Egotism in German Philosophy/Chapter I

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Egotism in German Philosophy by George Santayana
Chapter I. The General Character of German Philosophy


the general character of german philosophy

What I propose in these pages to call German philosophy is not identical with philosophy in Germany. The religion of the Germans is foreign to them; and the philosophy associated with religion before the Reformation, and in Catholic circles since, is a system native to the late Roman Empire. Their irreligion is foreign too; the sceptical and the scientific schools that have been conspicuous in other countries have taken root in Germany as well. Thus, if we counted the Catholics and the old-fashioned Protestants on the one hand, and the materialists (who call themselves monists) on the other, we should very likely discover that the majority of intelligent Germans held views which German philosophy proper must entirely despise, and that this philosophy seemed as strange to them as to other people.

For an original and profound philosophy has arisen in Germany, as distinct in genius and method from Greek and Catholic philosophy as this is from the Indian systems. The great characteristic of German philosophy is that it is deliberately subjective and limits itself to the articulation of self-consciousness. The whole world appears there, but at a certain remove; it is viewed and accepted merely as an idea framed in consciousness, according to principles fetched from the most personal and subjective parts of the mind, such as duty, will, or the grammar of thought. The direction in which German philosophy is profound is the direction of inwardness. Whatever we may think of its competence in other matters, it probes the self—as unaided introspection may—with extraordinary intentness and sincerity. In inventing the transcendental method, the study of subjective projections and perspectives, it has added a new dimension to human speculation.

The foreign religion and the foreign irreligion of Germany are both incompatible with German philosophy. This philosophy cannot accept any dogmas, for its fundamental conviction is that there are no existing things except imagined ones: God as much as matter is exhausted by the thought of him, and entirely resident in this thought. The notion that knowledge can discover anything, or that anything previously existing can be revealed, is discarded altogether: for there is nothing to discover, and even if there was, the mind could not reach it; it could only reach the idea it might call up from its own depths. This idea might be perhaps justified and necessary by virtue of its subjective roots in the will or in duty, but never justified by its supposed external object, an object with which nobody could ever compare it. German philosophy is no more able to believe in God than in matter, though it must talk continually of both.

At the same time this subjectivism is not irreligious. It is mystical, faithful, enthusiastic: it has all the qualities that gave early Protestantism its religious force. It is rebellious to external authority, conscious of inward light and of absolute duties. It is full of faith, if by faith we understand not definite beliefs held on inadequate evidence, but a deep trust in instinct and destiny.

Rather than religious, however, this philosophy is romantic. It accepts passionately the aims suggested to it by sentiment or impulse. It despises prudence and flouts the understanding. In Faust and in Pier Gynt we have a poetic echo of its fundamental inspiration, freed from theological accommodations or academic cant. It is the adventure of a wild, sensitive, boyish mind, that now plays the fairy prince and now the shabby and vicious egoist; a rebel and an enthusiast, yet often a sensualist to boot by way of experiment; a man eager for experience, but blind to its lessons, vague about nature, and blundering about duty, but confident that he can in some way play the magician and bring the world round to serve his will and spiritual necessities.

Happiness and despair are alike impossible with such a temperament. Its empiricism is perennial. It cannot lose faith in the vital impulse it expresses; all its fancy, ingenuity, and daring philosophy are embroideries which it makes upon a dark experience. It cannot take outer facts very seriously; they are but symbols of its own unfathomable impulses. So pensive animals might reason. The just and humble side of German philosophy—if we can lend it virtues to which it is deeply indifferent—is that it accepts the total relativity of the human mind and luxuriates in it, much as we might expect spiders or porpoises to luxuriate in their special sensibility, making no vain effort to peep through the bars of their psychological prison.

This sort of agnosticism in a minor key is conspicuous in the Critique of Pure Reason. In a major key it reappears in Nietzsche, when he proclaims a preference for illusion over truth. More mystically expressed it pervades the intervening thinkers. The more profound they are the more content and even delighted they are to consider nothing but their own creations. Their theory of knowledge proclaims that knowledge is impossible. You know only your so-called knowledge, which itself knows nothing; and you are limited to the autobiography of your illusions.

The Germans express this limitation of their philosophy by calling it idealism. In several senses it fully deserves this name. It is idealistic psychologically in that it regards mental life as groundless and all-inclusive, and denies that a material world exists, except as an idea necessarily bred in the mind. It is idealistic, too, in that it puts behind experience a background of concepts, and not of matter; a ghostly framework of laws, categories, moral or logical principles to be the stiffening and skeleton of sensible experience, and to lend it some substance and meaning. It is idealistic in morals also, in that it approves of pursuing the direct objects of will, without looking over one’s shoulder or reckoning the consequences. These direct objects are ideals, whereas happiness, or any satisfaction based on renunciation and compromise, seems to these spirited philosophers the aim of a degraded, calculating mind. The word idealism, used in this sense, should not mislead us; it indicates sympathy with life and its passions, particularly the learned and political ones; it does not indicate any distaste for material goods or material agencies. The German moral imagination is in its first or dogmatic stage, not in the second or critical one. It is in love with life rather than with wisdom.

There is accordingly one sense of the term idealism—the original one—in which this philosophy knows nothing of it, the Platonic and poetic sense in which the ideal is something better than the fact. The Platonic idealist is the man by nature so wedded to perfection that he sees in everything not the reality but the faultless ideal which the reality misses and suggests. Hegel, indeed, drew an outline portrait of things, according to what he thought their ideal essence; but it was uglier and more dreary than the things themselves. Platonic idealism requires a gift of impassioned contemplation, an incandescent fancy that leaps from the things of sense to the goals of beauty and desire. It spurns the earth and believes in heaven, a form of religion most odious to the Germans. They think this sort of idealism not only visionary but somewhat impious; for their own religion takes the form of piety and affection towards everything homely, imperfect, unstable, and progressive. They yearn to pursue the unattainable and encounter the unforeseen. This romantic craving hangs together with their taste for the picturesque and emphatic in the plastic arts, and for the upwelling evanescent emotions of music. Yet their idealism is a religion of the actual. It rejects nothing in the daily experience of life, and looks to nothing essentially different beyond. It looks only for more of the same thing, believing in perpetual growth, which is an ambiguous notion. Under the fashionable name of progress what these idealists sincerely cherish is the vital joy of transition; and usually the joy of this transition lies much more in shedding their present state than in attaining a better one. For they suffer and wrestle continually, and by a curious and deeply animal instinct, they hug and sanctify this endless struggle all the more when it rends and bewilders them, bravely declaring it to be absolute, infinite, and divine.

Such in brief is German philosophy, at least, such it might be said to be if any clear account of it did not necessarily falsify it; but one of its chief characteristics, without which it would melt away, is ambiguity. You cannot maintain that the natural world is the product of the human mind without changing the meaning of the word mind and of the word human. You cannot deny that there is a substance without turning into a substance whatever you substitute for it. You cannot identify yourself with God without at once asserting and denying the existence of God and of yourself. When you speak of such a thing as the consciousness of society you must never decide whether you mean the consciousness individuals have of society or a fabled consciousness which society is to have of itself: the first meaning would spoil your eloquence, and the second would betray your mythology.

What is involved in all these equivocations is not merely a change of vocabulary, that shifting use of language which time brings with it. No, the persistence of the old meanings alone gives point to the assertions that change them and identify them with their opposites. Everywhere, therefore, in these speculations, you must remain in suspense as to what precisely you are talking about. A vague, muffled, dubious thought must carry you along as on a current. Your scepticism must not derange your common sense; your conduct must not express your radical opinions; a certain afflatus must bear you nobly onward through a perpetual incoherence. You must always be thinking not of what you are thinking of but of yourself or of “something higher.” Otherwise you cannot live this philosophy or understand it from within.

The mere existence of this system, as of any other, proves that a provocation to frame it is sometimes found in experience or language or the puzzles of reflection. Not that there need be any solidity in it on that account. German philosophy is a sort of religion, and like other religions it may be capable of assimilating a great amount of wisdom, while its first foundation is folly. This first folly itself will not lack plausible grounds; there is provocation enough in a single visit to a madhouse for the assertion that the mind can know nothing but the ideas it creates; nevertheless the assertion is false, and such facile scepticism loses sight of the essence of knowledge. The most disparate minds, since they do not regard themselves, may easily regard the same object. Only the maniac stares at his own ideas; he confuses himself in his perceptions; he projects them into the wrong places, and takes surrounding objects to be different from what they are. But perceptions originally have external objects; they express a bodily reaction, or some inward preparation for such a reaction. They are reports. The porpoise and the spider are not shut up in their self-consciousness; however foreign to us may be the language of their senses, they know the sea and air that we know, and have to meet the same changes and accidents there which we meet—and they even have to meet us, sometimes, to their sorrow. Their knowledge does not end in acquaintance with that sensuous language of theirs, whatever it may be, but flies with the import of that language and salutes the forces which confront them in action, and which also confront us. In focussing these forces through the lenses and veils of sense knowledge arises; and to arrest our attention on those veils and lenses and say they are all we know, belies the facts of the case and is hardly honest. If we could really do that, we should be retracting the first act of intelligence and becoming artificial idiots. Yet this sophistication is the first principle of German philosophy (borrowed, indeed, from non-Germans), and is the thesis supposed to be proved in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.