Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/January 1885/Agnostic Metaphysics
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By Frederic Harrison
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TEN years ago I warned Mr. Herbert Spencer that his Religion of the Unknowable was certain to lead him into strange company. "To invoke the Unknowable," I said, "is to reopen the whole range of Metaphysics; and the entire apparatus of Theology will follow through the breach." I quoted Mr. G. Lewes's admirable remark, "that the foundations of a Creed can rest only on the Known and the Knowable." We see the result. Mr. Spencer has developed his Unknowable into an "Infinite and Eternal Energy, by which all things are created and sustained." He has discovered it to be the Ultimate Cause, the All-Being, the Creative Power, and all the other "alternative impossibilities of thought" which he once cast in the teeth of the older theologies. Naturally there is joy over one philosopher that repenteth. The "Christian World" claims this as equivalent to the assertion that God is the mind and spirit of the universe; and the "Christian World" says these words might have been used by Butler or Paley. This is, indeed, true; but it is strange to find the philosophy of one who makes it a point of conscience not to enter a church described as "the fitting and natural introduction to inspiration!"
The admirers of Mr. Spencer's genius—and I count myself among the earliest—will not regret that he has been induced to lay aside his vast task of philosophic synthesis, in order more fully to explain his views about Religion. This is, indeed, for the thoughtful, as well as the practical, world, the great question of our age, and the discussion that was started by his paper  and by mine has opened many topics of general interest. Mr. Spencer has been led to give to some of his views a certainly new development, and he has treated of matters which he had not previously touched. Various critics have joined the debate. Sir James Stephen has brought into play his Nasmyth hammer of Common Sense, and has asked the bold and truly characteristic question: "Can we not do just as well without any religion at all?" The weekly Reviews, I am told, have been poking at us their somewhat hebdomadal fun. And then Mr. Wilfrid Ward, "the rising hope of the stern and unbending" Papists, steps in to remind us of the ancient maxim—extra Ecdesiam nulla salus.
I can not altogether agree with a friend who tells me that controversy is pure evil. It is not so when it leads to a closer sifting of important doctrines; when it is inspired with friendly feeling, and has no other object than to arrive at the truth. There were no mere "compliments" in my expressions of respect for Mr. Spencer and his work. I habitually speak of him as the only living Englishman who can fairly lay claim to the name of philosopher; nay, he is, I believe, the only man in Europe now living who has constructed a real system of philosophy. Very much in that philosophy I willingly adopt; as a philosophical theory I accept his idea of the Unknowable. My rejection of it as the basis of Religion is no new thing. The substance of my essay on the "Ghost of Religion" I have long ago taught at Newton Hall. The difference between Mr. Spencer and myself as to what religion means is vital and profound. So deep is it that it justifies me in returning to these questions, and still further disturbing his philosophic labor. But our long friendship, I trust, will survive the inevitable dispute.
It will clear up much at issue between us if it be remembered that to me this question is one primarily of religion; to Mr. Spencer, one primarily of philosophy. He is dealing with transcendental conceptions, intelligible only to certain trained metaphysicians: I have been dealing with religion as it affects the lives of men and women in the world. Hence, if I admit with him that philosophy points to an unknowable and inconceivable Reality behind phenomena, I insist that, to ordinary men and women, an unknowable and inconceivable Reality is practically an Unreality. The Everlasting Yes which the Evolutionist metaphysician is conscious of, but can not conceive, is in effect on the public a mere Everlasting No; and a religion which begins and ends with the mystery of the Unknowable is not religion at all, but a mere logician's formula. This is how it comes about that Mr. Spencer complains that I have misunderstood him or have not read his books, that I fail to represent him, or even misrepresent him. I can not admit that I have either misunderstood him or misrepresented him on any single point. I have studied his books part by part and chapter by chapter, and have examined the authorities on which he relies.
He seems to think that all hesitation to accept his views will disappear if men will only turn to his "First Principles," his "Principles of Sociology," and his "Descriptive Sociology," where he has "proved" this and "disproved" that, and arrayed the arguments and the evidence for every doctrine in turn. Now, for my i:)art, I have studied all this, to my great pleasure and profit, since the first number of "A Synthetic Philosophy" appeared. Mr. Spencer objects to discipleship, or I would say that I am in very many things one of his disciples myself. But in this matter of religion I hold still, as I have held from the first, that Mr, Spencer is mistaken as to the history, the nature, and the function of religion. It is quite true that he and I are at opposite poles in what relates to the work of religion on man and on life. In all he has written, he treats religion as mainly a thing of the mind, and concerned essentially with mystery. I say—and here I am on my own ground—that religion is mainly a thing of feeling and of conduct, and is concerned essentially with duty. I agree that religion has also an intellectual base; but here I insist that this intellectual basis must rest on something that can be known and conceived and at least partly understood; and that it can not be found at all in what is unknowable, inconceivable, and in no way whatever to be understood.
Now, in. maintaining this, I have with me almost the whole of the competent minds which have dealt with this question. Mr. Spencer puts it rather as if it were merely fanaticism on my part which prevents me from accepting his theory of Religion; as if Sir James Stephen's difficulties would disappear if he could be induced to read the "Principles of Sociology" and the rest. Mr. Spencer must remember that in his Religion of the Unknowable he stands almost alone. He is, in fact, insisting to mankind, in a matter where all men have some opinion, on one of the most gigantic paradoxes in the history of thought. I know myself of no single thinker in Europe who has come forward to support this religion of an Unknowable Cause, which can not be presented in terms of consciousness, to which the words emotion, will, intelligence can not be applied with any meaning, and yet which stands in the place of a supposed anthropomorphic Creator. Mr. George II. Lewes, who of all modern philosophers was the closest to Mr. Spencer, and of recent English philosophers the most nearly his equal, wrote ten years ago: "Deeply as we may feel the mystery of the universe and the limitations of our faculties, the foundations of a creed can only rest on the Known and the Knowable." With that I
believe every school of thought but a few dreamy mystics has
agreed. Every religious teacher, movement, or body, has equally started from that. For myself, I feel that I stand alongside of the religious spirits of every time and of every church in claiming for religion some intelligible object of reverence, and the field of feeling and of conduct, as well as that of awe. Every notice of my criticism of Mr. Spencer which has fallen under my eye adopted my view of the hollowness of the Unknowable as a basis of Religion. So say Agnostics, Materialists, Sceptics, Christians, Catholics, Theists, and Positivists. All with one consent disclaim making a Religion of the Unknowable. Mr. Herbert Spencer may construct an Athanasian Creed of the "Inscrutable Existence"—which is neither God nor being— but he stands as yet Athanasius contra mundum. It is not, therefore, through the hardness of my heart and the stiffness of my neck that I can not follow him here.
Let us now sum up the various positions which Mr. Spencer would impose on us as to Religion. After his two articles and the recent discussion we can hardly mistake him, and they justify my saying that they form a gigantic paradox. Mr. Spencer maintains that:
1. The proper object of Religion is a Something which can never be known, or conceived, or understood; to which we can not apply the terms emotion, will, intelligence; of which we can not affirm or deny that it is either person, or being, or mind, or matter, or indeed anything else.
2. All that we can say of it is, that it is an Inscrutable Existence or an Unknowable Cause: we can neither know nor conceive what it is, nor how it came about, nor how it operates. It is, notwithstanding, the Ultimate Cause, the All-Being, the Creative Power.
3. The essential business of religion, so understood, is to keep alive the consciousness of a mystery that can not be fathomed.
4. We are not concerned with the question, "What effect this religion will have as a moral agent?" or, "Whether it will make good men and women?" Religion has to do with mystery, not with morals.
These are the paradoxes to which my fanaticism refuses to assent.
Now these were the views about Religion which I found in Mr. Spencer's first article, and they certainly are repeated in his second. He says: "The Power which transcends phenomena can not be brought within the forms of our finite thought." "The Ultimate Power is not representable in terms of human consciousness." "The attributes of personality can not be conceived by us as attributes of the Unknown Cause of things." "The nature of the Reality transcending appearances can not be known, yet its existence is necessarily implied." "No conception of this Reality can be framed by us." "This Inscrutable Existence which Science, in the last resort, is compelled to recognise as unreached by its deepest analyses of matter, motion, thought, and feeling." "In ascribing to the Unknowable Cause of things such human attributes as emotion, will, intelligence, we are using words which, when thus applied, have no corresponding ideas. There can be no kind of doubt about all this. I said Mr. Spencer proposes, as the object of religion, an abstraction which we can not conceive, or present in thought, or regard as having personality, or as capable of feeling, purpose, or thought—in familiar words, I said it was "a sort of a something, about which we can know nothing."
Mr. Spencer complains that I called this Something a negation, an All-Nothingness, an (xn), and an Everlasting No. He now says that this Something is the All-Being. The Unknowable is the Ultimate Reality—the solo existence;—the entire Cosmos, as we are conscious of it, being a mere show. In familiar words:—"Everything is nought, and the Unknowable is the only real Thing." I quite agree that this is Mr. Spencer's position as a metaphysician. It is not at all new to me, for it is worked out in his "First Principles" most distinctly. Ten years ago, when I reviewed Mr. Lewes's "Problems of Life and Mind," I criticised Mr. Spencer's Transfigured Realism as being too absolute. I then stated my own philosophical position to be that, "our scientific conceptions within have a good working correspondence with an (assumed) reality without—we having no means of knowing whether the absolute correspondence between them be great or small, or whether there be any absolute correspondence at all." To that I adhere; and, whilst I accept the doctrine of an Unknown substratum, I can not assent to the doctrine that the Unknowable is the Absolute Reality. But I am quite aware that he holds it, nor have I ever said that he did not. On the contrary, I granted that it might be the first axiom of science or the universal postulate of philosophy. But it is not a religion.
1 said then, and I say still, speaking with regard to religion, and from the religious point of view, that the Metaphysician's Unknowable is tantamount to a Nothing. The philosopher may choose to say that there is an Ultimate Reality which we can not conceive, or know, or liken to anything we do know. But these subtleties of speculation are utterly unintelligible to the ordinary public. And to tell them that they are to worship this Unknowable is equivalent to telling them to worship nothing. I quite agree that Mr. Spencer, or any metaphysician, is entitled to assert that the Unknowable is the sole Reality. But religion is not a matter for Metaphysicians—but for men, women, and children. And to them the Unknowable is Nothing. Sir James Stephen calls the distinctions of Mr. Spencer "an unmeaning play of words." I do not say that they are unmeaning to the philosophers working on metaphysics. But to the public, seeking for a religion, the Reality or the Unreality of the Unknowable is certainly an unmeaning play of words.
Even supposing that Evolution ever could bring the people to comprehend the subtlety of the All-Being, of which all things we know are only shows, the Unknowable is still incapable of supplying the very elements of Religion. Mr. Spencer thinks otherwise. He says, that although we can not know, or conceive it, or apply to it any of the terms of life, or of consciousness, "it leaves unchanged certain of the sentiments comprehended under the name of religion." "Whatever components of the religious sentiment disappear, there must ever survive those which are appropriate to the consciousness of a Mystery!" Certain of the religious sentiments are left unchanged! The consciousness of a Mystery is to survive! Is that all? "We are not concerned," says he, "to know what effect this religious sentiment will have as a moral agent!" A religion without anything to be known, with nothing to teach, with no moral power, with some rags of religious sentiment surviving, mainly the consciousness of Mystery; this is, indeed, the mockery of Religion.
Forced, as it seems, to clothe the nakedness of the Unknowable with some shreds of sentiment, Mr. Spencer has given it a positive character, which for every step that it advances towards Religion recedes from sound Philosophy. The Unknowable was at first spoken of as an "unthinkable abstraction," and so undoubtedly it is. But it finally emerges as the Ultimate Reality, the Ultimate Cause, the All-Being, the Absolute Power, the Unknown Cause, the Inscrutable Existence, the Infinite and Eternal Energy, from which all things proceed, the Creative Power, "the Infinite and Eternal Energy, by which all things are created and sustained." It is "to stand in substantially the same relation towards our general conception of things as does the Creative Power asserted by Theology.' "It stands towards the Universe, and towards ourselves, in the same relation as an anthropomorphic Creator was supposed to stand, bears a like relation with it, not only to human thought but to human feeling." In other words the Unknowable is the Creator; subject to this, that we can not assert or deny that he, she, or it, is Person, or Being, or can feel, think, or act, or do anything else that we can either know or imagine, or is such that we can ascribe to Him, Her, or It anything whatever within the realm of consciousness.
Now, the Unknowable, so qualified and explained, offends against all the canons of criticism, so admirably set forth in "First Principles," and especially those of Dean Mansel, therein quoted and adopted. The Unknowable is not unknowable if we know that "it creates and sustains all things." One need not repeat all the metaphysical objections arrayed by Mr. Spencer himself against connecting the ideas of the Absolute, the Infinite, First Cause, and Creator with that of any one Power. How can Absolute Power create? How can the Absolute be a Cause? The Absolute excludes the relative; and Creation and Cause both imply relation. How can the Infinite be a Cause, or create? For if there be effect distinct from cause, or if there be something uncreated, the Infinite would be thereby limited. What is the meaning of All-Being? Does it include, or not, its own manifestation? If the Cosmos is a mere show of an Unknown Cause, then the Unknown Cause is not Infinite, for it docs not include the Cosmos; and not Absolute, for the Universe is its manifestation, and all things proceed from it. That is to say, the Absolute is in relation to the Universe, as Cause and Effect. Again, if the "very notions, beginning and end, cause and purpose, relative notions belonging to human thought, are probably irrelevant to the Ultimate Reality transcending human thought" (Spencer, "Nineteenth Century," p. 12), how can we speak of the Ultimate Cause, or indeed of Infinite and Eternal? The philosophical difficulties of imagining a First Cause, so admirably put by Mr. Spencer years ago, are not greater than those of imagining an Ultimate Cause. The objections he states to the idea of Creation are not removed by talking of a Creative Power rather than a Creator God. If Mr. Spencer's new Creative Power "stands towards our general conception of things in substantially the same relation as the Creative Power of Theology," it is open to all the metaphysical dilemmas so admirably stated in "First Principles." Mr. Spencer can not have it both ways. If his Unknowable be the Creative Power and Ultimate Cause, it simply renews all the mystification of the old theologies. If his Unknowable be unknowable, then it is idle to talk of Infinite and Eternal Energy, sole Reality, All-Being, and Creative Power. This is the slip-slop of theologians which Mr. Spencer, as much as any man living, has finally torn to shreds.
In what way does the notion of Ultimate Cause avoid the difficulties in the way of First Cause, and how is Creative Power an idea more logical than Creator? And if, as Mr. Spencer says ("First Principles," p. 35), "the three different suppositions respecting the origin of things turn out to be literally unthinkable," what does he mean by asserting that a Creative Power is the one great Reality? Mr. Spencer seems to suggest that, though all idea of First Cause, of Creator, of Absolute Existence is unthinkable, the difficulty in the way of predicating them of anything is got over by asserting that the unthinkable and the unknowable is the ultimate reality. He said ("First Principles," p. 110), "every supposition respecting the genesis of the Universe commits us to alternative impossibilities of thought;" and again, "we are not permitted to know—nay, we are not even permitted to conceive—that Reality which is behind the veil of Appearance." Quite so! On that ground we have long rested firmly, accepting Mr. Spencer's teaching. It is to violate that rule if we now go on to call it Creative Power, Ultimate Cause, and the rest. It comes then to this: Mr. Spencer says to the theologians, "I can not allow you to speak of a First Cause, or a Creator, or an All-Being, or an Absolute Existence, because you mean something intelligible and conceivable by these terms, and I tell you that they stand for ideas that are unthinkable and inconceivable. But," he adds, "I have a perfect right to talk of an Ultimate Cause and a Creative Power, and an Absolute Existence, and an All-Being, because I mean nothing by these terms—at least, nothing that can be either thought of or conceived of, and I know that I am not talking of anything intelligible or conceivable. That is the faith of an Agnostic, which except a man believe faithfully he can not be saved."
Beyond the region of the knowable and the conceivable we have no right to assume an infinite energy more than an infinite series of energies, or an infinite series of infinite things or nothings. We have no right to assume one Ultimate Cause, or any cause, more than an infinite series of Causes, or something which is not Cause at all. "We have no right to assume that anything beyond the knowable is eternal infinite, or anything else; we have no right to assume that it is the Ultimate Reality. There may be an endless circle of Realities, or there may be no Reality at all. Once leave the region of the knowable and the conceivable, and every positive assertion is unwarranted. The forms of our consciousness prove to us, says Mr. Spencer, that what lies behind the region of consciousness is not merely unknown but unknowable, that it is one, and that it is Real. The laws of mind, I reply, do not hold good in the region of the unthinkable; the forms of our consciousness can not limit the Unknowable. All positive assertions about that "which can not be brought within the forms of our finite thought" are therefore unphilosophical. We have always held this of the theological Creation, and we must hold it equally of the evolutionist Creation. Here is the difference between Positive Philosophy and Agnostic Metaphysics.
But if this Realism of the Unknowable offends against sound philosophy, the Worship of the Unknowable is abhorrent to every instinct of genuine Religion. There is something startling in Mr. Spencer's assertion that he "is not concerned to show what effect this religious sentiment will have as a moral agent." As in "First Principles," so now, he represents the business of Religion to be to keep alive the consciousness of a Mystery. The recognition of this supreme verity has been from the first, he says, the vital element of Religion. From the beginning it has dimly discerned this ultimate verity; and that supreme and ultimate verity is, that there is an inscrutable Mystery. If this be not retrogressive Religion, what is? Religion is not indeed to be discarded; but, in its final and perfect form, all that it ever has had of reverence, gratitude, love, and sympathy, is to beup into the recognition of a Mystery. Morality, duty, goodness are no longer to be within its sphere. It will neither touch the heart of men nor mould the conduct; it will perpetually remind the intelligence that there is a great Enigma, which, it tells us, can never be solved. Not only is religion reduced to a purely mental sphere, but its task in that sphere is one practically imbecile.
Mr. Spencer complains that I called his Unknowable "an ever-present conundrum to be everlastingly given up." But he uses words almost exactly the same; he himself speaks of "the Great Enigma which he (man) knows can not be solved." The business of the religious sentiment is with "a consciousness of a Mystery that can not be fathomed." It would be difficult to find for Religion a lower and more idle part to play in human life than that of continually presenting to man a conundrum, which he is told he must continually give up. One would take all this to be a bit from "Alice in Wonderland," rather than the first chapter of "Synthetic Philosophy."
I turn to some of the points on which Mr. Spencer thinks that I misunderstand or misrepresent his meaning. I can not admit any one of these cases. In calling the Unknowable a pure negation, I spoke from the standpoint of Religion, not of Metaphysics. It may be a logical postulate, but that of which we can know nothing, and of which we can form no conception, I shall continue to call a pure negation, as an object of worship, even if I am told (as I now am) that it is that "by which all things are created and sustained." Such is the view of Sir James Stephen, and of every other critic who has joined in this discussion.
With respect to Dean Mansel I made no mistake; the mistake is Mr. Spencer's—not mine. I said that of all modern theologians the Dean came the nearest to him. As we all know, in "First Principles" Mr. Spencer quotes and adopts four pages from Mansel's "Bampton Lectures." But I said "there is a gulf which separates even his all-negative deity from Mr. Spencer's impersonal, unconscious, unthinking, and unthinkable Energy." Mr. Spencer says that I misrepresent him and transpose his doctrine and Mansel's, because he regards the Absolute as positive and the Dean regarded it as negative. If Mr. Spencer will look at my words again, he will see that I was speaking of Mansel's Theology, not of his Ontology. I said "diety" not the Absolute. Mansel, as a metaphysician, no doubt spoke of the Absolute as a negative, whilst Mr. Spencer speaks of it as positive. But Mansel's idea of deity is personal, whilst Mr. Spencer's Energy is not personal. That is strictly accurate. Dean Mansel's words are, "it is our duty to think of God as personal;" Mr. Spencer's words are, "duty requires us neither to affirm nor to deny personality" of the Unknown Cause. That is to say, the Dean called his First Cause God; Mr. Spencer prefers to call it Energy. Both describe this First Cause negatively; but whilst the Dean calls it a Person, Mr. Spencer will not say that it is person, conscious, or thinking. Mr, Spencer's impression then that I misrepresented him in this matter is simply his own rather hasty reading of my words.
It is quite legitimate in a question of religion and an object of worship to speak of this Unknowable Energy, described as Mr. Spencer describes it, as "impersonal, unconscious, unthinking, and unthinkable," The distinction that, since we neither affirm nor deny of it personality, consciousness, or thought, it is not therefore impersonal, is a metaphysical subtlety. That which can not be presented in terms of human consciousness is neither personal, conscious, nor thinking, but properly unthinkable. To the ordinary mind it is a logical formula, it is apart from man, it is impersonal and unconscious. And to tell us that this conundrum is "the power which manifests itself in consciousness," that man and the world are but its products and manifestations, that it may have (for aught we know) something higher than personality and something grander than intelligence, is to talk theologico-metaphysical jargon, but is not to give the average man and woman any positive idea at all, and certainly not a religious idea. In religion, at any rate, that which can only be described by negations is negative; that which can not be presented in terms of consciousness is unconscious.
I shall say but little about Mr. Spencer's Ghost theory as the historical source of all religion; because it is, after all, a subordinate matter, and would lead to a wide digression. I am sorry that he will not accept my (not very serious) invitation to him to modify the paradoxes thereon to be read in his "Principles of Sociology." I have always held it to be one of the most unlucky of all his sociologic doctrines, and that on psychological as well as on historical grounds. Mr. Spencer asserts that all forms of religious sentiment spring from the primitive idea of a disembodied double of a dead man. I assert that this is a rather complicated and developed form of thought; and that the simplest and earliest form of religious sentiment is the idea of the rudest savage, that visible objects around him—animal, vegetable, and inorganic—have quasi-human feelings and powers, which he regards with gratitude and awe. Mr. Spencer says that man only began to worship a river or a volcano when he began to imagine them as the abode of dead men's spirits. I say that he began to fear or adore them, so soon as he thought the river or the volcano had the feelings and the powers of living beings; and that was from the dawn of the human intelligence. The latter view is, I maintain, far the simpler and more obvious explanation; and it is a fault in logic to construct a complicated explanation when a simple one answers the facts. Animals think inert things of a peculiar form to be animal; so do infants. The dog barks at a shadow; the horse dreads a steam-engine; the baby loves her doll, feeds her nurses her, and buries her. The savage thinks the river, or the mountain beside which he lives, the most beneficent, awful, powerful of beings. There is the germ of religion. To assure us that the savage has no feeling of awe and affection for the river and the mountain, until he has evolved the elaborate idea of disembodied spirits of dead men dwelling invisibly inside them, is as idle as it would be to assure us that the love and the terror of the dog, the horse, and the baby are due to their perceiving some disembodied spirit inside the shadow, the steam-engine, or the doll.
I think it a little hard that I may not hold this common-sense view of the matter, along with almost all who have studied the question, without being told that it comes of "persistent thinking along defined grooves," and that I should accept the Ghost theory of Religion were it not for my fanatical discipleship. Does not Mr. Spencer himself persistently think along defined grooves; and does not every systematic thinker do the same? But it so happens that the Ghost theory leads to conclusions that outrage common sense. If Dr. Tylor has finally adopted it, I am sorry. But it is certain that the believers in the Ghost theory as the origin of all forms of Religion are few and far between. The difficulties in the way of it are enormous. Mr. Spencer laboriously tries to persuade us that the worship of the Sun and the Moon arose, not from man's natural reverence for these great and beautiful powers of Nature, but solely as they were thought to be the abodes of the disembodied spirits of dead ancestors. Animal worship, tree and plant worship, fetichism, the Confucian worship of heaven, all, he would have us believe, take their origin entirely from the idea that these objects contain the spirits of the dead. If this is not "persistent thinking along defined grooves," I know not what it is.
The case of China is decisive. There we have a religion of vast antiquity and extent, perfectly clear and well ascertained. It rests entirely on worship of Heaven, and Earth, and objects of Nature, regarded as organized beings, and not as the abode of human spirits. There is in the religion and philosophy of China no notion of human spirits, disembodied and detached from the dead person, conceived as living in objects and distinct from dead bodies. The dead are the dead; not the spiritual denizens of other things. In the face of this, the vague language of missionaries and travellers as to the beliefs of savages must be treated with caution. Mr. Spencer speaks in too confident language of his having "proved" and "disproved" and "shown" all these things in his "Descriptive Sociology" and in his "Principles of Sociology." How many competent persons has he convinced? Assuredly, for my part, I read and re-read all that he there says about the genesis of religion with amazement. We read these authorities for ourselves, and we can not see that they bear out his conclusions. It was a pity to refer to the tables in the "Descriptive Sociology," perhaps the least successful of all Mr. Spencer's works. That work is a huge tile of cuttings from various travellers of all classes, extracted by three gentlemen whom Mr. Spencer employed. Of course these intelligent gentlemen had little difficulty in clipping from hundreds of books about foreign races sentences which seem to support Mr. Spencer's doctrines. The whole proceeding is too much like that of a famous lawyer who wrote a law-book, and then gave it to his pupils to find the "cases" which supported his law. It is a little suspicious that we find so often at the head of each "" of the lower races a heading in almost the same words to the effect: "Dreams, regarded as visits from the spirits of departed relations." The intelligent gentlemen employed have done their work very well; but of course one can find in this medley of tables almost any view. And I find facts which make for my view as often as any other.
Fetichism, says Mr. Spencer, is not found in the lowest races. Be that as it may, it is found wherever we can trace the germs of religion. Well, I read in the "Descriptive Sociology" that Mr. Burton, perhaps the most capable of all African travellers, declares that "fetichism is still the only faith known in East Africa." In other places, we read of the sun and moon, forests, trees, stones, snakes, and the like regarded with religious reverence by the savages of Central Africa. "The Damaras attribute the origin of the sheep to a large stone." They regard a big tree as the origin of Damaras. "Cattle of a certain color are venerated by the Damaras." "To the Bechuanas rain appears as the giver of all good." The negro whips or throws away a worthless fetich. "The Hottentots and Bushmen shoot poisoned arrows at the lightning and throw old shoes at it." Exactly! And do these Damaras, Bechuanas, and Bushmen do this solely because they think that the sun and moon, the lightning, the rain, the trees, the cattle, and the snakes are the abodes of the disembodied spirits of their dead relatives? And do they never do this until they have evolved a developed Ghost theory?
This is more than I can accept, for all the robustness of faith which Mr. Spencer attributes to me. Whilst I find in a hundred books that countless races of Africa and the organized religion of China attribute human qualities to natural objects, and grow up to regard those objects with veneration and awe, I shall continue to think that fetichism, or the reverent ascription of feeling and power to natural objects, is a spontaneous tendency of the human mind. And I shall refuse, even on Mr. Spencer's high authority, and that of his three compilers, to believe that it is solely a result of a developed Ghost theory. To ask us to believe this as "proved" on the strength of a pile of clippings made to order is, I think, quite as droll to ordinary minds as anything Mr. Spencer can pick up out of the Positivist Calendar.—Nineteenth Century.
- "Problems of Life and Mind," vol. i. Preface.
- "The Christian World," June 5 and July 3, 1884.
- H. Spencer, in "Nineteenth Century," January and July, 1884.
- F. Harrison, in "Nineteenth Century," March, 1884.
- Sir J. Stephen, in "Nineteenth Century," June, 1884.
- W. Ward, in "National Review," June, 1884.
- "Fortnightly Review," 1874, p. 89.
- My words were that, "although the Unknowable is logically said to be Something, yet the something of which we neither know nor conceive anything is practically nothing." That is, speaking from the point of view of religion.