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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 19/October 1881/Editor's Table

EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
DR. FAIRBAIRN AND THE SYNTHETIC PHILOSOPHY.

IT was the aim of Bacon to bring the great divisions of knowledge into unity. Tired of the sterility of the old philosophies, he proposed a new one that should be both a true interpretation of nature and lead to grand utilities. He divined the method, but his imagination outran the resources of his time, and he could not execute it.

Three centuries of science have now made the fulfillment of Bacon's conception not only possible, but an imperative intellectual necessity; and, among the thinkers of this age who have most clearly perceived and most strongly felt the need of attempting this formidable task, is Mr. Herbert Spencer. He entered upon it as a life-work, and has now devoted twenty-five years of un-remitting thought to the undertaking. As his system is predominantly constructive—a binding together of different orders of ideas by far reaching principles—he has called it "The Synthetic Philosophy." It is now in its main features an accomplished fact, and its appearance is probably the most considerable intellectual event of our times. The periodical press is slow to note the significant incidents of its progress, and so nothing remains but for "The Popular Science Monthly" to repair the omission.

The project, in the nature of the case, was extensive, and it was certainly a worthy thing for a man of ability to forego the common aims of ambition, and dedicate his powers to what required prodigious work, and was even then generally thought to be impracticable and impossible. But, noble as was the scheme, it was neither received with the sympathy nor sustained with the liberality that such an undertaking deserved. Nevertheless, Spencer's system of thought has made its way so successfully as to have become of cosmopolitan import before it is yet completed. His elaborate works have been reproduced in all the leading modern languages, and they are making a powerful impression upon the cultivated mind of the different countries where they are circulated. They are ably criticised in the leading reviews of these countries, and books are multiplying on every hand, directed to the exposition, defense, and refutation of their doctrines.

We have referred to the unfavorable reception of his system. That his views should have met with a formidable resistance was natural and proper, but criticism did not stop here. The attacks of reviewers were too often accompanied by gross personal disparagement. His adversaries, assuming them-selves to be the guardians of great and sacred interests, often wrote with passion, and indulged in the tone of depreciation wholly foreign to the purposes of honorable controversy. The critics are, however, beginning to find that nothing is gained in the long-run by such unfairness. The system pronounced worthless and impotent, or potent only for mischief, is steadily gaining upon the world's favorable appreciation. Spencer has been again and again ostentatiously "crushed," and all men called to witness how the dust of his unsubstantial reputation has gone to the winds. Yet there stands the solid fabric of his labors unharmed, the stronger for every attack, and becoming more stable with each addition as its author steadily proceeds with his task.

What we are now called upon to 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.

Although combating various of Spencer's positions, chiefly on the metaphysical side, Dr. Fairbairn fully accepts the doctrine of evolution. Many give it a cautious and qualified approval in the lower sphere of life. Dr. Fairbairn takes it without reservation as a comprehensive law, true not only in the domain of inferior life, but also in the higher sphere of humanity, and emphatically in the realm of religious sentiments and ideas. He says: "There is to be no attempt here to question or deny the doctrine of evolution; it is indeed frankly accepted. . . . The creational method is here held to be evolutional. Its history narrates a progress and exhibits a process best named developmental. Without this notion a philosophy of religion were impossible, for without it there could be no scientific study of man and his religions. We can not refuse to apply the principle or idea that underlies and vivifies the study of man in history to the interpretation alike of man and nature, to the master-problems that relate to their being and becoming, to their birth and growth."

Now, this great principle is the pervading and characteristic idea of the synthetic philosophy. It is there first expounded as a universal law, developed as a method of thought, and carried out in its main applications. Dr. Fairbairn holds it to be true, and a truth of such moment, that its establishment makes an epoch even in the study of religion. But is this fact that Spencer's system has a great and all-influencing truth at its foundation which he has so profoundly mastered that he has been enabled to throw it into philosophic form—is this fact to count for nothing in estimating the elements of its admitted "remarkable success"? What kind of a notion has Dr. Fairbairn of the value which his readers attach to the quality of truthfulness in systems of thought submitted to their judgment? We propose to show that what he has here overlooked is precisely that attribute of Spencer's system which has been most potent in commending it to the best intelligence of the age. It not only "speaks the language of science," but it embodies the truths of science, it organizes the principles of science, it conforms to the methods of science, it is a scientific philosophy; and the hostility it has encountered on the one hand and the favor that has been extended to it on the other are due to its supposed identification with science in spirit, substance, and method.

Dr. Fairbairn's omission to recognize this fundamental trait of Spencer's system, when accounting for its extensive influence, may not have been intentional, but it is significant. What is the state of mind that could allow such an oversight? It is simply the general state of mind exhibited by our so-called cultivated classes toward scientific truth. Let us see what this is.

Opposition to science is not the exclusive reproach of any one school of thought; it has been manifested by all. Theology withstood science, because it was itself identified with the old erroneous explanations of nature. Philosophy made a stand against science, because science circumscribed its field and subverted its ideals. Literature strove against science, because of its devotion to fact and its supposed unfriendliness to imagination. Art resisted science as unfavorable to the inventive and creative spirit. Science studied matter to understand its mysterious processes and discern its laws; the schools of culture all contemned the occupation of mind, and shrank from it as a descent into groveling materialism. Philosophy was most potent in its opposition, because it gave law to education and gave reasons to theology, literature, and art.

The antagonism of so-called philosophy to the scientific spirit was inevitable. In the childhood of knowledge it entered upon speculations which could yield no valid results, and came at length to consider that valid conclusions, being impossible, were undesirable. But, as active thought could not be stopped, it was concluded that the virtue of philosophy consists merely in the mental exercise it involves. And, as philosophy had proved useless as a means of arriving at assured truth, its uselessness was claimed to be a merit. And so utility, or the value of results attained, both in themselves and in their practical service to man, was explicitly repudiated. Alike in old Greece and in modern Germany—from Plato to Hegel—this has been the philosophic teaching, and we have seen the doctrine solemnly promulgated in our own times. Sir William Hamilton, as is well known, opens his lectures on metaphysics and logic with a formal defense of it. He maintains that the pursuit of knowledge by man for any end beyond himself—that is, for any practical benefit, private or public—is nothing less than debasing. It is a degradation of the ideal of scholarship. He says that the attainment of truth is not the proper object of mental activity, but the pleasure of the pursuit of truth. To seek is noble; but to seek successfully—that is, to find the object sought is a calamity, because it ends the gratification of the search. The founder of a modern and influential school of philosophy ransacks antiquity and ranges down all the dark ages after authorities who have held this doctrine, and his case is fully made out.

Now, when this old philosophical notion that truth, for itself and for its uses, is not the proper end of study, is still theoretically maintained in our colleges and universities to be the first law of all liberal education, we need not be surprised at the extent of the ignorant prejudice against science, and that the influence of this prejudice should still be widely manifested. Illustrations of it appear everywhere. We pick up the last number of "Scribner's Monthly," and this is the way it talks to its hundreds of thousands of readers:

We doubt whether what we call literature will ever be indebted to science or what is recognized as "the scientific spirit" for anything good. Science deals with matter, its essence, laws, phenomena. Its tendency is to materialize everything. Life itself is evolved from matter. Its "promises and its potencies" are found in that. The tendencies of science are to count God out of the universe, to deny immortality, and the existence of mind independent of matter, and to believe nothing that can not be demonstrated. Hard material facts are the things with which science deals, and it refuses to have to do with anything else. It refuses to recognize the existence of anything like imagination except in a scientific way. Imagination is a product of molecular action in the brain. Science must necessarily deny to this faculty of the soul any legitimate functions because it can not follow a scientific method, and because it denies the existence of the realm in which it is most at home. Imagination must have an over-world in which to spread its wings, or it can not fly. To bind itself to demonstrable facts and to tie itself to a scientific method would be to commit self-destruction. To circumscribe the horizon of the poetic faculty is to clip its wings, or, rather, to deny it space for action. It is a faculty that demands illimitable space, illimitable time, illimitable freedom of invention, release from bondage to the material and real, and liberty to explore the spiritual and the ideal. Any influence or power which interferes with this liberty in any direction is a foe to poetry and a curse to literature.

Crude and ridiculous as this statement is, it represents a widespread feeling. The fact is that, so long as science sticks to the manipulations of matter, it is let alone; but, when it comes forward with its revelations of the constitution of nature, and asserts that these must in future affect all the higher departments of thought, it is met with denunciation from every school of cultivated ignorance which grew up before scientific knowledge arose. This explains the ill-will of multitudes toward Spencer's system. It represents science in its most obnoxious aspect, in carrying its method into the field of general ideas.

But we have here also an explanation of the powerful hold of this system on the instructed and independent mind of the period. Dr. Fairbairn truly says that "to conceive a system so positive and universal as Mr. Spencer's is itself an education to an age." But more than this is true; for if, as confessed, this system has attained a "remarkable influence," that influence has actually been an educational power on a great scale. What is it that Spencer has brought to his contemporaries which they had not before, and which is so adapted to the general condition of thought that barely to conceive it is "an education to an age"? Dr. Fairbairn having omitted the most important answer to this question, we are now prepared to give it for him.

Mr. Spencer, as we have intimated, has first given to the world a philosophy that is an outgrowth of science, and answers the clear requirements of advancing knowledge. The older philosophy, with its lofty scorn of truth as an end and its emptiness of everything useful, had so trifled with the commonsense of mankind that its very name fell into reproach. Spencer has redeemed it and vindicated its rightful supremacy by showing that its sphere Is the realities of nature and experience, and its function to formulate the deepest interpretation and the widest ascertainable truth of the universe. Philosophy, as he views it, is not merely a skillfully reasoned body of speculation; it is nothing, if not true—nothing, unless it compels assent as the highest of verities. Science passes into philosophy as it furnishes generalizations from all orders of phenomena which merge into truths that are universal. Claiming no ideal perfection or completeness, it gathers established principles from all scientific sources into systematic expression, and thus acquires a harmony as perfect as the discovered harmonies of nature, and a unity as absolute as the demonstrated unity of the universe. The formation of such a philosophy implied a reorganization of knowledge that should bring its hitherto diverse branches into closer relations of dependence, the separate orders of truth into higher coördination, and thus give a strength to the fabric derived from the validity of its scientific elements. Such a philosophy must widen its scope and grow ever more consistent, more congruous, and more comprehensively unified with every extension of knowledge. Who expects that the transcendental and metaphysical systems will ever be brought into mutual confirmation or any possibility of agreement? Concord has only given us a new illustration of the old and hopeless discord. Spencer's philosophy has made its auspicious way because it gave to the age what it imperatively needed. Men were wearied by futile speculation on the one hand, and appalled by the growing details of science on the other; and they wanted a higher synthesis of verified truth, a constructive philosophy of science. It is as a new organon of knowledge that Spencer's philosophy has gained its commanding influence over the active mind of the period, and it is this trait that has made it one of the most widening, elevating, and potent educative agencies of the age.

Another feature of the synthetic philosophy, though implied in what has been said, is so important in accounting for its "remarkable influence" that it requires to be brought out more explicitly. Spencer's system is sharply contrasted with preceding philosophical systems by its recognition of the great value of knowlege for useful ends. Plis philosophy is animated by a grand utility. Holding that truth is to be supremely valued for its own sake, and that philosophy is justified in its truth alone, Mr. Spencer finds that the highest truth involves also the highest good, and his system thus becomes nobly tributary to the advancement of human welfare. Science has sufficiently exemplified the worth of mental acquisitions for practical purposes, and points to its conquests over the material world as proofs of its useful services to man. But it is a far higher service to have disclosed the true method of nature and determined man's real position in the universe; because only as these are understood can human conditions be permanently improved. Spencer's philosophy assumes this higher sphere of beneficent influence, and throughout its whole development it bears upon the final and regnant problem of the regulation of human conduct. Each division of his system has its intrinsic interest as a new exposition of principles determined by the great reorganizing law of evolution; but "First Principles," the "Principles of Biology," the "Principles of Psychology," and the "Principles of Sociology," are only so many foundations for the ultimate exposition of the "Principles of Ethics." The constitution of nature as an ever-unfolding order, the laws of life, the laws of mind, and the laws of social relation, are successively expounded with a view to their final bearing upon the right and wrong of human actions.

The inspiration of these labors was a profound interest in the moral welfare of society; and there are many who can now appreciate the sagacious forecast that could discern an approaching emergency of thought for which it was imperatively necessary to prepare. While yet the idea of evolution was derided as a fanciful conceit of visionary minds, Herbert Spencer knew that it was soon to become the governing law of the world's best intelligence. He saw that, among the great changes that would follow, the traditional theories of morality would be sure to suffer irreparable damage, and that morality itself might lose its force if not fortified by a new authority. The synthetic philosophy was accordingly laid out in its complete logical order more than twenty years ago, to meet the inevitable emergency that has now arisen, and the wisdom of this prescience is attested by the eager interest with which the "Data of Ethics" was lately received in every civilized country.

The aim of Spencer's philosophy is, therefore, to organize that scientific knowledge of nature and human nature which shall be most valuable for guidance, alike of the individual in his personal and private sphere, and of society in its relations with the individual. This system establishes the principles by which the freedom of the citizen and the duty of the state are determined. There, as nowhere else, we are shown the growth and conditions of human liberty, and the forces that have hindered and the forces that have promoted its progress.

Nor has the reader to go far for evidence of what we say. The last installment of his system that Spencer has given us is luminous with new instruction upon this subject. The article on "The Militant Type of Society"—long, but not too long—printed in the present number of the "Monthly," exemplifies in an impressive if not a startling way the obstructive agencies of social progress. A succeeding article on "The Industrial Type of Society" will complete the view by showing what causes have been most powerful in producing beneficent social and political effects. The reader will find in those papers exemplifications of the enlarged utility which dominates Spencer's system, and for which he will look in vain in any preceding philosophy.

These, then, are the leading reasons why this system of thought has attained its "remarkable influence," and merely to conceive which "is itself an education to an age." But if the bare conception of it, even before it is finished, has so benign and improving an influence, what may we not expect from it when it is studied and understood, and becomes a power in the public mind? Self-education is the only true education, and, if young men want a liberal education of practical value, let them master the synthetic philosophy and be their own teachers.