1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Green, Thomas Hill

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GREEN, THOMAS HILL (1836-1882), English philosopher, the most typical English representative of the school of thought called Neo-Kantian, or Neo-Hegelian, was born on the 7th of April 1836 at Birkin, a village in the West Riding of Yorkshire, of which his father was rector. On the paternal side he was descended from Oliver Cromwell, whose honest, sturdy independence of character he seemed to have inherited. His education was conducted entirely at home until, at the age of fourteen, he entered Rugby, where he remained five years. In 1855 he became an undergraduate member of Balliol College, Oxford, of which society he was, in 1860, elected fellow. His life, henceforth, was devoted to teaching (mainly philosophical) in the university — first as college tutor, afterwards, from 1878 until his death (at Oxford on the 26th of March 1882) as Whyte's Professor of Moral Philosophy. The lectures he delivered as professor form the substance of his two most important works, viz. the Prolegomena to Ethics and the Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation, which contain the whole of his positive constructive teaching. These works were not published until after his death, but Green's views were previously known indirectly through the Introduction to the standard edition of Hume's works by Green and T. H. Grose (d. 1906), fellow of Queen's College, in which the doctrine of the “English” or “empirical” philosophy was exhaustively examined.

Hume's empiricism, combined with a belief in biological evolution (derived from Herbert Spencer), was the chief feature in English thought during the third quarter of the 19th century. Green represents primarily the reaction against doctrines which, when carried out to their logical conclusion, not only “rendered all philosophy futile,” but were fatal to practical life. By reducing the human mind to a series of unrelated atomic sensations, this teaching destroyed the possibility of knowledge, and further, by representing man as a “being who is simply the result of natural forces,” it made conduct, or any theory of conduct, unmeaning; for life in any human, intelligible sense implies a personal self which (1) knows what to do, (2) has power to do it. Green was thus driven, not theoretically, but as a practical necessity, to raise again the whole question of man in relation to nature. When (he held) we have discovered what man in himself is, and what his relation to his environment, we shall then know his function — what he is fitted to do. In the light of this knowledge we shall be able to formulate the moral code, which, in turn, will serve as a criterion of actual civic and social institutions. These form, naturally and necessarily, the objective expression of moral ideas, and it is in some civic or social whole that the moral ideal must finally take concrete shape.

To ask “What is man?” is to ask “What is experience?” for experience means that of which I am conscious. The facts of consciousness are the only facts which, to begin with, we are justified in asserting to exist. On the other hand, they are valid evidence for whatever is necessary to their own explanation, i.e. for whatever is logically involved in them. Now the most striking characteristic of man, that in fact which marks him specially, as contrasted with other animals, is self-consciousness. The simplest mental act into which we can analyse the operations of the human mind — the act of sense-perception — is never merely a change, physical or psychical, but is the consciousness of a change. Human experience consists, not of processes in an animal organism, but of these processes recognized as such. That which we perceive is from the outset an apprehended fact that is to say, it cannot be analysed into isolated elements (so-called sensations) which, as such, are not constituents of consciousness at all, but exists from the first as a synthesis of relations in a consciousness which keeps distinct the “self” and the various elements of the “object,” though holding all together in the unity of the act of perception. In other words, the whole mental structure we call knowledge consists, in its simplest equally with its most complex constituents, of the “work of the mind.” Locke and Hume held that the work of the mind was eo ipso unreal because it was “made by” man and not “given to” man. It thus represented a subjective creation, not an objective fact. But this consequence follows only upon the assumption that the work of the mind is arbitrary, an assumption shown to be unjustified by the results of exact science, with the distinction, universally recognized, which such science draws between truth and falsehood, between the real and “mere ideas.” This (obviously valid) distinction logically involves the consequence that the object, or content, of knowledge, viz. reality, is an intelligible ideal reality, a system of thought relations, a spiritual cosmos. How is the existence of this ideal whole to be accounted for? Only by the existence of some “principle which renders all relations possible and is itself determined by none of them”; an eternal self-consciousness which knows in whole what we know in part. To God the world is, to man the world becomes. Human experience is God gradually made manifest.

Carrying on the same analytical method into the special department of moral philosophy, Green held that ethics applies to the peculiar conditions of social life that investigation into man's nature which metaphysics began. The faculty employed in this further investigation is no “separate moral faculty,” but that same reason which is the source of all our knowledge — ethical and other. Self-reflection gradually reveals to us human capacity, human function, with, consequently, human responsibility. It brings out into clear consciousness certain potentialities in the realization of which man's true good must consist. As the result of this analysis, combined with an investigation into the surroundings man lives in, a “content” — a moral code — becomes gradually evolved. Personal good is perceived to be realizable only by making actual the conceptions thus arrived at. So long as these remain potential or ideal, they form the motive of action; motive consisting always in the idea of some “end” or “good” which man presents to himself as an end in the attainment of which he would be satisfied, that is, in the realization of which he would find his true self. The determination to realize the self in some definite way constitutes an “act of will,” which, as thus constituted, is neither arbitrary nor externally determined. For the motive which may be said to be its cause lies in the man himself, and the identification of the self with such a motive is a self-determination, which is at once both rational and free. The “freedom of man” is constituted, not by a supposed ability to do anything he may choose, but in the power to identify himself with that true good which reason reveals to him as his true good. This good consists in the realization of personal character; hence the final good, i.e. the moral ideal, as a whole, can be realized only in some society of persons who, while remaining ends to themselves in the sense that their individuality is not lost but rendered more perfect, find this prefection attainable only when the separate individualities are integrated as part of a social whole. Society is as necessary to form persons as persons are to constitute society. Social union is the indispensable condition of the development of the special capacities of the individual members. Human self-perfection cannot be gained in isolation; it is attainable only in inter-relation with fellow-citizens in the social community.

The law of our being, so revealed, involves in its turn civic or political duties. Moral goodness cannot be limited to, still less constituted by, the cultivation of self-regarding virtues, but consists in the attempt to realize in practice that moral ideal which self-analysis has revealed to us as our ideal. From this fact arises the ground of political obligation, for the institutions of political or civic life are the concrete embodiment of moral ideas in terms of our day and generation. But, as society exists only for the proper development of persons, we have a criterion by which to test these institutions, viz. do they, or do they not, contribute to the development of moral character in the individual citizens? It is obvious that the final moral ideal is not realized in any body of civic institutions actually existing, but the same analysis which demonstrates this deficiency points out the direction which a true development will take. Hence arises the conception of rights and duties which should be maintained by law, as opposed to those actually maintained; with the further consequence that it may become occasionally a moral duty to rebel against the state in the interest of the state itself, that is, in order better to subserve that end or function which constitutes the raison d'être of the state. The state does not consist in any definite concrete organization formed once for all. It represents a “general will” which is a desire for a common good. Its basis is not a coercive authority imposed upon the citizens from without, but consists in the spiritual recognition, on the part of the citizens, of that which constitutes their true nature. “Will, not force, is the basis of the state.”

Green's teaching was, directly and indirectly, the most potent philosophical influence in England during the last quarter of the 19th century, while his enthusiasm for a common citizenship, and his personal example in practical municipal life, inspired much of the effort made, in the years succeeding his death, to bring the universities more into touch with the people, and to break down the rigour of class distinctions.

Of his philosophical doctrine proper, the most striking characteristic is Integration, as opposed to Disintegration, both in thought and in reality. “That which is” is a whole, not an aggregate; an organic complex of parts, not a mechanical mass; a “whole” too not material but spiritual, a “world of thought-relations.” On the critical side this teaching is now admittedly valid against the older empiricism, and the cogency of the reasoning by which his constructive theory is supported is generally recognized. Nevertheless, Green's statement of his conclusions presents important difficulties. Even apart from the impossibility of conceiving a whole of relations which are relations and nothing else (this objection is perhaps largely verbal), no explanation is given of the fact (obvious in experience) that the spiritual entities of which the Universe is composed appear material. Certain elements present themselves in feeling which seem stubbornly to resist any attempt to explain them in terms of thought. While, again, legitimately insisting upon personality as a fundamental constituent in any true theory of reality, the relation between human individualities and the divine Person is left vague and obscure; nor is it easy to see how the existence of several individualities — human or divine — in one cosmos is theoretically possible. It is at the solution of these two questions that philosophy in the immediate future may be expected to work.

Green's most important treatise — the Prolegomena to Ethics — practically complete in manuscript at his death — was published in the year following, under the editorship of A. C. Bradley (4th ed., 1899). Shortly afterwards R. L. Nettleship's standard edition of his Works (exclusive of the Prolegomena) appeared in three volumes: vol. i. containing reprints of Green's criticism of Hume, Spencer, Lewes; vol. ii. Lectures on Kant, on Logic, on the Principles of Political Obligation; vol. iii. Miscellanies, preceded by a full Memoir by the Editor. The Principles of Political Obligation was afterwards published in separate form. A criticism of Neo-Hegelianism will be found in Andrew Seth (Pringle Pattison), Hegelianism and Personality. See also articles in Mind (January and April 1884) by A. J. Balfour and Henry Sidgwick, in the Academy (xxviii. 242 and xxv. 297) by S. Alexander, and in the Philosophical Review (vi., 1897) by S. S. Laurie; W. H. Fairbrother, Philosophy of T. H. Green (London and New York, 1896); D. G. Ritchie, The Principles of State Interference (London, 1891); H. Sidgwick, Lectures on the Philosophy of Kant (London, 1905); J. H. Muirhead, The Service of the State: Four Lectures on the Political Teaching of T. H. Green (1908); A. W. Benn, English Rationalism in the XlXth Century (1906), vol. ii., pp. 401 foll. (W. H. F.,* X.)