An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy (by John Stuart Mill, 1865).
The great increase of reviews has been unfavourable to the growth or maintenance of several kinds of literature which used in former times to be conspicuous and important. It is not often in these days, that men, and especially that eminent men, take the trouble to write volumes of controversy. A certain number of pages or columns in a periodical generally do efficiently enough the business which in old times used to require thick volumes. On the whole, this is probably not to be regretted, though some of the most remarkable books in English literature— for instance, Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity, and Chillingworth's Religion of Protestants—belong to the almost extinct class. Mr. Mill has seen fit to revive the practice, and has written a thick volume for the purpose of exploding Sir William Hamilton's philosophy. A more careful, searching, or destructive piece of criticism has seldom appeared. Mr. Mill has travelled through the writings of Sir William Hamilton and Mr. Mansel with all the zeal of the most humble and enthusiastic disciple, and has produced against them both an indictment which it requires a considerable effort to read, but which will repay study. It is, as might have been expected from its author's reputation, perfectly fair and courteous. Indeed, though he disagrees with his antagonists on every conceivable subject, and though he expresses his disagreement, and gives the grounds of it, with a force and terseness which must inflict a good deal of vexation on their disciples, Mr. Mill always acknowledges their merits. He continually takes occasion to praise Sir William Hamilton's nervous English, his extraordinary learning, and his extreme fairness in controversy, and he does fall justice to Mr. Mansel's clearness of statement. The book altogether is as creditable as it is instructive.
Sir William Hamilton was the natural antagonist for Mr. Mill. The one stood, and the other stands, at the head of one of the two great schools of thought between which the philosophers of every generation have been divided. They may be respectively described as the advocates of experience and of innate ideas; for although the names of the two schools have frequently changed, and though their leaders have devised a variety of different phrases in which to express their views, the essence of their doctrine is still what it always was. Their intellectual pedigree in modern times is easily traced. England has always been the head-quarters of the school of experience, which in one sense is traceable to Bacon, though Bacon's own relation to the metaphysical doctrines of those who are unquestionably his followers is complicated, and would be difficult to explain. From Bacon we pass to Hobbes, from Hobbes to Locke, from Locke to Berkeley, Hume, Hartley, James Mill, and John Mill. The other school, in modem times, may be said to begin with Descartes, and, passing through Leibnitz, the succession was taken up by Reid, through whom, after various intermediate steps, it arrived at Sir William Hamilton. Of course the general outline of such a controversy remains unaltered from generation to generation, but, as the force of particular objections is felt, new forms of speech are invented in which the old thoughts may be clothed; and, as Mr. Mill well remarks in the present volume, the latest form of a metaphysical theory is almost of necessity considerably better, and less open to attack, than its predecessors. Sir W. Hamilton ought, therefore, to have thrown the doctrine of innate ideas into as tenable a form as could have been discovered for it. His success in the attempt to do so was not equal to his goodwill. Mr. Mill follows him through all the contrivances which he invented for the purpose of accommodating the ancient doctrine to modem discoveries, and avoiding the objections which various persons had made to it. He hunts down remorselessly one device after another, and appears to us to succeed in showing that, with all his learning and all his elaborate apparatus of phrases, Sir William Hamilton was neither consistent nor thorough-going as a thinker. He shows, indeed, that Sir W. Hamilton had read much more than he had thought, and that he had thought only in an occasional fragmentary fashion which constantly led him into inconsistencies and contradictions. We must, however, content ourselves with a passing reference to Sir William Hamilton, and to the success of Mr. Mill's attack upon him. The really interesting parts of the book are those in which Mr. Mill explains his own views upon some of the great problems of philosophy. None of the readers of his other works could doubt what those views were, but they are not so clearly and fully expressed in any of his writings, if we except some of his essays. Throughout the treatise on Logic they are assumed, and that in a manner which is perceptible enough to any diligent reader; but the plan of the book prevented, or perhaps we might say excused, him from entering upon any set and definite exposition of them. In the present volume, he enters at full length upon a variety of great questions, such as the nature and interpretation of consciousness, and, in particular, the question what it tells us of the existence of an external world and of our own individual existence, the nature of reasoning, the nature of logic, and the freedom of the will. Perhaps the chapter which will be most widely read, and which is of the greatest general interest, is that in which he attacks the application made by Mr. Mansel of Sir William Hamilton's philosophy to the subject of religion, in a way which certainly calls loudly for an answer from a gentleman who stands in the odd position of being taxed by a variety of persons, of the most opposite views, with teaching what, under the appearance of special orthodoxy, really amounts to a peculiarly immoral kind of atheism. That Mr. Maurice, Mr. Goldwin Smith, and Mr. John Mill should all fall foul of a writer who is by many persons considered as the most prominent champion of orthodoxy, and all on grounds more or less analogous and from the most opposite points of view, is an undesigned coincidence which implies either great provocation or most unexampled bad luck. We will not enter upon this discussion; but Mr. Mill's treatment of it is so characteristic and vigorous that, for the sake of our readers, we must make one short quotation:—
‘If, instead of the "glad tidings" that there exists a Being in whom all the excellences which the highest human mind can conceive exist in a degree inconceivable to us, I am informed that the world is ruled by a Being whose attributes are infinite, but what they are we cannot learn, nor what are the principles of his government except that "the highest human morality we are capable of conceiving" does not sanction them; convince me of it and I will bear my fate as I may. But when I am told that I must believe this, and at the same time call this Being by the names which express and affirm the highest human morality, I say in plain terms that I will not. Whatever power such a Being may have over me, there is one thing he shall not do; he shall not compel me to worship him. I will call no Being good who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow-creatures; and if such a Being can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go.’The suppressed fervour and power which is so conspicuous in Mr. Mill's writings never showed itself more strikingly than in this remarkable passage; and the argument which introduces it is one of the most searching and vigorous that its author ever composed. For several reasons, and especially because it forms an episode in the main argument of the book, we cannot enter upon the subject at length, but will proceed to give some account of the general character of the views put forward by Mr. Mill in the course of his controversy with Sir W. Hamilton, and to offer a few remarks upon them.
The two cardinal doctrines held by Mr. Mill, and put forward by him as those which distinguish him from the Continental thinkers for whom, in other respects, he has the greatest sympathy, are a belief in psychology as a branch of positive knowledge, and a belief in logic as an instrument adapted, not merely for the arrangement of thoughts in a symmetrical form, according to certain technical rules, but for the apprehension of truth in all matters upon which experience supplies us with the materials necessary for the formation of true opinions. His great complaint against Sir W. Hamilton is that, under the influence of a wish to obtain a higher warrant than he really possessed for particular opinions, he invented an elaborate but extremely defective theory of psychology—or rather a substitute for psychology—and a view of logic which destroyed its connexion with truth, and reduced it to something very little better than a puzzle. This appears to us to be the general nature of the question at issue, as Mr. Mill conceives it. Let us try to explain its bearings a little more fully; and first as to psychology.
Mr. Mill considers that there are two methods by which the operations of the mind may be examined, which he calls the introspective and the psychological. The introspective method takes the thoughts which are habitually in our minds, examines them, and, when it is unable to consider them as generalizations from experience, accepts them as ultimate truths, which it is necessary to accept as final. The psychological method is not contented with this, but forces us to ask how and why those beliefs come to present themselves to the mind in this character; why they are "impressed with the character of necessity," and how it was that the mind contracted an inability to do without them. The one method affirms, and the other denies, the possibility of carrying a step further back the history and the analysis of beliefs which are admitted to be necessary and fundamental to particular persons, and of asking by what means they came to acquire that character, and how far the fact that they have acquired it to that extent proves them to be universally true. The way in which Mr. Mill follows the application of this introspective method under Sir William Hamilton's hands, and points out the singular results to which it leads, and the strange forms into which it has to be thrown, is very curious; but his account of his own method is of much greater interest. By a little management we may follow it from the very bottom. "The evidence of consciousness," he says, “if only we can obtain it pure, is conclusive." "We do know some things immediately or intuitively." The things thus known are the feelings and operations of the mind; that is to say, their existence as a fact. If I feel pain or pleasure I know that I feel it; but this, according to Mr. Mill, is at once the limit and the sum total of our intuitive knowledge. It is upon this foundation, according to him, that the whole structure of knowledge is based. The next step is, that one thing which we feel is expectation. That is, "after having had actual sensations, we are capable of forming the conception of possible sensations, sensations which we might feel and should feel if certain conditions were present, the nature of which conditions we have in many cases learnt by experience." Further, we find that our feelings and thoughts are, as a fact, associated according to certain rules, which are as follows:—
1. Similar phenomena tend to be thought of together.
2. Phenomena which have either been experienced or conceived in close contiguity to one another tend to be thought of together.
3. Associations produced by contiguity become more certain and rapid by repetition, and, if the repetition is very quick and frequent, we get at last an inseparable association. The one thought always suggests the other until subsequent experience severs them.
4. When an inseparable association is produced in our thoughts, the facts answering to the thoughts become in our consciousness inseparable.
For instance, we see artificially. A red-hot coal looks hot, a cube of iron looks hard, and thus we talk of warm colour and hard outline in a picture. These rules, all of which rest on observation, are, according to Mr. Mill, sufficient to account for our belief in an external world, and also for our belief in the human mind as separate from the external world. Belief in an external world may be analysed into a case of expectation. I see on the table a desk, paper, books, &c. I leave the room. I think of them as still there; that is to say, I expect that I shall see them if I go back; I expect, that is, that my former impressions will revive when I put myself into the same circumstances. This is what we mean, and all that we mean, by an external world. "The conception I form of the world existing at any moment comprises, along with the sensations I am feeling, a countless variety of possibilities of sensation; namely, the whole of those which past observation tells me that I could, under any supposable circumstances, experience at this moment, together with an indefinite and illimitable multitude of others which, though I do not know that I could, yet it is possible that I might, experience in circumstances not known to me." These "guaranteed possibilities of sensation" form the outward world, and they refer not to single sensations, but to sensations joined together in groups or things, and also to a fixed order of succession amongst those groups. This gives, not only an external world, but an order in its constituent parts. We have not only those groups of sensations or impressions which we call things, but we have also certain arrangements of them which we call events; and we have besides in our minds associations between different events which constitute our notion of cause and effect. We have seen the same events succeed each other so often, and under such circumstances, that an inseparable association between the two is produced in our own minds, so that we regard and think of them together; and this is what we mean by cause and effect.
As matter, when analysed to the bottom, consists of groups of permanent possibilities of sensation, so mind is nothing but the series of our sensations (to which must now be added our internal feelings) as they actually occur, with the addition of fixed possibilities of feeling, requiring for their actual realization conditions which may or may not take place, but which, as possibilities, are always in existence, and many of them present. Though both mind and matter are thus reduced ultimately to groups of sensations, there are important differences between them. The "Permanent Possibilities which I call outward objects are possibilities of sensation only, while the series which I call Myself includes, along with and as called up by these, thoughts, emotions, and volitions, and Permanent Possibilities of such." These states of mind, moreover, do not occur in groups consisting of elements which co-exist or may be made to co-exist with each other. The emotion of wonder, for instance, is not made up, like a pair of shoes, of a number of different sensations of shape, form, colour, and the like, always recurring in precisely the same way, under the same or similar circumstances. Above all, "the possibilities of sensation which are called outward objects are possibilities of it to other beings as well as to me; but the particular series of feelings which constitutes my own life is confined to myself; no other sentient being shares it with me."
In one of the most interesting passages which he has ever written, Mr. Mill proceeds to deal with the observation that this conception of mind and matter—which is Berkeleyanism carried out somewhat more fully and systematically than Berkeley carried it out—is consistent with a belief in other men, in God, and in the immortality of the soul. As to other men, it is true that all that I know of them is known through my own sensations; but those sensations give me good reasons to think that particular groups of sensations, which I call human bodies, are associated with series of thoughts and feelings, which I call their souls and minds, in the same manner as those groups of sensations which I call my own body are associated with that series of feelings which I call my own mind. Every argument also for the existence of God remains untouched, though the words used in expressing it might sound unusual. "Supposing me to believe that the Divine mind is simply the series of the Divine thoughts and feelings prolonged through eternity, that would be, at any rate, believing God's existence to be as real as my own; and as for evidence, the argument of Paley's natural theology, or, for that matter, of his Evidences of Christianity, would stand exactly where it does." So as to immortality, "it is precisely as easy to conceive that a succession of feelings, a thread of consciousness, may be prolonged to eternity, as that a spiritual substance for ever continues to exist; and any evidence which would prove the one will prove the other." Other writers, if we are not mistaken, had gone thus far with Mr. Mill, though perhaps none has set forth these views so systematically and completely; but he goes a step further, and that step is one of the highest interest, for it involves an admission on his part which perhaps few of his readers would have expected from him. The theory, he says, is good as far as it goes, but it does not explain memory or expectation:—"They are attended with the peculiarity that each of them involves a belief in more than its own present existence. . . . Nor can the phenomena involved in these two states of consciousness be adequately expressed without saying that the belief they include is that I myself formerly had, or that I myself and no other shall hereafter have, the sensations remembered or expected. The fact believed is that the sensations did actually form, or will hereafter form, part of the selfsame series of states, or thread of consciousness, of which the remembrance or expectation of those sensations is the part now present." Hence we are reduced to believing "that the mind is different from any series of feelings"; and "the truth is, we are here face to face with that final inexplicability at which, as Sir William Hamilton justly observes, we inevitably arrive when we reach ultimate facts." Mr. Mill's ultimate fact is thus the mind. It is the "ultimate fact," the "final inexplicability"; and the external material world is known to us exclusively as a function of the mind. Those who have been accustomed to look upon Mr. Mill's teaching as antagonistic to the fundamental propositions of religious belief will find useful matter for reflection in these chapters.
Mr. Mill's conception of logic follows naturally from his psychology. It consists of two parts—the doctrine of the syllogism—rules, that is, for detecting contradictions in the statement of facts; and inductive logic, which (if we may venture to compress a treatise into a few lines) consists in the investigation of the different sequences which we perceive in external nature by means appropriate to the purpose of exhibiting them all as cases of cause and effect; i. e. of unconditional sequence and antecedence. In this process, the syllogism is a useful instrument for the purpose of detecting errors of calculation, but it is nothing more. That the whole intelligible universe, the whole world of mind and matter, is capable of being exhibited in this form, is the fundamental doctrine, and also the crowning doctrine, of Mr. Mill's whole philosophy.
His doctrine as to free will and human agency in general lies midway between his psychology and his logic. It is indeed an answer to the objection—How can everything be exhibited in the form of cause and effect when the human will and its operations are not caused at all, but are themselves the causes of some of the most important, and of much the most interesting, of the facts which come under our observation? Mr. Mill's answer to this is, that the operations of the will are caused, that they may be predicted by persons who have adequate knowledge, and that this is in no way inconsistent either with our consciousness or with our moral principles. As there is, in other cases of cause and effect, no dominion of the cause over the effect—as the very utmost that can be asserted is that one, in point of fact, follows the other—so the fact that we can know beforehand that under certain circumstances A. B. will act in a particular manner does not affect the personal and moral character of his acts, and does not prevent us from praising or blaming him for doing them.
This short explanation of Mr. Mill's leading doctrines shows how his psychology, his logic, and his theory of human action all hang together. His criticism on Sir William Hamilton amounts to a charge that, in order to preserve the notion that the operations of the will are irregular, he shuts his eyes to the importance and bearing of psychology, and narrows his notion of logic till he confines it to the bare doctrine of the syllogism, leaving out all reference to the far higher and more important problem of the investigation and classification of the sequences actually perceived in the external world. He considers that a variety of "necessary truths" form the foundation of our knowledge, which necessary truths present themselves in our minds when wo observe the external world; that, from contemplating the external world with minds thus furnished, we get a number of what he calls "concepts " of particular things; and that logic consists chiefly in studying the laws or forms of our thoughts, and in determining the contents of these concepts. Upon every part of the theory thus hinted at, as well as on the relations of its different parts, Mr. Mill directs a formidable battery of arguments, for which we must refer our readers to the book itself. We will confine ourselves to one or two remarks on the general character and result of the controversy.
In the first place, as to its character, we cannot agree with those who consider all such discussions as a mere idle beating of the air. It is impossible to observe the degree in which they attract the most powerful and most practical minds without admitting that they have a most important bearing on all the highest interests of life. They are, indeed, mixed up in various ways with all the fundamental problems of morals, politics, and religion; nor is it possible to discuss thoroughly these vast subjects without taking a side in metaphysical controversy. It is, indeed, often asserted that the standing metaphysical controversies make no progress at all, that generation after generation repeats the same thrusts and parries; but this is not true. There is a real though a slow progress, just as there is a real though a slow progress in morals and politics. That Mr. Mill is intellectually descended from Locke admits of no doubt, but that he has cleared up many difficulties which embarrassed Locke, and has shown the true bearing of many doctrines which Locke imperfectly comprehended, is very true; and the same may be said of Sir W. Hamilton and Reid. Still, though the two sides may be better represented, it may be said there still are two sides, and there always will be two. They improve their own methods, but they never come to an issue so as to refute each other. Bella geri placuit nullos habitura triumphos. This is true in the same sense and to the same degree in which it is true that Whigs and Tories never come to an issue. There is always, it may be said, a party of progress and a party of protection, and the old controversy is continually reproduced under new forms. This is so; but, on the other hand, it is always possible to see which, on the whole, is getting the best of it—which is the side to which mankind at large tacitly adhere when they are not thinking of controversy, but merely carrying on the daily business of life. This is the only test that the public at large can apply to such controversies as these, and we think that, if it be applied to the controversy in question, there will be little doubt as to the result. In every department of practical life the battle appeal's to be going in favour of Mr. Mill, and against Sir W. Hamilton. It is because, and in so far as, they bear on morals, politics, and religion, that metaphysics are valuable. Look for a moment at each of the three, and consider what is the general course and dominant spirit of the times in reference to each. First, as to morals; is it not obvious that in every department of morals the practice of judging, not by "necessary truths" or abstractions of any kind, but by the tendency of actions to produce happiness, is daily gaining ground in every direction? Is not this the test which people always apply to every alleged moral rule, and by which they practically judge of its truth or falsehood? The connexion between this and Mr. Mill's system of metaphysics is too obvious and notorious to require explanation. Next look at politics. Do not all parties take expediency as their rule and justification? Do they ever refer to, or profess to regard, any phrases whatever as ultimate authorities, secure from all criticism; and is not this a manifestation of the moral principle just stated on a wider scale? Again, does not all legislation assume the theory advocated by Mr. Mill as to the nature of the will, and the fact that human conduct is capable of being predicted? and is not the science of political economy, which is the most valuable of all adjuncts to politics, conducted entirely upon the metaphysical principles which Mr. Mill lays down? It would be the easiest thing in the world to show how his psychology and logic account for, and exactly fit in with, his political economy; but can any human creature imagine a system of political economy written on the principles of Sir William Hamilton, and expressed in terms of concepts, laws of thought, and the like? Lastly, look at the state of religious controversy. Is there not a general tendency to reduce all religious inquiry to questions of fact, to he decided by evidence? As a fact, was this or that said and done under such and such circumstances? Does this or that state of facts point to such a conclusion? These are the great questions of the day with those who direct their thoughts to theology, and it is notorious that the attempt to get the leading principles of religion out of one's own mind in the form of "necessary truths" is being everywhere discredited and given up.
This sort of reasoning appears to us to show, with a degree of force which can hardly be overrated, that Mr. Mill's philosophy will and does work, and that Sir William Hamilton's will not. This, for practical purposes, may be called a proof of its truth.
Saturday Review, May 20, 1865.