, and hold to the beaten paths of traditional thought? My own answer to this decisive question is as follows. We cannot keep to the old ways. The tradition is broken, and cannot be reestablished. It is true, as the new movements imply, that the traditional methods cannot answer the traditional questions. Form and matter, in philosophy, have parted company. Then what of the new modes? Phenomenological analysis is a useful device. We can be grateful for it, and use it when we find it helpful. But if it is taken as more than this; if it means that we go back to Descartes and the modern starting-point and do properly what we have so far done poorly, we must answer that there is no going back. History docs not repeat itself. Yet when I turn to choose between the other two schools, I find I can accept neither. To the logical empiricists I find I must say this: ‘Philosophy, like any branch of serious reflective inquiry, is created and defined by its problems; and its problems are not accidental, but necessary; grounded in the nature of human experience. If I find that my method of attempting to answer them is unsuccessful, if it fails even to discover a meaning in them, then I must conclude that there is something wrong with the method, and seek a better one. To discard the problems in order to retain the method; to seek for problems which the method could solve, would be neither serious nor reasonable.’ To the existentialists I should say this: ‘Philosophy, as you would agree, is an intellectual discipline. It is therefore necessarily formal and must work through concepts which seek for clarity and exact definition both in themselves and in their systematic interrelation. It is right to hold firmly to the substantial problems, however metaphysical and elusive, which form the centre of gravity of the philosophic enterprise. It is an important contribution to the progress of the enterprise to trace them to their origins in the strains and stresses of the personal life. But if this results in the dissolution of the formal structures of traditional philosophy, what is required is the search for a new form which shall be not less but more logical and intellectual than the inadequate forms that have to be discarded.’ We may sum up this estimate of these two emergent philosophical tendencies in a sentence, even though, like all such judgements, it must need qualification in detail. Existentialism has discovered, with sensitiveness of feeling, that the philosophical problem of the present lies in a crisis of the personal: logical empiricism recognizes it as a crisis of logical form and method. Both are correct, and both are one-sided. The cultural crisis of the present is indeed a crisis of the personal. But the problem it presents to philosophy is a formal one. It is to discover or to construct the intellectual form of the personal.
I need hardly labour to convince you that the cultural crisis of our time is a crisis of the personal. This is too general a conclusion of those who look deeper into the troubles of our society than the superficial level of organizational strain, whether economic or political. I need only refer to two aspects of the situation, both very familiar, in order to make clear what I mean by a crisis of the personal. One of these is the tendency towards an apotheosis of the state; the other the decline of religion. The two are intimately connected; since both express a growing tendency to look for salvation to political rather than to religious authority. The increasing appeal to authority itself reflects a growing inability or unwillingness to assume personal responsibility. The apotheosis of political authority involves the subordination of the personal aspect of human life to its functional aspect. The major social revolutions of our time all wear this livery, whether they are fascist or communist in type. The justification offered by the democracies for resistance to the death against both is the same, that they rest upon a philosophy which sacrifices the personal values, and so the personal freedom of men to the exigencies of political and economic expediency. At this level, the crisis of the personal is the crisis of liberalism, which was an effort, however ambiguous, to subordinate the functional organization of society to the personal life of its members. Yet nothing could be more revealing of the depth of the crisis we are facing than one fact. Communism rests upon a criticism of liberal democracy. Liberalism, it maintains, contradicts itself. While it stands, in theory, for human freedom, in practice it is a defence of human exploitation. Communism set out to resolve this contradiction by abolishing exploitation and realizing freedom in social practice. The declared intention was to achieve a form of society in which the government of men would give place to the administration of things. Yet its own practice, we see, defeats its intention, and leads to an apotheosis of the State and to an organized and efficient exploitation of its citizens. In communist practice the personal is subordinated to the functional to a point at which the defence of the personal becomes itself a criminal activity.
The decline of religious influence and of religious practice in our civilization bears the same significance. Such a decline betrays, and in turn intensifies, a growing insensitiveness to the personal aspects of life, and a growing indifference to personal values. Christianity, in particular, is the exponent and the guardian of the personal, and the function of organized Christianity in our history has been to foster and maintain the personal life and to bear continuous witness, in symbol and doctrine, to the ultimacy of personal values. If this influence is removed or ceases to be effective, the awareness of personal issues will tend to be lost, in the pressure of functional preoccupations, by all except those who are by nature specially sensitive to them. The sense of personal dignity as well as of personal unworthiness will atrophy, with the decline in habits of self-examination. Ideals of sanctity or holiness will begin to seem incomprehensible or even comical. Success will tend to become the criterion of rightness, and there will spread through society a temper which is extraverted, pragmatic and merely objective, for which all problems are soluble by better organization. In such conditions the religious impulses of men will attach themselves to the persons who wield political power, and will invest them with a personal authority over the life of the community and of its members. The state is then compelled to perform the functions of a church (for which by its nature it is radically unfitted) and its efforts to do so will produce, the more rapidly the more whole-hearted they are, a crisis of the personal. If we remember that history has brought us to a point where we must think of human society as a whole, and not limit our outlook to the confines of our own nation, there must be few who will fail to recognize, whether they welcome it or recoil from it, that we are involved in such a crisis.
It may be asked, however, whether this has any relevance for philosophy. To answer this doubt requires a reference to the broad outline of the history of modern philosophy. For brevity's sake, and because my purpose is to explain and clarify my own choice of subject, I may perhaps be permitted to speak somewhat dogmatically. Modern philosophy is characteristically egocentric. I mean no more than this: that firstly, it takes the Self as its starting-point, and not God, or the world or the community; and that, secondly, the Self is an individual in isolation, an ego or ‘I’, never a ‘thou’. This is shown by the fact that there can arise the question, ‘How does the Self know that other selves exist?’ Further, the Self so premised is a thinker in search of knowledge. It is conceived as the Subject; the correlate in experience of the object presented for cognition. Philosophy then, as distinct from Science, is concerned with the formal characters of the processes, activities or constructions in and through which the object is theoretically determined. And since the Self is an element, in some sense, of the world presented for knowing, it must be determined through the same forms as every other object.
Now the outstanding feature of the modern development of knowledge has been the creation of the positive sciences, and this has meant that there has been a determining relation between philosophy and science throughout. The relation has not been one-sided, but reciprocal. It has been the task of philosophy to create the conceptual forms and systems of categories which provide the logical structure, and so determine the general attitude of mind favourable to the production and to the reception of scientific knowledge. This was not, on the whole, intentional, except where the philosophical work was carried out by scientists in pursuit of their own objectives; and many philosophers have also been scientists. For the most part the philosophers were concerned to determine general forms of knowledge with a metaphysical or quasi-metaphysical purpose in mind. In particular, they were concerned to determine the formal structure of the Self and its experience, both individual and social, both theoretical and practical, in their character as object for philosophical knowledge.
The result of this interrelation of science and philosophy is that modern philosophy has completed two distinct phases, which correspond respectively to the creation of the physical and of the biological sciences. The first is usually reckoned as running from Descartes to Hume; the second from Kant to the present day. It would be more accurate to see the beginning of the second phase in Rousseau, and its continuation in the German idealist movement from Lessing to Hegel, with Kant standing ambiguously between and stretching out a hand to both. The key-concept of the first phase is ‘substance’; its form and method are mathematical. Substance, then, is that which is determined by thought as a mathematical system. Pure mathematics provides the ideal form of all valid knowledge, and whatever cannot be determined in this form is unknowable. Since such indeterminables must in some sense be presented to the self, they must be referred not to the object, but to the subject, and must find their origin in a creative spontaneity of the mind. The process of thought distinguishes between what is objective and what is subjective in experience. The objective is valid: the subjective is unreal, illusory or imaginary.
The crux of the matter comes, for philosophy, in the attempt to determine, in this form, the Self and its activities, and centrally, its activities as thinker. The mathematical form proves adequate for the scientific determination of the material world. But the attempt to conceive the self as substance and to determine it through the mathematical form meets difficulties which prove insuperable, and lead to scepticism. For it becomes clear that the activities of the self in providing the form through which the object is determined themselves involve a constructive spontaneity of the mind—an a priori synthesis—for which no objective basis can be assigned; and the substantial self appears to be itself the product of such a subjective construction.
This first phase of modern philosophy arises through a primary attention to the form through which the material world—the world of substantial objects—can be rationally determined. Its problem was the form of the material. It broke down in its effort to universalize this form to cover the whole field of knowledge, and, in particular, in the attempt to conceive the Self on the analogy of the material world. The inadequacy of this analogy lies in the element of spontaneous construction, of self-determining and self-directed development which is present in the activity of the Self, but which is excluded from the conception of the material. The second phase, seeking a more adequate form, turned its attention from the material to the living. For it is in the phenomena of life, and particularly in the processes of growth, that this spontaneity of inner self-determination and directed development seems, at least, to be characteristically manifest. Its key-concept is not substance, but organism, and its problem is the form of the organic. In contrast to the mathematical form, which is a combination of identical units, the organism is conceived as a harmonious balancing of differences, and in its pure form, a tension of opposites; and since the time factor—as growth, development or becoming—is of the essence of life, the full form of the organic is represented as a dynamic equilibrium of functions maintained through a progressive differentiation of elements within the whole.
This proved to provide an adequate conceptual form for the development of the biological sciences. It is indeed the formal expression of the notion of organic evolution. But as a philosophical conception it is necessarily universal, and is thought as the form of the whole Real. In particular it must be the form of thought, and serve for the conception of the Self and its activities. The Self is no longer a substance, but an organism, and since the Self is still essentially the subject of experience the process of knowledge must appear as a self-determining development in which an original undifferentiated unity differentiates itself progressively while maintaining a functional coherence of its elements. The logical form of thought is no longer mathematical but dialectical; not analytic but synthetic; a progressive synthesis of opposites.
It may be objected that this applies only to the development of Hegelian idealism, and can hardly be said to characterize the philosophy of the last century. There is some truth in this; but it does not touch the major issue, which is not tied to an acceptance, as it stands, of the Hegelian dialectic. It is the dominance of the biological analogy in philosophy which is decisive, and this clearly will cover all organic and evolutionary types of philosophy down to those of Alexander and Whitehead, not to speak of dialectical materialism. But more than this is required to answer the doubt, and I shall offer one or two further suggestions.
The first of these is that the rise of biology did not mean the suppression of physics; correspondingly, the rise of the organic philosophies did not mean the disappearance of the mathematical. The new type of thought developed from the beginning in tension with and under criticism from the older type; but, the older type in its persistence was under the necessity of considering and dealing with the aspects of experience upon which the newer philosophy was concentrating attention, under penalty of ceasing to be contemporary. The second suggestion concerns the development of biology itself. The chemists began to apply the methods of physical science, with their associated system of concepts, in the organic field, and were increasingly successful. The evolutionary hypothesis, though useful and indeed essential up to a point, began to appear as a framework within which the biochemists could build a true science of the organic; or even as a scaffolding which would ultimately be dispensed with. In the debate between vitalists and biochemists which followed, it was the biochemists who were victorious. Their success was made possible by, and in turn stimulated, a development of mathematical theory which in the long run amounted to a transformation. The new instruments of mathematical analysis proved capable of representing and elucidating functional and developmental processes and relations.
The corresponding process in philosophy may be briefly summarized. Realism developed as an internal criticism of the organic philosophy, with an empirical temper. The criticism has a double edge. It denies the adequacy of the organic form and its dialectical logic in the philosophical field, as formal analysis of the Self as thinker. This is the realist criticism of the idealist theory of knowledge. It denies also its necessity and its usefulness as an instrument for the empirical analysis of organic process. Until the contemporary break with tradition was established, philosophical realism remained conditioned by and tied to the organic concept, as an antithesis is tied to its thesis. The two aspects of the philosophy are complementary as well as antithetical. If this is concealed from a superficial view it is because of a realist concentration on the positive task of showing that a transformed formal logic based upon the transformation of mathematical theory can provide an instrument of analysis adequate for all scientific purposes. But there is no victory for either party and no synthesis. The development is rather a commentary on the Kantian conclusion that though the teleological idea may have an indispensable heuristic function, all scientific inquiry is necessarily mathematical. But success in this formal task is not self-interpreting. Whitehead and Russell collaborated in Principia Mathematica; but while the latter interprets their joint achievement as a refutation of the organic idea, the former interprets it as leading to a realistic philosophy of organism. However firmly realists may reject Hegelianism and its offshoots, and go back behind Kant to link up with the earlier mathematical period, the result is not to reinstate the concept of substance on its throne.
What brings the period to an end is not then the refutation of idealism by the realists, but a relapse into scepticism and the emergence of a new problem. As happens so often in the history of thought, anticipations of this process are to be found. The Danish eccentric, Kierkegaard, discovered that the Hegelian philosophy was ludicrously incapable of solving—even, indeed, of formulating—the problem of ‘the existing individual’. If we apply the Hegelian logic to the data of personal reality, we produce, he showed, ‘a dialectic without a synthesis’; for the process of the personal life generates a tension of opposites which can be resolved, not by reconciliation but only by a choice between them, and for this choice no rational ground can be discovered. He concluded that we must abandon philosophy for religion, reason for faith. His older contemporary, Auguste Comte, had more in common with him than would at first appear. Both are profoundly under the influence of the organic philosophy; and both are concerned to apply it to the understanding of personal reality. But whereas Kierkegaard emphasizes its individual aspect, Comte is interested in human society. In this, like Karl Marx, he remains closer to Hegel, and to the general philosophical tradition, so that his criticism lacks the depth and the absoluteness of Kierkegaard's. It does not touch the form, but only the content of the organic philosophy. So Comte abandoned metaphysics, that is to say, philosophy as a speculative knowledge of human reality, in favour of science, and therefore of empirical sociology. In the result, he became the founder at once of modern sociology and of modern positivism. Had he been more aware of his own debt to the organic philosophy which he rejected, he would have realized that the form of his science of society was of philosophical origin, and his relation to contemporary logical positivism would have been more obvious. He would stand to that aspect of contemporary philosophy as Kierkegaard does to contemporary existentialism; and the relation, in both cases, is highly ambiguous. Kierkegaard would never have admitted that ‘existential thinking’ could be philosophical; for him it was a form of art. ‘I am a poet,’ he maintained, ‘that is my category.’
There is no reason to suppose that this phase of scepticism is any more final than others that philosophy has overcome in the past. For Comte, as for Kierkegaard, we must remember, philosophy is identified with a particular type of philosophy; that type which constructs itself on the form of the organic. If they discover that philosophy is incapable of formulating, either in its individual or its social aspect, the nature of personal experience, this need not mean that philosophy is invalid, but only that an organic conception of the personal is inadequate to the facts. Since philosophy must include the personal in its field of inquiry, this can only mean that we must abandon the organic form as inadequate for the philosophical purpose, and initiate a search for the form of the personal.
If we are correct in suggesting that there is, in the modern period, a close relation between the development of science and of philosophy, this is the conclusion which we shall naturally expect. If science moves from an established physics to the foundation of scientific biology, we find that philosophy moves from a mathematical to an organic form. We should expect, then, that the emergence of a scientific psychology would be paralleled by a transition from an organic to a personal philosophy. The form of the personal will be the emergent problem. Such a new phase of philosophy would rest on the assertion that the Self is neither a substance nor an organism, but a person. Its immediate task would be to discover the logical form through which the unity of the personal can be coherently conceived.
The transition from an organic to a personal conception of unity, however, cannot be so simple as that from a physical to an organic conception. The transformation involved is much more fundamental. The difficulties are of the same type as those which beset the effort to establish psychology on a sure scientific basis. There are two major difficulties. Firstly, so long as psychology is conceived as a science of mind, consciousness or the subjective, it fails. To establish itself it must think of itself as a science of human behaviour. Similarly in the philosophical transition, we can no longer conceive the Self as the subject in experience, and so as the knower. The Self must be conceived, not theoretically as subject, but practically, as agent. Secondly, human behaviour is comprehensible only in terms of a dynamic social reference; the isolated, purely individual self is a fiction. In philosophy this means, as we shall see, that the unity of the personal cannot be thought as the form of an individual self, but only through the mutuality of personal relationship. In face of both difficulties a radical modification of our philosophical tradition is demanded. The first requires us to substitute for the Self as subject, which is the starting-point of modern philosophy, the Self as agent; and to make this substitution is to reject the traditional distinction between the subjective and the objective. The second compels us to abandon the traditional individualism or egocentricity of our philosophy. We must introduce the second person as the necessary correlative of the first, and do our thinking not from the standpoint of the ‘I’ alone, but of the ‘you and I’.
This diagnosis of the problem which must be solved and of the two major difficulties in the way of its solution, dictate the procedure which we shall follow. We shall devote ourselves, in this first volume, to a study of the Self as agent, seeking to shift the centre of gravity in philosophical thinking from the theoretical to the practical field. The second volume, under the title Persons in Relation will then seek to elucidate the problem of the mutuality of the personal. The full justification of the assertion that these are the two major issues in any effort to determine the form of the personal cannot be offered now. It will, we may hope, reveal itself as we proceed.