Popular Science Monthly/Volume 60/April 1902/What Is Philosophy?

By Professor FRANK THILLY,


DURING the first third of the past century the intelligence of the world honored philosophy as the Queen of Science. In Germany, the capital of higher learning, students crowded into the lecture-rooms of the philosophers and accepted their teachings as gospel truths. Everywhere the deepest interest was manifested in the solution of the great problems of life. A powerful longing seized mankind to unravel the world's profoundest mysteries, and this longing, too impetuous to linger over an examination of the facts, satisfied itself in the study and production of metaphysical systems. A suggestive example of the immense influence wielded by the royal science during this epoch is furnished by the experience of Friederich Vischer, who declares that the entire time and energy of his youth were devoted to the interpretation of the world-riddle. "Indeed, it seemed to me in those days," he adds, "that a man had not attained his majority, and ought not, therefore, to be allowed to marry until he had at least dispersed the darkness surrounding the problem of free will and determinism."[1]

It was the golden age of philosophy, an age, however, which bore within itself the seeds of its own decay. Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, the members of the learned dynasty, defined metaphysics or philosophy as the ideal reconstruction of the universe from certain indisputable principles, the discovery of these principles being, for the most part, dependent on the possession of a special mental genius. Like Spinoza before them, they deduced from premises which they regarded as absolute, conclusions which seemed to them to be necessary. Closing their eyes to the facts, these thinkers trusted in their ability to account for those facts, by showing what would be the unavoidable logical consequences of certain axiomatic first principles. Experience they considered as valueless in this connection; the most that it could do was to verify the deductions of philosophy.[2] Schelling denies to it even this worth; the ideal construction or hypothesis of the thinker needs no such verification; it is self-sufficient, a law unto itself.[3] If the facts do not square with the results of speculation, so much the worse for the facts. Although Hegel does not wholly depreciate experimental knowledge, he too lays chief stress on the à priori method.[4] Knowledge is boundless in its possibilities; no limit can be set to man's faculty of truth. Basing themselves upon such conceptions as these, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel undertook the construction of an edifice, which though grand and daring in plan and execution, had no foundation on the earth. And when philosophy loses its footing on the ground, it must Antaeus-like perish in mid-air.

While the German metaphysicians and their following were proving by all the rules of logic what the world really ought to be, the exact sciences were modestly finding out what it actually was. The whistle of the locomotive suddenly awakened the speculator from his dreams, and called his attention to the wonderful progress of natural science with its fruitful methods and useful results. A reaction soon set in against Hegelianism, and its star sank. Men grew aweary of fanciful speculations and longed to return from the clouds to the realities of the material world. Railroads were built. Trade and commerce took enormous strides forward, commercial and polytechnical schools were founded. All energies were directed toward the discovery, explanation and application of material laws, and the exact sciences took the place in the public confidence once held by philosophy. Liebig, the great chemist, introduced the laboratory into German universities. Alexander von Humboldt made a reputation for himself as a scientist. Important discoveries were made in France and Germany by physiologists like Müller, Weber, Flourens, Magendie, Leurct, Longet.[5] Philosophy lost her crown; despised and forsaken by a world that was now as extreme in its contempt as it had formerly been extravagant in its praise, there was none so poor to do her reverence. The philosopher was described as one speaking of things of which he knew nothing, in words which no one could understand. The mistake lay in identifying all philosophy with a temporary one-sided phase of it. The hue and cry was raised against the persecuted queen. The natural sciences, of course, renounced their allegiance and established an antiphilosophical republic of their own. They deluded themselves into believing in the possibility of excluding philosophical conceptions from their realm; they simply succeeded in introducing loose, illogical notions into their explanations, notions that careful thinkers had long ago rejected as unsatisfactory. Materialism, the simplest and most insufficient solution of the world-problem, became the order of the day.

Conditions like these could not fail to intimidate philosophy. misfortune is apt to humble us. It is not strange then that the succeeding generation of philosophers should have been meek, and that even so late as 1874, Wundt should have felt the need of proving that philosophy had a right to exist, and might justly claim a place among the sciences.[6]

This period of reaction, however, was as transitory as its cause had been. The disturbed pendulum was simply swinging to the other side before resuming its regular movements. The metaphysical need or impulse, as Schopenhauer terms it, is too powerful in man to be permanently suppressed. To ask why is one of the noblest functions of the human being; to stifle such inquiry would be equivalent to destroying all intellectual activity. It cannot be stifled. Philosophy is not of an age, but for all time. The last philosopher will die when the last man dies, unless, indeed, that individual happen to be a hopeless idiot. Whoever is capable of thought at all will attempt in some way, be it ever so crude, to explain to himself the world and his place in the world. 'What does it all mean?'[7] 'What is it all for?' are questions which force themselves upon every intelligent being, and are answered by him according to the light that is in him. (Indeed, his queries themselves are pregnant with entire metaphysical systems.) Nor can the exact sciences themselves operate without metaphysical conceptions. However violently they may protest against metaphysics as though it were the plague itself, they inevitably succumb to the disease, if disease it be. Is the theory of descent utterly free from the taint? Is the atomic theory which Greek philosophy originated in the fourth century B. C. any the less metaphysical because it is promulgated by modern scientists? Is not the attempt to reduce all material facts to their ultimates, matter and force or energy, metaphysical? Is not the theory of the indestructibility of matter and the conservation of energy, as conceived by many, metaphysical? Is not the attempt to refer all energies to one ultimate energy a bold and grand attempt to reach a unity, a first principle, on which all else depends? And what can be more metaphysical than that? In truth, the philosophical tendency to reduce plurality and diversity to unity, to find one common principle that may be able to explain all phenomena, prevails in every scientific procedure, because it constitutes the very essence of mental activity. We can not resist the impulse to unify our experiences, we would reach a comprehensive survey of all existence, discover the principle or principles which will explain all facts. The different sciences dealing with different sets of facts may find ultimates capable of accounting for their facts respectively, but only by ignoring other facts. They give us, as it were, cross-sections of reality while we wish to get a comprehensive view of the whole. Physics may be able to explain its facts by assuming the existence of homogeneous atoms and force, but can the chemist understand his phenomena without presupposing the qualitative difference of such atoms? Can the biologist undertake to interpret life with purely mechanical principles; can he reconcile the purposiveness of organisms with the mechanical theory of causation? Will the psychologist, who deals with states of mind or consciousness, be able to account for the existence of these from the physicist's principles, atoms and motion? A science is needed that will consciously and methodically aim to bring order into this chaos, that will consider all the facts, and, if possible, unify these facts. It will subject the principles offered by the various sciences to the most critical examination, compare them with one another, point out their inconsistencies where such exist, it will in short, rectify, harmonize and if possible unify results. Such a science is philosophy. Its need is apparent. If men are bound to philosophize at all, it is a reasonable demand that they should do the work well. We cannot leave the solution of the greatest problems to chance, to the haphazard methods of persons unskilled in such work, and prejudiced enough to adjust the facts to their theories. Here as everywhere else, he will do the best work who has the best training, and concentrates his entire time and energy upon the field of his choice.

Such reflections as these have brought the modern world back again to philosophy. The philistine is defined as the man without intellectual needs, and the philistine alone sees no need of philosophy. The great scientists do not allow their occupation with the details of reality to blunt their vision of the whole. They look up from their microscopes occasionally; they can not rest satisfied with blindly staring at the minutiae; they aim to understand things by seeing them in their relations to the whole.

The measurement of the time required for a current to pass through the sciatic nerve of a frog will not, taken by itself, make us any the wiser. Mere facts must be made the stepping-stones to something higher. Our age is becoming more fully aware of the need of philosophical study. This is evident from the renewal of the philosophical activity in all departments of knowledge. Protestant theology is striving after a rational explanation of dogmas—heresy trials show that! Catholicism has its philosophy; it accepts the conceptions of Thomas Aquinas, whose source is Aristotle. In jurisprudence, economics, politics, sociology and history the philosophical tendency is manifesting itself. Mathematicians, too, are speculating concerning the nature of number, space and related notions. In the words of Wundt the view is spreading among natural scientists 'that the mere description and combination of the facts of a limited field will no longer suffice, but that it is the highest aim of the particular branches of natural science to cooperate in obtaining a comprehensive conception of nature.'[8]

A further evidence of the intensification of philosophical activity is offered by the increased sale of philosophical books, the publication of philosophical journals, and the strengthening and establishment of departments of philosophy in our universities. Our own country, though frequently accused of being the most materialistic nation on the globe, is becoming a zealous admirer of philosophy. Our philosophical journals are increasing in number and in circulation, and improving in scientific merit, while our great publishing houses are issuing the works of noted authors of all countries, and rendering them accessible to a wider sphere of students.

We have been discussing in the foregoing the fortunes and nature of philosophy proper, during the immediate past. We identified the term philosophy with metaphysics, or the science of first principles. But philosophical study does not occupy itself wholly with metaphysics. That in truth is its very highest and hence latest function. It cannot attempt to offer an explanation of the facts of the world, until it has become acquainted with a large body of these facts. Now the world as a whole presents us with two sets of phenomena, physical and mental, and corresponding to this division we have two classes of sciences, physical or natural science and mental science. The former deal with the manifestations of the external or physical universe, with lifeless and living matter; the latter, with the manifestations of the inner world, with consciousness or mind. The fundamental mental science is called psychology, which analyzes, classifies and explains states of consciousness. On it are based such studies as logic, esthetics, ethics and the philosophy of religion. Psychology asks such questions as these: What are the nature and conditions of sensation, perception, imagination, memory, conception, emotion, instinct, impulse, attention, volition; all of these states being facts of mind or consciousness. Logic asks: How does the mind act when it reasons, when it reaches sentences that we regard as true? What are the forms or laws or principles of reasoning? What are the methods employed by the scientist in his investigations? What, in short, are the rules of deduction and induction? Æsthetics asks: What in the soul and in objects is it that makes us call things beautiful or ugly, sublime or ridiculous? What makes a production a work of art; what are the laws or principles governing the artistic? Ethics asks: What are the characteristics of morality? Why do we designate one act as right, another as wrong? What forms the criterion or standard with which moral facts are measured? We feel that certain courses of conduct are wrong. What is the nature and origin of this feeling? How is it developed? What, in short, are the laws or principles governing the moral world, and how do these principles find expression in the life of man? Closely related to psychology and ethics, and furnishing them with a large body of facts, are the social sciences, which consider the thoughts, feelings and volitions of social organisms, or man in society; the ends which such organisms serve, and the means with which such ends are reached. Society, unconsciously or consciously, aims to realize certain ends. What are these ends? How are they realized? We must study the forms which realize them, we must study human customs and institutions, and trace their development. Sociology is the name given to the science which performs this task. These ends cannot be realized without organization, or the state. What are the forms of government, and how do governments realize their ends? The theory of the state, or the science of politics, discusses these questions; it bears the same relation to sociology that ethics bears to psychology. The philosophy of religion investigates those inner facts of human experience which we call religious facts, and is, in so far as it does this, a branch of psychology. But it also studies their external expression, the different forms, and traces the development of positive religions in order to discover from the material thus presented the principles common to all religions. What is the idea which seems to be realizing itself in the history of religion?

The philosopher must pay attention to the fundamental mental sciences, psychology, logic, ethics, æsthetics and the philosophy of religion. These sciences differ from the so-called natural sciences only in their content or subject-matter, not in their general form or methods. All sciences, both physical and mental, occupy themselves with observing phenomena and reducing them to laws, employing all available means of accomplishing this task. But no science restricts itself to a mere registration of laws; it seeks to discover the relations between these laws, to connect them, and to reduce them to their simplest forms. The physicist refers all material manifestations to one underlying principle or force. The biologist finds it impossible to explain his facts by means of purely mechanical principles. "How can we reconcile the purposiveness of organisms with the principle of causation?"[9] The psychologist, again, is brought into contact with another group of facts which the atomic theory cannot account for; mind cannot be explained on a purely materialistic basis. The scientist may be able, by means of mechanical laws, to show how a planetary system was evolved from chaos, but can he account for the existence of the amoeba? Can his principles account for the simplest fact of consciousness? To quote Kant's celebrated words: "It seems to me" he declares in his Theory of the Heavens, "that, in a certain sense, a man may say without presumption: Give me matter and I will build you a world. . . . But can he make the same boast with reference to the simplest plant or insect? Can he say: Give me matter and I will explain to you the evolution of a caterpillar?"

Each science endeavors to reduce the most diverse facts with which it deals to identity, to one underlying principle. Heat, light, sound, electricity are different forms of some underlying force or energy. Are states of consciousness referable to the same force, or must we assume another ultimate, of which both physical and mental facts are the expression, as the monists hold?

All these are problems that are worth considering. The difficulty of solving them and the disagreement existing between the attempts to solve them suggest another problem. The human mind has a tendency to unify, to reduce facts to ultimates, to first principles. What is the value of this tendency as a means of reaching truth? Can we know anything about these tilings? The instrument of knowledge, the human mind, without which there could be no science at all, is itself a fact which needs to be explained. We evidently employ the same methods in the different branches of knowledge, we explain facts by referring them to their antecedents, simply because this is the function of the mind. But is there no limit to this search for antecedents or causes? What epistemological value has the causal instinct? In fact, what does human knowledge consist in, and how is it possible, as Kant asks? Define its limits, before you set out on the vast sea of speculation. We need a science which will examine the nature and validity of knowledge, a theory of knowledge. As Helmholtz declares, no age can with impunity refuse the task of examining the sources of our knowledge and the ground of its validity. The different sciences employ the categories of thinking without investigating their validity. Philosophy must regard with suspicion everything that is not clear as day; it is 'nothing, if not critical.' In his attempt to explain the sensible world, the scientist often has recourse to the suprasensuous. Can we know anything of the suprasensuous or must we confine our efforts to the study of what our senses present to us? Must we accept DuBois-Reymond's verdict? "Concerning the riddles as to what matter and force are, and whether they can think, the natural scientist must once for all decide upon the verdict: Ignorabimus"[10] Or shall we protest with Haeckel against the position that there can be invincible barriers to Natureikennen. There are many other problems which suggest themselves to an epistemology, or theory of knowledge.

Such a science not only forms the prelude to the most important part of philosophy, to metaphysics, but also assists the thinker in discovering the inconsistent and premature metaphysical conceptions which stealthily creep into all branches of knowledge. The natural scientist frequently rails against metaphysics in the very words of metaphysics, without knowing that his entire mental activity is based on metaphysical preconditions. Metaphysics is the old man of the sea whom the scientific Sindbad carries on his own shoulders, without, however, feeling the load.

After having studied the limits and validity of human knowledge, the philosopher is ready for the construction of his metaphysical system. He calls to his aid the history of philosophy, which unrolls before him the thoughts of past ages and bids him profit by their experience. The history of philosophy must not be regarded as 'a disconnected succession of arbitrary individual opinions and clever guesses,' it is not a formless aggregate of errors, not a series of unsuccessful attempts to reach truth. It is not a Sisyphean labor, a Penelopean woof. The history of philosophy is a development, an evolution, in which the forms which follow generally show an advance over what precedes. And even if it were a mere catalogue of errors, it would be of service to the metaphysician by pointing out to him the lines of thought that have ended in blind alleys; it would warn him against wasting his energies in fields that have been worked over. The man who knows how a solution can not be effected is on the road to knowledge.

  1. Quoted by Volkelt in Vorträge zur Einführung in die Philosophie der Gegenwart.
  2. See Fichte's Works, Vol. I., p. 446; Vol. II., p. 359.
  3. Schelling, Vol. V., p. 325.
  4. Hegel, Vol. VI., pp. 53 and 78.
  5. See Lange, History of Materialism.
  6. Wundt, Aufgabe der Philosophie.
  7. 'Was ist der Sinn der Welt?'—Lotze.
  8. Wundt, Essays, p. 4.
  9. Wundt, Essays, p. 5.
  10. DuBois-Reymond, Grenzen des Naturerkennens. Galileo made a similar statement.