Saturday, December 26, 2015

What is Philosophy? by Edmond Holmes 1905

WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? by Edmond Gore Alexander Holmes 1905

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What is Philosophy? I will answer this question, tentatively and provisionally, by defining Philosophy as a search for ultimate truth. This definition will not carry me very far until I have defined the word truth; but of all words this is perhaps the least definable, the range of the corresponding idea being as wide and the meaning as deep as the Universe. What is truth? The objective side of knowledge is one answer to this audacious question. The subjective side of reality is another. But what is knowledge and what is reality, and in what sense can truth be said to mediate between these two conceptions? Are we in possession of truth when our knowledge is clear, accurate, and certain, when we can say of a thing with absolute confidence "This is so"? If this is what we mean by truth, then it is incontestable that mathematical truth is truth of the very highest order. But what of the subject-matter of mathematical science? Are the things which the mathematician knows so clearly, so accurately, and so certainly, real things? Now, if feeling be at once the product and the proof of experience, and if by experience we mean contact with reality, we may perhaps conclude that the most real things are the things that awake in us the most intense and exalted emotion; and inasmuch as our attitude towards the objects of mathematical study is wholly unemotional, we may perhaps go on to conclude that the things which the mathematician knows so perfectly are of all things the least real. Here, then, in Pure Mathematics, our knowledge is of the very highest order, but the things that are known seem to have the very minimum of reality. In other words, mathematical truth is of all forms of truth the highest in degree and the lowest in kind; the highest in respect of accuracy and certainty, the lowest in respect of the reality of its objective counterpart. As we pass from the abstractions of mathematics to the concrete phenomena of material nature, from these to the complex phenomena of life, and from these to the more spiritual phenomena which are the objects of poetic and religious emotion, our knowledge of the things that surround us becomes less and less certain and accurate, but the things themselves become proportionately more and more real, if the strength and vividness of the feelings that they generate may be accepted as proofs of their reality. At last we seem to approach the confines of a region in which knowledge (in the scientific sense of the word) is nonexistent, but the things which we seek to know are supremely real. If truth is to be found in that region, it is, of all forms of truth, the lowest in degree but the highest in kind—the lowest in respect of accuracy and certainty, the highest in respect of the reality of its objective counterpart.

What then is truth? The objective side of knowledge. The subjective side of reality. But what is most knowable is least real, and what is most real is least knowable. Perhaps we may infer from these data that truth is of two kinds, or rather that it ranges between two opposite and infinitely distant poles. At one of these poles we have the exact truth about things—the truth which is the counterpart of perfect knowledge. At the other, we have the inmost truth of things—the truth which is the counterpart of absolute reality. Speaking generally, it may be said that when we try to discover the truth about things, we separate ourselves as fully as it is possible for us to do—separate ourselves provisionally and hypothetically, if not really—from the objects of our experience, with the result that our attitude towards them is cold, unemotional, impersonal, impartial, disinterested; whereas, when we try to discover the truth of things, we identify ourselves as closely as it is possible for us to do with the objects of our experience, with the result that our attitude towards them is warm, emotional, personal, partial (with something of the partiality that we feel for ourselves) interested (with something of the interest that we take in ourselves). To discover and expound the truth about things is obviously the function of Science. To realize and express the truth of things is obviously the function of Poetry.

Where then does Philosophy come in?

Let us first distinguish it from Science. In Science we arrive at certainty, the certainty which enables us to say with perfect confidence, with imperturbable peace of mind, "I know that this is so." One of the sources of our certainty and one of the proofs of its validity is the feeling that it is shared by all who have gone as fully into the matter as we have. In Philosophy we never get within measurable distance of certainty of this kind. Men have been philosophizing for thousands of years, and so far as tangible results are concerned they have as yet achieved exactly nothing. Were I to ask a question in Chemistry, I should in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred receive the same answer from every professional chemist. But the doctors of Philosophy do not seem to have made up their minds on a single point. They have no primer or catechism to place in the hands of their novices, no principle or axiom which they can affirm to be incontestably true. The outsider need not be initiated into the mysteries of Philosophy in order to see that disorder and anarchy are its leading characteristics. The din of intestine strife is almost the only sound that escapes from its camp into the outer world. If a house be divided against itself, how shall it stand? The history of Philosophy is the history of endless civil wars and revolutions, the history of a chaos on which order has not yet begun to dawn. Systems of thought that flourish in one age are either anathematized or ignored in the next. Rival systems, so far as they pretend to be scientific, are mutually destructive; and each age in turn is the scene of a new conflict. Nay, the very platform on which the different schools meet and wrangle, changes from age to age. The arena which was wide enough for the combatants of one century is too narrow for those of another. Problems that perplexed the minds and agitated the hearts of our forefathers seem trivial or meaningless to the thinkers of to-day. Assumptions that seem to-day to provide a solid basis of controversy will be rejected to-morrow as hollow and unsound. All is in flux. Nothing is fixed or certain. What Chillingworth said of the Church of Rome applies with ten-fold force to Philosophy: "There are popes against popes, councils against councils, some fathers against other fathers, the same fathers against themselves, a consent of fathers of one age against a consent of fathers of another age, the Church of one age against the Church of another age."

I admit that Science too has its unsolved problems, its doubtful points, its controversies, its changes not merely of opinion but even of authoritative teaching. To speak of it as progressive is to take such characteristics as these for granted. But Science is a sphere (unlike those which glide through space) whose surface may be molten or even nebulous, yet which has none the less a solid centre of truth. And as what is nebulous becomes molten, and what is molten gradually cools and solidifies, the hard inward core of accepted truth gains both in size and density. The sphere of Philosophy, on the other hand, nebulous at the surface, is incandescent to the very centre.

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