Egotism in German Philosophy/Chapter III
Fichte called Locke the worst of philosophers, but it was ungrateful of him, seeing that his own philosophy was founded on one of Locke’s errors. It was Locke who first thought of looking into his own breast to find there the genuine properties of gold and of an apple; and it is clear that nothing but lack of consecutiveness and courage kept him from finding the whole universe in the same generous receptacle. This method of looking for reality in one’s own breast, when practised with due consecutiveness and courage by the Germans, became the transcendental method; but it must be admitted that the German breast was no longer that anatomical region which Locke had intended to probe, but a purely metaphysical point of departure, a migratory ego that could be here, there, and everywhere at once, being present at any point from which thought or volition might be taken to radiate. It was no longer so easy to entrap as the soul of Locke, which he asserted travelled with him in his coach from London to Oxford. But the practice of looking for all things within one’s own breast, in the subtler sense of searching for them in one’s memory and experience, begat in time the whole romantic and subjective school of philosophy.
Leibniz, the first of German philosophers, although an enemy of Locke’s sensualism and of his slackness in logic, was even more explicit in assigning a mental seat to all sensible objects. The soul, he said, had no windows and, he might have added, no doors; no light could come to it from without; and it could not exert any transitive force or make any difference beyond its own insulated chamber. It was a camera obscura, with a universe painted on its impenetrable walls. The changes which went on in it were like those in a dream, due to the charge of pent-up energies and fecundities within it; for the Creator had wound it up at the creation like a clock, destined to go for ever, striking infinite hours, with ever richer chimes.
Here, in miniature, with a clearness and beauty never afterwards equalled, we have the nature and movement of the transcendental self set forth before us: a closed circle of experience, admitting of no relations with anything beyond, but infinite in its own potential developments, and guided by an inner force, according to an innate unconscious plan. All duties, all principles of interpretation, all data, all visioned objects, operated within this single life, diversifying its field of view, and testifying to its secret endowment.
Nevertheless, the later idealists, ungrateful to Locke for their first principle, were ungrateful also to Leibniz for their ultimate conception, anticipated by him in all its completeness. There were reasons, of course, for this ingratitude. Leibniz, like the transcendentalists, had supposed that the objects of sense, as experience reveals them, were begotten out of the latent nature of the soul; but he had also conceived that there were many souls, as many as atoms in the physical world, and that the images arising in each were signs of the presence and actual condition of its companions. Thus perception, while yielding directly only an idea, as in a dream, was indirectly symbolic of an outer reality, like a dream significant and capable of interpretation. And being an undaunted rationalist, Leibniz assumed that the soothsayer capable of reading this dream was reason, and that whatever reason conceived to be right and necessary actually must be true in the great outer world.
It was at this point that Kant deviated into his radical subjectification of knowledge. His mind had been more open than that of Leibniz to the influences of English psychology, it had stewed longer in its own juice, and he could not help asking how, if the senses could reveal only ideas of sense, reason was ever able to reveal anything but ideas of reason. Those inferences about the vast world outside, which Leibniz had allowed his spirits to make in their solitary confinement, were reduced by the more scrupulous Kant to scribblings upon their prison walls. These scribblings he officially termed the ideas of pure — that is, of unsupported — reason; but in his private capacity he gently continued to agree with Leibniz and to believe them true.
There was no anomaly, according to Kant, in this situation. An idea might by chance be the image of a reality, but we could never know that it was. For the proof would have to be supplied by a further idea, and would terminate in that. The hypothesis and the corroboration would alike be mental, since experience was of ideas and could envisage nothing but the vicissitudes of the mind.
If you had asked Leibniz what determined the order in which perceptions came into any mind, he would doubtless have answered that the Creator did so, or (translating that symbol into its analytic equivalent in his system) that what did so was the innate destiny or predisposition of that mind to develop in harmony with the best possible universe. Here is a very remarkable unconscious principle of evolution seated in the spirit and presiding over all its experience. This is precisely what is meant by a transcendental principle.
This principle, unconscious as it is, sometimes betrays its mighty workings to consciousness. Besides the incidental multitude of ideas which it breeds, it makes itself felt in subterranean strains and rumblings, in the sense of movement and of longing. This darker but deeper manifestation of the transcendental clockwork Leibniz called appetition, and under the name of Will it has played a great part in later German systems. To call it Will is, of course, to speak improperly and mythologically, for actual willing requires an idea of what is willed. When we say a man doesn’t know what he wants, we mean that he can will nothing, for lack of a clear idea of his interests and situation, although he doubtless wants or lacks many specific things, the absence of which is rendering him unhappy and restless. These instinctive appetitions for objects of which the mind is ignorant may, by a figure of speech, be called unconscious Will; a phrase which would be a contradiction in terms if this word Will (which I write with a capital letter) were not used metaphorically. From this metaphor, when its boldness seems to be dulled by use, we may pass insensibly to giving the name of Will to that whole transcendental potency of the soul which, like the mainspring of a watch, lay coiled up tightly within it from the beginning of time. A man’s transcendental Will can then be called the source of everything that ever happens to him — his birth, his character, his whole life, and his death — all that he most detests and most emphatically does not will, like his nightmares, being an expression of the original pregnancy of his spirit, and its transcendental principle of development.
There is but one thing to add touching a point often left by these philosophers in the most hopeless obscurity. In Leibniz the number of spirits was infinite: in the later systems they are reduced to one. This difference seems greater than it is, for when such terms as Spirit or Will are used metaphorically, standing for unconscious laws of continuity or development, and when the Will or Spirit present in me now may be said to have presided over the destinies of my soul infinite ages before I was born, there seems to be no good reason why the same Spirit or Will should not preside over all the inhabitants of the universe at all times, be they gods or humming-birds. Such a Spirit or Will resembles the notion of Providence, or the law of evolution, or the pre-established harmony of Leibniz far more than it resembles a mind. Those philosophers, intent on proving that the Spirit can be only one, might have proceeded, therefore, by urging that a Spirit was at best a formal and abstract law, covering such disparate facts, that all flesh and fowl, all demons and angels, might just as well be animated by a single Spirit. As it takes all sorts of things to make a world, it might take all sorts of things to express a Spirit.
This cool and consciously verbal way of making all one, however, is not the way of the Germans. No doubt in practice the unity of the Spirit or Will in their systems amounts to nothing more, yet their intention and illusion is rather that whenever two things can be called manifestations of one Spirit in the loosest and most metaphorical sense of this word they are thereby proved to be data in one spirit in the most intimate and psychological sense of the same. So that what really happens to transcendentalists is not that they unite all the transcendental units of Leibniz into one even looser transcendental unit, but that they limit the universe to what in Leibniz was one of an infinite number of parallel careers. Nay, they limit even that one career to the experience present at one point, that of the most intense and comprehensive self-consciousness.
The unity they desire and believe in is accordingly an actual and intense unity. All its elements are to be viewed at once, bound and merged together by the simultaneous intuition of all their relations, and this in a single, unchanging, eternal moment of thought, or rather of unutterable feeling. The union is, therefore, real, psychic, mystical, and so close that everything that was to be united there, by a curious irony, remains outside.
What can lead serious thinkers, we may ask, into such pitfalls and shams? In this case, a powerful and not unworthy motive. All transcendentalism takes the point of view of what it calls knowledge; whenever it mentions anything — matter, God, oneself — it means not that thing but the idea of it. By knowledge it understands the image or belief, the fact of cognition. Whatever is thought of exists, or can exist, in this philosophy, only for thought; yet this thought is called not illusion but knowledge, because knowledge is what the thought feels that it is.
Evidently on this principle none of Leibniz’s spirits could know any other, nor could any phase of the same spirit know any other phase. The unbridgeable chasm of want of experience would cut off knowledge from everything but its “content,” the ideas it has of its objects. Those fabled external objects would be brought back into my ideas, and identified with them; my ideas in turn would be drawn in and identified with the fact that I entertain them and this fact itself would condense into the more intimate and present fact that intensely, vaguely, deeply I feel that I am, or am tending to be, something or other. My Will or Spirit, the rumble of my unconscious appetitions, thus absorbs my ideas, my ideas absorb their objects, and these objects absorb the world, past, present, and future. Earth and heaven, God and my fellowmen are mere expressions of my Will, and if they were anything more, I could not now be alive to their presence. My Will is absolute. With that conclusion transcendentalism is complete.
Is such transcendentalism impossibly sceptical? Is it absurdly arrogant? Is it wonderfully true?
In so complex a world as this, there is room for a great number of cross-vistas: when all has been surveyed from one point of view and in one set of terms, nothing excludes the same reality from being surveyed from a different centre and expressed in a different notation. To represent a man, sculpture is apparently exhaustive; yet it does not exclude painting, or the utterly disparate description of the man in words; surveys in which there need be no contradiction in the deliverance, though there is the widest diversity and even incommensurability in the methods. Each sort of net drawn through the same sea catches a different sort of fish; and the fishermen may quarrel about what the sea contained, if each regards his draught as exhaustive. Yet the sea contained all their catches, and also the residue, perhaps infinite, that escaped them all.
Now one net which every intelligent being casts over things is that of his own apprehension, experience, and interests. He may not reflect often on his personal principle of selection and arrangement; he may be so interested in the movements he sees through his glass as never to notice the curious circular frame, perhaps prismatic, which his glass imposes on the landscape. Yet among all the properties of things, the adventitious properties imputed to them in apprehension are worth noting too; indeed, it chastens and transforms our whole life if we have once noted them and taken them to heart. Not that this circumstance implies for a moment what the dizziness of idealists has inferred, that things exist only as perceived or when we perceive them. What follows is rather that, besides the things and in the most interesting contrast to their movement, there is the movement of our minds in observing them. If, for instance, I happen not to know the name of my great-grandfather, and am vexed at my ignorance, I may search the parish records and discover it, together with many circumstances of his life. This does not prove that my interest in genealogy created my great-grandfather, as a consistent egotist would assert; but it does show how my interest was a nucleus for my discoveries and for the terms, such as great-grandfather, in which I express them — for it was no intrinsic property of that worthy man that he was to become my great-grandfather after his death, or that I was to discover him.
This vortex which things, as apprehension catches them, seem to form round each whirling spectator, is the fascinating theme of lyric poetry, of psychological novels, and of German philosophy. Dominated as this philosophy is by the transcendental method, it regards views, and the history and logic of views, as more primitive and important than the objects which these views have in common. The genial Professor Paulsen of Berlin (whose pupil I once had the advantage of being) had a phrase that continually recurred in his lectures: Man kann sagen, as much as to say, Things will yield the following picture, if one cares to draw it. And he once wrote an article in honour of Kant very pertinently entitled: Was uns Kant sein kann; because no veritable disciple of Kant accepts what Kant taught as he taught it, but each rises from the study of the master having irresistibly formed one or more systems of his own. To take what views we will of things, if things will barely suffer us to take them, and then to declare that the things are mere terms in the views we take of them — that is transcendentalism.