The Harvard Classics Vol. 51/Philosophy I.



By Professor Ralph Barton Perry

How charming is divine philosophy!
Not harsh and crabbed, as dull fools suppose,
But musical as is Apollo's lute,
And a perpetual feast of nectar'd sweets,
Where no crude surfeit reigns.

SINCE Milton wrote thus gallantly in its behalf, philosophy has fairly succeeded in living down its reputation for being "harsh and crabbed." No one who has made the acquaintance of Scholastic Philosophy, the philosophy of the Middle Ages, and still the established philosophy in Milton's day, can escape a secret sympathy with the view of these "dull fools." But in the course of the last three centuries, philosophy, especially English and French philosophy, has become more free in form, more imaginative, and more self-expressive. So that the critics and belittlers of philosophy to-day, too numerous, alas! to make it safe to call names, have taken up new ground. Philosophy is condemned, not for being unmusical but for being unpractical. The music of Apollo's lute is itself under suspicion, being too unsubstantial and too remote to suit the temper of an age of efficiency and common sense.


I sincerely wish that I could recommend philosophy on grounds of efficiency and common sense. I should be listened to, understood, and believed. I should at once insinuate myself into the confidence of my reader. If I could but say: "Now look here! Philosophy is just a matter of plain, hard-headed common sense"; or, "If you want to succeed, try philosophy. It will help you to make and to sell, to outstrip competitors, and to be efficient in whatever you undertake"; if I could make such an appeal to you, your instincts and prejudices would secure me your ready sympathy. But I should have deceived you. What I should thus have recommended to you would not be philosophy. For philosophy is neither plain nor hard-headed; nor is it a means of success, as success is ordinarily construed. This is the case, not accidentally, but in principle. The very point of philosophy lies in the fallibility of common sense, and in the arbitrariness of vulgar standards of success. Philosophy is one of those things that must be met on its own ground. You must seek it where it is at home; if you insist upon its meeting you half-way it will turn out not to be philosophy at all, but some poor compromise — the name or husk of philosophy with the soul gone out of it. No one can understand what philosophy means unless he lets it speak for itself and in its own language. If philosophy is good, it is because it contributes to life something different, something peculiarly its own, and which cannot be measured by any standards save those which philosophy itself supplies.


If we cannot justify philosophy by common sense, we can at least contrast it with common sense, and so approach it from that more familiar ground. Since we must admit that philosophy is at odds with common sense, let us make the most ot it. What, then, is common sense ? First of all it is evident that this is not a common-sense question. One of the things peculiar to common sense is that it must not be questioned, but taken for granted. It is made up of a mass of convictions that by common consent are to be allowed to stand; one does not ask questions about them, but appeals to them to determine what questions shall be asked. They are the conservative opinion, the solidified and uniform belief, on which men act and which is the unconscious premise of most human reasoning. As a man of common sense, I use common sense to live by or to think by; it is a practical and theoretical bias which I share with my fellows, but which I do not think about at all.

Now suppose that in some whimsical and senseless mood I do think about common sense. Something very startling happens. This once unchallenged authority is proved to be highly fallible. Its spell is gone. It at once appears, for example, that common sense has had a history, and that it has varied with times and places. The absurdities of yesterday are the common sense of to-day; the common sense of yesterday is now obsolete and quaint. The crank of the sixteenth century was the man who said that the earth moved; the crank of the twentieth century is the man who says that it does not. Moreover, once common sense is thus reflected upon, it is seen to be in part, at least, the result of wholly irrational forces, such as habit and imitation. What has been long believed, or repeatedly asserted, acquires a hardness and fixity from that fact; in the future it is always easier to believe, more difficult to disbelieve, than anything recent or novel. And what others about us believe, we tend unconsciously to reflect in our own belief, just as our speech catches the accent and idioms of our social circle. Furthermore, a belief once widely diffused takes on the authority of established usage. It is supported by public opinion, as anything normal or regular is supported; unbelievers are viewed with hostile suspicion as unreliable and incalculable. "You can never tell what they will do next." Or they are forcibly persecuted as a menace to the public peace. I have called habit and imitation "irrational" forces. By that I mean that they have no special regard for truth. They operate in the same way to confirm and propagate a bad way of thinking as a good way of thinking. It does not follow that common sense is necessarily mistaken; indeed reasons can be adduced to show that common sense is a very good guide indeed. But if so, then common sense is justified on other grounds; it is not itself the last court of appeal. Common sense, despite its stability and vogue, perhaps on account of its stability and vogue, is open to criticism. We cannot be sure that it is true; and it may positively stand in the way of truth through giving an unwarranted authority to the old and familiar, and through shutting our minds so that no new light can get in.

The philosopher, then, is one who at the risk of being thought queer, challenges common sense; he sets himself against the majority in order that the majority may be brought to reflect upon what they have through inertia or blindness taken for granted. He is the reckless critic, the insuppressible asker of questions, who doesn't know where to stop. He has a way of pinching the human intelligence, when he thinks it has gone to sleep. Every time there is a fresh revival of philosophical interest, and a new philosophical movement, as there is periodically, this is what happens. Some eccentric or highly reflective individual like Socrates, or Bacon, or Descartes, or Locke, or Kant, strays from the beaten track of thought, and then discovers that although it was easier to move in the old track, one is more likely to reach the goal if one beats out a new one. Such a thinker demands a re-examination of old premises, a revision of old methods; he stations himself at a new center, and adopts new axes of reference.

Philosophy is opposed to common sense, then, in so far as common sense is habitual and imitative. But there are other characteristics of common sense with which the true genius of philosophy is out of accord. We can discover these best by considering the terms of praise or blame which are employed in behalf of common sense. When ideas are condemned as contrary to common sense, what is ordinarily said of them ? I find three favorite forms of condemnation : ideas are pronounced "unpractical," "too general," or "intangible." Any man of common sense feels these to be terms of reproach. It is implied, of course, that to be agreeable to common sense, ideas must be "practical," "particular," and "tangible." And it is the office of philosophy, as corrective of common sense, to show that such judgments, actual and implied, cannot be accepted as final.


What is meant by "practical," in the vulgar sense? Let me take an example. Suppose a man to be trapped on the roof of a burning building. His friends gather round to make suggestions. One friend suggests that a ladder be brought from next door; another friend suggests that the man climb to an adjoining roof and descend by the rain pipe. These are practical suggestions. A third friend, on the other hand, wants to know what caused the fire, or why the man is trying to escape. He is promptly silenced on the ground that his inquiries are beside the point. Or approach a man in the heat of business and offer him advice. You will soon find out whether your advice is practical or not. If you have invented something, a physical or industrial mechanism, that will facilitate the matter in hand, you show that you are a practical man, and there is a chance that you will be listened to. But if you ask the business man why he is trying so hard to make money, and express some doubt as to its being worth while — well, let the veil be drawn. He may see you "out of hours," but you will scarcely recover his confidence. "Practical," therefore, would seem to mean relevant to the matter in hand. It is usual with adults to have something "in hand," to be busy about something, to be pursuing some end. The practical is anything that will serve the end already being pursued; the unpractical is anything else, and especially reflection on the end itself. Now the philosopher's advice is usually of the latter type. It is felt to be gratuitous. It does not help you to do what you are already doing; on the contrary, it is calculated to arrest your action. It is out of place in the office, or in business hours. What, then, is to be said for it? The answer, of course, is this: It is important not only to be moving, but to be moving in the right direction; not only to be doing something well, but to be doing something worth while. This is evidently true, but it is easily forgotten. Hence it becomes the duty of philosophy to remind men of it; to persuade men occasionally to reflect on their ends, and reconsider their whole way of life. To have a philosophy of life is to have reasons not only for the means you have selected, but for what you propose to accomplish by them.


Common sense also condemns what is "too general." In life it is said to be a "situation" and not a theory that confronts us. The man who is trusted is the man of experience, and experience is ordinarily taken to mean acquaintance with some group of individual facts. In political life what one needs is not general ideas, but familiarity with concrete circumstances; one must know men and measures, not man and principles. Historians are suspicious of vague ideas of civilization and progress; the important thing is to know just what happened. In the industrial world, what is needed is not a theory of economic value, but a knowledge of present costs, wages, and prices. As a preparation for life it is more important to train the eye and the hand, which can distinguish and manipulate, than the reason and imagination, which through their love of breadth and sweep are likely to blur details, or in their groping after the ultimate are led to neglect the immediate thing which really counts. Common sense would not, of course, condemn generalization altogether. It has too much respect for knowledge, and understands that there is no knowing without generalizing. There must be rules and classifications, even laws and theories. But the generalizing propensity of mind must be held in restraint; after a certain point it becomes absurd, fantastic, out of touch with fact, "up in the clouds." The man of common sense, planted firmly on the solid ground, views such speculations with contempt, amusement, or with blank amazement.

Philosophy offends against common sense, then, not because it generalizes, for, after all, no one can think at all without generalizing; but because it does not know when to stop. And the philosopher is bound to offend, because if he is true to his calling, he must not stop. It is his particular business to generalize as far as he can. He may have various motives for doing this. He may be prompted by mere "idle curiosity" to see how far he can go. Or he may believe that the search for the universal and the contemplation of it constitute the most exalted human activity. Or he may be prompted by the notion that his soul's salvation depends on his getting into right relations with the first cause or the ultimate ground of things. In any case he is allotted the task of formulating the most general ideas that the nature of things will permit. He can submit to no limitations imposed by considerations of expediency. He loses his identity altogether, unless he can think more roundly, more comprehensively, or more deeply, than other men. He represents no limited constituency of facts or interests; he is the thinker at large.


It is significant that facts are reputed to be "solid," general ideas to be of a more vaporous or ghostly substance. Thus facts possess merit judged by the third standard of common sense, that of "tangibility." If we go back to the original meaning, the tangible, of course, is that which can be touched. Doubting Thomas was a man of common sense. Now we have here to do with something very original and elemental in human nature. Touch is the most primitive of the senses. And if we consider the whole history of living organisms, it is the experience or the anticipation of contact that has played the largest and the most indispensable part in their consciousness. That which can have contact with an organism is a body; hence bodies or physical things are the oldest and most familiar examples of known things. The status of other alleged things is doubtful; the mind does not feel thoroughly at home and secure in dealing with them. Physical science enjoys the confidence of common sense because, though it may wander far from bodies and imagine intangible ethers and energies, it always starts with bodies, and eventually returns to them. Furthermore, even ethers and energies excite the tactual imagination; one can almost feel them. The human imagination cannot abstain from doing the same thing even when it is perfectly well understood that it is illegitimate. God and the soul are spirits, to be sure; for that there is the best authority. But when they have passed through the average mind they have a distinctly corporeal aspect, as though the mind were otherwise helpless to deal with them.

Philosophy is not governed by an animus against the physical. Indeed philosophy is bound to recognize the possibility that it may turn out to be the case that all real substances are physical. But philosophy is bound to point out that there is a human bias in favor of the physical; and it is bound so far as possible to counteract or discount that bias. Philosophy must nurture and protect those theories that aim especially to do justice to the non-physical aspects of experience, and protest against their being read out of court as "inconceivable" or inherently improbable. A generation ago philosophy was usually referred to as "mental and moral" philosophy. There is a certain propriety in this, not because philosophy is to confine itself to the mental and moral, but because philosophers alone can be depended upon to recognize these in their own right, and correct the exaggerated emphasis which common sense, and science as developed on the basis of common sense, will inevitably place on the physical.


Philosophy, then, can afford to accept the unfavorable opinion of common sense, and may even boast of it. Philosophy is unpractical, too general, and intangible. If the condemnation implied in these terms were decisive and final, then philosophy would be compelled to give up. But philosophy is not merely contrary to common sense, for it emancipates the mind from common sense and establishes the more authoritative standards by which it is itself justified.

Though I should have persuaded you that philosophy is a strange thing which you must visit abroad in its own home, nevertheless I now hope to persuade you that you once entertained it unawares. Though, if philosophy is now to enter, you must expel from your mind the ideas that make themselves most at home there, this same philosophy was once a favorite inmate. Only you were too young, and your elders had too much common sense, to know that it was philosophy. Unless you were an extraordinary child you were very curious about what you called the world; curious as to who or what made it, why it was made, how it was made, why it was made as it is, and what it is like in those remote and dim regions beyond the range of your senses. Then you grew up, and having grown up, you acquired common sense, or rather common sense acquired you. It descended like a curtain, shutting out the twilight, and enabling you to see more clearly, but just as certainly making your view more circumscribed.[1] Since then you have come to feel that the questions of your childhood were foolish questions, or extravagant questions that no busy man can afford to indulge in. Philosophy, then, is more naïve than common sense; it is a more spontaneous expression of the mind. And when one recovers this first untrammeled curiosity about things, common sense appears not as the illumination of mature years, but rather as a hardening of the mind, the worldliness and complacency of a life immersed in affairs. It would not be unfair to say that the philosophical interest is the more liberal, common sense having about it something of the quality of professionalism. But there is another and a more important sense in which philosophy is entertained unawares. It underlies various mature activities and interests whose standing is regarded as unquestionable. When these activities or interests are reflected upon, as sooner or later they are sure to be, it appears that they require the support of philosophy. This is most evident in the case of religion. We all of us participate in a certain religious tradition, and with most of us the principal elements of that tradition are taken for granted. We assume that there is a certain kind of life, a life of unselfishness, honesty, fortitude and love, let us say, that is highest and best. We assume that the worth of such a life is superior to worldly success; that it betokens a state of spiritual well-being to which every man should aspire, and for which he should be willing to sacrifice everything else. We assume, furthermore, that this type of life is the most important thing in the world at large. Thus we may suppose that the world was created, and that its affairs are controlled, by a being in whom this type of life is perfectly exemplified. God would then mean to us the cosmic supremacy of unselfishness, love, and the like. Or we may suppose that God is one who guarantees that those who are unselfish and scrupulous shall inherit the earth, and experience eternal happiness.


Now observe what happens when one is overtaken with doubt. One may come to question the worthiness of the ideal. Is it not perhaps a more worthy thing to assert one's self, than to sacrifice one's self? Or is not the great man after all one who is superior to scruples, who sets might above right? Who is to decide such a question? Surely not public opinion, nor the authority of any institution, for these are dogmatic. Once having doubted, dogma will no longer suffice. What is needed is a thoughtful comparison of ideals, a critical examination of the whole question of values and of the meaning of life. One who undertakes such a study, every one who has made even a beginning of such a study in the hope of solving his own personal problem, is ipso facto a moral philosopher. He is following in the steps of Plato and of Kant, of Mill and of Nietzsche, and he will do well to walk for at least a part of the way with them. Or suppose that our doubter questions, not the correctness of the traditional ideal, but the certainty of its triumph. Suppose that, like Job, he is impressed by the misfortunes of the righteous, and set to wondering whether the natural course of events is not utterly indifferent to the cause of righteousness. Is not the world after all a prodigious accident, a cruel and clumsy play of blind forces? Do ideals count for anything, or are they idle dreams, illusions, a mere play of fancy? Can spirit move matter, or is it a helpless witness of events wholly beyond its control? Ask these questions and you have set philosophical problems; answer them, and you have made philosophy.

It is possible, of course, to treat doubt by the use of anaesthetics. But such treatment does not cure doubt. With many, indeed, anaesthetics will not work at all. They will require an intellectual solution of intellectual questions; their thought once aroused will not rest until it has gone to the bottom of things. And problems forgotten in one generation will reappear to haunt the next. But even if it were possible that the critical and doubting faculty should be numbed or atrophied altogether, it would be the worst calamity that could befall mankind. For the virtue of religion must lie in its being true, and if it is to be true it must be open to correction as enlightenment advances. Salvation cannot be won by a timid clinging to comfortable illusions.

What should be done for the saving of our souls depends not upon an imaginary state of things, in which the wish is father to the thought, but upon the real state of things. Salvation must be founded on fact and not on fiction. In short, the necessity of philosophy follows from the genuineness of the problems that underlie religion. In religion, as in other activities and interests, it will not do forever to assume that things are so; but it becomes important from time to time to inquire into them closely and with an open mind. So to inquire into the ideals of life and the basis of hope, is philosophy.


Let us turn to another familiar human interest, that of the fine arts. There exists a vague idea, sometimes defended by the connoisseur, but more often ignored or repudiated by him, that the greatest works of art must express the general or the universal. Thus we feel that Greek sculpture is great because it portrays man, whereas most contemporary sculpture portrays persons; and that Italian painting of the Renaissance, expressing, as it does, the Christian interpretation of life, is superior to the impressionistic landscape which seizes on some momentary play of light and color. Now I do not for a moment wish to contend that such considerations as these are decisive in determining the merit of art. It may even be that they should not affect our purely aesthetic judgments at all. But it is clear that they signify an important fact about the mind of the artist, and also about the mind of the observer. The Greek sculptor and the Italian painter evidently have ideas of a certain sort. They may, it is true, have come by them quite unconsciously. But somehow the Greek sculptor must have had an idea not of his model merely, but of human nature and of the sort of perfection that befits it. And the Italian, over and above his sense of beauty, must have shared with his times an idea of the comparative values of things, perhaps of the superiority of the inner to the bodily life, or of heaven to this mundane sphere. And the observer as well must have a capacity for such ideas, or he will have lost something which the artist has to communicate. The case of poetry is perhaps clearer. Historical or narrative poems, love poems to a mistress's eyes or lips, evidently dwell on some concrete situation or on some rare and evanescent quality that for a moment narrows the mind and shuts out the world. On the other hand, there are poems like Tennyson's "Higher Pantheism," and "Maud," Browning's "Rabbi Ben Ezra," Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," or Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," [2] in which the poet is striving to express through his peculiar medium some generalization of life. He has had some wider vision, revealing man in his true place in the whole scheme of things. Such a vision is rarely clear, perhaps never entirely articulate; but it betokens a mind struggling for light, dissatisfied with any ready-made plan and striving to emancipate itself from vulgar standards.

And one who reads such poetry must respond to its mood, and stretch the mind to its dimensions.

It is not necessary for our purpose to argue that the merit of poetry is proportional to the breadth of its ideas; but only to see that breadth of ideas is an actual feature of most poetry that is with general consent called great. The great poets have been men whose imagination has dared to leave the ground and ascend high enough to enable them to take the world-wide view of things. Now such imagination is philosophical; it arises from the same impulse as that which generates philosophy, requires the same break with common sense, and fundamentally it makes the same contribution to life. There is this difference, that while the poetic imagination either boldly anticipates the results of future arguments, or unconsciously employs the results of arguments already made, philosophy is an argument. Poetry, because it is a fine art, must present a finished thing in sensuous form; philosophy, because it is theory, must present definitions of what it is talking about, and reasons for what it says. And there is need of both poets and philosophers since for every argument there is a vision and for every vision an argument.


The term "science" is now commonly employed to designate a band of special knowledges, headed by physics, pushing rapidly into the as yet unknown, and converting it first into knowledge, then into invention, and finally into civilization. Science is patronized and subsidized by common sense; and it is a profitable investment. But science, although often like Peter it repudiates philosophy and disclaims ever having known it, is of philosophical extraction and has philosophical connections that it cannot successfully conceal. Precisely as you and I were philosophers before the exigencies of life put a constraint upon the natural movements of the mind, so human knowledge was philosophical before it was "scientific," and became divided into highly specialized branches, each with a technique and plan of its own. There are many ways in which the philosophical roots and ligaments of the sciences are betrayed. The different sciences, for example, all have to do with the same world, and their results must be made consistent. Thus physics, chemistry, physiology, and psychology all meet in human nature, and have to be reconciled. Man is somehow mechanism, life, and consciousness all in one. How is this possible? The question is evidently one that none of these sciences alone can answer. It is not a scientific problem, but a philosophical problem; and yet it is inseparably connected with the work of science and the estimate that is to be put on its results.

Again, science employs many conceptions with no thorough examination of their meaning. This is the case with most, if not all, of the fundamental conceptions of science. Thus mechanics does not inform us concerning the exact nature of space and time; physics does not give us more than a perfunctory and formal account of the nature of matter; the greater part of biology and physiology proceeds without attempting carefully to distinguish and define the meaning of life; while psychology studies cases of consciousness without telling us exactly what, in essence, consciousness is. All of the sciences employ the notions of law and of causality; but they give us no theory of these things. In short, the special sciences have certain rough working ideas which suffice for the purposes of experimentation and description, but which do not suffice for the purposes of critical reflection. All of the conceptions which I have mentioned furnish food for thought, when once thought is directed to them. They bristle with difficulties, and no one can say that science, in the limited sense in which the specialist and expert use the term, accomplishes anything to remove these difficulties. Science is able to get along, to make astonishing progress, and to furnish the instruments of a triumphant material civilization, without raising these difficulties. But suppose a man to ask, "Where do I stand, after all is said and done? What sort of a world do I live in? What am I myself? What must I fear, and what may I hope?" and there is no answering him except by facing these difficulties. There is no one who will even attempt to answer such questions except the philosopher.


When philosophy goes about its work it proves necessary to divide the question. There are no sharply bounded subdivisions of philosophy; as problems become more fundamental, they tend to merge into one another, and the solution of one depends on the solution of the rest. But the mind must do one thing at a time in philosophy as in other affairs. Furthermore, the need of philosophy is felt in quite different quarters, which leads to a difference of approach and of emphasis.

Perhaps that portion of philosophy that is most easily considered by itself is Ethics, or what was a generation ago usually referred to as Moral Philosophy. There is no better introduction to Ethics than Plato's famous dialogue, "The Apology,"[3] in which Socrates, defending himself against his accusers, describes and justifies the office of the moralist. As moralist, Socrates says that he took it upon himself to question men concerning the why and wherefore of their several occupations. He found men busy, to be sure, but strangely unaware of what they were about; they felt sure they were getting somewhere, but they did not know where. He did not himself pretend to direct them, but he did feel sure that it was necessary to raise the question, and that in that respect, at least, he was wiser than his fellows. The moral of Socrates's position is that life cannot be rationalized without some definite conception of the good for the sake of which one lives. The problem of the good thus becomes the central problem of Ethics. Is it pleasure, or knowledge, or worldly success? Is it personal or social? Does it consist in some inward state, or in external achievement? Is it to be looked for in this world, or in the hereafter? These are but variations of the same problem, as it is attacked in turn by Plato, Aristotle, Christian theologians, Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant, Mill, and the whole line of moral philosophers. Other special problems emerge, and take their place beside this. What, for example, is the relation of moral virtue to the secular law? In Plato's "Crito,"[4] Socrates teaches that it is the first duty of the good man to obey the law, and submit to punishment, even though he be innocent; because the good life is essentially an orderly life, in which the individual conforms himself to the political community to which he belongs by birth and nature. Hobbes reached the same conclusion on different grounds. Morality, he says, exists only so far as there is authority and law; to save himself from the consequences of his own inherent selfishness and unscrupulousness, man has delivered himself up forever to the state, and save so far as enforced by the state there are no rights or duties at all. Either one obeys the law or one lapses into that primitive outlawry in which every man is for himself, the hunter and the prey. How different is the teaching of Rousseau, [5] who prophesied for an age in which men were sore from the rub of the harness, and longed to be turned out to pasture. The law, Rousseau preaches, is made for man, not man for the law. Man has been enslaved by his own artificial contrivances, and must strive to return to the natural goodness and happiness that are his rightful inheritance. These are the questions that still lie at the basis of our political philosophy, and divide the partisans of the day, even though they know it not.

A somewhat different and perhaps more familiar turn is given to moral philosophy by Kant[6]. With him the central idea in the moral life is duty. It is not consequence or inclination that counts, but the state of the will. Morality is founded on a law of its own, far deeper than man-made statutes. This law is delivered to the individual through his "Practical Reason," and it is the last word in all matters affecting the regulation of conduct. Thus Kant puts the accent where Protestant and Puritanic Christianity puts it; whereas Plato, bidding us look to the rounding and perfecting of life, is the spokesman of that perennial Paganism that flourishes as vigorously to-day as it did before the advent of Christianity.


Closely connected with Moral Philosophy there stands a group of problems that forms the nucleus of what may be called Philosophy of Religion. Suppose that a provisional answer has been obtained to the questions of Ethics. The good has been defined, and the duty of man made clear. What hope, then, is there of the realization of the good? May we be sure that it lies within the power of man to perform what duty prescribes? Thus there arises, first of all, the question of the status of man. Is he a creature, merely—a link in the chain of natural causes, able at most to contemplate his own helplessness? Or is he endowed with a power corresponding to his ideals, a power to control his destinies and promote the causes which he serves? This is the old and well-known problem of freedom. If you want to know what can be said for the prerogatives of man, read Kant; if you want to know what is made of man when he is assigned the status of creature merely, read Hobbes[7]. And what shall be said of the chance of man's surviving the dissolution of his body, and entering upon another life in which he is not affected by the play of natural forces? The immortality of man is most elaborately and eloquently argued in Plato's "Phaedo,"[8] and again in Kant's "Critique of Practical Reason." But the crucial question in this whole range of problems is the question, not of man, but of God. What, in the last analysis, controls the affairs of this world? Is it a blind, mechanical force, or is it a moral force, which guarantees the triumph of the good, and the salvation of him who performs his duty? This is the most far-reaching and momentous question that can be asked, and it takes us over to that branch of philosophy that has acquired the name of "Metaphysics."


The term "Metaphysics" has acquired a colloquial meaning that will mislead us unless we are on our guard. It is commonly used to mean such theories as have to do with the mysterious or occult. There is a certain justification for this usage, in that metaphysics is speculative rather than strictly experimental, and in that it takes us beyond the first appearances of things. But this is a question of method, and not of doctrine. To be a metaphysician one must push one's thinking to the uttermost boundaries, and one must not rest satisfied with any first appearances, or any common-sense or conventional conclusions. But there is no unnecessary connection whatever between metaphysics and the doctrine that reality is mysterious or transcendent or supernatural or anything of the kind. It is entirely possible that metaphysics should in the end conclude that things are precisely what they seem, or that nature and nature alone is real. Metaphysics is simply an attempt to get to the bottom of things, and ascertain if possible what is the fundamental constitution of reality, and what its first and last causes. There are two leading alternatives: the theory that justifies the belief in God; the theory that discredits it, reducing it to a work of the imagination, an act of sheer faith, of an ecclesiastical fiction. The classic example of the latter type of metaphysics, ordinarily known as Materialism, is to be found in Hobbes. An excellent example of the former is to be found in the writings of Bishop Berkeley[9]. As Hobbes sought to show that the only substance is body, so Berkeley sought to show that the only substance is spirit. The nature of spirit, according to Berkeley, is first and directly known in that knowledge which each man has of himself. Then, in order to account for the independent and excellent order of nature, one must suppose a universal or divine spirit that causes and sustains it, a spirit that is like ourselves in kind, but infinite in power and goodness.


A fourth group of problems that assumes great prominence in the literature of philosophy is called the Theory of Knowledge. Although of all philosophical inquiries this may seem at first glance most artificial and academic, a little reflection will reveal its crucial importance. Suppose, for example, that it is a question of the finality of science, or the legitimacy of faith. The question can be answered only by examining the methods of science in order to discover whether there is anything arbitrary in them that limits the scope of the results. And one must inquire what constitutes genuine knowledge, or when a thing is finally explained, or whether there be things that necessarily lie beyond the reach of human faculties, or whether it be proper to allow aspirations and ideals to affect one's conclusions. Bacon[10] and Descartes,[11] the founders of modern philosophy, devoted themselves primarily to such questions, so that all thought since their time has taken these questions as the point of departure. Furthermore, philosophy has called attention to a very peculiar predicament in which the human thinker finds himself. He seems compelled to begin with himself. When Descartes sought to reduce knowledge to a primal and indubitable certainty he found that certainty to be the knowledge that each thinker has of his own existence, and of the existence of his own ideas. And if a thinker begins with this nucleus, how is he ever to add anything to it; how is he ever to be sure of the existence of anything which is not himself or his ideas ? On the other hand, while my knowledge is most certainly of and within myself, yet it can scarcely be edge unless it takes me beyond myself. This has become the central difficulty of philosophy. It is a genuine difficulty, and yet everybody neglects it except the philosopher. Berkeley was led by an examination of this difficulty to conclude that if reality is to be assumed to be knowable, then it can be composed of nothing but thinkers and their ideas. And in this conclusion Berkeley has been followed by the whole school of the idealists, the school which has numbered among its members the most eminent thinkers of later times, and has inspired notable movements in German and English literature. Other schools have been led by an examination of the same difficulty to quite different conclusions. But this difficulty has been the crux of modern thought, and no one can hope to debate fundamental issues at all without meeting it.

Such, then, are some of the matters that at once come under discussion when one attempts to think radically and fundamentally. Philosophy is brought to these and like problems because it expresses the profound restlessness of the mind, a dissatisfaction with readymade, habitual, or conventional opinions, a free and unbounded curiosity, and the need of rounding up the world and judging it for the purposes of life.

  1. Cf. Wordsworth's "Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood," in Harvard Classics, xli, 595.
  2. See H. C., xlii, 1004, 1015, 1103, 1137; xli, 635.
  3. H. C., ii. 5.
  4. H. C., ii, 31.
  5. H. C., xxxiv, 165.
  6. H. C., xxxii, 305, 318.
  7. H. C., xxxiv, 311.
  8. H. C., ii, 45.
  9. H. C., xxxvii, 189.
  10. H. C., xxxix, 116, 143.
  11. H. C., xxxiv, 5.