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The Pathway to Reality

1902 to 1904
University of St. Andrews

Haldane was an enthusiastic proponent of Hegel (and his strong command of German meant a deep understanding of Hegel’s work). Like Hegel, he too was interested in accounting for the world as it seems and the nature of knowledge. So too is Haldane interested in the meaning and the nature of ultimate reality.

Haldane’s The Pathway to Reality, published in 1904, though, cannot be considered Hegelian. It is an original work that for Hegel has ‘too little stress on the abstract element in knowledge and on the dialectical character of knowledge as a system of universals’. Haldane begins with the mind, with its experience and its self-consciousness. Only by focusing on the actuality of what is singular and individual can the universal and particular, which can only emerge as abstractions, have reality. While abstract thought has no monopoly of the means of access to reality, Haldane believes it to ‘be the only competent guardian of the pathway’.

In his first book of lectures, Haldane focuses on the meaning of reality, the ‘Ultimate Reality’, and the way God is conceived. The former may bear no analogy to what is meant by God, but if God cannot be less than the Ultimately Real, a ‘good deal of what is obscure is got rid of at once’. Rejecting the conception of cause and defining God as substance, Haldane goes on to develop his thought that ‘mind, the subject, is not a thing operating as extra in the construction of experience’. Instead, he accepts that thought does not exist apart from its object. The universal exists in and though the particular. Then, having gotten rid of the ‘window’ theory of mind, Haldane inquires after the true nature of experience.

Experience in his view is to be conceived as a living and indivisible process in which ‘the activity of intelligence proceeds from the indefinite to the definite’. Here Haldane develops a key thought, that experience is the content of consciousness, that it is ‘permeated’ by the universals of thought, and that it has no meaning outside or apart from these universals. It is within these universals and in everyday experience that distinctions are framed and the meaning of reality found. Life must be taken as a whole and experience cannot be broken up. Intelligence is free and self-determining and this, in turn, directs experience: [T]he mind is free to choose its course of action.’

In his second book, Haldane discusses the method of scientific investigation and the relation to it of a criticism of categories. He focuses on the relation of externality between the individual object in nature and nature itself. Using the example of a tree as a thing in space, the author points out that momentarily, the tree as a living whole is shut out from view and, by abstraction, one regards it from another standpoint. Here the scientific investigation comes into play as an analysis is made of the mechanical arrangement in which the tree occupies a part of space, its parts are observed and its relationships of complete externality are properly conceived. Reflection carries one much further toward scientific knowledge.

Reflection begins with science and ends with psychology. In his final lecture, Haldane returns to individuality, pointing out that the individuality of a human being is ‘incapable of resolution into any single aspect’. The nature from which the individual has emerged expands itself in a contingency which is boundless and discloses itself at every turn as inexhaustible by the intelligence of the creature. The individual is a thinker, and in thinking of his own limits, he transcends them.

Transcendence, the absolute mind and the nature of God, becomes the focus of book three. If the ultimate reality is mind, then it will fail. ‘It is ends and not causes which fashion the universe, and thus we get to the conclusion that knowledge is relative.’ Here Haldane cautions the reader that ‘there is no warrant for the belief in any hidden thing-in-itself.’ The difficulty lies in the abstract aspects of nature which are contingent and foreign and cannot be fully comprehended by reason. Nature is rather unreal except when comprehended at a higher level of consciousness. This leads back ‘to the conception of God as the mind of which ours is a manifestation on a lower plane’. In this way, the author stresses that God’s nature cannot be of a quality less than the quality of ultimate reality and that ‘the metaphors and images of ordinary theology are wholly inadequate as a description of God’s nature’. Theology tries to bring one back to a commonplace view of God and away from metaphysics, where Haldane feels the search needs to be made. ‘God must be Mind. It was only after Christianity had raised humanity to the full consciousness of the infinite worth and importance of the individual that the old commandment “Know thyself” got its full significance.’

In the final book, transcendence has led to complete self-comprehension, a characteristic of mind that is in a sense the equivalent of final and ultimate reality. This is only possible in a consciousness ‘where the categories are present in the entirety of their system and full relationship to each other’. Haldane returns to externality and where this consciousness leads: ‘the recognition of beauty in nature which transcends this hard-and-fastness of externality and which there is only the being that reflects’. The senses through which beauty is perceived ‘are in the highest degree the handmaids of intelligence’. Religion is also something just as real as beauty and art. Religion is the form of consciousness of an act of will completed. Ultimately, Richard Burdon Haldane feels ‘the faith which characterizes the self-surrender of the will in Religion is a sense of reality above and beyond what is seen.’

  • David Kahan, University of Glasgow