Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/January 1873/A New Phase of German Thought II

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 2 January 1873  (1873) 
A New Phase of German Thought II
Léon Dumont
Last in series

HARTMANN adopts the following words as the title of his principal work: "Speculative results according to the inductive method of the natural sciences." If we were to trust to these words, we might suppose that the author's system takes an essentially scientific form, and relies exclusively on the observation and analysis of facts. But the reading of a very few chapters soon leaves quite an opposite impression. Although Hartmann gives proof of abundant acquisitions in physics and physiology, he puts himself completely at odds with the naturalist school, and, soaring away at once, launches into the metaphysical regions haunted by Schelling and Schlegel. He begins, it is true, by setting forth quite a number of facts belonging to the domain of the natural sciences, but he follows with the immediate declaration that such facts can only be explained by a cause of the supernatural order. Now, to take any fact whatever, and endeavor to show that it is not a result of physical conditions, but has its cause in a spiritual principle, intelligent and distinct from its reality, may not, we suppose, be necessarily false, but we certainly cannot recognize, in such a procedure, "the inductive method of the natural sciences."

The principle of final causes is the starting-point of the system. In vain Bacon, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, have successively combated it; in vain Darwin has given it its death-blow, by the proof that every thing heretofore conceived as a final cause in the organic world might be hypothetically, if not by demonstration, explained as a result; in Hartmann's teaching, the idea of finality once more takes a place perhaps as high as in that of ancient philosophic systems. He says, the causes of a fact are necessarily either material or spiritual — there is no middle way; therefore, when material circumstances fail to explain a fact sufficiently, we must resort to the admission of a spiritual cause. Now, when the mind acts, there is always a will joined with an idea, a force tending to the realization of an end conceived; in a word, there is always a final cause. Therefore, to prove the existence of a providential principle, it is enough to show that certain facts cannot possibly be reduced to material conditions.

This doctrine may be thus stated: Whatever we have not yet succeeded in grasping by observation is of a spiritual nature, or, whatever in the production of a fact has hitherto eluded our experimental research, must be a priori a principle like the human intellect. Is not this simply going back to that old anthropomorphism of primitive philosophy, according to which imagination was childishly led to conceive, behind any phenomenon inexplicable by ignorance, a will, a force, like that we are conscious of within ourselves? This illusion has gradually lost ground, for two reasons: first, because the sphere of the unknown has gone on diminishing, as the conquests of science have continually revealed new natural explanations of phenomena; and, next, because we are brought more and more nearly to the conviction that the human intellect, the will, instead of being principles of a transcendent order, are themselves only results of material conditions. We can maintain such a doctrine, and yet repel the charge of materialism; for matter, in our view, is far from being a principle; we regard it only as a fact which is capable of being analyzed in its turn, and of being reduced to yet simpler elements, to forces, which are not in themselves substances, but merely phenomena.

One of the most characteristic traits of the spiritualist temperament is this—that in the explanation of facts it always prefers metaphysical hypotheses to purely physical ones; that it clings to the former as long as it is possible to do so without too violent a contradiction of irresistible truths; that it never yields to such truths, except in the last extremity, nor ever until they have been established by proofs beyond refutation. This is the mental bent of which we find the signs in Hartmann's theories. There are, in fact, a certain number of phenomena, of which the physical and physiological sciences have succeeded in giving probable explanations, without going beyond their own domain; but these explanations are as yet in the state of conjectures, or at least have not been verified by experiences so decisive as to compel the most hardened metaphysicians to accept them. Instead of these solutions, Hartmann, in conformity so far with spiritualistic traditions, prefers to hold to the hypothesis of an intelligent principle, yet an unconscious one. Let us examine the principal facts of this kind in order.

Hartmann contends that any voluntary movement must be impossible, without an idea of the extremity of the nerve that serves to produce it; and, as this idea does not exist in consciousness, it must exist, as he holds, in an unconscious intelligence, of which my conscious intelligence is doubtless only a mode, a manifestation. I will to move my arm, and it moves. How can that effect be produced, Hartmann asks, without the knowledge of the intermediate organs, which must be set at work to effect the intended act? How otherwise can we explain the action of the will on some one particular muscle, rather than on some other one? We may well be astonished to find such a theory held by a philosopher who admits that acts of the conscious will are phenomena of the brain. Is it not a more natural and probable sequence to suppose an organic adaptation between the cerebral phenomenon and the modification of the motor nerve? But, it is objected, What has the power to establish such adaptation, except an intelligent being? We shall reply, that all those phenomena which are usually simultaneous in the organism have the power of suggesting each other, that is to say, of acting reciprocally as causes. They do in the end compose a circle, which vibrates throughout, whichever one of its links it may be that receives the impulse. Every gesture, every external movement of the body, is naturally followed by its perception, and consequently by its idea; by dint of being contemporaneous with the organic facts which determine the production of motion, the idea forms in connection with them habits of adaptation, the result of which is to give it the property of exciting them. Thus, the movement was at first involuntary, and theretofore it was the movement which stirred its idea in the intellect, through the intermediate means of perception; afterward the movement became voluntary, and it may be was caused, in its turn, by the cerebral phenomenon of its idea, which had had time to contract habits of coexistence, and of suggestion with the intermediate modifications of the nerves and the muscles. Such habits may even show themselves, so far as they are hereditarily reproduced and continued, as if they were innate with the individual.

It is the same with regard to those reflex movements which Hartmann also refers to an unconscious will and intelligence. He defines a reflex movement as "that which takes place when the excitement of a nerve of motion is transmitted to a nervous centre, which transmits it on to another nerve of motion, that produces in the last place a muscular contraction." This definition is evidently too broad, and would equally embrace all those movements that result from cerebral action; for the brain is also a nervous centre, which only transforms movements that come from outside of it, so as to transmit them to motor nerves. Physiologists usually confine the description of "reflex" to those movements as to which the series of facts intermediate between the external excitement received and the final act does not pass through the me, or the thinking brain.[1] Now, among these movements, certain distinctions must be established. In a great number of them the most prejudiced mind could not discover any sign of finality, and therefore as to those there cannot even be any question of applying an hypothesis of an intelligence, whether conscious or unconscious; when, for instance, some one tickles me, and I laugh, I cannot recognize any thing between these two facts of laughing and of tickling, beyond an accidental and mechanical coincidence. Other reflex movements are very easily explained upon the hypothesis of natural selection; such, for instance, is the action of the spinal marrow on the muscles of the blood-vessels; such are the movements of the respiratory organs, etc. Again, there are a great number of cases in which the adaptation between the excitement and the act must have been originally regulated by conscious intelligence; but, the habit once acquired, the concurrence of intelligence has become useless. The player on a musical instrument needs at first to combine, by an act of his will, the movements of the fingers with the visual perception of the notes; but, after a sort of organic coexistence between these facts is established by repetition and practice, the one may become directly the cause of the other, without the concurrence of the power that regulated their adaptation; the movements of the hand then follow the impressions on the sight mechanically, while the intellect may be occupied with something quite different. Thus a machine, once constructed and regulated, has no need of the intelligent workman, who adjusted its cogs and wheels, to keep it going. If we pinch a frog after its brain is removed, it makes motions as though to repel the hand that hurts it; it is a reflex action resulting from habits contracted under the cerebral influence, and strongly enough established to survive the removal of the intellectual organs. After this we do not deny that a certain degree of intelligence may exist in other nervous centres besides the brain; we grant that they may have a peculiar consciousness of their modifications and their movements. But we go no further, and we refuse to follow Hartmann, as soon as his hypotheses needlessly take on a metaphysical or supernatural character.

Still less shall we follow him when, throwing himself into theories which remind us of those of Stahl, he insists that the organization of living bodies can be formed no otherwise than by the action of an intelligent but unconscious principle; that, in diseases, a regulating intelligence, a vis medicatrix naturæ, presides over the restoration of the functions to their normal state; that the reproduction of organs observed in some animals is caused by the unconscious idea of the usefulness of such organs, for the preservation of the individual; that in every part of the living being there resides an unconscious idea of the type of the species, which directs the reproduction of the organ removed, the reparation of tissues, etc. These facts, all having relation to the study of forms, types, or species, are exactly those which Darwin's theory best succeeds, as we think, in explaining. Hartmann, however, does not altogether reject the ideas of the great English naturalist; but he limits their application considerably, and interprets them in a manner quite contrary to their author's. He admits natural selection, indeed, in the struggle for existence; but this selection is not, in his view, a primordial fact, resulting from the force of things; he calls it simply one of the means that unconscious intelligence would employ in arriving at its ends. Besides, selection would be insufficient still, according to Hartmann, to account for the organic forms of the species, for what he calls the morphological facts, and ought to be applied to physiological facts exclusively. This distinction is opposed to the tendencies of contemporaneous science, whose analyses reduce all morphological facts to physiological facts. Selection, Hartmann says, explains the progress in perfection of an already existing type, within its own degree of organization; but it cannot explain the passage from an inferior degree of organization to a superior one, a passage which always consists in an augmentation of the morphological type; and he gives, as a reason for his argument, that there is no more vitality in one morphological type than in another, and that selection is applicable only to facts that increase the vitality of the organism. All the degrees of organization possessing equal vitality, it is only, Hartmann insists, within the limits of a particular degree that different species or varieties are distinguished by more or less important advantages in the struggle for existence: if Darwinism were true of all species without restriction, there could only subsist one single morphological type in each locality, and, in the millions of years that the vital competition has lasted, all the inferior classes of animals and plants must have been extinguished by the superior classes; there are, in a word, a great number of facts which form part of the plan of the world, and yet are of no service in giving more vitality; such facts, in order to keep themselves in existence, need some other support than that of natural selection and the struggle for life.

We understand how many minds feel a certain repugnance in accepting the daring views of Darwin, so contrary to old associations of ideas. It is as yet nothing more than an hypothetic induction, which is waiting for its experimental verification. But it is no less true that this is the most probable of all the theories hitherto put forth upon the forms of life, and in default of that palpable and decisive demonstration that time only can furnish, we shall at least maintain that this opinion deserves to be preferred to all those still far more hypothetic doctrines which cannot dispense with a supernatural principle.

No doubt Darwinism does not succeed in explaining every thing. It has never assumed to account for the existence of forces, for the origin of those movements which are the source, and as it were the substance of life; it takes into view only their direction and the procedure of their organization. Putting aside the mysterious problem of being, it takes cognizance only of the methods of being. Is this saying that selection is only one of the means employed by a superior intelligence to govern the other forces of the world toward its ends? Nothing permits us to suppose that, for, on the contrary, the peculiarity of selection, in all the cases to which it applies, is to explain order without calling in the aid of intelligence, and as a necessary resultant of the reciprocal action of forces.

We think, with Hartmann, that Darwinism can explain only those facts that relate to the vitality of beings. But what fact is there in living Nature which can be regarded as indifferent from the point of view of the struggle for life? Can one imagine, in the recesses of an organ, a single cell, a single element, which is not fighting for existence? If there could be one, then there would exist in reality something else than forces encountering forces, and that is a consequence which Hartmann himself could not admit, recognizing, as he does, nothing but forces in the atoms of matter, and explaining, as he does, reality and consciousness by the opposition of contending forces. We shall find him, farther on, maintaining that, when two contrary but equal forces meet, they annul and annihilate each other, and all reality vanishes; and yet the same author, arguing against Darwin, supposes a reality which is not the result of the encounter and strife of forces. For Hartmann, more than any other reasoner, the sphere of selection ought to be coextensive with that of reality, and whenever conflict and selection cease, by reason of the equilibrium of forces, there should be nothing but annihilation. But contradiction, we all know, is the hereditary vice of metaphysics.

In proof that certain facts have no concern with the struggle for life, Hartmann mentions beauty, and especially the beauty of plants, which it would be difficult to explain by selection. Here we find ourselves face to face with German æsthetics, with its mystical theories, and its metaphysical entities. For ourselves, regarding beauty not as a real fact, but simply as a relation between things and our faculties, we do not feel this difficulty. We admit that selection has nothing to do with the matter, because beauty is neither an act, nor an organ, nor a function: it is simply a mode in us of feeling outward objects; it is a sentiment inspired by things which answer to our habits of thought, and correspond with our associations of ideas. There is not, in Nature, any fact which is beautiful only; whatever is beautiful is at the same time an object, and the forces that produce it, produce it, so far as it is an object, and not so far as it is beautiful. We are not speaking of art, in which selection again comes up; and, in fact, if there is no natural selection as to beauty, there may be, in very many cases, artificial or intelligent selection: among animals, and especially as regards man, we know that beauty exerts a certain influence on choice in sexual passion. As to the plant, which cannot choose, we have to take account of natural selection by man, whose culture promotes the preservation of the species most agreeable to the eye; we may even admit a certain selection by insects, which assist the transfer of the pollen, and are perhaps not wholly insensible to size among flowers, to their brilliancy of color, etc.

Can an argument against Darwinism be founded on the equality of vitality among different species? When selection has induced a very considerable difference between two varieties, developing in two more or less opposite directions, it often occurs that these two varieties or species no longer have the same conditions of existence, and cease to compete with each other. The farther apart the types grow, the more there may exist between them that equality of vitality which is merely the negation of competition. This explains why we oftener remark equal vitality between different species than between varieties of the same species. Certain species even suggest each other, and have mutual need each of the other for their existence. If, for instance, the quantity of vegetables, or of certain animal species which we require for our nourishment, were to decrease, it would necessarily follow that population would diminish proportionately; but that diminution would allow the other species to resume their former development; therefore the equilibrium is maintained of necessity.

As to the possibility of morphological alterations, by the accumulation of individual modifications, Hartmann himself admits that Darwin has cited more than one instance of it, and a marked one in the skeleton of pigeons: he objects, it is true, that there was some aid from art in these different cases. Very true! but that proves that analogous changes are at least possible through natural selection. Hartmann adds, that a pair of teeth, or vertebræ, or fingers, more or less, or a vertebra shaped in such or such a way, are exactly the marks by which zoologists oftenest distinguish species, and yet he says such marks are of no importance in the struggle for life. This seems to us an oversight; for they are precisely those scarcely appreciable modifications which have the greatest importance from the point of view of selection and competition.

Darwin and Hartmann stand at the opposite poles of modern thought. To Darwin belongs the most fertile idea of the age, an idea which upsets all the ancient ways of conceiving the world, and includes the first natural explanation yet given of order, of organization, and of intelligence itself. Hartmann, on the contrary, takes us back to the ancient labyrinths of teleology; between two explanations, one natural and the other supernatural, we have always found him, thus far, pronouncing for the latter. We detect a new instance of this predilection in his way of regarding instinct. Darwinism explains it admirably as an hereditary habit resulting from natural selection; a habit can only become formed and inveterate on condition of its aiming at a result useful for the preservation of the individual and the species; that which is not useful cannot become habitual, or at least not hereditary. Vices can be only individual accidents, or else the race is tending toward extinction; all that flows from the force of things, and there is no call for the supposition that the utility of fact grown into habit must have been foreseen, and willed by a supernatural being. But Hartmann prefers to define instinct as "the conscious will (choice) of a means in view of an end unconsciously willed;" and this he does to raise a necessity for the supposition of an intelligent principle, distinct from conscious intelligence, in the bosom of which he may lodge the seat of these unconscious volitions.

Hartmann's love of the supernatural goes so far as to make him accept, with the fullest faith, a certain number of extraordinary facts which stand much in need of confirmation, such as the facts of second sight and of artificial somnambulism. He admits the truth of dreams, visions, and presentiments; he cites cases of warnings given by mysterious revelations of coming dangers, of the death of one absent, or of other occurrences taking place at a distance, as in the well-known story of Swedenborg. Nothing is wanting but spiritism and turning tables. It is clear that such facts would justify and even compel the hypothesis of a supernatural principle. If the existence of a superior intelligence in the world can be demonstrated by physical proofs (we are not now speaking of metaphysical proofs), it is not by the spectacle of order and regularity which indicate, on the contrary, the absence of any disturbing or interposing force, but really by abnormal and contradictory facts; in a word, by miracles. Only, it is necessary that the authenticity of such facts should be above all question.

As to what concerns thought itself, we share Hartmann's views on almost all the points of psychological analysis, and only when his transcendental explanations begin do we feel obliged to part company with him. Thus we think, as he does, that the I does not make the greater part of its ideas, that its ideas come to it without its volition, and without its consciousness of the causes producing them. But what must be concluded from this, except that intelligence in general is a resultant and not a principle, and that it is simply, as Taine and the later English psychologists have so well shown, the series, the grouping, the ensemble, of a multitude of phenomena, the greater part of which have their cause outside of the me. Hartmann sets out on quite a different path, and supposes behind my consciousness another intelligence, which elaborates these ideas for me, and imparts them to me ready made; and in support of this theory he invokes the mysticism for which he betrays sympathies that recall the romantic school; he invokes the inspiration of genius, which he holds to be only the revelation of luminous thoughts to certain privileged natures. But is genius any other thing than the combination of those cerebral conditions which permit new relations of ideas to manifest themselves in an intelligence, under the mere stimulus of life, of the organic functions, and of the perceptions?

We remark the production, in history, of a great number of facts which are independent of human volitions. Men set an end before them, and yet the result is quite different from the one they had foreseen and willed. How could it be otherwise, since individual volitions are but elements in the midst of an immense complexity, and all the elements are thwarting, checking, neutralizing each other? Moreover, the struggles for existence and selection explain historic progress as clearly as they do physiological development. But Hartmann prefers, in this instance, as in others, to resort to a metaphysical principle, and imitates Joseph de Maistre, in calling for the interposition of a providential action, which guides humanity toward an end, sometimes even in spite of human efforts.

At the same time that Hartmann endeavors to prove, by the facts we have just spoken of, the existence of "a psychical principle maintaining itself above matter," he fancies that he has evolved from these same facts the idea of what he calls "the unconsciousness," the idea of an intelligence which has no consciousness of itself, of unconscious manifestations (Vorstellungen), of unconscious volitions. We declare that we have not succeeded in comprehending this idea—it even seems to us self-contradictory. What is an idea or a volition without the consciousness of that idea or that volition? Can the idea be any thing else than one form of consciousness, as the volition is another form of it? Hartmann is able to cite facts of intelligence which are outside of the consciousness of the me, but without being able to prove that these facts must be unconscious, absolutely and in themselves. Who can even prove to us that the I is the totality of the conscious phenomena of the brain? The I is nothing more than a series of facts, and may there not be alongside of this series a multitude of facts which become real, without being attached to it by any bond of continuity? For instance, personal character is made up of a great number of conditions, which, without any consciousness on the part of the I, modify the direction of its volitions: these facts only make themselves known to us by their influence on the acts and the morals of the individual. But does it follow, from their being unconscious relatively to the me, that they are unconscious in themselves? Hartmann's own doctrines, on the contrary, would lead us to allow that the other nervous centres, the spinal marrow, the ganglia, etc., are endowed with their own consciousness; that there is a special consciousness in each cell of a plant or animal, perhaps even in every material atom; in a word, that consciousness coincides everywhere with reality, unconsciousness being outside of real facts. But what is to be concluded from this, except that none of the real facts, which Hartmann has set forth with so many details, offer us the idea of the unconscious? And then what foundation is there for this definition, that "the unconscious is the cause of all those facts, in an organic and conscious individual, which lead us to the supposition of a psychical and unconscious cause?" We will even say that Hartmann seems to us to have succeeded better in widening the sphere of consciousness, than in founding a philosophy of the unconscious.

If we put ourselves the question, What is the real motive that determined him to attribute unconsciousness, rather than consciousness, to the supreme intelligence, to God? we find only an a priori reason, drawn from the idea that evil rules the world: "If, at the time of the creation of the world, there was in God any thing like consciousness, the existence of the world would be an inexcusable cruelty, and the development of the world a useless absurdity." Hartmann finds self driven to suppose God unconscious, to escape supposing him wicked. "This consideration," he says, "is decisive against the admission of consciousness in God." But stay!—if God has not the consciousness of what there is evil in the world, Hartmann argues, on the other hand, that he has the idea of it (the Vorstellung). Does not this idea suffice, as well as consciousness could (in our view they are exactly the same thing), to pledge the Divine responsibility?

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  1. In the strictest meaning of the term, a reflex phenomenon is a movement called forth in one part of the body by an excitement proceeding from that part, and acting intermediately through a new centre, other than the brain, properly called, and consequently without the intervention of the will.—(Vulpian, Lectures on the General and Comparative Physiology of the Nervous System.)