You are here

Lecture Ninth. Personal and Absolute Idealism

IN the last lecture a summary was given of that form of Idealism which has been called Personal Idealism. So far as this doctrine denies that there is any world of matter which exists in separation from mind, it adopts a conclusion which since Kant may be regarded as proved beyond the possibility of doubt. If we remove from objects all that implies the activity of mind, nothing will be left but an abstract residuum without meaning or reality. That which is not a possible object of experience cannot be asserted to exist, and that which by definition is beyond the mind cannot be experienced. It is no real answer to say that, while matter in itself lies beyond experience, it may be brought within experience by an inference from sensible perception. For, in the first place, no such inference can be legitimately drawn, if matter is the opposite of mind; and, in the second place, matter is not shown to be beyond experience because it is not an object of sensible perception. It may quite well be a conception and yet real; but it cannot be real, unless in some way it is brought within experience; and if it is brought within experience, it cannot have any isolated or independent reality. The proper question must therefore be, not how we come to know an independent material world, but how we come to distinguish the world of matter from the world of mind.

So far this form of idealism closely follows the lead of Kant, in substituting for the unmeaning opposition of matter and mind the indubitable contrast of subject and object. Kant, however, as we know, maintained that beyond the limits of experience we must suppose the existence of things-in-themselves, which are required to account for the impressions or sensations that serve as the “matter” out of which objects of experience arise by the application of the “forms” of perception and thought. This opposition of objects of experience or phenomena to things-in-themselves, it is argued, cannot be admitted by a consistent Idealism. To accept it is to fall back in another way into that dualism from which the Critical Philosophy gloried in having liberated us. What has misled Kant, it is said, is his assumption that experience in its earliest form consists of a pure “manifold” or disconnected multiplicity of sensations, which are only combined and connected by the independent activity of thought. From Kant's point of view it is natural to say that the subject is absolutely passive in relation to these atomic sensations, and that the synthetic activity of thought is required to combine them into the unity of a single experience. In truth, this is a distortion of the facts. What is first experienced by the subject is not a multiplicity of sensations, but a continuum of experience, in which the distinction of subject and object is already involved; and it is only by the selective activity of the subject that one object is distinguished from another, and both from the subject. It is not true that sensations are simply “given” to the subject; what we call sensation already involves the contrast of subject and object; and hence what Kant calls the “matter” of experience is really experience itself in its simplest form.

Whether this criticism of the familiar opposition between phenomena and things-in-themselves, and of the contrast of “matter” and “form,” does full justice to Kant, it would take us too long to enquire; what we are immediately concerned with is whether the account given by Personal Idealism of our primary experience is sound. I think it is undoubtedly sound in so far as it maintains that experience even in its simplest form involves the implicit distinction of subject and object, and that there are no isolated or atomic sensations which have to be combined by the independent activity of thought. The necessary condition of any experience whatever, even the most elementary, is the consciousness of something as immediately felt. If therefore we distinguish sensation from thought it cannot be on the ground of a fundamental opposition in nature, such that sensation is purely passive, while thought is actively synthetic; for, apart from the synthetic activity which all consciousness involves, there can be no experience whatever. But as the term “thought” is ambiguous—being employed sometimes in the general sense of consciousness, and at other times in the specific sense of the explicit or reflective formation and use of general conceptions—it is perhaps better to say that what is called sensation consists in the presentation in and for the conscious subject of some distinguishable element of the real world. Immediate experience is not made up of two separate ingredients—sensation and consciousness—but of a single concrete whole, in which we may distinguish, but cannot separate, the two aspects of subject and object. Nor can there be any object apart from the selective activity of the subject. Interest in the elements of reality presented is essential to experience.

Admitting, then, that it is a false and futile method of explanation to set up a hypothetical world of things-in-themselves as opposed to things-as-experienced, and that experience does not begin with a pure “manifold” of sensations, we have to ask whether it follows that the experience in question can be regarded as purely individual. Is it true that the single subject shapes his own world by selecting out of the objective continuum the elements that interest him and combining them in the manner that suits himself, and that the whole process is peculiar to himself? I think we shall find that this account of the nature of experience over-emphasizes one aspect of it, leaving the other and equally important aspect out of account. The process of experience is certainly impossible without the self-activity of the individual subject. There is no such thing as experience in general, but experience is necessarily that of an individual subject, who cannot be identified with any other subject. No one can have my experience, nor can I have the experience of another. With the elimination of the individual subject the object also disappears. But, while this is undoubtedly true, it does not follow that the object of each individual subject is peculiar to himself. Certainly, the individual subject exercises selective activity, without which there would be for him no object. But selective activity does not involve the arbitrary creation of the elements selected. No doubt sensation is not something simply “given” to the individual subject, which enters into the unity of experience by the additional activity of thought; nevertheless the object which is apprehended in sensation is not made by the subject apprehending it, but has its own character, which no effort on his part can destroy. And the reason is that the sensations of the individual subject presuppose the whole constitution of the universe. Alter in the slightest degree any single element of reality, and the sensations of the individual must also change. The individual subject, in coming to the apprehension of something sensible, is therefore experiencing an element of reality which is absolutely unchangeable. It is in truth this vague and unreflective apprehension of the fixed constitution of the universe that accounts for the stubborn character of sensible perception, and has led to the conception of the independent reality of the sensible object. Independent reality, in the sense of something disparate from the reality we experience, is undoubtedly a fiction of abstraction; but not so reality that is not made by the individual subject. What that reality ultimately is can only be determined by a long and slow process of reflection, and is certainly not consciously present in our first immediate experience; but it seems to me of the utmost importance to hold fast by the position, that the object apprehended by the individual subject is not created but only recognized by him. The individual subject can no more produce the object than he can produce himself; and it is only when the psychologist assumes the individual subject with his experience, that he seems to himself to reduce reality to the experience of this or that individual. The experience of the individual is possible only in virtue of his universal nature. Every subject distinguishes between himself and the object, because this capacity for contrasting the object with himself and thereby uniting himself to it, is the indispensable condition of any experience whatever. And though the object so constituted is determined by the selective activity of the subject, that selective activity does not act without law, but is one form in which the universal nature of a conscious subject is expressed. Under the same conditions every subject has precisely the same presentations. It is therefore a mistake to speak of presentations as if they were absolutely unshareable, while thoughts are regarded as common to various subjects. Feelings and thoughts are in this respect precisely on the same level. No one can think for me any more than he can feel for me. Universality does not lie in the uniqueness of either feeling or thought, but in the fixed way in which both operate. When anything is said to be objective, this does not mean that it has a separate nature of its own, but only that it has a nature which it only possesses in virtue of its relation to the whole rational universe.

The simplest form of experience, then, implies the correlative distinction and relation of subject and object; but the object, as we have concluded, though it must exist for an individual subject, is no more the product of that subject in its private capacity, than it is an independent thing-in-itself. We are told, however, that “individual experience” is expanded by the experience of the race. The transition is made, it is said, through the intercourse of various individual subjects with one another. By comparison of their several experiences, a certain common element is discovered. The real experiences of each differ from one another, if for no other reason than that they are the experiences of each. How then do they all come to know the same object or world? No one can communicate to another his unique experience; all that he can do is to communicate what is common to the experience of both. This “transsubjective” object exists only for “consciousness in general.” It is a world which exists only for conceptual thought.

This account of the transition from individual to universal experience seems to me beset with insuperable difficulties. In the first place, it is difficult to understand how the individual subject, who is assumed to be confined to his own separate experience and object, can know that there is anything common to his own and others’ experiences. If the object of my immediate experience is different from the several objects experienced by others, is not the object of my thought also different from the several objects thought of by others? Perceptual and conceptual experience are admittedly continuous, and therefore the uniqueness of the former must involve the uniqueness of the latter. Apart from this, surely in nothing can the individual subject display a greater degree of activity than in the formation of conceptions. If therefore the perceptual object is peculiar to the individual subject, much more ought the conceptual object, as the product of the purely spontaneous activity of the individual subject, be the sole possession of the individual subject. Again, if the immediate experience of the individual subject is peculiar to himself, how can he possibly discover that there is anything “common” to his experience and that of others? Limited as he is supposed to be to his own private experience, it is not evident how he can break through the charmed circle in which he is confined and come in contact with the experience of another. If it is said, that he can indicate what he means either by the primitive method of pointing, or by the use of words, it is forgotten that his “pointing” and his “words” can have a meaning only to himself, since the object that he attempts to indicate is not the same as the object of another, and therefore the one is as disparate from the other as if they belonged to independent worlds. And even if we suppose that the individual subject could get beyond his own experience and bring before his mind the experience of another, this would not prove that there was any identity between the two; for, ex hypothesi, every single experience is absolutely unique, and therefore A's thought of B's experience must after all leave B's experience absolutely separate and distinct. It thus seems that, on the hypothesis of absolutely individual experiences, there is no possibility of knowledge on the part of any individual subject of an object common to all individual subjects.

This result is the logical conclusion from that separation of individual subjects which is the πρω̑του ψϵυ̑δος of all forms of subjective idealism. Unless the subject is from the first placed within the actual world, there is no possibility of bringing that world within the subject. The experiences of the individual must be determined by the total rational nature of the universe or they can have no objective meaning. It is only in and through his actual intercourse with reality—a reality which he can neither make nor unmake—that the individual can comprehend the true nature of existence. Begin by isolating him from the world, and his isolation can never be overcome. On the other hand, admit that the subject can only know himself as contrasted with the world, and there is no need to invent an imaginary process of transition. Experience as it grows certainly comprehends more and more the rational structure of existence, but from the first it is in contact with reality, not outside of it. Hence there is no difficulty in understanding how the transition is made from perceptual to conceptual experience. The latter is the further determination of that reality which is partially apprehended in the former, and is no mere factitious construction invented as a medium of communication between separate and incommunicable individual subjects.

And this indicates another objectionable feature in this form of idealism, namely, its inadequate and misleading account of the nature of thought. Naturalism it condemns on the ground that the elements of mass, time, motion and energy, into which the real world is resolved are merely conceptions formed by abstraction from the concreteness of perception. Thus, instead of saying that those elements constitute the true nature of things, we ought to say, it is argued, that they are simply convenient instruments for describing our actual experience. The conception of a system of nature is a postulate which enables us to interpret our experience, but we cannot legitimately affirm that it has any objective existence.

Now, it is of course manifest that the conceptions of mass, motion and energy which the physical sciences employ have no separate and independent reality; taken by them selves, they are abstractions, which no more exist objectively than such abstractions as house, man or animal. Just as there is no independent reality corresponding to these class notions, so the conceptions of science have no real objects of which they are the counterpart. No space, time, mass, motion or energy remains over after the concrete wealth of experience has been eliminated. But, while this is true, it is just as true that these conceptions are not merely convenient “working conceptions,” which have nothing in the real world corresponding to them; on the contrary, they are universal and necessary determinations or relations of the known world, and their removal from the world of our experience would leave it in a condition of absolute chaos. There is no pure space, which exists in independence of all other determinations, and yet the conclusions of geometry are absolute so far as they apply, because no object of experience is possible which does not conform to the fundamental nature of space as a determination of external things. Similarly, there is no purely abstract time, which survives after abstraction has been made from all definite events, and yet no change in the world of our experience is possible, which does not occur in conformity with the nature of time. There is no separate and independent mass or energy, but nothing can be known by us which is not an element in a system in which mass and energy bear a constant relation to each other. The conception of gravitation certainly has no independent reality, and yet no particle of matter can be found that does not conform to the law that bodies attract one another in proportion to their mass and inversely as the square of the distance. If the conceptions employed in science were merely hypotheses or postulates, how could they be regarded as anything more than convenient fictions which a wider knowledge might entirely reverse? Unless they express the real conditions of objects there is no ground for affirming that the world is a system at all, and therefore no ground for maintaining its intelligibility. It is quite true that we do find the world intelligible, but surely the reason is not the mere fact that it happens to be capable of being regarded as a system, but the fact that it actually is a system.

The fallacy which leads to the denial of all objective law is based upon a false idea of the method of thought. That method is supposed to be one of external comparison, in which “common” elements are found in various concrete objects and gathered together in an abstract idea. There is no more pernicious fallacy than this. It assumes that in strictness there is no real identity, but only similarity, in things, and that the supposed identity is due entirely to the fact that we have eliminated all the differences by a process of abstraction. But scientific thought does not really proceed in this way. The conception of mass or energy is not formed by comparing a number of sensible things with one another, and fixing upon the points of identity; it is a process in which the actual relations involved in these things are grasped by thought. Similarly, by no process of external comparison could the law of gravitation have been discovered. Scientific thought always proceeds by a combined process of determination and unification. The chemist breaks up a whole into elements, but his process at once brings to light elements never before apprehended and unifies them in a new conception of the whole. Thus, the process of experience is at once analytic and synthetic, never merely analytic or merely synthetic: not the former, because the analysis into separate elements would give us, not a world, but a collection of fragments; and not the latter, because without distinguishable elements there is no real synthesis.

The conceptions of science, then, are not mere subjective ideas, which somehow enable us to find our way through the confusion of sensible particulars; they are actual principles, without which those particulars could not exist. If they were merely postulates or hypotheses, they would never enable us to systematize our experience. One cannot systematize that which is in itself devoid of system. If particulars are the true realities and conceptions merely abstractions in our minds, the former cannot be dependent upon the latter for their reality; for in that case, even if there were no conceptions, we must suppose that the particulars would still exist. But this is a false and untenable doctrine. When the universal determinations grasped by thought are removed, the particulars also disappear. How could any sensible object be real after all spatial and temporal determinations had been removed? It is not true, therefore, that the particulars exist apart from the universals, any more than that the universals exist apart from the particulars. One reason for the false assumption of mere particulars is that our experience is a continuous process. Adopting the point of view of the psychologist, who concentrates his attention on this process, we may seem to have mere particulars of sense, which are afterwards referred to conceptions. But this is simply an instance of that parallax to which the psychologist is especially liable. There are really no mere particulars of sense, but in the simplest experience there is already implicitly contained the whole system of the universe. The conscious subject has no experience at all that does not involve the correlation of subject and object; and the first vague and indeterminate idea of the object is the germ from which the comprehension of the whole universe develops. The conception of the world as a system in which the total quantity of energy is always conserved, is a stage in this process of development. It is not ultimate, because it sets aside for the time being all elements but those which concern the motion of masses; and therefore it needs to be supplemented by a fuller and more concrete grasp of reality. But inadequate as it is, it is a real determination of the world so far as it goes; and the reduction of its conceptions to mere hypotheses or postulates, when pressed to its logical consequences, can only result in the fundamentally sceptical conclusion of Pragmatism, that truth is merely that which in our human experience is found to “work.” Nothing can really be found to “work” except that which is in conformity with the nature of things.

If Personal Idealism, as I believe, is inconsistent with our experience of the world, it is hardly to be expected that it should yield a satisfactory theology. Starting from the independent reality of the individual subject, we have seen that it cannot explain how there should be any communication between one subject and another. The same difficulty arises in an aggravated form, when an attempt is made to establish the existence of God and to explain how the isolated subject comes to have a knowledge of him.

(1) It is difficult to see how, starting from the hypothesis of a number of isolated or monadic subjects, any adequate reason can be advanced for affirming the existence of God at all. In the strongest possible way it is maintained that the conscious life of each person is so unique that it is absolutely impervious to any other being, human or divine. Nothing less, it is supposed, will enable us to defend the freedom and moral responsibility of the individual man. Now, if each person is thus impervious to everything but his own experience, it is difficult to see how the transition is to be made to the existence of God. If it is said that the individual subject is conscious of his own limitations, and therefore is compelled to suppose a Being who is beyond all limitations, we are met by the difficulty that such a Being must include all reality within himself, and therefore cannot be absolutely separated from all other beings. This is so far admitted by the personal idealist, that he denies God to be unlimited in power, though he maintains that God is unlimited in knowledge. But this abstract separation of power and knowledge seems to be inconsistent with the contention that will and thought are merely aspects of one single indissoluble person. A being of limited power must be limited by something that to him is incomprehensible, and therefore he cannot be unlimited in knowledge. On the other hand, unlimited knowledge must imply unlimited power, since, assuming the existence of power, there is no limit to it except that arising from ignorance. The truth however is, that to the personal idealist, who absolutely isolates each conscious subject, the idea of God can have no objective reality whatever, but can at most merely mean that he is conscious of his own limitations. If all the conceptions by which the conscious subject seeks to describe his experience are hypotheses, the conception of God must share the same fate as the rest. It is in truth self-evident that, if the conscious subject is shut up within the circle of his own experience, he can have no knowledge of God any more than of other conscious subjects like himself.

We have thus seen the inadequacy of the doctrine which attempts to preserve the freedom and moral responsibility of man by regarding his experience as so absolutely individual that no real participation of one conscious subject in the experience of another is logically possible. That doctrine makes the existence and infinity of God inconceivable, since the individual subject is virtually enclosed within himself and therefore can have no ground for affirming the reality of any being but himself. The fallacy which thus logically leads to Solipsism is, as I have contended, partly due to the false idea that thinking is a process of abstraction, and therefore that in immediate experience we have the true reality, which conceptions merely help us to understand. In truth, thought is not abstraction, but a process of combined differentiation and unification, analysis and synthesis. As experience grows there is at once a more determinate knowledge of the manifold differences of the world and a more perfect unity. Hence the process by which science for its own purposes reduces the world to mass and energy, is not a permanent movement away from the concreteness of immediate experience, but a necessary step in the advance to a real comprehension of the world. It is perfectly true that in immediate experience there are elements which this mechanical conception ignores; but, on the other hand, abstraction is made from these merely in order to concentrate attention upon some real aspect of the world hidden from immediate experience, though no doubt implied in it. It is a decided advance beyond the first stage of experience to prove that, whatever its other determinations may be, the world is not a mere aggregate of things lying side by side in space, or of events following one another in time, and that things have no separate and independent being of their own, but are elements in a system. This conception of the world prepares the way for a still further advance, in which it is seen that the world is a teleological and self-determining unity.

Although Personal Idealism rightly insists that the world is a realm of ends, to my mind it defends this principle upon grounds that are fatal to the spiritual life of man and incompatible with the theism that it seeks to establish. It makes no attempt, we are told, to give a complete solution of “the so-called riddle of the universe.”1 In this apparently modest and reasonable attitude there is an ambiguity which seems to me to lead to disastrous logical consequences. Is it meant (1) that we cannot pretend to have a completely exhaustive knowledge of all the facts of the universe, since such a knowledge would involve, not only an extension of our experience which, for beings like man who are limited in space and time, is impossible, but because, extend our knowledge as far as we may, we can never completely determine the nature of any single object found in the world? Or is the contention (2) that we cannot have a knowledge of the ultimate principle by which the universe is to be explained, because, however comprehensive the category or conception by which we think the universe, we can never say that there is not a still more comprehensive conception, if only we could free ourselves from the limits of our experience? If the former is meant, it must of course be admitted that we can never completely exhaust the universe, limited as we necessarily are by the conditions of our sensible experience. Beyond the farthest bounds to which our knowledge of particular things extends, there is an indefinite expanse which we are unable, at least under the present conditions of our experience, to traverse. But why should it be assumed that our want of experience of the world, in all its breadth and extent, involves such a limitation of knowledge as prevents us from solving “the so-called riddle of the universe”? Is it because experience is a process in which we slowly add particular to particular? If that were true, obviously we should not be able to prove a single universal proposition. For, if knowledge is limited to the particular as here and now, by what right can we affirm even that the particular is here and now? “Here” and “now” are by their very nature universals, and a particular sensation occurring at a given moment cannot be identified with the apprehension of a particular fact, unless we assume that it is the sign of a property or characteristic which is not simply here and now, but exists always under the same conditions. If knowledge were really limited to what is “here” and “now,” how could we judge that “ginger is hot in the mouth”—not simply at this moment, but at any and every moment, and not merely for me, but for any living being with a normal palate? Evidently, therefore, it cannot be true that the process of knowledge is a mere accumulation of particulars. That is the fallacy of sensationalistic empiricism, which theistic pluralism assumes itself to have outgrown. Now, if we cannot have any, even the simplest, knowledge without presupposing the faculty in man of comprehending the universal, why should it be supposed that our ignorance of the world in its full extent and in its minute differences makes it impossible for us to “solve the so-called riddle of the universe”? It certainly makes it impossible for us to give an enumeration of all the facts or properties of all the objects anywhere to be found in the wide universe, but surely it does not prevent us from saying that, whatever facts or properties there may be, they must present themselves to us in the one space and the one time. But any one who admits so much has assumed the absolutely universal validity of space and time. Is he then precluded from saying that there is one space and one time? He is certainly precluded from such an unqualified affirmation, if the only way of obtaining knowledge is by the heaping up of particulars. Who ever has passed over, or ever will pass over, the whole extent of space or time? And if not, why should we say that our experience is always of what is in space or time, and in the same space and time? It can only be on some such ground as that advanced by Kant, that to deny space and time to be conditions of our experience is to abandon the attempt even to explain the illusion of experience.

It may be said, however, that, while space and time are universal conditions of our experience, they cannot be conditions of all possible experience, because any attempt to find a totality of spatial or temporal experience leads to alternative impossibilities of thought. This is in brief the argument by which Kant seeks to show that our experience is only of phenomena, not of things as they are in their own nature. Now, with all deference to Kant, and to the eminent thinkers who have endorsed his argument, I venture to affirm that it rests upon a palpable fallacy, at bottom the same fallacy that leads to the false notion that our experience is an accumulation of particulars, and that we cannot form a valid judgment without an absolutely exhaustive enumeration of all the relevant particulars. Kant argues that we can have no experience of an absolute beginning of the world, because such a beginning would involve the experience of an event with nothing to account for its origination; nor again can we have experience of a world that never began to be, because it would be necessary to traverse one after the other an infinite series of moments, and that is an impossibility. But this whole argument rests upon the false assumption that experience consists in an accumulation of particulars, or, what is the same thing, that by a series of images, presented the one after the other, we may somehow obtain a totality. Even Mr. Bradley, who, in his Logic, has so clearly exposed the fallacy of the assumption that an accumulation of images can constitute either the subject or the predicate of a judgment, in his Appearance and Reality is so determined to prove that all the categories by which we determine the world are self-contradictory, that he virtually endorses Kant's fallacious reasoning in regard to the impossibility of obtaining a whole of space or of time. But to show that no accumulation of images will ever give us a whole does not prove that a world in space and time is necessarily phenomenal, for the simple reason that no knowledge whatever can be derived from the accumulation of any number of images. The attempt to obtain a whole by presenting image after image of moments of time is necessarily futile. In that way we shall never get a whole. How do we know? Simply because time is a synthesis of differences, all of which are homogeneous. Hence, it is at once impossible and superfluous to seek for a whole of time by any accumulation of differences—in this case of homogeneous differences—since such an accumulation excludes the unity of the differences, without which time is meaningless. To think of time at all we must think of it as a unity of homogeneous differences all of which are successive. There is no need to ask how we can experience a whole of time, for the simple reason that we have already experienced it. To repeat the unification of homogeneous successive differences will add nothing to our knowledge of time, because a repetition of the same thought is objectively the same thought. If, as Mr. Bradley has so clearly shown, the judgment, “a whale is a mammal,” is not formed by driving an endless number of whale-images into one part of our mental field, and an endless number of mammal-images into another part of our mental field, and then picking out the infinite number of whales from among the infinite number of mammals, and yet leaving the mammals still infinite; if this tissue of absurdities arises from the assumption that to know is to accumulate images, why should we not discard the assumption, instead of stigmatizing our knowledge as phenomenal? If it is said that, unless the world in space and time is admitted to be self-contradictory, we have no reason for advancing to higher categories, I should answer that the reason why we are compelled to advance to higher categories is, not that lower categories are self-contradictory, but that they are obviously inadequate characterizations of experience as we actually find it. It is true that we cannot identify experience with every superficial view of it that anybody chooses to put forward; but we may at least say, that sensible experience by its very nature is impossible otherwise than under the conditions of a single space and a single time, and that any theory which violates this principle cannot be a true interpretation of it. Hence I am unable to see that space and time can from any point of view be eliminated, unless we are prepared to say that we have no knowledge whatever. For, with the elimination of space and time, as we must remember, there also vanish permanence, motion and change; and as without these all our sciences, whether physical or mental, disappear, nothing is left but the fiction of a reality that we can only define as that which is indefinable. I think, therefore, that we are entitled to say, that any argument drawn from the supposed accumulative character of our experience is essentially fallacious. Knowledge is never a priori in the sense that it is derivable from pure conceptions, but neither is it ever a Posteriori in the sense of being based upon mere particulars; it is always, and in all its forms, the comprehension of particulars as embraced within a unity of some kind, even if it is only the unity of a single space and time.

(2) Perhaps, however, the reason why it is supposed that we cannot solve “the so-called riddle of the universe” is, that our knowledge is necessarily limited to the categories involved in experience, and these can never be co-extensive with the universe. This seems to me to be merely another form of the fallacy already considered. If knowledge is never the mere accumulation of particulars, so neither is it ever the application to particulars of conceptions which are each separate and distinct from one another. In other words, every conception by which we characterize the world of our experience is a special form of the single category of rational unity. The simplest category of experience is that of space, which exhibits the universal characteristics of every more determinate category in being a universal differentiated in particulars and therefore an individual. In viewing things as all in one space, and yet as distinguished from one another, the mind experiences a temporary satisfaction; and the reason is that it has found in the world that unity-in-difference which it rightly feels to be essential to reality. This satisfaction, it is true, is but short-lived; for experience of the fact of change compels the mind to employ the new category of time; which agrees with space in being a unity-in-difference, but is an advance in this respect, that it involves a vague grasp of the principle that the real is not merely permanent, but permanent through change. And when, instead of this general characterization of objects as in space and time—which does not explicitly take account of their specific differences—an advance is made to the categories of substance, causality and reciprocal action, the mind has not dropped its simpler modes of determining reality, but has reinterpreted them. This seems to me the true view of the progress of knowledge, which is never a mere transition from one particular to another, but the comprehension of particulars as instances of a universal principle. Now, if this is a true statement of what experience involves, it is obvious that the highest category will contain the same features as the earlier, but with this difference, that it will include and reinterpret all the others. This highest category, as I have argued throughout, is that of a perfect self-conscious or rational unity; and if the argument has been sound, this unity cannot be separate and distinct from the world of our experience, but can only be the principle which our experience in its completeness necessarily involves. Moreover, it will follow that to find in anything short of this principle the true explanation of the world will be to fall short of what our experience necessarily involves; and hence a theistic pluralism is a contradiction in terms, as I hope immediately to show. Meantime I venture to say that a philosophy which disclaims any attempt to solve “the so-called riddle of the universe” has abdicated all claim to be called a philosophy. Either we can, or cannot, tell what is the ultimate principle of the universe. If we can, it is a kind of mock humility to say that the problem is insoluble; if we cannot, we must be prepared to admit that what we call knowledge is a fiction.

It may be said, however, that, though we cannot have a knowledge of the ultimate nature of things, we are able to rule out lower points of view in favour of the highest within our reach. Now, it may be admitted that a considerable advance in the determination of the real is made when the inadequacy of certain points of view is proved, and for a less adequate is substituted a more adequate or more fundamental point of view. On the other hand, it is not clear how any category can be shown to be inadequate except on the ground that it does not account for our experience in its totality. In this way it may be proved that the mechanical, and even the teleological, conception of the universe is not final, and that nothing less than the conception of spirit, or self-conscious intelligence, can be satisfactory. But if this is true, we not only reach the “most fundamental,” but an absolutely fundamental, point of view; and therefore we can no longer deny that the “so-called riddle of the universe” is soluble. For, unless we have reached a conception than which there is no higher, there is nothing to show that, if we could reach the absolutely highest conception, all that we call knowledge would not be entirely reversed. And if it is said that the idea of spirit is after all a matter of faith, not of knowledge, it must be answered that faith in what is affirmed to be the absolute principle of the universe, unless it has no intelligible ground, but is based merely upon our desires, must include knowledge, and in fact, as I have already contended,2 must be the highest form of knowledge.

The truth, however, is that theistic pluralism cannot surrender the opposition of faith and knowledge, because it is based upon a fundamental discrepancy, as I shall now try to show. Pluralism, in the form under consideration, which is also called Personal Idealism, has the merit of insisting that the mechanical conception of nature cannot be regarded as a true characterization of the universe. On the other hand, in its zeal for the spiritualization of the universe, it is led to deny, not only that nature has any reality in itself, but that it has any reality whatever. Hence this form of pluralism adopts the Leibnitzian view, that the only reality, or rather realities, are spirits—that which we call “matter” being simply the manifestation or appearance of the activity of spirits. From Leibnitz it differs only in denying that the relation between the spirits or monads which constitute the world is merely that of a pre-established harmony, and in maintaining that their life consists in their relations to one another. It is further held that the essential nature of these spirits or monads is their self-activity, which involves self-determination by reference to conceived ends. Even when the result is knowledge, it is achieved only through the activity of the subject; and it is because we fail to take account of this activity, it is said, that we are “led to conceive of the universe as in itself only objective.”3 It is further argued that the universe cannot be reduced to the self-activity of a single being. All attempts to establish this thesis have resulted, it is contended, not in explaining our experience, but in explaining it away. We must, therefore, at least provisionally, start from the undoubted fact that we find in our experience a number of “individuals animated in various degrees and striving for self-preservation or betterment.”4 These beings are engaged in working out their own destiny, though in the process they either compete with one another or get in each other's way. That the world is composed of beings all of the same essential nature seems to be established by the principle of continuity and the principle of individualism. The activities of these beings no doubt seem to be but instances of the uniformity of nature, but this illusion is due to the fact that they are not considered in their distinctive character, but are massed together and treated after the manner of statistical tables. In truth the orderliness and regularity that we find in nature are not the condition, but the result, of self-determined action. All striving implies an effort to realize the good, an end which can be achieved only by a process of trial and error; and while there is contingency, as distinguished from necessity, there is no pure chance or utter chaos, but only the freely directed activity of more or less rational subjects. Even this contingency, however, is continually giving way to definite progression or evolution—meaning by evolution, not the mere unfolding of that which is implicit in the being from the first, but an “epigenesis,” or “creative synthesis,” in which there is a real “origination by integration of new properties.”5 a True, there is no creation of new “entities,” but only of new “values,” that is, the development of higher unities and worthier ideals. Thus the goal of evolution is the establishment of a community of spiritual beings, in which there is perfect co-operation of all in the creation of a single realm of ends. Just as the principle of continuity forbids us to admit that there is any lower limit, at which mind or spirit passes over into inert matter; so it demands the assumption of a hierarchy of intelligences higher than man, and finally of a highest of all. Of this upper limit, indeed, we never can have actual knowledge, just as we cannot directly experience the lower limit; but we must hold the existence of both in faith, connecting the one with the other through the idea of creation. If it is objected that a plurality of individuals is inconceivable, it is answered that, while a plurality of isolated individuals is no doubt an untenable idea, there is nothing to prevent us from believing in the interaction of “individuals severally distinct as regards their existence.”6 The only defensible form of theism, therefore, is that which admits the Many, while yet maintaining the One. Finite spirits, in order to be spirits at all, must not be absorbed in the One; and therefore God, while he is not one of these spirits, must be their Creator; which means that he must create beings who themselves are creators. Thus God is in a sense limited; but as the limitation is self-limitation, he does not thereby cease to be infinite. If we bear in mind the difference between determination by mechanical laws and self-determination as employing teleological categories, we can understand how there may be fixed possibilities, which yet allow for the contingency of freedom. In no other way can the problem of evil be solved. God can do no evil; but, as finite beings have been created with freedom of choice, moral evil is their own free act. As to physical evils, we are simply unable to conceive how there could be a world at all, unless its parts limited one another. Apart front this “metaphysical evil,” which is not really evil, the physical ills that are admittedly contingent we must regard as an incentive to progress, resulting in the formation of “those ideals that Hegel calls the objective spirit.”7 As man is under the influence of both physical ills and spiritual ideals, the present spatial and temporal world points beyond itself to a “more spiritual world.” How the two are connected we do not know, but our spiritual ideas lead us to believe in God and immortality. Thus faith carries us beyond knowledge, for “knowledge is of things we see, and seeks to interpret the world as if they were the whole; while faith is aware that now we see but in part and convinced that only provided the unseen satisfies our spiritual yearnings is the part we see intelligible—that which ought to be being the key to that which is.”8

The conclusion of this form of idealism therefore is, that God is spirit, i.e., possesses intelligence and will, and so is personal. The world is the expression and revelation of God, but as its creator he is transcendent to it. He is “a living God with a living world, not a potter God with a world of illusory clay, not an inconceivable abstraction that is only infinite and absolute, because it is beyond everything and means nothing.”9 We cannot stop at a plurality of finite selves in interaction, for only if there is a God can we be assured that there is no ineradicable evil. No doubt the action of God in the world is for us as inscrutable as his creation of it; and indeed, though we are certain that he is not related to it in a merely external or mechanical fashion, or even as one finite spirit is related to another, “we trench upon the mystical when we attempt to picture” the “divine immanence.”10 It would thus seem that, on its own showing, Personal Idealism does make some attempt to solve “the so-called riddle of the universe.” We are able, it appears, to see the inadequacy of the hypothesis from which we started, namely, that the world is entirely composed of a number of finite self-determined spirits, and to attain by faith to the certainty of God and immortality, a certainty which for knowledge is impossible.

The first thing that strikes us in regard to this theory is that, professing to base itself upon the facts of experience, it is led to maintain propositions which are admittedly entirely beyond the reach of experience. We are to accept as absolute the distinction of subject and object, because it is essential to any experience whatever, and yet the result of the reasoning by which personal idealism is supported is to abolish this distinction by eliminating all generic differences between various modes of being, and maintaining that the lowest forms of finite being known to us must be regarded as the same in kind with the highest. Now, in the first place, this seems to be a violation of any legitimate process of arriving at truth. Whatever view of the process of knowledge we take, it can hardly be granted that we are entitled to affirm the reality of that which is admittedly not now an object of experience, and may never become an object of experience. We have no experience of life below the stage of the plant or very rudimentary forms of animal, and to affirm that there are no beings differing in kind from what we ordinarily regard as organized, seems to me a purely gratuitous assumption. Similarly, we have no experience, or at least no properly authenticated experience, of finite beings higher than man, and to assume a “hierarchy of intelligences,” rising I suppose row on row above each other, seems to me equally an unprovable assumption.

The first argument advanced in favour of the hypothesis that there is a lower and a higher limit, with an infinity of gradations between them, is based upon what is called the “principle of continuity.” This principle is interpreted to mean, that all modes of being must be capable of being arranged in a graduated scale, every degree of which must be represented by an actual form of being. But this so-called “principle” is a pure assumption. Moreover, if it were true, there ought to be no lower limit whatever, since intensive magnitude or degree, which the supposed “principle” illegitimately hypostatizes, is an ideal limit having no real termination. Are we, then, to suppose that there are actual beings representing a progressus ad infinitum? Is it not manifest that this way of looking at things confuses the abstraction of degree with the actual existence of spiritual beings? Similarly, if this hypothetical “principle” is to be applied to the upward limit, it will prove, not the existence of God, but an innumerable procession of beings going on to infinity and never reaching an end. It is in fact only by denying the principle of “continuity” that pluralism can make the existence of God plausible at all; and therefore, having begun by arguing from that principle, it is forced to abandon it and to fall back upon “faith.” If God is one of a hierarchy of spirits, and differs only in degree from lower spirits, the theistic conclusion is not reached at all; and if God is sui generis, obviously no argument based upon degree can possibly carry us a single step towards the establishment of his existence. Now, if neither the lower nor the higher limit can be proved by the principle of continuity, it is just as impossible in that way to prove that there is a gradual ascent in spirituality, beginning with man and stretching upwards to God. The untenability of the whole position is manifest, when we consider that between any two degrees whatever we can always find a lesser degree; so that the doctrine finally leads either to the absurdity of an absolutely completed infinite progression, or to a denial of the applicability of the “principle of continuity” in determination of the existence of beings admittedly not capable of being made an object of experience. It seems to me therefore that this attempt to revive the monadism of Leibnitz is at once anachronistic and essentially inconclusive.

Besides the argument from the principle of continuity, it is maintained that no two beings can be found which are exactly alike; a fact which is declared to be consistent with selfhood or personality, but contradictory of the physicist's conception of atoms. Now, in the first place, it is an extraordinary delusion to imagine that the principle of individualism can be proved by an appeal to direct observation. How can the pluralist possibly tell that no two beings exactly alike can be found, without a comparison of every being in the whole universe—a comparison which is obviously impossible. The notion that any universal proposition can be established by the method of “simple enumeration” is surely one of the most elementary fallacies. If again we attempt to base the principle of individualism upon general considerations, by what process can it be proved that every real individual must necessarily be a self or person? If by individuality is meant absolute self-centredness, no finite being whatever is individual. And the personal idealist, who insists upon the necessity of some difference between every possible being, is least of all entitled to hold that any finite being can be truly individual. Moreover, we are told that every subject known to us is one of a community of subjects, apart from which there would be no self-consciousness. How, then, can it be consistently maintained that each subject is an independent being? If it is said that the individuality of a spiritual being consists in existence, not in knowledge, the answer is, that a spiritual being is precisely one that does not admit of the separation of existence and knowledge of existence. Such a being is held to be essentially self-knowing, and apart from self, knowledge it is nothing at all. And, finally, the assumption that the only individual being is one that is spiritual, is entirely baseless. There is some force in saying that individuality involves absolute self-completeness, and even that the only being that can strictly be said to be individual is one that experiences no limit in knowledge, power or goodness; but, the moment limitation of any kind is admitted, there is no longer any reason why it should be asserted that the only individuals are those which are spiritual. If individuality means perfect self-completeness, the only individual properly so called is God; and, if it is once granted that there exist beings which are not in this strict sense entitled to be called individual, why should it be argued that only “spiritual” beings exist because these alone are individual? Besides, the predication of self-complete individuality, as applied to man and other finite beings, is contradictory of the assumption that no two beings are exactly alike.

It would thus seem that, whether he appeals to induction, or to a priori arguments based upon the so-called principles of continuity and individuality, the personal idealist is forced to maintain a pluralism that is merely relative; in other words, that is not a pluralism at all. And when we look at the actual facts of our experience, we find nothing in them which entitles us to maintain that there are individual beings all of which are essentially the same in kind. It is true, as we have admitted, and indeed contended, that the mechanical conception of the world, when it is put forward as a complete account of the universe, is quite inadequate; but it by no means follows that the only beings are those which must be characterized as spirits. To speak of a plant, or even an animal, as identical in nature with man, on the ground that all three imply the principle of life, seems to be much the same as affirming that, because the higher animals have a brain and nervous system, we must hold that every living being, including the plant and the infusorian, has a brain and nervous system. Such an application of the principle of identity violates its very nature. The identity which is common to all living beings is an identity based upon the principle of life. It is true that a self-conscious being involves this principle, but it does not follow that whatever involves this principle is self-conscious. To say so, is to assume that to live is necessarily to be a spirit. But this is in manifest contradiction of the facts. There is no evidence that a plant or an amoeba is conscious of self; and until that can be shown, we are entitled, and indeed compelled, to maintain that the distinction between man and the plants, as well as at least the lower forms of animal life, is not one merely of degree, but of kind. To be unconsciously striving towards an end is one thing, to be consciously striving towards an end is another and a very different thing. This distinction the pluralist would have us obliterate, on the ground that to deny mechanism is to affirm spirit. This whole way of looking at things seems to me to be fallacious, In the first place, as I have already argued, mechanism cannot be denied, in so far as it is a partial, and yet true, characterization of one aspect of the universe. We do not get rid of the inviolability of natural law by showing that, interpreted as distinctive of the free activity of rational beings, it is false; for the law, when it is regarded as a manifestation of the divine reason, remains as inviolable as ever. Nor do we abolish the distinction between living and self-conscious beings when we show that, from the point of view of the whole, the former are an expression of the self-conscious intelligence which constitutes the ultimate nature of the universe, It thus seems to me that the attempt to identify living with rational beings, as if the former could not exist without being the latter, rests upon a confusion between the development of reason in finite beings and the principle that the world as a whole is a manifestation of the divine reason. Finite beings are not all rational because the universe is rational. The former proposition would be true only if there could be no life without self-consciousness; the latter is true, whatever be the inner condition of finite beings. It is one thing to say that no being in the universe can exist apart from the divine reason, and an entirely different thing to say that every being must be not only an expression of that reason, but be conscious of itself as rational; and the confusion between these opposite views seems to underlie the personal idealist's endeavour to show that all finite beings are essentially the same in kind.

Even if personal idealism were entitled to start from a plurality of individuals, it must in consistency surrender the assumption when it goes on to maintain the truth of theism. The starting-point is the Many, and by the Many must be understood a plurality of individuals requiring no principle beyond themselves to account for their existence, But, if this view is maintained to be the only true view, obviously theism is ruled out as contrary to the very foundation of the theory. It would thus seem that those pluralists who find the universe to consist of a number of self-centred individuals, are the only logically consistent pluralists. No doubt this doctrine has the demerit of breaking up the unity of the world into fragments, and is ultimately open to the objection that, if consistently developed, it would make every individual a universe for itself; but at least it is so far consistent, that it does not start from the exclusive individuality of the Many, and then go on to assert the One, while still endeavouring to maintain the exclusive individuality of the Many. When, therefore, the personal idealist seeks to combine his pluralism with monism, he naturally finds it very difficult to explain how the reality of the Many may be reconciled with the supremacy of the One. In this strait he falls back upon the idea that the One is the ultimate source of the being of the Many and the ultimate end of their ends. God, in other words, must be conceived as the Creator of all finite spirits, and the “impersonated Ideal” towards which they are ever striving. It is contended, however, that he must be conceived as the Creator of beings who are themselves creative. Thus the world as a whole is held to be ever in process towards a perfection which it never attains, its imperfection being due to the blind striving of free creatures towards an end which they very imperfectly comprehend, and to ignorance of the proper means to realize the end which they so vaguely conceive.

This attempt to reconcile the Many with the One can hardly be regarded as successful. The crux of the whole doctrine lies in its attribution to each separate soul of a power of absolute and unconditioned self-determination, combined with the assertion of the dependence of each individual upon God. It is held that God has created beings, who are themselves creators. In what way, then, is the Creator distinguished from his creative creatures? It is admitted that God is creative, in the sense of absolutely originating his creatures; and therefore we must deny to the creature any power of absolute origination. The creature, we are told, is “creative,” not of new “entities,” but only of new “values.” But can it properly be said that a being who acts from ends, or sets before himself ideals, is “creative” of the ends or ideals of which he is conscious? If he is, we must suppose that these ends or ideas first come into existence with his consciousness of them. But this seems to be the same as saying that they are the product of his own individual limited mind; and it is hard to see how a product of this kind can have any absolute value. And yet, unless we admit that the moral ideals of man have an absolute value, how can we advance from them to the proof of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, as we are bidden by the theistic pluralist to do? It would thus seem that the created soul must be creative only in so far as the ideals which it sets before itself, and which it seeks to realize, are harmonious with the ultimate nature of the universe. Hence the finite individual does not really “create” ideals, but only recognizes their consistency with the inviolable nature of the universe; i.e., his moral life exists only as he comes to a recognition of the rational nature of God as manifested in his own self-conscious life. Thus, after all his efforts to exclude God from the asserted self-centred life of finite beings, it turns out that, if the personal idealist could really establish his case, he would at the same time destroy the very foundation of morality, and therefore, on his own showing, the existence of God and the immortality of man, which are held to rest upon that foundation. In truth lie is attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable. His conception of God has all the hardness and abstractness of the transcendent God of Deism; and his attempts to reconcile the separateness and self-completeness of God with the assertion of the independent self-sufficiency of a plurality of created souls, is logically impossible, and, if it were successful, would result in the abolition of all that gives meaning to the religious consciousness. For, the religious consciousness has always had absolute faith that only by living in God, and surrendering all that is characteristic of his own finitude, can man attain to blessedness. If the personal idealist would but recognize that God is not a being apart from the world, but the spirit which is operative in every being in the world, he would go far to reconcile the freedom of man with the perfection of God. For, as man cannot possibly attain to true freedom except by identification with God, all attempts to explain the moral and religious consciousness on the basis of the separation of man and God must necessarily be inadequate. To be free is to be conscious of the external world as under inviolable natural law, and of oneself as under inviolable moral law; and the only mode of reconciling the one with the other is to recognize that both are aspects, at different levels, of the one absolutely rational Spirit which is God.

  • 1.

    James Ward, The Realm of Ends, p. 430.

  • 2.

    Lecture First, passim.

  • 3.

    Lecture First, p. 431.

  • 4.

    Lecture First, p. 432.

  • 5.

    Lecture First, p. 434.

  • 6.

    Lecture First, p. 437.

  • 7.

    Lecture First, p. 440.

  • 8.

    Lecture First, p. 441.

  • 9.

    Lecture First, p. 443.

  • 10.

    Lecture First, p. 448.