You are here

Part I: The Transcendence of the Immanent

Lecture III: The Cartesian Faux-Pas

If I were asked what was the most disastrous moment in the history of Europe I should be strongly tempted to answer that it was that period of leisure when René Descartes, having no claims to meet, remained for a whole day “shut up alone in a stove”. But no doubt that is a jaundiced view of a necessary movement of thought, and any bitterness of feeling with regard to it is due to the fact that we are only now emerging from the movement then initiated, so that we regard it with some aversion, but have not achieved complete deliverance, and our aversion cannot yet be dispassionate. That many of our worst troubles, not only in philosophy but also in politics and economics, with all that this means for human happiness or misery, are closely associated with the habit of thought then established I cannot doubt. But many gains are associated with it also; and we have already passed out of the tunnel into which Descartes led us, even if our eyes are as yet too unaccustomed to the daylight of common sense to perceive clearly the landscape that meets our gaze as we emerge into it.

The time is come, I am convinced, when we should learn to see the course of “modern thought” up to date—that is, its course from about A.D. 1500 till near our own time—as one phase in what Hegelians call a “dialectical movement of thought”. The great principle of the Hegelian dialectic has fallen into some discredit, partly because Hegel himself attributed to it a more universal applicability than it possesses, but mainly I think because it has been supposed that it ought to supply a guide for the actual thinking of individual philosophers. A theme, other than a stretch of past history, to which an individual philosopher could apply the dialectic method would have to be either very highly abstract, like Hegel’s own transition from Sein through Nicht sein to Werden, or else so limited in scope as hardly to be a topic for philosophic discussion. As a loyal pupil of Edward Caird I find the phrase “a dialectical movement of thought” always suggestive of something that occupies several centuries, though no doubt lesser illustrations are discoverable.

In such a movement it is natural that the second phase—the “antithesis”—should be briefer than the other two. The “thesis” formulates a prima facie view, which, because it is taken prima facie, has much of the quality of “common sense”. It has that kind of guarantee that is provided by absence of sophistication. It is like the wisdom of the uneducated rustic—a wisdom which is the direct deposit of actual experience in a mind of which the balance has never been distorted. This wisdom has great limitations, but it is real wisdom, not cleverness.

The “antithesis” is born of the limitations of the “thesis”. The “thesis” is never a complete statement; there are aspects of the problem which it ignores. As men become conscious of these, they feel the need to assert them. There is, as a rule, no room for them within the accepted formulation of the “thesis”, so it becomes necessary to make a new start from the assertion of these hitherto neglected aspects, or from a deliberate questioning of what has hitherto been unquestioned. So the “antithesis” receives statement. As compared with the “thesis” it is artificial, a thing consciously constructed; it may be defended with conspicuous ingenuity, but is not likely to be a fount of wisdom.

When the “antithesis” has been worked out, and its shortcomings also have become apparent, the time is come for the “synthesis”. This is not a mere average struck between the two. It is always a reassertion of the “thesis” with all that has proved valuable in the “antithesis” digested into it.

A vivid, though crude, illustration of this triadic process is afforded by the parliamentary history of Great Britain under the two-party system. The Conservative party, at its best, is expressive of the “thesis”, the actual situation as it has historically developed; this party does not stand for stagnation, but it repudiates all general theories concerning the kind of change that should be made, believing that action on each occasion should be dictated, not by general theory but, by the exigencies of the actual situation at any moment. The Liberal party has in the past represented the “antithesis” in the form of an attack on various forms of privilege or of restrictions upon individual liberty. Perhaps it may be said that the Labour Party is essentially an extension of this, with more intimate knowledge of and concern for the wage-earning classes, for its action has as yet been comparatively little affected by doctrinaire Socialism. But at any given moment the Conservative party itself represents the “synthesis” of the “thesis” and “antithesis” of the last generation. This is recognised in the principle avowed by some detached Radicals that while they are eager for drastic reforms they wish to see these enacted by a Conservative Government, because that will secure that the country is really ready for them.

It is, of course, well known that Karl Marx applied the Hegelian dialectic in the economic field, and presented Communism as the “synthesis” which was to solve all problems, the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, now established to some extent in Russia, being the necessary “antithesis” to the “thesis” of Capitalism. But it is hazardous to construct the “synthesis” in advance, and almost equally hazardous to apply with any thoroughness in practice an artificially constructed “antithesis”. Human thinking is sure to omit some of the relevant facts; often it has not even the opportunity of becoming aware of them. But unknown facts produce their consequences equally with known, and in practice opportunism is itself a sacred principle, though when followed alone it degenerates into cynicism if not into downright immorality.

In the field with which we are now concerned the “thesis” finds expression in various forms in the whole of ancient and of mediaeval thought; its principle is that in experience we are directly aware of real objects. This was held—sometimes as an uncriticised assumption, sometimes (as by Plato) with vivid realisation of some of the difficulties involved—from Thales to William of Occam. Sophists, like Protagoras, might apply a thorough-going humanism to the problems of philosophy, or like Gorgias, a thorough-going scepticism to the bare possibility of metaphysic; but they represent eddies, “dialectical” eddies it may be, each setting up a little “antithesis” within the main stream which proceeded to swallow it in the original “thesis”. The very form and terminology of the mediaeval controversies illustrate this point. “Realism” as applied to mediaeval controversies is concerned with Universals only; its rivals are—not Idealism, or the assertion that we know only our own ideas but—Nominalism and Conceptualism. In other words the controversy was not concerned with the general question of the relation of Mind to real objects, but merely with the departmental question whether certain ideas are ideas of objects existing in their own right. That, broadly speaking, we have knowledge of real objects was not disputed.

During the fifteenth century many things were happening which tended to arouse the critical spirit. All tradition and the assurance associated with it was bound up with the Church. There was a scheme of thought embracing Theology, Metaphysic, Logic, Politics, Ethics and Economics. It was in itself coherent and close-knit; but Theology was the keystone of its arch, and the guardian of theological doctrine was the Church. The Church itself was Catholic or Universal, and while it had learnt to unite men of different regions and races in its system, it had not learnt how to recognise at all fully within that system different nations as self-conscious communities. Meanwhile the spirit of Nationalism was developing, perhaps finding its first quite clear expression in Joan of Arc. A clash between the new Nationalism and the old Catholicism was inevitable. The problem of doing justice to both was not insoluble, and if the Church had been universally recognised as the repository of spiritual power which it existed to be, the problem might have been solved. But just when the Church needed its spiritual resources in a very special degree, they were found to be at a very low ebb. Moreover the new Greek learning had suggested another method of thought, and, more important still, another intellectual temper than that of the Aristotelianism which the great Schoolmen had employed to construct their magnificently, but excessively because prematurely, coherent scheme. Thus the authority of the current theological tradition was weakened among those who, because of their learning, might have been its most effectual champions. The readjustment called for in this department also might have been effected if the Church had been before all else dedicated to its spiritual vocation. Whether the worldliness of the Church as an ecclesiastical organisation in the fifteenth century would of itself have led to a break-up of the mediaeval system it is impossible to say; what is certain is that it deprived the Church of the moral authority required for guiding the new forces into harmonious co-operation with the old.

It was in the sphere of Politics that the breach with the old order was first openly proclaimed. Its herald was Machiavelli, a very penetrating thinker who has brought upon himself the execration of mankind by stating with a lucidity that seemed indecent the principles upon which men were often already acting in his day and have consistently acted ever since. What was new was not the treatment of the political State as its own end, so that its isolated interest becomes the fundamental principle of political morality, but the unremorseful announcement of this as a commonplace, and the unashamed deduction of the conduct conformable thereto, not in action (every one was used to that) but in words. And after all if “hypocrisy is the homage which vice pays to virtue” it may be better to be a hypocrite than to pay no homage to virtue at all.

But Machiavelli could not, if he would, break up the theoretical unity of Christendom, just because the theory had already long outlived the slender influence that it ever enjoyed in political practice. The first actual breach came, as was natural and almost necessary, in the religious sphere itself. Europe was living by a system of tradition too narrow for it; the keystone of that system was the theology of a Church now seen to be corrupt. A breach was bound to come. But if the Church and its system were repudiated, what could take its place. If a man’s thoughts and purposes were no longer to take their start from the only tradition available, where could they begin? And the only possible answer was “with himself”. If a man was not going to start as a member of a system, accepting that system and his own place in it, then he must start with his isolated self. Of course he would submit to the authority of conscience, but it would be his conscience. He would submit to the Voice of God as he heard it, but it would be as he heard it. So the modern movement was bound to be a movement of individualism. We owe to it the distinctive blessings of modern life, but also its distinctive ills.

This strong assertion of the individual as the source or medium of the authority to which he must bow found its spiritual expression when Martin Luther, standing alone for truth as he knew it before the Diet of Worms, declared Hier steh’ ich; ich kann nichts anders. It found its intellectual expression in the course of meditation with which René Descartes occupied his leisure in that stove which is the birthplace of modern philosophy. The moment is so important that it seems worth while to let him tell the story once more in his own words:

“J’étois alors en Allemagne, où l’occasion des guerres qui n’y sont pas encore finies m’avoit appelé; et, comme je retournois du couronnement de l’empereur vers l’armée, le commencement de l’hiver m’arrêta en un quartier où, ne trouvant aucune conversation qui me divertit, et n’ayant d’ailleurs, par bonheur, aucuns soins ni passions qui me troublassent, je demeurois tout le jour enfermé seul dans un poêle, où j’avois tout le loisir de m’entretenir de mes pensées.1
“Je ne sais si je dois vous entretenir des premières méditations que j’y ai faites; car elles sont si métaphysiques et peu communes, qu’elles ne seront peut-être pas au goût de tout le monde; et, toute fois, a fin qu’on puisse juger si les fondements que j’ai pris sont assez fermes, je me trouve en quelque façon contraint d’en parler. J’avois dès longtemps remarqué que pour les mœurs il est besoin quelquefois de suivre des opinions qu’on sait être fort incertaines, tout de même que si elles étoient indubitables …; mais pour ce qu’alors je désirois vaguer seulement à la recherche de la vérité, je pensai qu’il falloit que je fisse tout le contraire, et que je rejetasse comme absolument faux tout ce en quoi je pourrois imaginer le moindre doute, afin de voir s’il ne resteroit point après cela quelque chose en ma créance qui fût entièrement indubitable. Ainsi, à cause que nos sens nous trompent quelquefois je voulus supposer qu’il n’y avoit aucune chose qui fût telle qu’ils la font imaginer; et, parce qu’il y a des hommes qui se méprennent en raisonant même touchant les plus simples matières de géométrie, et y font des paralogismes, jugeant que j’étois sujet à faillir autant qu’aucun autre, je rejetai comme fausses toutes les raisons que j’avois prises auparavant pour démonstrations; et enfin, considérant que toutes les mêmes pensées que nous avons étant éveillés nous peuvent aussi venir quand nous dormons sans qu’il y en ait aucune pour lors qui soit vraie, je me résolus de feindre que toutes les choses qui m’étoient jamais entrées en esprit n’étoient non plus vraies que les illusions de mes songes. Mais aussitôt après je pris garde que, pendant que je voulois ainsi penser que tout étoit faux, il falloit nécessairement que moi qui le pensois fusse quelque chose; et remarquant que cette vérité: je pense, donc je suis, étoit si ferme et si assurée que toutes les plus extravagantes suppositions des sceptiques n’étoient pas capables de l’ébranler, je jugeai que je pouvois le recevoir sans scrupule pour le premier principe de la philosophie que je cherchois.”2

It is no main part of my purpose to criticise the logical validity of this procedure on its own ground and within its own limits. I do, in fact, regard it as invalid; and I am disposed to think that the bare possibility of doing so is as fatal to the argument as a formal refutation would be. Of course I share the conviction at which Descartes arrived; when I doubt, I cannot doubt that I doubt; even though I should doubt all else, I could not doubt myself as the subject of that doubt; that, as a matter of psychology, is true. But to me it seems that in fact I cannot really doubt all else except myself; I cannot really doubt the earth, or the stars, or (above all) my friends; so that I cannot find in fact any greater psychological assurance about the existence of myself than about the existence of a great deal else. And there seems no reason to regard the assurance at which Descartes arrived as more than psychological. There is at first sight a certain logical cogency about it; for as Mr. Boyce Gibson puts it, “that which is thought is always exposed to metaphysical doubt; but that which thinks is the condition of metaphysical doubt itself”.3 But this does not really carry us far, for it is impossible to think without thinking something. The subjective function of thought can be properly and usefully distinguished from every object of thought taken separately; but it cannot be isolated from all objects of thought whatsoever without ceasing to exist. And it is on the possibility of such isolation that Descartes’ argument turns. The appearance of logical cogency is illusory; the assurance to which Descartes clings is psychological only. Now if it be suggested that he and I are both of us figures in the dream of a Demiurge, as Tweedledum suggested that Alice and Tweedledee and he himself were all figures in the Red King’s dream, there is no way of refuting such a suggestion. If the Red King dreamt that Alice was sure of her own existence, she would be sure of it; but that would not prevent her going out like a candle when the Red King woke up. She would indeed never know that she did not exist, for so long as she knew anything she would have all the existence possible for her—that of a figure in a dream. Whatever she knew, she would know because the Red King dreamt her as knowing it. Now I do not feel as if I were only a figure in some one else’s dream; but neither do I feel as if I had more grounds for assurance of my own existence than for assurance of the existence of other things; these assurances arise together—or rather are different elements in the initial fact of consciousness. Personally I find it not at all impossible to entertain the fancy that all our experience, that of self included, is part of the dream of a Demiurge, that all of it

shall dissolve

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep4

—not our sleep, but that of the Demiurge. I cannot refute that hypothesis, and I find it possible to contemplate it without intellectual turmoil. I am equally unable, no doubt, to refute the notion that my primary assurance is of myself, and that my awareness of the world about me is secondary and derivative. But I cannot contemplate that hypothesis without intellectual perturbation of the profoundest kind—a perturbation which is the deposit of all the acrobatic feats by which philosophers from Descartes to Kant have worked out the implications of that hypothesis and tried to avoid becoming entangled by it in manifest nonsense.

I believe, then, that Descartes’ method is, even on its own ground, invalid. I believe that when once he started his process of purely artificial doubt, he had as good ground for doubting everything as anything. Doubt, as an active movement of the mind, does not commonly arise through our looking for reasons to believe in this or that; it arises from an apparent collision between one actual element in experience and another—it may be of fact with theory, or of theory with theory, or of fact (as observed) with fact (as observed).5 What Descartes indulged in his stove was purely academic doubt; he was really as sure of the stove as of himself. If it be urged that this academic doubt was not an empirical absence of assurance but an “ideal supposal”, I must reply that this method is permissible enough, but that Descartes found the wrong residuum. What he ought to have reached as the irreducible basis of all thought, including doubt, was the subject-object relationship. Then all the subsequent trouble would have been avoided. But academic doubt is in itself only an extension of nursery make-believe—“Let us pretend that we do not know that there is a Sun, or that Napoleon existed, or that selfishness is bad, and see if we can prove any of these things”. Such an intellectual pastime would never occupy men’s thoughts and direct their enterprises unless it represented something much deeper than itself.

What it represented when Descartes embarked upon it was the total collapse of the authority of mediaeval tradition. There was urgent need to find some new foundation on which the habitation of the spirit of man could be securely built. If the individual could not find it in the whole scheme of things in which he was placed, he must find it in his own integrity. That which was true to him he would assert before Emperor and Princes: Hier steh’ ich., ich kann nichts anders. He would stand by his own thought and reach such truth as he might: Cogito, ergo sum.

The difficulties with which Descartes found himself confronted in trying to advance from his initial certainty of self are familiar; but it is relevant to our main purpose to outline them once more. Having no initial certainty except that of thought which is yet thought of nothing, he could not avoid holding that the mind knows nothing directly except its own ideas. It has reached its certainty of itself by the process of doubting the very existence of all else. Descartes, then, found himself possessing many ideas, some vague and confused, some clear and distinct. He found that the latter impressed the mind with their reliability. But why should he trust that impression? By reviving the Ontological Argument he established to his satisfaction the reality of God as a Being perfect in Goodness, Wisdom and Power. Such a Being would not have created us with an irresistible impulse towards the acceptance of certain ideas unless those ideas were in fact true. Thus the existence and character of God are the guarantee of the veridicity of clear and distinct ideas; relying upon God’s veracity I may believe that in such ideas I have true apprehensions of the real world.

Of course the argument is circular in a vicious manner.6 The Ontological Argument depends for its validity upon that reliability of clear and distinct ideas which is only established by means of it. Even if it is valid in itself, which in the Cartesian form it manifestly is not, its inner validity would supply no reason for accepting its conclusion as an apprehension of reality apart from the actual content of that conclusion itself. The plain fact is that Descartes, having confined himself to self-consciousness as the only immediate datum, has, and can have, no right to believe in the existence of anything else at all except his self and its states. Solipsism is the only logical issue of his initial procedure. But being not only an intellect of consummate power but also, which is a greater thing, a sane man, he would not accept Solipsism. He had to break out somehow, just as he had some day to get out of his stove. And he did it this way.

Thus he was left with three accepted realities: his mind with its ideas; God; and the real world of which his ideas were apprehensions. Among these ideas those that are clear and distinct are reliable. Now in this respect mathematical ideas are pre-eminent. Thus apart from deliberate intention (though Descartes was a supremely great mathematician) a bias was given in favour of those aspects of reality that are susceptible of mathematical treatment—that is, its measurable aspects.

This position was worked out through two streams of thought, one flowing on the Continent and one in England. On the Continent the rationalist element in Descartes prevailed—the insistence that clear and distinct ideas give secure knowledge, so that reality is regarded as subject to the laws of our thinking. In England the Cartesian scheme provided the occasion for empirical criticism. In the Continental stream the moments of consequence are Spinoza and Leibniz; in the English stream Locke, Berkeley and Hume. Every one of these is something much more than a link in a chain or a phase in a continuous transition; but it is as links in the chain that we are now concerned with them.

Spinoza is a name that has won a universal and well-merited veneration. It is tempting to pause in contemplation of his mighty structure of thought, but that would only postpone our effort to outline a scheme that may adumbrate a reconstruction of his own on different foundations. Spinoza could not be satisfied with the three distinct and very loosely related entities which constituted the foci of Descartes’ thought. He took that which was always the bond of unity—God—and treated the others as modes of its being. Thus the one Substance—God—whose Attributes are infinite, is known to us under two Attributes only, Thought and Extension. And the fact that both were attributes of one Substance guaranteed a correspondence between the two. This raises the problem of Error in a specially awkward form. If Thought and Extension (where the latter term includes all spatial objects) always corresponded, well and good. Spinoza discusses the question how Error actually arises and how it may be cured; but he never answers the question how it can be possible at all, or how the one Substance is affected by the failure of correspondence between its attributes while Error lasts.

The preference of Descartes for clear and distinct ideas led Spinoza to conceive his fundamental Substance in those elementary terms of which alone we have such ideas. The religious passion of the Fifth Book of his Ethics is therefore found to have no place within the framework of his scheme. The essential incoherence of Spinoza is one of the first warning signs of the false lead given to “modern thought” by its founder.

Leibniz dealt with the supposed parallelism of ideas and actualities by the famous hypothesis of the pre-established harmony imposed upon the whole system of “monads” by the Creator. But this is not a harmony of “thoughts” and “objects”; for in his view material objects are appearances within the experience of minds. Each mind is a “monad”, a self-contained unit; and the “harmony” is of monad with monad. God has so made them that in fact their activities harmonise. This was to take refuge in dogmatism in the bad sense of the word. From Leibniz sprang the so-called dogmatic school which reached its ludicrous apogee in Wolf.

The avoidance of similar dogmatism in the English school led to the complete break-down of the whole scheme. Locke, who was more wise than clever, and both in Politics and in Epistemology frequently saved himself from absurdity at the cost of sacrificing consistency with his main theory, is chiefly of importance here because he began the curtailment of Descartes’ three entities. He perceived that the mind gets all its material from sensations; if only clear and distinct ideas are reliable witnesses of the real, then only extension is altogether real, because this alone submits to exact measurement. So what we now tend to call objective reality was reduced to the “Primary Qualities”—that is to the measurable. These are the same for all; but the “Secondary Qualities” vary according to the receptivity of the percipient and are both vague and confused. These Locke held to be subjective only. Berkeley followed and showed that there was no more reason to predicate independent existence of the “Primary” than of the “Secondary Qualities” which Locke had regarded as effects produced on the mind by the “Primary Qualities”. Thus Berkeley abolished independent objective existence altogether apart from spiritual entities and left only God and the mind with its ideas. Hume followed, and showed that on the now accepted basis of philosophic enquiry there was no ground for believing in the mind itself, so that nothing at all was left except a flux of ideas—caused by nothing and held by nothing, but just happening.

At this point Kant took up the story. According to his own account he tried to read Leibniz through the eyes of Hume and Hume through the eyes of Leibniz. He sought to reach truth by a method that should reconcile the widely divergent streams that traced their source to Descartes. The enterprise resulted in a new epoch of philosophy, and Kant is entitled to the honour justly due to a courageous pioneer. But he did not effect the reconciliation which he sought. As Edward Caird used to say, “He started from both ends of the road at once, but he never met himself”. In fact it was impossible that he ever should; for he never discarded the fatal Cartesian hypothesis that the mind deals directly not with objects known throughout as objects, but with its own ideas which have to be related to the real world by a special act. When as a boy I read the Critique of Pure Reason, having then never heard of Descartes or of Berkeley, I got the impression that Kant meant what I afterwards learnt to have been the meaning of Berkeley. Later I tried to adjust my mind to the fact that Kant supposed himself, not to have established this position, but to have refuted it. Later still I have returned to the conviction that, though this was not his intention, the real upshot of the argument of that Critique is Berkeleyan Idealism, with the Thing-in-Itself attached as an illogical appendage.

One of the “Ifs” on which it is interesting to speculate is this: “If Biology had reached the point of development represented by Darwin before the time of Kant—” But Science for Kant meant Mathematics and Mathematical Physics. He was himself a considerable astronomer. So it was natural that when he thought of Knowledge, the clear and distinct ideas of Descartes should still preoccupy his attention. His scheme of Categories makes it clear that the whole habit of thought associated with Biology and still more with History was not his. In the Critique of Practical Reason he released Ethics from the impasse in which he found, and left, Epistemology engulfed, though even here his position could only be squared with his general theory by making the Autonomous Will, on which all depends, a Thing-in-Itself which never operates in the phenomenal world. In the Critique of Judgment he moves to still greater freedom of mind at a still greater sacrifice of consistency with his initial doctrine.

Various schools of post-Kantian philosophy have attempted to assert the primary unity which Kant failed to construct. In particular the English Hegelians laid reiterated emphasis on the fact that the distinction between Self and Not-Self is drawn within the given unity of experience. But in them still the old tradition sufficiently prevailed to lead to an assumption of an epistemological and thus (for this philosophy) a metaphysical priority of the Subject in the Subject-Object relation of Knowledge. For this there is no foundation if once the Cartesian starting-point has been discarded. There is, as we shall see, a real priority of Spirit, but not in its function as Subject of Knowledge.7 And until this is fully recognised there is insuperable difficulty in the mere notion of man’s knowledge of God. For if there is an inherent priority in the subject, then in man as knowing God there is a priority towards God. It is partly in the endeavour to avoid such an absurdity that some philosophers tend to substitute for man’s knowledge of God his absorption in an Absolute conceived primarily as experience perfected in all-embracing knowledge.

It may well be held that an apology is required for introducing into the august series of Gifford Lectures a summary of modern philosophical development which is commonplace, even where disputable, to every novice in philosophy, and which may suggest to others that the great names of the past are not worthy of the veneration which has been paid to them. Certainly nothing could be further from my own desire than to give any support to that suggestion; every name that I have mentioned is truly honourable; some represent an integrity as pure, an insight as penetrating, and an organising ability as thorough as was ever displayed by the human mind. But we are not now directly concerned with the development of modern philosophy. For our purposes there is illumination in the outline of its development, but the outline is all that we require. And if this, as I have sketched it, is commonplace, that is, I suggest, because substantially it is true. And what it everywhere illustrates is the inherent error of its initial assumption that in knowledge the mind begins with itself and proceeds to the apprehension of the external world by way of construction and inference.

This is nowhere clearer than in Kant, where the development reaches its true completion and new tendencies begin to appear, though they cannot at first shake themselves quite free of what had become the traditional presupposition. Kant “started from both ends of the road at once, but he never met himself”. He held fast to the line of development which followed the way of “clear and distinct ideas;” and he also started from Hume’s doctrine of “impressions”, each one of which is unitary. He accepted this notion of discrete or atomic sensations, which is the inevitable upshot of the process starting from the Cartesian dichotomy of Mind and Extension. Mind, examining, not the world as it finds it, but its own impressions of the world, can only discover first one and then another. How from these can it build up that continuous and coherent world of which it is in fact conscious? Hume with relentless self-consistency declared that this occurred through the association of impressions, which occurred according to discoverable laws of association of impressions. This led in due course to Bain’s associative Psychology and Bradley’s annihilation thereof by ridicule. But Kant could only answer Hume by transferring the principles of association from the impressions themselves to the mind which received them. In the very act of perception, according to Kant, the mind organises its inherently discrete or atomic sensations by means of its own Forms of Space and Time and of its own Categories of Quantity, Quality, Causality and Modality. But the sensations so organised are set up in the mind by Things in Themselves which do not come under this organising control of Mind and its furniture. Knowledge therefore is of phenomena only, that is, of sensations or impressions as organised by Understanding in the very act of perception. Its relation to Things-in-Themselves remains wholly indeterminate, and they remain wholly unknowable. The Mind is also possessed of certain Ideas which refer to what lies beyond actual or possible human experience. These are called Ideas of Reason, and they have a certain regulative value but they are not principles of knowledge. Hume stated that he could not be consistent with his sceptical philosophy in practice; Kant required belief in God, Freedom and Immortality as “postulates of Practical Reason”. Is there not substantial truth in the epigram that “what Hume gave to Kant as a problem Kant handed back unchanged as the solution”? And as it was more a problem than a solution, Hume’s position is more defensible than Kant’s.

More defensible; but not more tolerable. For though Kant accepted the false starting-point, and tried to solve the problem by setting out from both ends of the road at once instead of standing in the middle and setting out in both directions from there, yet by devising the critical method he gave us the instrument we need. For so soon as he has left behind the attempt actually to construct a continuous world out of atomic sensations, and is busy with the principles on which the continuous world is actually constructed—even though it be in his view a world of mere phenomena—he breaks new ground not only, and indeed not so much, in his conclusions, but in the more fundamental and fruitful realm of method. He does not proceed either deductively or inductively, but critically; that is to say, he interrogates the conditions of experience in general to ascertain the principles presupposed in its possibility. The universality of causation is not, for him, an inductive inference from the frequent observance of causal sequence; it is found to be the presupposition of all rational experience. It is ascertained by the process called transcendental deduction. This is not in the least like deduction of the syllogistic type; yet it is deduction, because it makes the object of enquiry dependent on something wider, and in that sense more universal, than itself, namely, rational experience. Kant knew that he was introducing a novelty; how new, or how deeply significant it was, he could not know. But in the critical method of Kant was supplied the true substitute for that scholastic Logic which had both guided and cramped thought for centuries, and which the Cartesian philosophers had discarded without providing any substitute.

The question of Logic and its claims will occupy us in the next Lecture. Before we leave the consideration of the Lutheran and Cartesian “antithesis” we must try to appreciate its merits so that these may be incorporated into the “synthesis” which we must endeavour to construct. We have already associated the names of Luther and Descartes, and that association is neither superficial nor accidental. Both express one great principle—the principle of “Private Judgement”. This is the essential principle in that movement of the spirit in a great section of mankind which is generally referred to as the Reformation. It was preceded and accompanied by the Renaissance, which displayed the same temper of individualism, but never grasped this as a principle. The men of the Renaissance behaved individualistically; but they were not sufficiently in earnest, nor did they meet with sufficient resistance, to feel the necessity of bringing out into clear light the principle of their action. That came first when Luther set his conscience against the whole authority of the organised Catholic Church in one of the most splendid and decisive moments of history.

It is always to be remembered that what the Reformers taught was not so much the Right, but rather the Duty, of Private Judgement. Certainly it is true that no seriously minded person can suppose that all individuals are in every sense at liberty to think what they like. What this great principle affirms is the obligation upon every rational intelligence to master his own experience as fully as he can. This may lead to some harmonious unity at the end of a long process; but it is inevitably productive of disruption and division by the way. And the chief characteristic of the modern or post-Reformation period has been departmentalisation. The great enterprise of all-inclusive unity, which was characteristic of the Middle Ages, was progressively abandoned. Machiavelli, as has already been mentioned, proclaimed the independence of Politics; the hope of unity was most easily abandoned in that sphere because it had been so little fulfilled. The declaration of independence was next issued in the name of religion. Art was increasingly emancipating itself by the setting of mythology alongside of Scripture as a store-house of themes. Shakespeare, the culmination of the English Renaissance, is scarcely touched in his artistic apprehension of the world by any religious dogma. Science was breaking loose and in Francis Bacon found an influential if not very profound apologist. And Philosophy in Descartes attempted to reach certainty by an all-embracing experiment in doubt. What has been the result for mankind?

In the sphere of Politics the unmitigated assertion of national independence led to the fuller development of the various national types, with consequent enrichment of the art and literature of the world, and to local experiments of universal value in the making of constitutions and in the relations between political and social life. But it also led through various instances of national self-assertion to the international Hell or Bedlam of the years 1914 to 1918 from which we are now struggling to emerge. The check which it might have been hoped that Religion would exercise could not be applied, for Religion also had become departmentalised, and was by most people regarded as a “private affair between a man and his Maker”, so that its main if not its only concern was with personal piety. But in reaching this position it laid a new emphasis on the personal element in all true religion, and while it cannot be said to have initiated a deeper devotion than had already been attained by innumerable saints, yet it occasioned a far more widespread appreciation of personal devotion as the heart and mainspring of religion. The characteristic Evangelical doctrines and modes of apprehension were not new in themselves, but they were new as widely pervasive forces in popular religion. Art in like manner became incapable of permeating life with Beauty because it had adopted the principle of “Art for Art’s sake”. This is, perhaps, the most refined form of the principle of departmentalism which finds its grossest expression in the formula “Business is business” and its most immoral in “My country, right or wrong”. It was proclaimed as a real emancipation, and asserted the truth that Beauty is an ultimate, and that neither theological, nor political, nor ethical canons are relevant to purely aesthetic questions. This needed to be established. And the enrichment of art in all its forms resulting from this emancipation is unquestionable. But the formula “Art for Art’s sake”, in which the movement of emancipation ultimately found expression, is an exaggeration as false and pernicious as the contrary error. It expresses a complete detachment of Art from all other interests or modes of experience so that artists, under its impulse, are liable to become engrossed in self-expression without any enquiry whether they have a self which is worthy, or even fit, to be expressed.

Philosophy meanwhile has been involved in the same process. Inasmuch as every particular study or pursuit of knowledge is the subject of a special science, Philosophy has been left with the study of knowledge in general, and has been in preposterous disproportion occupied with the enquiry whether and how Knowledge may be possible at all.8 Mankind, being quite well aware that it possesses some fragments of what is Knowledge if such a thing exists and must pass for Knowledge if it does not, leaves Philosophy to spin its cobwebs and gets on with the business of the world as best it may.

Philosophy also has long ago set about its escape from the sterility of departmentalism, and the series of Gifford Lectures is evidence that the deliverance has been effected. Yet, though the repudiation of the Lutheran and Cartesian standpoint has often been vigorously expressed, this has seldom carried with it the clear consciousness that this repudiation marks the close of a philosophic epoch. This consciousness is vividly present, however, in Baron von Hügel, and especially in The Reality of God, a volume which consists in its first half of disjecta membra of the Gifford Lectures that he did not live to complete. There is evidence that von Hügel meant this repudiation to be his starting-point, for in commenting on Spinoza he writes as follows:

“There never was, and I cannot think there ever will be again, a more detestably inappropriate form for what Spinoza meant to say, indeed for what at its best he really says, than all that mathematical, indeed geometrical form and procedure which masks the actual facts for all concerned. This perverse choice of his is, nevertheless, most natural, and most legitimate if clear chains of reasoning are held to be our only means of knowledge: and this is, of course, his fundamental assumption—the outlook tends to be Cartesian from beginning to end, and suffers from all the incompleteness and lop-sidedness of Descartes’ own outlook as we found this outlook to be in our first section.”9

That “first section” does not appear among these disjecta membra. In the second section of the same volume, however, we find a passage which shows what the course of its argument would have been:

“Modern philosophy started with a strong emphasis upon the subject, and this starting-point was first impressively articulated in Descartes’ famous (but, alas, dangerously inadequate) fundamental formula—his one axiom—‘cogito, ergo sum’. We thus take for granted, as rock-certain, what is demonstrably non-existent: ‘I think’ instead of ‘I think such and such realities’, or at least, ‘I think such and such objects’. The subject and object, always interconnected in man’s actual experience and hence to be assumed in this their interconnexion, were thus severed from each other, in the very starting-point of philosophy; and then this severance and quite artificial separateness could hardly any more be bridged over—the object could hardly be recovered, since man (after all) is in fact restricted, and is here rightly recognised as restricted, to the analysis of what actually exists, and to what he really experiences. The appeal here to its experience and to its analysis was, then, right; what was wrong was the exclusion, before any and all investigation, and without any justification, of one entire third of every living experience. For all experience is always threefold: it is always simultaneously experience of the subject, of the object, and of the overbridging thought; indeed, clear consciousness always first concerns the object, and only much later on the subject. And thus, through that artificial abstraction, there promptly arose such sheer figments of the brain as knowledge, not of objects at all, but of subjective states alone; and (stranger still) knowledge that objects exist, and that they all have an inside, but an inside which is never actually revealed to us by the qualities of those objects; and (culminating miracle of strangeness) that this inside abides ever essentially unknowable by us, and yet, all the same, we absolutely know that it contradicts all these appearances. Man thus, though well within the universe, isolates himself from it; he imprisons himself in his own faculties, and, as to anything further, knows only that objects exist as to which these faculties essentially and inevitably mislead him.
“Here no criticism of the logic of the position is sufficient; indeed, such criticisms mostly end by bearing unwilling, or even unwitting, testimony to the general self-consistency of this subjectivism. Only a criticism, not of the conclusions as consistent or not with their premises, but of these premises as adequate or not to real experience, is sufficient.”10

Return to the concrete richness and bewildering variety and still more bewildering interconnexion of actual experience must be the mode of deliverance from that false scent on which Descartes set the modern mind in its search for truth. It is not a return to the Middle Ages that we want. It is not desirable any more than it is possible to put back the clock. Those are not wise guides, I am very sure, who wish to cultivate a mediaeval mentality on the ground that we need to recover the mediaeval sense alike of objectivity and of unity. It is our task consciously and deliberately to construct a “synthesis” of the classical and mediaeval “thesis” with the modern “antithesis”, and this in some fundamental respects will resemble the “thesis” more closely than the “antithesis”. But it will not leave the “antithesis” unexpressed; we cannot go behind the Reformation—that great bouleversement of human thinking, wherein it was for the first time fully recognised that each man is by nature the centre of his own universe, however true it be that his most urgent need is to discover that it does not revolve about him as its pivot. The “duty of private judgement”, the autonomy of the individual conscience, the integrity of the individual mind—all these which find their basis in the proclamation of personal sincerity as the fundamental human excellence—not the highest but the most basic—are realities discovered in the period of departmentalism and never again to be forgotten.

The incorporation of all that men have learnt during the four centuries of the Reformation period into a reconstituted unity of articulated experience must be a task of many generations. There is hardly any department of human activity or thought which it will leave unaffected. But none is so deeply concerned as Religion; for, as has been said, the central element in any authentic religious experience is Authority, and at first sight there is a complete antagonism between the very principle of Authority and the principle of individual integrity and autonomy. With that problem we shall have to deal at length later on. But the clue to its solution will be found in a fresh recognition of the essential nature of Authority as distinct from either coercion or dictation,11 and in the appreciation of man’s ethical problem as primarily one of conversion and vocation.12 In short the restoration of unity to man’s experience depends mainly on securing at once the supremacy of Religion among human interests, and the true spirituality of Religion both in itself and in the mode of its supremacy.

  • 1. Discours de la Méthode: Deuxième Partie.
  • 2. Discours de la Méthode: Quatrième Partie.
  • 3. A. Boyce Gibson, The Philosophy of Descartes, p. 83.
  • 4. Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act IV. Sc. 1.
  • 5. Of course this is rough and ready. I do not wish to suggest an ultimate distinction between “fact” and “theory”; but there is a clear provisional distinction; e.g. there was a “theory” that all swans are white until some one came across the “fact” of black swans.
  • 6. Not all circular argument is vicious. Cf. Mens Creatrix, pp. 15–23.
  • 7. “This presupposition that what is known exists independently of being known is quite general. … It is, therefore, unnecessary to consider whether idealism is assisted by the supposition of a non-finite knowing mind, correlated with reality as a whole. For reality must be equally independent of it. Consequently, if the issue between idealism and realism is whether the physical world is or is not dependent on the mind, it cannot turn upon a dependence in respect of Knowledge.”—Prichard, Kant’s Theory of Knowledge, pp. 118, 119.
  • 8. “It was the most unfortunate error of the Scottish philosophers that they identified the epistemological with the metaphysical problem.”—A. S. Pringle-Pattison, The Balfour Lectures on Realism, 1931, p. 256.
  • 9. Op. cit. p. 100.
  • 10. Op. cit. pp. 188, 189.
  • 11. See Lecture XIII.
  • 12. See Lectures XV. and XVI.
From the book: