There appeared in 1883 a volume entitled Essays in Philosophical Criticism, written by ten men who were then young. It was edited by Andrew Seth (Professor A. S. Pringle-Pattison) and R. B. Haldane (Viscount Haldane), and contained essays by Pringle-Pattison, my brother and myself, Bernard Bosanquet, W. R. Sorley, D. G. Ritchie, W. P. Ker, Henry Jones, James Bonar, and T. R. Kilpatrick. Its keynote was the importance of distinguishing, and not confusing, the fundamental conceptions or axioms applied in different branches of knowledge. The common bond between the writers was the influence of Kantian and post-Kantian philosophy as it had come to them through the teaching of Hutchison Stirling. Thomas Hill Green, Edward Caird, and F. H. Bradley. The book was dedicated to the memory of Green, who had recently died, and there was a preface by Caird.
I was still a medical student at the time, after an Arts course during which, owing mainly to my brother's influence, my chief interest was in philosophy; and I had already seen that the mechanistic biology, which was then everywhere in the ascendant, was as radically unsound as vitalistic biology. We said so in our essay, but could only give general reasons for our conclusion that the real axioms of biology are neither mechanistic nor vitalistic. The truth was that in matters of detail many of the available data were so vague and unsatisfactory that mechanistic interpretations of them, though certainly not of the most characteristic data, were at least plausible.
I found my opinions extremely unpopular among my scientific brethren when I duly became a physiologist. Knowing, however, the weight of philosophical reasoning behind me, and encouraged by my brother and other philosophical friends, I went onwards, and gradually got to grips, using accurate quantitative methods, with the physiology of respiration and other bodily activities. I also came into touch with the work of Claude Bernard and Paul Bert, and saw how far away it was really pointing from mechanistic interpretations, as, indeed, was nearly all the best physiological work of the time. Such general conclusions as I reached were embodied, partly in ordinary scientific papers, partly in occasional addresses, and in a short book Mechanism, Life, and Personality, first published in 1913. Another book, Respiration, published in 1922, contains an account of the experiments carried out on this subject at Oxford by my pupils and myself.
Work in Physiology and Medicine brought me into more intimate contact with the mechanistic and vitalistic or animistic interpretations of life and conscious behaviour than was the case with various of my philosophical friends, and showed me the necessity of getting to closer grips with the subject than German post-Kantian idealism had got. Deeply as I am indebted to post-Kantian idealism, my own standpoint must be described as realistic rather than idealistic, though to me there is nothing truer than Hegel's saying, which my brother often quoted, “Das Geistige allein ist das Wirkliche.”
In the first part of the present book, dealing with the axioms or general conceptions of different branches of knowledge or science, the keynote is the same as that of Essays in Philosophical Criticism. In the second part the different and apparently contradictory conceptions embodied in the Sciences and in Religion are discussed in their ultimate bearing on one another. The lecture form is retained, and the lectures are nearly as they were delivered, though they have all been revised carefully. I have tried to put into these lectures the matured conclusions of a scientific lifetime during which the philosophical questions raised by the Sciences have been constantly before me.
To the University of Glasgow I wish to express my very grateful appreciation of the honour it has done me by its invitation to give the Gifford Lectures for 1927–1928.
Oxford, December 1928.