Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Mr. Mill on the Philosophy of Comte

The present number of the Westminster Review contains an elaborate article by Mr. Mill on the philosophy of Comte. It fills sixty-seven pages, and contains a careful statement of the results of Comte's earlier and more valuable speculations, together with an account of the principal points in which Mr Mill’s own views diverge from them, and of the reasons of the divergence.  In many ways the articles is one of the highest interest. An account of the views of one of the greatest philosophers of the age by the most eminent of living philosophers must always be instructive; but it becomes specially important when it shows what are the points of divergence between the English and French sections of a school of which it is impossible to deny the immense and increasing success, however much that success may be regarded by particular persons as a matter of regret.

We need not follow Mr. Mill at length in his account of Comte’s doctrines. Every one who cares about the subject knows in general their character. The earlier and better speculations were devoted to the re-arrangement of the physical sciences in their natural order, and to an attempt to show how the study of the phenomena of society might be pursued in the same s spirit, and considered as a step in advance in the same progress. Of the later writings, in which Comte gave to the world that strange parody upon religion which might be described as Popery conducts upon atheistical principles, Mr. Mill says nothing in his present article, though he states his intention of examining it on some future occasion. The most novel and interesting parts of his resent article are those which show the differences between two thinkers who have very much in common, and who have exercised perhaps a deeper influence on their generation than any other two writers of our time.

The first great difference between Comte and Mr. Mill consists in the difference between their conceptions of the place and importance of logic. Mr. Mill observes that the philosophy of science consists of two main parts—the methods of investigation and the requisites of proof. How ought men to set about the task of inquiry? What sort of results should they demand as the condition as being satisfied? Of Comte’s success in discussing the first of these questions Mr. Mill speaks in the most enthusiastic way. “Nowhere,” he says, “is there anything comparable in its kind to his survey of the resources which 'the mind has at its disposal for investigating the laws of phenomena.” “Not less admirable,” he adds, “is his survey of the most comprehensive truths that have been arrived at by each science.” Great, however, as these results are, the question still remains, “When a result has been reached, how shall we know that it is true?” According to Mr. Mill, the weakness of Comte‘s writings is that he not only throws no light on this question, but takes a negative line upon it, and finally arrives at the conclusion that the “main problem of logic properly so called,” the problem of supplying a test of inductive proof, must be given up as insoluble. This is closely connected with his repugnance to the use of the word “cause,” even in that sense in which, as Mr. Mill observes, he might have used it with perfect consistency.

The full explanation of this matter is very curious, and no doubt sets the difference between Mr. Mill and Comte in the clearest light. The popular notion of a cause always was, and perhaps still is, a power or energy by which the effect is in some manner produced. Most people probably suppose that, when it is said that a stab causes a wound, something more is meant than the mere fact that the propulsion of the knife is immediately followed by a division of the flesh, the rush of blood, &c. The denial that there is anything more in causation than antecedence and consequence was, as is well known, the cardinal tenet of Hume, and it been maintained ever since in different forms by his Scotch and English disciples. These writers, however, and especially Mr. Mill, have always maintained that, though there is in causation nothing more than constant antecedence and consequence, yet in this sense the word causation may and ought always to be used. It is Mr. Mill’s cardinal doctrine that all our experience, as far as it goes, assures us of the fact that every phenomenon whatever will, upon due examination, he found to be invariably and unconditionally preceded, and in that sense caused, by some other phenomenon; and from this capital proposition the whole of his theory of logic is deduced. Comte’s View of the subject was different. Observing that people in general attached to the word “cause” the sense of an occult power in the antecedent over the consequent, and disbelieving the existence of such powers, he rejected the word “cause” altogether from his system, and proclaimed on all occasions that he had nothing to do with, or to say to, causes, and that be confined himself exclusively to the investigation of laws. In fact, he treated the matter as if there were such things as causes in the popular sense— causes distinct from those invariable sequences to which Hume and his disciples applied the name, although, for some reason or other, he was excluded from inquiring into them. He thus missed the fact which the word, when properly used, was fitted to record, and we think Mr. Mill is right in saying that this omission has weakened the logic of his writings, and of those of his principal disciples. It would require a good deal of examination to give chapter and verse for the assertion, but we think that those competent to give an opinion will be inclined to admit that there is in Positivist writings a certain vagueness and inconclusiveness which greatly detracts from their effect. They are apt to be like chains with nothing at the end to fasten them with. The last link is always wanting. You can believe the doctrine if you like, but there is no compulsion about it. Positivist arguments are rather persuasive than convincing.

Mr. Mill, on the other hand, contends that his own system is not open to the same observation. He makes what he calls “the law of universal causation” the foundation of his whole system, and draws from it the inference that “a general proposition inductively obtained is only then proved to be true when the instances on which it rests are such that, if they have been correctly observed, the falsity of the generalization would be inconsistent with the constancy of causation." This, as well as the criticism on M. Comte, we agree with. It certainly is the fact that Mr. Mill’s writings do at any rate tend to clinch the matters to which they relate. They seldom or never leave things at a loose end. It must, however, be observed that Mr. Mills own theory is open to an observation which to some minds may appear formidable, though we think it may easily be pressed too far. His “law of universal causation” rests upon simple observation. We see in innumerable instances that certain sequences do exist invariably as far as our means of observation extend, and we assume this to be universally true; but it is obviously possible that the assumption may be false— that the principle may not apply, for instance, in distant planets, or in departments of things which do not come, or which come very seldom, under our observation. Hence the “universal law ” resolves itself ultimately into a very strong impression on our imaginations, reduced by a degree of experience which, though certainly considerable, falls infinitely short of being universal. It is, in fact, a conjecture founded upon a strong impression on the imagination; for what other assurance have we, or can we have, of the permanence of nature? How can we know that to-morrow morning fire will burn, or lead sink in water, or iron swim in quicksilver? Our assurance, in these and in all other cases, arises from our past experience; but that tells us and can tell us nothing as to the future, though it may and does exercise so powerful an influence over our imaginations that we can think of the future in no way but one. To scepticism carried to this length neither Mr. Mill nor any one else has any answer, but it may fairly be said that no answer is wanted. Every one is willing to take his chance of mistakes caused by acting on an impression which, in point of fact, no one can resist, or thinks of attempting to resist; and every reasonable person will admit that more cannot be required of any system of philosophy than that its author should be able to say, “Assuming that there are such things as investigation and proof, here is a specification of the mode of arriving at them.” The existence of truth and its permanence are always presupposed as conditions precedent to any system of philosophy.

The second great difference between Comte and Mr. Mill consists in their view of the proper way of studying human nature. Comte, says Mr. Mill, “rejects totally, as an invalid process, psychological observation properly so called, or, in other words, internal consciousness, at least as regards our intellectual operations.” This is a most important distinction for many reasons, but especially because the fact that Mr. Mill does not reject such observations renders his philosophy far more friendly to religion than that of Comte, which, indeed, was opposed to every form of it which has hitherto exercised any appreciable influence in the world. It is self-evident that the truth of the doctrines of prayer, grace, and the like must be proved, if at all, by evidence as to what takes place in particular minds, and that, if all psychological inquiry is rejected as idle, belief in all this side of religion must inevitably be shut out. On the other hand, psychological inquiry properly conducted can hardly fail to throw great light upon these subjects. For instance, the nature of prayer, its effects on the mind of the person who prays, and the way in which those effects are produced, are legitimate objects of psychological inquiry; and the doctrine of prayer may have a positive foundation in the system of Mr. Mill, though in that of Comte it can have none.

When Mr. Mill comes to consider Comte’s theories on the philosophy of society— or sociology, as he first called it— the differences between them are shown to be considerable, and of great practical importance. Everywhere, for instance, Mr. Mill is at issue with Comte on the subject of his intense dogmatism. Comte was as dogmatic as Hobbes, or, if possible, more so. He regarded all the theories of modern liberalism with as much dislike as Dr. Newman himself; except, indeed, in so far as he held them to be necessary evils through which other and even more formidable evils had been cast out. They are, he thought, more instruments of attack by which the old state of things was overthrown; but, having served their turn, they ought to be laid on one side. The most important of these doctrines is the doctrine of “the absolute right of free examination, or the dogma of the unlimited liberty of conscience.” Legal liberty Comte would have allowed, but the moral right of men to question the decisions of competent authority he denied. As most of our readers no doubt know, he wished to institute a terribly powerful spiritual authority, competent to dictate to mankind on all conceivable subjects, as the proper counterpoise to the prevailing anarchy of opinion. Mr. Mill has many excellent observations on this subject. He says, for instance, with great truth, that the doctrines to which Comte objected were not merely negative, but embodied positive conclusions of the greatest importance. The doctrine, for instance, of liberty of conscience is by no means to be taken to mean that it does not matter what a man thinks, and that he is under no moral obligation to do his best to form true opinions. What it really means is, that if people are wanted to form true opinions, they must not be visited with any kind of penalties whatever, either in the shape of legal punishments or of moral censures, for holding false ones. In other words, the truth of a true doctrine is shown by experience to be its most effective sanction, and the interest which people have in believing what is true will be found to form the best security for their believing it— a security for better in every way than the establishment of any organization whatever. Heartily as we agree with Mr. Mill in this view, we doubt whether he sufficiently attends to the provocation which Comte received from those who, on the Continent, have advocated Liberal opinions. As a matter of fact, they generally do base their doctrines, not on solid grounds, but on some fanciful theory about absolute rights, and the form of their propositions is often so absurd that no degree of sympathy with the substance will entirely reconcile one to it. The Pope’s Encyclical, for instance, condemns eightv propositions which collectively make up, or are supposed to make up, the doctrines of modern Liberalism. Yet English Liberals in general would dissent from almost every one of them, even whilst they agreed substantially with the opinions of those who maintain them.

Saturday Review, April 15, 1865.

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