Wednesday, November 16, 2016

What is Philosophy? by Edmond Holmes 1905

What is Philosophy? by Edmond 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 tenfold 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.

That individual philosophers have prodigious confidence in themselves and their theories is indeed undeniable; but the acerbity with which they maintain their opinions shows that their minds are really corroded with secret doubt. The odium philosophicum is scarcely less virulent than the odium theologicum; and anger is always a storm-signal, a proof of mental agitation, not of mental repose. Perfect certitude is always calm and cold. No one would dream of being angry with the harmless lunatics who maintain that the surface of the earth is flat. In the borderland of Science there is no doubt much heat and pugnacity; but in the regions over which Science has fully established its authority, there is a perpetual Pax Romana, an atmosphere, of inviolable calm.

The reason why Science is able to arrive at certainty is that it starts from certainty; and the reason why it is able to start from certainty is that the sphere of its work is one in which the separation, the provisional and hypothetical separation, of subject from object is complete, the result of this being that no cloud of personality obtrudes itself between the mind and the things that it studies. To examine the foundations of mathematical certitude would involve me in a long and probably futile digression; but, speaking generally, it may be said that the data with which Science deals are furnished by the bodily senses—perceptive faculties which are equally developed (within certain undefinable limits) in all sane and healthy persons, and which therefore operate alike, or with differences which can easily be corrected, in all who use them. (When I say this, I am thinking less of the individual senses than of their concerted action). It stands to reason that if the senses operated differently in different persons, if they conveyed even slightly different messages to different minds, something of self—of the individual self—would enter into every act of perception, with the result that the distinction between subject and object would begin to break down, and the atmosphere through which things are discerned, instead of being perfectly clear and calm, would become cloudy and electrical,—a condition of things which is always incompatible with certainty and fatal to serenity of mind. It is the universal element in sense-perception which makes the foundations of Science so sure, and the materials with which it builds so solid and strong.

The connexion between universality and certainty may, of course, be looked at from a somewhat different point of view. The fact that a perceptive faculty is "constant and common, shared by all and perpetual in all," shows that it is natural (in the fullest sense of the word); and the naturalness of a perceptive faculty is a sufficient guarantee (sufficient de facto as well as de jure) of its trustworthiness. What it is my nature to perceive that I do and must perceive. The ruling of Nature, once it has been clearly defined, is decisive and irreversible,—and that for the plain reason that there is no higher Court of Appeal.

The loneliest of specialists is armed, while he conducts his delicate and recondite investigations, with the full authority of Nature; and in virtue of this he may fairly claim to be the Plenipotentiary and High Commissioner of Humanity in the petty domain which he is content to explore.

But whichever view we may take of the connexion between universality and certainty, we must not fail to remind ourselves that universality may be and sometimes is purely potential, and that therefore there might be cases in which certitude would be legitimate even though one were alone, or almost alone, against the world. For example, it is quite conceivable that there are perceptive faculties latent in all of us—clairvoyant senses, let us call them—which some men have brought, or at any rate might bring, to maturity: and it is quite conceivable that reason, or perhaps some higher development of reason, dealing with the data of these senses, as the scientist's reasoning faculties deal with the data of the bodily senses, might arrive at scientific truths as real and as incontestable as those of physical science, but immeasurably larger and deeper. These clairvoyant senses would operate alike in all who were able to use them, and for the rest of mankind they and the things that they revealed would simply not exist. Therefore for those who could use such senses, the provisional separation of subject from object would be complete, and no cloud of personality (in the narrower sense of the word) would disturb the clear and calm atmosphere through which the mind perceived the objects of its thought. And so our clairvoyant investigator, feeling sure that all who had actualized their higher senses saw things exactly as he saw them, would rightly feel certain both of his facts and of his conclusions; and with him, as with the physicist, certitude would find its counterpart in serenity of mind. The truths which he might discover, if taught to ordinary men, would seem to be worse than foolishness, and would probably irritate those who heard them to the verge of madness; but he would no more dream of being angry with his fellow-men for not seeing what he saw and knowing what he knew, than you or I would dream of being angry with the blind for not possessing the use of their eyes.

As in Philosophy there is neither certainty nor serenity, we may fairly conclude that the sphere of its work is one in which the (provisional) distinction between subject and object breaks down more or less completely; and as a reason for this we may perhaps conjecture that the great matters in which Philosophy exercises itself cannot be contemplated without emotion, and that as our emotional senses, though actually existent in all men, are differently developed in different persons and convey different messages to different minds, the atmosphere through which things are seen in Philosophy must needs be heavily charged with the electrical clouds of individuality,—clouds which make clearness of vision and serenity of mind alike impossible. I will presently go into this question more fully. Meanwhile, if we are to warn Philosophy off the domain of Science, we must also warn Science not to usurp the functions of Philosophy. Men of Science sometimes talk as if Science had an official philosophy and even an official creed. This is a pure delusion. Science, as such, has no philosophy and no creed. If men of science are interested in philosophy, they are interested in it, not as men of science, but as men. The connection between scientific study and philosophical bias is always accidental, not essential. What we habitually do no doubt reacts on what we are, and what we are determines what we believe and think. But Science, as such, is no more responsible for the philosophy of the scientist than is Art, as such, for the philosophy of the artist, or Commerce, as such, for the philosophy of the merchant. Science (as we understand the word) works on a particular plane of existence, the physical plane, the plane which is revealed to us, or at any rate opened up to us by our bodily senses. Of this plane only a part, perhaps only a small fraction, has been fully surveyed. Beyond the ever advancing limits of this explored region lies a world which as yet is either wholly unknown or has only just begun to be explored. Potentially this unknown world belongs to Science, not to 'Philosophy. Whenever Science discovers a new island or a new continent on the surface of its own sphere of work, it is but right that it should regard this unexplored land as its own, that it should plant its flag on its shores, and warn off all possible intruders. But beyond and above the physical plane (the frontiers of which are, of course, undefinable), beyond and above the certainties of Science, beyond and above its infinite potentialities of certainty, stretches the rest of the Universe (I am using the word in its very widest and freest sense); and in this larger world, where certainty is unattainable in the present stage of our mental development, speculation is permissible, and Philosophy is in possession, though not necessarily in sole or in permanent possession, of the field of thought. Even the clairvoyant scientist, though it might be his lot to explore some of the very regions in which Philosophy is now working, would not be a Philosopher. The results of his labours would be Science—Science incomparably larger, loftier, and deeper than anything that we can dream of—but still Science, not Philosophy. Many of the problems that at present exercise the thoughts of philosophers might find their solution in his teaching; but in the act of being solved they would cease to belong to Philosophy and would be transferred to the domain of Science. It is indeed conceivable that, with the further development of human nature, Science will be able to advance from the physical to higher planes of existence; and that, as it advances, Philosophy will retire before it, abandoning fields of thought through which it is at present free to range. But it may safely be predicted that Philosophy will never lack its own appropriate sphere of work. The great ideas that underlie Science, the great ideas that govern it, the great ideas that emerge from its teaching, all belong, as ideas, not to Science but to Philosophy. It is a truism to say that all knowledge implies the unknowable; that all proof implies the unprovable; that all definition implies the undefinable; that success, achievement, whatever form it may take, is always made possible by an environing atmosphere of failure. It follows that, wherever there is Science, there is room and there is need for Philosophy,—for a philosophy which shall underlie Science, and interpenetrate it and overarch it. I say this, not with any immediate intention of defining the sphere of Philosophy, but only in order to show that the sphere of Science, though infinite in one sense, is limited in others, and that Science cannot overpass those limits without foregoing its privileges and advantages, and eventually losing its identity. That there is a debatable land between Science and Philosophy—a land in which the two authorities dispute for mastery—is undeniably true; but this does not alter the fact that each has its own appropriate sphere of work, a sphere in which its essential characteristics are exhibited clearly and fully, a sphere which is wholly its own, and from which it has a right to warn off the other.

Let us next distinguish Philosophy from Poetry. The aim of Philosophy is, in the last resort, scientific. The Thinker tries to separate himself from the objects of his thought, tries to study them coldly, impersonally, dispassionately, in order that he may get to know the truth about them, in order that he may form conceptions of them or frame theories about them which shall be intrinsically and unconditionally true. The Poet, on the other hand, tries to know the truth of things by becoming one with them, by merging his being in theirs. The imaginative sympathy which enables him, in some sort and some measure, to become one with things, gives him insight into their vital and essential properties; and as his insight reacts upon and intensifies his sympathy, the time comes at last when his kindled emotion overflows of its own accord into impassioned speech. Those to whom his words appeal are able to some extent to share his inward experiences, until at last they are admitted, through the magic of his song, into the truth, the inner truth, of the things which it is his mission to interpret. To these persons he is able to say, "I have been one, if only for a moment, with the things which I sing of, and having shared their identity, I can tell you what they really are." But far from imagining that his account of things is true for all men, he knows perfectly well that it is only true for those who are able to feel what he has felt. In other words, his attitude towards things is in the highest degree personal and emotional. With abstract truth, the truth about things, truth which is intrinsically valid whether men accept it or not, he does not concern himself in the slightest degree.

The Thinker then differs from the Poet in that he tries, not to know things, but to know the truth about them; whereas he differs from the Scientist in that he tries to know the truth about things which are not knowable, in the scientific sense of the word. Or let us put the matter thus:—The Poet tries to know the inmost truth of things: the Scientist tries to know all about the appearances of things: the Thinker tries to know all about the inmost truth (or inmost essence) of things.

Again, the Thinker differs from the Poet in that he tries to separate himself from the objects of his thought and to deal with them impersonally and disinterestedly; whereas he differs from the Scientist in that his personality inevitably obtrudes itself between his mind and the objects of his thought. Or, to put the matter more concisely:—in Science personality is nothing; in Poetry personality is everything; in Philosophy personality is ever striving, consciously striving, to become impersonal.

Here we come to what is, I think, really differential in Philosophy. The chief, perhaps the final, reason why the things in which the Thinker exercises himself are too high and too deep for him, is that his personality does and must obtrude itself between him and them; or rather because the objects of his thought interpenetrate and transfigure his personality, because they constitute his true self, because they are the breath of his inner being and the life of his inmost soul. The truth is that, in conceiving of the Universe as external to himself, he necessarily relinquishes it to Science,—the physical plane to physical science, the superphysical planes (if such there be) to superphysical sciences: for to externalize the Universe is to postulate the validity of the distinction between subject and object; in other words, it is to imply that all existent things are cognizable by perceptive faculties akin or at least analogous to those with which we cognize the material world; and it is in the data of such faculties that Science finds and will always find its appropriate materials. Thus in trying to become impersonal, in trying to separate himself from the realities which he seeks to explore, the Thinker is compelled to invade the domain—actual or potential—of Science; and being rightly expelled from that domain as an intruder (for Science may fairly say to Philosophy, "If the world is really external to the mind, it is for me to explore it, not for you "), he has no choice but to return to his starting point and re-discover the Universe in himself. And so, while he is trying (in perfect good faith) to solve the great problems that perplex him, and perhaps flattering himself (also in perfect good faith) that he is making "first-rate metaphysical discoveries" (to quote the grotesque words of a thinker who lacked the saving grace of humour), he is really engaged in communing with his own soul and in striving to wrest from it the secrets of its inner life.

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