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Lecture Fifth. The Scientific View of the World

WE have seen that the mind's unappeasable desire for unity cannot be satisfied by the conception of things as independent of one another and as a mere collection of isolated qualities, having no essential relation to one another or to the thing to which they are conceived to belong. Whatever reality in its true nature is, it must form a self-consistent, all-comprehensive and coherent whole; and these characteristics are not found in the world of perception. Now, if isolated things are a fiction of abstraction—being formed by the arbitrary selection, out of what presents itself as a whole, of certain aspects to the neglect of others—it is obvious that no purely immediate or unrelated being can be found in our experience. The only real being therefore must be mediated or related; in other words, things must form a system in which all things are interconnected and interdependent. Nor is this advance from immediate to mediate being merely our effort to save ourselves from utter contradiction. The world, as we now conceive it, is not an ideal world, in the sense that we construct it, and set it opposite to the real world as something which gives us satisfaction; but it is in the effort to comprehend the world, and the necessity laid upon us by the facts to discard our first inadequate hypothesis, that we are led to substitute a world of connected objects for the discarded world of isolated things. The world never was, nor could be, a collection of isolated things with merely accidental relations to one another. The perceptual way of thinking does not take the world as it actually is, but unwittingly creates a fictitious world by leaving out the relations of things with one another, without which they could not possibly exist. Thus we must restore to the world the systematic connection of its objects of which we have deprived it.

When we begin to see the inadequacy of the perceptual consciousness, we are at first tempted to save the situation by distinguishing between the essential and the unessential. Things, we suppose, are real and possess real properties, but the changes through which they pass do not destroy their individuality, because their essential nature is unaffected. It was in this way that Descartes sought to preserve the reality of things, and Locke's distinction of primary and secondary qualities of body witnesses to the same device. Extension, according to Descartes, is essential to body, just as consciousness is the essence of mind, and though a body may alter in its position, or undergo the most radical changes in its other qualities, it never loses its extension; in the same way, the mind may pass from the least to the most definite mode of consciousness, but it is always conscious in some form. In truth this defence is not only false in principle—assuming as it does that real being is more indeterminate than unreal being—but it contradicts the obvious fact that no single thing retains its extension any more than its motion or resistance, inasmuch as no single thing can be found which is not finally destroyed. The distinction of essential and unessential qualities is therefore inadequate to solve the inherent contradiction of isolated things that undergo change: it is in fact merely a convenient device. The physicist finds it necessary to ignore the chemical and vital aspects of objects, in order to economize his thought, the chemist to abstract from the physical and vital properties, and the biologist to concentrate his attention upon the phenomena of life. Thus what for the one is essential is for the other unessential; and obviously the same objects cannot be legitimately characterized by properties that are both essential and unessential. We must, therefore, effect a more radical transformation of the perceptual view of the world, if we are to reach a comprehensive and self-consistent theory.

Finding that this device really leaves things as they were—since it only marks a convenient distinction in our subjective way of looking at what in its own nature remains unaffected—we may be led to hold that true reality is entirely beyond the perceptual world, and is therefore contrasted with it as reality with appearance. And as appearance exhausts all that for us is determinate, all that we know of reality positively is that it is. We cannot, it may be said, get beyond phenomena, and therefore we are unable to say whether things in themselves are qualified as we perceive them, or indeed whether we can speak of them as having qualities at all. So long, therefore, as we remain at this dualistic point of view, the gulf between appearance and reality is impassable. This doctrine is, therefore, obviously infected with an insoluble contradiction. If we know nothing of reality as it truly is, how can we even say that it is? A subject which is limited to appearance cannot even know that it is so limited. We must therefore seek for a different solution—one that will not be intrinsically self-contradictory. The element of truth in phenomenalism is that objects of perception do imply something deeper than lies on the surface; and if we can discover what this is, we shall have reached a higher stage of knowledge, which will at once include and transcend the perceptual stage.

The basis of all dualism is the false assumption of the separate and independent being of things, and we only get beyond this false assumption when we recognize that what at first seem to be isolated things are really the passing phases of a total reality which does not pass away. Phenomena are properly the manifestation of a principle, which produces them and again annihilates them, but nevertheless maintains its own being in and through incessant change. Thus appearances have no independent being: their sole reality is the reality of the perfect unity which is manifested in them. True reality is, therefore, self-complete or infinite. And as the passing phases of its being, which we call phenomena, do not in the least affect its permanence, we must pronounce it eternal.

The transition from Perception to Understanding, which is implied in the contrast of appearances and reality, is tacitly assumed by all the sciences, but very often the full force of the transition is not realized. The doctrine of the conservation of energy really takes us beyond the stage of perception, since it maintains that in all the changes of phenomena the quantity of energy remains constant. The conservation of energy is, however, not infrequently conceived as if it were an external law imposed upon things; and therefore it is supposed that things might have been subject to entirely different laws. A law is held to be merely a statement of the manner in which as a matter of fact things are found to behave, while it is supposed that the world might have been entirely different for aught we can show to the contrary. But a law is not accidental to the world; it is a living and active principle, without which the world could not exist. It is only, for example, when we first assume that bodies may exist and move in space independently of gravitation, that the law seems to be something imposed externally upon them. In reality, without gravitation nothing could exist in space at all. Nor is gravitation a quality of isolated things; it is essentially a constant relation between things which only exist in a cosmos or orderly system. Natural law must not be conceived as simply a conception in the mind of the subject, enabling him to systematize his experience, but not to penetrate to the nature of things. There is no law of gravitation apart from the system of gravitating bodies. The idea that the mind is able to frame conceptions, which it obtains either by generalizing particular experiences—that is, by comparing a number of isolated objects, abstracting from their differences, and so framing abstract ideas—or by employing the machinery which belongs to its own independent constitution; both of these modes of conception are fundamentally false, resting as they do upon the assumption that perception reveals to us the independent existence of individual objects, and therefore that thought must operate upon the material supplied to it by perception. On the former view, thought contributes nothing to the constitution of the knowable world, since an abstract idea differs from a concrete fact only in the absence of determinations which the latter possesses. The latter view, again, which is that of Kant, makes the relation of thought to objects external and artificial, and can never get over the initial difficulty of explaining how the creations of the mind can legitimately apply to a material with which it has no essential connection. Kant, it is true, tries to remove the difficulty by saying that the synthesis of imagination must be in harmony with the synthesis of the understanding; but this still leaves the initial difficulty unsolved, namely, why there should be such a harmony at all, since the synthesis of imagination is a combination of sensible elements, which have to be combined in certain ways only because otherwise the mind could not have an orderly and systematic experience.

For the mechanical connection of elements which are supposed to have no inherent relation to one another must therefore be substituted their organic or inherent connection. Perception and understanding are related as two stages in the comprehension of the world, not as two factors only externally combined. In perception there is already implied the inseparable connection of different elements in a unity, and the true meaning of this connection is brought to light in the comprehension of law as the principle of unity without which those elements could not exist at all. Thought lifts perception to a higher plane, not by dropping its distinctions, but by reinterpreting them, i.e. by bringing them under laws. No doubt the subject may make mistakes in regard to the nature or scope of a given law; but this does not invalidate the principle, that a lawless is an unknowable universe. There is indeed an order of subordination among laws, some being more comprehensive than others; but this order of subordination simply means that reality is a system, not a mere aggregate. Now, every law of nature is a form of energy, and therefore the whole body of laws is a differentiation of the one unchangeable energy. Hence law is not something imposed upon objects by the understanding; it is the recognition of the essential nature of things. The incessant changes of things are an expression of the fundamental energy which in all changes retains its quantity; while, on the other hand, the energy must express itself in the changes. Thus energy is eternal. It is not manifested at one moment and not at another, but persists through all the changes of phenomena. Not that it is beyond time; for energy, since it never began to be, must eternally have manifested itself in change; but though not beyond time, it is unaffected by time.

Phenomena, then, do not constitute the world of experience, as distinguished from things in themselves, which occupy a sphere beyond experience. They are simply the one reality, viewed on the side of its manifestations, as contrasted with the one reality of which they are the manifestations. If therefore we deny the reality of phenomena, we must equally deny the reality of the fundamental energy of which they are the expression. Experience is one; and all distinctions must therefore fall within it. We can distinguish phenomena from reality, but we cannot separate them.

In grasping the laws of phenomena the subject is conscious that he has done away with the foreignness which haunts his mind so long as they are for him only probable hypotheses. In the comprehension of a law, there is, as Kant says, a peculiar feeling of satisfaction, which is an index that the subject is in harmony with the object, and therefore with himself. So long as there is a contrast between subject and object, there is inevitably a feeling of dissatisfaction; for nothing less than perfect consistency with the self can give satisfaction to an intelligence, the one absolute presupposition of which is that of the intelligibility of the world. Thus, not only implicitly but explicitly, the transition has been made from the consciousness of the object to the consciousness of self. This transition, in truth, is not a simple change from one class of objects to another, but a development; for, though at first attention is concentrated on the object, there is always a tacit reference to the unity of the subject; and therefore, when perception develops into understanding, the consciousness of the unity of the world is at the same time a recognition of the correlative unity of the subject for which the world is. It is this essential correlativity of consciousness and self-consciousness which leads Kant to regard the activity of the understanding as necessarily implying the unity of self-consciousness, though he destroys the value of this contention by conceiving of self-consciousness as merely the manner in which an understanding such as ours is compelled to operate upon a material of sense that is given to it. In truth, since the whole process of experience involves the correlative development of subject and object, self-consciousness must be regarded as the supreme principle, not merely of the world of experience, but of all reality. Without the consciousness of self, tacit or explicit, there is no world of objects; and therefore in self-consciousness we have the prius of all knowable reality.

Before going on to consider more particularly what is implied in self-conscious experience, it will be advisable to get a clearer notion of the nature of understanding, as the reflective process of thought by which the world is grasped as a system.

The contrast between appearance and reality is one which we have seen to arise from a recognition of the essential defect of the perceptive stage of consciousness. Just because it so arises, our first view naturally is that appearance in no way corresponds to reality, and in fact is an illusion, arising from the necessary limitation of the human mind. Reality, on the other hand, we think of as that which, since it is free from all illusion, must be entirely outside of the limited sphere of our experience. Though we do not maintain that there are two independent realms of being—the sensible or phenomenal and the real or noumenal—yet for us there are practically two separate and mutually exclusive realms. But this virtual dualism it is hard to maintain. For the idea of the real is obtained by negating or denying the immediate being, and thereby the independence, of the phenomenal; and that which is not immediate being but true reality must be a permanent reality, which is not subject to mutation and change. Thus appearance must be dependent upon reality for its existence even as an illusion, for unless it were so dependent, it would itself be reality. Appearance thus becomes the manifestation of a reality which does not itself appear. From the side of thought the distinction of appearance and reality involves the exercise of reflection. At the stage of sensitive experience both subject and object seem to be merely particular; in perception, both are individual; in reflection, both are universal. In this last stage, the real is neither purely immediate being, nor a congeries of finite things, but a whole which manifests itself in particular phases and yet maintains its self-identity.

Appearance, as the object of reflection, can only be said to be, in the sense that it exhibits a certain universal form which dominates the individual beings in which it appears. A phenomenon, as the scientific man speaks of it, is not an immediate being: it cannot be seen or touched or handled, but is the invariable manner in which immediate beings of a certain type appear. This piece of gold is soluble in aqua regia, to take Locke's instance, and the solution destroys its immediate being; but every piece of gold is subject to the same law, and therefore the law is universal or eternal. This plant or animal appears in various phases, but they are all appearances or manifestations of the generative energy or form which is characteristic of its kind. The being of a phenomenon, therefore, consists in the identity, or universal form, which dominates or masters every phase of the individual being, and thus destroys its independence. Here therefore we have (a) inner identity, (b) outward difference. Our first view of reflection therefore is, that it consists in the negative process by which the self-identity of the supersensible reality is maintained. The phases through which the individual being passes do not affect the eternal energy which supports and sustains all individual beings. Thus the first result of reflection is to destroy the independence of immediate beings by converting them into vanishing phases of a reality which is self-dependent and unchangeable. Beyond all immediate beings, as we think, is the true reality.

This aspect of reflection, however, seems to destroy the finite altogether; for it affirms that the finite has no being of its own, its own being consisting in the fact that it is the manifestation of a reality which does not appear. But it seems as if this could hardly be true, since, with the disappearance of the phenomenon, the reality must also be destroyed. In the face of this difficulty, it is natural to hold that the reduction of sensible reality to mere appearance cannot be admitted; and hence it is said that it is only from the point of view of external reflection or comparison that immediate being seems to be deprived of its independence. Reflection is thus held to be a merely subjective operation, which does not affect the essential nature of the object. The individual objects of perception are therefore maintained to be real, and the supersensible reality which is supposed to explain them is affirmed to be but a conception in the mind of the conscious subject, formed by abstraction, and having no existence apart from the mind that frames it. This is the manner in which common logic attempts to explain the nature of thought. Reality, it holds, is in no way affected by our thought; on the contrary, any attempt to qualify things by conceptions can only result in representing them as they are not.

This view of thought, as dealing only with abstractions—the view on which formal logic is based—derives its plausibility from the assumption that the only real objects are objects of perception. Working only with conceptions supposed to be formed by abstraction from the differences of things, judgment is held to consist in the process of predicating what is or is not already contained, obscurely it may be, in the conception with which it starts; while inference merely states what is already involved in the two judgments which form the premises of every inference. Pressed to its consequences, this doctrine reduces thought to an empty tautology. In truth, no significant judgment can be formed which is not negative as well as positive, or which does not at once distinguish and relate within a whole. This principle is violated by the doctrine of external reflection, which assumes the isolated reality of the objects of perception, and therefore supposes thought to deal separately with each object, merely expressing what is already contained in it. It is not observed that, in the affirmation that a given object is real, we have tacitly determined it by relation to other objects. The finite is assumed to be given in immediate experience, and therefore the infinite is conceived to be that which lies beyond the finite and excludes it. The supposition is that each must have independent reality, and therefore that our thought cannot affect the reality of either. All that thought can do is compare the finite with the infinite, and to determine their difference from each other. In truth, when each is thus isolated, neither has any attributes. What can possibly be meant by a finite that is isolated from the infinite? To think of anything as finite is to determine it as within a whole, and a whole which is not finite is infinite. On the other hand, an infinite that is isolated from the finite is absolutely indeterminate, and the absolutely indeterminate is unthinkable. It is thus evident that it is only by thinking finite and infinite together that we can think of either, and so to think them is to conceive them as essentially correlative. All reflection is therefore essentially determinant.

The first aspect of reflection is that in which immediate being is denied to have any reality in itself; the second, that in which both immediate and mediate being are affirmed to be real, each in its own way. The former resolves the finite into the infinite; the latter claims that both finite and infinite have their own indefeasible reality, being mutually exclusive. Thus, while reflection in its first form abolishes the finite and leaves only the infinite, in its second form it maintains the independence of both. From the former point of view, all differences disappear in simple identity; from the latter, differences are just as real as identity. The one declares that the distinction of matter and mind, subject and object, must be abolished; the other maintains that they are abstract opposites, and must for us always remain so.

Now, in these two aspects of reflection it is virtually implied that, properly understood, neither the abstract assertion of the infinite at the expense of the finite, nor the abstract opposition of the two, can really be thought. It is true, as reflective thought insists, that a finite which exists in its own right is a contradiction in terms. It is impossible to think of the finite except as that which occupies part of the total sphere of the infinite. Hence, in its second phase, reflection rightly enough maintains that the finite is just as real as the infinite. But what it overlooks is that the finite is not real in its isolation, but only in the infinite; and that an infinite which is out of all relation to the finite, as absolutely indeterminate, has no meaning whatever. Reflection, in its highest form, therefore recognizes that finite and infinite have no reality in separation from each other; in other words, that the infinite is the absolute unity presupposed in the finite, and the finite the expression of the inexhaustible energy and self-determination of the infinite; or, to express the same idea in theological terms, God, so far from being unknowable or indefinable, is infinitely determinate and manifests himself in all that has been, is, or will be. Whether this conception of God is compatible with the maintenance of different stages of reality, and with the freedom of man, we shall afterwards consider. At present we have reached the conclusion that reality cannot be either purely finite or purely infinite, but must be both in one; in other words, that nothing is possible except within the unity of an absolute and self-differentiating whole.

As we have seen, the unity of subject and object, which in sensible experience is merely implicit, in perception takes the form of a contrast between the conscious subject and the concrete sensible object; while in understanding this contrast is so far overcome, that the thinking subject grasps the laws involved in the phases through which objects pass, and thus finds itself at home with them. So far as I have discovered the law of a phenomenon, I can predict how it will behave; whereas in sensible experience we have a mere transition from one being to another; and in perception, while things are separately of a certain character, we cannot see why they should change in fixed and definite ways. Understanding, again, in grasping the laws of phenomena, breaks up the apparent independence of sensible things; and in place of it substitutes laws, not of this or that thing in its isolation, but of real beings, which survive the dissolution of individual things. When we know that planets move in an ellipse, we are no longer perplexed by the apparent arbitrariness of their movements. When we can bring falling bodies and the revolution of the earth around the sun under the same law, we understand why things are as they are; and in so understanding them, our demand for a reason why things should be as they are is so far satisfied.

Now, the various laws to which we are able to reduce the different phenomena are all determinations of a single unity, the world; and the understanding which finds itself at home in all is also one. This means, not only that, in point of fact, we succeed to a certain extent in reducing facts to laws, but that the intelligence itself must be a unity. Nor can this unity be explained as due merely to a peculiarity of the human mind, which cannot have a single experience unless it is able to refer the laws formed in experience to a single self; for, on this view, which is countenanced by Kant, and maintained by the pragmatists, the world of law after all only happens to be as we find it; and thus the door is opened for a sceptical distrust of the possibility of any knowledge whatever. Understanding is by its essential nature one; that is, it cannot act now in one way and again in another and a different way; but, in conceiving the knowable world as under the dominion of law, it exhibits the universal character of all intelligence. The satisfaction which accompanies the discovery of a law where before all seemed chaotic, is due to the subject's recognition that he has raised himself to the point of view of universal intelligence; or, what is at bottom the same thing, that he has comprehended the rational character of the world. Now an intelligence which is thus conscious of having so far penetrated to the open secret of nature, is tacitly an intelligence which knows itself as intelligence; in other words, it is aware of being in harmony with the nature of things. When this tacit self-comprehension is made explicit, and the intelligence becomes conscious of itself as intelligence, the true meaning of understanding is laid bare. Thus we make the transition to self-conscious experience, or Mind proper. It is not that self-consciousness was not implied in the simplest experience; but only that the successively deeper stages of consciousness must be traversed, before consciousness can come to the explicit consciousness of itself. This late result of experience is in accordance with the law of all development; which is never a mere transition from one phase to another, but always an evolution of that which is from the first implicit. Thus self-consciousness is the truth or meaning of consciousness. The intelligence cannot be an object to itself, without becoming conscious of itself as in indissoluble unity with the real world. We cannot separate the world from the intelligence, or the intelligence from the world, without landing ourselves logically in scepticism. When, therefore, we become explicitly conscious that intelligence is the logical prius of real objects, we at last become aware of the end towards which our experience has been all along tending. The last is first, and the first last. In self-conscious experience reality is revealed as what it truly is. Realism, dualism, subjective idealism, are all fragments of the one truth, that the intelligible is the real, and the real the intelligible.

This long and I fear somewhat tiresome investigation into the development of experience has made it clear that there can be for us no world of objects which does not involve the activity of our intelligence, and that this activity must proceed in ways that are in essential harmony with every possible intelligence. There is no object which is simply “presented”; it is only through the tacit or explicit operation of mind that there is any object at all. The unity of mind is presupposed even in the lowest stage of experience, and if it emerges into clearness in the end, that is only because it has been operative from the first. We cannot go beyond experience to condemn it by something that we do not experience; and therefore any limitation that we find attaching to it must be itself experienced. We cannot, for example, be aware that we are ignorant of the cause of a given phenomenon, unless we know that every phenomenon must have a cause. And so in all cases. Were we not somehow beyond our ignorance, we should be entirely unaware of our ignorance. Absolute ignorance is the complete absence of all experience, and as such it can never be a predicate of experience. The lowest stage of experience must be what Plato called “opinion” (δόξα); that is, ignorance based upon implicit knowledge. Necessity is thus laid upon us to explain what in ultimate analysis is the character of the universe. So far we have seen how consciousness, with its faith in the intelligibility of things, is forced to read sensible experience in the light of perception, and perception in the light of understanding; and how, finding that the world has not yet “orbed into the perfect star,” it advances beyond consciousness to self-consciousness. The process has been in one sense from the almost indefinite contrast of subject and object, through the perfectly definite and at first sight apparently insuperable opposition of the two, to an opposition so great that we seem forced beyond experience altogether and compelled to take refuge in a so-called supersensible world. But in reality the contrast of subject and object was really leading us, by an unknown and cunning path, to the ultimate consciousness of their absolute harmony. What seemed to be an alien world was only alien to the immediate world of sense; and with the consciousness of self we come upon the principle which has built up unseen the ordered world that seems at first so strange and foreign. As we learn more and more to understand the world and to comprehend its law, we come to experience the delight of a son in the house of his father, no longer the sadness of a slave and an exile.

But with the abolition of the feeling of estrangement, and the consciousness that the world is a system, not a mere assemblage of objects that happen to come together, have we reached the last stage in the upward flight of the spirit? Kant, as we know, fixed the limit of knowledge in the determination of the world as consisting in a number of objects, none of which can have properties, or undergo changes, except in so far as they are all reciprocally active. It followed, he thought, that there was no possibility of our having a knowledge of any self-determined being. Hence, in order to show even the possibility of immortality, freedom and the existence of God, we have, according to Kant, to place them theoretically in a realm beyond, the known world, and to base their reality upon a “faith” which can never become knowledge. There can be no system of experience, Kant contends, apart from the synthetic activity implied in self-consciousness; but to take this as meaning that the self which is involved in self-consciousness is determined by itself, or is a free subject, is to transcend the boundaries of legitimate knowledge, and hypostatize the mere “form” in which our experience must appear, as if it were equivalent to the independent existence of a self-dependent being. We cannot know that we are free, because nothing is knowable except that which falls within the sphere of experience; and nothing so falls but objects, which are not free but necessitated, having no independent spring of energy in themselves.

What has been said in regard to the development of knowledge makes it plain that we cannot thus limit knowledge without logically destroying its foundation. There is no experience whatever of an object in separation from a subject; and if the subject cannot be found within the realm of experience, that is because the forms by which objects are made possible belong neither to the object alone, nor to the subject alone, but to both in inseparable unity. Hence, we must begin by denying that the knowable world, in Kant's sense of the term, is identical with the system of nature. The real question is whether our experience, in its widest sense, compels us to advance beyond the system of nature to a more comprehensive and more concrete view of reality. Why should it be supposed that knowledge stops at the stage in which objects are determined as reciprocally active? Is morality not a legitimate object of knowledge, and can we find any rational basis for it, if it falls beyond the sphere of knowledge? Why should we not have knowledge of a free subject, if experience is inexplicable without it? What reason can there be for denying knowledge of God, if God is the one principle which makes experience an absolutely comprehensive and self-consistent whole? We must in truth be able to show that morality, freedom and God are objects of knowledge, or the solid ground apparently gained by a knowledge of the system of nature will crumble under our feet, and leave us vainly calling upon an empty faith to save us from absolute despair.

In attempting to go beyond the point reached by Kant, what we have to do is to show that self-consciousness is not merely formal; in other words, that it does not leave knowledge at the stage of the special sciences, but compels us to re-interpret this stage from the higher point of view of a free or self-determined being.

The first thing to be observed is that, if we are right, there is no longer any abstract opposition between the rational subject and his world. There are not two worlds—the world of appearance and the world of reality—but only one world; and in this world the rational subject finds himself at home because the world is itself essentially rational. This is virtually indicated by Kant, when he advances, in favour of “practical” reason, a claim which, in the case of “theoretical” reason, he denies. Beyond the realm of phenomena, he tells us, in which understanding rules supreme, is the hypothetical realm of reason, which is converted into a realm of absolute truth by a consideration of the moral consciousness. Discarding the arbitrary barrier set to knowledge by Kant's initial dualism, which he never transcends, this means that understanding is simply a lower stage of reason, the latter being the former when it has become fully conscious of its own presuppositions.1

Now (1) when we have reached the stage of reason—that stage in which the rational subject is aware of its identity with the world—we can no longer contemplate the world as it appeared to us at the stage of understanding. “Nature” cannot now be conceived merely as a congeries of objects reciprocally determining one another; it is essentially a unity, which expresses itself in the certainty and inviolability of law. Were nature not subject to law, the rational subject would be unable to feel himself at home in it. The alternative is not forced upon us, either to accept the inviolability of law or to fall back upon an utterly irrational universe. Inviolable law no longer seems to be external compulsion, when it is regarded as the one form in which reason can express itself. In discovering the subjection of all objects to unchanging law, the subject learns that there actually is realized outwardly that organic unity which his reason invariably demands, and in all of its phases has been searching after. Thus, when we cast our glance back over the path by which we have been led, beginning with sensible experience, and, stage by stage, ascending to the explicit unity of self-consciousness, we realize that, in all our efforts, we have been unconsciously working towards a goal predetermined for us by the essential nature of reason. This is virtually admitted by the scientific man, who always assumes, when he is unable to give a satisfactory explanation of a fact, that this is due, not to anything inherent in the nature of the world, but to some defect in the amount of his knowledge or in the hypothesis by which he tries to account for the fact. He knows that he must get rid of all that is peculiar to himself, if he is to penetrate to the truth of things; and this surely means that he believes in the rationality of the world, if only he could discover the specific forms in which it is realized.

The first way in which the life of reason is manifested is in observation. Here, we concentrate attention upon certain aspects of the real world, seeking to make clear to ourselves their specific nature. In this way we deal with inorganic nature, organic life and the self-conscious individual, always under the presupposition that, if we “describe” the object, without disturbing it by our overeager fancies, we shall thereby characterize it exactly as it is. This is the goal of all observation. What the object is, is what we “describe” it as being; and if there is any discrepancy between our description and the nature of the object, we conclude that we have not described it properly.

In observation, then, reason proceeds to test its immediate experience by tacit reference to the principle of a rational and intelligible universe. For, observation is not a merely passive process, in which we simply accept what is immediately given in sense-experience, but a process in which we come to the object with the assured conviction, that we shall not properly “observe” it as it is, until we find it conform to our presupposition. When, therefore, fixing upon a certain aspect of the world, we discover that it is what we call “inorganic,” it is not that we have found a separate and independent class of things, but only that the world exhibits certain features, which do not seem of themselves to demand the application of any conception beyond that of “mechanism.” This aspect of the world is properly called “mechanical,” only because that is the “conception” which fits it; and it is not known as “mechanical” except through the “conception” which seems to fit it. Reason demands in all cases that the object should be a “whole,” and it can only be satisfied that it has found a “whole,” when the object as conceived really stands the test of reason. Or, otherwise put, the principle of reason is the unconditioned and nothing less can satisfy it; because, the moment an object is seen to be conditioned, it obviously points beyond itself, or is not self-determining. Thus the mind is forced by its very nature, in its interpretation of experience, never to rest satisfied until it has hit upon a conception, than which there is no higher. It must, however, be observed, that this process of proceeding from the less to the more comprehensive is at the same time an advance from the less to the more determinate. When, for example, it is found that the conception of “mechanism” is not ultimate but conditioned, we do not simply set aside that conception, substituting that of “organic life” in its stead; but we work with the wider conception of “organism,” which does not exclude “mechanism,” but transmutes it into a higher form. So, when we pass from “life” to “consciousness,” we do not set the former aside; but we see that reality comprehends and yet transcends life, and therefore involves a more determinate conception.

It is the very nature of reason, then, at once to unify and to determine, to universalize and to particularize; and the various stages through which it passes consist in a progressive unification and differentiation. Reason is never a reduction of differences to abstract unity, but the recognition of a unity essentially concrete or specific. If “life” simply abolished “mechanism,” and “self-consciousness” “life,” we should be left with an abstract residuum—a unity that was perfectly indeterminate. Hence the necessity of recognizing that each step upward carries the lower with it. Life is not the mere negation of mechanism—though it is negation—it is a positive reinterpretation of mechanism by its inclusion in a higher unity. A life that does not presuppose “mechanism” is nowhere found; just as a life which is identical with “mechanism” is not life. And the same is true of self-consciousness. There is no self-consciousness that does not at once negate and include life; and therefore, if we seek for a self-conscious reality which does not rest upon a basis of life, we obtain a mere fiction of abstraction. It is thus necessary that reason should specify as well as unify; and all false theories of reality may be reduced to the undue isolation of one or the other of these inseparable aspects. Reason differentiates itself into various spheres, each of which combines unity and difference; but each new sphere combines unity and difference in forms at once more comprehensive and more specific. And it must be observed, that it is the more concrete conception which is always the more adequate. The seeming “truth” of the lower conception is found to be inadequate when we have advanced to the higher. Nevertheless the lower is not superfluous, nor is it absolutely devoid of truth. It is the character of all development that the higher is implicit in the lower; and indeed, were it not so, there would be no possible transition from lower to higher. Thus reason cannot be said to possess a number of separate “conceptions,” which it brings out and applies as occasion serves; it is present in each “conception” in its fulness, because each is but a phase or stage of a single all-comprehensive unity. The notion that reason possesses “conceptions” as a man possesses a hat or a coat, is fatal to any real comprehension of what reason is. The various conceptions are all modes in which the one unifying and differentiating activity is expressed. Reason, we may say, is “all in the whole and all in every part.”

It thus seems to me a gross mistake to suppose that, in order to preserve the unity of the world, it is necessary to show that the conception of the inorganic must be denied, and every real object declared to be an “organism.” For (1) this view—the view of Lotze and the personal idealists—assumes that whatever is real must be individual, in the sense of being real in its isolation. If this were a legitimate mode of conception, we should have to maintain that all real being is not only living, but self-conscious, and indeed that the only reality consists of completely self-conscious beings. For, if we are to deny the reality of “inorganic” beings on the ground that they do not admit of “individuality,” we must equally deny the reality of conscious beings because they are not completely self-conscious, since nothing less than complete self-consciousness can yield complete individuality. Thus we are confronted with the dilemma: either there is an infinity of omniscient beings, or there is no reality whatever. If we accept the first horn of the dilemma, we lapse into the absurdity of an infinite number of separate realities; if we adopt the latter alternative, we drift into absolute scepticism. It is therefore necessary to maintain the whole hierarchy of “conceptions,” but to regard them as phases in the progressive unification and differentiation of the one rational reality.

These conceptions, or ways of unifying the elements of experience, being functions of reason, in actual operation take the form of judgments, and these, looked at from the objective side, are laws or principles. Thus observation passes into systematic connection. The laws implied in observation are not merely subjective modes of combining and connecting what is otherwise chaotic, but determinations involved in the actual nature of the world. They are not externally applied to objects, but constitute the essential nature of objects. Without them objects could not exist at all, for they constitute the life and meaning of the world. Certainly they must be grasped by a subject, but it is in virtue of the subject's universal nature as reason, and of the embodiment of reason in the world, that any insight into the real nature of things is possible. This is the highest point which reason as such is capable of attaining. Its ideal is a completely articulated or rationalized world; and though in point of fact this goal is never reached by us, it yet is presupposed in all the processes by which the world is reduced to the unity of law.

The world, then, exists for the subject only because reason, as operative in him, has constructed it. Thus the life of the subject is the life of the world as it develops in the subject. That to which the subject submits is the reason expressed in the world; and hence, in obeying the laws of the world the subject is free, or obeying only his own true self. The fact that the subject lives in a rational world involves the freedom of the subject; for only a free subject is capable of comprehending a rational world. And nothing is for the subject but the rational reality which it comprehends. In this sense the world has no existence except for the subject. But the world is no arbitrary product, no mere series of ideas in a separate mind; for it exists only in so far as the subject comprehends that what exists for him is not merely his, but what every rational subject under the same conditions must recognize to be real. The self-conscious individual is at the same time universal. Isolated individuality is therefore a fiction. There can be no consciousness of self except in so far as all individual selves are conscious of themselves as involving a universal self-consciousness. It is not in my isolation that I am conscious of myself—for an isolated self would never become self-conscious—but only in so far as the universal self-consciousness realizes itself in my self-consciousness.

Now self-conscious individuality is the world of spiritual life, which assumes the form of the moral life and the order of society. Freedom is necessarily involved in morality. To be free is not to lead an isolated life, but a life which is most perfectly identified with the ends that reason prescribes. A community of self-conscious individuals, all recognizing that each must be a self, and that what is demanded of one is demanded of all under the same conditions, is freedom, because no subject can be free that does not recognize the claims of every subject as equal to his own, and his own as equal to the claims of others. The moral life is thus essentially a social life. Action which proceeds from such a regard for oneself as is inconsistent with due regard for others, is not moral. Thus there is no opposition between egoism and altruism, such as is sometimes affirmed. To realize myself I must attain that which is best for me; but that which is best for me is that which is best for all other selves as well. Thus morality involves the transcendence of immediate impulse, and the setting up of laws that are permanent and universal, existing as it does only through the realization in the individual of universal self-consciousness.

Morality is “practical,” because it consists in the free or self-determined life. It is not enough that universal ends should be recognized theoretically to be the true reality of the self, but these ends must become actual. Thus morality consists in living the life of spirit. It cannot be said to exist except in so far as the subject lives, and lives consciously, in the universal. The very nature of the self is to be universal, and morality consists in the active realization of that nature. Society is not made by the voluntary agreement of individuals, and therefore it cannot be based upon “contract,” but expresses the universal self-consciousness. No doubt there is no society apart from self-conscious individuals, but that merely means that society is not an abstraction, but the concrete realization of the ideal nature of each and all the individuals who compose it. Without society, therefore, moral individuality is an impossibility. Society cannot be based on “contract,” because there can be no “contract” without society. Moreover, the moral life cannot consist in each individual realizing his duty in isolation from others, for no justification of society could then be given.

Morality thus involves, on the one hand, universal self-consciousness, and, on the other hand, its realization through individual self-conscious centres. There is no society apart from individuals, and no real individuals apart from society. The proper relation of these two factors is the secret of social life, as embodied in social law and custom. The individual realizes himself in harmony with the spirit of his people, which expresses itself in habitual ways of acting. It is this spirit that the individual seeks to realize. For he has rights only in society, as a member of the family, the civic community, the state, the world. These have different degrees of universality; but they are not so related that the one is superseded by the other; all are essential to the complete determination of the whole, each having its own specific mode of realizing the whole.

The individual, on the other hand, lives in the whole, and his ideal life consists in being a whole. It is the prerogative of self-consciousness thus to transcend mere individuality. For, while each must fulfil his own special function, he can do so only in subordination to the whole social organism. It is not enough that he should simply conform to the customs and laws of his people, but he must have his share in determining them; indeed, he may even turn against them, though the only defence of this antagonistic attitude is his discernment that they are not consistent with the complete realization of self-consciousness.

Thus arises the sphere of individual morality, as involving definite choice and individual responsibility. The principle of the whole is realized and specified in the case of each self-conscious individual, taking the form of a law—the law of conscience. Here the universal assumes the form of the particular; for conscience is not formulated as a public or social law, but exists in an immediate form. Not that it is a mere instinct; for it is the instinct of a rational and self-conscious subject, who can impose nothing upon himself that he does not regard as equally binding upon others, or upon others that is not a law also for himself. Hence, freedom cannot exist in the individual, unless it is embodied in the customs and laws of a free society; nor can there be any free society, which does not imply the freedom of individuals. The individual cannot be “forced to be free” by the bare compulsion of society, nor can he secure freedom by ignoring the claims of others, and affirming his own arbitrary will.

The perfect harmony of individual and universal self-consciousness is the goal towards which reason ever strives. The spiritual life must be the free, rational life of all the members of a people, and ultimately of humanity. True freedom cannot be realized except in a completely spiritualized society, i.e. in a society in which every self-conscious individual lives a life which has an absolute moral significance. Thus freedom implies “conscience.”

“Conscience,” however, must be implicitly identical with what is universally valid. There are no rights of private conscience, if that means that the individual may claim exemption from moral law, because his conscience dissents from it. No one can claim to be exempt from a law recognized to be binding upon others. If a man dissents from custom or established law, it can only be on the ground that in his “conscience” there is involved a deeper and truer law. He cannot be saved by the badness of his conscience. For conscience exists only because the individual lives in a social whole; and without the moral training obtained through society—including the family—he would have no conscience. The authority of the individual conscience cannot be proved by a mere appeal to what is recognized to be right; nor is it disproved by the discrepancy between the consciences of individuals; nothing can establish the universality of a moral law but the rationality of its content.

Self-conscious individuality includes “nature” as a constituent element in its own life. Hence the climate and the physical features and conditions of the life of a people determine the manner of life which it leads. The self-conscious individual, however, subordinates nature to his own ends. An external thing ceases to be external, and comes to express the will of the self-conscious subject: thus arises property. This is true of “nature” in all its aspects. A territory becomes a country, a home; it is related to universal self-consciousness as the individual soul to the individual body. Nature is not something alien to man; it is the means by which his moral life is realized.

Not only physical nature, but organic functions, have a moral meaning. The family, which is based upon the organic function of sex, thus comes to have a spiritual meaning by its tendency to raise the individuals composing it above their separate individuality. There is no “natural law in the spiritual world,” but there is “spiritual law in the natural world.” All modes of organic activity, when brought within self-consciousness, become the expression of purposes, and have a moral value. So, in the state, natural resources are transformed into instruments of spirit.

The same principle applies to the self-conscious life of individuals. Moral life does not go on in independence of the physical and vital activities; but these assume a new meaning when they become instruments for the realization of conscious purposes. The merely natural life of the individual is determined by his reaction on the environment in which he is placed; the moral life, on the other hand, is not a mere passive acquiescence in the natural relation, but a comprehension of its meaning in the whole, and the predetermination of its activities by moral ends. There is no spiritual life in independence of the natural; but neither in a self-conscious being is there any natural life in independence of the spiritual. It is therefore a mistake to speak of man as if he might live two separate and independent lives, the natural and the spiritual; there is but one life, the spiritual, since in it the natural is transformed and thus obtains a new meaning. The contrast between a completely developed and an imperfectly developed spiritual life gives rise to the historical evolution of the race and the process of moral life in the individual. The history of the race may be regarded as the means by which freedom is developed; that of the individual as the process through which he participates in the highest development of the race and contributes to its further development. Moral and social laws are the universal modes in which the spiritual life of individuals is embodied. The moral order, as expressed in conscience, does not separate, but unites individuals, since it is the comprehension by the individual of the essential nature of society. Freedom in the state is impossible without freedom of conscience; and therefore the history of man is the history of the development of free self-consciousness. The perfect harmony of society and the individual is the goal of all human effort. Is this goal capable of being achieved? The answer to this question involves the transition from morality to religion.

  • 1.

    The reader will understand that I have used the terms “understanding” and “reason” in accommodation to Kant's dualistic point of view. Perhaps “intelligence” might better express my view that there are not two separate faculties, namely “understanding” and “reason”; but almost no term will successfully prevent logical distinctions from being read as real separations.