Tuesday, January 3, 2017

French and English metaphysics

Review of:
Le Positivisme Anglais.  Etude sur Stuart Mill (by Hippolyte Taine, 1864).

M. Taine, one of the few Frenchmen who make a careful study of England and the English, has republished a sketch of the philosophy of Mr. Mill which has many claims to notice. It possesses considerable merit of its own, and is doubly interesting because it gives an excellent illustration of the standing difference between the two great metaphysical schools which divide, and will continue to divide, those who think on such subjects, and which, whatever may be said to the contrary, exercise a real and weighty influence on nearly all the affairs and thoughts of men.

M. Taine enters upon his subject with a sort of quasi-Platonic air. He was at Oxford a year ago at the meeting of the British Association, and passed an evening with one of the few students who were still there. They talked metaphysics all night, and walked out and admired the beauty of the town in the early dawn. M. Taine began by telling his friend, in language much more lively than reverential, how contemptible all things English, and especially English religion and philosophy, appeared to him. The student stood up for his nation, and declared that “Stuart Mill,” better known in his own country as Mr. John Mill, was a great philosopher. M. Taine demands his system; the student describes it with a precision and neatness which he must have found very convenient when he went in for his class; and M. Taine passes the rest of the night in making his observations on the subject. Mr. Mill's warmest admirers will find nothing to complain of in the view taken of him by M. Taine. He has obviously studied his works with the care and attention which they deserve.  His analysis of Mr. Mill's Logic is described by Mr. Mill himself, in a letter to the author, in deservedly complimentary language. “I do not think,” he says, “it would be possible to give in a few pages a more exact and complete idea of the contents and philosophical doctrines of the book.” There can be no question of the justice of this. Whoever wants to get the cream of Mr. Mill's theories expressed in the most easy and limpid French, and reduced into the compass of ninety small pages like those of a French novel, cannot do better than get M. Taine's Etude. It is beautifully written, and M. Taine's respect for the author on whom he comments is shown, not only by the pains which he has taken to understand and to make others understand him, but also by the strongest expressions of admiration. After describing the absence of all great men from the philosophical scene both in France and Germany, he says:–“Voici un maltre qui s'avance et qui parle, on n'a rien vu de semblable depuis Hegel.”

It would be a poor compliment to our readers to attempt to reproduce M. Taine's reproduction of Mr. Mill. His book on Logic is sufficiently familiar to everyone who in this country has any taste for philosophical inquiry to warrant the assumption that its general purport at least is well known to the readers of the present article. It is enough to say that M. Taine goes through the leading points of Mr. Mill's system. He describes his theory of definitions—the theory that a definition is the definition not of a thing, but of a word, and that the definition of a thing is never in fact anything else than a more or less imperfect description of it; the theory of proof—namely, that the syllogism is an argument from particulars to particulars, and not from the general to the particular; the theory of axioms—namely, that every axiom rests upon experience, furnished by the senses or experiments performed by the imagination; the theory of induction, according to its four varieties; and lastly, the theory of deduction founded upon induction and verified by subsequent experience. The result of the whole, according to his view, is that Mr. Mill's philosophy ends in classifying all that we see around us under two heads. There are a vast number of combinations of things which may be classified and explained according to certain rules; and there are also a much smaller number of permanent elementary causes, of which, and of the reasons why they are what they are and not otherwise, we can give no account whatever:—
‘The sun, the earth, and planets, with their various constituents, air, water, and the other distinguishable substances, whether simple or compound, of which nature is made up, are such Permanent Causes. They have existed, and the effects or consequences which they were fitted to produce have taken place, from the very beginning of our experience, but we can give no account of the origin of the Permanent Causes themselves.’
This appears to M. Taine to be equivalent to bringing us face to face with “an abyss of chance and an abyss of ignorance,” and he proceeds to devote the rest of his Etude to a description of the devices which he has arranged for the purpose of avoiding the abyss. Either M. Taine is more fortunate in explaining the views of others than in explaining his own, or English ways of thought make it difficult for us to follow him; but to us, at all events, the second part of his essay is by no means so clear or satisfactory as the first. The English philosophy appears to him open to a fatal objection:—
‘There is in your idea of knowledge a flaw which, being incessantly added to itself, ends by forming this gulf of chance, from which, according to him (Mr. Mill), all things are born, and on the brink of which, according to him, our science must stop. And observe the consequence. By cutting off from science the knowledge of first causes — that is to say, of Divine things — you reduce men to becoming sceptical, positive, utilitarian if they are cool-headed, or, on the other hand, flighty, mystical, methodistical, if they have a lively imagination. In this great unknown void which you place beyond our little world, people with heated brains or gloomy consciences can find a lodging for all their dreams, while men of cool judgment, despairing of reaching any result, can only fall back on the search for small practical recipes for the improvement of our condition. I think that generally both tempers meet in an English head. The religious and the positive spirit live side by side and separate.’
The theoretical fault which leads to this sad practical result is, according to M. Taine, to be found in our, and especially in Mr. Mill's, neglect of abstraction. Abstraction he describes first as “a faculty, other than reason or experience, proper to discover causes.” He next describes it as “an intermediate operation, situated between illumination and observation, capable of arriving at principles, as illumination is said to do, and capable of arriving at truths, as observation is shown to do.” Abstraction so understood is explained at some length, and appears to be a faculty or operation (for M. Taine wavers between the two), the object of which is to discover what Abélard called the universa in re. The universa in re are not expressly mentioned, as M. Taine prefers to use his own language. He says, however, that all facts, if properly examined, will be found to contain a permanent and general as well as a special individual element, apart from “facts and laws, that is, events and their relations.” It is the province of abstraction to extract this general element from the facts submitted to it:—
‘A magnificent faculty appears, the source of language, the interpreter of nature, the mother of religions and philosophies, the only true distinction which, according to its degree, separates men from brutes, and great men from small ones; this is abstraction, the power of isolating the elements of facts, and considering them apart.’
If this faculty is properly exercised, it will give new theories on all the principal points to which Mr. Mill's work relates. For instance, the definition of things, becomes possible, as abstraction enables us to detect “the proposition which denotes that quality in an object from which so rest are derived, and which is not itself derived from any other.” Thus the definition of a sphere is, that it is the solid formed by the revolution of a semicircle on its chord, and this differs from other qualities by which the figure might equally well be distinguished from all others—as that it is the figure which fills a maximum of space—by the fact that from this quality all others may be inferred deductively. So, too, abstraction gives a new theory of the syllogism, which is no longer to be considered either as an argument from generals to particulars, or from particulars to particulars, but as an argument from the abstract to the concrete. You get by abstraction the “abstract law” and apply it to the particular case. The same is true in the same way, and for the same or similar reasons, of axioms. They are not, as Mr. Mill teaches, mere generalizations from experience. An axiom may be arrived at by abstraction, and when so discovered is seen to be universally true. Lastly, induction, which is the weaving together of definitions, syllogisms, &c., is rendered possible by abstraction, and is, in a sense, the triumph and ultimate perfection of it. Having thus got definitions, axioms, a theory of proof, and all other necessary apparatus, we may begin to soar; and though we may think the Germans wrong and exaggerated in believing that they can evolve the world as it is out of their innate perceptions of things, still, by the help of abstraction, a certain number of general conclusions may be reached which are absolutely true, and serve as a secure foundation for morality and religion and all the great functions of human life.

We are not quite sure that we have done justice to M. Taine, as his line of thought is not altogether easy to follow, at least for an Englishman; but his general conclusion in his own words cannot well do him injustice. It is exquisitely characteristic of him and his nation:—
‘I think that these two great operations—experience as you (the friendly student) have described it, and abstraction as I have tried to define it— make up between them all the resources of the human mind. The one is the practical, the other the speculative direction. The first leads us to consider nature as an assemblage of facts; the second as a system of laws. The first, employed alone, is English; the second, employed alone, is German. If there is a place between the two nations, it is ours. We enlarged English ideas in the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth we can define German ideas. Our business is to temper, to correct, to complete the two minds by each other, to melt them into one, to express them in a style generally intelligible, and so to make them the universal mind.’
The English and Germans find the meat, and the French send the cooks. We have not the least objection. It is a pleasure to find how neatly and simply the world turns out to be made when an ingenious Frenchman like M. Taine takes the subject in hand.

As to the dogmatic part of M. Taine's book, we cannot pretend to discuss it. There are people who will like it, and there is no harm in liking it, but to an unwilling hearer it is not very convincing. If, as M. Taine admits, abstraction is founded on experience, it is difficult to understand how it can possibly rise above it. You can of course direct your attention, if you please, to part only of a given phenomenon, and find out what the relations of that part are to other parts; but when you have done so to any extent, and have combined your observations with any conceivable degree of skill and industry, you can no more free yourself from experience than you can jump off your own shadow, and the task of scaling heaven is as far from being performed as ever. It would be as idle to attempt to controvert as to attempt to convert M. Taine by argument on such a subject. A man learned in all the learning of all the metaphysicians once observed that, after people had lived a certain time in the world, longer or shorter, as it might be, they found out whether they were realists or nominalists (or he might have added conceptualists), and that then they went on quietly in their several paths. There is a great deal of truth in this, but not quite as much truth as there might be, and M. Taine's Etude affords a good opportunity of pointing out the degree in which it falls short of the truth.

If we take a practical view of metaphysical controversy, it will appear that the extraordinary vitality of the interest which attaches to it must be due to some adequate cause; and that there is such a cause is obvious enough when the matter is fairly considered. The controversy may appear idle, and even merely verbal, but this is not the case. It is directed to the attack and defence of one central position, the one matter about which metaphysical disputants are really in earnest. This is the question whether there are or are not any verbal propositions whatever which are exempt from criticism, which are implied in and by all argument, and of which the truth is a first principle whence all other subordinate truths may be derived and to which they must conform. If such propositions could be shown to exist, and if a general consent about them could be obtained, it is considered that there would be an end to all the controversies which are felt to be of real importance to human happiness. People suppose that by laying down such principles they would be able to set religion, and morality in all its branches, including politics and jurisprudence, on a perfectly stable foundation; and they are rather inclined to think that, in the absence of such principles, these subjects, which are after all the great objects of human interest, must always be involved in a sufficient degree of uncertainty to affect seriously the security and confidence with which all our most important affairs are conducted. This is the great, and indeed the only, reason which invests metaphysical discussions with real interest. This view of the matter not merely explains and defines the department of metaphysical inquiry, but enables those who do not pretend to any special skill in its mysteries to form a plausible opinion as to the course which it is taking. General experience enables us to form an opinion on the question whether there are any propositions which are more certain than the evidence by which they are supported, and which may be taken to be not merely the results of experience and generalizations from it, but propositions of which the truth may be affirmed antecedently to all evidence whatever, and which are therefore the masters and arbiters of all our speculations. It is obvious enough that all mathematical propositions, which are usually put forward as the strongest illustrations of absolute truth, may be affirmed (to say the least) on merely experimental grounds, with as high a degree of certainty for all practical purposes as if they were directly perceived by some mysterious intuitive faculty. At the highest they prove nothing either way. The real strength of the experimental view of knowledge lies rather in the experience of mankind as to all those subjects which most interest their happiness and most nearly affect their conduct. Let any one watch the course of thought upon any of the great subjects of human interest—upon religion, morals, politics, jurisprudence in its wider or even in its narrower applications—and, go where he will, he will discover that every received maxim is in fact open to criticism, is actually modified, is liable to be refuted, is judged of by the evidence which can be adduced in support of it, is dealt with, in a word, as such writers as Mr. Mill say all human thought must be dealt with. In law, the whole theory of natural rights, the laws of nature, self-evident maxims of justice, and the like, are exploded. Try to argue accurately by the use of them, bring them to the crucial test, their power of solving real questions, and they are perfectly useless. Use the word “rights” as the leading English jurists have used it, and it is possible to talk to some purpose on the subject—to start from some premisses and arrive at some conclusion. Use it as it is used in such a phrase as the “rights of man,” and it immediately becomes altogether unmeaning. It is the same in all other moral subjects. In theology men can talk pertinently and come to conclusions of more or less value as to the relations between this world and the next, between man and his Maker, so long as they confine themselves either to drawing inferences from the facts which the world around them— the world of matter and the world of feeling—presents to their observation, or to the investigation of specific revelations made or said to be made by persons claiming supernatural knowledge; but when they begin to lay down theological propositions as first truths, every man differs as to what that first truth is. Theodore Parker looked long and earnestly into his own soul, and discovered there a number of self-evident truths which an immense proportion of the world believe not to be true at all, and which man others believe to be at best no more than probabilities. There is only one subject relating to human conduct which has attained anything approaching to the character of a science. This is political economy, and it is scientific only because, and in so far as those who profess it have followed the course which Mr. Mill traces out in his Logic. By experiment and observation you arrive at certain facts relating to human nature, and having arrived at them it is possible to argue deductively from them, and to verify that deduction by comparison with the facts. If, therefore, the two great metaphysical schools are rightly distinguished by the test of affirming or denying the existence of authoritative propositions which are not the result but the source of specific knowledge, it would appear that the victory rests with the school which denies. If such propositions exist, no one has ever yet discovered them. There is no proposition which can with perfect confidence be affirmed to be true and which cannot be shown to be capable of being proved, or shown to be highly probable, a posteriori. All the real knowledge which we possess has been as it were conquered from a priori reasoners, and translated into the language of experience and argument from experience.

A priori reasoning, when closely examined, appears to be nothing more than conjecture in plain clothes. A man is firmly impressed with the evils of putting people in prison in an arbitrary way; and forthwith passionately asserts that every one has a natural inalienable right to liberty; and this he does before any specification to his own mind of the meaning which he attaches either to liberty, or to right, or to nature. Having a passionate belief in a future state, and a passionate desire that there may be another life, he affirms that he has an instinctive transcendental certainty of it which no evidence could affect; and not only so, but that to have such a certainty is the characteristic of the whole human race, every member of which, qua human, is equally well assured of it. Having turned his attention to mathematics, he affirms that he has a perception altogether independent of experience of the fact that two straight lines cannot inclose a space. Examined closely, all these assertions are conjectures. They are vehement, assertions that a particular state of things does and must and shall exist, because those who make the assertions, and perhaps others, are firmly persuaded that it does exist. This is only conjecture at its best estate. Inasmuch, however, as such conjectures have constantly been framed by men of genius, and are almost always suggested by something which really does exist, they have probably done, and will continue to do, much more good than harm. They exercise a wonderful power, over the imagination, and they lead people to hold a vast number of extremely useful and nearly true opinions which they never would have held if they had had to confine themselves to the step-by-step method of a posteriori investigation.

Part of M. Taine's estimate of Mr. Mill appears to us not altogether just. He ascribes to the treatise on Logic a wider scope than it really has. Its object is by no means to lay down a complete system of metaphysics and philosophy, but to describe the proper mode of reasoning. Of course there can be no doubt as to the nominalist tendency of the book. It is a book which no one could have written who believed in any à priori road to knowledge; but M. Taine carries it further than it goes when he says that it lands us in, or rather launches us upon, an abyss of chance and ignorance. There is nothing in Mr. Mill's theories which is inconsistent with religious belief, though there is much that is inconsistent with a priori proofs of theological doctrines. The notion that there is any sincerity at all in the official and established religion of this country strikes M. Taine as so comical that he perhaps would have some difficulty in seeing that there may be such a thing as a system of sincere religion, capable of exercising a powerful influence over the conduct and feelings of mankind, although it rests only on grounds which the strictest application of the system he describes would consider legitimate. He seems to have a momentary glimpse of this in a passage which we have already quoted, where he says that English heads are apt to lodge the coldest philosophy and the hottest fanaticism side by side, and that the “abyss of chance and ignorance” may be peopled at will with chimeras. He forgets at it may also be peopled with beings suggested to exist by the facts which we see around us, though their non-existence is not disproved, and that there is not only no reason why such a proceeding should not take place, but the strongest possible reason why it should. There is a remarkable chapter in Butler's Analogy to the effect that an admission that religion is probable does not, for practical purposes, differ much from a conviction that it is true; and it cannot be doubted that the probability of the truth of the great doctrines of natural, to say nothing of revealed, religion may be shown by forms of argument recognised by Mr. Mill.

There is one point in which M. Taine has the advantage of many English writers — some of them eminent men. He has discovered the fallacy of the common notion that the English are an illogical or unphilosophical nation. The following passage, which he puts into the mouth of his Oxford friend (who is more fairly treated than κώφα πρόσωπυ in general, for he gets half the talking), is very sound doctrine, and for once does justice to the much-abused intellect of this country:–
‘I venture to assert that the theory which you have just heard is perfect. I have abridged it, but you have heard enough to see that nowhere has induction been so completely and precisely explained, with such an abundance of fine and just distinctions, with such extended and exact applications, with such knowledge of processes and discoveries, with a more entire exclusion of a priori principles and metaphysical suppositions, in a temper more in conformity with the rigorous processes of modern experience. You asked me just now what we had done in philosophy; I answer, the theory of induction. Mill is the last of a great descent, commencing with Bacon and continued to us by Hobbes, Newton, Locke, Hume, Herschel. They have carried into philosophy our national character; they have been positive and practical; they have not soared above facts; they have not tried extraordinary roads; they have purged the human brain of its illusions and ambitious fancies. They have employed it on the only side where it can act; they have wished to plant barriers and lights on the road already opened by fruitful sciences. They have not chosen to spend their labour in vain out of the explored and verified road. They have aided the great modern work, the discovery of appropriate laws; they have contributed like students of special subjects to increase the power of man. Find me other philosophies which have done as much.’
This is perfectly true, and it is an instructive commentary on a great deal of denunciation levelled at the English mind on both sides of the Channel. Almost all that is said against us resolves itself into the one charge that the English people, as a rule, and especially their most influential writers, are averse to a priori speculation, because they believe à posteriori inquiry to be the true method of acquiring knowledge. Persons who hold that view would say that English logic differs from that of other countries in the fact that those who profess it prefer true premisses to premisses which are merely symmetrical. At all events, before we are described as low and sordid for this, it ought to be shown that we are wrong; and the way to do this is for some one else to set us right by producing an a priori theory on some important subject which will stand the test of being reduced to practice.

Saturday Review, February 27, 1864.

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