Misinforming a Nation/Chapter 10

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One going to the Encyclopædia Britannica for critical information concerning philosophy will encounter the very essence of that spirit which is merely reflected in the other departments of the Encyclopædia's culture. In this field the English editors and contributors of the Britannica are dealing with the sources of thought, and as a result British prejudice finds a direct outlet.

To be sure, it is difficult for a critic possessing the mental characteristics and the ethical and religious predispositions of his nation, to reveal the entire field of philosophy without bias. He has certain temperamental affinities which will draw him toward his own country's philosophical systems, and certain antipathies which will turn him against contrary systems of other nations. But in the higher realms of criticism it is possible to find that intellectual detachment which can review impersonally the development of thought, no matter what tangential directions it may take. There have been several adequate histories of philosophy written by British critics, proving that it is not necessary for an Englishman to regard the evolution of thinking only through distorted and prejudiced eyes.

The Encyclopædia Britannica, however, evidently holds to no such just ideal in its exposition of philosophical research. Only in a very few of the biographies do we find evidences of an attempt to set forth this difficult subject with impartiality. As in its other departments, the Encyclopædia places undue stress on British thinkers: it accords them space out of all proportion to their relative importance, and includes obscure and inconsequent British moralists while omitting biographies of far more important thinkers of other nations.

This obvious discrepancy in space might be overlooked did the actual material of the biographies indicate the comparative importance of the thinkers dealt with. But when British critics consider the entire history of thought from the postulates of their own writers, and emphasize only those philosophers of foreign nationality who appeal to “English ways of thinking,” then it is impossible to gain any adequate idea of the philosophical teachings of the world as a whole. And this is precisely the method pursued by the Britannica in dealing with the history and development of modern thought. In nearly every instance, and in every important instance, it has been an English didactician who has interpreted for this Encyclopædia the teachings of the world's leading philosophers; and there are few biographies which do not reveal British prejudice.

The modern English critical mind, being in the main both insular and middle-class, is dominated by a suburban moral instinct. And even among the few more scholarly critics there is a residue of puritanism which tinctures the syllogisms and dictates the deductions. In bringing their minds to bear on creative works these critics are filled with a sense of moral disquietude. At bottom they are Churchmen. They mistake the tastes and antipathies which have been bred in them by a narrow religious and ethical culture, for pure critical criteria. They regard the great men of other nations through the miasma of their tribal taboos.

This rigid and self-satisfied provincialism of outlook, as applied to philosophers in the Encyclopædia Britannica, is not, I am inclined to believe, the result of a deliberate attempt to exaggerate the importance of British thinkers and to underrate the importance of non-British thinkers. To the contrary, it is, I believe, the result of an unconscious ethical prejudice coupled with a blind and self-contented patriotism. But whatever the cause, the result is the same. Consequently, any one who wishes an unbiased exposition of philosophical history must go to a source less insular, and less distorted than the Britannica. Only a British moralist, or one encrusted with British morality, will be wholly satisfied with the manner in which philosophy is here treated; and since there are a great many Americans who have not, as yet, succumbed to English bourgeois theology and who do not believe, for instance, that Isaac Newton is of greater philosophic importance than Kant, this Encyclopædia will be of far more value to an Englishman than to an American.

The first distortion which will impress one who seeks information in the Britannica is to be found in the treatment of English empirical philosophers — that is, of John Locke, Isaac Newton, George Berkeley, Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, Joseph Butler, Mandeville, Hume, Adam Smith and David Hartley. Locke receives fifteen columns of detailed exposition, with inset headings. “He was,” we are told, “typically English in his reverence for facts” and “a signal example in the Anglo-Saxon world of the love of attainable truth for the sake of truth and goodness.” Then we are given the quotation: “If Locke made few discoveries, Socrates made none.” Furthermore, he was “memorable in the record of human progress.”

Isaac Newton receives no less than nineteen columns filled with specific and unstinted praise; and in the three-and-a-half column biography of George Berkeley we learn that Berkeley's “new conception marks a distinct stage of progress in human thought”; that “he once for all lifted the problem of metaphysics to a higher level,” and, with Hume, “determined the form into which later metaphysical questions have been thrown.” Shaftesbury, whose main philosophical importance was due to his ethical and moral speculations in refutation of Hobbes' egoism, is represented by a biography of four and a half columns!

Hume receives over fourteen columns, with inset headings; Adam Smith, nearly nine columns, five and a half of which are devoted to a detailed consideration of his Wealth of Nations. Hutcheson, the ethical moralist who drew the analogy between beauty and virtue — the doctrinaire of the moral sense and the benevolent feelings — is given no less than five columns; while Joseph Butler, the philosophic divine who, we are told, is a “typical instance of the English philosophical mind” and whose two basic premises were the existence of a theological god and the limitation of human knowledge, is given six and a half columns!

On the other hand, Mandeville receives only a column and two-thirds. To begin with, he was of French parentage, and his philosophy (according to the Britannica) “has always been stigmatized as false, cynical and degrading.” He did not believe in the higher Presbyterian virtues, and read hypocrisy into the vaunted goodness of the English. Although in a history of modern philosophy he is deserving of nearly equal space with Butler, in the Britannica he is given only a little over one-fifth of the space! Even David Hartley, the English physician who supplemented Hume's theory of knowledge, is given nearly as much consideration as the “degrading” Mandeville. And Joseph Priestley, who merely popularized these theories, is given no less than two columns.

Let us turn now to what has been called the “philosophy of the enlightenment” in France and Germany, and we shall see the exquisite workings of British moral prejudice in all its purity. Voltaire, we learn, “was one of the most astonishing, if not exactly one of the more admirable, figures of letters.” He had “cleverness,” but not “genius”; and his great fault was an “inveterate superficiality.” Again: “Not the most elaborate work of Voltaire is of much value for matter.” (The biography, a derogatory and condescending one, is written by the eminent moralist, George Saintsbury.)

Condillac, who is given far less space than either Berkeley or Shaftesbury, only half of the space given Hutcheson, and only a little over one-third of the space given Joseph Butler, is set down as important for “having established systematically in France the principles of Locke.” But his “genius was not of the highest order”; and in his analysis of the mind “he missed out the active and spiritual side of human experience.” James Mill did not like him, and his method of imaginative reconstruction “was by no means suited to English ways of thinking.” This latter shortcoming no doubt accounts for the meagre and uncomplimentary treatment Condillac receives in the great British reference work which is devoted so earnestly to “English ways of thinking.”

Helvétius, whose theory of equality is closely related to Condillac's doctrine of psychic passivity, is given even shorter shrift, receiving only a column and a third; and it is noted that “there is no doubt that his thinking was unsystematic.” Diderot, however, fares much better, receiving five columns of biography. But then, more and more “did Diderot turn for the hope of the race to virtue; in other words, to such a regulation of conduct and motive as shall make us tender, pitiful, simple, contented,” — an attitude eminently fitted to “English ways of thinking”! And Diderot's one great literary passion, we learn, was Richardson, the English novelist.

La Mettrie, the atheist, who held no brief for the pious virtues or for the theological soul so beloved by the British, receives just half a column of biography in which the facts of his doctrine are set down more in sorrow than in anger. Von Holbach, the German-Parisian prophet of earthly happiness, who denied the existence of a deity and believed that the soul became extinct at physical death, receives only a little more space than La Mettrie — less than a column. But then, the uprightness of Von Holbach's character “won the friendship of many to whom his philosophy was repugnant.”

Montesquieu, however, is given five columns with liberal praise — both space and eulogy being beyond his deserts. Perhaps an explanation of such generosity lies in this sentence which we quote from his biography: “It is not only that he is an Anglo-maniac, but that he is rather English than French in style and thought.”

Rousseau, on the other hand, possessed no such exalted qualities; and the biography of this great Frenchman is shorter than Adam Smith's and only a little longer than that of the English divine, Joseph Butler! The Britannica informs us that Rousseau's moral character was weak and that he did not stand very high as a man. Furthermore, he was not a philosopher; the essence of his religion was sentimentalism; and during the last ten or fifteen years of his life he was not sane. If you wish to see how unjust and biased is this moral denunciation of Rousseau, turn to any unprejudiced history of philosophy, and compare the serious and lengthy consideration given him, with the consideration given the English moral thinkers who prove such great favorites with the Britannica's editors.

The German “philosophers of the enlightenment” are given even less consideration. Christian Wolff, whose philosophy admittedly held almost undisputed sway in Germany till eclipsed by Kantianism, receives only a column-and-a-half biography, only half the space given to Samuel Clarke, the English theological writer, and equal space with John Norris, the English philosophical divine, and with Arthur Collier, the English High Church theologian. Even Anthony Collins, the English deist, receives nearly as long a biography. Moses Mendelssohn draws only two and a half columns; Crusius, only half a column; Lambert, only a little over three-fourths of a column; Reimarus, only a column and a third, in which he is considered from the standpoint of the English deists; and Edelmann and Tetens have no biographies whatever!

Kant, as I have noted, receives less biographical space than Isaac Newton, and only about a fifth more space than does either John Locke or Hume. It is unnecessary to indicate here the prejudice shown by these comparisons. Every one is cognizant of Kant's tremendous importance in the history of thought, and knows what relative consideration should be given him in a work like the Britannica. Hamann, “the wise man of the North,” who was the foremost of Kant's opponents, receives only a column-and-a-quarter biography, in which he is denounced. His writings, to one not acquainted with the man, must be “entirely unintelligible and, from their peculiar, pietistic tone and scriptural jargon, probably offensive.” And he expressed himself in “uncouth, barbarous fashion.” Herder, however, another and lesser opponent of Kantianism, receives four and a half columns. Jacobi receives three; Reinhold, half a column; Maimon, two-thirds of a column; and Schiller, four and a half columns. Compare these allotments of space with: Thomas Hill Green, the English neo-Kantian, two and two-thirds columns; Richard Price, a column and three-fourths; Martineau, the English philosophic divine, five columns; Ralph Cudworth, two columns; and Joseph Butler, six and a half columns! In the treatment of German philosophic romanticism the Encyclopædia Britannica is curiously prejudiced. The particular philosophers of this school — especially the ones with speculative systems — who had a deep and wide influence on English thought, are treated with adequate liberality. But the later idealistic thinkers, who substituted criticism for speculation, receive scant attention, and in several instances are omitted entirely. For English readers such a disproportioned and purely national attitude may be adequate, since England's intellectualism is, in the main, insular. But, it must be remembered, the Britannica has assumed the character of an American institution; and, to date, this country has not quite reached that state of British complacency where it chooses to ignore all information save that which is narrowly relative to English culture. Some of us are still un-British enough to want an encyclopædia of universal information. The Britannica is not such a reference work, and the manner in which it deals with the romantic philosophers furnishes ample substantiation of this fact.

Fichte, for instance, whose philosophy embodies a moral idealism eminently acceptable to “English ways of thinking,” receives seven columns of biography. Schelling, whose ideas were tainted with mythical mysticism, but who was not an evolutionist in the modern sense of the word, receives five columns. Hegel, who was, in a sense, the great English philosophical idol and whose doctrines had a greater influence in Great Britain than those of any other thinker, is given no less than fifteen columns, twice the space that is given to Rousseau, and five-sixths of the space that is given to Kant! Even Schleiermacher is given almost equal space with Rousseau, and his philosophy is interpreted as an effort “to reconcile science and philosophy with religion and theology, and the modern world with the Christian church.” Also, the focus of his thought, culture and life, we are told, “was religion and theology.”

Schopenhauer is one of the few foreign philosophers who receive adequate treatment in the Encyclopædia Britannica. But Boström, in whose works the romantic school attained its systematic culmination, receives just twenty-four lines, less space than is devoted to Abraham Tucker, the English moralist, or to Garth Wilkinson, the English Swedenborgian; and about the same amount of space as is given to John Morell, the English Congregationalist minister who turned philosopher. And Frederick Christian Sibbern receives no biography whatever!

Kierkegaard, whose influence in the North has been profound, receives only half a column, equal space with Andrew Baxter, the feeble Scottish metaphysician; and only half the space given to Thomas Brown, another Scotch “philosopher.” Fries who, with Herbart, was the forerunner of modern psychology and one of the leading representatives of the critical philosophy, is given just one column; but Beneke, a follower of Fries, who approached more closely to the English school, is allotted twice the amount of space that Fries receives.

The four men who marked the dissolution of the Hegelian school — Krause, Weisse, I. H. Fichte and Feuerbach — receive as the sum total of all their biographies less space than is given to the English divine, James Martineau, or to Francis Hutcheson. (In combating Hegelianism these four thinkers invaded the precincts of British admiration.) In the one-column biography of Krause we are told that the spirit of his thought is difficult to follow and that his terminology is artificial. Weisse receives only twenty-three lines; and I. H. Fichte, the son of J. G. Fichte, receives only two-thirds of a column. Feuerbach, who marked the transition between romanticism and positivism and who accordingly holds an important position in the evolution of modern thought, is accorded a biography of a column and a half, shorter than that of Richard Price. Feuerbach, however, unlike Price, was an anti-theological philosopher, and is severely criticised for his spiritual shortcomings.

Let us glance quickly at the important philosophers of positivism as represented in the Encyclopædia Britannica. At the end of the seventeenth and at the beginning of the nineteenth centuries the principal French philosophers representative of schools were de Maistre, Maine de Biran, Ampere, Saint-Simon and Victor Cousin. De Maistre, the most important philosopher of the principle of authority, is given a biography of a column and a third, is highly praised for his ecclesiasticism, and is permitted to be ranked with Hobbes. Maine de Biran receives a little over a column; Ampere, less than a column; and Saint-Simon, two and a third columns.

Victor Cousin is given the astonishing amount of space of eleven columns; but just why he should have been treated in this extravagant manner is not clear, for we are told that his search for principles was not profound and that he “left no distinctive, permanent principles of philosophy.” Nor does it seem possible that he should draw nearly as much space as Rousseau and Montesquieu combined simply because he left behind interesting analyses and expositions of the work of Locke and the Scottish philosophers. Even Comte is given only four and a half columns more.

The English philosophers of the nineteenth century before John Stuart Mill are awarded space far in excess of their importance, comparatively speaking. For instance, James Mill receives two columns of biography; Coleridge, who “did much to deepen and liberalize Christian thought in England,” five and three-fourths columns; Carlyle, nine and two-thirds columns; William Hamilton, two and three-fourths columns; Henry Mansel, a disciple of Hamilton's, two-thirds of a column; Whewell, over a column; and Bentham, over three and a half columns.

Bentham's doctrines “have become so far part of the common thought of the time, that there is hardly an educated man who does not accept as too clear for argument truths which were invisible till Bentham pointed them out. . . . The services rendered by Bentham to the world would not, however, be exhausted even by the practical adoption of every one of his recommendations. There are no limits to the good results of his introduction of a true method of reasoning into the moral and political sciences.” John Stuart Mill, whose philosophy is “generally spoken of as being typically English,” receives nine and a half columns; Charles Darwin, seven columns; and Herbert Spencer, over five.

Positivism in Germany is represented by Dühring in a biography which is only three-fourths of a column in length — an article which is merely an attack, both personal and general. “His patriotism,” we learn, “is fervent, but narrow and exclusive.” (Dühring idolized Frederick the Great.) Ardigo, the important Italian positivist, receives no mention whatever in the Encyclopædia, although in almost any adequate history of modern philosophy, even a brief one, you will find a discussion of his work.

With the exception of Lotze, the philosophers of the new idealism receive scant treatment in the Britannica. Hartmann and Fechner are accorded only one column each; and Wilhelm Wundt, whose æsthetic and psychological researches outstrip even his significant philosophical work, is accorded only half a column! Francis Herbert Bradley has no biography — a curious oversight, since he is English; and Fouillée receives only a little over half a column.

The most inadequate and prejudiced treatment in the Britannica of any modern philosopher is to be found in the biography of Nietzsche, which is briefer than Mrs. Humphry Ward's! Not only is Nietzsche accorded less space than is given to such British philosophical writers as Dugald Stewart, Henry Sidgwick, Richard Price, John Norris, Thomas Hill Green, James Frederick Ferrier, Adam Ferguson, Ralph Cudworth, Anthony Collins, Arthur Collier, Samuel Clarke and Alexander Bain an absurd and stupid piece of narrow provincial prejudice — but the biography itself is superficial and inaccurate. The supposed doctrine of Nietzsche is here used to expose the personal opinions of the tutor of Corpus Christi College who was assigned the task of interpreting Nietzsche to the readers of the Britannica. It would be impossible to gather any clear or adequate idea of Nietzsche and his work from this biased and moral source. Here middle-class British insularity reaches its high-water mark.

Other important modern thinkers, however, are given but little better treatment. Lange receives only three-fourths of a column; Paulsen, less than half a column; Ernst Mach, only seventeen lines; Eucken, only twenty-eight lines, with a list of his works; and Renouvier, two-thirds of a column. J. C. Maxwell, though, the Cambridge professor, gets two columns — twice the space given Nietzsche!

In the biography of William James we discern once more the contempt which England has for this country. Here is a man whose importance is unquestioned even in Europe, and who stands out as one of the significant figures in modern thought; yet the Encyclopædia Britannica, that “supreme book of knowledge,” gives him a biography of just twenty-eight lines! And it is Americans who are furnishing the profits for this English reference work!

Perhaps the British editors of this encyclopædia think that we should feel greatly complimented at having William James admitted at all when so many other important moderns of Germany and France and America are excluded. But so long as unimportant English philosophical writers are given biographies, we have a right to expect, in a work which calls itself an “international dictionary of biography,” the adequate inclusion of the more deserving philosophers of other nations.

But what do we actually find? You may hunt the Encyclopædia Britannica through, yet you will not see the names of John Dewey and Stanley Hall mentioned! John Dewey, an American, is perhaps the world's leading authority on the philosophy of education; but the British editors of the Encyclopædia do not consider him worth noting, even in a casual way. Furthermore, Stanley Hall, another American, who stands in the front rank of the world's genetic psychologists, is not so much as mentioned. And yet Hall's great work, Adolescence, appeared five years before the Britannica went to press! Nor has Josiah Royce a biography, despite the fact that he was one of the leaders in the philosophical thought of America, and was even made an LL.D. by Aberdeen University in 1900. These omissions furnish excellent examples of the kind of broad and universal culture which is supposed to be embodied in the Britannica.

But these are by no means all the omissions of the world's important modern thinkers. Incredible as it may seem, there is no biography of Hermann Cohen, who elaborated the rationalistic elements in Kant's philosophy; of Alois Riehl, the positivist neo-Kantian; of Windelband and Rickert, whose contributions to the theory of eternal values in criticism are of decided significance to-day; of Freud, a man who has revolutionized modern psychology and philosophic determinism; of Amiel Boutroux, the modern French philosopher of discontinuity; of Henri Bergson, whose influence and popularity need no exposition here; of Guyau, one of the most effective critics of English utilitarianism and evolutionism; or of Jung.

When we add Roberto Ardigò, Weininger, Edelmann, Tetans, and Sibbern to this list of philosophic and psychologic writers who are not considered of sufficient importance to receive biographical mention in the Encyclopædia Britannica, we have, at a glance, the prejudicial inadequacy and incompleteness of this “great” English reference work. Nor can any excuse be offered that the works of these men appeared after the Britannica was printed. At the time it went to press even the most modern of these writers held a position of sufficient significance or note to have been included.

In closing, and by way of contrast, let me set down some of the modern British philosophical writers who are given liberal biographies: Robert Adamson, the Scottish critical historian of philosophy; Alexander Bain; Edward and John Caird, Scottish philosophic divines; Harry Calderwood, whose work was based on the contention that fate implies knowledge and on the doctrine of divine sanction; David George Ritchie, an unimportant Scotch thinker; Henry Sidgwick, an orthodox religionist and one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research; James H. Stirling, an expounder of Hegel and Kant; William Wallace, an interpreter of Hegel; and Garth Wilkinson, the Swedenborgian homeopath.

Such is the brief record of the manner in which the world's modern philosophers are treated in the Encyclopædia Britannica. From this work hundreds of thousands of Americans are garnering their educational ideas.