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Part 2. Theory of Evolution

Lecture 9: Reflections on Mr. Spencer's Theory: His Treatment of Life and Mind

The conclusions to which we were led in examining the mechanical theory apply here. It is impossible to get more out of a theory than there is in it. Out of space, time and mass, however manipulated, progress, development, history, meaning, can never be deduced.

How has Mr. Spencer come to think this possible? His procedure illustrated. He succeeds by means of formularies that seem to have always a strictly mechanical sense, though they are frequently only figuratively mechanical. Indeed, he outvies the mechanical theorists by his more fundamental analysis as well as by his completer synthesis. But he confounds abstraction with analysis; and abstracts till he has no content left. The eliminated elements are then gradually resumed under cover of the principle of continuity. The existing gaps in scientific knowledge help to cloak such recoveries.

An instance in Mr. Spencer's transition from Inorganic Evolution to Organic Evolution. Two volumes of the Synthetic Philosophy missing.

Mr. Spencer's somersault in passing from Life to Mind. After all, the interpretation of Spirit in terms of Matter is allowed to be ‘wholly impossible.’

I HAVE called Mr. Spencer an eclectic. His synthetic philosophy is made up of Hamilton's theory of the Unconditioned, of the physical theory of the conservation of energy as expounded by Grove, of the nebular hypothesis of Laplace, and of what used to be called the development hypothesis, or the doctrine of the transmutation of species. The Darwinian form of this doctrine came too late to be satisfactorily incorporated in his system, still Mr. Spencer was not slow to turn it to account as far as he could. Of his work Darwin, writing to one of its chief exponents, Professor Fiske, thus expresses himself: “Such parts of H. Spencer as I have read with care impress my mind with the idea of his inexhaustible wealth of suggestion, but never convince me; and so I find it with some others. I believe the cause to be the frequency with which I have found first-formed theories erroneous.”1 In passing presently to this narrower subject of biological evolution, I do not propose to refer so fully to Mr. Spencer's views.

In the existing state of knowledge this topic of biological evolution is widely different in subject-matter and methods from the cosmological speculations into which Mr. Spencer attempts to frame it. Here we deal with concrete objects and a vast collection of empirical observations concerning them. The axioms of physics and its ideal conceptions of atoms, ethers, and the like have to be left aside, temporarily at all events. We are forced back upon them again when the dominant naturalistic explanation of the relations of life and mind to their so-called “physical basis” confronts us. But having reached a dividing line of this magnitude, it seems appropriate, before proceeding, to attempt a retrospective summary of Mr. Spencer's cosmological presentment of evolution as a deduction from mechanical principles.

It was open to us perhaps to urge at the very outset that such an enterprise was foredoomed to failure. For what Mr. Spencer essays to do is to set before us “the entire history” of things, ‘considered individually or in their totality”; and to set all this before us as the direct and necessary consequence of a principle of permanence which gives no clue to processes, transformations, or changes of any kind—to say nothing of furnishing the rationale of all processes and changes of every kind whatever. It is as if we had the philosophy of Heraclitus deduced from the premisses of Parmenides. Even when we allow Mr. Spencer to substitute the entire body of hypotheses constituting abstract dynamics for his Eleatic principle of “the impossibility of establishing in thought a relation between something and nothing,”2 the case is not mended. True this transcendent but rather empty principle is not equivalent to the physical doctrine of the conservation of energy; and again the conservation of energy, so far from constituting the sole and sufficient foundation of physical science, only furnishes one of several equations—to put it technically—by which a given transformation is determined. But even if we add to it the principle of least action and all the hypotheses necessary to make a mechanical ‘interpretation’ of things as complete as such an interpretation can be, still it will be hopelessly inadequate to the “entire history of things considered individually and in their totality.” In fact, the conclusions to which we were led in examining the mechanical theory must apply straightway to what is itself but an application of that theory—the resolution of all history into “a total and all-pervading process of redistribution of matter and motion.” It is impossible to get more out of such a theory than there is in it. Between one stage of the process and another there can only be such differences as dynamical diagrams, time-charts, hodographs, and the like will give. The entire history of things would thus be nothing better than the monotonous uniformity of a long series of gigantic Nautical Almanacs. Change there would be certainly, but only change of motion, change of grouping of unchangeable elements, unchangeable because utterly devoid of qualitative diversity or internal character. Progress, development, history, meaning—of these there would be nothing. It is obviously impossible to get such conceptions out of space, time, and mass, as quantities; or out of any relations between them, for these in turn are only quantities. We have only the night—to appropriate a mot of Hegel's—when all cows are black. Everything is dynamical diagram: to this common level “celestial bodies, organisms, societies” will all alike have somehow to be reduced.

But how then does Mr. Spencer deceive himself into imagining that he finds increasing purpose, advancing harmony, final perfection, what he is pleased to call a “Philosophico-Religious doctrine,”3 in a purely quantitative scheme; a scheme to which all such notions as adaptation, perfection, and happiness are absolutely disparate? The answer is simple and the fallacy to which it has led is clear. There are two points to notice. First, like the rest of us, Mr. Spencer sets out from the concrete world which is only intelligible to us so far as we can regard it as a world of individuals, a world full of purpose and of adaptations, a world to which such notions as worth, progress, and perfection are applicable.4 Looking at this world, then, historically, we can range its facts in an ascending order of complexity and value—physical, biological, psychological, social, and so forth. But as we make this ascent we have at every advance to take up new conceptions: the facts of biology cannot be expressed in purely physical terms; psychology will not resolve into biology nor sociology into psychology. It would be sheer waste of time to enlarge upon a point so perfectly obvious, though for any attempt at a theory of knowledge it is a point of vital importance. For Hegel—who also was an evolutionist, but one occupying a standpoint the diametrical opposite of Mr. Spencer's—the exhibition of this hierarchy of categories was the main problem; for Mr. Spencer it is no problem at all. His works testify on every page that such an ascending scale of conceptions is there and unavoidable. But the fact gives him not a moment's pause; it is only one more instance of the passage of matter from indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to definite coherent heterogeneity!

And so we come to the second point, and this again it is enough barely to mention. Whatever be its meaning, its purpose, or its life, the cosmos in one aspect is but matter in motion. However difficult to formulate without appearing to prejudge the ancient and obstinate problems to which it has given rise, this fact is none the less in itself both familiar and unquestionable. The world of ideas is in some way presented through, and embodied in, the world of sense; and the sensible can be summarised in terms of matter, motion, and force. And now it is by his mode of dealing with these two planes of thought that Mr. Spencer has deceived himself into thinking that he has encompassed the entire history of things within the scope of a materialistic formula. He advances by way of the ascending scale of ideas, the concrete progress from physics to life, from life to mind, from mind to reason; but he professes to explain by falling back on the abstractions of pure dynamics. Yet on this level, if we could imagine ourselves confined to it, there is, as I have frequently urged, no real advance, no true evolution at all. Space and time, of course, do not alter; also mass-elements do not alter; and so between one configuration, one diagram, and another, of a given number of such elements, there is no essential difference. But when we command both the dead level of changing configurations and also the ascending complexity of the concrete sciences and their categories, then we may make a shift to call one material system a pumpkin and another a poet. Only however because we first know pumpkins and poets as such. To suppose then, that the transformation of one such configuration into another furnishes any clue to the evolution of poets is a glaring and ridiculous blunder. But it is for this blunder that Mr. Spencer is vaunted by Tyndall as an “Apostle of the Understanding whose ganglia are sometimes the seat of a nascent poetic thrill.”5 Let me try to make this point clearer by means of an imaginary case involving the same sort of fallacy. Take a shelf of miscellaneous books in the English language, —books on mathematics, chemistry, physiology, history, art, literature, or what you will,—and imagine a private student setting to work to improve his mind, as we say, by means of them. It will not be indifferent in what order he reads: to understand the physiology he will often find himself thrown back on the chemistry, to understand the chemistry he must often consult the mathematics; the art and the literature will be full of allusions to the history. Above all, the whole will presuppose that the student himself is a person with sense, intelligence, feeling, conscience. Nevertheless, if we are not to be too severe on the synthetic philosophy, we had better leave the student, as much as may be, out of account.

Now let us introduce a man of letters with a Spencerian sense of thoroughness. The first step, he will say, must be to analyse all this material; and only an ultimate analysis will suffice: we must not pause till we have reached the imperceptible. Specialists, he will continue, have already provided nomenclatures and terminologies, glossaries, indexes of persons and things, and the like. Passing beyond all this un-unified knowledge, the lexicographer provides us with partially unified knowledge, and covers the whole range of these books by an adequate dictionary of the English tongue. We get still nearer to that ultimate analysis that must underlie completely unified knowledge when we can exhibit the letters of the alphabet as the constituents of English as it is, was, and will be. But even these letters are made up of strokes of two kinds, viz., straight strokes and curved strokes; and only when these are disintegrated into the primordial dots of which they must be compounded, and these dots duly dissipated, have we reached that ultimate and imperceptible state where rational synthesis must begin. Evolution then arises as this dissipation gives place to concentration, and with increased concentration comes increased differentiation; and so we advance from dots to strokes, from strokes to letters of various forms, from these to syllables “with a subsequent advance to dissyllables and polysyllables and to involved combinations of words”—the heterogeneity steadily increasing in geometrical progression. As these aggregates of letters grow in complexity and definiteness more wide-reaching interdependences become manifest: in short, what is called grammar and sense arise. But not only do we find in these the same processes of integration, differentiation, and segregation already exemplified; they are also themselves objectively presented and more or less permanently registered in literal form. Then, when at length the change which evolution presents is complete and equilibration is reached, we have, in what we know as stereotype, that perfection, harmony, and complete congruity which the ten volumes constituting the synthetic philosophy so admirably illustrate. To be sure, this interpretation of all literary phenomena in terms of integrated black and diffused white is nothing more than the reduction of complex phenomena to their simplest forms, and as that philosophy shews “when the equation has been brought to its lowest terms the symbols remain symbols still.”6 No doubt, “most persons,” as the author of that philosophy remarks, “have acquired repugnance to such modes of interpretation.” But, as he further truly says, “whoever remembers that the forms of existence [in his case Matter and Motion, in ours print and paper] which the illiterate speak of with so much scorn are shewn to be the more marvellous in their attributes the more they are investigated…will see that the course proposed does not imply a degradation of the so-called higher, but an elevation of the so-called lower.”7 From the infant's primer with its strokes and pothooks up to the pages of Newton and Spencer, we discern the same evolving aggregate, not progressively integrating simply, but simultaneously undergoing various secondary redistributions: the structural complexities thus emerging being ever accompanied by the functional complexities known as grammatical, logical, literary, scientific, and so forth. Given the indestructibility of ink and the persistence of paper, together with the various derivative laws that are their corollaries and consequences, then it can be shewn—adapting the words of our great evolutionist—not only how the grammatical elements exhibit the traits they do, but how books are evolved, thoughts generated, and civilisations achieved. But deny our fundamental datum, or, as Mr. Spencer says: “ Let idealism be true, and evolution is a dream!”

Very ridiculous, of course, but not more essentially ridiculous than Mr. Spencer's procedure. The plausibility of his cosmic philosophy is due entirely to the ingenuity with which he has devised a set of formularies that seem, till closely scrutinised, to carry always the same meaning; though at one time they are used in a strictly mechanical sense, while at another they are only figuratively mechanical. The illusoriness is the more complete and captivating because it is the ingrained habit of human intelligence to betake itself to metaphor and parable. The current scientific terminology is full of such, and we only realise that we have been talking in similes when the progress of knowledge has enabled us to outgrow them. Thus we now repudiate as fanciful the powers of Love and Hate working between the elements, as Empedocles represented; though we still talk with little misgiving of attractive and repulsive forces, of chemical affinities and bonds; speak of organisms acquiring and bequeathing, and of seeds or eggs as inheriting; and so forth. All this plenitude of metaphor is grist to the Spencerian mill. Moreover, to the ‘pseudo-thinking’ —I borrow his favourite phrase—which science allows to pass as sterling coin, this latest Paracelsus has added abundance of his own counterfeit.

The lesson which our reflexions on the mechanical theory seemed to teach has apparently never dawned upon him, although perhaps that lesson is nowhere more impressively taught than it is in his own First Principles. According to that, philosophy must start from the unknowable, science from the imperceptible. Knowledge is to be unified by ruthlessly abstracting from the concrete real all qualitative specification. Celestial bodies, organisms, societies, are to be reduced to their lowest terms, viz., Matter, Motion, Force; and are to find their rationale in the instability of the homogeneous, the segregation of the heterogeneous, and the tendency of all things towards equilibrium. Surely this is not very unlike trying to find the meaning of a book by first distributing the type and then mincing them up into strokes and dots. Like the physicists who think to attain “a knowledge of what actually goes on behind what we see and feel,” by treating the ideal abstractions of pure mechanics as the real things, so Mr. Spencer essays to find the fullest meaning of evolution among its emptiest symbols, to deduce the form and life of the universe from an Indeterminate and Unchanging Non-relative, which “the imbecilities of our understanding,” as he tells us, prevent us from either comprehending or rejecting. The farthest point to which Philosophy, or knowledge of the highest degree of generality, can attain in seeking to comprehend this inscrutable fetish, supposed to be the Supreme Reality, is reached when all separate truths are resolved into implications of one a priori truth, the Persistence of Force. The experience of force is assumed to last out through the process of abstract analysis and generalisation, and to remain as long as any content remains; beyond this, we have only indeterminate, non-relative Existence or Persistence, being without content, as the supreme, ineffable generalisation of all. Thus Mr. Spencer outvies your speculative physicists in both directions; his ultimate analysis goes beyond theirs, and in his subsequent synthesis phenomena of all kinds are to be included. And by so much as the range of his formulæ exceeds theirs, by so much are his results illusory and worthless. Lord Kelvin's speculations, for example, were restricted to the deduction of material phenomena from the motions of a structureless primordial fluid; and he is careful to say “that the beginning and the maintenance of life on the earth is absolutely and infinitely beyond the range of all sound speculation in dynamical science.”8 Lord Kelvin, too, it will be remembered, proposed to test all his hypotheses by the construction, real or imaginary, of a mechanical model—thus shewing unmistakably that Matter, Motion, and Force were to be taken in a strictly literal sense. And this, of course, is, if anything, still more true of physicists of the Kirchhoff school, for whom these conceptions are pure mathematical abstractions, not real existence. How, then, does it come about that Mr. Spencer imagines he can set forth the entire history and rationale of the universe in such terms? Do mechanical models of organisms and societies arise and work before his philosophic eye, or can his transcendent mathematical genius apply the equations of motion to such phenomena and sum them up in generalised coördinates as yet undreamed of? Nothing of the sort. It is simply the superiority of ignorance that enables him to soar even in a vacuum. Severe as is the following characteristic of Mr. Spencer's powers, it is, to my thinking, as just as it is discriminating. I quote again from a review which, though anonymous, is known to have been written by a distinguished lawyer and mathematician: “The flexibility of meaning that characterises well-known formulæ when they come into his [Mr. Spencer's] hands, combined with an incapacity for distinguishing between real and apparent analogies, enables him ever to find, on the one hand a principle, and on the other a multitude of examples, to support each of his positions, and imparts to his style ‘the semblance of perpetually hitting the right nail on the head without the reality.’ If there be any part of science that Mr. Spencer knows thoroughly, and where his positions are right ones, his writings will there be highly valuable and suggestive. But what these parts are we must learn from others, for Mr. Spencer cannot tell when he does not understand a subject; and his mind is such that it allows him to frame inductive and deductive proofs of his propositions, with almost equal facility, whether they be true or false.”9

To pass to particulars. The hopeless vagueness of Mr. Spencer's conception of Force is notorious, and has been already sufficiently referred to. But there is a further point, which I should like to make clearer, in which Mr. Spencer is more or less at one with those whom we may call the realistic physicists as distinguished from physicists of the Kirchhoff school,—and that is in confusing abstraction with analysis. It was to such a confusion that we attributed the notion of the realistic physicist that the way to a knowledge of what actually goes on behind what we see and feel lies through hypothetical constructions in the region of abstract mechanics. Sharing in this view and unencumbered with precise knowledge, Mr. Spencer thinks he can succeed in interpreting the detailed phenomena of Life and Mind and Society in terms of Matter, Motion, and Force. The avowed presupposition of such a synthesis is the belief that by a prior analysis those phenomena have been reduced to these lowest terms. This belief, then, I contend, is due to a confusion between abstraction and analysis.

No doubt these two processes are intimately connected, inasmuch as in abstracting we also analyse and in analysing we also abstract. And yet there is an important difference, and it is this that Mr. Spencer and others beside him have overlooked. As to the procedure in abstraction as such, what Bentham styled “the matchless beauty of the Ramean tree” has, since the days of Porphyry, furnished its classic type. Here, as every one knows, we ascend by successively ignoring essential characters. Starting from some given concrete reality, we rise through a strictly indefinite series of intermediate species or genera to the summum genus or genus generalissimum, BEING; to a conception, that is to say, devoid of assignable content and only formally distinguishable from its contradictory Non-being. As to analysis—this unfortunately is an ambiguous term. Perhaps the usage in chemistry is the most appropriate, as it is the most literal. Here then we resolve a whole into its constituent elements. And. here, in contrast to abstraction, the farther we proceed the more numerous the constituents become. I assume, let me say, that among these constituents we include all those relations of what we may call the mere elements concerned, without which their subsequent synthesis would be impossible, —relations on which, quite as much as on the mere elements themselves, the nature of the real whole depends. Adopting an illustration of Condillac's,—who compared analysis to the act of taking a watch to pieces, and synthesis to that of putting it together again,—I should say the analysis was incomplete till it sufficed to insure this reconstructive process. Now when the physicist regards things from the mechanical level, we have both abstraction and analysis and also synthesis. We have abstraction in that everything—to requote Maxwell—“is considered under no other aspect than as that which can have its motion changed by the action of force.” We have analysis in as far as this conception of mechanism is found to involve the three simple and independent elements of mass and space and time; and we have a basis for synthesis in the laws of motion expressing the relations of these elements. But synthesise as much as we may, the entire result remains abstract; for we cannot by synthesis introduce new elements, any more than by combining two chemical elements we can produce a compound of three. It is because they see this clearly that physicists of the Kirchhoff school repudiate the notion of attaining by merely mechanical investigations to any presentment of “what actually goes on”; and it is because he does not see it at all that Mr. Spencer must rank either as a materialist—and this he disclaims—or as a ‘pseudothinker.’

In his so-called ultimate analysis, from which his so called rational synthesis is supposed to build up, we have only abstraction, nothing left to analyse and no basis for synthesis. Let us recall some of his descriptions. How can we analyse ‘the uncognisable,’ that which is ‘deeper than definite cognition,’10 which “is not the abstract of any one group of thoughts, ideas, or conceptions, but is the abstract of all thoughts, ideas, or conceptions, that which is common to them all and cannot be got rid of, ‘what we predicate by the word existence,’ ‘being apart from its appearances?’11 In short, Mr. Spencer's own words shew unmistakably that his ultimate analysis is that ne plus ultra of abstraction, the logically unattainable apex of the Porphyrean tree, a height of abstraction from which there is no return. This abstract analytic procedure Hegel has quaintly compared to the process of peeling off the coats of an onion; now, in what Mr. Spencer calls ultimate analysis, all the coats are gone. If we are now to brush all these aside, it does not greatly matter whether we call what is left Non-being or “being apart from all appearances.” It is a question of taste; some prefer one, some the other. The way back to rational synthesis is alike impossible from either. The feats by which Mr. Spencer seems to accomplish it we have admired already. From the persistence of existence to the conservation of energy and from the conservation of energy to the entire body of mechanical principles, two easy steps for Mr. Spencer, and he is in line with the mechanical theory. Having thus conjured himself back from a height of abstraction, avowedly devoid of all definite content, to a definite content admitting of analysis, we are not surprised to find Mr. Spencer skilful enough to make a show of building up the whole fabric and essential history of life and mind and society in terms of that content, i.e. in terms of Matter, Motion, and Force. Having advanced from the indefinite residuum as far as these three coats of his onion and their laws, it seems no longer an impossible feat to conjure all the rest out of these. But I contend that it is only conjuring. The new elements are adroitly taken up as the synthesis advances, although they seem to have been swept from the board before the performance commenced. The process is not legitimate because they are not avowed as parts of the ultimate analysis; because, in fact, this supposed analysis is incomplete, is not analysis but abstraction, on the way to which these elements were left entirely aside.

Mr. Spencer's remarkable qualifications for this kind of work I have tried already to describe and to illustrate—perhaps at undue length. But there is one characteristic of evolution which lends great additional plausibility to his enterprise and to other like enterprises; I mean the extremely gradual advance, the general absence of all discontinuity, that pertains to nature's developments—that trait which is embodied in the familiar axiom, Natura non facit saltum. In a nebulous haze compared with the endless variety of the solar system; in the dance of drops in a fountain of water compared with the physiological processes in a living organism; in the Amœba compared with Homo sapiens; in a group of savages uttering incantations round a newly fallen meteorite compared with the Fellows of the Royal Society discussing argon,—we see the most divergent extremes of kind. Yet there are innumerable intermediate forms connecting these several extremes by insensible degrees. When we consider the extremes by themselves, as our forefathers for the most part did, the explanation of the more complex extreme confronts us as a formidable problem, however adequate our explanation of the simpler extreme may appear. But nowadays, familiarised as we are with the successional continuity of the intervening stages, we are inclined to imagine either that there is no problem at all, or that, if there is, the problem is solved. Psychologically this may be readily accounted for. Certain well known sentences of Hume here apply exactly: “The passage is … so smooth and easy, that it produces little alteration on the mind, and seems like the continuation of the same action. … The thought slides along the succession with equal facility, as if it considered only one object; and therefore confounds the succession with the identity.”12 And so we can understand why, as Sigwart remarks, “the notion of development has sometimes been handled like a logical charm by means of which phenomena hitherto inexplicable are explained with ease.” “It is,” he continues, “as if we should say, that though force is required to lift a weight a given height perpendicularly, yet if the weight is placed on an inclined plane and this made very long, so that over small lengths the weight would rise only imperceptibly, it might really rise of itself; for the force diminishing as the time increases, if the time taken were very long, force could be dispensed with altogether.”13 But in truth, the law of continuity does not dispense with causal laws, however much it may facilitate genetic description or aid the dissolving views of imagination. Evolution, so far from being a self-sufficient explanation of what are called its results, has itself to be explained; like other processes, it must have its adequate cause. But not merely so. Allowing science to content itself with description, as we have seen that it tends to do, still it is impossible, as we have also seen, to convert the dead letters of the mechanical alphabet into the living sense of things. Other and higher conceptions have to be employed, and no continuity or smoothness of transition will account for these; though it may enable them to slip in easily and unawares, thereby committing science to sophisms of the Sorites type, which philosophic reflexion may find it hard completely to expose. In truth the topic is too difficult and would divert us too widely from our immediate theme if we attempted to discuss it fully here. My present purpose is simply to call attention to this feature of evolutionism.

In pursuance of this object I will only remark further that those serious gaps between the sciences which we have already noticed,14 so far from being, as we might expect, a hindrance to the effective working of that ‘logical charm’ seemingly pertaining to the notion of development, really enlarge its scope and enhance its potency. Take, for example, the gap between the inorganic and the organic. Of the origin of life, if it ever did originate, we have absolutely no knowledge. But, on the one hand, there is no definite limit to the possible complexity of mechanical processes, nor any definite limit, on the other, to the possible simplicity of life. Thus in science we have every facility and many temptations to assume that somewhere in the terra incognita between physics and physiology mass-aggregates become so configured as to take on the functions and individuality of organisms. Meanwhile—and again contrary to expectation—the progress of knowledge and especially of that systematic reflection concerning knowledge, which takes knowledge itself as the object of science, the science we call epistemology, instead of making this conjectural transition easier, renders it increasingly hazardous and difficult. In proof of this it may be enough here to contrast the light and airy way in which Mr. Spencer glides over this problem, with the confidence of physicists like Lord Kelvin or Helmholtz, or of physiologists like Liebig and Pasteur, that mechanical theories as to the origin and maintenance of life are hopeless.

To be sure Mr. Spencer tells us, when hard pressed by critics, that of the synthetic philosophy “two volumes are missing” — the two important volumes on Inorganic Evolution. “The closing chapter of the second of these volumes”—he continues— “were it written, would deal with the evolution of organic matter —the step preceding the evolution of living forms. Habitually carrying with me in thought the contents of this unwritten chapter, I have, in some cases, expressed myself as though the reader had it before him; and have thus rendered some of my statements liable to misconstruction.”15 Surely this is a situation not wanting in humour—or in pathos! Who is the more to be pitied: the sympathetic readers, who—through no fault of their own, as Mr. Spencer allows—have misunderstood, lacking as they have done for thirty years these two missing volumes of the stereotyped philosophy; or poor Mr. Spencer himself, with these unwritten volumes in his teeming brain, compelled all that time to see his statements misconstrued? Still we must take facts as we find them. During the thirty years in which Mr. Spencer has been engrossed with this interpretation, a whole generation of biologists has striven hard, but striven in vain, to bring this truth to light. For all but Mr. Spencer, at any rate, the origin of life has remained a mystery.

So far as I can gather from his summary references to this unwritten section of his philosophy, Mr. Spencer's procedure there differs in no respect from his procedure generally. And unless I misconstrue it, it exactly illustrates what I have said, and amply justifies the animadversions I have made. On the one hand we have statements purporting to be strictly mechanical; on the other, conceptions not mechanically intelligible slipping in unawares and gradually changing the venue. More definitely, on the one hand we have a chemical molecule increasing in complexity till we reach the proteids. Then—I here quote Mr. Spencer—“the supposition (justified by analogies)” that atoms of sulphur or phosphorus “may be a bond of union between half a dozen different isomeric forms of protein.” And so,—continues Mr. Spencer, and getting bolder,—“a moment's thought will show that, setting out with the thousand isomeric forms of protein, this makes possible a number of their combinations almost passing the power of figures to express. … Molecules so produced, perhaps exceeding in size and complexity those of protein as those of protein exceed those of inorganic matter, may, I conceive, be the special units belonging to special kinds of organisms.”16 So far, except that Mr. Spencer premises that the ordinary idea of mechanical action must be greatly expanded, i.e. that we are to take the full benefit of mechanical hypotheses concerning physical and chemical phenomena—so far, with this proviso, we are still within the range of our lowest terms, Matter and Motion. We are only asked to imagine a very complex cluster of very complex chemical molecules. But, on the other hand, we find ourselves presently approaching this aggregate from the standpoint of biology; and we hear our oracle saying as follows: “Exposed to those innumerable modifications of conditions which the Earth's surface afforded, here in amount of light, there in amount of heat, and elsewhere in the mineral quality of its aqueous medium, this extremely changeable substance must have undergone now one, now another, of its countless metamorphoses. And to the mutual influences of its metamorphic forms under favouring conditions, we must ascribe the production of the still more composite, still more sensitive, still more variously-changeable portions of organic matter, which, in masses more minute and simpler than existing Protozoa, displayed actions verging little by little into those called vital.… Thus, setting out with inductions from the experience of organic chemists at the one extreme, and with inductions from the observations of biologists at the other extreme, we are enabled deductively to bridge the interval—are enabled to conceive how organic compounds were evolved, and how, by a continuance of the process, the nascent life displayed in these became gradually more pronounced.”17 In other words, going farther in the way of complexity than chemical inductions directly warrant, and farther in the way of simplicity than biological observations directly justify, these two lines of conjecture may meet somewhere in the unknown interval, and there will be the source of life. After this triumphant deduction, is it not captious and unkind to object, when—without further explanation—portions of an extremely changeable stuff are declared to have assumed the unity and permanence of individuals? Or when the particles of this stuff, spoken of as living, are credited with “an innate tendency to arrange themselves into the shape of the organism to which they belong,”18 ‘tendencies derived from the inherited effects of environing actions?’ Or again when, though scornfully repudiating the hypothesis of a nisus formativus, or vital principle, Mr. Spencer allows himself to talk of “the polarities of the molecules determining the direction in which the power [of environing forces] is turned?”19

Instead of pausing to comment, let us rather take one more sample of Mr. Spencer's procedure, which lies on the way to our next topic—the transition from life to mind. “The broadest and most complete definition of Life,” he tells us, “will be The continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations.”20 This we are to understand as a dynamic statement, and possibly in the instance first given to exemplify it we might contrive so to understand it—the instance being the correspondence between food assimilated and the temperature of the environment. But how are we to find a dynamic statement in such an instance as this: “A sound or a scent wafted to it on the breeze prompts the stag to dart away from the deerstalker”? A child would understand that adjustment here does not mean any “ transformation or equivalence of forces,” and that when the stag halts panting in a corrie five miles off, the internal change from fright to a sense of security cannot, like the external change, be exhibited by geometrical or dynamical diagrams. Yet Mr. Spencer's “broadest and most complete definition” is meant to cover both these cases; spite of the important difference that in the one ‘internal relations’ refer to states of the organism, and involve all the three physical terms, space, time, and mass; while in the other ‘internal relations’ refer to states of mind, and so far can involve neither space nor mass. Now we shall all admit that it is a somewhat hazardous enterprise to set out “to interpret in terms of Matter, Motion, and Force”—such, it will be remembered, is the classic phrase—phenomena into which it is allowed that matter, motion, and force do not enter. The difficulty is two-fold: first, to get rid of extension; and then, since with extension matter goes too, to get back the real in some other form. But it is just in these ‘disastrous chances’ that Mr. Spencer's characteristics come out. That you may learn in his own words how he resolves the first difficulty, how from internal relations of the organism he passes over to internal relations of the mind, let me quote from his Principles of Psychology. The following is part of a chapter devoted to elucidating the nature of intelligence:— “The skin, then, being the part immediately subject to the various kinds of external stimuli, necessarily becomes the part in which psychical changes are originated.… Speaking generally, therefore, we may say that while the physical changes are being everywhere initiated throughout a solid, the psychical ones, or rather those out of which psychical ones arise, admit of being initiated only on a surface.”21 So one dimension of this too, too solid flesh melts; to understand how the other two disappear let us head Mr. Spencer further. “Those abilities which an intelligent creature possesses, of recognising diverse external objects and of adjusting its actions to composite phenomena of various kinds, imply a power of combining many separate impressions. These separate impressions are received by the senses—by different parts of the body. If they go no further than the places at which they are received, they are useless. … That an effectual adjustment may be made, they must all be brought into relation with one another. But this implies some centre common to them all through which they can pass; and as they cannot pass through it simultaneously they must pass in succession, so that as the external phenomena responded to become greater in number and more complicated in kind, the variety and rapidity of the changes to which this common centre22 of communication is subject must increase—there must result an unbroken series of these changes—there must arise a consciousness.”23 Just as extension reduces to a point, consciousness appears!24

It would look as if a punctual seat of the soul were as much a necessity for Mr. Spencer as it was for Descartes. But Mr. Spencer's dynamic principle recognises no substance but matter, and that has gone with space. This brings us to the second difficulty.

How are we to interpret the intelligent creature for whom this hurrying single file of impressions is brought into relation? Since it cannot be what it ought to be (if it is to be rationally built up according to Mr. Spencer's ultimate analysis), since it cannot be matter, and must be something, what, we wonder, is it? Now for the deus ex machinâ. Turning to his chapter on the Substance of Mind, we read: “… The concept we form to ourselves of Matter is but the symbol of some form of Power absolutely and forever unknown to us; and a symbol which we cannot suppose to be like the reality without involving ourselves in contradictions. ƒ Also the representation of all objective activities in terms of Motion, is but a representation of them and not a knowledge of them. When with these conclusions ƒ we join the conclusion lately reached that Mind also is unknowable, and that the simplest form under which we can think of its substance is but a symbol of something that can never be rendered into thought; we see that the whole question is at last nothing more than the question whether these symbols should be expressed in terms of those, or those in terms of these—a question scarcely worth deciding.”25

What's in a name? The rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and when it is no longer convenient to call our ‘real’ matter, why not call it mind? Why not indeed? Most of us here, I dare say, have no objection. Still the somersault is a little startling even from our poet-philosopher, who in concluding his First Principles we remember had said: “The interpretation of all phenomena in terms of Matter, Motion, and Force is nothing more than the reduction of our complex symbols of thought to the simplest symbols.” Our surprise is the greater because here in this chapter on the Substance of Mind he calmly remarks: “It seems easier to translate so-called Matter into so-called Spirit, than to translate so-called Spirit into so-called Matter (which latter is, indeed, wholly impossible). … Our only course,” he continues, “is constantly to recognise our symbols as symbols only; and to rest content with that duality of them which our constitution necessitates.”26 But now what has become of the complete unification of the knowable in view of this utter dualism; and how now are the complex facts of intelligence and morality, of man and society, to be rationally ‘built up’ on the doctrine of the conservation and transformation of energy? No wonder Mr. Spencer has ever and anon to enter a caveat such as this, which occurs in his treatment of social phenomena: “Though evolution of the various products of human activity cannot be said directly to exemplify the integration of matter and the dissipation of motion, yet they exemplify it indirectly.”27 From synthetic interpretation to indirect exemplification is verily a descent, nay, is the most palpable failure. How very indirect even the exemplification is may be judged from Mr. Spencer's final statement of the psychological side of his great primordial truth, viz., that “all mental action whatever is definable as the continuous differentiation and integration of states of consciousness.”28 This does not seem to mean the same thing as the continuous integration of matter and dissipation of motion; still it sounds a little like it.

Here, then, is a thinker really following where he essays to lead, professing to give the sciences their bearings, but in fact losing his own as he goes along. He looks at things, first of all, chronologically, and begins with the generalities of abstract dynamics, which he mistakes for natural laws. The gap between this abstract science and our empirical knowledge concerning physical phenomena, together with the whole group of physical sciences, is passed over. And when Mr. Spencer, omitting two whole volumes, resumes his task with what he calls the interpretation of Organic Nature, he seems quite unaware that he has passed not only from the abstract to the actual, but from the mechanical to the teleological. Regarding living things as a whole, we find that what is clearest about the lowest forms is organization, and what is clearest in the highest is mind. Midway then—there is a transition point in the evolutional drama where the poet glides easily over from the physical standpoint to the psychical, still, however, dealing with the facts chronologically. Then suddenly he ceases from this forward or synthetic movement, and at the close of his psychology sweeps back analytically, and, like a mighty boomerang, demolishes his first starting-point. In place of it there arises what is poetically styled “Transfigured Realism,”29 a final tableau wherein every philosophy, from Scepticism up to Absolute Idealism, finds something to be thankful for and is anon swallowed up.

  • 1.

    Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, vol. iii, p. 194.

  • 2.

    First Principles, § 61, stereo. ed., p. 191; rev. ed., omitted.

  • 3.

    First Principles, § 194, stereo. ed., p. 557; rev. ed., p. 509.

  • 4.

    “Constituted as the human mind is, if nature be not interpretable through these conceptions, it is not interpretable at all.” Sir J. Herschel on The Origin of Force in the Fortnightly Review, vol. i, p. 442.

  • 5.

    Belfast Address before the British Association, 1874, p. 49.

  • 6.

    First Principles, § 194, stereo. ed., p. 558; rev. ed., p. 510.

  • 7.

    First Principles, § 194, stereo. ed., p. 556; rev. ed., omitted.

  • 8.

    Properties of Matter, p. 415.

  • 9.

    British Quarterly Review, vol. lviii, p. 504.

  • 10.

    First Principles, § 62, stereo. ed., p. 192; rev. ed., omitted.

  • 11.

    First Principles, § 26, stereo. ed., p. 95; rev. ed., p. 82.

  • 12.

    A Treatise of Human Nature, Green and Grose's edition, vol. i, p. 492.

  • 13.

    Logic, § 100, 15.

  • 14.

    Cf. Lecture 1.

  • 15.

    Principles of Biology, stereo. ed., vol. i, p. 480; rev. ed., p. 597. Italics mine.

  • 16.

    Principles of Biology, stereo. ed., vol. i, p. 486; rev. ed., p. 703.

  • 17.

    Principles of Biology, stereo. ed., vol. i, pp. 483 f.

  • 18.

    Principles of Biology, stereo. ed., vol. i, pp. 180 f.

  • 19.

    Principles of Biology, stereo. ed., vol. i, p. 488.

  • 20.

    Principles of Biology, § 30, stereo. ed., p. 80; rev. ed., p. 99.

  • 21.

    Principles of Psychology, vol. i, p. 401.

  • 22.

    Italics mine.

  • 23.

    Principles of Psychology, vol. i, p. 403.

  • 24.

    Note x.—My attention has been called to an emendation of the passage here quoted, which Mr. Spencer has introduced into the third edition of his Principles of Psychology. In place of the last clause: “there must result an unbroken series of these changes—there must arise a consciousness ”; we now have: “there must result an unbroken series of these changes, the subjective face of which is what we call a coherent consciousness.” And whereas in the earlier edition the passage quoted was continued thus: “Hence the progress of the correspondence between the organism and its environment necessitates a gradual reduction of the sensorial changes to a succession; and by so doing evolves a distinct consciousness—a consciousness that becomes higher as the succession becomes more rapid and the correspondence more complete”; in the new edition we have instead the following: “Of course I do not mean that material actions thus become mental actions…I am merely showing a parallelism between a certain physical evolution and the correlative psychical evolution.” But such patchwork corrections are surely futile. As Professor James incisively remarks, the passage withdrawn “resembles too many others in his Psychology not to be taken as a serious attempt to explain how consciousness must at a certain point be ‘evolved.’ That when a critic calls his attention to the inanity of his words, Mr. Spencer should say he never meant anything particular by them, is simply an example of the scandalous vagueness with which this sort of ‘chromo-philosophy ’ is carried on” (W. James, Principles of Psychology, i. p. 149).

  • 25.

    Principles of Psychology, vol. i, p. 159.

  • 26.

    Principles of Psychology, vol. i, p. 161.

  • 27.

    First Principles, § 111, stereo. ed., pp. 318 f.; rev. ed., p. 291.

  • 28.

    Principles of Psychology, vol. ii, p. 301.

  • 29.

    See Principles of Psychology, pt. vii, General Analysis, last chapter.