Popular Science Monthly/Volume 9/October 1876/George Henry Lewes

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PSM V09 D668 George Henry Lewes.jpg


THIS versatile thinker, known to science by his "Seaside Studies" and his "Physiology of Common Life"—works of much originality—as well as by his "History of Philosophy" and his "Problems of Life and Mind," in which he puts forth independent views on scientific methodology, was born in London, April 18, 1817. At an early age he was sent to the Continent of Europe to receive an education, but returned while still a lad, and was then placed under the tuition of Dr. Burney, at Greenwich.

The influence of his residence abroad, during the impressionable period of boyhood, is seen in a greater degree of vivacity than is usual among his countrymen. On leaving school young Lewes became a clerk in a mercantile house, but, as his tastes inclined him rather to a literary and scientific than a business career, he left the counting-house and took up the study of anatomy and physiology. His interest in these sciences appears to have sprung purely from a thirst for knowledge, as he did not purpose to become a physician. As early as 1836 he had in contemplation a treatise on the philosophy of mind, in which the doctrines of the Scotch metaphysicians—Reid, Stewart, and Brown-were to be physiologically interpreted, and, during the following year, he gave a course of lectures upon this subject. The investigations made at this time were destined to be suspended for a while, but later to be resumed and pushed forward into the most difficult provinces of philosophical inquiry. The years 1838 and 1839 he spent in Germany, devoting himself with characteristic assiduity to the study of literature and philosophy. Besides acquiring a mastery of the German language, he gained an intimate acquaintance with German habits of thought. Even in his boyhood he was an indefatigable bookworm, and residence in Germany tended only to strengthen him in this habit, and to make him one of the most versatile writers and at the same time one of the most diligent students of the day. On his return to England, he for the first time felt, as he said, fully confident to enter on his career as a littérateur. He contributed 'to the columns of the daily press reviews and criticisms of books, and to the quarterly reviews and the leading literary magazines of England scientific and philosophical essays, biographical sketches, and the like. In 1849 he assumed the literary editorship of the Leader newspaper, which post he held till 1854. A London correspondent of an American journal, referring to this period of Lewes's life, says: "His criticisms, as indeed all his writings, were noted for piquancy, brilliancy, and boldness of thought. He had not only no objection to expressing his opinions; he was determined that the public should know them if they were capable of comprehending pungent and forcible English. He has never been a man with moral or mental reservations. As soon as he has a new thought, a new conviction, a new theory, he blurts it out. He was not long in making his mark, and from that time to the present, whatever has emanated from him has attracted attention and awakened interest." In 1865 he founded the Fortnightly Review, but was compelled by ill health to resign the editorship the following year; he was succeeded by John Morley.

His first elaborate work—a work which affords ample evidence both of his laborious industry and of his keen insight—was the "Biographical History of Philosophy, from Thales to Comte," first published in 1845. A fourth edition, corrected and partly rewritten, appeared in 1871 (2 vols.). An acute French critic says of this work of Mr. Lewes: "His history resembles rather that of Hegel than that of Ritter. His review of the labors of philosophers is rather occupied with that which they have thought than with their comparative importance. He judges rather than expounds; his history is fastidious and critical. It is the work of a clear, precise, and elegant mind, always that of a writer often witty, measured, possessing no taste for declamation, and making its interest profitable to the reader whom he forces to think. This is no ordinary history of philosophy; it is the work of an original mind which has a great deal to say, and yields voluntarily to the pleasure of saying it, a mind which handles texts like a thinker, not like a scholar. Assuredly we must not search Mr. Lewes's pages for enlightenment upon obscure points and upon controverted passages; but in this long journey from Thales to Comte the author has taken amazing pains, and has put forth enough teaching to content some, to leave others discontented, and to make every one reflect" (Ribot, "English Psychology"). In the preface to this history Mr. Lewes offers the following definition of the limits of theology, philosophy, and science: "Theology, philosophy, and science," he writes, "constitute our spiritual triumvirate. . . . Its [theology's] main province is the province of feeling; its office is the systematization of our religious conceptions. The office of science is distinct. It may be defined as the systematization of the order of phenomena considered as phenomena. The office of philosophy is again distinct from these. It is the systematization of the conceptions furnished by theology and scienceὲπιστήμη ὲπιστημᾥν (the science of sciences). This "History of Philosophy" was commenced by its author with the definite purpose of showing the radical weakness of all metaphysics. "The history of philosophy," he writes, "presents the spectacle of thousands of intellects—some of the greatest that have made our race illustrious—steadily concentrated on problems believed to be of vital importance, yet producing no other result than a conviction of the extreme facility of error. The only conquest has been critical, i. e., physiological." His opinion of the value of scientific methods in philosophical inquiry is expressed in the following passage: "There are many who deplore the encroachment of science, fondly imagining that metaphysical philosophy would respond better to the higher wants of man. This regret is partly unreasoning sentiment, partly ignorance of the limitations of human faculty. Even among those who admit that ontology is an impossible attempt, there are many who think it should be persevered in, because of the ' lofty views' it is supposed to open to us. This is as if a man, desirous of going to America, should insist on walking there, because journeys on foot are more poetical than journeys by steam. He dies without reaching America, but to the last gasp he maintains that he has discovered the route on which others may reach it." In 1853 Mr. Lewes contributed to Bohn's "Scientific Library" a volume entitled "Comte's Philosophy of the Sciences."

Five years later (1858) appeared his "Seaside Studies at Ilfracombe." For the meeting of the British Association, the same year, he prepared a paper on "The Spinal Cord as a Centre of Sensation and Volition;" in 1859 he published three papers on "The Nervous System," in which he combated the received doctrines. These papers gave rise to a warm discussion among British physiologists, and even attracted much attention on the Continent of Europe. The "Physiology of Common Life" appeared in 1860, and in the following year was published "Studies in Animal Life." The object of these researches into the nervous system of animals and man was, as he informs us in the preface of his latest work, to obtain the clew through the labyrinth of mental phenomena. Misled by the plausible supposition that the complex phenomena in man might be better interpreted by approaching them through the simpler phenomena in animals, he began to collect materials for a work on animal psychology. But he was not then aware that, rightly to understand the mental condition of animals, we must first gain a clear vision of the fundamental processes in man; for it is only through our knowledge of the processes in ourselves that we can interpret the manifestations of similar processes in them. Here again we are hampered by the anthropomorphic tendency which leads us to assign exclusively human motives to animal actions. In 1864 he published "Aristotle: a Chapter from the History of Science," with analyses of the Stagirite's scientific works. This work was republished in 1873. Since that time he has published, in two volumes, the first series of "Problems of Life and Mind," which was noticed in the Monthly, No. 42. The other published works of Mr. Lewes are: "Ranthorpe—a Tale" (1847); "The Spanish Drama," and "Rose, Blanche, and Violet," a novel (1848); "The Noble Heart," a tragedy, and a "Life of Robespierre" (1850); "Life and Works of Goethe" (1855), indisputably the best work on the subject. Besides these separate volumes he is, as has been already stated, the author of a multitude of essays, reviews, criticisms, etc., in the periodical press.

Personally, Mr. Lewes is described as rather small in stature. His face gives no very clear indication of the mental power he unquestionably possesses. His health has always been infirm, and he looks older than he is. From his portrait, one might imagine Lewes to be a man accustomed to life out-of-doors, though he has always been a close student and a resident of London, or other large capitals. His manner differs markedly from that of the generality of Englishmen. "In his own set," writes the newspaper correspondent already quoted, "he abounds in geniality and bonhomie. He does not remind you of an Englishman; he has none of the hesitation or drawl so typical of his nation, but talks with marked ease and fluency and radiance. He is fond of epigram and paradox, and, being a close observer, his narration of men and things is extremely entertaining. He has the reputation of being one of the most brilliant conversationalists in London, though, like most clever talkers, he is prone to monopoly and monologue." As an author he is slow and painstaking, and the longer he lives the more careful and conscientious does he become in this respect. He does not believe that thoughtful and growing men acquire facility with years, and says that when he was forty he would do four or five pages in the time now required for one. Some years ago he married the eminent novelist, Marian Evans, known to fame as George Eliot. They live in one of the suburbs of London, and their home is represented as being one of the happiest, the likeness of their pursuits and ambitions being an additional bond of unity.