Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Times on Sir William Hamilton's philosophy

A late number of the Times contained a very interesting review of Sir William Hamilton's lectures on Metaphysics, describing a system of thought which has been brought into considerable prominence of late by the circumstance that Mr. Mansel has made an elaborate application of it to theology. Mr. Mansel's book—as every one who has read it might have expected—whilst warmly welcomed by one party has given considerable scandal to another. Whilst many persons have seen in it a triumphant vindication of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, others have looked upon it as opening a new road to Atheism; and, indeed, as the line of argument is that Christianity and Atheism form the branches of an alternative between which our choice lies, it is obvious that the conclusion drawn from it will differ according to the views which different classes of readers may take of the force of the arguments adduced in support of either conclusion as against other opinions which lie between them. We expressed our opinion of Mr. Mansel's book at the time of its publication, and have no intention of returning to it at present; but the writer in the Times, who is warmly in favour both of its orthodoxy and of its importance, throws considerable light upon the method on which it proceeds, by giving a popular exposition of the principles which Mr. Mansel, as he says, has adopted from Sir W. Hamilton. How far he adequately represents Sir William Hamilton's philosophy we shall not at present inquire; but the article is so interesting that we will take it as an independent statement of opinion, and discuss the principles which it propounds for popular acceptance, independently of the authority which they may claim as proceeding from Sir W. Hamilton, or as having been adopted by Mr. Mansel.

Before entering upon the discussion, we must protest against the tone which the writer in the Times assumes with respect to the exclusive claims of his theory to orthodoxy. Metaphysical questions cannot be satisfactorily discussed if the discussion is to be prejudiced by assertions that certain conclusions are indispensable to Christian faith, and that the object to be kept in view in conducting them is not the investigation of truth, but the confutation of infidels. The supporters of almost every metaphysical theory have made such claims in their time; and the history of speculation shows, we think, that they have never been very well founded or very judicious. Nominalism, Realism, and Conceptualism have each had disciples who were very good Christians, and it jars on our feelings to read such denunciations as the following —“Are Englishmen ready for the remorselessly logical results of the Hegelian premises? Are they prepared for the most desolating scepticism which is the result of reason stultified and common sense ignored? How is it possible, it may be asked, that Englishmen could, even by an unguarded expression, seem to sanction the denial of the primary law of reason?” The subject which awakens this enthusiasm is the nature of contradictory inconceivables. It is, no doubt, connected in a certain sense with both religion and morality, and so is the doctrine of innate ideas and Berkeley's theory of the nature of matter; but surely such doctrines belong to a region in which appeals to the feelings of Englishmen are curiously out of place. Some years ago a very philosophical body indeed was obliged to rule that the controversy between two rival theories as to the nature of light was too personal and too irritating to be discussed. Let us, if possible, examine with calmness the question of Contradictory Inconceivables, and retain a charitable hope that a difference respecting them may not involve a final and irreversible distinction in the future fate of the disputants.

The doctrine ascribed by the writer in the Times to Sir W. Hamilton, and invested by him with so much importance, is this:—There is a limit beyond which the human intellect cannot go. When speculation is pushed beyond a certain point, insoluble difficulties arise, and we are involved in a darkness from which there is no escape. For example, in the relations of space, if we suppose space to be of a certain definite extent, we find, upon examination, that the notion is absurd and inconceivable. If, on the other hand, we suppose it to be infinite, our difficulty is equal, though of an opposite kind. So, if we take space at the other end, it is equally inconceivable that it should either be composed of certain indivisible minima, or that it should be divisible ad infinitum. Similar inconceivable conclusions arise, as every one is aware who has ever looked into the elements of metaphysics, in almost every subject of inquiry. It is inconceivable that time should be eternal, a parte post or a parte ante; and it is equally, inconceivable that it should not; and the list of such difficulties may be enlarged to any amount. In this, of course, there is nothing that can be called new, but the reviewer claims for Sir W. Hamilton the discovery that though we cannot prove anything positive about space, time, or other “unconditioned” existences, we can prove an alternative about them. We cannot prove that space is infinite, nor can we prove that it is finite; but we can prove that it is either infinite or finite. We cannot prove that time had an absolute beginning, nor that it had no absolute beginning; but we can prove that it either had such a beginning or else had not. If we do not admit this, we must go, it seems, into the howling wilderness which is described as being so peculiarly repulsive to the feelings of Englishmen. The reason of man can know nothing whatever about either A or B, except that each is inconceivable; but of A and B viewed collectively, it may know that they are not only inconceivable, but contradictory; and of contradictory inconceivables, both cannot, and one must, be true. The application of this theory to theological controversy is that all doctrines are open to objections, and that all the doctrines and all the objections to them are inconceivable, and also contradictory. It follows that either the doctrines or the objections to them must be true. That is all that reason, unassisted by revelation or by evidence, can affirm. The ultimate appeal must therefore be to revelation and evidence, It is not our province to enter upon the theological bearings of the theory in question, though we cannot altogether refuse our sympathy to those who feel distrust, in this very singular new way of believing old doctrines. Whether the authors of the various creeds which have prevailed from the Council of Nice to the Council of Trent and the Synod of Dort, would view with much complacency the zeal with which Sir W. Hamilton and his disciples prove that every theological doctrine is inconceivable, and that all the objections to it are also inconceivable—in other words, that all the thoughts that men have ever had about the most important of all subjects are, when looked at in themselves, simply incredible, and that they derive all their weight from the fact that they contradict each other, is a question which we cannot pretend to determine. Experience may stultify certain misgivings which are surely not unnatural, but when Medea was cutting up her father's body and throwing limb after limb into the caldron, a casual spectator might have been excused for considering the act as a strange proof of filial piety, and, even if satisfied of the goodness of her intentions, might have been pardoned for doubting her power. We may get an entirely new and thoroughly satisfactory, basis for our theology out of the contradictory inconceivables, but we shall feel relieved when we see it done.

It would, however, be foreign to our purpose to enter upon the theology of the question. There are objections to the metaphysical theory on which it depends which we should be glad to see removed before we subscribed to it. Sir William Hamilton has no doubt answered the question which his reviewer suggests without answering it, but we should like to be informed why we are not at liberty to infer from the reduction of a given statement to two contradictory inconceivables, not that one contradictory inconceivable must be true, but that both are false? In other words, that the common statement or conception from which both are derived does not correspond with the fact. If it follows legitimately from the mode in which the word “space” is used, that that which it denotes is either infinitely divisible which is inconceivable, or else reducible to a finite minimum, which is also inconceivable, it surely may follow that the word space is an unphilosophical and merely tentative word, which does not correspond to any clear conception, or to any existing fact whatever. Indeed, there is considerable reason to think that this is actually the case. For if we look closely into the meaning of our terms, we shall find that the use of the word “space” affords openings for endless controversy. In our ignorance we should feel greatly inclined to doubt whether there is any more meaning in the assertion that space is either divisible or indivisible, than in the assertion that time must be either blue or not blue. That matter is divisible is an intelligible assertion. Every one knows what it is to cut an orange in half; so, too, the air which occupies the place of the orange might be divided; but how can any assertion be made about bare space? How can we say that it exists, or represent it to our thoughts at all? That the result of putting into a logical mill a word which is obviously inadequate, and not impossibly unmeaning, should be to produce contradictory inconceivables, appears to us to be an additional proof of the inadequacy of language to express facts, rather than a discovery of any new method of philosophizing. Indeed, with every respect for so great a name as Sir W. Hamilton's, we cannot repress a misgiving that if his reviewer fairly represents his opinions, he must have fallen into a metaphysical error like that which beset the whole of ancient philosophy—the error of taking words instead of facts as the foundation of his system. The writer in the Times argues about “space" and “time,” just as men argued in old times about “hot” and “cold,” “earth,” “air,” “fire,” and “water.” An ingenious person, sufficiently familiar with chemistry, would probably find very little difficulty in deducing from the existence of water, viewed as an elementary substance, any quantity of inconceivables; and with a little more ingenuity they might probably be made contradictory as well. Whether either of them, even if backed by authority and instinct, would be certainly true, is quite another question; nor are we by any means clear that our general faith in science would be strengthened if it were proved to us that all its doctrines fell under the categories in which the writer in the Times would wish to see all theological speculations embraced.

Independently of this general difficulty, there are several others which we should wish to advance, but we will confine ourselves to three. In the first place, why should not inconceivables be contradictory? We are not without a misgiving lest we should be talking Hegelianism without knowing it; but notwithstanding the fervid appeals made to our feelings as Englishmen, we cannot understand why that which utterly defies and baffles our reason altogether may not be consistent with that which appears to us to contradict it. If, notwithstanding objections apparently conclusive, space may be finite, and if, notwithstanding other objections, apparently equally conclusive, it may be infinite, we cannot understand why it should not be both infinite and finite. The only reason for not believing in contradictions is that it is inconceivable that a contradiction should be true; and as we are to believe in inconceivables, why not believe that as well as others? The only answer to this, which is given by the reviewer, is, that it puts an end to his metaphysics at once. Perhaps it does, and what then?

Secondly, how can we ever prove that inconceivables are contradictory? To construct an exhaustive dilemma is the most difficult thing in the world. There is, no doubt, one way of doing it which is at once easy and secure. You may say of anything whatever that it is either A, or not A; but then “not A’ includes such an enormous number of other things that the assertion is valueless. Space either is or is not divisible. In order to make this assertion perfectly true, the two words “not divisible” must include in themselves everything which is not included under the word divisible. Now, the word “divisible” does not denote an archangel, nor a blackbeetle, nor an armchair, nor the Times newspaper, nor the county of Middlesex, nor Johnson's Dictionary, nor trial by jury, nor a good conscience, nor hundreds of millions of other things, persons, thoughts, and feelings, all of which must be included under the words “not divisible” if the proposition in question is to be absolutely correct. To make such a statement as that anything is either divisible or not divisible in this sense of the word, is merely nugatory. This, however, is not the sense in which the assertion is made. Its real meaning is that space is either composed of finite minima or is infinitely divisable (whatever that may mean). This assertion begs the question, for it assumes that we know all the possible conditions of the existence of space, and asserts that they are so many, and no more. Every one would see that this is untrue, and the assertion is accordingly masked behind the convenient but illusory generality that space either is or is not divisible. We always distrust an argument founded on dilemmas, for those who propose it always tacitly take up a position higher and deeper than either of the parties to be refuted. A person who says, “Be a Christian, for such and such reasons,” occupies an intelligible position, so does a person who says “Be an Atheist, for such and such reasons;” but he who preaches the doctrine that you must be either a Christian or an Atheist, maintains not only that he is fully acquainted with all the bearings of each of these systems, but that he has covered the whole field that lies between them. It is just the same in metaphysics. Any one may maintain the divisibility or the infinity of space or time, but to say that these views are the only ones which can be taken of the subject, and that this is so certain that, though both are inconceivable, one must be true, is to make a very bold statement indeed.

Our third and last objection to the doctrine which we have been discussing bears upon what appears to be one of its fundamental assumptions, though we own that we do not very clearly understand the position which it occupies in the reviewer's mind. . He appears to maintain that the possibility of a given state of things may be tested by its conceivability, unless, indeed, we get contradictory inconceivables, in which case one of them is possible. We should have thought that in this case the exception would have effectually destroyed the rule. Whatever may be the bearing of conceivability in this system, how can we ascertain its existence? How do we know that all minds have the same powers? The very same things are conceivable and inconceivable to the same person at different times. Many of us have felt it to be entirely inconceivable that minus multiplied by minus should make plus, but it is a difficulty which has been overcome by the humblest student of algebra. Probably after a Buddhist has repeated ten thousand times the mystic words “Oh, the jewel in the lotus,” he is as conscious as any man can be of anything that he cannot conceive, and that no one else can conceive, of any other heaven than annihilation. Nay, Sir W. Hamilton's own disciples are not more unanimous than other people. “Professor Frazer” (we are told) “who has succeeded Sir W. Hamilton in the Edinburgh Chair of Logic, declares, by way of answer to the new theory of causality, that he can not only conceive a diminution in the infinity of existence, he can easily conceive of its utter annihilation, including, we infer (for the argument is otherwise useless), the annihilation of even the possibility of existence.” Indeed, fiction gives its instances as well as fact. Martinus Scriblerus could not conceive of a Lord Mayor without his gold chain; but Crambe (like Professor Frazer) said that he could conceive of a Lord Mayor without his chain, his fur, his mace, or his turtle, and even without his soul or his body, which he supposed was the abstract idea of a Lord Mayor. Martinus replied, if we remember right, that Crambe was a lying scoundrel —a coarse but sufficiently emphatic way of tendering the only issue which really decides the matter. Until some normal man has been discovered whose power of conceiving is universally adopted in all ages and countries as the test of the conceivability of all propositions, we shall attach very little importance, indeed to their possession or want of that very un-English attribute.

In quitting this somewhat abstruse subject, we must express a regret that more respectable words have not been found for the convenience of those who examine it than “thinkable,” “conceivability,” and the like; and we must also observe that, after a gentleman has filled three columns of the Times with metaphysics which it is not always easy to follow, he should not turn his back upon himself, and rebuke the reason which enables him to speculate. Speaking of scepticism, the reviewer observes— “In that hour of trial faith, like the dove, returns to its ark; while reason, like the raven, flits over the troubled waters still unsatisfied. Who has not pitied that dark, unhappy bird, with its strong pinion, and wild, distrustful nature? Who has not hoped that it might find a resting-place, if not within the ark, yet upon it?”  Such a sentiment seems a little at variance with the energy and ingenuity which the author displays in preparing as a bait that particular theory of contradictory inconceivables which seems to him to afford the only prospect of soothing the wild, distrustful nature of “the dark, unhappy bird.”

Saturday Review, May 21, 1859.

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