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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 19.djvu/867

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EDITOR'S TABLE.

note is that the abler men who have latterly ventured to cope with his thought no longer disparage him. In this respect there is a marked change of tone on the part of his critics. They recognize that his work has in it great elements of valuable influence, worthy of cordial praise and even of emphatic eulogy.

This more liberal spirit is well illustrated in a recent English criticism of Spencer's doctrines that is attracting attention. Principal Fairbairn, of Bradford, was appointed to deliver the "Muir Lectures" at the University of Edinburgh last winter, and recognizing the growing influence of the synthetic philosophy he devoted three of these lectures to an examination of it. They were reported at the time, and awakened so much interest that the author was led to make an extended restatement of his case, which has appeared in the July and August numbers of the "Contemporary Review."

Dr. Fairbairn is a subtle and thoroughly trained metaphysician, and he devotes himself mainly to an attack upon the introductory portion of Spencer's scheme, where he discusses the limits of knowledge to find the true sphere of philosophy. With Dr. Fairbairn's general argument we have here no concern, but are interested in its opening passage, which reads as follows:

Mr. Herbert Spencer's philosophy has at least one conspicuous merit—it can claim to be the most comprehensive, or rather ambitious, of English philosophies. It is, in its psychology, distinctively English and empirical; but, in its spirit and endeavor, distinctively encylopedic and transcendental. In many respects its constructive and comprehensive character entitles it to cordial admiration and praise. Its outlook, backward, forward, and outward, is so immense that it powerfully affects the imagination, which the traditional philosophy of England has, with the splendid but only the more illustrative exception of Berkeley, been too prosaic and narrow to touch or to stir. To conceive a system so positive and universal as Mr. Spencer's is in itself an education to an age, and its extraordinary influence is an evidence that the modern intellect is neither so skeptical nor so critical as it is said to be, but loves, as intellect ever has done, to believe a system, stated in terms it thinks it understands, that promises to explain the universe presented to its senses and represented in its thought. The English mind has been rather inclined to make merry over the philosophies of Germany, especially the Hegelian, which has so adventurously essayed to fit the universe into its dialectic network; but the approbation which has greeted Mr. Spencer's attempts at a "synthetic philosophy" is proof enough that the English contempt for transcendentalism is due to insular peculiarities, not to say ignorance, rather than to intellectual disability or insufficient sympathy with constructive aims. His system, indeed, seems so little metaphysical, so concrete, intelligible, real, it so speaks the language of science, is made so striking by brilliant generalizations, and so vivid by abundant, even superabundant illustrations, that it has come, to a people inclined by their mental habits to despise metaphysics and respect science, almost as a revelation of the true nature and method of creation.

This is a novel strain for an adversary of Spencer. It is no small compliment to pay a system of thought that its largeness and power are attested by its influence upon the national mind, and that even during its promulgation. It may seem ungracious not to accept so generous a statement as wholly satisfactory; but, in accounting for the "remarkable influence" ascribed to Spencer's system. Dr. Fairbairn seems strangely to have missed what we regard as its most important element. He recognizes its ambitious claims and its specious character, which make their appeal to a deficient national culture; but he was not ignorant that this system has in it also sterling elements which have made their successful appeal to the most sober and thoroughly instructed minds of England. Admissions made in the course of his discussion, if placed at its threshold, would have very materially altered the complexion of the opening passage we have quoted.