1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Metaphysics/3 The Rise of Metaphysical Idealism


3. — The Rise of Metaphysical Idealism

1. Descartes to Leibnitz. — Metaphysical arises from psychological idealism, and always retains more or less of an epistemological character. Psychological idealism assumes without proof that we perceive nothing but mental objects, and metaphysical idealism draws the logical but hypothetical conclusion that all we can know from these mental objects of sense is mental objects of knowledge. But at first this logical conclusion was not drawn. Descartes, the founder of psychological idealism, having proceeded from the conscious fact, cogito ergo sum, to the non sequitur that I am a soul, and all a soul can perceive is Descartes. its ideas, nevertheless went on to the further illogical conclusion that from these mental ideas I can (by the grace of God) infer things which are extended substances or bodies, as well as thinking substances or souls. He was a psychological idealist and a metaphysical realist. This illogicality could not last. Even the Cartesian school, as it came more and more to feel the difficulty of explaining the interaction of body and mind, and, indeed, any efficient causation whatever, gradually tended to the hypothesis that the real cause is God, who, on the occasion of changes in body, causes corresponding changes in mind, and vice versa. This occasionalism is not idealism, but its emphasis on the will of God gave it an idealistic tendency. Thereupon Spinoza advanced a pantheism which supposed that bodies and souls are not, as Descartes thought, different substances, but merely attributes — the one the extension and the other the thought of one substance, Nature or God. Taking the Spinoza. Aristotelian theory that a substance is a thing in itself, not in Aristotle's sense of any individual existing differently from anything else, but in the novel meaning of something existing alone, he concluded, logically enough from this mere misunderstanding, that there can be only one substance, and that, as no finite body or soul can exist alone, everything finite is merely a mode of one of the attributes of the one infinite substance which alone can exist by itself. Spinozism, however, though it tramples down the barrier between body and soul, is not yet metaphysical idealism, because it does not reduce extension to thought, but only says that the same substance is at once extended and thinking — a position more akin to materialism. At the same time Spinoza maintained a parallelism between extension and thinking so close as to say that the order of ideas is the same as the order of things, so that any mode of extension and the idea of it are the same thing expressed in two ways, under the attribute of extension and under the attribute of thought (see H. H. Joachim's Study of the Ethics of Spinoza, 1901, p. 72). It remained, however, for Schelling to convert this parallelism into identity by identifying motion with the intelligence of God, and so to transform the pantheism of Spinoza into pantheistic idealism. Leibnitz, again, having become equally dissatisfied with Cartesianism, Spinozism and the Epicurean realism of Leibnitz. Gassendi, in the latter part of his life came still nearer than Spinoza to metaphysical idealism in his monadology, or half-Pythagorean,half-Brunistic analysis of bodies into monads, or units, or simple substances, indivisible and unextended, but endowed with perception and appetite.

He gradually fell under the dominion of two false assumptions. On the one hand, essentially a mathematician, he supposed that unity is indivisibility, whereas everything known to be one is merely undivided or individual, and that there must be simple because there are compound substances, although composition only requires simpler or relatively simple elements. On the other hand, under the influence of the mechanics of his day, which had hardly distinguished between inertia, or the inability of a body to change itself, and resistance or the ability of bodies to oppose one another, he concluded that, as inertia is passive, so is resistance, and refused to recognize that in collision the mutual resistance of moving bodies is a force, or active power, of changing their movements in opposite directions. From these two arbitrary hypotheses about corporeal motion, that it requires indivisibly simple elements, and that it offers only passive resistance, he concluded that behind bodies there must be units, or monads, which would be at once substantial, simple, indivisible and active. He further supposed that the monads are “incorporeal automata,” not interacting like bodies, but each perceiving what was passing in the other, and acting in consequence by appetite, or self-acting. Such mentally endowed substances might be called souls; but, as he distinguished between perception and apperception or consciousness, and considered that perceptions are often unconscious, he preferred to divide monads into unconscious entelechies of inorganic bodies, sentient souls of animals, and rational souls, or spirits, of men; while he further concluded that all these are derivative monads created by God, the monad of monads. All derivative monads, he allowed, are accompanied by bodies, which, however, are composed of other monads dominated by a central monad. Further, he explained the old Cartesian difficulty of the relation of body and mind by transforming the Spinozistic parallelism of extension and thought into a parallelism between the motions of bodies and the perceptions of their monads; motions always proceeding from motions, and perceptions from perceptions; bodies acting according to efficient causes, and souls according to final causes by appetition, and as if one influenced the other without actually doing so. Finally, he explained the concomitance of these two series, as well as that between the perceptions of different monads, by supposing a pre-established harmony ordained by the primitive monad, God.

Up to this point, then, Leibnitz opened one of the chief avenues to metaphysical idealism, the resolution of the material into the immaterial, the analysis of bodies into mental elements. His theory of bodies involved an idealistic analysis neither into bodily atoms nor into mathematical units, but into mentally endowed simple substances. There remained, however, his theory of the nature of bodies; and here he hesitated between two alternatives. According to one alternative, which consistently flowed from the psychological idealism of Descartes, as well as from his own monadism, he suggested that bodies are real phenomena; phenomena, because they are aggregates of monads, which derive their unity only from appearing together to our perceptions; real phenomena well founded, because they result from real monads. In support of this view, he said that bodies are not substances, though substantiata; that their apparent motion and resistance are results of the passions of their monads; that their primary matter is nothing but passive power of their monads; that the series of efficient causes between them is merely phenomenal. According to this alternative, then, there is nothing but mental monads and mental phenomena; and Leibnitz is a metaphysical idealist. According to the other alternative, however, he suggested that at least organic bodies are compound or corporeal substances, which are not phenomena; but something realizing or rather substantializing phenomena, and not mere aggregates of monads, but something substantial beyond their monads, because an organic body, though composed of monads, has a real unity (unio realis). From this point of view he believed that the real unity of a body is a vinculum substantiale, which gives it its real continuity and the principle of its actions; that its primary matter is its own principle of resistance; and that it has not only this passive, but also an active, power of its own. He suggested that this theory of the substantial unity of a body might explain transubstantiation, by supposing that, while the monads and phenomena of bread remain, the vinculum substantiale of the body of Christ is substituted. He feared also whether we can explain the mystery of the Incarnation, and other things, unless real bonds or unions are added to monads and phenomena. According to this alternative, these organic bodies are compound or corporeal substances, between monads and phenomena; and Leibnitz is a metaphysical realist. He was held to this belief in the substantiality of bodies by his Christianity, by the influence of Aristotle, of scholasticism and of Cartesianism, as well as by his own mechanics. But the strange thing is that at the very end of his life and at the very same time, in 1714-1716, he was writing the idealistic alternative to Remond de Montmort and Dangicourt, and the realistic alternative to Father des Bosses. He must have died in doubt. We cannot, therefore, agree with many recent idealists who regard Leibnitz as one of themselves, though it is true that, when stripped of its realism, his metaphysics easily passed into the metaphysical idealisms of Lotze and of Fechner. It is true, also, that on its idealistic side the philosophy of Leibnitz is the source of many current views of panpsychism, of psychophysical parallelism as well as of the phenomenalism of bodies, and of the analysis of bodies into mental elements.

2. Locke to Hume. — Meanwhile in England, Locke, though differing from Descartes about the origin of ideas, followed him in the illogical combination of psychological idealism with metaphysical realism. He thought that we perceive nothing but ideas both of primary and of secondary qualities, and yet that somehow we are able to infer that, while our ideas of secondary qualities are not, those of primary qualities are, like the real qualities of external things. Berkeley saw the inconsistency of this position, and, in asserting that all we perceive and all we know is nothing but ideas in “mind, spirit, soul, or myself,” has the merit of having made, as Paulsen remarks, “epistemological idealism the basis of metaphysical idealism.” According to him, a body such as the sun is my idea, your idea, ideas of other minds, and always an idea of God's mind; and when we have sensible ideas of the sun, what causes them to arise in our different minds is no single physical substance, the sun, but the will of God's spirit. Hume saw that in making all the objects of perception ideas Berkeley had given as little reason for inferring substantial souls as substantial bodies. He therefore concluded that all we know from the data of psychological idealism is impressions or sensations, ideas, and associations of ideas, making us believe without proof in substances and causes, together with “a certain unknown, inexplicable something as the cause of our preceptions.” We have here, in this sceptical idealism, the source of the characteristically English form of idealism still to be read in the writings of Mill and Spencer, and still the starting-point of more recent works, such as Pearson's Grammar of Science and James's Principles of Psychology.

3. Kant and Fichte. — Lastly, in Germany, partly influenced by Leibnitz and partly roused by Hume, Kant elaborated his transcendental or critical idealism, which if not, as he thought, Kant. the prolegomena to all future metaphysics, is still the starting-point of most metaphysical idealists. Kantism consists of four main positions, which it will be well to lay out, as follows: —

a. As to the origin of knowledge, Kant's position is that sense, outer and inner, affected by things in themselves, receives mere sensations or sensible ideas (Vorstellungen) as the matter which sense itself places in the a priori forms of space and time; that thereupon understanding, by means of the synthetic unity of apperception, “I think” — an act of spontaneity beyond sense, in all consciousness one and the same, and combining all my ideas as mine in one universal consciousness — and under a priori categories, or fundamental notions, such as substance and attribute, cause and effect, &c., unites groups of sensations or sensible ideas into objects and events, e.g. a house, one ball moving another; and that, accordingly, perception and experience, requiring both sense and understanding, are partly a posteriori and partly a priori, and constitute a knowledge of objects which, being sensations combined by synthetic unity under a priori forms, are more than mere sensations, but less than things in themselves. This first position is psychological idealism in a new form and supported by new reasons; for, if experience derives its matter from mental sensations and its form from mental synthesis of sensations, it can apprehend nothing but mental objects of sense, which, according to Kant, are sensible ideas having no existence outside our thought, not things in themselves; or phenomena, not noumena.

b. As to the known world, Kant's position was the logical deduction that from such phenomena of experience all we can know by logical reason is similar phenomena of actual or possible experience; and therefore that the known world, whether bodily or mental, is not a Cartesian world of bodies and souls, nor a Spinozistic world of one substance, nor a Leibnitzian world of monadic substances created by God, but a world of sensations, such as Hume supposed, only combined, not by association, but by synthetic understanding into phenomenal objects of experience, which are phenomenal substances and causes — a world of phenomena not noumena. This second position is a new form of metaphysical idealism, containing the supposition, which lies at the foundation of later German philosophy, that since understanding shapes the objects out of sensations, and since nature, as we know it, consists of such objects, “understanding, though it does not make, shapes nature,” as well as our knowledge. Known nature is a mental construction in part, according to Kant.

c. As to existence, Kant's position is the wholly illogical one that, though all known things are phenomena, there are things in themselves, or noumena; things which are said to cause sensations of outer sense and to receive sensations of inner sense, though they are beyond the category of causality which is defined as one of the notions uniting phenomena; and things which are assumed to exist and have these causal attributes, though declared unknowable by any logical use of reason, because logical reason is limited by the mental matter and form of experience to phenomena; and all this according to Kant himself. This third position is a relic of ancient metaphysical realism; although it must be remembered that Kant does not go to the length of Descartes and Locke, who supposed that from mere ideas we could know bodies and souls, but suggests that beneath the phenomena of outer and inner sense the thing in itself may not be heterogeneous (ungleichartig). In this form we shall find the thing in itself revived by A. Riehl.

d. As to the use of reason beyond knowledge, Kant's position is that, in spite of its logical inability to transcend phenomena, reason in its pure, or a priori use, contains necessary a priori “ideals” (Ideen), and practical reason, in order to account for moral responsibility, frames postulates of the existence of things in themselves, or noumena, corresponding to these “ideals”; postulates of a real free-will to practise morality, of a real immortality of soul to perfect it, and of a real God to crown it with happiness.

The fourth position is the coping-stone of Kant's metaphysics. It is quite inconsistent with its foundation and structure. Kant first deduced that from the experience of mental phenomena all logical use of reason is limited to mental phenomena, and then maintained that to explain moral responsibility practical reason postulates the existence of real noumena. But what is a postulate of practical reason to explain moral responsibility except a logical use of reason? Nevertheless, in his own mind Kant's whole speculative and practical philosophy was meant to form one system. In the preface to the second edition of the Kritik he says that it was necessary to limit speculative reason to a knowledge of phenomena, in order to allow practical reason to proceed from morality to the assumption of God, freedom, and immortality, existing beyond phenomena: “Ich musste also das Wissen aufheben, um zum Glauben Platz zu machen.” He forgot that he had also limited all logical use of reason, and therefore of practical reason, to phenomena, and thereby undermined the rationality not only of knowledge, but also of faith.

Fichte now set himself in the Wissenschaftslehre (1794) to make transcendental idealism into a system of metaphysical idealism Fichte. without Kant's inconsistencies and relics of realism. His point was that there are no things in themselves different from minds or acting on them; that man is no product of things; nor does his thinking arise from passive sensations caused by things; nor is the end of his existence attainable in a world of things; but that he is the absolute free activity constructing his own world, which is only his own determination, his self-imposed limit, and means to his duty which allies him with God. In order to prove this novel conclusion he started afresh from the Cartesian “I think” in the Kantian form of the synthetic unity of apperception acting by a priori categories; but instead of allowing, with all previous metaphysicians, that the Ego passively receives sensations from something different, and not contenting himself with Kant's view that the Ego, by synthetically combining the matter of sensations with a priori forms, partially constructs objects, and therefore Nature as we know it, he boldly asserted that the Ego, in its synthetic unity, entirely constructs things; that its act of spontaneity is not mere synthesis of passive sensations, but construction of sensations into an object within itself; and that therefore understanding makes as well as shapes Nature.

This construction, or self-determination, is what Fichte called positing (setzen). According to him, the Ego posits first itself (thesis); secondly, the non-Ego, the other, opposite to itself (antithesis); and, thirdly, this non-Ego within itself (synthesis), so that all reality is in consciousness. But, he added, as the Ego is not conscious of this self-determining activity, but forgets itself, the non-Ego seems to be something independent, a foreign limit, a thing in itself, or per se. Hence it is the office of the theory of knowledge to show that the Ego posits the thing per se as only existing for itself, a noumenon in the sense of a product of its own thinking. Further, according to Fichte, on the one hand the Ego posits itself as determined through the non-Ego — no object, no subject; this is the principal fact about theoretical reason; on the other hand, the Ego posits itself as determining the non-Ego — no subject, no object; this is the principal fact about practical reason. Hence he united theoretical and practical reason, which Kant had separated, and both with will, which Kant had distinguished; for he held that the Ego, in positing the non-Ego, posits both its own limit and its own means to the end, duty, by its activity of thinking which requires will. The conclusion of his epistemology is that we start with ourselves positing subjective sensations — e.g. sweet, red — and refer them as accidents to matter in space, which, though mental, is objective, because its production is grounded on a law of all reason. The metaphysics resulting from this epistemology is that the so-called thing in itself is not a cause of our sensations, but a product of one's own thinking, a determination of the Ego, a thing known to the Ego which constructs it. Fichte thus transformed the transcendental idealism of Kant by identifying the thing with the object, and by interpreting noumenon, not in Kant's sense of something which speculative reason conceives and practical reason postulates to exist in accordance with the idea, but in the new meaning of a thought, a product of reason. This change led to another. Kant had said that the synthetic unity “I think” is in all consciousness one and the same, meaning that I am always present to all my ideas. Fichte transformed this unity of the conscious self into a unity of all conscious selves, or a common consciousness; and this change enabled him to explain the unity of anything produced by the Ego by contending that it is not the different objects of different thinkers, but the one object of a pure Ego or consciousness common to them all. According to Kant, the objective is valid for all consciousnesses; according to Fichte it is valid for one consciousness. Here he was for the first time grappling with a fundamental difficulty in metaphysical idealism which is absent from realism, namely, the difficulty of explaining the identity of a thing, e.g. the sun. As long as even the meagre realism of the Kantian thing in itself is maintained, the account of there being one sun is simply that one thing causes different phenomena in different minds. But as soon as the thing in itself is converted into something mental, metaphysical idealists must either say that there are as many suns as minds, or that there is one mind and therefore one sun. The former was the alternative of Berkeley, the latter of Fichte.

Thus the complete metaphysical idealism of Fichte's Wissenschaftslehre formed out of the incomplete metaphysical idealism of Kant's Kritik, is the theory on its epistemological side that the Ego posits the non-Ego as a thing in itself, and yet as only a thing existing for it as its own noumenon, and on its metaphysical side that in consequence all reality is the Ego and its own determinations, which are objective, or valid for all, as determinations, not of you or of me, but of the consciousness common to all of us, the pure or absolute Ego. Lastly, Fichte called this system realism, in so far as it posits the thing in itself as another thing; idealism, in so far as it posits it as a noumenon which is a product of its own thinking; and on the whole real idealism or ideal realism.

God does not seem to find much place in the Wissenschaftslehre, where mankind is the absolute and nature mankind's product, and where God neither could be an absolute Ego which posits objects in the non-Ego to infinity without ever completing the process, nor could be even known to exist apart from the moral order which is man's destination. Hence in his Philosophical Journal in 1798 Fichte prefaced a sceptical essay of Forberg by an essay of his own, in which he used the famous words, “The living moral order is God; we need no other God, and can comprehend no other.” Having, however, in consequence, lost his professorship at Jena, he gradually altered his views, until at length he decided that God is not mere moral order, but also reason and will, yet without consciousness and personality; that not mankind but God is the absolute; that we are only its direct manifestations, free but finite spirits destined by God to posit in ourselves Nature as the material of duty, but blessed when we relapse into the absolute; that Nature, therefore, is the direct manifestation of man, and only the indirect manifestation of God; and, finally, that being is the divine idea or life, which is the reality behind appearances. In this extension of metaphysical idealism he was influenced by his disciple, Schelling. Nevertheless, he refused to go as far as Schelling, and could not bring himself to identify either man or nature with Absolute God. He wanted to believe in the absolute without sacrificing personality and freedom. God determines man, and man determines Nature: this is the final outcome of Fichte's pure idealism.

Fichte completed the process from psychological and epistemological to metaphysical idealism, which it has been necessary to recall from its beginnings in France, England and Germany, in order to understand modern idealism. The assertion of absolute substance by Spinoza incited Schelling and Hegel. The analysis of bodies into immaterial elements by Leibnitz incited Lotze. The Spinozistic parallelism of extension and thought, and the Leibnitzian parallelism of bodily motion and mental action, incited Schelling and Fechner. Berkeley and Hume produced the English idealism of Mill and Spencer, with their successors, and occasioned the German idealism of Kant. Kant's a priori synthesis of sensations into experience lies at the root of all German idealism. But Fichte was the most fertile of all. He carried metaphysical idealism to its height, by not only resolving the bodily into the mental, but also elevating the action of mind into absolute mental construction; not inferring things in themselves beyond, but originating things from within, mind itself. By changing the meaning of “noumenon” from the thing apprehended (νοούμενον) to the thought (νόημα), and in the hypothesis of a common consciousness, he started the view that a thing is not yours or my thought, but a common thought of all mankind, and led to the wider view of Schelling and Hegel that the world is an absolute thought of infinite mind. In making the essence of mind activity and construction, in destroying the separation of theoretical and practical reason, in asserting that mind thinks things as means to ends of the will, he prepared the way for Schopenhauer and other voluntarists. In making the essence of the Absolute not mere reason, but will, action and life, he anticipated Lotze. In reducing the thing in itself to a thought he projected the neo-Kantism of Lange and Cohen. In the doctrine — no object, no subject — no subject, no object — that is, in the utter identification of things with objects of subjects, he anticipated not only Schelling and Hegel, but also Schuppe and Wundt with their congeners. In expanding Kant's act of synthesis till it absorbed the inner sense and the innermost soul, he started the modern paradox that soul is not substance, but subject or activity, a paradox which has been gradually handed down from Schelling and Hegel to Fechner, and from Fechner to Paulsen and Wundt. Meanwhile, through holding with Kant that man is not God, but a free spirit, whose destiny it is to use his intelligence as a means to his duty, he is still the resort of many who vindicate man's independence, freedom, conscience, and power of using nature for his moral purposes, e.g. of Eucken and Münsterberg (qq.v.). Kant and Fichte together became the most potent philosophic influences on European thought in the 19th century, because their emphasis was on man. They made man believe in himself and his mission. They fostered liberty and reform, and even radicalism. They almost avenged man on the astronomers, who had shown that the world is not made for earth, and therefore not for man. Kant half asserted, and Fichte wholly, that Nature is man's own construction. The Kritik and the Wissenschaftslehre belonged to the revolutionary epoch of the “Rights of Man,” and produced as great a revolution in thought as the French Revolution did in fact. Instead of the old belief that God made the world for man, philosophers began to fall into the pleasing dream, I am everything, and everything is I — and even I am God.