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What Is Philosophy

( Originally Published 1913 )

WE shall find some obscurities cleared up, if we can master an accurate and comprehensive definition of philosophy. The definition I have finally settled upon is this :—Philosophy is the Explanation of the Phenomena of the Universe. By the term Explanation, the subject is restricted to the domain of the Intellect, and is thereby demarcated from Religion, though not from Theology. The definition not only seems to me a plain expression of the precise nature of Philosophy,, but thereby serves to rid us of the perplexities arising from the opposition between Metaphysics and Science, which are thus shown to be nothing more than different methods of reaching the same end. To wrest its secret from the Universe, and to understand our relations to external Nature and to Man, is equally the object of Metaphysical as of Positive inquiry ; but the Metaphysician believes he can penetrate into the causes' and essences of the phenomena around him, while the Positivist, recognising his incompetency, limits his efforts to the ascertainment of the laws which regulate the succession of these phenomena.

Philosophy is inherent in man's nature. It is not a caprice, it is not a plaything, it is a necessity; for our life is a mystery, surrounded with mysteries : we live encompassed by wonder. The myriad aspects of Nature without, the strange fluctuations of feeling within, all demand from us an explanation. Standing upon this ball of earth, so infinite to us, so trivial in the infinitude of the Universe, we look forth into Nature with reverent awe, with irrepressible curiosity. We must have explanations. And thus it is that philosophy, in some rude shape, is a visible effort in every condition of the history of man,—in the rudest phase of half developed capacity, and in the highest conditions of culture : it is found among the sugar-canes of the West Indies, and in the tangled pathless forests of America. Take man where you will—hunting the buffalo on the prairies, or immoveable in meditation on the hot banks of the Ganges, priest or peasant, soldier or student, he never escapes from the pressure of the burden of that mystery which forces him to seek, and readily to accept, some explanation of it. The savage, startled by the muttering of distant thunder, asks, " What is that ?" and is restless till he knows, or fancies he knows. If told it is the voice of a wrathful demon, that is enough the explanation is given. If he then be told that to propitiate the demon the sacrifice of some human being is necessary, his slave, his enemy, his friend, perhaps even his child, falls a victim to the credulous terror. The childhood of man enables us to retrace the infancy of nations. No one can live with children without being struck by their restless questioning: and un-quenchable desire to have everything explained, no less than by the facility with which every authoritative assertion is accepted as an explanation. The History of Philosophy is the story of man's successive attempts to explain the phenomena around and within him.

The first explanations were naturally enough drawn from analogies furnished by consciousness. Men saw around them activity, change, force ; they felt within them a mysterious power, which made them active, changing, potent : they explained what they saw, by n hat they felt. Hence the fetichism of barbarians, the mythologies of more advanced races. Dreads and Nymphs, Demons and Beneficent Powers, moved among the ceaseless activities of Nature. Man knows that in his anger he storms, shouts, destroys : what, then, is thunder but the anger of some mighty invisible being ? Moreover, man knows that if his enemy offer him a present it will assuage his anger, and, therefore, it is but natural he should believe the offended thunderer will also be appeased by some offering. As soon as another conception of the nature of thunder has been elaborated by observation and study of its phenomena, the supposed deity vanishes, and, with it, all the false conceptions it originated, till, at last, Science takes a rod, and draws the terrible lightning from the heavens, rendering it so harmless that it will not tear away a spider's web !

But long centuries of patient observation and impatient guessing, controlled by logic, were necessary before such changes could take place. The development of Philosophy, like the development of organic life, has been through the slow additions of thousands upon thousands of years ; for Humanity is a growth, as our globe is, and the laws of its growth are still to be discovered.

One of the great fundamental laws has been dis-covered by Auguste Comte. Before proceeding to expound it, however, it may not be out of place to inquire whether any law of intellectual evolution can be regarded as a fitting exponent of the evolution of Humanity,—in other words, whether the various conditions of social existence are dependent on, or correspond with, conditions of scientific development ? This has been so luminously stated by John Stuart Mill, in the sixth book of his Logic, that I shall borrow the whole passage.

" In order to obtain better empirical laws, we must not rest satisfied with noting the progressive changes which manifest themselves in the separate elements of society, and in which nothing is indicated but the relation of the fragments of the effect to corresponding fragments of the cause. It is necessary to combine the statical view of social phenomena with the dynamical, considering not only the progressive changes of the different elements, but the contemporaneous condition of each; and thus obtain empirically the law of correspondence not only between the simultaneous states, but between the simultaneous changes, of those elements. This law of correspondence it is, which, after being duly verified à priori, will become the real scientific derivative law of the development of humanity and human affairs.

" In the difficult process of observation and comparison which is here required, it would evidently be a very great assistance if it should happen to be the fact that some one element in the complex existence of social man is pre-eminent over all others as the prime agent of the social movement. For we could then take the progress of that one element as the central chain, to each successive link of which, the corresponding links of all the other progressions being appended, the succession of the facts would by this alone be presented in a kind of spontaneous order, far more nearly approaching to the real order of their filiation than could be obtained by any other merely empirical progress.

" Now, the evidence of history and the evidence of human nature combine, by a most striking instance of consilience, to show that there really is one social element which is thus predominant, and almost paramount, among the agents of the social progression. This is, the state of the speculative faculties of mankind ; including the nature of the speculative beliefs, which by any means they have arrived at, concerning themselves and the world by which they are surrounded.

" It would be a great error, and one very little likely to be committed, to assert that speculation, intellectual activity, the pursuit of truth, is among the more powerful propensities of human nature, or fills a large place in the lives of any, save decidedly exceptional individuals.

But notwithstanding the relative weakness of this principle among other sociological agents, its influence is the main determining cause of the social progress ; all the other dispositions of our nature which contribute to that progress being dependent upon it for the means of accomplishing their share of the work. Thus (to take the most obvious case first)) the impelling force to most of the improvements effected in the arts of life is the desire of increased material comfort ; but as we can only act upon external objects in proportion to our knowledge of them, the state of knowledge at any time is the impassable limit of the industrial improvements possible at that time ; and the progress of industry must follow, and depend upon, the progress of knowledge. The same thing may be shown to be truth, though it is not quite so obvious, of the progress of the fine arts. Further, as the strongest propensities of human nature (being the purely selfish ones, and those of a sympathetic character which partake most of the nature of selfishness) evidently tend in themselves to disunite mankind, not to unite them,—to make them rivals, not confederates; social existence is only possible by a disciplining of those more powerful propensities, which consists in subordinating them to a common system of opinions. The degree of this subordination is the measure of the completeness of the social union, and the nature of the common opinions determines its kind. But in order that mankind should conform their actions to any set of opinions, these opinions must exist, must be believed by them. And thus, the state of the speculative faculties, the character of the propositions assented to by the intellect, essentially determines the moral and political state of the community, as we have already seen that it determines the physical.

" These conclusions, deduced from the laws of human nature, are in entire accordance with the general facts of history. Every considerable change historically known to us in the condition of any portion of mankind, has, been preceded by a change, of proportional extent, in the state of their knowledge, or in their prevalent beliefs. As between any given state of speculation, and the correlative state of everything else, it was almost always the former which first showed itself; though the effects, no doubt, reacted potently upon the cause. Every considerable advance in material civilization has been preceded by an advance in knowledge ; and when any great social change has come to pass, a great change in the opinions and modes of thinking of society had taken place shortly before. Polytheism, Judaism, Christianity, Protestantism, the negative philosophy of modern Europe, and its positive science—each of these has been a primary agent in making society what it was at each successive period, while society was but secondarily instrumental in making them, each of them (so far as causes can be assigned for its existence) being mainly an emanation not from the practical life of the period, but from the state of belief and thought during some time previous. The weakness of the speculative propensity has not, therefore, prevented the progress of speculation from governing that of society at large ; it has only, and too often, prevented progress altogether, where the intellectual progression has come to an early stand for want of sufficiently favourable circumstances.

" From this accumulated evidence, we are justified in concluding, that the order of human progression in all respects will be a corollary deducible from the order of progression in the intellectual convictions of mankind ; that is, from the law of the successive transformations of religion and science."

Assuming it proved, as history will warrant, that the evolutions of Humanity correspond with the evolutions of Thought—that Science is the torch whereby we see our way—the importance of the fundamental law discovered by Comte cannot easily be exaggerated. It is to Social Science what Newton's great discovery was to Physics. To make the reader fairly master its significance, I will, in the next section, illustrate the law by familiar examples.

This section may be closed with a digression on the subject of atheism, which many writers attribute to Comte. The charge is a mistake. Comte certainly, by more than one passage, leads an incautious reader, dipping here and there, to suppose him an atheist; but no truthful-minded man could read Comte's works with that attention all serious works demand, and not be strongly impressed by the forcible and scornful rejection of atheism so often there recurring. He regards atheism as the dregs of the metaphysical period, and his scorn for metaphysics is incessant. A passage from his Discourse on the Ensemble of Positivism, to all who know his unequivocal outspeaking, will be sufficient :

" Although I have long formally rejected all solidarity —dogmatic no less than historic—between positivism and what is called atheism, I will here indicate a few summary points of view. Even considered under the purely intellectual aspect, atheism only constitutes a very imperfect emancipation, since it tends to prolong indefinitely the metaphysical stage by its ceaseless pursuit of new solutions of theological problems, instead of pushing aside all such problems as essentially inaccessible. The true positive spirit consists in always substituting the study of laws for that of causes—the how for the why. It is, therefore, incompatible with the ambitious dreams of a misty atheism relative to the formation of the universe, the origin of animals, &c. Positivism, in its appreciation of our diverse stages of speculation, does not hesitate to declare these doctoral chimeras very inferior — even in rationality—to the spontaneous beliefs of mankind. For the principle of all theology consisting in explaining phenomena by the intervention of a will, it can only be set aside by the recognition of the truth that causes are inaccessible, and by the study of the laws. So long as we persist in solving the problems of our infancy, it is idle to reject the naive method which our young imagination applied to them, and which alone suit their nature Atheists may therefore be regarded as the most illogical of theologians, since they attempt the theological problems while rejecting the only suitable method."

That passage is surely explicit enough, if nothing else. I quote it, less to remove a misconception current in England, than to anticipate the objection of those who, reading that Comte is an atheist, would ask me what I meant by saying he aspired to the character of founder of a new Religion.

We may now address ourselves to the consideration of his Fundamental Law of Human Evolution.

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