Essays in Philosophy/Essay II
HAMILTON AND REID.
Even in its unfinished state, Sir William Hamilton’s Edition of the Works of Reid is the most important contribution to the metaphysical literature of Great Britain that the nineteenth century has yet witnessed.
The present publication contains the entire text of Reid. Of the Preface, Notes, Dissertations, and Indices, promised in the title-page by Sir William Hamilton, only the Notes, with six of the Dissertations, and part of a seventh, have as yet appeared. The publication of the remaining dissertations, with the preface and the indices, is, we hope not indefinitely, postponed. Even of the matter included in the volume before us, however, containing as it does nearly a thousand closely printed pages, at least a third part is contributed by the living philosopher,—and this proportion supplies a very inadequate idea of his share of the elaborate research, and refined and highly abstract thinking, which is comprehended in the book.
Dr. Reid’s philosophical works have long been recognised in this country as the type and standard of the Philosophy of Scotland, and they are now regarded by the most thoughtful men of Europe and America as constituting a conspicuous land-mark on the wide sea of modern speculation. Familiar to our academic youth at home, as supplying for the most part the text or outline of the discussions in intellectual and moral science in the Scottish universities, they have recently been translated into French by M. Jouffroy, and made the basis of instruction in philosophy in the schools of France.
The exposition of the doctrines of Reid, and the various ingenious applications of them to explain and amend the qualities of human character and society, which are contained in the works of Mr. Stewart—of which a slight but graceful specimen appears in this volume, in the “Account of the Life and Writings of Reid,”—if they have added little to the speculative intrepidity of the Scottish school, have at least given a diffused popularity to the more abstract speculations of the elder Scottish philosopher.
In consequence probably of his singularly high ideal of what is required in philosophical authorship, the metaphysical writings of Sir William Hamilton have hitherto been less frequent and copious than his extraordinary attainments demand, or than his wide-spread reputation might seem to presume. Until the appearance of these Notes and Dissertations, his metaphysical and logical doctrines were communicated to the world almost exclusively through the medium of the essays contributed by him, within the last twenty years, to the Edinburgh Review; and it ought perhaps to be noted as a somewhat remarkable circumstance, that a series of anonymous articles in that publication established for their author a fame which renders his name illustrious among European thinkers.
The appearance of the works of the Father of the Scottish School of Philosophy, accompanied by the biographical memoir of him and estimate of his doctrines by one who was the most distinguished of his immediate disciples, all under the auspices of the foremost Scottish philosopher of the present age—a publication which thus associates the names of Reid, Stewart, and Hamilton—is a memorable event in the history of our National Philosophy. It may suggest a brief meditation concerning the new matter now connected by Sir William Hamilton with the text of Reid. Anything like a comprehensive or critical estimate of the contributions of these three Scottish philosophers to the common stock of the world’s speculative knowledge, should be adjourned until the remaining portion of this work shall have appeared. We proceed to offer in the following Essay, a few somewhat miscellaneous observations, which may tend to prepare a portion of the public for the independent study of a book that cannot fail profoundly to interest every lover of abstract speculation.
“That,” says Lord Bacon, “will indeed dignify and exalt knowledge, if contemplation and action may be more nearly and strongly conjoined together than they have been—a conjunction like unto that of the two highest planets, Saturn the planet of rest and contemplation, and Jupiter the planet of civil society and action.” This favourite doctrine and simile of Bacon, so fitting and urgent in an age whose retrospect was the centuries of scholastic speculation, is not less fitting and urgent, although in an opposite application, to the age and country in which we live. If the author of the “Advancement of Learning” proclaimed it in order to revive and to associate with philosophy external activity, philosophers may proclaim it now in order to revive and associate with action elevated contemplation. Although in these Dissertations there is an apparent, there is not, we think, a real variance with the doctrine of Bacon, for there is probably all that the principle of the division of intellectual labour will permit a single mind, of exclusive tendencies, to offer towards the creation of a spirit of contemplative activity.
Perhaps the quality of a general kind that is most impressive in the aspect of Sir William Hamilton’s portion of this volume is the singular purity of its speculative character, and the exclusively speculative ends which the author seems to have aimed at in his compositions. The phenomenon here exhibited of an immense mass of wonderfully subtle logical distinctions, and profound metaphysical principles, produced and collected apparently by means of the energy of a love of thinking for its own sake, and a love of truth without regard to any of its nearer or more remote applications, is one which cannot fail to impress any intelligent observer of our British literature, were it only in virtue of its present novelty, in this age of extraordinary outward bustle, and in this island whose inhabitants are noted for the extremely palpable and concrete character of the objects that induce them to think and act. The many natural motives, distinct from the love of knowledge on its own account, that incline men to seek for truth, together with the various acquired tendencies having the same direction, which are fostered by the complicated social relations of this conventional age, and its alleged narrow and utilitarian principles of action, have failed to conquer, or (we refer to this publication) even visibly to affect at least one mind, by inducing any diversion of its power from some of the loftiest regions of human speculation.
It would be difficult to select from the whole range of English literature, a work so distinguished in respect of these qualities. As regards the proportion of abstract speculation, and the rigorous deduction of endless syllogisms, perhaps some of the works of Hobbes, and the earlier philosophical productions of Hume, approach most nearly to the Dissertations of Sir William Hamilton. To these we may add the metaphysico-theological writings of Dr. Samuel Clarke, and those of Jonathan Edwards, the great Calvinistic metaphysician of North America. But while the thought that is presented to us in the works of these philosophers resembles that which is contained in the Notes and Dissertations in its highly abstract character, in the iron logic of its connexion, and in the pervading traces of a strongly-developed faculty for reflection, there is evidence that other motives to intellectual exertion have united with the love of science on its own account in fostering the spirit which incited them to labour. Political motives influenced Hobbes. A love of fame and probably of paradox, not to speak of sentiments of frugality, and a desire for worldly independence, seem to have been considerable incitements of intellect in the case of Hume. A moral regard for those truths which are the bulwarks of religion and duty, roused the metaphysical genius of Clarke in their defence. In Edwards, the gratification of the logical faculty, by the attainment of a regularly developed, comprehensive, and exhaustive body of science, was entirely subordinate to the gratification of the religious principle, through means of a conciliation of the theory of human activity and responsibility, with the more awful and mysterious doctrines of the Christian revelation.
It is desirable, for the sake of the common good, that society should in each generation possess at least a few men in whom the habit of speculation, and the love of comprehensive thinking and speculative completeness, occupy a very predominant place among the motives which keep the mind in a state of activity. And although a desire for knowledge is a common profession, it cannot be doubted that this sort of mental development is really of extremely rare occurrence. “The abstract love of truth,” it has been well said, “is a principle with those only who have made it their study, who have applied themselves to the pursuit of some art or science in which the intellect is severely tasked, and learns by habit to take a pride in, and set a just value on its conclusions. To have a disinterested regard for truth, the mind must have contemplated it in abstract and remote questions, whereas the ignorant and vulgar are conversant only with those things in which their own interest is concerned. All their interests are local, personal, and consequently gross and selfish.” In a word, men usually attend to those fragments of truth, or of mingled truth and error, which are needed to aid them in the attainment of their own ends, and these ends vary with the character or predominant inclinations to action of individual men. Their knowledge consequently is fragmentary, relative and interested rather than scientific. The disinterested love of science and philosophy is a counterpoise upon the tendency of less elevated minds, to pervert the very meaning of the word truth, and to assume that those opinions which are or which seem best adapted to gratify some other active principle of the mind, subordinate to, or at least quite distinct from, the desire for speculative activity, are to be received as a standard of belief.
As human nature and society are constituted, it is however well that instances of an exclusive development of the faculty for abstract or highly generalized science should be rare. A rigorous separation of the speculative from the practical, is apt, by causing a disruption of the complex nature of man, to infuse the spirit of scepticism into the operations of the understanding, and to occasion weakness and vacillation in the conduct of life. The Creator of the human mind has inserted into it numerous and various principles of action, which are besides usually fused together in practice. The search for speculative truth is in all common minds conducted in subordination to, and in all minds should be conducted in harmony with the law of mixed motives. The statesman is impelled by political as well as by logical necessity to know and practise the theory of civil or ecclesiastical government. The devout theologian searches inspired books under the constraint of the Christian motives, and from a conscientious impulse which attracts him with special ardour to that region of knowledge. The practical man, in the common commerce of daily life, over whom a love for the scientific kind of knowledge has little if any influence, seeks only for those fragments of information which may enable him to find his way, through the complicated but very subordinate details, that are required for his worldly business or pleasure, toward those results which are fitted to gratify his love of power, or money, or fame, and to meet the emergencies of his professional pursuit. For the attainment of most of the ends of life, utilitarian rather than scientific knowledge is necessary, and no individual is more likely to be subject to irresolution and exposed to illusion than he from whose mind all the blind and irrational principles of action, which are meant to supplement reason, have been extracted, by the power of the habit of philosophizing, and who submits to the influence only of motives which are regulated by pure intelligence. Without the gravitation of forces such as those we have indicated, the spirit of unmixed speculation would (unless in the case of a genius of extraordinary strength) quit its hold of the lower and more palpable departments of universal knowledge, and find sufficient occupation among the most abstract, and general relations of things. Contemplating the framework which contains knowledge more than the knowledge which the framework contains, the mind is apt to lose a direct acqaintance with the actual and the individual, in the splendid theory of the possible.
The world of speculative reason differs from the actual world of living men, for man, as he is, differs from man as he ought to be. Philosophical theories are the nourishment of the purely rational principle; but they tend, unless the influence is counteracted by strength of mind, and an attentive observation of the infinite variety of the existing modifications of the instincts, affections, and other irrational causes of action, to deaden, or at least to distort, the keen perception of the common mechanism of man’s practical nature; and they may in this way expose the retired student of abstract metaphysics, like the astronomer of Rasselas who fancied that he ruled the stars, to the influence of ludicrous, or even of dangerous illusions, in the conduct of life, and in intercourse with living men. The machinery of society is regulated in a great measure by habits and desires, that are only indirectly, if at all, influenced by the operations of the understanding. The moving world of human beings often does not coincide with the hypotheses of human reasoning, while there exists in it much that cannot fail to be overlooked by the man of mere contemplation. His dreams are thus broken, from time to time, by unexpected collisions with living society, and by contact with modes of character which his speculations had not prepared him to expect.
It may be added that, except in the highest order of minds, this excessive development of the scientific faculty —this truth-seeking, only for the sake of knowing truth as such, and with little or no extraneous tendency to the knowledge of particular departments of truth—is apt to leave uncultivated an order of sentiments which, in the best men, are always mingled with philosophical speculation. The motives of religion and duty, which find their highest appropriate stimulus in the department of truth which regards God and our relations to Him, ought not to be separated from a love for abstract truth. But, on the other hand, it is possible to speculate without any impulse from the conscience, and to find materials of science, among the objects of religious faith, which pervade the whole region of the higher philosophy, without forming the habit of converting the scientific knowledge into practice. An habitual employment, merely as the ministers of pure speculation, of those objects which, of all others, are most fitted to alter the character for good, is appropriately punished in the agonies of religious scepticism.
Another general characteristic of these Notes and Dissertations, hardly less remarkable than the one which has supplied a text for the observations contained in the preceding paragraphs, is the enormous accumulation of the materials of exact learning and historical research which they contain. Sir William Hamilton has long possessed a European reputation for extraordinary erudition. The evidences of his varied and accurate reading which his edition of Reid contains are not confined to one province of literature, although they are of course especially conspicuous in all that is in any way within the margin of the history of philosophy, and particularly of the speculations of the Peripatetics, the Schoolmen, and the modern Germans. No preceding British philosopher, with whose writings we are at all acquainted, makes any approach to the extent and minuteness of the kind of knowledge by which these pages are characterized. Indeed, with the exception of Bacon and Cudworth, in the seventeenth century, and Stewart and Sir James Mackintosh, in the nineteenth, our more distinguished metaphysicians and moralists have been conspicuously deficient in this important accomplishment. Locke, Butler, Hume, and Reid, made no pretension to a complete and exact acquaintance with the history of speculation.
Reading is valuable to the philosopher chiefly as one means for exciting his own power of thinking. Only a few minds, however, possess sufficient independent force to convert what they read into a source of intellectual nourishment; and even great intellects have been averse from an extensive acquaintance with books, from an apprehension of their tendency to fetter the independent working of the mental faculties. “If I had read as much as other men, I had been as ignorant as they,” is a well-known and memorable saying of Hobbes. But in these Dissertations the vigour of original speculation is preserved amid a boundless accumulation of materials collected out of what is contained in books. Leibnitz and Sir William Hamilton are to be noted among modern philosophers for the mental strength which can unite extraordinary reading with a ceaseless energy of thinking. But the mind of the German philosopher is perhaps more ready, by a species of mental chemistry, to fuse among the productions of its own intelligence, as the elements of a new and distinctive creation, the materials that are thus presented to it; while in the writings of the Scottish philosopher, the treasures of learned research are oftener permitted to remain in mechanical juxtaposition with the results of his own intellectual activity, in which they are, as it were, visibly embedded like the fossil remains of a stratum of geology.
In both the qualities to which we have referred, as generally characteristic of this recent contribution to our philosophical literature, there is a remarkable deficiency in the current publications in Great Britain. Our literature indicates, for the most part, little exact acquaintance with the ancient or contemporary doctrines which it attempts to criticise; and original speculation is almost unknown. Vague doctrines, assumed to be the productions of recent German thinking, supply its nourishment to the greater part of the “philosophical” mind of this country. Glimpses of Germany engaged in speculation are, however, no substitute for original thought about matters such as those on which the Germans in these times, and Reid, Locke, and Bacon in Britain, in other times, have displayed the highest qualities of intellect. If these specimens, by Sir William Hamilton, of what a profound knowledge of the history of opinion really is, incite some men to an exact study of the books of foreign countries and of former generations, they are also fitted to rouse the still more dormant spirit that seeks direct and independent intellectual contact with the real problems themselves, which have afforded nourishment to the high philosophy of the great thinkers of other ages. It is not the repetition of a faint echo from Germany or France that constitutes the substance of what is contained in the immortal works of the British philosophers whom we have named, who created for us a National Philosophy, with certain invaluable characteristics peculiarly its own. But a chasm intervenes between their age and ours. Notwithstanding symptoms of a revived attention to certain metaphysical questions, often vaguely enough apprehended, it remains true, that during this generation there is hardly any trace in this island of profound and exact thought respecting those abstract topics which are implied in the discussion of the first principles of knowledge. Our repose from effort in the direction of philosophy is now interrupted by this volume, which seasonably presents to us the written results of the life-labours of a sagacious and truly Scottish mind, in the company of fragments which offer a tolerable indication of the more important principles of the Scoto-German philosophy of the great living thinker, by whom the doctrines of Reid have been rendered more refined and definite, and his basis of philosophy made more comprehensive.
There is one other characteristic of these Notes and Dissertations to which we can only refer, although it deserves a copious discussion, and may, we hope, receive for itself a place among the principal objects of the regard of some earnest and thoughtful mind. We mean the peculiar nomenclature and terminology, and indeed the general texture of the language in which Sir William Hamilton’s speculations are presented. A defect of precision and permanence in that whole portion of language which relates to what is not to be classed among the objects of our senses, is an old and often-repeated complaint. Now, in respect of precision, and clearness, and adaptation to the peculiarities of the manner of thinking which it is meant to represent, and especially to the exhaustive conveyance of condensed results of thought, the style of these Notes and Dissertations appears to us unequalled by that of any English treatise in philosophy. It is an especial contrast to Locke, whose vagueness and variation in the use of scientific words has occasioned a large proportion of the thought and discussion that have been expended on his opinions. Here, on the other hand, the matter to be represented by the terms is rigidly appropriated to them; and if the ratiocination in which they are included sometimes appears to imply a mere involution and evolution of the signification of a series of names, it is all the more remarkable, in such absence of argument about things, to observe the accuracy with which a precise meaning is preserved in association with each name.
These important ends are no doubt secured only by means of great sacrifices. The nicely manufactured terminology and sentences, so charged with meaning when used by the manufacturer, are treasures for the feebler minds who can study that philosophy only which consists in the ability to make a noise with uncommon and imposing words. It may be doubted, too, whether the resources of our good old native English, with its agreeable suggestions of common or less abstract objects, have been rendered so available as they might have been, with a view to the more general diffusion of the doctrines, and the increase of their influence as means for modifying the public mind. But on this question we cannot now enter. When it is considered that the abuse of words has hitherto been among the most productive of all the causes that have indirectly contributed to the formation of philosophical literature in general, and of abstract controversy and discussion in particular, it must be evident that the theory and use of the proper signs for the statement and most effective circulation of philosophical ideas, is the theme for a volume and not for a paragraph—an appropriate task for the labour of a life, and not one which can be disposed of in an episode in an occasional Essay.
It may readily be concluded that the qualities to which we have referred are on the whole unfavourable to the popularity, and (in many cases) to the intelligibility of these Notes and Dissertations, among general readers. Such condensed results of the highest generalization, and jets of thought cast forth without the amplification and ornament of popular eloquence, and with little reference to any of their various possible applications, are ill-fitted to coalesce with the prevailing mental habits. Most men are unwilling to consent to grope their way, in the lowest depths of intellectual abstraction, where the light of evidence is hardly sufficient for steady progress, and where they must ever be on their guard against the illusion of vague formulas, susceptible of almost any meaning, which occasion that dangerous collapse of the mind upon itself, that is often experienced after an intense effort of thinking with scanty materials about which to think. There seems to be an intellectual necessity that, in the present age of unscholastic and ill-disciplined philosophical taste, this remarkable addition to our literature shall slowly, if at all, find direct admission for its doctrines, possessing, as it does, a selection and arrangement of words unsurpassed among the books of the English language for precision and consistency—a formal clearness and distinctness of method—a singular incapacity to rest contented with a partial or isolated view of any great doctrine—a depth of thought and a refinement of distinction, the very apprehension of which implies the exercise of mental functions hardly ever in these times called into action, and a copiousness of pure argument unrelieved by those lighter graces and ornaments of fancy which are usually needed to seduce men to an exertion of the higher powers of mind. Even students of speculative science may confess the existence of a wish that, amid themes so ennobling and kindred with the most suitable objects of imaginative emotion, the metaphysician had given occasional vent, through the mass of subtle distinctions and profound principles, and the accumulation of passages extracted from his stores of unequalled reading, to the living copious eloquence of which such themes are susceptible, and in which the literature of philosophy supplies so many illustrious examples. The gorgeous imagery of Bacon has done much to illuminate the ages that followed him with the light of his great doctrines, and his exquisite adaptations to philosophical purposes of the “winged words” of common language have helped to waft his philosophy down the stream of time.
We must now, however, refer more particularly to the materials proper to philosophy itself, that are contained in the book that has suggested the preceding remarks.
Though somewhat an excrescence upon the discussion of metaphysical topics, we cannot dismiss without some notice the ninety pages of the “Life and Letters of Reid,” which occupy the opening part of the volume, and which, introducing us as they do to the genius and peculiarities of an individual man, and associating these with the exercise of abstract speculation, may prove to many readers not the least interesting section of its contents.
The letters addressed by Reid to several of his distinguished contemporaries, form the most important supplementary matter appended by Sir William Hamilton to the biography by Stewart. Nearly all of this correspondence may be included in three parcels—(1.) Thirteen letters, written by Reid during the first six years after his removal from Aberdeen to Glasgow, to Drs. A. and D. Skene, physicians in Aberdeen. These interesting documents were furnished by Mr. Thomson of Banchory, and have not before been published. They contain some amusing pictures of Glasgow College in the last century, and “afford what was perhaps wanting to Mr. Stewart’s portraiture of Reid—they shew us the philosopher in all the unaffected simplicity of his character, and as he appeared to his friends in the familiar intercourse of ordinary life.” (2.) Nine letters addressed to Lord Kames, and already published in Lord Woodhouselee’s Memoirs of that philosopher. These afford some suggestive thoughts on what we may style the metaphysics of physical science. This and the former body of letters, also illustrate Reid’s intelligent interest in the sciences of external nature, such as chemistry and mechanics, on their own account. (3.) A selection from upwards of twenty of Reid’s letters to his kinsman, the late Dr. James Gregory, Professor of the Practice of Medicine in the University of Edinburgh. Of these the most curious parts relate to the controversy on free-will, and to the theory of causation.
Stewart’s “Account of the Life and Writings of Reid,” is a work so well known to most of those in this country who are even moderately versed in the history of recent philosophy, that we need hardly occupy our readers upon anything like an abstract of its contents. A life of which the greater part was passed in the humble but agreeable seclusion of academical office successively in two Scottish provincial universities, cannot be expected to offer incident for the gratification of the lovers of brilliant external adventure, and must derive its interest from the peculiarities of the mental phenomena which it manifests, and the circumstances by which these were called forth, or amid which they struggled into action. Himself born in the commencement of the eighteenth century, Dr. Reid’s ancestors by the father’s side were for generations ministers of the Church of Scotland, in the parishes of Upper Banchory in Aberdeenshire, and Strachan in Kincardineshire, and some of them were not unknown in the world of letters. By his mother he was connected with the most illustrious of the Scottish hereditary aristocracy of talent—the renowned family of Gregory. The name of Reid, and the associations connected with his family, may thus increase the interest of the thoughtful traveller in the beautiful vale of Dee. As the favourite residence of Reid himself, and of his friends Campbell, Gerard, and Beattie, the town and neighbourhood of Aberdeen may be regarded as classic ground in reference to the Philosophy of Scotland.
The early youth of the philosopher does not seem to have given remarkable promise of the eminence which he afterwards reached, but his love for an academic life was soon indicated, and probably increased by his more than usually (in Scotland) protracted residence at Marischal College, and by his subsequent visits to the more splendid academical establishments of England. For fifteen years he was pastor of the remote rural parish of New Machar, where, according to Mr. Stewart, “the greater part of his time was spent in the most intense study; more particularly in a careful examination of the laws of external perception, and of the other principles which form the groundwork of human knowledge.” Gardening and botany were the chief relaxations of the meditative country clergyman. In 1752, he was elected Professor of Philosophy in King’s College, Aberdeen, where he found the opportunity to mature his fundamental doctrine, and to test it in a course of active public instruction, at the same time that he was one of the founders and leaders of a Literary Society, which then rendered Aberdeen a focus of Scottish intellect. From King’s College Reid was, in 1764, removed to the chair of Morals in Glasgow, which he occupied actively for nearly twenty years, after which, until his death in 1796, he was engaged in preparing for the press and publishing his final and more elaborate treatises, in a serene old age, eminently characteristic of the long term of cheerful meditative industry, and the habits of integrity and self-control which had marked his life.*
The Scottish Philosophy of Dr. Reid, and the ScotoGerman Philosophy of Sir William Hamilton, constitute together an important stage in the great revolution which metaphysical science has been undergoing since the age of Des Cartes, and as such, they occupy an important historical place in modern philosophy. A few sentences of explanation may illustrate this.
Des Cartes is an influential and prominent person in the succession of great thinkers, chiefly because he was a thorough-going doubter, who, by means of his doubts, got rid of an accumulation of propositions, assumed on authority to be true,—the intellectual division, generalization, and argumentation of the contents of which formed the materiel of the preceding or scholastic epoch of philosophy. The Cartesian “scepticism” raked up the foundations of things, and during the lifetime of the philosopher himself, as well as since, it has communicated a corresponding impulse to meditative minds by whom his works have been studied. Des Cartes doubted in order to believe and know. From the foundation down to which his doubts conducted him, he attempted to rear a comprehensive theory of knowledge. But the reconstructive has exerted small influence compared to the destructive part of his teaching, and it is mainly through the operation of the latter element that a revolution in the manner of thinking regarding the first principles of every sort of knowledge is the permanent result of his labours.
The period of the history of human thought that has intervened since Des Cartes, is filled by a series of more or less imperfect reconstructions of philosophy, i.e., of the ultimate theory of knowledge,—out of the confusion consequent upon the sceptical method of the French philosopher. The attempt of Locke, in the “Essay concerning Human Understanding,” is the first of prominent historical importance. That great work is still properly an unfinished one. The metaphysical thinking of the last century and a half has been to a great degree employed in working out the problem suggested in it, which the author himself had, however, carried a long way towards a satisfactory solution. The name of Locke, associated with the names of Clarke and Butler, distinguishes the close of the seventeenth and the commencement of the eighteenth century as the Augustan era of metaphysical science in the southern division of the island.
The imperfection or one-sidedness of Locke’s philosophy, as regards the expression of its fundamental principles, was exhibited, in what is virtually the form of a reductio ad absurdum, by David Hume, in his “Treatise of Human Nature,” where, on the principles of Locke, all knowledge is reduced to a succession of phenomena, while absolute existence and human philosophy are proved to imply a tissue of contradictions.
The philosophical doubts of Hume occasioned another independent effort to find the theory of knowledge. A conservative reaction, against the universal scepticism which he had extracted from the doctrine of Locke, was manifested almost contemporaneously in Scotland by Thomas Reid, and in Germany by Immanuel Kant—in Scotland with a tendency to what is practical and palpable, and in Germany to idealism and pantheism.
The epoch of Reid and Kant is distinguished by making the original structure of human intelligence a principal object of scientific attention. Each philosopher sought to find in that quarter a refuge from scepticism, and the only possible ultimate explanation of knowledge. Reid, on the inductive method of Bacon, systematically collected, under the name of “principles of common sense,” those inexplicable beliefs, or original living facul ties, which must be assumed in all knowledge. His doctrine is formed by means of a reflex attention to that common sense which is spontaneously exercised by the many. Kant, assuming the famous test of necessity as the basis of his critical investigation, demonstrated the originality of many of those notions which Hume had rendered up as the illusions of a universe of mere phenomena. He thus exhibited a theory of subjective knowledge, seemingly self-consistent and permanent; while Reid exhibited those beliefs which are the security, if not the explanation, of all knowledge, subjective and objective. Both supplemented Locke. The “Essay concerning Human Understanding” had furnished an important analysis of what is contributed to our knowledge by experience, marked by the freshness of an independent thinker, who subjects old assumptions to a renewed act of careful observation. But in his desire to find, by means of induction, the limits within which the human mind may be advantageously occupied, Locke had omitted to examine critically the original structure of intellect that is implied in the ability to gain such experimental knowledge as he had noted and analyzed in his survey of the mind and its stores. The schools of Reid and Kant have given the prominence, which Locke neglected to assign, to this object of investigation in the prosecution of the theory of knowledge. The common sense of Reid is the object of Scottish inductive investigation; the categories of Kant of German formal criticism.
The philosophy of Sir William Hamilton is to a large extent a fusion of the spirit and doctrines of Reid and Kant, wrought by an independent and highly speculative mind, and adapted to the stage in the progress of the theory of knowledge which follows the last seventy years of German thinking. The philosophy of Reid was pointed against a scepticism that, as we shall afterwards show, was the result of a doctrine of representational perception. The philosophy of Sir William Hamilton is fitted besides this to meet the virtual scepticism of the German absolutists, by a demonstration of the necessary limitation of all possible human knowledge to what is relative and conditional. The old Scottish philosophy maintained, against those who deny that science is possible, the existence of a body of vital beliefs, which are sufficient to infuse reality into our knowledge. The new Scottish philosophy uses the original beliefs and notions of the mind, at once against the sceptics, and against the philosophers who arrogate to man a knowledge of the infinite and the absolute. In the eighteenth century the citadel of human knowledge, and the ultimate foundations of human action, were assailed by Hume, on the principles taught by Locke and adorned by Berkeley. In the nineteenth century the assault is conducted by Schelling, Hegel, and the Continental transcendentalists, on principles suggested by Kant and Fichte. The Notes and Dissertations of Sir W. Hamilton are a refinement of our older national philosophy, and an expansion of its basis, fitted to adapt its doctrines to the rational defence of the knowledge that is gained by man, in his progress of inductive research along that via media between Pyrrhonism and Transcendentalism—extremes that virtually meet—which alone is open to him during his sojourn on this “isthmus of a middle state.”
But we must be more definite in our account of this stage in the Cartesian revolution. For this purpose three central ideas of the new Scottish Philosophy of Sir William Hamilton, selected from a host of others, presented in these Notes and Dissertations, which, with their text, embrace problems in the whole circle of the sciences of metaphysics, logic, and morals, may be employed as the basis of the remaining part of this Essay.
I. The theory of Common Sense, regarded as at once supporting and limiting human knowledge, which is developed in the first and most extended of the dissertations, and suggested in various of the footnotes throughout the work.
II. The theory of immediate or conscious external Perception, expounded in the four dissertations on “presentative and representative knowledge;” on “the various theories of external perception;” on “the distinction of the primary and secondary qualities of matter;” and on “perception proper and sensation proper.” It is also referred to in the footnotes, especially those on the “Inquiry,” and the second of the “Essays” on the intellectual powers.
III. The germs or scintillations of a theory of Freewill, or responsible agency, which are contained in the footnotes on Reid’s essay on “the Liberty of moral agents.”
The characteristic distinction and professed aim of the old Scottish philosophy is, as we have seen, the refutation of Hume's scepticism, and the recovery of the First Principles of knowledge out of the ruin which it had occasioned. Dr. Reid himself, in an often (quoted passage of one of his letters to Dr. Gregory, asserts indeed that his peculiar merit lies "in having called in question the common theory of ideas or images in the mind being the only objects of thought." But the two statements are not opposed, and it may be interesting to some of our readers to have the opportunity of reflecting upon their coincidence. The course of thought along which we propose to conduct them with a view to afford this opportunity, as it implies an intelligent apprehension of the Scottish refutation of philosophical scepticism, may also suggest in its progress some important questions regarding the value of a philosophical vindication and explanation of human knowledge in general, and the influence of such treatment of it upon the establishment and extension of particular departments of science, and especially of that science which regards man in his most sacred relation.
The philosophical tendency may be popularly described as the question-putting tendency. Of every ascertained or alleged fact philosophy seeks the explanation. Science is a species of knowledge. The scientific kind of knowledge includes the possession of a precise and comprehensive acquaintance with its particular objects, and their relations. Thus we are said to know the solar system scientifically, because we can allege the law of gravitation in explanation of the various mechanical phenomena which are thereby connected. Other portions of our physical knowledge approach more or less nearly to the dignity of scientific, in proportion as their parts are joined in the tie of defined relations which, as the first principles of the science, at once unite and explain them.
But such explanations as those that are supplied even by the most advanced of our physical sciences are evidently incomplete, and the knowledge which they convey can hardly be styled philosophical. The last answers they afford to us only suggest more questions. Gravitation itself, for instance, or polarity, or electricity, need still to be accounted for, in order to satisfy philosophy, and explanations of them, if obtained, are only steps on the road of an infinite regress of analogous questions. But as an infinite number of receding explanations is in itself an absurdity, and at variance with the limitation of the human understanding, there must be some point into which the answers shall finally converge. That ultimate point must be admitted to be the original structure of the mind of man.
What we have illustrated of physical induction holds good also of the results of deduction. Every explanation must rest on the inexplicable, and every demonstration must rest on the indemonstrable, while the last alleged inexplicable and indemonstrable belief is an instinct of human nature.
If all the sciences must thus converge in first principles, of which the only possible explanation is a statement of our own original mental structure, that structure itself may, it is evident, be made an object of the question-putting tendency. Though we cannot transcend our original notions and beliefs, we may at least collect or cricitise them. Those ultimate faiths, which cannot themselves be theorized, may be made the objects of metaphysical contemplation, as the mysterious foundation of human knowledge, and thus, as Mr. Hume profoundly remarks, “the most perfect philosophy of the natural kind only staves off our ignorance a little longer, as perhaps the most perfect philosophy of the moral or metaphysical kind serves only to discover larger portions of it.”
Questions regarding the nature and number of the ultimate answers that can be given to the principle in man which suggests questions, are not likely to be put in the infancy of the human understanding, although answers to them are craved by the developed faculties of knowledge. The account of the manner in which these inquiries were fairly raised in modern times, is a remarkable chapter in the history of the mind of man and of philosophy, which we now proceed to sketch.
The modern metaphysical controversy with scepticism has turned upon the prevalent doctrine with regard to what is the immediate object of knowledge—a very curious part of the general theory of the intellect. An acquaintance even with the works of Dr. Reid is sufficient to render the reader familiar with the fact of the very general reception, previous to the time of that philosopher, of the doctrine of representative images or ideas, to account for all knowledge, except that which we have of our own mental operations, of which last it was usually granted that we are directly conscious. Mind, it was supposed, can be conscious only of itself, and the hypothesis of a representative knowledge was invented to explain the phenomenon—which theorists regard as the grand difficulty of intellectual psychology—of a conscious intelligence, a large part of whose knowledge is not exclusively self-contained.
The hypothesis of mental representations, distinct at once from the percipient mind and from the object perceived, seems to have been, in some form or other, a very common one previous to the publication of Reid’s philosophical treatises; although Des Cartes, Arnauld, and most of the Cartesians, Leibnitz, and probably Locke, understood by mental ideas, only modes of the mind itself in their representative capacity. The ideas assailed by Reid were, however, entities distinct from the act of perception, and they were employed to account for our knowledge of the material world, and for the phenomena of memory, imagination, and reasoning. These intellectual phenomena were supposed to have become more intelligible when—on the basis of self-knowledge, and without any critical account of what other notions and beliefs are implied in the ability to observe, experiment, remember, and compare—the existence of such representative images was assumed by the philosopher, in working his theory of knowledge from within the region of the mind outwards, to independent and permanent realities.
The inadequacy of this supposed intellectual machinery to afford an ultimate explanation of knowledge is manifest, especially in two respects. 1. In its opposition to the belief that has been inserted in the structure of our mental constitution, that we have a direct knowledge of the qualities of matter—this hypothesis regarding the understanding as in immediate connexion only with what is representative of these qualities. 2. It is implied that the philosophers who maintain this doctrine, thereby overlook the need, or at least superficially perform the process of a comprehensive inductive examination of the first principles of knowledge and belief, apart from which no real progress can be made towards the philosophy of knowledge.
The issue of philosophical scepticism is the analysis of knowledge into a succession of isolated phenomena, or into a series of notions of which no one can be predicated of another. The method employed by the pyrrhonist is to show that a radical contradiction is implied in every attempt to collect phenomena into science, or even into fragments of science, thus paralyzing the grasp of those beliefs and notions which create and cement our knowledge. But although David Hume worked this sceptical method with success against a metaphysical hypothesis which resolves all knowledge into experience alone, and accounts for its entrance, and its various kinds, by means of representations, the practical part of our nature always declares, by continuing in a state of activity, that human knowledge is in itself susceptible of a consistent defence, and at all events of a relative explanation, for a sane man hardly ever Italic textacts the sceptic, at least in the affairs of this life. It is for the philosopher to reconcile the speculative and the practical part of human nature, either by giving evidence that all our beliefs and notions are explicable, or else by exhibiting those of them that are mysterious in contrast to those of them which can be explained.
To do something towards the accomplishment of this task was the aim of Dr. Reid. With a view to this, the prevalent doctrine of representative perception must be overthrown, because it is inconsistent with experience, and with the fundamental notions and beliefs which belong to the original structure of the human mind, as an agent consciously capable of knowing, and coming into direct and practical contact with, objects that are independent of itself. An inductive enumeration must, besides, be made of those first principles which the older philosophy had overlooked and in consequence traversed. And Reid has set himself to effect each of these tasks. He has exploded the favourite hypothesis of representative images or entities, by showing that it is destitute of the evidence of internal experience, irrational, contradictory to the immediate dictates of our faculties, and, therefore, by vitiating the testimony of our original mental structure in one department of its utterances, and thus precluding any decisive appeal to its testimony as the ultimate criterion of truth in any other, fairly resolvable into universal scepticism. He has also, both in the “Inquiry” and the “Essays,” in the course of an analytic examination of the phenomena of the external senses, memory, imagination, and reasoning, collected many other specimens of judgments of which we cannot rid ourselves, while, at the same time, we cannot explain their presence in the mind by means of any derived origin. To a faith in these utterances of our nature he had cleared a road by removing the hypothesis of representative perception, and thus enabling philosophy to return, in that particular, to an acknowledgment of the credit of the common sense. In a word, Reid removed the excrescence of representations, which, in spite of common sense, the philosopher had introduced into the theory of perception, and demanded the homage of the speculative world to the other judgments of the violated principle, which he had noted and treasured up in the course of an experimental investigation of his own mind.
But the powerful tendency of the habit of self-observation to lose the way that conducts out of self-consciousness, has, notwithstanding Reid’s protest, retained its sway, and led its victims through paths of illusive idealism more retired and seductive than any of those against which he had warned them. The hypothesis of images numerically distinct from the percipient mind, which constitute the entire material world of Berkeley, has indeed been almost banished from philosophical literature by Reid, but only to leave all the room for a more refined hypothesis of representation, which is still very generally received by Continental and British metaphysicians. The exposition and criticism of this subtle species of the doctrine of representative knowledge is one of the principal novelties of the philosophical works of Sir William Hamilton, and his disquisition deserves study, were it only as the most elaborate specimen of purely speculative ingenuity that modern British philosophy has yet produced. We can afford only a few sentences to this subject, and must refer the reader to these Dissertations.
A quality or phenomenon of mind, e.g., a sensation, judgment, or desire, is evidently an object of knowledge to the mind itself not less than a quality or phenomenon of matter is. On the doctrine of the representationalist philosophers to whom we have referred, the observing mind is in fact in closer connexion with its own observed qualities than with the observed qualities of matter, and, in the opinion of many of them, we know the latter through the medium of the sensations which they occasion in the former. According to Dr. Thomas Brown, for instance, we know immediately, i.e., are conscious of, all our mental states, whereas any external object is known only by means of certain modes of mind (external states or sensations) which its presence has somehow occasioned. In this view of perception, the intercourse of the mind with the external world is through the intermediate sensations which alone are perceived by it; but in self-consciousness it is in direct intercourse with its objects. As in the less refined hypothesis of representation, the sphere of immediate knowledge is still confined within the mind itself, only instead of a succession of representative entities, distinct at once from the percipient mind and from the material object, the understanding is presented with a succession of its own states. Each of these evanescent modes of mind, is, according to the relation in which it happens to be regarded, either an object or an act of perception. Now, it is argued by Sir William Hamilton that the germ of universal scepticism is latent in this more subtle, as Reid had proved it to be latent in a less refined, hypothesis respecting our knowledge of matter. On neither hypothesis do we get directly beyond the objects of self-consciousness, and, therefore, as each is said to violate that utterance of the original judgments of our nature which declares that we do, on neither can we get beyond the succession of our own thoughts and feelings, while in both even this self-knowledge itself becomes illusory, and must fall with the original faith that has been, in both hypotheses, assumed to be deceitful.
Sir William Hamilton deals by the mental modes of this refined or egoistical idealism as Dr. Reid had dealt by the representative entities, which are not mental modes, of non-egoistical idealism. Discarding the interposition of any state of the mind as the immediate object of perceptive knowledge, or of any reflex act of mind upon its own sensations as a requisite for our first apprehension of the outer world, he maintains that certain of the qualities of matter are the direct objects of a mysterious insight, and thus that the mind is conscious of material as well as of mental qualities. On this theory we become immediately acquainted, at least in certain limited relations, with the material world that is outside and independent of us, and on the foundation of this direct apprehension of a very limited portion of its contents—to wit, its Primary Qualities—we gradually reach, in the light of our former information, by means of abstraction and reasoning aided by habit and association, that growing knowledge of its properties, which in the earlier stages of its progress collects some of the secondary qualities of matter, obtains the notions of distance and form by means of sight alone, educates the general senses to an indefinite acuteness, and rises at last to those varied and recondite properties, characteristic of the different objects, by a precise acquaintance with the nature and laws of which, the physical sciences are con stituted. An inductive history of this whole process is a principal part, as it is still a desideratum, in psychology. Much that is valuable for the explanation of its earlier stages has been contributed in the Dissertation on the “Primary and Secondary Qualities of Body” a dissertation which appears to us to form an important step of progress in this department of mental science.
The opposite to this theory of a consciousness of certain qualities of matter, which is itself styled Natural Realism, is the doctrine of Absolute Idealism, which denies to the material world any external independent existence. Intermediate between the two are the various hypotheses of representative perception or Hypothetical Realism.
It is evident that this alleged immediateness of our knowledge of the qualities of matter is to be contrasted, not merely with that sort of mediate knowledge which is implied in the possession of the results of inductive or deductive reasoning, but also with that other kind of mediate knowledge which, according to some philosophers, (and among others Sir William Hamilton, who has rediscovered and revived the old scholastic distinction of presentative and representative knowledge,) is implied in every act of memory and imagination. It is a more subtle analysis than the familiar one, which divides the propositions that compose what we believe, into those that are the result of reasoning, and those that are known by us intuitively, and it suggests some curious questions regarding the nature and economy of certain of our intellectual functions.
One characteristic of the view of this economy that is taken in the Dissertations, is the development of a distinction—open to reflex observation and investigation— between that knowledge of the phenomena of matter, now and here present, to which the name Consciousness is exclusively appropriated, and which is asserted not to involve any act of mediate self-consciousness, and that other knowledge—of the past and possible—which is, on the contrary, maintained to imply an act of the mind conscious of its own state as representative of something separate from the state itself. Thus, when I imagine a scene described in the Iliad, or when I remember the events of yesterday, the immediate objects of my knowledge are certain phenomena of my own mind. Let the siege of Troy, or the events of yesterday be enacted before my senses, and the immediate objects of my knowledge are radically qualities of matter. When we know the possible and the past, the very operation of knowing is the only object of which the mind is conscious. But when we know the present states of our own minds, or the present primary qualities of matter, these states and qualities are known in themselves, and not through the medium of a representative mental state. Memory and imagination is thus each of them a species of self-consciousness, in which the intellect has for its immediate objects those phenomena of self, which form, in the one the acts of remembering past objects of perception or self-consciousness, and in the other of apprehending the creations of the poetical faculty.
This theory of the knowledge of what self once was conscious of, in the modes or qualities of self, contrasted with the more direct sort of knowledge of consciousness, suggests a variety of questions, and, among others, an inquiry into the laws according to which those objects of the mind that are at first observed, in a direct experience of the inner and outer world, become, as objects of memory and imagination, converted into mental modes, and pass into the current of our associated thoughts. This field of investigation may, perhaps, be illustrated by the well-known doctrine of Leibnitz, regarding latent states of consciousness, to which Sir William Hamilton often refers in the course of his philosophical writings.
The theory of perception maintained by Sir William Hamilton is not likely, we think, to exhaust discussion in a province which experience has proved to be so fitted to kindle metaphysical genius, and to give scope to speculative ingenuity. The new and revived doctrines of which his philosophy is composed, have uncovered too many unsolved difficulties to permit such a result; and we are inclined to expect an increase rather than an abatement of the intellectual gladiatorship which has hitherto been associated with the theory of our knowledge of matter, as the result of a more diffused acquaintance with the assumptions and arguments of these Dissertations.
It should be remembered, however, that it is as the arena of the struggle with philosophical scepticism, that this region of speculation has attracted combatants, earnest in the defence and development of the theory of human knowledge, as well as in the endeavour to reconcile intelligence with practice, and to maintain for man the possibility of sciences, relative and limited, yet solid and suited to his circumstances. It is when regarded in relation to a specimen in one department, of the manner in which the war against this scepticism is to be maintained in all, that the question respecting a presentative or representative knowledge of the external world is likely to be studied with most seriousness, and that it connects itself most nearly with our natural feelings and desires.
The science of metaphysics—in its polemical aspect, the controversy with the Pyrrhonists—is a region into which those are forced who seek the ultimate answers that can be given to the inquiry, as to how much man is capable of knowing in any of the sciences. “Reasoning,” says Pascal, “confounds the dogmatist, and nature the sceptic.” It is the aim of the metaphysician to compose this difference—a task which the philosophy of Common Sense accomplishes in the only manner in which it can be effected by man. That philosophy seeks for, and renders prominent the inexplicable feelings, judgments, and notions in which reasoning and nature meet; and in doing this, it ascends to the highest elevation that the human mind can reach, so long, at least, as man is constituted as he is. It is here that man gains the most comprehensive survey of the sciences, and were it not that the elevation is likely to dim his vision of the separate objects of which the panorama is composed, it is from thence that each science receives for him its most pervading illumination. There all his knowledge tends towards the organized unity—the sophia of the old Greek—to which our understandings can only make an approach; and, as regards which, man assumes his highest function when it is the object of his love and aspiration, according to the original eloquent meaning of the word philosophy.
It is as much for the sake of this illumination, as for the purposes of defence, that we need to foster those habits which send us in quest of the First Principles of metaphysics. Nature is usually sufficiently strong to defend, for all the uses of life, those portions of knowledge which the powerful original motives of human activity require to be converted into practice, and she can always silence, by means of action, the objections of the few sceptical adventurers who seek to find their way behind the scenes, and ingeniously contrive literally to lose themselves in the attempt. “All sceptical reasoning,” says Sir James Mackintosh, “is merely blowing up the ship, where you and your enemy go into the air together.” But the speculative consistency and completeness of those sections of knowledge, which form the various sciences, is materially diminished, and the sciences themselves must inevitably undergo a process of gradual deterioration, if human thought is not sometimes turned towards those remote outworks, whence so commanding a view may be gained of what is knowable, in contrast with what cannot be known. If the comprehensiveness of the knowledge that is possessed by the students of the subordinate sciences is increased, as wider laws are, in their several provinces, gradually revealed to observation and experiment,—if the discovery of gravitation, for instance, is perceived to be valuable because it has illustrated the whole region of mechanics—this analogy may help to explain the effect, upon what we may call the style in which we hold every kind of knowledge, of a habit of intimacy with those highest laws, which, as ultimate propositions, mark the frontier that may not be passed by the human intellect. The progress of physical discovery upon this planet has become more enlightened since men have learned its figure, and the limits within which their exploration has been confined by the Creator. The fears of the followers of Columbus are now unknown, nor is El Dorado any longer searched for. In like manner, the more nearly the metaphysician is able to find the precise sphere within which our researches must be confined, the more successfully may we expect knowledge to be converted into science, and the more submissive should be our reverence, when we turn to those mysteries which are created for us by the limitations of human thought, which are disclosed to metaphysical investigation. The elements of philosophical faith—or, in the language of Reid, the principles of common sense—which are acted on by all, but to which the metaphysician alone directs an intelligent attention, as the special objects of his own science, are the materials of the foundation on which must rest that Classification of the Sciences, towards which “Advancement of Learning.” This survey and arrangement of these definite, solid, and self-consistent sections of knowledge, appears to be the appropriate business of the philosophers of the ensuing age. It implies a clear account of what that is which entitles any portion of knowledge to the designation of scientific, what the methods are by which vague, and narrow or imperfect knowledge may become science, what the principles may be which mark off one science into a province distinct from another, and what the bond of connexion among all the sciences is, with the scale of their relative value and importance, and the place of each as a part of that organic whole into which the philosophic mind seeks to mould all its knowledge. The strength and precision of mind needed for a task like this, must be, in a great measure, regulated by the success of metaphysicians in detecting First Principles.
Sir William Hamilton has greatly illustrated metaphysical science by the clearness and distinctness which he has infused into the theory of common sense expounded by Reid, and maintained by him in common with the great majority of ancient and modern philosophers, it being, “notwithstanding many schismatic aberrations, the one catholic and perennial philosophy,” while the very name common sense “is the term under which that doctrine has been most familiarly known, at least in the Western world.”
There are two statements connected with this doctrine which should be carefully noted and reflected on by the metaphysical student. Of these the one is a question of terminology, and relates to the precise object, or collection of objects, that is signified by the technical term “common sense,” when it is used as the term expressive of the proper province of his science. The other is a question of scientific method, and enforces the necessity of the labour of analysis and criticism for the discovery and arrangement of the genuine principles of common sense, purified from the prejudices and conventionalisms with which they are apt to be confounded, and by which they are almost always marred.
Common sense, as a term of science in metaphysics, expresses those notions and beliefs which are essential to man regarded as an intellectual and moral being. The existence of such original convictions is assumed when man is declared to be capable of collecting knowledge from experience; but they are not themselves built up of the materials of experience. Reflective induction may observe and systematize them, but it is not as the results of induction that they have gained an entrance into the mind. The phrase Common Sense, when used in the higher philosophy, is to be entirely dissociated from its more vague and popular meanings, in which it expresses natural prudence, or acquired skill in the management of common affairs and in the intercourse of society. These unscientific significations, while they are expressive of mental qualities which, on their own account, very much deserve the attention of psychologists, are likely to be productive of confusion when the term is used metaphysically, inasmuch as many popular principles of common sense are far indeed from having any proper claim to the dignity of ultimate notions and beliefs. Instead of the collected original judgments of the human mind, appeals to common sense are often directed to the prejudices of individuals, which must be analyzed not into the inspirations of the Author of our mental structure, but into the perverseness of him on whom that structure has been bestowed.
The detection of the genuine principles of common sense is therefore the result of an intellectual effort which requires qualities peculiar to the philosopher, and the argument from common sense is no irrational appeal to vulgar feeling. The reflex criticism which distinguishes the primary from the other qualities of matter, and which appropriates the former exclusively to the external world, is an illustration, from the phenomena of perception, of the difference between an intelligent and an unscientific appeal to the ultimate criterion of truth. Analogous illustrations might be quoted, from other provinces of knowledge, of the manner in which prejudice is sifted, by the application of this test, and these also may be made to prove that the purport of the Scottish philosophy is by no means to encourage the mob to carry away the ark of metaphysics.
In short, we may admit with D’Alembert, quoted in the Dissertations, “That the truth in metaphysics, like the truth in matters of taste, is a truth of which all minds have the germ within themselves; to which, indeed, the greater number pay no attention, but which they recognise the moment it is pointed out to them. . . But if, in this sort, all are able to understand, all are not able to instruct. The merit of conveying easily to others true and simple notions is much greater than is commonly supposed; for experience proves how rarely this is to be met with. Sound metaphysical ideas are the common truths which every one apprehends, but which few have the talent to develop.” “The first problem of philosophy,” adds the Scottish philosopher, “and it is one of no easy accomplishment, being thus to seek out, purify, and establish, by intellectual analysis and criticism, the elementary feelings and beliefs, in which are given the elementary truths of which all are in possession; and the argument from common sense being the allegation of those feelings and beliefs, as explicated and ascertained, in proof of the relative truths and their necessary consequences, this argument is manifestly dependent on philosophy as an art, as an acquired dexterity, and cannot, notwithstanding the errors which they have frequently committed, be taken out of the hands of philosophers. Common sense is like common law. Each may be laid down as the general rule of decision; but in one case it must be left to the jurist, in the other to the philosopher, to ascertain what are the contents of the rule; and though in both cases the common man may be cited as a witness for the custom of the fact, in neither can he be allowed to officiate as advocate or as judge. . . We may, in short, say of the philosopher what Erasmus, in an Epistle to Hiitten, said of Sir Thomas More: ‘Nemo minus ducitur vulgi judicio; sed rursus nemo minus abest a sensu communi.’“
We have referred to the efforts of the Scottish school to extract, by means of analytic criticism, those principles of common sense which relate to our knowledge of the qualities of matter, seeing that, as already stated, it is chiefly in this province that the contest with philosophical scepticism has been maintained in Britain, and especially because the theory of external perception is the central point of Sir William Hamilton’s re-statement and vindication of the conservative philosophy of common sense. But if our metaphysical science in this country has hitherto been chiefly suggested in that region of research, we must not forget that the struggle with scepticism has, in the most profoundly thoughtful nation of Europe, been transferred for us from the arena of our beliefs about matter to the arena of our beliefs about religion. These last have in Germany been put through an ordeal as severe as that which this volume contains evidence that the former have passed through at home, and scepticism is much less able practically to distort the mind of man with regard to what concerns the present life than with regard to what concerns the life to come. A critical application of some of our higher minds to those principles of common sense that relate to our faith in God, and our notions of the relation between God and man, which should bring back to its origin this part of our knowledge, would correspond, in the region of theology, to the task attempted by Reid and Sir William Hamilton in the metaphysics of perception.
The Scottish sceptical philosophy of Hume is, indeed, throughout irreligious. But his antagonists in this country have as yet attempted little for the satisfaction of the scientific principle by a statement of the metaphysics of religion. In Germany his doctrines have formed part of the seed that has there produced, during the last two generations, the rank crop of religious scepticism, which is now imported into the popular literature of Britain and America, in the new species of infidelity which makes a virtual excision of those principles of common sense that lie at the root of our religious knowledge. An intelligent attention is due, on the part of those who are the authorized teachers of religion, to the progress of a form of scepticism which, while it sublimates the Divine personality into the illusion of the Absolute, excludes the possibility of all positive theological knowledge, by discrediting the original or derived faculties for obtaining ideas of the supernatural, nullifying the argument from final causes, and refusing to receive alleged miraculous events as by possibility credentials of what is divine, and which thus descends with the elementary controversy about religion, from the actual objective evidence to be sought for on its behalf, to—what is clearly a lower stratum—a criticism of our subjective faculties for the apprehension of natural, and especially of supernatural and positive revelation, and of the possibility of finite phenomena of any kind yielding evidence regarding what is infinite. An adjustment of these questions, capable of explaining the manner in which the human understanding is enabled to rise, on the ladder of available evidence, from the relative and finite phenomena of the mental and material worlds, to the region of religion or the supernatural, and which should also be in analogy with the Scottish philosophical account of our notions and original judgments respecting the qualities of mind and matter, would supplement what is still a defect in our national metaphysics.
A mental experience of the divinity of the gospel system, which is gained by acting it out in the details of a holy life, is certainly a practical escape from those questions of science. Without this, even the speculative task of the theologian cannot be accomplished, and it is chiefly in order to foster and render intelligent that habit of life that the task is worth his toil. But his work is not then done. Those to whom the written word is the centre of all truth, regarding the “things unseen and eternal,” and the moral mystery of human life, cannot count valueless, thoughtful answers to such questions as refer to the manner in which the positive evidence of religion is reached by man, so that his thought, even while confined, by the necessity of its original structure, to the level of the relative and the conditioned, may be exercised on the objects of a religious faith, that precisely meets the wants of the human intelligence as well as of the human conscience.
The comment on Reid’s essay on “The Liberty of Moral Agents,” is the part of the notes and dissertations that is most nearly related to the theory of religion and morality. Some account of it, and estimate of its value, as a contribution to the ceaseless controversy of metaphysicians and theologians on the mysterious topic of responsible agency, may interest those of our readers who are inclined to pay attention to the quæstiones vexatce of the nature, possibility, and explanation of free-will. We must, however, restrict our reference to this subject within very narrow limits, having already more than exhausted our space.
Sir William Hamilton, in common with his predecessors of the old Scottish school—Reid and Stewart—is a firm defender of the possibility of free-will. He maintains that the reality of a power or liberty, to will what we will, is testified to us indirectly, if not directly, by the experience of our own consciousness, and that the possession of it is essential to all activity of which the modes are properly objects of praise or blame. Such freedom is the root of man’s personality, and constitutes his power of self-control over the desires and affections that have been inserted in his mind and committed to his government.
Amid much obscurity and diversity in their account of the nature of free-will, a doctrine of liberty has, with few exceptions, till recent times, been maintained by the most religious and earnest of our British philosophers. Cudworth and Clarke attacked the opposite hypothesis of necessity as a citadel of the Atheists and Materialists of that age, and as interwoven with the speculations of Hobbes and also of Spinoza. In the eighteenth century, the assault on free-will was conducted by the Unitarians Priestley and Belsham, and the system of necessity has since been used by the Socialists and Communists of our own times, as a popular engine for the defence of their doctrines. It is also important to note that the modern doctrine of universal necessity is apparently at variance with what is said concerning free-will, and particularly with the prominence which is given to the fall, in the doctrinal symbols of the Reformation. These creeds assume the possibility of a free-will, when they assert that human freedom was lost, “as to any spiritual good accompanying salvation,” in the fall of Adam. The loss of freedom clearly implies the possibility of it, for what is lost must once have existed. But on the system of universal necessity, free-will must be denied to man, whether fallen or unfallen, and even to God himself; and the fall cannot consist in the loss of what is in itself radically inconsistent with the tie which connects all the phenomena of the universe.
Yet the doctrine of free-will has, during the last and the present century, been exposed to the attacks of men of an aim and spirit very different from those of the infidel necessarians to whom we have referred. A system of universal necessity, substantially the same with that of Hobbes and Collins, was employed for the defence of some of the more peculiar doctrines of the Calvinistic interpretation of Christianity, by one of the most vigorous of the thinkers who in modern times have consecrated intellect to the service of revealed religion. President Edwards of New England, in his well-known “Inquiry into the modern prevailing notions of that Freedom of the Will, &c.,” adopted the necessarian hypothesis, as a foundation on which certain portions of the interpretation of Scripture, contained in the Reformed Confessions, might be unanswerably vindicated from the attacks of the philosophers.
The substance of the argument thus adopted by Edwards is likely to be familiar to most of those who are interested in this discussion. The essential part of his reasoning may be condensed within a few sentences, although, owing to the expansion needed for the application of it to meet the various forms of objection, philosophical and theological, by which it had been or might be assailed, it has been diffused through a treatise of considerable size. The fundamental assumption of the whole book is the unlimited application of the law of causation, and the consequent existence of an infinite succession of derived causes or antecedents. The phenomenon to be thereby explained is the origin of our rational and responsible volitions. On the hypothesis assailed by Edwards, these acts of will are accounted for in each case by means of the assumption of a previous determination of the will itself, which was asserted to be possessed of the power of self-determination. The inconsistency of this explanation is clearly demonstrated in the first section of the second part of the “Inquiry,” which may be regarded as a summary of the argument which the modern antagonists of liberty are accustomed to present as an unassailable defence of a scheme of universal necessity, in which all acts of will, Divine as well as human, are included.
The series of syllogisms contained in the passage to which we have referred is irrefragable as against the conceptions of free-will at which it is pointed, if indeed an hypothesis of liberty such as is there assailed was ever distinctly maintained by any philosophical theologian of repute. But in truth, although the defenders of freedom have united against fatalism, they are far from being lucid or unanimous in the statement of their own doctrine. Even Reid’s writings on free-will can hardly be made to yield a consistent theory.
The most important advance, as it seems to us, that has been made by Sir William Hamilton, in the discus sion of this problem of philosophy, consists in the account which he has furnished of the very nature of the debated question, and of the real assumptions which every argument regarding it must imply. To gain a clear understanding of a disputed question, and of the conditions which must be conformed to before a true answer to it can be obtained, while it is usually a more painful and less manifest stage in the progress of a science or a doctrine, is often a more important one than the subsequent solution of its difficulties. It helps to fill the intellect with suggestive hypotheses of a kind appropriate to the peculiarities of the phenomena which are exposed for scientific explanation. The solution itself is frequently obvious when a new general principle has been obtained; and it is easier to attempt to account for fresh phenomena by means of old hypotheses than to find others which are at once new and true. Disputants have long been obliged to struggle with the haze that has invested the question regarding the meaning of moral agency, and that philosopher has rendered an important service who has in any measure dispelled the mist.
Dr. Reid maintains that liberty is conceivable. Sir William Hamilton asserts the fact of moral freedom as a possible but inexplicable mystery.
Unless the freedom which is maintained is only necessity under another name, there can, we think, be no question that it is a mystery, and as such inconceivable. But even when liberty is resolved into unlimited necessity, the mystery is only made to recede. It is more out of sight, but it still remains. The argument of the modern Necessarians, contained in the treatise of Edwards, takes for granted the inconceivable hypothesis of an infinite series of derived causes; for the Divine volitions, in common with all acts of created will, are conceived as links in an endless chain of antecedents and consequents. The defenders of this necessity easily prove the self-contradiction of that counter-hypothesis, which explains freedom by means of what is virtually either an infinite series of self-determinations, or else a series which ultimately merges in a necessity that is outside of the will. But on the latter, which is the selected alternative, they virtually assert the existence of an infinite series of derived causes in the universe, in order to account for the acts of will which constitute a part of the phenomena of the universe. Now this hypothesis is in itself as inconceivable as that of the self-origination of volitions, and has besides been proved contradictory and absurd in various of the arguments in behalf of the first principles of natural theology.
The modern Necessarians, represented by Edwards, have thus failed, even by means of the accumulation of ingenious and conclusive argument which they have produced, to raise this problem, regarding responsible actions, out of the region of the insoluble. The application of the theory of causation which they have made, is sufficient for a relative explanation of the phenomena of the physical sciences, because these sciences deal only with limited sections of the phenomena of the universe, regarded in those immediate, invariable, unconditional relations to one another, which have been fixed for them, and to which their objects are adapted, by the free First Cause and Governor of all, and which are commonly spoken of as the “laws of nature.” But the hypothesis of a chain of mutually dependent sequences, which is sufficient for the explanation that the sciences of external nature ask for, regarding the particular orders of phenomena which are their objects, implies the absurdity of a chain without a beginning, when brought, as it is before it is capable of yielding the Necessarian inference, to give a conclusive explanation of all the phenomena which may be made the objects of investigation by man. It cannot, therefore, act as an insurmountable bar against the possibility either of an uncreated or a created free-will.
In a word, on the side of liberty, man is lost in the mystery of absolute commencement. On the side of universal necessity, he is lost in the mystery, or rather the contradiction, of infinite dependent succession. And thus it seems a conclusive inference, that this long-debated problem is indeed insoluble by man, or by any other being whose power of thought is limited like his. It is, however, practically solved, as similar problems in regard to other objects of our speculative nature are, in the existence of those feelings, by which we are compelled to assume, as a first principle, our own responsibility for our acts of rational will. Possessing these, even without the possibility of any ultimate theory of moral agency for the gratification of the logical faculty, or finite understanding, men may consistently “follow after holiness,” and also receive, as possible, though inexplicable, the supernatural account which has been conveyed to them of the historical origin of that tendency to sin of which they experience the power, as well as of that free restoration from the “fallen state,” which, revealed in the Gospel, is mysteriously bestowed on the regenerate. This agrees, too, with the analogy of Scripture, for the Bible is full of both ideas—absolute commencement and derived volition—but it essays not to explain nor to reconcile them.
If the finite power of reasoning may be proved incapable to grasp the theory that is sufficient to account for responsible actions, consistently on the one hand with our belief regarding causation, and on the other, with the limitation of the series of causes which is assumed in those principles of the theistical argument that are at variance with the hypothesis of an infinite chain of derived causes, common sense includes among its other beliefs the conviction that we are created by God moral agents, responsible for those actions which we perform in relation to Him and to one another. This belief is sufficient to sustain our moral activity, even although the limits of the human intellect lay an arrest on further speculation, and therefore render it impossible for us to retain in the vocabulary of our purely intellectual conception such words as Free-will and Responsibility, except, indeed, for the purpose of having finger-posts, as it were, for guiding us to points of view where we may have some of the most impressive aspects of that realm of mystery, by which human thought is encompassed on all sides, and on which we may “break the spirit” in metaphysical contemplation. The problem which these words suggest, as far as it is exclusively speculative, is truly one which, when we attempt to develop it, stirs the mind to its profoundest depths, as it offers to us the alternatives of self-origination, or an infinite course of dependent acts of will.
With this negative rather than positive account of the theory of liberty, which, after all, only amounts to a statement of the reason why no conclusive solution can be given to the problem raised by the fact of moral agency, we leave the adjustment of the other questions connected with it to those who are ready to bestow additional thought on the ideas of causation and responsibility which are those that are most peculiarly involved in the subject. And with this brief reference to a single department of the argument regarding the theory of moral agency, we abruptly and reluctantly close our account of the struggle of the Philosophy of Common Sense with Scepticism, Idealism, and Necessarianism. We regret, for the sake of the science in which we have been expatiating, the necessary concentration of thought and expression, which is manifest in this Essay, as we fear that the preceding disquisitions may thus appear, except to persons previously familiar with such thoughts, to be addressed only to those “small hooks of the mind” which catch at and apprehend mere illusive abstractions, and to have little or no connexion with that knowledge which penetrates nature, and finds real inductive axioms in her phenomena.
We have reason to offer our cordial thanks to the distinguished author of these Notes and Dissertations, for providing among them so many paths and recesses in which the inquisitive student may reflect on phases of our knowledge, there presented to him, that will very greatly add to the number of his queries, on such topics as those which have occupied our attention in the greater part of this Essay, and where he may also gather no slight contribution to his stock of answers to such queries. The pages of this volume supply ample evidence that the graspings of the mind of man, after the first principles of physical, theological, and self-knowledge, are not confined to one generation of the history of the world. These are founded on tendencies which are permanent as the race of man. They are the seeds of a nature fallen from its high original and destiny, but which was not adapted only or chiefly for this earthly life between two eternities. From Thales, Xenophanes, and Pythagoras in the Greek philosophy, and the still older inspired complaints of the patriarch of Idumea, down to our own century, the apparent discord of the theory of knowledge, arising from the real limitation of its sphere; the great objects of knowledge—God, self, and the world;—together with the riddles of creation, and of independent moral action, which these involve, have attracted, with a scientific interest, a succession of minds of different schools. Of this fact, the fragments of thought that are expressed in the accumulation of philosophical paragraphs, sentences, and references which enrich the learning of this volume, as well as its original matter, form a remarkable confirmation and illustration. Though ever and anon the calls of the circumstances through which men are passing may divert the attention of generations to the arrangement of affairs that are more pressing, if they are less sublime and imposing, the like aspirations will continue to ascend, and not the less passionately as the world approaches its catastrophe. They are worthy of reverence as the emanations of the human spirit in the direction of the permanent, the infinite, and the eternal, the nourishment at once of nobleness and humility of mind, even although often the baflled efforts of a desire to break the barrier by which its own structure confines the thought of man, who finds instincts instead of explanations when he endeavours to form such science. This perpetual, yet broken struggle, after what must in the end elude his grasp, when become habitual and too exclusive in any individual, tends to weaken his judgment in common affairs, by abstracting it from clear and distinct sciences, and palpable individual realities, and tempts his mind to sink into itself in the vain effort to find there that explanation which shall leave nothing to be explained. The check of nature thus imposed upon the unrestrained indulgence of speculation, affords an emphatical illustration of the sentiment which pervades the “Pensées” of Pascal, regarding the mingled greatness and littleness of man.
- North British Review, No. XIX. (November 1848.)
- The Works of Thomas Reid, D.D., now fully collected, with Selections from his Unpublished Letters. Preface, Notes, and Supplementary Dissertations, by Sir William Hamilton, Baronet, Advocate, Master of Arts, (Oxford,) &c.; of the Institute of France, the Latin Society of Jena, and many other Literary Bodies, Foreign and British; Professor of Logic and Metaphysics in the University of Edinburgh. Text collated and revised; useful Distinctions inserted; leading Words and Propositions marked out; Allusions indicated; Quotations filled up. Prefixed, Stewart's Account of the Life and Writings of Reid, with Notes by the Editor. Copious Indices subjoined. Edinburgh: 1846.
- A selection from the series of Review articles referred to has been translated into French by M. Peisse of Paris, and has obtained a high reputation among his countrymen. It comprises the four disquisitions on the "Philosophy of the Absolute," the "Theory of Perception," "Logic," and the "Study of Mathematics." Paris, 1840.
- If not strictly speaking the founder of the Scottish School, Dr. Reid may at least be regarded as its first very conspicuous type or representative. Dr. Hutcheson, who was appointed to the Chair of Morals in Glasgow about 1730, has been usually regarded as the person who has given occasion, by his prelections and writings, to the philosophical activity by which Scotland was distinguished during the past and the earlier part of the present century. Sir W. Hamilton is, however, inclined to regard, as the real founder of the Scottish School, Professor Gerschom Carmichael, Hutcheson's immediate predecessor in Glasgow, a vigorous thinker on ethical subjects, and editor of Puffendorf's treatise, "De Officio Hominis et Civis." Previous to Carmichael, there was, we believe, little independent Philosophy in Scotland. The "Philosophia Moralis Christiana" of Principal Colvill of Edinburgh, for instance, published in 1670, is based on the revelation of Scripture or theological morality.
- Materials sufficient to suggest thoughts for a separate Essay may be found in the notes on Reid's "Brief Account of Aristotle's Logic" which are remarkable for the severe precision and accuracy of the notices they contain, of the nature and province of that science which may be designated Formal Logic,—or the theory of the laws of thought regarded in abstraction from the things about which thought may be exercised. Here Sir W. Hamilton differs, in his estimate of the Aristotelian doctrine, from the older Scottish school—especially Campbell, Stewart, and Brown—and indeed from the general current of opinion in Scotland on this subject from the Reformation downwards. The Peripatetic doctrines were dislodged in a great measure from their place of authority in our Universities by Andrew Melville, and the Ramist Logic was in his time introduced into Glasgow, St. Andrews, and Edinburgh. Although the popularity of Ramus soon declined, Aristotle has never since recovered his former influence in this country. See M'Crie's "Life of Melville," vol. ii. ch. 12. In Germany, the fortune of Aristotle has been different, and the logical treatises of the Kantian school should be consulted in connexion with the notes on Reid, to assist the apprehension of the limits and development of the science there referred to.
- We refer the reader to Reid's essay on External Perception, and to Sir W. Hamilton's dissertation on the Various Theories of Perception, for copious illustrations of the prodigious activity of thought and invention in different ages, in creating varieties of the representative hypothesis; and we would especially ask attention to the distinction, explained in the dissertation, between the cruder or more palpable, and the more refined theory of representation—between egoistical and non-egoistical idealism.
- See, in the Dissertation on "Common Sense," 106 testimonies to this effect—a singular document, illustrative of the "succession" of metaphysicians, and of the analogy of metaphysical speculation, during three thousand years, from Hesiod and Heraclitus down to Schelling, Hegel and Cousin.
- It is against these spurious principles of common sense that Locke’s polemic against innate ideas may be beneficially applied.
- We, of course, except the invaluable contributions to the philosophy of religion contained in Dr. Chalmers' Treatises on "Natural Theology" and on the "Evidences of Christianity,"—so full of comprehensive conceptions, and abounding iu vigorous metaphysical discussions.
- See, as illustrations, the tenth of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, and the ninth chapter of the Westminster Confession, or symbol of the doctrine of the Presbyterian Churches of Scotland. In the latter document, we read expressly that "man in his state of innocency had freedom and power to will and to do," &c. The condition of the fallen human will is a distinct province of discussion. Some of the problems that may he raised in this latter department may he found, inter cilia, in a rather curious little book, Everard's "Creation and Fall of Adam Reviewed, or a Brief Treatise wherein is discovered Adam's indowments in his Creation, and what he became by Degeneration." London, 1649.
- As, for instance, in Proposition Second of Dr. Clarke’s “Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God.”