Riddles of the Sphinx/Book reviews/Westminster Review

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Review of Riddles of the Sphinx
The Westminster Review (1891)
From The Westminster Review, Volume 136, pp. 84-86.

The enigmatical title “A Troglodyte” has chosen for his studies in the philosophy of Evolution, Riddles of the Sphinx,[1] would hardly prepare the reader for the deep seriousness of the study, or the masterly ability which is displayed throughout in the treatment of it. The novelty of his hypothesis, and the distaste with which new theories are received, is the author’s excuse for hiding his personality under an anonym, or, as he puts it, wrapping his mantle closely round his face. The special feature of the study is that the author maintains that the riddles of existence can only be solved by metaphysics, but by what he denominates “concrete metaphysics,” in opposition to abstract metaphysics on the one hand, and pseudo-metaphysics—that is the physiological method—on the other. By this route he believes that he has arrived at conclusions wholly satisfactory, if they are true. So supremely honest is our author that he will not dogmatise. “It is the consciousness that he can never transcend the supreme alternative of thought, that though he has grasped the truth, truth always leaves him with an if. What though his reasoning be forged link by link, an adamantine chain of logical necessity, it will yet be hypothetical; what though he show what truth must be, if truth there be, he cannot show that truth there is.”

Notwithstanding the purely philosophical purpose of the book, and the logical method of which the writer is a master, it is distinguished by real literary charm and often rises to eloquence.

It is not easy in a few lines to indicate the hypothesis and scheme of the writer. The first book is critical, and deals with the current philosophical systems and their connection. Positivism, by affirming the impossibility of philosophy, becomes Agnosticism; Agnosticism logically leads to Scepticism, that to Pessimism, which in the end results in philosophical Nihilism, “and Chaos once more swallows up the Cosmos.” Having thus faced the worst, and seeing where present methods of philosophy tend, our author courageously sets himself the task of reconstruction. Here he allows that he must make a bargain with Scepticism; he must assume the reality of the Self, “on the basis and analogy of which the world must be interpreted.” He rejects alike the epistemological and psychological methods: the fact that the mind has a history is fatal to the claims of the psychological method, as it cannot take account of that history without ceasing to be psychological, and submitting to the restrictions of historical and metaphysical methods. It is here, then, the writer brings forward his own method, which is the basing of metaphysics on science—they must be concrete, and not abstract. “In other words, they must proceed from the phenomenally real to the ultimately real, from science to metaphysics.” Where he differs from current evolutionary philosophy in determining the relation of the higher to the lower, is that, whereas the popular philosophy now endeavours to interpret the higher by the lower, this writer would have us interpret the lower by the higher—that things have had a history is the basis of the evolutionary philosophy; and this means not only that a thing has had a past, but that this past has had a bearing upon and a connection with the present. “And the world has not only got a history, but that history has a meaning; it is the process which works out the universal law of Evolution.” And here the author admits that we come upon the trace of the teleology which is inseparable from all evolution. “For when the phenomena of the world’s evolution are subordinated to the general law of evolution, their relation inevitably tends to become that of a means to an end.” This he contends is not the teleology which is dreaded by the modern exponents of natural science. It does not attempt to regard all creation as existing for the use and benefit of man. “It is as far as the scientist from supposing that cork-trees grow in order to supply us with champagne corks.” “The end to which it supposes all things to subserve is not the good of man, and still less for any individual man, but the universal end of the world-process, to which all things tend, and which will coincide with the idiocentric end and desires of the sections of the whole just in proportion to their position in the process.”

And this is sufficient to explain why the world cannot appear perfect from the point of view of the imperfect. What comes first in science comes last in metaphysics; it is in the higher and subsequent that the explanation of the lower and anterior is to be sought. We can never therefore fully understand what or why anything is until we know what it is to become. The end will explain the means. Our author then discusses the formulas of the Law of Evolution, giving due honour to Mr. Spencer, whom he declares deserves the undying gratitude of philosophers for the formula enunciated in the First Principles. “But it will only enhance Mr. Spencer’s glory if, contrary to the drift of his own utterances, we maintain that, being the first, he cannot for this very reason be the last, and express a hope that he may prove the founder of a long dynasty of evolutionist philosophers. He has begun, but he has not ended the philosophy of Evolution.” While admitting the truth of Mr. Spencer’s formula, he insists that it is not all the truth, and the same with Von Hartmann’s. As to his own conclusion, the author gives what is rather an illustration than a formula, though he uses it as the latter. “All real progress develops both the individual and the social medium. It is a development of the individual in society, and of society through the individual.” That this principle will carry him very far the writer feels assured, as he proceeds to test and verify it by its applicability to the different stages of Evolution—to the evolution of human society, to that of the lower animals, and finally to that of the inorganic world. The Third Book deals with the theological aspect of Evolution as interpreted by the writer, and develops his theory of the relation of spirit, or consciousness, and matter, which is the converse of that usually accepted. But space forbids us to enter into details; we can only recommend a careful and generous perusal of the whole work to those who are interested in the study of problems of vital interest.

This work was published before January 1, 1923 and it is anonymous or pseudonymous due to unknown authorship. It is in the public domain in the United States as well as countries and areas where the copyright terms of anonymous or pseudonymous works are 91 years or less since publication.