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The Riddles of Philosophy

RoP: World Conceptions of Scientific Factuality (Pt2 Ch5)


Part II

Chapter V

World Conceptions of Scientific Factuality

An attempt to derive a general view of world and life from the basis of strict science was undertaken in the course of the nineteenth century by Auguste Comte (1798 – 1857). This enterprise, which was presented as a comprehensive world picture in his Cours de Philosophic Positive (6 vols., 1830 – 42), was sharply antagonistic to the idealistic views of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel of the first half of the nineteenth century. It also opposed, although not to the same degree, all those thought structures that were derived from the ideas of evolution along the lines of Lamarck and Darwin. What occupied the central position of all world conception in Hegel, the contemplation and comprehension of man's own spirit, was completely rejected by Comte. He argues: If the human spirit wanted to contemplate itself, it would actually have to divide into two personalities; it would have to slip outside itself and place itself opposite its own being. Even a psychology that does not confine itself to the mere physiological view but intends to preserve the processes of the mind by themselves is not recognized by Comte. Anything that is to become an object of knowledge must belong to the objective interconnections of facts, must be presented objectively as the laws of the mathematical sciences. From this position there follows Comte's objection to the attempts of Spencer and other thinkers whose world pictures followed the approach of scientific thinking adapted by Lamarck and Darwin. So far as Comte is concerned, the human species is given as a fixed and unchangeable fact; he refuses to pay any attention to Lamarck's theory. Simple, transparent natural laws as physics uses them for its phenomena are ideals of knowledge for him. As long as science does not work with such simple laws, it is unsatisfactory as knowledge for Comte. He has a mathematical bent of mind. If it cannot be treated clearly and simply like a mathematical problem, he considers it to be not ready for science. Comte has no feeling for the fact that one needs ideas that become increasingly more life-saturated as one rises from the purely mechanical and physical processes to the higher formations of nature and to man. His world conception owed a certain lifeless and rigid quality to this fact. The whole world appears to him like the mechanics of a machine. What escapes Comte everywhere is the element of life; he expels life and spirit from things and explains merely what is mechanical and machinelike. The concrete historical life of man appears in his presentation like the conceptual picture that the astronomer draws of the motions of the heavenly bodies. Comte constructed a scale of the sciences. Mathematics represents the lowest stage; it is followed by physics and chemistry and these again by the science of organisms; the last and concluding science in this sequence is sociology, the knowledge of human society. Comte strives to make all these sciences as simple as mathematics. The phenomena with which the individual sciences deal are supposed to be different in every case but the laws are considered to be fundamentally always the same.

* * *

The reverberations of the thought of Holbach, Condillac and others are still distinctly perceptible in the lectures on the relation between soul and body (Les Rapports du Physique et du Moral de L'homme) that Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis (1757 – 1808) gave in 1797 and 1798 in the medical school founded by the National Convention in Paris. Nevertheless, these lectures can be called the beginning of the development of the world conception of the nineteenth century in France. They express a distinct awareness of the fact that Condillac's mode of conception for the phenomena of the soul life had been too closely modeled after the conception of the mechanical processes of inorganic nature and their operation. Cabanis investigates the influence of age, sex, way of life and temperament on man's intellectual and emotional disposition. He develops the conception that the physical and the spiritual are not two separated entities that have nothing in common but that they constitute an inseparable whole. What distinguishes him from his predecessors is not his fundamental view but the way in which he elaborates it. His predecessors simply carry into the spiritual the views they have derived from the inorganic world. Cabanis is convinced that if we start by observing the world of the spiritual as open-mindedly as we observe the inorganic, it will reveal its relation to the rest of the natural phenomena.

Destutt de Tracy (1754 – 1836) proceeded in a similar way. He also wanted first to observe the processes of the spirit without bias as they appear when we approach them without philosophical or scientific prejudice. According to this thinker, one is in error if one conceives the soul as a mechanism as Condillac and his followers had done. This mechanistic character cannot be upheld any longer if one honestly observes oneself. We do not find in us an automaton, a being that is directed from without. We always find within us spontaneous activity and an inner self. We should actually not know anything of the effects of the external world if we did not experience a disturbance in our inner life caused by a collision with the external world. We experience our own being. We develop our activity out of ourselves, but as we do this we meet with opposition. We realize not only our own existence but also an external world that resists us.

Although they started from de Tracy, two thinkers — Maine de Biran (1766 – 1824) and André-Marie Ampère (1775 – 1826) were led by the self-observation of the soul in entirely different directions. Biran is a subtle observer of the human spirit. What in Rousseau seems to emerge as a chaotic mode of thought motivated by an arbitrary mood, we find in Biran in the form of clear and concrete thinking. Two factors of man's inner life are made the objects of observation by Biran who is a profoundly thoughtful psychologist: What man is through the nature of his being, his temperament, and what he makes out of himself through active work, his character. He follows the ramifications and changes of the inner life, and he finds the source of knowledge in man's inner life. The forces of which we learn through introspection are intimately known in our life, and we learn of an external world only insofar as it presents itself as more or less similar and akin to our inner world. What should we know of forces outside in nature if we did not experience within our self-active soul a similar force and consequently could compare this with what corresponds to it in the external world? For this reason, Biran is untiring in his search for the processes in man's soul. He pays special attention to the involuntary and the unconscious element in the inner life processes that exist long before the light of consciousness emerges in the soul. Biran's search for wisdom within the soul led him to a peculiar form of mysticism in later years. In the process of deriving the profoundest wisdom from the soul, we come closest to the foundation of existence when we dig down into our own being. The experience of the deepest soul processes then is an immersion in the wellspring of existence, into the God within us.

The attraction of Biran's wisdom lies in the intimate way in which he presents it. He could have found no more appropriate form of presentation than that of a journal intime, a form of diary. The writings of Biran that allow the deepest insight into his thought world were published after his death by E. Naville (compare Naville's book, Maine de Biran. Sa vie et ses pensées, 1857, and his edition, Oeuvres inédités de Maine de Biran). As old men, Cabanis and Destutt de Tracy belonged to a small circle of philosophers; Biran was a younger member among them. Ampère was among those who were acquainted with Biran's views. As a natural scientist, he became prominent through the extension of Oersted's observation concerning the relation of electricity to magnetism (compare above in Part II Chapter I). Biran's mode of conception is more intimate, that of Ampère more scientific-methodical. Ampère follows with interest the interrelationship of sensations and conceptions in the soul, and also the process through which the spirit arrives at a science of the world phenomena with the aid of thinking.

What is significant in this current of world conception, which chronologically represents the continuation of the teachings of Condillac, is the circumstance that the life of the soul itself is decidedly emphasized, that the self-activity of the inner personality of the human being is brought into the foreground of the investigation, and that all these thinkers are striving nevertheless for knowledge in the strict sense of natural science. Initially, they investigate the spirit with the methods of natural science, but they do not want to treat its phenomena as homogeneous with the other processes of nature. From these more materialistic beginnings there emerges finally a tendency toward a world conception that leans distinctly toward the spirit.

Victor Cousin (1792 – 1867) traveled through Germany several times and thus became personally acquainted with the leading spirits of the idealistic period. The deepest impression was made on him by Hegel and Goethe. He brought their idealism to France. As a professor at the École normale (1814), and later at the Sorbonne, he was able to do a great deal for this idealism through his powerful and fascinating eloquence that always produced a deep impression. Cousin received from the idealistic life of the spirit the conviction that it is not through the observation of the external world but through that of the human spirit that a satisfactory viewpoint for a world conception can be obtained. He based what he wanted to say on the self observation of the soul. He adopted the view of Hegel that spirit, idea and thought do not merely rule in man's inner life but also outside in nature and in the progress of the historical life, and that reason is contained in reality. Cousin taught that the character of a people of an age was not merely influenced by random happenings, arbitrary decisions of human individuals, but that a real idea is manifested in them and that a great man appears in the world merely as a messenger of a great idea, in order to realize it in the course of history. This produced a profound impression on Cousin's French audience, which in its most recent history had had to comprehend world historical upheavals without precedent, when they heard such a splendid speaker expound the role that reason played in the historical evolution in accordance with some great and fundamental ideas.

Comte, with energy and resolution, found his place in the development of French philosophy with his principle: only in the method of science, which proceeds from strict mathematical and directly observed truths as in physics and chemistry can the point of departure for a world conception be found. The only approach he considered mature was the one that fought its way through to this view. To arrive at this stage, humanity had to go through two phases of immaturity — one in which it believed in gods, and subsequently, one in which it surrendered to abstract ideas. Comte sees the evolution of mankind in the progression from theological thinking to idealistic thinking, and from there to the scientific world conception. In the first stage, man's thinking projected anthropomorphic gods into the processes of nature, which produce these processes in the same arbitrary manner in which man proceeds in his actions. Later, he replaces the gods with abstract ideas as, for instance, life force, general world reason, world purpose, and so forth. But this phase of development must give way to a higher one in which it must be understood that an explanation of the phenomena of the world can be found only in the method of observation and a strictly mathematical and logical treatment of the facts. For the purpose of a world conception, thinking must merely combine what physics, chemistry and the science of living organisms obtain through their investigation. Thinking must not add anything to the results of the individual sciences as theology had done with its divine beings and the idealistic philosophy with its abstract thoughts. Also, the conceptions concerning the course of the evolution of mankind, the social life of men in the state, in society, etc., will become clear only when the attempt is made to find in them laws like those found in the exact natural sciences. The causes that bring families, associations, legal views and state institutions into existence must be investigated in the same way as the causes that make bodies fall to the ground and that allow the digestive organs to operate. The science of human social life, of human development, sociology, is therefore what Comte is especially concerned with, and he tries to give it the exactness that the other sciences have gradually acquired.

In this respect he has a predecessor in Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon (1760 – 1825). Saint-Simon had presented the view that man would only learn to guide his own fate completely when he conceived of his own life in the state, in society and in the course of history in a strictly scientific sense, and when he arranged it like a process following a natural law. For awhile, Comte was on intimate terms with Saint-Simon. He parted ways with him when it seemed to him that Saint-Simon's views turned into all sorts of groundless dreams and utopias. Comte continued to work with a rare zeal in his original direction. His Cours de Philosophic Positive is an attempt to elaborate, in a style of spirit-alienation, the scientific accomplishments of his time into a world conception by presenting them merely in a systematized survey, and by developing sociology in the same way without the aid of theological and idealistic thoughts. Comte saw no other task for the philosopher than that of such a mere systematized survey. The philosopher would add nothing of his own to the picture that the sciences have presented as the connection of facts. Comte expressed thereby, in the most pointed manner, his view that the sciences alone, with their methods of observing reality, have a voice in the formulation of a world conception.

* * *

Within German spirit-life Eugen Dühring (1833 – 1921) appeared as a forceful champion of Comte's thought. This was expressed in 1865 in his Natural Dialectic. As a further exposition, he expounded his views in his book, Course of Philosophy as a Strictly Scientific World Conception and Art of Life (1875), and in numerous other writings in the fields of mathematics, natural science, philosophy, history of science and social economy. All of Dühring's work proceeds, in the strictest sense of the word, from a mathematical and mechanistic mode of thought. Dühring is outstanding in his endeavor to analyze his observations of nature in accordance with mathematical law, but where this kind of thinking is insufficient, he loses all possibility of finding his way through life. It is from this characteristic of his spirit that the arbitrariness and bias is to be explained with which Dühring judges so many things. Where it is necessary to judge the conflicts of life in accordance with higher ideas, he has, therefore, no other criterion than his sympathies and antipathies that have been aroused in him through accidental personal circumstances. This man, with his mathematically objective mind, becomes completely arbitrary when he undertakes to evaluate human accomplishments of the historical past or of the present. His rather unimaginative mathematical mode of conception led him to denounce a personality like Goethe as the most unscientific mind of modern times, whose entire significance consisted, in Dühring's opinion, in a few poetical achievements. It is impossible to surpass Dühring in his under-valuation of everything that lies beyond a drab reality as he does in his book, The Highlights of Modern Literature. In spite of this one-sidedness, Dühring is one of the most stimulating figures in the development of modern world conception. No one who has penetrated his thought-saturated books can help but confess that he has been profoundly affected by them.

Dühring uses rude language for all world conceptions that do not proceed from strictly scientific basic views. All such unscientific modes of thought “found themselves in the state of childish immaturity or feverish fits, or in the decadence of senility, no matter whether they infest entire epochs and parts of humanity under these circumstances or just occasionally individual elements or degenerated layers of society, but they always belong to the category of the immature, the pathological or that of over-ripeness that is already decomposed by putrefaction,” (Course of Philosophy). What Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel achieved, Dühring condemns as the outflow of a professorial wisdom of mountebanks; idealism as a world conception is for him a theory of insanity. He means to create a philosophy of reality that is alone adequate to nature because it “does away with all artificial and unnatural fictions, and for the first time makes the concept of reality the measure of all ideal conceptions”; reality is conceived in this philosophy “in a manner that excludes all tendencies toward a dreamlike and subjectivistically limited world conception.” (Course of Philosophy)

One should think like a real expert in mechanics, a real physicist who confines himself to the results of sense perception, of the logical combinations of the intellect and the operations of calculations. Anything that goes beyond this is idle playing with empty concepts. This is Dühring's verdict. Dühring means to raise this form of thinking, however, to its justified position. Whoever depends exclusively on that form of thinking can be sure that it supplies him with insight concerning reality. All brooding over the question of whether or not we actually can penetrate into the mysteries of the world process, all investigations, which, like Kant's, want to limit the faculty of knowledge, are caused by logical distortion. One should not yield to the temptation of a self-sacrificing self-denial of the mind that does not dare to make a positive statement about the world. What we can know is a real and untarnished presentation of the real.

“The totality of things has a systematic order and an inner logically consistent structure. Nature and history have a constitution and a development that correspond to a large extent to the general logical relations of all concepts. The general qualities and relations of the concepts of thought with which logic deals must also be valid for the special case, that its object is the totality of being, together with its chief forms. Since the most general thinking decides to a large extent what can be and how it can be, the highest principles and the main forms of logic must set the standard for all reality and its forms. (Course of Philosophy)

Reality has produced for itself an organ in human thinking in which it can reproduce itself mentally in the form of thought in an ideal picture. Nature is everywhere ruled by an all-penetrating law that carries its own justification within itself and cannot be criticized. How could there be any meaning in an attempt to criticize the relevance of thinking, the organ of nature? It is mere foolishness to suppose that nature would create an organ through which it would reflect itself only imperfectly or incompletely. Therefore, order and law in this world must correspond to the logical order and law in human thinking. “The ideal system of our thought is the picture of the real system of objective reality; the completed knowledge has, in the form of thoughts, the same structure that the things possess in the form of real existence.”

In spite of this general agreement between thinking and reality, there exists for the former the possibility to go beyond the latter. In the element of the idea, thinking continues the operations that reality has suggested to it. In reality all bodies are divisible, but only up to a certain limit. Thinking does not stop at this limit but continues to divide in the realm of the idea. Thought sweeps beyond reality; for thought, the body is divisible into infinity. Accordingly, to thought it consists of infinitely small parts. In reality, this body consists only of a definite, finite number of small, but not infinitely small parts. In this way all concepts of infinity that transcend reality come into existence. From every event we proceed to another event that is its cause; from this cause we go again to the cause of that cause and so forth. As soon as our thinking abandons the firm ground of reality, it sweeps on into a vague infinity. It imagines that for every cause a cause has to be sought in turn so that the world is without a beginning in time. In allotting matter to space, thinking proceeds in a similar way. In transversing the sky it always finds beyond the most distant stars still other stars; it goes beyond this real fact and imagines space as infinite and filled with an infinite number of heavenly bodies. According to Dühring, one ought to realize that all such conceptions of infinity have nothing to do with reality. They only occur through the fact that thinking, with the methods that are perfectly appropriate within the realm of reality, rises above this realm and thereby gets lost in the indefinite.

If in our thinking, however, we remain aware of this separation from reality, we need no longer refrain from applying our concepts borrowed from human action, to nature. Dühring, as he proceeds from such presuppositions, does not even hesitate to attribute to nature in its production an imagination any more than he does to man in his creation. “Imagination extends . . . into nature itself; it has its roots, as does all thinking in general, in the processes that precede the developed consciousness but do not produce any elements of subjective feelings” (Course of Philosophy). The thought upheld by Comte, that all world conception should be confined to a mere rearrangement of the purely factual, dominates Dühring so completely that he projects the faculty of imagination into the external world because he believes that he would simply have to reject it if it occurred merely in the human mind. Proceeding from these conceptions he arrives at other projections of such concepts as are derived from human activities. He thinks, for instance, that not only man could, in his actions, undertake fruitless attempts, which he then gives up because they do not lead to the intended aim, but that such attempts could also be observed in nature.

The character of the tentative in the formations of nature is not at all alien to reality itself, and one cannot see why one should allow only one half of the parallelism between nature outside man and nature in man, just for the sake of pleasing a shallow philosophy. If subjective error of thinking and imagining springs from the relative separation and independence of this sphere, why should not a practical error or blunder of the objective and non-thinking nature be possibly the result of a relative separation and mutual alienation of its various parts and driving forces? A true philosophy that is not intimidated by common prejudices will finally recognize the perfect parallelism and the all-pervading unity of the constitution in both directions. (Course of Philosophy)

Dühring is not in the least shy when it is a question of applying the concepts to reality that thinking produces in itself. But since he has, because of his disposition, only a sense for mathematical conceptions, the picture he sketches of the world has a mathematical-schematic character. He rejects the mode of thought that was developed by Darwin and Haeckel and does not understand what motivates them to search for a reason to explain why one being develops from another. The mathematician places the forms of a triangle, square, circle and ellipse side by side; why should one not be satisfied with a similar schematic coordination in nature as well? Dühring does not aim at the genesis of nature but at the fixed formations that nature produces through the combinations of its energies, just as the mathematician studies the definite, strictly delineated forms of space. He finds nothing inappropriate in attributing to nature a purposeful striving toward such definite formations. Dühring does not interpret this purposeful tendency of nature as the conscious activity that develops in man, but he supposes it to be just as distinctly manifested in the operation of nature as every other natural manifestation. In this respect, Dühring's view is, therefore, the opposite pole of the one upheld by Friedrich Albert Lange. Lange declares the higher concepts, especially all those in which imagination has a share, to be justifiable poetic fiction; Dühring rejects all poetic imagination in concepts, but he attributes actual reality to certain higher ideas that are indispensable to him. Thus, it seems quite consistent for Lange to separate the foundation of the moral life entirely from all ideas that are rooted in reality (compare above, to Part II Chapter III). It is also consistent if Dühring wants to extend the ideas that he sees as valid in the realm of morality to nature as well. He is completely convinced that what happens in man and through man belongs to the natural events as much as do the inanimate processes. What in human life is right cannot be wrong in nature.

Such considerations contributed to making Dühring an energetic opponent to Darwin's doctrine of the struggle for existence. f the fight of all against all were the condition of perfection in nature, it would have to be the same with man's life:

Such a conception that claims to be scientific is the most immoral thing thinkable. The character of nature is in this way conceived in an anti-moral sense. It is not merely indifferent to the better morality of man but it is actually in agreement and in alliance with the bad moral principles that are followed by scoundrels. (Course of Philosophy)

According to Dühring's life-conception, what man feels as moral impulses must have its origin in nature. It is possible to observe in nature a tendency toward morality. As nature produces various forces that purposefully combine into stable formations, so it also plants into man instincts of sympathy. By them he allows himself to be determined in his social life with his fellow men. In man, the activity of nature is continued on an elevated level. Dühring attributes the faculty to produce sensations automatically out of themselves to the inanimate mechanical forces.

The mechanical causality of the forces of nature becomes, so to peak, subjectified in the fundamental sensation. The fact of this elementary process of subjectification is evidently incapable of any further explanation, for somewhere and under some conditions the unconscious mechanism of the world must develop a feeling of itself. (Course of Philosophy)

But when the world arrives at this stage, it is not that a new law begins, a realm of the spirit, but merely a continuation occurs of what had already been there in the unconscious mechanism. This mechanism, to be sure, is unconscious, but it is nevertheless wise, for “the earth with all it produces, as well as all causes of life's maintenance that lie outside, especially in the sun and all influences that come from the whole surrounding world in general — this entire organization and arrangement must be thought of as essentially produced for man, which is to say, in agreement with his well-being.” (Course of Philosophy)

* * *

Dühring ascribes thought and even aims and moral tendencies to nature without admitting that he thereby idealizes nature. But, for an explanation of nature, higher ideas are necessary that transcend the real. According to Dühring, however, there must be nothing like that; he therefore changes their meaning by interpreting them as facts. Something similar happened in the world conception of Julius Hermann von Kirchmann (1802 – 84), who published his Philosophy of Knowledge in 1864 at about the same time Dühring's Natural Dialectic appeared. Kirchmann proceeds from the supposition that only what is perceived is real. Man is connected with reality through his perception. Everything that he does not derive from perception he must eliminate from his knowledge of reality. He succeeds in doing this if he rejects everything that is contradictory. "Contradiction is not,” is Kirchmann's second principle, which follows his first principle, “The perceived is.”

Kirchmann admits only feelings and desires as the states of the soul of man that have an existence by themselves.

Knowing forms a contrast to the other two states, to feeling and desire. . . . It is possible that there is in knowing something underlying, perhaps something similar to, pressure and tension, but if it is conceived in this way it cannot be grasped in its essence. As knowing, and it is only as such that it is to be investigated here, it merely makes itself into a mirror of another being. There is no better parable for this than the mirror. Just as the mirror is the more perfect the less it shows of itself and the more it reflects another being, so it is also with knowing. Its essence is the pure reflection of a being other than itself, without mixing in its own state of being. (Philosophy of Knowledge, 1864)

One cannot imagine a greater contrast to Hegel's mode of conception than this view of knowledge. While with Hegel the essence of a thing appears in thinking, in the element that the soul adds in spontaneous activity to the percept, Kirchmann's ideal of knowledge consists of a mirror picture of percepts from which all additions by the soul itself have been eliminated.

To judge Kirchmann's position in the intellectual life correctly, one must consider the great difficulty with which somebody who had the will to erect an independent structure of world conception was met in his time. The results of natural science, which were to produce a profound influence on the development of world conceptions, were still young. They were just sufficient to shake the belief in the classical idealistic world conception that had had to erect its proud structure without the aid of modern natural science. In the face of the wealth of detailed knowledge, it became difficult to reconstruct fundamental philosophical thoughts. The thread that led from the scientific knowledge of facts to a satisfactory total conception of the world was gradually lost in the general consciousness. A certain perplexity took hold of many. An understanding for the lofty flight of thought that had inspired the world conception of Hegel was scarcely to be found anywhere.



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