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The Method Of Science And Its Application To Metaphysics


55. THE Method just sketched in outline must be exhibited in practice through the subsequent chapters. What has already been said purports only to show that Metaphysics is possible under certain limitations which apply to all Science; and under this programme may be included everything that is rational in the persistent effort of mankind to solve certain problems, while at the same time firm hold is kept of that Method which alone has rewarded effort. " Tout est permis au philosophe," says Maupertius- truly, "pourvu qu'il traite tout avec l'esprit philosophique." All problems are open to the metaphysician, provided he treat them on scientific principles. All ? Yes, all that can be brought under the conditions and limitations which regulate research. But problems which cannot be so treated are idle and mischievous.

56. There has probably arisen in the minds of some readers a feeling of uneasy distrust, and in others a feeling of surprise, at finding me advocating the study of Metaphysics. "Timeo Danaos," will be the remark of the former. "He has relinquished the Positive Philosophy," will be the remark of the latter. The first suspicion I cannot remove. The second may be easily answered. Referring to what was said in § 5, I may add that the exclusion of all metempirical questions, and the rejection of the metempirical Method, is the cardinal position of the Positive Philosophy; which also admits much of what is here called Metaphysics, namely, the highest generalizations of the several sciences, though it excludes the problems of Matter, Force, Cause, Life, Mind, Object, and Subject. Why does it exclude these ? Simply on the ground of their being insoluble, metempiricŕl. But this rejection seems to me somewhat arbitrary, when the state of the case is examined ; and injudicious, when we find that it not only irritates those who might be convinced, but irritates them by a misconception. All who put their trust in the Positive Philosophy must regret that it should alienate instead of alluring speculative thinkers, capable of extending its reach ; and it alienates them by the supercilious assertion that they are, and have been, wandering on the wrong path ; which may be true, is true, but which would be better enforced by pointing out their point of divergence from the right path, so that their steps might be retraced. Nor can the appeal to History suffice ; at the utmost it can only be somewhat of a reductio ad absurdum, — a procedure which even mathematicians now agree to regard as cumbrous,* since it constrains assent in lieu of enlightening conviction, and is therefore inferior to demonstration. Instead of a supercilious negation or unsatisfactory historical refutation, it will surely be a gain if the problems are admitted, and shown to be soluble on the positive Method.

57. The grounds of opposition to metaphysical inquiries may be grouped under two heads : 1°, that they move in a world of Abstraction regardless of concrete realities, — consequently their solutions can never be more than purely subjective constructions without objective validity ; 2°, that they seek to penetrate Causes and Essences, which are necessarily unknowable.

There is truth in both objections, as applied to the common practice of metaphysicians ; but we have only to rectify that practice by a more rational statement of each question, and the objections fall away. For nothing is more clearly demonstrable than that what is called exact Science is also a purely ideal construction, dealing primarily with abstractions, and not with concrete realities ; so that the valid objection against any system of Meta-physics is not that it moves in a world of ideal conceptions, but that its conceptions have been illegitimately constructed or illogically applied. Further, I shall hope to show that the search after Causes, nay, efficient Causes, is the aim of Science, and that the aim is attainable. But to understand this it is necessary that we set out with a clear conception of what it is we seek, and how it may be found : the search after Causes is futile or fertile accordingly. In like manner, according to the meaning assigned to the term, there will be a truism or a falsism in the common declaration that the human mind is incapable of knowing the Essences of things. A traditional perversion makes the essence of a thing to consist in the relations of that thing to something unknown, unknowable, rather than in its relations to a known or knowable, i. e. assumes that the thing cannot be what it is to us and other known things, but must be something "in itself," unrelated, or having quite other relations to other unknowable things. In this con-tempt of the actual in favor of the vaguely imagined possible, this neglect of reality in favor of a supposed deeper reality, this disregard of light in the search for a light be-hind the light, metaphysicians have been led to seek the "thing in itself" beyond the region of Experience. To reflective minds it was early apparent that such a quaesitum was a phantom ; and because it could not be grasped, they declared, not that this phantom-essence was beyond our reach, but that all essences were impenetrable mysteries. With the reality before them they declared it was a phantom, and that the shadow was the reality, the essence!

58. No wonder if questions thus inappropriately conceived were condemned to remain without answers. Were a mathematician asked, What is the essential color of a circle ? he would reject the question as not geometrical. The circle has no color. But any circular figure may have any color, and that color is essential to it. Were a physicist asked, What is the nature of the emotion felt by a mass when undergoing molecular change ? he would reject the question as not physical. Emotion does ac-company certain molecular changes, but, as far as we know, this is only under very special conditions, and the phenomenon lies wholly beyond the province of Physics. But if such questions can receive no answer, because not put in answerable terms, how much more so the questions which avowedly travel quite beyond all range of Experience, and ask, What is the thing -in its relations to something unknown ? To know a thing is to know its relations; it is its relations. Therefore to ask, What are its relations to an unknowable ? is absurd.

59. Under this bias men declare, truly enough, that Metaphysics belongs to a condition of culture from which Europe has finally, though with immense difficulty, emerged ; a condition in which men, instead of interrogating Nature, please their fancy with trying to discover the general character of Being in the abstract. But although there is truth in the contemptuous phrase designating Metaphysics as the pursuit of ontological chimeras, — and it is the conviction of this which has caused meta-physical study to be abandoned, — there is also truth in the rejoinder that Metaphysics may be fruitful although the efforts of metaphysicians have hitherto been failures ; and it is the conviction of this which sustains inquiry among the valiant few.

60. What is our position in this controversy? It is that there is Ontology, and Ontology : il y a fagots, et fagots. There is Ontology pursued on the Metempirical Method ; and this, like all inquiries so pursued, is necessarily fruitless. There is Ontology pursued on the Empirical Method, and this is Abstract Science, which is occupied with the general laws of Being. A moment's consideration will make this clear. What is the object of each science ?- It is to detect the general order of Things, as manifested in particular groups of phenomena, i. e. the abstract laws of Being under particular conditions. It is not moving bodies in all their complex relations, but laws of Motion ; not living organisms, but laws of Life ; not thinking organisms, but laws of Mind ; — it is these which are the objects of Science ; and the particular substances, plants, and animals which manifest such laws, are used only as stepping-stones to reach those higher points of view. The reproach, if it be a reproach, conveyed in the term " ontological" when applied to Metaphysics, is shared by Science. In both the search is after abstract Being, not after concrete individual fact. Rightly understood, there is truth in saying that a meta-physician may have a knowledge of Being as certain as the mathematician's knowledge of Magnitude, as the chemist's knowledge of Affinity, as the biologist's knowledge of Life, as the sociologist's knowledge of Society ; and this knowledge may be gained in the same way.

61. By way of illustration consider the positive science of Crystallography, and presently it appears that the mineralogist is studying the abstract Crystal, its geometrical laws and its physical properties. He constructs this abstract conception out of data furnished by many individual minerals ; but although these are necessary stepping-stones, they and all their individual characters disappear, leaving only the general characters common of all ; from these is obtained the abstract conception, The Crystal. Now, when the mineralogist expounds the principles of his science he is obviously dealing with the laws of abstract Being exemplified under the special conditions of crystallography. It is the same with the biologist ; in expounding the laws of Life he is dealing with Ontology. The crystal does not exist as a phenomenon, neither does the animal ; they are ideal creations, and in this light may stand beside the entities of the Schoolmen, or the Eleatics ; but although the ancient and the modern Ontologies are alike ideal creations, they differ profoundly in their construction : the one is seen to be incapable of a reduction to sensible experience, the facts are not resolvable into assignable factors; the other is seen to be only an abbreviated symbolical expression of the observable order in things. The constructions of the ancients admitted metempirical elements beside the empirical, and endowed possibilities with the value of realities ; they differ from those of positive Science as fallacies and paralogisms differ from facts and syllogisms.

62. There is then a rational and an irrational Ontology, an empirical and a metempirical Metaphysics. It is wholly a question of the manner in which the abstractions are formed, and not of the degree of abstractness. The scientific acceptance of Laws and Properties is quite as metaphysical as the scholastic acceptance of Entities and Quiddities ; but the justification of the one set is their objective validity, i. e. their agreement with sensible Experience ; the illusoriness of the other is their incapability of being resolved into sensible concretes. So nearly are the two allied that many an incautious scientific speculator treats the Laws precisely as the Schoolmen treated Entities ; and thus we so often see a Law supposed to rule the phenomena, as if from the outside ; and the Property of a substance is often an ill-disguised Quiddity. The current notions about Force are as irrational as anything to be found in Scholasticism.

63. With this rectification of the prejudice against Ontology, which is one with that against Metaphysics, we may say that understanding by Ontology the science of the abstract laws of Being, it is the science of those highest generalities which emerge from the study of Things, and there can be no difference between Science and Metaphysics except in the degrees of generality. In other words, every science has its, metaphysic ; and our definition of empirical Metaphysics (we recognize no other) will be " the science of the most general principles." This definition resembles that of Aristotle in its terms, though of course widely different in its meaning. Thus conceived, Metaphysics holds a position with respect to Science somewhat analogous to the position held by Algebra with respect to Arithmetic. The objects of Arithmetic are quantities; the objects of Algebra are not quantities, but the relations of quantities. In like manner the objects of Science are the laws of sensible phenomena ; the objects of Metaphysics are not these, but laws of the laws, — the Calculus of operations. Although dealing with the generalities of general principles, as the Transcendental Analysis deals with relations of equations, the equations having been furnished by Algebra, and the values by Arithmetic, — Metaphysics must not be other-wise detached from the grounds and limitations of Experience. Unless its general principles have been securely established by Science, its operations will be as chimerical as those of a Calculus of imaginary equations ; and unless its operations be verifiable, they will be worthless. Its point of departure and its point of arrival must be Beals. All its intermediate positions may be far removed from sensible reality, nay, considered in themselves, they may be impossible as Reals, provided they re-enter the domain of Reality, and conduct us to our goal ; that is all we ask of any operation. When we desire to reach the summit of a mountain whose sides are too steep for ascent, we may quit the firm earth, and trust ourselves to the yielding air, if a balloon be ready to carry us through it. The result justifies the means. Most of our scientific operations have this airy character. But there are others — and all metempirical hypotheses are of this class — which, instead of the balloon furnished by Science, and proved to be effectual, call upon the poet's Hippogriff, and hope by it to be carried through the air. They never reach the summit.

63a. Metaphysics then, as we often say, comes after Physics, does not .precede but follows the establishment of relations. From the laws of the Cosmos discovered by Science it elicits certain general relations, which are then visible in phenomena, just as the theory of Gravitation, originated by inductions from terrestrial physics, was con-firmed by inductions from celestial physics, and when thus established was afterwards reflected back on terrestrial physics, disclosing unexpected relations there. This reflected light discloses unsuspected equations, and is always regulative of Research. The conception of what is called the Correlations of Force, or more suitably the Transformation of Energy, is a metaphysical conception, and has led to the discovery of unsuspected relations. The relation of Function and Organ, although a biological law, could hardly have been established except as a deduction from the metaphysical conception first gained through Mechanics, and then seen to be universal, — I mean the relation of Dynamic and Static. Thus between Science and Metaphysics there is a constant give and take. And this give and take we find between sensation and idea, induction and deduction, particular experiences and general Experience ; and it is itself a luminous example of the metaphysical Law of Polarity, which we shall here-after have to consider as the expression of that Twofold Aspect under which all Experience presents itself.

Not to anticipate more than is absolutely needful here, I will content myself with suggesting that Experience has two grand divisions : the Cosmos, or Object-world ; and the Consciousness, or Subject-world. Both are subdivided into Static and Dynamic .aspects. The Cosmos is conceived as Existence, and as Cause : Existence is the static aspect of Cause; Cause is the dynamic aspect of Existence. The Subject-world is conceived as Organ and Function. The relations of Object and Subject which Psychology discovers are carried up into the region of Metaphysics, as the relations of the Cosmos are ; that is to say, they remain strictly matters of Science while restricted to particular divisions, and become matters of Metaphysic when they are extended to several or all divisions. But this point we must discuss in the next chapter.

( Originally Published 1874 )

Problems of Life and Mind:
The Method Of Science And Its Application To Metaphysics

The Method Of Science And Its Application To Metaphysics

The Method Of Science And Its Application To Metaphysics

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