Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/March 1882/Materialism and Positivism

MATERIALISM AND POSITIVISM.
By W. D. LE SUEUR.

MATERIALISTS and positivists are commonly classed together by those who have never well understood what either materialism or positivism really is. Positivism is supposed to be materialistic because it fails to call in spiritual existences in explanation of phenomena—because, in other words, it stops short at facts, and does not seek to search out ultimate causes. The people who draw this inference take for granted, apparently, in their ordinary thinkings, that all facts must be facts of matter, and that those who confine themselves to facts must consequently be materialists. There is, therefore, really a fundamental materialism in the very criticism that fastens upon positivism the charge of materialism. Let us, however, look a little more closely into materialism considered as a mode of philosophical belief.

What do we mean by matter? First of all, it is obvious that we mean something that is objective to the mind or thinking faculty—something the mind finds upon its path, as it were, and that is the source to it of certain definite impressions. All impressions made upon the mind do not, however, equally connect themselves with the idea of matter. Some, of course, do not so connect themselves at all. When we are struck by the generosity or baseness of an action, or feel the influence of character, or experience the pleasure of harmonious or the pain of discordant relations, our consciousness is in no way concerned with matter. There might be no such thing as matter in the world, for aught we know or care about it at such moments. Yet our impressions have the very highest degree of definiteness. But even impressions made directly on our physical senses do not all, with equal force, bring the conception of matter before the mind. The word "phantasm" bears witness that visual impressions do not always convey a belief in the existence of the external reality called matter. It means, literally, "an appearance"; but it has come to mean an appearance void of all substantive reality. There is the same implication when we speak of "rubbing our eyes" to make sure that we see a thing. The sense of hearing is, in like manner, sometimes distrusted; and it may be said that, if we lived in a world in which our only knowledge of objective existence was through sights and sounds, our idea of matter, if we had one at all, would be very different from what it actually is. There is, however, another sense, the testimony of which is held to be surer than that of any other, the sense of touch. Sight may deceive, hearing may deceive; but what we can touch and feel is real. Here we find the true basis of the popular idea of matter—that which can be felt; that which resists our muscles. It is true that in this case, also, we are thrown back upon subjective impressions, or, in other words, upon mental experiences; but these experiences have at once a certain breadth and a certain intimacy about them, which leads us in general to give them the preference, and to make what seems to be the source of them our very type of reality, to which we apply the special name of matter.

Considering the subject further, we perceive that sight and hearing are, strictly speaking, specialized forms of the sense of touch—forms so specialized that their fundamental similarity to touch is commonly lost sight of. There is, therefore, no good reason for treating their revelations as less founded on reality than those which we owe to muscular sensation; yet, for all that, matter, to the popular mind, will always be something which directly appeals to the sense of touch.

We may now begin to see what materialism is. Materialism is a form of belief, or mode of thought, which in all things prefers to rest on the evidence of the broadest impressions of physical sense, and which suspects, where it does not deny, the reality of aught that can not be brought to the test of sense-impression. It objects to advancing beyond the primary elements of consciousness; and any steps which it takes in the region of mental or moral phenomena it takes grudgingly and with a constant dread lest it should be led to recognize as real anything that can not be felt as we feel sticks and stones. The materialist has to live as other men, and, where his theories are not at stake, he will use ordinary human language as freely as others. He will talk of hope and fear, of love and hatred, of ambition and apathy, of honor and disgrace, of character and motive and principle, as if he knew what he meant, and as if the words he used answered to certain realities of human life. But, once touch his theory, and he will seek to drain these words of all meaning, or else fall back upon vague talk about "modes of matter."

Materialism is the refuge of minds that have been immaturely freed from spiritualism, or perhaps we may more fitly say, spiritism. By spiritism we mean that undeveloped condition of the mind in which hypothetical existences are required at every turn to account for observed phenomena, in which the mind can not bear to be left alone with facts. The child learning to walk holds by its mother's finger; the mind learning to think uses such hypotheses as it can construct, and for physical acts it frames spiritual antecedents. The child who thinks it can walk before it really can, and leaves its mother's finger, finds itself compelled to creep along by the wall. In like manner the materialist who has let go his spirit hypotheses is compelled to creep along by the wall, to rest upon something hard, in order to steady his steps. Divert his attention, and he will walk for a while with his hands free; but, remind him where he is, and he totters back in a moment to his tangible support.

The positivist, on the contrary, is a man who has learned to walk alone. He asks only support for his feet; and that he finds in the instinctive confidence in his physical and mental powers, with which, in common with other men, he is endowed. To the positivist a fact is a fact, wherever and in whatever guise he meets it. And all facts stand to him upon an equal level in point of authority. Having learned to dispense with the spirit hypothesis, he has learned to dispense also with bad metaphysics, particularly with the bad metaphysics that lie at the foundation of materialism. He repudiates the idea that a superior degree of reality attaches to hard things, and he bewares of drawing the metaphysical conclusion that tangible things constitute the stuff of the universe. A hard thing is well in its way: so is a soft thing; so is an impalpable thing. What the universe is ultimately made of he does not inquire, because he knows the inquiry is vain. He is content with facts, and to him a fact is whatever produces a complete and definite impression upon the mind. He does not make his own mind the measure and test of all possible existence, but he holds that it is the measure and test of all things that concern him. There may be things of which he knows and can know nothing, but he indulges in no speculations in regard to these—his duty being, as he conceives, to apply himself assiduously to the knowable order.

To the positivist, I have said, all facts are of equal authority; and, in order to decide what is a fact, and what therefore he should treat as a reality, he merely asks, Is it capable of definitely affecting my mind? Whatever stands definitely related to the mind is a fact, and has all the reality that can be discovered in anything whatsoever. All we can say of a piece of granite is that it definitely affects the mind; we know it as so-and-so. Whether it be, as Mr. Herbert Spencer maintains, but the representation of an unknowable reality, the positivist does not inquire: enough for him that he is able to cognize it under certain definite forms. But what we here say of a piece of granite, which would be the materialist's choice illustration of real existence, we may say equally of an action, a word, a thought, an impulse, a characteristic, a tendency. These are all facts, capable of definitely affecting the mind, and often affecting the mind more intimately and powerfully by far than tangible objects. What is it in my friend that is of most concern to me? His bodily frame? By no means. He could not exist without a bodily frame, any more than he could walk without ground to walk on. But his bodily frame may have nothing in it to please the eye, or in any way to arrest attention. The color of his hair, his weight, or even his stature, might change materially, and the difference to me would be little more than if he had changed his clothes, provided the disposition of his mind, those mental and moral qualities that had won my regard, had remained unchanged. In this case, disposition, a thing wholly impalpable, is of vastly more account to me, as an element in my environment, than the whole assemblage of physical properties and qualities represented by my friend's bodily structure. Now, the difference between the materialist and the positivist lies just in this, that the former is embarrassed at the decided effects which he sees produced by impalpable things, while the latter escapes such embarrassment entirely, simply by not having set up any arbitrary standard of what constitutes reality. The materialist does not want to recognize anything as real that does not more or less resemble his piece of granite, that does not affect the tactual sense; while the positivist is content to recognize all things as real that reveal their existence to the mind by affecting it in a definite manner. He cordially admits that the piece of granite does this, but he says also that a thousand things that have no analogy with it whatever do it as well.

Some people, chiefly materialists, will heedlessly say that this is idealism. But they are totally mistaken. Idealism consists in affirming reality of the mind and denying it to objective existences, or in affirming that the apparent distinction between subject and object is unreal and illusive. The positivist does neither the one nor the other. He simply abstains from setting up an arbitrary standard of reality. He talks neither of mind-stuff nor of world-stuff; such talk, indeed, he can not help regarding as all stuff. He knows that he knows and that he feels, and that there are certain definite sources of knowledge and feeling. He perceives that he has an environment upon which he can act, and which reacts upon him. That environment is a very complex one, answering to the complexity of his own nature. There is nothing within him, indeed, that has not some answering element without. Regarding him first as an animal, he has a nutritive system, which has its answering external realities; he has a nervous and muscular system, to which the outward frame of things in like manner responds. Taking a higher point of view, he has intellectual faculties which lay hold of the relations of things in the outer world; he has an emotional nature, with moods that vary according to the nature of the stimulus they receive; he has social faculties and propensities that find exercise in the domain of society; he has powers of moral judgment that recognize, apart altogether from the verdict of society, the essential moral qualities of actions. To each range or level of function in the individual man there are corresponding realities in the outer world; and it is to be observed that what are realities to one set of functions are not realities in the same sense to any other. The nutritive quality of an apple is not a reality to the muscular sense, nor is the weight of the apple which is cognized by the muscular sense a reality to the nutritive function. The test of reality is, we thus see, the existence or non-existence of definite relationship. To illustrate the same form further, we may observe that the physical properties of bodies are not realities to the intellectual faculty that investigates their spatial or numerical relations. The weight of a statue, or the chemical composition of the marble or bronze of which it is made, is not a reality to the æsthetic sense. The emotional nature finds its realities in the things that kindle emotion, not in those that furnish matter for intellectual exercise or for physical sensation. Who can ever forget those exquisitely simple words of the poet Tennyson?—

"And the stately ships go on

To their haven under the hill;
But oh, for the touch of a vanished hand,

And the sound of a voice that is still!"

The vanished hand, the silent voice, are here but symbols of a thousand clustering associations dear to the heart in past times, and dear to the heart still. The physical sensation is the nexus of things that no physical methods could possibly enable us to understand, things known only to the emotional nature. The touch or the voice that thrills one human being will be wholly indifferent to another—will, in fact, rank only as a mere physical sensation. The heart of a mother would be rent by the cry of her child in pain or in danger; but what would that cry be to a devouring beast? It would have no relation, except as a definite volume of sound, to anything in the beast's nature, and therefore, in all the elements that would speak to a human—to say nothing of a mother's—heart, would be non-existent.

It is, however, when we consider man in society that the range of impalpable realities becomes widest, and embraces facts of the deepest import; and just as society becomes more complex does this truth assume deeper significance. In a society like ours, at every step a man takes through life, he encounters forces as real as those of physical nature, but whose seat is in social institutions and in the dispositions of individual men. There are ambitions, interests, customs, prejudices, conventionalities, and a thousand intangible forms of social force, that all react upon the individual man like so many conflicting winds and currents. The individual can and does react against these, and herein he differs from a wave-tossed vessel; but, steer his course with as firm a hand and as steady an eye as he may, the great composition of social forces will powerfully affect the line of his movement.

The great practical defect of a materialistic philosophy is that it leads its adherents to underestimate all forces and influences that can not be reasoned about as we reason about the laws of matter. The materialist rests by preference on a relatively low plane of thought; and he is at a great disadvantage when he has to deal with matters that lie in a higher plane. But many are materialists in this way who would utterly repudiate materialism in theory. In other words, there are many whose methods of judgment are wholly unsuited (through excess of simplicity) to questions involving the higher human motives, or the less obvious conditions of human happiness. Many a man has made a disastrous business failure through a too materialistic way of looking at things. He wants money, let us say, for his business; he finds a partner who has money, and the importance which he attaches to this obvious and, so to speak, palpable condition, leads him to overlook the less obvious but equally important conditions of character, compatibility of disposition, and business aptitude. He finds to his cost in a short time that these things should not have been overlooked. Men, again, who have unlimited faith in the power of statute law to work moral reforms are so far materialists. Their trust is really in physical force. The whole school of political economists have helped to cultivate materialistic modes of thought, by making abstractions of all the influences that modify the working of their so-called economic laws. The truth of the matter is, that the moral condition of society at any given time profoundly modifies the whole course of business. Paralyze confidence between man and man, and the whole commercial and industrial world falls out of gear. Restore confidence, and the wheels of exchange once more begin to move. In a thousand ways, that people with materialistic modes of thought are apt to overlook, tangible results depend upon intangible causes, or are governed by intangible conditions. A true philosophy bids us always to try and rise in our speculations to the level of the phenomena with which we have to deal, and always to beware of denying or ignoring the complexity of a problem merely to indulge our intellectual indolence. Materialism, according to Comte's definition, is essentially the habit of judging things from too low a plane, and this is the sense in which I use the word throughout this paper. To suppose that any particular grossness attaches to matter is a conception worthy only of the moles and bats of philosophy. Before we could affirm grossness or anything else of matter we should have to get some of it, and compare it with something that was not matter, but which yet could be legitimately compared with it. Until this feat is accomplished, it would be well for all sensible people to refrain equally from praise and from abuse of matter. What there can be no risk of error in assuming is, that the exercise of certain faculties gives us the conception we have of matter, and that the exercise of other faculties gives us mental experiences of quite a different order. The materialist insists upon the convertibility of all experiences of the latter kind into experiences of the former kind. The positivist, on the contrary, feels under no obligation to perform any operation of this kind; and fails to see how he would be advantaged if he could or did perform it. He is content to believe that we are in no less real a world when we are dealing with human affections and passions, with social laws and forces, and with spiritual results in general, than when we are occupying ourselves with things that appeal directly to the outward senses, and that give us our impressions of form, color, and weight.

It has thus, I trust, been made apparent why the positivist would refuse to be called a materialist, and why he would equally object to be spoken of as an idealist. He is. the only man, as it seems to me, who takes the world exactly as he finds it; and who, upon principle, abstains at once from unfounded affirmations, unsupported judgments, and unanswerable questions. His business, as he conceives it, is to regulate his life, and help others to regulate their lives, by realities; and a thing to be a reality to him does not need to be a stone-wall.