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Chapter 3: The Philosophy of Action

I. PRAGMATISM — The scientific concept as hypothetical imperative; the pragmatistic notion of truth.

II. THE IDEA OF A PHILOSOPHY OF HUMAN ACTION — Science, the creation of man's activity — Religion, the realisation of the human soul's deepest want — Dogmas as purely practical truths — Religion and Science correspond to the distinction between the source and the means of action.

III. CRITICAL REMARKS — Difficulties inherent in the concept of pure activity — Necessity of a strictly intellectual principle for science and for religion itself.

IV. TO constitute a theory of the first principles of intellectual and of moral life, had been the aim of Descartes, and he believed that he could find in reason the common source of all truths—not only those relating to science, but those of a practical and even religious nature. If his rationalism has been shown inadequate, can we not, nevertheless, recover his intention through substituting, for reason properly so called (i.e. the specifically intellectual faculty), activity, which philosophy since the time of Descartes has, more and more, presented in its originality and value? Would not the Philosophy of Action enable us to see religion and science derived, in the human mind, from a common source?



It is an idea now grown familiar to scientists, that the mind takes an active part in the production of science. But, in saying this, they usually mean that the discovery of truth calls upon the mind for effort and inventiveness, for the intelligent use of all the resources at its disposal. They are not prepared to assert that science per se, science as constituted once for all, is merely a mode of human activity. Justified by facts, an hypothesis becomes law. The way in which the mind discovered this law has, hence-forward, no more than an historical interest.

For the philosophers with whom we are now dealing, on the contrary, the mind considered in its activity is not only the agent of science: it is veritably the subject and the substance thereof.

This point of view is found to-day—maintained in an original manner—among the adherents of a famous philosophical school styling itself Pragmatistic.

According to the Pragmatists,1 not only does science assume an incessant contribution by the active mind which looks at things from its own standpoint and creates symbols adapted to its use; but she is predisposed to action, and has no other aim than to promote action. Go back to the origin of scientific concepts: always you will find that they denote methods to be followed in order to, lead up to the appearance of such or such phenomenon, in order to obtain such or such result. They are rules with regard to action, hypothetical imperatives: outside this signification, they have no real content. A proposition which does not engender practical consequences has no meaning. Two propositions which do not lead to a difference in the way of acting, present nothing but a verbal difference.

To say that the signification of scientific formulæ is purely practical, is to say that these formulæ refer, not to the past, but to the future. Science considers the past merely with a view to the future. She tells us what we must expect if we perform such or such act; what sensations will be produced within us, if, actually, we experience such or such sensation.

In this way is reached the pragmatistic idea of truth. Truth is not the agreement of our conceptions with such or such part of a whole, given to us ready-made, and answering to the name of world: it is, purely and simply, the service that a conception can render us, if we purpose such and such result. Truth stands for verifiability, and verifiability means aptness in guiding us through experience.

The truth of a conception, then, is never certain till after the event. And a demonstrated truth can only, even when it is direct, have unerring reference to the past, not to the future.

That is not all. Science not only aims at action, but is herself action, efficacious and creative power. Is this future, the goal of her inductions, predetermined? Is it our ignorance alone which hinders us from predicting it infallibly? The rationalists affirm this. For them, “reality is ready-made and complete from all eternity.”According to a well-known formula, the present is charged with the past and big with the future. Quite different is the stand-point of the pragmatists. They believe that reality is, in fact, “ still in the making,”and that the future is not predetermined in the present. And, among the causes which create the future, they put in the first rank science herself, seeing that, free and human she enjoins on Nature effects which the latter, by herself, would not produce.

Still further, the belief which, in our consciousness accompanies ideas, the faith in the realisation of an event, is, itself, according to the pragmatists, a factor in that realisation. Faith can create its own experimental verification, and become true through its very action.

And faith is not, in the human soul, a state that is superadded from without, and withdrawn from the influence of the will. Doubtless, it is not in our power to adopt any belief whatsoever. But life lays before us alternatives in which the choice, so far from being prescribed by the intellect, would be impossible if we were tied down to purely intellectual reasons. Religious problems, taken in their essential and practical meaning, illustrate this. Are human society, the world, the universe something foreign to me of which I speak as That; or, are they so nearly related that I can address them as Thou? My conduct will differ entirely, according as I shall decide in the one or in the other sense; and the decision clearly depends upon my will. It rests with me to believe or not to believe in my duty towards others and towards the world, and, consequently, to modify, or leave just as it is, the course of events.

Truth itself is, therefore, in a measure, something that cannot be defined—a human product, not only because it is man who has created knowledge, but because the very object of knowledge, viz. existence (of which knowledge is, seemingly, only an effect or a representation), far from being a thing ready-made from all eternity, is constantly being made by the action of the concrete beings which are its substance, and, in particular, by human action, which is grounded precisely on knowledge and on belief.


The Idea of a Philosophy of Human Action

It would be difficult to arrive at a more penetrating and a more ingenious exposition as regards the part of action in science, than that which the representatives of pragmatism have given. But we must ask if the character and significance of this same action do not remain in this doctrine (at least when it is considered apart) somewhat indeterminate: such an inference would seem, already, to follow from the great variety of thinkers who range themselves, or are ranged by critics generally, under the name of pragmatists.

An idea, a true belief, we are told, is a belief at once verifiable, beneficial, efficacious—a belief which pays. But the meaning of the word “pay”varies to an unlimited extent. One man accepts payment in hard cash alone. A Newton desires to be paid in generalisations which shall reduce to unity the laws of the universe. The former demands of science material enjoyment. The latter expects from her the pride of knowing and the supreme joy of penetrating the structure of things. Another man calls beneficial that which favours peace of mind or moral power, or harmony of ideas, or the expansion and development of existence, or the realisation of a society, at once united and free, cherishing the ideal aims of humanity. Not one of these views is excluded by pragmatism: not one is logically enjoined by it. It is a method rather than a doctrine; a determination as regards the relation of theory to practice, rather than a theory of practice itself. Hence pragmatism, as such, does not exhaust the idea of the Philosophy of Action.

Anxious to arrive at a more complete realisation, a certain number of thinkers endeavour to show, lying at the root of science, not only a general predisposition towards efficacy and practice, but action in the full sense of the word—action with the positive marks which distinguish it from simple intervention in the course of phenomena, and which alone constitute it veritable action.

The doctrines which spring from this thought are, it must be confessed, very divergent, and, in order to understand them in their precision, we must study them separately. They have, at least, one common tendency which it is not impossible to make clear.

So far as it relates to science, this tendency is as follows:

When we argue, say the representatives of a philosophy widely circulated in recent years,2 that the postulates, principles and definitions of science are mere agreements, the outcome of an arbitrary choice, we mean that—occasioned, suggested perhaps by experience—they neither are nor can be prescribed by it. Between experience and the concepts that we employ with a view to its scientific interpretation, there is solution of continuity. But it does not follow that these concepts are artificial inventions. The determination which is only furnished very incompletely by things, has its final reason in the mind itself which imagines hypotheses, which constructs definitions. It is not chance, it is not any casual activity, which effects scientific method: it is a definite activity, capable of being specified.

In the first place, the ideas by means of which science is framed, are genuine inventions. They are not merely contingent: they are well founded, they are fruitful, they have that intrinsic value which distinguishes the creations of genius from the caprices of imagination. And these inventions are produced throughout with a richness, a variety, an inexhaustible novelty. Each of them struggles for continuance, becomes modified, is adapted to the progress of knowledge, and only succumbs in order to call forth new inventions. Through such indications we recognise the action of a real being which strives to establish itself, to subsist, to develop itself, to obtrude itself. What is the nature of this being? It is shown in the end, with respect to which all these creations are conceived.

The endeavour of the mind to adapt its ideas to the facts yielded by experience, is set forth with insistence, and rightly so. Modern science aims at taking possession of the real world, being dissatisfied with the sterile contemplation of an imaginary world, But we should deceive ourselves if, adopting this standpoint, we believed that we could eliminate the human philosophy of the Platos and of the Aristotles which seeks to fashion the sensible world, wherein our intellect cannot recognise itself, into a world that shall be intelligible.

Scientific hypotheses tend, in a general way, to put into the world unity, or simplicity, or continuity. These distinctive marks are not facts of observation: they appear, at first, as the opposite of reality. They are even difficult to reconcile among themselves. For, since we are given the infinite multiplicity of the parts composing our world, the search for unity implies that all these parts act and react upon one another: such an assumption seems, of necessity, to involve an inextricable complexity. Similarly, in seeking continuity, we find ourselves discarding a simplicity that is far better ensured by a plurality of categories radically distinct from one another.

What, then, are these ends which science pursues, if not laws that the mind enjoins on things, because, being moulded in a certain way, it cannot assimilate them as they are presented by brute experience?

But unity, simplicity, continuity, constitute what we term intelligibility. It is not, therefore, any chance life of mentality which is manifested in scientific invention: it is the special life of an intelligence, of a reason, which has in it a certain standard of intelligibility.

Is this all that can be said; and is reason merely the drudge of science? Has the labour that she accomplishes, any aim external to herself? Is she solely bent on practice, using the word in its utilitarian sense?

It would seem difficult to deny the existence, in humanity, of a disinterested science, or—if the statement be preferred—of a science whose supreme interest lies in scientific research. Numerous, even to-day, are the scientists (inheritors of Greek thought) who would say, with Aristotle, science for the sake of science: “All occupations are more necessary than that of the scientist, but not one of them is better.”

It will be objected that these thinkers convert the means into an end. That may be so. But this transposition, which is regarded as erroneous, is a great law of nature, and one of the sources of its fecundity. Although matter may be means with reference to life, nature displays it as if it were an end in itself. Animal instinct, which serves man as means only, is, for the animal, an end. The richness of human development is due to the fact that each individual, through a peculiar estimate of his métier, believes that this métier is the highest and noblest end of all. What is beauty, save certain aspects of things, set aside and developed for their own sake? What is play, save the pure and simple exercise of our faculties, considered as an end in itself? What does it matter, after all, if we consider a thing, in origin and according to historical evolution, as end or as means? The appreciation of the value attaching to things does not depend upon their teleological rôle. If man intends to place science above what is useful, or to decree that science is, itself, the supreme utility, how can we show him that he is wrong? In considering the practical judgments of men, we must admit that they love to unsettle, in this way, the given order of means and of ends, and to establish as the supreme thing that which, originally, was only a secondary and inferior object. And nearly everything that is new and great begins thus.

Science, moreover, detached from utility properly so called, is not, by virtue of that alone, transformed into an absolute end. It furnishes the means requisite for the development of reason; and reason—as Descartes taught—in order to exist, to develop and to be determined according to its nature, must be fed on truths. Like everything that exists, reason is to be found only as operating, as growing through her own method even; and it is by the aid of science (her most perfect intellectual method) that she puts forth the intellectual powers which lie within her.

Accordingly, science is not a work of nature, merely providing a field for consciousness; it is not, further, a simple provision of receipts, indicating utility as the sole ground of existence. It is a determinate activity—the specifically human activity in so far as it is reasonable and intelligent. And what has been said about science applies equally to languages. As M. Bréal3 has ingeniously demonstrated, languages do not exist in the sense of having their principle of existence and of evolution outside the human mind. We recognise in the human mind, in the intelligence and the will, the only true cause of language; and language cannot be detached therefrom, because there is no life in it other than that which it derives from this same mind.

While certain scientists thus exhibit science as immanent in the intelligent activity of man, a corresponding doctrine has been put forward in regard to religion.4

Religion is often presented as a system of beliefs and of precepts imposed on man from without. It is shown, more or less rationally, that such an authority has genuine grounds, that it enjoins the profession of a particular creed, and the fulfilment of particular practices; moreover, religion is made to consist entirely in obedience to this authority.

But—say the philosophers with whom we are here concerned—while admitting that these demonstrations are forcible, and that the articles of faith, thus imposed, offer the mind a sufficiently clear meaning, seeing that belief has to do with ideas rather than with words, how can we be sure that these beliefs and these rites will constitute for man a religion, in the sense given by conscience (Christian conscience and tradition in particular) to that word? Religion abides within the soul: it is a supernatural life. There are not two existences—the one beside the other, and independent of one another—for that would mean two distinct persons: it is the individual himself, preserving his identity when the manner of his life is infinitely raised. How could beliefs have such an effect, if they had no intrinsic connection with the nature of the subject? It is not inconceivable that a belief of this kind—even logically based—concerns man's heart and conscience as little as belief in the principle of Archimedes, or in universal gravitation. If religious beliefs were only logical beliefs, the acts that we term religious would be, for man, merely external movements in which his soul would have no share.

But, we may contend, man is finite, fallible, inclined to evil; and religion ought to be the action of God working within him for his transformation. How are we to find in Nature herself a religious tendency? For the finite being there is only one fitting attitude in the presence of the Infinite, viz. obedience. Or forsooth, do we desire that the finite, of itself, should comprehend and include the Infinite? That would only be rendered possible through identity. In maintaining such a view, we fall into the abyss of Pantheism.

This way of reasoning, reply the philosophers of action, would be plausible if man were nothing but understanding. For the understanding, indeed, the relations of things are replaced by those of their concepts; and it is very true that, after all, concepts only admit relations of inclusion or of exclusion. From the intellectualist's standpoint, if God and man are not identical, they must necessarily be external to one another. And on this supposition, the moment that Pantheism is set aside, religion can only be, for man, a compulsion imposed from without.

But man is not only understanding; he is yet again—and more immediately—activity, or rather action, i.e. constant movement towards an object which he desires to possess as calculated to support and enlarge his being. Now, does it not seem that we could find, in the conditions of properly human action, this special immanence of the supernatural in the natural—union without absorption—which religion claims, and which the understanding is unable to prove?

The action which is here in question is, properly speaking, the action of the will, or action par excellence.

According to the new Philosophy of Action, if only man wills explicitly that which he wills implicitly, i.e. if he gets a clear idea of the end whither his will naturally tends, and if he is seriously determined to realise that end, he will understand that he has need of God, of the Supernatural, in order to accomplish his own will.

What is action? Shall we say that a man acts, that he acts in his capacity as man, just in so far as he displays vigour, and seeks to convert external objects to his own use? For action an end is needful; and this end, in order to exist, in order to lead to a veritable action, must be something else than what Nature is able to realise with her mechanical laws. He who acts, looks forward and upward. The laws and the knowledge of given conditions he regards as merely instruments for the realisation of something new and better than what Nature would effect.

What does man really wish? What is the initial will that gives the impetus to his entire moral and intellectual being? It is in the determination of this initial will that lies the main problem of human life.

Action aims at the realisation of a purpose. Perfect action will be that wherein the power shall appear as equal to the wish. But let us consider the various modes of human—purely human—action: scientific activity, individual action, social action, action that is purely and simply moral. Not one of them admits of that equality which we are seeking.

Science implies a determinism which only conceives itself as posited freely by a mind which dominates it. Self, society, humanity, certainly offer man aims which respond to the leanings of his will. But it is impossible for him to pursue these aims reflectively without wishing to transcend them, without declaring that they lead him, whatever may come of it, to seek something beyond.

And thus action reveals to man the presence within him of an initial will, superior to every will that is limited to the things of this world.

Thenceforward an alternative is laid down for his conscience. If he merely acquiesces in willing that which is given him by experience, his will necessarily remains unsatisfied and impotent. But if, disengaging his actual will from objects which cannot satisfy he regulates it by that ideal will which surpasses it no less than the whole of nature, we then perceive that he may be able to obtain that equilibrium of will and power which is the utmost limit of his aspiration. Either will without power, or power through renouncing, in a sense, his will; such is the alternative. It raises in his mind the idea of a being at once transcendent and immanent in regard to man: immanent, seeing that it is his will and his first impulse; transcendent, seeing that it is not given, and cannot be given, in the objective world wherein his understanding confines him. Here is to be found the veritable supernatural: life, power, being, required by human action—something, moreover, that human action, by itself, is incapable of realising.

Between the two terms of this alternative, choice is necessary, inevitable. All action, indeed, implies it. And this choice, the terms of the problem being given, can only be an act of faith, of hope and of love, i.e. the very act which forms the basis of religious life.

In this manner the strictly religious need is referred to the essential conditions of human action. It is no longer a mere subjective datum, which analysis, perhaps, may be able to dissolve and to deprive of its prestige: it is, besides being the condition of human action, the condition of all knowledge, of all consciousness—therefore, in the long run, of all facts, in so far as we relate them to existence and apprehend them as realities.

But religions do not consist solely in this secret revelation of the self: they are presented under the form of dogmas, which set before the mind precise and special objects of belief, whence proceed determinate rites. What is the origin and significance of these dogmas?5

If they had to be considered as knowledge, in the full and scientific meaning of the word, they would not take precedence of reason, in particular of modern science and thought.

A dogma, in the strictly theoretical sense, is a proposition which gives itself out as undemonstrable. Now, the theoretical reason only allows that which is demonstrated or demonstrable to some extent. Shall we say that dogmas are demonstrated according to the method of authority? But does not modern science make a special point of repudiating the method of authority?

A dogma is, in the second place, a proposition that is incapable, even as regards statement, of being placed on a level with clear and distinct conception. Certainly, its titles and definitions are determinate, settled, fixed; and it is this which presents to the mind the illusion of knowledge. But who can express, in really intelligible terms, what he means by the Divine Personality, by the action of grace within the human soul? Who can say, so as to satisfy his own intelligence, what he means by God?

Magst Priester oder Weise fragen,

Und ihre Antwort scheint nur Spott

Über den Frager zu sein.6

Lastly, if we must accept dogmas literally, why shut our eyes to evidence? They are, taken thus formally irreconcilable with science.

For all these reasons, the question henceforward resolves itself into these terms: either dogmas will decay, or they will be understood in a sense other than the strictly theoretical sense.

Does the search for a dogmatic significance which may not be essentially theoretical, constitute a daring enterprise—the substitution of a new standpoint for that which tradition has bequeathed?

According to our authors, it is proved by the actual analysis of dogmas, and by the study of their history, that they do not give themselves out as knowledge, above all as positive and adequate knowledge. Their signification is, pre-eminently, negative: “Non hoc a me, Fratres, expectatis,” says St. Augustine, “ut explicem vobis quomodo cognoscat Deus. Hoc solum dico: Non sic cognoscit ut homo.”

How are we to take, as positive, clear and distinct, the concept of the Divine Personality? The combination of these two words throws the mind into an abyss of difficulties. This dogma says clearly that God cannot be conceived as a thing, as analogous to those objects which we know through the senses. Adopting the statement of St. Thomas—whose faith, after all, was cramped within Scholastic formalism—dogmas describe divine things negatively, via remotionis: setting aside those determinations which are unfitting.Does this mean that being is therein simply conceived as tantamount to nothingness—a conception which would only give rise to an abstract affirmation, devoid of real import? The vague and the indefinable, taught Leibnitz, do not signify nullity; and it is perfectly legitimate to suppose that we have some effective idea of a thing, although we may not be able to grasp it distinctly in thought—especially when we have to do with objects which, in essence, exceed the framework of our concepts. We live, in fact, by concepts that we only understand dimly. They precede and guide both action and scientific investigation itself; the latter, after all, is nothing else than an endeavour to reduce them to distinct ideas.

Considered from the practical and moral standpoint, dogmas become, once again, clear and positive. What is the Divine Personality? Having regard to the understanding, I can make no answer. But I can grasp immediately such a precept as this: Behave in your relations with God as in your relations with a person.7

If a dogma is, before all else, a practical precept, it does not follow that the theoretical forms under which dogmas are usually presented to men, are contemptible or indifferent.

These forms are necessary: human action is not cut off from thought, any more than true thought is separable from action. The action which is the cause of dogma is thought-action, i.e. action united to an idea which, by reason of being vague (as it inevitably must be, through the disproportion of its object to our understanding), is no less an outline of intellectual intuition, an incentive to thought, a source of conceptions and representations. Dogma is not, therefore an exclusively practical proposition: it contains a theoretical element. Even within man's spirit, the letter has power.

Now, it is natural and expedient that the letter be brought out and developed.

Pure intuition, stripped of all representation, is imperceptible for consciousness, and incommunicable. Language with its infinite efflorescence, science with its system of symbols, our external world itself with the various relations of which it is composed, are only signs adopted by man for the purpose of noting his impressions and communicating them to his fellows. And all thought leads to expression, all activity is productive of forms.

Thus, from dogma itself radiate forms calculated to fix it before the mind, and to furnish man with the means of making it a subject of discussion.

And, in accordance with the fundamental law of knowledge, these forms, in order to realise the intelligibility and communicability of which they ought to be the instruments, are adapted to the categories actually present in the minds which receive them. We may say of the mind what we say of the body: it is fed only upon substances which can become its own substance.

That is why, in the speculative theories with which dogmas are enveloped in order to become imaginable and intelligible, one recognises, from age to age, the scientific and philosophical ideas which represent the successive states of human wisdom. How can we reproach man with consecrating to the service of God the choicest productions of which his intelligence is capable?

he history of dogmas, nevertheless, serves to remind him that the divine law is essentially practical, and that the meaning concealed within it transcends absolutely all the illustrations and explanations that man may attempt to offer. Intellectual study which, in its very essence, is relative to the conditions of intelligibility in a given society, can do no more, with respect to religious dogmas, than furnish symbols, i.e. a language always useful, always perfectible and provisional.

In this manner have been constituted, in our day, by parallel paths rather than by common consent, a philosophy of science and a philosophy of religion—both of them founded upon the conditions of human action. If we compare these two philosophies, we find that their agreement is sufficient to admit of their being combined into one whole under the title of the Philosophy of Action.

On two sides the notion of life is considered as fundamental. On two sides life, becoming conscious of itself, is expressed through symbols which the understanding creates—forms at once stable and variable, analogous to the provisionally fixed types which mark the stages of evolution in Nature.

It is, moreover, a single life, human life in so far as it is special and superior, which is, on either side, the end to be realised. The Philosophy of Action is thus, as it were, the common stem from which branch off science and religion. Their distinction is explained, accordingly, as well as their connection. For human activity properly so called has two essential forms: the activity of the intellect and the activity of the will. Science is the expansion of the first; religion, the full realisation of the second. However incommensurable may be the world (the object of science) and God (the object of religion), they are reunited in man, whose nature, in its unity, partakes of both.

This philosophy—so its representatives think—enables us to conceive the relation between religion and science in a more inward and spiritual way than was possible for the adherents of intellectualism.

Science furnishes man with the means of external action. Through her, he can translate his will into movements more and more adapted to impose it upon the material world.

But it is natural that human activity, endowed with such a power, should inquire into its own principle and end. It is through the raising of this question that a way is opened into the religious sphere. Religion is that higher wisdom which offers an end worthy of such an activity, and which communicates to it the secret power requisite for willing this end adequately and efficaciously.

In developing the idea of science and the idea of religion, the mind sees them, thereby, come together. The last word of science is the reduction of Nature to intelligible symbols, which place her at man's disposal. But, however exalted be the objects through which the universe is explained, they are conceived by man—they do not embrace man. Man, if he reflects, asks himself what they are worth—whether he ought to be absorbed in them or to make use of them. Man, particularly modern man, who has become keenly aware of the immensity of life, and, especially, of the splendours of moral and religious life, uses Ms intellect to examine the claims of the intellect itself. In the name of that secret import of truth which constitutes the ultimate ground of reason, he asks if the intellect, as it is realised in science, is sufficient in itself and satisfies his human sentiment. Now, to put such a question, is already to imagine the possibility of religion.

On her side, religion would have man be a co-worker with God. She does not, therefore, despise human faculties. She expects the human mind to apply its own language—the whole of the signs and forms at its disposal—to the expression, as profound, true and adequate as possible, of that which, in itself, altogether surpasses human language. More than this: religion has, evidently, not the sole intention of urging upon individuals a confined and solitary life. God has not withdrawn from the world: he carries on his work therein. Religion, therefore, calls upon man, by means of that science which brings him material power, to do his share in labouring for the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Thus understood, the relation between religion and science combines, according to the thinkers with whom we are dealing, two conditions which, contrary in appearance, are no less equally necessary: fundamental unity and respective independence.

That which constitutes the unity of science and of religion is human action, from which they both spring, and which finds in them the means of realising itself in all its fulness.

That which guarantees their independence is the general property, inherent in life, of allowing, simultaneously, different developments, which would appear incompatible if we judged them solely by the concepts which represent them. The contradictions which the analyst finds in the human heart, seem to him inexplicable. They are only contradictions from the logician's abstract point of view. In reality they are different manifestations of life. Life is bounteous and tends to bring into existence all that is capable of being. It would even appear that she delights in presenting the coexistence of extremes—what we call opposites.

Science and religion are two moments of human life. The one is that life in its expansion towards the external world; the other is that same life, turned, on the contrary, towards its own principle—towards the principle of all life, and drawing thence the power of reaching infinitely beyond itself. The difference between these two developments is such that they cannot in any way contradict one another. Each of them can, practically, be conceived as independent and autonomous.

Science and religion, it is true, necessarily meet on a common ground—that of the forms and concepts which correspond to natural facts. But, according to the Philosophy of Action, neither for religion nor yet for science, do these concepts constitute adequate expressions of the truth. Two systems with more or less different symbols are not an offence for the human mind, which accommodates itself to them, up to a certain point, even in science; and inquiry into the agreement of the symbols of religion with those of science can, in imitation of bygone times, be prosecuted again nowadays without religion having to sacrifice anything; just as the thought of an ancient author need not be modified in order to be given us translated into present speech, when the current translations have become unintelligible.


Critical Remarks

The Philosophy of Action is an effort well worthy of attention. It is an endeavour to find in consciousness, in being, as it is immediately given us, a principle more profound than the intellect, capable of removing the contrasts which the intellect leaves standing, and of procuring, in this way, the fundamental unity of the soul's various powers with their free and full development. This philosophy, still in its infancy, though it may have germinated under cover of the great classical systems, is destined, perhaps, to make much further progress. And, maybe, it will increasingly bring satisfaction to minds eager for knowledge as well as for wide, overflowing and generous life. Under its present form, it would seem to be only partially successful in solving the difficulties which have to be faced.

And, we may begin by asking, is the agreement which it establishes between science and religion, as real, as clearly denned, as would appear at first sight?

Activity, we are told, is the common origin of both. What activity is here in question?

Is it a bare and indeterminate activity? Then several questions are involved. Of what value is an indeterminate activity? How is such an activity to be distinguished from a mere power of change, or even from mechanical forces which produce aimless movements? The fact that a movement is accompanied by consciousness, does not suffice to constitute it a thing of supreme worth, capable of establishing both science and religion. If consciousness is, with respect to this activity, only a passive sensation and an epiphenomenon, its presence has a merely speculative interest.

We may, indeed, shun this difficulty through taking as our principle, no longer an indeterminate activity, but human activity as such, i.e. the determinate action that man ought to accomplish in order to be truly man, in order to carry out his human métier to the fullest extent. But then it would seem that we are only avoiding one obstacle to encounter another.

Human activity, we are told, has two determinations, two directions, viz. intellect and will. Through its development as intellect it produces science; through its realisation as will it leads to religion. The relation between religion and science is thus reduced to the relation between intellect and will. But, in that case, the difficulty is only changed. For the question of the relations between intellect and will—even when we consider both, not as ready-made faculties, but as real spiritual activities—remains obscure and subject to various solutions. And the dualism that we expected to surmount through transferring the problem from the sphere of concepts to that of action, may reappear with all its difficulties.

Whatever be the way in which the Philosophy of Action reconciles religion and science, can we say that this philosophy furnishes, henceforward, a true theory of each of them, taken apart?

The Philosophy of Action multiplies, in vain, analyses and clever arguments: it finds difficulty in persuading the scientists that science not only invents all the concepts, all the standards by which she encompasses phenomena, but fabricates phenomena themselves. Desirous, henceforth, of showing that all our knowledge is and must continue insuperably relative, science, on her part, readily multiplies the proofs of man's contingent intervention in all scientific achievement. But if the attempt is made to carry this demonstration to its furthest limit, and to infer that fact itself exists through human invention, she protests. It is just ‘because fact, in some way, is within us, while, at the same time, incommensurable with our definite standards, that we are compelled to put forth so much mental effort to determine it, and that the results obtained by us are never more than approximations, imperfect and provisional acquisitions.

On the other hand, as regards the work accomplished by the mind for the purpose of creating scientific symbols, the scientist is bound to admit that we have only to do, here, with purely arbitrary operations which, in the end, are merely conventional. These operations are determined by certain intellectual principles; they tend to bring within our knowledge things that are intelligible; they correspond to an ideal that we set before ourselves. They imply, in short, what we call reason, the sense of being, of order, of harmony.

That is why scientific pragmatism, when it comes to be developed, has ill success in maintaining its initial statements, but returns more or less to the affirmation of being, of reason, which formed the basis of the classic theory of science.

Still, it may be urged, who knows if objective reality itself may not be pure action, may not be fluid and essentially unstable continuity?

Modern evolutionary science is ready to face a reality of this kind. She will not, by way of discipline, renounce her idea of being, of fact and of objectivity. But she will strive, continuously, to verify and note the given state of things, then to bind together these successive states, according to laws. Unquestionably, experimental success is the sole criterion. But the scientist does not conclude thence that the future is partly indeterminate, and that he can himself, in reality, create the fact which will verify his conceptions. On the very ground of faith in the number of antecedents requisite for the production of the phenomenon, he maintains his deterministic standpoint, because he considers this faith, itself, as the outcome of laws.

What is this but to say that science, in proportion as she becomes more aware of her own conditions and activity, deviates from radical pragmatism and from the philosophy which places action before intellect instead of making it end there?

At all events, does religion, as the Philosophy of Action develops it, remain unchanged in essence?

It is assumed, at the outset, that everything which appeals to the understanding is an expression, a symbol, a vehicle of religion, but is not religion itself. According to this view, the religious sphere would be composed exclusively of practice, of life.

But, in reality, all feeling, all religious action involves ideas, concepts, theoretical knowledge. What will be left, when, from religion as it is given us, we shall have, actually, eliminated every intellectual element?

This argument is overlooked, however, and pragmatists demonstrate the existence, within the mind, of a principle distinct from thought, even as Diogenes demonstrated movement by the fact. Man acts, and action is irreducible to concept.

But what is this same action? For we must certainly have some idea of it, in order that we may discover therein the foundation of religion.

It is, acute philosophers tell us, human action in its widest meaning. It is not the particular operation of such or such faculty; it is man in his entirety, uniting all his powers in order to reach out towards his end. Truths that we have begun by making, in a sense, our life, through aiming at full self-realisation, become—discerned and elaborated by the understanding—doctrines and objects of belief.

Assuredly, it is the task of man to bring together and combine, in this way, all the powers which he has at command, in order to labour towards the fulfilment of his destiny. But the intellect, in this total operation, has no less share than the other faculties; and its role will necessarily consist in checking, by means of its concepts, the operation of the other faculties. We are no longer obliged, under this view, to regard practice as independent of theory.

Are we to infer, then, that the special operation of the will is meant? But the will requires an end; and can it be said that an intelligible formula is offered the mind in the suggestion of a will which takes itself for end—which has no object other than its own principle?

Throughout these ingenious theories, search is made for action as self-sufficing, and as not dependent upon any of the concepts by which we may endeavour to explain it or to justify it; pure action, action in itself—that is the aim.

What is this but to maintain that, whether we will or no, an indeterminate pragmatism again confronts us? We can speak of human pragmatism, if human action, taken in itself, be the supreme rule; of divine pragmatism, if divine action, conceived as outside all intellectual determination, is to be made the basis of human action.

Action existing solely for and through action; pure practice producing, maybe, concepts, but not depending, itself, upon any concept,—does such an abstract pragmatism still deserve the name of religion? And are we not involving ourselves in an endless process, when we try to find in practice, apart from theory, the essence and the only true principle of religious life?

Is it not when we connect a deed with a particular belief that we use the phrase: religious deed? Surely, what we call a symbol and a vehicle is, in some way, an integral part of religion?

  • 1.

    See William James, Pragmatism, New York, 1907; F. C. S. Schiller, “The Definition of Pragmatism and Humanism,”Mind, 1905; “Axioms as Postulates,”in Personal Idealism, edited by H. Sturt, London, 1902; Studies in Humanism, 1907; The Review Leonardo, Florence, editor, G. Papini.

  • 2.

    See Poincaré, Milhaud, Duhem, Le Roy, Hoeffdiug, etc.

  • 3.

    Essai sur la sémantiqus, Paris, 1897.

  • 4.

    Vide Maurice Blondel, L'Action, Paris, 1893.

  • 5.

    Vide Edouard Le Roy, Dogme et critique, Paris, 1907. Of. George Tyrrell, Fogazzaro.

  • 6.

    Goethe, Faust: Thou canst ask prieat and sage: their answer seems but a mockery to the questioner.

  • 7.

    Le Roy, Doyme et critique, p. 25.