Philosophy in the Last Forty Years

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Philosophy in the Last Forty Years  (1880) 
by Rudolf Hermann Lotze
From The Contemporary Review, vol. 37 (January, 1880), pp. 134-155.


PHILOSOPHY IN THE LAST FORTY YEARS.


FIRST ARTICLE.


THERE are three merits to which philosophical views that seek to dominate the spirit of their time, and, if possible, of the future, always make pretension—that their highest principle cannot possibly be contradicted; that their method, which is usually everywhere the same, is simple; and finally, that the logical structure of the system in which they gather together the results they have attained, rests throughout on intuitive evidence. I should hesitate to ground upon any one of these three titles, the much more modest claim which I present to secure the favourable attention of my English readers to the thoughts which I shall here lay before them; but I may explain the reasons why I doubt the value of all three, and why I have been hitherto moved to give up all thought of attempting to impress such a character upon my own views.

When I began my philosophical studies, the predominant opinion was still that to which Fichte has given the distinctest expression, that no theory of the world should pass for truth and science which was unable to explain all the particular parts of the world’s history as independent consequences of a single general principle. Bred in the traditions of the Hegelian school, which believed itself to have completely satisfied this requirement, I have never ceased to keep hold of the element of truth which Fichte’s assertion seemed to me to contain; but I could not, at the same time, conceal from myself that there was a distinction which that assertion entirely effaced. For the world itself—the great subject of our investigations—I had no hesitation in presupposing this unity which drew all the individual particulars of real existence out of a common source; but it appeared to me to stand quite differently with philosophy, i.e., with the human endeavour, from the standpoint on which we find ourselves placed in the world, to work out for ourselves an insight into that all-embracing system. It seemed to me that only a Spirit who stood in the centre of the universe which he himself had made, could, with the knowledge of the final aim which he had given to his creation, make all the particular parts of it pass before him in the majestic succession of an unbroken development. But we finite beings do not sit at this living root of all existence, but somewhere among the branches which have spread out from it; and only with many roundabouts, and with careful use of all the means of assistance which our position affords us, can we hope to acquire an approximate knowledge of the ground on which we stand, of the system to which we belong, and of the direction in which the motion of the great whole carries us along with it. The human mind can certainly not be blamed for seeking, at every standpoint its knowledge reaches, to construct a complete image of the world as a whole, which shall rise, with logical rigour, from the fundamental position that has been won; but this task of a development which shall deduce the manifoldness of the world progressively out of a single fundamental principle, is in itself incapable of being completed; and, as against it, the more urgent and the greater work of philosophy must, I think, bear the shape of a regressive investigation which seeks to discover and to fix securely what principle is to be recognised and used as the living principle in the construction and course of the world.

There is still another doubt that arises in me, and makes me very uncertain whether, even at the end of my journey, I should have arrived at the same goal from which the idealistic views of that period set out. Ever since men have philosophized at all, they have moved between two extreme dispositions. The one, gloomy and diffident, holds the true core of actual existence to be a dim reality which never becomes accessible to the mind; the other, bold and full of hope, is confident that nothing is impenetrable to science, and is certain of being able to discover ideas as the inner essence of all that at first sight seems even yet so strange and inexplicable. I could share neither of these dispositions. I was certain that the first of them was erroneous. There might be, in the complexity of things, much, whether passing or durable, that remained hidden or obscured; but what was to me quite incredible was the notion of a universe split in two in such a way that the whole intellectual life had always to do with an external reality which was eternally impenetrable to it. But my prejudice in favour of the unity of the world, which the first of these views thus contradicted, was unable to determine me to adopt the second without reserve. Philosophy seeks to be science, and its instrument must therefore be simply the linking together of thoughts; and it is consequently easily led into the grave error of overrating, in a twofold way, the value of this instrument of its labours. It is very ready to look upon knowledge as the sole portal through which that which constitutes the essence of real existence can enter into connexion with the mind, and to count the particular forms of connection by which, in our own thought, we apprehend and unite the manifold, to be the nerves, and the only nerves, which also bind together its several elements in the actual nature of things. But intellectual life is more than thought. Much goes on within us which even our thinking intelligence follows and contemplates only from without, and whose peculiar contents it cannot exhaustively represent, either in the form of an idea or through a union of ideas. He, therefore, who is animated by the conviction that real existence cannot be impenetrable to the mind, cannot with equal confidence assume that thought is the precise organ which will be able to comprehend the real in its innermost essence. I will revert a little later to the exact sense of these expressions, and I will at present explain their meaning merely by recalling the multitude of those who maintain that they experience that which is the highest in the world, perfectly intellectually, in faith, in feeling, in presentiment, in inspiration, and who yet acknowledge that they do not possess it in knowledge. We shall define our standpoint towards this view at a later stage, but we shall make to it one concession here in advance. All science can, of course, only operate with thoughts, and must follow the laws of our thinking; but it must understand that in all the objects it occupies itself with, and especially in that highest principle of all which it presupposes, it will find matter which, even if intellectually it were apprehended quite perfectly, could yet not be exhausted in the form of an idea or a thought. The organization of that matter, it will also find, links together its several members on a plan which is not demonstrable according to ordinary logical laws, but which, when it is known, indicates the direction in which thought must go to find the connection it seeks.

I should be misunderstood if I were thought to give these two thoughts out as permanent doctrinal views upon whose unambiguous understanding I could here already reckon; for I really intend by them to do no more than describe the disposition and the prejudices—prejudices still ignorant of their destination—with which I entered upon the lively philosophical current of my youth. He who recollects the history of that period will call to mind how many incitements to all these doubts lay in the philosophy of Hegel. That philosophy sought to lay bare, by its dialectic method, the whole contents of the physical and moral world, every particular thing in the precise place which it occupied in the world’s plan; but of what it then disclosed it had little more to say than that it occupied that particular place. The peculiar character with which every separate part of the whole filled its place in the system remained a superfluous circumstance which was little considered and was counted incapable of being explained, and the essential thing in every fact and phenomenon consisted in its repeating, as the Nth or N + Ith example in the total series of all things real, one of the few abstract thoughts, which the Hegelian method announced as the deepest sense of the world. It is known how widespread was the reaction against this degradation of everything peculiar and concrete, and how it led Schelling to the unfulfilled promise to supplant this system of necessity by a system of freedom. At first I cherished some sympathy for the form in which it was sought to fulfil this promise; but eventually I could not feel satisfied either with its results so far as they lay before me, or with the manner in which it was sought to obtain them; and in the end I found myself standing in complete contradiction to those views.

I would not have indulged in these personal reminiscences, if I were not convinced that, except in rare cases, a prolonged philosophical labour is nothing else but the attempt to justify, scientifically, a fundamental view of things which has been adopted in early life. In fact, philosophy is always a piece of life, and as we mutually support one another in the interchange of trade, so likewise the account of a movement of thought as it has taken shape in one man’s breast may be useful also to others who are striving after the same goal. At least I offer my thoughts with this object only, not with the vain hope of giving a definitive turn to the stream of investigation after it has had a course of thousands of years; but with the confidence that it will be acknowledged that I have not become tired at the beginning of my journey, but that I have tried to pursue it to the end, in order to make plain to myself whether, and how far, it was possible to give a scientific justification of a view which I could, of course, previously describe only as a prejudice of my own, as the subjective principle which impelled me.

And now the question which I had to leave unanswered at first comes back with a new sense. If it was impossible to state at once, in a short and sharp expression, what I actually supposed to be the living source of reality, it was the more desirable to ascertain that certain principle of knowledge from which, as a starting-point, it would be possible to determine and to explain a thought whose contents were as yet so indefinitely known. How often in the history of philosophy have men, finding themselves entangled in the consequences of earlier errors, formed the resolution to go back to the sources of all certainty, and how little fruit have all these attempts borne? And this failure might be seen beforehand. In the ores of a mine hitherto inaccessible, it may be possible to find a new metal, or an additional elementary substance, which will increase the number of those heretofore known; but how could we seriously hope now, after human thought has gone over everything possible and impossible, for thousands of years, still to discover a new principle of certitude which was unknown to the world before? All such attempts have, in fact, gone back again by the shortest way to the longest-trodden paths. When Descartes, with an object of this nature, set out from the certainty of his Cogito, he placed at the head of his speculation the most certain thing in the world—for nobody denied it—but also the most unfruitful. For nobody had any desire to have the fact that we think confirmed over again; what we wanted to know was, which of the many thoughts we had were true, and which of them were false, and that was a position for which this fact, which included error as well as truth, could contain no ground of decision. Descartes accordingly made a second or new beginning when he found the mark of truth to consist in clearness and evidentness; new, of course, for him, for this second principle could only be deduced from that empty Cogito, and its certainty, according to an analogy which, if it were conclusive, would be itself a part of the fundamental truth which was sought; but in reality this second principle runs so much through the whole history of philosophizing that there never has been any other but it upon which the human mind has ever grounded its confidence in the truth of its thoughts. But after it was obtained, it was just as unfruitful as the first, for it helps us little to know the formal conditions which thoughts must satisfy, if they are to be held as true; it is much more important to ascertain the actual thoughts, which satisfy these conditions. After all the pomp of this beginning, then, we thus see ourselves cast back again upon the old position. We are once more bidden to hunt after truth, without knowing where we are to seek it; or, at most, we are furnished with a token which permits us to distinguish the true from the false among the thoughts which accidentally come before us. And even this token is not sure, as Descartes’ own example teaches, for when, trusting to his good luck, and no longer guided by a method, he looked around him for the fundamental thought, which must of necessity be true, he was entirely forsaken by that good star which had illuminated his mathematical investigations. Nor is this surprising, for, as to the point wherein evidentness consisted, the convictions of men had never been thoroughly agreed, and Descartes had not tried to determine how the false evidentness of current error was to be distinguished from the genuine evidentness of a truth. Declaring that to be true which was thought very clearly (fort distinctement), he leaves to ourselves the arbitrary work of fixing the degree of clearness at which our confidence in its truth is to begin.

I shall best gain the object with which I make these remarks, if I pursue for a little yet these historical reminiscences. For the last two centuries Descartes has been the starting-point of an intellectualism whose most general purport has been always a partly acknowledged, partly denied presupposition of all philosophizing. For its most general purport consists only in this, that every man who carries on any investigation necessarily attributes to himself the possession of grounds of decision for his judgment; that he who wishes to answer any particular question needs to have a special principle whose soundness is in some way guaranteed, under which he subordinates it; and that he who philosophizes and extends his investigation over the whole of the world must believe himself to possess a final standard of all truth. Whence this possession comes is not the most urgent question that lies upon us further to solve, for, whatever quarter it may come from, we could not alter it after it was there. Descartes pronounced that it was an original possession of the human mind, and I hesitate not to acquiesce in his conviction, in the only sense in which it can be entertained. For it is superfluous to find much fault with the convenient expression, “innate ideas.” By these words are not meant ideas which, before all experience, move in and before the otherwise still empty consciousness as recognisable thoughts or images. To me they mean no more than that the nature of mind is so formed that when the appropriate experience awakens its thinking, then, and only then, thoughts must infallibly develop themselves in it. They are said to be inborn in it because, under the influence of the same experiences, they would, if his nature were different, either not arise in him at all, or would arise in a different form. Not so innocent, however, as the word inborn is, as it seems here, the other word idea, which Descartes uses exclusively. We are accustomed to understand by this expression the representation of a single, though it may be rich object-matter, always self-contained and self-sufficient, and not a thought which, without properly representable object-matter, merely fixes the reciprocal relations of the manifold. And yet thoughts of this second kind, fundamental principles (Grundsätze), not fundamental notions (Grundbegriffe), can be actual helps to the extension of our knowledge, and were really so to Descartes. When he expressed the confidence that out of nothing nothing would come, the cause was of higher, or at least of equal, perfection with the effect. Ideas of the infinite, however, cannot be produced by the finite out of itself; and so, while these fundamental principles, which he applied, in a moment of necessity, without having first collated them, were indeed the inmost essence of the highest truth that guided him, they yet, all the same, lacked, at least in part, the clearness and certainty which he recognised as the token of truth. If we try to supply this want, we fall upon that distinction between the matter and the form of knowledge through which Kant re-shaped this intellectualism. What is originally given to our mind are not ideas, which express any reality in their own contents, but universal fundamental principles, according to which the mutual connection of all reality which experience, and experience alone, brings to our perception, must be judged. And I may add, that even these fundamental principles do not belong to the mind in such a manner as if they formed an object of its consciousness, before all experience—a collection of rules which waited for cases to be applied to; but the nature of the mind is so constituted that when impressions of experience stir it, it is then unconsciously compelled to a reactive operation, which consists, partly, in a definite combination in thought of the manifold given in perception, partly in instinctive acts, whose inciting causes are still hidden from itself. It is only at a later stage, when reflection goes back over the many cases in which such thought and such action occurred, and collects and compares them together, that there is found for the secret motives by which we have been guided an expression through which they now become, for the first time, objects to our consciousness. We have then discovered and taken possession, for ourselves, of that which was before only actually and unconsciously the fundamental principle of our thought and action.

The German method of philosophizing has long stood firmly by these convictions, and has not suffered itself to be led aside by objections which I can here only briefly notice. If it is simply the constitution of our mind, whose reactive operation shows itself in the highest and most universal fundamental principles, then what guarantee have we that the truth which is necessary for our thought holds good, also, for the reality to which we apply it? Expressed in this way, this objection reaches farther than it intends. When a doubt is occasioned by any particular contradiction or obscurity, a standpoint will also be found from which the solution is made possible; but the empty possibility to doubt without all occasion has no limits, and being, of course, inaccessible to any contrary evidence, it naturally disputes the certainty of every proof presented to it. To the question whether everything is not, in the last analysis, quite different from what we believe we know it to be, and from what we must necessarily think it to be, there is no scientific solution; but a doubt of this nature neither directs itself specially against our conviction of innate truth, nor can it be confined to the question as to the correctness of the application which we make of judgments necessary for thought to the contents of reality. For, on the one hand, from whencesoever our knowledge of the world, of its contents as well as of its general fundamental principles, may come, it remains always our representation of its object, and not that object itself, and there thus always exists the possibility of error, which might make the image unlike the object. And, on the other hand, every one of our thoughts might be false, not only in their applications, but in themselves; and even the principles of our mathematical knowledge might require, in truth, a different connection of their points of mutual relation from that which appears to us necessarily to subsist between them. To this completely purposeless scepticism mankind has continually turned its back. The human reason has always had the living self-assurance that, while it cannot attain to all truth, it yet possesses in that which is necessary to its thought, not merely necessary belief, but truth likewise. It has always believed in such a rationality of the world as that thought and reality correspond to one another, and that the former enjoyed a moderate, but not misleading, access to the latter. If the doubt then, at times, steals over us, whether all our wisdom is not throughout erroneous, we know that there exists no standpoint for answering this question from, and we must, therefore, content ourselves with knowing, however we may lament it, that philosophy can actually consist only in the endeavour to form, on the basis of that which is necessary to our thought, a collective image of the world which shall not contradict itself, or to make completely plain those contradictions and gaps which our reason, defining the limits of its own competency, declares itself incapable of removing. For, however highly we may think of philosophy, it is yet folly to look upon it as the pinnacle, or as one of the highest potencies in the order of the universe. It is, and it remains, a historical fact in the development of the human mind on this earth, and it fulfils its task when it sets forth the world as it must project itself to us in our present place of observation.

I have already indicated that I think the other ground untenable, on account of which doubt is cast upon the intellectualistic assumption of innate truth. In fact, the assertion that a way of thinking which is necessary to the mind on account of its nature, must be inapplicable to the knowledge of things, is, from first to last, in no respect more certain or more probable than the contrary assertion. He who takes the latter view stands on the probable conviction that the unity of the world has determined thought and being for one another; he who prefers the former, leans onesidedly on the superficial antithesis which subsists between the thinking subject and the object of his thought; but the importance of this antithesis, for the possibility of knowledge, can only be decided by one who perceives with perfect clearness the whole process, which we term the knowing of an object by the mind. Such a one alone is in a position to show either that knowledge, on account of the manner of its origin, must necessarily mistake the nature of things, or that on the other hand, it can, within certain limits, apprehend it. This thought has been actually followed in the historical development of philosophy. From John Locke to Kant, critique of knowledge was the essential subject of investigation, and after a throng of efforts otherwise directed, interrupted this tradition in Germany for a time, its continuity has been restored again through the liveliness with which the present age takes from physiological and psychological investigation every assistance it can, in order to obtain clearness upon the origin of our conception of the world. I am perfectly sensible of the value of all these endeavours, and of the deeper reach which they have given to the philosophy of the present, in comparison with that of the past; but I doubt, nevertheless, the possibility of the undertaking, whose prosecution has at the same time presented us with many good fruits. The procedure of Kant in first determining the capacity of reason before making any use of it for actual knowledge, has been parodied by German idealism into the admonition not to go into the water before being able to swim; and this trivial observation, misapplied in excuse of modern enthusiasm, hits very well the essential error of the undertaking in question, viz., the delusion that it is possible before all application of thought, and independently of all sources of mistake in the same, to make a determination of the limits of its power on the basis of a purely empirical account of its origin. A glance at the contents of the works which are devoted to this task, shows us at once how completely they have already decided the question, for whose answer they would only prepare the way. Kant’s various Critiques leave over to the system to which they profess to be merely introductory, none of the universal problems which are of interest for philosophy, but only the further application of solutions of them which have been already obtained. Locke’s work also not only points out the sources of knowledge, but includes, at the same time, the whole conception of the world, which appeared to him necessarily to flow from these sources. This is in one view an excess of performance beyond promise, for which we must only be honestly thankful; but there is something else which lies concealed in the circumstance. That kind of discernment is impossible which should, without any presupposition, and with completely unprejudiced eyes, observe the origin of our ideas (Vorstellungen) in order to determine therefrom the limits of their validity. Even if the first part of this task were capable of being executed, the second part of it could only be undertaken by one who was already in fast possession of universal principles which could decide what consequences followed necessarily out of what conditions, and whether accordingly the power of knowing, on account of this, its ascertained origin, either must always err, or is able to find truth within certain limits. It is impossible to form any judgment about what must occur on the contact of an object with the perceiving mind, unless one has, to begin with, fixed ideas (Begriffe) about the nature of those two factors in the case, as well as about the nature of the influence which any one element of real existence, be it what it will, is in a position to exert upon any other. In fact, partly rightly, partly wrongly, such presuppositions lie invariably as inciting impulses, and as determining motions, at the bottom of the thinking which works out the development of our knowledge, and fixes the limits of its validity as truth, and which only seems to move in the path of an unprejudiced experience.

We will concede that when intellectualism maintained the existence of innate truths, it only laid down a hypothesis which had still to be proved; but what was the foundation of the certainty with which, on the other hand, all knowledge was deduced from experience, and the soul was regarded as a tabula rasa, which was inscribed only with impressions that came from without? Experience, in whatever way that variously conceived idea may be represented, could in any case only point out the occasions from which our ideas (Vorstellungen) result; but the process which connects the occasion with the result that follows it is not made known by any immediate perception. He who thinks it is because he looks upon the soul as being purely receptive, and upon the entire contents of its presentative consciousness (Vorstellung) as being delivered to it, is able to appeal to nothing to establish his opinion, except the analogy of other perceptions. But this analogy tells completely against him. Whenever we perceive a case of what we call operation, we invariably find that the result which issues from the operation assumes different forms, when the same so-called cause enters into relation with different objects, and that it is consequently as much determined by the nature of that member in the relation which we regard as passive or receptive as by the nature of the other member, which appears to us to be more especially active. This is a thought which is never left out of sight in the investigations of natural science. And it might be re-discovered by those who hold the particular opinion now in question, in the very simile which they took to illustrate the opposite idea. For how could a table let anything be written upon it or how could the wax, which bears upon it an antique likeness, receive and retain the impression of the stamp, unless the one possessed an adhesiveness which fixed the flow of writing, and the other a compressibility in its parts, and an indifference to the particular form of compression it endured? In short, it was by means of their specific nature that both made a result possible, which air and water could not have effected. There appears to me accordingly to be no doubt that the analogy of experience is decisively in favour of the postulate of intellectualism, in favour of the innate activity with which the mind acts upon external impressions, and by which it produces the representations, and combinations of representations, which constitute our thought about the world.

Now, of course, this admission in which indeed even empiricism has acquiesced, can decide nothing either for or against the truth of the representations which have so arisen; for it is certainly as possible that that peculiar reaction of the mind upon incitements from without should steadily falsify the images of the things from which these incitements proceeded, as that it should lead to a true apprehension of their nature. I shall, in the meantime, be content if I am granted only the equal possibility of both events. For it is a very common prejudice that a process of thought cannot be correct, of which we believe that we have seen how it has developed itself out of the subjective nature of our mind. The insight into its origin appears to be, at the same time, the proof of its invalidity. On this prejudice I may be permitted to make a few observations. Granted, that a higher power has actually had the intention to guarantee to us a knowledge which does not indeed understand all things thoroughly, but yet does not necessarily err in the little it comprehends of them; and granted, that that power imparted to us the knowledge, not as a ready-made revelation, but as the fruit of experiences which we had to make in life, how may we construe in thought the process by which that intention would be realized? If we are not to know all at once, but to learn this now, and that again, whether it be because in reality one thing follows upon another, or because the parts of that which in existence is simultaneous became objects of consciousness for us only one after another, the event of experience must always distinguish itself from that of non-experience, by means of a relation in which the object of our knowledge now stands to us, and in which it did not stand before. And since no second observer without us makes use of this difference, and since we ourselves are determined by it to a perception not previously present, it must be something perceptible to ourselves and cannot consist in a purely external relation between us and the objects, but must consist in an inner state of our own being which we now experience and formerly did not. The nature of this state, however, must depend as much upon the different incitements that call it forth as upon the peculiar essence of the mind which is able to experience it. It is a very simple truth which I here indicate, and one about which we are all agreed. The fact that we know something of a thing which exists, or of an event which happens, is not sufficient to prove that that thing exists or that that event happens. They must both make an impression upon us, and they cannot make any other kind of impression upon us than such as our mental nature is capable of experiencing. And in this way, from the beginning onwards, every objective element of the external world is replaced in us by an elementary subjective state. If now a halt is not to be made at the simple change of perceptions, but if, on the contrary, a correct knowledge is also to arise about the connections which bind the various parts of real existence to one another, then the impression which the reality of one moment makes upon us must not be suffered to disappear as that reality itself does when it makes place for the reality of the next moment. The one impression, remaining still preserved in memory, must be combined with the other in the unity of a single consciousness through a connecting operation. This operation, which can go back from its results to its conditions, as well as forwards from its conditions to its results, and can thus become conscious of the diversity of its direction, is something quite different from the movement of events themselves, which takes place, in only a single direction, from the cause to the effect. Even if we admit that the two terminal points between which this connecting activity moves are fixed by the associations of the events which act upon us from real existence inwards, the possibility that that movement of connecting consciousness will occur at all, rests solely on the nature of the mind in which it occurs. And so also the possibility that it will bind together in knowledge what is bound together in reality, rests on the fact that the nature of the mind gives to the impressions it receives, an actual mutual connection which, while it may not correspond with the connection of its inciting occasions, is not completely different from it. And accordingly, even supposing a higher Power had destined us to discover the true relations between the objects of our experience, we should still not have simply to accept these relations without any subjective co-operation of our own, but we should be obliged to reproduce them de novo by means of an operation which, if we could penetrate the essence of mind, would appear to us as a necessary result of mind, and of mind only. Moreover, supposing that good Power had wished to grant to us still further, that we should not only form a faithful idea of the processes of the world separately and individually, but that we should comprehend also the universal laws which lie at the bottom of them all, and comprehend them in such a way that they should impress us at the same time with the feeling of their necessity, even then one who knew everything would be able to give a mechanical explanation of this achievement from the nature of our mind. For if, as we assume, the knowledge of the highest truth is not innate in us in complete ready-made clearness, but has to be acquired by ourselves, then there must be a history of its origin in every individual mind. From the moment when it was not yet present, to the moment of its entrance, a series of incidents must have passed which could not occur without having to do with the nature of mind, and without being, under the circumstances that existed, its necessary consequence. And all this would hold good, even if we expressly thought the human reason destined to the complete knowledge of all truth,—only not to its aboriginal possession, but to its acquisition; for in that case also a mechanism of mind would be always conceivable, which would show all true knowledge that was acquired to be the necessary consequence of its subjective nature, and of impressions that acted upon it. And therefore, since it must be so in every case, the proof of such a subjective origin of our knowledge can, for that very reason, neither decide for nor against its truth; and he who believes that it decides against it, only takes the first step in the error which idealist views carry out more extensively. For when the question is only whether our representations have reference to an external world whose existence we therewith presuppose, Idealism urges with perfect justice that the representation of the external world is only a representation of ours and nothing more. But when it proceeds to deny the existence of the world because of this subjectivity of our representations of it, it completely forgets that this must be so in any case. Our representation must be subjective, not merely if there were no external world, but it must be subjective also if there is. Even of a real world we could have no other kind of representation than we have, a representation reproduced through our own subjective activity, and the subjectivity of all our knowledge, which is so often emphasized, decides absolutely nothing as to the reality of its object and the accuracy of our representation of it.

I come now to the point to which I have been travelling, and concerning which I find myself in complete opposition to the prevailing opinions of our time. It has become usual to speak of a theory of knowledge as the most important instrument, upon whose completion the progress of philosophy depends, and more especially, it has been hoped that firm foundations for its fruitful application to the acquisition of truth will be at last found in a complete exposition of the history of the psychological development of our thought. In opposition to this latter belief I express the conviction I have already avowed, that one can only decide as to the validity of a representation on the ground of its psychological origin, when one already knows the true bearings of the object to which it refers; for only the knowledge of this, which is the end and aim of the representation, can enable us to judge whether it will reach or miss that aim by the particular way of representing the reality it has actually taken. Within these limits psychology, no doubt, can supply a critique of our various kinds of knowledge. After we know the laws of the motions of light, and the structure of our eye, provided that we do not err as to either, it is possible for us to correct a large number of optical delusions; and after we have learnt the rules by which our individual impressions associate and reproduce themselves, we can, in particular cases, show that by reason of these rules, an orderly connection of our representations must be formed, which does not correspond to the connection of the objective elements of reality from which these individual impressions proceed. And, in the same way, the question whether the universal thoughts which we form concerning the nature of things and of events, concerning the effect which one thing can exercise upon another, and concerning the laws amongst which these effects must follow—whether all these thoughts are true or false is a position which, even if we knew the history of their psychological development with the most perfect accuracy, we should still be unable to decide by means of that knowledge, unless we already know the truth in relation to all these points. It is only in that event that we should be able to say, from the course which our knowledge has taken in its psychological development, that just because it is subject to general laws, it either must necessarily diverge from the true relations of the things to which it refers, or that it can agree with them in its results. I must, on this ground, set up the old claim which every speculative philosophy has made. Psychology, even if we possessed it in complete perfection, can never be the foundation of our whole philosophy. It is much rather the case that we should only then come to possess psychology in this perfect state, when it had been first completely established according to what principles of self-evident truth we had to judge of the nature and the mutual influences and operations of all things; for we could only then bring the transactions which occur between the knowing subject and the knowable object into subordination to these principles, and decide further as to the truth of the representations that so originated. Such a perfection of psychology is still far distant. We can take a few steps with certainty in the history of the development of our sensations, and we can lay down with certainty a few principles about the ways in which our representations associate and reproduce themselves in memory; but everything which is advanced about the development of universal conceptions is pure phantasy. We lack almost entirely observations as to the course in which, from the first days of childhood onwards, the individual attainments of our intellect follow out of one another. After one has the fully-developed reason before him he gropes after some way in which he can represent to himself, with probability, its gradual genesis; and the more or less pretentious hypotheses to which one is led through unexpressed pet opinions are sold with remarkable confidence as treasures of an unprejudiced empiricism. This condition of things will not be changed until, after the example of the more recent psychological investigations, the actual facts of psychological experience are put beyond doubt, and until, thereby, the material may be created which can be subordinated to those universal and constantly implied truths. We should, therefore, count psychology as the last and most difficult product of philosophical investigation, or of scientific investigation in general.

To return to the other pet occupation of our time, the construction, as a first requisite, of a theory of knowledge in general in order to base philosophy upon it afterwards, it is superfluous once again to draw attention to the inevitable circle in which one must move in doing so. Reason is to decide upon the accuracy of its general methods of procedure, and yet it can use as the motive of its decision nothing but these same necessary principles upon which it is to decide. Its labour can accordingly consist in nothing but an approval of itself and a careful reflection upon its own action. In practical life we are compelled by our needs to form a judgment upon many matters of fact whose true import is known to us only very imperfectly, and whose many connections with other things are known to us even worse. The manifold conditions which interpenetrate in the course of things, force us often to use something which is, in this way, only half known as a principle from which we start in judging of that which is still less known. And, finally, the limitation of experience which always presents to our perception only one definite character out of many possible ones, misleads us into seeing necessity in connections where there is really nothing but actuality without a contrary example. If now, gathering these cases together in which judgment is difficult and error easy, we seek to combine them and to form by abstraction, from the confusing multiplicity of what is given, the purest and simplest instances of relations between several members; our reason will pronounce upon them, when they are presented, an unambiguous judgment, whose necessity to thought would be as evident as the impossibility to think its opposite. Reason will always regard itself as a judge continually present, just and judging without appeal, but one whose judgment can not be delivered until every obscurity and ambiguity is removed from the representation of the case which he has to pronounce upon. In this way the confidence of reason in itself has inevitably lain at the basis of all philosophical investigations, even of those which relate to the determination of its own truthfulness. When Locke distinguished two sources of all knowledge, and when he then opposed the properties which inhere in things themselves to other properties which they only seem to have in our apprehension of them, no immediate experience had given him these principles. He came to know by following the method of thinking which is necessary to us in contemplating all things; and he asked himself, in conformity with this method of thinking what were the probable explanations of the psychological facts which he had discovered. It is a misunderstanding of Kant to believe that he would have cared to give a psychological foundation to his “Critique of Reason,” and to lament that psychology was only treated of by him in passing and imperfectly. Essential principles like his distinction between the form and matter of knowledge, or his doctrine of the purely subjective and phenomenal nature of time and space, are not data of psychological experience, but results of a metaphysical interpretation of such data. In this Kant follows the principle in which I sum up the result of these observations: That it is no matter whence our ideas come and how they form themselves within us psychologically, but what is of consequence is to know whether when we have them we may halt with them, or must go further and necessarily make judgment upon them in order to secure the complete harmony of our reason with itself and with the given facts, the only goal which is at all attainable by us. That is the way in which mathematics has always proceeded. It has never concerned itself to know by what psychological act the representation of a point in space arises in us, or through what further mysterious process we unite infinitely numerous points in a straight continuous line, or through what other process we distinguish figures of many lines and produce the representation of the angles at which they diverge. All this it merely postulates and lays down. It is confident that after these postulates have been formed, whatever the psychological manner of their formation, the actual necessity of a proposition which relates to the connection of these ideas (Vorstellungen) would also stringently follow; but it does not ask what the soul does in order, from the mere perception of a connection thus represented, to arrive at the consciousness of its necessity, and it does not hold an answer to this question to be necessary for the purpose of guaranteeing the truth of its results.

He who desires to acquire a theory of knowing before entering upon the work of philosophy, strictly so-called, will raise here the objection that if such a theory were obtained, its business would necessarily lie in the exposition and collection of these universal and intuitively evident principles of judgment of which we have been speaking; and, perhaps, he would further desire to see them all deduced from one solitary and highest principle, in order, at last, to produce in reality that philosophia prima of which men have raved since the days of Aristotle. But how is it thought that such a design is to be executed? When, in an examination, we put a definite question to the person examined, we may reasonably expect an answer. But if we were to ask him to tell us in one answer all he had learnt during his whole life, he would either not know how in the world to begin, or, like those who rescue things from a fire, he would tell us important and unimportant alike without any arrangement, and both very imperfectly. So also those in the highest degree universal truths, which we regard as an innate possession of our mind, do not stand before its consciousness from the beginning onwards as a complete well-ordered series. We first become conscious of each of them in the moment when a perception occasions their application. Their systematic collection for the construction of a theory of knowledge would, therefore, not be a possible beginning for the work of philosophy, but only for the student who has to repeat in himself a work already completed. For philosophy itself, instead of being a beginning, it could only be an end. And I doubt whether, in either case, its use or its interest would be very great; for the more we pass from special applications, and from the formulas of them in which in such applications the original truth must be presented, over to those more Universal expressions under which they themselves can be strictly subordinated, the intuitive evidentness of their sense grows always the less, and even that immediate feeling of their necessity vanishes, which we feel so strongly wherever a definite occurrence compels us to make an application of them. The other desire, however—the desire to deduce all truth out of one highest principle by means of a theory of knowing—I could not justify to myself. That unity of the world, which I stated to be the starting-point of my thought, is at first only a prejudice, which itself requires investigation to show whether or no it belongs to the truth which is necessary for our thought, or is consistent with such truth; and it is only on the certitude of this prejudice that the demand for the deduction in question could rest. And even then it would not do so in the sense which is given to it; on the contrary, you can only determine beforehand what species or manner that unity must be of, by means of a second prejudice; for, as I have already indicated, that unity need not combine the manifold in general, or even combine individual truths among themselves, in such a way as that we should be in a position to deduce one out of the other, or all out of one, according to logical law. It might, to use an imperfect comparison, control the whole of its organization, in the manner of a melody whose unity and continuity are perceptible, although no reasoning can prove that this particular continuation belongs to that particular beginning. If this be so, then there would exist for our knowledge many equally original and equally certain truths, of which we should see, after they were there, that they fitted into one another, while we should remain perpetually incapable of deducing them, by strict demonstration, out of a single source. We should then be obliged to content ourselves with knowing, with certainty, individual truths alone; and we should act foolishly if we set small store by such certainty, and still hunted after the highest truth, which, perhaps, is not attainable for us at all, or, at any rate, not in that particular way.

I draw near to a conclusion. He who seeks a principle of philosophy in the sense of a sure-starting point from which his speculation can begin, will find himself at no loss, as soon as he knows how to give heed to the certain progress of his thoughts. Not one, but innumerable principles, place themselves at once at his command. For any part of experience may serve for such a starting-point when it finds itself, in the shape in which it immediately presents itself, standing in contradiction to those innate truths which we desire to see controlling all reality, and which, even in the moment in which the observed fact conflicts with them, force themselves upon our consciousness as indispensable postulates. This is the way in which, setting out from experience, every philosophy has in actual fact arisen. Even opinions which we rightly charge with enthusiasm and caprice were yet led to all the dreams they contain by nothing but the contemplation of the actual course of the world. They sought, by a series of fictitious links, to bring the deeply-felt, but ill-understood, defects of the world into harmony with what appeared to them to be the office and task of all true reality. They erred only in this, that they suffered all those features, in which the course of things offended the presuppositions of the understanding, and the needs of the heart, to work on the mind in a disorganized mass; and then they instantly gave rein to their phantasy to excogitate another and truer world as the foundation for this sinister phenomenon. They should have examined more carefully into the inner connections of reality in order to find the links by which the contradiction in question might be not only hypothetically, but in real truth, resolved. It appears, therefore, that it is not to its principles, but rather to its method of unfolding its thoughts, that true philosophy must appeal as the possession that distinguishes it from all unscientific enthusiasm. Perhaps I shall very unexpectedly deceive the anticipations of the reader when I say that I believe that we must surrender even this pretension, at least in the sense in which it is often made.

A method of knowledge cannot, like that of a practical undertaking, follow a goal fixed upon beforehand. What it seeks is to know the proper nature of the thing with which it occupies itself, and wherein this nature consists. I admit that with respect to the position in which we stand towards the matter in question, our first steps may be fixed upon beforehand. They must be such as are fitted to overcome the hindrances which make it difficult for us to get at the thing at all; but as soon as we come within sight of the thing itself, the method of our further progress is always conditioned by the peculiarities which the nature of the thing presents to our effort to know it. It is, therefore, true, on the one hand, that methods of knowledge must be as different as the nature of the things we desire to know, and it is clear that where many separate objects have the same essential features in common, definite stereotyped methods of investigation will form themselves for such groups, so that analogous cases may be always treated in the same way, and the search for new methods for every separate case may be rendered superfluous. But such useful methods of knowledge can never be found without reference to the peculiarities of those allied groups of problems, and there will never be a universal method by which the aims of knowledge will be attained with respect to every possible object of inquiry. Mathematics has framed for definite classes of problems its ingenious methods of procedure which, in their application to every individual case, are accommodated to its peculiarities. Mechanics has in the same way formed its selection of plans, which it scruples not to use over and over again when the same class of work is desired, though with adaptations to the requirements of the individual tasks. But there has never been any talk of a universal method of solving all mathematical problems, or of the construction of a machine for every conceivable and, it may be, as yet undeclared purpose. It is plain what alone could correspond to such measureless wishes; it would be the totality of elementary mathematical and mechanical truths on the one hand, and the wide-seeing acuteness on the other, which is able to use them appropriately in every case that comes before it. It is no otherwise in philosophy, and I am tempted on this point to parody a saying of Aristotle. When Alexander the Great asked him for an easier way of learning geometry, he is said to have answered: There is no special royal road in science. Science, philosophy above all, possesses no mysterious methodical road in antithesis to that by which the simple use of our understanding can lead us all. The chief pretensions which have been made to the possession of a method of speculative knowledge, which should guarantee the acquisition of results not attainable by natural human thought, have always perished, in one way or another, as often as they have arisen. When valuable results have been attained, it has been because a part of the nature of the thing was discovered, which controlled a series of its manifold phenomena, and the method incorrectly got the credit for a fertility in valuable results which, in fact, came from this objective source. When, on the other hand, a universal method of all investigation has been fixed upon beforehand, it has only led to violence being done to things on its account. They are made to comply with the forms fixed for them capriciously beforehand, and everything is ignored that will not accommodate itself to them, or to which the paths of the method do not lead. In many cases, finally, these pretentiously advanced methods are a somewhat idle ornament, with which a work already done is subsequently decorated, while the work itself was performed by quite different, and more natural, courses of thinking, which flowed from the character of the problems themselves. There is a touch of cowardice in this anxiety for preparatory means of success. Once, if men had no confidence in the merits of their own person to secure a favourable result, they sought after love potions to conquer the affections without constraint; now, if they wish to gain a respectable position in life, they like best to place the whole order of society on impossible foundations, by means of which the course of things is to bring us of itself what we ought to acquire by the application of our own powers; in order to improve faults of morals, they do not address a stringent summons to the will which ought, by its own self-activity, to separate itself from them, but take the more circuitous road of trying, by dietetic means, so to shape the brain of future generations, that the good, which ought to be our own act, may then come of itself, as the mechanical result of circumstances. It is not otherwise with this quest after a philosophical method. After committing so many errors one would like to contrive a logical calculus which would put us beyond the need of taking trouble, and without putting any strain on our personal acuteness, would present us with the correct results in every case with the certainty of a machine. Those labours have been constantly fruitless. However much rough work machinery saves us, no machine has as yet been invented which will undertake for us the whole work of life at once. There must always remain after all the man himself, who needs still to direct it and apply it to its end. I will not multiply words more on the matter: but in opposition to all these pretentious I simply maintain that every progress of thought and every method is good, in so far as it at every moment adapts itself at once to the nature of the thing it investigates, and to the special aim which that investigation pursues; that we must never neglect to change the method of attack when the nature of the adversary changes; and that we must never think to repel the countless objections which are raised against any result that has been attained, by relying mainly on the ground that they have proceeded from subordinate stand-points of consideration, but rather that, without any prejudice in favour of a methodical parade of thoughts, we must at all times carefully use everything which an active and acute mind can anywhere seize hold of in order to find these results, and explain and overthrow these objections. Some one may perhaps ask with wonder whether, then, this disregard of all traditional prejudices of the school really means that I wish to make common sense the judge of the scientific labours of philosophy? Now, I might ask the question in return, whether common sense has not in fact always been the judge of this? How many speculative systems have, in the course of time, come out with the assurance that they had, with the help of deep-reaching methods, built upon still deeper-lying principles, attained truths which were to be found in no other way; but because they were unable to make their results credible to common sense, to mankind’s natural feeling for probability, they have only increased the mass of historical material into which we may dip with curiosity, and have won no lasting influence either on our life or on our opinions. In saying this I have certainly no intention of counting, under this name of the natural understanding, that sum of superficial impressions, half thoughts, and groundless prejudices which, together with a few indispensable or traditional truths, constitutes the treasury of non-scientific culture. It is the defect of this culture that it is fragmentary, and this fault cannot be compensated for the purposes of science by the greater intensity with which, awakened as it is by the occurrences of life, it plunges itself into these personal experiences. Nourishing itself only upon observations which fall within its own circle of vision, it carries the thoughts to which it is so incited only a few steps forward, and contents itself with such solutions as in a measure satisfy the most pressing necessities of the case. It does not observe that the various results to which it comes by these isolated attempts form no self-consistent whole, and that every one of them contains still unsolved riddles which a step further would have brought to light. But these defects cannot be removed by the application of a specific method, for they occur very abundantly even in those philosophical views of the world which plume themselves expressly upon the possession of such methods. If I may be permitted to state what I regard as the most common fault of philosophizing, it is the want of persistence and tenacity. It satisfies itself too often with the flash of a striking thought which throws an interesting and dazzling light on one part of the world, but leaves others in only the deeper darkness; whereas it is much more important to pursue every fundamental thought one tries into all its possible consequences, in order to ascertain how far its validity suffers no contradiction from reality, and at what point its fruitfulness ceases. It is in this unremitting and consecutive prosecution of its task that the advantage lies which a scientifically-conducted investigation can have, and ought to have, over the natural attempts of non-scientific culture.

In this sense every philosophy seeks quite naturally to unite its results in a systematic whole, and no just objection can be made against the necessity of such an attempt. But very important for the matter of the truths ascertained is the form of connection, of co-ordination and subordination, in which their union is sought; and in saying so, I wish merely to repudiate the prejudice which regards the commonly preferred type of classification as being the only desirable form of systematic connection. I know that for a survey of all philosophical investigations one must classify the questions to which one seeks answer; and I would in this respect be tolerably satisfied with Kant’s three questions: What can we know? What shall we do? What may we hope? This classification at least keeps a firm and lively recollection of the needs for the satisfaction of which all speculation, in the last analysis, is undertaken. I know also, and it is hardly necessary to mention it, that nearly allied groups of subjects lead to a junction of the investigations devoted to them under the names of individual disciplines; but I can set no value on subtle discriminations of these individual fields of inquiry, and just as little on the constructive art which unites them together again in the edifice of a single system. These artificial methods of connection are of advantage, only if it is an advantage to imprint the results of a speculation clearly on the memory; but since they do not include along with their results the processes by which they have been arrived at, they effect only an external delivery of the cut and dry without conveying the living spirit of the investigation. The impulse to systematize may be directed to two different goals. In the first place, the sciences may be classified as subjective endeavours of the investigating mind to attain the knowledge of truth. Now, certainly there is nothing to say against this purpose, but only against the exaggerated importance which is set upon it; and this is a result for which we cannot feel thankful to Aristotle. It is a quite unfruitful copiousness of treatment which discusses, as he does, whether a given question belongs to this or that one of the disciplines which he distinguishes. For there is no ground for thinking that every single discipline possesses a special fruitful method which enables it, and enables none of the others, to answer a given question; and, accordingly, if one knows how to answer the question, it is difficult to see why he should not treat of it in the place where natural connections of thought suggest it and make its solution desirable; and if, on the other hand, he cannot answer it, then it is only labour lost to refer to other disciplines which will give no enlightenment either. Instead of following this course, one may take the second of the standpoints to which I have alluded: he may seek to set forth systematically, not his own subjective ways of procedure, but the objective matter of the truths discovered; and may by this course also reach the result that every question, or rather the answer to every question, would have its own definite unchangeable place in the system as a whole. I cannot acquiesce in this pretension. We can naturally undertake the solution of a problem only at the point of investigation where the results of previous inquiry place adequate grounds of decision at our command; and when we endeavour to set forth the proper inner connection of the world’s contents, this partiality to systematic classification is a mischievous prejudice. The world is certainly not so constituted that the individual fundamental truths which we find dominating in it hang together according to the poor pattern of a logical superordination, co-ordination, and subordination. They form rather a texture so woven that they are all at the same time present in every bit and fold of it. You can, according to the need you feel, make every one of these single threads the chief subject of your consideration; but you cannot do this at all, or at least you cannot do it in a useful way, without taking account at every instant of the other threads with which it is indissolubly united.

I should appear to say more than I desire if I did not add that I do not dispute the moderate utility of these traditional forms of philosophizing, but only their claim to pass for the indispensable requisites of all philosophical speculation. But I must here part with the favourable reader with an apology. I once said in reference to the theories of knowledge with which we are at present flooded, that the continual sharpening of the knife is tiresome if we have after all nothing to cut with it. But now I have myself claimed the reader’s attention so long to these introductory considerations that I fear I must have excited no pleasant impression. I shall strive to atone for my fault by now turning without more ado, and with the desired freedom from scholastic forms, to those essential questions the discussion of which has at all times, and not least in our own, awakened the lively interest of mankind.

Hermann Lotze.


This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.